Los Angeles burned while I was in ninth grade. Less than a year earlier my family had left a decade of life in South America for our new home just 60 miles from that sprawling and simmering city that would soon explode. Tomorrow marks twenty years since the riots began, ignited by the acquittal of the four police officers who were recorded beating Rodney King.
I remember a vague awareness of the trial for the four white police officers; clearer are the countless times we saw the grainy video on the evening news- a black man beaten to the ground, batons flailing, blows to the head. I had forgotten that the officers were tried by a jury that didn’t include a single African-American. As we watched the riots erupt on live television – captured by news helicopters hovering in safety above the smoke and flames – I was introduced, in a way even my ninth grade self couldn’t miss, to race in America. I absorbed images of a white truck driver pulled from his cab and beaten, of Korean-American shop owners firing weapons to defend their stores, and of the completely different ways the riots were framed by black and white politicians. Though we were miles from the violence, stores in our city closed and windows were protected with plywood. After a childhood away from the country of my birth here was evidence that to be an American was to be entangled in the histories and systems that led to this terror.
I think, talk, and write a lot about issues related to race and justice. I’ll be learning to think and talk about these things for the rest of my life. There are surely friends and family who tire of my insistence about this conversation (or, more likely, my bumbling approach to delicate realities). But as I’ve remembered the riots I’m also remembering how much these things matter.
As a Christian I’m finding that, to borrow the Apostle Paul’s words, this is one of the ways I continue to work out my salvation with fear and trembling. The Gospel of Jesus is the great news that God’s kingdom has come near and that we have been liberated to proclaim and build for that kingdom. This resurrected Jesus rules this kingdom with justice in one hand and mercy in the other, a king who sends us as witnesses to a heavenly kingdom that finds its expression on earth in the reconciled people of God.
This weekend I’m remembering the riots and praying that God’s kingdom would continue to come, on earth as in heaven.