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.
• I always looked forward to being on the color guard in Boy Scouts. Learning the flag code and participating in ceremonies with the scouts made me aware that we were part of a bigger American story, even if we were just kids playing steal the bacon and learning how to cook over a fire.
• One of my favorite memories of South Korea was encountering an elderly man on the subway, who asked us, “American?” We said yes, and he spent the rest of the trip smiling and nodding at us. When we reached our destination, he stood up with tears in his eyes, took an American-flag handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it to us, saying, “Good-bye, friends!” It occurred to us that he had probably lived through the devastation of the Korean War, and was still grateful that he was not in a prison camp. The flag meant something to him.
• In the present controversy over kneeling during the anthem in protest, people often claim that this behavior is disrespectful to the military and veterans. This is a red herring. The American flag is not only the flag of the military—it is the flag of the whole United States. It is the flag of women suffragists no less than the Army, and the flag of Japanese internment camp survivors no less than the Air Force. That’s the thing about the flag—nobody gets to own it, because we all own it. This country is run by its people, not a junta. The sacrifice and suffering of soldiers does not trump the sacrifice and suffering of black men lynched for having the courage to register to vote. It is not elevated to some higher or more sacred platform than the brave sacrifice of ordinary citizens whose homes were bombed for protesting injustice.
• The Armed Forces of the United States of America is not a priesthood, though it is often elevated to that position by chickenhawk civilians. While the military (and its various branches) has its own culture, codes, and customs, its purpose is to serve the nation—not the other way around. The veterans I know from every branch who have served proudly are deeply philosophical about their service. They know their colleagues and the people they command(ed) are human beings—siblings, parents, children—who all have hopes and dreams. They are from all different economic levels, races, and backgrounds, and all have their own struggles. The leaders among them think strategically and understand the value of diversity, the importance of outcome-based measurement, how to set clear goals, and how to discern leadership potential. They also understand that life is complicated. They are not politically homogenous. They are people I am proud to know.
• The flag, and the nation it represents, is far younger than slavery, which existed in this land before our nation did, and the effects of which continue to be ignored, redacted, and downplayed by many white Americans. Citizens owe nothing to the flag that they do not also owe to their ancestors. Again, without slaves, Native Americans, women suffragists, civil rights protesters, abolitionists, immigrants, and organizers, there is no American history, and the flag stands for nothing worth respecting. If one does not know something of this history, one does not know the flag, and any gestures toward this multivalent symbol are worthless.
• MLK repeatedly made the point that protest is not palatable to people in power or to those comfortable with the status quo. He pointed out that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the early Christians were protesters who faced public shaming and death. The people who threw Christians and Jews to the lions also claimed that these people were trouble-makers, ungrateful to Rome (or Babylon), disrespectful, and generally individuals of low moral character. People who protest would not have to protest if everyone agreed with them!
• Nobody’s inferences of disrespect get to have more weight in the public moral universe than someone else’s clearly stated purposes for their actions. Continuing to claim that kneeling is “disrespectful” is an arbitrary judgment. Actions have many meanings: for example, according to the flag code, burning the flag is an acceptable way to dispose of a damaged flag; burning at a protest has a different meaning. If someone chooses to be offended by the proper burning of the flag, or by kneeling at its display, I suppose that is their business. Technically, you are not supposed to applaud at the end of the national anthem, but people do anyway. Nobody storms out of the stadium because people have shown disrespect by applauding. The meaning you attribute to someone else’s behavior is really more about you than about them.
• The commodification of the flag, its use as a bumper sticker, and its appropriation by white nationalists bothers me far more than professional athletes kneeling in front of it. Just as it grieves me that the language of my faith has been appropriated by people like Roy Moore to justify bigotry, it grieves me that the flag has been appropriated by people for the purpose of silencing protest and advancing white supremacy. Those who take the cross and flag as symbols for their tribalism have missed the point of each, and created a national religion that is more about the worship of Molech and Baal than of the God of Jesus Christ, and a patriotism that is more about white supremacy than about civic engagement or support for our shared values.
The museums of Egypt are not like the museums here. Here, there is so much empty space and clean lines.
In Egypt, giant statues are packed so close together you wonder how the building can hold them all. Four- and five-thousand year-old artifacts are stacked nearly on top of each other. Gods, kings, and queens stare down at you from impressive heights. The weight of history feels overwhelming.
I wonder: “What would it have been like to be a Hebrew slave, looking up at these images?”
Biblical history and archeological history have some fuzziness regarding this point, but humor me for a minute. Imagine being surrounded by these gods and kings all the time and being reminded of your second class status. The gods, you see, look like Pharaoh—not you. The gods put Pharaoh in charge. You? Your life doesn’t matter.
When those Hebrew slaves escaped Egypt, they made their way to Mount Sinai, the story goes, and God told them, “Don’t make any images of gods. I don’t need your statuary.”
Why didn’t the Hebrew God need statues? God didn’t want to be tied to the political leaders. God didn’t want to be remade in the image of the ruling class. After all, according to the Hebrew story, all human beings—regardless of gender—were made in the image of God. Therefore, if you want to see God, look at your neighbor.
It was radically egalitarian. That’s the ethic of people who know the bitterness of oppression and the sweetness of freedom.
In spite of what white supremacists, neo-Nazis, modern would-be-confederates and their enablers say, most public statues are not and have never been about “history.” They are expressions of power and the propagation of myth. It can be a myth about history, sure. But it ain’t history. That’s why Pharaohs had a tendency to tear down old ones and put up new ones of themselves. Roman Emperors had a similar approach.
Outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, there is a memorial to fallen police officers. It is a statue of a fallen gladiator.
Let that sink in a moment. It is not a statue of a police officer. It is not a statue of Blind Justice (which would be far more appropriate). It’s a gladiator. What history is it teaching? What does it say about criminal justice?
Downtown, there is a Confederate Memorial. You do not see groups of school children gather around it to learn history. It has no teaching function. And this year, the Alabama legislature imposed a penalty if our city decides to take it down. What lesson is it intended to teach?
This is not about history. This is about power. Specifically, white power, and the power of the majority-white state legislature to tell cities what they cannot do. It is the power of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, the goal of which its architects explicitly said was to “establish white supremacy in this state.” It is an idol to a Southern myth that there was something noble and virtuous about the Civil War, that “defending our way of life” or “defending states rights” meant something other than championing white supremacy and devaluing black lives.
These statues and memorials are monuments to Pharaoh and Caesar. They are monuments to the divine right of white supremacy.
“So take them down and put them in a museum,” some people say. Fine. Let them gather dust somewhere, along with the other idols to petty tyrant gods and egocentric rulers. Let children on field trips pass by them and wonder what spiritual power they had over those who created it. Or let the statues be melted down and made into liberty bells, and let the history be taught to children by well-compensated teachers in well-funded schools.
And let those children know that they are made in God’s image, and that no Pharaoh or Caesar can take their freedom from them.
If you’ve got a problem with this title, take it up with Jesus. He said salt that has lost its flavor isn’t fit for the soil or the manure pile (Luke 14:34-35). Maybe that doesn’t strike you as offensive. Maybe you are mindful of the wonderfully fertile qualities of shit. People refer to worm shit (“castings”) as “gardener’s gold.” Chicken and cow poo is good, too. But salt without flavor is mostly good for killing things. Even shit has redeeming qualities.
When Karen Handel says her faith “leads her to a different place” on gay adoption, I’m not playing with this toxic manure. Faith that leads you to prevent gay parents from adopting does not bring life. You aren’t “saving” kids from becoming gay, or increasing the probability of them having healthy childhoods, or reducing the suicide rate of LGBTQ youth. Quite the opposite. It isn’t spreading the Good News. You’re doing harm in the name of Jesus, and that’s some serious bullshit. Not the good kind.
And don’t give me this hypocritical tone-policing humbug that has a problem with the word “bullshit” either. I’ve got LGBTQ friends and church members who have adopted kids, and straight parents who have adopted LGBTQ kids. This is not a difference of opinion. This is an attack on people I love. There are much, much stronger words that are appropriate, but they can articulate them better than I.
Mixing your flavorless faith with bullshit doesn’t make it worthy of our community garden. You and Roy Moore can keep that manure in your own yard. I don’t need the stink.
For further reading:
On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt
I just completed an essay for FaithLink on Mass Incarceration. I did a huge survey of recent research, news articles, and opinion pieces. Some of the best are below.
Why should people of faith care about mass incarceration? It is a quiet genocide. Justice demands a response. Scripture also demands a response, and is skeptical about claims of invincible ignorance:
If you show yourself weak on a day of distress, your strength is too small. Rescue those being taken off to death; and from those staggering to the slaughter, don’t hold back.
If you say, “Look, we didn’t know about it,” the one who weighs hearts—doesn’t he understand? The one who protects your life—he knows. He makes people pay for their actions.
Stats on Mass Incarceration:
- “Mass Incarceration,” from Equal Justice Initiative
- Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017” from Prison Policy Initiative
- “Incarceration Generation Timeline” from Justice Policy Institute
Stats on Homicide Rates by Country:
- Kuang Keng Kuek Ser. “Map: Here are countries with the world’s highest murder rates” from Public Radio International
(To address talking point/myth that mass incarceration is caused by excessive criminality in the US)
Conservative Support for Prison Reform:
- Rand Paul. “Sessions’ sentencing plan would ruin lives” from CNN
- David Frum, interview with Steve Teles. “The Precarious Position of the New GOP Orthodoxy on Crime” from The Atlantic
- Bill Keller. “Is Charles Koch a Closet Liberal?” from The Marshall Project
Causes of Mass Incarceration:
- “Colorblind” Racial Bias in Sentencing:
Danielle Kurtzleven. “Data Show Racial Disparity in Crack Sentencing” from US News and World Report
- Prosecutorial Power (District Attorneys):
Adam Gopnik. “How We Misunderstand Mass Incarceration” from The New Yorker
- For-Profit Prisons:
Eric Markowitz. “Making Profits on the Captive Prison Markets” from The New Yorker
Andy Kroll. “This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall” from Mother Jones
Film Documentaries & Videos About Mass Incarceration and Slavery:
- “Slavery By Another Name” by PBS
- “13th” by Netflix
- “Mass Incarceration in the US” (YouTube) by vlogbrothers
- “Mass Incarceration, Visualized” (YouTube) by The Atlantic
United Methodist Sources:
- John Singleton. “At the Roots of Methodism: Wesley fought for prison reform” from United Methodist Communications
- United Methodist Social Principles on Criminal Justice
- Charles Lane. “The quiet decline of mass incarceration in America” from Richmond-Times Dispatch
- Stephanos Bibos. “The Truth About Mass Incarceration” from National Review. This article claims that racialized outcomes are not because of systemic racism, and makes the argument for prison labor / slavery.
Organizations Working to End Mass Incarceration
For Further Reading:
Too many Christians confuse pity and paternalism with love.
Actually, “confuse” may be too generous a word. For some it can be Orwellian Christianese, where “love” or “forgiveness” is simply used as a tool to demand submission, or to silence complaints. One of the most common negative responses to prophetic language is Christian tone-policing—saying that it is “unloving” or “hateful” to use oppressors’ own rhetoric to disarm their religious weaponry, or to criticize those in power who use religious language as a political tool of domination. In this reading, much of what Jesus himself said is unloving and hateful.
It is a kind of weak rhetorical ju-jitsu to take the words of the prophets* and the complaints of those who are oppressed and describe them as “hate.” As if protesting the disproportionate slaying and imprisonment of black children is “hate.” As if objecting to for-profit sick-care is “hate.” As if decrying Christianese support of militarism and fascism is “hate.” As if championing the rights of “widows, orphans, and aliens” against the abuse of political leaders is “hate.”
There is something I gladly admit to hating: this kind of language. This condescending, paternalistic, bullying and bully-enabling language that uses the words of Christ for cover. (There is a difference between hating the sin and the sinner, right? Or does that only apply to gay folks?)
Rather than get tangled in endless psychologizing or spiritualizing about the inward state of debate partners, I’m much more interested in the effect of our language, practices, and policy. Where do we see the oppressed being freed? Where do we see widows, orphans, and aliens valued as fully human and made in the image of God?
That’s where love is.
I appreciate that Christ loves me, and I have full assurance of salvation through the Holy Spirit. I appreciate that Christ also loves the bullies and fascists of the world, the Torquemadas and Roy Moores and Bull Connors, and that where I’m unable to love I can intercede that Christ love for me while shaping me into someone more loving. I can acknowledge my own failure to love.
But I have no interest in a “love” that does not rejoice in the truth. Nor do I have interest in a religion that can only speak of “good news” if the oppressed are silenced.
There is difference between paternalism, pity, and love.
*(Of course, there is a critique of the less-than-loving attitude of the prophets in the Bible itself. It’s called the Book of Jonah.)
Thanks to everyone who has found this blog by reading “The Exodus.” I’ve appreciated reading the feedback—all of it, positive, negative, questioning, or reflective. I’ve especially appreciated some of the email from folks who shared deeply personal struggles with faith, those who feel alienated by the dominant Christian narrative in our culture, or who simply resonated with the words. I’ve been touched by stories of people who have told me they have left church, but would go to a church if they could find one that said these words.
Thanks to John Archibald and Kissing Fish for helping it to go viral.
I was inspired to write it after reading the Song of Miriam in Exodus. Some scholars believe it may be the oldest text in the Bible.
I just want to offer a few words to folks who have commented, emailed, or shared discussion on social media.
1) In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says that friends are those who “see the same truth.” So I am delighted to make the acquaintance of new friends. When I read something that plucks a string in my soul that vibrates for days, or I’m stunned to learn someone else has put into words thoughts I’ve thought or feelings I’ve felt, I feel less alone. It means a lot to me that some of you have shared that these words did that for you, or that they offered courage, comfort, or challenge. Thank you.
2) For everyone who has been alienated from the church, who told me it is a relief or a surprise to hear Christian religious language used in a way that was not advancing a right-wing agenda, just know that there is a long, long tradition of religious social justice work. I’m part of a grassroots community organizing group called Faith in Action Alabama, and one of our themes is that what we’re talking about is not a thin veneer of religious language over a political agenda, but a deeply-rooted faith response that claims that God is not neutral about injustice, that all human beings are made in God’s image, and that prophetic imagination is part of our calling. I encourage you to find a group doing such work in your area. I also recommend Common Prayer for daily devotional.
While the piece is titled “The Exodus,” I’m still very firmly part of a church. Even an institutional church. But I totally understand the desire to leave both church and nation for a new land. For me, the Good News is that there is an alternative in our midst. “The Kingdom is among y’all,” as JC said.
3) For critics, know that I appreciate thoughtful criticism and read what you write, even if I don’t always reply. I am happy to debate the finer points of policy, government intervention, evidence-based programs that reduce poverty, and the effects of legislation on things like the health of LGBTQ persons and reduction of abortion. I believe in respectful dialogue and giving folks the benefit of the doubt.
But polemic, art, and imagination—not rational debate—is the proper response to oppressive, bullying, tone-policing, white-supremacist, patriarchal theology. Jesus knew this, and his response to the dominant theology of his day is recorded in Matthew 23. I will not legitimize the dominant narrative by speaking on its terms. Doing so is simply throwing pearls before swine, an activity Jesus admonishes his followers to avoid (Matthew 7:6).
I reject any view of the Bible that limits it to how we behave in our personal lives, or that walls off personal faith from the personal lives of marginalized communities under threat. A faith that is strictly private and does not impinge upon public life, that does not inform how we talk about poverty or injustice in the public sphere, that makes Jesus my Personal Savior but not Savior of the World, is a faith not worth having, in my opinion. There are plenty of Dominionists working in our federal government, and their vision of God and God’s Kingdom is directly opposed to everything I love. And retreat from politics into a privileged sphere of personal pietistic religion is not a luxury I—or the church—can afford.
Jesus told us to take up our crosses. This did not mean giving up chocolate, sex, or beer. The cross was reserved for enemies of the state. If your faith does not lead you to stand with the crucified, with black kids gunned down, with LGBTQ families prevented from adopting, with refugees, then I have no interest in your religion. It simply fails the test. I have no interest in following a Jesus who does not offer the cross. Characterize it as “left wing” if you like. That’s hardly a stinging critique in the world we live in. I have yet to see a martyr of the faith crucified by the state for defending the rights of the privileged and powerful.
4) Here are some books that I’ve been reading recently that inspired my writing:
Pamela Lightsey, Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology.
Walter Brueggemann, Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word.
Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.
Thanks again for reading, for sharing, and for commenting.
“Be a prophet of the resistance, not a priest of the empire.”