Smoke, Fire, Church

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

~Harlem: A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred? The inhumanity in Minneapolis may have answered the question. The time for change has come. When those who have privilege fail to recognize a moral responsibility toward those who have not, social conflict escalates. Historically, disempowered classes have shifted the balance of power, overthrown governments, and formed nations. Those with the least to lose and the most to gain have been the spark that has ignited many a revolution.

The Smoke

When a heat source is persistent and intense, combustion becomes likely. In the US, indifference and unchecked privilege is a tinderbox.

But first comes smoke:

  • University of Georgia Desegregation Riot, 1961
  • Ole Miss, 1962
  • Cambridge, 1963
  • Harlem, 1964
  • Rochester, 1964
  • Jersey City Uprising, 1964
  • Paterson, New Jersey Uprising, 1964
  • Elizabeth, New Jersey Uprising, 1964
  • Chicago (Dixmoor), 1964
  • Philadelphia, 1964
  • Watts (Los Angeles), 1965.
  • Cleveland, 1966
  • Chicago, 1966
  • Dayton, 1966
  • Hunter’s Point, San Francisco, 1966
  • Nashville, 1967
  • Newark, 1967
  • Plainfield, 1967
  • Detroit, 1967
  • Flint, Michigan, 1967
  • Tucson, 1967
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan Uprising, 1967
  • Houston (Texas Southern University), 1967
  • Orangeburg Protest, 1968
  • The King Assassination, 1968
  • Hartford, Connecticut, 1969
  • Asbury Park, 1970
  • Jackson State, 1970
  • Camden, New Jersey Riots, 1969 and 1971
  • Miami (Liberty City), 1980
  • Crown Heights (Brooklyn) New York, 1991
  • Rodney King Riot, 1992
  • West Las Vegas, 1992
  • St. Petersburg, Florida, 1996
  • Cincinnati, 2001
  • Oscar Grant Oakland Protests, 2009-2011
  • Ferguson Riot and Ferguson Unrest, 2014-2015
  • Baltimore Protests, 2015
  • Charleston Church Riot, 2015
  • Milwaukee, 2016
  • Charlotte, 2016
  • And the list goes on…

To the list of racial tensions, add the following fuel to the fire [from a discussion of taxation in America dated April 15, 2004].

Not since 1929 have so few people controlled so much of the wealth in our country. In his new book, Perfectly Legal, New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston reports that between 1970 and 2000 average income for the top 13,400 households in America increased from $3.6 million to nearly $24 million. That’s a staggering 538% increase. At the same time, the average income for 90% of US households actually fell from $27,060 to $27,035. These 13,400 households account for just .01% of the population, according to Johnston.

Our national reckoning has been a long time coming. It may have arrived.

The Spark

The murder of George Floyd has ignited a cry for justice from sea to shining sea—even across the sea. It is a cry heard round the world. Moreover, the promise of equity for all Americans is still unfulfilled, a dream deferred.

It makes complete sense that those without resources and without voice would feel justified in taking what they need from those have more, whether the need is economic or social. Persistent inequality has made the reallocation of resources and power an honorable objective, not just a goal of the radical fringe. There is a growing crowd of clear-thinking people victimized by indifferent leadership and by economic disadvantage. They have grown impatient. In 2011, the message of the Occupy Wallstreet Movement was, “We are the 99 percent!” It was the slogan of an economic class impatient with income inequality. Today “I can’t breathe” is the message of Black Americans who have watched unchecked violence against people of color. The phrase carries ominous weight. It is more than a call for economic fairness, it is a call for life that begs the question: Have we reached the tipping point when the 99% explode with contempt toward the privileged and powerful?

Can such a thing happen in America? History argues that it can. Even noble causes can attract extremist elements who may shift momentum from a peaceful redress of grievances to violent conflict. I note with interest the toppling of a statue of Thomas Jefferson at a local high school. Scrawled across the pedestal in black paint are the words, “slave owner.” Obscured by the spray-painted indictment are the chiseled lines of Jefferson’s enduring legacy, the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, the document includes this: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

This desecrated statue was not an obscure Confederate general or secessionist war hero, this was one of the framers of the constitution. In these moments of national frustration, how close are we to sawing off the limb on which we sit? If the ideology of the founding documents fail to inspire, is the noble American experiment likewise in peril?

Since that time, other statues have been targeted indiscriminately, including persons sympathetic to the cause of equality. Apparently, the ideology of the historical figures is not the issue, American history is.

Social Conflict and the Church

And where will the church be if the impatience becomes rage? It depends on whose side she appears to be on. Will the church be perceived to be among the “Republicrats?” –In the camp of the Republican economic agenda or among the power brokers of the Democrats?

Will the church be found couched in indifference, toasting the elite, or washing feet? Will she be found in the camp of the beggar or in the back pocket of the powerful? If social conflict becomes revolution, will churches be burning along with courthouses and corporate offices?

Or will the followers of Christ be found among the disenfranchised and the poor? Will it be understood that followers of Jesus are advocates of those who have the least? It is an important question that will need to be answered if the flames of unrest continue unabated. Perhaps it is time for churches to consider the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:

The manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes” And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors…

~ Luke 16:3-12

When the manager recognized that he could no longer hold on to his status among the powerful, he became a friend to the poor. Surely the motive of the church ought to be more noble than that. She ought to follow the example of Jesus. He redrew the circle of society with Himself at the center and then enclosed all who would come. His church should do no less.


After wildfire has swept through a forest, the people who fight fires know the danger is not past. Even after the last flames are extinguished and the last wisps of smoke have drifted away, there may still be fire. Sleeping coals can lie dormant, even beneath snow-covered ground, to reappear the following season and rekindle the flames. The second fire can be worse than the first. We would do well to remember that as we wait for the most recent social conflagration to wane. Social unrest, like smoldering embers, will reemerge unless we dig deep and extinguish social grievances.

Dreams can only be deferred so long before they explode.