Most days, I go for a run. About three miles. Lately, I’ve been choosing a route that takes me along a trail that winds through a public park.
Recently, my run has been a struggle. Not because of the summer heat, or tired legs. Those things I can handle. My struggle has been with people. Young people. Boys throwing rocks at me as I pass, calling me names. A little girl on the playground who cocked her hand like a gun and pointed it at me, drawing attention to my whiteness.
One day my struggle came in the form of violent ambush. Teenagers lay in wait for me, attacking me with fireworks. They recorded it on a cellphone for later amusement. All I could do was run, duck and dodge.
Today, I chose not to run along the wooded paths in the park. Instead, I ran on sidewalks and streets. The more visible, the better. Throughout my workout, my eyes scanned for threats. My ears listened for footsteps behind me. My body assumed that anyone moving toward me might be a danger.
We’ve lived in this neighborhood for five years. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt targeted. I’m one of very few white people in an area that is 98 percent African-American. My neighborhood is home to several large low-income housing developments. I stick out like a sore thumb, and people aren’t always polite.
But lately it has been different. Three separate incidents of escalating antagonism and violence while running. But wait, there’s more. Our car was also broken into. Our lawnmower was recently stolen. When I was working from home, teens came into our back yard. Casually, they destroyed one of our stepping stones.
After a week like that, it’s hard to be here. It’s hard to love the people around me. I’m having a hard time seeing my neighbors as anything but a potential threat. After a week like that, I’m tempted to move. At the very least, I could build a high fence for our backyard. Rather than risking the streets, I could get a gym membership and drive miles away to exercise.
I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m not a victim, or a hero, or anything else. I’m just a middle-class white man who would like to be on good terms with his neighbors. Or at least not face taunts, theft and violence. That would be a good start.
This is a confession. I’ve been trying to follow Jesus for more than 10 years, and I still don’t have any clue how to love those who hate me. When those kids chased me with lit Roman Candles, I didn’t have any desire to bless them. When others threw rocks at me and called me names, I didn’t feel anything resembling love. No, the honest truth — I felt hate.
I want to be a follower of Jesus, but I have no interest in being nailed to a cross like he was. Martyrdom sounds noble when you read about it in books. That’s because it’s in a book. It’s a beautiful theory — a lie we tell ourselves to justify horror.
But when Jesus died, there was no cause, no glory, no revolution. Only people who hated him for no reason. Just his decision to submit himself to the Father’s will.
I don’t have that kind of strength. What’s worse, I’m not sure I want it. I’d rather move away, or build a fence, or get that gym membership. I’d rather avoid contact with those who want to hurt me. Let the police handle them. I’d rather do what every rational human being wants to do: protect myself and those I love.
But what would Jesus do? Surely, somehow, he would find a way to love.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
Micah Bales is a writer, teacher and grassroots Christian leader based in Washington, D.C. He is a founding member of Friends of Jesus, a new Quaker community, and has been an organizer with the Occupy movement. You can read more of his work at www.micahbales.com or follow him on Twitter.