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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Justice System that Mo'ne and Jesus Would Love

When Mo’ne Davis starred last summer as a pitcher with an 80 mile-an-hour fastball in the Little League World series, I was, like everyone else, impressed. As impressive as her play on the field has been the grace and ease with which she has handled her fame off the field. She is poised in her interviews and genuinely low key. And now we can credit her with one more attribute: graciousness.

After it was announced that Disney was planning on making a film about her, a baseball player from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania sent out an offensive tweet that was followed by an apology and the deletion of his Twitter account. The university responded by immediately removing him from the team.

What Mo’ne did next should serve as an example to those of us in the church. She sent an email to the president of the university and asked that the player be reinstated on the team. When asked about it in an interview she said, "Everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance. I know he didn't mean it in that type of way, and I know a lot of people get tired of like seeing me on TV but just think about what you're doing before you actually do it. I know right now he's really hurt and I know how hard he worked just to get where he is right now."

She not only advocated for his reinstatement, she empathized with him and humanized him to the many people who were angered and offended by his tweet. Because of Mo’ne, the baseball player is no longer a sexist jerk who cruelly mocked a teenage girl. He is a young man who has worked hard to become one of the leading hitters on his college team. He is someone who made a mistake and has paid dearly for it for, as she claims, he is hurt even more than she is. And he is a young man who deserves a second chance because, as we all should be reminded, everyone makes mistakes. 

When I read Mo’ne’s comments I am reminded of how I wish our approach to crime could reflect more of Mo’ne’s comments that our current insatiable thirst for retribution. Fortunately, more and more people are seeing the length of some of the sentences that are being handed down, particularly for nonviolent drug offenses, as unnecessary and unduly punitive. And it may even surprise a few folks who share this view: Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul and former Speaker Newt Gingrich to name a few.

But we still have the problem of demonizing certain people and claiming that they are beyond redemption or restoration. I see death row inmates in this class as well as people who have committed sexual crimes. We rightly find these crimes repugnant and devastating to the victims and their families. Approaching criminal justice from a restorative justice lens means first and foremost working for healing for the victims of crime.

At the same time, I think we have a tendency to define a person by the worst thing they have done. We see the detestable actions they have committed and they become those actions incarnate. Yet, Jesus, throughout the Gospels, repeatedly reaches out and makes an example of faith those deemed deviant by the rest of society, particularly those within the confines of his faith. Jesus humanizes them and makes it impossible for his followers to combine faith in him with demonization of those on the margins.

Our criminal justice system would be radically different – and far more effective, if we manifested this same kind of emphasis on restoration, even and perhaps especially on those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. All people are made in the image of God. All of us have sinned and fallen short. Those are truths whose ethical impact could very well transform our criminal justice system if we took them seriously.

The invitation is ours to extend to the most hardened of criminals, the most unreachable of people. Jesus is already there and bids us to join him to humanize those who would be demonized by the rest of society and locked away forever or even put to death. Whether it is a baseball player in Pennsylvania or someone who has committed an unspeakable crime, may we follow first the example of Jesus and even that of Mo’ne Davis and may we recognize the imago dei within them beyond the deed or deeds they have committed and then may we seek to restore them to a place of contribution once again. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

When Justice Isn't Justice At All

I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the very passion that drives us to work on justice issues is the same passion that hinders movement on related justice issues as we achieve the narrow agenda we are so focused on.

This came home to me in December 2010 when we came within a couple of votes in the Senate of passing the DREAM Act. I kept hearing DC advocates (though not from the DREAMers themselves) speak in favor of passage of the DREAM Act by referring to the students as “people who came to America though no fault of their own.” While this was believed, at the time, to appeal to moderates and maybe even a few of the hardliners who usually denounced undocumented immigration, in the end, statements like this have been hurtful to the larger goal of gaining citizenship for all immigrants. In validating the myth that some immigrants deserve protection of their rights while others do not, non-student immigrants have often been further marginalized from the goal of gaining citizenship because they are deemed to be at “fault” or less worthy than DREAMers. I believe we could have effectively advocated for passage of the DREAM Act while refusing to cast aspersions on non-DREAMers if we had simply been more mindful of unintended messages we were conveying.

For those of us committed to specific issues of justice – or with groups of people directly impacted by injustices – we would do well to ask how our work and especially our messages are impacting other connected issues to the one we are so passionate about.

Case in point, watch this video by Everytown for Gun Safety focused on state legislation in Nevada.

Of course, I sympathize with the need for more responsible gun ownership and the need to stand against far too many states that are being driven by the gun manufacturers-lobby that wants guns to be openly carried in every public space, including houses of worship. But in pushing back against this reckless agenda, I must ask, aren’t there better ways to make our point for public safety and responsible gun ownership other than demonizing returning citizens and those who suffer from mental illness?

I shudder to think how this 30 second ad will continue to perpetuate negative and quite frankly, false myths about the “dangerously” mentally ill and “criminals.” Why, in this ad, is “dangerous” not applied to the weapons and instead, attached to the person? And why can’t we talk about making our societies safer as a part of an over-arching call for all of us to live into a vision that addresses justice for everyone – including those suffering from mental illness and returning citizens?

If we want to talk about creating a vision that people can live into rather creating fear that people must flee from, then I think the best model I know of is in Micah 4:1-4. Micah gives a stunning description of the final days when nations will stream to the “mountain of the Lord” to have their conflicts settled peacefully. A beautiful picture of what conflict resolution looks like appears as nations then will be given the responsibility to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (v. 3) And as nations transform their weapons into instruments that provide for the well-being of all people, the deeper attitudes, behaviors, perspectives, and values – their worldviews – will be transformed as well: “neither shall they learn war any more.”

Once the violence of their hands and their hearts are washed clean and transformed, their hopes for security and abundance will be realized.

                But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
                And no one shall make them afraid.

While Micah’s vision ends in peace and enough resources for all people – and I stress all – to live securely in abundance, I was saddened to see this ad by Everytown because it ends in fear and the demonization of people already on society’s margins. Micah’s vision calls us to work not only for safer communities, but safety is directly linked to world peace, poverty, hunger, the sanctity of work, and so many other issues.

While ads like these make us want to take action out of fear, Micah and many of the other prophets, including Jesus, have a more powerful and more effective motivation for change: a vision of love and justice for all people. Those of us with passion for specific issues would do well to learn that our issue will advance only as far as we advance all causes for justice, for if we can only do justice for one group at the expense of another then perhaps what we are doing isn’t justice at all. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lent is a Time to Set the Captives Free

As we are now in a time of Lent leading us to Easter Sunday it is right for us to reflect not only on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but his life and ministry as well. As we do, we recall that Jesus’ ministry began with the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah quoted in part, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to proclaim release to the captives and…to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Freedom from captivity was a vital part of Jesus’ ministry and for those of us who claim to be recipients of Jesus’ grace we would do well to make this a vital part of our ministry as well. We too are called to proclaim release to the captives and to set free the oppressed. This call has never been timelier as we live in the most incarcerated nation on the face of the earth.

The United States is first in the world in mass incarceration and one of the main drivers of this systemic sin is the disastrous 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 on Easter Sunday with Jesus’ resurrection, there are hopeful steps that we as a nation can take to extricate ourselves from our own captivity to mass incarceration. Even in the current state of polarization that our Congress seems trapped in, there are numerous bills that have brought Democrats and Republicans together. One crucial bill introduced last week by Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Lee (R-UT) is the Smarter Sentencing Act. 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 Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, working to end mass incarceration on Capitol Hill. Our coalition is made up over 40 faith organizations representing millions of people from across the theological and political spectrum and one of our primary goals this year is to see sentencing reforms like those found in the Smarter Sentencing Act enacted. We are meeting with numerous House and Senate offices and we have activated our grassroots folks. The time for dramatically reducing the size of our prison population has come.

Throughout the U.S. congregations dedicate countless hours to aiding, ministering alongside, and advocating for people negatively 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 previously 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 sentencing reform measures like those found in the Smarter Sentencing Act would help restore fairness in our justice system by limiting this existing racial disparity. Therefore, my prayer this Easter is for the hearts of Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner to soften and to make the passage of sending reform a priority for this year. Could the Holy Spirit even anoint Congressional leaders, “to proclaim release to the captives and…to let the oppressed go free”? What an amazing Easter this could be.