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Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Remarks at a ACLU Briefing on Private Prisons

I gave these remarks at a briefing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Februar 23, before staff from House offfices and colleagues who work on criminal justice reform policies.

Like most people of faith, United Methodists express their concern for a broken criminal justice system primarily by serving those most directly impacted by this system. This can take many forms. In Oklahoma, Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries, led by Stan Basler, has started churches made up of those currently incarcerated, their families and those on the outside. They work with those currently incarcerated to prepare them for life on the outside as well as with the children of those incarcerated, so that families can be strengthened and recidivism can be reduced. Rev. Anika Jones, the Pastor of Impact Church in Atlanta, has spent eleven years leading spiritual development at women's prisons and has developed reentry initiatives with women who have come out of prison and who now work alongside her with other women returning home from prison. Rev. Anthony Everett in Lexington, KY has started a church called Nia Community of Faith, “which seeks to empower Lexington's persons of African descent to transform their lives and the lives of others through ministry and Christian discipleship driven by the movement of God.” Rev. Basler, Rev. Jones, and Rev. Everett, all seek to help build movements among United Methodists to end mass incarceration.

I start with just a few examples of the missional work of United Methodists who are committed to ministries of healing and restoration for the millions impacted by the broken criminal justice system. This helps to set the stage. We had these folks in mind when we realized in May of 2011 that the United Methodist Church owned nearly one million dollars in stock in two private prisons corporations, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. It truly was a sickening realization. Dispensing justice not as a public trust, but rather as an item for sale in the marketplace has dramatically accelerated the incarceration of mass numbers of people, particularly people of color. While United Methodists have been caring for those imprisoned and fighting to lessen the number of people incarcerated, our church has been profiting from corporations making billions of dollars from the incarceration of people of color.

To see why this is such a problem we can look at a report by National Public Radio in March of 2011 which centered on the largest juvenile correctional facility in the United States, located in Walnut Grove, MS and owned by GEO Group. NPR’s report gave us a picture of why the work of private prisons is so diametrically opposed to the work of the United Methodist Church, and I believe of other faith groups as well. NPR’s report of the Walnut Grove facility is a picture of a facility permeated with violence.

Part of the reason for the violence was that even while the population at Walnut Grove increased, the number of staff working there decreased. While the common guard-to-inmate ratio at other facilities is typically 1 to 10 or 12, Walnut Grove’s ratio was 1 to 60. Why? Staff salaries are a huge expenditure. David Shapiro, in his excellent study Banking on Bondage writes that “certain empirical studies show a heightened level of violence against prisoners in private institutions…[which] may reflect in part the higher rate of staff turnover in private prisons, which can result in inexperienced guards.” But when profits are at stake, and you can keep costs down through maintaining lower staff numbers, safety becomes a luxury.

Walnut Grove began as a juvenile facility housing 13 to 18 year olds only. Since then, the Mississippi state legislature has raised the age limit to 22 years old, which coincidentally expanded the number of people who were housed there, which, obviously, results in greater profits for GEO Group. While they raised the age of those who were housed in juvenile facilities, the United Methodist Church was strongly advocating against housing children with adults because we know that keeping children separated from adults holds a greater chance for youth to not end up in the adult criminal justice system. We know that children housed with adults are more likely to be victimized by violence, including sexual violence, and are more prone to commit suicide than are children who are housed separately from adults.

Walnut Grove provides a clear picture of how the interests of private prisons are in direct contrast with the mission of the United Methodist Church. This also provides a clear picture of advancing profits over safety; of advancing profits over the welfare of vulnerable children; of advancing profits over justice. And the United Methodist Church, while advocating for children to not be housed with adult inmates, was profiting from this very occurrence.

While we know that not every privately run prison is run like Walnut Grove, profiting from stock in CCA and GEO Group is a betrayal of all that we stand for and believe in as United Methodists and followers of Jesus.

In another area of contrast, private prison corporations such as CCA has also been actively advocating for anti-immigrant legislation at the state level, including SB 1070 in Arizona, a law that opened wide the door to legalized racial profiling and which has struck terror in the hearts of all immigrants, regardless of their legal status, who live in Arizona. The United Methodist Church has for years strongly advocated for immigration reform that upholds the dignity of immigrants and protects their basic civil and human rights. While United Methodists across the country have engaged in hundreds of public events in the last few years to witness to our belief that immigration reform must be humane and just, private prison companies like CCA have spent millions of dollars to lobby state and federal legislatures to adopt policies such as SB 1070, which serves to increase the number of immigrants caught in a system of indefinite detention and ultimately deportation. Again, the work of CCA and other private prison companies are diametrically opposed to the work and mission of the United Methodist Church.

We must ask why the work of private prison companies and the mission of the United Methodist Church are so opposed to one another. And so we must look at Biblical justice. Justice is achieved in Scripture through creating avenues for fair and equal access to justice for those who are marginalized or are wrongfully accused. Justice was intended to hold those responsible for committing crimes to those they offended, and then to also fully restore them to society. Justice was intended to bring healing to victims of crimes as well as the society as a whole. Rather than creating a system of retribution, God’s justice and God’s love are not at odds with one another. Words best used to describe God’s justice being realized are not retribution or revenge, but rather, accountability, restoration and even reconciliation. God does not intend to love one part of the world and then smite the other part. God intends justice to be a healing balm to all of society (Exodus 23:6-8; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17 and 16:19-20).

But justice, like all things, can and has been used as a means of detachment and hording onto wealth and power. The prophets Amos and Isaiah specifically point out that in utilizing the judicial system as a means to secure wealth and power only for the affluent, while maintaining the poor and marginalized as a perpetual underclass, is in direct opposition to God’s basic intentions for justice (Isaiah 1:21-23; 5:20-23; Amos 2:6-8; 5:7, 10-13).

As many are today, Jesus was wrongly accused and convicted, abused by his captors while in custody, and put to death even though he was innocent. Jesus’ death was the result of collusion between religious and affluent political leaders who wanted to maintain societal control, who feared the subversive movement Jesus had started. The same collusion between wealth and power that existed then unfortunately exists today.

In 2010 alone, CCA and GEO Group took in 2.9 billion dollars. These profits depend on maintaining record levels of incarceration, not healing for our society. This is supported by the recent letter CCA sent to the Governors of 48 states requesting an agreement between the state and CCA that if they acquired public prisons, then states would be required to keep those institutions over 90% full for 20 years. The profits made from incarcerating massive numbers of people is one major contributor to an explosion in the prison population that is simply out of control. And, as David Shapiro’s study shows, this does not necessarily lead to public safety. But it does lead to enormous profits for private prison companies. Although alternatives to lengthy sentences would not lessen public safety and would save taxpayers money, private prisons create the situation where too many people make too much money to try these alternatives to incarceration.

To secure those profits, private prison companies often hire lobbyists and make large campaign donations to ensure that incarceration rates continue to rise. Tracy Velazquez of Justice Policy Institute will explore this in more detail, but suffice to say, the collusion of corporate profits from locking up huge numbers of people, particularly people of color, with securing political favor through campaign donations and extensive lobbying, has made private prisons big business and the welfare of those imprisoned expendable. This is not jut immoral, this is inhumane. And to remind you, the United Methodist Church, we found out in May of last year, was profiting from this collusion as well.

But we were determined to end the collusion that our church was a part of.

We decided that in addition to the high-level conversations between leaders in the church, we wanted to alert United Methodists about our profiteering from private prisons and provide a means of making their voice heard. We started a petition calling for immediate divestment of stocks in CCA and GEO Group. The response by United Methodists was quick and intense. United Methodists were outraged because they knew that private prisons corporations represent values that are antithetical to the values of compassion and justice that Jesus lived and taught. They were outraged because they knew that the work they are passionate about – to care for those directly impacted by a broken criminal justice system – was being contradicted by our profiting from stock in private prison corporations.

Though the response by church members has been powerful, I know how slow a large institutional bureaucracy works and I was afraid it would take years to achieve divestment. Religious collusion with destructive forces is a horrible thing to openly confess and even more difficult to break.

So, in spite of all of the petition signers, the large number of emails flying back and forth and the seemingly endless number of conversations, I was still stunned to learn at the beginning of 2012 that the United Methodist Board of Pensions, the board that controls the investments of the United Methodist Church, decided not only to divest from CCA and GEO Group entirely, but to permanently put into place a screen that will not allow us to invest into any corporation in the future that has gross revenues of 10% or more from private prisons.

What I have heard from the many United Methodists celebrating this move is that our joy emanates from the realization that once again we can say that what we believe in – healing and restoration for those impacted by the broken criminal justice system – is actually what we are doing. Just from this victory, I sense already a renewed passion among United Methodists to end mass incarceration and to make the U.S. criminal justice system truly just and fair. Our focus is to build movements among United Methodists to end mass incarceration. The language in our official policy as a United Methodist Church is to “create a genuinely new system of justice.” We advocate and work for a system that brings healing to victims of crime and to restore those who have committed crime to their families and communities. We want fairness. We want justice; justice that brings healing to our land. And a major step towards that reality of healing is to ensure that incarceration ceases to be a money-making affair for corporations like CCA and GEO Group.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why U.S. Christians are Being Persecuted (sort of)

In recent weeks we have heard notable public figures claim that Christians in the United States are being persecuted. Congressman Tim Scott, a Republican rising star in South Carolina, said just before the South Carolina Republican primary, that Christians are a threatened minority in this country. Republican Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, has said on multiple occasions that there is a war against Christianity being waged by, in particular, the Obama Administration, the media (I suppose he does not put Fox News or conservative radio talk shows in that category), and by the Democrats as a whole.

My initial reaction to this is disbelief. It seems laughable to most people, except for the Republican crowds who cheer long and loud when anything like this is stated. To set the context, the persecution of U.S. Christians is happening in a country where every President in our nation’s history has reportedly been a Christian (though obviously of different levels of commitment). The House and Senate begin most of their work days with a prayer spoken by a member of the clergy. Even in supposedly secular Hollywood, the rapper LL Cool J began the Grammy’s award show this year with a prayer for Whitney Houston that started with, “Our Father.” Lastly, “Tebowing” – the practice of kneeling and praying in the same manner as the Broncos quarterback – shortly became a phenomenon.

Further, it seems shameful when we reflect that there is indeed Christian persecution being practiced in many countries throughout the world. Persecution in those countries consists of social and economic marginalization, physical brutality and even death for those who convert to Christianity or publicly profess a belief in Christ. So, for those in this country to proclaim that they are persecuted for believing in Jesus seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Unless, that is, we redefine how the word “persecution” is used.

Using a different understanding of persecution means persecution against Christians actually does exist in the United States. Instead of persecution meaning inflicting social, economic, or physical harm or marginalization against those who profess a belief in the biblical Jesus, if Christian persecution is occurring in the U.S. it must now occur when there are some who refuse to agree entirely with a very conservative brand of Christianity. Those Christians with whom you disagree with on certain issues – on practically any issue – you are persecuting.

I remember the first time I heard U.S. Christians claiming persecution. It was just after the 2004 election when Republicans swept the White House and both houses of Congress. This takeover largely occurred through their mobilization of evangelical Christians to support the banning of gay marriage in numerous statewide constitutional amendment campaigns. Just days after the election, I was listening to James Dobson’s radio show and I was stunned to hear him say he was persecuted for his beliefs.

I immediately called his show to push back against his assessment that he was persecuted. Here was a bestselling author, a multimillionaire no less, regarded as one of the most important Christian leaders in what is largely regarded as a Christian nation, with a direct line into the White House, claiming he was persecuted for his beliefs.

When I called I talked to a number of people until, I was told, I was handed off to one of his “inner circle.” I told the man who made that claim that in light of the enormous victory that the Republicans, as well as Dobson and conservative evangelicals had made in the recent election, his use of the term of persecution to describe those who disagree with him was a huge stretch to say the least and a disservice to those truly persecuted around the world for their faith. Persecution, I suggested, should be used for those who are economically or socially marginalized, physically brutalized or killed for their expression of faith. Dr. Dobson, with his very own “inner circle” of advisors, clearly was not experiencing any kind of real persecution experienced by so many others throughout the world.

When I conveyed this to the man of the “inner circle,” he became emotional and highly agitated to such an extent that I actually had to tell him to calm down and not yell at me. It was clear to me that persecution for him and for James Dobson meant disagreeing with Dobson’s views on issues, on faith, on politics, on life. Though Dr. Dobson is enormously wealthy, though he had unusual political access to the White House as well as a Republican-controlled House and Senate – an unusual amount of power at that time, Dr. Dobson was persecuted because there were others – including me – who disagreed with him.

Of course, once we make persecution a disagreement with a particular view of Christianity, then we will actually have to change our understanding of mission. If persecution is disagreement, then mission is no longer serving, loving, or being incarnated among those who suffer or are vulnerable. If persecution means disagreement, then mission from a persecuted Church is inherently defensive. This means that the persecuted Church is seeking to change the opinions and behaviors of others (especially to those who are doing the persecuting, which, in this case, means everyone) to conform to the worldview of the persecuted Church. Ultimately, this can mean establishing hegemony – ensuring that everyone adopts the same worldview as yourself. For a Church that believes itself to be persecuted, but is actually securely rooted in a social position of power and wealth, this means that incarnational mission gives way to triumphalism, loving and serving others is replaced by conforming others into your worldview through persuasion or through force.

We no longer seek to know God’s presence in other cultures because we believe God’s presence is rooted solely in our own. An indigenous witness of Christ in other cultures is no longer necessary – adoption of our culture which contains the “true” Christian witness is our mode of evangelism – even if that is forced adoption. This has historical basis of course. Much of Christian mission has sadly and tragically been the forced conversion of others not just into Christian faith (that is bad enough), but also, into the Christian missionary’s culture as well. Evangelism actually meant forced acculturation at too many times in the history of the Church.

So today, when Christians scream and shout about how they are being persecuted in a country in which the predominant religion has always been Christianity, what I hear are Christians who simply have lost their ability to be persuasive. Their message is no longer entirely acknowledged to be the sole holder of all that is true and they do not know how to compete in a large marketplace of ideas.

Knowing they have lost their ability to “win” others to their beliefs, they now have only one trick left up their sleeve – scream as loud as they can that their rights have been violated, that their voice is not being heard, that their interests are being trampled on. Even though there really is no proof that this is actually happening, that is not the point. The point is that when you have been dominant for as long as you can remember, the thought of actually having to persuade others of your views – a dominance that once was a given – then it feels like your rights and interests are being trampled on. You actually feel persecuted. You see, if we count disagreement as persecution, then the dominant group really can be persecuted. The only question is for the rest of us in the Church, do we really want to have a Church whose mission is triumphalism and whose means of evangelism is forced adoption of a seemingly dying worldview? I’d like to say no, but as soon as I do, I am afraid I might hear from one of Dr. Dobson’s “inner circle.” And Lord knows, Dr. Dobson has been persecuted enough.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Combating Ignorance on Poverty

I am on a number of list serves and on one of them, someone sent this out. Below that is my response to this posting, which is obviously supported by someone who views poverty as solely a problem of the poor and not something requiring greater sacrifice and effort from the non-poor.

Top Ten List Causes of Poverty
1. Ignorance
2. Idleness
3. Intemperance
4. Want of Economy
5. Imprudent and Hasty Marriages
6. Lotteries
7. Pawnbrokers
8. Brothels
9. Gambling Houses
10. Charities that gave away money too freely

My response:

Weird. Numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 9 in the list below all could apply to Donald Trump or Hugh Hefner, as well as a number of people who I group up with in my affluent neighborhood, and none of them were anywhere close to living in poverty. They are all wealthy!

I think a closer look at Scripture reveals that outside of the Wisdom literature, the prevailing cause of poverty is seen as an unfair distribution of resources. Look at Amos and most of the prophets, or Leviticus and Deuteronomy and God's use of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and the remedy for poverty did not lie in individual transformation alone (though that is always a good thing - none of us are helped with any of the ten mentioned below). Instead, God lays out systems of justice, like the Sabbatical years and the Year of Jubilee (that Jesus adopts for the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4) that will entail a more just distribution of resources. The end, of course, in the words of Paul, is that those who have much will not have too much and those who have little, will not have too little. In other words, fairness.

Making the reasons for poverty outlines below is convenient, but it leads too easily to blaming the poor, heralding the rich, and sustaining the status quo. And that is anything but transformative, or Christian for that matter.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Picture of Intimidation and a Justiceless Justice System

Last Friday Marti, my wife, and I were flying to Chicago and had a layover in Cincinnati. We set up at our gate while the flight before ours was boarding. I was doing some work and people-watching and could not help but notice that out of the people boarding for the flight to Los Angeles, four white policemen had pulled aside a Latino – the only Latino of all the people boarding the flight – and started questioning him. I was sitting some distance away and so I could not hear all that they were asking him, but I could not help but notice that he looked nervous and intimidated as he was riddled with questions by the four officers. Now, let me say here, I did not know the man and he very could have done something wrong and deserved to be questioned by the police, but from where I sat, the way he was singled out and the way he was being bullied and even laughed at by the police made the whole situation seem highly suspicious to me.

I know bullying when I see it and that was clearly the case here. The four men took turn asking him questions and it was plain that his answers not only did not satisfy them, but they were in fact amused at his answers. They kept nudging each other and laughing at him. The more they laughed, the more cowered he became.

I was growing angrier the more I watched. One reason is because I have seen racial profiling before from living in urban areas. I knew, from years before living in Kentucky and visiting with friends who lived and worked in inner-city Cincinnati, that racial profiling was actively used by Cincinnati police to focus on supposed drug dealers in African-American neighborhoods. Racial profiling is insidious and does more to prevent real justice than to provide security and safety, which are often thrown out as reasons to continue racial profiling.

But there was another reason I was angry. While waiting to board our earlier flight in DC, Marti and I saw on the news the story of Steve Goodman, a wealthy white man who killed another young man in a car accident while Goodman was drunk. To prevent his substantial assets from being subject to a lawsuit by the young man’s family, he has legally adopted his 42 girlfriend – yes, making his girlfriend his legal daughter – because then his money could not be touched. A white, wealthy man, manipulating the law to slime his way out of responsibility and accountability while a Hispanic man – a man many people unfortunately call “illegal” without knowing any of his context – being bullied and intimidated into detainment, and possibly his deportation. And the reason he was singled out was suspicious at best.

And so, when the Hispanic man being questioned, whose name I came to find out was Gabriel, was left to himself for a moment because the police were talking among themselves or to airline officials, I approached Gabriel and gave him a card I had with my name and cell phone on it. I told him to call me if he needed a lawyer.

I went back and sat down and Gabriel was shortly after led away by his captors. I was concerned for him – I had no idea where they were taking him and I had no idea what, if anything they were charging him with. I just saw him being detained as so many immigrants have been detained in the last several years. Hundreds of thousands detained each year under the so-called leadership of the Obama administration. It seemed to be just another story of yet another Latino, seemingly racially profiled, for whatever offense – or for no offense. The reason almost doesn’t matter when people of color are held captive in a nation obsessed with incarceration.

However, after I thought everyone had cleared the gate and I was left alone, I was surprised by two of the police who came out of nowhere and, standing above me, started yelling at me and warning me to not to interrupt police business ever again. I tried to explain that I did not interrupt their business since Gabriel wasn’t being talked to at the time, but they moved closer, pointed their finger at me and repeated their warning louder. I was angry by now. No one was yelling at Steve Goldman that I knew of. His wealth gave him ample security from anyone who could ever get near him to challenge him, much rebuke him. So, while still sitting, I spoke back at them (loudly, I admit) that I suspected they were racially profiling and I refused to sit back silently and watch while someone’s basic civil and human rights were being violated. Of course, they refused to admit that anything like that happened, but they actually kept yelling at me so I yelled back until they finally left. It was not a sweet parting.

It was absurd of course, three men yelling at each other in an airport. But the more I have thought about it since then, the truly absurd part of this is the fact that what the police were doing against Gabriel and then even against me was sheer intimidation. Even more, against me, it was intimidation, but the actions taken towards Gabriel were state-sponsored terror, nothing less. It is not just that they did not want me to interrupt their business, they didn’t want me or anyone else to even question whether their business had any legitimacy at all. They did not and still do not want to challenged by the reality that much of what is happening in this country when it comes to the criminal justice system interacting people of color is simply inherently racially biased.

The mass incarceration of people of color exists because too many of us do not ask the hard questions. And one of those questions is whether we are using four policemen – four! – to bully, laugh at, detain and possibly deport Gabriel (again, who may or may not have done anything wrong), while killers like Steve Goodman use high-priced attorneys to manipulate the law for their own benefit. Is this a picture of structural racism? I think it is.

And I think we – the Church – must speak out. I am frankly sick of it. We are followers of Jesus, the Christ, who came to set the prisoners free. Surely, in our day, the prisoners who need to be set free are the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are detained each year, many of whom who are separated from their families and ultimately deported. We do not need to prevent the police from legitimately carrying out their duties to protect and serve. Gabriel needed protecting and serving in comparison to someone like Steve Goodman. But who really was protected and who really was served? Someone must step in the gap and do a better job than me and actually prevent the sheer terror inflicted on Gabriel. Someone must stop the bullying, intimidating, and even mocking of people who are vulnerable. If the Church does not do this, who will? It will not stop unless we stop it. It never has and it never will.

One last final note. Gabriel did call me from where they were holding me so I made some calls and found some local law services in Cincinnati and passed his information to them since I could no longer reach him. As of posting this, no one found him, no one found out where he had been taken and no one admitted they had detained. Just another soul lost in our incarceration nation.

And the beast will keep on devouring more souls. Unless we stop it.