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Friday, April 25, 2014

A Thought from the Road on Organizing

I am currently driving some of my father-in-law’s things from Houston back to Arlington as we move into our new house this weekend. I drove until I was too tired to go further last night and I stayed in Philadelphia, MS. It struck me as I my GPS got me lost late at night on some surrounding country roads with the window down that I was driving over some of the same roads that Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman drove down 50 years ago this June before they were murdered. It was eery yet so powerful to be so near their presence yet so removed.

I could not help but think about the power of these students through giving their lives 50 years ago. Giving their lives away for the sake of others - reminds us of someone, huh? 

There is still so much I learn from the history of SNCC around organizing. They refused to go through the normal institutional structures and went and found the folks who had passion and who were natural networkers. Sometimes the folks they found had titles and were natural networkers (Amzie Moore), but many times they were folks with no titles whatsoever (Fannie Lou Hamer), yet they build new, more flexible structures that were transformative. Oh, how the church, particularly the institutional church needs to learn this lesson now more than ever!

SNCC leaders were very strategic in where they went – they went where they could have the greatest impact and that is what directed their work. They went to both the hard places (like McComb) where they had to build from the ground up as well as the places where there was already networks in place and they could build on what was established. In every place they were fully present among the local people, but they were purposeful about being there and about their agenda. I saw in SNCC that presence without purposefulness was a waste of time. They didn't go places just to "bring greetings." They went to change lives, to change the world!

But the end was always the same: organizing was always about making change happen among those directly impacted by injustice. Organizing is all about – is only about – achieving concrete change. Anything less just isn’t organizing.

Anyway, I was so deeply struck and so deeply inspired tonight as I drove thinking about the heroes who have risked their lives before us and then reflecting on the organizing we are engaged in now. My prayer is that the organizing we are doing at GBCS will follow the example that Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman and the rest of SNCC set, and that first and foremost that we will see our organizing work result in concrete changes for people experiencing injustice.

Just wanted to share this, I hope it is encouraging. Now back to the road!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Remarks from a Press Conference on Ending the War on Drugs

Today, April 16, during Holy Week, faith leaders in coordination with the Drug Policy Alliance held a telepress conference to call for an end to the War on Drugs. Below are my remarks.

This Holy Week as we remember the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we remember that this weekend marks the culmination of a life of ministry which began with the words of the prophet Isaiah,
The Sprit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19

As followers of Jesus, the mantle that Jesus took on, his calling to ministry is applicable to all those who receive the gift of his grace this Easter. We too are called to proclaim release to the captives and to set free the oppressed.

Unfortunately, because the United States imprisons more people than any nation on earth, we do not have to go far to proclaim Jesus’ message of liberation. We are first in the world in mass incarceration and one of the main drivers of this sin is the War on Drugs, 40 years of failed policies that have done little to nothing to curb drug dependence and have instead broken up families, destroyed communities and cost billions of dollars.

Fortunately, just as we receive hope this week in resurrection Sunday, there are steps that we as a nation can take to extricate ourselves from our own captivity. One step is the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1401. The Smarter Sentencing Act is a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL). The legislation is an incremental step towards justice reform that would address the costly overcrowding crisis in the Bureau of Prisons by cutting in half the mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and by authorizing judicial review of cases sentenced under the old 100 to 1 crack cocaine sentencing disparity for possible resentencing.

I chair the largest and only faith coalition working to reform the criminal justice system on Capitol Hill. The Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group is made up over 35 faith organizations representing millions of people of all faiths and our primary goal this year is to see the Smarter Sentencing Act enacted. We have met with numerous Senate offices, we have activated our grassroots folks and coalition members are sending letters to the Senate every day during the month of April urging movement on this bill during the month of May.

Throughout the U.S. the members of our denominations and organizations dedicate countless hours to aiding, ministering with and advocating for people impacted by the criminal justice system. We are gravely concerned that overly punitive mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, passed by Congress nearly 30 years ago, have disproportionately and unfairly incarcerated people of color for low-level and nonviolent offenses.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has testified before the Judiciary Committee that Black and Hispanic defendants constitute the majority of people subject to mandatory minimum sentences and existing opportunities for relief from them are less often available to African American defendants. Passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act would help restore fairness in our justice system by limiting this existing racial disparity. Therefore, we urge Leader Reid to make the passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act a priority during the month of May. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What the Film, Noah, Can and Can't Teach Us

I have seen a lot of clamor on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere from those who have seen the film, Noah and who are outraged that the film "isn't biblical," or that the Director is supposedly an atheist (I have no idea if he is or isn't, nor do I really care), or whether you like it or don't like depends on whether you are a liberal or conservative. Honestly, I don't know if I get the outrage, especially by those who are so angry that the film does not follow the biblical story of Noah close enough. What did folks expect?

So, let me out myself. I have seen the film and I liked it. And yes, I am a liberal, at least politically speaking. I thought it was well-made, and while there were some odd moments, I liked it specifically because I didn't need it to follow the biblical story to the letter. While I want to respect the disappointment from those who wanted more from the film, I must say that I don't go to movies to get Sunday School lessons or biblical exegesis. Hollywood will always disappoint us on that level. And they probably should.

Hollywood first and foremost wants to make money. However, I believe there are those who work in the film industry who want to tell good stories as well. The film, Noah, is a good story in many respects. Yes, I thought it was typically Hollywood to have the rock dudes help build the ark and then have an epic battle where Noah is saved at the last moment.

And I was disturbed by Noah's obsession with being the last human family on earth, but I liked being disturbed because being disturbed makes me think and reflect. It is always disturbing to see a commitment to ideology - even when we think that ideology comes straight from God - being regarded more importantly than people. I wish this lesson was more easily learned in all of the theological debates that are swarming the Church right now. Noah thankfully rediscovered the importance of human life at the last minute and nothing in this film better illustrates the love that Jesus lived and taught in the New Testament. In my mind, Noah carried a powerful gospel message.

While I don't go to the movies to always get a Bible lesson, I will admit this: I often hear from Jesus while I watch films (though not yet during a film featuring Kirk Cameron!). So, if we can accept the fact that Hollywood will never get exegete Scripture correctly, I still believe that we can experience Jesus at the movies.

Want to see sacrificial love? See Hotel Rwanda and watch the powerful story of Paul Rusesbagina who shelters Tutsis during the genocide, even though he himself is Hutu. At one point, while the Western missionaries are being loaded onto a bus, the military forces taking them to shelter rip the Rwandan children out of their arms and Rusesbagina takes in more vulnerable Rwandans to his already crowded hotel. Though the rest of the world has abandoned him and the Tutsi refugees staying at his hotel, Rusesbagina, facing almost certain death, takes in the children, shaming all those who left him and all of us who watched the film and remembered we did nothing to stop the genocide. This is one of the most convicting films I have ever seen.

Want to see incarnational relationships? See The Mission, which tells the story of 18th century Jesuit missionaries in the jungles of South America as European powers, Spain and Portugal, vie for colonial power and the Catholic Church seems more intent on securing its own institutional power than in supporting their missionaries or the indigenous people they served. Watching the final battle and the fall of the mission and the attempted annihilation of the Guarani, the missionaries stayed true to their unreserved love of the people they served. The timeless battle between the risk of mission and the security of institutional stasis is always before us as followers of Jesus, probably now more than ever. Every missionary should be required to watch this film. I will always be transformed and utterly challenged by this film.

Want to see hate transformed by love? Watch Philadelphia as Denzel Washington's character, Joe Miller, a homophobic lawyer in Philadelphia, whose hatred and fear of homosexuals is transformed by the courage of Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks). Beckett sues his former law firm for discrimination and does so as he is dying of AIDS. One of the final scenes shows Miller compassionately placing an oxygen mask onto Beckett's face hours before he dies. Whereas Miller once previously considered touching Beckett to be dangerous, his friendship with Beckett grows to genuine love. This is a courageous, transforming film that helped to change so many attitudes including my own.

So many films carry so many powerful, biblical messages that can change us and make us holy. Noah is a tremendous story with many lessons that provide biblical lessons. Films are stories and some are good and some are bad. It's okay to not like Noah, but no film - not Noah, not The Ten Commandments, not The Last Temptation of Christ, and not even The Passion - is inerrantly biblical. Nor should they be. Let's allow Hollywood to make the movies and let's enjoy them and sometimes be transformed by them. But thinking Hollywood is going to teach us Sunday school lessons or appropriately exegete Scripture is always going to lead us to deep disappointment. In this case, the book is always better than the film.