Tag Archives: social justice

The Evolution—not “Reinvention”—of Malcolm X: A critical review of Manning Marable’s MALCOLM X: A LIFE OF REINVENTION

Malcolm X is one of the most multifariously portrayed individuals in human history, painted as someone between an “unashamed demagogue [whose] gospel was hatred”[1] to black people’s “own black shining prince—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved [them] so.”[2] After nearly two decades of scouring a cornucopia of government documents, periodicals, dissertations, journal articles, books, oral histories, and face-to-face interviews, the late Manning Marable completed an exceptionally detailed and illuminating biography of Malcolm, entitled: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.[3] While Marable compendiously reconstructs Malcolm’s life within its sociopolitical and historical context, at times, he indulges in excessive interpretative privileges. In this essay, I will explicate the biography’s general framework, and provide a critical analysis of Marable’s speculative pursuits. Once readers discern Marable’s subtle biases, Malcolm emerges as a man who was so uncompromisingly committed to virtues of faith, truth, dignity, and justice for his fellow black brothers and sisters, that as he gained insight into his personal and ideological flaws, he had the courage to let go of deep-seated beliefs and evolve, not “reinvent” himself, toward becoming a man committed to the full humanity of all.

One troublesome element is the book’s recurring theme that Malcolm’s narrative was “a brilliant series of reinventions.”[4] Marable defines, “the art of reinvention” as the deliberate and “selective rearrangement of a public figure’s past lives.” Marable claims that, “self-reinvention was an effective way for [Malcolm] to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community, giving justification to their hopes.”[5] While details of his past life may have been slightly exaggerated,[6] this hardly negates the fact that Malcolm’s experiences of being black, poor, and a former prison inmate in racist America all created an authentic, not invented, connection between Malcolm and millions of black people relegated to America’s ghettos.

The most egregious example of Marable’s speculative pursuits is his assertion around Malcolm’s “homosexual encounters.”[7] Based on a paradox, “circumstantial but strong evidence,” Marable takes the liberty to claim that in one section of Malcolm’s Autobiography he “was probably describing his own homosexual encounters [italics added].”[8] Drawing upon unverifiable rumors and the fact that Malcolm both worked for a man who was gay, and believed that the man would help him in a time of need, Marable implied that no other explanation was possible other than the two men being sexually involved. Homophobic narratives, such as this, are partly why many straight men think that if they become close friends with a gay man, they will be labeled as gay too.[9] Marable’s inclusion of the description, “homosexual lover,” along with a list of Malcolm’s past identities goes beyond responsible scholarship and into the tabloidization of facts.[10] Phrases like, “Malcolm was probably describing…” or in another section, “What [Malcolm] appears to be saying is…” are prime examples of Marable stating more than is given in the facts. It is necessary to discern Marable’s subtle speculations, because despite the book’s shortcomings, its overall tenor is well researched and very convincing.

Marable’s reconstruction of Malcolm’s childhood and early adulthood in the ghetto describes the early sources for the “emotional rage” he expressed when reacting “to racism in its urban context: segregated urban schools, substandard housing, high infant mortality, drugs, and crime.”[11] Malcolm’s first major evolution occurred in prison, where he met a sagacious and eloquent inmate named “John Elton Bembry: the man who would change his life.”[12] Bembry influenced Malcolm’s development into an “organic intellectual” as he devoured texts on history, philosophy, English, and religion.[13] The natural genius of Malcolm cannot be overstated.

Through the combination of learning about oppression in black history and his father’s involvement in Garveyism, Malcolm was “transformed…into a trenchant critic of white Western values and institutions.”[14] Additionally, the cumulative effect of incidents such as having his childhood home bombed by whites, being told by a white teacher that becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger,” countless negative experiences with whites, and the hope that the Nation of Islam gave him for his life after prison explain how Malcolm’s early life made him amenable to the NOI’s theology that all whites were devils.[15] Eventually, however, no individual would have as great an impact on Malcolm’s life as the leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its in-depth exposure of the history and structure of the NOI. In the biography, the NOI emerges as a heterodox sect of Islam (at least during Malcolm’s time), “whose core philosophy was apolitical” black nationalism, and was rife with internal conflicts sometimes resulting in violent disciplinary actions by “pipe squads.”[16] Elijah Muhammad’s control over the NOI, including much of his wealth, was “derived from his special (if fictive) status as Allah’s Messenger.”[17] Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people, as he believed it at the time, is demonstrated through his relentless efforts to grow the NOI and his fervent loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. As long as Malcolm believed that the truth of the NOI was the best alternative for black people, then Malcolm was sold out for its cause. Due to his loyalty to the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, and black people, Malcolm even made the regrettable mistakes of abandoning his brother Reginald and neglecting his wife and children.

Malcolm’s split with the NOI involved a combination of allegations around Elijah’s sexual exploitation of at least nine NOI secretaries, dissention and jealousy over Malcolm’s burgeoning status, and disapproval of his increasing involvement in secular politics. I would argue that this combination was the result of Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people. As Malcolm came to believe that neither Elijah was perfect nor that the NOI’s apolitical program was viable for black liberation, he drifted from strict adherence to the sect’s apolitical program. However, the fact that Malcolm did not speak out upon initially learning about Elijah’s sexual exploits is a good reminder that Malcolm was not without his flaws, and that even he waffled on his own values from time to time. Malcolm’s international experiences and exposure to orthodox Islam most likely added to his decision to renounce the doctrines of the NOI. Malcolm proclaimed that there is “no God but Allah,” yet:

Some of my very dearest friends are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics and even atheists—some are capitalists, socialists, conservatives, extremists…some are even Uncle Toms—some are black, brown, red, yellow and some are even white. It takes all these religious, political, economic, psychological and racial ingredients (characteristics) to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.[18]

The final chapters of the biography are the most exciting, hopeful, and tragic. They are exciting because Marable provides a phenomenally detailed reconstruction of Malcolm’s evolving thought processes. While Malcolm embraced Islam’s universality and “equality of all races,” he stated that “As a black American…I do feel that my first responsibility is to my twenty-two million fellow black Americans.”[19] As such, Malcolm established the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization for Afro-American Unity.[20] The former was a strictly Islamic organization, while the latter was dedicated “to unify[ing] the Americans of African descent in their struggle for Human Rights and Dignity” and to the ‘building of a political, economic, and social system of justice and peace [in the United States].”[21] They are hopeful because of the momentum Malcolm was beginning to gain among the mainstream Black Freedom Struggle, along with his evolving willingness “to take a firm stand on the side of anyone whose human rights are being violated.”[22] It seems that Malcolm was even beginning to evolve past some of his sexist worldviews, when he “[insisted] that in the OAAU ‘women [should have an] equal position to the men.’”[23]

Yet, it all ends in the immeasurably tragic loss of a “black shining prince—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved” so much. Marable’s detailed account of FBI files, along with the FBI’s refusal to disclose over a thousand pages in Malcolm’s file, revealed that the mystery behind Malcolm’s killers and the plausible complicity of law enforcement are yet to be resolved.

Contrary to Marable’s thesis of “reinvention,” I would argue that Malcolm was not deliberately changing his image to achieve a certain objective. Instead, Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people, along with his courage to change, fostered the evolution of Malcolm’s social, political, and religious views. My hope is that the church, theology, and American society, today, would pick up where Malcolm left off. Christians, especially, could learn from Malcolm’s willingness to “join in with anyone…as long as [they] want to change this miserable condition” of social, political, and individual oppression. We could especially learn from Malcolm’s courage to admit his wrongs and willingness to change his beliefs, all for the purpose of making “the Human Family and the Human Society complete.”

[1] Manning Marable, Malcolm X : A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011), 455.

[2] Ibid., 459.

[3] Ibid., 490.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid.

[9] To be clear, if Malcolm engaged in same-sex acts, it would do nothing to diminish his contributions to humanity, in my opinion. Also, conceding that it may be acceptable to “out” someone’s sexuality in the rare case that they are a deceased public figure, this action should only be taken if conclusive evidence is available.

[10] Marable, Malcolm X : A Life of Reinvention, 78.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Ibid., 90–91.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] Ibid., 25, 38, 77.

[16] Ibid., 79, 133, 242–244.

[17] Ibid., 169.

[18] Ibid., 369–370.

[19] Ibid., 368.

[20] MMI and OAAU, respectively.

[21] Ibid., 350.

[22] Ibid., 329.

[23] Ibid., 374.

Book Review: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the SCLC

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross : Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 1st Perennial Classics. New York: Perennial Classics, 2004. Print.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross : Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 1st Perennial Classics. New York: Perennial Classics, 2004. Print.

In the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David J. Garrow gives an incredibly thorough account of the latter years of Dr. King’s life, and the development of the Black Freedom Movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, to The Poor People’s Campaign and King’s death in 1968. Over 150 pages of notes and a bibliography, including several hundred interviews, exposition of several of King’s writings, and remarkable documentation of FBI files on King and the Movement, all provide the content for Garrow’s 624-page account of the Civil Rights leader’s life during the Movement. The title of the volume alludes to the central theme in the book: Martin Luther King was a man with a strong sense of self-sacrifice, informed by his theology of the cross, as something “that we must bear for the freedom of our people” (148). That is, Garrow’s King emerged as a Civil Rights leader, not because of ambition or a messiah complex, but because the movement was “thrust upon him” and his deeply seated religious principles required him to respond (229). Yet, this man of noble principles was also no saint. In my opinion, the greatest value of this volume, as stated by King’s sister, is that it “demythologizes one of our heroes” (625). The two-fold goal of this essay is to provide an exposition and a critical evaluation of Garrow’s interpretation of Martin King and the Black Freedom Movement, and to argue that Dr. King and the Movement can provide invaluable resources and inspiration for social change today.

As indicated above, Garrow dedicates relatively few pages to the pre-Civil Rights years of Martin King. Still, we learn that as the son of “a strict disciplinarian” and Southern Baptist Preacher, King had a “long personal heritage in…the black church” (32). Yet, despite his early immersion into the black church, King was initially “decidedly ambivalent” about following in his father’s ministerial footsteps (37). King’s mother and grandmother imbued him with a strong sense of self-love and care, which undoubtedly gave him the confidence to pursue his dreams of intellectualism. King reported that his childhood was spent in “a very congenial home situation…where love was central” (33). Outside of the home, however, King could not be shielded from the racist reality of life as a black person in the South (35). Two racial incidents that were truly painful for King were the time when a childhood friend who was white abruptly told him they could not be friends due to their races, and when as a high school student he was forced to give up his seat on a bus for a white person. A decade later King recalled, “It was the angriest I have ever been… From that moment on, I was determined to hate every white person” (35).

Garrow documents how King’s college experience changed both his ambivalence toward the ministry and his attitude on race (37). King recalls how he overcame his skepticism with religion when “I studied a course in Bible in which I came to see that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape” (37). Highly influenced by liberal theologians and the social gospel movement, King would eventually decide to take up the call to be a minister of the gospel with a strong sense of social justice. Challenged with the Christian call to love one’s enemies, King struggled with how he could “love a race of people who hated [him] and who had been responsible [for earlier traumatic experiences]” (38). Garrow quotes King’s confession that, he “did not conquer this anti-white feeling” until he got to know white students through interracial groups in college (38).

Garrow’s first chapter chronicles how King was thrust into the movement after completing his dissertation while pastoring at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery. King would emerge as the unlikely president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, partly due to his status as a “newcomer.” Recalling his first public address as president of the new organization, King would write that he “became possessed by fear [and] obsessed by a feeling of great inadequacy” (23). This feeling of inadequacy was a theme that Garrow alluded to throughout the evolution of King as a national Civil Rights leader. A key corollary to this theme was a profound religious experience that King would tell over and over again. During a time of deep distress and desire to “escape the pressures the MIA presidency had placed upon him” King had an experience in his kitchen, in which he responded to fear through prayer:

I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. No never alone. (58)

Throughout the rest of the book, Garrow would repeat this theme of King’s reliance on his faith to overcome the internal and external challenges of the Movement.

Garrow’s subsequent chapters describe “The Birth of SCLC” and Southern initiatives, including Albany, Birmingham, Selma, and the March on Washington. Drawing upon myriad examples from the NAACP’s initial competitive resistance to the budding young “star in the South,” to tales of disorganization and even the misappropriation of Movement funds by higher level officials, Garrow characterizes the Movement as being rife with internal conflict and at times with egotistical personality clashes. Garrow attributes King’s ability to emerge as a leader in this contentious Movement partly to his “practical application of the Hegelian method” through which he would mediate highly contentious meetings by providing a solution upon which all could usually agree (464). The biography states, “One of [King’s] greatnesses…was his ability to master, to orchestrate a group of individuals that probably pretty much approached egomania” (464). It was also helpful that Garrow explained how King’s fascination with Hegel’s dialectical method of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, provided him with a philosophical framework for integrationism, in which seemingly opposed groups (i.e. black/white, Jew/Gentile, rich/poor) could be united into a Beloved Community (46). Despite its flaws, the Movement left an indelible mark on the Universe’s bend toward justice. More importantly, Garrow’s portrayal of the Movement challenges any notions that Dr. King was the sole or even the most important person involved in the development of different initiatives and subsequent Civil Rights victories.

The most exciting chapters, for me, were the final four chapters on Chicago, the Meredith March, Economic Justice and Vietnam, and the Poor People’s Campaign. These chapters give a keen insight into the evolution of King’s social and political thought. Furthermore, they offer a treasure trove of strategies for the church and American society to engage in broad and inclusive movements for revolutionary change (484). Upon visiting the slums of the northern cities, witnessing the destruction of urban riots caused by the deplorable conditions of America’s ghettoes, and confronting even worse and violent resistance to change in the North, King began to see that the Civil Rights gains in the South had done very little to improve the conditions of millions of poor blacks in the ghettoes (440). Thus, King began to call for “a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society”—something akin to democratic socialism (567). As King’s scope extended to economic issues, they also extended to issues of world peace and global disarmament, mostly spurred by his growing conviction that he could no longer preach non-violence at home, while his country committed great acts of violence abroad.

Toward the end of the book, Garrow seems to focus more on the conflicts within and between Civil Rights organizations, the Movement’s loss of momentum, the criticisms of King both within and without the Movement, and the negative toll that all of this was taking on everyone’s morale, especially King’s. Garrow reports that even though King was able to perform when he needed to give a speech, toward the end of King’s time he would become increasingly depressed. Garrow attributes some of King’s heartache to his battles with “inner demons.” Indeed, as stated above, King was no saint, and his extra-marital affairs, and “sexual athleticism” were things that even King alluded to as causing him great internal conflict. Garrow’s careful, yet truthful, exposition of King’s deep flaws is commendable and integral to understanding that one does not need to be “holier than thou” to make the world a better place.

As I reflect on what King and the Movement mean to me, the Church, theology, and America, I believe they represented the best of both Christian and American democratic ideals. They demonstrated that a commitment to love and justice was neither a passive nor a violent one. Rather, a commitment to these principles requires a commitment to bearing one’s cross. I am reminded of Jesus in Gethsemane, where he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). This prayer encapsulates King’s theology of the cross as a divinely inspired commitment to freedom for all. King’s theology is absolutely necessary for the church today to remain true it its purported principles. As King’s dream of justice and equality is far from actualized, as the New Jim Crow, urban ghettoes, and young black lives such as Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin continue to be persecuted, America must recommit itself to King’s dream, lest it shirks its commitment to its democratic ideals.

Bearing the Cross not only provides a deep look into its subject, it also offers a counter-narrative to “mainstream” conceptions of King as a “‘rather smoothed-off, respectable national hero’ whose comfortable, present-day image bears little resemblance to the human King or to the political King of 1965-1968” (625). To anyone today who has that impulse “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Micah 6:8), I would urge you to read this volume because it shows that “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement” (625). To paraphrase the book’s Epilogue: If we could understand that one of our greatest symbols for social justice was a human being as ordinary and as flawed and as unlikely a legend as any one of us, then maybe, we in the church or broader society could stop waiting for a great charismatic personality to lead us toward justice, and we could start asking ourselves, “What can we do to pursue justice, love, and peace?”

Dear Judges of America’s Justice System: Addicts need treatment not jail

**Below is a letter I recently submitted to the Second Municipal District Court in Skokie, Illinois, on behalf of my brother who was awaiting sentencing for drug-related charges. I am sharing this because I believe it applies to so many of our brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, cousins, mommas and daddies who are plagued by addiction. While most people who use illicit drugs do not get addicted, this letter is written on behalf of those who do.

January 2, 2014

To The Honorable Judge William T. O’Brien:

My big brother Bobby and I were once one and the same. We grew up under the same conditions inside of the same home. Yet, today our lives seem to be irreconcilably different, as he is awaiting judgment in your courtroom and I am on the first winter break of my first year in graduate school. I believe the key to my brother’s successful rehabilitation and reentry as a productive, addiction-free, member of society can be found in my and Bobby’s divergent paths.

I snorted my first line of heroin with Bobby on the night our father was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 18 years in prison. I was 13 years old and Bobby was 18. Fortunately for me, I was eventually admitted into a residential school for “at-risk” youth called, Mooseheart. Here, I discovered my knack for academics. I graduated at the top of my class, but what I had in “book smarts,” I lacked in common sense. My flirtation with heroin at 13 paved the way for my illicit affair with it at 18.

During my years of active addiction, Bobby and I were virtually inseparable until I was incarcerated at the Cook County Jail in 2008. I completed the HRDI rehabilitation program in jail, but after seven years of heroin and cocaine addiction, a four-month program behind bars would have hardly been enough to keep me sober without a long-term, voluntary, aftercare program. Unfortunately, most people who cannot afford the legal representation that is necessary to avoid jail-time come from communities with little-to-no access to the resources of the middle and upper strata of society.

The key to my success was completing a transitional living program called the Koinonia House in Wheaton, Illinois. At the K-House, I gradually transitioned into “freedom,” while still having protections and support groups around me to keep me safe from myself. During the 15-month program I enrolled in community college courses and stayed “plugged-in” to productive sectors of society. Upon graduation from the program, I received the Chuck Colson Scholarship for ex-prisoners at Wheaton College in Illinois. Earlier this year I earned my B.A. in Sociology and now I am at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Bobby has the same desire and ability that I did to achieve long-term sobriety and build a positive, productive quality of life. However, Bobby will neither receive the full treatment that he needs for recovery inside of jail nor overcome his addiction without a long-term gradual and therapeutic transition into “freedom.” You may ask why I was able to get “clean” and Bobby has not, but the hard answer is that heroin and cocaine addictions are unpredictable and relentless beasts.

I know that having a sincere heart and will power was not enough for me to achieve long-term sobriety. I am only here because of the 15 months that I spent gradually transitioning into freedom, in a therapeutic, supportive, and in my case religious community. Bobby is no different from me in this regard. I would humbly plead that your Honor would grant Bobby this chance to free himself from his own prison of addiction via a long-term residential TASC program. Indeed, as I am sure you know, he has three little girls who desperately need him to get his act together…but he cannot and will not do it alone. Thank you for your time and work.

Respectfully submitted,

Daniel I. Aguilar

Christians should abandon all elements of Christianity that have nothing to do with the Jesus Movement of 1st Century Palestine! But also, we should adopt anything that promotes the full humanity of all people, even if it wasn’t present in the early Jesus Movement.Why? Listen to Audre Lorde:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”

Remembering 9/11…1973 (TRIGGER WARNING)

On September 11, 1973, U.S. trained Chilean soldiers overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. After this coup, the Pinochet dictatorship ruled with an iron fist. It has been forty years since the inception of this brutal dictatorship and 23 years since Chile has returned to democracy, but many civilians are still recovering from the trauma of these events.

A week ago, I traveled with eleven fellow seminarians from Union Theological Seminary to a rally and conference protesting the School of the Americas—the U.S. training ground for the majority of the soldiers who perpetrated these atrocities. On a panel at the conference, Nieves Ayress, Victor Toro, and Mario Venegas shared their stories of survival. They talked about rape, murder, and torture at the hands of soldiers trained and supported by these United States.

*What I am about to share is graphic and brutal…but it is the truth.

For weeks, Ayress was imprisoned, raped and tortured in Chile’s National Stadium. With painful remembrance in her eyes she recalled how, on multiple occasions, metal tubes were inserted into her vagina and anus and then loaded with electrical currents. Ayress recalled the literal dogs (canines) that were trained to rape her and other prisoners. She explained how plastic tubes were inserted into her vagina for rats to crawl into. Once the rats were inside of her, electric currents not only shocked her but the rats as well, causing them to try to claw their way out of her insides. The rats urinated and defecated inside of Ayress causing her to become ill. Due to the destruction of her body, the baby she conceived while being raped was miscarried. Ayress was blindfolded during her rapes but she shared about other prisoners that fathers and brothers were forced to rape their sisters and daughters. Ayress bravely tells her story so that people would know the truth about graduates of the School of the Americas.

It was challenging and infuriating to listen to the gruesome details of her experience, but as hard as it was to listen to these horrific stories, it pales in comparison to having to live through them. I can never forget what I heard. I can never be neutral, and I can never be silent about this injustice. I believe we all have a responsibility to bear witness to the truth so that justice may prevail. Regrettably, Ayress’ experience is anything but an isolated incident.

The Chilean government has officially acknowledged that, “nearly 38,000 people were subjected to political imprisonment and torture.” Among those tortured or killed the most common occupations were teachers, artists and suspected and actual political opponents of the Pinochet dictatorship. It is apparent that the torture tactics and murders were meant to suppress anyone who could influence society to resist the neo-liberal economic, political, and social policies that were being installed by Pinochet’s U.S.-supported government.  We must remember these painful experiences because the School of the Americas continues to train soldiers to wage war against defenseless people in Latin America. Additionally, the Constitution enacted by the Pinochet government and its neo-liberal policies are still in place today. Victor Toro explained that the consequences of physical and psychological torture not only affect those who are directly traumatized by them, but they are retransmitted to loved ones as well—sometimes for multiple generations.

Today, Ayress, Toro, and Venegas are fighting for reparations and access to medical treatment for survivors and their families. As a U.S. citizen I cannot ignore the pain and struggle of people merely because they are thousands of miles away. Stories like these compel me to utilize my arbitrary privilege as a U.S. citizen and to educate myself on the origin and history of these issues—to align myself with people on the ground that are fighting for change today. I urge my readers to do the same, not out of guilt but out of solidarity with humanity. Brother Ali put it best when he rapped, “The greatest threat of harm [to the U.S.] doesn’t come from any [foreign] bomb//The moment you [ignore]/refuse the human rights for just a few//What happens when that few includes you?”

En Rebeldia.

Victor Toro (left) and Nieves Ayress (right) at SOA protest (2013).

Victor Toro (left) and Nieves Ayress (right) at SOA protest (2013).

This I believe

As a kid, I remember my mother waking up early every morning, and in twenty below zero Chicago weather, heading out to board the CTA bus for work. This strong woman had been through more than I could ever imagine.

I watched her leave my father because he was involved in drug trafficking. After some time she started dating and her boyfriend moved into our apartment. Jose expressed his affection for my mother by slapping and punching her. One day I jumped between his swinging fists. I begged him to stop…but I was too small to make a difference. Punched to the ground, all I could do was weep beside my mother. Our neighbors never responded to the sound of our cries.

Things are better now and my mom is no longer with Jose. Regrettably, I chose a path of drug addiction and crime. I lived and begged on the street, robbed people at knifepoint, and even stole from the purse of the woman I once tried to protect as a little boy. Eventually, the Cook County Department of Corrections taught me that the fast lane does not run forever.

I was given more than a second chance at life during my six-month incarceration in the Cook County jail. I received the gifts of grace, love, and forgiveness. As I worked through my recovery behind bars, I was humbled by the people who responded to the burdens of their drug-addicted neighbor. However, when a prisoner is released from jail, they are likely to return to a community that is not conducive to rehabilitation. According to the Department of Justice, seven out of ten released prisoners are rearrested within three years.

But by the grace of God, I was literally met at the prison gate by fellow Christians who welcomed me into the church. Life Church in Wheaton, IL chose to do the risky thing and let a convicted criminal into their congregation, into their Bible studies, and even into their homes for dinner and fellowship. They did not judge me, nor did they allow me to be lost in the vicious cycle of arrest and re-arrest that is often the American criminal justice system. These particular Christians knew they did absolutely nothing to earn God’s love, yet he loved them anyway. They knew that sharing God’s love was the true and right response to receiving what had been freely given to them.

As graduation approaches, I am truly overwhelmed by the love that radically changed my life. Because of the love I have received, I have been able to forgive the neighbors who ignored my mother’s cries. Because of the love I received, I am compelled to share that love with others. I have learned that humans are dualistically capable of committing great acts of evil and great acts of love, for I am one of them.

It is no doubt that my experiences as a victim of domestic violence and as a recipient of undeserved forgiveness and love have influenced my passion for social justice. Today, I urge everyone who has received God’s forgiveness and love to realize that they too have done nothing to earn it. Because of this, I believe it is not an option or special calling to share God’s liberating love with others. However, sharing the Gospel is more than just sharing words; it is sharing works as well. The story of the Gospel is one in which God chose to leave the good place of heaven and identify with all of oppressed humanity, by taking on their burdens and liberating them from the bondage and consequences of sin. It is this act that compels me to identify with the struggles of those who are oppressed by unjust systems in the world.

We live in a world with crying neighbors everywhere; where some cries are never heard because injustice is deeply embedded into our nature as fallen human beings from our largest to our smallest institutions. Injustice in the world puts people in bondage, but God desires his people to be free, that they may worship her.

Therefore, I choose not to ignore the muffled cries of the oppressed.  I choose to resist building my life only focused on my own family, and to reject any inclination to seek guilt-absolving ignorance or amnesia about the evils of this world. I seek to live in a way where I identify with the least of these and learn about their burdens as best as I can. I am no longer too small to fight back when injustice is present, nor do I fear the threats of any man who tries to stop me. I believe God’s love for humans grants them a unique value higher than any other part of his creation. My hope is for all humans to seek in the best and most sincere way as possible to eradicate human suffering and to ensure that the spreading of God’s love is not impeded by injustice in the world.