By Alan Bean
Moral simplicity is all these two men have in common. Listen to them for five minutes and you know what drives them.
In either case, it ain’t complicated. Continue reading
By Alan Bean
Moral simplicity is all these two men have in common. Listen to them for five minutes and you know what drives them.
In either case, it ain’t complicated. Continue reading
Jacob Furr is a Fort Worth musician who, frankly, doesn’t look like the son of a policeman. But he is. You can find more on Jacob’s music here (he’s terrific). I wanted to post this recent Facebook post (with permission, naturally) because this blog is often critical of police officers and Jacob’s celebration of his father’s retirement reminded me that cops are normal people with lives and families who do difficult and dangerous work.
By Jacob Furr
My dad has been holding The Thin Blue Line for 30 years and is retiring tomorrow. Even though he’s not on facebook, I’d like to say something publicly about him.
I’ve been hugging my dad through a bullet proof vest for 30 years. The press of handcuffs, extra ammunition clips, mace on his belt against my stomach and the sharp edges of the badge with the sleeping panther on top digging into my cheeks is a sensation I’ll never forget. I have stood beside him in silence at two police funerals and cried thinking “that could have been him”. I will never forget hearing him come home late at night after we were all in bed and then hearing him leave again before the sun had risen day after day. I’m sure there were things that happened in that time away from us that we will never hear about. Moments when he wondered if he’d get home that night.
There were funny moments as well though.
Once when my family came to visit San Francisco, we were walking through the Haight-Ashbury and everyone except Dad entered one of the ridiculous tourist hippy stores. When we came back out into that cool SF air, Dad was standing on the corner with his arms crossed in his oh-so-police-like manner, but with a smile on his face. It seems that while we were inside, he had been standing on the street corner in his shorts, “Life Is Good” t-shirt, and Ranger cap when one of the folks that live on the street walked up and just said “Hello Officer”.
I guess you just can’t turn it off. The mustache must’ve given him away.
I had college professor once say, without knowing my dad was an officer, that “all cops are just violent pigs serving the interests of the rich.” That’s funny. I thought they were just like my dad. Working at midnight on Christmas. Standing on the side of a freeway after a fatal car wreck. Finding the jerk who stole your credit card information.
He has been serving all of Fort Worth and its citizens, no matter how rich or poor, for 30 years and it will all quietly end tomorrow. No parade. No mention from city hall. No articles in the Star Telegram. Just another Cop who has served his time hangs up the gun belt that used to sit beside the dinner table one last time.
The reality is that a good, honest man who has worked hard to raise a family on a tiny income will quietly exit the publics’ consciousness and service and put his blue uniform in the closet and his badge in a drawer. He will take a step back from the line between order and chaos and rejoin the citizen population. And nobody will really notice. Because he’s been really good at his job. Hopefully folks wont feel the need to complain to him about the ticket they got last week anymore. Hopefully he’ll learn how to cross his arms without looking like he’s running surveillance for a drug bust. I just hope he feels thanked for risking his life to keep us safe for 30 years.
I, for one, am grateful.
Now go learn how to race rally cars or something fun.
By Alan Bean
Over a month has passed since Sandra Bland died in a Waller County jail, the story shows no sign of disappearing. The incident sparked national outrage when video of Bland’s arrest showed state trooper Brian Encinia intentionally escalating the drama with a justifiably angry Ms. Bland, threatening to “light you up” with his taser, then, once she steps out of her vehicle, throwing her to the ground with so much force that she temporarily lost her hearing. Bland was then charged with assaulting an officer and hauled off to jail. But none of this would have attracted much attention if Sandra Bland hadn’t turned up dead three days later.
Questions abound. Why, a month after his bizarre display of criminally awful police work, has officer Encinia been returned to routine patrol work? Why hasn’t he been fired and charged with assault? Even Donald Trump was appalled by Encinia’s police work–and when the Donald thinks an officer’s behavior is appalling attention must be paid. Trump is an international authority on awful behavior.
People are still asking what really happened inside Sandra Bland’s jail cell? Did she really hang herself with a trash bag? And if not, what alternative explanations are on offer?
And questions have been raised about the men charged with investigating officer Encinia (District Attorney Elton Mathis) and Bland’s peculiar death (Waller County Sheriff, Glenn Smith). Can DA Mathis watch the video of officer Encinia’s aggressive, unprofessional and ultimately criminal treatment of Ms. Bland and conclude the DPS officer did everything by the book?
And what are we to make of Glenn Smith, the bellicose sheriff who, just this week, told a United Methodist Pastor in town to investigate the case to “go back to your Church of Satan.” Smith also had a tree cut down to ensure that protesters would feel the full force of triple digit heat. Can this latter day Bull Conner be trusted with the investigation of the Bland case? Continue reading
By Alan Bean
According to the New York Times, Will Johnson’s swift decision to fire the officer responsible for shooting Christian Taylor represents the standard practice for police chiefs across America. Ever since Ferguson, Missouri was engulfed in months of controversy following the death of Michael Brown, police departments have been bending over backwards to avoid becoming “the next Ferguson”.
Maybe. But, shortly after Ferguson became front page news, I was on a panel discussion with the Arlington police chief and he was talking about “procedural justice,” the idea that police departments function most effectively when they maintain a transparent dialogue with the communities they serve. In the course of the discussion I said that in troubled police departments, the problems begin at the top. Chief Johnson heartily agreed.
The problem in Ferguson (and thousands of other communities across the nation) is the deep mutual mistrust between law enforcement and poor communities of color. As David Kennedy argues in his book Don’t Shoot, toxic narratives, rooted in crude stereotype and broad-brush generalization, often persist within both police culture and poor black neighborhoods. Both sides assume the worst about each other and that’s why a single tragic incident can set off a firestorm.
In Ferguson, law enforcement ratcheted up the tension by attempting to intimidate protesters into submission. “Comply or die” was the implied message. This approach, naturally, fans the flames of protest. Activists respond by becoming even more confrontational, police officers respond in kind, and the situation spirals out of control.
Will Johnson wants to avoid this scenario, and this week his decisive action did just that.
No one knows why Christian Taylor stomped on cars at an Arlington car dealership, then drove his vehicle inside the dealership through a glass door. When several police officers arrived at the scene the goal was to containment. No one’s life was in danger, so the obvious strategy was to block all avenues of escape and give the perpetrator time to realize the hopelessness of his situation.
But Brad Miller, a 49 year old officer in training, didn’t grasp the logic of that strategy. Seeing the broken glass where Christian Taylor had driven his Jeep into the dealership, Miller decided to enter the building alone with the goal.
Two big mistakes. First, the officer acted without communicating with his fellow officers; secondly, he hadn’t thought things through, had no arrest strategy and wasn’t prepared for a confrontation. Instead of deescalating a dangerous situation, he was putting a confused man in the kind of comply-or-die situation that never ends well for anyone.
According to his family, Christian Taylor was a good kid. An ‘A’ Student at Angelo State University. A gifted athlete. A devout Christian who prayed for his community every day. Taylor had no history of mental illness and, so far as anyone knows, wasn’t abusing drugs or abusing alcohol in the days prior to the incident.
Most likely, the young man was in the grips of a psychotic break. Confronted by an armed officer, he held up a set of keys and announced that he was going to steal a car. Sane people don’t talk like that, nor do they drive their vehicles into car dealerships. In short, Christian Taylor wasn’t in his right mind and was unlikely to respond positively to verbal commands.
And that is why Brad Miller had to be fired.
The officer’s pastor spoke at the community prayer service sponsored by Arlington’s Cornerstone Baptist Church, and had nothing but praise for Mr. Miller. He had always wanted to be a police officer and decided that, even at 49, it wasn’t too late to realize that dream. Now, that dream is as dead as Christian Taylor and Miller must live with self-doubt and remorse for the rest of his life.
Rushing into a building without communicating with your superiors is a classic rookie mistake. Miller wanted to show his stuff. He was willing to place himself in danger even though police protocol counseled otherwise. He doesn’t have the temperament for police work (many officers don’t) and he showed it in the worst possible time in the worst possible way. Chief Johnson made the right call.
But, handled poorly, this case could easily have become another Ferguson. Initially, the Taylor family complained to the Manchester Guardian that police officials were giving them the silent treatment. But there turned out to be a very good reason for the initial silence: Chief Johnson wasn’t going to speak publicly until he had his facts, and his talking points, straight.
Pastor Dwight McKissic should be praised for pulling together a community service characterized by message discipline.
No one spoke substantively until a full hour of worship had set the emotional and theological foundation for the evening.
No one, in the absence of good information, tried to explain Mr. Taylor’s bizarre behavior.
No one, save Chief Johnson, described the tragic events and the chief;s performance was flawless. He described how the operation should have been handled. He explained the linkage between officer Miller’s poor judgement and the end result. And then, for a full hour, he answered carefully vetted questions from the community.
Dwight McKissic traveled to Ferguson last year as an observer and, having spoken with him on several occasions, I know he is deeply concerned about racial justice. But he didn’t want the frayed emotions of the moment to derail a meeting called for the purpose of unity and reconciliation. McKissic and I both attended a similar event at a Dallas church last year where several families who had lost loved ones in police shootings hurled insults and curses at public officials. The pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church didn’t want any of that going on in his sanctuary and took effective steps to limit questions to the issue at hand. Statements were not allowed, only questions, and questioners were briefly vetted before getting a turn at the mic.
Several questioners were representing their Sunday school classes, and their excellent questions, though pointed, were always respectful.
When the service was over, I asked the police chief if he thought the absurd American statistics on police shootings said as much about American society as they say about police culture. In other words, is one of the reasons American cops are so much more likely to shoot civilians related, to a certain extent, to the violent and chaotic nature of American society?
Johnson agreed enthusiastically with my premise, although we didn’t have time to explore the matter in depth.
Having lived in both Canada (a country with strict gun controls) and the United States, I am painfully aware of the singular aspects of American culture. The free availability of fire arms is a huge problem, especially in neighborhoods characterized by poverty, unemployment, and crime.
David Kennedy’s, Don’t Shoot is the best analysis of black-on-black violence I have come across. The mayhem, he believes, is driven by a tiny group of psychopathic personalities who enjoy violence for its own sake. Most gangs, and most gang members, secretly hate the violence and wish they could escape it; but the realities of street life make it difficult to lay your weapon down.
It should be noted that Christian Taylor, the young man who died in Arlington, didn’t come from the violent world I have just described. In fact, he was committed to helping people trapped in violent sub-cultures, and he wasn’t armed the night he died.
But police officers don’t just fear violence from gang-bangers; with each passing year, mass killings of the Sandy Hook, and Charleston variety are becoming increasingly common. Men in battle fatigues carrying semi-automatic weapons think its cool to parade through restaurants and department stores just because the law allows it.
Furthermore, much of the pro Second Amendment rhetoric in the nation is rooted in the insane notion that if everyone was armed, and prepared to spray bullets at the slightest provocation, we’d all be a lot safer. Although crime rates have been plunging to record low levels, there remains a widespread belief, echoed recently by Donald Trump, that we are in the middle of an unprecedented crime wave.
Violent crime on a mass scale is limited to a small number of neighborhoods in a few American cities: Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit and Baltimore, for instance. But we have become a nation characterized by fear and what theologians call the myth of redemptive violence. Our movies, our television dramas and our video games are predicated on the allure of violence.
And the cumulative weight of all this madness makes it hard for police officers (and their significant others) to sleep at night. You never know when somebody’s going to pull out a piece and start firing. Police officers in countries like Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Canada have far less to worry about. America is a wonderful nation in many ways; in fact, we’re are almost as exceptional as we think we are. But we have sown the wind of violence and are reaping the whirlwind of fear.
Throughout the service at Cornerstone, participants insisted that the solidarity, unity and spirit of reconciliation on display that night must constitute a beginning, not an end. But how, precisely, do we move forward? Mayor Williams, Pastor McKissic, Chief Johnson, what’s the next move?
I have just completed reading Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. I had never read anything by Rohr before, but kept seeing references to his work, and decided to go into by non-existent book budget and order this one. (My book budget is determined by whatever I decide to purchase at the time—and the time was right for me to order this one.
And I’m glad I ordered this one. So here are some random reflections for whatever they’re worth to whatever reader happens upon them and happens to read them.
The emphasis in the book is on the two halves of life, not necessarily chronologically but more morally and spiritually. But somewhat chronologically because the author feels that it is rare that a young person (say under 40, more likely under 50) can enter into the second half of life as he uses the term.
By Alan Bean
It was August of 1949 and Billy Graham had never been so depressed. Twelve years after “surrendering to preach” on a Florida golf course, the evangelist was wrestling with doubts. He had been reading neo-orthodox theologians like Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, critics of liberal theology who freely admitted that the Bible was riddled with errors and internal contradictions.
But the nub of Graham’s problem lay closer to home. For the past four years, Graham had been working with Chuck Templeton, a brilliant and strikingly handsome preacher from Canada, as evangelists for a fledgling Youth for Christ. Graham and Templeton had conducted a series of wildly successful crusades in post-war Europe in 1945 and had been fast friends ever since. But Chuck was fresh from his first year at Princeton Theological Seminary and was brimming with questions.
Chuck and Billy had been invited to speak at the Forest Home, a retreat center established by First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood a decade earlier. Soon after their arrival, Templeton told Graham that his preaching was hopelessly out of date.
“It’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation,” Templeton argued. “The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.”
“I don’t accept that” Billy replied stoically: And there are reputable scholars who don’t.”
“Who are these scholars?” Templeton asked. “Men in conservative Christian colleges?”
That question stung. At the time of their conversation, Graham was president of the unaccredited Northwestern Bible College founded by fundamentalist preacher W.B. Riley
‘Most of them, yes,’ Graham admitted, “but that is not the point. I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible. I’ve discovered something in my ministry: When I take the Bible literally, when I proclaim it as the word of God, my preaching has power. When I stand on the platform and say, ‘God says,’ or ‘The Bible says,’ the Holy Spirit uses me. There are results. Wiser men than you or I have been arguing questions like this for centuries. I don’t have the time or the intellect to examine all sides of the theological dispute, so I’ve decided once for all to stop questioning and accept the Bible as God’s word.”
‘But Billy,’ Templeton interjected, “You cannot do that. You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. Do it and you begin to die. It’s intellectual suicide.’”
“I don’t know about anybody else,” Graham answered, “but I’ve decided that that’s the path for me.”
What happened next is the stuff of evangelical legend. Graham had put up a brave front with his Canadian friend, but the confrontation left his stunned. His first instinct was to seek the counsel of Henrietta Mears, the celebrated Bible teacher and evangelical visionary who had founded Forest Home ten years earlier. Bold, confident, and brimming, as always, with evangelical energy, Mears was just the tonic Graham needed. The inerrancy of Scripture was the bedrock of Christianity, she reminded the young evangelist. Undermine that foundation and the whole edifice collapses.
Graham picked up his Bible and wandered alone into the rugged hill country surrounding Forest Home. Spotting an old tree stump by the side of the path, Graham laid down his opened Bible, and began to pray.
“O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.”
Graham fell to his knees.
“Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”
With these words, Graham felt the Spirit of God flooding his soul. When he addressed the Forest Home audience the following evening, Henrietta Mears knew she was listening to a new man. There was a confidence, a sense of authority to his preaching that was utterly new and powerful. A month later, the response to Graham’s Los Angeles crusade was so overwhelming that organizers were forced to add several nights to accommodate the crowds. Billy Graham never looked back.
The “tree stump story” has been retold thousands of times across the years. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas (the congregation Billy Graham joined in 1953) was once asked if he had ever doubted the Bible. Only once, Jeffress told the Dallas reporter. During his freshman year at Baylor, he had a professor who told the class that the Bible they so admired was filled with contradictions. Jeffress was so troubled by this that his prayer life suffered, he stopped witnessing to strangers and a cloud of depression settled around him.
Then he heard Billy Graham tell his tree stump story.
As he sat listening to the story, Jeffress felt like God had brought him there that night, brought him to hear this exact message. He decided right then and there that he would never doubt again. He even had Billy Graham sign and date his notebook that night.
The Dallas preacher grasped the simple logic of the tree stump story. Graham decided to believe the Bible and God blessed his ministry. If you want results, follow Billy’s example.
Everyone has heard of Billy Graham. He may be the most famous American of the 20th century (he’s certainly in the top ten). But, be honest, have you ever heard of Chuck Templeton?
If you have, you’re probably a Canadian and you know him as Charles, not Chuck. When I was growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, Templeton’s handsome visage graced Canadian television news programs (often in the company of his good friend, Pierre Burton). And every time Templeton appeared on the tube my mother would tell me what a wonderful preacher he had been before he went to the devil.
Google Templeton’s name today and you’ll find a series of cautionary tales contrasting the upward trajectory of the man who believed the Bible and the death spiral of the smarty-pants who questioned God’s word.
The real story is a bit more complicated than that. Actually, it’s a lot more complicated. Charles Templeton might have been a mystic along the lines of Thomas Merton had he lived in a different place and time. His life was studded with vibrant encounters with the ineffable that stretched from his classic conversion as a teenager to his deathbed (more on that later). Why would such a man end up writing a book called Farewell to God? Why was Templeton as disillusioned with evangelical Christianity and its liberal alternative? This essay is my initial attempt at an answer.
For a child of the American South, Billy Graham’s religious history was utterly predictable. He attended Bob Jones University in South Carolina, found it too restrictive, and transferred to Wheaton College, an evangelical hot house west of Chicago. There he married Ruth Bell Graham, the daughter of famous (and well-connected) Presbyterian missionaries. As a young man, Graham embraced, and was embraced by, an evangelical/fundamentalist piety that was typically American.
Billy Graham’s conversion story is pretty standard fare; perhaps that’s what makes it so reassuring. In 1934, the young North Carolinian walked the sawdust trial when Mordecai Ham, an independent evangelist who hated booze, Jews and Catholics, delivered the altar call. For a southern boy raised in the bosom of the church, nothing could have been more normal. (Ham would eventually introduce Graham to W.B. Riley, the most influential fundamentalist preacher in America.)
Chuck Templeton grew up outside the church and didn’t need an evangelist to find God. God came and found Templeton. The child of a single mother, and with only a ninth-grade education, Templeton was hired by the Toronto Globe as a sports cartoonist (yes, that used to be a job). Chuck grew up in grinding poverty, but his mother coped much better after she joined a Nazarene Church and gave her heart to Jesus.
Not surprisingly, Templeton’s early adulthood revolved around women, work, smoky bars and parties. One night, Templeton arrived home at three in the morning after a dismal social affair featuring a listless stripper. He caught his reflection in the hall mirror and didn’t like what he saw. His mother who didn’t sleep until he was home, wanted to tell him, for the hundredth time, about the difference God had made in her life and how happy she would be to see him in church with the other young people.
As she talked, Templeton was taking moral inventory. The more mamma warmed to her subject, the more depressed he felt. Excusing himself, he wandered down the hall to his room, a garbled prayer forming in his head. What follows beats the hell out of Billy’s conversion story.
As I knelt by my bed in the darkness, my mind was strangely vacant; thoughts and words wouldn’t come to focus. After a moment, it was as though a black blanket had been draped over me. A sense of enormous guilt descended and invaded every part of me. I was unclean.
Involuntarily, I began to pray, my face upturned, tears streaming. The only words I could find were, “Lord, come down. Come done. Come down. . . .”
It may have been minutes later or much longer – there was no sense of time – but I found my head in my hands, crunched small on the floor at the center of a vast emptiness. The agonizing was past. It had left me numb, speechless, immobilized, alone, tense with a sense of expectancy. In a moment, a weight began to lift, a weight as heavy as I. It passed through my thighs, my belly, my chest, my arms, my shoulders and lifted off entirely. I could have leaped over a wall. An ineffable warmth began to suffuse every corpuscle. It seemed that a light had turned on in my chest and its refining fire had cleansed me. I hardly dared breathe, fearing that I might end or alter the moment. I heard myself whispering softly, over and over, “Thank you, Lord. Thank you. Thank you. . . .”
After a while I went to mother’s room. She saw my face, said, “Oh, Chuck. . !” and burst into tears. We talked for an hour.
This was a classic conversion experience worthy of St. Augustine or the Apostle Paul. It’s the sort of thing you find in A.D. Nock’s Conversion or William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. His reason and his will were temporarily overwhelmed by a mystical wellspring buried deep in his soul (or his unconscious mind, if you didn’t grow up born-again).
Templeton resigned his job as a sports cartoonist, bought an old car, and started preaching wherever he could get an open pulpit. His reputation grew rapidly and he soon found himself turning down invitations. Eventually, he married his winsome soloist and the audacious couple, eager to do great things for God, purchased an abandoned church in Toronto. The church filled to capacity in a matter of months . . . it burned to the ground . . . the congregation rebuilt it.
Before long, Chuck Templeton was barnstorming the United States and Canada, regularly filling Toronto’s Massey Hall and on several occasions preaching to capacity crowds of 16,000 at the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens. His 1945 tour of Europe with an equally meteoric Billy Graham was an unmitigated triumph. In his autobiography, An Anecdotal Memoir, there is a hilarious story in which our young heroes spend a wild evening with two French prostitutes without surrendering their virtue (go figure).
Not all of Templeton’s evangelistic bookings panned out, of course. In a dismal little hamlet in Michigan, for instance, the preacher found himself in the home of “a neurotically shy, shrivel-souled, skinny little man, a secret smoker who reeked of tobacco and whose fingers had a mahogany hue. When anyone spoke to him his face would flush and the acne he was cursed with would flame.”
But the man possessed an eclectic library with an entire section dedicated to the work of skeptics and infidels. An omnivorous reader since childhood, Templeton had never read any serious philosophical or theological work. That changed quickly.
I picked up Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. In a few hours, nearly everything I knew or believed about the Christian religion was challenged and in large part demolished. My unsophisticated mind had no defenses against the thrust of his logic or his devastating arguments.
In the next ten days I read Francois Voltaire’s The Bible Explained at Last, Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, the speeches of great American atheist, Robert Ingersoll, including his The Mistakes of Moses, and dipped into David Hume and Thomas Huxley.
Each evening, after a day of obsessive reading, Templeton would mount the pulpit of the local church, stumbling through a sermon with Huxley and Ingersoll still thundering in the back of his brain. A man with an ninth-grade education had lived for years in the warm embrace of an evangelical subculture where the verities of the faith (the divinity of Christ, eternal rewards and punishments and the trustworthiness of the Bible) were constantly affirmed. Suddenly, he found himself trading punches with the world’s most devastating critics of Christian orthodoxy. It wasn’t a fair fight.
Templeton recovered from this first crisis of faith, but the questions wouldn’t go away. The celebrated evangelist didn’t have a trusted friend of a safe place where dangerous ideas could be kicked around. Then a friend suggested that he should enroll in seminary. The idea struck Templeton with the force of an epiphany.
After some cajoling from Templeton’s well-placed friends in the United Church of Canada, Princeton Theological Seminary agreed to accept him as a “special student”. They couldn’t give him a degree because he lacked the requisite bachelor’s degree, but he was free to enroll for coursework. That was fine with the Canadian evangelist; he wasn’t looking for academic credentials, he just wanted a safe place to wrestle with his questions.
In the summer of 1948, just before classes began in New Jersey, Templeton dropped in on Billy Graham at his friend’s home in Montreat, North Carolina. As president of an unaccredited college, Graham had been toying with the idea of getting an advanced degree himself, but it couldn’t be in the United States. Wait a year, Graham suggested, and they could attend Oxford University together.
Templeton found the idea intriguing, but he knew he was lucky to have found a place at Princeton and doubted Oxford would be as flexible. He tried again to get Billy to drop everything for a few years and join him at Princeton. “We’ve been getting by on youthful energy and animal magnetism,” Templeton said, “and we need to develop some academic backbone.”
A year later, with his freshman year at seminary under his belt, and just enough of Schweitzer, Barth, Bultmann and the Niebuhr brothers to be dangerous, Templeton was at the Forest Home Retreat Center telling Billy Graham that his theology was fifty years out of date.
What would have happened if Billy had joined Chuck at Princeton? The question is moot. Both men knew that Graham’s simple biblicism couldn’t withstand the kind of free-flowing theological debate on offer at a liberal seminary. Graham’s theological education was deficient, and he knew it; but he needed the support of the American evangelical tribe more than he needed an advanced degree.
In their Youth for Christ days, Templeton and Graham were confidence men. Their job was to speak with the authority of God Almighty to untutored men and women looking for something to get them through the night. People weren’t looking for finely-honed theological prose or nuanced academic argument; they just wanted to know that God was in control, heaven was waiting on the far side of suffering, that the Bible could be trusted, and that Jesus Christ was the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.
Everybody knew what Billy Graham was going to say before he said it; they came for the conviction in his eyes and the authoritative timber in his voice. Graham spoke for the Bible, he spoke for God, and he made every word count. The slightest ambiguity or hint of irony would destroy the effect.
I can still remember playing on the basement floor in our modest government home in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada, watching my father shine the family’s shoes every Saturday night so we’d look our best on Sunday morning. As he buffed and polished, dad would listen to Billy Graham on the radio. At Calvary Baptist Church they showed a film celebrating Graham’s triumphant crusade in England where 120,000 souls crowded into Wembley Stadium to hear Graham (with Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans in tow) preach the American gospel. Some said Graham could have recited the last four pages of the phone book followed by a few paragraphs from a math textbooks and thousands of converts would have streamed forward. The words, mattered, but the absolute conviction in the evangelist’s voice mattered much more. Billy Graham believed what he was saying about heaven and hell and everybody, Charles Templeton included, knew it.
Which is why Billy Graham had no choice but to lay his Bible on the tree stump and swear to God that he would preach an inerrant Bible so long as he lived. It’s what everyone expected of him; more to the point, it appeared to be what God expected. God wants his preachers to believe the Bible even when it sounds mean or crazy. If there was one single contradiction or error in the Good Book, evangelicals insisted, it was a worthless document, Jesus was just another Jewish Rabbi, heaven was a pipe dream and God was as dead as Thomas Altizer claimed.
Billy Graham believed the evangelical subculture that shaped his soul would be the salvation of the world. Sure, the tribe had its share of cranks, misfits and social pugilists; but Graham could count on saints like Henrietta Mears, men and women (mostly women) raised in Godly homes who knew the Bible half by heart and bet their very lives on its integrity. These saints were intelligent, dedicated, loving and joyful people, living proof of the gospel’s transformative power. They, and the families they nurtured, couldn’t be found outside the evangelical community. The spread of evangelical culture was the hope of the world; the loss of that culture would destroy everything men like Billy Graham held dear.
Short months after returning for his second year of seminary, Templeton had his own dramatic encounter with God (and it beats the hell out of Billy’s tree stump story). It was a year after Mohandas Gandhi had been assassinated in India and Templeton was mesmerized by the non-violent revolution Gandhi had unleashed. Following the Indian leader’s example, Templeton started fasting every Wednesday, taking nothing but a little water. Every evening he would walk the length of the golf course near his home, wrestling with God; praying for a sign.
In his autobiography, published in 1983, Templeton described the incident.
One night I went to the golf course rather late. I had attended a movie and something in the film had set to vibrating an obscure chord in my consciousness. Standing with my face to the heavens tears streaming, I heard a dog bark of in the distance and, from somewhere, faintly, eerily, a baby crying. Suddenly I was caught up in a transport. It seemed that the whole of creation–trees, flowers, clouds, the sky, the very heavens, all of time and space and God Himself-was weeping. I knew somehow that they were weeping for mankind: for our obduracy, our hatreds, our ten thousand cruelties, our love of war and violence. And at the heart of this eternal sorrow I saw the shadow of a cross, with the silhouetted figure on it . . . weeping.
When I became conscious of my surroundings again, I was lying on the wet grass, convulsed by sobs. I had been outside myself and didn’t know for how long. Later, I couldn’t sleep and trembled as though with a fever at the thought that I had caught a glimpse through the veil.
As with his conversion years earlier, the experience came unbidden. Though Templeton continued his fasting and evening walks, his mystical encounter was not replicated. Once again, God had overwhelmed his rational will.
Templeton dealt with his epiphany by heading to the library. “What had happened to me was not unusual,” his research informed him, mystical encounters had been “a commonplace at various times in the history of the church. More important, I learned that it was of no special significance. Mystical experience has added no insight to our knowledge of God or to Christian doctrine.”
David Vance, who wrote his Master’s Thesis at Carleton University on Templeton’s “performance of unbelief”, was floored by this dismissive comment (especially the bit I have emphasized). So am I. Templeton’s vision bristled with theological significance. This portrait of a God weeping for (and with) a creation disfigured by mindless violence anticipates Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. This was Templeton’s second Holy Ghost baptism (most of us don’t get a first). His experience, followed to his logical conclusion, would have taken Templeton to that mystical place where, in the visionary work of Thomas Merton, pious Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Christians find common spiritual ground.
Unfortunately, the Canadian divinity student checked out a few books from the Princeton library and learned that his encounter with the Holy was void of theological significance.
In 1983, the year Templeton published his autobiography, my wife and I were in Victoria, British Columbia visiting with Gipp Forster, a former street person who had established a church of street people for street people. Gipp was knee deep in organized crime when he attended a Billy Graham crusade and turned his life over to God.
Gipp was earthy and could be profane when the fancy struck him; but he had the gift of prophecy. I once heard him tell his congregation that their Jesus was too neat and tidy to be of much help. “When Jesus finally got to Jerusalem,” Gipp said, “he had been on the road for days and his face was caked with the dust of the road he walked. When he saw the Holy City in the distance, and those big tears came rolling, they formed little streams of mud down his face. This shit is real, folks!”
I went home and wrote a song inspired by that image.
Weeping for Jerusalem,
weeping for the race,
dust and sorrow mingling
in mud tracks down his face.
Children, look at the man,
he’s weeping for you.
A weeping God is the only answer to the problem of evil we are likely to find in this through-a-glass-darkly world. We can’t know why God allows dreadful things to happen to innocent people; but Templeton’s vision points us in the right direction. God worms his way into the pain of the world. That’s the meaning of the cross: God suffers with us. God dies with us. Following Jesus, we die with God and, like Jesus, we are raised with God. That’s the Christian story. It might not have been the story Chuck Templeton was converted into; but when Billy Graham-style theology no longer worked for him, it would have made a wonderful alternative. Why couldn’t he see that?
In his dissertation on Templeton, David Vance notes that, even in his days as a celebrated evangelist, Templeton presented himself as rational, controlled and logical.
Templeton was effectively tapping into prevalent cultural concerns regarding an increasingly threatened gender hierarchy, and establishing himself as the epitome of what Chris Dummitt calls the “manly modern” – the man who effectively masters and manages the pervading risks inherent to postwar society. Rationality was certainly one celebrated feature of this modern form of masculinity, for it embodied a clean and logical way of ordering reality (as opposed to the more inconsistent, emotional quality assumed of women).
The same, sadly, could be said of the theological zeitgeist in mid-century America. In liberal seminaries, it was widely assumed that you resolved any apparent tension between faith and reason by siding with reason. The theologians of the mid twentieth century wrote as if the Bible was inspired by human fear, love and longing. Some theologians and biblical scholars were openly agnostic, others saw Jesus as the epitome of Israel’s “prophetic tradition” (which was considered a good thing). But theologians were interested in recreating the mechanics of religious thought in various times and places: comparing, contrasting and theorizing. There was no “Thus saith the Lord” allowed and personal observations about the nature of God, were considered outside the purview of serious scholarship. Miracles were dismissed as the stuff of legend; vestiges of a primitive past. Logical positivism, the theory that meaning resides in empirical facts alone, was the prevailing fad in philosophy and its ethos pervaded most academic theology.
Christian mysticism, as Templeton’s research indicated, was also treated as an historical curiosity, a fitting subjects for psychologists, maybe, but not for serious theologians. There was the world of academic theology and there was the kind of superficial devotional material Templeton deplored . . . and very little in between. This partially explains the phenomenal success C.S. Lewis enjoyed in mid-century America–his imaginative apologetic, framed in simple but elegant prose, filled a gap and fed a hunger.
Charles Templeton had the mind of a rationalist and the soul of a mystic; an internal contradiction that left him miserable.
Still, the three years Templeton spent at Princeton were among the most enjoyable of his life. A passionate student with a sharp mind, he quickly rose to the head of his class. Initially, seminary officials tried to give him a diploma instead of a degree, but his academic success made the school look petty and they soon relented.
Templeton was now a hot commodity. When he graduated in 1951, North America was at the height of a religious revival that would last another decade. Eager to exploit the post-war hunger for spirituality, respectability and, above all, normalcy, the churches of the Protestant Mainline (Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Canada, United Church of Christ, American Baptist, etc.) were looking for an evangelistic message that avoided the heaven-hell dualism of a Billy Graham crusade.
Most of the men (and they were all men) at the helm of these denominations were veterans of the social gospel movement. Still comfortable with the language of evangelical piety, they believed the gospel should shine a spotlight on contemporary issues like poverty, racial harmony, and the vexed relationship between management and labor. Veterans of the Second World War, and the women who kept the home fires burning during those hard years, were eager to settle down, raise families and move up the economic ladder. Templeton, with his on-the-ground experience with mass evangelism, his dynamic public presence, and his Princeton divinity degree, was the man of the hour.
First, Templeton was hired as the official evangelist of the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization formed in 1950 as a new-and-improved version of the older Federal Council of Churches. A 1953 article by Edward Boyd, written for the American Magazine, captures the excitement the Canadian phenom generated in the early 50s:
There was an unmistakable element of hope and optimism in all he said. Religion was no longer a solemn, formal, worn-out thing with all the appeal of the graveyard. It was, on the contrary, happy, warm, and vital. He presented it as a challenge and an exciting way of life.
Since I represent a new generation, it may be that his appeal to me explains his success with so many others. His comparative simplicity of approach, his natural presentation of Christianity as a commodity as necessary to life as salt, and his overwhelming belief in its practical value “sold” me.
During this period, Templeton wrote three books on evangelism which emphasized the necessity of authority, clarity, and theological simplicity. It didn’t matter what the evangelist believed about the age of the earth, the historicity of the creation accounts, Joshua stopping the sun, or Noah and his ark, but a firm belief in the divinity of Christ remained essential. This excerpt is typical of his work:
“To this hungry, confused and wandering generation . . . the church comes with the ‘good news’ of God. Let it be a church renewed in commitment to Christ and to his gospel! Let it be a church afire with the evangel and moving out to do its leavening and redemptive task! Let the grace of our God be heralded with no uncertain sound, and let us look with confidence to God to revive his church in the midst of these years!”
Templeton sloughed off his mystical encounter on a Princeton golf course partly because he was a rationalist who didn’t like losing control. But his vision of a weeping God was also rejected for pragmatic reasons: there was no market for that sort of thing. The image lacked a constituency. Templeton wanted to bring fire, enthusiasm, confidence and hope to his audience; a crucified God weeping for a warlike creation hardly fit the bill.
During these years, Templeton was searching for a message that was biblical, inspiring and intellectually respectable. Unlike Billy Graham, he didn’t want to commit intellectual suicide by falling on God’s two-edged sword; but he wanted to change people, he wanted to make them better, stronger, more positive, effective and hopeful.
But move past the “Jesus died on the cross to save your soul from hell” message and what remains? Templeton’s new-improved gospel was little more than a means to an end–a sure-fire path to happiness. And deep down where the visions lived, that wasn’t enough.
Templeton emerged as the thinking man’s evangelist just as television was taking North America by storm, and it wasn’t long before he was the star of Look Up and Live, a Sunday morning program on CBS featuring interviews with celebrities and snappy religious pep talks from Templeton. Had he continued in this vein he might have become a kinder gentler Billy Graham; but Templeton was living on borrowed time.
Templeton described his decision to quit the church in 1957 in terms of his rational mind whittling away at an irrational faith until little remained. That explanation doesn’t fit the evidence. Millions of Christians make the transition from fundamentalism to more liberal forms of Christianity without abandoning God or the Bible. Why, then, was it so hard for the charming, articulate and photogenic Chuck Templeton to stick with the church he loved?
The likely answer is that he no longer respected the world of liberal Christianity or his role within it. He had swapped Billy Graham’s version of Christianity for a respectable alternative, but it didn’t take. The Jesus who promised success and happiness was no more satisfying than the Jesus who rescued souls from hell. Since these were the only religious commodities on offer, Templeton began to feel like a charlatan.
But the struggle was more physiological than theological. In the pulpit, Chuck preached with the same old fire and conviction and received the same rapturous response from his middle class audience. But chest pain became his traveling companion accompanied by restricted breathing. When Templeton was finally examined by a doctor, the diagnosis came as a shock.
“There is nothing wrong with your heart. Nothing. The pains you get – let me put it in layman’s language – are the result of what I’ll call heart spasm. But the trouble isn’t in your heart, it’s in your head. There is something in your life that is bothering you. Some conflict. Some unresolved problem. Whatever it is, deal with it. Otherwise, you will probably continue to suffer the symptoms you have described to me and will likely see other manifestations.”
In the next few weeks, Templeton decided to quit preaching, leave the church, renounce his faith, and move from New York to Toronto. The backlash was immediate. This is what happened, former friends concluded, when you ride the slippery slide of liberalism. Predictably, his marriage fell apart, although Templeton (in typical male fashion) doesn’t give us the details.
Preaching could have made him a wealthy man, but, for ethical reasons, he had restricted himself to a modest salary of $7,500 a year and was living month-to-month. He holed up in a cramped apartment in Toronto and started churning out screen plays for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
It wasn’t long before Canada’s most famous apostate was working as a hard-nosed interviewer on Canadian television, using an insider’s knowledge of the religious world to skewer the leading religious figures of the day. In a 1962 interview on Close Up, Templeton asked Sir George MacLeod, a liberal Protestant and former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, to explain the gospel to him. MacLeod gave the expected response: the gospel is all about loving one another, making room for everyone, tolerating differences and, above all, showing compassion. Templeton’s response is telling:
“If a relatively simple person wanted to find out what he needed to do to find faith, I think you could argue that Billy Graham – with whom I profoundly disagree – that Billy Graham would give an answer which is much more useful than would the thoughtful church of which you’re a representative. Now, is it possible to communicate what you’ve been saying to me here, is it possible to communicate this and make it live? I don’t think it is, and I think this is one of the reasons why the church isn’t making an impact.”
Templeton wasn’t disagreeing with MacLeoud’s message; he simply didn’t think it was enough. He didn’t think it would sell. Like it, or hate it, there was a market for Graham’s gospel; but MacLeoud and his kin were spouting the sort of innocuous bromides that pleased everyone and inspired no one.
Having made his mark in broadcasting, Templeton tried his hand at newspaper and magazine publishing and eventually emerged as a successful novelist. Now, in the course of an endless series of promotional tours, Templeton found himself answering the hard questions. In 1977, Jane Pauley came to an interview on the Today show unprepared and, in Templeton’s opinion, covered up her ignorance of the book by getting personal.
“I understand you ‘re an atheist, ” she said.
I explained that, no, I wasn’t an atheist but an agnostic, a very different thing. I really didn’t want to get into it; we had only seven minutes and I wanted to promote the book. I’d come five hundred miles to do that.
“But you don’t believe in God, ” she said, her face mirroring distaste.
“Nor do I disbelieve, ” I said. “I just don’t know. ”
“But you were a preacher.”
“Yes I was.”
“Well then, let me ask you this: are you happy? How can you be?”
She was doing her twenty-four-karat-earnest bit, looking deeply into my eyes. I looked back into hers for a moment, irritated, tempted to say, “You silly girl – what in God’s name has believing in God got to do with being happy?”
A fascinating question from a man who once sold faith in God as a path to happiness. The quintessential American, Pauley was working from the assumption that if Templeton wasn’t happy he had made a big mistake. Applied to preaching, that assumption transformed God into a commodity; a means to an end.
Perhaps it was the enormous gap between Templeton’s mystical encounters with God and the self-help gospel he proclaimed that drove him from the ministry. The conservative and liberal God’s Templeton rejected deserved what their fate; but that wasn’t the God Templeton met on the night his became a Christian, and it wasn’t the God who engulfed him on a golf course in Princeton, New Jersey.
In 1995, six years before his death, Canada’s famous apostate penned his final book: Farewell to God, a thoroughly derivative rehashing of well-worn arguments from Robert Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, and the usual list of suspects.
The book’s lack of originality may have been an early sign of the Alzheimer’s disease that raised its ugly head shortly after Farewell to God appeared in print. Templeton fought the miserable disease with all the ingenuity he could muster, even asking people to feed him complex words so he could spell them backwards. This disciplined work was beneficial, his family believes, but nothing could stop the deadly advance of this mind-destroying disease.
Three years after Farewell to God appeared in bookstores, Lee Strobel, an American apologist and religious writer, called Templeton requesting an interview. The old man, now on his third marriage and given to intermittent periods of confused depression, gave his grudging accent.
Strobel had made the traumatic transition from agnosticism to evangelical Christianity and wanted to know why a former associate of the renowned Billy Graham would make the reverse trek. The American was greeted at the door by Templeton’s wife, Madeleine, who wasn’t at all sure her husband was up to a lengthy interview. But Charles made an entrance wearing brown pajamas and a housecoat and settled into a comfortable chair.
The interview took a predictable course with the renowned skeptic limning the case for agnosticism. He stumbled over a word or two and sometimes forgot a familiar name; but his command of language remained strong, his wit intact.
Finally, after a series of softball questions, Strobel cut to the chase: what did Templeton make of Jesus? (I quote extensively from Strobel’s account):
Templeton’s body language softened. It was as if he suddenly felt relaxed and comfortable in talking about an old and dear friend. His voice, which at times had displayed such a sharp and insistent edge, now took on a melancholy and reflective tone. His guard seemingly down, he spoke in an unhurried pace, almost nostalgically, carefully choosing his words as he talked about Jesus.
“He was,” Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?”
I was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” I said.
“Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I . . . I . . . I . . . ,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I have to say . . . I adore him! . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus.
“And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history.
“In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed. And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!”
With that tears flooded his eyes. He turned his head and looked downward, raising his left hand to shield his face from me. His shoulders bobbed as he wept. . . .
Templeton fought to compose himself. I could tell it wasn’t like him to lose control in front of a stranger. He sighed deeply and wiped away a tear. After a few more awkward moments, he waved his hand dismissively. Finally, quietly but adamantly, he insisted: “Enough of that.”
Strobel made several unsuccessful attempts to get Templeton back on the subject of Jesus. Canada’s most famous skeptic has spoken from his mystic soul and the rational side of his temperament was momentarily embarrassed into silence.
Reading Templeton’s rapturous ode to Jesus, questions clamor to be heard. If Jesus was such a singular figure, how do we account for this transcendence? Was it a fluke, or was Jesus a religious genius in the Gandhian sense, or was Gandhi great because, like Albert Schweitzer and Martin King, he put the words of Jesus into action?
Templeton lost his religion when he was no longer able to confess the divinity of Jesus. But was this because he doubted the resurrection, or was it because he didn’t want his precious Jesus tainted by association with a cruel and unpredictable deity?
This may explain why couldn’t Templeton work in the other direction, declaring that all we can know of God is what we see in Jesus.
Or, if that’s pushing the theological envelope too aggressively for you, why couldn’t Templeton, agnostic that he was, decide that since we can’t know anything about God, we should dedicate ourselves to Jesus, the highest and best thing we can know?
For some reason, that path didn’t work for Charles Templeton. Loving Jesus with a smoldering passion, he turned his back on God. More than that, he spoke of God with disdain, rejoicing in his death and spitting on his grave.
Was this something Templeton had to do; if so, why?
I can only conclude that, in Templeton’s view, you either believed in the God of Billy Graham or, if that raised too many logical and ethical questions, you said farewell to God altogether. The intermediate path of respectable liberal Protestantism had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
In the end, neither Billy nor Chuck could believe that Jesus defines, or redefines, the nature of God. Billy’s biblicism implicated Jesus in the most vengeful portraits of God on display in Leviticus, Joshua and the Book of Revelation, diluting the radical compassion of Jesus in the process.
The alternative, letting Jesus introduce us to a radical new God, wasn’t an alternative. That kind of God lacked a faith community, a religious constituency strong enough to sustain it. Returning to the safe liberalism on offer at Princeton, the National Council of Churches and the United Church of Canada, Templeton quickly flamed out. There was no place in this religious world for the Holy Ghost baptism his soul craved and his mind rejected.
I have one more story for you. The scene is Charles Templeton’s penultimate day on earth. All morning he had been combative and angry, lashing out at the hospice nurses charged with his care. When Madeleine arrived, Charles settled back into his bed and his breathing slowed. Toronto Star columnist, Tom Harpur, gave this account in his weekly column:
Suddenly, Madeleine said, he became very animated, looking intensely toward the ceiling of the room, his eyes “shining more blue than I’d ever seen before.”
He cried out: “Look at them, look at them. They’re so beautiful. They’re waiting for me.
“Oh, their eyes, their eyes are so beautiful!”
Then, with great joy in his voice, he said: “I’m coming.”
Madeleine (who described herself at the time as part deist, part agnostic) described her husband’s vision as “a tremendous comfort . . . something transcendent and wonderful.”
Charles Templeton died the following day.
Hallucinations aren’t unusual for patients in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and his vision of angels may tell us little of life behind the veil. But hallucinations emerge from the dark recesses of the subconscious, or they soul; they work with the material at hand, and this instance is no exception.
Tom Harpur ended his column with a remembered conversation he had with Templeton around the time of the Lee Strobel interview in 1998. Since Harpur (a theological gadfly in his own right) and Templeton were old friends, the tenor of the conversation was much more relaxed:
Before I left, he rather wistfully showed me an old, Scotch-taped Bible. Thick and heavy, it was the one he always preached from in his crusades, he noted.
We talked of many things, including mutual friend Billy Graham and the future of religion.
I said that from watching him (often from afar) for most of my life and reading all his books, I felt deeply that he was a God-haunted or God-obsessed man in his inner being.
He said: “Yes, I would say that’s true.”
It was true.
The story of Chuck Templeton is a cautionary tale, but not of the slippery slop variety. The Canadian evangelist has little to say for those who are comfortable within the confines of standard-issue evangelicalism or the liberal alternative. But those who, like me, have been unable to adapt to either world, will replicate this tragic tale if we don’t learn from it.
There must be a third way for thinking Christians who, like Templeton, are hopelessly in love with Jesus. I’m not sure what shape this third-way Christianity will take–perhaps it will assume many different shapes. But third-way Christians won’t have any more luck finding our way than Chuck Templeton; only Jesus can show us the way forward.
Chuck Templeton has moved through the dark glass of this world that land where we know even as we are known. The rest of us struggle on meanwhile, freighted with questions and insoluble dilemmas. And soon Billy Graham, his body no longer wracked with Parkinson’s disease, will be comparing notes with his old friend, Chuck.
Please God, may it be so.
I don’t know how Sandra Bland died.
It’s hard to believe that a young woman anticipating a dream job at her Alma mater would hang herself in a prison cell.
Strong evidence has emerged that Ms. Bland had evidenced what psychologists call “suicidal ideation” in the past, but wouldn’t Bland have been determined to see justice prevail in this instance? Suicide was the way of passive acquiescence, the complete opposite of the mental state Sandra exhibited in her confrontation with trooper Encinia.
It’s equally hard to believe that anyone would hate her enough to take her life and, thus far, there is no direct evidence suggesting foul play. That could change, but for the moment the facts are too fuzzy to justify confident conclusions.
The temptation to speculate is strong with us, but we should all admit that we have more questions than answers.
But we do know enough to ask why Sandra Bland was arrested in the first place. If you have been following this story, you know that the young woman from Illinois was in no mood to be messed with when state trooper Brian Encinia pulled her over. Bland believed she was the victim of racial profiling and entrapment. Her answers to the trooper’s questions were curt and defensive.
In the course of a prolonged verbal exchange, Brian Encinia admitted that he had initially intended to issue a warning and let the minor infraction pass. But the trooper didn’t like Bland’s attitude so he intentionally escalated the tension by asking her to extinguish her cigarette.
And that’s when everything went south.
Here in the land of the free, we are allowed to smoke cigarettes in our own vehicles. Encinia might not be comfortable with this level of freedom, but it wasn’t his call.
When Bland challenged his right to issue this demand, Encinia immediately ordered her to leave the vehicle. He didn’t tell her why he wanted her feet on the pavement; he simply issued another comply-or-die order.
As the situation escalated, Encinia was so insistent that Bland demonstrate due deference that he unholstered his taser and threatened to use it.
The goal was to establish dominance. This had nothing to do with police work or maintaining public safety. Encinia’s superiors have stated uncategorically that the trooper departed from the established protocols of his profession and no seasoned police officer would defend his behavior.
And yet we are hearing the usual “if she had complied with the officer’s demands nothing would have happened” comments on social media. A healthy percentage of the population believes that police officers can be as nasty as they wanna be and it is our responsibility, as docile citizens, to trust and obey.
Trust and obey
for there’s no other way
to be happy in a police state
than to trust and obey.
The authoritarian impulse is fundamentally undemocratic, but it too is strong among us.
It is commonly assumed that certain people live above the law: police officers and soldiers (because our safety depends on their efforts); entertainers and athletes (because we take our entertainment very seriously); and captains of industry (because we need the jobs their entrepreneurial heroics create).
Until the early 19th century, a subset of the population (the ordained clergy) was not subject to the civil law. Under an odd division of judicial labor, monks, priests and bishops could claim their “benefit of clergy” and have their cases tried before far more lenient ecclesiastical courts.
I found this paragraph from the Wikipedia article on benefit of clergy particularly significant (and if you still think Wikipedia isn’t a source of scholarship you haven’t been keeping up).
In the ecclesiastical courts, the most common form of trial was by compurgation. If the defendant swore an oath to his own innocence and found twelve compurgators to swear likewise to their belief that the accused was innocent, he was acquitted. A person convicted by an ecclesiastical court could be defrocked and returned to the secular authorities for punishment; but the English ecclesiastical courts became increasingly lenient, and, by the 15th century, most convictions in these courts led to a sentence of penance.
Compurgation is still with us (even though the word now the word itself is unknown to spellcheck). If a police officer or a soldier charged with the abuse of authority can summon the support of a dozen opinion leaders chances are he will escape the consequences of his actions. This principle even applies to vigilante cops like the increasingly bizarre George Zimmerman.
The evidence that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist has long been strong, and gets stronger with each passing day. But, unlike Sandra Bland, Cosby is unlikely to see the inside of a prison cell. That’s because “The Cos” has a penchant for telling white America what it wants to hear about Black America and the eclipse of racism. Having supported their great black hope for so long, white folks ignore the long string of victims the Pudding Pop Man has left in his wake. The modern version of benefit of clergy may not do much for actual preachers, but it works overtime for men like Brian Encinia and Bill Cosby.
And what are we to make of Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to the top of the Republican presidential pack? As I write, it remains to be seen whether Trump will survive his mean-spirited (and grotesque) attack on John McCain who, whatever you may think of his politics, showed rare heroism as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But Trump’s ugly assault on Mexican Americans and the sophomoric insults he hurls at his political competition only endear the man to his passionate admirers.
It’s the benefit of clergy, American-style. For those who divide the world into “makers” and “takers”, Donald Trump is the epitome of makerhood, a man who transcends the usual rules of social etiquette. If you are worth as much as The Donald, you don’t have to be good, or merciful, or kind, or humble or even rational. Traditional virtues are for losers. If you win, you make your own morality. Right?
Tough guy cops like Brian Encinia can abuse American citizens (so long as they are bad-ass Blacks) and trained assassins like Chris Kyle are free to roam from one bar fight to another without reckoning with the legal consequences or drawing the censure of macho America. It’s that willingness to bad guy ass that makes us safe. Right?
This valorizing of macho posturing doesn’t translate into concern for military veterans struggling with an under-funded VA system, nor does it inspire the slightest concern for the astronomical rates of suicide and PTSD we have seen within the military community. As Mr. Trump suggests, the real winners made it out sound of mind and body. Tough guys don’t get PTSD. Right?
These days, benefit of clergy only works for winners.
Brian Encinia, the man who transformed a questionable traffic stop into a funeral, will almost certainly lose his job over this latest example of blatant police misconduct and racial injustice. The episode was captured on film. It looks worse every time you look at it.
The same was true of Eric Casebolt, the temporarily insane officer in McKinney, Texas who repeatedly flung a scantily clad, one hundred pound, teenage girl to the sidewalk. Again, the episode was caught on film.
And that’s the way it works. If there are no cameras present, these episodes devolve into he-said-she-said narratives and benefit of clergy reigns. If the misconduct is captured by the camera, all bets are off.
And yet, even after rogue cops like Casebolt and Encinia step down in disgrace, they will remain culture war heroes in the minds of many.
Donald Trump will eventually nosedive in the polls; most likely sooner than later; but his brief moment of glory proves that, in our America, some of us live above the law, above the rules, above the moral consensus. So long as their enemies are our enemies they can do no wrong. Right?
By Alan Bean
Margaret Block died on June 20, 2015 in Cleveland, Mississippi, the little town where she was born and raised. Margaret was a precocious teenager when she signed up as a disciple of Fannie Lou Hamer in the Mississippi Delta, but her heart had been in the justice struggle ever since Emmett Till was murdered and thrown in the Tallahatchie river in 1955. Margaret worked with SNCC in Tallahatchie County during the darkest days of the civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta. Over fifty years later, Margaret would refuse to remain in Tallahatchie County after dark. “I still don’t trust those people,” she would explain, “you don’t know ’em like I do.”
I got to know Margaret Block when I was trying to figure out why Curtis Flowers, a young man from Winona, Mississippi, could have been convicted of murder on manufactured and flimsy evidence. Curtis was arrested in 1996, thirty-three years after Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten half to death in the County jail in Winona. I wanted to know how Mississippi society had evolved in those intervening years and my search took me to Cleveland, Mississippi. “If you want to learn about the civil rights fight in the Delta,” somebody told me, “you’ve got meet Margaret.”
Margaret Block lived in a modest home on the poor side of Cleveland; the same house where she was born and would eventually die. But there was a long stretch when she lived in San Francisco, a city as far from the Delta geographically and culturally as you could get. (You can find a tribute from an old friend from Margaret’s California period here.) Margaret worked as a school teacher in the Bay area but returned to Mississippi in later life to care for her ailing mother.
Margaret Block was fearless; she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of her. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she was exceptionally forgiving. Explaining the freedom struggle in the Mississippi Delta to a dozen college students wasn’t easy, but Margaret gave it her best shot. Friends of Justice participated in several civil rights tours of the Delta with Margaret Block and our friends with the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. (They have a lovely tribute to Margaret on their site.)
Margaret had a strong alto voice and loved to teach freedom songs to young people. “These songs held the movement together,” she would explain. “People loved to sing, so we’d take these church songs and just change the words around a little. Instead of ‘I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus,’ we’d sing, ‘stayed on freedom.’ You can’t imagine what is was like to hear a church full of people singing these freedom songs at the top of their lungs. It made us bold; and you had to be bold to survive ’cause we were living in dangerous times.
Jaws would drop when Margaret would tell us how she got out of Tallahatchie County with the Klan on her tail. “They would search every car with a black driver coming and going,” she’d say, “but even the Klan had respect for a hearse, so that’s how we used to get people in and out of there when things got hot.”
Margaret was the champion of her brother, Sam Block, a man she clearly idolized, and her memories figured prominently in Sam’s New York Times obituary. When Margaret told her civil rights stories, Sam was always in the forefront. This excerpt from Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters will give you a feel for Sam’s courage:
Block had acquired the reputation of a stubborn, lonely figure among the strange new breed of devout daredevils,” a reference to those activists who were unafraid to put themselves in jeopardy to register blacks to vote.
In one incident, a judge found Block guilty of making an incendiary public remark but said he would suspend Block’s sentence if he agreed to give up the voter registration project and leave town.
“Judge,” Block replied, “I ain’t gonna do none of that.”
So Block began a six-month sentence after paying a $500 fine. But his attitude and willingness to do the time galvanized local blacks. That night, according to Branch, more than 250 people gathered for a voting rights meeting.
But the most amazing Sam Block story came to light when I was filming with Margaret and a group of Friends of Justice interns at the LeFlore County courthouse in Greenwood. On Good Friday, in the spring of 1963, Margaret told me, her brother rode a mule into Greenwood on Good Friday morning.
“He told me about it one time as if it wasn’t anything important, but you’ve got to understand that Sam was sure he wasn’t going to survive the work he was doing in Greenwood–sooner or later, he believed, somebody was going to take him down. So, by riding that mule into town he was saying, ‘Look, you did it to Jesus, so, come on now people, why don’t you just go ahead and do it to me.”
Margaret had a love-hate relationship with organized religion, but she said that if “Ms. Hamer” loved Jesus so much he must have something going for him. Religion was one of the biggest impediments to the movement; but religion was also at the heart of the movement. Civil Rights Christianity didn’t survive the social trauma of the 1960s, but Margaret treasured the memory of its glorious and all-too-brief brief flowering.
“I wish you could have heard Ms. Hamer sing these old songs,” Margaret would say. “Now there was a true child of God. Fannie Lou wasn’t afraid of nobody and it was her faith that made her that way. Everybody remembers her for “This little light of mine,” but her favorite song was “I want Jesus to walk with me.”
Then Margaret would break into song as if channeling the spirit of Fannie Lou:
I want Jesus to walk with me;
I want Jesus to walk with me;
all along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
And now Margaret is walking with Jesus, Fannie Lou, Sam, and that great cloud of witnesses on the freedom side of the river. Hallelujah!
By Pierre Berastain
When Howard Belding Gill became the first Superintendent of the Norfolk State Prison Colony, presently known as the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, he created what became known as the first community prison in the United States. Intended as an experiment to introduce a rehabilitative rather than solely punitive model, the prison held men like Malcolm X, who described the place with “no bars, only walls” as practicing “penal policies [that] sounded almost too good to be true.” The staff was conceived not as guards, but as educators and counselors, psychiatrists and mentors. Years after he left his position as Superintendent, Gill returned to MCI Norfolk to mentor young prisoners and visit old inmates turned friends.
Today, MCI Norfolk is a medium-security prison where bars have gone up, but where the commitment to rehabilitation and community remains an important pillar for the Department of Corrections. That is why, on June 13th and 14th, MCI Norfolk staff allowed Dr. Karen Lischinsky, Volunteer Coordinator for the Restorative Justice Group at Norfolk Prison, to work with the incarcerated men and put together a two-day Restorative Justice and Responsibility Retreat. During the retreat, over a hundred inmates were introduced to principles of rehabilitation, community responsibility, and personal introspection. Speaking to the large auditorium of men, Sister Ruth Raichle encouraged the men to think of their lives as interconnected, not just amongst themselves but also to the outside community. “Justice is not something done to us,” she said, “It’s something we build together.” She was speaking of the importance of making amends by publically recognizing the harm they had done and thus begin the process of finding their innate humanity and reconnecting with the outside community. Many inmates acknowledged, however, that responsibility extends past a one-time recognition of their crimes. Rather, responsibility comprises a life-long journey of personal healing and introspection. Reflecting on his own journey, and I heard an inmate say that healing rather than harm is the mark of a responsible life. He wanted to end the cycle of violence he had inherited and contributed to.
The restorative justice retreat at MCI Norfolk gives inmates an opportunity to begin a healing process so that they can live more responsible lives in hopes that one-day, they can return to society. Such commitment to rehabilitation and reintegration cannot be undervalued, especially when, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of state prisoners will be released from prison at some point. As a result, more and more prison administrators throughout the country are looking for new initiatives that prepare prisoners for re-entry upon leaving prison.
Yet, attending the retreat were also a number of men who would never leave Norfolk’s prison walls. Their promise to better themselves, to live more fulfilling lives, extended beyond personal gains. Inmates spoke of being fathers, grandfathers, or uncles who did not want their loved ones to show up in the cell next to them. I felt a sincere commitment from a number of men at the retreat who wanted to take responsibility for their crimes and learn better ways, as I understood from an inmate, of facing the nightmares in his closet.
Breaking the cycle: 189 years
In the small group discussions, the men showed emotional reactions as they heard victims of crime narrate the pain they felt from the absence of their murdered children. Kim and Ron Odom, whose 13-year-old son Steven was killed in 2007, asked the men to take responsibility for the harm they had done to parents and community. “You have left an indelible mark,” Kim Odom said, “but you can prevent more harm from being done. As a mother, I can tell you we don’t bring murderers into this world.” She and her husband asked the men to reflect and make a promise to change.
For the men of the restorative justice group, that promise has created a more peaceful community inside MCI-Norfolk. I think all of those of us present found it amazing when we heard an inmate say that collectively, the men of the restorative justice group have 189 years without any disciplinary tickets. That accomplishment was possible because of programs like the Restorative Justice Retreat, which brings together inmates and community members who remind the men of their promises. At this year’s retreat, Isaura Mendes spoke to the group about the murder of her two children, Bobby Mendes, 23, murdered in 1995 and Mathew Mendes, 22, murdered in 2006. As the men listened, they sank in their chairs and tried to keep tears inside. They were beginning to grasp for the first time how they are responsible for hurting so many in their own communities.
For many of the incarcerated men who attended the retreat, having mothers return every year and remind them of their commitment to live more peaceful lives reinforces the message that society has not forgotten them, that we remember and hold them accountable. During the retreat, I heard an inmate say he had never felt someone care about him, and that he was amazed to hear mothers speak and see the humanity in him. Many others echoed that feeling.
A number of inmates also spoke of loved ones — a brother, a mother, a close friend — who had been murdered. For them, the process of healing lied in the realization that retaliation does not bring back the smiles of those no longer with us. “That requires a paradigm shift in our culture,” said Ron Odom as he reflected on the need to disrupt the cycle of revenge. Mr. Odom urged the men to nourish their minds with new ideas. A prisoner agreed, telling his fellow inmates in the auditorium that Norfolk can hold their bodies, but it can’t control their minds. He urged them to think deeply about their responsibility, identity, and commitment to the larger community.
It can start at Norfolk
While most prisons in the United States do not operate under a restorative model, MCI Norfolk continues the legacy of Howard Gill to rehabilitate and reintegrate. For True See Allah, an ex-inmate who this past January received a pardon from then Governor Deval Patrick, his time at MCI Norfolk gave him the opportunity to change. “Norfolk is the wound that gave birth to me,” he told the men. We can only hope that more U.S. prisons provide space for inmates to understand the impact of their actions and make meaningful changes in their lives. Our criminal justice system ought to move past punishment and instead adopt a model of reform that helps those incarcerated understand the implications of their deeds. This takes time, but the results can be truly transformative both for individuals and entire communities.
By Pierre Berastain
When President Barack Obama declared the surge of unaccompanied minors a “humanitarian crisis,” immigration activists were hopeful the President would help thousands of women and children fleeing violence. However, the administration responded to the crisis with a policy far from appropriate or humane. President Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson looked on as families and children were locked in detention centers. Though these centers are supposed to be less harsh than prisons, they instead operate as institutions that worsen the trauma migrant women and children experience in their dangerous countries and journeys. The lack of mental health services, alleged abuses by officers, and the general conditions render family detention centers unlivable and dangerous for many seeking refuge.
Detained women and children are constantly reminded of the traumas they’ve experienced. Migrant women are leaving countries that have the highest rates of femicide and violence against women according to United Nations estimates. There, the journey to and from school could lead to death. Gangs brutally murder women to show their dominance. No matter how much money these families give to gang members to leave them alone, or how many times the families relocate, they continue to be persecuted. After much brutality, they flee their countries to protect themselves from these crimes.
But their journey to the United States is just as dangerous. Women and girls prepare themselves for the journey by taking contraceptives so, if they are raped, they will not become pregnant. On their long journey to the United States, 80% of women and girls are raped. Despite the very likely possibility that they will be assaulted, women and children continue to make the journey north.
Unfortunately, making it on to US soil doesn’t mean problems end for these women and children. In the hands of ICE officers and detention center guards, the women and their children see their traumas exacerbated. According to The Human Rights Watch, indefinite detention is traumatic and has profound psychological effects. Many of the detained women and children who they interviewed suffered from depression and suicidal thinking. In a letter to President Obama, mothers at the Karnes detention center described the constant headaches they suffer from because of the stress of being held in the detention center. Jailing children (most of whom are on average six years old, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service) and their mothers does not ensure that they will make it to their court appointments; it does ensure their traumas will worsen.
One of the most widespread criticisms of family detention centers is the lack of mental health resources for survivors of sexual assault. Both women and children walk through the halls of family detention centers carrying the burden of the sexual assault they witnessed or experienced. Though the Department of Homeland Security and ICE claim they provide adequate resources for their detainees, in reality their resources are not only very limited, but also not sensitive to the culture and genders of those they claim to help. For example, the Artesia Family Detention Center offers no onsite mental health providers; women and children were able to talk to a psychiatrist only through a video feed, making it very difficult for any relationship to form. To make matters worse, women could only speak to a male psychiatrist. Women who had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of men were expected to speak about the trauma to other men. For many Latinas, being asked– and often times forced–to talk about rape to a man is unthinkable. Women often leave important details out of their narratives, and the experience further prevents them from healing. Despite the closing of the Artesia Center, malpractice of mental health services is still prevalent among the newer, much larger detention centers.
The trauma is also worsened by sexual assault that occurs to these women while detained. In 2009, a guard at the infamous Hutto Detention Center was caught crawling out of a woman’s cell in the middle of the night. Though there was substantial evidence indicating that the woman had been raped, the guard never faced charges. The woman and her child, however, were later deported.
Six years after the sexual assault case at Hutto, the prevalence of sexual assault and ICE’s attempts to hide them are still a major issue. Less than a year ago, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and other advocacy groups sent a letter to Secretary Johnson demanding the investigation of allegations of sexual assault committed by guards and personnel at the Karnes Detention Center. The women represented by MALDEF made disturbing allegations: guards had promised desperate mothers money, shelter, and help with immigration proceedings in exchange for sexual favors. The guards removed women from their cells in the middle of the night or early in the morning for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts. Even worse, the guards allegedly touched the women inappropriately in front of others, including children.
But as in the Hutto case, no one faced charges. Though ICE conducted an investigation, they found the claims to be false. Their evidence, however, was taken solely from the testimonies of guards themselves and women who were terrified of deportation. The results of this biased investigation fails to address serious concerns of sexual assault in detention centers and perpetuates the belief that the victims, not the perpetrators, will face repercussions for speaking out, whether that’s leaving their family and countries or being deported back to those same countries. These women flee the sexual violence that exists in their countries only to realize they haven’t escaped the nightmare while under the responsibility of the US government.
Despite being subjected to incarceration and abuse, the women detained at the centers have tried to resist the injustices perpetrated against them. In late April, more than 70 mothers held a hunger strike, a work strike, or stood in solidarity to demand their freedom and to protest the conditions and abuses they experience in the detention center. Though ICE reacted by putting the leaders and their families in dark, isolated rooms, the strike sparked a movement among the different detention centers. Within weeks of the first strike at Karnes, there was another strike at the center to get the attention of ICE Director, Sarah Saldaña. Then, ten mothers at the Berks detention center in Pennsylvania launched a work strike demanding their release and the closing of the center. At a men’s Arizona detention facility, more than 200 men participated in a hunger strike after the death of José de Jesús Deniz-Sahagún, who at the time was under ICE custody.
The resilience of these women, men and children in fighting to protect their human rights must not go unnoticed. We must continue to challenge the existence of these centers and force the President to acknowledge that detention worsens the trauma migrants have to live with and to recognize that detention is far from a humane response. On July 24, Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a number of policy reformsto address some concerns with detention centers. These reforms are far from sufficient. It is time we also acknowledge the incarceration of innocent people fleeing from violence is simply unacceptable. The Department of Homeland Security, and our government at large, ought to look at the abusive practices happening in detention centers and close them down.
This piece was written with Jessica Manzano-Valdez, Public Policy and Communications Intern at the National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities.