Thinking About...Riots

Virginia Commonwealth University’s improbable and bracket-busting run in the NCAA tournament has got me thinking. Thinking about under-dogs, thinking about the power of sports to bring a city together, and (unfortunately) thinking about riots. After VCU’s semi-final loss to Butler, thousands of fans took to the streets of Richmond, wandered around, eventually to be dispersed by police uniformed riot gear. To watch a beautiful video of the event, see below or click here. (Warning: parts of this video contain explicit language.)

VCU Riot after 2011 Final Four from MONDIAL on Vimeo.


There are many explanations for this herd behavior on Broad Street Saturday night. Some blame the University for broadcasting the game in the Siegel Center and inviting thousands of students to congregate—thus creating a powder keg of energy. Others blame the police for over-preparing and donning gas masks and shields, thus planting a seed for riot that would bloom into self-fulfilling prophecy. Still others explain the behavior as the sophomoric foolishness of fair-weather basketball fans who don’t represent the best of the team’s supporters or of the city’s supporters, for that matter.

I’ve been thinking more about the anthropological lessons learned from Richmond’s ‘riot’. Rather than write it off as solely an alcohol-fueled or hormone-driven excess of college students, as I watched the video, I realized that a riot resides in each of us. What the Bible calls sin—our fundamental dislocation from the God who made us—leaves us in dis-ease and prone to outbursts (individually and corporately) that give expression to our dislocation.


Watching the video of scores of young people chanting rhythmically, searching for purpose on a Saturday night also made me realize that this ‘riot’ was a perverted form of worship. All humans are worshipers. As David Foster Wallace writes in his famous Kenyon College* commencement address, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

In other words, worship is what we are made to do. When we don’t direct our worship towards the God who created us and who deserves our worship, we will seek out replacements and alternatives of all sorts. The ‘riot’ on Broad Street was an expression of longing: for shared experience, for transcendent purpose, for connection to something bigger. But as the police marched forward dispersing the crowd, the longing lingered.

True Worship

The Bible reveals that true worship finds its consummation in a scene not entirely unlike a riot. Revelation 19 pictures human destiny this way: “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sounds of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty Reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory.’” (Rev. 19:6-7)

This is riotous noise in praise of the slain Lamb of God. It is a riot redeemed. It is true worship, replacing all the perverted alternatives of the broken human heart. And people will not be shouting, “Eff the Police.” They will be singing, “Worthy is the Lamb.”

*Coincidentally, the alma mater of VCU basketball coach, Shaka Smart