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.

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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]
fff

[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

Contextual Theology of Ministry Compacted

As I began to try to understand my call to ministry, this driving purpose that propels me forward but asks me to try to bring about change without doing harm, I look towards theology. Perhaps others start with theology and head in the direction of ministry. Either way, we wind up in the midst of the theology of ministry, where we must ask ourselves how we can understand what that ministry should look like. Through gaining an understanding of God’s nature and Laws, we begin to understand how our ministry should be shaped. This is the premise of theology of ministry. We cannot do that that without context though; people require comparison to something they already understand or a demonstration to really begin to grasp theology of ministry because otherwise it is incomprehensible.  Jesus shows us these two things clearly in his ministry. We therefore must take a situation or circumstance and, using our understanding of God through the Scripture and other historical writings and teachings, discern how God is present, what aspects we can come to know God in this situation, and what it tells us about what we should do.

Let us look, for example, at slavery. Now we all know that there are various verses in the Bible that offering a variety of insights on slavery at the times those book were written. This is too broad. If we instead narrow down to slavery that is present in the US up until the end of the Civil War we begin to see a very different context. These slaves were stolen or traded from villages who endured inhumane conditions on ships where, if they survived, they were treated as animals and auctioned off. Most were not allowed to marry and any children they had were property of their owners. They could be beaten, raped, tortured, killed and there were basically no repercussions to the “owners.” They could be separated from one another at any moment never to see each other again. These were a people abused and oppressed.

When we try to discover where God is present biblically within the context of these abused and oppressed slaves, we see it is with the oppressed and not with the oppressor. Psalm 82:3-4 tells us, “Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” God called the Christian people in power to service, gave them direction on how to treat the slaves who matched in every adjective this description. Yet it took 10 million lives crossing an ocean as captives and four hundred years to pass before freedom would be gained. In Deuteronomy 10:18 we are told, “”He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.” We see in 1 Samuel 2:8 the promise that Christians know, and that the Christian slaves saw in the resurrection of Jesus: “He raises the poor from the dust, He lifts the needy from the ash heap To make them sit with nobles, And inherit a seat of honor; For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, And He set the world on them.”

Now that we understand both the historical and biblical context (in compact form), we can discern that from this context, God is one for justice of all who are not treated as a person of free will: orphan, widow, weak, fatherless, afflicted, destitute, needy; all to be delivered out of the hands of the wicked. These individuals aren’t in this state because of their choosing but because of the oppression they suffer and so we know that God also stands against oppression. Lastly, we learn that there will be a resurrection for all these individuals, a place of honor. God will bring reconciliation through resurrection. We also know that Jesus told us that as he does, we are also to do.

In summary, we walk away from this contextual theological analysis of slavery understanding God and our call as Christians in three critical ways. First, God seeks justice for those who are at a disadvantage and we should do the same. Second, God takes side against oppressors and with the oppressed and we must try to make sure that when we act, we always act in solidarity with the oppressed and not with those that oppress. Lastly, just as God promises to do, we have the ability and call right now to treat people with honor, dismantle unjust power structures and bring reconciliation into the lives of our fellow human beings through compassionately loving them.

Everyday, We Choose to be Christians

I haven’t finished “processing” the Holocaust yet, not that one ever can. It is something I studied for a very long time and used, when I was an atheist, for proof of both God’s non-existence or callousness and the evil of Christians. Yet as I dive further into this challenging issue I have begun to gain a deeper and deeper understanding of why Jesus said he brought good news to the poor.  It is because it was not perceived as good news to the rest of the people and if we repent and believe, our faith calls for our actions to speak for us. Unfortunately, there are Christians that don’t hear this call to action and don’t see this perspective of Jesus and they are often the most vocal and visible on television and comment sections online.

Jesus did not tell us, first and foremost, to condemn. To lecture. To tell people that they shouldn’t have abortions but if they want to take care of that kid they should have, then they should go to college to get a degree so they can get a job whose pay  will maybe lift them out of poverty after they pay the loans off in ten years (or much more offensive bits of condemnation masked as wisdom). In fact, Jesus tells us to do this:

Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love in the Hebrew context is not making a heart shape with your hands at someone; it isn’t only words or gestures. Love is action. Jesus is telling people that loving your neighbor is as important as loving God and it is loving them in a physical, actionable way. It is sometimes sacrifice of time or resources. Jesus makes it even more clear that He means this in this next verse:

Matthew 25:34-40 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Two important things to note here.  One, Jesus put himself in, and suffers with, those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers (foreigners), naked, sick, and IMPRISONED. He didn’t mention the rich, or even the comfortable. Jesus speaks of people who are condemned, who are insulted, who are blamed for their condition by society in Jesus’ time and  today.  Two, those are the people God sides with, and there are sides. This is because God cannot abide injustice. God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit to right these wrongs, to fix the injustice of the world, to comfort the sick. Christians are called to do God’s work, to bring God’s Kingdom from heaven to earth, and when we ignore that call and continue to support the mechanisms of oppression in our systems, businesses and government, we are part of the problem.

Here is hard news for many “first world” people. Each day, we choose to be liberators or oppressors. We choose whether or not we follow Christ’s teachings. Personally, I never realized how much I was a part of a system of oppression. That doesn’t free me from responsibility though. Sticking my head in the sand, turning the news off, or ignoring the sadness in my heart doesn’t stop the suffering in the world; personally I think the only thing it does is breaks God’s heart because that’s how the Trinity speaks to us. Through our heart, soul and mind.

I think God is reaching out, that the Holy Spirit is calling to us to have compassion, to do the Lord’s work, to bring the Kingdom through charity, empowerment and justice. When I look at the Bible, this is how I see God operate. Generally, it is through relationships with people, not God acting alone. We act with God and when we don’t, we deny our Creator. Choosing to be ignorant to the suffering of God in humanity seems to be an unacceptable option, personally, so I continue to work at improving this.

This is not to say that our actions earn us anything. It doesn’t; but it does speak to our relationship with God and suffering humanity, with whom Jesus says He is with. It makes clear who our King really is, who we really believe is our Savior, and where we really believe the Kingdom lies. How we spend our money, where we choose to live, what companies we support (fair trade, ethics, etc.), the way we spend our time and treat people. These things matter deeply.

Let us not forget these very important points:

  1. Jesus had the humblest of births
  2. Jesus in adulthood travelled and was therefore fundamentally homeless; Jesus often relied on the charity and goodwill of others and was also in solidarity with both the foreigner and the poor in his living condition. He gave similar conditions to his disciples at times.
  3. Jesus kept company with those considered to be outsiders of his faith, people that others would look down on he looked at with love and compassion.
  4. Jesus suffered and died the brutal, violent death of a criminal (prisoner).
  5. Jesus was resurrected, a promise of hope to all people who feel the solidarity of Jesus Christ in their suffering.

It seems like these are sometimes glossed over, or that Jesus did all that just as a side note.  You don’t dedicate 30+ years, coming into the world and leaving it in the most humble of ways, without good reason. Not Christ. The Prosperity gospels tell you that if you do the right thing God blesses you with wealth and health which conversely means that if you’re poor and sick, God thinks that’s what you deserve. I just don’t see that God as the good God I know.  If you look at Jesus, His blessings are all for people in a place of suffering and oppression. His freedom is not a freedom for you to become more rich, but for you to find freedom in salvation so that you can bring more freedom to others.

Just a few thoughts. Still trying to process it all.