Category: Peacemaking

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…)

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…)

McLaren: Is God Violent?

This succinct article summarizes a chapter in Brian McLaren’s excellent book, A New Kind of Christianity.  This piece was originally published in Sojourners and has also appeared in Christian Ethics Today.  How should Christians think and feel about the criminal justice system, in general, and the death penalty, in particular?  Everything hinges on the nature of God.  Alan Bean

Is God Violent?

By Brian McLaren

I recently received a note from a pastor and missionary we’ll call Pete. It went like this: ”I have read most of what you have written, including A New Kind of Christianity…I would say I am in agreement with [much of what you write], but I do think you bring disservice to this argument in the evangelical world when you shun the ‘violence’ of God and the subsequent need for the cross’ justification, which was also quite violent.” (more…)

Isaiah 58:1-12: a word to the righteous

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

 A new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration must flow from narratives of faith.  Isaiah 58 is a natural starting place. 

The setting for this prophecy is the hard years following the return from Babylonian captivity, approximately 500 BCE.   The people who made the trek back to Jerusalem quickly became disillusioned.  The walls of holy city were still broken down.  Solomon’s glorious temple lay in ruins.  Work began on a new temple, a modest structure a fraction the size of the building it replaced, but progress was slow.

The people had expected more.  Much more.  They couldn’t understand why God was letting them down.  Their commitment to Torah had strengthened considerably during the hard years of exile.  Worship attendance, sabbath keeping and tithing were all way up. 

Still the people struggled.  They couldn’t understand why such bad things were happening to such good people. 

Isaiah’s response speaks for itself. (more…)

Clenched Fists and Open Hands: McLaren and Rohr get real about religion

By Alan Bean
I spent last weekend attending a conference on “the Emerging Church” held on the campus of  Texas Christian University.  Below, I have reproduced my noted from three talks, two by Brian McLaren, a clear-sighted Protestant, and one by Father Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest dedicated to the contemplative life.  These three talks complement one another and inform our struggle with mass incarceration, but I will leave it to you to make the connections.  My summary is taken from my notes, so, gentlemen, if you read this and think I misrepresented your ideas, I am open to correction. 

Brian McLaren 1: Clenched Fists and Open Hands

Brian McLaren

The world runs on stories, McLaren says. It is the role of religion to provide us with our stories; but what happens when these stories no longer help us address the big issues: poverty, peace and the planet?

The primary religious narrative in Western culture, McLaren suggests, has been the domination story: stories of the clenched fist which could also be called conflict narratives, warrior narratives or sword narratives. Typically, empires appear as the heroes of domination narratives. (more…)

Kairos, Narrative, and Transformation

Mark Osler at work

By Mark Osler

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the Kairos Conference on the death penalty at Emory University.  It was organized by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and Sister Helen Prejean, and featured a fascinating array of voices.  However, things didn’t go quite as expected, in a way that was wonderful, instructive, and encouraging to groups like Friends of Justice.

Frankly, I expected to go down there, give my lectures, and talk to like-minded folks about the death penalty. All that happened, but that wasn’t all.  Sometimes a conference like that goes off in a direction you don’t expect. (more…)

New Poll shows overwhelming support for the death penalty

By Alan Bean

A new Angus-Reid poll suggests that 83% of Americans support the death penalty while only 13% oppose it. 

This distressing news illustrates how much we have changed as a nation.  In 1966, 47% opposed capital punishment while only 42% supported it.

You may be surprised to learn that support for the ultimate penalty is strongest in the “liberal” Northeast (85%) and the Midwest (86%) and weakest in the South (79%).  Incarceration rates and the actual use of the death penalty would suggest that the South is the most punitive region.  Since the reinstitution of capital punishment in 1976, there have been 464 executions in the state of Texas and virtually none in New England.  Incarceration rates in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are at least three times as high as in the Northeast.

So why did the Angus-Reid people find that southerners are less inclined to favor the death penalty than northeasterners?  (more…)

Osler: Repentance of an anti-gay bigot

Mark Osler

Wow!  This took a lot of guts.  The national gay debate features plenty of allegations and counter-allegations, but very few words of confession and repentance.  Law professor, and Friends of Justice board member, Mark Osler is a blessed exception to the general rule.  AGB

Repentance of an anti-gay bigot

By Mark Osler

In the wake of several suicides of gay teenagers, one response has been through the “It Gets Better” project, which tells the story of gay and lesbians who have a story of hope — one in which things, over time, got better for them. (more…)

Journey Back to Parchman, Hank Thomas

Hank Thomas in 1961

Fifty years ago, Hank Thomas entered Parchman prison as a Freedom Rider.  I highlighted this distressing chapter of the Mississippi civil rights struggle in a post designed to establish historical context for the Curtis Flowers case.  Recently, I shared a personal encounter with Parchman when I unsuccessfully attempted to visit Curtis Flowers.  Last week, Hank Thomas was greeted with smiles and handshakes; in 1961 he was welcomed to Parchman by sneering guards.  

Reilly Morse, a senior attorney and a founding staff member in the Biloxi office of the Mississippi Center for Justice, has shared his reflections on Hank Thomas’s return to the notorious plantation prison.  Hank’s personal account is pasted below.  Both articles appear in the most recent edition of Facing South, a publication of the Institute for Southern Studies. (more…)

Prophetic Imagination, The Greatest Prayer, and Mass Incarceration

By Charles Kiker

This is something of a response to and expansion of Alan Bean’s recent post, “Marcus Borg’s radical Christianity.” In this post Dr. Bean mentioned Walter Brueggemann and John Dominic Crossan in passing. I respond by expanding on the thought of those two scholars, and relate their perspectives to the issue of mass incarceration.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is the author of The Prophetic Imagination. The second edition was copyrighted in 2001, so it does not qualify as a recent contribution. But it only recently came to my attention.

Brueggemann presents the Hebrew culture as represented by Moses as an alternative community to the royal, person negating culture of Egypt. The culture of Egypt was anti-freedom not only for humanity, but also for God. This counterculture to royalty and the perks of royalty persisted in Hebrew life for a couple of centuries or so before a new royalty, a counter-counterculture, took root under David and thrived under Solomon and his successors in both Hebrew kingdoms. The prophets beginning in the 8th century BCE, some of them at least, broke free from tradition to provide a new counter voice to the royal consciousness of privilege and power that had arisen in the Hebrew kingdoms.

Jeremiah was the prophet of pain; Deutero-Isaiah the prophet of hope. Pain is a necessary predecessor to hope, lament a predecessor to praise in the confrontation between the royal consciousness of privilege and power and the radical freedom of and in God.  I have this quote from Brueggemann written in the margin of my Bible at Psalm 23, “It is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously” (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 67). Brueggemann cautions that social policy is not necessarily in the purview of the prophet, and that anguish is more fitting than anger as prophetic attitude. (more…)