Open Letter We All Need to Consider

This is a letter from Maria Lloyd to Judge Marvin Aspen who sentenced her father to 15 life sentences for her father’s first nonviolent offense.  This matter, matters like them, and all the “legal” issues related therein, are becoming matters of faith for me.  I’d love to know what you think.  I’d love, simply, to have you thinking of this as I am.

Dear Judge Marvin E. Aspen:

It took me some time to address you because I didn’t know you were the source of my anger until recently. In case you care to know who I am, I’m Maria Lloyd- the daughter of Mario Lloyd, the non-violent, first-time offender from Chicago. You sentenced him to 15 life sentences without parole on May 11, 1989. He has been incarcerated since I was the age of two. In addition to sending my father to prison, you also sentenced my grandmother, my aunt, and my uncle.  You basically incarcerated my entire family.

I’m not one to make excuses for anyone’s poor decisions, including those of my own family. They broke the law, so they deserved punishment. I get it.  I also get the point you were proving in punishing them: Drug trafficking is not tolerated in the state of Illinois. It’s quite obvious you were taking a very personal stand against the War on Drugs. Well, as you can imagine, I have too, but I’m sure our views differ.

Even if one argues that my family deserved to go to prison for the distribution of drugs, does my father deserve to be incarcerated for life? Do you really think he deserves to die in prison? My four siblings and I have literally faced hell because of our father’s incarceration. I truly believe my eldest brother, who is now deceased, wouldn’t have diedat the hands of violence if my father wasn’t incarcerated.

You have no idea how much embarrassment, confusion, and heartache a child faces when handed an Emergency Contact Form requesting contact information for mom and dad. For years, I’d write my father’s name and ask my mom if I could write the prison’s information on the lines requesting his address and phone number. “Daddy-Daughter” socials were the worst. Instead of enjoying the festivities, I would stay home in shame because of my father’s incarceration. I’m still haunted by those experiences to this very day, and I have yet to recover emotionally.

I can’t believe the word “Honorable” is placed before your name and title. What’s honorable about your work? Nothing. Because of you, I haven’t recited the Pledge of Allegiance in years. Liberty and justice aren’t for “all”, it’s reserved exclusively for the wealthy which are generally of European descent.

I know my dad deserved to be punished for his crimes- I accept that.  But, for a non-violent, first time offense, 15 life sentences is far too harsh.  By giving a life sentence to my father, you also sentenced me to a lifetime of misery that comes from losing the man I’ve loved since birth.   My father has spent 23 years of my life in prison.  Now, I pray that men like you will never be allowed to ruin a family again. To be honest, I don’t wish hardship upon you but I definitely don’t wish you well.

Sincerely,

Maria Lloyd

I found the letter here.

My Son & Trayvon Martin

I posted this on my For Fathers blog, but the intersections between the mentioned events and my weak faith are undeniable.  I hope you can read where you should be prayerful for me and us…

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black child from Florida, was killed on February 26 by a 28-year old white man named George Zimmerman.  The killer has not been arrested, and a lot of people in and outside of Florida are calling for his arrest.  Many have spent days demanding, minimally, an investigation into Trayvon Martin’s death.  Almost as many are seeking some sensible understanding of the laws in Florida, and states like it, which allow for a gun-carrying questionable character like Zimmerman to follow a child with a pocket filled with skittles, harass him, and kill him.

At this point, the US Dept. of Justice has opened an investigation into the case.  The Martin family is struggling to find consolation and justice for their dead loved one.  Newspapers are reporting on how bright and cheerful and smart the young man was.

Bloggers and journalists are providing details about the killer’s background.  He likes calling the police to complain about black kids.  He said, the day he called 911 to complain about Trayvon Martin, that “they always get away.”  He was permitted to walk away after gunning down a child, with his 9 millimeter weapon.  He was not detained or arrested or charged.  Trayvon Martin is dead.  George Zimmerman is free.

My wife asked me if I was planning to blog about the situation.  I immediately said no.  It didn’t take two seconds to respond.  I didn’t want to think, much less write, about another kid getting killed.  I had heard about the case, seen it on television.  I tried to close my eyes to it because it was too much.

I didn’t want to think about Trayvon Martin or his family and how many tears they were shedding because their child was murdered by a guy who had hardly been questioned by the police after he was the last person to hear their child’s voice.  That murderer heard the child screaming, yelling for help that never came.

I didn’t want to think or write about how that long destructive history that doesn’t release people with skin like mine but that creeps and creeps and creeps until it opens up its big mouth and screams out loud because nothing and no amount of “coverage” can hide how hard it is to be black, to be a man, to be a father, to be a son.

I didn’t want to think or write about that place in my inner soul that keeps memories locked away in my heart.  Like the time a woman crossed the street when she saw me approaching her and like the shame I felt when I turned around after passing her only to see her cross back to the same street after I’d gotten beyond her and how downcast I felt because I was headed to a class in seminary where the story of my faith would remind me that I was called to love and serve people just like that woman who clutched her bag while passing a preacher on his way to being better.  If I were in Florida studying theology at that time; if I were in Florida carrying my briefcase with a Bible and a text on salvation-history and pastoral ministry; if I were in Florida with an essay on the elements of pastoral case most effective for families in today’s time, I could have lost my life.

I didn’t want to think about how similar Trayvon Martin is to the vision I have for my son.  He was a boy, enjoying life, getting good grades, collecting admiration from teachers; he was loved by his family, who over and over called the extremely deceptive police department when he had been missing for three days because his body was cooling on a medical examiner’s table and left like his parents didn’t want him when all they wanted was him.  That young child was so much like my child, the child in my imagination’s future.  He had a girl who liked him.  He ate candy.  He was wise in discerning when trouble showed up.  He called for help.

I didn’t want to believe one more time that a young child, approaching early adulthood, could be treated so terribly and that hatred and evil—whether because of racism or bigotry or power or other foolish sins—could continue to be so bold.  I didn’t want to think one more time that we had another example of criminal justice in the United States where the criminal was the only one who saw justice and when he saw it in the face of that sweet kid, he had to laugh in his blood-covered face.

I look at my son everyday.  I say things to him, things that I know don’t make sense to most people if they’re listening to my words.  Even Dawn laughs at the things I say.  And if I’m honest, there’s a strong dose of this current reality behind my instructions to my son.  His brain doesn’t get it when I’m just a bit too firm.  His brain doesn’t get that there is no difference between his father and the last black man who was walking down a street and mistaken for some other black guy.  Bryce’s mind doesn’t conceive that his daddy, the man who loves him, could be mistreated to the point of death for no other reason than he looked suspicious.  But my son’s father knows these things.  I know these things.  And I don’t want to think them, talk of them, or admit them.  The topics, taken together, form a gross compromise of morality and justice just to discuss them.  And yet I have to raise my son with these words in his ears.

I don’t want to look at my child, who is not even able to stand up at the toilet yet, and witness the closeness between his lovely face and the loveliness of another parent’s son in Florida.  The proximity between those two children is as long as a breath.  And I am aching with a lot of people about the assassination of promise and hope and joy in Trayvon Martin and in every other black loved one he has now joined on the other side of death.

In a strange way, I knew Trayvon Martin’s future.  In a strange way, I know the next son’s future.  Whether or not he is the image of the child who lives in my house, he will be my child.  And the worst fear in me these days is that I won’t be so gracious as the day I continued on to seminary class, that I won’t be loving when my next child, son or daughter, Florida or some other place, meets death in such a horrendous way.  After all, there is no difference between my son and Trayvon Martin.  And I don’t know if there is that much love in any world.

Former Governor Sentenced & The New Jim Crow

People are talking about our former governor’s sentencing, and I keep thinking about three things.  I think about his family and how difficult this must be for them.  I think about how this is an example, glowing or not, of our criminal justice system at work.  I think about the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Professor Alexander’s book is thorough and full and dishearteningly descriptive of mass incarceration.  I learned more than I’ll tell you in that book.  I read it a couple months ago and became an immediate fan of Michelle Alexander.  I didn’t plan to write a review of her book; in fact, I wouldn’t call this post a review but an expression of gratitude.  I couldn’t arrange a blog interview with her unfortunately.  But the fingers gripping the bars on that book cover keep looking at me.  I keep thinking of what she wrote.

Professor Alexander discusses the War on Drugs primarily.  She debunks the notion of the War, and she explains, in almost loving ways, how profit fuels the drug trade in our country and how the federal government rewards local and state political systems with money when they introduce people into the criminal justice system.  If you’re interested in learning about the history of the drug trade, where police swat teams developed, and the rights you have when and if the police pull you over, those will be covered.  There is a pervasive discussion of race in the volume.  Men–and what’s happening to us–is discussed carefully and respectfully.  She ties the excessive arrest rates in communities of color with policies from the 80s and threads the effects of those policies to the huge spikes in our prison population these days.

Professor Alexander does very little opining in the book.  Instead, she tells stories.  There are facts and facts and facts, but I couldn’t walk through the book with my highlighter.  Even though I learned a lot, her book felt more like a kitchen table than it did a legal seminar.  And I mean that in the most complimentary way imaginable.  She places legal detail on an edible plate for her readers, and you can almost feel her hand on your shoulder while you swallow the truth when it gets nasty.

If you haven’t picked up this book and read it, you need to.  I realize that I say that about many books.  I realize that I interview authors on this blog and that their books have my highest recommendations.  I tell you what I’m reading and sometimes why I’m reading it, along with what I’m learning from those readings.  I get it.  And you know that I like reading almost as much as I do eating because I need both to survive.  And again, The New Jim Crow is one of those books that should be required reading.  You should get it because it will teach you about the prison system.  It will provide you a historical context for discrimination and help you speak well about justice and injustice and crime and restoration.  It will give you a hunger, and perhaps a vision, for justice.

Be clear: the book is dismal because Professor Alexander is too good at what she does.  She paints portraits and tells stories in ways that leave you sad and angry and frustrated.  But you won’t close your nightly reading without feeling a little more grateful for people who pursue justice in the wide ways that people do.  Even people who work and serve the cause of justice in ways that may not intersect with the criminal justice system.

You won’t look at a news story or listen to a conversation about jail and prison and justice in the same way.  You’ll ask different questions.  You’ll wonder why so many people who look like you continue to go overlooked when a former governor gets convicted and sentenced.  You’ll wonder who will tell those stories.  You’ll question who will raise their faces and those of their families.  And then you’ll see those fingers gripping those bars on that glossy black book jacket.  And you’ll smile and you just may write a post or an email to somebody and mention a scholar and activist and teacher named Michelle Alexander.

Visit Michelle Alexander’s website here to learn about her book.

Trouble With “An Eye For An Eye”

When I was in seminary, I wrote a paper in Dr. Cheryl Anderson’s Biblical Law class.  It was an exegetical on the Leviticus 24 passage addressing lex talionis, one of the Hebrew writer’s phrases for retaliation or punishment.  In a different class, Dr. Larry Murphy assigned us to research different responses in the Christian Tradition as it relates to capital punishment.  I thought about those two experiences during my ride to work this morning.

I listen to the Santita Jackson show on WVON as much as I can.  She’s a great communicator.  She helps me think.  She tells me things I wouldn’t know without her.  And today during her first hour, she was hosting callers and questions and comments about the scheduled execution of Troy Davis.  In 1991 Mr. Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer.  Since that time he has fought for his freedom.  Yesterday the Georgia Parole Board met and didn’t vote to stay the lethal injection.

Judges, FBI agents, preachers, lawyers, people you wouldn’t know, and the pope have joined a chorus in support of Mr. Davis and in opposition, more broadly, to the application of the death penalty in this particular case.  Callers into Ms. Jackson’s show highlighted not only the suspicious nature of Mr. Davis’s case but also the twisted and distorted ways executions have mostly affected black folks and poor folks.  They asked and answered the penetrating question, who’s being sentenced to death?  Who’s being put to death?

Since I left my car, I’ve been turning over a response to what I heard.  It’s unfair and inhuman that people are wrongly accused and convicted and sentence to death.  Indeed I’m thankful to live in a state that’s outlawed that penalty.  And beyond that, I’m trying to pull my beliefs into and out of my life practices.  I’m trying to make sense of Jesus, a man who didn’t overlook his enemies–perhaps making sense is impossible and wrong as well–but who died for them.  I don’t think I ask the hard question enough when people commit crimes against me and against the world.  Not what would Jesus do.  But what should I do?  What should I do as a person whose life is supposed to be God-ward?  What should my response be since I’m a follower of a servant named Jesus?

I’m having trouble because for some reason most of the people who promote life and really good at advocating punishment by death.  Most of the people who’d read Leviticus 24 literally wouldn’t read Matthew 5 as literally.  I’m troubled because I think violently more than I do lovingly and am probably as much a literal reader of some canon-within-a-canon as the next person.

The meditation I read this morning from Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart is entitled “Myself, a High Priest of Truth.”  While he doesn’t talk about Jesus Christ per se in the meditation, Jesus is inside Thurman’s overall framework.  Of course, Jesus is in my view as well.  So when I read the title it intrigued me on its own.  Here’s one blurb from the short reflection,

I purpose in my heart that I shall not use my memory to store up those things which fester, poison and destroy my living, my life, or the living and the life of others.  I shall make it my study to preserve my soul in balance and liberty.  I will use my memory to store up the excellent things of my experience.

I can’t help but pull together the image of Jesus as a Priest, my own struggles with what it means to follow Jesus, and what I heard about Troy Davis on Santita Jackson’s show.  I’m not at all ready to launch into the larger contemporary debate about capital punishment.  Perhaps that’s an entrance that life will make to engage in, but today isn’t that day.  Yet as a pastoral theologian or, better-said, as a pastor who encourages critical reflection in my congregation and as a man who tries to live theologically, it is hard to close my ears to how the person and work of Jesus comes to the issue of punishment.  It would be hermenuetically irresponsible to use the scriptures to discuss our conceptions of justice and law and punishment–at least doing so without a good amount of pre-interpretation.

So, here’s an attempt to invite your comments and thoughts.  Questions for you.  How do you hold together your faith and practice that faith, whatever that faith, when it comes to capital punishment?  Does your faith tradition say things that help you “come to” the issue and respond to capital punishment?

If you’re interested in knowing more of my thoughts about related things:

Civil Unions, pt. 1 of 3

My wife did a smashing job in her review, didn’t she?  Well, today I’m moving away from jumping the broom, moving a bit.  But I’m staying close still.

Earlier this year, Governor Quinn signed civil unions into Illinois law, and yesterday the law went into effect.  It is called the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act.  From what I can tell a civil union will afford a person the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits given to a person in a spousal relationship, stopping short of the ability to legally marry.  For many Illinois people in committed same-sex relationships this legislation is a splendid and welcome gift.  It’s a gift for heterosexual couples who have put off marrying for whatever reason as well.

There has been a good amount of fear across the country in the last decades about marriage and the need to preserve and protect marriage.  Much of that fear or, to be more charitable, concern has come from religious people.  People of faith, many of them Christian, have expressed and promoted their concerns.  As a professional religious person, I am naturally connected to these expressions.

I see three issues related to the new legislation in my state.  One is the connections that have been made between civil unions and the civil rights era.  A second is the issue of marriage itself, the preservation or detraction of the institution, the right to marry, and the like.  A third issue is the civil union itself, what it is, what it allows.

I’d like to think out loud about those three issues in the next few posts.  My reflection on the connection between the struggle for civil unions and the struggle for civil rights in this country is simple, almost boring.  I don’t think there is a relationship.

There are probably lines connecting the intentions of folks working and hoping for civil unions with the intentions and needs in the movement toward civil rights for people of color, particularly Black folks.  But Black people were discriminated against in legal forms, segregated against throughout the country because of their blackness.  The thread for them was historical and long and formulated by law, again, because of their racial identity.  That link was not present for people in Illinois seeking the passage of the Act for civil unions.  They weren’t discriminated against because of their ethnicity.  They did not receive the same protections as married couples, yes.  They were going without certain benefits, true.  But the absence of those protections weren’t inside the stream of four centuries of racism, discrimination, and segregation.

There are Black folks who were denied, for all practical purposes, spousal rights because they cannot be legally married.  Black people looked forward to midnight today so that they too could be acknowledged inside the new legal structure and know some freedom and some liberty.  Those Black folks are likely drawing their own connections to the earlier movement of Black people in this country.  Perhaps I should be more measured in my criticism of those folks because they are, well, Black.  But I do think that the connection is a forced, artificial one.  I’m cautious in general because of that long, existential thread that links me to a person or a relative or a people who were told who they could love and what rights they could and couldn’t have.  My blackness makes me much more liberal in that way.  But those unions allowed under the pronouncement of the judge or the lifestyle celebrant today weren’t like the earlier unions in the brush harbors of slave plantations.  There was no “more powerful other” in the ear of those couples downtown today when Judge Evans and Mayor Emanuel snapped photos and smiled and congratulated.

I think it is an advance in our state’s political arena that the civil unions have happened.  I’ll get to that in post three.  But I am concerned that the language of the struggle has borrowed, taken from, and used the narrative of the civil rights movement.  I am concerned that the practice and habit of using Black folks for everybody else’s progress continues.  I am concerned that the hardships, fights, prayers, work, and deaths of people with skin like and darker than mine can so easily be employed and appropriated for somebody other than themselves.

I think it’s a misuse of our forebears.  It may well be consistent with movement toward a more just society.  It may be a politically expedient decision to make.  But does that mean we, once again, drop into the collective story of Black people, take what is theirs, and push it into the discourse of the next popular topic because those people’s story of struggle is effective?  It that is the case, it won’t be without people  like me thinking out loud and demanding some reconsideration.

What do you think?