Theology Lessons from a Ghetto Star

When the phone rang at his friend’s house, Tommy Shakur Ross picked up the receiver. […]

Chad Bird / 8.1.17

When the phone rang at his friend’s house, Tommy Shakur Ross picked up the receiver. And into his ears fell razor-sharp words that would keep falling and falling, shredding his insides in their violent descent…

Tommy—who goes by Shakur—was a member of the L.A. gang, the Eight Trays. Raised by a minister father and church-going mother, Shakur discovered within the gang a new identity, a new culture, new aspirations. He even received a new name; he became Joker.

But despite his moniker, Joker was dead serious. He was out to earn a reputation, score points, become famous. He says he was “campaigning himself.”

And his campaign was a success. From the age of 13 to 19—his entire teen years—he polished his image as a self-described ghetto star, scaling the gang’s ladder of success from purse-snatching to car theft to more violent crimes. Whatever the older boys did, he pushed himself to outdo. He had to establish himself at a level that was superior to his peers.

He was at “the height of [his] career,” as he calls it, when his world imploded. A rival gang member, Stanford Bursey, from The Rolling 60’s, insulted him inside a liquor store. So Shakur walked out to his car, retrieved his weapon, and put five slugs inside Bursey when he exited the store.

Four days later, Shakur received that phone call at his friend’s house. In retaliation, members of The Rolling 60’s had shown up at his family’s home. They murdered Shakur’s mother and fifteen-year-old brother. An eye for an eye, blood for blood. And as Shakur hung up the receiver, he knew, he knew all too well, that their innocent blood was on his hands.

That was September of 1985. Shakur was 19 years old. He’s spent the last three decades in San Quentin State Prison. He told his story recently on the podcast, “Ear Hustle,” which, as NBC News reports, “appears to be the first podcast produced entirely from inside the walls of a federal or state prison.”

What I find most fascinating about Shakur’s story is not the murder, or the retaliation, or the years he’s spent incarcerated, but something more seemingly mundane: the ambition that paved the way for it all.

If you strip away the details of the ghetto and the gang culture, if you listen to Shakur from Los Angeles as you might listen to Michael from Des Moines or Michelle from Santa Fe, you’ll hear eerily similar stories. They are out to make a name for themselves, earn a reputation, scale the ladder, score points, make it big. Shakur did it on the streets of L.A. Perhaps Michael wants to do it in the tech industry. Michelle in media. But all three are chasing the identical vain and destructive phantom: a self-identity and self-worth formed by success and fueled by ambition.

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life,” Paul writes (1 Thess 4:11). Obviously, Paul needed to spend more time learning the American beatitudes. Blessed are the forceful, for theirs is the kingdom of success. Blessed are the ambitious, for they shall rise above their peers. “Make it your ambition,” we correct Paul, “to lead a loud and busy life, to burn the candle at both ends, to outdo your peers, to be a rising star in the ghetto or the boardroom. Or the church. And don’t let anything or anyone stand in your way.”

But Paul knew what he was talking about. He knew what happens when a person sets out on a quest for self-worth and self-identity in a passion, a career, a moral crusade. He had been, after all, a rising star in the rabbinic world. A zealous defender of the faith of his fathers on the streets of Jerusalem. A pious thug who hunted down followers of Jesus. He had made it his ambition to stomp out this new and dangerous sect called Christianity.

When Shakur first arrived in prison, he listened over and over to “Purple Rain.” “I never meant to cause you any sorrow. I never meant to cause you any pain,” Prince sang. And Shakur sang. And baptized the lyrics with tears. Here were the rotten fruits of his ambition to be Somebody. Now, many years later, he admits, “Thirty one years in prison. Murdering someone’s son, and being responsible for the death of my mother and little brother. Some ghetto star.”

Many of us—including me—have learned the excruciating lessons of Shakur: that ambition, most of the time, is just a sly nickname for the exaltation of the ego. Seeking self above all things. Being what David Foster Wallace calls “lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.”

But there is another way, a better way. Paul calls it leading “a quiet life.” We might call it leading a life in someone else’s life. Being quiet so we can hear the word of Another. An extraneous existence found completely outside oneself. “You have died,” Paul writes elsewhere, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” (Col 3:3).

It is a strange life to live hidden in another’s life. But it is also profoundly human. To disconnect our eyes from our navel, to bury our desires in another’s love, to look into the face of the God who is human, and to see therein a reflection of our true and core identity. “Our hearts are restless,” Augustine says. Yes, and they are ambitious, self-seeking, and ultimately self-disappointing—until they die and come to life again that they might rest in the heart of our Father.

There, in him who made us, we are Undone Redone, as one ministry puts it. “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation,” (2 Cor 5:17). Redone. Recreated. A new creation that has no more need for establishing “my identity” or “my worth” because everything we need is found not in the “my” but the “Thou.”

That’s the thing about Jesus: he leaves no more room for self-anything. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” (Gal 2:20). Rather than ambition, Christ advances a kind of subversive drive. The drive to dive into and disappear into him. The drive to pour one’s love into the neighbor. The drive to decrease that Christ may increase.

And in that Jesus-kind-of-drive, we discover what we’d really wanted all along: blind acceptance, one-way love, forgiveness without boundaries or fine print. A post-self life in the grace-giving Christ whose sole ambition was to give up everything to make us his own.