Run Away Pt. 3 – Rap Genius

rap_genius_app

ICYMI: Last week I wrote a rap song for a class project.

While this headline is by no means the acclaim I would bestow upon myself, I uploaded the annotated lyrics for you here, so you could know what I was meaning (socially and theologically). Mom, think of this as a translation from hip-hop to Kansan.

If you make it all the way to the end, there is a little surprise for you. Enjoy!

Run Away:

 

The title stems from the overall theme that permeates this poem and the mindset of many of the youth in my neighborhood – trying to escape hell, both literally and metaphorically.
Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

Obviously beginning as a play on the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine”, this line of reasoning is actually quite common among the youth in Lawndale. Several conversations have begun with an assertion that God/heaven doesn’t exist because of the prevalence of evil in the world. I would imagine it would be hard to believe in God’s salvific power if your only interaction with God has been praying for your friend as he dies in your arms from a gunshot wound.
Kids as young as five

 

With the city still reeling from the brutality of the Tyshawn Lee case, our awareness of the toll of violence against the very young in the city is far behind the reality on the ground. It is not hard to find plethora victims of violence even younger than five years old.
Getting caught in the drive-by Drive-by shootings have become more and more popular, oftentimes leading to innocent (or at least not the main target) bystanders caught up in the spray of bullets. The prevalence of automatic weapons and weapons with large capacity magazines has made this option more likely.
There’s blood in the streets

 

Chicago has seen a frightening spike in violence this year. In fact, as of May 20, we’ve experienced 52 murders among 256 shootings this month, with a YTD count of 244 homicides among 1383 shootings. This is well ahead of the pace from last year. Put another way, a person is shot in Chicago every 2:29, up from 2:55 last year.
It’s been raining for days

 

While referencing Chicago’s spring weather, in a metaphorical sense, the constant cloud cover lends itself to a mourning and somber mood.
But it won’t wash clean

The spot where they played

Although I’m sure there is a good-faith effort on behalf of the City of Chicago, it is not uncommon to still see the bloodstains from recent shootings on the sidewalk or the streets, serving as an everyday reminder of the trauma experienced.
There’s no hell below us

It’s swirling in the air

Another play on Lennon’s “Imagine” and a reference to the “Windy City”, but in a larger sense, many youth can’t see the point of hell as a literal place since their current lives bear the yoke of oppression, violence, marginalization, and exclusion – many of the same attributes that make up “hell” in the minds of traditional Christians. The idea that they would be punished further for trying to survive in the only world they’ve known creates a cognitive dissonance that pushes many of them further from being receptive to the church.
No place to raise a family

At least if you care

 

The overwhelming sentiment among the youth is that they want out of the city as soon as they can find a way. Since college is realistically out of the question for many of them, it is more difficult to find an escape. Many of the youth that I’ve spoken to have used their young children as motivation in order to make something better for themselves in order to get out. Many of them are desperate to find any way they can to not have to raise their own kids in the same conditions that they grew up in or find themselves in now.
It’s all around us Still referencing “hell” this line speaks to the pervasiveness of violence and evil in their lives, no matter how they try and distance themselves from it.
It’ll swallow us whole If left unchecked, it is easy to resort to the same evils that have been perpetrated on oneself. In this case, it is dangerous to be swallowed by a pervasive evil that robs one of the ability to make positive choices of personal responsibility.
Run your little brains out

Far from she’ol

Again alluding to the running theme from the title, this stands as an encouragement to try and escape the pervasive “hell” (she’ol) that they find themselves in.
Burning up as punishment

 

A reference to the “lake of fire”, found several times in the book of Revelation, as well as in other mythologies. Christians often interpret this as eternal conscious torment, annihilation of the body, or a refining fire from which to be purified before entering God’s presence. In these interpretations, like many metaphors for hell, it is meant to evoke strong feelings of fear and guilt so as to encourage a decision for Christianity.
Predestined to ash

 

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is a common liturgy at funerals, based loosely on the creation story, some musings on Ecclesiastes, and the above idea of fire-as-hell/end. In a small unofficial survey, there were only two of eleven kids who had been to a single wedding, whereas all of them had been to multiple funerals for people in their peer group (other adolescents). With this in mind, it is easy to say that the church has not always succeeded in ingraining liturgies of long-suffering commitment and covenant relationship, but the liturgies of death are all too well known.
You’re outta purgatory

If your family has cash

 

The medieval Catholic Church sold indulgences as a way to raise money for the church, which would in turn speed your process through the limbo of afterlife. While this was protested by Martin Luther as one of the theses nailed to the door, the remnants of this theology persist. In many churches, the giving of tithes and offerings is a prolonged and celebrated part of the Sunday experience. For those without the resources to give significant amounts, they are often marginalized and somewhat excluded from full participation in the church. The impact that this could have on a child who is seeking to explore, it can be seen as a huge impediment to finding a church home.
We’re going’ down there?

To the place down below?

Just sit back for a minute

Get to feeling’ my flow

 

In ancient cosmology and today’s popular theology, “hell” was often seen as a place below the surface of the earth. This verse is a reminder to revaluate the context of the mission field, as many in my neighborhood would tell me to “sit back for a minute” as they explain that hell doesn’t scare them because they already live there.
Shots out the window

When I’m at home in my bed

Thanking my maker

They went over my head

In relation to above, hearing gunshots out your window nearly every night reminds us of the trauma being experienced by our neighbors who are caught in this violence, and reminds us to be thankful for God’s protection that we are not victims of this violence.
Scaring us with fire

And threatening brimstone?

 

This was often the threat of God’s punishment, found throughout the Old Testament and in Revelation. It is also a common type of sermon, in which the pastor rails against “wrong living” and threatens punishment as an outpouring of God’s wrath against sinners.
Welcome to the war-zone

That we call home

 

Again, as has become a common theme in this poem, the far-off threat of brimstone doesn’t scare people into salvation anymore when their friends and peers are getting killed at an alarming rate.
So where could we run to

That’s better than here?

 

The beginning of the second theological section asks the question, “If we are running FROM hell, what are we running TOWARD?” The sense that evil is engulfing us in many ways leaves us wondering if there actually is anything better.
Is there a place out there?

Where we don’t live in fear?

 

Is there a destination that doesn’t fall victim to the oppression, violence, and marginalization that is ever-present in our neighborhood? This current state produces fear and anxiety, and is in contradiction with our lives of faith that eliminate fear.
Find a place of rest

 

Echoing the invitation of Matthew 11:28 – Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest – one of the most appealing things about the Kingdom is literally just finding rest. One of the prominent symptoms of PTSD (an exceedingly common diagnosis in Lawndale youth) is a sleep-depriving anxiety that manifests again every time a sound reminds them of something traumatic. There is a youth that I have worked with over the last couple of years that occasionally comes over to the house. As we strive to create a “safe” space in our home. He often will end up staying the night in our guest room. It is amazing to me how he is able to sleep in the dark quiet for more than 15 hours a night, but is a direct result of the chaos that he usually lives with at home.
Even if we ain’t the best

 

This dispels the notion that many youth feel today – that they need to get their lives right BEFORE they come to church – which is a result of the same thought process as the Christian-ese language and the holier-than-thou separationist mindset. Titus 3:5 serves as a reminder for us that “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
Take the weight off my chest

 

Following the place of rest, the easing of the burdens of life in Matthew 11:29-30 follows “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This weight comes in many forms, from being responsible for raising younger siblings, to providing food for the family by any means necessary, to performing well in underperforming schools, or simply the common refrain that they have to be twice as good to succeed in a white world. This pressure can feel like a million pounds to thirteen-year-olds trying to carry it all around every day.
Should we all head west?

 

In American folklore, “heading west” was a colloquialism for finding new opportunities – the ability to start a new life. Based on the expansion of America from the original 13 colonies toward the Pacific Ocean, “the west” had a mythical aura that still permeates today’s culture. In this same vein, a life in Christ is truly an opportunity for new life.
And find a lotta comfort

In those big wide arms

 

My mind went to Psalms 34 as a vision for the liberation and salvation of my neighborhood. The next few lines hearken back to this passage, which includes lines about delivering from fear and providing refuge, seeking peace and justice, and righteous living. In many ways, this passage combines with Zechariah 8 as a larger picture of what it looks like when the LORD resides with us.
There’s a city there

 

In reference to the New Jerusalem coming in the eschaton, specifically as found in Ezekiel 40-48 and expanded and expounded upon in Revelation 21
We ain’t living on farms

 

Having been raised in a strictly urban environment, the kids I’ve worked with have expressed hesitancy over things like worms, gardening, and digging in the ground, as most of the ground contains buried trash and sometimes dangerous items. Particularly in light of increased lead poisoning in dilapidated neighborhoods, it is clear that in the hood in Chicago, nothing good comes from the ground.
With his hand over us

And the angels all around

 

Psalms 34:7 says “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them,” which signifies safety from violence, one of the things feared most on our streets.
Kids playing in the streets

Can’t even find a frown

 

Double Dutch on the sidewalk

Strike-em-out on the streets

Grandma sitting on the swing

Momma standing on her feet

 

We imagine New Jerusalem to be similar to the vision of the prophet Zechariah, in 8:3-4, when the LORD returns to inhabit Jerusalem. “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” Double Dutch is a jump-rope game and Strike-em-out is a baseball game that kids often played. If you ask the older residents on my block, they will say that the boys and girls used to play these games constantly in the fields and the streets before the violence has made them scared to play outside. This is especially poignant in light of verse 10, “Before that time there were no wages for people or hire for animals. No one could go about their business safely because of their enemies, since I had turned everyone against their neighbor,” which would serve as an adequate mention of the current state of many neighborhoods.
No more homicide, genocide,

Or life on the edge,

 

The current homicide rate, as mentioned above, has reached epidemic proportions. If it were an outside agent that was killing young white men at these rates, the media would have no hesitancy in calling it genocide. It is minimized in the way it is cast as “self-inflicted” and simply a result of so-called “black-on-black” crime. Since we know that the primary acts of violence were perpetrated against the black community, and were turned inward as a result of outside forces of white supremacy, these mitigating comments are nothing more than more powers of privilege and supremacy trying to control the narrative. We need to be calling it what it is: genocide of young, urban, black men.
Just sit here and romanticize

This place in your head

 

A clarion call to imagine what it would be like living in a place where the problems that plague our lives didn’t exist. In evangelism, it is imperative that the evangelist cast vision for the community. To paraphrase Proverbs 29:18, “If the community has no vision, the people perish.” Catching the vision of God’s presence, without all of the theological half-truths used to sell a cheapened gospel (i.e. prosperity theology), is the place to run towards – both in our theology and in our living.
It’s the Kingdom calling

 

1 Timothy 2:4 reminds us that God desires the participation of all creation in the Kingdom. His gospel welcomes all nations, tongues, tribes, and gang affiliations. In recognizing our part as part of this creation – and as the idols of the King as creatures in his image – we are all called to participation in this world as preparation for the next.
It’s screaming your name

 

I’m thinking of the juxtaposition between the screaming sounds of the city – bullets, sirens, arguments – and the biblical examples of God’s “screaming” conversion stories, the kind where there was no other alternative. From the burning bush in Moses’ story, to the whale swallowing and kidnapping Jonah, to Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road, the LORD has made rejection of his message nearly impossible through these screaming experiences. I can think of many testimonies from kids in the neighborhood who experienced literal “come to Jesus” moments after being on the receiving end of one of the screams-of-the-city, whether as a result of medical trauma, gunshot wound, or an encounter with the prison-industrial system.
There’s no judgment here

 

Psalms 37 ends with verse 22, “The LORD redeems his servants;
no one will be condemned who takes refuge in him.” Judgment, as manifested in the way that people tend to self-segregate into homogenous groups particularly along racial and socioeconomic lines is what has led to a lot of in-group/out-group conflict. This is exacerbated in underresourced areas that include literal fights for economic territory, such as the gang-involved drug turf wars. This kind of judgment and condemnation of the “other” is at the heart of much of the violence.
No opps killing your game

 

“Opps” is a slang word for your rival gang, coming from the word opposition. To have your game killed is when someone interrupts your progress toward a goal.
The landscapes change

 

While the physical landscape of our lives often does not change upon our conversion, our metaphorical perspectives change drastically through our engagement with our new family. Our pastor often references a story about how a family accepted Christ but their heat still got shut off by their landlord. While their decision didn’t change their predicament, it changed their perspective greatly knowing that they had a new family to share their burdens with in a tangible way, that is, other members of the church organizing funds to help with the costs accrued.
There’s gold on the streets

 

Another reference to New Jerusalem, with its streets paved with gold as found in Revelation 21:21.
When you walk on it,

Don’t want to keep it on your teeth

 

This verse is more of a structural critique of both the common understanding of that verse and the lifestyle of scarcity that we live under neo-liberal capitalism. Many folks, even Billy Graham, interpret this verse as how “glorious” heaven will be, but I take it more to mean that the markers of status and wealth, such as the gold and jewels mentioned in the passage, are so common and meaningless that they are used to pave the streets and decorate every home. New Jerusalem will reverse our lifestyle of scarcity to a lifestyle of abundance, in which the status symbol common in urban hip-hop culture of golden “grills” (bejeweled crowns on one’s teeth) will be so common that there will no longer be a desire to put your wealth or status on display.
Ain’t gotta save that bread

 

“Bread” is a slang word for money in urban vernacular, but in a literal sense reminds us of the story of Exodus 16 in which the people were given manna to eat every day. The conditions given not to horde the manna were a critique against this lifestyle of scarcity that the Israelites were coming from in Egypt on Pharaoh.
‘Cuz there’s enough in this ‘hood In the Kingdom, however, we learn to experience a live of abundance. There was no need to horde the manna because it was renewed again every morning. Likewise, our economic mindset is the recognize everything as the LORD’s and thank him for what he has provided by taking and using as much as we need, but not any extra. In the same way, there are so many hidden talents and resources in Lawndale which could be incorporated into (at least) the informal economy of cooperation and neighborly covenant but are instead horded and withheld to the detriment of the community.
Everybody eats

Ain’t going home without food

 

In this reimagined economy, there is abundance from all and too all. In an echo of the church in Jerusalem, we hear Acts 2:44-46 and 4:32-37 ring out as people gave of themselves so that there was no needy person among them. In the same way, we are to live in ways that allow, if not provide for those without, and their stomachs will not go away empty after an encounter with the people of this new Kingdom.
A whole new life

 

Based on John 3:3-5 and affirmed with many other liturgies and metaphors such as baptism and resurrection, we see that this Kingdom’s intake is a new creation, and a whole new life.
Without all the pain

 

While believers certainly still experience physical and emotional pain, our exodus into new creation refines our perspective on pain and suffering, recognizing that suffering, up to and including death, is part of our new lives of cruciformity. Therefore this pain is not in vain but is given eschatology, a goal that we are collectively pressing on toward that gives pain meaning, and a prophetic word, especially as a reminder of the stark contrast between the way things are and the way things will be.
If we’re playing with fire

It’s a whole new game

Since one of the traditional outcomes of this decision is fire (see above), it begins to take on a life-altering significance.
So follow me there

 

This is the third and final main theological stream, as we transition from vision casting in a description of this new Kingdom to a life of discipleship in Christ through the Spirit. In the role of evangelist, one can only take a congregation as far as he has been himself. In this way, “following me” is only as good as the next line.
As I follow the Messiah

 

Our modeling of life in Christ through the Spirit is the action that speaks louder than words. To many I have worked with, the conversation begins with a question: “why?” As in, “Why would you move to Lawndale?” “Why don’t you curse?” “Why are you faithful to your wife?” Our modeling of this life in a new Kingdom speaks volumes more than our proselytizing ever will.
The one who died

 

An obvious reference to Jesus, the paradoxical Messiah who was crucified.
From the cops in the cross-fire

 

A nod to Jesus as the innocent victim of state violence, placing the Jewish leaders who capitulated to the pursuit of power in a worse position than people like Jason Van Dyke and Dante Sevrin, police officers who have taken the lives of Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd, respectively, who were also undeserving victims of state violence.
He was preaching a new way

 

Jesus’ message turned the power structures of the world upside-down, and was rightfully recognized as a subversive gospel.
A new place to stay

 

This invitation to Jesus’ father’s house of many mansions, found in John 14:2, which is not to be inhabited without the accompanying call to
Oh, it doesn’t exist?

Oh ye of little faith

 

A nod to the doubters, in light of Matthew 8:26 and its word to the disciples who were worried about the storm affecting the boat. In many ways this translates to us who are worried about the state of the world without learning to rely on the LORD through faith.
It got him killed by the opps

 

His message was true enough to scare the state and temple authorities, his opposition, into acting rashly and torturing and crucifying him.
The ones with all the violence

 

In John 18, When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew his sword preparing to battle with violence on behalf of him and his messianic reign. But Jesus disarms Peter, heals the soldier’s ear, and places violence in its rightful place – in the hands of the adversary rather than in our own corruptible virtues.
So he could show the world

Where he kept his reliance

 

Rather Jesus places his faith in God and his plan, in light of fighting a much bigger battle than simply one over his own pain and suffering. In other ways, this shows us that our lives are also something bigger, and a resort to violence as self-defense is a manifestation of pride and selfishness as a usurpation of this bigger picture.
Then he came back strong

 

Alluding to the Resurrection, the foundation of our hope, this line reminds us that torture, state violence, scarcity, and even death is not the end of the story.
Busting straight out of hell

 

The purpose of this poem is not to debate the theological implications of Jesus descending into hell upon his death to proclaim the Good News to those in prison there, but rather to recognize that the power of the prisons of hell have been undone in the name of Jesus, who was the conquering messiah through his slain body.
This new life created

 

Upon his resurrection, his own exodus into new life and as firstborn of the new creation was a cosmic shift as death and decay was defeated and life reigns and abundance is made available.
And the empire fell

 

The empire, represented biblically as Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and the domain of Satan and evil, are defeated eschatologically through this death and resurrection. As Revelation describes, this restores the cosmic order to that of creation, with death and scarcity banished and abundance and life everywhere.
We can live without walls

 

A subtle jab at fascism and totalitarianism, both in the form of Communist East Germany’s wall around Berlin and a current presidential candidate’s proposal for a southern wall to protect the United States from the chickens coming home to roost. Walls also symbolize the many divisions, both real and arbitrary, that separate us, “other” us, and turn us against ourselves.
We all can eat together

 

In the spirit of the first-century church, all are welcome at the same table. In the Eucharist we are made one, the body of our crucified and resurrected God, where our ethnic and socioeconomic status no longer matter. Eating with one another, as Fresco so elegantly puts it, is “where we become aware of who we are and with whom we are. Around the table, all previous meals come together in every meal, in an endless succession of memories and associations. The table is the place where the family gathers, the symbol of solidarity.” And if I may add, the table is where we gather with our fictive kin, the family of the people of God, as we learn to care about one another and live out these new Kingdom rules.
We can fight for each other

 

A common refrain in political science is the idea that mutual outside enemies drive previously diverse people together. In the body of Christ, we see that fighting alongside one another against the common enemies of personal and structural evils drive us together as a family. This solidarity has formed the Kingdom people from the very beginning of the story.
Ain’t a storm we can’t weather

 

Again looking back to the disciples on the boat in the middle of the storm in Mark 4 and Matthew 8, we are reminded that God calms the storms. In addition we are called to long-suffering faithfulness to one another in the body of Christ, meaning that simple weather phenomenon should not shake our commitment to each other.
We run from Gehenna

As fast as we can

The long running theme of running from this literal and metaphorical hell toward something new.
But where do we run to

Like the Marathon man

 

In reference to the Marathon in Greek mythology, we give our lives running from something and toward something else. In Marathon, it was to share with the other Greeks the news of the impending invasion. In some ways this is a prophetic analogy to us, giving our lives as Romans 12:2 living sacrifices on behalf of living out our countercultural Kingdom and sharing our gospel message to the ends of the earth.
But how can we run

With our feet in the sand

 

Running sprints in sand is traditionally one of the most difficult ways to train as there is no solid surface for our feet to press off of. This means it takes significantly more energy to move the same distance on a solid surface. Likewise, it is incredibly difficult to transform and renew the mind in light of this way of living that seems so contra the way we have lived our entire lives. It takes so much more energy to move toward righteousness than it does to continue to live in the flesh.
But how can we get A-

way from the Sandman

 

The Sandman is alternatively either the one who gives us sleep or gives us death (permanent sleep), depending on the interpretation. In this context, the subject is running from death that seems to stalk youth in the neighborhood.
We’re born the people of

This new way of living

 

As we followers of Jesus are reborn (see above) into this new Kingdom, we surrender our old ways of living in favor of citizenship of the new Kingdom, as in Philippians 1:27 and 3:20 calling us to live as citizens worthy of the gospel. This Kingdom comes with its own shaping powers to transform us into an entirely new lifestyle, which is further described in the following two lines.
There’s no more taking

 

Life in Christ through the Spirit includes a condemnation of the forces of power and authoritarianism. While “Thou shalt not steal” has been a part of our tradition since the beginning, it expands in this new Kingdom to include the ideas of coercion against one’s will and doing anything to reduce the potential for human flourishing of our neighbors.
And a whole lot of giving

 

The affirmative reformulation, we are called to be living sacrifices, being generous with our blessings, and recognizing that we live with all we need, not necessarily all we want, and that our mindset is transformed into this new economy of abundance for all.
We walk with the creator

 

An affirmation of God as creator, the supreme God among our gods of vice, desire, and the market. Our relationship, while lived out in community, is also personal in that through the Spirit, we have access to intimacy with a loving, passionate, and just God.
We all can get along

 

Mutual submission, through the power of the Spirit, allows us to function from places of mutuality, rather than through power and status based relationships. This call for unity in the body is echoed so many times throughout the New Testament that it becomes a rallying cry for Paul in many of his letters, and is realized in the language of Revelation, as the single Bride.
If we learn how to die

 

1 Corinthians 13 may teach us exactly what is means to love our neighbor, but John 15:13 teaches us what it looks like carried out to the logical end. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It is in this death, literal and metaphorical, that we are resurrected into new life with Christ, as participants in the Kingdom of this age and the next.
And live like Allelon Allelon is the “one-anothering” that is so present in Paul’s letters in respects to how we live as members of the body. Our lives lived together with, in favor of, on behalf of, toward, and for the sake of one another is what separates our witness from that of the state and culture shaped by the fleshly desires.

 

Hear the rap here

Advertisements

Run Away Pt. 2 (of 3) – The Reasons

kanye-west-cross

I wrote a poem that turned into a rap song last week. You can check out the lyrics here.

For a recent assignment, I had to “reimagine” the story of God and his relationship with his people in my own context – the context of working with teenagers in Lawndale. I currently have two of them living in my home, and interact with them and others on a daily basis. Following the completion of my internship in Oak Brook, I imagine finding myself back in Lawndale or in a similar professional setting, which is reflective of my deeper calling toward community development through the church. In exploring the particular sub-culture of urban adolescents, one of the most universal mediums is hip-hop music. I thought that a creative way to reinterpret the gospel message would need two things, a culturally relevant hook (e.g. the hip-hop format) and an absence of overly “Christian-ese” verbiage. Often times, this language is seen as a “holier than thou” demarcation between the insiders who grew up every day with the King James Bible and the outsiders who barely knew what the Bible was. This is often seen as a deterrent for many of the youth who are not even familiar with the most basic of Bible stories. But reimagined in today’s context, many are able to relate to the stories from the street with the same themes.

Seeking to meet both of those criteria, I have written a poem and turned it into a rap song. This poem was written and performed completely by me (so feel free to chuckle at my absolute lack of any sort of compelling rap voice), and set to the beat of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” from his 2004 album College Dropout. I chose this backing track because of two main features. Of course it was important that it fit the rhythm and cadence that I had written the poem to, but I also found it poignant that this particular song was exploring some of the same ideas that my poem was written about. For example, the original lyrics included lines such as “I walk through the valley of the Chi where death is,” and, “To the victims of welfare, for we living’ in Hell here,” speaking to the specific experiences of the youth that are my unique ministry context. With this as background, I thought this particular beat and its associated lyrics already provided a great introduction into the story of Christianity-already-contextualized here, in North Lawndale. Additionally, the choir singing in the background is performed by the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir and is taken from a rendition of the old gospel song “Walk with Me”. This is just an added bonus, considering that the youth in my neighborhood have daily encounters with the snares of various addictions and vices within their own families.

While the original song included three accompanying music videos, each took a slightly different take on the lyrical interpretation. In the first, Kanye depicts a preacher who ministers to various marginalized populations – drug dealers, prostitutes, alcoholics –who are led into his church by angels. This speaks to a significant divide in the perception of what “church” is, particularly in the inner city. Often times church is treated as a “saints only” respite from the evils of the rest of the world, whereas others see the church as exactly the kind of refuge for the broken that Kanye depicts. In the second, Kanye explores the duality of man, juxtaposing images of evil such as contract prison labor, a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning, and drug smuggling with iconic Christian imagery such as a man being beaten by the authorities with his arms out to the side, a man carrying the cross (both are metaphorically Jesus, of course), and the release of hundreds of doves. In the third, Kanye goes throughout his day in Chicago, his adolescent hometown, with Jesus following close behind, performing miracles in his wake. Of these three, the second was by far the most popular due in large part to the depth of the content, which spoke creatively to several societal ills.

Most evangelicals would never consider the original song or the accompanying videos as any sort of orthodox Christian message, but Kanye himself has said he wrote the song for as much and his mother reports instances of mass conversions and confessions of faith after performances. In my reimagination of the gospel message, it is helpful to reimagine the original song as well. With the same goals in mind as Kanye, the following will attempt to interpret the poem and song and provide clues as to where this poem recapitulates the gospel message for the target demographic.

The poem is loosely written into three theological sections. In the first, we explore the common understandings of “hell” set against the conditions that many are living in today. In the second, we explore what the Kingdom may look like, examining a place that is appealing to those who long for a different way to live, and relief from the present circumstances that feel like hell. In the third, we present a treatise on conversion and discipleship that is meant to be the narrow path toward making the present world more like the Kingdom (right living) and what we look forward to in the future world in the eschaton.

I’ll post my lyric-genius exegesis later for you to scope if you want the line-by-line breakdown.

Run Away

run

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

Kids as young as five

Getting caught in the drive-by

Blood in the streets

Been raining for days

But it won’t wash clean

The spot where children play

There’s no hell below us

It’s swirling in the air

No place to raise a family

At least if you care

It’s all around us and

It’ll swallow us whole

Run your little brains out

Far, far from she’ol

Burning up as punishment

Predestined to ash

Buy your way from purgatory

If your family has cash

Scaring us with fire

And threatening brimstone?

Welcome to the war-zone

That we call home

So where could we run to

That’s better than here?

Is there a place out there?

Where we don’t live in fear?

Find a place of rest

Even if we ain’t the best

Take the weight off my chest

Should we all head west?

And find a lotta comfort

In those big wide arms

There’s a city there

We ain’t living on farms

With his hand over us

And the angels all around

Kids playing in the streets

Can’t ever find a frown

Double Dutch on the sidewalk

Strike-em-out on the streets

Grandma sitting on the swing

Momma standing on her feet

No more homicide, genocide,

Or life on the edge,

Just sit here and romanticize

This place to lay your head

It’s the Kingdom calling

Screaming your name

There’s no judgment here

No opps killing your fame

The landscape changed

There’s gold on the streets

If you can walk on it

Won’t have to keep it on your teeth

You ain’t gotta save bread

‘Cuz there’s enough in the ‘hood

Everyone gets to eat

Ain’t going home without food

It’s a whole new life

Without all the pain

If we’re playing with fire

It’s a whole new game

Follow me there

As I follow the Messiah

The one who died by the cops

Caught in the cross-fire

He was preaching a new way

A new place to stay

Oh, it don’t exist?

Oh ye of little faith

It got him killed by the opps

The ones with all the violence

So that he could show the world

Where he kept his reliance

Then he came back strong

Busting out of hell

This new life created

And the empire fell

We can live without walls

We all can be together

We can fight for each other

Ain’t a storm we can’t weather

We run from Gehenna

As fast as we can

But where do we run to

Like the marathon man

We run from Gehenna

Just as fast as we can

But how can we run

Away from the Sandman

We’re the people of

This new way of living

No more taking

And a whole lot of giving

We love the creator

And we all can get along

If we learn how to die

And live like Allelon

The Prophetic Function of Social Autopsy

Can the Church Help End Violence & Injustice?

Of course it can. And it should!

I got to spend a day with some of the other Chicago thought leaders at the intersection of the church and the violence and injustice run amok in our city. It was a great learning and networking opportunity, and a recap of the discussions is a helpful primer. I found points 4 and 6 to be particularly affirming of my experiences, which have blessed me tremendously as I’ve found new partners and family in the fight against the structures and principalities that oppress and condemn.

But I got to hear a particular term that has me wrestling even days later. When the dead die we use an autopsy to confirm the cause of death. When neighborhoods are filled with death, why shouldn’t we the church perform an autopsy to find the root causes? One of the roles of the church is calling out the difference between what is and what should be. The Medical Examiner performs the same role: “the man is dead when he should be alive, and I will reveal to the world exactly why.” The church is a clarion call to proclaim the same thing: “There is violence in the streets, oppression of the poor, and injustice toward those whose lives matter, but there should be peace among the people, respect of each other, and a justice that reigns and affirms that all lives – particularly those whom society deems less than – matter.”

But why are we afraid to name and proclaim these systems of violence, death, oppression and injustice? Are we afraid of guilt by association, of the revelation that the way we live our lives has taken the ability to fully flourish away from others who share our society? In a Christian world that proclaims we are all sinners and unworthy of grace, why are we so afraid to admit that we are all sinners?

A Tale of Two Cities

It is the best of times. It is the worst of times.

The NFL Draft in town; protesting in the streets right outside. Income for white professionals is climbing quickly; income for the black family is in decline. Thanks to generations of housing discrimination, Chicago remains one of the most sharply segregated cities in the nation. The reality is that predominantly White Chicago and predominantly Black Chicago are two separate and unequal cities. We have seen how Governor Rauner has protected tax breaks for corporations (and not coincidently himself), at the small cost of cutting social services for at-risk kids. Illinois hasn’t passed a budget to fund these organizations for over 316 days and counting. Everyone is affected by this! (Okay, enough with the myriad hyperlinks already)

Well, guess what happened? All of the state’s mental health facilities have closed, making Cook County Jail the nation’s largest mental health provider. Almost all of the funding for youth employment initiatives has been sharply tapered, when combined with the white flight that gutted the industrial corridors on the south and west sides of the city (predominantly Black and Brown Chicago), has led to huge rates of unemployment, along with the bevy of other classic responses to the grinding conditions of crushing poverty. Including a ridiculous spike in violent crime:

Chicago YTD as of May 9 (% increase over 2015, one of the more violent on record)

Shot & Killed: 189 (+62%)

Shot & Wounded: 1,057 (+69%)

Total Shot: 1,246 (+68%)

Total Homicides: 213 (+55%)

There is a harsh reality: the priority of those in power has been to empower the north side and the Loop communities at the expense of the south and west sides. This has been overt and intentional. Make no mistake about it. Resources are poured into already-flourishing communities to the detriment of the communities holding on by a fingernail.

chicago-raceunemployment

This stuff is all common knowledge in the city. None of it is particularly new. The city has been a tinder box for corruption and partisanship and racism since well before Dr. King moved here in ’66. But this has got to change. I’m going to throw some thoughts out there for you to connect:

  • Most kids in Chicago’s most dangerous areas live in survival mode. This is because they hear gunshots every day, and most have had at least one close friend killed. This is because they have very little hope to climb out of a system that drowns many of them before they turn 15.
  • Chicago’s new police chief, who has claimed to have never seen any form of police misconduct in 27 years on the job, is now blaming those who have been THE VICTIMS of these shootings by saying they are mostly people with arrest records (as if petty crimes deserve the death penalty or their lives matter less somehow), forgetting the structures of oppression that have led to them being arrested – such as the lack of educational opportunities, neighborhoods bereft of employment options, shattered community support structures like mental health treatment for their PTSD, the aforementioned premeditated destruction of the social service sector in the last two years, and the disproportionate minority contact with the criminal/judicial system (I refuse to call it the justice system until it starts acting like it) at every step of their life. He has also repeatedly reported that the CPD has spent over $100 million each year on overtime pay alone, in an effort to combat the violence.
  • Chicago’s police department has spent $642 million in settling misconduct suits brought against them in the last 12 years, and that number is only likely to climb higher and higher after the cases of folks like Bettie Jones, Quintonio LeGrier, and Pierre Loury in the last few months.
  • Nothing stops a bullet like a job. Statistics, anecdotes, and experience have shown that access, even limited access, to a legitimate economic opportunity decreases criminal activity DRAMATICALLY.
  • Oversimplified math: $642 M in misconduct suits, $100 M x 12 years for overtime pay alone, that means that about $1.85 BILLION spent because they are doing things wrong. How many summer and part time jobs could that provide? 15,360 part-time jobs per year that would pay $10,000 annually. If it were a more realistic high-school type summer job, making $3000/year, we are talking about employing more than 51,000 young adults annually over the last 12 years. And there are certainly no shortage of things that could be done.

 

So why are we doing things backwards? What are your thoughts?

 

Bathrooms Don’t Rape People

Guns don’t kill people. People kill people, and there are already laws against that. I’ve heard this argument about gun control for at least 20 years, and it never changes anyone’s mind. I’ve lived in rural America, grown up around guns, and even won my extended family reunion’s target competition. I’ve also lived where guns flood the street and the sanctity of life is a foreign virtue. You can hear the gunshots from my bedroom window almost every night. But this isn’t a post about gun control. That’s a whole other topic for a whole other day, on which I’m sure we’ll spill plenty of ink.

What I don’t understand is how people use this argument for guns but not for other criminal activity.

I know this may be a controversial position to take, but here goes: Bathrooms don’t rape people. People rape people, and there are already laws against that. With the exception of a fascinating Japanese bidet at an airport in Tokyo, I have never once felt violated by anything that a toilet has done to me. The stall doors, sinks, and urinals are innocent too.

Yet there are folks who think that bathrooms at Target are the biggest problem America is facing.

Guess how many instances have been reported in American history of non-cis folks sexually assaulting someone in the opposite gender bathroom? None. That’s right, it has never, ever been reported. Not a single time.

Call me crazy, but I think the reason most non-cis people go into bathrooms is because they have to pee.

There are plenty of people who have been assaulted or raped by family members, but we aren’t outlawing the nuclear family. There have been plenty of people assaulted or raped by acquaintances while on dates, many more at frat parties. You know who rapes people? Rapists. And they don’t really care where it is. And guess what? There are already laws that are in place to prosecute those who are responsible for these dehumanizing and abhorrent acts.

Outside of the fact that some ridiculous laws like this would be virtually impossible to police (are James Dobson, folks from the American Family Association, and State Troopers from North Carolina checking everyone’s genitalia before they go inside?), this does more to destroy the witness of the people of God than any sort of safety it might provide. In fact, we really need to ask whose safety we are really concerned about. Dehumanization always precedes and seeks to justify violence and exclusion. When non-cis folks are made a target (no pun intended) for boycotts and protests, they are robbed of the simple dignity of going pee in the bathroom they feel most comfortable in.

Is this a movement you are proud to be a part of? If it is already illegal to sexually assault, rape, or peep at people, why don’t you just focus on enforcing the laws already on the books instead of further alienating a population already on the margins? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things to be outraged about. Sexual assaults and rapes happen every day – on college campuses, churches, homes, and elsewhere – and we participate in this culture when we sexualize, objectify, and dehumanize each other (particularly women) in a million ways. If you really want to protect your daughters, maybe start there.

Slide to the Edge

 

When I was about six, some neighbor boys and I were playing with a Frisbee until a gust of wind (and probably an errant throw) took the disc onto the roof of my home. Thankfully, my dad had a ladder with which to hoist me onto our relatively flat roof. Running across the crest and retrieving the disc was never the hard part, but the descent down to my father’s waiting arms was terrifying. I tried several times to lower myself to the edge of the rooftop, and each time chickened out before my dad could reach for me. I was scared he would drop me. I was scared to fall. I could see exactly how close to the edge I could go while still maintaining control of my own destiny.

trex

As I crept down again slowly, for what was probably the fifth or sixth time, my dad outsmarted me. The kids in my neighborhood would say he did a good job of not “fronting his move,” because he pulled his arms back, close to his chest, luring me into thinking I could get closer without having to trust him. With a mighty swoop, my dad lunged upward from his T-Rex pose, and with the full length of his arms extended swept me into his grasp and safely returned me to the secure footing of the porch.

There is something reassuring about standing on your own feet. There was something comforting about inertia, something reassuring about maintaining the status quo. When my dad swung me off the roof, I had no control of anything. My feet couldn’t touch the ground, which I saw rushing up at me pretty quickly, and my wings weren’t working very well. I had absolutely no control over what happened next. Thankfully my dad was strong and coordinated enough to bring my six-year-old self back to earth safely. For the last 25 years now, my dad’s “T-Rex arms” have usually turn into a joke somehow, usually when I’m trying to pass my brother the mashed potatoes.

It’s scary when you don’t have control over your own destiny. I think it is kind of similar to following God into scary situations. I believe with my innermost heart that we who are with are called to go to places without. It was much simpler to live in the suburbs of Lombard and just drive into the ‘hood for church, or head straight to the office to work. I didn’t have to slide all the way to the edge of the roof. I could stay on my own feet. I didn’t have to hear the gunshots in the evening, and if violence was bad I could just stay home that day. Walking in the big open field with the dogs was a more relaxing than trying to dodge broken glass and pull half eaten Italian beefs out of their mouths.

I don’t think of God as a Trickster, and there was no deception in what we were getting ourselves into. People are getting shot at and killed almost every day in Lawndale. People get held up and car-jacked too, and you can get all of that information pretty easily. I don’t know if hanging on the cross would have worked well for Jesus if he had T-Rex arms. What choice do we have but to keep singing Kendrick Lamar and trust that if God’s got us, then we’re gonna be alright.

So in that spirit, I’m making a commitment here. I am going to write. And write consistently. I like to write about culture, and sports fandom, and the church, and good food, and how frustrating politics are (and probably some hot-takes about how all of those things mix). It will be a mixed bag sometimes, but it will always be a reflection of who I am. I’m committing to sliding to the edge, trusting that Jesus has longer arms than a T-Rex, and hoping that we all get to the other side in good shape. I’m not interested in my Klout score, and this isn’t to start an online cult. It is just an out-flowing of my wanderings and my wondering. Hope you enjoy!