Did Mike Brown die for being black?

Image: violent protests flare after autopsy findings

By Alan Bean

Police officers in America don’t think it’s okay to gun down unarmed people, regardless of race.  If that’s so (and I believe it is) why are so many young black males dying in police-related incidents?  

To address this question you must understand a couple of things.  Gun violence in the United States is incomparably worse than in almost any western democracy you can name; and the vast majority of that violence is perpetrated by the residents of extremely poor, extremely segregated and extremely unstable neighborhoods.  

Black males are dying from gun violence at six times the rate of white males, and it is almost always at the hands of other black males.  That said, black-on-black crime does not give police officers cart blanche to gun down unarmed people who represent no immediate threat.  

Nor is it helpful to discuss the terrible gun violence tearing apart our poorest neighborhoods without inquiring into the social, economic and historical roots of the mayhem.  People aren’t dying from gun play because black people are inherently violent or because Hip Hop culture glorifies violence.  The vast majority of people who live in high-poverty communities are hard-working and law abiding.  But when jobs, opportunity and hope are sucked out of a community, an underground economy rooted in drugs and prostitution takes over and bad things happen.

Drug dealing and street gangs don’t translate naturally into high rates of gun violence.  Most gang members hate the bloodshed that surrounds them and wish it would stop.  Most gangs don’t kill anyone in an average year.  Most of the killing is driven by a handful of psychopaths who are exhilarated by gun violence and the terror it creates.  Not everyone involved in gun violence is a psychopathic killer, mind you, but the madness can be traced to a relative handful of individuals.

As one would expect, high poverty, high-crime, high-violence neighborhoods receive more than their share of police attention, but that fact itself doesn’t explain the high number of police-related deaths in America. As a recent article in the Economist pointed out, police in Britain hardly ever kill anyone, and they are rarely killed. In 2013, 30 police officers died from gun violence in the United States.  That’s not nearly as many deaths as consumers of American television might have anticipated, but it’s enough to inject high anxiety into cop culture

Police officers who spend much of their time on the mean streets easily imagine that everybody is gunning for them.  It isn’t true, but this fear becomes institutionalized and the strong-arm tactics often employed by highly militarized police departments exacerbate the problem by spreading fear and mistrust through troubled communities. The police are viewed as an occupying force that has little interest in protecting or  serving the community.

When an unarmed young man like Mike Brown is gunned down by a police officer, his friends and family automatically assume that the killing was premeditated and motivated by racial animus.

In most cases, neither assumption is accurate.  Racism is an ugly feature of American life, and police culture is hardly immune from its toxic influence.  A recent survey found that the international media outlets, almost unanimously, have interpreted recent events in Ferguson as evidence that America still has a profound race problem.  We might not like to think of our country in those terms; but that’s how we appear from the outside.  

That said, you will almost never see a police officer discharge his weapon out of simple racial malice.

Most police shootings come with a backstory.  Traumatized officers react irrationally when they are threatened sufficiently.  PTSD isn’t just a feature of military culture. Officers snap.  They go off.  It’s wrong, and when it happens there must be consequences.  But you almost never see a white officer take a pot shot at an unarmed black male just for the hell of it.

Racial profiling is part of the problem.  Although black males are associated with gun violence in the popular mind, the vast majority of these kids are non-violent by temperament, training and conscious choice.  When you live by the gun, you die by the gun and at-risk kids know it.  But faced with a threatening situation, white officers easily fall victim to their own biases.  

Race is part of the problem, but only a part.

A recent Gallup poll revealed that 59% of whites have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police, compared with only 37% of blacks.  A full 25% of blacks and 12% of whites have little or no confidence in the police.  Put all these numbers together and its clear that law enforcement has a public relations problem.  Not all white people support the police without question; and not all black people believe the cops are out to get them; but the racial divide is pretty clear.

20140818_194356Earlier this week, I attended a public meeting in Dallas related to police shootings.  Dallas County may soon create an independent board to look into these incidents, and DA Craig Watkins, Sheriff Lupe Valdez, and Police Chief David Brown used the troubles in Ferguson to address the local situation.  

Watkins and Brown are black and both men grew up in Dallas, so they have experienced racial profiling up close and personal.  But they also share a deep appreciation for the challenges facing law enforcement, and neither man believes that police shootings result from simple racial animus.

The meeting was contentious, occasionally lurching in the direction of chaos.  Family members who had lost children and siblings in police-related shootings came to the meeting looking for answers and some long-belated justice.  Some were quiet and respectful; others addressed the public officials on stage as if they were personally responsible for the problem.  If you asked these grieving family members if their child was gunned down simply for being black, most would have responded, “Hell, yeah!”

This reaction is natural.  A mother who has identified the bullet-strewn body of a darling child in the morgue can be forgiven for feeling this way.  That’s the way it feels, no question.  

But when activists leap to the same conclusion, I have less sympathy.  Feelings are running high in the wake of the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ham-handed, aggressive and often bizarre response of law enforcement has only fanned the flames.  

But Mike Brown wasn’t shot simply because he was black.  Racism played a role in the scenario, but when all the facts are out we will likely be able to understand the officer’s tragic over-reaction as well as we understand the sorrow of Mr. Brow’s family.  Regardless of what motivated Darren Wilson to discharge his weapon repeatedly at an unarmed man, the color of Mike Brown’s skin wasn’t the primary instigator.  

Race played a role in this incident, but it was one factor among many. If Mike Brown was a white kid, he would probably be alive today; but being black is only part of the reason he is dead.

We need to consider the role of racism and ignorance play in police culture; events in Ferguson make that painfully clear. America has a racial problem and we have a gun problem.  In Ferguson, Missouri, those problems converged in a tragic way.  But let’s consider all the issues together because they are part of the same toxic phenomenon.

Healing the cop-community divide in Ferguson, Missouri

IMG_0005-638x466By Alan Bean

Michael Brown was unarmed when Darren Wilson gunned him down. Now the  police chief of Ferguson, Missouri is suggesting that Brown was died because officer Wilson believed he had stolen a box of cigars.  

I suppose that bit of information is supposed to alter our perception of this story.

Unfortunately, a lot of people, most of them white and middle class, will be satisfied with the cigar-theory because it fits with one of their core beliefs: law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear from police officers.  Therefore, If you are shot by a police officer, you are a thug.  End of story.

We all assumed that officer Wilson started shooting after the situation had spun out of control.  He didn’t just walk up to a random black guy and discharge his weapon because he hates Black people.

But too much attention to the backstory can deflect us from the real issues.  

Under what circumstances can a police officer legitimately discharge his weapon?  If the officer’s life is threatened?  In order to stop an active shooter?

However we answer the question, the killing of Michael Brown cannot be justified.  Was Brown was the studious “gentle giant” described by friends and family?  Was he the cigar-stealing punk the police chief would have us imagine?  Was he a complicated combination of the two profiles: a punk with potential, if you will?  

It doesn’t matter.  Darren Wilson cannot justify his actions.  

But this isn’t just about a single officer and it isn’t just about Ferguson, Missouri; this is about America.  This is about you and me.

Officer Wilson is responsible for his actions, but he has also been shaped by the culture of the Ferguson Police Department and, more broadly, by cop culture.

When racial tension flares in places like Tulia, Texas or Jena, Louisiana, the media ask if old-school racism is uniquely rampant in that town or if the folks crying foul are blowing things out of proportion. When journalists and TV cameras enter the picture you will see some grandstanding, and this St. Louis suburb is no exception.  The person who screams the loudest gets on the evening news.  But the mistrust between cops and community in Ferguson is real and, more to the point, it’s a nationwide phenomStar-Wars-Stormtroopers-via-AFPenon.

Can we learn from Ferguson, Missouri, or is this just another news hook on which pedants and culture warriors can hang their hats?

We can learn a lot.

Here’s the first big takeaway: the militarization of law enforcement is a really bad idea.  

When police officers don riot gear, brandish assault weapons, and stare down at the populace from armored tanks, the cop-community divide becomes a yawning chasm.  When police officers look like Star Wars Storm-troopers they begin to act the part.  

Observers on the civil rights left and the libertarian right are reaching the same conclusion: soldiers and police officers perform very different responsibilities and should dress accordingly.  Protesters facing rubber bullets, tear gas and heavily armored men enmeshed in riot gear feel their community is being invaded and respond accordingly.

Ferguson police officers in riot gear.

Ferguson police officers in riot gear.

The mood shifted in Ferguson the second Captain Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol arrived on the scene.  The officers under his command showed up in normal police attire and Captain Johnson set an example for his officers by wading into the crowd, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and establishing a genuine rapport with the protesters.  

The contrast in style and outcome was too stark to be ignored or explained away.  The Department of Defense must stop sending surplus military gear to local law enforcement.  They don’t need it, it’s counterproductive, and it sends precisely the wrong message.

In addition, Ferguson teaches us that the cop-community divide can be overcome.  

The best work on this subject comes from David Kennedy, a criminologist who has been studying the cop-community issue for decades.  Kennedy directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and teaches criminal justice at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  His book, Don’t Shoot, provides a blueprint for healing violent communities.  

A couple of quotes from my review of Don’t Shoot will give you the gist of his argument. Ferguson, Missouri is an inner suburb of St. Louis, not exactly the inner city, high-poverty, high-crime community Kennedy describes in his book, but his portrait of the problem is still on target.

When Kennedy talks about working with the community, most cops tell him “there’s no community to work with . . . Everybody . . . is living off drug money, nobody cares, there’s no community left.”   Police officers “don’t understand the anger, see only excuses and victimhood.”  Cops don’t dislike black people, Kennedy insists, and they haven’t written off black America.  Police officers, black and white alike, “have written off the neighborhoods, the communities.”

Call this racism, Kennedy asserts, and cops shut down.  It isn’t racism, as the word is normally defined, “But it’s all soaked in race, simmering every day in our real, toxic history of racism, in the racism that remains.”

David Kennedy

David Kennedy

Even in the most crime-ridden communities, Kennedy says, the majority of people are law-abiding and hard working.  Unfortunately, frequent encounters with the least functional elements of a community can warp the perspective of police officers, especially when the majority of residents see the police as an occupying force and react accordingly. 

Police officers abuse the residents of inner city neighborhoods and cut legal corners because, in their jaded and cynical eyes, every young man they see is a drug dealer and the community either endorses or tolerates their activities.  Kennedy loves police culture and enjoys being with cops, but he deplores “the kind of policing that makes citizens in these neighborhoods think, at best, that the police are not on their side, and at worst that they are a race enemy.”  If the police are viewed in this way, “there can be no rightful place for the law . . . When standing against guns and drugs and violence means standing with a race enemy, not many will stand.  When doing something means putting your own sons and grandsons and neighbors in prison, not many will do something.”

The cop-community divide was exacerbated in Ferguson because the local police department remained overwhelmingly White long after the community had become 65% Black.  But, as Kennedy insists, this isn’t just a black-white problem.  Many Black officers are eager to show that they won’t cut their own people any slack.  “I came up hard and I have made something of myself,” they tell themselves, “so I have zero tolerance for kids that won’t try.”

Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol didn’t bridge the cop-community divide because he is Black; he transformed a toxic situation because he treated protesters like citizens in good standing, people performing a civic service by demanding liberty, justice and protection for all.  

Last night, local clergy, Black and White, Protestant and Roman Catholic, linked arms in Ferguson in a remarkable sign of unity.  Real racial reconciliation can be built on that kind of foundation.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore

Tragically, most of the leading lights of the White evangelical world have paid little attention to the Ferguson story, possibly because they have nothing to say.  Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is a blessed exception.  Here’s the concluding words of his thoughtful post:

If we start to see more churches so alive to the gospel that they are not segregated out as “white” or “black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” or “white collar” or “blue collar,” we will start to reflect something of a kingdom of God made up of those from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language (Rev. 5:9). And as we know one another as brothers and sisters, we will start to speak up for one another, including in the public square.  Ferguson reminds us that American society has a long way to go in healing old hatreds. Our churches are not outposts of American society. Our churches are to be colonies of the kingdom of God. Let’s not just announce what unity and reconciliation ought to look like. Let’s also show it.

Moore proves that the warm language of evangelical piety can address the racial divide.  The churches of Ferguson, Missouri certainly behaved like “colonies of the kingdom of God” last night.  As a white Episcopal priest put it:

“The point is to win hearts, and we believe there is gospel truth in that voice of the young people from Ferguson. We’re not doing this against the police, we’re doing this for the police.”

Let us pray that the cop-community divide can be healed, in Ferguson, Missouri, and across our troubled nation.

Russell Moore’s critique of Ann Coulter crosses the line

Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter

By Alan Bean

Ann Coulter wrote an offensive column suggesting that Christian missionaries who work in third world countries like Liberia are driven by narcissism.  They are too gutless to fight the culture war in America, she asserts, so the “slink off” to Africa.  If they contract the Ebola virus as a consequence of their cowardice they deserve to die.

Like everything Coulter writes, the post was designed to spark outrage in all right-thinking people.  “Just look what that terrible woman is saying now,” liberals shriek as they race to their computers to spread the word on Facebook.

Soon thousands of outraged right-thinkers are telling the world that Ann Coulter is the worst human being on the planet.

The script is straight out of the old World Wrestling Federation.  It’s Cassius Clay taunting Sonny Liston so the white rubes would pay to see him get knocked out. Continue reading

Jesus and brain science agree: money kills empathy

science-103112-003-617x416By Alan Bean

Although you would never know it from listening to American preaching, Jesus linked poverty with the kingdom of God and affluence with sin.

The text of the first sermon Jesus preached was taken from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable (Jubilee) year of the Lord
(Luke 4)

Notice that all the recipients of kingdom blessing are poor, afflicted, marginalized people.

The last sermon Jesus preached prior to his arrest and crucifixion linked kingdom participation with practical ministry to the poor and dispossessed.  Kingdom people feel the pain of a hurting world and respond with creative acts of mercy that clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and provide justice for the oppressed. (Matthew 25)

Jesus was about feeling the pain of the world and responding with acts of mercy. Feeling pain that doesn’t belong to you (empathy) and healing action are part of the same kingdom dynamic.  What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

The American marriage between free market capitalism and American evangelical piety makes Jesus impossible.  His words are inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.  We want to love Jesus and ascribe to an onward-and-upward, God-wants-to-succeed, greed is good ethic.  We want God and mammon; Jesus and the blessings of capitalism.

And now the counter-intuitive teaching of Jesus is being confirmed by brain science?

A recent study by Canadian neuroscientists at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University suggests that as financial and social advancement changes our brains–and not in a good way.  As money and social standing increase, the study finds, our ability to empathize with poor and marginalized people rapidly diminishes.

If you are building your world on the rock-hard words of Jesus, none of this will come as a surprise, but what’s the takeaway?

Jesus taught that affluent people (that’s me, and it’s probably you) can’t enter God’s merciful kingdom unless we rewire our brains.  As we climb the social ladder, the harder our task becomes.  Not only will we not feel the pain of less fortunate people, we will not want to feel their pain.

Moreover, we will find ourselves surrounded by people who propound clever theories to explain why helping poor people only creates dependency.  These arguments are sleazy, silly and self-serving, but, reinforced by prominent pulpiteers, pundits and politicians, they sound like common sense.  Stay too long in this echo chamber and Jesus is the one who sounds silly.  Eventually, we can’t hear him at all.  We still talk about loving Jesus, but we are worshiping a word, not a person.

So, what’s the alternative?

The first step is to take Jesus at his word, even if that word runs counter to the messages screaming from the smart phone, computer and television screens that shape our thinking.

Secondly, we must find a circle of like-minded disciples who share our desire to take Jesus at his word.  If you don’t have such a circle, create one from scratch (I realize that this can be socially awkward, but your salvation depends on it).

There is good news.  Mounting evidence suggests that American Christianity, evangelical, mainline and Roman Catholic, is beginning to feel the deep contradiction between Jesus and American common sense.  People who take the Bible seriously can’t lie to themselves forever.

Mercifully, Jesus wasn’t subtle about this stuff.

Standing with all God’s children

Gaza childrenAmerica can’t be an honest broker in the Middle East until we celebrate the full humanity of all God’s children.

By Alan Bean

As the body count mounts in Gaza, accusations of biased coverage, and corresponding denials, are piling up in America.  Desperate to appear unbiased, mainline media outlets in the United States are working hard to provide equal time to both sides.  As a result, “we stand with Israel” propaganda competes with evening news footage of mangled Palestinian children.  The debate is being controlled by one-sided commentary that ignores the legitimate demands of both Israelis and Palestinians.

The deadly conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is mired in regional history. Unfortunately, Palestinians and Israelis preach irreconcilable versions of this history and few Western correspondents know enough to adjudicate the conflicting claims.  Besides, why should the evening news bother with the detritus of yesteryear when there’s such wonderful footage of Hamas rockets, bombed out buildings, and grieving mothers?

I won’t attempt an exhaustive history of the Middle East in the 20th century, but will confine myself to three issues.  First, the claim that the Palestinians of Gaza can’t be taken seriously because they embrace Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to the eradication of Israel.  Secondly, how a virulent strain of near-universal Antisemitism made the creation of the modern state of Israel necessary.  Finally, why America can’t serve as an honest broker in the middle east until “we stand with Israel” rhetoric is shelved in favor of a more cumbersome but more gracious slogan: “we stand with Israel and we stand with the Palestinians too.” Continue reading

No one is persecuted for keeping the rules

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff

By Alan Bean

A few years ago,Michelle Alexander reminded me of a curious fact.  English translations of the Bible almost always translate the Greek word for justice, δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune) as “righteousness” instead of justice.  This is curious for two reasons.

First, in classical Greek–Plato’s Republic for instance–δικαιοσύνη is almost always translated into English as “justice”.

Second, Romance languages (Italian, Spanish etc.), lacking the word “righteousness” (from the German “recht”), unwaveringly translate δικαιοσύνη as “justice” simply for lack of an alternative.

So, how do we explain the preference for “rightousness” over “justice” in English translations?

For some background, check out Fred Clark’s helpful post on the subject, On justice vs. ‘righteousness’ in which he shares Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff’s answer to the “why” question.  Here’s the heart of the discussion (my emphasis):

It goes almost without saying that the meaning and connotations of “righteousness” are very different in present-day idiomatic English from those of “justice.” “Righteousness” names primarily if not exclusively a certain trait of personal character. … The word in present-day idiomatic English carries a negative connotation. In everyday speech one seldom any more describes someone as righteous; if one does, the suggestion is that he is self-righteous. “Justice,” by contrast, refers to an interpersonal situation; justice is present when persons are related to each other in a certain way.


… When one takes in hand a list of all the occurrences of dik-stem words in the Greek New Testament, and then opens up almost any English translation of the New Testament and reads in one sitting all the translations of these words, a certain pattern emerges: unless the notion of legal judgment is so prominent in the context as virtually to force a translation in terms of justice, the translators will prefer to speak of righteousness.


Why are they so reluctant to have the New Testament writers speak of primary justice? Why do they prefer that the gospel of Jesus Christ be the good news of the righteousness of God rather than the good news of the justice of God? Why do they prefer that Jesus call his followers to righteousness rather than to justice? I do not know; I will have to leave it to others to answer that question.

Consider the familiar admonition from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”  How would our interpretation of that seminal Jesus-saying change if we were read it the way non-English speakers read it: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s justice”?

The most charitable synonym for “righteous”, as Wolterstorff points out, is “upright”.  Or we may refer to the “moral rectitude” of someone we admire.  But are upright people persecuted, Wolterstorff asks.  In his experience, and in mine, upright people are either admired or ignored.  We may find them annoying, but we don’t persecute them.  No one is persecuted for keeping the rules.

The reason is obvious.  Uprightness refers to being law-abiding, or morally pure. Justice is interpersonal; it refers to the way we interact with other people.  In particular, it deals with how the poor and vulnerable are treated by the powerful.  Only when δικαιοσύνη is used in a context suggesting the criminal justice system do English translators translate it as “justice”.

In other words, we have no quibble with courts passing sentence on miscreants; but we are uncomfortable with the notion that powerful people must protect the rights of poor and vulnerable people because God insists they must.

A simple suggestion: when you come across the word “righteousness” in an English translation of the New Testament, substitute “justice” and watch things change. “Righteousness” is the rhetoric of the status quo; “justice” is revolutionary.




Fear, faith and the border children

I stand with childrenBy Alan Bean

While politicians apportion blame for the thousands of unaccompanied Central American children arriving at our border, the faith community looks for ways to help.

I over-simplify, of course.  We confront a complex tangle of rhetoric and response, and there are plenty of exceptions on both sides of the politician/people divide.

Not all politicians want to send these unaccompanied children back to the chaos and violence that brought them to our border.

Clay Jenkins

Clay Jenkins

A few weeks ago, I heard Dallas County Judge, Clay Jenkins, announce that we would be welcoming at least 2,000 “border children” to our community.  Jenkins told the crowd that 85% of these children would be released into the safe keeping of family members as soon as they were processed by immigration officials; but the remaining 15% needed a safe place where they could receive food, shelter and basic services.  Last week, I attended a religious gathering hosted by a prominent Baptist mega-church at which Jenkins repeated his message to a room dominated by evangelical Christians.

On both occasions, the audience responded with a mixture of enthusiasm, surprise and relief.  If felt so strange to hear a politician speaking from sheer conviction.  Jenkins knew his initiative would be controversial, but when his own children asked him what he was going to do about the kids being warehoused at the border, his faith forced the issue.  He knew what Jesus would do, and didn’t dare take the opposite position.

Texas State Rep. David Simpson

Texas State Rep. David Simpson

And then there’s Texas state representative David Simpson, a telegenic Tea Party conservative with a cowboy hat and a smile.  Simpson outraged his constituency last week by urging a compassionate response to the border children.  “I don’t believe in treating people who’ve crossed the border as a murderer,” Simpson told a town hall gathering dominated by anti-immigrant activists.  “I do think there should be a path, a legal path, for naturalization or citizenship. We’re a nation of immigrants.”

Like Clay Jenkins, David Simpson is taking his cue from his religion.  He quoted Proverbs 20:28, Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and Leviticus 19:33, passages that call for compassionate treatment of resident aliens, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Unfortunately, Jenkins and Simpson are bucking the political consensus.  The prevailing view is that we should send the children back to their homes without delay even if we have to rescind the 2008 William Wilberforce Act to do it.

The Wilberforce Act passed in the dying days of the George W. Bush administration, thanks to the tireless efforts of an unlikely coalition of conservative and liberal organizations.  President Bush welcomed the legislation and it enjoyed the enthusiastic support of evangelical Christians.  Immigrant children from Central America were being targeted by human traffickers and backers of the Wilberforce Act wanted the abuse to stop.

Six years later, Washington is on the verge of scrapping the bill.  No one anticipated tens of thousands of children fleeing north to escape violent drug gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.  Why should we care whether the children huddled in our detention centers are being forced into sexual slavery or into the drug trade.  Children are children; pain is pain.

Prominent politicians on both sides of the ideological divide are holding their hands over their ears to block the elegant logic of compassion.  These kids fled their homes because they feared for their lives and only in America can they be protected.  But Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Boehner, and both Democratic and Republican candidates for Texas governor want to toss the children back into the fire.

But the tide is turning.  You can feel it.  Last week, rallies were organized across the nation to protest the compassionate treatment of the border children.  In some localities only a handful of protesters showed up at these events, and in many cities proponents of compassionate immigration reform outnumbered anti-immigration people two or three to one.

And the surprises just keep coming.  Glenn Beck, the conservative firebrand, organized a caravan of provisions for the border children a few days ago.  Beck feared his followers wouldn’t like the idea (they didn’t), but his heart forced his hand.

George Will

George Will

And then there’s the conservative curmudgeon, George Will, telling the Sunday talk shows that America should welcome the border children with open arms.

“We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school and get a job and become Americans.  We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 [children] per county. The idea that we can’t assimilate these 8-year-old ‘criminals’ with their teddy bears is preposterous.”

Sure, Will is taking a lot of flak for his outspoken views, but I suspect he is buoyed by a tangible shift in the public mood.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore

Much of the credit for changing hearts and minds on this issue goes to conservative Christians. Recently, a contingent of Southern Baptist leaders and Roman Catholic bishops toured the overcrowded immigration facilities at the border.  Speaking at Parkhills Baptist Church in San Antonio, Russell Moore, the outspoken president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, pared the issue back to its theological core:

“As a follower of Jesus Christ, I recognize the answer to this question is going to be very complex politically and very complex socially.  But what is not complex is the truth and reality that every one of these children are created in the image of God, and every one are beloved by God and they matter to God. That means they matter to us.”

The tidal wave of compassion is building deep in the heart of Texas.  Cindy Noble Cole, a Dallas nurse, saw televised pictures of frightened children housed in what appeared to be dog kennels.  So she filled 50 hygiene boxes for the kids and delivered them to Catholic Charities of Fort Worth.  What began as a simple “this is what I’m doing” post on Facebook, quickly blossomed into Operation Matthew 25, a movement that has already sent 500 boxes of hygienic supplies, blankets, activity boxes and school supplies to the border.

Operation Matthew 25I first became aware of Operation Matthew 25 when scores of Facebook friends replaced the usual Glamour shot on their homepage with a little picture that reads, “I stand with refugee children: they are children.”

The folks highlighted above are all over the map politically and theologically, but they understand the elegant logic of Matthew 25: “Inasmuch as you did it unto these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”

The growing people/politician divide on this issue is driven by a simple fact: politicians are running on fear; most people, when they’re sane and centered, are running on faith.

Compassion for the stranger and the alien is central to Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious teaching.  Jesus opened his public ministry with a quotation from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach good news to the poor,” and he closed out his public ministry with the parable of the sheep and the goats. In the kingdom of God, Jesus says, many who are first will be last and the last will be first.

Distracted by politics and our ubiquitous culture war, Christians frequently lose sight of this teaching.  But then we have all these children on our doorstep, and the words of Jesus come flooding back to us.  And when that happens, we do what must be done.

When something must be done and there is nothing good to do

rev-charles-moore-327x388By Alan Bean

When I reflect on the self-immolation of Charles Moore, I can’t help thinking about the Palestinians.

Neither Moore nor the leaders of Hamas have found a way to change circumstances they consider intolerable.

Rev. Moore’s response was to set himself on fire in his home town of Grand Saline, Texas.

Hamas reacts to the seeming omnipotence of the Israeli military by lobbing rockets in the direction of Jewish cities and settlements.

Both actions are deplorable; but I’m not sure I have a viable alternative to offer either Charles Moore or the Palestinians.

Like Jesus and the prophet Jeremiah, Charles Moore experienced the besetting sins of his own people in a horribly visceral way.  Most of us shrug off the racism and homophobia infecting our culture with an air of ironic resignation.  Sure, it’s disturbing that little towns like Grand Saline are still riddled with racial resentment fifty years after the Civil Rights Act passed Congress, but change is always slow and incremental.  And it is truly unfortunate that for centuries our GLBT brothers and sisters were forced into the closet and ridiculed and scorned whenever they dared step out; but we’re making progress, right?

Charles Moore wasn’t wired to think that way.  He dreamed of things that never were and asked “why not?”  And if he couldn’t understand why sin should prevail with only token opposition, it bothered him in a way that few of us can comprehend.

Perhaps you have been too troubled by the specter of self-immolation to think very deeply about Moore’s motivation.  Many have concluded that the United Methodist pastor suffered from depression,but that was clearly not the case.   Continue reading

Why are New York lawyers defending a man who was convicted in 29 minutes?

CurtisFlowers (1)

This afternoon at 1:30 pm (Central time), Sheri Lynn Johnson, the Assistant Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, will be making oral arguments on behalf of Mr. Flowers, and you can watch the proceedings live.  If you have ever wondered if a prosecutor could conjure up a case simply by manipulating weak and vulnerable witnesses, you will want to check out Professor Johnson’s presentation of the facts.

Tied up at 1:30 and can’t tune in live?  Read the text version of the appeal here.  As legal documents go, it’s a page-turner.

Tunnel vision on trial: an innocent Mississippi man gets his day in court

Sheri Lynn Johnson

Since 1997, the state of Mississippi has put Curtis Flowers on trial six times for the same crime.  But they have never been able to lay this case to rest.  Either the jury deadlocks along racial lines, or the state overturns the conviction on the basis of flagrant racial bias.  On Monday, July 21 at 1:30 pm, Sheri Lynn Johnson, the Assistant Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, will be making oral arguments on behalf of Mr. Flowers and you can watch the proceedings live.

You can find the hearing by clicking here.  The feed will likely go “live” about 5 minutes before the 1:30 scheduled start at the Mississippi Supreme Court.

If you can’t watch live, you can find the text version of Professor Johnson’s beautifully crafted appeal here.

The text of Flower’s appeal quickly zeroes in on the salient issue: “Flowers’ sixth trial bore the essential hallmarks of the three proceedings whose outcomes were previously reversed by this Court: weak and unreliable evidence of guilt, and prosecutorial misconduct undertaken to overcome that weakness.”

We are dealing with a case of prosecutorial tunnel vision bathed in racial bias. Shortly after 9 am on July 16th, 1996, four people were found brutally murdered, each with a bullet to the back of the head, in a furniture store in Winona. Three hours later, investigators had ruled out the man tied to the alleged murder weapon and, without a shred of evidence, credible or otherwise, made Curtis Flowers their sole suspect. Continue reading