News, views, notes, and quotes

19 March 2015  •  No. 14

Invocation. “Why, when God's world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places?” —Rumi

Remarkable news. “South Africa may be one of just 10 countries in the world to permit same-sex marriage—not to mention the only country in Africa—but it is also a place where the assault, rape and murder of lesbians remains a troublingly common issue. At the same time, however, a brave effort is taking shape to counter this hatred and violence. Among the groups leading the charge is Luleki Sizwe, founded in 2005 by Ndumie Funda. The group’s main objective is to put an end to corrective rape—a phenomenon where men rape lesbian women with the belief that it will somehow correct them of their sexuality.” —Ray Mwareya-Mhondera, “South Africa’s brave struggle against lesbian hate crimes”

Good news you likely didn’t hear. An interfaith crowd of more than 1,000 surrounded Oslo, Norway’s main synagogue on Saturday 21 February, chanting “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia.” The event, organized by Muslim youth in the city, was done in solidarity with Norway’s Jewish community on the heels of the murder of two people outside the synagogue the previous week.
        One of the event organizers, 17-year-old Hajrad Arshad, explained that the intention was to make a clear statement that Muslims don’t support anti-Semitism. “We think that after the terrorist attacks in Copenhagen, it is the perfect time for us Muslims to distance ourselves from the harassment of Jews that is happening,” Arshad told the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. She noted that the group aimed to “extinguish the prejudices people have against Jews and against Muslims.” [Photo credit: Reuters]

Confession. “Like many people concerned about ‘humanity,’ [European novelist Arthur Koestler] was contemptuous of actual humans. —description of Koestler by Christopher Caldwell, in a review of Michael Scammel’s Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, New York Times Book Review

Words of assurance. “If we were terrified of God as an inexorable judge, we would not confidently await God's mercy, or approach God trustfully in prayer. Our peace, our joy in Lent are a guarantee of grace.” —Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration

Art at left ©Miranda Hassett.

Prayers of intercession. “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”  —Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Congratulations! This year is the 25th anniversary of the historic American With Disabilities Act of 1990—though churches were exempted from its provisions. A coalition of faith groups is seeking 2,500 faith communities to formally pledge (prior to 26 July) their commitment to full implementation of the Act’s provisions. Consider putting this initiative to your congregation. Even if you’re already in compliance, there is pastoral value in having this conversation. You can find the pledge here. Among the campaign’s co-sponsors are:
        •The Collaborative on Faith and Disability, a clearinghouse for ongoing projects, best practices, upcoming events and other resources addressing topics at the intersection of disability, spirituality and faith communities.
        • The Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition, a program of the American Association of People with Disabilities, has produced church resources to raise awareness about ways to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
        •The ADA National Network has a Facebook page for idea sharing, questions, activities and other resources including links to faith and disability program websites. —information from Baptist News Global Today

¶ Americans With Disabilities Act meets Women’s History Month: The Helen Keller you never knew. Helen Keller is most often depicted simply as a courageous individual who overcame the severe phyisical obstacles of being deaf and blind. But that’s not half the story.
       Newspaper photo (right) of Helen Keller joining the actors’ strike picket line at the premiere of the silent film “Deliverance,” about her own life.
       “Helen Keller worked throughout her long life to achieve social justice; she was an integral part of many social movements in the 20th century,” writes Ruth Shagoury in “Who Stole Helen Keller?”  But she was also an activist and author, writing frequently on disability and class, socialism, women, and war.
        “On August 18th, 1919, Helen Keller took part in a strike called by Actor’s Equity—joining the picket line against the debut of the silent film Deliverance, about her own life. Not only did she join in the picket line, she spoke at the union’s strike meetings in support of their dispute with management regarding their wages. She declared she would 'rather have the film fail than aid the managers in their contest with the players.' (The New York Call also was the first newspaper to publish Keller’s article, “How I Became a Socialist,” in 1912.)"

Disabilities of a different sort. “In response to a racist chant by a group of fraternity brothers the president of Oklahoma University acted quickly to denounce their actions. That was good. There absolutely needed to be accountability for using hateful and horrific language.
        “But then the predictable pattern fell into place. It was the same old triple crown of punishment for a failing. Blame ‘em, shame ‘em and shun ‘em.
        “What if the OU president had said, ‘What happened is deplorable. There are consequences. We will not tolerate any language that denigrates or disrespects anyone, regardless of race, religion, gender or class. Yet we are aware that we all suffer from living within a racist and biased culture of prejudices. We are in this together. The students will remain on campus so that we can learn together. Together we will learn about the paralyzing systems of injustice that bind and constrict us. Together we will seek to discover a mercy that unites us and strengthens us to change for the common good.’” —Nancy Hastings Sehested in last Sunday's sermon, “Astounded by Forgiveness”

It is painful, but I do believe we need to hear the un-bleeped video version of that fraternity pep rally-like chant (sung to a tune eerily similar to “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands”). And I do believe we need to read the uncensored lyrics: “There will never be a nigger SAE [Sigma Alpha Epsilon] / There will never be a nigger SAE / You can hang ‘em from a tree, but it will never start with me / There will never be a nigger SAE.”

Can't make this %#!@ up. Thankfully, social media outrage prompted retailer T.J. Maxx to pull these "hang loose noose" t-shirts.

Hymn of petition. Mercy Now  by Mary Gauthier. This version uses photos from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, whose 10th anniversary is this August, a “natural” disaster which exposed—as much as anything else to that point—the “unnatural” divisions of race and class in our nation.

Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror documents Equal Justice Initiative’s multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states during the period between Reconstruction and World War II. EJI researchers documented 3959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950—at least 700 more lynchings of black people in these states than previously reported in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date.

In a recent speech, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson said:
        • “I don’t think slavery ended. I believe it just evolved.”
        • “Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”
        •Some 10,000 children are housed in adult jails and prisons, where they are at least five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than if they were in juvenile facilities.

Here’s an “extended” interview with Stevenson by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”  (It’s worth enduring the open ad.)

Two books that bring to the surface the structural racism of our nation’s criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is the go-to book documenting Bryan Stevenson comment (above) that “slavery didn’t end, it just evolved.” According to the New York Times Book Review, Alexander's “book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America."
        Where Alexander’s book provides a rigorous analysis of how “slavery has evolved” (as Stevenson says), Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption tells concrete stories. The Washington Post says Stevenson “surely has done as much as any other living American to vindicate the innocent and temper justice with mercy for the guilty.”

Here’s an interview of Alexander by Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report.”

Some words are worth a thousand pictures. “Nothing sucks more about prison than missing the people who own beach front property in your heart.” —JEG, prison inmate, in a letter to a former prison chaplain

Some basic facts on prison and race from the American Civil Liberty Union
        •From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people.
        •The US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.
        •African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population.
        •African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
        •Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.
        •About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug.
        •Although five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.

McAfee School of Theology student Jordan Yeager (pictured at left, photo by David Garber) has been an advocate on behalf of Georgia death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner whose execution was postponed last week. David Garber, McAfee associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew and the faculty advisor for the Certificate in Theological Studies for women at the Arrendale State Prison, said “Many students have written eloquent papers on capital punishment and on restorative justice” during the run-up and aftermath to Gissendale’s scheduled execution. —Baptist News Global Today

The good news is that out-of-control prison costs have forced conservatives and liberals to agree on commonsensical alternatives. And Texas is leading the way. It began with Texas attorney Marc Levin, who has become one of the nation's leading advocates of conservative criminal-justice reform. “How is it 'conservative' to spend vast amounts of taxpayer money on a strategy without asking whether it is providing taxpayers with the best public safety return on their investment?" In 2007 Texas legislators voted to spend an eighth of a proposed $2 billion prison budget increase on drug courts and rehabilitative programs for addicts and mentally ill prisoners. Since then the state’s incarceration rate has fallen by 20% and crime rate is at its lowest since 1968.

Prisons are to crime what greenhouses are to plants. —Harry Whittington, former member of the Texas Board of Corrections and the bonding authority that builds prisons.

Every pastoral agent—clergy and lay leaders alike—should become familiar with the phrase “restorative justice.” For a start, get a copy of Howard Zehr’s The Little Book of Restorative Justice ($4.95) and bookmark the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice site.
       Retributive justice asks “What law has been broken? Who broke it? How should they be punished?” Restorative justice asks “What harm has been done? What needs to be done to repair the harm? Who is responsible for repairing the harm?” (For more, see “If You Do Well,” Ken Sehested’s sermon on restorative justice.)

Lection for Sunday next. “Jesus entered Jerusalem, then entered the Temple. He looked around, taking it all in. But by now it was late. . . . —Mark 11:11, The Message. The lectionary editors stop short of the rest of the (“I’ll be back”) story.

¶ Preach it. Writing 25 years ago, as if a seer of current headlines, Vincent Harding wrote: “On the harshest national level we saw again that race is like a bone stuck in our throat, refusing both digestion and expulsion, endangering our life. . . . “ This news testifies “to the unmistakable need and desire of our nation to deal with its terrifying and compelling history, to exorcise the demons of our racial past and present, perhaps even to discover the healing possibilities that reside in our many-hued and wounded variations on the human theme.” —Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement

Altar call. “In order to change the world, you sometimes have to choose to do uncomfortable things. You have to choose to be in places that are uncomfortable,” which he calls the “power of proximity.” —Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Benediction. “Yes, the Pope, who beat Edward Snowden for Time magazine’s [2013] ‘Person of the Year,’ is astonishing. I must admit that even as a secular Jew, this pope fills me with awe. He sneaks out at night to feed the homeless; invites homeless people to celebrate his birthday in the Vatican; washes the feet of young prisoners; says he is not one to judge gay people; calls on the church to get beyond its fixation on reproduction and sexual morality; debunks trickle-down economics and questions the morality of capitalism; lives simply and loves to take public transportation. What a cool guy!—Medea Benjamin, director of CODEPINK

Featured this week on prayer&politiks:
• “Astounded by Forgiveness,” a sermon by Nancy Hastings Sehested
• “The Palm and the Passion,” a litany for Palm Sunday
• “Confrontation in Jerusalem,” a Palm Sunday sermon
• “If You Do Well,” a sermon on restorative justice
• “Blessed unrest,” a litany for worship

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