This is an article that was published in "Currents Theological Journal" in 2019. I hope you enjoy it.
Matthew 2:19-23 Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of
the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he hearth Archelaus was reigning o
ver Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Our lives matter, even though we’re in “the hood”. Matthew 2:19-23, has illuminated for me that no truer statement has ever been made concerning residents of socially, politically, and economically, challenged areas. Growing up in the seventies I was a part of the first generation of Americans who had always known what it was like to have colored television in the home. Television programming consisted of scripted shows, and the only Reality TV that existed was the news. The one thing that was a constant within in the programming, be it scripted or the news was the message of Good Guys, and Bad Guys. The Good Guys, lived in two parent households located in beautiful neighborhoods with white picket fences. They attended nice well equipped schools, and stayed out of trouble. On the flip side of that coin were the Bad Guys.
The Bad Guys, lived in single parent ugly, drug infested, dirty, crime-ridden neighborhoods, with dangerous underfunded schools. Sometimes through the television programming I would see images of Good Guys in the Bad Guy spaces. Their neighborhoods, their schools, their households, etc. Then the messaging presented would be that of escape.
The Good Guys, and everyone attached to, or affiliated with them, would be working feverishly, against all odds to help the them escape the Bad Guy spaces. Escape was crucial not only for the survival of the Good Guys, it was also necessary if there would be any hope for them to thrive and be accepted into the greater whole of society.
As I grew up in Philadelphia the reinforced messaging of the images of Good Guys and Bad Guys, provided by the steady diet of television programming, had me clear on two things: Firstly, I didn’t fit in with the Good Guy narrative based on the visual messages I had seen over and over again. I didn’t live in the suburbs, a lot of the time my mother was a single parent, and we didn’t have much money. Secondly, most of the people who looked like me, and lived in the areas where some of my family members lived were Bad Guys. Now lets be clear, they weren’t Bad Guys, because they had done anything wrong. They were Bad Guys, because the messages that had been embedded into my thinking throughout my formative years via the television programming in both scripted and news formats, told me people who looked like them, and lived where they lived were indeed Bad Guys. I would love to say that I was an anomaly in the way that I thought and perceived the Good Guys and Bad Guys, but unfortunately I cannot. Over the past thirty plus years, there have been stories written, studies taken, and testimonies given, that speak to the subject of negative messaging within the media and how it influences the way people see others as well as themselves.
In an article published in The Howard Journal of Communications, titled: The Perceived Realism of African American Portrayal on Television. written by Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter of the Department of Communication Studies, Texas Tech University, the writer discovered that, research findings using college students’ perceptions have consistently shown that negative exposure to African American portrayals in the media significantly influences the evaluations of African Americans in general (Ford, 1997; Mastro, & Tropp, 2004; Power, Murphy, & Coover, 1996). Other research has shown that Black depictions on television have an effect on viewers of all ages and of all races (Bryant & Zillmann, 1994; Dates, 1980). The article was a very interesting read which corroborated what I thought to be true in my own thinking about the ethnic/racial group I belong to.
My mind had been conditioned to think negatively about the group of people I was born into and was a cultural member of. This negative mindset about my group also translated into negative feelings about myself. I grew up completely conflicted and always questioning why me, and people who looked like me and lived where I lived were considered Bad Guys. After all, I felt like a Good Guy. I agreed with the messages of the Good Guys, at least for a little while. I wanted to be a police woman like Angie Dickerson, and I wanted to work with someone cool like Telly Savalas, “Who loves you baby”. Yes, in my heart I was a Good Guy.
One day while I was in the second grade, we had just come back to school after our easter break and we were being introduced to the different countries and continents in the world. We had a giant globe in the classroom that always sat by the teachers desk and she wanted to show it to us. This was a very significant time in learning for me and not to mention Ms. Rump, my favorite teacher was giving the lesson. She was a slender built red head soft spoken white woman who was nice to everyone even the rambunctious boys. Anyhow, we all gathered around the globe and pointed to different areas on it and she would tell us what country or continent it was. I kept staring at the country Egypt because I couldn’t help but notice it was in Africa. So with great surprise and excitement, I said, “Egypt is in Africa!” Ms. Rump answered, “Yes, Chanta’ Egypt is in Africa.” It almost seemed like she was proud that I made this connection so quickly. What she didn’t know is that this was significant for me because, like I already said, we just returned from Easter break, which meant, my house like nearly every other house in America had watched The Ten Commandments. To add to my ever expanding repertoire of new found knowledge, I had also watched Roots, that year and I was clear that people who looked like me came from Africa. However, because of the way the cast looked in The Ten Commandments I was a little confused. The simplicity of my eight year old mind deduced that since Egypt was in Africa that meant that Egyptians were Africans, so that’s what I said. Ms Rump, with her sweet voice and gentle way, corrected me and said no they’re Egyptians. I said but if Egypt is in Africa then the Egyptians have to be Africans. At that Moment all of my classmates got quiet and were waiting for her answer and she responded by telling us all to take our seats. She seemed a little flustered and never answered me.
As life continued, I began to stop asking questions and started to accept that this is how life was for me and those who looked like me. The echos from the past, of songs that told me as a very young child to say it loud, that I was black and I was proud, were just that, echos from the past. The older I got and the more visual messages I received through television programming, I was convinced that black was not really beautiful. Since I wasn’t an athlete and couldn’t sing, there was no hope for me to ever escape the Bad Guy spaces, I found myself in. Like many others who had fallen victim to the bombardment of dissenting imagery, I gave up on ever achieving a better life. By the time I was eighteen years old I felt utterly dejected by society and the rest of the world. My feelings of despair only deepened as I began to see people who I knew and grew up with, become dealers of illegal substances, or persons who succumbed to the disease of addiction, or young adults who became a national statistic by adding to the staggering homicide rate or the prison industrial complex.
My world had become so filled with darkness that I no longer wanted to exist in it. I had devised a plan on how I was going to leave the planet but before I could fulfill that mission, I was presented with one last alternative, which was to try Jesus. Jesus, was not a complete stranger to me, like most people my age I had been introduced to Him through church services with my grandparents but, up to that point in life I had not accepted Him as Savior. So, I did just that. I opened my heart and asked Christ to save my soul. This began my journey as a bible believing Christian.
This belief has allowed me to walk in the light if you will. I began to live with possibility. Good things were actually possible for my life. I was no longer hopeless, and while the Good Guy, Bad Guy, narrative was still implanted in my thinking, I now had a way of escape. I was no longer limited to the Bad Guy spaces, I was now in a position to cross over into the Good Guy spaces. As I transitioned into the Good Guy spaces everything was not roses. As Black Preachers like to say, there were both peaks and valley’s. What I can honestly say is that I never felt the same sense of hopelessness that I was plagued with prior to accepting Christ.
As my journey continued, I was compelled to go deeper and I answered my call to be a minister. At my church home we have a process in place known as Exploring Your Call (EYC). During the orientation we were told that there were three tracts: Counseling, Teaching, and Preaching, and if your call was to preach then you did all three. This made perfect sense to me because as I looked back over my life, I found that I naturally, taught and counseled others, informally of course. The facilitator, then went on to tell us that our senior pastor expected all of the ministers and teachers to get a Master of Divinity degree. She let us know there were time constraints on when this needed to be achieved, however, we should always be working toward it. This was the beginning of my education journey.
The next twelve years of my life consistently spent a seminarian. My oldest daughter traveled through her various levels of elementary, middle, and high school edification while being a witness to her mother doing the same. I haven’t truly explored what that has meant to her yet, nonetheless, I used her firsthand account of my journey many times to make her push through her assignments, and school challenges. Once I hit the Masters level, the old observances of geology, came flooding back, while opening my mind in new ways simultaneously.
Classes like, Church Mission Through History, Christian World Mission, and Theology and Ethics of MLK, Jr., let me see the movements of God and the Church in a historical context. While God remained the enormous Master of the Universe, God also became a very present help, that I could point to historically. I was no longer limited to discussing God only in the spiritual context. I was now able to take the abstract and see it at work in the practical. I was engaging in course work that provided confirmation to the Biblical narrative, and even with this new found knowledge, I was still living with the residue of the Good Guys, Bad Guys, messaging that had been implanted so long ago. It wasn’t until I got into Systematic Theology I, and was introduced to Dr. James Cone through his writing, “A Black Theology of Liberation”, and A Theology of Liberation: History politics, and salvation by Gustavo Gutierrez, that the messaging residue got cleansed. I under went a negative narrative imagery detox. After encountering these two theologians, I began to truly see and understand that this God that I served wasn’t just with us in Spirit, and didn’t just understand through a general human experience, He could relate because He lived His physical life in an oppressive context. He was part of the minority class by choice. He even went as far as to predestine His upbringing to be done in a town like Nazareth. A place with social issues that could mirror any pre-gentrified urban space in my city, or throughout this country, or even the world, for that matter.
A few years ago I was in a Systematic Theology II class, and I had to write a paper that answered the question, “Can urban youth relate to a Jesus who is fully human and fully divine, and if so how?” My answer was, “Yes, because Jesus was an urban youth.” Now, many people reading this maybe wondering where I am going, as I have heard the Baptist preacher say, “Just ride with me a little longer and I will show you.”
The scripture that I’m sharing is one that is very familiar to the religious community and yet I haven’t had the opportunity to hear anyone lift it out of the greater contextual story that it focuses on. This is something I truly understand because, the information that is given to us by Matthew, is given on the heels of the greatest and most miraculous spiritual events that have ever taken place in the physical world. The Christ, the Miracle Child, conceived in the womb of a teenage virgin by the Holy Spirit, had just been born.(Luke 2:6-7)
The Magi (The Three Kings or Wise Men) had just followed a star with a whole caravan transporting gifts looking for Him (Matt 2: 1-2). And unfortunately one of the most evil, terrifyingly gruesome acts, of an insecure man in power had just taken place. The state sanctioned, legal, yet morally and emotionally sickening, massacres of innocent male children throughout the region ages two and under (Matt 2:16-17), for the second time in Hebrew (Jewish) history. Any one of these moments in time overshadow the fact that Joseph decided to move his young family into Nazareth. However, being one of many who have
been raised in a modern day Nazareth of sorts, it is quite
significant to us, that this happened. Scripture tells us that with the counsel of God through a dream, Joseph decided the safest place to raise his young family was in the “hood”. Pardon the street vernacular, this is the best way for me to describe what Nazareth was like socially.
The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale’s Divinity School Harold W. Attridge says this in a blurb on the PBS website FrontLine about Nazareth: “we see Jesus growing up, not in the bucolic backwater, not... in the rural outback, but rather, on the fringes of a vibrant urban life”. Ask any person living in the un-gentrified areas of North, South, West, and Germantown Philadelphia, if they feel like they are on the fringes of the vibrant, urban life of Center City and post gentrified Philadelphia and you would hear a resounding yes. I’ve had the privilege to sit among a very diverse group of people. They have been apart of various generations and across multiple sections of the city, and nearly all of them have had the same sentiment about the progress being made in our city, they don’t feel included in this new transition of
Philadelphia. They feel apart of a subculture of sorts, excluded from the revitalization that’s taking place. Their schools haven’t gotten any better, their income isn’t rising, their neighborhoods are still dirty, etc. Yet Philadelphia is a world class city much like the bustling ports in the biblical world of Galilee.
Because I believe that all things in the bible are significant and there isn’t one story or aspect of a story within it, that does not posses some form of relevance, Joseph, choosing to raise his family in the town of Nazareth is not a mere cosmic coincidence. On the contrary it is something of great importance, to him, his family, and to people like me, who have been raised in a places like Nazareth.
In order to gain an understanding of why Jesus being raised in a place like Nazareth holds such significance, we must first understand what Nazareth was like and in order to do that we’ll start with a description of the town.
What was Nazareth like? According to biblical scholars Nazareth was considered dirty, obscure, wicked, and forgotten. Bible historians note that it had a population between two and four hundred people and was located fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee and twenty miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. The population was between two and four hundred people. This small town sat outside of the very prosperous merchant hub of Galilee. Not to mention that during the time of Jesus the Mediterranean and all it’s coastal ports were under the complete rule of Rome. Whether it was the coastal towns of the Mediterranean or the City of Galilee, the wealth that was generated within this region managed to not find its way to Nazareth.
Paul Anderson the Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies, at the George Fox University, and Contributor to the Huff Post, noted that, “Following the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, the Roman armory in Sepphoris (four miles from Nazareth) was robbed, and the Romans retaliated by crucifying 2,000 Jews as a disincentive to such revolts. Sepphoris was burned to the ground, and its inhabitants were sold into slavery. Maybe that’s where Joseph and Jesus did some of their construction work. Less than a decade later, when Jesus was just a boy, Judas the Galilean instituted a tax revolt, evoking another crackdown by the Romans in which many were also crucified.” These events that took place in and close to Nazareth would have had a profoundly traumatizing affect on its inhabitants, much like the brutalization of Philadelphia citizens during the Frank Rizzo as Police Commissioner, then as Mayor, as well as the Move Bombing that decimated an entire city block through fire during Mayor Wilson Goode’s administration.
In the description of Nazareth that was given, we find one of the adjectives used is dirty. During a time in history where there were no paved roads, and every town no matter how wealthy or poor would have had dirt and dust within and around it, for Nazareth to be described as dirty would have to mean the description wasn’t referring to the ground it stood on and more than likely referred to its overall condition. Nazareth has this in common with some of the impoverished areas throughout the United States as well as many “Urban Areas” in the world. For the sake of this article I’ll concentrate my comparisons of Nazareth and “Urban Areas” to Philadelphia. On just a superficial level we can easily see the descriptions fit much of the pre-gentrified urban landscape throughout the city.
Anyone driving in the City of Philadelphia, who has had to be detoured off of the Schuylkill Expressway, Kelly or Martin Luther King Drive, or Interstate 95 (near Frankford), and has had to travel along some of our main streets like Broad, Market, or Frankford Avenue, have quickly discovered that all of the hundreds of millions, dare I say even billions of dollars that are generated within this beautiful city have not made its way to the neighborhoods that connect to these main streets. These neglected, abandoned, and forgotten spaces of human habitation have been missed by the steady financial wave, that overruns the Philadelphia landscape through real estate development, fine art holdings, medical research grants, and lets not forget tourism. While there is more than enough money floating around the city, not enough of it gets dispersed to the Streets and Sanitation Department to maintain a more visually pristine surrounding for the poorer communities in the city. Therefore the residents of these communities are forced to navigate life through filth. Much like Jesus and the other residents of Nazareth.
Another way in which Nazareth was described was with the word obscure. One of the definitions of the word obscure is, not important or well known. Some other words that could be used in the place of obscure are: unknown, unheard of, unnoticed, undistinguished, unimportant, insignificant, inconsequential, minor, lowly, unsung, unrecognized, forgotten, the list goes on. Now if we were to poll the diverse group of people, both male and female, who are of various ages and backgrounds, yet all have experienced the un-gentrified urban context I’m sure the vast majority of those people would use one of the before mentioned words to describe that place. Now, granted I have not done a scientific study to prove this however, Throughout my forty-nine years of life, I have lived in several un-gentrified urban areas and can attest to these words being expressed from the mouths of the members of these communities.
Even if the people who have lived in these communities have not expressed their feelings of hopeless insignificance, one only needs to take a drive through these areas and see the amount of blight, from run down and abandoned homes, discarded and uncollected trash, the unkept vacant lots, as well as the broken spirited human beings who seem to wonder the streets aimlessly to conclude that these are the forgotten areas of our city.
Nazareth is also described as being wicked. There’s not a whole lot written about Nazareth prior to Jesus’s birth so it’s hard to find stories that would speak to this wickedness specifically. However, we can deduce that Nazareth and it's surrounding areas were pretty wicked when we consider some of what was going on there. The biblical accounts of demon possession, financial exploitation of the poor, prostitution, adultery, violence both state sanctioned and crimal, etc. One of the violent acts committed in and around that region is what today would be known as strong arm robbery, which was frequently committed by bandits which in today’s vernacular we call gangs. One of the scholars who confirms this does so in his description of the region Joseph, and Mary had to travel during her pregnancy, "bandits, pirates of the desert and robbers" were also common hazards along the major trade routes like the one Joseph and Mary would have traveled, said the Reverend Peter Vasko, a Catholic priest and director of the Holy Land Foundation, an organization that works to retain a Christian presence in Israel and promotes the restoration of sacred Christian sites there. This is not unlike many of the same situations experienced by the youth raised in un-gentrified urban Philadelphia. Which brings me to my close.
Our lives matter, because the Master of the Universe chose to be one of us. He chose to be born, and raised under many of the same socially oppressive conditions that we from the un-gentrified urban neighborhoods of Philadelphia were and still are forced to live through. Our lives matter, because Christ was a Good Guy living in a Bad Guy space if you will, but rather than seeking a way out for Himself, chose to live through it in order to show us the way the true way out. This shared experience with the incarnate Savior has established the ultimate value of life to those discarded and constrained to such deplorable circumstances. Our lives matter, because Jesus, navigated in physical form the same earthly conditions that oppress and defeat ones spirit, yet He was not defeated. This is important to those of us who have journeyed through and continue to live these same experiences because it shows us that our lives matter so much to God that He chose to live like and be one of us, and He made it through the mean streets of Nazareth before He was baptized, anointed, and began His earthly ministry. Jesus can truly relate to our suffering, and it gives us hope for the future. James H. Cone, helps me with this, in his book, A Black Theology of Liberation on page 120, (where he quotes Martin Kahler) and states, “Unless the contemporary oppressed know that the Kerygmatic Christ is the real Jesus to the extent that he was completely identified with the oppressed of His earthly ministry, they cannot know that their liberation is a continuation of His work.” Knowing that the place where Christ was raised was a lot like the places where we the citizens of the un- gentrified urban context were raised and are living lets us know that without the shadow of a doubt, our lives matter.....
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