So on Saturday, I’m at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice with a couple of other families. My friend’s six-year-old child asks me to read one of the placards to him. It’s about lynching.
There are some big words, and if I read them he starts getting bored, so I choose to paraphrase—very carefully, aware that there is also an audience of adults listening in to a white man talking to a black child about lynching. I’m trying to summarize without sanitizing. I explain that black men and women were being executed by white crowds for made-up reasons. He asks,
“You mean like Jesus?”
Through tears, I said, yes, like Jesus. It was like James Cone was standing over there, nodding.
Deuteronomy 24:6 forbids taking “an upper millstone” in pledge for a debt. The idea is that taking away someone’s ability to make money, to trap them in a deepening cycle of poverty, is immoral. Both states and private businesses (especially payday lenders) collude to make money off the most powerless: the poor. This court victory in Tennessee, which restores driver’s licenses to those who have had them revoked for being too poor to pay fines, is a huge win, and it illustrates the importance of the federal judiciary, from top to bottom.
If George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, and P.D. James were drinking coffee and brainstorming what kind of evil paperwork people would forced to fill out in one of their dystopias, this is what they would come up with.
“Zero tolerance.” Let’s talk about that concept a minute. What does that actually mean?
Does it mean denying due process? Setting bail so high for a misdemeanor that you can’t pay, so that you’d plead guilty in order to get out and keep your job? Because that’s what has happened to countless poor people.
Instead of cash bail, this administration has decided to use family separation in the same way: coercing folks to plead guilty rather than being separated from their kids.
Also: recognize this is what the cash bail system does to poor people all the time: it holds families hostage. If someone is not dangerous, and flight is not a serious risk, they should not be kept in jail. People plead guilty on a regular basis in order to avoid losing their jobs, homes, and kids.
“Zero tolerance” is a myth. We all want due process. That’s why we have courts in the first place: because circumstances matter.
Today’s text is from John 10:19-20. Jesus has just finished saying he has the power to lay down his life and take it up again:
Again the Judeans were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?”
In the Gospel of John, wherever Jesus goes in Jerusalem, he causes division. Some support him, others reject him (see John 9:16).
People often talk about polarization as a problem in our society, and indeed it is true that we face a challenge adapting to new communications technologies. And it is also true that if we try harder, we can find common ground when arguing about contentious topics.
But polarization is part of change. The authors of This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century point out that polarization is an important tactic:
So much of mainstream politics involves an appeal to togetherness. Politicians perennially pledge to create common ground and help the country’s citizens overcome their disagreements. And yet, social movements often take an approach that is almost the exact opposite: instead of bridging differences between groups, they widen them. (199)
They also quote the words of 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass:
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.” (205)
Critics often decried Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tactics as “divisive,” the same way they deride every other social movement ever. Sure, people today are polarized. They are polarized primarily because we had a black president, and the ugliness of white supremacy is lashing back. We are beholding our racism, classism, and misogyny laid bare, and it is ugly—and plenty of folks love the ugliness.
John describes what happens when Jesus’ light shines in the darkness: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Polarization happens. People either turn toward Jesus’ light or away from it. They either turn toward the love of God incarnate in Jesus, or toward human systems of power and control, toward wounding ourselves, each other, and the world; toward sin.
Along Interstate 65, from Huntsville to Nashville near the Tennessee border, there is a giant silver-and-gold-painted statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Dragon of the KKK. It is surrounded by Confederate battle flags. It is hideous. You can’t see a close-up of his face from the road, but here it is:
When light shines on the ugliness in our world, on the ways we wound ourselves, each other, and the planet, it is inherently divisive and polarizing. While we can hope that heart-to-heart conversations will find common ground, that hard hearts will become soft, and that the Holy Spirit will lead to conversion, taking sin seriously means recognizing that there are forces of evil determined to hold onto power. What is driving polarization in our country is not simply that people are unwilling to listen to each other. What is driving polarization is the pervasive sin of racism and white supremacy, tucked into the corners of churches, communities, and public offices, masquerading as “economic anxiety” or differences of opinion over policy.
Shining a light on this ugliness may be “divisive.” It is also completely necessary.
Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here:
You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis takes on the persona of a demon writing to his nephew. Part of the fun of the book is that it is so well-written. Screwtape is not a cartoon villain or an Exorcist horror-show devil. He is a sophisticated gentleman. He’s able to wrap his evil in beautiful language.
He was a smart guy, well versed both in law and in the Bible. He was also a white supremacist, and if you read his words, you will recognize much of the same rhetoric used today by pundits on Fox News, in the alt-right, and from politicians in Alabama and elsewhere. There have always been ways to engineer racist policy in a way that does not directly mention race (like the “War on Drugs,” and the “Crime Bill” and reform that vilifies “welfare queens“). White supremacists still try to maintain plausible deniability when charged with racism.
The transcripts for the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention are available online (here is a link). They should be required reading for every concerned citizen of Alabama. Here are a few choice quotations:
In my judgment, the people of Alabama have been called upon to face no more important situation than now confronts us, unless it be when they, in 1861, stirred by the momentous issue of impending conflict between the North and the South, were forced to decide whether they would remain in or withdraw from the Union. Then, as now, the negro was the prominent factor in the issue.
Mr. Knox demonstrates that it was well known, thirty-five years after the war, that the war was over slavery. He goes on to decry both the hypocrisy of Northern attitudes toward black people and their “interference” in the (white) self-government of the South. What Alabama is doing, he says, is only what every other state in the union wants to do to black people:
…One has studied the history of recent events to very little purpose who has failed to discover that race prejudice exists at the North in as pronounced a form as at the South, and that the question of negro domination, when brought home, will arouse the same opposition in either section. And what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State.
Mr. Knox goes on to praise the idea of poll taxes as a way to prevent black people from voting yet still maintain the facade that this is not racial discrimination. He makes it clear that he believes this is justified because black folks are more likely to be criminal, are not as intelligent, and that the right to vote should not be universal:
These provisions are justified in law and in morals, because it is said that the negro is not discriminated against on account of his race, but on account of his intellectual and moral condition. There is a difference, it is claimed with great force, between the uneducated white man and the ignorant negro. There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro. Before the art of reading and writing was known, the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxon had established an orderly system of government, the basis in fact of the one under which we now live. That the negro on the other hand, is descended from a race lowest in intelligence and moral preceptitions of all the races of men.
Knox asserts that white Anglo-Saxon European civilization is historically and inherently superior to African ones. Sound familiar?
Check out these other arguments he makes for voter disenfranchisement. The first is from a Supreme Court case (Williams vs. Mississippi), and the second is an interesting example of proof texting from the Bible:
As stated by Judge Cooley, the right of suffrage is not a natural right, because it exists where it is allowed to be exercised only for the good of the State–to say that those whose participation in the affairs of the State would endanger and imperil the good of the State have nevertheless, the right to participate, is not only folly in itself, but it is to set the individual above the State.
The principle of inherited capacity is recognized even by the inspired Apostle, for you remember that Paul, in his epistle to Timothy, whom he was preparing to preach the glorious Gospel, refers to it even in the matter of faith, for he says: “I am persuaded that the unfeigned faith which dwelt in they grandmother Lois and in thy mother Eunice dwells also in thee.”
(There is a wonderful documentary called Open Secret which uses the transcripts of the 1901 Convention to tell its story. Another documentary, It’s a Thick Book, addresses some of the sordid history and its consequences.)
Besides disenfranchising black people, there were two other goals of the 1901 Constitution. The first was to preserve the inherited wealth and power of the “Big Mules” by keeping property taxes (and all taxes) low for the wealthy, and instead fund the government on the backs of the poor through sales taxes. The second was to abolish home rule, so that all important local decisions would have to go through the racist and classist legislature.
The resulting system of government was a century-long train wreck. The Alabama Constitution has been amended so often it is the longest in the world. Although Knox claimed that it was important to establish white supremacy “not by force or fraud,” its ratification was obviously fraudulent. Corruption is woven into its very fabric. It’s no wonder that Alabama is plagued by bribery and corruption at every single level of government.
The Constitution of Alabama is illegitimate. The government it upholds is illegitimate, from its governor to its legislature to its supreme court to its local officials. The only justification for its continued existence is the fact that anarchy is only slightly less desirable. In truth, anarchy might be an improvement: the 1901 Constitution is why Alabama’s quality of life measures are the same as many developing world countries. It is why Alabama is a failed state. The underlying structure of the 1901 Constitution is not only racist, it is demonic.
Screwtape would be so proud.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my twice-weekly reflections on scriptures during Lent. I’m going to take a short break and resume in May with the story of Pentecost. If you’ve gotten something out of these devotional readings, please consider supporting this work financially by giving to the ministry of Saint Junia United Methodist Church at this link. It costs about $25 a month to send out text messages to our list of 160 people, but since our tiny screens demand so much of our attention, I think it’s important to use them to carve out space for attention to matters of faith and justice. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: Text Of The Day.
A church is a group of Jesus-followers who are attempting to integrate their theology with their lives, to embody or incarnate the teachings of the Christ in a real community. I offer these devotionals to give us some scriptural support in that work. Thank you for partnering with us to start more house churches, nurture disciples, and spread the good news—which is really GOOD news—for all people.
You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia.