Category: common peace consensus

“Only a movement built on love”: Michelle Alexander at Riverside Church

“Now I want to be clear that when I’m talking about love, I’m not just talking about love for people who have committed crimes like we may have committed, crimes that we think are not so bad; I’m talking about the kind of care and love that keeps on loving no matter who you are or what you have done. It’s that kind of love that is needed to build this movement.”  (Michelle Alexander)

In the 1920s, with the fundamentalist-modernist controversy raging within his own Northern Baptist Convention, John D. Rockefeller built an architecturally imposing church in the heart of one of New York’s most prestigious neighborhoods, opened it to people of all Christian denominations and called an American Baptist preacher named Harry Emerson Fosdick to be his pastor.  Through the years, Riverside Church has become associated with prophetic preaching, dramatic worship and ecumenical mission.

In 1992, Riverside Church adopted a statement of faith proclaiming:  “the worship of God, known in Jesus, the Christ, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit … to serve God through word and witness, to treat all human beings as sisters and brothers; and to foster responsible stewardship of God’s creation … The church pledges itself to education, reflection, and action for peace and justice and the realization of the vision of the heavenly banquet where all are loved and blessed.”

This statement of faith nicely captures the conclusion of Michelle Alexander’s address at Riverside this past weekend.  Calling for “A great awakening” Alexander re-stated her firm belief that only a new social movement can end mass incarceration in America.  As her closing remarks make clear, this movement must be built on a solid moral foundation and, for those of us who follow Jesus, that means taking our Savior at his word.  (more…)

NT Wright: Osama bin Laden and the myth of redemptive violence

By N.T. Wright

N. T.  (Tom) Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham, is now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Scotland’s University of St Andrews

Osama bin Laden and the myth of redemptive violence

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.

What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says? (more…)

The freedom riders triumphed through non-violence

By Alan Bean

Leonard Pitts puts his finger on the key organizing principle of the freedom rider movement:

Everybody thinks they could get on that bus. It’s an easy thing to say. Then you remember the savagery, the violent attacks from people mortally outraged that these young men and women traveled in integrated groups and ignored segregation signs in bus-station restrooms and coffee shops. And you remember that the rules of engagement required pacifism: a willingness to get hit, and not hit back.

It required enormous courage to take the words of Jesus at face value:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile . . . You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

The implication is clear: if we hate our enemies, if we demand a tooth for a tooth, we cannot be children of our Father in heaven. (more…)

Freedom ride anniversary sparks questions about today’s young people

By Alan Bean

Last week, Oprah Winfrey shared her stage with 178 veterans of the 1961 Freedom Rides.   There they stood, black and white, mostly in their 70s, looking proud and maybe just a little embarrassed. 

The fiftieth anniversary of the freedom rides has sparked more retrospection than introspection.  Last summer, I discussed the freedom rides in detail on the eve of the trial of Curtis Flowers.  How much had changed, I asked, since thousands of heroic young people flocked to the South to challenge segregation laws and, more often than not, pay a visit to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison (where, incidentally, Curtis Flowers now resides).  The post has received 4,000 hits (that’s a lot by the modest standards of this blog), suggesting that interest in the freedom riders remains high.

An article in the Washington Post poses the obvious question: If all these young people were willing to place their lives on the line in 1961, why aren’t today’s young people demonstrating a similar dedication to justice?  Few real answers emerge.  American schools have essentially resegregated and nobody seems to care.  Jackson, Mississippi was the primary destination of the freedom riders.  In 1961, the Post article reports, Jackson was only one-third black, now, largely thanks to white flight, the school system is overwhelmingly black.  (more…)

Have we given up on the common good?

By Alan Bean

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War reminds us that America is as deeply divided now as it has ever been.  We can’t even agree about the basic meaning of the Civil War.  Was Robert E. Lee a hero or a villain?  

In the 1860s, and again in the 1960s, the federal government, albeit with deep misgivings, moved powerfully to defend the nation’s most vulnerable members.  Too marginalized to deserve the title “citizens,” 19th century slaves and the 20th century victims of Jim Crow segregation, were protected from the tyranny of the majority.  In the 1860s, the Republican Party controlled the process; by the 1960s, the Democrats were in charge–but the principle was the same.

As we wander aimlessly into the 21st century, the political divide is largely defined by the traumatic events of the 1860s and 1960s.  Conservatives are increasingly inclined to see the 1860s and 1960s as periods in which a tyrannical federal government crushed legitimate states’ rights.  In the liberal view, the demise of slavery and Jim Crow oppression are milestones in the long march to freedom.  To liberals, “states’ rights” is shorthand for state-sanctioned bigotry.

Tragically, neither conservatives or liberals give much thought to the ties that bind us together as a nation.  We are too fixated on the failings of our ideological opposites to examine what our side has lost.  As things stand, neither conservatives nor liberals have a narrative that all Americans, or even most Americans, can rally around. (more…)

Kellogg challenges the colorblind consensus

By Alan Bean

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently launched a $75 million grant-making program dedicated to racial healing.  “We believe that all children should have equal access to opportunity,” the foundation’s website reads.  “To make this vision a reality, we direct our grants and resources to support racial healing and to remove systemic barriers that hold some children back. We invest in community and national organizations whose innovative and effective programs foster racial healing. And through action-oriented research and public policy work, we are helping translate insights into new strategies and sustainable solutions.”

In an article written for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Dr. Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy, addressed the issue squarely:

The vision that guides the work of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is clear: we envision a nation that marshals its resources to assure that all children thrive.  What may be less self-evident to some is the pernicious and self-perpetuating way in which racism impedes many children’s opportunities to do so. (more…)

Right-winger + hard time = compassion

prisonBy Alan Bean

Why are so many right-wingers suddenly arguing the case for criminal justice reform?  In this fascinating piece in Salon, Justin Elliot of Salon directs this question to Doug Berman, author of the influential Sentencing Law and Policy blog

Here are the highlights:

1. Prison is far more brutal than most people believe it to be

2. Most of the conservatives currently leading the smart on crime crusade have been locked up: Duke Cunningham, Charles Colson, Pat Nolan, Conrad Black

3. The religious concept of redemption generally plays a large role in these conversions.

4. Historically, mass incarceration required the enthusiastic cooperation of the political left

5. When you do hard time you realize that harsh penalties are typically applied to crimes disproportionately committed by minorities

6. Busting budgets and historically low crime rates make this a good time for reform, but . . .

7. The political forces that drove mass incarceration are always lurking. (more…)

The Problem with Pornography

By Alan Bean

This site has had little to say on the subject of pornography.  Our primary agenda is shutting down the machinery of mass incarceration; a subject far removed, one would think, from a discussion of popular culture.  But if Robert Jensen is right, pornography is fundamentally about patriarchy, and patriarchy is about hierarchy: the powerful maintaining a dominant position over the powerless.  So maybe there is a connection, and not just because, as Jensen suggests, there may be a link between the explostion of internet pornography and sex crimes.

As Michelle Alexander suggests, we can’t reform the criminal justice system until we move away from the cruel and punitive public consensus driving the prison boom.  How do we move from a society built on a foundation of hierarchy, control and domination, to a society rooted in equality, love and conversation. 

The piece pasted below is a conversation between Robert Jensen, a fifty-two year-old journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and a twenty-four year-old writer for UT’s F-Bomb blog who keeps trying to argue for a kinder-gentler form of pornography.  Jensen argues that the social impact of the porn industry has changed radically in recent years and doesn’t think that’s a good thing for women or for men.  Jensen, by the way, is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, so he’s given this matter a great deal of thought. 

The Problem with pornography?

FBOMB: If you could briefly describe, what is the problem with pornography?

Robert Jensen: Well, let me first sort of step back. There has long been a conservative, typically religious critique of pornography that poses the problem of pornography as being in conflict with what is traditional family values, which is sexuality confined to a heterosexual marriage. That’s the critique you’ll hear most often in the culture is that conservative, typically religious critique. The feminist critique of pornography approaches it from a very different perspective and says that, in patriarchy, in a society structured around male dominance, one of the ways that dominance is reinforced and perpetuated is in men’s sexual use and abuse of women. One way to say this is, in patriarchy women are routinely presented to men as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure. One of the vehicles for the routine presentation of women to men as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure is what I would call the sexual exploitation industries: prostitution, pornography, stripping. These are ways that men buy and sell primarily women’s bodies. Pornography, like prostitution and stripping, is one of those methods of buying and selling women’s bodies. So from a feminist critique, the problem is the way in which those sexual exploitation industries reinforces male dominance, and leads to predictable consequences, primarily for women and children. (more…)

Maverick judge apologizes for harsh sentences

By Alan Bean

Judge Jack Weinstein

Over at his excellent Sentencing Law and Policy blog, Doug Berman highlights an amazing opinion recently issued by US District Judge Jack Weinstein in the case, United States v. Bannister.  (You can find the full opinion here.)  Federal judges aren’t as constrained by mandatory minimum sentences as they once were, but Jack Weinstein makes it clear that the sentences in this case would have been much less severe if he had his druthers.

“These defendants are not merely criminals,” Weinstein concludes, “but human beings and fellow American citizens, deserving of an opportunity for rehabilitation. Even now, they are capable of useful lives, lived lawfully.”

The eighty-nine year old Weinstein is a philosophical dinosaur who believes we have a duty to create a just society (what kind of socialist claptrap is that?)  Read this brief excerpt from a much longer sentencing opinion and you will learn precisely what is wrong with America’s war on drugs. (more…)

Tulia and the spell of mass incarceration

Gary Gardner, moments before heading down to a protest at the state capital with Friends of Justice and a bus full of Tulia residents, September 2000

By Alan Bean

This is the text of a speech delivered at a Friends Committee on Legislation of California banquet in Whittier, California, March 26, 2011.

When I arrived in Tulia in the summer of 1998, I didn’t know very much about mass incarceration and the war on drugs. I had no idea that Texas, the state we had just moved to, had almost quadrupled its prison population between 1988 and 1998, or that the number of prisons had grown from 16 in 1980 to 108 in 2000.

Nor did I realize that the average family income of America’s poorest 20 percent increased 116% between 1947 and 1979 and had given back half of those gains between 1983 and 1998.

I didn’t realize that the American incarceration rate once mirrored western democracies like Canada, Great Britain and Germany, but had recently grown to six times the size of other nations.

For twenty years our family had been shuffling around the United States and Canada, and Nancy wanted our children to experience the love and support of family. Everything was going according to plan until we saw the headline in the local newspaper, “Tulia streets cleared of garbage.” (more…)