Criticizing Justice Seekers

When I look at the landscape of the United States right now, the number of times I see patterns of well-intentioned people criticizing others seeking recognition and justice can, at times, overwhelm me. Often within church circles I’m around, you hear an emphasis put on personal sin, with the belief that repenting from it will transform our lives and thus the systems around us (if they even include systems in their discussion). In schools, we are often taught that those that fight for recognition and justice (of minorities) are threats, deviants, mentally ill, etc. In the public sphere, the growing tension between Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter creates a telling dialogue around what we value and why we value it. Central to each of these issues and many more is power: who has power, doesn’t have power, and who deserves power.

Let us consider the various social circles I’ve been exposed to within religious organizations. There is a tremendous emphasis put on personal sin and the power of God to transform lives if we repent. This belief is well-intentioned and not even something I disagree with, but it is incomplete; there must also be an acknowledgement of sin against others, of a disparity in very real resources, of discrimination in the distribution of goods and services or even the long-term effects of the systemic ways we degrade people of certain races or genders. As one person explained, “Look, if you’re white, heroin addiction is a disease that people want to treat, to HEAL. But if you’re black? Drug addiction is justification for incarceration or an excuse for why you can get shot by the police.” People in these circles often criticize those who speak out and fight for change within our systems, explaining that “all” people must take responsibility for their personal sin, that it was their choice to break the law. Again, none of this is untrue, it’s just incomplete. We cannot stop there, insisting that they must face judgment for their sin while we accept cheap grace. We have a responsibility to ask how we, as a society, have sinned against them and take responsibility for reconciliation.

Within schools, we can also see patterns where people seeking recognition and justice are not only criticized, but misrepresented. Consider, for instance, Andrew Jackson. In high school history books, accolades are spoken of him and the work he did in building the nation into what it is today. Unless you do your own research, you are unlikely to be taught that Jackson’s success was built on the systemic dehumanization, oppression and slaughter of native people across the country. Yet when we study the Turner Rebellion, it is often mentioned that Turner was potentially schizophrenic, mentally ill, etc. He is rarely shown as a man of faith who lived as a slave and possessed a righteous anger at the suffering and bondage pressed upon slaves from every side. Emphasis is put on the fact that Nat and his rebellion killed men, women and children but often neglect to mention that the state militia executed those involved as well as people with slight connections, reimbursing their masters afterwards for the loss of their property. The white response across the South of murdering black people without cause (to such an extent that numbers aren’t known) is also usually absent from the teaching. This is just one example of how we disparage one who fights for justice while lifting-up someone driven by power and wealth.

The last example I’ll discuss is that of the evolution of the “Lives Matter” movements. “Black Lives Matter,” came first and at its root, was a cry of a people who feel that they exist in a society that tells them through words, treatment, and resourcing that their lives don’t matter. Thus, the statement “Black Lives Matter,” was a means of affirming that a black life has value, that it does indeed matter. This is also a way of building power through solidarity with one another; alone it is easy to be cut down. Together, but asserting that one another’s life matters, there is a collective building of worth and power. A response by predominantly white people came through the phrases “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” This response is, I believe, an example of people who are most often well-intention but also deeply biased. I believe that, for the most part, they recognize that they do not value the black life the same as the lives of white people or police and furthermore, believe that if they MUST value those lives, it comes at a cost to blue lives or white lives. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of those who believe value is a finite resource: valuing the lives of other people does not change the worth of your own life. It’s saying, “As I possess human dignity and worth, so should others who currently do not.” When we consider the power that lies in the police, the statement that black lives matter doesn’t negate the life of police, it cries out for the black life to be valued by the blue. In other words, “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” view the lifting up of black lives as a zero-sum game: where each race or demographic’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of another race or demographic. “Black Lives Matter” views the value of humanity as many people view love: just as our capacity to love others grows and expands without loss of love in one’s self, we can value more and more people as we value ourselves without loss. This sentiment is echoed in the words of Jesus himself, when he says in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The three examples I’ve provided are just a few places where I see the manifestation of the patterns of criticism towards people seeking recognition and justice. While not all-inclusive, I believe these examples highlight how deeply rooted and systemic the issue is: life and liberty are valued far less in this country than maintaining power, and this truth is found within the heart of what we say and implement in our political, economic and social structures. Just as in the time of slavery, while the elite are a small number, they are mighty, and they are also effective in sculpting the culture and beliefs of larger white America so they feel that they have more in common with the elite than they do those that have been silently and systemically disenfranchised. Thus, the non-elite, white majority continue to voluntarily give over more of their freedoms and wealth to those in power while believing it is those with the least amount of power who are stripping them of it, all with the best of intentions.

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Music and Social Justice

I’ve been a big fan of System of a Down since Toxicity was released in 2001, and “Prison Song” was one of the songs on that album. Their lead vocalist, Serj Tankian, formed the band in the 90’s with several other Armenian-Americans. Passionate for social justice and having experienced discrimination personally, the band was very vocal regarding political and social justice issues. I was awakening to the fact that deep and systemic injustice was not part of our past but alive and thriving in the present. I was also starting to see that America was on a path of escalating tension, easily manipulated by fear, but I didn’t have the language or context to fully connect all of the dots. In 1999, the Columbine Massacres had occurred, changing the way we interacted with schools, our administration, the growing police presence, as well as how students even viewed each other. There had been a substantial number of bomb threats within my school and then this album, with this song, was released a week before the September 11th attack. The timing of these events and their effect on me personally forced me to really question what I knew about my country and the people in it, both with and without power. I started asking myself what I didn’t know.

When I listened to the Prison Song, the statements that they were making sounded so extreme and outlandish that, at first, I thought they were using hyperbole to get their point across. But as I started to do the research and pay attention to the headlines and stories I was hearing on the news, I began to see that System of a Down was actually trying warn people, to let them know what was really happening in our country. Much of what they sung about I’ve read about in books, articles or witnessed through my community. For example, they state in the song that, “They’re trying to build a prison, Following the rights movement, You clamped on with your iron fists, Drugs became conveniently, Available for all the kids.” Consider the graphic below from prisonpolicy.org. You can see, based on the years, the relationship between the civil rights movement and the response of an uptick in the prison population. Our readings clarify the how: “Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000.”[1]
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[2]

 

Later in the song they proclaim that, “Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, You don’t even flinch, All our taxes paying for your wars, Against the new non-rich…” From The New Jim Crow, we can understand what the statistic for minor drug offenders looks like a few years after the release of this song: “…four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in the state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.” (Alexander, 60) Rather than be concerned with the increasing percentage of our population sitting behind bars and asking what we can do differently, our nation responded with fear and the mission to use our taxes to continue to build more prisons. It certainly was a war, but the language around new non-rich is important. I cannot be sure of the bands intention, but there was a rebranding of black and minority America occurring during this time that made a war against them acceptable as long as leaders and people didn’t refer to race. We’d refer to locations (where these demographics were generally the majority), a specific socio-economic status or even a symptom of the deeper disease in our nation (i.e. crack addicts). Rebranding race as the “new” non-rich changed how people could be targeted.

There is so much more that was said in this song that transformed the way I saw my country, the people in it, and understood my responsibility to participate in social justice. Once your eyes are opened you have to make a choice on how you’re going to respond to it. I have to choose whether I will be a mechanism of oppression and injustice or part of the voice and movement against those who would systemically disenfranchise large swaths of people permanently. I am thankful for all of the artists, actors, and creatives who use media like System of a Down did in order to awaken people to the social issues of our generation.

Prison Song (Lyrics)

By: System of a Down

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison

Following the rights movements You clamped on with your iron fists Drugs became conveniently Available for all the kids Following the rights movements You clamped on with your iron fists Drugs became conveniently Available for all the kids

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

Nearly two million Americans are incarcerated In the prison system, prison system Prison system of the U.S.

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

Minor drug offenders fill your prisons You don’t even flinch All our taxes paying for your wars Against the new non-rich Minor drug offenders fill your prisons You don’t even flinch All our taxes paying for your wars Against the new non-rich

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

The percentage of Americans in the prison system Prison system, has doubled since 1985

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison For you and me Oh baby, you and me

All research and successful drug policies show That treatment should be increased And law enforcement decreased While abolishing Mandatory minimum sentences All research and successful drug policies show That treatment should be increased And law enforcement decreased While abolishing Mandatory minimum sentences

Utilizing drugs to pay for Secret wars around the world Drugs are now your global policy Now you police the globe

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

Drug money is used to rig elections And train brutal corporate sponsored Dictators around the world

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison For you and me Oh baby, you and me

[1] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow, pg. 60. It goes on to say that from 1980 to the present, there has been a 1,100% increase in drug-related imprisonment.

[2] Wagner, Peter. “Tracking Prison Growth in 50 States,” https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/overtime.html Written: May 28, 2014

(Christian) Social Justice in the United States

We like to claim that the United States is the land of the free, but how free are we?  I want to believe that all people, regardless of where they are in their faith journey, want justice for the oppressed but it is a PARTICULAR call on the heart of those who are a follower of YHWH and Jesus. In that vein, I encourage everyone to watch “13th,” a documentary available on Netflix, and keep in your heart these passages.

“Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” Zechariah 7:10 (NIV)

I would wonder what the effect of a ballooning prison population starting in the 70’s might have had on the stability of the family unit; in effect do we not create widows and orphans through incarceration?

“Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:3-4 (NIV)

God puts all of us together; the cause of the voiceless is the cause of those with a voice. Those with power have a responsibility to act for those who are powerless. We should be defending and upholding the cause of anyone experiencing injustice.

“Open your mouth for the mute, For the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)

This is not about anarchy but about making sure that a portion of our society isn’t existing in an oppressed state or being taken advantage of.

“He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” Psalm 146:7-9 (NIV)

So what do your actions say about which side you are on. Even something as simple as voting. Where do your votes fall for the widows, the fatherless, the foreigner and the poor?

A few additional articles:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/03/americas-prison-population (Article looking at the current prison population of the United States and what it means)

http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2015.html (2015 Prison Statistics)

http://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2015/08/14/jailsmatter/  (Role jails play in US)

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/magazine/the-bail-trap.html?_r=0   (The issues around bail for those in poverty and the ripple effect it has on their lives; many are found innocent)

http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/07/us/kalief-browder-dead/  (Man jailed as teen for 3 years without conviction commits suicide)

 

 

 

 

Theological Reflections 2 Thessalonians

2 THESSALONIANS

While 2 Thessalonians is considered a disputed letter, it is still a biblical text and although perhaps not penned by Paul himself, offers great amounts of insight and wisdom into the faith of early Christians and the struggles of the early Church.  Additionally, it was most likely written, if not by Paul, by someone familiar with Paul. This kind of letter written by someone in another’s name (and as they would written) was not unusual in that time.

I particularly appreciate the symmetry we see to 1 Thessalonians in the Thanksgiving by the mention of faith and love and also in the acknowledgment of their endurance through the persecution that the church has been facing (whereas the previous letter discussed the trials that Paul has faced).  The prayer that follows is particularly powerful: 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, “…God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ.” I feel like this would be an amazing prayer to memorize and pray for anyone who is suffering or feels like they are struggling.

Much of the writing focuses on deception by the devil and the Parousia, as well as  the signs that will come with the “lawless one” and warnings to believe the truth and not be deceived.  Shortly thereafter, perhaps to lighten the blow a bit, it says in 2 Thessalonians 3:3 “But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” In my experience I have found this so far to be true; that if I rest in the Lord’s word and seek God’s wisdom I find myself strengthened. It is not necessarily that the problems are any less but that the Lord has better equipped me to handle them and they seem less like problems. Additionally, when I have faith that God is in me, while someone may take my life on earth they cannot do anything to take away my eternity with God. In this way I am guarded.

2 Thessalonians 2:15-17 “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word.” I particularly enjoy this verse because it focuses on encouragement and hope as they face persecution; it reminds them to keep in the traditions they were taught, some of which don’t seem to stick with them. Apparently there are still lingering issues with idleness that weren’t resolved from 1 Thessalonians and so the advice now becomes even more extreme but seems to be consistent with other advice Paul has given.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7, “We instruct you, brothers, in the name of [our] Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us. For you know how one must imitate us…” They are not saying to shun all “disorderly” people but believers who are disorderly and refusing to change, eating free food from anyone or being idle when they are able to work. This is not the way of a believer and as Paul has explain in Corinthians, by expelling a believer the hope is that they will change their ways and return to Christ, receiving the Spirit. As it says in 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15, “But you brothers, do not be remiss in doing good…take note of this person not to associate with him, that he may be put to shame. Do not regard him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother.”

The last bit I want to call out is the another part that echoes 1 Thessalonians, and it is again reminding them of how Paul and his followers lived. 2 Thessalonians 3:8-10, “…in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you. Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us. In fact, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” This just further emphasizes the continuity that I Thessalonians has with 2 Thessalonians and reminds us it refers only to believers capable of work who will not.  A later line refers to people who are basically busy bodies rather than being busy working. In Greek it was a play on works that pointed out the difference between those who were busy and those who getting into other people’s business instead. This is why they advise that if you are able to work but are being a busybody instead you haven’t earned your food. It is not a line to condone denial of charity to those in need.

Christians: Our Viewpoint Matters

We all know that where you stand matters in how you end up seeing things. If I’m taking a picture of a building, cropping and filtering that picture can make a big difference but it won’t change the perspective (from the ground, from above, from the front, from inside).  Perspective matters; that’s part of what Jesus was trying to teach us.

Luke 4:18-19 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Unpacking this a little, we see these individuals called out: the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. Why these people? Let us first come from a state of compassion and grace instead of judgment, as Jesus does for us.

Who keeps the people who are poor, poor? In a modern example, when there is enough food in the world to keep everyone fed, who let’s people starve? Who imprisons people? Again, we understand that laws may have been broken, etc. but we also know that we are no different than prisoners; there is not a single person that hasn’t broken God’s laws and yet He gives us salvation so He obviously has a heart for prisoners. Who oppresses people? An example of this might be consumers and companies who buy and sell products that have people around the world work at wages that do not support living in dignity or even working in dangerous environments. Many products are now an issue for this unless you buy fair trade and most people don’t know, don’t care or think they can’t do anything even though they are part of the machine. So who is blind? Jesus definitely healed physically blind people but being blind is not an “action taken” that can be easily blamed on the individual, as the other three so often are. Perhaps it is because the blind referred to are the rich, the oppressors and the accusers.

When we look at the response to people wanting a living wage in the US how do we think the heart of God would feel? Let’s address one argument I see, which is when people say a person working a 40 hour week doesn’t deserve a pay that keeps them living in dignity because they didn’t go to school and don’t have a college degree: “Why should someone make just as much as I  do with my degree?” That brings to mind this verse:

Matthew 20 1-16 “God’s kingdom is like a man who owned some land. One morning, the man went out very early to hire some people to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay the workers one silver coin for working that day. Then he sent them into the vineyard to work. About nine o’clock the man went to the marketplace… So he said to them, ‘If you go and work in my field, I will pay you what your work is worth.’ So they went to work in the vineyard. The man went out again about twelve o’clock and again at three o’clock. Both times he hired some others to work in his vineyard. About five o’clock the man went to the marketplace again. He saw some other people standing there. He asked them, ‘Why did you stand here all day doing nothing?’  “They said, ‘No one gave us a job.’ “The man said to them, ‘Then you can go and work in my vineyard.’ “At the end of the day, the owner of the field said to the boss of all the workers, ‘Call the workers and pay them all. Start by paying the last people I hired. Then pay all of them, ending with the ones I hired first.’ “The workers who were hired at five o’clock came to get their pay. Each worker got one silver coin. Then the workers who were hired first came to get their pay. They thought they would be paid more than the others. But each one of them also received one silver coin. When they got their silver coin, they complained to the man who owned the land. They said, ‘Those people were hired last and worked only one hour. But you paid them the same as us. And we worked hard all day in the hot sun.’ “But the man who owned the field said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am being fair with you. You agreed to work for one silver coin. Right? So take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same pay I gave you. I can do what I want with my own money. Why would you be jealous because I am generous?’ “So those who are last now will be first in the future. And those who are first now will be last in the future.”

So why are the people who got their degree wanting to withhold from others when they have what they wanted for themselves? Why would the men from the beginning of the day want the men at the end of the day to get less even though they got exactly what was agreed to? It is all about perspective and that perspective has a high cost.  They aren’t standing in solidarity with the poor; they are protecting their own self-interests. They are blind.

In The Liberation of Theology, Juan Luis Segundo says, “Indeed Jesus seems to go so far as to suggest that one cannot recognize Christ, and therefore come to know God, unless he or she is willing to start with a personal commitment to the oppressed.” (pg. 81) While I think you can know certain aspects of God’s character  (the Hebrews certainly did) Jesus came to fulfill the Law and make a new covenant and I think that it is accurate in saying you cannot fully understand the heart of Jesus without keeping his commandments. He trains us, grows us and enters into relationship with us through the interactions he calls us to.

Matthew 25:37-45  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Bryan P. Stone says in Compassion Ministry that, “…the placement of ourselves alongside the poor and the suffering is not simply for their benefit or for their liberation. On the contrary, the context of human poverty, suffering, and oppression provides an indispensable position for sensing the heartbeat of God and for discovering the decisive significance and relevance of Jesus Christ for all of us… the view from below is an essential starting point that opens up who God is for the world and sets the agenda for the structure and mission of the church in the world as a liberation community.” It is standing beside those who Jesus stood beside.