Speaking to a Riot

A city with a long history of unrest and violence over racial and social issues. Shocking acts of injustice, irresponsible profiling, unequal applications of the law. Police brutality, riots and mobs, grandstanding politicians, ineffective and clueless leaders. This describes not only Baltimore in 2015, but Jerusalem in the first century. Without equating the two, much less any particular biblical figures with modern counterparts, the situation is similar enough for us to learn something for today from what Paul went through so many years ago.

Upon arrest, Paul is the subject of racial profiling and police mistreatment, and only just avoids being brutalized. The tribune thinks that he has captured a backwoods Egyptian terrorist, when he’s actually chained up a city-born Jewish rabbi. Paul’s guilt is assumed, based on mistaken identity, but he responds with grace instead of bitterness. He respectfully asks to speak to the people, and appeals to them as fathers and brothers, speaking in the Hebrew tongue. He tells the story of his own rioting and persecuting past, but with the surprise twist of a divine encounter with Jesus. This encounter changed everything: Paul’s message, his tactics, and his relationship with God. Jesus put an end to Paul’s personal riot.

Unfortunately, the mob responded to Paul with wild hatred, threatening to resume rioting, and so the tribune assumes that Paul must not be telling the whole story, and takes him back into the barracks to beat the truth out of him. This is illegal; Paul is a Roman citizen, and has not been found guilty of anything. The law is acting unlawfully.

When confronted with the ugly reality of police brutality, you can despair, appeal further to the system, or take matters into your own hands. Both despair and vigilante vengeance are forbidden to the Christian, and so we see Paul make an appeal to the very system that has him stretched out on a rack, calling on a higher authority to revisit the corrupt actions of a lower authority.

Many people reject Paul’s way, however, believing that when the system exhibits corruption, the distinction between the first two options collapses. To trust a flawed system equals giving up on justice. But there is a critical distinction between trusting the system and trusting in God. God tells us to use the justice system, but to trust Him. The civil authorities are God’s deacons, and when civil justice is executed properly, it is God’s justice. When the system breaks down, we look for justice higher up, level by level, until we reach the throne of God.

When we get to the throne, we find Jesus. All justice comes and goes through Jesus, and so what is more important to God than even peace on our streets or justice in our human courts is the righteousness of God and the sinfulness of man made plain as people react to Jesus. Saul the rioter encounters Jesus, and becomes an agent of grace and peace. The Jewish rioters encounter Jesus through Paul, and riot all the more, even to the point of murder. One reaction (bowing to Jesus) enacts peace and justice, the other reaction (rejecting Jesus) destroys peace and justice. This means that until every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord, we will continue to have racial strife, violence and destruction, mobs and riots, corruption of justice, and all the rest. Our first and most fundamental need is not better citizens, better policemen, better leaders, better judges. We need Jesus.

And here is the good news: we have Jesus. Jesus is not sitting up in heaven wishing that we would let Him be king. He is king, and He is ruling even now. His kingly presence is manifested all over the world: in His Word, through prayer, by His Spirit, at His table, through His body the church, and in hope of the coming Day of Judgment, when every injustice will be righted and peace will reign forever.

We know this from His Word, and we see it by faith. Therefore, we lament the evil that remains, like He does. We work to overcome it, like He is doing. We trust in His timing, like He trusts His Father. And we look forward to His kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Posted on Wednesday, May 06, 2015 by CJ Bowen