Life Outside of the Box
(Luke 23:32–33; Hebrews 13:3)
Before reading, listen to “Boxxed In” by Yaves
(used with permission):
I love hip hop music. I love the rhythm and the rhyme. I love the way an emcee’s voice interacts with the instruments on the beat. I love the word play, the metaphors, the allusions, and the double entendres. Most of all, however, I love the way hip hop narrates the gritty, tragic, and lamentable realities of life, about which some of us are honestly ignorant and which others purposely ignore. Now, to be sure, not all hip hop music functions in this way, but there are definitely artists through whom God is speaking to arouse our moral consciousness. There are rappers—yes, rappers—through whom God is speaking to expand our social and theological imaginations. If we listen closely enough, we will hear voices within hip hop that expose sin and evil—as well as any preacher—and speak truth to power—as well as any prophet.
Consider the song “Boxxed In” by a hip hop artist named Yaves. Dubbed “the Street Pastor,” Yaves aims to create music rooted in the word of God that speaks to contemporary social issues. In “Boxxed In,” he reflects on the dark realities of urban life in the United States.
They’re bringing them boxed in. Locked in.
Make more then do it over again.
They’re bringing them boxed in. Locked in.
Make more then do it over again.
My homies are boxed in. My brothers are boxed in.
My cousins are boxed in. My homies are boxed in. Boxed in.
Might we hear a message from God in Yaves’s lyrics? What does being “boxed in” mean and what does it reveal about life in the city? Might being “boxed in” have something to do with Jesus, the cross, and the gospel?
As a clever songwriter, Yaves presents “boxed in” as a term that contains multiple meanings. The most explicit of these he makes evident in the first two verses of the song, where images of violence, murder, and death pervade the lyrics.
Everyday drill, kill or be killed,
the ghetto is a box where they’re boxing over bills.
To be boxed in is to be bound by death. In a literal sense, it is to be boxed in a casket, to be physically dead. Figuratively, to be boxed in means to live with the fear of losing one’s life. This fear creates a psychological box that traps the soul. Being boxed in distorts the way one sees the world and severely limits the possibility of living the good life. I have heard young black men question why they should go to school if they will die before they can use their education. When this morbid perception meets the criminalization of discipline found in some districts, schools no longer function as life-giving communities but rather as perpetuators of the “box.” I remember when a close friend turned 25 years old. He remarked that he felt so blessed to see that day because growing up he was unsure of whether or not he would ever make it there alive. Unfortunately, rather than imagining themselves as college—or even high school—graduates, many young people of color who grow up in marginalized communities hold to the conviction that by 25 they will either be dead or in prison.
In the last verse, Yaves speaks to the connection between death and prison saying:
For homies locked down upstate, I had to graduate from O-State,
you feel me? I had to break the cycle of the prison pipeline,
for young black bodies buried in boxes made of pine.
If being boxed in means being bound by death, then prison is a social expression of the box. In honor of those who have been boxed in by physical death, Yaves proclaims that we must work towards dismantling the box of incarceration. The tragedy is that too many young people are either being boxed in a casket or boxed in a prison cell. In fact, research tells us that young black men have higher death rates by homicide than any other US demographic1 and that African-Americans, in general, are incarcerated at a rate almost six times higher than whites.2 While my friend’s feeling of relief at turning 25 shocked me, the sad and unsettling truth is that his feelings were not without warrant. Incarceration has become so prevalent in some communities that going to prison has become a rite of passage for many young men, a social marker defining their manhood. Yet, this is not a passage into life but rather a passage into death; it is the social marker of someone who is boxed in.
So what does it mean to be boxed in? To be boxed in means not only to live with the premonition that your life will end prematurely, either in a casket or in a prison cell, but also actually to experience the horrors of death and imprisonment. To be boxed in means to live a life bound by death and, therefore, to live a life full of despair.
How would God have God’s people respond? Does the church have a word for those who feel boxed in? The first response is actually no word at all, but coming to the critical realization—and subsequent lamentation—of the fact that being boxed in is a reality that many in the United States face daily. Scripture’s poets help lead such a response:
The cords of death encompassed me . . . the snares of death confronted me (Ps 18:4-5).3
Let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power preserve those doomed to die (Ps 79:11).
My eyes flow with rivers of tears because of the destruction of my people.
My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees (Lam 3:48-50).
Although acknowledging and lamenting the reality of being boxed in is important, that is not all the church has to offer. Through the gospel, the church has more to say; namely that despite the despair, there is hope. God offers “boxed in” humanity a great redemption in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the hope for those who suffer from being boxed in because Jesus himself was tested by the powers of the box and overcame them (Heb 2:18).
Jesus knew what it meant to be boxed in. Throughout his ministry, he bore the burden of knowing that he would be incarcerated, an incarceration that would lead to his death. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples three times, “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (Mark 10:33-34; cf. 8:31; 9:31). Even before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah prophesied about him, saying that he would be “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isa 53:3). In the Garden of Gethsemane, as the hour of his arrest approached, Jesus was struck to the core with grief. In his anguish, he began to sweat heavily and threw himself on the ground in prayer. In one of the clearest examples of his humanity, Jesus asked God if it was possible not to have to die in order to fulfill God’s plan. Ultimately, although the burden of death weighed heavily on his heart, Jesus did not succumb to fear or despair but rather trusted God, saying, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Beyond the psychological sense of being boxed in, Jesus also experienced the horrors of incarceration and physical death. After being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was taken before the high priest. During the trial, the Jewish elders and the chief priests mocked him, spat in his face, slapped him, and beat him, just as he knew they would. Since the high priest could not enact any legal punishment, Jesus was sent before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Persuaded by fear of the masses and the threat of a riot, Pilate unjustly sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion (Matt 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15). Jesus was not only a victim of state violence but also of legal corruption. Immediately, the governor’s soldiers humiliated Jesus by stripping him of his clothes and placing a crown of twisted thorns on his head. They also mocked him by kneeling before him and proclaiming, “Hail, King of the Jews” (Matt 27:29). Finally, before taking him to be crucified, they beat and flogged him. Thus, not only did Jesus live with the emotional burden of expecting the terrors of prison and death, he experienced those terrors as the reality of his life. In short, Jesus’ journey towards the cross betrays the experience of being boxed in.
What is the significance of Jesus’ incarceration and state execution—of his suffering as a “common criminal”? Theologian Karl Barth cleverly turns the question around: what is the significance of common criminals sharing the same suffering as Jesus? The Gospel of Luke narrates Jesus’ crucifixion this way: “Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:32-33). In a 1957 Good Friday sermon entitled, “The Criminals with Him,” Barth asserts that in the crucifixion, the criminals “find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with [Jesus]. They are linked in a common bondage that is never again to be broken.”4 One cannot imagine the crucifixion of Christ without imagining the crucifixion of the criminals with him. God forever places the image of a criminal at the center of history by placing one to the right and one to the left of Jesus during his execution.
To be at his right and left as he prepared to enter his glory is something of which Jesus’ disciples could have only dreamed. Two of them, James and John, boldly requested to have this honor, but Jesus responded by saying that only “those for whom it has been prepared by my Father” (Matt 20:23) can sit at his right and left. While the two criminals are not exactly sitting with Christ on the cross, they are hanging with him. The imagery is striking. Might there be a connection? Could it be that God has prepared for criminals to sit at the right and left hand of Christ in his glory? Is this a foreshadowing of the communion to be shared in the kingdom of God? Later in his sermon, Barth describes the crucifixion scene as the first Christian community: “Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance.”5 If this is true, then maybe it is no coincidence that as Jesus breathes his last—in order that humanity may receive a new breath of life—the two people at his side are criminals. Perhaps it is by God’s design that the first person to receive the promise and assurance of entering into the kingdom of God is the criminal to whom Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
By sharing in the suffering of those who are boxed in, Christ is able to offer humanity life outside of the box. Consequently, those who are called to follow this Christ should seek to stand in solidarity and proclaim unity with those who suffer in the same way—the way of their Savior. For this reason the author of Hebrews admonishes his readers to “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Heb 13:3). This is not a call to sign up for a bid at Sing Sing or San Quentin, nor is it a call to sign up for water boarding sessions at Guantanamo Bay. Rather it is a call to remember that those who are boxed in share in the same suffering as Christ, and that if we do not stand in solidarity with them, we do not stand in solidarity with Christ (Matt 25:41-45). Christ suffered and died, “once for all” (Rom 6:10), so that being boxed in would no longer be a lived reality. Christ became human and experienced for himself what it means to be boxed in so that humans could live life outside of the box.
This life that Christ gives, this life outside of the box, this is the life of the resurrection. After dying on the cross, Jesus remained in the tomb for two days. Trapped in a “box” carved out of rock, it seemed that death had won. But early in the morning on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit! Christ burst forth from the tomb, shattering the box and defeating death. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. By trusting in God and believing that God raised Jesus from the dead, we can rest assured that God will raise us as well. No longer do we have to live in fear of death. No longer do we have to be boxed in. In Christ, God has displaced the despair of the box with the hope of the resurrection. This resurrected reality is the reality of God’s kingdom, a kingdom Jesus described as being in our midst (Luke 17:21).
As the body of Christ, the church is charged to live as if the kingdom is our present reality. Although the fullness of the kingdom will not be fulfilled until Christ returns again, we bear faithful witness to that return by living as if Christ has already come back. This means imagining and creating a world where death no longer reigns. This means imagining and creating a world where the fear of death no longer distorts our vision of life. This means imagining and creating a world where every human being can live life outside of the box. For the good news of the kingdom of God is not simply hope for a future and eternal life with God beginning in heaven. The good news of the kingdom of God is hope for eternal life with God that begins on earth—right here and right now. The good news of the kingdom of God is heaven breaking in on earth and blowing to bits the boxes that entrap our souls.
Speaking as Israel’s prophets once did, to shake God’s people from their apathetic slumber, Yaves speaks to God’s people in urban communities across the United States. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—young people who live with a daily fear of death and imprisonment. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—men and women coming home from prison who are not being given a second chance. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—failing public schools that create communities lacking the social and economic capital necessary to thrive and flourish. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—racially biased media that demonize and vilify particular members of society. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—those who hang on the right and those who hang on the left of the cross of Christ.
Today, people of God, we must awake, rise from our slumber, and allow the light of Christ to shine on and through his body—the church. And may the Christ, who on the cross fellowshipped and communed with criminals, grant his church the same ability he granted them, the ability to live life outside of the box!
Brandon J. Hudson is a third year Master of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. He is interested in the intersection of Christian ethics, the mission of the church, and urban community development. Brandon is a lover of hip hop, makes his own music, and has a particular passion for using popular culture to reach young people of color in poor, marginalized and underresourced neighborhoods. He wants to see the church become a community of moral virtue that can provide an alternative formation to the individualistic, materialistic, and nihilistic ethos of contemporary US culture. You can reach Brandon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to some of Brandon’s own hip hop here:
“By Your Side”
1 Alexia Cooper and Erica Smith, “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008: Annual Rates for 2009 and 2010,” US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (November 2011), 15, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/htus8008.pdf.
2 Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, “Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity,” The Sentencing Project (July 2007), 3,
3 Scripture citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.
4 Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives: Sermons and Prayers by Karl Barth (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), 76-77.