Posts tagged justice

So I've been hosting this summer chat on the book Radical Reconciliation. You can find more details about that HERE. We just finished chapter two on Rizpah, and I thought I'd share a few thoughts with you. 

I am really digging Rizpah. I keep returning to her story because I continue to be absolutely intrigued by her. If you've not heard of her, please read II Samuel 21:1-14. 

1. I am not entirely sure she is seeking reconciliation. It has taken me years to articulate for myself that justice comes before reconciliation. Rizpah doesn't seem at all interested in reconciling anyone. She is clearly focused on defending the dignity of the bodies she protects. She is intent on caring for them despite the stench, despite the danger, despite the carelessness on the part of other people. She is singularly focused. And yet her actions bring more than I suspect she anticipated. I find great hope in this.

2. I cannot get over the poetic nature of her using the sackcloth as a tent. The sackcloth was meant to aid her mourning. We see the use of sackcloth throughout the Scriptures. But Rizpah doesn't just wear it or rip it... She uses it. She uses it to form a tent to protect her from the elements as she protects the bodies. That blows me away. I still cannot comprehend the pain of mothers who fight for the dignity of their children who have been murdered due to state violence. I dont understand how they march, how they speak, how they host vigils and services and rallies. I refuse to pretend to "get it". I just want to honor it. I want to honor their strength. 

3. But even with all of that said, I dont want to dehumanize Rizpah. I dont want to make her super human or superwoman. She needed a tent because she needed protection. I imagine she was fearful and tired and overwhelmed. I imagine she got sick once or twice out there. I imagine was scared out of her mind the first time she had to fight back a large animal. I imagine she was hurt and lonely all by herself up there. I imagine she wished someone would do more than just talk to her or about her. I imagine she wanted some help. And I imagine she made some people mad. I imagine there were those who defended what David had done. I imagine some people thought he actions were too much, over the top, disrespectful of the state, of the king. I imagine she was altogether human. 

This 3rd point is important to me because this work is hard, yall. I think some people assume that it comes naturally for women of color, or that we have no choice. But let me clear up any misconceptions. Turning sackcloth into tents is hard work. Beating back those who would do us or those are love harm, is excruciating. I get my feelings hurt all the time. All the time. The hate mail hurts, the aggressive, accusatory "questions" hurt. Being put on the spot, embarrassed, shut out, looked over, and passed over- hurt. I am human. My sisters who do this work are human. I love Rizpah for her strength, but I refuse to indulge that she might have been impervious to pain. 

Still Rizpah  makes me want to be better. She makes me want to expect more. I think of Rizpah and I sense my own strength to fight for my community. 

I've met a lot of Rizpahs. Those who are tired of the hashtags because you feel the loss of each name you type. I imagine there are some Rizpahs out there who are overwhelmed by having to fight for so many lives- not just those who are close to you, but the collective, the lives all over the country, all over the world. I suspect that many of you are tired from beating back the buzzards- those who would continue to disrespect the names, the lives of people you love. Tired of fighting against the media (mis)representation, tired of sharing that yet another death will go unpunished. My guess is many of you are tired. If I may, I want to say that you are not alone. That we are not just talking about your efforts; we are with you. We fight with you. You can sleep in the tent for a little while, because you no longer fight alone. Rizpah did this work all by herself. But I am determined to start a tribe that knows you dont have to fight alone.

We are with you. 

Let Justice Roll

Y'all, I have been avoiding writing this. For days now, I have been unable to get out of my mind that Department of Justice report on how the community of Ferguson has been unjustly policed. It is almost midnight as I write this, so I am going to keep my comments short, but I hope they are received with openness. My hope truly is not to stir up controversy or restart conversations from the beginning. It is my desire only to express why Christians ought to care about the contents of this report. I submit to you that it is our duty not to brush it aside, but to be full of repentance and to seek correction.  

Whether reading snippets of the report, listening to the Attorney General summarize the findings, or reading the entire thing- there is little good to be found in this report. The number of civil rights violations is quite appalling. Allow me to cite just a few examples: 

  • Ferguson’s harmful court and police practices are due, at least in part, to intentional discrimination, as demonstrated by direct evidence of racial bias and stereotyping about African Americans by certain Ferguson police and municipal court officials. (source)
  • Routine interactions between officers and black residents quickly escalated. In 2012, for example, an officer patted down a black man whose car appeared to violate a city code on window tinting. The man was ultimately arrested on eight offenses, including “making a false declaration” by giving his nickname instead of the name on his license. Over the course of the arrest, the officer accused him of being a pedophile, asked to search his car without cause and reportedly held a gun to his head. (source
  • Officers violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force. Officers frequently infringe on residents’ First Amendment rights, interfering with their right to record police activities and making enforcement decisions based on the content of individuals’ expression (source)
  • The Ferguson Police Department used tasers and dogs in excess on black suspects. In 2013, one man was chased down and bitten by an officer’s dog even though the officer had frisked him and knew the man was unarmed. The officer’s supervisor later justified the use of force with a patently untrue statement, suggesting that the officer feared “that the subject was armed.” (source)
  • Ferguson police and court officials were focused on generating revenue from municipal fines. The municipal court routinely considered more than 1,000 offenses in a single session. In 2011, the police chief reported that fines in the last month “beat our next biggest month in the last four years by over $17,000.” The city manager responded: “Wonderful!” (source)
  • The Ferguson Municipal Court practices exacerbating the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices and imposing particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing (source)
  • In nearly 90% of cases in which Ferguson documented the use of force, those actions were used against African Americans. A review of 161 such cases by Justice investigators found that none of the incidents resulted in disciplinary action. (source)
  • Several police and court employees expressed racist views in emails and interviews. Messages between Ferguson officials compared African-Americans to chimpanzees and characterized a black woman’s abortion as an effective crime-stopping tool. (source)
  • Attorney General Holders summary remarks can be seen (here

The list of civil rights violations seems to be unending. For this alone we ought to be outraged for our fellow citizens. In fact, we should be sick to our stomachs for these normalized and institutionalized acts of dehumanization.

So often, when we talk of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's, we all want so badly to believe that we would have stood on the right side of history- that we would have marched, would have protested, would have sung freedom's songs. And yet, here the opportunity stands before us to be outraged, to be demanding, to protest this treatment of black citizens... and yet. Compared to the atrocities listed here, the nation is relatively silent. The community residents and activists of Ferguson once again lead the way in demanding equal treatment under the law. 

But this is only one reason why we ought to be outraged, the other is because this level of injustice is an outrage to God. This is nothing short of an abuse of power, crushing the heads of the poor (Amos 2:7) to line the pockets of the powerful. This "justice" system is being used to steal as much money as is possible from residents, and the spoil of the poor is in their houses (Isaiah 3:14). Using minor offenses, the residents are subject to physical, mental, emotional and economic abuses. And this is done with rejoicing! They love evil and hate what is good (Micah 3:1) With pleasure and laughter, cheers for a job well done and offensive emails they reinforce the dehumanization of residents among one another. 

The prophets spoke against this behavior, over and over again. We have no credibility shouting in our churches for "justice to roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever flowing stream" (Amos 5:24) if we do not wrestle with what is happening in Ferguson and far too many other cities across America. We have no credibility to wear t-shirts that read "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8)- if we dont intend to actually practice justice for all. 

I'm not sure where we picked up this idea that a citizen breaking the law is the ultimate offense, rather than expecting those in power to not abuse their authority. My guess is its because there are some communities who face this treatment daily, and others who can barely fathom it. But we must. We must wrap our minds around this crooked and unjust system. We must read it and respond in righteous indignation. We must read it and hold our authorities to a higher standard. Justice systems exist because we know that residents break laws. And while this is certainly not honorable, what is far worse and far more unacceptable is for the authorities to create offenses, to over fine, to sick dogs, and to hold guns to citizens heads for his windows being tinted. 

If it were your community, if it was your brother's house being raided constantly, if it was your sister's fines stacking up because there is no place for appeal, if it was your neighbor's child bitten by a dog, would that be enough to care? Because these are our brothers and sisters and neighbors. And we, as Christians, must hold ourselves responsible for seeking justice where there is a system of injustice. 

The DOJ report contains "recommendations" for fixing these issues. The residents of Ferguson are seeking new leadership to establish just systems for their lives. Lets make sure we have their back by staying informed on the progress and lending our support as residents have need. And lets make sure we are staying aware of any communities near us experiencing the same.  


Demonstrating Christ

"Be patient," they say. 

"Be peaceful," they say.

"Just wait," they say," for this is how Christ behaved... MLK behaved... the truly godly behave"

But I serve a demonstrating Christ. 

I serve a Christ who walked into the temple, looked around and felt anger. Who fashioned a whip for the purpose of driving folks out. Suddenly tables crash to the floor. Money clangs as it scatters across the floor. Feet pounding, tripping, running, racing to get out of there. Benches over turn. A whip slices through the air. A voice roars, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of robbers."   

I serve a demonstrating Christ. Though we often skip this story. This story wedged in all four gospels, the final provocation for killing the man called Jesus.  But we skip it because it serves us no more. We have no need for this Jesus because we don't make animal sacrifices anymore. We are never in danger of bringing in too many bleating animals, of exploiting too much in a cash exchange, of walking through our church carrying cows, goats or doves. So we explain this passage not as a story unto itself but only in service for why Christ died. 

But what if this moment is about more. More than money. More than animals. More than noise. What if this is about a demonstrating Christ who was consumed by love for the temple, the gathering place where God met man. What if this is a story about the need for the nations to come. The need for the space to be cleared so that nothing stood in the way for the scattered to arrive. We commonly refer to this story as "Jesus cleansing the temple" and I would like to submit to you today that the Church still needs cleansing. 

Because America has erected a far more dubious system for keeping people out. 

Out of our schools. 

Out of our neighborhoods.

Out of our churches. 

Out of our leadership. 

Out of our communities.

Out of our conscience.  

We indeed have a sacrificial system, extorted for gain. Its called racism and black bodies are the ones dying. Indeed America has perfected the systemic art of thievery and segregation.

For what feels like forever we have watched the taking of black lives again and again and again. Unarmed their black bodies have been cause enough to extract a final breath. Black bodies have only been welcome here so long as they are willing to bend to the white will. Black bodies have been welcome here so long as they are willing to hand over all that they are in pleasure to the white whim. Black bodies have been welcome here so long as they keep in line, stay in their place, remain locked out or locked up. Any violation of the white will is cause for judgement, correction, threat, death. Head over to social media and it is overrun with photos of the white will violating white law and yet over and over again this does not result in death. And while the black community mourns, the segregation is on display. The racist thought patterns are on display. Displeasure with how we mourn, how we grieve, how we scream, how we cry is met with icy cold disdain. And touting civility as the highest form of godliness, we are asked to be patient, peaceful, wait. 

But I serve a demonstrating Christ. Surely Christ could have stood on the steps of the temple, at the entrance and waved his arm toward the commotion. Surely he could have declared to anyone who would stop long enough to listen, "Do you see what is happening in there?" "Don't you think someone should stop this?" Surely he could have taken his twelve from stall to stall and quietly pointed out each atrocity before his eyes. Calmly explaining his rationale to each seller, he could have ministered to each one persuading them to do what it right. Surely he could have been patient and kind asking each one to please leave the temple. Surely he could have used humor to catch people off guard. Or perhaps he could have waited- waited until the day was done, until Passover was done, until the Temple was done. Surely he could have... could have done anything other than demonstrate. 

But I serve a Christ who disrupts.

And we are called to demonstrate Him, right? 

So how long before you unseat privilege and power? How long before you turn over the tables of injustice? How long before you whip your congregation into shape, beat out racist ideology and roar your displeasure? How long before you scatter your donors and donations? How long before you throw your gains to the floor? How long before you are consumed by more than four walls. How long before you are consumed by love for EVERY body.  How long before the bodies which contain the Spirit of the Lord matter more than property, wealth, and power? How long? How long before you disrupt antiblack thought patterns? How long before you cast out problematic language? How long before you call out racist actions?

When will you take a stand? 

When will you be fed up?

You know, like Christ.  

Justice, then Reconciliation
Photo by Anna J. Yoder. Click through to view her portfolio.

Photo by Anna J. Yoder. Click through to view her portfolio.

We use the language of reconciliation fairly often in Christian social justice circles. Sometimes we offer ourselves synonyms like diversity or multiculturalism, but I think it's really important for us to explore the realities of practicing reconciliation. The fact that there is no singular definition of racial reconciliation, practically speaking, has created a situation where we are not entirely sure when we're doing it and when we are failing miserably at it. So let's explore the requirements for reconciliation to take place.

Heres what many think reconciliation looks like:

1. Having friends of color
2. Having diverse congregations
3. Serving in justice ministries
4. Hiring a person of color

I know this is going to be a little disheartening, so I am just going to say it. None of these things fall under the umbrella of reconciliation without one very large precondition: Justice.

Thats right. You could have an Asian friend, attend a diverse church, read to Latino children after school, and hire a Black speaker for the conference you're planning--- and still you may not actually be practicing reconciliation in your life. Why? Because none of these things require the presence of justice, equality, shared power.

Reconciliation is what we practice after we have chosen justice.

Reconciliation requires far more than hugs, small talk, and coffee dates. Being nice is well... nice, but it is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is what we do as we listen to hard truths from the marginalized among us. As our friends point out how troubling our words have been, how hurtful our actions have been, it's our reaction that determines whether or not we are practicing reconciliation. Drinking in the words. Sitting in the pain. Committing to understanding. Committing to doing better. Desiring the hard truths because they lead to growth. These are the sign posts on the path of reconciliation. It's spending time in each other's spaces- physical space, head space, heart space. And it's creating shared spaces where both can breathe freely.

Reconciliation requires more than a rainbow of skin-tones at the 11:00 o'clock service. Diversity without justice is assimilation. And assimilation makes clear whose culture is the favored one, the good one, the right one, the holy one. If your culture is the standard for rightness, you have found the Imago Dei in others to be insufficient. It is the definition of racism- the assumed superiority of your race, your culture, your way of being. We can discuss who is assimilating into what, how and why, but a pound of diversity without an ounce of justice, is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is how we respond after being told we are racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, agist, ableist congregation hiding behind platitudes of love rather than acting justly. Reconciliation is having our hearts broken that people are experiencing these things, not having our feelings hurt for being called out on it. Reconciliation is staying in relationship until all these are cast out and love reigns.

Reconciliation requires more than hiring a person of color. Reconciliation is when we cheer for decisions to implement new, just policies and processes. Reconciliation is our commitment to stay in organizations that restructure leadership positions and add co-positions in order to place marginalized voices front and center. If your leadership (or speaker line-up or authors or cabinet or board of directors or elders or management) is monocultural, you should ask yourself whether or not you have bought into the lie- that whiteness is preferable. Could it be that your leadership reflects a belief (conscious or not) that leaders must be like you? Act like you. Speak like you. Dress like you. Think like you. If you have a negative reaction to sharing power, raising up new leaders, adding decision-makers who embody diverse experiences, you're not ready for the work of reconciliation.

Reconciliation requires more than serving people of color. Reconciliation is what we do while we confess the ways folks have been excluded, left out, cast aside, downgraded, and treated only as recipients of paternalistic spirituality. If you only encounter "the other" through participation in a clear hierarchy of power and therefore value, it might be service, but it is not reconciliation. Are you in a position of equality or subordination to those you "serve"? Are you just the feet to the plan created by those experiencing homelessness? Are you advocating according to the instructions of those who eat at your food pantry? Are you learning the Scriptures from those who are imprisoned? Are you so valuing the innate human dignity of the marginalized that you are willing to share power or even submit your will to the oppressed? If so you might be moving from service work to reconciliation work.

I believe each if these can be on-ramps to the work of reconciliation. I do not believe one of these is better or more impactful than another. They each have the ability to open us wide, to challenge us beyond measure, to make us better people. They have a tendency to bleed into one another. When you've grappled with one, it's impossible to turn away from the others. They chase after one another desiring the fullness of the Kingdom. It's not easy work. The internal work and external effort can be gut wrenching. And yet. And yet there is no experience like working toward justice and watching reconciliation unfold.