God's Politics

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ethos of violence that is spreading like a disease through our world. I just read that TV violence is at a record high, with an average of 13 incidents of violence every hour. News headlines tell of the murders down in New Orleans. Homicides here in Philly and Camden have been happening almost every day. And of course there is Iraq.

I just told a group of graduate students I would like to see them do a study comparing the ethos of violence globally with the violence on the streets here in the U.S. Remember how the Columbine shooting happened on the same day that the Clinton-led U.S. bombed Kosovo most intensively? It’s hard to imagine that these recent murders and school shootings are somehow separate from the current escalation of violence by our government. After all, we are wrestling against principalities and powers. These are not just lofty thoughts to ponder, but they are realities that sometimes hit pretty close to home. The only incidents of violence I have experienced in the last 10 years of living here in the inner city have been since the Iraq war. One of them was about a week ago. I am including a little account of it here, mostly because I am really proud of my friend Cassim and how he handled the situation. I think he has some things to teach those who continue to trust in the myth of redemptive violence.

Cassim and I were walking to the post office, a walk I take several times a week. It’s on the “other side of the tracks” in a neighborhood called Port Richmond, where lots of folks say they want to move to get out of Kensington, where we live. In fact, most locals call Kensington “the Badlands.” But I always warn folks to be careful with that, lest they think “nothing good can come out of Kensington.” After all, that’s exactly what folks said about Nazareth, Jesus’ neighborhood. God seems to have a special knack for showing up in the Badlands. After all, there are really good kids here, like Cassim. Cassim is one of the gentle kids, one I hope to never see lose his innocence and trust, or his heart grow hard. He likes cooking with us, gardening, getting beat at Othello – even cleaning the house or doing homework. I’ve always thought it funny and out-of-character that he is in a boxing club run by some Christians around the corner from us. Christian boxing … hmm.

Cassim is 11 and his mom doesn’t let him out a lot, so you can imagine that when we got jumped I was caught a little off-guard. We were walking down the narrow side street, and some teenaged guys started following behind. You could just feel the mischief brewing, and it grew from two young men to four and then eight, until there was a little mob of sorts. They started calling out some names, throwing rocks and sticks, trying to stir up trouble.

It’s always hard on the spot like that to know exactly what Jesus would do. I told Cassim, “Let’s go say hi.” He looked at me skeptically. We turned back and walked towards them (knowing full well that if we had run we may have made it to the post office). “Hey, I’m Shane. And this is my friend Cassim. We live around the corner,” I said with my hand out. They weren’t really sure what to do with that. A couple of them shook my hand and introduced themselves. Others snickered. One or two refused the handshake. We said, “Nice to meet you guys,” and headed on our walk.

With the wind taken out of their sail a bit, they regrouped, and then continued to build momentum towards a violent brawl. They ran after us, throwing some rocks and bottles, and I noticed two of them now carried a couple of broomsticks from the trash. We picked up the pace a bit, and then I looked at Cassim and said, “No, don’t run.” We turned back, and before we knew it, one of them clocked Cassim on the side of the head with a stick. I said firmly, “Why would you do that? We haven’t done anything to hurt you.” They laughed. Then they started hitting me with the broomstick until it broke over my back. At this point I decided to bust out a can of holy anger. I looked them in the eyes and said as forcefully as I could, “You are created in the image of God … every single one of you. And you were made for something better than this. Cassim and I are followers of Jesus and we do not fight, but we will love you no matter what you do to us.” That wasn’t exactly what they expected or hoped for. They looked at each other, startled a bit … for the first time, they were completely quiet. And then they scurried off in every direction.

I’ll never forget what Cassim said afterwords. “Shane, why am I taking boxing lessons?” We laughed at the irony of it, having just experienced a prime chance to implement his mad skilz. I asked Cassim frankly what he thought would have happened if he had chosen to fight. “It would have been ugly,” he said. “They might have been bloody and we probably would have been real bloody.” No one would have left any nicer, that was for sure.

I asked Cassim if he thought Jesus was happy with how we acted. He thought about it, and then nodded with a smile. I told him that, honestly, I wasn’t sure exactly what Jesus would have done if he were in our place … but there are two things I know Jesus would not have done. He would not have fought. And he would not have run. I told him Jesus may have thought of something else, or he may have done something weird to throw them off, as he often seems to do – like drawing in the dirt with his finger (or writing on the road with sidewalk chalk, “you are better than this”), or maybe pulling a coin out of a fish’s mouth (or pulling a piece of candy out of a pigeon’s mouth). But I think Jesus was happy with how we acted, and that we were good representatives – good witnesses – of Christ to them. Cassim agreed, and then we prayed for them together. And finally, as he was leaving, Cassim reminded me that each of those boys has to go to bed thinking about what they did that day, and so did we.

I’m not sure about those other boys, but Cassim and I both slept well that night … and woke up a little sore but happy the next morning. Hopefully Cassim’s mom will let him come out of the house.

I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.

– Martin Luther King Jr., in “ A Time to Break the Silence,” delivered April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church, New York City.

Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian, a Sojourners/Call to Renewal board member, author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, and a founding partner of The Simple Way Community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in Kensington, North Philadelphia. This story is one of many that will appear in Jesus For President, a book Shane and some friends are working on that will come out in the spring of 2008 with Zondervan.

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