On the U.S. Prison System and the Church

You tell me Jesus forgives me, how come your church never does?

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.

Matthew 25

[This is the 3rd post in a series highlighting portions of The Truth About 13th.]

Throughout the hour-long discussion, the LRJ panel reflects on the experience of people who are in prison and their families. In the clip above, Rev. Blake tells a story about a friend who was formerly incarcerated asking him: “You tell me Jesus forgives me. How come your church never does?”

It’s a startling question. What would it mean for us, as a church, to express forgiveness of people who have been in prison? I’ve not thought of it much until seeing this, but surely it would involve actively welcoming them into the life of our congregations and seeking the well-being of their families.

Chaplain Schwarz advises that, “you don’t just incarcerate an individual, you incarcerate a family.” (I’m not sure it’s mentioned in the video, but in the live chat several people recommended supporting Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree ministry as a tangible way to love families with a parent who is incarcerated.)

Later, Rev. Lattimore reflects on the difference between punitive justice and restorative justice. Our criminal justice system is focused on punishment but as Christians our life’s work is to seek restoration.

I have not specifically highlighted a section where Jacq Wilson speaks, but hearing him tell about his brother’s time in prison and the feeling of helplessness in the face of the criminal justice system is powerful. He calls it dehumanizing. He talks about the risk of becoming hopeless. He testifies to the power of faith in Christ to keep hope alive even in that overwhelming circumstance.

Please take time to watch part or all of this discussion. It is worth your time.

On Critical Race Theory

Should we be afraid of critical race theory?

“In the church when we talk about any issues around race or criminal justice it brings up the question of should we be afraid of Critical Race Theory? Could you give us a working definition and talk about that idea?”

I had never heard of critical race theory (CRT), and then suddenly I heard it and now it seems to be everywhere. As the question quoted above reflects, sometimes Christians express fear of critical race theory, believing, I think, that it draws people away from the gospel. CRT is a way of describing how racism works in the United States, how deeply embedded it is in many systems. It was first developed by legal scholars and now informs scholarship in many areas.

The Southern Baptist Convention has been in a relatively high profile debate over CRT. President Trump issued an executive order banning diversity training rooted in CRT.

Every Christian social justice leader I follow has addressed critical race theory in about the same way: “I’d never heard of CRT until someone ‘accused’ me of using it. Then I looked into it and realized, hey, this describes what I’ve been seeing!”

I appreciated how the LRJ panel addressed this topic. Dr. Koehlinger and Rev. Lattimore both address the question from their different perspectives – academic and theological.

When Rev. Bolling picks up the discussion later, he addresses the connection between a theory (like critical race theory) and a concrete experience (like the criminal justice system, which disproportionately punishes people of color). He compares it to the theory of gravity and a child’s ice cream falling on the floor. Whether or not you are willing to discuss the theory of gravity, the effect of gravity happens: ice cream on the floor, inedible. We can refuse to discuss CRT, but it is just describing an actual experience people are having in the world. With or without the theory, the experience remains.

The panel’s discussion here met a need for me and I am thankful for it.

Coming next: On the U.S. prison system and the church

Why study history?

For Christians who advocate for racial justice, understanding a Biblical perspective on justice is essential. It’s also complicated, and ongoing, and sometimes controversial.

So I was intrigued when Lutherans for Racial Justice hosted a panel discussion in response to the Netflix documentary 13th in early December. The panel discussed several issues related to criminal justice and racial justice from their perspective as Lutheran Christians.

The discussion is over an hour long, so over three days this week I’m going to post a short description of one portion of the discussion I found helpful. Each post will have a link to the video that starts at the relevant point. (The video above will start from the beginning of the discussion.)

  • Today: On the value of learning history
  • Wednesday: On Critical Race Theory
  • Friday: On the U.S. prison system and the church

On the value of learning history

What do you know about Black history in America? What do you know about the role of the church during Civil Rights? For most of us the answer is, “Not much.” Does that matter?

Why is understanding the history and experience of Black Americans important?

Our denomination is predominantly White, and we need to make a concerted effort to learn Black history. Rev. Lattimore shows us that this is a need that was identified by our church body more than 50 years ago. In 1968, seminary president J.A.O. Preus wrote that, “the white majority in our Lutheran Churches needs to listen very carefully to what [our Lutheran negro clergymen are saying]… because we need to give to the black man in our churches a position of dignity and equality, which he feels (and probably rightly) that he has not heretofore enjoyed.” (The Springfielder, Summer, 1968)

Dr. Koehlinger talks about the church’s role in the Civil Rights movement and points out that, although we prefer to remember the ways the church supported freedom and dignity, our history is more complicated: for abolition AND for slavery; supporting racial integration AND supporting Jim Crow laws.

Taking an honest account of the church’s role in the struggle for racial justice is essential to moving forward as agents of true hope. God can’t use us to bring healing if we do not acknowledge our complicity with sin. A study of The Color of Compromise, beginning January 11, is one way to do that. Registration is open until Friday, January 8. Find the details here.

LRJ Panel members – Rev. Kyle Blake, Rev. Dr. Gerard Bolling, Dr. Amy Koehlinger, Rev. Warren Lattimore, Chaplain Lorinda Schwarz, and attorney Jacq Wilson.

Coming Wednesday: LRJ Panel On Critical Race Theory

Color of Compromise

“Churches remain racially segregated and are largely ineffective in addressing complex racial challenges. In The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby takes us back to the root of this injustice in the American church, highlighting the cultural and institutional tables we have to flip in order to bring about progress between black and white people.”

“This book provides an in-depth diagnosis for a racially divided American church and suggests ways to foster a more equitable and inclusive environment among God’s people.” Read more here.

In the last several months, Jemar Tisby’s book on the history of racism in and around the American church has become a bestseller. He is speaking to the moment we are in right now.

There is a video study version of this material, which we can watch as a group and discuss together. Would you join us?

Who: Christians who are concerned about racism and ready to learn.

What: Group meeting via Zoom for The Color of Compromise Video Study

When: Mondays, 7-8:30 p.m., January 11- March 22

Where: On Zoom

Why: The church needs to be honest about her complicity with racism and actively work against it.

How: We will meet up at 7:00, watch a video (usually 20-25 minutes) together via Zoom, then discuss as a group. If we have a large group, we will spend much of our time in breakout rooms.

Please register by completing this simple Google form. The Zoom link will be sent the week before our first meeting. Registration closes Friday, Jan. 8.

Recommended Reading: Books

Reading is a great way to grow in knowledge and imagination. There is so much outside my life experience and reading helps me start to see how my neighbors’ lives might be different from mine. These books are some of my favorites on poverty and racial division/reconciliation.

***********************************************

The Color of Law (2017, Rothstein)

Rothstein’s book directly addresses this question: Is racial segregation in housing de facto (resulting from individual choices) or de jure (created by law and public policy?

Chapter by chapter he illuminates how we created this system by public policy. We chose to be racially segregated.

“When the St. Louis developer Charles Vatterott procured Federal Housing Administration-sponsored financing for his St. Ann suburb, he had to include language in deeds stating that ‘no lot or portion of a lot or building erected thereon shall be sol, leased, rented or occupied by any other than those of the Caucasian race.” (Rothstein, p. 85) Housing developers needed the security of government-backed loans to build; the government required racial discrimination.

Please read this book to understand how public policy can create wealth for some and poverty for others. Even after unjust policies are changed, generational effects persist and we need to understand them.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2015, Stevenson)

“The story of the Equal Justice Initiative, from the early days with a small staff facing the nation’s highest death sentencing and execution rates, through a successful campaign to challenge the cruel practice of sentencing children to die in prison, to revolutionary projects designed to confront Americans with our history of racial injustice.”

It’s a compelling read weaving individual stories with clear explanations of criminal justice policy and the racism woven into our policies. It is also full of grace and mercy and a deep understanding that we are all broken.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016, Desmond)

“Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” (Desmond)

Like many of the books recommended here, Desmond combines individual people’s stories with clear explanations of policies. We need to understand how the combination of policies, exploitation, community resources, and individual choices make poverty persist.

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives (2014, Mullainathan & Shafir)

These authors show how experiencing scarcity affects how we think and how we solve problems. They separate the situation of scarcity from the person who is living with it. Very relevant to living in poverty, which is an environment characterized by scarcity.

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2000, Emerson & Smith)

An insightful, methodical examination of how the church explicitly opposes racism but structurally recreates a society divided by race. We cannot change what we do not see. This book revealed layers to our racial division that I could not see before.

Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces the Keep Us Apart (2013, Cleveland)

Class, race, doctrine, geography… there are so many things that separate us. What does it mean to be one in Christ? Can we draw the circle of “us” so that it truly includes everyone? Cleveland explores this with wisdom and grace.

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015, Edin & Shaefer)

A vivid picture of some individual families living in a very unstable situation. It also has a helpful overview of the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, including what the policymakers’ goals were and how it has fallen short.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000, Putnam)

We are disconnected from each other and from our communities. This book explores how that happened and why it matters.

When Helping Hurts book coverWhen Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself  (2009, Corbett & Fikkert)

What is the church’s role in alleviating poverty? This book is excellent. It is the basis of the video-based class I teach.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping (1994, Sapolsky)

Smart and funny. Especially worthwhile if you are interested in the relationship between socio-economic status and health.

#ReadBannedBooks

I heard about The Hate U Give when it came out last year. I intended to read it sometime.

Then my son started reading it in his 8th grade literature class. I intended to read it soon.

Then my son came home saying the teacher was told to stop teaching this book. I ran out to buy my own copy the next morning and talked my friends into reading it. Funny how banning a book can make it urgent and exciting

The Hate U Give felt familiar and strange, laugh-out-loud funny and tragic and hopeful. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in Garden Heights, a poor black neighborhood, and goes to Williamson, a private school in a wealthy white neighborhood. We readers glimpse how she navigates those two worlds and the tension between them.

At a party with her peers in Garden Heights, Starr feels self-conscious about fitting in. She tries to be unobtrusive. “I slip my hands into my pockets. As long as I play it cool and keep to myself, I should be fine. The ironic thing is though, at Williamson I don’t have to ‘play it cool’ — I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in Garden Heights. … Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until its hard to be black.”

What a true and terrible sentence! I am white and even I understand this.

The same careful self-awareness is with her at her prep school. “Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang — if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her ‘hood.’ Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the ‘angry black girl.’ Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is non confrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone reason to call her ghetto.

“I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.”

It’s normal for teenagers to try out different identities. But the heavy blanket of race-based assumptions that Starr must respond to is exhausting. Her image is carefully curated because it has to be. The choices she must make bring the color line into the light. Our society is organized by race and Starr’s life reveal the costs of that division.

Reading fiction lets see inside the life of someone whose experience is completely different from our own. Our ability to imagine the possibilities of someone else’s life expands. We need big imaginations if we’re going to love all our neighbors thoughtfully and well.

I suspect banned books are often like this. We ban them because we feel uncomfortable, or somehow threatened. The discomfort, the perceived threat, hints that these books also have the capacity to broaden our perspective in significant ways.

The teacher who assigned this book is one of the few people of color on the school’s faculty. She told me that this is the first book she’s read where she saw herself. I was stunned. I’ve read SO MANY BOOKS with protagonists who are like me!

The student population at this school is about half Hispanic, one-fifth Black, one-fifth White. We all need to see ourselves in books. And movies. And TV. In politics, in the pulpit, in lab coats… Representation matters. 

The Hate U Give is back on that teacher’s syllabus this year.

The American Library Association keeps a list of the 10 most banned books by year. A decade ago, it included many titles we now consider classics: Of Mice and Men. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. All the Harry Potter books.

Read a banned book or two. The Hate U Give is a good place to start, especially because then you can see the movie.

Why Are Our Neighborhoods Divided by Race?

My region, like most around the country, is generally divided by race. There are communities where the residents are mostly white next door to communities where the residents are  mostly people of color. These racial divisions usually accompany differences in wealth. Why is that?

It’s because we designed it that way. After World War II when the GI bill made home mortgages widely available to returning soldiers and their families, the U.S. government and the banks treated soldiers differently based solely on race. This 6-minute clip from the documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion explains it well:

Honoring Dr. King

Yesterday, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my social media feed was full of quotes from Dr. King. It’s good to see him remembered and his ideas passed on. God knows we still need his wisdom on fighting injustice.

Much as I love inspiring quotes, nothing compares to reading whole works. Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail — directed to the silent church and as relevant today as it was in 1963 — is worth the hour you will spend reading it. The full text and the audio of Dr. King reading the letter are online here.

In this letter, King outlines so thoroughly and compassionately and passionately the logic of the movement he led. That cannot be captured in a short quote. Don’t miss out.

Echo Welcome to Our Neighbors

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” -Jesus

“We welcome people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities into our churches, neighborhoods, homes and communities.” – 30+ Lake County churches in a joint statement

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” – You & me

I am sure we all try to live out this welcome in our lives. We strive to treat everyone we meet with respect and kindness that shines the light of Christ. Individual kindness is essential but not sufficient. We also need to announce it in public.

We need to find our megaphones and announce welcome to our neighborhoods and communities, to proclaim it loudly and invite others to join their voices.

The whisper of kindness in our individual relationships grows into a loud voice proclaiming welcome when we echo each other.

These yard signs are showing up in communities around the country. I plan to put one up in my yard. Some people might notice it. Some people might read it. Lots of people probably will not notice it.

 

 

 

 

 

But what if, on the next block, someone echoes it…

And a neighborhood over, it echoes again…

The welcome gets louder. The echoed message makes our neighborhood a more welcoming community, just as we have promised.

*******

Do you want to echo welcome to our neighbors? Drop me a note and we’ll connect!  I’ll order signs. The cost is $15 each. You can find my e-mail address is on the About page.

Silence is Not Neutral

After the the white nationalist march, counter protest, and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va. last month, dozens of churches in our area issued this statement together-

I didn’t grow up thinking much about race. Part of my racial identity as a white woman is that I don’t have to think about my race. The world doesn’t remind me that I’m white; it just receives me as an individual.

The freedom to ignore racism is a related privilege. Racism is evil but it doesn’t seem to affect my daily life.

Majority white churches have a habit of silence in the face of racism. Silence is not neutral, it’s not ok. After Charlottesville, Michael Eric Dyson wrote in the New York Times, “If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.”

This time we are not silent. This time, dozens of churches in Lake County, including several majority white congregations, spoke out together against racism.

We lament the insidious cancer of racism in the United States today….

I am so relieved to see this word, lament, in our joint statement. Lament is a prayer arising out of need. In our pain, we call out to God, trusting that he will respond to our suffering. This lament expresses the fact that we are one body, and when one suffers we all suffer.

We are grateful for the diversity of God’s world and we have much to learn from each other.

Living like people who are grateful for diversity is hard. It demands humility, that we value others as much as ourselves. It is also essential to our communities and to our growing in Christ.

Let’s continue to work together, to speak together, to pray together against oppression.

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!

Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.

Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (Psalm 44)