Desperately Seeking Catharsis

As I watch the great struggle in Baltimore unfold 1 I find myself saddened once again. “The System” is not just, people feel lost and hopeless and angry. There are emotions deep within people which have been stoked by experience, and reinforced over and over and over, for which our culture has no constructive avenue of catharsis. After decades hoplessness, and another death of a black man at the hands of the police, these emotions needed out.

The other night these unexpressed feelings of futility and hopelessness at last found a potent outlet. Rage.

John Angelos, the COO of the Baltimore Orioles issued an eloquent speech which illustrated how he understood why violence had erupted. This has provoked some to dismiss his words as “okaying” the violence which was perpetrated, but “understanding” is not the same as “embracing.” His speech pointed out, rather, that the rioting was a symptom of a much more potent and dangerous disease – continual and systematic injustice.

Many have pointed out the senselessness of the damage caused by the rioters, and they aren’t incorrect. The damage was done to their own communities, and I can fathom many of those businesses declining to rebuild moving forward. That, however, is the point. When we human beings bury our feelings so deep that we cannot express them constructively, and repeated helpings of abuse stoke an inescapable sense of futility, any human being will eventually snap. We need catharsis, and in the absence of a constructive one a destructive one will do. This is what rage is – a catharsis born of fear, frustration, or hopelessness – and when our being is enveloped by it making sense no longer matters. Rage doesn’t allow for wisdom, or compassion, or construction – it is a torrent of energy which will flow until it’s expended. This is what we saw in Baltimore the other night.

Does this mean rage is “OK?” Good grief no. Rage can only destroy as it’s expended. Please understand, however, that rage from police is every bit as destructive as rage from the general population. So is rage incited by inflammatory speech among those are are prone to fear when the down-trodden demand to be heard. Rage might even feel righteous, which makes it all the more dangerous. Spiritually speaking, there is something almost demonic about the way rage begets rage and begins a cycle of destruction. This video of police throwing stones at protestors, shows me how easily the cycle of rage can be inflamed.

Yet, rage can be sometimes be dissipated more quickly by those who are brave enough to stand in it’s midst and be peace. I saw this yesterday most potently in a video of a group of clergy far more brave than I ever will be. They marched, not to confront but to call home. They marched feeling they had a duty to their community and to their faith to help de-escalate violence and gently call people back from rage. They marched to a line of police, with former rioters folding into the group at points, and then they knelt and prayed. After the prayer they went back, looking for more hot-spots and becoming a calming presence in a storm of desperate catharsis. Blessed are the peacemakers, indeed.

  1. By not watching the news.