Baltimore: A Failure of Legitimacy

Shared on Twitter by Hannah Marr @_hmmarr

I know there are plenty of voices weighing in on what’s going on in Baltimore (and what went on in Ferguson), but I heard Malcolm Gladwell speak recently, and I think his insights are applicable here, and worth sharing.

Gladwell was speaking about legitimacy. (If you have time, I highly encourage you to watch the 20-ish minute talk.) He identified three factors that create an environment of legitimacy:

1) People are treated with respect.

2) People are treated with fairness. That is, people are treated the same across the board.

3) Trustworthiness. People don’t worry that the environment/situation/organization is arbitrary, subject to change without notice, or inconsistent. Trustworthiness means people feel they can count on you.

Gladwell mentioned some sobering statistics about African American incarceration and reflected on the connection of his research on legitimacy to the issues of protest and rioting in Ferguson. And the same issues are on display in Baltimore today. There is frustration, and anger. Martin Luther King said that riots are the language of the unheard. That doesn’t mean we condone violence, but it does mean we should see it in a larger context. These are not just isolated events. They point to a broken system whose cracks have shown again and again and again, and nobody seems to be coming to repair them, or even acknowledge them. It’s clear that this is a failure of legitimacy. African Americans do not feel they can trust the very people in society whose role it is to protect and serve them.

Gladwell says that true authority comes not from imposing will, but by creating an environment of legitimacy. The answer isn’t punishment. It’s service and servanthood. I think he’s absolutely right. There are deep systemic issues at play here, and recent events continue to undermine all three of the factors needed for police forces to be respected as legitimate. And the ONLY WAY this situation is going to turn around is if police officers across the country become resolute in their determination to create an environment of respect, fairness, and trustworthiness. I know there are so many fantastic police officers out there, putting their lives on the line day after day to keep America’s citizens safe. My uncle is one of them, and I could not be prouder of him. I know the media overlooks them as much as it overlooks the peaceful protesters in Baltimore. Both of these need to be balanced out, so our picture of what’s happening in reality is widened.

That will happen if we point fingers less and serve more. And that’s not only for police officers, but for all of us. For the communities, the schools, the houses of worship. Peacemaking is H.A.R.D. you guys. It takes time and it’s vulnerable and it is not at all as glamorous as we wish. It’s grabbing trash bags and cleaning up, and feeding school kids lunch when school gets cancelled, and walking in the middle of violence and holding out your arms in peace with lots and lots of patience. But here is why we do it: because it is the truest thing. In other words, it’s what makes us legitimate. Police officers are not the only group in the US who are experiencing a failure of legitimacy. In many ways, the Church is, too. Do we really mean it when we talk of love and forgiveness and justice and grace and peace and righteousness? Well, here’s our chance to show it.

Gladwell finished his talk the same way he began it, by sharing the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. What Jesus did was not just humility. It was legitimacy. To put it in colloquial terms, he didn’t just talk the talk- he walked the walk. He told us to serve, but he showed us the way by serving us first. We trust him because of it.

As I pray with a heavy heart for Baltimore, and for the original sin of racism that still tears at the fabric of this beloved country, I’m trying to remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and allow that to guide my thoughts and actions. Our country needs more water and towel, and less fire and muscle. I pray we Jesus followers are seen as legitimate in the ways we continue to respond, repent, and repair what is breaking all around us.




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