Category: “Social Justice”

Larry James: “Man Down”

This post on Larry James’ Urban Daily blog caught my attention and stirred my blood.  Larry is an extremely busy man, but he hangs out on a corner on the poor side of Dallas every week talking to the residents of the community.  If he hadn’t made that commitment he wouldn’t have been able to intercede in the situation described below.  Makes you wonder how many horror stories like this unfold everyday in our cities.  AGB

Man Down

I’m boiling.

Yesterday out at “the Corner” I witnessed another example of the daily plight of the powerless who live on our very unforgiving streets.

As I sat in my car taking a phone call that lasted several minutes, an ambulance pulled up at the service station next door.  I noticed the ambulance, but could see no one to whom the crew was attending. By the time I finished my phone call, the ambulance was gone, but I noticed that the patient remained.

A very ill Hispanic gentleman sat leaned up against the outside wall of the service station building next door to the old house where I sit on Thursday afternoons.  He appeared to be semi-conscious and unresponsive.  His friend and protector, Joe, informed me that he had just been discharged from the hospital, but was clearly in trouble.  The ambulance had refused to transport him back to the hospital for reasons I couldn’t understand.

I called 911 and requested that an ambulance return.

In a few moments, the ambulance with the same crew returned.

I insisted that they pick him up and take him back to the hospital.  The man was diabetic and now lying down flat on his back on the concrete pavement.

The crew went to work, placed the man on a stretcher and loaded him into the ambulance and drove away.

As they left, my homeless friends were relieved and hurt.

Why hadn’t the ambulance crew responded to their pleas on behalf of their friend?

Why did I get the needed action and not them?

Why had the man been discharged from the hospital?

Was his fate all about money?

Was he “uninsured,” not even receiving Medicaid?

Was he undocumented and thus, fair game for being left to die on our streets?

The situation left us with so many unanswered questions.

God help us!

Are we to conclude that there actually are expendable people today in our community?

Is power concentrated in almost exclusively in the hands and voices of people like me, but not my friends who are simply poor even though experts on the subject of poverty?

I need answers.

I’m steamed.

Crossing the border without papers

Posted by Pierre Berastain

What if the person crossing the border had been a Latin American? What if the person had not been white? It seems to me that no amount of “God-talk” would let that person cross. Our perspectives and attitudes are colored, and they are often colored with shades of injustice or inequalities in the way we treat others. This is an invitation to examine our prejudices.

Task Force to Host Historic Restorative Justice Conference at Harvard Law School

By Pierre R. Berastain

Over the past year, the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Task Force has prepared to convene a daylong restorative justice summit at Harvard Law School. On November 3rd, 2012, Building Communities of Care Wherever We Are will seek to equip participants with tools to build restorative justice and transformative practices in their communities, schools, youth centers, domestic violence and sexual assault centers, faith communities, and prisons, among other contexts. The conference will be held from 8:30am to 5:00pm in Milstein East in Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School at 1585 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, Mass.

The initiative comes at a particularly important time given the alarming statistics that reflect the inefficiency of the criminal justice system, mainstream domestic violence and sexual violence programs, and the inimical zero tolerance policies implemented in school districts nation-wide. Today, for instance, the United States comprises five percent of the world population, but holds 25 percent of world prisoners. According to the NAACP, “Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults is in some form of correctional control.” The cost of these correctional programs amount to over seventy billion dollars annually. The system disproportionately impacts people of color — or people of the global majority. For instance, according to the NAACP, “five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites.” And according to The Sentencing Project, “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).” These issues have special implications in Massachusetts, which spends six times more per prisoner than per public school pupil — a greater disparity than in any other state. In 2007, Massachusetts spent $78,580 per prisoner and only $12,857 per pupil. The disparities in justice and the surging cost of our punitive criminal justice system demand new paradigms of addressing offenses in our society.

(more…)

Reflections on Suffering

By Pierre R. Berastain

Photography by Joey Horton


“Every time I think of the crucifixion of Christ, I commit the sin of envy.”

–Simone Weil

I came across this quote during my first year at Harvard Divinity School. At first, I was shocked.  Then, I grew angry.  Weil’s conceptualization of suffering seems deeply rooted in a long-standing Christian tradition that dates to the Middle Ages.  As philosopher and historian Pierre Hadot argues about the time, “Penitence, inspired by the fear and love of God, could take the form of extremely severe self-mortification.  The remembrance of death was intended not only to make people realize the urgency of conversion, but also to develop the fear of God.”  I am afraid such conceptualization has transcended the Dark Ages and pervades in much of today’s practices.

An extreme example rests in today’s practitioners of self-flagellation such as the late Pope John Paul II who, according to a recent book–Why he is a Saint– whipped himself with a belt.  What is perhaps more shocking is what a recent Times article expressed—that “the physical suffering he inflicted on himself may in fact help propel him to sainthood faster than anyone before him.”

(more…)

Two conflicting explanations for the decline of the liberal Church

David Hollinger

By Alan Bean

The Christian Century has a fascinating interview with Berkeley Professor David Hollinger who argues that “ecumenical Protestants” (he intentionally avoids the word “liberal”) shifted American culture in positive directions because they were willing to go to the wall on issues like civil rights.

This view conflicts with Ross Douthat’s critique of liberal Christianity, expressed most recently in the New York Times’ Sunday Review that liberal denominations have declined numerically because they are “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”

Hollinger disagrees.  Ecumenical churches have suffered drastic numerical declines, to be sure, but for all the right reasons:

Ecumenical Protestants were way ahead of the evangelicals in accepting a role for sex beyond procreation and in supporting an expanded role for women in society. The ecumenical Protestants understood full well that the Jim Crow system could not be overturned without the application of state power, rejecting the standard line of Billy Graham and many other evangelicals that racism was an individual sin rather than a civil evil. The ecumenical Protestants developed a capacity for empathic identification with foreign peoples that led them to revise their foreign missionary project, diminishing its culturally imperialist aspects—and that led them, further, to the forefront of ethnoracially pluralist and egalitarian initiatives as carried out by white Americans. The ecumenical Protestants resoundingly renounced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, while countless evangelical leaders continue to espouse this deeply parochial idea.

It could be that Douthat chooses to focus on the lame aspects of liberal Protestantism while Hollinger celebrates the heroic side of that tradition.  Both are certainly part of the mix.  The big difference is that Douthat describes Protestant Christians desperately trying to adapt to secular liberalism; Hollinger sees the ecumenical Protestant tradition establishing the foundations for secular liberalism on issues like civil rights, feminism, gay rights and a non-aggressive foreign policy.

Please read both articles and tell us what you think.

Is “evangelical” a white word?

Molly Worthen

By Alan Bean

Molly Worthen’s NYT essay on the social cleavage between white and black evangelicals is a statement of the obvious and a work of art.

Worthen teaches history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her writing reflects a deep understanding of evangelicals black and white.

The term “evangelical”, in its common usage, refers exclusively to white folks.  This may be the best explanation for a curious fact: only 35% of Americans in a recent Barna poll correctly identified Barack Obama’s religious faith as Christian.  Ask African-Americans about Obama’s religion and I suspect over 95% would get it right.  So I can’t help but wonder about the results from Caucasian respondents.  My guess is that fewer than 25% of white people know that Obama is a Christian.

If we use political affiliation as a rough proxy for race (which, tragically, it is) the figures are interesting.  52% of Democrats know that Obama is a Christian (African-American respondents likely skewed this figure upward); but only 29% of Independents and 24% of Republicans believe that Obama is a Christian (with 18% believing he is a Muslim). (more…)

At war over the culture war: Dionne and Gerson go toe-to-toe

By Alan Bean

When two columnists working for the same newspaper address the same subject (the culture war and the contraception debate) you can learn a lot.  Michael Gerson accuses Barack Obama of sustaining our endless American culture war by forcing a conservative Roman Catholic Church to conform to “the liberal values of equality and choice.”  In Gerson’s view, the Catholic Church is an inherently conservative, indeed ‘illiberal’, institution.  Gerson endorses a pluralistic view of America in which a variety of civic organizations, some liberal and progressive, others illiberal and traditional, co-exist in a free society.  But this dream of a pluralistic America is being thwarted by an inherently intolerant “liberal” view of American life in which every individual and institution is expected to conform to the liberal values of equality and choice.  By forcing illiberal Catholic medical providers to provide free contraceptive services to their clients, Gerson alleges, the Obama administration is rejecting the pluralistic vision of America and stoking the fires of culture war.

Gerson believes it is a mistake to antagonize conservative institutions because, unlike their liberal counterparts, they encourage 

The habits of good citizens — attributes such as self-control, cooperation and respect for the law — don’t emerge spontaneously. They are cultivated in families and religious congregations. The health of liberal political institutions is strengthened by the success of traditional institutions, which often teach values that prepare individuals for the responsible exercise of freedom.

In Gerson’s view, Obama moved to the left on immigration and gay rights because he is an ardent culture warrior who disrespects the views of American conservatives.

Then comes E J Dionne, a progressive columnist who, unlike the evangelical Gerson, happens to be a living, breathing Roman Catholic in good standing.  Dionne agrees that Obama’s initial handling of the contraception issue was ham-handed and out of character.  Dionne’s Obama is no champion of the liberal view of America.  At his core, the president is an even-handed pragmatist who is generally eager to negotiate with his ideological opponents.

In fact, Dionne reminds us, six years ago Obama complained that

There are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.

Sounds a lot like Michael Gerson, doesn’t it.  Obama dropped the ball on the contraception issue, Dionne admits, but was able to self-correct by offering a compromise that was joyfully embraced by Catholic medical care providers.   

Unlike Gerson, Dionne refuses to define the Roman Catholic Church as an inherently traditional or illiberal institution.  The Catholic Church is a pragmatic and pluralistic blending of conservative and progressive impulses.  Dionne says he remains in the fold largely because

When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers and lay people. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services make the words of Jesus come alive every day.

Moderate Catholics appreciate the president’s willingness to meet the Church half way on contraception and Dionne hopes the conservative wing will tone down its opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage because the American Catholic community is as divided on these issues as the rest of society.

Two views of the Roman Catholic Church; two views of the sitting president.  Who wins?

Dionne gets the best of this dust-up.  The culture war doesn’t separate illiberal traditionalists like a monolithic Catholicism from liberal, pluralism denying, culture warriors like Obama.  Obama has been deeply influenced by both secular liberalism and the traditional values sustained by the Christian Church.  Roman Catholics, like most Christian denominations, are split down the middle over culture war issues like gay marriage, abortion and, now, contraception.  Gerson’s neat divisions don’t fit either Obama or American Catholicism.

If the president has moved off the fence on gay marriage and immigration it’s because he sees no point in placating ideological opponents for whom the word ‘compromise’ has become the vilest of profanities.  Any politician on the right willing to meet the president half way on any contentious issue gets his or her (usually his) mouth washed out with soap in full view of the cameras.

Nice try, Michael, but you didn’t nail it this time.