An Inauspicious Anniversary

Nixon and Ehrlichman, from Wikimedia Commons

49 YEARS AGO TODAY, President Nixon kicked off the so-called War on Drugs with a speech on national television (linked in the comments).

This is what his domestic policy advisor said in 1994:

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (citation).

This kicked off a five-decades-long increase in mass incarceration which would disproportionately affect black individuals, black communities, black political power, and black economics. It was a primary driver of racist policy down to the state level.

Please understand: substance abuse does harm. But policies weaponized against black people and the poor of all races do so much more harm. It’s an open secret our president has a substance abuse problem, but he’s not in jail. Nor are wealthy businesspeople in Mountain Brook. Or their kids who are involved in using and selling drugs.

Right now, there are human beings wasting years of their lives in prison, while a disproportionate number of wealthy white boys make money off of dispensaries in states where cannabis is legal.

We need to end this farce: Take money away from enforcement, and give it to treatment. Substance abuse is a public health and a mental health problem.

Anything short of this policy overhaul is white supremacy in action.

Drug Policy and the Church, Day 1: Start Here

Portrait of John D. Ehrlichman, assistant to president Richard Nixon for domestic affairs, by Oliver F. Atikins. From Wikimedia Commons.

“[We] had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

This is where we start. This is a quotation from John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, and it needs to be the first thing we consider. Sure, we can talk about addiction, and harm reduction, and prohibition, and the history of drug use and religion, and a number of other things. I plan to touch on those this week. But when we talk about drug policy in the United States—and by extension, in the world and in the church—we need to start with this quote right here.

We start here because nearly everything in our country has been weaponized for the sake of white supremacy and imperialism: religion, roads, housing construction, banking, marriage, the family, mass media. This is not an overstatement. EVERYTHING. But drug policy has been one of the most devastating weapons contrived.

Phyllis Tickle said that society goes through periodic 500-year cycles of revolution and reformation, a “rummage sale” where old ideas are brought out into the light, and we decide what to keep and what to throw away. Our approach to drugs is one of these areas that is up for review. Drugs and drug addiction regularly appear in sermons and prayers, even though these modern terms never appear in the Bible, so it is appropriate for us to consider them. 

I grew up in the 1980’s, during the “Just Say No” campaign. I have practiced abstinence from illegal drugs my whole life. As a pastor, I’ve seen the devastation wrought by opioid addiction—and who profited from it. But I’ve also walked in the Amazon with indigenous people who told me, “God has put a cure for every human ailment in this jungle.” Plant medicine from the rainforest, they believed, could heal the world—if the descendants of Europeans could only stop destroying it.

We need to acknowledge the harm that drugs can do to individuals and society, certainly. Alcohol and nicotine are responsible for tremendous social harm. Prescription drugs are the newest form of a long-term drug problem. Yet we often blame drugs instead of their antecedents: poor quality social relationships, being stuck in meaningless jobs, self-medicating for depression and anxiety. There are behavioral and biological components to addiction. Yet our policies are not about addiction: they are about disrupting communities and targeting certain people.

I start with the above quotation because we need to understand that the stigma associated with addiction and drug use is very intentional. Drug policy is responsible for the massive swelling of our prison population: The “home of the free” imprisons more people than any country on earth. The War on Drugs launched on June 17, fifty years ago, and its purpose was always to delegitimize the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. In order to weed out these toxic policies and attitudes, we need to pull them up by the roots.

Prayer:
God of Justice, we so often do the wrong things for the right reasons, or allow unjust harm because we are convinced of a greater good. Give us wisdom and discernment to know truth from lies, and to be ruled by love rather than fear—in our personal lives, as well as public.  

Let’s Make June 17 “End the War on Drugs” Day

Source: American Enterprise Institute

June 17th is coming. This is the date Nixon declared a War on Drugs.

John Ehrlichman was Nixon’s domestic policy advisor. In 1994 he said in an interview that the administration “…had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The story came out in 2016. Here is the link: https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/

It has been widely documented how this War on Drugs led to America being the incarceration capital of the world. The State of Alabama has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the world.

While most of the people we lock up are white, incarceration disproportionately affects black people. According to Alabama Appleseed, black folks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white folks, even though we know drug use is the same across race, class, etc. There’s just as much, or more, drug use in Mountain Brook as in West End.

And while pro-prison legislators in Alabama will point out most long-term prisoners are in for violent crimes, we need to ask about how our awful drug and mental health policies LED to those violent crimes. Alabama prisons are the largest provider of mental health care in the state!

As people begin to turn from protest to thinking “What Now?” I want to say again that POLICY needs to change. There is bipartisan support for prison reform, but I want to ask you to look at some of the arguments for prison ABOLITION. You don’t have to sign on. Just LISTEN.

(Even the American Enterprise Institute, who produced the graphic attached, supports changes in policy. The AEI is a conservative capitalist institution.)

Incarceration has add-on effects: many convicted persons can no longer vote. While in prison, census data records them as residents of the (mostly white, rural) counties where they are serving their time. Both of these effects create taxation without representation, and decimate the political power of black citizens. 15% of African-American adults in Alabama cannot vote.

All of the wasted money in prisons could be funneled into things that actually improve people’s lives. Treat addiction as a public and mental health problem. Move cannabis to lowest enforcement priority. Take psychedelics that show therapeutic promise off Schedule 1. Invest in harm reduction programs. Reduce economic inequality, make the world less awful, and people will spend less energy trying to escape it.

Remember, the Nixon administration knew there was a link between white supremacy and perpetual war. They made a strategic 50-year investment in subjugating our nation, creating a permanent carceral state and modern plantation system. We are now seeing the war machine being used on us in our own cities, as police with military hardware treat protesters like a prison population.

June 17 is coming up. We should mark the date by calling for an end to the failed, racist, militarized War on Drugs. Two days later is Juneteenth: a fitting day to celebrate freedom, and recognize that slavery and white supremacy are still very much with us.

White Fog

CN: Racial Terrorism

Say their names.” Yes, world, say their names. Rage against the injustice. Celebrate who they were. And mourn all the gardens they will never tend, the phone calls with parents they will never make, the paintings they will never paint, the runs they will never take in the gorgeous spring air, the babies they will never cuddle. It’s so important to lift them up, and to give THEM attention, instead of their killers, to recognize that they had a life that was more than the label “victim,” that one of the cruelest parts of racial terror is the way it steals the individuality of these individuals.

But let me talk to my white friends a minute:

While our black neighbors relive this never-ending monotonous generational trauma which is, by definition, a kind of hell, we need to say some different names among ourselves.

Because Gregory and Travis McMichael believed—and still believe—they can get away with it. Because George Zimmerman did. Because Amber Guyger did. Because Daniel Pantaleo did.

George Zimmerman chased and picked a fight with a teenager who went out his door to buy Skittles. When George Zimmerman started losing the fight that George Zimmerman instigated, he used his gun, because the law told him he could. He killed a teenager. A boy. My son’s age. We need to say the murderer’s name: George Zimmerman. He’s still among us. Free.

So I put Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael and George Zimmerman together. I put their names in the list with Amber Guyger, who may or may not have been cognizant when she killed her neighbor. So Travis and Gregory and George and Amber. I put their names in the list with Daniel Pantaleo, who choked a man to death while he begged for his life on a New York sidewalk. Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael and George Zimmerman and Amber Guyger and Daniel Pantaleo.

I started trying to make a list of killers, of dream-destroyers, of people who robbed the world of gardeners and painters and teachers and children and siblings and parents.  I started making a list of people who think of themselves as moral, upstanding individuals, who killed because the law said they could, who said “oops” afterwards and got forgiveness, or something deceptively like it, because it’s perfectly understandable to white people when a white person kills a black person out of fear.

But when I got to the unknown killers who killed Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, I realized there are so many killers whose names we will never know, because there is no video. And would video be enough, even if we had it? We don’t know the names of the gloaters and mockers and normal white people in the black-and-white photographs of public lynchings from decades past. Time and intentional forgetfulness have erased their names.

Our white history teaches that there are two ways to get away with lynching: hide your motivation, or hide your identity. You can even hide in public if you hide in a crowd, like in the lynching photographs. It’s what Gregory and Travis are hoping to do: hide in the crowd. They believe a white crowd will protect them. They may still be right.

Sometimes we allow newspaper headlines to hide identities with passive voice: “Suspected burglar slain,” as though someone didn’t hold the gun and pull the trigger, as though the suspicions were just floating through the air and not in some particular brain in some particular white man’s head, as though it’s nobody’s fault that the implicit bias in his head resulted in pressure on his finger, pressure which was transferred to a trigger.

Sometimes we allow legislators to hide the motivations of vigilantes with the laws they write. “Stand your ground” is one such example, because all you need to commit a lynching murder is 1) a gun and 2) fear. They have even written laws to excuse vigilante motorists for killing protesters with their cars. (While the law did not protect James Alex Fields, he was enabled by these legislators when he mowed down Heather Heyer. She was white. I hate to think that if she had not been, he would have had a greater chance of going free.)

Occasionally someone will be brought to something approximating justice, like Dylan Roof, but those names are the “bad apples” among the white crowd that allow us to make the fine distinction between murderers and vigilantes, between the those who wear hoods and those of whom it is said there are “good people on both sides.” The main difference between murderers and vigilantes is that the latter are convinced, when they put their hands on a gun, they can take for themselves the righteous authority to kill another human being, and that they will be excused by a white crowd.

I am sick of white murderers pretending they are Batman, that they can vanish in smoke, blending into a white fog of misunderstood intentions, of headlines that erase their identity, of well-meaning we-don’t-know-what-was-in-his-heart-and-we-are-all-sinners-so-we-should-forgive Christianese. I am sick of them being able to hide behind the well-crafted language of legislators, of racist stand-your-ground laws, of anti-protest laws, written by the same hands that gerrymander voting districts.

I am tired, as a white man, of having to see myself in these damned lynching photographs, because so many of my white neighbors want to hide behind our shared whiteness. The word “damned” seems tame and cliché, because these photographs really do seem like snapshots of hell, a moment of gleeful hatred and terror preserved for eternity. The identities are erased, even though their faces are preserved. What seeps out of those photographs is whiteness in all its poisonous anonymity, this breathtaking confidence that the white crowd protects them, that they can hide in a white fog.

No. I am going to write down the names of the killers. I am going to say them out loud and remind white people about them. I am going to tell what I saw: You put holes in a human being and poured human blood on the ground. You choked the life out of a divine soul. You broke the neck of a child of God. You hanged a woman for being uppity. Then you hid the evidence, you excused your intentions, you made it look like a suicide, and you tried to disappear into the crowd.

And you tried to make me an accessory to your crime by relying on my whiteness to protect you.

Cain, Cain, the Lord is walking in the garden, calling for you. Your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground. I will not allow you to hide within a white fog. I will not be a silent onlooker in your lynching photograph.

Time for a New Religion

Hey, American Christians! Time for a new religion.

Christianity hasn’t made you more loving, or generous, or less violent and militaristic. Your scriptures say that God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only son, but you don’t love the world enough to even slow your economy in the face of pandemic or environmental collapse. So obviously, preaching Christianity from American pulpits hasn’t worked for y’all.

So let’s try a different religion. In this one, your immortal soul doesn’t go to heaven or hell. It time-travels and goes into the person who, during your life, you most treated like shit. Your reward, or punishment, is that you get to live their life. Punched someone in the face? You’ll feel it. Spread life-ruining gossip? You’ll feel that, too.

Suffering is inevitable for everyone, of course, but whatever suffering you manufactured for others will be visited upon you.

Of course, you’ll get their joys, too. And maybe you’ll have a chance to learn a lesson and develop more kindness, or maybe the lesson will simply make you more bitter and evil. It’s really up to you.

And here’s the kicker: depending on the size of your effect—say, you created or influenced public policy—you may actually wind up living multiple lives. If, for example, you were a ruthless dictator who killed thousands or millions of people, your reward is that you get to live every single one of their lives. You’ll get their joys, of course, but also millions of dashed dreams, millions of unimaginable griefs, just unbelievable pain. If you were a billionaire whose lobbyists pushed millions into poverty, you get to live ALL of their lives. You’ll get to feel what it’s like to have too much month left at the end of the paycheck. You’ll feel the rage and sadness of watching loved ones die because they can’t afford preventive healthcare. You’ll feel the trauma of racial disparities and other systemic injustices.

What happens to you when you die? You get to walk in the shoes of the people you hurt.

As a matter of fact, it’s silly to say “you’ll get to” live their lives. It’s already happening, because of time travel. See? The pain you inflict upon them is the same pain you are inflicting on yourself now. You just don’t know it yet. You may not even know it then, in the future-present. It depends on how spiritually stupid you insist on being.

You can erase some of this, of course, with your good deeds. And it may be that after you live the lives of people you hurt, you’ll get to live the lives of people you helped. There may be a reward, many lifetimes from now. But I suspect that in this new religion, we’ll need to keep that a far-off hope, because American Christianity has demonstrated it has a far greater affinity for hell and threats of punishment than for heaven. We seem to prefer a theology of deserving to a theology of grace. That’s why I think this new framework will be perfect for us.

And if you’re following the logic of this transmigration of souls, you begin to realize that we’re not actually separate souls. We’re all the same life, which makes it vitally important that we care for each other and the earth while we have the chance. You may have eternity to work it out, but there is an urgency to it—in part because our species won’t live forever, either, especially on our present trajectory. We can’t wait to fix our behavior and our attitudes until tomorrow, because tomorrow is already now.

American Christians, some of you may realize this sounds a lot like Hinduism. And, for the record, India is certainly having their own problems with selfishness, hatred, and terrible social policy right now. But maybe it’s time to try living our private lives (and adopting social policies) that take karma seriously.

You know, like “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Because those aren’t just hypothetical statements spouted by some random messiah. And your current leaders who are loudest in claiming allegiance to him while doing harm are liars. Or, as he said, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

So it’s time to re-evaluate. It’s time you tried out a different religion. Or no religion at all.

And if this sounds like blasphemy to you, then you never knew Jesus Christ.

(Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 6:46-49, Matthew 25:41-46)

If they actually cared about abortion…

L0029516 CMAC, What Parents should tell their childre

If Alabama politicians and preachers really cared about preventing abortion, we’d have comprehensive, medically accurate sex education in schools. This new bill criminalizing abortion is entirely about controlling sexual behavior and taking away bodily autonomy.

A few years ago, some conservative clergy proposed a resolution in our local denominational body about defunding Planned Parenthood. The resolution was tabled until we could talk through it. I offered to meet with its authors to see if we could craft a resolution we could agree on.

None of them showed up for the first meeting.

Since they chose not to participate, those of us who did show up kept the goal of the original resolution—reducing or preventing abortion—but chose to focus on a policy that actually applied to our state: comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education in schools.

That got their attention. They showed up to the second meeting to oppose this change. They would not even consider a resolution that included comprehensive sex education. Abstinence was the only choice. The only compromise we reached was withdrawing the resolution.

I asked if any of the authors had met with the people at Planned Parenthood whose jobs they were trying to defund. They had not. I offered to facilitate a meeting between representatives of Planned Parenthood and the clergy who drafted the resolution. They declined.

I don’t know how they could have made it any clearer: They didn’t care about preventing abortion. Nor did they care about even hearing from the other side.

Alabama politicians likewise have made their goals and values clear: In addition to rejecting exceptions in cases of rape or incest, they are entertaining a bill which makes false accusation of rape a felony. This is intended to intimidate women in light of the #metoo movement. All of these policies taken together are about subjugating women.

I support the right to an abortion, and see religious justification for restricting that right as a failure of empathy and imagination. Ethics requires us to imagine situations in which we have to apply our norms or policies—to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” If we create a rule or law, we have to imagine what it would be like to be subject to it.

I believe there are people of good faith who disagree with me about public policy, and are sincere in their desire to reduce or prevent abortion. I just haven’t met many yet.

On “Zero Tolerance”

“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.