Deconstructing Gun Violence – Echoes of the Lost
by Lou Cespedes
On March 25th 1997 the album “Life After Death”, the posthumous album of the late Notorious B.I.G. was released 16 days after he was gunned down in Los Angeles. For all true Brooklynites, that tragedy still lingers today – 22 years after his unsolved homicide. The first song on that album is titled “Somebody’s Gotta Die” and it tells the story of a retaliatory gang hit, ending with the murder of a young man named “Jason” on a stoop in Brooklyn while holding his baby daughter in his arms. This album, and this song in particular, serves as an echo in our collective memory, painfully underscoring ironies and reflections that mirror what we see with black-youth in our community today. The “King of Hip-Hop” was a young man in his prime named Christopher Wallace, who also had a daughter, and was the victim of a real rival hit-job. There are too many coincidences in the song and in his death to recount, but curiously the song’s chorus says: “… if I go you gotta go… let the gun shots blow… nobody’s got to know that I killed your ass in the mist, kid”. I’ve been thinking; was he trying to tell us something? Was he writing about himself? Was he the “somebody” in the song title? Was Jason actually Christopher?
How many Jasons and Christophers have we lost to gun violence this year? How many times does this song play out in our neighborhoods? I’m not suggesting that music is at fault, but rather using it as a backdrop for a “culture of violence” mirrored in the rhetorical devices repeatedly used to buttress a vision of this particular reality. For our youth, this music is reality on loop. Hip-Hop is a way to express and give voice to the inequities in criminal justice, policing, education, and a way to relate to our childhood, manhood, family, finances, dreams, successes and failures. It also establishes a portal through which “alternative life” is made visible to our youth. Sadly, for many of our children caught up in gangs, that alternative has meant prison, recidivism, economic and social failure as well as death.
Similarly, the black church is also caught in an echo chamber of its own making. As we Christians pontificate about the greatness of G-d, we wallow in the misery and poverty that enables the violence that surrounds us in East Flatbush, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville and East New York. To paraphrase Bishop Talbert Swan; “How is it that we black Christians, having the source of all power in our midst, are powerless to overcome those evils that plague our own community?” Like Hip-Hop, it is in the repetitive hyperbole of the preaching moment, where the “Sunday Christian” is also provided a portal to an unattainable “alternative-life”. Every Sunday, pastors serve as avatars their congregations, just like every hip-hop star in the dreams of some kid panting out lyrics on a crowded subway. This is equivalent of Christian rhetorical eisegesis, and its effect is uncritical thinking and an inability to apply Christianity to practical problem solving in our daily life. Congregations, like gangs, seek support and kinship. They serve to provide solidarity and security to those that share a desire for things they lack or defend. Sadly, gangs do a better job than the church in persuading our youth, and we are sorely failing because we lack the means to illustrate a more glamorous and effective alternative for them.
As these tendencies coexist in our community, they echo the un-reconciled tribalism in both faith and gang culture, because their reconciliation would erode their respective missions. What is clear is that the black church’s disengagement is killing our youth. The book of Isaiah Chapter 9 v.10-11 reads, “Those who guide this people mislead them, and those who are guided are led astray. Therefore the Lord will take no pleasure in the young men, nor will he pity the fatherless and widows, for everyone is ungodly and wicked, every mouth speaks folly.”
The leadership of the black church, across all denominations in E. Flatbush, is purveying illusions and resting on legacy. Meanwhile, the conditions that contribute to our pain remain intact. Our failure as Christians to respond with education alternatives, financial literacy in the home, housing security, gainful employment, equity in our places of work, and investment in our businesses, are the root causes of violence on our streets. If we do not adequately respond to those needs then we abdicate our duty as Christians; we will abandon our children to the promises they hear in their music rather than the promises of G-d, and they will continue to die.