America: An Inside/Outside Perspective (Part III, The Protests)

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On top of the tumultuous Trump presidency, on top of the pandemic, protests raged across the United States through the summer of 2020. COVID was keeping its finger on the pause button of economic and social life, but protests and demonstrations exploded, as if the energy suppressed by the pandemic demanded to be released some other way. To my surprise, I felt homesick.

Like the rest of the world, I was sickened by the video of George Floyd’s death. I did a little research and found some guys connected to a church and inner-city ministry I know of saying that Floyd had been involved and supportive of outreach efforts before he had moved to Minneapolis. He mentored younger men.

In Minneapolis, he allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill at a store and drugs were found in his system. I grieved for him, thinking of all the others I knew who were like him—believing in God, wanting to do good, but so easily sucked back into destructive patterns. My pastor’s heart was hurting. Maybe I felt a little homesick for the people I knew in central California. (Man, I have some stories).

I was also a little homesick because the initial response seemed to me one of the typically positive features of America: the attitude of “let’s make a difference. Let’s make a better world together.” Something like the attitude after 9/11, though as I mentioned a couple of days ago, I wasn’t present for that either.

I was homesick, but most Americans simply felt sick; another black man was killed by the police. And some protests quickly spilled into destruction, looting, and a weird “autonomous zone” in my home city of Seattle.

While thousands of protestors marched through America’s cities, others denied that racism is a problem. The existence of racist attitudes seems obvious. Everyone knows people who disparage other races and nationalities. But is there systemic racism? Many people, including many Christians, dismiss this idea. I found the thoughts of lawyer, veteran, and Christian conservative David French helpful on this subject. See the following articles: 

American Racism: We’ve Got So Very Far to Go

On the Use and Abuse of Critical Race Theory in American Christianity

The US was founded with racist slavery in its DNA. I think it's obviously not gone yet.

What perspective has living in Europe given me? Besides the feeling of homesickness, I have observed and experienced a different way of life. America is more entrepreneurial, more mobile, more ambitious. Belgium is more stable, rooted, with less desire to go big (as long as they get their vacations). There's no point in asking which is better. They are different. But racist attitudes exist in Belgium as well. 

As a Christian, racism is a clear evil. Every human being is a human being, made in the image of God. Unfortunately, racism is real. But none of the black people I know in Belgium have ever expressed any fear of the police. (By the way, I assume that the vast majority of police in the US attempt to do their difficult job fairly, and I appreciate them for it).

I only know a couple of black Americans who live here. One decided to move back to Europe after being so consistently pulled over by the police in the US. A black man driving an expensive car just looked too suspicious, he says. He doesn’t feel singled out by police here. The other man told me he feels safe jogging the streets of Antwerp at night, something he wouldn’t try in most American cities, at least not now.

Policing here feels different, less tense, less confrontational. Of course there are crimes, but far fewer murders and far, far fewer guns. In Belgium, there are 17.2 firearms per 100 people. In the US, there are 120.5. It may be that people fear the police less because the police have less to fear. People carrying weapons is just so much rarer.

Like I said in my other post, Americans like our freedom, which includes the right to bear arms. One European commenter on my post yesterday expressed how unfathomable this is to her. The idea of giving up guns is unthinkable to many Americans. It's part of our way of life.

During the protests, people sometimes asked about violence in America. When I share about all the drugs, crime, and gangs that I encountered so frequently in California, some have responded, “So the movies are true?” People would come to me after the violence, when they were filled with grief, anger, or guilt. America is also a beautiful place, filled with helpful store clerks, smart doctors, genius entrepreneurs, and friendly neighbors. It's all true, the violence and the peace, the hate and the love.

How can it be that America, the land of opportunity, the leader of the free world, the liberator of Europe from Nazi power, the place of the American dream - can be so full of racism, crime, inequality, addiction, and violence? Is it the decisions of individuals or is there something in the system? Is there a way to make it better? Is it just an inevitable part of any large nation?

I don’t have any policy solutions to America’s deep problems, just as I don’t offer any solution to its current political divide. I will say this, my churches in California were very small, but very diverse, and full of love. I can’t change the whole society, but I can love the people around me while we seek the kingdom of God together.

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