I have been wrestling with how the work of Jesus on the cross can make sense to my neighbors. I live in downtown Fresno, California, where 58% of my neighbors live under the poverty line; 40% have a high school degree; and where the unemployment rate is at an all-time high of 27.6%. These conditions not only make my neighborhood a perfect nesting ground for crime and violence, but also make it difficult for one to share the gospel in a relevant way. For how can the complex work of the cross be understood in a neighborhood overwhelmed by illiteracy and lack of education? How can I translate the logic of atonement from our theological lingo to the rapidly changing slang of the “hood,” where profanity is basic vocabulary? And how will this gospel message address the culture of violence that afflicts the urban poor?
A few years ago I established a gym that uses martial arts and bible studies to disciple teenagers in our community. One day, as I opened our large gym door, I saw “Bear” walking by. Bear is a large 19 year old Latino kid. His dark skin together with his heavy size makes him seem like a big teddy bear. Those who don’t know him would possibly be intimidated by his delinquent appearance; perhaps even mistake him for a gang member because of the way he dresses. But Bear is a Christian. He loves Jesus.
“Hey Bear,” I said, as I reached to shake his hand. Then I noticed that his hand was wrapped with a black bandana. I asked him, “What’s up with the new style?” His smile was immediately overtaken by a serious look. He turned his head to the ground and quietly responded, “Last night, down the street, I got stopped and frisked by gang-members and then they jumped me.” This is not an unusual experience for youth in my neighborhood. Young people are often forced to deal with intimidation and violence as they walk through the streets. I asked Bear to come in, sit down and tell me more. He did and then he told me the whole story.
“How do you feel right now?” I asked. In non-academic, urban slang, Bear described feelings of humiliation and shame. He then tried to hide the tears that began to roll down his face. Bear exclaimed, “I feel like shit! I feel like spending my next paycheck on a gun, finding those punks and… not shooting them, but you know, grabbing them by the hair and making them piss and shit their pants.”
I knew this was a moment for discipleship. I had to respond with the gospel, but how? What do I do with the doctrine of the atonement in this situation? How do I communicate the gospel in the context of violence, humiliation, and profanity? Do I just tell Bear, “Trust in Jesus” and move on? Together with Bear, my heart was very troubled.
“I’m tired of being here…” he said. “I feel like everyone is out to make me feel like crap… My baby-mama calls me a deadbeat and leaves. The cops stop and frisk me while calling me names. And now these punks do the same thing that the cops did; except with an ass-whooping! I just wanna say ‘f**k the world!’” I feel the same way, I thought.
Then it dawned on me: this tendency in our neighborhood to shame others is a tangible manifestation of individual and structural sin working together to hold people in captivity to the culture of violence.
Sin is fundamentally relational brokenness that demonstrates itself in various forms, depending on its context. In certain contexts, sin manifests itself in radical individualism and materialism, while in others it manifests itself in intellectual atheism. In my community, sin is most clearly evidenced in the patterns of shame and violence that operate like a disease. This type of sin is contagious! When people in our dense neighborhood are victimized, they become infected and an outbreak occurs.
Avoiding evangelistic and theological jargon, I shared with Bear that there was a contagious outbreak in our community. I called this disease shitosis. It is a spiritual disease that affects other parts of our being. I went on to explain that those infected with shitosis not only feel “like shit,” but they strangely attempt to cleanse themselves by passing it on to others; especially on those who resemble the original carriers. I used the officers Bear encountered as an example. They were infected with this disease through their encounters with thugs in the neighborhood. For this reason, the police officers drive around antagonizing thugs in the neighborhood. “These thugs,” I said, “then become infected, and in turn pass the disease to neighbors like you. And now, Bear, you are fighting the infection. Don’t you feel it taking its toll on you by compelling you to find these guys and make them feel like shit?”
Bear locked his eyes on mine and he said, “You are right, Ivan. I will just have to brush it off and ignore it.”
I knew this was not the answer. So I said, “No Bear! If you ignore it the disease will take over you because if you don’t find these guys you will grow bitter. Then you will seek others who remind you of them. And when you find them, you will try to make these guys feel like shit. Bear, you can’t let yourself be completely contaminated. You have to fight this disease. Not by ignoring it but by fighting it with the medicine of compassion.” I noticed that he was tracking with my reasoning. I continued. “You have to recognize that those men are sick and infected, and they do not know what they are doing. They are sick and helpless!”
I explained that many people during the time of Jesus were infected with shitosis. Full of unhealed rage, they converged together against Jesus and humiliated him by crucifying him naked. They made Jesus feel like shit by publically spitting on him, slapping him, and calling him names. But Jesus knew that they were sick and refused to respond with revenge. Then I asked Bear, “Instead, do you know what Jesus did next?”
Bear’s confidently responded, “Yes!” ‘Father forgive them, for they are sick and don’t know what they are doing’” (Lk. 23:34).
“That’s right, Bear,” I responded and then I said with a solemn tone, “And as Jesus compassionately prayed, he allowed everyone in their anger and sickness to cast their infection on him. He did not allow the infection of shitosis to overpower him. Though everyone expected him to respond with violence, he stopped shitosis from spreading throughout his being by taking it all upon himself and dying with it. He put shitosis to death in his own body. But God did not allow the disease to win. Instead, God raised Jesus from the dead, bringing him back to life, fully clean and without stain! The power of shitosis has been destroyed!” Then I drew closer to Bear, saying, “And God will not let it win your life! In Jesus you are made clean and whole, so fight the infection like Jesus did. Always remind yourself that those who try to harm you are infected and sick.”
After praying, Bear let out a sigh of relief. After a moment of prayer, he stood feeling empowered and said, “That’s deep, dog.” Then he went home, walking down the same street where he was jumped.
That day, Bear received both healing from shame and freedom from the cycle of violence that permeates the minds of our society. The notion that humiliation, violence, and repression can extinguish hostility against rivals has failed us. This notion has only created confusion for a community that cries out for salvation from shame and violence. And although this way of articulating the work of Jesus on the cross may not be universally applicable, in my neighborhood it has the potential to both diffuse revenge in people’s hearts and heal them from the power of shitosis.
I have come to the conclusion that ministers working in rough urban neighborhoods need to pay attention to the area’s concrete manifestations of sin while also asking themselves what salvation may look like in that context. This may require staining one’s mind, tongue, and theology with profane things. Jesus was not afraid to take the filth of shitosis upon himself so that healing may take place. We must do likewise.