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Where was God in Detroit?

“You’d better start praying!”

Rarely has that phrase felt more menacing or more futile than when it is said mid-way through director Kathryn Bigelow’s summer film “Detroit”. The story follows the Detroit Rebellion (called by some a riot, by others an uprising), a period of five days in July 1967 that became one of the largest race riots in US history. National Guard were called in and a curfew was enforced as Detroit embodied the powder keg of the country’s climate around race and the Vietnam war. A particularly brutal and unsettling aspect of the violence during this time happened on July 25th at the Algiers Motel, which is the focal point of the film. Several black men and two white women were held hostage by Detroit police and a few National Guard and were interrogated, tortured and some killed throughout the night. The “riots” are an event that often goes untold in our 20th century history but which still have resonance today as we continue to wrestle with the relationship between black communities and law enforcement, militarized responses to civil unrest, and on-going racial dynamics.

The subject matter initially feels like a departure for Bigelow, more recently known for her films “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” which center on contemporary military conflicts in the Middle East. However, her explorations of war and interrogative torture lend a unique perspective on race in America. Rather than seeing the two topics as unrelated, she blends them together to paint a picture of the ways American communities can feel like war zones and citizens dehumanized under abuses of power. I found it to be a very empathic take on how communities of color can seem “occupied” by police who may feel like foreign invaders. A look at the ways citizens can get caught in the crossfire and be casualties of a wider conflict.

The film is very intense and gripping, viewers should expect to feel on edge and upset. The violence is handled with integrity to not become exploitative, but the nature of the event makes it hard to watch. The performances are terrific, with leads John Boyega and Will Poulter (accompanied by a very strong extensive cast) turning in Oscar-buzz-worthy performances. More sensitive viewers may choose to avoid “Detroit”, and viewers of color may find it wise to plan to connect with supportive loved ones afterwards. The story is one that ought to be told and is depicted in a useful way, but will also take an emotional toll on audiences.

Beyond the technical and topical value of “Detroit”, the film raises pressing spiritual questions. It is one of the police officers who tells the Algiers Motel hostages, “You’d better start praying!” The situation is menacing, but part of what makes it so fearful is that prayer seems useless in that moment. For the hostages and for the audience, you have the overwhelming sense of being helpless and abandoned. No one is intervening, and the people who are supposed to protect you are the ones harming you. God feels far away and the lack of obvious divine protection makes it seem that perhaps God didn’t care. That is relatable to so many people, from Houston to Nigeria, who are innocent people caught in the suffering and evil of the world. Where is God when the innocent suffer, particularly at the hands of evil-doers who seem to go unpunished?

I have to say first that only God can truly answer that question, it is one that the community of faith has wrestled with throughout history. I also think that God has individual answers for each person. God’s response to the suffering in my life may or may not be the same as His answer to yours. Our God is deeply personal and is near to our unique circumstances. With that being said, here are some general truths from scripture that may offer a word of comfort when we are in the midst of questioning:

Evil does not actually go unpunished

God cares very much about injustice in the world, and can be expected to see and to act.

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

Luke 12:2-3

 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-21

Nothing happens outside of God’s knowing. While God created systems of structure and justice for the good of society (Rom. 13:1-7), the humans leading them will fail. That does not mean we must accept injustice passively (indeed, we are to overcome evil with good), but it does mean that we can count on God to always be our advocate and righteous judge. The full events at the Algiers Motel are unknown to the public, but we trust that they are fully known to God. The Lord says He will repay, so any evildoing will be brought to account before the Throne.

Our sorrow is known to God

When we don’t perceive God directly acting or even comforting, it is easy to feel that God is removed from our situation. But one of my favorite verses from the Psalms says otherwise:

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
Then my enemies will turn back
in the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me.

Ps. 56:8-9

I love this image of God keeping careful record of every tear that we shed and saving them in a bottle. It is ok to want God to do more or to be confused and dissatisfied with what you see happening around you. At the same time, remember that God is keeping track of your struggles and none of it is lost. We save things that are important to us, and God saves our tears because they matter to Him.

We serve a suffering Savior

One day a friend asked me where God was during a very painful life experience. I think the Spirit prompted me to reply, “In Gethsemane.” The night before Jesus was crucified He is praying about his impending suffering. He is in agony because He alone knows the magnitude of what He is about to endure as He absorbs the evil of the whole world.

 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

Luke 22:43-44

The fact that Jesus looks at the brokenness of the whole world and feels overwhelmed affirms that our suffering is very real. It is not something that Jesus takes lightly, it is weighty and terrible. And it is also something that Jesus is able to confront head-on and sacrifice Himself to save us from that suffering.

We all bear scars that others have inflicted and we also live with evil inside of us. None of us are spiritually innocent before God, we all need a Savior to take our punishment from us. Some days we feel the pain of evil directed at us, some days we feel the guilt of having perpetuated evil towards others. Every day we have a God who draws near to us, who keeps an account of all our trials, and who died to make all things new. With a God like that, I think I will start praying.


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