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“Every expression of anger is a cry for love”

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By Martin Elfert

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

            ­– Martin Luther King Jr.

I have simply come to believe that when we are unrelated to those whose lives are different from ours, suffering increases.

            ­– Peter Block

On Saturday evening, I fulfilled one of my childhood goals: I was part of making a citizen’s arrest.

It wasn’t as great as my 10-year-old self had hoped.

Phoebe and I were leaving Portland’s Hollywood Theatre after watching a film. And immediately upon stepping out of the cinema doors and onto the sidewalk, we heard the sound of a man shouting angrily and aggressively. In and of itself, that didn’t alarm me: I grew up in an urban context, and I’m pretty used to folks walking down the street and hurling abusive monologues into the air. But when we rounded the corner, we saw that the man wasn’t just shouting: he was also repeatedly punching another person, a young man of Asian descent. The young man was bent over, trying to protect his head and his body with his arms. Thankfully, he was wearing a bicycle helmet, and the helmet seemed to be mostly keeping the punches from finding their mark.

Phoebe – and about six other folks – dug out their phones and called the police. And a bystander pulled the angry man off of the guy with the bicycle helmet. The two of them struggled for a moment, crashing into a store window and shattering it, before another bystander helped wrestle the angry man to the ground. I joined several other people and we immobilized the angry man by laying on top of him. It was what, back on the playground, we would’ve called a dogpile.

It wasn’t dignified, but it worked.

The angry man was pretty motivated to get up off the pavement. Maybe he was strong to begin with, maybe adrenaline and rage were giving him an extra shot of power. Either way, he made his best effort at doing a push up with several people stacked on top of him. But the six or seven us on his back were more than even he could lift.

We waited for the police. All the while the angry man shouted at us and at the world in general. He had a lot to say. He told us that he was going to kill us all, that he intended to violate us sexually, that he approved of Donald Trump, that we were a bunch of communists, that white people were superior to everyone else, that the woman standing near us on the sidewalk was a slut, that Blue Lives Mattered. Ironically, fittingly, he was chanting that last observation when the police arrived.

As the police handcuffed the angry man and took him to a squad car, I got up off the pavement. And I saw that the angry man’s blood covered my left hand; he had cut himself badly when the store window broke. Now, I grew up watching Shakespeare and reading comic books. And so, for me, a hand covered in blood isn’t just thoroughly gross, it also feels like a kind of portent. Here is Lady Macbeth shouting, “Out, damn spot!” Here is Peter Parker kneeling over his dying Uncle Ben.

Handcuffed or not, the angry man kept shouting for a good while. Phoebe says that she saw the paramedics put a tourniquet on his arm. The blood just didn’t want to stop flowing.

I went back into the Hollywood to wash his blood off of my hand. I gave a statement to the police. I shook hands with the other people from the dogpile; we all agreed that this wasn’t what we had planned for our Saturday night. And I shook hands as well with the young man with the bicycle helmet who had gotten beaten up. He said that he was doing OK, that he wasn’t hurt. We told each other our names. The young man – I’m going to change his name – said to me, “Hi, I’m Wallace.”

And I started to wonder some things.

I wondered if I had just been part of interrupting a hate crime, if it was a coincidence that Wallace was of Asian descent. I had assumed at first that the angry man was just a Saturday night drunk looking for an opportunity to get offended and to have a fist fight. But I wasn’t sure any more. After listening to the angry man shout about white supremacy for the five minutes that I lay on top of him, his choice to hurt Wallace didn’t feel particularly random. Right here in Portland, with its progressive politics and its commitment to diversity, with its goofy charm and its bike paths and its locally-sourced everything, it occurred to me that the angry man might have chosen to do violence to Wallace precisely because of the color of Wallace’s skin.

I wondered what it meant that, for the angry man, white supremacy and misogyny and supporting Donald Trump and shouting Blue Lives Matter were, somehow, all of a piece. He had segued so effortlessly from one theme to another. Now, I want to be careful here: I don’t want to engage in the moral or the intellectual laziness of implying that one rage-filled racist on a Portland sidewalk is somehow representative of all Trump voters everywhere. I know and love and respect a number of folks who cast their votes for Donald Trump. I am well aware that such an implication would be a half-baked caricature.

What I guess I do want say is that what I experienced in the angry man was a startlingly personal illustration of what we are hearing on the news: that there are a minority of Trump supporters who understand this election as a perverse affirmation of their bent vision for America. There are a minority for whom Donald Trump’s most winning characteristic is that he says out loud what they are thinking, that he gives them permission to shout vitriol on a street corner and to put it into violent action.

Last of all – maybe most importantly of all – I wondered what I was going to with Jesus’ command to love our enemies when I applied it to the angry man. As I lay in that dogpile on the hard sidewalk while my jeans sopped up the puddles and the angry man told me how he wanted to sexually violate me, I didn’t feel a whole lot of love for him. Several days later, I can’t say that I love him yet. Indeed, the feeling that I recognize in myself might be the ugliest emotion that there is.

When I think of the angry man I feel contempt.

I am beginning to see a glimmer of something else, however. I’m beginning to see the start of a possibility. In one of those holy coincidences that keep on popping up in my life, I had a brief correspondence with my old colleague Mike just before my encounter with the angry man. Mike is going on twenty years sober – he’ll show you his AA anniversary coin if you ask – and he has the hard-won wisdom of someone who very nearly chose drugs and booze over being alive.

In his letter to me, Mike said, “Every expression of anger is a cry for love.”

When I consider the angry man’s rage through Mike’s lens, when I allow the possibility that the angry man was hurting and searching, I begin to see him in a new way.

I begin to feel compassion for him.

Now, by “compassion” I don’t mean that what the angry man did on Saturday night was no big deal, that I am giving him a pass, that his actions were somehow understandable or okay. I don’t mean that at all. What the angry man did was unacceptable. It was inexcusable. A mandatory part of becoming a grownup is learning how to express your pain without melting down like a toddler, without shouting “I hate you,” without engaging in the cruel ostracism of the playground, without whacking your neighbor with your toys.

What I do mean is that I am deeply familiar with the longing that sits behind the angry man’s fury. White supremacy may be repugnant and utterly fucked up, but at its core is a universal desire: the desire to know that you are special, that you are chosen, that you are loved.

What if (and here I am drawing here on the lovely and the empathetic and the freeing work of Kent Hoffman), inside of the angry man there is a lonely little boy? What if Mike is right and, in all of the violence that the angry man did on Saturday night, that child was crying out to the world:

I’m so afraid.

I’m so afraid that if I don’t do something to set myself apart, to make myself special and unique, no one will ever love me.

That old Presbyterian Pastor, Mr. Rogers, used to say, “I like you just the way that you are.” There is a reason that he said that so often. And there is a reason that he said it to everyone. Mr. Rogers gave this beautiful assurance often because he knew that spiritual and emotional health begins when we accept our own belovedness: we cannot even think about loving our neighbor when we don’t love ourselves. And he gave this beautiful assurance to everyone because he knew that spiritual and emotional maturity begins when we allow the possibility that love is not a finite resource, that God can choose you without rejecting anyone else, that God can love you without hating anyone else.

Scripture’s promise is that you and I and everyone are made in God’s image, it is that God saw everything that God made and said that it was good. As Richard Rohr likes to say, however, there are a lot of us for whom that promise is just too good to be true. And thus, a whole lot of human effort has gone into trying to limit that promise, into trying to make God small, into trying to force God into the exclusion business.

But God won’t go along with our plan.

At weddings, we often read those famous words from 1 Corinthians:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

And the implication that I sometimes hear is that the “love” that we are speaking of is the love that is shared by the couple. That is true in part. But that interpretation neglects the deeper reality that Paul is talking about, it neglects the love of God. No human being, no human couple, can hope to meet the standard that Paul speaks of in this passage – I don’t know about you, but I am envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude with some regularity. At our very best, we reflect the love of God – the love that bears and believes and hopes and endures all things. We reflect it the way that the moon reflects the light of the sun.

Here is Richard Rohr again: “God is saving everything and everybody until, as Paul says, ‘Christ will be all in all’” God is loving everything and everybody, whether we want God to or not. Or as Rohr writes elsewhere, “God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.”

God limitless love changes everything.

The angry man must have a name. In all of the shouting and struggling, I never heard it. Perhaps he is a Chris or a Steven or a Carl or Hunter or a Rowan. Maybe, like me, he is a Martin. Whatever his name is, it is he – that stranger upon whose back I lay in a wet dogpile on Saturday night – to whom I would like to speak now.

I hope that you find healing. Not just for your cut hand but for your wounded heart.

I hope that you find peace.

I hope that, somehow, you are able to hear Mr. Rogers’ words. I hope that you are able to catch a glimmer of the truth that is too good to be true, the truth that Mr. Rogers’ words are also God’s words. The truth that, amazingly, God’s words are intended for you:

I like you just the way that you are.

Martin Elfert

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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