The State of the Union

Charlottesville. I wish this outrage wasn’t part of a pattern interwoven into the fiber of our country. That this was some tragic, one off event. But it isn’t. I don’t know how to express my sadness, anger, mourning and disappointment. Posting online can feel trite in such circumstances. The inclination of man to use names and stereotypes to remove humanity and ultimately justify oppression, violence and murder of those “others” so they can stand a little higher is no new thing, but that does not mean we do not push back against the storm that rolls relentlessly against us. Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” The best representation of any society, I believe, is when we we look at the margins of that society and see how those who stand there are treated. Are we correcting oppression and bringing justice? Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, Both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.”

But don’t listen to just me. Tina Fey has some thoughts as well.

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Reflection: Nonviolence and Injustice

I do not have the wisdom or experience to say whether or not the belief that non-violence is the best way to bring about change in the face of injustice is right. What I do know is that, when faced with injustice, the best answer for me personally aligns with that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi. When we follow what appears to be the natural order of things, violence begets violence, accompanied by a continued escalation until there is hurt on all sides and an effort to reconcile seems nearly impossible. When we instead choose to respond to injustice with love, we effectively prevent ourselves from the escalation of the very brokenness and injustice which was perpetuated against us. This does not mean the injustice continues unaddressed.

As Martin Luther King said in his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech, “…nonviolence is not sterile passivity but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.” (King) It is a response to injustice, not a submission to it. It asks for us to be reconciled rather than perpetuate our broken principles through which we operate. In the same speech he said, “If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love…” (King) The effectivity of this approach becomes apparent in the story of Stoney, a white boy who grew up in Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

His family reflected his community. “And this is Alabama in the late fifties, the heart of Dixie, you know, where the Confederacy and all of the glory of the Confederacy was still a part of the way you were brought up.” (Berman 132) He heard Martin Luther King, Jr. labeled a Communist and enemy of the United Sates. He participated in the celebration of Bull Connor (a fantastic example of injustice and the use of violence) as the epitome of the Southern man. He reflected that when he was young, his beliefs were the beliefs of those around him because you believe in them. Then he went to Birmingham and as they turned the corner, he saw the police letting the dogs bite people who were peacefully singing and marching. He had a different reaction from his compatriots: “and I remember sayin’ to them then, “I don’t care if you are a nigger, you deserve better than to be chewed up by a dog.” I don’t think the other two boys that were with me really saw it that way. I think they saw it as an extension of the rightness of Bull Connor…” (Berman 134)

A few years later he experienced real breakthrough when he went to see Martin Luther King, Jr. at the march in Selma. “Then they get to a point, maybe fifty to a hundred yards away from the state troopers, and they knelt down and started to pray…And when I saw them kneel down to pray, I turned to the guy that was with me and said, “Those people aren’t Communists. Communists don’t believe in God! They wouldn’t kneel down and pray if they were Communists.” (Berman 135) It was the peaceful response of the march that lead him to recognize the incongruity between what he believed and what he witnessed. This response to appeal to God in a moment that promised unjust violence did not reflect a Godless people intent on destroying America. When his grandmother told him later that it was a trick, his belief system began to crack and was eventually replaced by something else. I wonder how differently the story might have gone if, rather than marching and praying, they had responded to police brutality with violence. Would the boys heart have been awakened to the injustice he witnessed? Would he continue to operate in the belief system he’d been given? Would he have gotten involved in the violence?

Martin Luther King also said in his speech that receiving the award, “…is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time, the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” (King) Nonviolence is not an easy answer, or a quick one. Someday we may learn that it isn’t the best one. But as far as my experience goes, it is the one that holds the most promise for reconciliation in our present and our future.

Works Cited

Berman, Philip. The Search for Meaning. New York: Bellantine Books, 1990. .pdf..

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Noble Prize Acceptance Speech. Oslo: Noble.org, 1964. video.

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

Past, Present and Future Americas

Comprehending history is our best hope for a better future. Without knowledge of why things are in their current state, we cannot hope to effectively direct the future. It also helps us to better recognize warning signs.

This article looks at how the United States developed, the attributes common to each internal “nation,” and what the forecast for our future looks like.

http://www.businessinsider.com/the-11-nations-of-the-united-states-2015-7

The Silent Victim of Imprisonment: Children

According to alternet.org (link below) in 2013, around 2.7 million children under the age of 18 had a parent in prison or jail. In this video they quote 3 million which shouldn’t be a surprise since the prison population has been rising for decades. The tragedy that strikes here is twofold: first, that children suffer the pain of growing up parentless. Second, with our system and society the way it is, those children will then be six times more likely to enter the system themselves.

Some people might say that these men don’t deserve to see their children; perhaps those people are against rehabilitating prisoners so they can be productive members of society when released.  But what about the kids? Do you think that the “sins” of the parents should be the “sins” of the child?  And thus the “sin” of society?  Or do you think we can do better? This program that allows dads and their kids to spend time together seems like an amazing step in the right direction.

 

(AlterNet Article) http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/27-million-children-under-age-18-have-parent-prison-or-jail

(Article Video was from) http://tosavealife.com/inspiration/dads-behind-bars-hold-kids-1st-time-look-faces/

God Asks for Obedience

1 John 2:3 “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”

God expects obedience in His followers. In fact we see in the Bible that to show our love to God is to obey Him and keep His commandments. This is not how we “earn” our way to heaven. We cannot do that because we all fall short and any sin is too much sin in the presence of a perfect God. The sin of gossip is just as heavy as cheating or any other biblical sin; we in America like to try to rate sin and say these are okay and these aren’t. The truth is we are all guilty and they are all bad and cause us all to fall short. Jesus and repentance closed that gap for us.

Mark 1:15  “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

We repent, believe, obey, and continue in this cycle to try to keep his commandments because it is our way of showing God we love Him and want to abide in Him. It is showing we acknowledge His place and ours.

Romans 6:4 “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

Baptism is the action being born again (which I’ll write about at some other point but John 3 is a great resource); of dying to ourselves. We commit ourselves to our belief, receive the Spirit and begin to be transformed. The more we “die” to ourselves and dedicate ourselves to God, the more joy and freedom we discover.

Proverbs 3:6 “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

My path has been clearer, my heart lighter, my life more joyful and my struggle less the more I submit to God. Is it easy? NO. I feel constantly challenged but I also have a faith that provides this indescribable buoyancy in moments that would have once sunk me. Times like friends being diagnosed with serious diseases, deaths in the family, my imminent job loss in the next couple years when I realized God didn’t want me to move for money, or even ending an almost eight year relationship knowing I’d never get to see his kids again. My heart broke and I pray often for him and his children. But we all had to make hard choices.

Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

No, of course it isn’t easy. But this journey was definitely worth it. I lost some close relationships in the beginning (drinking buddies, anti-Christians, etc.) because I stopped doing what made me “feel good” in the moment and started trying to act in obedience to God and the Scripture while continuing to try to be authentic about who I was and what I was struggling with at the time. Later I realized that as a Christian I needed to spread what I was so grateful to have received, the Gospel, to others with grace and love to my community through compassionate ministry. I’ve downsized, I’ve pursued educational opportunities not just in books but in service (words and action).

I fail over and over again every day but I am not disheartened or ashamed or saddened.  I know where I come from and I know in what ways I have been and continue to be restored. I see where my growth in obedience is and I know that this, along with my prayers, is how I let God know I am moving towards Him.