On the morning Caden made his entrance into the world, I learned the words “congenital heart defect” for the first time. In all likelihood, I would have no idea what “multiple sclerosis” means, except that my mom has it.
The issues that most profoundly impact us typically overlap our lives in significant ways. It’s hard to know how we really feel about homosexuality until our brother comes out. We might not be sure what we think exactly about childhood cancer treatments, except in some vague way, until we find ourselves shaving our son’s head because his pillow piles high with hair every night.
In his book, Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne says that the “great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.” Because knowing people changes things somehow.
In our three years of living here, we’ve had three different young black males living with us for varying periods of time. Currently, the eighteen-year-old high school graduate making our house his home puts together his lunch and heads to bed by 8pm every night. He plays lego enthusiastically with my children, explaining carefully to them that partna means friend. He takes out our trash and cleans his bathroom far more diligently than we clean ours. He leaves the house before we wake up, riding public transportation for nearly two hours to get to work. Every day when he gets home, he changes quickly before heading to practice basketball at the park.
Two nights ago ago, he walked in sweaty during dinner. He ate the wings Adam made, even though he doesn’t really liked baked wings as much as fried ones. We tucked our kids into bed (multiple times actually, because they cannot quite get the hang of “bed-time” apparently), and scrubbed the table and counters clean. We all crowd in the kitchen, clattering dishes and pouring wine. And he asked us if we had heard about Mike Brown and Ferguson. I nod, and hesitantly ask him how he feels about the whole thing. His head bowed low and eyes trained on his phone screen, he watches videos and news clips while he answers: “If they did something like this to little Z (his brother), oh boy I’d be public enemy number one.” We talk a little bit about revenge and justice, but mostly I am silent because I just don’t know how to answer his very real fears and anger. I pray grace and tell him we would be on his side, obviously. He tells us later he doesn’t believe that we would join the protests and risk getting tear-gassed, and I search myself a little to figure out if he’s right.
He heads to bed early like he does every night, and we sit on the couch editing pictures and watching White Collar, while I search my newsfeed to figure out what I should think about the whole thing. The silence deafens, and I wonder why no voices raise in protest and solidarity. Perhaps everyone else finds their tongues as twisted as I do.
Or maybe, I think, it’s because our lives remain impenetrable by it all. And so we write about Robin Williams and suicide instead, because we know him (or think we do from his movies at least). We have encountered depression and suicide. We write because we have sat where he did, nearing the end of our rope, unable to find our stumbling way out of the dark.
But few of us, particularly those of us with white skin, have walked where Mike Brown did. We watch the news and see war zones that feel distant, separate from the safety of our own lives and neighborhoods. We forget, perhaps, that Christ came for the most broken and that we find Him most assuredly in the very neighbors we walk the furthest circle around.
The story never unfolds as simple as it seems, and neither police officers nor young black males can be stacked neatly into a box. Because I know police officers, and they serve well. They love their cities and their beats; they bring home heavy hearts and rummage through their children’s drawers looking for the right size t-shirt for the boy he had to pull from his mother’s arms. But they have responded, perhaps, one-too-many-times to calls of armed black men. And it gets difficult to distinguish the unarmed in a whirl of fear and anger.
I also know young black males: the ones who are armed and, far-more-often, those who are not. They sit on my swing and run to the corner store to bring me back a diet coke. Their skin varying shades of chocolate brown, they cry out to be heard and seen. They hear the newscasters mention that Mike Brown did not deserve to die; after-all, he was headed to college on Monday. But what, they wonder, if he wasn’t? Would he have deserved to die then?
They call us from prison and ask us to come to their hearing. They walk in the door and tell us about getting pepper-sprayed on the bus their first week of high-school, while we all eat leftover pieces of Caden’s Lego Cake.
And we lose sight of the Kingdom in the midst of tanks and rubber bullets. The Kingdom that calls us to hammer swords into plowshares. To feel sweat run down our necks while we hammer. While we work hard and actively towards peace, where we use our own hands to bind the wounds and our own donkeys to carry the wounded.
One of our pastors and friends sits on our couch, he and Adam quietly play Clash of Clans while we watch the news. And I ask him what to say to Ashton. We’re white, I point out. And I’m not sure my voice counts here. But he mostly shakes his head, and we talk about how the media frames thing; how the police frame things; how the world frames things. It’s an issue of framing he tells us while we look at #iftheygunnedmedown on our twitter feed.
We pull up to the Wendy’s drive-through and both boys hop out to use the bathroom, I tell them I’ll pick them up on the other side. I order our spicy chicken sandwiches and kids meals while Caden and Jayci chorus from the back seat not to forget to order French fries and a toy. When I pull up to the window, the boys walk out the door. They approach the car and I see the Wendy’s employees give each other wary looks. When one pulls out her phone and asks if I'm ok, I laugh awkwardly and tell her: oh they’re with me. Oh ok she laughs, I thought they was about to rob you or something. The boys shake their heads and I try to lighten the mood, despite the unsettled feeling that has lodged itself in the pit of my stomach.
Clearly, we need re-framing.
It's hard though. Too many injustices and hurts and sickness and needs pile up, and we cannot possibly care about or speak out for them all, right? Seeing beyond the world’s frames to the Kingdom view requires work, and usually gets messy. And so we sit, unsure our voices matter or if we really even believe it enough to speak up. We don't know them, and our own lives remain impacted little by a system that seems unavoidable and maybe necessary.
But our silence does not equal our safety. Because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And our own hearts and lives miss encountering the Kingdom of God when we hide behind the idea that we do not belong to one another. So I pray today that those who love Jesus will lead the charge for freedom and grace. That we will willingly enter into hard places and complicated issues, for the sake of the Gospel and for the love of a Jesus who affirms the worth and dignity of every single person, regardless of the color of their skin or where they are headed.