About a year ago, I realized that I was no longer lifting my twin sons frequently enough to keep in shape. So I decided to join the local gym. Since then I’ve become something of a weight-lifting junkie. I find something deeply satisfying about doing painful repetitive movements while listening to my own personal alt-rock playlist (currently featuring TV on the Radio and the new Beastie Boys album). Best of all – I don’t have to talk to anyone. I am, at heart, an anti-social exerciser. Other than saying ‘thanks’ to the cheery young people who swipe my gym pass at the front desk, I typically keep my social interactions at the gym to a minimum.
Except for a few weeks ago. As I was staggering back to the car in a sweaty haze, I glanced over at the front desk and noticed that one of the guys – whom I’ll call “Juan”- had a huge bandage on his left hand. In a moment of compassion, I turned off my iPod and asked him what had happened. He proceeded to tell me the following story:
A few weeks earlier, two of Juan’s cousins had been murdered. In the time that followed, the family and friends had mourned, in part by posting remembrances of their cousins on Facebook.
Although the teen who had killed the cousins was caught, he was part of a gang. The other gang members started tracking anyone who had posted something about the cousins, and were planning to ‘go after them’ as well. Everywhere Juan went he knew that he could be attacked at any moment. As he put it:
“I got to always watch what’s around me. I can’t ever let down my guard. I’ve got to always be prepared”.
Knowing that he was at risk, when Juan came out of an ATM near his home and had seen two groups of men approaching him from different directions, he knew he had to act. Juan’s friends were nearby, but not as near as the gang members. As one of the attackers drew near, Juan proactively threw a punch, in the hope that it would deter the other attackers and buy him some time to have his friends come to his defence. The punch worked – the attackers withdrew. Unfortunately the punch also broke Juan’s hand. Juan was now waiting to hear if he’d need surgery to repair his shattered hand.
Juan’s story haunted me for weeks afterwards. I live in a world of green lawns and gracious homes, where children can bike safely to their friend’s house down the street. Juan lives in a world full of violence and fear, where at any moment he can be attacked. Our worlds are so different from each other you would think that we live in different countries. Yet we live only 10 minutes from each other.
Juan’s story struck me with the force of revelation. Not revelation as in ‘providing sudden great insight’, but the Book of Revelation: an apocalyptic vision intended to shock humanity out of its complacency. On that particular day I’d been ensconced in my own mundane thoughts and concerns: how to balance the never-ending demands of parenting, volunteer obligations and household needs. But hearing Juan’s story pierced through my self-absorption, making me think about the bigger picture of what is going on in our society.
Why should Juan – who is working hard at two different jobs – live in a neighborhood where each day he risks losing his hard-earned money and his life? There is only one word I can use to describe the drastic contrast between my world and Juan’s:
It is just this sort of drastic economic inequality and social injustice that inspired the violent and dramatic imagery of the Book of Revelation. As Barbara Rossing writes in her explanation of Revelation 17-18:
The core message of Revelation 17-18 is that empires will be judged…When read in a deeper-than-literal manner, the critique of Babylon (in these chapters) can be utilized as a resource for examining economic injustice today, including discerning contemporary parallels to Rome’s consumption-driven global economy.
Parallels indeed. I see some disturbing similarities between 21st century America and the Roman empire of Christ’s time. We face an increasingly stratified society. As sociologists Claude Fisher and Michael Hout put it:
America in 2000 was the most economically unequal nation in the developed world: it had the greatest division in wealth between haves and have-nots, and that division had grown over the previous thirty years. (Century of Difference: How America changed in the last 100 years)
I wonder if, just as the John of Patmos (the author of the Book of Revelation) was driven to speak out against a Roman empire that was destined to fall, whether we are also on the cusp of such a historical geopolitical shift. And just as John of Patmos warned society to change its ways – to recognize what lay ahead if it did not repent – I feel that Juan’s story has served a similar role for me.
So what have I done in response to the experience? Recognizing that the underlying problems in this situation are huge and complex, I’ve chosen to start with those actions that are most under my control. The first thing I did was to tell my kids about Juan’s story. To my mind, raising my children to care and work to fix our broken world is one of my most important roles as a parent. We’ve prayed for Juan and hoped that he would be safe and heal well (his hand, is, fortunately, healing). I’ve more actively pursued opportunities to help those in need in our neighboring communities. And, I’ve asked his permission to share this story with all of you, in the hopes that it may touch others as it has touched me.