This Fenced Off Narrow Space

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home. Evangelical is kind of a dirty word these days, but for good or ill, growing up evangelical shaped my spirituality. It imparted to me a love for the Bible, for God’s mission of redemption and a stubborn Christocentrism. These are real gifts to me. But with gifts came also limitations and blind spots and unhealthy emphases.

Our beliefs about end-times were our scare-tactic-evangelism strategy. We took the book of Revelations(sic) and described that the world was evil, that Jesus was coming back, and on the great and terrible Day of the Lord, Jesus would destroy everything, and burn it up! Bound up with our proclamation was a belief that an evil leader would seduce the nations into a false unity, uniting the world under his leadership, forcing citizens who participate in the economy to receive his mark: 6—6—6.
The moon would turn to blood. And there would be pestilence and war, disease, and darkness. 

Of course, Christians would get a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, raptured before the days of cataclysmic devastation. 

There is a lot wrong with this eschatology, but one problem was we struggled to make the return of Christ sound like good news, even to ourselves. Jesus is Coming and he’s going to destroy everything you care about!  Yes! There was the promise of heaven, but our imagination was stoked more by the suffering of the world. All of this will burn! The good news was, for us, just a way to circumvent our personal experience of destruction. The world would burn but we don’t have to. Come, Lord Jesus. We ripped Revelation away from John of Patmos and the second-century persecution of the Church. Our blind spot was our social location as modern white middle-class evangelicals.

It took me a long time to understand that the best way to read the Bible was from the underside—with the oppressed, the marginalized, the persecuted, the discriminated against, and the outcasts.  When you do, even the scary bits of Revelation start to feel like good news.

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was one of the best-known authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry describes the African-American experience—their exclusion from the American dream, and the suffering they endured because of racism and white oppression.  In his poem, I Look at the World, he illustrates the ways society has placed him and his people in a ‘fenced-off narrow space’:

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space   
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

The poem is ultimately hopeful, showing how Hughes and like-minded comrades can remake the world, but he also names the way oppression has been a fence and a wall, something which constricts movement and imprisons.

When we consider this season of Advent we would do well to listen and look with Hughes. Jesus is coming! When you take in the news from the center, the only good news is that Jesus will give us a bailout before everything gets really bad. When you read Revelation from the underside, you hear the good news that the Oppressor— the one who enslaves, imprisons, deports, turns a blind eye to the suffering of the marginalized—will be deposed. Peace will reign. The dehumanizing institutions will be overhauled. Systemic justice will be our new reality:

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.