The soundtrack of the 1970s still speaks to us. Life, as many had known it, was rapidly changing back then. A generation had found its revolutionary voice and was confronting oppression domestically and abroad. Disenchantment with status quo Americanism had sparked the nation’s social consciousness. And from the center of this whirlwind emerged a cry for deep justice.
A singer captured the ethos of the age: “What’s going on?” he asked.
War, social decay, and racial unrest conspired against a generation. Too many mothers were crying, too many brothers dying. “We don’t need to escalate,” he urged. Please stop judging and punishing picket signs with brutality. “We’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”
Fast-forward almost 40 years and Marvin Gaye’s music feels as timely as ever.
Where’s the “Lovin’ Here Today”?
At its core, the Gospel is a story about a loving God who reconciles humanity into loving relationships with Himself, themselves, and each other. Justice fits into the story as Christ rights the wrongs that prevent those relationships. Worship as both music and lifestyle should reflect this. But does it?
In a world marked by wars, genocide, street gangs and terror thugs, ethnocentrism, generational poverty, famine, AIDS, substandard housing and education, rampant materialism, religious hatred, and environmental degradation, where’s the lovin’ in our church music? The kind of lovin’ that rights wrongs and reconciles relationships?
The songs that typically rank as the “most popular” in mainstream evangelical churches today are filled with beautiful expressions of God’s holiness and love. But they seem to lack a consistent emphasis on worship that moves beyond a personal experience to include a clear declaration of the social-justice dimension of God’s activity in the world.
Sadly, too often our church music is directed inward as a distorted, selfish facsimile of worship. We long for God to meet personal needs and mediate justice on our own behalf, radically reducing our songs to individualized laundry lists of wants. Consider these popular contemporary worship song lyrics:
• “Every time I turn around there will be blessings on blessings, blessings on blessings / The favor of the Lord rests upon me, in my hands I have more than enough” (from Blessings on Blessings from Anthony Brown & group therAPy)
• “I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone / When the praises go up, the blessings come down / It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap” (from “Blessings,” by Chance the Rapper featuring Jamila Woods)
• “I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now” (from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).
• “I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now” (from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).
•“In my life I’m soaked in blessing / And in heaven there’s a great
reward / … I’ve got Jesus, Jesus / He calls me for His own / And He lifts me, lifts me / Above the world I know” (from “God Is in the House,” by Hillsong United).
•“(I got the) anointing / (Got God’s) favor / (And we’re still)
standing / I want it all back / Man give me my stuff back / Give me my stuff back / … I want it all / … I want that” (from “I Want it All Back,” by Tye Tribbett).
Contrast those with the three recorded songs that accompanied Jesus’ birth. While the melodies have been lost to time, the lyrics reverberate through history.
The first, a spontaneous soulful utterance by a pregnant virgin, marveled about the Mighty One who miraculously conceived His child within her. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). What of the Rolls Royce-driving, private jet-flying, multiple mansion-dwelling, high fashion-wearing preachers and modern Christian subculture profiteers? What about the good life to which their songs and sermons aspire? What fills them?
The second, a choir song performed by heaven’s finest angels for an audience of outcast shepherds, proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The peace of which they sang is shalom, and favor refers to “the year of the Lord’s favor” embraced within Christ’s mission (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61). More than the absence of strife, shalom is what the Prince of Peace came to reestablish: The interdependency of vibrant communities; the vitality of healthy bodies; the manifold mysteries of parental love; and the majesty of the cosmos. The condition of sin robs shalom, but Jesus’ justice restores it. When the most affluent people in recorded history attempt to co-opt Jesus’ favor as a rationale to get more stuff, we cheapen everything the gospel represents.
The third song, by an old man long past his prime, declared Jesus, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” He then explained the lyrics to Jesus’ parents: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:32, 34-35). Not much touchy feely hoopla here either.
Not one of these songs celebrates the themes that predominate our weekly worship services. No mention of “me,” except in the context of calling and responsibility beyond oneself. No focus on “blessing,” except as it relates to our ability, empowered by God, to bless others. No pursuit of personal comfort; rather, the promise of a sword to pierce one’s soul.
Indeed, the soundtrack that accompanied heaven’s lyric — the Word made flesh and dwelling among us — bears little resemblance to popular songs we sing in our churches. When that timeless Word “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) his manner of doing so invited shame and ridicule, not material bounty. He lived among us as a child of poverty (born in a barn); political refugee (in Egypt); social pariah (survivor of unmarried pregnancy, a capital crime); ghetto immigrant (“What good comes from Nazareth?”); and blue-collar subject (carpenter) of an imperialistic colonizer (Rome). He was a friend of prostitutes (such as the woman who anointed his feet with perfume), crooked bureaucrats (tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus), and terrorists (including his disciple Simon, the Zealot, a card-carrying member of a first-century Palestinian terror organization).
If He actually showed up to one of our stylized worship experiences, He may well sing a different tune, one that sounds more like the warning He gave through the Old Testament prophet Amos:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice — oceans of it. I want fairness — rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message).
Taking Amos at his word, if all God wants is oceans of justice rather than egocentric noise, then the needs of a broken world must reclaim center stage from personal blessings during corporate worship experiences. Notwithstanding the public repentance for neglecting the poor by high-profile leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, many churches remain mute on such issues and have abandoned prophetic moments in lieu of religious protocol.
What to Do?
How can worship leaders help navigate oceans of justice within congregational gatherings? First, in the music and expressions of worship we embrace; and second, by facilitating worship as lifestyle, not just musical ritual.
Marvin Gaye’s opus reminds us that music ennobles ideas, emotes passion, and defines eras. Because we feel it, music penetrates hearts and stimulates a response. Combine inspired notes with well-crafted lyrics and the results can be liberating. Or lethal.
In Call and Response, a 2008 documentary about sex trafficking, Dr. Cornel West describes music’s power to accentuate and ultimately eradicate injustice:
“Music is about helping folk … by getting them to dance. Getting them to move. Getting them to think. Getting them to reflect. Getting them to be themselves, to somehow break out of the conventional self that they are.”
As musicians use that power to draw attention to injustices, people cannot help but get involved, West contends, because “justice is what love looks like in public.”
Historically, some denominational traditions have embraced justice-oriented hymns and music (e.g., Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and “O Healing River“), and Native Peoples have more than most (e.g., “Every Part of this Earth,” words by Chief Seattle). CCM pioneer Keith Green was an anomaly among evangelicals through the ’70s and early ’80s with songs like “Asleep in the Light,” which challenged: “Open up, and give yourself away / You’ve seen the need, you hear the cry, so how can you delay.” But increasingly music ministers across traditions are giving voice to justice within worship services (e.g., Jason Upton’s “Poverty,” Brian McLaren’s “A Revolution of Hope,” and Aaron Niequist‘s “Love Can Change the World”).
Jesus’ mission — Good News for the poor, sight for the blind, and liberty for the oppressed — requires the courage to break free from convention, perceive the new things God is doing in our midst, and zealously pursue them.
How We Get There
1. Refocus. Reductionist Western worship is possible because we have lost a sense of awe and reverence for Who God is, fashioning instead a God in our own image. Mark Labberton in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, writes:
The God we seek is the God we want, not the God who is. We fashion a god who blesses without obligation, who lets us feel his presence without living his life, who stands with us and never against us, who gives us what we want, when we want it.
Rather than appealing to God on account of his character — a holy, righteous, just, and mighty God — we have become gods unto ourselves, presupposing long before we encounter His presence what He needs to do on our behalf and prejudging what matters most. Let’s refocus on Who really matters.
2. Repent. The failure to incorporate laments for justice into corporate worship underscores a much deeper problem. Fundamentally we misunderstand what worship really is. Worship is neither the rhythmic pursuit of a euphoric high nor the somber embrace of silent reflection. Such either/or myopia forgets that Jesus describes true worshipers as those who worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
Paul elaborates that “our spiritual act of worship” requires offering our very selves as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2). First century Romans familiar with ritual sacrifices understood that phrase to be a contradiction. One did not sacrifice living bulls, for example. The peril of potential impaling demanded that sacrifices be dead first. Yet God invites worshipers to voluntarily self-sacrifice. Paul continues: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world” — white picket fences, trendy fashions, and such — “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Where our will conforms to the world’s patterns and trumps God’s will, let’s repent for rejecting true worship.
3. Remember. The holy God we revere is also our righteous king who exacts justice on behalf of his people. Moses and Miriam remembered in Exodus 15 when they praised Yahweh for demonstrating justice in his dealings with Pharaoh and liberating his people. Hannah remembered when she thanked God for his justice on her behalf (1 Samuel 2). King David remembered when he declared, “The Lord reigns!” and embraced a heavenly King who ruled above him and all other powers, whose eternal justice and righteousness are irrevocable. Let’s also remember that our “Lord loves justice” (Isaiah 61:8).
4. Reconnect. No longer should worship gatherings embrace the first part of the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” at the expense of the second part, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s reconnect His love in a coherent whole.
5. Realign. Justice and worship at their core both deal with power and the abuses of power. By emphasizing God’s kingship, his rule over all creation, and his impeccable character, we intentionally create space for the Most High to address the fallen powers in our churches, states, nation, and world. Let’s realign our congregations under God’s power as work within us rather than the abusive power structures dominating the world.
6. Rediscover. As we identify and proclaim the laments of the marginalized with a deep understanding that their cries are our cries, we will begin to see our perspectives shift and the power of God move in ways that we never would have imagined.
Let’s rediscover the unleashed, all-powerful God, not our tempered and tame God in a box. Like Aslan of Narnia, He may not be safe, but “He is good.”
In today’s economy, we hear a lot about the financial struggles of the country. But while we often debate issues of white-collar economics, the struggles of lower-income groups are disparaged.
It is nearly impossible for the average blue-collar worker to make a living wage to support her family. In most states, minimum wage is well below the living wage (there is a big difference) for most households.
There are serious consequences of this disparity. Workers skip meals so that their children may eat. Folks turn to loan sharks to make ends meet, which entrenches them in a spiral of debt. Families make tough choices to cut out “non-essentials” like medicine, clothing, and nutritious food.
When folks are desperate for work, they will endure any number of abuses or indignities. A friend of mine spends an hour on the bus to get to a potential job, only to arrive and find out he isn’t needed that day. Sometimes he’s able to work for a couple of hours, but then gets sent home. “Try again tomorrow.” And if he doesn’t show up for that chance, he knows he’ll lose the opportunity for later.
Or conversely, employees will be held at work hours after their shift is over, if that is what boss deems necessary. My neighbor needs to be able to be home when her kids arrive from school. But when her boss holds her late, she doesn’t dare risk losing her job by leaving at the scheduled time. And she is required to maintain open availability to be placed in a shift as is convenient for the company, but she is not told the schedule until the last minute, and so cannot arrange for child care or line up other jobs.
It also happens that workers are paid less than what they were promised. Or are given insufficient training and made to feel like fools when they don’t perform to standards. And yet, as more states put an end to collective bargaining, the wealthy receive a smaller tax burden now than they have in the last 80 years.
Take a close look at the words of Jeremiah 22:13-16. Woe to we that profit from injustice and gain economic security at the expense of others! We “who make our neighbor serve us for nothing and do not give them their wages.” Jesus himself urges that “the workers deserve their wages.”
Part of our problem is that we have a warped perspective of economic reality. Particularly since housing in the United States is largely segregated by economic standing, people look around themselves and feel that, on the whole, there is equal opportunity and prosperity for everyone.
Last year, PBS NewsHour conducted an informal survey, asking people to identify the sort of economy that exists in the United States. The findings were telling. Watch the segment below.
Also, in his ever-insightful way, Jon Stewart points out the huge economic disparities that most folks gloss over. His analysis of Warren Buffet’s crusade to close the wealth gap is both humorous and sadly revealing.
For even more insight, I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, or play this excellent interactive game to see what economic choices you would make given some stark realities about your circumstances. (If you do play, please share your thoughts about the experience in the comments section below.)
There’s obviously much more to this issue than I’m able to address in a brief blog post, but the important thing is having frank and honest conversations about the unjust situations around us. We may not be able to immediately see the inequalities in our midst due to our own privileged positions, but it won’t be long before those realities affect our own situations. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail“:
All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
As a father, I dread feeling the pain that Tracy Martin has now.
Knowing your innocent son has suffered for the guilty.
I raised two sons who are now 27 and 20 years old. They’re good young men. They know God, have attended college, and are working hard as they navigate their life paths. They have no criminal records. They have no children out of wedlock or offspring that they don’t support. They don’t fit our culture’s negative stereotype of the black male — anti-intellectual, violent thugs to be feared. But judging from their tattoos, skinny jeans and partiality to wearing hoodies, perhaps you wouldn’t know this about my sons if you encountered them on a sidewalk.
Black fathers that commit to raising their boys to be good men fear for them because we know intimately the burden of the negative black male stereotype — the white myth we’ve been branded with for centuries. It has gotten worse since I was younger in the ’80s when my father feared for me. We dads (and single moms nowadays) eventually perform the ritual of sitting our sons down to have “that conversation” that has been passed down, that man-to-man talk about the rules of survival.
We say things like:
• Expect to be followed in a department store, but don’t pay it any mind.
• When (not if) the police stop you, stay cool and calm. Don’t make any sudden moves that could cost you your life.
• Pull your pants up. Dress neatly and don’t act rowdy or suspicious in public. Otherwise, you’ll scare white folks and they’ll trip on you.
“I’ve always let him know we as African Americans get stereotyped,” Tracy Martin told USA Today of his son, Trayvon Martin, who died senselessly at the hands of a gunman claiming self-defense. “I told him that society is cruel.”
By now you’ve surely heard about Trayvon, 17, who was killed Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, an apparently overzealous neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida. From Zimmerman’s 911 call, it is clear that he believed the negative black male stereotype and fit Trayvon into its deadly box. It didn’t matter to Zimmerman, who is actually Latino, that whites also burglarize in his neighborhood. Trayvon, while visiting the home of his father’s fiancée, was essentially walking while black. A black teen “wearing a hoodie” is “suspicious” and therefore guilty. That was enough for Zimmerman, 28, to justify drawing a 9mm handgun and bustin’ a cap into a teen.
A dad’s worse fear for his son realized.
We dads fear for our sons because we can’t control the minds of others who want to believe the worst about them. We fear that our sons will suffer for the young men who have bought into the negative stereotype and even promote it. We fear the white police officer who pulls them over for a traffic stop. We fear a police chief who declines to thoroughly investigate our son’s killer, even when the gunman has admitted to it.
By all published reports so far, Trayvon wasn’t a thug or gangsta but more like my sons, or perhaps yours when they were teens — a good kid carrying a package of Skittles and talking to a girl on his cellphone. Even President Obama chimed in yesterday, remarking that if he had a son, he’d likely look like Trayvon.
Trayvon wasn’t anti-intellectual. He was reportedly an A and B student. There’s nothing wrong with being an athlete or a rapper (one of my sons is both), but Trayvon dreamt of being a pilot. Clearly he was being raised to rise above the stereotype.
But the innocent often suffer for the guilty.
As much as these racially charged incidents outrage us, the fact is that most crimes are intra-racial. Whites basically kill whites and blacks kill blacks. Black-on-black homicide is the leading cause of death for young black males ages 12 to 19. Both of my sons, while in high school, have had friends die this way. In my day, growing up in Brooklyn during the Howard Beach incident, I too had more high school friends who died at the hands of fellow young black men. Why aren’t we equally outraged by black on black homicide as we are when a white person kills one of us?
I hope Zimmerman gets a fair trial that leads to hard time in state prison. But what is the black community’s culpability in perpetuating the negative black male stereotype that Zimmerman chose to believe? White people do no have a monopoly on racist thinking. Black and Latinos perpetuate negative stereotypes, too. We all bear some responsibility. It’s a result of the systemic, often institutionalized racism we are all under. We need to analyze that and get free from it.
What if we all operated on the root cause of the sickness — the systemic racism in our society, which has warped the minds of all Americans, instead of the symptom only? What if we all attacked the sin at its source? I believe we all need systematic anti-racism training — in schools, churches, and at home — to heal from racism.
There is a pattern to how we react to these high-profile, racially charged recurring tragedies (see Emmett Till, or more recently Yusef Hawkins and the Jena 6). We learn of these incidents through the media and become angry. Anger leads to protesting, marching, and chanting led by national civil rights leaders. Scapegoats are soon forced to resign, like how the Sanford police chief abruptly agreed March 22 to step down “temporarily” under pressure. Oh, we may even have a vigorous national conversation about race for a week or so. But after the news cycle has run its course, we quickly return to the same old stereotyping until the next tragedy explodes.
Meanwhile, good dads and moms are left dreading the perilous prospects that may await their innocent sons.
Whether the destruction inflicted upon our black sons comes from within our community or from without, we must be intentional about equipping them to rise above the ignorance and hate. If our black sons are to ever be as safe as young white men in America, we must get to the root cause of the negative black male stereotype that has burdened me, my brothers, my dad, and generations of African American men.
If we don’t, we’ll continue to mourn the tragic and unnecessary deaths of young men like Trayvon Martin.
Since the emergence of Occupy Wall Street last year and the subsequent rise of the Occupy movement in cities across America, many have viewed them as a liberal counterpart to the conservative Tea Party movement. But how accurate is that analysis?
UrbanFaith columnist Andrew Wilkes supports the Occupy movement’s “efforts to shift the public conversation from a narrow focus on deficits and a libertarian view of government and free markets to one that addresses income inequality and the easy translation of economic power into disproportionate political power on an international stage.” Rafael Rivadeneira, president of the Illinois Chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, shares “core beliefs of small/limited government, fiscal responsibility, constitutional adherence, free markets, personal responsibility and individual freedom” with the Tea Party movement. UrbanFaith posed a series of questions to both men in an effort to foster respectful dialogue and to explore areas of possible common ground. The pair answered the following questions, then were given the opportunity to respond to each other’s answers. The dialogue has been edited for length and clarity.
How Different Are They?
UrbanFaith: A Public Religion Research Institute poll that compared Tea Party supporters and Occupy supporters found some predictable differences between them. Among them are the fact that 85% of Tea Party supporters are white, one-third of whom are white evangelical Protestants, while 28% of Occupy supporters have no formal religious affiliation and a “sizeable minority” (37%) are people of color. Occupy supporters also tend to be considerably younger than Tea Party supporters. What do these statistics say to you? And, are there are areas of agreement between the two groups that might resonate with the 46% of respondents who said they didn’t identify with either movement?
Tea Party supporter Rafael Rivadeneira
Rivadeneira: A lot of people are fed-up with greed and waste. The Tea Partiers and the Occupiers are operating out of that same frustration, but Tea Partiers aim more at government greed and waste and Occupiers at corporate greed and waste. Of course, it’d be wonderful to see both the Tea Party and Occupy movement more diverse and representative of various races and ethnicities, religions and socio-economic standings, but I don’t believe that we need to look at these numbers and declare that one of these movements is more inclusive or more racist—or whatever wants to be said—than the other.
I’m a Hispanic Mainline Christian and I certainly don’t feel like an outcast based on any of that within the Tea Party. I’d imagine that a conservative white evangelical could say the same thing about the Occupy movement. When people agree on ideas and purpose, I’m not sure that race and religion get too much in the way. That the majority of Americans say neither movement resonates with them makes sense. Most Americans aren’t involved in politics and most Americans consider themselves “moderate.” Neither the Tea Party or the Occupiers are moderate positions, necessarily, and for the most part the members are active—or at least paying attention to—politics.
Wilkes: Many Americans are split between left-wing and right-wing populism. Chris Hedges, a former New York Times writer, tells a story about a veteran running for office in upstate New York that illustrates the point. He is frustrated by long-term unemployment, a fragile economic recovery, and the underwhelming performance of both political parties. Both movements, on one level, are an organized reaction to the perceived failure of established forms of dealmaking in our politics.
This poll, along with public opinion synthesis conducted by the Opportunity Agenda, suggests that many Americans share the three foregoing sentiments. The prognosis of each movement is different, but the diagnosis to some extent is shared – America needs to restore economic opportunity, particularly on the issue of jobs and education.
Rivadeneira: Absolutely. Consistently we have seen increased government regulation and the power of the teachers unions get in the way of economic and educational opportunity. There are many wonderful public schools, of course, and many wonderful teachers doing amazing work with few resources. However, I’m a big fan of charter schools and vouchers so that parents–ALL parents–have a choice in where their kids are educated. Choice in education leads to greater economic opportunities for individuals and communities.
Occupy supporter Andrew Wilkes
Wilkes: Various communities within the Occupy movement are concerned with corruption and ineptitude within both the public and private sector, but especially the financial sector. Despite Rafael’s personal comfort within the Tea Party, many Latino-Americans are put off by the nativist language that the Republican party and Tea Parties have used in the past.
Theologically conservative white evangelicals may very well be comfortable within the Occupy movement. It is highly unlikely, however, that politically conservative white evangelicals will not feel like “outcasts” within the Occupy movement. The untold story of the Occupy movement is that progressive voices of faith–progressive here referring to politics and economics–are organizing within the broader movement.
Is Race a Factor?
UrbanFaith: Last fall, The Washington Post asked “why blacks aren’t embracing Occupy Wall Street” when it “might seem like a movement that would resonate with black Americans.” Why aren’t blacks occupying?
Rivadeneira: I can’t speak for the black community, but there are other ways to protest and fight injustice than by setting up tents and hanging in public parks.
Wilkes: Black folks are indeed occupying. There’s Occupy the Hood. Some are involved in various Occupy Faith movements across the country. More recently, Occupy the Dream represents a broad attempt by black church clergy to reinvigorate its tradition of social justice rooted in Jesus’ liberating ministry, the prophets, and so on. It is true however, that a small minority of African-Americans are involved in Occupying. But at every stage in American history, from the abolitionist and suffrage movements to the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements it has been small groups of folks dedicated to making social change happen, not the majority
Rivadeneira: Small groups make big differences.
Do Tea Partiers Harbor Racial Resentment?
UrbanFaith: In a report produced for the NAACP, The Institute for Research & Education on Human Reports found that white Tea Partiers are more likely than other whites to downplay the problems faced by African Americans. They also tend to hold negative opinions about African Americans’ work ethic. Almost three-quarters told pollsters that government programs aimed at providing a social safety net for poor people actually encourage them to remain poor. One-fourth said the Obama administration favors blacks over whites, and three-fourths said the president doesn’t understand the needs of people like them or “share the values most Americans try to live by.” What, if anything, do these statistics prove?
Rivadeneira: I’m not sure that the findings “prove” anything, but here’s my take on government programs: I certainly don’t believe that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.” As a minority, I’m well aware of the racism that exists—and the issues that stem from groups of people believing you are “less than.” But I know that this racism doesn’t respect party lines. I’ve faced racism from Liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans (and every sort of moderate) alike. So I’m not ready to support any claims that the Tea Party is racist. Certainly some Tea Partiers are. But so are some Occupiers.
As to government “safety nets,” while certainly there is a place for public assistance, the truth is: many politicians delight in keeping people dependent on government (in one way or the other) because it gives politicians tremendous power over their constituents. So often big-government promises are less about helping and more about keeping people under government’s thumb. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. This is why we get so much fear-mongering in politics. Politicians want people afraid of how they’ll suffer if there is less help from the government.
I realize that many communities or people have battles ahead of them that are harder than many will ever have to face—failing schools, desperate poverty, cycles of abuse. So we can’t ignore that. But nor should we think that more government is always the answer.
REASONABLE DOUBT: Protesters chanted and prayed near the Jackson, Georgia, prison where death row inmate Troy Davis was put to death on September 21. (David Tulis/Newscom Photo)
The State of Georgia executed Troy Davis yesterday evening at 11:08pm. Twitter activity subsequently mushroomed, yielding three Davis related trends — #RIPTROYDAVIS, #DearGeorgia, and #JusticeSystem. This post from Nightline anchor Terry Moran was frequently re-tweeted:
Questions abound. If we begin with a common political science definition of government as the monopoly of legitimate coercion — and our general acceptance of police, taxes, and the like suggest that we do — we might further ask: Under what circumstances can coercion be legitimately exercised? Is capital punishment a legitimate exercise of force?
Many of the people who lamented the execution of Mr. Davis had virtually nothing to say regarding the plight of convicted white supremacist Lawrence Brewer, who was also executed last night in Texas for the racially motivated 1998 dragging death of James Byrd. Many no doubt felt the death penalty was appropriate in that clear-cut case. But some wonder whether a truly comprehensive pro-life ethic can sustain such a morally selective approach to justice.
To dig deeper on the political and policy front, I commend two writings to you: one by former FBI director William Sessions; the other by Andrew Cohen, legal analyst for CBS News. But our task here is to take up theological considerations. The parting words of Mr. Davis himself occasion such reflection. Prior to his death, Mr. Davis said the following to prison officials: “For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls.” Mr. Davis’ invocation of mercy and blessing raises a deeper question: Does God’s blessing — or more fundamentally, can God’s blessing — reside over the death penalty at all?
One can imagine canonical arguments being made for the death penalty, particularly from Old Testament texts in Deuteronomy. Romans 13, moreover, is frequently cited by Christians who support the death penalty to buttress their view that the State does not bear the sword — or in this case, the tools of lethal injection — in vain. They might further add that the death penalty, rightly administered, contains deterrent value and restrains sin in a fallen world. Finally, the claim could be made — although I have not recently seen anyone explicitly for it — that a rule-of-law society demands that we enforce whatever is in the books, regardless of any private dissent such enforcement might entail. To do otherwise, according to some streams of conservative jurisprudence, would be tantamount to legislating from the bench.
While I don’t find the foregoing points to be persuasive, they are nevertheless a plausible way to construe Scripture given certain conservative commitments about law, punishment, and order. Such arguments, while canonical, are not Christological reasons. Speaking plainly, I cannot envision a Christ-centered argument for the death penalty. Allow me to briefly state my reasons.
At the most basic — and yet subversive level of memory — we recall that Christ himself was unjustly executed on a Roman cross. Neither the glory of the resurrection nor the doctrine of atonement should cause us to airbrush over the atrocity of the crucifixion. To Christians who support the death penalty, I ask: By what exegetical assumptions and theological reasoning does one distinguish the divine injunction against killing — i.e., “thou shalt not kill” — from the public administration of capital punishment, particularly in states like Texas and Georgia?
Secondly, there is the question of moral authority to administer capital punishment. With Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the ever-pithy preacher of Riverside Church, I aver: “Humanity does not possess the moral authority to kill; we only have the means.”
Ultimately, in every age, Christians proclaim the death of Jesus Christ until he comes. Penultimately, in the age of Obama, we would do well to invoke the unjust death by execution of Troy Davis until democracy comes and our criminal justice system is reformed.