Category: Faith

Thinking and shouting in Chicago

By Alan Bean

Three Friends of Justice people are attending the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference at the Drake Hotel in Chicago this week.  Melanie Wilmoth and I are here, as is the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, Friends of Justice board member and associate pastor at St Luke United Methodist Church in Dallas.  Speaking of Methodists, a contingent of 40 United Methodists from across the nation, led by the indefatigable Rev. Laura Markle Downton, are in Chicago for the conference.  These are the folks who recently convinced their denomination to divest from for profit prisons.

I was bone weary when we entered the old fashioned elegance of the Drake Room for evening worship, but I left pumped and inspired.  The highlight of the evening was a stunning sermon on the familiar story of Daniel in the lion’s den from the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.  Watson preaches in the traditional black style.  In the final ten minutes, brief bolts of organ music punctuated every phrase.  “I know it’s late,” he assured us, “and I ain’t gonna keep you long.  And I hope you know that, coming from a Baptist preacher, that don’t mean nothing.”

Dr. Watson didn’t just preach in the old time fashion, he interpreted the scriptures in the old time style, literally.  If God could deliver Daniel, the preacher told us, God can deliver you. 

Normally, this would bother me.  Isn’t this Daniel in the lion’s den thing just a folk story?  I mean, it didn’t really happen, did it?  And didn’t the author of the story refer to King Darius when it should have been Cyrus?  And can I really believe that if somebody threw me into a den of hungry lions I would emerge unscathed?

I wasn’t the least bit bothered by Dr. Watson’s straightforward exegesis, and I’ll tell you why.  So long as the preacher gets the application right, I don’t really care what school of biblical interpretation he follows.  Watson talked about the lions of mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement.  He compared the steadfast obedience of Daniel to the grace Barack Obama has shown when the lions in his world insisted he produce a birth certificate.  When Watson came to the part where knaves use flattery to appeal to a king’s vanity, Watson talked about black politicians who don’t realize they are being used until the game is over.

The story of Daniel, like so many stories from the Bible, is about remaining faithful in the face of oppression.  Black America understands that message.  Earlier in the day, Susan Taylor, Editor Emeritus of Essence Magazine and the founder of a nationwide mentoring program for at-risk children, told us about her visit to one of the fortresses on the African coast where, for centuries, men, women and children waited for the slave ship to come.  In graphic detail, she described the horrors of the middle passage.  She said African Americans need to teach these things to our children and, if we have forgotten, to ourselves.

This is precisely the kind of stuff that makes white Americans profoundly uncomfortable.  All of that stuff happened so very long ago.  It was awful, to be sure, but why talk about it in polite company; it’s divisive, it just stirs things up.  I didn’t own any slaves and none of you have a personal experience with slavery so . . . let’s call the whole thing off. 

Black America needs to talk about the stuff white America needs to forget.  Or maybe we too need to remember, we just don’t know it yet.

Dr. Jeremiah Wright gave the benediction tonight.  Yes, that Jeremiah Wright.  Barack Obama’s former pastor.  The guy who enraged white America by suggesting that America’s chickens might be coming home to roost.  I was riding in a van with several black passengers when the towers fell in Manhattan.  Their reaction mirrored Wright’s.  Black and white Americans live in two different worlds, experientially and religiously.

There are plenty of white folks who share the ethical commitments of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.  We oppose the war on drugs, we think mass incarceration has been a disaster, and we want to address the conditions that foster violence and joblessness in poor urban neighborhoods.  But you would never hear a white person who believes these things preaching like the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson.  Most white progressives would be offended by biblical preaching.  If religion must be referenced at all, let it be generic religion, devoid of narrative content.   None of that Jesus stuff. 

White progressives (with a few blessed exceptions) associate words like Jesus, Bible, prayer, salvation and deliverence with the religious Right.  And, to be fair, the religious folk you see on the television and hear on the radio rarely reflect the kingdom priorities of Jesus.

Unlike their white counterparts, black progressives can, to paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Freddie Haynes, think and shout at the same time. “If you think,” he told us, “you will thank.  Think about how great our God is and you can’t help but get your shout on.”

Why do white Christians have such a hard time mixing kingdom ethics with shouts of praise.  I’m not sure, but the world would be a better place if we got over it.

Wisdom and the public prosecutor

Mark Osler

By Mark Osler

Many of the problems dealt with by Friends of Justice are created by prosecutors behaving badly.  Part of my own vocation is to train prosecutors to act from principle in a public way, to avoid some of these tragedies before they happen.  This paper sets out a few of my thoughts on training future prosecutors so that they may show true wisdom in solving problems, rather than simply multiplying the tragedies inherent in criminal law.

When I was a federal prosecutor, I got to be a tangential player in one of the great and compelling dramas in American law—a beautiful juxtaposition of transgression and truth, violence and principle.

A man (it was nearly always a man) would run from the police.  He had robbed a bank, or sold narcotics, or fled the border, and was caught.  He would run across a street, a field, a frozen lake, pursued by three or four officers.  When he was caught, as he usually was, he would be thrown to the ground, rolled over, a knee would be placed roughly on his neck to hold him in place, and his hands would be shackled behind his back while he writhed on the ground.

It would be then—after the man was subdued but while he still struggled—that the most remarkable thing would happen.  One of the officers would reach, still breathing heavily, into his pocket, retrieve a card, and read aloud the Great Principles of the Fourth and Fifth Amendment:

You have the right to remain silent.

You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you.

If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed for you.

You can decide at any time to stop any questioning….

What a glorious, amazing thing!  There in that rough field or alleyway, the improbable is recited—that we do not force confessions, that we value counsel, and that we do not favor the rich over the poor.   These are principles.  These exemplify wisdom.  And, sadly, they are rarely addressed as such in law school, where we bury ourselves in rules that have come to encase those principles within a thick coat of opaque and hoary jurisprudence.

This article has a simple premise:  That if we are to teach towards wisdom in addition to knowledge, we must teach principles in addition to rules.  Principles, unlike rules, allow room for personal agency, inner conflict, and the entry of the Holy Spirit—a perfect recipe for wisdom. (more…)

Mustard seed conspiracy?

By Charles Kiker

Matthew 13:31-32: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds but when it is grown it becomes the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

One necessary preliminary observation regarding “the kingdom of heaven” in this—and other—parables of the kingdom: this same parable as reported in Mark 4:30-32 and Luke 13:18-19 has “kingdom of God” rather than “kingdom of heaven.” It is customary for Matthew to refer to the kingdom of heaven and for Mark and Luke to refer to the kingdom of God. At any rate, Jesus in this parable and other parables is not referring to heaven as a place where good people go when they die (or people who have prayed the right prayer and/or believed the right things). It is about the kingdom of God which is coming on earth. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It is about the kingdom coming on earth, and the will of God being done on earth where the will and ways of humankind have sway, as well as in the heavens where God and only God has sway. (more…)

How to join the conspiracy

By Alan Bean

When I tell people about Friends of Justice they sometimes ask how they can get involved.  I tell them that all donations are gratefully received, but that’s rarely what they have in mind. They want to know how they can get involved in the work of Friends of Justice.

And here’s my answer: If you want to help Friends of Justice you need to understand the spirituality that drives our work; you need to get involved with the Mustard Seed Conspiracy. If you live within reasonable driving distance of Arlington, Texas you are invited to attend our weekly study which will begin on Wednesday, September 7.  A few days prior to each gathering you will find that week’s reading assignment and a brief commentary on the Mustard Seed Conspiracy blog. (more…)

An informed conversation about the religious right, politics and dominionism

By Alan Bean

Sarah Posner and Anthea Butler understand the religious right because they attend actual religious gatherings and talk to people.  When they sit down for a conversation about dominionism, the New Apostolic Reformation and politicians like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann you get the straight goods.

Dominionists aren’t poised to take over America.  The religious right is an exceedingly complex social phenomenon.  Most of the folks in Houston’s Reliant Stadium for Rick Perry’s The Response had never heard of dominionism.  All of this is true, but that doesn’t mean something big isn’t afoot in the world of conservative evangelicalism.  Something big is afoot and it is already impacting the political process and the way social issues are debated in the public arena.

When I was attending university in the mid-1970s, my parents, Gordon and Muriel Bean, were suddenly wrapped up in the charismatic movement.  They continued to attend McLaurin Baptist Church (then a very non-demonstrative congregation), but they were much more excited about groups like the Full Gospel Business Men International and Women Aglow (of which my mother eventually became Alberta president).  Like the dutiful son I am, I attended these meetings but was never tempted to get involved.  I saw the usual “signs and wonders”:  folks speak in tongues as if it was the most natural thing in the world, worshipers healed of chronic ailments (usually having one leg longer than the other), worshippers  “slain in the spirit” (that is, lying in ecstasy on the floor as their bodies twitched with Holy Spirit electricity).

Like I say, it wasn’t my cup of tea.  But I learned that this kind of religion can be extraordinarily powerful for those on the inside.  As Posner and Butler point out below, it is the ordinary people who attend religious conferences and buy books and DVDs that drive the movement.  The names of the preachers change from generation to generation; the spiritual hunger driving the movement abides forever.

The GOP has learned to tap into that hunger; Democrats lose elections, especially in the South, because they haven’t.

This is a long piece, but I offer this little clip as an indication of the fresh insight you will discover throughout a fascinating conversation.  This is Anthea Butler:

For the last 30 years, journalists have had an easy time reporting on the religious right, because all they did was pay attention to to white male leaders of big organizations like Focus on the Family, National Association of Evangelicals, or Family Research Council. The days when a nice soundbite from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, or Ted Haggard would suffice are over. If journalists and others want to understand the last 10 years of the religious right movement, they will need to pay attention to the theological, religious, and ethnic diversity among evangelicals, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches. They will at least need to recognize the old and new leaders of the religious right, and the complex network of leaders, conferences, and teachings if they want a reductionist argument they can spin out in 800 words. As someone who has studied and written about Pentecostalism for over 15 years, their lack of basic knowledge is staggering, and although I don’t expect people to get it like I do, I do expect reporters and journalists to do their homework! (more…)

Faith as an Engine of Criminal Justice Reform

By Harinder Singh

With all attention currently on the debt ceiling in the US, the faith community is calling on leadership to save money through addressing the wasteful costs of incarcerating 2.3 million Americans.

On June 16, 2011, I joined a cadre of 23 interfaith religious leaders from throughout the US in support of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act in visiting our congressional representatives and the White House.  I met with representatives from Texas and California in their offices on Capitol Hill as part of a fly-in organized by the Faith in Action Working Group of the Justice Roundtable. I participated in this critical action because correcting injustices in our prison systems needs to be a state and national priority, fueled especially by all who claim to be driven by religious convictions. An avenue for this type of reform lies in the proposed creation of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011 (S. 306) (NCJCA), which was introduced with bipartisan support in 2011 by Senator Jim Webb. Members of the Commission would be appointed by the legislative and executive branch and would be charged with undertaking comprehensive critical examination of America’s criminal justice system.

The portion of the bill I would like to focus on today– Section 5(b) — reads as follows: “The Commission shall make findings… and recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.”

This Commission represents a real chance to address a statistic that won’t go away: The US accounts for 5% of the world’s population, yet locks up 25% of the world’s prisoners. Existing practices too often incarcerate people whose rehabilitation would be best served by access to recovery programs—not imprisonment, and rob resources from addressing high-risk, violent offenders who pose the real threat to our communities.  (more…)

The Savior of Angola

Aerial view of Angola prison, January 10, 1998.: USGSBy Alan Bean

You don’t work in the criminal justice reform world very long without running up against Burl Cain.  The man is larger than life and, like the hero of the old Kris Kristofferson song, “he’s a walking contradiction; partly truth, partly fiction.”

According to legend, Burl Cain tamed the most corrupt and violent prison in the world with the love of Jesus.  But as James Ridgeway argues in this compelling piece for Mother Jones, the story has been greatly enhanced in the telling.

Many of those who have embraced Cain’s religious regime really have turned their lives around; but what of those who maintain their independence?  That’s the story you never hear, and Ridgeway is here to tell it.

This story is personal for me.  Friends of Justice is working, individually or as part of larger coalitions, on behalf of at least six Angola prisoners who we believe to be innocent.  Burl Cain knows a lot of the folks in his prison didn’t do the crime.  He also knows the death penalty (which he personally administers) is in serious tension with Christian non-violence.  But all of that pales to insignificance compared to his primary task of claiming souls for eternity.

James Ridgeway came to Angola to talk to warden Cain, but spent his time in the company of PR whiz, Cathy Fontenot.  Cain, he learned at the end, was in Atlanta that day.  The warden was wise to decline an interview.

I have pasted a few choice highlights below, just to whet your appetite, but I encourage you to read the entire article. (more…)