Category: “Social Justice”

Fruit or Foliage?

By Alan Bean

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)

A fitting question for Holy Week, don’t you think?

When Jesus entered the holy city riding the foal of an ass, the crowds burst into spontaneous song: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Luke reports that “some of the Pharisees in the crowd” protested this unseemly display of piety.  “Teacher,” they said, “order your disciples to stop.”

“I tell you,” Jesus replied, “if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.”

Sometimes, hymns of adoration are more that appropriate; they are unavoidable.

But praise, especially in a religious context, is also dangerous.

Matthew puts his “Lord, Lord” teaching like this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Words of praise, segregated from concrete acts of service to the least and the lost, constitute blasphemy.  The failure to produce “good fruit” is the sign of a “bad tree”, Jesus says, no matter how much foliage you see.

My wife, Nancy, has given up growing squash.  Things look good early.  Luxuriant vines take over the garden, followed by lovely blossoms.  And then everything dies.  We don’t know enough about gardening to understand why.  Lack of nitrogen?  Insects?  Too much Texas sun?  But the abundance of foliage never makes up for the absence of fruit.

Praise is inevitable; so is the production problem Jesus warns against.  Human weakness coupled with the heroic demands of Christian discipleship, create a gap between piety and production.  It could hardly be any other way.  We are a fallen race and we act the part.

At the same time, we are incurably religious.  (more…)

“The Power to Make us One”: Heather McGhee’s One-People America

By Alan Bean

heather.mcghee – Netroots NationI recently heard Heather McGhee speak at the Samuel Dewitt Proctor conference in Chicago. She began with the obvious fact that America was not created to be one people, or one public.  Some folks were clearly part of the culture; others were not.  The primary dividing line was skin color.  Up until 1965, she reminded us, American immigration policy was built around strict racial quotas.  People of African descent were practically excluded altogether.  People from Eastern Europe were also subject to severe restrictions because they were considered ‘ethnic’.

That all changed in 1965.  In the wake of the civil rights movement, mainstream America was embarrassed by the undisguised racism implicit in the nation’s immigration policy.  The rules changed in fundamental ways.  Now, when you walk through an airport, you see every conceivable shade of skin color and you hear a wide variety of accents.  We have become, in a few brief decades, the world’s most audacious experiment in cultural diversity.


Thinking and shouting in Chicago

By Alan Bean

Three Friends of Justice people are attending the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference at the Drake Hotel in Chicago this week.  Melanie Wilmoth and I are here, as is the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, Friends of Justice board member and associate pastor at St Luke United Methodist Church in Dallas.  Speaking of Methodists, a contingent of 40 United Methodists from across the nation, led by the indefatigable Rev. Laura Markle Downton, are in Chicago for the conference.  These are the folks who recently convinced their denomination to divest from for profit prisons.

I was bone weary when we entered the old fashioned elegance of the Drake Room for evening worship, but I left pumped and inspired.  The highlight of the evening was a stunning sermon on the familiar story of Daniel in the lion’s den from the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.  Watson preaches in the traditional black style.  In the final ten minutes, brief bolts of organ music punctuated every phrase.  “I know it’s late,” he assured us, “and I ain’t gonna keep you long.  And I hope you know that, coming from a Baptist preacher, that don’t mean nothing.”

Dr. Watson didn’t just preach in the old time fashion, he interpreted the scriptures in the old time style, literally.  If God could deliver Daniel, the preacher told us, God can deliver you. 

Normally, this would bother me.  Isn’t this Daniel in the lion’s den thing just a folk story?  I mean, it didn’t really happen, did it?  And didn’t the author of the story refer to King Darius when it should have been Cyrus?  And can I really believe that if somebody threw me into a den of hungry lions I would emerge unscathed?

I wasn’t the least bit bothered by Dr. Watson’s straightforward exegesis, and I’ll tell you why.  So long as the preacher gets the application right, I don’t really care what school of biblical interpretation he follows.  Watson talked about the lions of mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement.  He compared the steadfast obedience of Daniel to the grace Barack Obama has shown when the lions in his world insisted he produce a birth certificate.  When Watson came to the part where knaves use flattery to appeal to a king’s vanity, Watson talked about black politicians who don’t realize they are being used until the game is over.

The story of Daniel, like so many stories from the Bible, is about remaining faithful in the face of oppression.  Black America understands that message.  Earlier in the day, Susan Taylor, Editor Emeritus of Essence Magazine and the founder of a nationwide mentoring program for at-risk children, told us about her visit to one of the fortresses on the African coast where, for centuries, men, women and children waited for the slave ship to come.  In graphic detail, she described the horrors of the middle passage.  She said African Americans need to teach these things to our children and, if we have forgotten, to ourselves.

This is precisely the kind of stuff that makes white Americans profoundly uncomfortable.  All of that stuff happened so very long ago.  It was awful, to be sure, but why talk about it in polite company; it’s divisive, it just stirs things up.  I didn’t own any slaves and none of you have a personal experience with slavery so . . . let’s call the whole thing off. 

Black America needs to talk about the stuff white America needs to forget.  Or maybe we too need to remember, we just don’t know it yet.

Dr. Jeremiah Wright gave the benediction tonight.  Yes, that Jeremiah Wright.  Barack Obama’s former pastor.  The guy who enraged white America by suggesting that America’s chickens might be coming home to roost.  I was riding in a van with several black passengers when the towers fell in Manhattan.  Their reaction mirrored Wright’s.  Black and white Americans live in two different worlds, experientially and religiously.

There are plenty of white folks who share the ethical commitments of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.  We oppose the war on drugs, we think mass incarceration has been a disaster, and we want to address the conditions that foster violence and joblessness in poor urban neighborhoods.  But you would never hear a white person who believes these things preaching like the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson.  Most white progressives would be offended by biblical preaching.  If religion must be referenced at all, let it be generic religion, devoid of narrative content.   None of that Jesus stuff. 

White progressives (with a few blessed exceptions) associate words like Jesus, Bible, prayer, salvation and deliverence with the religious Right.  And, to be fair, the religious folk you see on the television and hear on the radio rarely reflect the kingdom priorities of Jesus.

Unlike their white counterparts, black progressives can, to paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Freddie Haynes, think and shout at the same time. “If you think,” he told us, “you will thank.  Think about how great our God is and you can’t help but get your shout on.”

Why do white Christians have such a hard time mixing kingdom ethics with shouts of praise.  I’m not sure, but the world would be a better place if we got over it.

“A culture of cruelty:” Anti-immigrant sentiment and the war on immigration

By Melanie Wilmoth

A recent report published by No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, documents in detail the abuses perpetrated by U.S. Border Patrol against immigrant detainees. No More Deaths is an Arizona-based organization that fights for immigrant rights and immigration reform. Through their research over the last 3 years, they have documented over 30,000 incidents of immigrant abuse.

Their report, “A Culture of Cruelty,” tells the stories of a sampling of the individuals who suffered from these abuses. The abuses documented include deprivation of food and water, failure to treat serious medical conditions, physical and psychological abuse, death threats, and inhumane conditions within detention centers.

During the course of their investigation, No More Deaths also uncovered thousands of instances in which due process was denied to immigrant detainees:

“We recorded 1,063 incidents of detainees not receiving due process. Common ways in which due process were violated were:

  • Forms not being provided in a language that the person can read
  • Failure to inform people of their rights to legal counsel and the Mexican Consulate
  • Failure to provide access to the Mexican Consulate when requested
  • Failure to follow protocol for detainees requesting asylum
  • Coercion into signing voluntary repatriation documents under threat of violence, criminal charges, or lengthy detention times
  • Forced fingerprinting on voluntary deportation documents”

As No More Deaths rightly suggests, the “culture of abuse” among U.S. Border Patrol did not arise in isolation. The documented abuses and maltreatment are a reflection of an increasing anti-immigrant sentiment and a punitive consensus that has resulted in the criminalization of immigration.

“In the first half of Fiscal Year 2011, illegal entry and reentry were the most common federal criminal charges prosecuted nationwide,” No More Deaths reports. In Alabama alone, the recent immigration laws have caused thousands of individuals to flee for fear of being detained.

In addition to the anti-immigrant policies that contribute to the war on immigration, there is also an economic aspect that cannot be ignored. Private prison industries, in particular, profit from the increasing numbers of immigrant detainees:

“In the last five years, the annual number of immigrants detained and the cost of detaining them have doubled: in 2009, 383,524 immigrants were detained, costing taxpayers $1.7 billion at an average of $122 a day per bed. Private industry, thus, has strong economic incentives to push for ever more extreme anti-immigrant policies, regardless of the cost to government or the human toll involved…The nation’s largest private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, not only lobbied for but actually helped to draft Arizona’s SB 1070.”

The narratives of the immigrants that unfold throughout No More Deaths’ report are tragic and heart-wrenching, but their stories must be told if anything is to be done to change immigration policy and the current anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.

Three Years, 30,000 Incidents of Human Rights Abuse: Are Border Patrol Agents the Real Criminals?

by Valeria Fernandez

Allegations range from Border Patrol agents denying food and water to adults and children in detention for several days, to purposely separating families during deportation.

Those are the findings of a new report released by the Arizona humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths. (more…)

Five women who matter most

Female Afghan lawmaker, Malalai Joya, stands for justice in the face of death threats.

by Melanie Wilmoth

In a recent article published by, Helen Redmond lends a critical eye to Forbes’ 2011 list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

Browsing through the Forbes’ list you will find some of the world’s wealthiest female politicians and celebrities. Although these women gain power through their tremendous social and political capital, are they really “the women who matter most” as Forbes claims? Redmond doesn’t think so:

“The women on the Forbes list are not the ones who matter most. They use their power in the pursuit of profit for themselves and for shareholders to sustain a global system of economic and social inequality.”

Instead, Redmond argues, Forbes (and the rest of the world for that matter) should be praising women who are using their power to fight for social justice and the greater good. As such, Redmond has compiled an alternative list of women who she feels, based on their advocacy efforts and devotion to fighting for equality, should “matter most.”

Redmond’s article offers a thoughtful critique of the value that mainstream America places on politicians and others with obscene amounts of money, and offers thoughts on who should really be considered praiseworthy.

Check out Redmond’s alternative list of powerful women and read the full article below.

Five Women Who Matter Most

By Helen Redmond

The Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women is an obscenely wealthy international sisterhood of politicians, celebrities and billionaires who crashed through the glass ceiling. Forbes describes them as “the women who matter most.”

How is it that Irene Rosenfeld, the CEO of Kraft, whom Forbes lauds for “announcing the divorce between the brands Oreos and Mac ’N Cheese,” matters most? Deciding the fate of cookies and carbs defines power? (more…)

Faith as an Engine of Criminal Justice Reform

By Harinder Singh

With all attention currently on the debt ceiling in the US, the faith community is calling on leadership to save money through addressing the wasteful costs of incarcerating 2.3 million Americans.

On June 16, 2011, I joined a cadre of 23 interfaith religious leaders from throughout the US in support of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act in visiting our congressional representatives and the White House.  I met with representatives from Texas and California in their offices on Capitol Hill as part of a fly-in organized by the Faith in Action Working Group of the Justice Roundtable. I participated in this critical action because correcting injustices in our prison systems needs to be a state and national priority, fueled especially by all who claim to be driven by religious convictions. An avenue for this type of reform lies in the proposed creation of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011 (S. 306) (NCJCA), which was introduced with bipartisan support in 2011 by Senator Jim Webb. Members of the Commission would be appointed by the legislative and executive branch and would be charged with undertaking comprehensive critical examination of America’s criminal justice system.

The portion of the bill I would like to focus on today– Section 5(b) — reads as follows: “The Commission shall make findings… and recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.”

This Commission represents a real chance to address a statistic that won’t go away: The US accounts for 5% of the world’s population, yet locks up 25% of the world’s prisoners. Existing practices too often incarcerate people whose rehabilitation would be best served by access to recovery programs—not imprisonment, and rob resources from addressing high-risk, violent offenders who pose the real threat to our communities.  (more…)

Grover Norquist’s America

By Alan Bean
In a recent post, I suggested that Carrollton, Mississippi, a town that proudly flies the Conderate flag outside its courthouse, reflects the soul of America.  Charles Kiker, my esteemed father-in-law, calls that an overstatement.  This op-ed from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick illuminates my audacious thesis.  As Patrick notes, small government fundamentalism has captured the conservative movement and, to a large extent, the conservative movement has captured American politics.
True, a Democrat is in the White House and the Senate remains blue.  But anyone who listened to President Obama trying to adopt a tough stance with Republicans the other day will realize that Grover Norquist’s intention has been realized: Democratic presidents can no longer govern as Democrats.  Obama was trying to come on strong, but he sounded scared to death.  Conservatives control the moral consensus of the nation and the President knows it. (more…)

Pastor to Black Panthers ministers to white Baptist University in North Carolina

J. Alfred Smith

I first met the Reverend Dr. J. Alfred Smith when he “preached a revival” at First Baptist Church, Kansas City, KS.  Charles Kiker, my father-in-law, was pastor at FBC in the mid-1990s and I was invited as the guest singer.  A few years later, when Friends of Justice was created in response to a big drug bust in a little Texas town, Pastor Smith and members of his congregation provided welcome support.  Dr. Smith, pastor emeritus at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, is now 80 years old, but his commitment to prophetic witness still burns white-hot.  The article below first appeared in the Religious Herald. AGB


J. Alfred Smith finds Gardner-Webb University open to diversity

By Norman Jameson

Thursday, May 12, 2011

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. (ABP) — A predominantly white Baptist college in rural North Carolina might seem an unlikely place to find an urban African-American pastor from California known for an agenda of prophetic justice, but Gardner-Webb University just said goodbye to J. Alfred Smith, pastor emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., who served as the school’s first scholar-in-residence this spring. (more…)

Michelle Alexander: ‘Interest convergence’ won’t end mass incarceration

“Public relations consultants like the FrameWorks Institute — which dedicates itself to ‘changing the public conversation about social problems’ — advise advocates to speak in a ‘practical tone’ and avoid discussions of ‘fairness between groups and the historical legacy of racism.’  Surely the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have rejected that advice.”

-Michelle Alexander

– “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.  Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation .  For years now I have heard the ‘Wait!’  It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity.  This ‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never!”

-Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail (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…)