For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.
-Ephesians 5:8-13 (NIV)
Defending World Series Champs? Yep, but that’s not what I mean. Best pizza city in the nation? Debatable, but quite possibly. But that’s not what I’m talking about. First in medical research? Great museums? Best architecture? You could make a case for Chicago being number one in any of those areas. But, unfortunately, none of those are rankings that came out this week. The list I’m talking about is one that no city wants to be on, much less top. But there we are, right at number one.
According to Orkin Pest Control's annual list, Chicago is the rattiest city in the United States.
Somehow we’re rattier than New York (#2 on the list), where garbage bags sit piled on sidewalks. Somehow we have more rats that Washington D.C. (#3) — but only if you don’t count the ones making policy. Judging by the number of rodent treatments the company performed last year, Chicago is rattier than LA (#4), Philadelphia (#7), Detroit (#9), Boston (#12), and Cleveland (#15).
It’s apparently not for lack of trying to eradicate them. As long as I’ve been here there have been signs in alleys telling residents to make sure to keep their garbage bin lids closed. (Though something chews holes through the lids.) This past summer, Streets and San started a pilot program using contraceptive bait in addition to the usual poison. (Yes, we’re encouraging our rats to have safe sex.) And a few years ago, the city released 60 coyotes with radio tracking collars into the city with the idea that they’d find the rats delicious. (Probably the occasional Yorkshire terrier, too.) We call them, I kid you not, urban coyotes. Sounds to me like it’s going to take more than 60. And I’m not sure coyotes running wild through the city is all that preferable to rats.
To read about our rat problem, you’d think Chicagoans must be knee-deep in them. Here’s the thing, though: I’ve lived in Chicago for about a quarter of a century and in all that time I’ve seen, like, five rats. Tops.
There’s a reason for that, and you don’t have to be a rodent expert to figure it out. The rats prefer it that way. They’d rather not be seen. They don’t care if you know about them, and in fact being known is exactly how they get killed. Rats can only thrive — get food and grow and reproduce (unless they’ve nibbled on Chicago’s contraceptive rat bait) — when they live in darkness and secrecy. And so they’ve learned really well how to stay hidden in a city of three million people. They seek out the dark places. They live in the disused places. The places no human beings want to go are paradise to them.
A lot of what human beings put their minds and hands to do thrives in places like that, also.
For years, decades, a movie producer sexually harasses and assaults hopeful young actresses. This is someone who everyone in Hollywood knows. His habits are an open secret, something movie people warn each other about in whispers. But only in whispers. He’s too powerful, too rich, and has too much influence on the careers and lives of the people who might otherwise report him. So his victims receive his gifts and money and the roles he gives them, and try to forget. The bystanders — some powerful enough to actually do something about it — pretend that they don’t see anything, don’t know anything, that it was all consensual. Darkness is pulled tight around the acts, and they thrive.
Until one person pulls back the curtain and the light rushes in.
If God’s people won’t do that, who should we expect will? If God’s people won’t function as the element of our society that exposes evil to the light, why aren’t we surprised that others won’t?
That’s part of being "the light of the world,” Paul seems to suggest. It’s one thing to say we should “live as children of the light,” uninfluenced by the darkness. Children of light is who we are — not because of ourselves, but because of Jesus. Goodness, righteousness, truth — these things should characterize us. Our lives should be marked by a love for what’s good, a commitment to righteousness in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, and an obligation to tell the truth.
We haven’t always been good at this. Sometimes, we have to admit, the church has lived in darkness. Other times we have been complicit in allowing what’s done in the darkness to go unchallenged by refusing to shine the light of Christ on some particular shadows. We have to repent of those times and ask the Lord to help us be better.
Then there are the times when we’ve been content to live in a bubble that we’ve created for ourselves: Good people, living good lives, but isolated from the world around us. We gather in our ghettoes of light and moan about the darkness around us and promise to have nothing to do with it, but convince ourselves that the Gospel doesn’t make the darkness “out there” our problem.
But not only should we have nothing to do with the darkness — we should expose it. That’s what light does to shadow, of course. It dissipates it. It isn’t about self-righteously and hypocritically sitting in judgment on everyone who sees one social issue or the other differently from us. That we’ve done at times. We’ve become known for it, in fact. Many in our world still today associate the church with this kind of narrow moralizing that we’ve been guilty of cudgeling “sinners” with. It doesn’t roll back the darkness because it isn’t the light of Christ. It’s the garish neon of our smugness and pride and fear. It isn’t living as children of light; it just makes those in darkness dart further into the shadows.
The light of Christ warms as well as illuminates. It defends the weak by exposing those who take advantage of them. It offers hope to people resigned to living in the cold shadows of poverty, disease, death, grief, and tyranny. It shows people who thought they were alone that the darkness they were living in just made them think so. It offers dawn to those who are living in the constant night of addiction, bitterness, and guilt. It illuminates people who have been lost in sin and turns them into light, too.
Aaron Courtney knows something about that. At a protest outside a white supremacist rally at the University of Florida this week, Courtney, a black man, came face to face with a man in a swastika t-shirt in the crowd. Courtney yelled over the screaming, “Why don’t you like me, dog?” When the man wouldn’t answer Courtney’s repeated question, Courtney finally said, “Give me a hug.” After a moment, he wrapped his arms around Courtney. “Why don’t you like me?” Courtney asked again.
“I don’t know,” was the answer.
Light. I don’t know what difference Courtney’s hug made in that guy’s life. But it made one. “I heard God whisper in my ear, ‘you changed his life,’” was Courtney’s take.
Of course he did. That’s what light does.