Forgiveness Breaks the Devil’s Back

Jesus at Nazareth

By Alan Bean

This sermon was originally preached at Springcreek Community Church in Garland, Texas.

Fresh from wrestling with the Devil through forty days and forty nights, Jesus shows up in his home church of Nazareth and uses the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah to lay down his manifesto:

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 that are oppressed,
to proclaim the Lord’s jubilee when all debts are cancelled
and all the slaves go free.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me . . .” What does that mean?

The word “Messiah” means “the anointed one”.  Anointing was a big deal in ancient Israel: somebody took a hollowed out horn filled with oil and poured it over your head.  Psalm 133 gives us a graphic portrait of an anointing:

How good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.

“Isaiah was talking about me,” Jesus is saying, “The Holy Spirit of God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

In ancient Israel the thrill of anointing was reserved for prophets, priests and kings.

Which is why, from the fourth century on, theologians have talked about the “three-fold office of Jesus”: prophet, priest and king.

You don’t find this talk in the Gospels, however, and that’s largely because the priests and princes in Jesus’ world were always trying to kill him.  In the Gospel narratives, Jesus appears as a prophet.  Not just any prophet, mind you.  Jesus is THE prophet who completes, fulfills and perfects the prophetic task.

As the gospel story unfolds, the prophetic work of Jesus puts him in continual conflict with priests and princes.  Finally, in the fullness of time, Jesus heads south to the Holy City:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Days later, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, “humble and riding on the foal of a donkey.” (That’s Zechariah).  He enters the temple, overturns the tables of the money changers and cries,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’ (that’s Isaiah)
but you are making it a den of robbers. (that’s Jeremiah).

Jesus begins his public ministry by preaching good news to the poor; he ends his public ministry on the same note.

Verily, verily I say unto thee, when you won’t feed the hungry, provide water for the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner or welcome the stranger, you are leaving me out in the cold, alone and hungry.

Having said that, Jesus takes his disciples aside and says, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then, as if on cue, we find “the chief priests and the elders of the law” retreating to the palace of Caiaphas the high priest where they “conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”

Annointing in BethanyMeanwhile, Jesus is in Bethany, reclining at supper in the home of Simon the leper.  A woman bursts onto the scene with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume.  In seconds, the sweet ointment is running down his face, dripping onto his robes and puddling on the floor.

Apart from Jesus himself, this woman is the only person in Jerusalem who understands what’s going on.  She isn’t just anointing his body for burial; she is anointing “the anointed one” for spiritual warfare; she is commissioning him for the cross.

Jesus always knew his life story would end on a Roman cross, and he repeatedly said so.  But the death of the Anointed One was not random, it was carefully orchestrated.  Jesus arrived in Jerusalem at Passover for many reasons, theological and practical.  The big practical reason was that, during Passover, the population of Jerusalem swelled to four times its normal size and everybody would be there, including princes like Pilate and Herod Antipas, and priests like Caiaphas.

Herod the prince and Caiaphas the priest plot his downfall, but Jesus drives the action, declaring the good news of the kingdom with parable and prophetic action until his enemies are driven to a murderous frenzy.

All the hatred, fear, confusion, greed, envy and rage festering in the hearts of priests and princes rises to the surface in one dreadful moment.  Jesus is falsely accused, he is spat upon; he is beaten, he is whipped, he is humiliated and, finally, he is nailed to a Roman cross outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Then comes the miracle.  Gazing down on a mob of sneering, sarcastic, mockers, Jesus raises his eyes to heaven and utters the words that broke the devil’s back:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

And with these words everything changed.

The curtain in the temple, walling off the holy of holies from everyone but the High Priest, was torn from top to bottom.

A Roman centurion, standing guard for Caesar, hears these words and says, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.”  “Jesus is Lord; and Caesar is not.”

Finally, and this is only in Matthew, an earthquake shakes the countryside, and the tombs of the saints are opened.  This relates to Luke 11 where Jesus says

You build tombs for the prophets whom your ancestors killed . . . so this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world.

When you kill me, Jesus was saying, you slay the prophets all over again.  And then Matthew gives us the flip side, when Jesus is raised, all the prophets come back to life.

Jesus forgave the priests and the princes who put him on the cross.  He forgave the disciples who left him to die alone. He forgave the devil himself.  The Cruel Spirit can withstand any weapon formed against him—except forgiveness.

Roof, forgivenessIn recent days, we have seen demonic rage snuff out the lives of nine good people; and we have seen the miracle of forgiveness wring unity and reconciliation out of a senseless and tragic act.

Forgiveness is hard.  Miracles don’t come easy.  But because the Anointed One forgave; so can we.  We are called to the work of prophets, and prophetic action invites backlash.  Always. Sneering back at the haters is easy; forgiving the hate is hard.

I learned how hard forgiveness can be in Tulia, Texas, a Panhandle community halfway between Amarillo and Lubbock.

City streets cleared of garbageIn the early morning hours of July 23rd, 1999, 47 alleged drug kingpins were arrested on the poor side of Tulia and paraded in front of waiting television cameras in their underwear.

The defendants were all from the poorest echelons of Tulia’s black community or married to someone who was.

These people were all charged with selling little baggies of powdered cocaine to a single undercover agent.

Tom Coleman, had no evidence to corroborate his stories; you either trusted him, or you didn’t.

Everybody did.  The churches of Tulia backed the Coleman operation to the hilt.  They didn’t know anything about the officer, but they trusted the Sheriff who hired him.

The headline in the local paper summed up the general attitude: “Tulia’s streets cleared of garbage.”

When I told my Sunday school class how disturbed I was by this headline, I was told that the defendants “are all guilty, and they’re all going to jail.”

The sting robbed at least fifty young children of the only parents they knew.  Nancy and I ended up taking three of these children into our home.

When the first cases went to trial, local juries handed down the stiffest sentences allowed by law: 45 years.  Sixty years.  Ninety years.  One young man received six 99-year sentences, to be served consecutively.

Then we learned that Tom Coleman had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of the eighteen-month undercover operation.  Before taking the Tulia job, Coleman worked as a deputy in another West Texas town, leaving in the dead of night owing local merchants $10,000.

That was Coleman’s MO.

I called another West Texas Sheriff who hired Coleman even further back.  “If I had people in my jail on that man’s uncorroborated word,” the man told me, “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

Nancy and I stood at a crossroads.  We could pretend nothing was happening and get on with our lives; or we could take a prophet’s stand.  With a choice that stark, the decision made itself.  We started holding Sunday night meetings in our living room where the children, parents and loved ones of the sting defendants gathered to sing gospel songs, dance, read letters from prison and plot strategy.

We packaged the story for journalists.  We reached out to advocacy groups across the nation.  We got in touch with the governor’s office and made repeated trips to Austin to visit with legislators, handing out brochures that read: Moses, the Apostle Paul and Jesus agree: no one should be convicted on the word of a single witness.

Gradually, our efforts were rewarded.

Two sisters from New York produced a documentary on the story.

Two international law firms saw the documentary and signed on to represent the defendants on a pro bono basis.

A recent journalism graduate wrote a 16-page story for a Texas magazine.

ABC’s 20-20 sent a team to investigate.

Bill O’Reilly covered the story on Fox.

Then the backlash began . . . at least for those of us who lived in Tulia.

A congregation refused membership to our family.

Nancy was shunned at work by her fellow teachers.

Denominational officials told me I was too radical to recommend to their churches.

The brake lines on our Oldsmobile Silhouette were cut.

Our phones were tapped.

Then, as the story gained national traction, we started taking flak from our allies:

Lawyers who had once shunned the defendants as small-town losers were now queuing up to join the fight.

Some attorneys complained about our public singing and praying.

Defendants were told not to associate with “the local white people” because we couldn’t be trusted.   Not everyone listened; but many did.

A local black Baptist mission asked us to work with their young people, but dropped the idea when the white mother church complained.

Finally, after four years of struggle, a judge ruled that Tom Coleman lacked credibility under oath.

All charges were dropped, prisoners were released from prison and eventually pardoned by Governor Perry.

Tom Coleman was found guilty of aggravated perjury and the defendants (and their lawyers) received millions of dollars in reparation payments.

A law was passed by the Texas legislature demanding corroboration for single-witness testimony.

The Department of Public Safety took replaced unaccountable, and often corrupt, narcotics task forces.

But Nancy and I were too beaten up and betrayed to celebrate.

Here’s the saving grace: we knew our Bibles well enough to realize that our experience in Tulia followed a familiar pattern, a gospel pattern.

We had taken a prophet’s stand so the blowback from the priests and princes came as no surprise.  Even the opposition and betrayal of friends and allies followed the biblical story line.  Take up the cross of the Anointed One and these things happen.

Forgiveness kept us in the Tulia fight and has sustained us through fifteen years of ministry with the group we formed in Tulia, Friends of Justice.

I have written a book, “Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas.”

Recently, we have produced a six-week Bible study we call Breaking the Silence.

Forgiveness doesn’t come quickly, and it doesn’t come easily, but we knew the Old, Old Story of Jesus and his love, so we mouth the words, “Father, forgive them” until we meant it.

And every now and then, in the heart of the struggle, we feel the amazing grace of God welling up and we know we have chosen the right path.

We see it in the Bible.

We have seen it in Charleston, South Carolina.

And as we follow Jesus through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we feel it in the deep places of the soul.

Forgiveness makes the difference.  Forgiveness breaks the devil’s back.

Dez Bryant and the gay marriage decision

By Alan Bean

We have a Supreme Court because every game needs a referee.  Nonetheless, screaming at the ref is a long-honored tradition among us.  When the Supreme Court justices fail to side with my convictions (as they frequently do) I am outraged, just as I was when a fool in pinstripes ruled that Dez Bryant didn’t make a catch in last years playoff game against the Packers.  Everyone in the DFW region agreed with me, of course, but the game still went to the wrong team.

I haven’t taken a poll in Wisconsin, but I bet 98.9% of Packer fans thought the ref made the right call.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage has produced a flood-tide of emotionally-charged rhetoric on the right and wild jubilation on the left.  Then the two sides began reacting to the reaction of the other side: liberals calling conservatives bigots and conservatives lamenting that American society has declared war on religious liberty.

As Amy Butler points out, there was a third response.  Silence.  Pastors of churches and denominations located in what I call “the messy middle” said nothing; or they appeared to be voicing opinions which, upon careful examination, said precisely nothing.

Butler argues that the silence of the messy middle is rooted in fear, and she is right.  But fear drives the game on the right and left as well.

Not a single Republican candidate welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling; the growing crowd of candidates either wished the states had been left to decide the issue on their own or, as previously noted, they broke into rants about an assault on religious liberty.

A much smaller field of Democratic presidential aspirants sang the court’s praises in unison.

Given the culture-war divide in America, how likely is it that a leading Democrat would concerns about gay marriage or a dominant Republican praise the court’s decision.  It could happen, just like the world could be eviscerated by a stray asteroid; but it won’t happen because partisan preachers and politicians are just as fear-ridden as the tremulous compromised souls in the messy middle.

I can announce without reservation that, for practical, emotional, moral and theological reasons, I am thrilled that gay marriage is now the law of the land.  But I’m not a pastor, a politician, or a denominational official.

Were I a Southern Baptist pastor, supporting gay marriage would end of my career and most of my prized relationships.  I might even be disowned by my children and going public with such a heterodox opinion might place my marriage in jeopardy.  That’s how tribal the cultural cleavage has become.

We are so immersed in cultural context that the opposing viewpoint sounds like jiggery-pockery and applesauce (to borrow from the honorable Mr. Scalia).  Our theological and political opinions are served to us in a silver slipper.  We don’t even feel the fear because, from where we stand, the politically necessary perspective feels like common sense.

If I were a mainstream Episcopalian, Methodist or United Church of Christ pastor living in San Francisco, Boston or New York City, my outspoken opposition to the court’s decision might bring down cries of “bigot” or even “fundamentalist” from those whose support I value most.  People would find my callous desecration of the principle of equality and my indifference to the connubial bliss of millions of gay men and women mean-spirited, heretical and disgusting.

Captivity to cultural context works in both directions.

Only when our social world can’t make up its mind do we feel the fear.  If I know that half my congregation will be outraged no matter what I say; I will say nothing.  Every time.

Even the shape of our moral arguments is determined by context.

If I reject same-sex marriage I begin with historical precedent (we’ve never defined marriage that way before) and flat-Bible hermeneutics (Romans and Leviticus reject same-sex attraction so it must be a sin).  Viewed in this light, same sex marriage looks like a frontal assault on Christian civilization.

If I wish to support same sex marriage, my argument builds on the principles of equality and justice and I appeal to my same-sex couple in the real world who are passionately in love and are desperate to be married.  Viewed in this light, opponents of gay marriage appear to be unspeakably cruel and, yes, bigoted.  We find biblical support for our position in the biblical principles of equity, justice, grace and love.

Much depends, of course, on whether same sex attraction is chosen, innate or a complex mix of the two.  But, like everything else, where we come down on this critical question is largely a function of social location.  The same is true of the partisan predicates that predetermine our conclusions.

Social context can get awfully murky.  Many people, perhaps most, find themselves limping between two opinions on gay marriage.  We live with a foot in both culture war camps and are uncomfortable with the ideological options on offer.  We feel the common sense appeal of “Adam-and-Steve” arguments but, golly, those chubby fifty-somethings celebrating their gay marriage on television sure look like nice people.

But “I have mixed feelings about gay marriage” makes for a really lame Facebook post, so folks in the conflicted category usually end up with the majority.  In recent years this has produced a tidal shift toward to the left.

In theory, I could respect bold contrarians who take a stand on gay marriage that is unpopular in the tribe they inhabit; but thus far I haven’t seen anyone do it.  Not one Cowboy fan thought Dez dropped the ball.  Not one Republican politician celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision.  Not one Democrat, in my experience, is bathed in sack cloth and ashes.  We always end up cheering for the home team.

There are a few misguided fools who stand up to their own tribe.  They’re called prophets and generally die young. Jesus is hard to follow with integrity because he took the ultimate prophet’s stand.  We’re glad he took up his cross, but we won’t follow his example if it means saying no to our tribe.  Jesus love us still . . . but he ain’t impressed.

Normally, we just cheer for the home team because it feels right somehow.  And if we’re surrounded by a sea of Dallas blue and Green Bay green, we ignore Dez Bryant and remind everyone that football, after all, is only a game.  We are either partisan or perplexed.

That’s who we are.  That’s what we do.  Almost every time.

So lets all lighten up a little.  Stop trying to silence the opposition.  Stop freaking out  if the opposition tries to silence you (even if it means sacrificing 1,000 “likes” on Facebook).  The call is made and the game is over.  Dallas fans briefly considered mounting a throw-the-bums-out revolution right there in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas; but cooler heads prevailed.  In football as in politics, if no one has the authority to make the final call, the game can’t be played.  And we love the game.

Football might be dispensable; democracy isn’t.

People of good will and solid Christian conviction can be found on both sides of the gay rights issue, or on both sides at once.  So let’s see if we can argue, celebrate and lament without demonizing folks who belong to a different tribe.  Can we do that?

(BTW, Dez really did make that catch).)

Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again: a Mississippi town mirrors the soul of a nation

Alan Bean:

This old post has been getting a lot of attention (for obvious reasons ), so I thought I’d throw it up again.

Originally posted on Friends of Justice:

By Alan Bean

A monument to “The memory of Carroll’s Confederate Soldiers who fought in defense of our constitutional rights from Bethel to Appomattox” stands in front of the Carroll County courthouse in Carrollton Mississippi.  No surprise there; virtually every county courthouse in Mississippi constructed before 1920 sports a civil war memorial.  But few of these monuments are accompanied by the Confederate flag.  We’re not talking about the Mississippi state flag that incorporates the stars and bars–this is the genuine article.

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Was Dylann Roof wrong about America?

By Alan Bean
Nine Dead After Church Shooting In Charleston
The slaughter of nine innocent people gathered for prayer at a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina was horrific, deplorable, sickening, cruel and heartless.  It was not senseless.

In the mind of Dylann Storm Roof the act made perfect sense.  He was trying to spark a race war and he thought killing innocent people in a place of worship linked to the civil rights movement and an ancient slave revolt was a good way, a sensible way, to light the fuse.

If you think like Dylann Roof, his brazen act made perfect sense.

The carnage looks senseless because we don’t think like Dylann Roof.  Hardly any of us do.

Perhaps the young man is crazy.  But why did his craziness veer in this particular direction?

There is plenty of racism in America, but much of it is so understated (or unstated) that most white Americans can’t see it.  The Republican Party, since the days of Richard Nixon, has slowly transformed itself into the Party of White.  Republican leaders pulled off this feat not by preaching racial hatred, but by pretending race is no longer an issue worthy of discussion.  Sure, we had some issues back in the day; but this is now and that was then.

Does refusing to wrestle with racial animus make you a racist?  Not if you’re white.  But for people of color the silence is maddening.  Which is the single biggest reason few black people, however conservative, vote for Republican candidates.  It feels like betrayal.

The Party doesn’t advertise itself as the Party of White and, if you’re white, it doesn’t even look like the Party of White.

This studied inability to speak intelligently and compassionately about racial hatred was on full display today as Republican presidential tried to make sense of the horror befalling “Mother Emmanuel” in Charleston, South Carolina.

Rick Santorum called it an attack on religion, a theme FOX news embraced with unseemly ardor.  The killing happened in a Christian church, didn’t it.  The shooter clearly had it in for Christians, right?

Wrong.  The killer has it in for black people.  Particularly strong black people with ties to the civil rights movement.  The site was chosen precisely because it served as a refuge for the African American community; a place where the full truth about American religion, American history and American racism could be spoken without fear.

Many have wondered aloud how Dylann Roof could sit through an hour-long Bible study before opening fire on the participants.  But it was precisely this linkage between faith and racial justice that makes the blood of the proud white southerner boil.  If black civil rights leaders, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Clementa Pinckney, are right about America, white southerners are wrong.  Horribly, tragically wrong.

It is the indictment of white America so eloquently enunciated by Martin Luther King Jr. that a solid majority of white Americans refuse to accept.  I’m not talking about the “I have a dream” Martin; I’m talking about the Martin who said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

If Martin was right about that; white silence is wrong.

We aren’t wrong about everything, of course.  Few white voices are pushing for segregated schools; we prefer charters and vouchers that have the same practical effect.

We have no truck with slavery; but when the interests of corporations and the people they employ collide, we instinctively side with the “makers” while opposing the “takers” they employ.

And we certainly aren’t in favor of racial segregation; we just think that Confederate Battle flag flying bravely at the state capital in South Carolina (and, in slightly altered form, from every flag poll in Mississippi) symbolizes a worthy heritage.

White racism, American style, refuses to admit that race is relevant.  Ever.  Anyone who believes that racism is the primary force driving American social and political life is written off as a crank or, worse, a race hustler.  White racism refuses to talk about race. The Republican Party and FOX news market a product for which there is overwhelming demand.  Silence.

But isn’t there an enormous gulf between this race-doesn’t-matter mantra and the lynch mob fantasies of Dylann Roof?

Of course there is.  One is implicit; the other explicit.  One demands silence; the other fills that silence with vile words and actions.

So, back to my question: supposing Dylann Roof is a nut, why did his nuttiness express itself in this particular way?

The goodly brotherhood of internet racism is part of the explanation.  That which is rarely whispered in polite society is shouted from the digital roof tops.  Like pornography, vile opinions thrive in this new, exciting and unregulated world.

But is it that simple?  This evening, as part of his weekly conversation with E.J. Dionne on PBS, David Brooks made an obvious point.  America has a race problem, Brooks admitted, but the sort of racism driving a Dylann Roof isn’t mainstream stuff–the young man is way out there on the lunatic fringe.

This is undoubtedly true; but not hardly reassuring.

Roof knows racial resentment decides elections and drives talk radio.  He can feel it in the air.

When a young man commits an act he knows will leave him dead or behind bars for the rest of his life, he isn’t messing around.  Dylann Roof really believed he could spark a race war by shooting up a black church with roots in slave rebellions and the civil rights heroism.  He really believed that the species of racism he saw and felt everywhere around him was the virulent, ugly, hateful lizard that long ago crept inside his soul.

He was wrong about that.  Very wrong.  But why, and how?

Was he too crazy to distinguish between mainstream American racism and the lynch mob variety?  Maybe, but I think the explanation lies elsewhere.

As we have seen, American racism is a species of silence.  Pundits and politicians can’t endorse white supremacy, they merely discredit anyone foolish enough to demand full equality.  The racist message lurks between the lines.  Hints and insinuation.

Mainstream American racism (to use David Brooks’ phrase) is a void, a cipher, a place holder.  You can read anything into it . . . or nothing.

Most white Republicans genuinely don’t understand why so few people of color identify with their party.  They are honestly astounded by the phenomenon.

Similarly, most fans of FOX news roll their eyes when their favorite media personality is accused of racial insensitivity.  The best antidote to racism, these folks believe, it to act as if race didn’t exist.

But Dylann Roof discerned a message in the silence.   He may have gotten the words all wrong, but he nailed the melody.

If Eric Casebolt is your hero, please hear me out

CaseboltNow that Eric Casebolt has resigned from the McKinney police department his bizarre actions will gradually fade from the headlines. We can all be thankful that police chief Greg Conley got out in front of the story (and not a moment too soon) by admitting that his officer was “out of control” when he climbed out of his police car and remained out of control throughout the entire episode.

The back-and-forth about what brought police officers to the scene will continue, but I’m not really interested. Suffice it to say that some of the African American kids at the pool party were from the neighborhood and had pool passes while others did not. White parents, seeing all the Black children as equally alien, made racist comments like “go back to your section 8 neighborhood” or “go back to the plantation”.  Some Black kids grew incensed and an altercation ensued.

But, whether or not you agree with this summary, none of that really matters. If the McKinney police department had handled this incident professionally we wouldn’t know that things got a bit out of hand on the rich side of McKinney, Texas last Friday. If the officers had calmly taken statements from all parties at the scene, and calmly encouraged the combatants to calm down, this would have gone into the books as just another minor incident unworthy of media attention.

And, for the most part, that is exactly what was happening before Eric Casebolt arrived on the scene. The chief had it right–the man was out of control. Moreover, as the senior officer, it was difficult for his fellow officers to shut him down. Pushing, shoving, cursing like a drunken sailor, waving his gun in the direction of horrified young people, and finally sexually assaulting a young girl less than half his size, Casebolt’s performance was a jaw-dropper.

I am troubled by the conservative white folks who used social media to honor and valorize Casebolt, suggesting his actions were justified, professional and necessary.

How could any sane person view the viral video and draw that conclusion?

Eric Casebolt is a troubled man, but we can only guess at the source of his trouble.

After ten years of military service, was he the victim of a delayed PTSD reaction?

Was Casebolt driven by the kind of insane racial animus that leads otherwise sensible people to curse whenever our president appears on television without being able to articulate what inspires their hate?

Was the ex-officer high on drugs?

I have no idea.  But his behavior cries out for some kind of explanation.

And that’s why the momentary adulation the man received is so troubling. I fear that even if Casebolt had actually gunned down two or three of the young black men he threatened with his firearm, thousands of white people in North Texas would have backed him to the hilt. The simple fact that young black children (and, yes, they are legally children) refused to satisfy the man’s appetite for submission, in the eyes of far too many people, would have justified any action designed to break their will.

And that’s just flat scary.

The Casebolt saga reminds me of the Gadarene demoniac in the Bible. Asked for his name, the broken man replied “legion”, suggesting that more than one kind of demon was oppressing him.

But the word “legion” would have had a second meaning in first century Palestine that no one could miss. Was the man saying that his madness channeled the crazed cruelty of the Roman Empire? Had the man served as a Roman soldier and seen things no one should see? Or had he been so brutalized by the forces of empire that his mind coped by splintering into a thousand pieces?

The Bible suggests these questions but provides no answer save the healing touch of the Master.

But the same questions must be asked with reference to Mr. Casebolt. This is NOT a story about one bad apple spoiling the reputation of an otherwise pristine community. Whatever infected this rogue McKinney police officer is rampant within our society.  His name is legion.

The madness must be named before it can be healed. Once again, the touch of the Master is needed. I leave you with the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero:

No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: ‘You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.’

Mississippi family indicted for cheering at graduation ceremony


A family in Senatobia Mississippi has been indicted after cheering as a proud graduate crossed the stage at a high
school commencement ceremony. 

Three members of the graduate’s family were forcibly removed from the auditorium after shouting “you did it, girl”. 

A few days later, the celebrants were charged with disturbing the peace.  They face a $500 fine and possibly six months in jail.

Superintendent Jay Foster defends the decision to prosecute.  Graduation is a solemn occasion, he says, and families have a right to hear their child’s name announced in a stone-quiet auditorium.

For the middle class white men who preside over graduation ceremonies in towns like Senatobia, graduation may be a solemn affair.  They went to college (a much bigger deal than high school) and their children are expected to follow suit.  High School graduation, for these people, is the first step down a long road of gradual advancement.

But for the children of field hands, Wal Mart employees and truck drivers, high school graduation is whoopin’ and shoutin’ time; there’s nothing solemn about it.  There is no pomp in this world. The circumstance is bleak.

In many cases,  the graduate crossing the stage is the first person in the family to get a degree of any kind.  It’s a triumph for the entire clan–a watershed moment.

I understand this respectable – working class divide very well.  During our family’s nine years in Tulia, Texas we watched the social drama unfolf year after year. 

The vice principal would tell the audience that applause should wait until all graduates had received their degrees and that unseemly  outbursts would not be tolerated.  

This rule held until the first Black, redneck or Latino graduate  was announced.  After that each family outdid the last in voicing its pride.  Hell, if they didn’t cheer real loud, how would the town know how proud the family was? 

More importantly,  how would the graduate know?

Sure, there was an element of “take your pomp and shove it” class warfare involved in this annual drama.  The Hoi Poloi knew the ruling cadre of respectable professionals was asserting its authority and they rose to the challenge with gusto.

In the end, no harm was done.  The principal waited for the brief burst of celebration to pass before announcing the next graduate.  Everybody heard the name of their child announced loud and clear.

The authorities in Tulia knew that white professionals had become a tiny minority in the community.  Apparently, the ruling white class in Senatobia, Mississippi isn’t ready to throw in the towel.  Having laid down the law, they are going to make it stick even if it transforms their community into a national laughing stock.

Jay Foster thinks like the folks who gave us the Tulia drug sting and the Jena 6 fiasco.  Make no mistake, this is all about enforcing white privilege by all means necessary.

Christians lead opposition to the death penalty in Nebraska

Nebraska legislators just abolished the death penalty in their state then overrode a governor’s veto.  It takes a movement to effect this kind of change, and in Nebraska, as this article in Christianity Today makes clear, the movement originated in the religious community.  More signicantly, mainline, evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders joined hands.  When the Christian community speaks with a unified voice people listen.

Ted Cruz like you’ve never seen him before

Originally posted on Friends of Justice:

I bet you didn’t know Ted Cruz was a criminal justice reformer, but it’s true. It rarely benefits his partisan agenda to beat the reform drum, but in this essay written for the Brennan Center for Justice, he lays out some excellent policy suggestions.

How do we account for such enlightened prose from a man who is normally dismissed as a narrow-minded bigot?

First, Cruz is smart. They don’t let dummies on the Princeton debate team. Secondly, the junior senator from Texas understands that the deep flaws in our criminal justice system could be turned on conservative Christians if anyone had a mind to do so. I doubt this is likely, but when you live on the losing side of the culture war a measure of paranoia comes with the territory.

Here’s Ted’s critique of the demise of the jury trial. I encourage you to read the entire essay.


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Ted Cruz like you’ve never seen him before

I bet you didn’t know Ted Cruz was a criminal justice reformer, but it’s true.  It rarely benefits his partisan agenda to beat the reform drum, but in this essay written for the Brennan Center for Justice, he lays out some excellent policy suggestions.

How do we account for such enlightened prose from a man who is normally dismissed as a narrow-minded bigot? 

First, Cruz is smart.  They don’t let dummies on the Princeton debate team.  Secondly, the junior senator from Texas understands that the deep flaws in our criminal justice system could be turned on conservative Christians if anyone had a mind to do so.  I doubt this is likely, but when you live on the losing side of the culture war a measure of paranoia comes with the territory.

Here’s Ted’s critique of the demise of the jury trial.  I encourage you to read the entire essay.

The third problem, which is exacerbated by the first two, is the demise of jury trials. Plea bargaining has become the norm in our criminal justice system, while the constitutional right to a jury trial — which the Founders understood to be a bulwark against tyranny — is now rarely exercised. Contrary to popular perceptions, we no longer have a system where a jury determines a defendant’s guilt or innocence in a public trial. In 2013, 97 percent of all federal criminal charges that were not dismissed were resolved through plea bargains; less than 3 percent went to trial.

In this plea-bargaining system, prosecutors have extraordinary power, nudging both judges and juries out of the truth-seeking process. The prosecutor is now the proverbial judge, jury, and executioner in the mine-run of cases. Often armed with an extensive menu of crimes, each with their own sentencing ranges, federal prosecutors can wield their discretionary charging power to great effect by threatening the most serious charges that theoretically (if not realistically) can be proved. If the accused succumbs to the threat and pleads guilty, which often happens, the prosecutor agrees to bring lesser or entirely different charges that carry a lower sentencing range.

Given the risks involved in turning down a plea offer, it is not unheard of for people to plead guilty to crimes they never committed. Of the 1,428 legally acknowledged exonerations recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations since 1989, 151 (or roughly 10 percent) involved false guilty pleas. It is estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of convicted felons who have pleaded guilty are actually innocent. In a federal prison population of 218,000 — the number at the end of fiscal year 2011 — where 97 percent pleaded guilty, that means that anywhere from 4,229 to 16,916 people could be imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

The plea-bargaining system is premised on the assumption that there is relatively equal bargaining power between the accused and the state. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Mitigating the coercive effect of the plea-bargaining process will require empowering the defense. And one way to do that is to reduce the informational asymmetry between prosecutors and defense counsel. Plea offers are often foisted upon the accused before the defense has had enough time to investigate the facts, and the longer the investigation takes, the less generous the plea off may become. Congress should pass legislation that requires the government — whether constitutionally required or not — to disclose material exculpatory evidence before the accused enters into any plea agreement. This reform will reduce the risk of false guilty pleas by helping ensure that the accused is better informed before sealing his or her fate.

Not all criminal justice reforms benefit criminal defendants. I, for instance, strongly supported Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) Military Justice Improvement Act, which would have transferred charging authority for many non-military-related crimes, including sexual assault, from unit commanders to independent military prosecutors — a change that may well make it more likely for charges to be brought against defendants. Such a reform will better serve the interests of justice. Likewise, the reforms discussed in this essay would serve the interests of justice by giving much-needed protection to individuals — many of whom are poor or minorities — who find themselves in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors

Public Schools are NOT a Godless environment: Charles Johnson tackles the critics of public education

Anyone shocked by the assault on public education this legislative session was delivered clear rationale for the attack by those closest to the one leading it, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

On April 21, Patrick’s hand-picked advisory board condemned Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency prekindergarten agenda item by labeling our public schools “a Godless environment.”

Pastors for Texas Children are compelled to strenuously confront this lie.

As ministers and faith leaders mobilizing in support of our neighborhood and community schools, we have been silent too long while those purporting to speak for God demean, belittle and slander Texas teachers as “Godless.” This could not be further from the truth.

Many public school educators are faith leaders themselves. They serve as pastors, ministers, elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, committee chairpersons, mission and music directors, accompanists and in many other positions in their churches.

It is axiomatic among pastors that we often turn to public school teachers to provide religious instruction — to rely, for example, on teachers who work long hours for low pay all week to teach our Sunday school classes.

Further, it is common for the pastor’s spouse to teach in the local public school. Our sons and daughters also are employed in public schools as coaches, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians.

My daughter-in-law, who is a public school educator, did not get the memo that God has been taken out of our schools. She takes the love she showers on our grandchildren into the classroom and pours it out on students all day long.

We see our local classrooms as a center of God’s love. Education is a gift from Almighty God accorded to every human being regardless of race, religion, economic status and special need. The public school, unlike the private school, receives and accepts every child and meets that child’s needs as sensitively and lovingly as possible.

Our loved ones and fellow church members carry the love and grace of God with them every hour of every day. Indeed, those who labor in our schools show love, unconditional acceptance and physical assistance to children who have special needs, come from emotionally deprived circumstances and suffer the ill effects of crushing poverty.

It’s what a teacher does. It’s a calling before God.

So, we are more than a little outraged to learn that those personally chosen to counsel Lt. Gov. Patrick on matters of public policy have determined that our public schools are Godless.

We have witnessed firsthand the attack on public education this session and heard it called a “monstrosity” by one member of the Senate Education Committee. We have heard loose talk, calling our schools “failed” and our teachers “incompetent.” When we testified our shock at this language, we were rebuked by two members of the committee.

When numerous rural Republican senators confessed to us their personal opposition to a tuition tax credit voucher bill, acknowledging it contrary to the will of their constituents, we were told they felt forced to vote for a policy that is harmful to their districts.

Then, when the Senate Education Committee began churning out bills designed specifically to demoralize teachers — opportunity school districts, A-F ratings, parent trigger — we came to the unpleasant conclusion that something more insidious was unfolding before our eyes — the intentional dismantling of a constitutionally mandated public trust: universal education.

The accusation from the lieutenant governor’s selected advisers that our schools constitute a “Godless environment” isn’t just the harmless political theater that hardened legislative observers often consider politics as usual.

Rather, it a lie designed to demonize a system in which educators do the Lord’s work most faithfully. Is this being done to allow public schools to be replaced, privatized and turned into a profit-making enterprise? In the buckle of the Bible Belt, would the accusers seek to turn our classrooms into markets and our kids into commodities by calling our local schools Godless?

We ask Lt. Gov. Patrick to publicly repudiate this absurd statement from his chosen advisers and issue an apology to all faithful women and men who serve God’s common good by nurturing and shaping the “least of these” among us — our precious children — as public school educators.

Johnson is pastor of Bread Fellowship in Fort Worth and the executive director of Pastors for Texas Children.