ROAD TO REDEMPTION: Rodney King, 47, was found dead in his swimming pool on Sunday, June 17. In April, he was a featured author at the LA Times Festival of Books, where he discussed his autobiography, 'The Riot Within.' (Photo: Susan J. Rose/Newscom)
Rodney King’s untimely death over the weekend has led to a lot of conversations about his significance as a key civil rights figure. King, of course, gained fame for the 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles cops that he endured and the subsequent race riot that followed in 1992 after the officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. He then became an unlikely voice of reason when, in the midst of the deadly and destructive rioting, he famously asked, “Can we all just get along?” Sadly, that question still echoes today after each new racially charged issue or controversy that erupts in the media.
But what will be King’s lasting legacy? By his own admission, he was not a perfect man. In fact, drunk driving and alleged substance abuse were the reasons he was pulled over by the L.A. cops initially in 1991, and he continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol apparently until the night of his death. In a Los Angeles Times post, reporter Ken Streeter recalls his series of interviews with King this year and confirms that King was still drinking and still smoking pot (he said for medical reasons).
So, King doesn’t exactly fit the classic image of the heroic civil rights icon. Yet, he stands as an important symbol in our nation’s uneasy saga of racial unrest and our stutter steps toward reconciliation.
“The King beating and trial set in motion overdue reforms in the LAPD and that had a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country,” Cannon explains. Indeed, under L.A. police Chief William Bratton in the 2000s, the department began focusing on community policing, hired more minority officers, and worked to heal tensions between the police and minority communities who continued to protest racial profiling and excessive use of force.
In the post-Rodney King world, adds Cannon, “It became more perilous to pull someone over for driving while black.”
To his credit, King was well aware of his shortcomings and shared his story in an autobiography released earlier this year to mark the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots. In The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, King came clean about his failures and his continued struggles with alcohol addiction, but also about how God had helped him begin to turn his life around.
In a poignant interview with the Canadian public radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi, King talked about his book and expressed optimism about both his own future and the state of race relations in the United States.
What do you view as Rodney King’s legacy? What does his complicated journey say about race relations in America? Will he rightly be remembered a civil rights icon?
DANGEROUS LOVE: Whitney Houston in 1997 with then-husband Bobby Brown. (Photo: Kathy Hutchins/Newscom)
Over the past week, we have been riveted by the tragedy of Whitney Houston’s untimely death. Accounts of drug use and a fallen icon have flooded the media. Yet, little has been said about how her self-professed faith may have contributed to both her downfall and eventual escape from an unhealthy marriage relationship.
In her last major interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, Whitney states that she stayed in the marriage, endured abuse and humiliation, and engaged in self-destructive behaviors in her effort to be a “good” Christian wife. No matter what happened, she felt she had to remain because as she quotes, “What God has brought together, let no man put asunder.”
Yet, Whitney’s statements about letting, indeed inviting, her husband “to take control of her life,” and that a wife must do whatever her husband says is not a new concept. In fact, the concept of women being required, as a matter of faith and faithfulness, “to submit” to their husbands in all things is the pervasive normative gospel preached in churches across racial, denominational, and geographical lines. Ephesians 5:22-24, which outlines a wife’s duty to submit, is often taught without context or nuance. Rarely is the verse above it, which says to “submit to one another,” discussed. Moreover, the last verses of the chapter, which make it clear that a man wouldn’t hate or hurt his own body, do not get much airplay in the church either.
This kind of uncritical, a-contextual acceptance of a half-developed theology leads many women to unconditional obedience to a man regardless of how he treats her, much like Whitney Houston. It rebuffs and chastises women who critically analyze its meaning much like slaves were chastised for questioning the ever popular scripture of slave masters, “slaves obey your masters,” (Col. 3:22). Both the Ephesians 5:22-24 and Colossians 3:22 texts are biblical since they do appear in the Bible. But both have the potential to be misused to oppress and disenfranchise whole groups of people. They’ve also been used to maintain the status quo of unjust power structures in society.
Moreover, in 2011, CBS News reported on a Glamour/Harris poll that found that “30 percent of women who have been in a relationship have been abused. Of that 30 percent, 62 percent were hit, 33 percent were choked or strangled, and 11 percent feared their partner would kill them. Even more shocking, another 30 percent of the women said they had experienced behaviors by their partners that can be categorized as abusive, whether they be emotional or physical.”
With this kind of data, it seems incomprehensible that the church would continue to simply preach the gospel of female submission without critical reflection and further context. It is also sad that we do not give equal attention to stressing that violence has no place in any dating or marital relationship. Finally, since 83 percent of Americans categorize themselves as Christians, according to ABCNEWS/Beliefnet, this is relevant to a huge portion of our population.
Yet, Whitney’s is not just a cautionary tale of how one’s theological premise can lead them to accept abuse, disrespect, humiliation, infidelity, and neglect. In the end, it was her faith that gave her the strength to finally realize that the God she believed in did not want her to continually make herself and her talent small, so that her husband could feel big.
AMAZING GRACE: Houston was baptized in the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee during a Holy Land pilgrimage in May 2003. (Photo: Ygal Levi/Newscom)
Whitney recounts her mother’s prodding her, telling her that the life she was living with drugs, abuse, and chaos with then-husband Bobby Brown was not God’s best for her. According to Houston, her mother, a strong Christian, reminded her of God’s presence and power to bring her out. Whitney says in the 2009 interview, “I began to pray. I said, ‘God, if you will give me one day of strength, I will leave [this house and marriage].” And one day, she did. Much like Tina Turner left her husband, Ike Turner, with only the clothes on her back, Whitney Houston left her home and husband with only a change of clothing.
The transformative power of her faith can be seen in her public discussions. When asked by Diane Sawyer in 2002 what she was addicted to, Whitney rattled off a number of drugs and added that she was “addicted to making love [to Bobby Brown].” But when Oprah asked Whitney in 2009 who she loved, the singer said, “I love the Lord!” And it was that part of her faith that had her on the way to a professional comeback and personal redemption.
In the end, Whitney Houston did not conquer every challenge that haunted her. And none of this excuses the decisions she ultimately made for her life. She owned that. But to understand her life, it is critical that we analyze the thinking and theology that animated her decision-making and helped lead her to such a tragic place.
In the Christian tradition, good theology illuminates, liberates, and pushes us to be our best selves. Bad theology takes bits and pieces of scripture out of context and threatens any who has the audacity to ask questions or to critically analyze the paradigm put forth by those in power.
Whitney’s story is the story of millions of women. It is a cautionary tale that reiterates the importance of thinking critically even about matters of faith. It also invites remembrance of the core tenant of the faith, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” (John 3:16). A God who does not want anyone to perish in the afterlife surely does not condone them perishing at the hands of another in this one.
LOST SOUL: Amy Winehouse in London on July 23, 2009, exactly two years before her death. (Photo by Shaun Curry/Newscom.)
This week, Amy Winehouse’s official cause of death was finally announced, three months after the singer was discovered dead in her London home on July 23. After initial autopsy results came back inconclusive, the coroner determined that Winehouse died from consuming an extreme amount of alcohol. According to test results, the 27-year-old singer’s blood alcohol level was five times the drunk-driving limit. Her doctor said the troubled star had resumed drinking in the days prior to her death, after a short-lived period of sobriety.
Besides being a talented artist, Winehouse was emblematic of the numerous celebrities today whose public battles with substance abuse are regularly in the headlines. By the end of her life, Winehouse’s struggles had stretched to the point of becoming fodder for jokes and riddles (“Q: What was Amy Winehouse’s biggest hit? A: Her last one!”). Sadly, our society has grown so accustom to addiction that we now laugh it off. But for those in its grips, it’s no joke.
We asked LaTonya Mason Summers, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based mental health therapist, to comment on the realities of drug and alcohol addiction and what we can do to help those affected by it.
UrbanFaith: After Amy Winehouse’s death, the Huffington Post featured a commentary by Rabbi Shais Taub which asked the question, “Was the World Powerless to Stop Amy Winehouse?” In other words, are there addictions so strong and pervasive that they’re beyond human understanding and control? How would you answer that?
LaTonya Mason Summers: The word choice is interesting here, and I agree: the “world” was powerless to stop Amy Winehouse. But it was the “world” that fueled Winehouse’s addictions. Not “world” in the sense of the “earth,” but “world” as defined by Winehouse’s frame of reference — the background, culture, and lifestyle out of which she lived. Addictions are strong, pervasive and hard to understand and control, but it’s even more difficult when one tries to stop addiction by their own strength and understanding. It is reported that Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning. Drug and alcohol abuse is a byproduct of something far deeper. Oftentimes, it’s a symptom of low self-esteem, unresolved trauma and abuse, rejection and abandonment, and mostly fear. We do a great disservice to addicted persons when we focus on their addictions and ignore the underlying problems.
We see so many celebrity drug and alcohol addicts today that our culture has almost grown cold and callous to it. For instance, before her death there was a website devoted solely to the question of “When will Amy Winehouse die?” We see celebrities such as Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, Whitney Houston, and Charlie Sheen, and we make jokes about them. How does this affect our culture’s understanding of addiction?
When we have a culture entertained by reality TV shows, court and crime TV, and sensationalized Web broadcasting — not to mention today’s popular music — we can’t help but have a desensitized society. We are no longer afraid of or empathetic toward anyone or anything because we’ve been there and done that through TV and the media. So, why wouldn’t we have a “When will Amy Winehouse Die?” website?
Unfortunately, we live in a society that “dumbs down” addictions but tacitly gives a “thumbs up” to its portrayals. Remember when there used to be cautionary documentaries on drugs and alcohol, and on people who struggled with them? Now, we have reality shows that glorify dysfunctional behavior. No wonder we are ignorant. Understanding addictions is no longer newsworthy.
How do you counsel a person with a serious drug addiction? Where do you begin, and what kinds of things should family and friends understand as they’re trying to help that person?
I used to set up and run treatment programs for adolescent and adult substance abusers. I absolutely loved that line of work, but it was emotionally tough. After 11 years of doing it, I stepped away to work solely with mentally ill people. The public sees addicted persons as weak people who lack self-control and deserve every consequence they face. But can you imagine the level of shame, guilt, frustration, and hopelessness that those substance abusers felt by the time they got to me? Imagine having failed everyone, including yourself, family, friends, employers, and the legal system — not to mention God. I always started treatment by instilling hope and restoring the addicted person’s sense of worth. It was much easier to establish rapport, trust, and motivation that way.
God forbid I say this, but oftentimes the families were more sick than the addicts. In fact, family members would wind up on my couch before the addict would. Family work is important in substance-abuse treatment, because the family members can make recovery hard. They help too much. Their helping sometimes hurts the addict. When my patients had toxic families, I’d send my patient to a treatment program in another city or state so they could get better.
Over the summer, former NBA star Jalen Rose was sentenced to 20 days in jail for drunk driving. Some wondered if the treatment was overly harsh because he was a black celebrity, since others have gotten off easier. Do you think jail time is an effective way to steer people clear of destructive behavior involving alcohol and drugs?
In my experience working in the court system as an advocate for my clients, the courts made it worse. The punishment given rarely fit the crime. The probation officers were inconsistent. The judges sent mixed messages by punishing minor crimes with maximum sentences and vice versa. Jail time is punitive, and punishment does not work when the drug or alcohol use is secondary to something else. Addicts don’t mind punishment because they typically feel useless and worthless anyway. That kind of punishment affirms what they believe about themselves. However, I am not saying they should not suffer consequences for drunk driving, drug use, etc. I am saying that offering them rehab while they’re incarcerated might yield greater results.
What kinds of miracles have you seen in your work with people battling addictions?
LaTonya Mason Summers
Goodness, the stories I can tell. I’ve had a hand in imparting into the lives of addicted persons who are now pastors, business owners, and even addictions counselors. I had a 15-year-old girl whose parents brought her to me as a last resort. She had refused other counselors, and I assumed she would do the same with me. After I asked her parents to leave, the girl opened up to me like a book. (It wasn’t because of anything special that I said to her, but other professionals simply had failed to remove the parents.) The girl was a cocaine user and held me by her confidentiality rights, so I could not tell her parents. We made a pact that if she stopped using I would keep her secret. I cannot tell you the anxiety I had for weeks thinking something would go wrong. I collaborated with her physician to drug test her weekly to ensure the girl’s abstinence. After three months, her parents called thanking me for my help. The girl had returned to a healthy weight, her appetite had been restored, and her mood had improved. Today (four years later) she is a successful college student studying psychology.
Among the celebrity success stories that stand out are Robert Downey Jr.’s eventual victory over substance abuse. It only came after several stints in jail and a long, public battle. What kinds of things contribute to a successful road to recovery, and when do you know that someone is legitimately recovered?
My biggest weapon is instilling hope. I do this by challenging the addicted person’s mentality and perspective. I am a cognitive behaviorist, which means I help change the way people think. I do not know what works, as I have often thrown up my hands on clients who later recovered. Then I have lost clients whom I thought had arrived. All I really know is, pray hard in each session. I ask for God’s help. I ask Him to give me the words to say, and I hold on to Isaiah 50:1-7, believing I am called as a therapist.
I honestly don’t know when a person is legitimately recovered, as I believe it’s a lifelong process. Like those of us who are not addicted, we have our own lifelong battles — we try to stop lying, cheating, stealing, yelling, cursing, overeating — everyone has a Goliath they must face. And can any of us say we’ll ever arrive in this world? From my perspective, messing up is just as much part of the recovery process as getting it right is. And, if you get it right all the time, how do you know you’re recovered?
Is it possible to effectively treat addiction without addressing the spiritual aspects of the problem?
Absolutely not! I’ve had to learn how to minister without saying “God” and “Jesus,” so that I can reach everyone. However, I know how to make others want what I have. I was mentored by a man who told me, “I may not be able to make a horse drink the water, but I should be able to make him thirsty.” And that’s the approach I take in therapy. I see myself as sowing seeds, believing someone will come behind me and water them, and eventually increase will come.
Addiction is spiritual. I believe an addict’s zealousness can be indicative of the great calling on his life. He just needs to move that zealousness away from destructive behavior to purposeful, life-giving behavior.
Amy Winehouse emerged on the pop-music scene not so much like a rising star as like a falling one.
In “Rehab,” the hit song from her 2006 breakthrough album, Back to Black, the singer let us know upfront what we were in for if we decided to become her fans—a maddening, chaotic, troubled ride. But her soulful and honest voice, and the potential we heard there, left us no choice but to listen, appreciate, and hope against hope that she would eventually shake her well-publicized demons and rise to the brilliant promise of her talent.
But it was not to be.
The report of the British singer’s death today at 27 was not unexpected, but it still jarred us, like the earthshaking blast of thunder that trails a violent lightning flash. On Twitter and Facebook, update after update expressed a sort of resigned shock. “I knew it was a matter of time,” wrote one commenter. “I’m surprised she lasted this long,” said another.
Another popular Winehouse song found the singer declaring, “You know that I’m no good.” Like “Rehab,” it was a prophetic moment of self-disclosure that felt like both a defiant proclamation and an eerie plea for help. The lyrics — “I cheated myself, like I knew I would” — resonated with many of us who, like the apostle Paul, struggle with the reality of our sinful natures.
“I do not understand what I do,” said Paul. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
For Amy Winehouse, the struggle was with drugs, alcohol, and bad relationships. For us, the addictions might be different, but we have felt the strain nonetheless.
There’s so much in Ms. Winehouse’s tragic story to explore. In some ways, her brief career was the most convincing anti-drug campaign to hit pop culture. Or, maybe everything that needs to be said was already said during her descent.
The initial reports said Winehouse’s cause of death was unexplained. But no explanation was really necessary.
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