Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Injustice, Profiling, and Racism

I don't believe in predestination or fate. I don't like hearing people say that something happened because it was God's plan because it is almost always said after a tragedy. When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans there were some that said it was God's punishment for their sin. Claiming God's punishment is another way of saying God's plan has been fulfilled.

This last weekend George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin.

In an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, Zimmerman said he didn't regret any of the actions he took the night he killed Trayvon. If he could do it again he would do everything the same. He would follow and kill Trayvon Martin all over again, knowing that Trayvon was guilty of no crimes because he feels it's what God wanted.

As a Christian, this is terrifying. It's a theology of God using us to met out judgement. It's a theology that is as wrong as it is dangerous. And it's the theology of a man who killed a teenager and was acquitted for it.

Justice was not served with that acquittal. It's fairly certain now that they fought each other and that Trayvon felt threatened by Zimmerman. His own account of what happened says that when he and Trayvon met up Trayvon asked him what his problem was and the girl who was on the phone with Trayvon said she heard as much herself.

Trayvon felt threatened by a man who was following him, confronted him, and the man reached immediately into his pocket. According to Zimmerman that was the point that Trayvon punched him in the nose.

We can't know what Trayvon was thinking that night but it is possible that Trayvon felt that the man who had been stalking him was reaching for a weapon. Zimmerman was so convinced that Trayvon was guilty and didn't think how his actions would look to an innocent person.

And so we wound up with a dead teenager. Zimmerman profiled Trayvon as a criminal and assumed his guilt by the way he looked. Trayvon profiled Zimmerman and assumed he was a pervert or somebody looking for trouble based on the way he looked and acted. In the end, profiling left a young man dead.

There have also been cries of Zimmerman's racism since this case first came to light. Ultimately, after examination of all the evidence there really hasn't been anything to suggest racial prejudice being the reason behind Zimmerman's actions, at least not anymore than most people have inherently coming from our broken society.

But there was racism at play here. Zimmerman was acquitted when there have been other cases, also in Florida, where a 69 year old man was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 8 years in prison in an incredibly similar situation. That man was black. There's a case where a woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing warning shots (not actually shooting to hit anybody or accidentally hitting anybody) to keep her husband, who had previously abused her, from doing it again. That woman was black.

The racism in the Zimmerman case isn't his racism, it's societies. We have institutionalized racism. Society has taught us that black people, males especially, are dangerous. When a black man kills a white man there's no reasonable doubt to be found that he didn't have to, even though the white man was 28 years younger, confronted him, and had served in the military. When a hispanic man kills a black teen there's reasonable doubt that he didn't have to. Maybe he really felt threatened enough to pull the trigger. Never mind how the teen felt in the situation.

Trayvon Martin looked like the kids that I see and work with every day. He had tattoos, wore a hoody, white tennis shoes, and baggy pants. And just like the kids that I see, he was judged for looking like that. He was judged as a criminal for wearing certain clothes. Clothes that people have decided means that you're a thug, or to put it more aptly, a punk and up to no good.

It's the same thing that people assume about the people in this inner city neighborhood in Albany, NY. If you dress like that, and come from here, you must be guilty. I've seen it in Albany, in Memphis,  and I've seen it in Detroit. This is what causes people to fear coming to inner city neighborhoods. Everybody must be a criminal. We ignore the realities of crime, particularly violent crime in these neighborhoods. That the person committing the crime almost always knows the victim, that violent crime never really happens before 10 pm and most of it is after midnight. That you are just as safe outside our building at lunch time as you are in the expensive part of town. It's just the people dress differently and the music sounds different. But what is key to remember is that they are still people. And as people they have some of the same fears, insecurities, and dreams you have.

And that's something George Zimmerman never took into account. He saw somebody that he thought looked like a punk and a criminal and acted like they were guilty beyond a doubt. He took the way somebody looked and used it to dehumanize them so that he could forget that they might be afraid, or might think he looks suspicious, or might be innocent of any crime. Zimmerman never thought about this because he's human, broken, and selfish just like the rest of us. This is not to excuse him but we risk dehumanizing him just like he dehumanized Trayvon.

As a Christian community we need to respond to this tragedy. Not because Zimmerman was acquitted, but because Trayvon is dead. If Zimmerman had been convicted it would still require our action. Our action must be to first educate ourselves, and then educate others, on getting rid of the prejudices that we have. And that's difficult. Because prejudice isn't a conscious action. It stems from little things, usually societal, that shape us to see things a certain way. We act on prejudices all the time, sometimes positively, often negatively. You don't consciously recognize it, it's an automatic response. But we can learn to control it. Take breathing (congratulations, you are now aware of how you're breathing). When you think about it you can control it. You can stop it, slow it down, speed it up, shorten it, and lengthen it. Breathing is one of the easiest automatic responses we have to control. Controlling prejudice is much harder. It takes a lot of effort to remind yourself, over and over, that a certain article of clothing, or type of music, or yes, the color of somebody's skin, does not make them dangerous. It is a hugely difficult thing to do but the inability to control it is exactly what led to an innocent teenager being killed. Two different people with two different set of prejudices both assumed the worst about each other. They both assumed the guilt of the other. They both were unwilling to have any reasonable doubt that the other was innocent.

In the end it was other people's reasonable doubt that led to Zimmerman's acquittal.

Perhaps we can start with that. Start with reasonable doubt anytime we start to judge somebody without knowing a thing about them. Give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe, just maybe, they aren't out to get you, aren't a punk, aren't guilty.

Maybe if we can extend just that little bit of mercy, we can avoid another innocent persons death. We can avoid the violence that is very much not in God's plan. We can speak out against violence with acts of love and compassion. We can break violence with open hearts. We can begin heal ourselves through the hard effort it takes to get rid of our prejudices.

And maybe begin to heal the world.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Did I Miss Something?

If you read my post "Pride" yesterday you saw me come to an interpretation of scripture that I have never heard used before.

The scripture in question can be found in all the synoptic gospels. Mark and Luke are pretty much identical. Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, goes and eats at Levi's house with other tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees ask "why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?" to which Jesus replies "It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

This response should seem odd to anybody that reads it. Is Jesus really saying that the Pharisees are righteous? Doesn't he blast them for their actions repeatedly?

I think this is one of those "ears to hear" moments.

Matthew's account of the story is slightly different. Levi is now named Matthew. But there's one other difference. Jesus' response is three sentences instead of two. He still says the same two sentences found in Mark and Luke but in the middle of them there is this "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'"

That line comes out of Hosea 6:6. And I have to ask: Did I miss something?

In all the times I've heard this story told I don't think I've ever heard Matthew's account. I don't think I've ever heard Jesus remind them that God wants mercy, not sacrifice.

I argued yesterday that the sickness Jesus is talking about is not their sin. We know that all are sinners. When they bring Jesus a woman to be stoned he tells that if they are without sin they may throw the first stone and they all walk away. So when Jesus says he's come to call the sinners he's actually talking about everybody.

So why does he use the doctor line?

I think it's because tax collectors and those who were labeled as "sinners" knew how low they were in society. They were, after all, labeled. Their sickness comes from society. I related this to how the gay community is treated today. There is a reason suicide among gay teens is so much higher than the norm. They have been labeled. They suffer from society's abuse. Their sickness is having to live in a society that tells them they deserve to be treated as less than human, not from their own feelings or actions.

Today I had a similar experience where I had to ask "Did I miss something?"

Today was even more striking than yesterday. Today I was presented with a scripture I am positive I have never heard preached on. The scripture is Romans 4:13-17. See if you've ever heard it preached:

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations.")
How have I never heard this preached? Did I miss something?

I've heard being justified by faith alone. But why haven't I heard for this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants.

I've heard faith without works is dead. But why haven't I heard if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void?

I've heard loud preachers say that natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina were caused by the sin of New Orleans. But why haven't I heard the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation?

Why is the topic of civil rights for all people even an issue for Christians when we have Romans? The law certainly brings wrath but we are not adherents of the law. There is no law. There is no violation.

Romans is revolutionary even today! We are not bound by the constraints of the law. God demands mercy not sacrifice; forgiveness not judgement. Grace is guaranteed to all not just to those that follow the law.

So I ask again: Did I miss something?

When did we go from being a church that told people to come as they are, that God loves them as they are, to being a church that required you to follow certain rules? Did I miss Paul's recant?

Reading Romans 4:13-17 today was mind blowing, paradigm shifting, and most of all confusing.

I've never heard anybody preach on it. Maybe it's too radical to be said in church. We are not bound by the law and that is good; for where there is no law, neither is there violation. Grace is free to all. There is no wrath when there is no law. And maybe we're afraid to preach this because we're worried that if we admit that this is true than what's to stop people from just letting their hair down, so to speak.

Can this really be it? Do we have such a low opinion of ourselves that we think that if we tell people this that faithful disciples of Jesus are going to go out and act against the law any more than they already do?

We are redeemed. Our faith has washed us clean and the law never can. The law can only dirty us.

Maybe it's time we stopped throwing the law at each other. Maybe it's time we just went back to our roots of welcoming others as they are. Maybe it's time that our doors, hearts, and minds were open and left unchained by the law.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "pride"?

What images or words come to mind if you think about "pride" for a little bit?

Feel free to share your answers in the comments below. ⬇

The reason I bring this up is because I read two different things from two very different sources last night that spoke about how two different minority groups have been forced to deal with oppression.

The first was from my favorite comedy website Cracked.com, clicking that link will take you to the article. For those not willing to click things let me cover the important part. The author covers how Paula Dean fans have rushed to her defense in the most counter-intuitive way possible. Like using the N-word to show how unoffensive it is and, this is not a joke, how the only people who should be offended by the N-word are N-words. Seriously. You should just click the link. There's a picture of a person making that argument on Facebook. The other example is of a person whose argument boils down to this:

If you're black you need to stop living in the past and get over slavery. Also you should be glad that white people gave you freedom after the civil war. Yes, we made a mistake with slavery but we stopped it now so why don't you go home. Stop crying and get on with living the lives you owe to the white race

I should note that the bold parts are the actual words used by this person. The underlined and italicized bit is my emphasis. As the author of the article points out this person is saying "Black people, you owe whites for something that happened 148 years ago! But, please, leave the past in the past."

The second thing I read came from my friend and former roommate. He also happens to be gay and this is what he had to say:

"Q:If they can why can’t we? Am I right? Or do we not have the right to free speech?
A:no you don’t get to have straight pride

politicians don’t fight to have straight marriage banned. parents do not kick their children out of their homes because they’re straight. friends do not abandon their friends once they realize they’re straight. people are not assaulted by bigots for being straight. people do not commit suicide because everyone around them treated them like shit for being straight you have nothing to be proud of. you haven’t been discriminated against or insulted for being heterosexual. you haven’t struggled to feel normal in a society which tells you that being queer is unnatural. you don’t get a straight pride because you don’t need one you have nothing to be proud of. you haven’t been discriminated against or insulted for being heterosexual. you haven’t struggled to feel normal in a society which tells you that being queer is unnatural. you don’t get a straight pride because you don’t need oneyou have nothing to be proud of. you haven’t been discriminated against or insulted for being heterosexual. you haven’t struggled to feel normal in a society which tells you that being queer is unnatural. you don’t get a straight pride because you don’t need one"

Powerful stuff and I was surprised to see a couple of very, very odd responses to this post. The first was how we should all be proud of who we are, which is nice, except the responder likened it to his own love of macaroni and cheese and how every month is "mac n cheese pride month". As offensive as it is to just equate mac n cheese to the suffering of people the underlying argument is that we should have straight pride and it should be every month for us. Of course there should be gay pride as well. But each group should have their own pride. But this misses the point that it's easy for straight people to be proud. They don't have the world telling them they're wrong every day of their lives. Being proud as a minority isn't automatic in a world that oppresses minorities.

The second odd response was that pride should be reserved for accomplishments, not for being born a certain race or with a sexual orientation.

This seemed odd to me, especially since pride is often completely unrelated to accomplishments. So here's my reflection on pride.

Pride is a double edged sword. It is often wielded by those who do the oppression because they had relatively little to overcome in order to become powerful. Pride when wielded by the oppressed becomes a refusal to accept that those in power are right, that the norm is unjust, and that there is nothing wrong, but everything right, with being different from the powerful. To not be proud of who you are when you are the oppressed is to agree with the oppressor that you are fundamentally wrong. To disagree and demand justice for the wrongs placed on humans of all shapes, sizes, colors and orientation is a bigger accomplishment than anything the powerful have ever done. And it is certainly something to be proud of.

The response to my reflection on pride got a little silly and included an example of how children demand things all the time from their parents and how making a demand like a child isn't something to be proud of. And that's when it really set in for me. For the second time in the same thread somebody had totally missed the point and made a comment that was insulting and offensive. Gay people being proud is the same as liking mac n cheese and gay people demanding equal rights is the same as a child demanding a new toy or ice cream.

But this goes back to the article from Cracked. On the one hand the oppressing class thought the oppressed should be grateful that they aren't oppressed even more. And in the other case the oppressing class equated the struggles of the oppressed to the trivial matters like mac n cheese and whining children.

Forgive us Father for we know not what we do. 

Why are the loudest Christian voices in this country trying to stop equal rights? How did we end up as the oppressing class? 

Whatever happened to the good news? 

Whatever happened to standing up for the oppressed? 

Whatever happened to the first shall be last and the last shall be first?

As Christians we are called to be a voice for justice in this world but we've resorted spreading injustice for our brothers and sisters under the guise of "sin". But it's not because of "sin" that we spread this injustice. Unless you want to say it's because of our sin. And that's the most troubling part of it. We don't love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We demand our neighbors be like us first. It's not the sins of the gay community, real or perceived that makes us oppress them just like slavery was never about the sins of the black community. Oppression is always about the sins of the oppressor. It is never justified. It is never trivial. The oppressors are never owed anything.

Jesus was asked by the religious elite why He always hung out with sinners and not with them. Jesus told them it's the sick that need a doctor not the healthy. But they missed the point behind His words just as we still do today. Jesus wasn't saying the religious elite were without sin. He speaks against their sins over and over again. He was with these "sinners" because they were the oppressed. They were sick because the powerful in society told them they were wrong, unnatural and deserve abuse because of their "sin" just like we tell the gay community these things today. The Christians of the world need to follow Christ. They need to stand with the oppressed and show them that they have worth, are loved, and that nothing can stop God's love for them. 

Let's bring back the Gospel.