I am surrounded by gang members every Friday afternoon. Recently during a jail Bible study “Steve” asked me if God would accept him into the Kingdom if he was still a gang member. During the Bible studies I often make a comment or ask a question that invites them to contrast the ways of the street with the way of Jesus. But I never directly challenge them to leave the gang. Years ago I asked a seminary student and former gang member, Ivan Paz, for counsel on how to approach the gang issue with men in jail. He recommended I not focus on trying to get them to leave the gang. He advocated for leaving that to the Spirit, and recognize it will happen at different times in different ways.
Steve, about 40, explained that he was committed to doing the “family thing” when he gets out, and was beginning to take steps needed to leave the gang. He said, “But in jail you have to run with something.” So he is waiting until he is out. He asked me, quoting scripture, “am I ‘sealed with the Holy Spirit’ or not in this case? Will God consider me restored even though I am still in the gang?”
I tried to do three things in my response. First, I acknowledged that I have no gang experience; I even mentioned talking to Ivan to let Steve know that I do not see myself in a position to tell him what to do and when to do it. Second, most prominently, I sought to shift the focus to God and who God is. I referred back to our study that day. How had Jesus responded to Peter after Peter had denied him? Thirdly, although hesitant to tell him what to do, I also did not want to imply that it is no big deal, that it does not matter. So, seeking to move away from the punctiliar: restored or not, and from the bounded: right side of the line or not; I said, “You are being restored, God is in the process of restoring you.” I emphasized the “being” and underlined the “ing” in “restoring.” I affirmed the work God is doing in his life, and changes and commitments Steve has made. Then I again brought in Peter, and went over some of his ups and downs. We, like Peter, are in process and will have ups and downs.
I think pastorally I did well. Steve seemed to have received comfort from our conversation. But it did bring up in my mind this gang theme that is present every week, visible in the tattoos, and frequently referred to when they talk about “homies”—most often in positive ways. In the world I am from gang activity and membership is solidly in the “wrong” category. Yet when I stepped into Steve's situation it felt more complex. I reflected on what I had said. I clearly did not take a bounded approach. I tried to be centered, but not fuzzy. I was not sure I succeeded, but I also did not do a lot of second guessing. Rather, my thoughts turned to myself. As is so often the case, entering into the lives of men in the study led me to think about things in my own life differently. This time a Debbie Blue sermon enriched those thoughts.
In reflecting on Herod’s (and all of Jerusalem’s) being disturbed by the news of the birth of a king, the Messiah, she writes: “Well, it does seem like it might be a little disruptive to suddenly have the kingdom of God break into the reality everyone’s gotten used to, after all. It seems like there would be maybe a little tension surrounding the emergence of a whole new order. Mostly it seems like there’s really not room for another king, a whole different way.” Then she turns from Herod to us and the king Jesus. “There’s not room for this king and his ways. It doesn’t mesh very well with what we know, it’s all the wrong shape for any preconceived space. It doesn’t fit. I mean how does ‘love your enemy,’ or ‘turn the other cheek,’ or ‘blessed are the merciful…’ really fly in the Pentagon or the White House or your own psyche? How about ‘you cannot serve God and Mammon.’ Does that fit? . . . It doesn’t fit with our evolutionary drives, for pete’s sake, to gain, to compete, to succeed, to strive for personal success, to make our own way in the world” (Sensual Orthodoxy, 19).
Through the lens of those lines I see how so much of my life is not that different than Steve’s saying, “but here in jail you have to run with something”—you have to be part of a gang. In so much of my life as a seminary professor I am in essence saying, “I have to run with something.” And the institution I run with, as it seeks to serve the King, is still in so many ways enmeshed with the State, the Department of Education, Mammon, academia—institutions and practices where the way of Jesus does not fit.
I think I do well at not coming across to men in the Bible study as holier than thou. I think I do pretty well at practicing a centered approach. Yet, honestly at some level in my being there still is the same sort of line-drawing going on that I did in high school. Being an active gang member is wrong. I am not an active gang member and do not do the sort of things that come with running with a gang. Yet as I reflected on Debbie’s sermon I saw Steve as being ahead, not behind me. He recognizes the tension, knows his running does not fit with the Kingdom of God. Society does not label my running as inappropriate, but fitting in as part of this society is actually a quite questionable thing through the lens of the Kingdom of God.
Debbie ends her sermon not by finger pointing, “Don’t be like Herod,” but rather by underlining the great hope of incarnation, of Epiphany. There is no room; God does not fit. But God came, and keeps coming. God finds a way in."
May we be open to the Light—as Steve has been. And may we all continue in the process of being restored.