Last week I visited a good friend who is serving time in the Denver detention center for a regrettable decision. The weight of his words as he was struggling to describe his stay in the jail continues to lay heavy on my mind. "Ryan, nobody sees me here. We get herded around like cattle to slaughter. I’m just a number and nobody cares to know my name.”
At the end of our 30 minutes of assigned time I did my best to deliberately look into the windows of his soul and call him by his name, but the implications of his pain soaked words unsettled me and they serve as a poignant reminder during this 2012 Lenten season.
The jailers have a job to do. Their very occupation is to display authority and power without much of a priority on seeing and valuing the basic humanity of the individuals they've been placed in charge of.
Sadly, this normative lack of consideration and critical reflection isn’t just a standard trait of correctional facility workers. The reality is the same brutal perspective unconsciously characterizes most of us within the privileged Christian middle-class matrix.
We don't have to understand the Trayvon Martin case with perfect clarity to recognize that we, the privileged, have severe issues in regards to inconsiderate profiling according to economic class, race, and even style of dress. To say it differently we have issues with compassion. Conversations get too awkward and unproductive. Time feels wasted and therefore we cannot pursue the necessary journey of getting to know and eventually suffer with another in the way of Jesus.
The hard truth? I become so accustomed to daily middle-class activities such as filling the gas tank of my car, meeting a friend for specialty coffee, and stopping at the market on my way home for an avocado that I easily overlook the fact that these quite ordinary mundane activities of mine of which I unconsciously feel entitled to make up the unique lifestyle of a privileged minority. The very ordinary routines and expectations within my lifestyle of privilege become toxins that lead to my blindness and prevent me from truly seeing my marginalized brothers and sisters.
Our busy activity within middle-class Christian ministry feels like a virtue... but we fool ourselves. Through the prophet Isaiah, God speaks,
They're busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me. To all appearances they're a nation of right-living people— law-abiding, God-honoring.
but they don't hear or see reality because...
The bottom line on your 'fast days' is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
Ouch. The implications of this particular Lenten season has me seeing the ways I inadvertently hold power and privilege and the ways these attributes remain consistently elusive to my brothers and sisters from below. It's not easy to notice without deliberately slowing down to look... and listen.
Some say, some day, some how, some way, we’re going to fail
And it ain't hard to tell, that we dwell in hell
Trapped, black, scarred and barred
Searching for truth, where it's hard to find God
I play the Pied Piper, and to this Thug Life, I'm a lifer
Proceed, to turn up the speed, just for stripes
My Black Jesus, walk through this valley with me
Where we, so used to hard times and casualties
Indeed, it hurt me deep to have to sleep on the streets
And haven't eaten in weeks, so save a prayer for me
And all the young thugs, raised on drugs and guns
Blazed out and numb, slaves to these slums
"Hard times and casualties" are a far cry from Whole Foods or the quiet places I'm afforded to pray or rest. The reality? I dwell within middle-class christian privilege and that impacts all sorts of daily routines from the way I read the scriptures to how I handle my taxes.
Most within my tax bracket and above won't even be able to hear the Isaiah-like words from the likes of a Tupac song due to the profanity and stylistic biases. In a similar fashion, I'm guessing the following passage would not have been a big hit with the pious, the priestly class, or the temple conservatives of Isaiah's day...
"This is the kind of fast day I'm after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I'm interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You'll call out for help and I'll say, 'Here I am.'
~ Isaiah 58: 6-9 The Message
Yes, we have an amazing capacity to miss the point. We all get immersed within a particular place and perspective and call it reality. We get busy doing the things that make for profit and popularity and unconsciously fail to truly SEE the humanity and value in folks like my incarcerated friend.
Lord, have mercy... And may we pause, reflect, and listen so that we can - with up most sincerity - say to the poor, I SEE YOU & will walk through the valley with you.