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.
The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a group of thousands of black churches involved in local and global social justice issues, is coming together for Juneteenth to galvanize faith-based action against the new Jim Crow that Alexander writes about in her book.
“The fact that more than half of the young black men in any large American city are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records) is not—as many argue—just a symptom of poverty or poor choices, but rather evidence of a new racial caste system at work,” Alexander wrote in her book. She elaborated on her ideas about the new Jim Crow and the movement against it in an exclusive interview with UrbanFaith.
Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, said mass incarceration is a moral and civil rights issue that the black faith community cannot ignore.
“If you walked into a black church on a Sunday morning and asked, ‘How many of you have been affected directly or indirectly by this issue?’, you’d see everyone standing from the pulpit to the pews,” Carruthers said.
Inspired by Alexander’s book, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference coordinated an effort to raise awareness about the new Jim Crow during church services on Juneteenth, this Sunday. They designed a bulletin insert for congregations to use, which includes facts about mass incarceration, quotes from Scripture, and a Juneteenth and Father’s Day litany.
“It’s not an event, but the beginning of transformative ministry resources that can help propel a movement,” Carruthers said.
Among those resources is a New Jim Crow study guide the nonprofit wrote for churches and book clubs. The guide examines connections to Scripture and African American history and culture chapter by chapter, and then lists multiple sets of data on mass incarceration. At the end of each chapter, the guide uses the African concept of Sankofa—defining it as “to go back and fetch knowledge from our past in order to move forward with wisdom”—to encourage people of faith to take action.
This week, the nonprofit has joined other groups for several events, including a youth town hall meeting in Chicago with Judge Greg Mathis in Chicago, a rally at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago with Father Michael Pfleger, and a Real Men Cook Father’s Day event at Chicago State University (see website for schedule and details).
Alexander teamed up with the nonprofit when she was looking to connect with churches and a colleague directed her to Carruthers. From there, the group invited her to speak on the new Jim Crow at their annual conference in February and used her book to frame their activism.
“Michelle Alexander helped connect the dots in identifying characteristics of the system, in a compelling argument,” Carruthers said. (See a video clip from Alexander’s presentation below.)
Both the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and Alexander have a vision to see churches not only helping individuals, but also organizing to combat systemic issues. Carruthers said the nonprofit started up in 2003 in response to concerns that the black church “had become less vocal and visible in issues of justice” in the post-Civil Rights Era. Since then, the church network has responded to issues such as Hurricane Katrina, hunger in Africa, and the earthquake in Haiti.
“If a faith community doesn’t speak to what’s wrong in a given society, then who will?” Carruthers said.
For more information on how you and your church can get involved in this campaign, read the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference’s ministry alert and complete the New Jim Crow Campaign interest form.
SWIFT INJUSTICE?: Former U.S. Marine Jose Guerena was shot down in his own home by police.
The morning of May 5 must have been a nightmare for the Guerena family. After a SWAT team shot 71 bullets at 26-year-old Jose Guerena in his home, his wife Vanessa Guerena dialed 911, begging for an ambulance. It was about 9:30 a.m. in Tucson, Ariz., and Jose Guerena, a former U.S. Marine and Iraq War veteran, had just confronted the SWAT team with a rifle.
Paramedics arrived at the scene and waited an hour and 14 minutes for the clear to go in, but deputies never allowed them to treat or examine Guerena. At 10:59 a.m., Jose Guerena was pronounced dead. Of the 71 bullets, 22 had hit and killed him.
Vanessa Guerena later told the media that she and her husband thought the raid was a home invasion. She had seen a man with a gun through a window and had awoken Jose Guerena, who had been sleeping after working a night shift, according to news reports. Vanessa Guerena said her husband told her and their 4-year-old son Joel to hide in the closet and then went to face the intruders.
Moments later, the SWAT team opened fire on Jose Guerena. Some police officers later explained they thought they saw a muzzle flash, but they later learned that Jose Guerena hadn’t even taken his gun off safety.
As Jose Guerena bled to death, the 911 operator asked Vanessa Guerena questions to determine if she was calling from one of the houses a SWAT team had been sent to. The recording of the phone conversation has been released and can be heard on the Arizona Daily Star website.
“Please send me an ambulance and you can ask more questions later, please!” Vanessa Guerena said over the phone.
The video of the shooting taken from an officer’s helmet camera has been released and published by KGUN 9 news. (Note: The video is not graphic. You can see and hear the SWAT team shooting, but Jose Guerena’s body is not visible.)
Facing pressure to come clean with the details, the sheriff said last week that the raid was part of a 20-month drug and homicide investigation. But in the end, police didn’t find any drugs in the Guerena home. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has reluctantly been releasing more information over the past month, including the above video, a transcript of their interrogation of Vanessa Guerena (part one and part two), and the transcript of the debriefing after the shooting.
On Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department finally released the search warrant, along with affidavits and property sheets. The new information gives us an idea why they suspected Jose Guerena of being connected to their drug and homicide investigation, but lacks any evidence that would have warranted an arrest.
But now, not even the most condemning evidence could diminish the tragedy that occurred. Perhaps one of the reasons this particular tragedy strikes deeply is because history carries many such stories of police aggression against minorities—revealing a prejudice that hasn’t disappeared.
In the instant an officer’s finger rests on the trigger, the shade of the suspect’s skin can influence their decision to fire. University of Chicago assistant professor Joshua Correll and other researchers ran a study in which police officers had to decide whether or not to shoot a suspect in a video simulation. The study found that officers made the decision to shoot armed black suspects more quickly than armed white suspects, according to “Race as a Trigger” in The Chicago Reporter.
When such a racial bias exists, the death of Jose Guerena is yet another incident that is widening the rift between law enforcement and minority communities.
Even if the SWAT team was convinced Jose Guerena was ready to shoot them, was it necessary to fire 71 bullets at him, and then leave him to bleed to death? And even if Jose Guerena was a criminal (and there’s no proof that he was), does that mean he deserved to die? Without a trial, and under the gaze of his wife and son, no less?
In this instance, one can’t help but think authorities treated the Guerena family worse than criminals, rather than treating them like people—a dying father, a wife mourning the loss of her husband, and a son traumatized by his own father’s death. Which should make you think: where’s the line between righteously enforcing the law to protect society and enforcing it so aggressively that you forget your suspects are fellow human beings?
How are we as Christians called to respond when that line is crossed? Should we demand justice for Jose Guerena’s death, extend forgiveness to the officers who perhaps realize now that they made a terrible mistake, or both? And how can we heal the rift that’s grown between law enforcement and minority communities?
In the end, it’s kids who ask the toughest questions. Reyna Ortiz, a relative looking after Vanessa Guerena and her children, told ABC News that Jose Guerena’s 4-year-old son Joel is asking, “Why did the police kill my daddy?”
Derrion Albert did not die because of a lack of jobs or social programs. He died because we expect more righteousness and leadership from our government and civil institutions than we do from each other.
As I watched the video of Derrion Albert’s beating death, I couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of anger or passion. From the voice of the young person filming the mayhem on his camera phone to the faces of the perpetrators of the violence; there was no hatred, no rage. This was simply a leisure activity. Derrion’s death was not the goal, just an unfortunate outcome.
Those young people were not doing something that they were forced to do; they were doing something they wanted to do.
As director of the Chicago Peace Campaign, an effort to fill the city with peace and drive out violence, I have worked in many neighborhoods across the city organizing and mobilizing churches and other Christian organizations. We have adopted schools, conducted all-night prayer-and-praise meetings on dangerous corners, beautified streets, and conducted activities for young people. But clearly we have not done enough.
I know that there are those who say the solution to our problems in America’s inner cities is that we need more jobs and more afterschool programs. I say not so. We have in this city more afterschool programs and jobs available to youth than we did in 1959. But we did not see young people beating each other to death in the streets back then.
Derrion died just outside the doors of a faith-based community center that would not have turned a single member of that mob away if they were looking for afterschool recreation. As I watched, I realized that it’s time for the church to come forth and lead. Allow me to explain.
In practically every generation prior to this one, the great problems in America had to do with civil rights. From the unjust system of taxation without representation which led to the Revolutionary War to the unjust Jim Crow laws that led to civil rights movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s, we have struggled as a nation to overcome problems that were a matter of public policy. Since those problems were emanating primarily from the halls of government, we struggled to shift public policy discussions, change laws, and elect men and women to national and local government who could make necessary changes and hold the line on previous victories. And as we did this, things improved.
I humbly submit to you that those days are over. Public policy and government statute are not the great source of our problems, and the methods of previous movements have been and will continue to prove ineffectual in our time. It is time for a new approach. I do not mean to assert that every law in this nation — or even in this city — is now just; this is certainly not the case. But the law and public policy discussions of our time are not the cause of our problems as they have been in the past.
In the past the law dictated that people of color could not vote. The accepted public policy held that people of color were somehow less human than white people. The clear solution for that kind of injustice is to change that law, to shift that public policy to something more just and humane. This is the basic ethos and methodology of civil rights. Civil rights can be demanded and won from the government.
But today we have laws against drug sales, we have laws against illegal drug possession, we have laws against murder. There is not a respectable public policy professional or organization anywhere in this nation that would make an argument against those laws.
So, why is Derrion Albert not alive today?
Perhaps, the answer is demonstrated better than it can be articulated by the radio DJ who plays endless hours of violence and debauchery, by the policeman who drives 70 m.p.h. the wrong way down a neighborhood street, by the crowd of misguided teens who dispassionately beat one of their peers to death with a piece of wood and their bare hands.
Imagine the impact that we could make if every believer in Chicago truly began to pray for peace in our city, then allowed that prayer to motivate and strengthen us toward action. What if every school in Chicago was adopted by a handful of churches? What if believers in every neighborhood began to take responsibility for a block, a train station, a bus route, and went out to meet the people there, serve them, and act as a presence for peace? What if we turned the power of protest onto the drug dealers by coming to the hottest spots at the hottest times (usually nighttime) and exposing their activities done in darkness with bright lights, singing, and prayer? What if there were a prophetic voice coming out of the church that, through both its words and actions, could consistently afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted? That would be an appropriate movement for Chicago — and for every urban community.
The great problems of our time — and, as such, the violence problem in Chicago — are not a matter of civil rights, but human rights. They are not caused by problems in our public policy and government structures; they are caused by great flaws in our values and cultural structures. The solutions cannot be demanded and won from the government; they must be demanded and won from one another. The challenge is not to turn an unjust government toward justice, but to turn an unrighteous culture toward righteousness.
And that’s precisely why it’s time for the church to come forth and lead.
“The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you are eating, because if you knew you might not want to eat it ” — Food, Inc.
I recently headed out to a sold-out showing of the documentary Food, Inc. at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema here in Austin, Texas. Generally, getting dinner and drinks along with my movie is my favorite “night out” activity, but in watching a film which critically examines our industrial food system, it was a bit strange. Granted, all around me I heard orders for veggie burgers and the local organic veggie platter, and there wasn’t a high fructose corn syrup soda to be seen, but I was glad to have finished my (veggie) burger by the time the previews ended. Although I have sought to inform myself about the injustices in our modern food system, Food, Inc. presents the most comprehensive and disturbing summary of that system I have seen yet. It is a necessary film for basically anyone who eats food.
A film which took three years to make with a large part of its budget going to pay the legal fees defending itself against lawsuits from the industrial food companies, Food, Inc. takes a hard look at how corporations now control the production of our food, resulting in generally unhealthy, environmentally hazardous, and completely unsustainable food that in truth threatens the very well-being of our country.
From the animals that are confined in inhumane cages, left to stand in their own mire, fed unnatural diets and cocktails of drugs and hormones to the impoverished workers who are treated with the same disrespect, this system has sacrificed the respect and well-being of living creatures and people for the sake of profit. But Food Inc. doesn’t just stop with detailing those atrocities; it delves into the problems with government subsidies and the ways the fearmongering enforcement of genetically modified food copyrights are destroying the small farmer. People are being hurt by this industrial food system that dumps chemicals into our environment with reckless abandon and produces unnatural and unhealthy food for our consumption.
I appreciated though how Food, Inc. didn’t simply present the issues with industrial food as a clear cut, good vs. evil scenario. It acknowledged that poor workers have no choice but to take jobs on the factory farms, and that farmers have no choice but to give into the pressure to work with the huge industries. Those industries have so altered our nation’s laws, and have so many lawyers working for them, that any farmer who resists joining their ranks finds themselves out of work at best, and sued penniless for simply encouraging people to not buy the big company’s products. The farmers and workers are desperate for a better system where real freedom and healthy standards exist, but for now they have to work with what they’ve got.
Food, Inc. also explores why for the average working class family in America, buying healthy food isn’t an option, especially in many urban communites where the absence of full-service grocery retailers has created “food deserts.” And whether you’re urban, rural, or suburban, it is far cheaper to buy the cheeseburger from the drive-thru dollar menu than it is to buy fruit or vegetables. That is because everything in that cheeseburger comes from corn, which our government subsidizes so much that farmers can sell it below the cost of production. So the poor American eats the extremely unhealthy food because it is cheaper. But the rising epidemic of type 2 diabetes shows the hidden cost of that value meal.
The poor in our country — those with no health or job insurance — are getting sick at alarming rates due to the unhealthy, cheap food they eat. This is injustice of the highest extreme — but it’s all part of our industrial food system. It’s a complicated system that gives us unhealthy, unsustainable food that disrespects the earth, animals, and people all in the name of making the greatest profit for a handful of corporations. This is the story of the food we eat every day.
But in truth, I have a lot of friends who don’t want to know anything about their food. They shelter their kids from knowing the whole “circle of life” stuff, but also tell me point blank that they don’t want to know the story behind their food. In their mind, what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Unfortunately, as Food Inc. shows, that isn’t always the case.
I wasn’t expecting this film to be a tear-jerker, but hearing a mom talk about how her toddler son ate a hamburger and was dead in 12 days had me weeping. This mom was the typical middle-American Republican mom on vacation, but the hamburger they bought their son on the way home was tainted with E. coli 0157:H7, a deadly antibiotic resistant bacteria common in factory farmed cows. These cows, fed unnatural diets of corn, develop diseases (like E. coli) and are treated regularly with antibiotics, which leads to drug-resistant strains like this one. This mom has become the unlikely activist for food safety. The meat company who sent out the tainted meat knew it was tainted and didn’t issue a recall until two weeks after her son was dead. As she puts it, all she wants is an apology from the company and a guarantee that they are doing everything possible to prevent it from ever happening again. Instead, she finds the companies fighting for more lax food safety laws and herself under threat of a lawsuit under the “veggie libel” laws for discouraging people to buy meat products. Yeah, look up these laws — express fears about the safety of your food and you could be sued for causing these companies loss of revenue. So much for free speech, much less safe food. It’s hard to know the truth if you are not allowed to talk about it.
But for all the doom and gloom that Food, Inc. rightly covers, I was grateful that it didn’t end the story there. Instead of throwing up its arms and admitting defeat or even insisting that we all go join some intentional community/hippie commune immediately, Food, Inc. details the practical ways we can start changing the system from within. It profiles the organic dairy farmers who although they had boycotted Wal-Mart all their lives, were now selling their product to them. Some may call them sell-outs, and they are under no illusion that Wal-Mart jumped on the organic bandwagon out of the goodness of their hearts, but to get a store with a distribution as huge as Wal-Mart’s means significant amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics are kept from polluting our ecosystem. That’s a really big deal, and one of the main reason to buy organic. Working within the system, even if it is with Wal-Mart, makes progress happen faster and on a much larger scale.
The movie concludes with the reminder that we can each make a difference every time we go to the store. The point isn’t to abandon the food system, or stop buying food, but to simply demand healthier, sustainable food. We can choose to vote with our pocketbooks for the type of food we want to support. Do we want to support the food that oppresses animals, workers, and the environment or the food that does its best to care for all those things? We have that choice; we just have to be willing to make it.
Food, Inc. opens across the U.S. this summer. Check the Food, Inc.website to see if it is playing near you.