The picture above is of my little brother and I. Daniel. This is on our way to our first communion. I recently talked to a friend about the “theology” in the Duncan home at the time of this picture. In between drinking bouts and the occasional visit from the police for a “domestic” my mom, Loretta, would put on make up to cover up black eyes and drag us to church. This was of course her attempts to make sure that if we were hit by a car or suddenly sick and pass we were at least baptized, and had received Jesus in the meal at least once. It’s funny how abject poverty can lead to an almost medieval theological take. Don’t believe me? Try to live on the same amount of SNAP benefits given to a family your size, in you state, for one month. Every banquet scene in scripture will take on an entirely different meaning. I want to show you another picture of my brother. Actually two. It’s the only way I have seen my brother in the last few years –
What you see is a dispatch. A clarion call. A herald from the margins. What you see above is a “Letter from the New American Plantation.” My brother Daniel has been in prison most of his life since he was 13 years old. If I would hazard a guess, at the age of 35, if I were to add up the years Daniel spent “free”, it would maybe add up to 3 years. Maybe. A few months here, and half a year there. Daniel is one of the millions of Americans on the new age cotton fields. The U.S has become the “Antebellum Continent.” He is wrapped in chains of Clinton era laws, and is being drowned in the lead imbued waters of the systemic racism in the criminal justice system. The pictures above are the only way I ever see my brother. Requests for commissary money, and phone calls from the jail house phone systems that can charge him ten bucks to be on the phone for ten minutes. I have had run ins with the law. I have spent many years going in and out of jails. Rehabs. Part of that was totally my fault. I committed crimes. Part of it was that I was a homeless teenager who had to choose between selling my body or selling drugs to survive. Often having to do both. I needed counseling from the abuse I suffered as a child, and rehabilitation for a nasty case of alcoholism. That doesn’t take away my active participation in my destruction, but what chance did I stand? I grew up in a home where drug use and police visits where a regular Tuesday night. Again, doesn’t excuse my behavior, but I want you to step in to the toxic elixir of multi-generational tragedy and see what happens to you. Maybe you would fare better. Maybe not. I want you to imagine walking into your house and wondering if you will face a bloodied and beaten mom, or house full of people using. What sort of capricious savior do we serve that would deem to step into my life with an avalanche of grace and mercy, but not for my brother? That isn’t the Jesus I have encountered in the Gospel. Daniel grew up in the same home as me. He has incredible gifts to share. He has never held a job. He has never had a permanent home. Not an address, a home. He has very little support, other than me. In fact his entire social structure will either lead him to more trouble, or at best the dark realization of the dystopian nightmare that is the inner cities of America, and what little chance he really has. He will eventually be released and be given 28 days by a parole officer to do what he has never been able to do. Conform to social norms he has never encountered.
What are we as Church going to do for Daniel? For all the nameless Daniels in the lions den. They will walk pass our congregation and believe we are indifferent. Or even worse believe they are worthless before God. So what does Jesus have to say about the prisoner? Well funny enough he ties it directly to his vision of the consummation of God’s kingdom on earth.
Matthew 25:31-40 NRSV
h “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, [g]you did it to me.’
So the in-breaking of God’s kingdom includes not just feeding Jesus. Not just clothing Jesus. But also visiting Jesus Christ in the local jail. Then why are we as Church not throwing ourselves directly in the path of the Prison Industrial Complex? Why aren’t we derailing the slow moving train that is steam rolling its way over person of color communities? Why can’t we see that Jesus just wrote me on a scrap of paper, in a free envelope, asking for enough money to make sure he can actually have a filling meal. This Jesus exists in a system that gives him the bare nutrition for him to survive in a day. Why have relegated finding Jesus in the face of the prisoner to sending bibles? Is it because this system can’t have a field hand on the new American plantation finding freedom? Is it because this Jesus has become property of a lucrative business. What are we doing? Why aren’t we collectively and actively pushing back on the encroachment of a sentient, malevolent, systemic darkness that is piercing the American soul? Are we so afraid of young black men that we are willing allow evil to fester in the heart of this country? What does it mean that most of us are willing to accept a system that runs counter to God’s kingdom For “safety?” When has following Christ ever been safe? If we as Church don’t work to tear this edifice down well …..
It may mean we are actually standing on the left. With the goats. Naked. In front of the throne of glory.
What do I write back to Daniel?