Ten years ago, when we were starting a little community in Durham, NC, that wanted to take Jesus and justice seriously, we went every year to the annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association. Back then, a long weekend with two thousand people who were walking the same journey felt like an oasis. We never missed it.
About that time, Charles Marsh, a great theologian and historian at the University of Virginia, published his book The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. With good research and compelling story-telling, Marsh connected the dots between Martin Luther King, Koinonia Farm, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and CCDA. What happened to the civil rights movement after 1968, Marsh asked? It didn’t die. It went underground, off the radar, and continued doing the long hard work that thousands of faithful souls had been doing before 1955.
What most Americans don’t know-what I didn’t know until other young organizers taught me-is that ICE does not have to detain any person who has not committed a crime in the U.S. While our government tries to sort out the complex issue of immigration reform, Asst. Secretary of Homeland Security John Morton has instructed each local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office to exercise “prosecutorial discretion.”
This means that detention centers across the U.S. are full of nonviolent, law-abiding people who have been separated from their families and communities. And nothing requires them to be there. They could be released today.
Attorney Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice
Daryl Atkinson isn’t just quoting statistics when he talks about America’s most overlooked domestic crisis-mass incarceration as a result of the War on Drugs. 2.3 million people in prison, nearly 7 million in our criminal justice system. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world. Since the early 1980′s, when our War on Drugs was declared, incarceration rates have increased by nearly 800%. The result: 65 million Americans-most of them people of color-have been relegated to a criminal caste that is denied access to employment, federal housing, and financial assistance for education.
Daryl quotes these facts from memory, rapid fire. They are a part of the stump speech he gives dozens of times each week, no doubt. But on this particular Sunday afternoon at the end of April, as we’re sitting before a mass meeting that our local NAACP has called to address “racial profiling,” Daryl says something important. “I’m not here because I know this stuff. I’m here because I spent 40 months in an Alabama state prison on a nonviolent drug crime. I’m here because I’m a victim of America’s War on Drugs. And there’s nothing special about me. I left a thousand intelligent brothers behind the walls.”
Ella Baker, community organizer and mother of SNCC
Ms. Juanita teaches three year-olds at the Head Start program downtown. She stays just a few doors down from us in Walltown, but I never see her in the morning. She catches a bus to work long before I come downstairs, put the kettle on for tea, and walk down to the sidewalk to get the newspaper. A room full of three year-olds is no walk in the park. (I know; mine usually wakes up before the tea is done.) But when Ms. Juanita sends the last kid home with her parents at the end of the day, she catches another bus to night school. She’s been keeping this schedule for over three years now.
Most nights after dinner is done and the dishes are washed-about the time we’re getting ready to start the bedtime routine with our kids-Ms. Juanita comes walking down from the bus stop. She’s tired, of course, which she’ll tell you. But she always has time to ask how our kids are doing, to tell a story from her day, to talk about the most recent neighborhood news. For the past couple of years, she and I have coached a 7-8 year-olds basketball team together. One night a week thru the winter, we head off for practice about this time in the evening. I’m always amazed that Ms. Juanita is still standing.
When we moved to Walltown ten years ago, we got to know Ms. Juanita’s kids. They’d come by our house in the afternoons and often stayed for dinner. They were middle school kids with sweet smiles. In their early twenties now, they both still live with mom. One is in school, the other has been in and out of jail for the past two years.
In an act that echoed the backroom negotiations of Temple court lawyers 2,000 years ago, Senator Thom Goolsby (R-New Hannover) pushed a bill through Senate committee on Tuesday of Holy Week that would resume executions in North Carolina.
Ironically, his supporters argued that the cross justifies their desire for retributive justice.
Noting that no one has been executed in our state since 2006, Goolsby argued that the 156 people who have been sentenced to death are a living offense to their victim’s families and to our criminal justice system. In their objections, death penalty opponents point to recent Public Policy Polling data that suggests 68% of North Carolinians favor repealing the death penalty if those who have been convicted of capital crimes receive a life sentence instead. Other polls, however, point to a much closer divide on the issue. Economists, criminologists, public policy analysts, and victims rights advocates all have their points to make in this debate.
Ten years ago this week, Leah and I joined a group of peacemakers in Baghdad during our government’s “Shock and Awe” campaign. The experience has shaped the rest of our life. As I remember the millions of people, both Iraqi and American, whose lives have been affected, a reflection on what I learned there:
I am sitting in the lobby of a small hotel in Baghdad, listening to an American grandmother who has spent her last six months in Iraq. She is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a literal reserves for foot soldiers in the army of the Lord. Since 1986, CPT has made it their mission to “get in the way” of violence by practicing direct action nonviolence in conflict zones. I grew up singing camp songs about being in “the Lord’s army,” but never imagined the call of duty would lead me here. I am in a war zone, my head foggy from several nights of interrupted sleep, looking to a wiser soul for direction.
I’m grateful to Tyler Wigg-Stevenson and the conversation he’s invited with his new book, The World Is Not Ours to Save. It is a challenge for high-strung activists who come from privilege to acknowledge our limits and learn to lean on the Lord.
For folks who consider themselves “progressive,” it is a call to more conservative religion.
The confession at the heart of Tyler’s book is one that exposes how much the early 20th century Social Gospel and the late 20th century Religious Right had in common-namely, the assumption of power and privilege. At different times and in different settings, these movements had differing opinions about which way to steer history. But the purchase of each-the energy that drove the activists in both movements-was the belief that it is our job to save America.
As a white person who was captivated by the latter movement in my teens, I know this temptation well. But as someone who has spent the past fifteen years learning social engagement from America’s black-led Freedom Movement, I don’t see “cause-fatigue” as our greatest challenge. True, if you’re a 20-something who thinks you’re going to change the world by ending nuclear armament or drilling a million wells in Africa, you’re going to wear out. There’s not a smart phone smart enough to keep you fighting windmills like that into the second stage of life.
Every week at Rutba House, we have a time of confession. Years ago, we decided it was an importance practice to have in place, whether we need it this week or not. In community, we’re going to mess up. We all need space to be reconciled.
Often, when it’s time for confession, we sit in silence together and look at the ground.
But I’ve noticed something over the years: whenever one person is honest enough to confess their failure, everyone else inevitably joins them.
What’s more, we feel closer to one another when we do. Because we know we’re not perfect. But we’re forgiven. And because we are, we can get up and keep going together.
My friend Chris Heuertz has a new book out called Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community. I love it because it’s all about failure-how to fail well and be honest about it. Which makes it one of the more honest books on community I’ve read.
Today Christians in Durham join sisters and brothers around the world to begin the season of penance that we call Lent. Pastors and priests call us to “remember you are dust and to the dust you shall return.” Recognizing that our sinful inclination is toward hubris, we dedicate forty days to the imitation of Christ’s humility through the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
But this year, Christians in Durham face a challenge: we cannot give to the beggar on our city’s streets because panhandling has been outlawed in Durham.
In a consensus agenda that City Council unanimously passed at their December 2012 meeting, ordinance #14375 went on the books, effective January 17, 2013. Council has been adamant that this new ordinance does not outlaw begging in Durham. And on that point, they are technically correct. The new ordinance only outlaws begging on the medians and exit ramps where our most vulnerable neighbors have been standing to ask for our help in recent years. To these neighbors, the distinction makes little difference.
A few years ago my friend Dorothy Bass, who directs the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith, wrote to ask me if I’d help write a book presenting the Christian faith to “emerging adults.” At the time I didn’t know what an “emerging adult” was, but when I heard the description, I knew that it fit. This was me, in many ways. It was the folks I’d gone to school with, the college students I speak to on campuses around the country. The children of Christendom, we grew up with a notion of adulthood that included growing up to be Christian. Maybe you sow your wild oats for a while. But when you come home, you come home to Mother church. That’s the story I grew up hearing. But a whole lot of people in my generation learned to read the Christian story critically. We have friends who are Muslim, Buddhist, and agnostic. We don’t live close the the church we grew up in. Having grown up, millennials aren’t sure what it looks like to grow into faith.
Dorothy’s idea was that we could best present the Christian faith to emerging adults by showing how it consists of everyday practices that make up a whole life–practices that look different, even strange, if the stuff Christians believe is really true. A believer myself, I thought the project sounded worth the time. But I also invited an agnostic friend along–a fellow who isn’t too impressed by God-talk. I asked him to keep me honest.
When we’d finished the first draft of On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life, I asked my agnostic friend to read it. “If this is what Christianity is really about,” he said to me, “I think I like it.” I’ve got a feeling that most millennials are going to have to have a reason to like a faith before they’ll ever believe that it’s true.