Race, Crime, Perception and Consequences in America

Recently, I highlighted a book by Michelle Alexander that looks at race and incarceration in the United States. I also included a link to the following speech that she gave in Chicago in 2013.

AJ+ offers a shorter, less-detailed summary of this reality:

Continuing with this theme, Marquaysa Battle has posted 12 Heartbreaking Facts About The School To Prison Pipeline That Every Person Should Know,” a compilation of stats and graphics that you may have seen floating independently on social media. Taken together, it adds breadth to the arguments Michelle Alexander advances. For instance, it adds foster care statistics to the conversation. Naturally, correlation and causation continue to be issues to think through when digesting statistics.

Two articles in the Baltimore Sun represent the priorities of incarceration and education. Arguments are not lacking for either side, but in the end, the decisions reflect society’s priorities.

This week we witnessed another case study in law enforcement and race; however, this time it was from the other side–police action to stop a fight between biker gangs in Texas. This situation is not entirely identical to the situations in Ferguson or Baltimore (or…), so we have to be careful about drawing conclusions. Regardless, these two articles make some meaningful observations about law enforcement’s approach in Texas:

Differences in perceptions of black and white individuals are also explored in the following scenarios:

ABC 20 20 What Would You Do Racism In America, Part 1 HQ (YouTube, Uploaded 2009)

ABC 20 20 What Would You Do Racism In America, Part 2 HQ (YouTube, Uploaded 2009)

Black Man Vs. White Man Carrying AR-15 Legally (YouTube, Uploaded May 2015)

Deleted material from AR-15 stop above (YouTube, Uploaded March 2013)

Taking this conversation in a different direction, The Real News posted a conversation between Cornel West, Eddie Conway, and Rev. Sekou on building a mass movement for racial justice (link).

Two additional articles on race in America:

Finally, I’m not sure how to overcome the psychology of the human brain described in this article — The Most Depressing Discovery About the Brain, Ever (Kaplan, AlterNet, 16 Sept 2013). It seems like we learn from experience more than from statistics, but how do we enable one group to experience the reality of another group so that learning can take place? In an era of self-segregation, how do people of good will overcome racism? What role can and should faith communities play in working for and demonstrating the beloved community?

It’s easy for my wife and I to march a bit, and we should, but I see that we also need to be about the harder work of building community.

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Unity in Diversity

Introductory note: Diversity can analyzed in at least three spheres—behavior (action and lifestyle), belief (what we hold to be true), and belonging (social cohesiveness). This post focuses on the third category—the social aspects of unity—though the other two are lurking between the lines as well. All three areas relate to spiritual gifts, so I’ve included diversity of gifts in this consideration as well.

Which is true: “birds of a feather flock together” or “opposites attract”? Reality defies a simple answer. Social psychologists tell us it depends on a number of factors, including the level of relation one is considering (e.g., friends, romantic partners, clubs, etc.) and the type of characteristic under consideration (e.g., male-female [different gender = opposite] in heterosexual couples [both heterosexual = same]). While both forces are a social reality, it’s the flocking together of similar people that has been on my mind lately.

Social sorting is normal and natural. We develop bonds with people who share our interests, whether the commonality is professional, religious, political or recreational. Often multiple factors influence who we connect with (e.g., people in my faith community who have children the same age as mine, or people in my office who share my political views and are the same gender as me).

I do this. You do this. We all do this in some way.

Unity in Uniformity

This selection process is not entirely beneficial. We can easily cut out of our lives nearly everyone whose differentness makes us uncomfortable. We may only reach out to people of the same age, race, and socio-economic level. We may only make friends with people in our own denomination or religion. We may un-follow or un-friend everyone on Facebook who posts quotes for that other political party. This is the comfortable route. This is the least unsettling-path. This is also the best way to lose a broad perspective on life and the world.

Unity in Diversity

In my understanding, social diversity is a central feature of the kingdom of God. Jesus worked to break down the dividing walls of age, race, ethnicity, gender, social status, economic level, and all of the other major divisions.

Jesus welcomed the young children who the disciples tried to push away.

Jesus taught women (not just men) and had them travel with him.

Jesus called the rich tax collector and the poor fishermen to follow him.

Jesus sent his followers to every corner of the globe.

Jesus prayed that this diverse group would be unified (John 17:11-23).

Paul understood this social revolution and highlighted its significance for the church. We should not jump too quickly over the emotional content of these lists:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28, NIV)

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11, NIV)

Paul also spoke to the need for people with various gifts to be unified in one body (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4).

John wrote of the diverse group of humanity gathered in the age to come.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9; see also 5:9)

Ellen White, an early leader in the Seventh-day Adventist church, spoke much of unity in diversity.

From the endless variety of plants and flowers, we may learn an important lesson. All blossoms are not the same in form or color. Some possess healing virtues. Some are always fragrant. There are professing Christians who think it their duty to make every Christian like themselves. This is man’s plan, not the plan of God. In the church of God there is room for characters as varied as are the flowers in a garden. In His spiritual garden there are many varieties of flowers.—Letter 95, 1902 (Evangelism, p. 99)

It is the Lord’s plan that there shall be unity in diversity. There is no man who can be a criterion for all other men. Our varied trusts are proportioned to our varied capabilities…. Each worker is to give his fellow workers the respect that he wishes to have shown to himself.—Lt 111, 1903. (2 Mind, Character & Personality, p. 423)

Unity in diversity is God’s plan. Among the followers of Christ there is to be the blending of diverse elements, one adapted to the other, and each to do its special work for God. Every individual has his place in the filling up of one great plan bearing the stamp of Christ’s image…—Lt 78, 1894 (2 Mind, Character & Personality, p. 800)

I believe God’s call for the church is to be an inclusive, diverse body. I believe the Holy Spirit is calling us to overcome the forces that push us away from each other. I believe the church is to be a community that shows the world how people of different ages, income brackets, races, genders, political orientations, and other factors can live in harmony with love and respect.

I want to stand in that diverse group (Rev. 7:9), and I want the church to be a foretaste of that day now. May we live up to that high calling, and may I do my part by asking God to open my heart, mind and home.

Reflection Questions

  1. When have I experienced unexpected hospitality and inclusiveness? How did this make me feel, and how did it affect my own approach to others?

  2. What social division is most obvious in my life? That is, what is the characteristic that most of my friends have in common? What are the benefits and problems with this social situation?

  3. What steps might I take to move beyond this barrier (in #2)? What changes in attitudes, words and actions might I need in order to reach out to people who are different in this way?

  4. What social divisions has my congregation overcome? What divisions persist? What factors contribute to this division, and how might God move through me to change this?

  5. In a world polarized by political dissent, how can Christians demonstrate better communication both within the church and in the broader society?

  6. All religions and denominations have boundaries relating to belief, behavior and belonging. This is how one is distinguished from another. What are the positive and negative aspects of these boundaries? What purposes do these serve, and when or how might they become a problem? How do we decide where to draw these boundaries, and how do we decide how absolute or porous these various barriers should be?

  7. How might these themes be applied to relations between Christian denominations or between Christians and those with other religions or worldviews?

Foolishness of Faith

I get why some people stop going to church because it feels stale, lacks relevance for their daily lives, does a poor job of fostering meaningful relationships, and seems disconnected from the real needs of hurting humanity (and ends up actually hurting far too many people).

I understand why some people give up on the church because too often it is more concerned about air conditioning than the condition of the environment, about politics than compassion, about the order of service than community service.

I can see why people lose faith in faith when science so often tells a more compelling story about humanity’s place on the planet with more systematic evidence and more seeds of hope.

I deeply grasp why the suffering, abuse, torture and violence in the world makes it virtually impossible for many to believe that a God of love could be behind all of this.

What is actually baffling to me is the reality that so many of us still participate in a church community at all, still believe any of this stuff at all. It seems like a miracle that any of us find some measure of freshness after a few thousand years of reading the same book and singing songs about the same themes, that some of us find something at church that speaks to our modern lives, that some of us find a measure of community and connection, that some turn their churches outward to care for others, that some care about God’s created world, that some still even believe that God created life and cares about all life, that some people find ways to embrace both God and science, that some people see the God of love trying to use us to overcome violence with love. It’s miraculous–it appears to me–that for many of us, after our orbits have swung wide into the world during the week, we still come crashing back together to explore something we can’t see, touch, smell, taste or hear, at least not directly. Why don’t our trajectories move inexorably apart? Why do we come back together, even when so often fighting our own desires not to? Why do we sing and pray? What is this gravitational force that keeps calling us back to community, back to a place where we share questions, experiences and unusual casseroles at potluck?

I get why so many of my friends have left the church community and/or given up on trying to find truth in the pages of the Bible. I don’t have any less respect or appreciation for them. I’m just surprised that not everyone has done the same.

I raise my glass to all who are seeking community, seeking truth, seeking meaning, seeking creativity, seeking peace, seeking justice, seeking love, seeking joy, seeking goodness, and seeking beauty even in the dark corners of the human experience. May you find or create what you need, and may you encourage others in the quest as well. And if there is a God, as some of us still believe, may this God be very close to each of us, helping us know and experience the way, the truth and the life…

Plank Versus Sawdust

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Jesus’ teaching on self-assessment is important to me in many contexts. Beyond the purely individual application, I think it is appropriate material for contemplation anytime I find myself differentiating between my group and “the other.”

I support self-evaluation and discourage judging the other party. I’m Seventh-day Adventist, and I think we should focus on dealing with abuse within the church instead of pointing fingers at others religious communities that struggle with abuse. I’m a male, and I think guys should speak about “reproductive ethics” to other guys instead of telling women what they should do with their bodies. I have dark hair, and I hope I never hear another “blond joke” from anyone who wasn’t born with bleach-blond hair. And I’m also white. I think that the white community should focus on fixing its own issues rather than telling other racial groups what they should or shouldn’t be doing.

This came out again for me in the recent killing of Michael Brown. It’s just seems wrong to hear white people talking about what black people should be doing–stop rioting, stop speaking a certain way, stop getting into trouble with police. With our nation’s history of white people always getting the race issue wrong–genocide of First Nations, slavery, Jim Crow laws, the prison-industrial complex, treatment of Chinese immigrants during building of the railroads, policies of disruption in Central America, etc.–how are we in a position to tell anyone else how to act morally? Why do we think we have it right this time (see this Tim Wise video)?

If the rioting doesn’t make sense to you, then dig into it deeper. White people riot too. Find out what about the human experience brings this out. If demonstrations and protests don’t make sense to you, then dig deeper. All people groups demonstrate. This is not unusual behavior, so if you can’t understand why these people in this community at this time would feel motivated to speak their minds publicly, then look into their stories more deeply. You can judge from a distance or you can get closer and begin to understand. You may never agree with certain actions–I certainly don’t (and this applies to my views of violent people and groups regardless of race or economic level)–but if you don’t understand, then you need to go deeper.

So, my white friends, let’s refrain from telling other groups how they should act, especially if we aren’t friends with a number of people in “the other” category, whatever it might be. Instead, let’s focus on getting things right with ourselves–right thoughts, right attitudes, right words, right actions. We’ve got some planks to deal with before we try to deal with anyone else’s sawdust.

Above all, may we play our part in supporting the beloved community. This is to be on the right side of the “race question,” the right side of history, the right side of eternity.

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NOTE: See my earlier list of articles on the killing of Michael Brown–link.

Sherman: Preview Passages

KingdomCallingIn the first chapter of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good, Amy Sherman looks at a number of “preview passages,” or verses in the Bible that paint a picture of God’s good future. For example, she lists these two on page 27:

Wolves will live with lambs. Leopards will lie down with goats. Calves and lions will eat together. And little children will lead them around. Cows will eat with bears. Their little ones will lie down together. And lions will eat straw like oxen. A baby will play near a hole where cobras live. A young child will put his hand into a nest where poisonous snakes live. None of those animals will harm or destroy anything or anyone on my holy mountain of Zion. The oceans are full of water. In the same way, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:6, NIRV)

People from many nations will go there. They will say, “Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain. Let’s go to the house of Jacob’s God. He will teach us how we should live. Then we will live the way he wants us to.” The law of the Lord will be taught at Zion. His message will go out from Jerusalem. He will judge between people from many nations. He’ll settle problems among strong nations everywhere. They will hammer their swords into plows. They’ll hammer their spears into pruning tools. Nations will not go to war against one another. They won’t even train to fight anymore. Every man will have his own vine and fig tree. And no one will make them afraid. That’s what the Lord who rules over all has promised. Other nations worship and trust in their gods. But we will worship and obey the Lord. (Micah 2:4-5)

Throughout the chapter she lists more preview passages in her descriptions of both justice (3 elements) and peace (4 dimensions). Then in the chapter’s conclusion, Amy addresses two potential problems that she can imagine resulting from pastors preaching these “preview passages” in their congregations.

On the one hand, some parishioners might wrongly assume that they (or the church) can “just do it.” That is, they may vastly underestimate what it takes to usher in these foretastes of justice and shalom. They may fail to rely sufficiently on Jesus and the Spirit. While the preview passages permit us a big God-sized vision for our labors and our hopes, there is a danger of them encouraging Utopianism. The kingdom of justice and shalom will arrive in its fullness only at the return of the King. And only in the King’s power–and by his wisdom and guidance–will we make progress in transforming our communities. (pp. 43-44)

The issues we face are huge. And complicated. We need God’s wisdom, hope and power. Next, Amy turns to a different potential error.

On the other hand, we must not allow parishioners to believe that, because the full vision of the preview passages won’t [be] realized until the “age to come,” we don’t need to do anything now. It’s certainly true that we are waiting for the kingdom’s full consummation at Jesus’ return. But while we wait, it is the task of the church–Christ’s body–to enact and embody foretastes of the coming realities of that kingdom. We as Jesus’ disciples have the amazing privilege of participating in his work of restoration. Indeed, joining him in this work constitutes the very center of our redeemed lives. (p. 44)

So while we can’t usher in perfection with our sweat alone, we’re not off the hook. We still have very important work to do as the body of Jesus.

Craig Nessan speaks to this same reality in Shalom Church: The Body of Christ as Ministering Community (2010). Nessan states, “The call to social ministry is not about what the church should be doing in this world in response to the call of Jesus. Rather, social ministry is an expression of the very character of the church as the body of Christ” (p. 8).

Questions

  1. What image of Jesus does my local community get when it looks at my congregation?
  2. If the image is distorted in some areas, how can I work to remedy this error? What are my first three steps?
  3. In what ways is the image positive? Who can be thanked and encouraged for this reality?
  4. Which of Amy Sherman’s two problems am I personally more prone to–(a) thinking I can do it all or (b) thinking I don’t need to or can’t do anything?
  5. How big is my vision for what God can do and wants to do in the world through the body of the church? How does my vision affect my attitudes and actions?

NOTE: I previously wrote about Kingdom Calling here.

Articles of Note (Updated)

I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and did some online reading. Here is a sampling:

>The Lord’s Supper in Community

In Neither Poverty Nor Riches Craig Blomberg addresses the controversy surrounding the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. He begins by describing the social context.

The well-to-do who did not have to work long hours at manual labour could arrive for the Christian gathering early, bring excess food and drink, and consume too much of both. The poorer members, arriving later with fewer provisions, were unable to enjoy an equal share of what was intended to be a communal meal or ‘love feast.’ (p. 183)

A few pages later, he returns to the Lord’s Supper.

When one understands the sociological factors at work behind the Corinthians’ abuse of the Lord’s Supper, well-known verses in Chapter 11 appear quite different….The Corinthians who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord ‘in an unworthy manner’ (1 Cor. 11:27) are not those who are particularly aware of their sinfulness or who feel unworthy to partake….Those who should refrain from the bread and wine lest they profane the eucharist are…those who are actually eating and drinking in an unworthy fashion. And verse 21 explicitly recounts what that unworthy fashion involves: ‘each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.’ (p. 187)

Next Blomberg connects the teaching with our context.

Obviously, few if any contemporary worship services have this exact problem with the Lord’s table. But once one understands that the gluttony and drunkenness described take place during a large communal meal at the expense of the needy Christians in their midst, then ‘eating and drinking unworthily’ applies in our modern culture to any who continue glibly to partake of the Lord’s Supper, yet who have no track-record in their own lives of giving from their surplus possessions to the poor. The question of who should and should not take the Lords Supper in any given church could be revolutionized if we began to obey Paul’s words and apply them as they were intended in their original context. (pp. 187-188)

Finally, he concludes the section by stating:

Those who eat and drink without concern for the needs of the poorer members do not recognize the nature of the church–a refuge for refugees, in which all must care for one another. (p. 188)