Carrying Water for Pontius Pilate

Église de Saint-Thégonnec, Notre-Dame. Photo by Weglinde, from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written and deleted so many words about Jacob Blake and the young murderer who shot protesters in Kenosha. I don’t know how to address the toxic stew of vigilante fantasy, aggrieved whiteness, and domination theology that afflicts our culture. As tired as I am of preaching about state violence against black people, I know it is not nearly enough, nor am I nearly as tired as people who live under this threat every single damned day.

While I am particularly angry at racist man-boys who like to play soldier, while I am generally angry at the pundits who stoke the vigilante fantasies of snobbish white couples defending their gated communities against nonviolent protesters, while I am furious at Hoover citizens who advocate running over my protesting friends with their cars, I recognize that they are living out the Dirty Harry and Batman stories that I have also eagerly devoured my whole life. They honestly think they are the good guys.

That’s no excuse.

White clergy often feel like they have to thread the needle when addressing these major issues, because many in their congregations will latch on to some irrelevant detail in order to justify the criminalization and vigilante execution of black men and women: “He had a knife. He didn’t comply. He had a record.” When some of us clergy posted a video two years ago in which we said, “Black lives matter,” I even had clergy colleagues who said that I was advocating or inciting violence.

In order to make peace, too many Christians reach for “both sides” rhetoric. “Jesus transcends politics,” they say, ignoring the fact that Jesus’s incarnation was itself a political act, God’s own statement that bodily life matters, that how we wound or heal bodies, how we incarcerate or set them free, how we neglect them or provide them with food and water matters. How we subject them to manufactured poverty and affect them with policy matters. Jesus doesn’t transcend politics. He gets his hands and feet dirty with it when he becomes human, when he heals, eats, hurts, rests, and dies.

When he marches into Jerusalem with his followers on Palm Sunday, with the religious leaders scoffing and admonishing him to be quiet, with the Roman and temple riot police looking for an excuse to crack some heads, he shows us that God takes to the streets even when God knows the outcome is failure.

Preachers who proclaim “third way” politics from the safety of air-conditioned pulpits, who avoid protests and have never marched for anything that might put their bodies or reputations at risk, are lying to themselves and their congregations when they scorn politics and speak of the “revolutionary love” of Jesus. You can only proclaim a “third way” from the streets with the people whose lives are being threatened. That’s where the credibility of what you preach will actually be tested.

Black lives matter. Black bodies, health, dignity, votes, and mental health matter. Black political, economic, and social power matters. Black children matter. Black education matters. Black gay and trans and queer rights matter. The whole of black lives, mental, spiritual, and physical—matters.

The white church, and white clergy in particular, need to stop carrying water for Pontius Pilate. He’ll just wash his hands and dry them on your robes.

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 6: Whiteness and Drug Policy

Simplified visualization of the persistence homological scaffolds. left: normal state. right: under the psilocybin effect, by G. Petri, P. Expert, F. Turkheimer, R. Carhart-Harris, D. Nutt, P. J. Hellyer, F. Vaccarino. In plain language, the image on the left represents neural connection in a normal brain, and the right represents connectivity under psilocybin. From Wikimedia Commons

I have decided it is important to be bold in sharing that I have had psychedelic experiences for several reasons:

  1. I had the privilege of using them legally, in a safe, therapeutic, research setting. Part of that privilege was obtained by being an ordained religious leader, which in turn was made more likely because of the privilege of being white, male, and middle-class.
  2. I believe in the potential therapeutic benefits of plant medicines, not only for those suffering from various forms of mental illness, but also for “well” people.
  3. I believe in the potential of these therapies to address not only personal, but also generational trauma that has epigenetic effects.
  4. It is absurd that these naturally occurring substances are classified as schedule 1 drugs, and that nearly incalculable harm is done to human lives under the pretense of keeping them “safe.” We warehouse human beings in prison at tremendous cost to society, when it would be more humane and cheaper to give them free housing and mental health care.
  5. I had two experiences nearly two years ago, and continue to reap the benefits; whereas many people are taking a pill every day for years or decades in order to alter their brain chemistry.
  6. I obtain some of this power to speak for change by virtue of having practiced abstinence before and since. I have never smoked pot or consumed any illegal drug. I am no hedonist; my motivation for changing drug policy is simply the outrageous injustice and harm it is doing to our society.   

I started out this week sharing that the War on Drugs is a racist, failed policy, enacted by frightened men desperate to hold on to coercive power. I am very aware that the reason I am able to talk openly about my own experience is because of something known as “psychedelic exceptionalism.” Essentially, when white middle-class people use drugs, it’s okay.  

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, crack cocaine became a moral panic. Reflecting Nixon’s original logic in creating a War on Drugs, laws were written to create harsher penalties for drugs that black people were more likely to use. Drug policy was specifically geared to hurt black people worse. But in the current opioid epidemic, which is harming more white people, our national dialogue has changed course. Suddenly we are holding manufacturers accountable and talking about compassionate care for addiction.

All of this is due to white privilege, our society’s tendency to treat white people more humanely, as individuals with backstories, people who are worthy of respect.

Because I had the very rare opportunity to appreciate the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a substance currently classified as a schedule 1 “illegal” drug, because I am white, not addicted, and hold a position of privilege, I have come to realize that I have a moral obligation to expose the hypocrisy and systemic racism of our nation’s drug policy. As a religious leader with a Ph.D in preaching and ethics, I cannot be silent about this obvious and outrageous harm we continue to inflict upon generations of human beings, especially if that policy is upheld by moralizing from the pulpit.

There are certainly important policy discussions we need to have about decriminalization versus legalization, and how to mitigate the very real harms that substance abuse has on individuals, families, and society. Some drugs are worse than others, and there must certainly be a way to control access, especially for people most vulnerable. Drugs can do harm. But the harm we manufacture must end, and it should not be illegal to grow any plant medicine that God created.

It is beyond reason that a living thing should be illegal.

Jesus said that his mission was to a) bring people abundant life (John 10:10) and b) set the captives free (Luke 4:18-21). While drug addiction can certainly be both oppressive and life-destroying, our social policies have done far worse. Addressing this wrong will require us to acknowledge both the existence of white supremacy and the harm done by the War on Drugs.

Prayer:
Lord of Liberation and Life, we are born into oppressive systems which we did not design; but we can unmake them. Give us the courage and discernment to break every oppressive yoke.


Be Specific! (Dismantling White Supremacy)

White colleagues:

Dismantling white supremacy requires more than soul-searching. We also need to talk about policy. Specifically these three:

1) Criminal justice reform: end the disastrous, racially-motivated, failed war on drugs. Treat addiction like a public health problem. Reduce the number of people in prison and on probation.
2) End voter suppression, especially the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons; but also gerrymandering, voter ID, and other forms of suppression.
3) Make reparations. I am partial to Cory Booker’s “baby bonds” policy, but would certainly go for others. The goal here is to reduce inequality, and does not necessarily require proving enslaved, displaced, or other oppressed ancestry.

These three represent the community organizing principle of bodies, ballots, and bucks. White supremacy is manifest in the way violence is inflicted on bodies, political power is drained, and economic power is reduced.

There is certainly personal, relational, spiritual work that needs to be done by people with whiteness, and that gets hashed out on social media a lot. Most of it can be distilled into people shouting “TRY HARDER!” which may feel good to say but is ultimately unspecific and demotivating. But these are concrete *policy* issues that we need to talk about and support to dismantle white supremacy. Some are actual bills in front of your state legislature this year.

Why these particular three?
A) There are *only* three because three is easy to remember when you talk to your white friends and family.
B) There is already bipartisan support and momentum for some of them (specific bills for the first two).
C) They affect the material conditions of people’s lives, and disproportionately affect black folks. But they *also* affect a lot of white folks.
D) Victory can be leveraged for more power in the future,
E) You might even convince your racist friends and family to support them.
F) I’ve placed them in what I believe is an ascending order of difficulty, but YMMV.
G) There could certainly be others and I will gladly accept correction by either black folks or experts on policy.

White allies need to get well-versed in policy. I don’t actually care* if someone agrees with me about the sources and abstract mental models of what racism is. Don’t bother trying to get them to admit or recognize privilege, because a) it only makes them defensive and b) those things don’t necessarily affect the material conditions of people’s lives.

You can’t convince crazy Uncle Roy that he suffers from white privilege, so ask him instead if it makes sense to pay $30K a year to keep people in prison instead of paying $3K a year on a drug recovery program. Ask him if he thinks it’s good that “The Land of the Free” incarcerates more people than any nation on earth. Appeal to his values.

These are topics we know white people will budge on if framed the right way.

Root out implicit bias, do the internal work, deal with white fragility, yes, sure, absolutely. But when we talk about white folks talking to white folks, we need to avoid the rhetorical conversion fallacy: I don’t actually need to get people to *agree* with me. And it may be easier to get traction with some folks talking about policy rather than feelings and attitudes.

Also, people don’t actually tend to change from the inside out. They don’t have a conversion experience and then change behavior. They change from the outside in. (I’m a preacher, and I’m VERY skeptical of the power of internal conversion.)

So talk about concrete things: 1) criminal justice reform, 2) ending voter suppression, and 3) reparations. Those are way more important than getting Uncle Roy to stop saying “All Lives Matter.”

*(Okay, I DO care about how white people understand racism, and I WANT them to do the spiritual work, but I also know not to throw pearls before swine. I need to think about the intended outcome of a conversation when we enter it, and if it’s to make people agree with me, I’ve probably already lost.**)

**(Once you abandon the conversion fallacy, you are more free both to listen and to speak. Creating disruption and discomfort are also legit rhetorical goals. You do not have to “win.”)

That is all.

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.

Tell a Better Story

Rick Santelli rants about “losers” during the 2009 financial crisis.

I want to remind you of this.

This was in February of 2009. The housing bubble had burst. Financial speculators and banks crashed the economy. Unemployment went up to 7.5%. The jobless claims, highest in 26 years, climbed to a whopping 600,000. In the midst of what became a global financial crisis, this man, Rick Santelli, in what became a viral rant, rejected the idea of a stimulus to people who were losing what little wealth they had accumulated in their homes. He called them “losers who couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages” and balked at the notion he should “help pay for their extra bathrooms.”

In comparison to the crisis we face now, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 seems almost quaint.

We know what happened: Somehow, in the midst of a recession, people whose biggest hurt was losing a little bit of value from their stock portfolio shifted the blame from speculators onto people who didn’t own stocks, whose biggest dream of financial security was owning a home.

I’m glad that the term “gaslighting” has gotten some traction in the intervening years, because this is exactly what that moment was: gaslighting on a massive scale. It takes some gall to blame a crisis manufactured by rich people on middle-class and poor people. Not only were they pissing on us and telling us it was raining—they were blaming us for not bringing an umbrella.

And it didn’t take much to turn “taxed enough already” into some catchphrases for white resentment. Our oligarchs found common cause with white folks who resented a black president. And of course, it affected historically marginalized people—black folks, single women, immigrants, and children—disproportionately. Just like now.

I need to point out that this was an *engineered* crisis. Human beings created it. It was not caused by a virus. Now we face a new crisis, and although it wasn’t engineered by wealthy people playing with money, it has certainly been compounded by them. Because we do not have universal health care, guaranteed time off, and other worker protections, people are forced to work in dangerous conditions, cannot get tested, and do not have the means to self-isolate.

For the last few decades, whenever the notion of universal health care is brought up, they ask, “Who is going to pay for it?” We’re ALL paying for it, right now. We are going to be paying for NOT having universal health care for decades.

This principle has never been clearer: that if my neighbor is not able to thrive, it affects me. Our mutual interdependence means that if my neighbor lacks health care, my own health is endangered. It has never been clearer that blame for this crisis cannot be pinned on the people it hurts. This is not about someone buying “an extra bathroom” they can’t afford.

It has never been clearer that a “social safety net” is not just for my neighbor who is down on their luck — it is for me, for my protection, because it is better for all of us if things like education, health care, and a basic standard of living are available for everyone. It doesn’t make sense for us to pay $30,000 a year to house a prisoner if we could subsidize a drug treatment program for $2000 a year.

“Extra bathroom” my ass. We are ALL paying for not caring for our neighbors.

By the way, in March, Santelli suggested just letting people die from the virus. So yeah. A tiger and his stripes, and all that. They are going to blame us for not bringing an umbrella AGAIN. The only modern industrialized country in the world without universal health care has become the epicenter of preventable death and unnecessary suffering.

Like Pharaoh, they are going to say the reason we don’t want to make bricks with straw, or hamburgers without PPE, is that we are “lazy, lazy” (Exodus 5:8). They do not know the story—that leaders with hardened hearts bring MORE plagues upon their country.

As a person of faith, I understand that we live by certain stories. This is the only script they know.

We have so many better ones.

Social Justice isn’t as Dangerous for Evangelicalism as White Guys

Maybe you’ve seen that there is a conference scheduled for Birmingham. A bunch of white guys are going to talk about “Dangers of Social Justice for Evangelicalism.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-24 at 6.09.57 AM

detail of panel from event page

Maybe you remember Mormon white guy Glenn Beck saying that social justice was a perversion of the gospel, and that you should leave your church if they used that phrase.

Maybe you remember white guy Supreme Court Justice Powell, before he was a Supreme Court Justice, writing a memo in 1971 to prominent white guys in business. Among other things, he told them that they needed to wise up to the threat posed by social justice preached from pulpits.

Maybe you are aware that for fifty years, coalitions of mostly white guys have been trying to root out social justice from mainline denominations, or destroy them from within if they cannot.

All of these white guys are right. Social justice IS a threat to evangelicalism.

Of course,  #Not all white evangelicals. Some, I assume, are good people.*

The danger of social justice to evangelicalism is that people might begin to see clearly that white evangelicals do not speak for Jesus. Or Christianity. Or God.

That people might begin to see the connection between a violent atonement theology and violent systems of oppression.

That people might see that the doctrine of hell, and the notion that we all deserve it, gives those in power an excuse to inflict hell on others, either personally or through policy.

That people might begin to realize that a great theological starting point to subjugating a continent, enslaving people, and committing genocide, is defining sin as rebellion.

That white guys might lose something.

Yes, unless white evangelicalism can reckon honestly with its past and define itself as something other than a tool of white supremacy, social justice is a danger to evangelicalism.

Or perhaps the real danger to evangelicalism is white guys. 


*The defensiveness around these statistics is interesting. Several evangelical authors try to spin these numbers in a positive direction. Christianity Today says that white evangelicals saved the day in Alabama’s senate election by not showing up, effectively giving credit to white evangelicals that should go to black women. The authors at CT and The Gospel Coalition object to the framing that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. It isn’t true, all of these authors argue, that 80% of white evangelicals voted for these candidates, only that 80% of voters who identified as white evangelicals and showed up at the polls did. Yet nearly-identical percentages voted for both Moore and Trump, and in surveys, 70% continue to view Trump favorably. So while it may be true to say “not all white evangelicals,” it misses the point that there is something specifically about being white and evangelical in this historical moment that only white evangelicals can deal with.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

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.

Why Should People of Faith Care About Mass Incarceration?

13th_(film)

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:

Proverbs 24:10-12
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:

Stats on Homicide Rates by Country:

Conservative Support for Prison Reform:

Causes of Mass Incarceration:

Film Documentaries & Videos About Mass Incarceration and Slavery:

Primary Sources:

United Methodist Sources:

Different/Opposing Views:

Organizations Working to End Mass Incarceration

For Further Reading: