Elliot and I were asked to watch two dogs this weekend. One is the size of a football player, the other the size of a football.
We walked into the home yesterday and heard the dogs upstairs screaming from their kennels. I ascended the stairs to free them from their cages and they were more than eager to get out. They were ramming their noses into the latch of the cage, pawing the ground because they were so excited to escape. Once the door was unlatched they took off and sprinted throughout the house, glad to be out of their prison.
Last night, I slept in the room where the dogs were kept and noticed something fascinating. Throughout the night, the dogs would return to their cages and lie in them for a few hours at a time, despite the fact the entire house was open to them. The doors of both kennels were wide open, and the pups would go lie comfortably in their crates.
There is a big difference between being locked in a cage and staying in one.
I don’t know much about racial reconciliation or the plight of other races in America, but when I lived in Chicago, I volunteered to lead Bible studies in the prison on the South Side, aka, Chiraq. Walking into the cells each week, it was rare to see another white face. There were the occasional Hispanics, but the majority of the people in the prison were black.
It was through their eyes I began to see the experience of people who were born into a life of gangs, fatherlessness, violence and drugs. Hip hop was a pathway to salvation for many of them, but this same pathway led many to the same idols worshiped by Chief Keef or Lil’ Wayne: Violence, abusive sex, and constant drug use.
They were born in the cage and the door was closed.
The language used in the detention center was barely English: Everything was a code and I realized how very little I knew about this world. Because if you’re anything like me, a white person from suburban America, you’ll watch 8 Mile or Step Up 2 and think you have a comprehensive understanding of black culture in America.
We’re sitting in a cage but the door is open.
Lately I’ve been streaming more Kendrick Lamar through my headphones and the thing I appreciate about him, for one, is his intelligence. He seems to have a poetic awareness of the story of his people, and he tells it well. There are a lot of false narratives in the world, so it’s refreshing to hear an explicit explanation of the situation of millions in our country.
One of my favorite college professors wrote a blog post along the same lines last year, and I gladly borrow his emotion, if not his prosaic prowess.
“Who decides whose lives matter?”
Two dozen black people stand next to one of their burning homes. Arson in the Jim Crow era. Justice isn’t a comfortable coffee shop conversation, it’s standing near enough to the heat to smell your own hair being singed.
Some people call hip-hop the demon plaguing the inner-city youth, but perhaps it’s not quite as it seems. I hear sentiments like this and begin to realize just how much fear they mask. As if the problem could not possibly be systemic, an outcome instituted by our own white ancestors, but rather lies in the art created by the very ones being pushed down.
I used to be scared of swear words too.
We stifle a voice for telling an uncomfortable truth.
We carry in our physical bodies trauma experienced throughout our lives. I wonder how much trauma lies beneath the soil of our feet. How many African bodies lie in American dirt, having taken abuse, neglect, and tears into the grave with them? How many Jewish bodies occupy European soil, still containing the hatred and injustice of their persecutors?
What are you taking to your grave?
I’ve come to realize that much of our world is shaped by systems with roots running far deeper than most of us realize, and so few of us make an effort to understand, much less shift these systems. Kids born into fatherless homes on the South Side of Chicago have so few options that their futures are almost pre-arranged.
The kennel door is firmly sealed by the hands of the comfortable.
I was born into a middle-class white family, and there is little I could do to escape this socio-economic position. I joke about being broke as if my stomach were actually empty.
Yet I look in the Scriptures and see Jesus voluntarily kneeling before the feet of His disciples, taking the rag in His hands and touching their disgusting heels. The Master become a slave; the strong become weak. If America is a massive pyramid scheme (something this recent election has made perfectly clear) then the Kingdom of God is an upside-down pyramid. It’s a reversal of strengths and a healing of wounds.
It’s the glory of a coming system which makes all things right and levels the ground before an all-consuming institution of justice. It’s a country where all voices are heard and every soul is intimately known.
What good is a religion that doesn’t turn the world on its head?
Once again we are reminded that the first are last, and that true religion, as James tells us, is to attend to the orphan and widow; the prisoner and the poor. The black and the white, the straight and the gay. To swing open our doors to them and usher in a taste of this coming kingdom.
A kingdom led not by the wealthy and aggressive, but by a man who would lay his life down for the very least in the world. In one of my all-time favorite songs, Heath McNease raps:
“Where dread and beauty clash, it forces souls to speak
and knees to bow and tongues to plead the blood that no one bleeds,
the kind that opens gates to welcome home the lowest thieves
the kind that gives us faces so we see what holy means.”
What kind of blood pours from a man who has voluntarily joined the ranks of the outcast? What kind of blood is able to open gates to welcome home the lowest thieves?
The blood of a good Father, starving for His children to come home.
The blood of a just Judge, longing for equality among His people.
The blood of the God-man, swapping places with the vile in order that they be made holy.
He has already unlocked the gate of my kennel and invited me out. And He’s daily teaching me that I don’t need to stay in the prison He’s already opened.
He has already demolished the power of our sin, shame, and even death.
It is we who often choose to remain in them.
Come soon, Lord Jesus.