Saturday, January 30, 2010

God Amid The Haitian Rubble

Does Job-like suffering excuse bad theology?

A pastor in Port-au-Prince lost his wife and six other people who lived in his house. Veteran NPR correspondent Corey Flinthoff asked him what he he told people, when asked why the earthquake happened.

"It was God's will," is the pastor's immediate reply. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.

This is s not the type of God I believe in. God does not play dice, as Einstein said - nor throw thunderbolts in the form of a horrible earthquake to unleash massive suffering. God did not do that; the workings of the natural world did.

Yet God is most certainly a key actor here. But not in the dart-throwing way that the Haitian pastor and - more notorioiusly - Pat Robertson claim.

God was with those buried under the rubble, whether or not they were saved. And with the rescuers, too.

God is with the desperate people in the streets, including the million or more people with no roof over their heads.

God is with grieving people having to bury their loved ones, if at all, in makeshift graves.

God is with those still searching for their loved ones.

May God be with us, as we continue to respond to this calamity.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What Good Am I - If I Ignore Prison Rape?

Prison rape is a serious national problem, especially for juveniles.

Nicholas Kristof's column in The New York Times today sketched the scope of the problem, According to a Justice Department report released last month, nearly one of every eight juveniles held in youth correctional facilities reoprted being secually assaulted last year. And that number is probably under-reported, because of the stigma of rape.

This is shocking, shameful, and senseless. It's senseless because we, as a society, could do something about, if we just paid more attention. What good are we, if we write people off as soon as the prison doors close?

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Noblest of the Acheans (er, Vikings)

In virtually every other country in the world, “football” means soccer. For good reason − American football is excessively violent, with a devastating injury toll. Small wonder, then, that we’re almost the only country that plays it. And the violent imagery it promotes seeps into American culture.

(Example: ESPN, in its game-summary of the AFC championship game, said of Peyton Manning: “If he’s given enough protection, he’ll kill you.”)

If anyone needed a reminder of football’s violence, it was on display today, as the New Orleans Saints administered a harrowing pounding to Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback Brett Favre. Favre holds nearly every significant NFL passing record, but that doesn’t mean he got any slack. The New Orleans’ defensive players went after him with a passion.

(Baseball may be American’s pastime, but football is America’s passion.)

(Passion, on one level = suffering)

Yet Favre was undaunted by the Saints’ constant assault. He displayed, as an ESPN analyst put it, “pure courage.” If one were to mythologize the game, he was like Achilles, the noblest Greek fighter in the Trojan War.

Like Achilles, however, he was not untouchable. The race does not always go the swift, it says in the book of Ecclesiastes; in the hurly burly of the arena, contingency can intrude. Sometimes in the form of a penalty for too many men in the huddle.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Amnesty: Death Penalty Awareness 2010

Though I don't know Hebrew, I'm told by those who do that the verb in "thou shalt not kill" translates as "thou shalt not commit murder." (Exodus 20:13)

What, then, is "murder"? Does killing someone who has killed qualify?

To the ancient Hebrews (Genesis 9:5-6), the answer was obvious:

An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
A life for a life.

Memorable, poetic language, with a clear moral core: Each human life is to be respected because each human being is made in the image and likeness of God.

But even a bedrock biblical statement like this does not stand outside of time; it must be interpreted. (As my dad used to say, summing up much of the German theology he had studied at Luther Seminary before anyone in America had heard of Derrida, text + context = meaning.) As banal as it is to say it, three thousand years is a long time, and what "a life for a life" means today isn't settled in two seconds merely by saying "Genesis 9:5-6." More than a tautology (life = life) is necessary to contribute meaningfully to today's death penalty debate in America.

To be sure, the Bible is foundational. It's a complicated compendium of books, however, with contrasting viewpoints in dialog with each other. The "a life for a life" statement in Genesis must be evaluated against the words of Jesus, who broke up an execution by saying he who is without sin should cast the first stone. In short, we must use our minds, and our knowledge of contempory culture, to gain insight from the Bible on the question of the death penalty.

So put the "proof-texts" aside and consider the factual settings set forth in the real death penalty cases to be highlighted in Amnesty International's upcoming Death Penalty Awareness Week.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Pride in the Name

A decade ago, a friend gave me a one-year subscription to Mars Hill Review, a journal for thoughtful reflection on issues of faith. Flipping through one of those issues recently − as part of a project to cull my collection − I came across an essay by William Edgar entitled ‘Why Love Can’t Wait: The Lonely Social Ethic of Martin Luther King, Jr." Mars Hill Review 16: 33-39 (2000).

What was “lonely” about Dr. King’s social ethic? In large part, Edgar argues, it was because so many white Christians lacked the commitment to justice work to join King on his journey. MLK was deeply disappointed at this, particularly by the unwillingness of white clergy to confront racism and lead their congregations toward positive change. His most widely read text, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” is directed primarily at those clergy.

Dr. King wrote his open letter on April 16, 1963. Less than five years later, he was assassinated. Rather inexplicably, U2’s moving song “Pride in the Name of Love” puts the time the shots rang out as early morning on April 4. As a colleague pointed out to me today, it was actually late afternoon.

Today, we honor King’s legacy and gather strength to complete the journey toward a truly inclusive society for all. There's still a long way to go, but I know many white clergy who refuse to let social inequities go unchallenged. In fact, I'm married to one.

A Clockwork Orange It's Not

An Arizona boy who, at age 8, shot and killed his stepfather and another man has been sentenced to a treatment facility. The term is indeterminate, but could continue until he is 18, with psychiatric evaluations due to the court every 2 ½ years.

The type of treatment the boy will receive is unclear. He is still only 10, however, so the jarring images of heavy-handed reprogramming at the end of A Clockwork Orange are not really age-appropriate. The young ruffians in Kubrick’s film were twice the age of the boy in this case.

The boy will not be allowed outside the facility, and it wasn’t clear from the CNN account whether his mother will be visiting him. She should probably get some treatment of her own. Evidence indicated that the boy was repeatedly spanked by his stepfather at his mother’s request.

As things stand, it’s all so very sad. Is rehabilitation somehow possible, because the human spirit is resilient? Or is the sentence to treatment merely a way of passing the buck, by a judicial system unclear about underlying principles of justice?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lisbon Then, Port-au-Prince Now

After a massive earthquake destroyed Lisbon in 1755, killing tens of thousands, the notion that such events are “acts of God” came under intellectual siege. In Candide, Voltaire famously parodied the notion (associated with Leibniz) that all is for the best in this “best of all possible worlds.”

The young Immanuel Kant was fascinated by the Lisbon event, collected all the information he could about it, and proposed an early theory about the subterranean causes of earthquakes. Kant’s early effort quite rightly pointed the way to a search for natural, rather than supernatural, explanations of catastrophic events.

Today, the linguistic usage “act of God” lingers on as a catchall insurance term. No person of good will would assert, however, that God took aim at Port-au-Prince in the horrific earthquake that hit there on January 12.

The earthquake in Haiti means more misery for the poorest of the Western hemisphere’s poor. As with Voltaire and Lisbon, it has nothing to do with the best of all possible worlds. Yet, as the Haitian ambassador pleaded tonight on Charlie Rose, it could have a silver lining − if the international community comes together in a postmodern-day Marshall Plan to rebuild the devastated country.

Will it happen?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Longest Yard

The casual brutality by guards against inmates depicted in The Longest Yard and other prison flicks raises a host of questions.

Was it ever thus, this world seemingly without grievance procedures, ombudsmen, visitors, or anyone else who might intervene?

Maybe it’s just that the violence trope makes for such strong narrative. Art, after all, can all too easily perpetuate myths and embellish half-truths. Burt Reynolds and his backers surely felt no obligation to depict reality when contriving their concoction about a prison football game between guards and inmates. They probably just wanted to entertain − and make some money.

Assaults do occur in correctional facilities − but they are more likely to involve inmates attacking guards than vice versa. As Ted Conover recounts in his memoir Newjack, about his stint as a “CO” at the notorious Sing Sing prison, violence (and the threat of violence) by inmates is a daily reality for correctional officers.

In other words, prison is not a Burt Reynolds movie.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Unfriending" and Betrayal

The New Oxford American Dictionary garnered plenty of press attention when it chose “unfriend” as its Word of the Year for 2009. With one computer click, someone is no longer in your Facebook network − and possibly no longer in your life at all.

Don’t worry, this post will not be a diatribe about what Facebook may or may not be doing to civility in our culture. Rather, I’d like to take a cue from James Hillman, the brilliant Jungian psychologist, and point to the primal, mythic implications of “unfriending.”

What is unfriending, after all, but a form of betrayal? Maybe the breach of trust (either real or imagined) was on the part of the person being unfriended, maybe it was by the person doing the unfriending. Or it could have been on both sides. In any case, the act of unfriending in Facebook may be ratifying a betrayal that has already occurred.

As Hillman suggests in “Betrayal,” an essay included in the collection Loose Ends (1975), the central myth of Western culture is the betrayal of Jesus. The kiss Judas gave Jesus in the Garden, as the soldiers closed in, was the ultimate in “unfriending.” A close second was Simon Peter, disavowing Jesus for the third time as the cock crowed.

Judas and Peter were not just Jesus’ disciples; they were his friends, for that is what Jesus offers to those who follow Him. We are no longer strangers, but friends (John 15:15; Ephesians 2:19). And you don’t need to know the words of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by heart to know that He will never unfriend you.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Equal Justice - Even For Owners of 56,000 Disputed Acres?

It’s hard for me to get my mind around someone who owns a 56,000-acre estate. Here in the American Midwest, even after considerable consolidation, farms tend to be pretty small In Jane Smiley’s early-90s bestseller, for example, it was a great prize for a farmer to own a thousand acres.

Thomas Cholmondeley’s farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley is 56 times that size. Its very existence reflects the deeply problematic legacy of white colonialism in Africa in general and Kenya in particular. Over a thousand people were killed in the Rift Valley in 2007 in clashes arising out of tension due in part to disputed land. Many people there feel the land was stolen by the British and not properly transferred back to the black tribes when Kenya became independent in 1963.

So one day in March 2006, Cholmondeley, then 37, came upon a black poacher on his land and confronted him. The poacher, Robert Njoya, also 37, was checking illegal traps, accompanied by two machete-wielding friends and six dogs. Cholmondeley fired shots − to frighten off the dogs, he claimed. But one of the shots struck Njoya in the buttocks. He bled to death, despite Cholmondeley’s effort to render first aid.

What sort of justice would you expect an heir of white privilege to receive in Kenya, after a fatal shooting under these circumstances? Cholmondeley was held in jail for three years, with numerous procedural postponements. The defense argued he lacked intent to kill and pointed to the first aid attempt as a mitigating factor. But the fact also came out that, only a year earlier, Cholmondeley had shot and killed an off-duty black game warden under unexplained circumstances.

Finally, in the spring of 2009, the presiding judge reduced the murder charge to manslaughter and found Cholmondeley guilty. In May, the judge sentenced him to eight months in prison, in addition to the time already served. Cholmondeley was released in October, free to return to his vast acreage.

What type of regime is in place on the Cholmondeley estate now, one wonders, to keep poachers at bay?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Foucault, the AFSC, and the Prison Paradigm

Michael Foucault and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) are admittedly an unlikely duo.

Foucault was a radical French intellectual whose work was animated by a drive to expose what he saw as the underlying connection between knowledge and power. He died of AIDS in 1984, around the time his work was coming into vogue in American academic circles.

The AFSC is an earnest, faith-based organization committed to progressive social action and deep-seated principles of justice. Rooted in the Quaker tradition but also committed to interfaith cooperation, it received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for its role in aiding displaced people in war-torn Europe.

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (French, 1975; English, 1978) and a recent AFDC-supported book, Beyond Prisons (2006, by authors Laura Magnani and Harmon L. Wray), are separated by a generation in time and come from very different perspectives. Foucault, using a method he called “the archeology of knowledge,” examines the emergence of the modern prison two hundred years ago, as it grew to replace a penal system focused on torture. The AFSC, motivated by religious faith, seeks to point the way to a new paradigm beyond prisons, emphasizing the healing of relationships and community building.

As different as these perspectives are, the two books pose similar questions about the power dynamics present in a society that relies heavily on incarceration. “Regard punishment as a political tactic,” Foucault cautioned. The AFSC is more blunt: “Prisons serve the power structure.”

As the New Year begins, I will be reading Discipline and Punish and Beyond Prisons side by side. One irony I’ve noted already: The modern prison, with its excessive reliance on solitary confinement, has reverted back to the torture model of punishment it was supposed to replace.