We are told that LaDarius Bush’s home on Seventh Avenue has eleven bullet holes in it. At least some of those bullets ended up in the body of a now dead 17-year-old LaDarius. LaDarius comes from a family that is associated with the gangs we hear so much about in the news media of Chattanooga. LaDarius’ brother was earlier killed leaving behind a 1-year-old son. LaDarius leaves behind an unborn son with his girlfriend.
In a period of 48 hours we were alerted that our city had 12 shooting incidents and at least one major shooting here in College Hill Courts. The neighborhood that we worship in is notoriously known in this city. It is separated (redlined) from downtown by a highway and is almost exclusively section 8 or public housing units. For many in our city of supposed Renaissance it represents blight, violence and hopelessness. I can’t tell you the last time I heard of our city council member investing in this neighborhood. Many who have no real fear of violence chime in with their usual tropes of stereotyping, race baiting and criminalization of poverty. We know that our neighbors here are people we love and deserve love. They are demonized because of poverty and racism.
Yet, it is astounding to me that a city that prides itself in being one of the most Biblically literate cities in the US has such anti-biblical understandings of how to deal with community violence, poverty and social ills. Any response to violence that is countered with violence and fear is a moral failure to its communities and is antithetical to the true power of love. We have created strangers instead of neighbors in our own community, thinking that if we make strangers it absolves us of our responsibilities as followers of Christ. The truth is that the Bible makes us treat strangers the same as we treat neighbors. This is our moral imperative.
What I have seen as the response is mostly about law and little instead of binding up a social fabric that has been broken in this community because of racial, socio-economic and cultural inequities. When people are hopeless they resort to their own codes of violent insurrection. These are truly wars against societal factions that have been largely ignored by our governmental, religious and business institutions. When those who lack hope resort to fear we in response build more prisons, buy more guns, cut education, cut social welfare, buy more ballistic equipment, cut taxes, increase the police budget, cut access for socio-disadvantaged women to healthcare, increase military grade weaponry to our police, cut access to healthcare for poor children, limit access to housing…
So, I am going to say something that might be the most controversial thing I will say in a pulpit. It might be the most controversial thing that could be said by a pastor. I am convinced that it is the message we need to stem the type of violence that we are so afraid of in this city.
This is a simple thought: Gang members are human beings that deserve love. I am not willing to give up on gang members. They have mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. They have children and grandchildren. They are children of God.
Does that mean they are not responsible for the violence that they perpetrate? Absolutely not. Still, there must be better solutions to our most protracted societal problems that always defaulting to law and order. As followers of Christ we know that in his dying hours he forgave a criminal on the cross. This is not a solution, but it is a plea for us to quit deferring solutions for our society to a for profit prison industrial complex.
How can we have the vision with the writer of Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth? Is it even possible when our so called worst neighborhoods are met with a cynical, frightened, apathetic and sometimes nihilist city?
I think it is embedded in the Revelation text itself. The reason that there is hope in the New Jerusalem is because God is not far off in a cloud separated. It is in the voice from the throne promising:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
When we look into College Hill Courts this afternoon and see children playing we know that God’s home is there. When we see that person in a wheelchair coming from the high rise to the convenience store we know that they live in God’s home. When an elderly man is brought meals on wheels we know that they are eating in God’s home. God is not afraid to make residence in Section 8 housing or College Hill Courts. Nor would Jesus be afraid to break bread with gang bangers.
We are the people who are given the opportunity to view the vision of a new heaven and a new earth. We must live into the faith that believes that gang members will be transformed from violence toward peace or we should give up on faith all together.
The solutions to our societal problems are not without intense work, but if we have the faith of a mustard seed we can move mountains.