Numbered Among the Defective
Troy* never reads from the bible when it’s his turn at the jail. “I can’t read,” he says. “Well, I can read… I can read when it’s charts and bullet points and diagrams and s*** like that, but not when it’s just a bunch of endless lines on a page. I get mixed up. I’ve got dyslexia or something. I’ve got a lot of things.” I don’t doubt this. He often rocks back forth on his chair, his hands drawing patterns on the page of a bible that is rarely opened to the right passage. Sometimes he whispers to himself while the conversation is going on around him. I always assure Troy that it’s fine if he doesn’t want to read. He listens, though. I know he does because he’s never short on commentary.
This particular time, we’re reading the story of the man born blind from John 9. “Who sinned?” the Pharisees demand to know. Whose fault is it when it comes to stories like this? Around the circle we talk about the human tendency to affix blame when it comes to hard stories of human suffering. We talk about nature and nurture, about the desire to make moral sense of misery. Did our genes make us do it? Was it our upbringing? The devil? Maybe all of the above. We talk about how Jesus kind of rejects the premise of the question, about how the man was born blind so that God’s power could be revealed in his healing. The guys like that.
At least most of them do. Troy doesn’t seem to have much use for the story. “I don’t need God to bring anything good out of my darkness. My darkness has made me who I am, I’m proud of it. I’ve used it to my advantage.” What follows is a litany of violent exploits and harrowing adventures on the street (none of which sounds like anything resembling “advantage”). Even a few of the inmates’ eyebrows raise at some points of his story. Which takes some doing.
Troy’s clearly enjoying himself. But then the conversation takes a turn. We’re talking about how the blind guy in John 9 gets kind of a raw deal. About how he’s kind of broken and discarded at the beginning of the story. He’s begging on the side of the road. He finally gets a break when Jesus interrupts his story with a miraculous healing! And then he’s unwillingly thrust into the middle of religious dispute about the legitimacy (!) of his healing, which ends with him being turfed out of the synagogue. A story that begins with exclusion and isolation seems to end in the same place.
Troy perks up at this. “You know, I been given a lotta labels in my life. They have this big diagnostic manual, way bigger than this f***in’ bible, and they have every label you can imagine. They give me this one which sends them to a different part of the manual for this treatment and that one for that treatment and on and on and on. They started on me when I was in grade 4. I acted out, got expelled and I had to sit at home in a room for a year. They took away my toys, withheld food, the whole deal. Jail’s no problem for me, this is adult day care. I got plenty of practice in sitting in a room with nothing but my thoughts.” My face must have conveyed my horror. You could have heard a pin drop in the room.
“I’m so sorry you had to endure that, Troy,” I said. He shrugged. I could sense he was transitioning back into bravado mode. But not quite yet. “You know, I don’t think it’s right, what they do, all these diagnoses. ADHD, ADD, ODD, blah, blah, blah. All these things do is tell kids that they’re defective, that they’re broken.” He looked down. “It’s not fair.” Another inmate leaned over and put his hand on his shoulder at this point.
I looked around the room at the guys around the circle. I knew that most of them had grown up in ugly, toxic, and dysfunctional systems of abuse and addiction. I could imagine many of them growing up thinking they were broken, useless. Defective. Defective. What an adjective to affix to a human being. Christ have mercy.
I swallowed hard and said, “Well, I want you guys to know that whatever you have heard out there in the world, whatever you have internalized from being in a place like this, Jesus does not think that you’re defective. You are like this guy in John 9—an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed in the world.” It sounded like a bunch of syrupy religious platitudes coming out of my mouth, but I still believed it. Some of them smiled and nodded. Some looked indifferent. Including Troy.
This Lenten season, I’m slowly reading Fleming Rutledge’s little collection of meditations on the cross of Christ called The Seven Last Words from the Cross. This morning’s meditation was on the two thieves on the cross and Jesus’ words: “Today, you will be with me in paradise. Rutledge pondered this scene in connection with Isaiah 53:12. Of the crucified Christ, Rutledge says:
He was not numbered among the members of the religious establishment. He was not numbered among the politically connected. He was not numbered among the good, upstanding pillars of the community, the civic leaders or the business leaders or the church leaders. He was “numbered among the transgressors,” for only “bad elements” were crucified. Jesus suffered “outside the city wall,” away from the good neighborhoods, beyond the pale, cast out from the company of decent people. He was “numbered among the transgressors.”
Or, we might say, he was “numbered among the defective and the broken.” Among the ones who have gotten way too many labels and not nearly enough love.
*Not his real name.
The image above is titled “Man of Sorrows” and is part of a collection by Tim Steward. It is taken from the 2012-13 Christians Seasons Calendar.
What are your intentions, when you write these stories? What outcomes are you hoping to encourage?
Do your stories help those you visit? Are they even aware of them? Do you ask their permission? Do they give you clarity, courage and assist your mission? Do they need to be made public, in order to help you?
What are you looking to encourage in your audience? Prayer? I don’t recall you asking for it. Encouraging us to engage with those in jail, I don’t recall you suggesting it. I don’t sense the Holy Spirit at work here. What am I missing?
I am thankful for these stories as I have some people in my life similar to those the author is referring to… for example, I have a foster kid who lived with us for a number of years and we still are close… but he has had a really tough life and is making some pretty big mistakes even today… and from reading this article I realize that at times I may feel that he is a bit “defective”…and maybe he is… but when I realize Jesus too was viewed as defective by some, wow I now have can see a connection of my foster kid with Jesus… I like that….and I realize that in some ways I am defective too….and Jesus can relate to my defectiveness as well….I like that too….thanx for the stories man….
Thanks, Jimmy. Sounds like you’ve had some difficult experiences. I’m sorry to hear this. It’s very gratifying to hear that these stories resonate.