Straight outta Nazareth

August 18th, 2015

If a young Jesus could have been transported from ancient Galilee to the Compton, California, of the late 1980s, I don’t believe he would have been dealing drugs with Eric “Eazy-E” Wright or spitting rhymes on a track like “F*** Tha Police” with O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson. And he might not have been among the hundreds of bobbing heads in the audiences that made their rap group N.W.A. one of hip-hop’s most notorious and influential groups.

But I do think that a young Jesus could have connected to the frustrations chronicled in their music and young, black lives, captured in the blistering blockbuster film “Straight Outta Compton.” I believe this because scholars say that Nazareth, Jesus’s hometown, was so small and rural that it didn’t get much respect from the urbane citizens of Jerusalem. Expectations for young men from Nazareth likely were low; stereotyping likely was high.

Which means Jesus probably knew what it felt like to be poor and an outcast from an early age. He probably knew what it felt like to feel the projection of a society’s fears and prejudices because of the way he talked, walked, dressed, looked or where he was from.

One of the most chilling scenes in “Straight Outta Compton” takes place outside of a recording studio in Torrance — less than 30 minutes from Compton by car but much further away culturally and socio-economically. Police officers pull up in force, and make the members of N.W.A. lie face-down on the sidewalk while berating them with profanities and pejoratives. The reason? They assumed that a group of young black men dressed as they were must be gang-bangers who belonged in Compton, not Torrance.

Today’s Compton is much less crime-ridden than the one depicted in the film. But young black men there and in cities across this nation still face many of the same challenges. The Washington Post recently reported that unarmed black men are seven times more likely to be killed by police than unarmed white men. And yes, black-on-black crime remains an issue too. Too many families have been broken and dreams crushed by both of these assaults on young black lives.

If we believe the Bible, then we have to believe a young Jesus — straight outta Nazareth — would have empathized with N.W.A.’s hurts, fears, frustration and rage. Would he have approved of their coping methods — misogynistic, profane rhymes that demeaned women and outraged police? No, but I also don’t think he would have responded the way the police and F.B.I. do today when confronted by the new black rage.

He would have listened to and engaged them. He would have protested with them. Marched with them. Urged them to make legal challenges. He would have supported them venting their rage verbally, though not violently. And he would have challenged them to find productive solutions while embracing them with unconditional love, no matter how profane and misogynistic their song lyrics and party lifestyle were.

Dr. King, in his remarkable sermon ‘Beyond Vietnam,’ spoke of talking to young men in Northern cities some 20 years before N.W.A. formed. These young men were opting for Molotov cocktails and rifles instead of seething lyrics, microphones and turntables.

 “I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action,” King said. “But they ask(ed) — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask(ed) if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

These damning words may have been King’s death warrant. But they pointed to an indisputable reality that still exists today. The conditions many live in and the way they are being treated by law enforcement and the political ruling class is unconscionable. And no one should be shocked by their raging rhetoric or even their violent outbursts. What should disturb us is that so few Christians are empathizing with the angry, embracing their pain, and pledging to address their deep-seated needs.

All of us weak, flawed human beings are, truth be told, straight outta somewhere. And we followers of the young Jesus of Nazareth should sympathize with that reality better than anyone.

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