Beauty and Brokenness Never Far Away: A Personal View on Portland

on September 4, 2020

Last Saturday, my family and I ended up spending a warm afternoon in the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon. We marveled at God’s creation in the sprawling zoo. That evening we stopped by a fast food place closer into downtown to grab dinner. 

All without incident. The only thing that struck my wife and me as unusual was sometimes seeing isolated jeeps driving along waving large American and Trump-Pence flags. Years of living in an ultra-lefty neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago has not accustomed us to seeing public displays of such sentiments.    

Later, I learned that around the time we were leaving, violence erupted in the city between left-wing and right-wing activists, infamously culminating in the shooting death of a young man who was apparently some variety of conservative (and who, FWIW, was not an “outside agitator” but a Portland resident). I checked and realized that where this killing occurred was within half a mile of where I had been happily driving with my wife and children, blissfully unaware, earlier that same evening.

While the facts are still coming in, there has been no shortage of grandstanding and sanctimonious blame-gaming from opposing politicians.

I pray that appropriate officials will eventually bring justice and greater safety for all, including by solving this killing.

Our happy family evening, particularly my young children’s innocent thrills at seeing all sorts of wonderfully exotic animals, contrasted sharply with the nearby fury, hatred, and violence.

It is a stark reminder of how in this fallen world, even amidst great beauty, terrible brokenness is never far away.

To be sure, there are important concerns on such matters as racial injustices, needed accountability to prevent police from abusing the violent power with which they have been entrusted, rioting, looting, and dangerous levels of hatred between different American political tribes.

Bible-believing Christians should contribute a clearer perspective for tackling such problems, understanding that fault does not lie exclusively with one or two broad categories of people demonized by the political Left or Right at any moment, and we are never just a few legislative reforms, even admittedly radical reforms, away from achieving utopia. Our faith teaches the truth about how we live in a fallen world, in which the problem of evil lies far deeper than that, having infected every institution (including the church!) and every human heart (certainly mine).

Of course, not everyone shares this understanding.

According to one recent measurement, Portland is America’s most secular metropolitan area, with 42 percent of residents of the city and its suburbs “identifying as atheist, agnostic or no religion in particular.”

Lack of appreciation for the true nature of the world can often twist even good intentions into pursuing ill-considered and dangerous agendas. 

For example, no police officer is infallible and there’s no moral obligation to always maximize police budgets. But Portland has more than its fair share of activists demonizing the very idea of policing, and openly calling to “defund the police” or for the “abolition” of the institution.

This summer, the Portland City Council bowed to activist pressure by cutting its police budget by over $15 million (6.3 percent)—redirecting those funds to other social services—as part of a wider national trend. Given the rapid growth of the “defund the police” movement and ever-diminishing restraint of left-wing activists, one reasonably wonders how widely such agendas will spread and how far they will go.

The moves already made are significant. Among the real-world impacts of the Portland police cuts is the removal of police officers from schools.

I have yet to see clear rationale for this beyond sloppily broad prejudice against police. But in practical terms, this means that if this movement continues and spreads, the result could be leaving my children and others much less protected if, God forbid, a school shooter comes to their campus! 

On a personal level, I know that the real danger of disturbed individuals violently targeting schools is not new. In the 1980s, a close relative’s school was literally burned down in the middle of a school day. Thankfully, she and other students got out in time. Years later, it was explained to me that an arsonist had deliberately entered the building and started the fire with kerosene.

It can be hard for the unchurched to accept the pervasiveness of evil: no amount of education and mental health services can completely eradicate such risks, which must at times be combatted with violent force. Even within the church, some progressive Christians seem to treat the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13 of the government’s God-given right and responsibility to “not bear the sword for nothing” as an embarrassing anomaly, without seeing how it fits neatly with a biblical understanding of God’s justice and the grim realities of our fallen world. 

Amidst present American debates around issues of policing, race, rioting, and political hate, there can be an understandable temptation to avoid engagement, or at least withdraw into generally more like-minded enclaves. The challenges are so difficult, the vitriol is so intimidating, and those perceived as opponents can seem so stubbornly “out there.”

But many simply do not have the privilege of being able to withdraw from facing such issues.  This includes many brothers and sisters in Christ for whom racism is a regular, inescapable lived reality.

As I noted when I started the “Conversations about Race” video series, Scripture is clear that when any part of the body of Christ suffers, we must all suffer together, and at the very least we must take time to listen.

As I drove my children home from preschool this afternoon, I wondered what kind of America we would be shaping for them to inherit. Will it be an America defined by the hatred, violence, and injustices seen on our streets? Or will the body of Christ step up to offer more thoughtful, constructive, hopeful, and yes, loving ways forward?

  1. Comment by Gary Bebop on September 5, 2020 at 5:05 pm

    Thanks, John, for posting from the scene. You will magnify your import here if you followup with more reflection on Portland. Because I reside in this region, I am all too aware that the UMC refuses to speak of the destructive narrative that is in play. If you were to interview GNW Conference influencers, they would respond with an equivocal “What narrative?”

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