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.

Screwtape’s Constitution: The Demonic 1901 Alabama Convention

The_Screwtape_Letters_(2004)
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.

Screwtape is who I think of when I read the arguments of John Knox, president of the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901, on the cause of the Civil War, his assessment of race hypocrisy in the North, and his justifications for literacy tests and poll taxes.

John KnoxHe 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.

and
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.

Easter 2018

On Easter morning
I’m gonna imagine
Stephon Clark
gets back up.
I’m gonna imagine
he’s one of many.

I’m gonna imagine
fear and great joy.

I’m gonna imagine
the powers that be
quaking in their boots
when they realize
they were wrong
when they thought
they could bury
the truth.

Swordsplaining

 

600px-Uncrossed_gladius

Gladius, from Wikimedia Commons

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Actually Jesus
in the first place

this proverb
applies to mercenaries and criminals
not regular normal
law-abiding men like me
who make their living in legal ways.
We know the only way to stop a bad guy with a sword
is a good guy with a sword.
And obviously
I’m a good guy.

You don’t understand context.

In the second place

what is a sword anyway?
How is it different from a long dagger?
People can kill
with sharpened sticks,
bows and slings, poison and flames.
Do you know the difference
between a gladius and a rapier?
And if you don’t know the difference
and if you can’t speak with expertise
about tangs and weight ratios
or the finer points of pommels and hilts
or the art of flaying a man’s skin
or piercing a woman’s belly
or cleaving a child’s skull
then who are you to talk to me about swords?

You lack the authority.

In the third place Jesus

what would a world be
without swords?
Will you use a plowshare to fight the Romans
when they come to take your sword?
Will you use a pruning hook
when the bad men come
to rape your wife
and kill your children?
Jesus, if we beat our swords into farm implements,
how will we defend our homes and farms
from the bad men with swords?
Will we be men at all?

You don’t understand the way the world works.

In the fourth place Jesus

who are you
to take that tone with us?
A real messiah would say
“Take up your sword”
not “take up your cross.”
It’s easy for you
Son of God
who can just pop up from the grave
when death isn’t convenient.
For the rest of us worm food
death is permanent.
So don’t you dare lecture us
about obsessing over the length of swords
when we’re down here facing the tyrrany
of tiny men
with big swords.

You lack humility.

In conclusion Jesus
you should have said
“all who
do not
take up the sword
will die by the sword.”
All that Sunday school stuff
about peace on earth
about a little child leading them—
nobody down here believes it.
Real Christians believe the opposite.
And if they do believe you
they are just victims
waiting for us powerful men
who understand the way the world works
to defend them
or exploit them

So go ahead and heal
all the ears
of all the victims of violence you want
Because those of us who matter
aren’t listening to you.


References: 
Matthew 26:47-56
Luke 22:47-53
Micah 4:3-4
Isaiah 11:6-9

The Ethics of Killer Bots

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 10.05.01 AM

Still from “Slaughterbots,” a Youtube video by autonomousweapons.org

Here are two linked videos. This one is fake and terrifying. The other is real and gee-whiz cool. It is possible for the same reality to be cool and terrifying at the same time.

I believe this technology is inevitable. We need to be planning for how to control it, defend against it, and hold people accountable for its abuse. Killer bots have already been used in law enforcement. Integrating AI into the use of killer bots is as predictable as self-driving cars.

We even know how it will be sold: tired of police shooting unarmed black men? Let robots make the decisions instead.

Of course, you can hear that last sentence several different ways.

I know that there are plenty of public conversations about ethics we’re not having, because we are overwhelmed with the kleptocrat-in-chief’s rejection of all previous norms. But technological progress isn’t stopping for humanity to have remedial lessons on conflicts of interest, consent, nepotism, and civil behavior. It is scary to think of him having access to nuclear weapons. It is scarier to think of people like him using this technology.

Autonomous killer bots should also figure into debates about the second amendment. Should private citizens have access to swarming armed drones? Why not?

It is almost quaint how apologists for the NRA think they will be able to stave off next-generation tyrants with their guns. Ballots, not bullets, are the way we fight tyranny. It requires us to have a prophetic imagination that allows us to think beyond the next election cycle, and to see how our technology affects our behavior over decades. It requires us to make decisions as a community and to recognize that there are some things we have to address for the common good.

Killer bots already exist. Our moral imagination has to catch up.

[edit]: I remain in awe of how Star Trek predicted so many technologies and the social questions they would raise. Remember this episode?

White Noise

Update 8/15: I wrote this last month, but it seemed too angry. Now it seems too tame. 
This song is meant to be sung in the sweetly sarcastic folksy style of Pete Seeger. 

A businessman was happy ‘bout his real estate downtown
And he couldn’t understand the fact it made some people frown
And he said with some frustration that if people who were brown
didn’t stop with the complaining it would bring his value down.

 

He said, “there was racism back in 1963;
But racism is over and it doesn’t bother me.
And gentrifizzication occurs naturallifically,
It’s simply market forces just as far as I can see.”

 

It’ll just —  go away, It’ll just — go away
Ignore it and racism will just go away
Like shingles, or cancer, let’s just wait and pray
If we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.

 

Well Black Lives Matter blocked a street and made her late for work,
And she got up in her feelings and said that all of them were jerks.
“If they wouldn’t be divisive they would sure have my support.
Just work within the system and wait for justice from the court.”

 

It’ll just —  go away, It’ll just — go away
Like rain clouds give way to a bright sunny day
Like diabetes, or cancer, let’s just wait and pray
If we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.

 

“Well slightly less than half of us elected 45;
And Beauregard Jeff Sessions wants the drug war to survive.
Some say incarceration is just legal slavery
But we’re number one in prisons here in this land of the free.

 

“We’ve worked hard to create a culture that is colorblind;
And we’ve made so much progress that no child is left behind.
The fact that some contest it is truly a disgrace
The problem that we live with surely isn’t about race.”

 

It’ll just —  go away, It’ll just — go away
Ignoring white priv’lege will make it go away.
Like appendicitis, or cancer, let’s just wait and pray
If we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.

 

The preacher was offended that I said his God was white.
He said I was unloving and so very impolite.
But the Jesus that I know of wasn’t killed for being tame.
And a gospel without justice is a dirty rotten shame.

 

‘Cause it won’t go away, no it won’t go away.
Just wishing and praying won’t make it go away.
And when folks fight against it, don’t stare in dumb dismay.
You’d best decide which side you’re on before the Judgment Day.

Voting Is Not Consumption

If your vote isn’t important, why are they trying so hard to take it away?

We’ve come to think about democracy as a form of consumption, like everything else, where voting is just a indication of preference. This is what the dominant narrative wants you to think: politics is just like buying a pair of socks. That way, when they place restrictions on that right or take it away from your neighbors, you won’t mind so much.

But democracy is really about what happens on either side of election day. It’s about telling stories, building relationships, and leveraging power. It’s holding officials accountable and showing up at their offices. Your officials don’t represent you if they don’t have a relationship with you.

The forces of domination and empire would really rather you stay home, stay quiet, and let lobbyists and money have all the influence. Even our Supreme Court has declared that democracy is consumption, because money is speech.

That is a lie.

Alabama,* we’ve got elections coming up. Your state has tried to make it as difficult as possible for you to vote — spreading out multiple elections in the same month (senate primaries on the 15th, municipal elections on the 22nd), shutting down registration locations, and most recently, refusing to tell some ex-prisoners that they may actually be able to vote after all.

Your state legislators have gerrymandered you so officials could choose their voters instead of voters choosing their officials. They have sold you the most cynical and hopeless of political narratives, that “this is Alabama, and it’s just the way things are,” because they want you to stay home. They DO NOT WANT you to turn out. They have made that abundantly clear.

If this is your home, fight for it.

1. Make sure you are registered (They may have silently unregistered you if you haven’t voted recently. They do that.)

2. Make sure you know your polling place (They may have moved it, or moved your district. They do that, too.)

3. Join the discussion. Go to the forums and debates. Talk to your neighbors. There are multiple opportunities to hear from candidates before the election, so you don’t have to walk in to the voting booth uninformed. Check out Stand As One and I Believe in Birmingham.

4. If you have a strong preference, join a campaign, or if you’re just serious about your community, join one of many Get Out The Vote campaigns (I’m with Faith in Action Alabama). They have a way for you to help. Work with your congregation or other community organization to get people to the polls.

5. On election day(s), VOTE.

6. After election day, hold your representatives accountable. Stand As One, who represents over 20 justice, advocacy, and service organizations is asking for follow-up meetings with candidates 100 days after their election. Faith in Action Alabama, a multi-faith, multi-racial federation of over 60 congregations all across Alabama, has a multi-year strategy to engage our state legislators and our governor. Write, call, and email your officials about your vision for your community.

Yes, I recognize that having the time to be engaged is a privilege. Making you too tired and overwhelmed to participate, keeping people in a state of perpetual poverty and debt; that is part of the disenfranchisement strategy. That’s why we have to love and support each other. Help your neighbors. Babysit their kids. Make food for each other. That’s also democracy.

Do not buy into the lie that your vote is just an indication of preference. You are not buying a pair of socks; you are shaping our future.

“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7)

 

*I’m focused on where I live. If you’re reading this in another state, a lot of this same stuff applies! Look up “get out the vote” campaigns in your state.

Prayer for the Resistance

This is a version of the prayer I prayed last Friday, which marked the end of a five-day sit-in for health care.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8).

Intro

I am grateful for your witness. Like Joshua marching outside the walls of Jericho, y’all have been laying spiritual siege to this fortress.

The resistance has two parts. The first part is political, and it consists of issues: health care, mass incarceration, a failed war on drugs, tax cuts for the rich, sanctuary and mass deportations, the exploitation of the environment, and the list goes on and on.

But the second part is spiritual. It’s a dominant narrative that we must resist, a narrative that says racism is over, but some people’s lives don’t matter; that corporations are people, but real people’s votes don’t matter; that money is speech, so if you’re poor and sick your voice doesn’t matter.

Some people tell me they don’t much care for the Bible because of passages about violence and the wrath of God. But those passages were written by people who were oppressed. The reason people wrote about the wrath of God is because of BS like this health care bill.

I’m not a hellfire and brimstone preacher, but imprecatory prayers are in the Psalms. So today I offer an imprecatory prayer about the authors of this terrible health care bill.

Prayer

Good shepherd,
you tell us that the job of our leaders is to care for your flock:
to bind up the injured,
to tend the sick,
feed the hungry,
and to seek out the lost.

But our bad shepherds
have enriched themselves
at our expense.
The fat sheep
have butted and shoved,
not only drinking the best water
but fouling the rest;
not only eating the best pasture,
but trampling it down for others,
destroying your creation
and polluting our world.

Therefore, God, we ask you
to frustrate the plans of these bad shepherds.
Jam their copiers;
make their printers run out of toner;
make them miss appointments and misfile documents;
confound them with communication problems;
and let their immaturity
create conflict among their teams.
Make their work on this bill
like the Tower of Babel.
Confuse them and shame them.

But, God,
let their fax machines
and phones
and mail work perfectly
so they can hear
from each and every one of us
who text
and fax
and email
and write letters
and show up at their offices
to unsettle their comfortable corruption.

Let there be a spirit of love and unity among the resistance.
Let us dismantle racism
and white supremacy,
sexism,
ableism,
homophobia,
and transphobia,
not just in our world,
but in ourselves.

Give us grace to be gentle with ourselves and each other,
persuasive in speech,
wise in discernment,
and courageous in action.
Give us encouraging voices,
fearless resolve,
and love that is real love,
and not just paternalism.

We ask this, Good Shepherd,
in your name,
on behalf of your flock,
and your people.

Amen.

The Return

When messiah returned
she was a sassy bitch.
Worked retail and cleaned homes, like her mother before her.
She knew the value of a dollar,
and whose face was on each denomination
and the non-denominations.
She had heard the unbeliever’s Bible verses:
A penny saved is a penny earned.
The Lord helps those who help themselves.
Submit to authority.
Know your place.
But she had memorized the older texts.
And no one could match her wits,
When messiah returned.
When messiah returned,
they called her a glutton and a drunkard,
a whore and a slut,
because that’s how bullies and hypocrites talk.
And when they began to fear her they called her
a bully and a hypocrite.
Herod was nicer.
Said she had spunk.
“Actually,” he mansplained, “I agree with much of what she says,
but her tone is counterproductive.”
“You tell that weasel Herod,” she replied,
“To shove it.”
That’s just how she talked,
When messiah returned.
When messiah returned,
the megachurch preachers
and the political men
tried to sell her out for thirty pieces of silver.
But she did not let them get close enough
to betray her with a kiss.
And when they came for her
with clubs and torches, guns and chains,
She said one little word,
And they all fell to the ground,
Because those who had prayed for her return
Were simply not ready
for all of her,
When messiah returned.

Discipleship Series

I’ve created a Vimeo album so you can see all the messages from our Discipleship series in one place. There are six videos which address our five areas of discipleship:

  1. Introduction
  2. Worship
  3. Devotion
  4. Compassion
  5. Justice
  6. Witness

If you use these videos in a Sunday school class or small group, please let me know! I’d also like to know what you find helpful or what could be improved. And if you’d like to help me make more of these videos, you can always support our church here. Thanks!

Discipleship 1: Invitation from Dave Barnhart on Vimeo.