Category: punitive consensus

Rachel Held Evans: The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

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This gripping piece from Rachel Held Evans addresses an issue that concerns me deeply.  I hope it concerns you too.  She begins with a frightening quotation from reformed theologian John Piper that effectively eviscerates the message of Jesus.  John Piper’s God isn’t the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Piper’s God is the Anti-God; the antipodes of the Abba Father Jesus introduced to the world.

But this isn’t just about one hard-hearted pop-theologian; Rachel Held Evans is addressing the spirituality of what we at Friends of Justice call “the punitive consensus”.  Churches are too theologically confused to respond to ethical challenges like incarceration and immigration.  The vacuum created by our silence is filled by fear-mongering politicians and a news media obsessed with sensationalism.

What drives our theological confusion?

Jesus began his public ministry with a sermon in his home town of Nazareth that almost got him killed.  The message came straight out of Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then Jesus reminded his listeners that the God of the Bible often heals the foreigner, the outcast and the Gentile when no such miracles of healing are performed for the citizen of Israel, the insider, and the chosen.  That’s the part that stirred homicidal rage in the hearts of a nice, religious crowd.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the public ministry of Jesus ends with the story about the sheep and goats being separated on the day of judgment on the basis of how they treated the “least of these, my brothers and sisters.”

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,  was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

Jesus isn’t just saying that we should be kind to the stranger and the outcast; virtually every major religion encourages us to show mercy to the stranger and the outsider and this is excellent spiritual advice.  But Jesus takes it one step further by insisting that he is incarnate within the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the incarcerated felon.  He has taken on the flesh, bone and hearts of such people.

Here’s how the theological equation works: God is incarnate in Jesus, Jesus is incarnate in the stranger, therefore, God is incarnate within the stranger.

The word translated “stranger” in Matthew 25, is zenos, a Greek word that can be translated foreigner, alien, outcast or stranger.  It’s the root of the English word xenophobia, literally the fear of foreigners or strangers.

Here’s our problem: Jesus comes to us in the face of the zenos, and we are xenophobic.   Our xenophobia makes us afraid of Jesus in his distressing disguise (to borrow a telling phrase from Mother Theresa).

The portrait of the God’s character we receive from Jesus can be difficult to square with the wrathful God we occasionally encounter elsewhere in Scripture.  Christians interpret the Word of God we find in Scripture through the Word of God that became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14)

Jesus becomes the lens through which all of Scripture is interpreted.

Or, to employ a musical image, we must learn to transpose the Bible into the key of Jesus.

If we don’t, we end up with the monstrous theology of the unfortunate John Piper.  If we do, we are embraced by a loving God who is infinitely more gracious and compassionate than we can possibly imagine.  The judgment of God is reserved for those like the Elder Brother in the Parable of the Lost Son who recoil in horror from the apparent “injustice” of God’s prodigal mercy.

How can we separate the world into good people and bad people if Jesus insists on pitching his tent with the baddies?

We can’t.  That’s the point.

Most Christians in America haven’t learned to view the punitive criminal justice and immigration systems through the lens of Jesus.  We can’t see Jesus in the incarcerated felon or the undocumented woman who wades the river for the sake of her family.  But the moment we feel the prisoner and the migrant with the heart of Jesus, we understand this cryptic saying fro Jesus: “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Please read Rachel Held Evans’ post in its entirety.   This is critically important stuff.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

Rachel Held Evans

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.” 

– John Piper

“Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.” 

– Thomas Paine

It’s strange to think that doubt has been a part of my life for more than ten years now.

I remember when it first showed up—a dark grotesque with a terrifying smile that took up so much space, catching every payer in its gravitational pull. That I could grow accustomed to its presence seemed impossible at the time, and yet I have. It  hasn’t changed in size, but somehow it occupies less space. I smile back at it now.

A lot of people, when they catch pieces of my story, assume my doubts are of the intellectual variety. They assume I’m just a smart girl stuck in the Bible Belt asking pesky questions about science, history and politics that my conservative evangelical culture, with a bent toward anti-intellectualism, simply cannot answer.

This is true to an extent. I’ve wrestled with a lot of questions related to science and faith, especially given my location a mere two miles from the famous Rhea County Courthouse where John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in a public school.  While I no longer believe the earth is just 6,000 years old, I still live in the tension of unanswered questions about the universe, and death, and brains, and Neanderthals, and whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson’s got to say on public television about the earth getting burned up by the sun or our species going extinct after an asteroid hits.  I have questions too about history and Christianity’s emergence from it, questions about the Bible, questions about miracles.

But the questions that have weighed most heavily on me these past ten years have been questions not of the mind but of the heart, questions of conscience and empathy. It was not the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” that rocked my faith; it was the scandal of the evangelical heart.

If you’ve read Evolving in Monkey Town, you know that the public execution of a woman named Zarmina in Afghanistan marked a turning point in my faith journey. The injustice of the situation was troublesome enough, but when my friends insisted that Zarmina went to hell because she was a Muslim, I began wrestling with some serious questions about heaven, hell, predestination, free will, God’s goodness, and religious pluralism.

Evangelical apologists were quick to respond. And while their answers made enough sense in my head; they never sat right with my soul.

Why would God fashion a person in her mother’ s womb, number the hairs on her head, and then leave her without any hope of salvation? Can salvation be boiled down to luck of the draw? How is that just? Shouldn’t  God be more loving and compassionate than I?

Oh, the Calvinists could make perfect sense of it all with a wave of a hand and a swift, confident explanation about how Zarmina had been born in sin and likely predestined to spend eternity in hell to the glory of an angry God (they called her a “vessel of destruction”); about how I should just be thankful to be spared the same fate since it’s what I deserve anyway; about how the Asian tsunami was just another one of God’s temper tantrums sent to remind us all of His rage at our sin; about how I need not worry because “there is not one maverick molecule in the universe” so every hurricane, every earthquake, every war, every execution, every transaction in the slave trade, every rape of a child is part of God’s sovereign plan, even God’s idea; about how my objections to this paradigm represented unrepentant pride and a capitulation to humanism that placed too much inherent value on my fellow human beings; about how my intuitive sense of love and morality and right and wrong is so corrupted by my sin nature I cannot trust it.

They said all of this without so much of a glimmer of a tear, and it scared me to death.  It nearly scared me out of the Church.

For what makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority?  What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him? Did following Jesus mean becoming some shadow of myself, drained of empathy and compassion and revulsion to injustice?

Perhaps in reaction to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” evangelicalism of late has developed a general distrust of emotion when it comes to theology. So long as an idea seems logical, so long as it fits consistently with the favored theological paradigm, it seems to matter not whether it is morally reprehensible at an intuitive level. I suspect this is why this new breed of rigid Calvinism that follows the “five points” to their most logical conclusion, without regard to the moral implications of them, has flourished in the past twenty years.  (I heard a theology professor explain the other day that he had no problem whatsoever with God orchestrating evil acts to accomplish God’s will, for that is what is required for God to be fully sovereign! When asked if this does not make God something of a monster, he responded that it didn’t matter; God is God—end of story.) And I suspect this explains why, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, so many evangelical leaders responded like Job’s friends, eager to offer theological explanations for what happened instead of simply sitting down in the ashes and weeping with their brothers and sisters.

Richard Beck has also observed this phenomenon and refers to it as “orthodox alexithymia”:

When theology and doctrine become separated from emotion we end up with something dysfunctional and even monstrous.

A theology or doctrinal system that has become decoupled from emotion is going to look emotionally stunted and even inhuman.  What I’m describing here might be captured by the tag “orthodox alexithymia.” By “orthodox” I mean the intellectual pursuit of right belief. And by “alexithymia” I mean someone who is, theologically speaking, emotionally and socially deaf and dumb. Even theologically sociopathic.

Alexithymia–etymologically “without words for emotions”–is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others’ emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.

Orthodox alexithymia is produced when the intellectual facets of Christian theology, in the pursuit of correct and right belief, become decoupled from emotion, empathy, and fellow-feeling. Orthodox alexithymics are like patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain damage. Their reasoning may be sophisticated and internally consistent but it is disconnected from human emotion. And without Christ-shaped caring to guide the chain of calculation we wind up with the theological equivalent of preferring to scratch a doctrinal finger over preventing destruction of the whole world. Logically and doctrinally such preferences can be justified. They are not “contrary to reason.” But they are inhuman and monstrous. Emotion, not reason, is what has gone missing. Read the entire post.

I encountered this recently after I spoke to a group of youth about doubt. In the presentation, I mentioned that upon reading the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho for myself, I realized it was a story about genocide, with God commanding Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in the city for the sole purpose of acquiring land. I explained that this seemed contrary to what Jesus taught about loving our enemies.

Afterwards, a youth leader informed me that when it came to Joshua and Jericho, I had nothing to worry about…and had no business getting his students worried either.

“I don’t know why you had to bring up the Jericho thing,” he said.

“Doesn’t that story bother you?” I asked. “Don’t you find the slaughter of men, women, and children horrific?”

“Not if it’s in the Bible.”

“Genocide doesn’t bother you if it’s in the Bible?”

“Nope.”

He crossed his arms and a self-satisfied smile spread across his face. He was proud of his detachment, I realized. He seemed to think it represented some kind of spiritual strength.

“But genocide always bothers me,” I finally said, “especially when it’s in the Bible. And I get the idea that maybe it’s supposed to. I get the idea that maybe God created me to be bothered by evil like that, even when it’s said to have been orchestrated by God.”

I’m not sure he and I will ever understand one another, but I’ve decided to quit apologizing for my questions.  It’s not enough for me to maintain my intellectual integrity as a Christian; I also want to maintain my emotional integrity as a Christian. And I don’t need answers to all of my questions to do that. I need only the courage to be honest about my questions and doubts, and the patience to keep exploring and trusting in spite of them.

The bravest decision I’ll ever make is the decision to follow Jesus with both my head and heart engaged—no checking out, no pretending.

It’s a decision I make every day, and it’s a decision that’s made my faith journey a heck of a lot more hazardous and a heck of a lot more fun.  It means that grinning monster, doubt, is likely to stick around for a while, for I know now that closing my eyes won’t make him go away. It means each day is a risk, a gamble, an adventure in vulnerability and trust, as I figure out what it means to follow Jesus as me, Rachel Grace—the girl who cried for Zarmina, the girl who inherited her mama’s bleeding heart and her daddy’s stubborn grace, the girl who digs in her heels, the girl who makes mistakes, the girl who is intent on breaking up patriarchy, the girl who thought to raise her hand in Sunday school at age five and ask why God would drown innocent animals in Noah’s flood, the girl who could be wrong.

It means I’ve got a long race ahead of me, but I’m going to run it with abandon. I’m going to run it as me. Because I think that’s what God wants—all of me, surrendered and transformed, head and heart engaged.

I’m growing more confident in my stride, and I am running faster now, breathless, kicking up dust, tripping over roots and skinning my knees, cursing now and then, but always getting up and gaining ground on that bend in the path where I think I can see Jesus up ahead.

Eight senators present bipartisan immigration proposal. Is this good news?

By Alan Bean

How much progress has been made thus far on the immigration front?  Clearly, the Republicans, at least in the Senate, have read the writing on the wall from the 2012 election.  Their “no amnesty; no way” position has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  Thus we see Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite, signing off on “a pathway to citizenship” for America’s 12 million undocumented residents.  Will he stick to his new guns?  We’ll see,

The senatorial gang of eight, by the way, consists of Charles E. Schumer (D-New York), John McCain (R-Arizona), Richard J. Durbin (D-Illinois), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona).

The Senate proposal rests on four pillars:

  1. Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required;
  2. Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families;
  3. Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers; and
  4. Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers. (more…)

Johnny Cash, prison reformer

By Alan Bean

This fascinating essay touches on Johnny Cash’s lifelong prison ministry.  (It was produced for the BBC, which explains the funny spelling). It may sound odd to hear songs about “kickin’ and a-gougin’ in the mud, and the blood and the beer” characterized as a ministry, but that’s exactly what they were.  I purchased Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison a few years ago thinking this was the only prison album he recorded and likely the only prison concert he performed.  Not so.  He recorded two prison albums and performed at prisons across the United State throughout his 30-year career. (more…)

Winkler: The Secret History of Guns

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA law school, wrote this piece for the Atlantic in September of 2011.  The National Rifle Association has been roundly vilified in recent days.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook slaughter of the innocents, an organization that opposes even the mildest attempt to regulate the sale, ownership and use of firearms comes off as insensitive and out of touch.

But why is the NRA so adamant on this issue?  And has it always been so?

Winkler argues that until the late 1970s, the NRA gave a grudging blessing to gun control legislation, especially in the wake of the wave of political assassinations in the 1960s.  Historically, he says, gun control enthusiasts have been primarily motivated by a desire to keep guns out of the hands of black people and that was especially true when leaders of the Black Panther Party made the most of their right to tote weapons in public.

But by the late 1970s things had changed.  Ronald Reagan, once a proponent of legislation designed to limit the right of the Black Panthers to carry guns in public, had changed his tune.  His new position was remarkably similar to the current policy of the NRA.

What accounts for this dramatic shift?  And why have proponents of gun rights, black and white, taken a dim view of government and law enforcement?  It has frequently been argued that the NRA is a racist hate group, and it is certainly true that the organization’s membership is overwhelmingly white and rural.  But listen closely to the rhetoric of many gun rights people and you will hear a distinctly anti-government message.  These people fear their government and insist on the right to arm themselves against it.

In short, American conservative have moved from the law and order rhetoric of the 70s and 80s to a new form of anti-government paranoia.  Is this largely a function of having a black man in the White House?  Is it a legitimate response to the kind of authoritarian overreach represented by the Patriot Act?  Or might it be an complex combination of a multitude of factors?  Those wishing to pursue this question should read Mr. Winkler’s remarkably evenhanded essay and the book he has written on the subject.

The Secret History of Guns

The Ku Klux Klan, Ronald Reagan, and, for most of its history, the NRA all worked to control guns. The Founding Fathers? They required gun ownership—and regulated it. And no group has more fiercely advocated the right to bear loaded weapons in public than the Black Panthers—the true pioneers of the modern pro-gun movement. In the battle over gun rights in America, both sides have distorted history and the law, and there’s no resolution in sight.

By Adam Winkler

THE EIGHTH-GRADE STUDENTS gathering on the west lawn of the state capitol in Sacramento were planning to lunch on fried chicken with California’s new governor, Ronald Reagan, and then tour the granite building constructed a century earlier to resemble the nation’s Capitol. But the festivities were interrupted by the arrival of 30 young black men and women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols. (more…)

Great speech, Bill, but I’ve got a problem

By Alan Bean

Only Bill Clinton can hold an audience through fifty minutes of uninterrupted wonkery.  His speech at the Democratic Convention displayed rhetorical skill, a keen grasp of policy detail and a deep understanding of political reality that only comes with painful experience.  They say convention speeches have little lasting impact.  Clinton’s performance last night may qualify as the rare exception.

But I’ve got a problem.

Mr. Clinton’s triangulating legacy is a big part of the mess we face as a nation.  The Man from Hope mastered the art of the deal.  He met his opponents half way.  He stole their best material.  The new corporate aristocracy could live with a free trading Democrat like this.

Thanks largely to the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the speculative bubbles that followed in its wake, the middle class prospered on Clinton’s watch.  But the poor and the vulnerable (the folks Friends of Justice, and God Almighty, cares about the most) have paid a dreadful price for Clinton’s political success.

In 1996, Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act that ended welfare as we know it.  The plan worked reasonably well where job markets were strong.  But in many small towns and urban neighborhoods the move from welfare to work, wonderful in theory, didn’t translate to the street.  Now that the job market for the poorest 20% has virtually disappeared, Mr. Clinton’s chickens are roosting everywhere. (more…)

Charles Blow: Plantations, Prisons and Profits

Charles Blow

By Alan Bean

If you really wanted to read the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s eight-part series on the state prison system, but only have time for one quick read, columnist Charles Blow has what you need: a quick summary of the high points. 

Here’s his conclusion:

Louisiana is the starkest, most glaring example of how our prison policies have failed. It showcases how private prisons do not serve the public interest and how the mass incarceration as a form of job creation is an abomination of justice and civility and creates a long-term crisis by trying to create a short-term solution.

As the paper put it: “A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.”

The T-P’s groundbreaking series provides a “thick description” of a deadly interplay between a tragic racial history, a shrinking agricultural economy and tax base, a paranoid electorate, underpaid and under-resourced sheriffs, and a craven political class.  This is the kind of description I attempted in my Taking out the trash in Tulia, Texas and it is great to see the mainstream media, even in these belt-tightening times, taking their responsibility, and their readers, this seriously.

Plantations, Prisons and Profits

By Charles Blow

“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”

That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it. (more…)

Growing old behind bars

By Alan Bean

It is good to see Human Rights Watch tackling the issue of aging prisoners.  I will never forget talking to Joe Moore, a brittle diabetic with bad knees, through the Plexiglass in the visitation room of a Texas prison.  The folks handling the medical contract for the state prison system were trying to cut expenses.  A doctor decided to take Joe off his insulin to see if he really needed the medication.  First Joe lost his balance; then his tongue doubled in size, then his eyesight went.  When Joe told the guards he was too sick to work, they forced him to dress and join the kitchen detail.  Joe tried to comply, but he fell unconscious to the floor of his cell and came within a whisker of death.  Without influential supporters in the free world, Joe would have died behind bars.

Joe Moore died a few years after being exonerated and released from prison.  His friends were with him and he was able to buy a little farm and work his own cattle after release.  He left this world with his dignity intact.

And then I think of Ramsey Muniz, the Latino politician and civil rights legend currently housed in a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas.  Ramsey is 70 years old and can’t walk without the help of a cane.  Like Joe Moore, Muniz is the victim of a shady drug bust and a rigged trial.  But what if, like most prisoners, Joe and Ramsey were guilty as charged?  Does it make any sense to warehouse aging men and women, at an average cost of $50,000 a year, who no longer represent a threat to public safety?

The excellent eight-part series on Louisiana incarceration in the Times-Picayune emphasized the growing geriatric wing of the state’s notorious Angola prison.  Decades of life without parole sentencing have created a pitiless system bereft of compassion and common sense.

In her summary of the 110-page report she produced for Human Rights Watch, Jamie Fellner underscores the senseless horror of forcing thousands of elderly offenders to die behind bars.

Among the more than 26,000 state and federal prisoners aged 65 or older are some who have severe physical and mental impairments.  One 87-year-old I met last year while conducting research on older prisoners could not tell me his name. He had been in prison for 27 years, 20 of them in a special unit because of his severe cognitive impairments.  I met prisoners who were dying and could not breathe without assistance; prisoners so old and frail they needed help getting up from their bed and into their wheelchairs; prisoners who lacked the mental and physical ability to bathe or eat or go to the bathroom by themselves.

Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?

As the US confronts a growing population of geriatric prisoners, it is time to reconsider whether they really need to be locked up. Prison keeps dangerous people off the streets. But how many prisoners whose minds and bodies have been whittled away by age are dangerous? (more…)