Rodney King's spiritual lessons

by Paul Louis Metzger
Consuming Jesus
Professor Multnomah University

The late Rodney King’s famous five words will stick with us for a long time: “Can we all get along?” He uttered these words in a public statement during the LA Riots, riots which were sparked by his savage beating by Los Angeles police officers captured on video. From an obituary in The New York Times, I found that Mr. King did not welcome the celebrity spotlight and did not see himself as a civil rights role model. Even so, his beating and his words will forever be etched in our national consciousness.

Is it enough that we all get along? I would assume Rodney King would agree that more is needed. This calls to my mind the 2004 movie Crash, which chronicles racial strife, fragmentation and objectification in a post-LA Riots Los Angeles. In the film, people in the city are behind metal and glass all the time, according to one of the police detectives in the show. As a result, they miss the sense of touch so much that they crash into one another on the city streets and highways of LA.

We all miss the sense of touch, if and when we are not touched in sensitive and wholesome ways. The absence of touch is not the answer to moving past hatred and strife to getting along, and co-existence is not enough. Tolerance will only get us so far. We need to embrace one another in the midst of our differences and animosities. We need to be tenacious to move beyond our sense of superiority and/or inferiority, of entitlement, of presumption, and of prejudice and seek out and touch “the other.” Of course, this is so much easier said than done for me, indeed for all of us.

The victimizer and the victim alike are called to seek reconciliation. The weight of reconciliation should not be on the shoulders of the victimized. The initiative should certainly come from the guilty party or parties. And yet, how will we respond, if we have been victimized, and those who have dealt the physical and emotional and spiritual blows won’t deal with their issues? Jesus’ example should encourage and energize us, just as he inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. John M. Perkins. May God give each of us the grace to reach out through our pain through God’s victorious suffering in Jesus.

Jesus didn’t simply get along with people. Jesus didn’t endure people. I am so thankful John 3:16 does not say, “For God so tolerated the world that he chose not to send his Son.” I am so thankful it says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his Son.” This world for which Jesus gave his life was not a welcoming place. It was not a world that was all sunshine and daffodils. It was a world at war with God (Romans 5:8-10), and which put him on that cross—that lynching tree—of horror and shame (See James Cone’s book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, for his exploration of the symbols of the cross and lynching tree in the African American community’s experience).

Rodney King’s redemptive response in the face of his beating was radical. But even more redemptive and radical was Jesus’ cry to his Father to forgive his enemies for they did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34; following his model, his disciple Stephen did the same: Act 7:60). Mr. King reached out. Dr. King reached out and called for the love of his enemies in light of the King of kings who set the ultimate example and paid the ultimate price so that we could do more than get along. Through him, we can love one another. And still, the only way we can do this is by responding to his love in the Spirit that he longs to pour out into our hearts (Romans 5:5). Will we dare to draw near to Jesus and to one another? Let’s draw from the examples of Mr. King, Dr. King, and especially the King of kings and live in view of them.

What I take away from Rodney King’s famous five words is their symbolic importance to keep reaching out even when it is hard, even when you and I have been treated most unjustly. What I take away from these five words is that they take me back to Jesus’ famous ten words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Tolerance has its place, but love leaves no place for indifference and hate in LA or any other place. May the love of Jesus compel victimizer and victim alike to move forward in search of reconciliation that moves us beyond getting even or just getting along to getting together and being made whole.

Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture, and Director, The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins, Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. This essay reflects themes presented in three of his works: Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Thomas Nelson, 2012); Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church (Eerdmans, 2007); and The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town (InterVarsity Press, 2010). They can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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