Quotes & Small Group

My Monday night group is discussing Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. The book is an indispensable theological response to black people’s corporate experience of violence and brutality, while also offering a historical narrative out of which such injustices emerge.

Our small group discussion has so far taken us through United States of American history as it relates to race, strong and illuminating conversations about how easy it is to be black and to not see one’s self spoken of or spoken to in the scriptures, detailed discussions about education and youth and poverty, and quiet but pronounced conversion happening among us.

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

Today’s chapter is “A Father’s Faith” and here are some of the quotes that I’m turning over in anticipation of seeing my friends this evening:

Faith is a response to God. Faith is possible only if God has acted and has initiated a relationship with human beings. Faith is the human response to God’s invitation to be in a relationship. Black faith represents a resounding yes to God’s offer. (p. 139)

Spirituals, essentially, reveal the foundation for a faith that will sustain black people through the paradox of being faithful in a society defined by the Anglo-Saxon myth. (p. 141)

According to the enslaved authors of the spirituals, the freedom of God concerned the very nature of God’s presence in their lives as well as God’s very nature. Theologically speaking, the freedom of God as expressed in the spirituals bore witness both to the economy of God (God’s movement in human history) and the aseity of God (who God is in God’s self). The spiritual’s testimony concerning the freedom of God suggested at least two interrelated things. First, God was by nature free, therefore, complete in God’s self and dependent on no other being or power for existence. Second, God’s movement in human history reflected God’s freedom. (p. 143)

…This African principle maintains that everything the Great High God creates has sacred value because it is intrinsically connected to God. It is the belief that undergirds an African worldview that all reality is sacred. (p. 150)

The freedom of God that the enslaved experienced became the adjudicating principle of their very faith claims. This has implications for the black faith tradition. (p. 162)

…Thus, if the norm of black faith is an understanding of a God who is freedom, then that also means there are certain stories within the Bible that cannot be given authority. If black faith means refusing to capitulate to or compromise with any situation that violates the very freedom of God, then this principle must be maintained even when it comes to the Bible. Therefore no story that compromises the freedom of God, and thus the freedom of those whom God created, can be given authority in the black faith tradition. (p. 163)

As for the black faithful, the best response is indeed a response of faith, which means being relentless in the fight to dismantle this culture of death. (p. 166)


Just Mercy

I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty, actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system. We’re trying to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice. We’re trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors—

Bryan Stevenson in his book, Just Mercy (pg. 293)

Considerations on Peace From Howard Thurman

A cursory glance at human history reveals that men have sought for countless generations to bring peace into the world by the instrumentality of violence. The fact is significant because it is tried repeatedly and to no basic advantage. The remark which someone has made, that perhaps the most important fact we learn from history is that we do not learn from history, is very much to the point. Violence is very deceptive as a technique because of the way in which it comes to rescue the of those who are in a hurry. Violence at first is very efficient, very effective. It stampedes, overruns, pushes aside and carries the day. It becomes the major vehicle of power, or the radical threat of power. It inspires fear and resistance. The fact that it inspires resistance is underestimated, while the fact that it inspires fear is overestimated. This is the secret of its deception. Violence is the ritual and the etiquette of those who stand in a position of overt control in the world. As long as this is true, it will be impossible to make power–economic, social or political–responsive to anything that is morally or socially motivating. Men resort to violence when they are unable or unwilling to tax their resourcefulness for methods that will inspire the confidence or the mental and moral support of other men. This is true, whether in the relationship between parents and children in the home or in great affairs of the state involving the affirmation of masses of the people. Violence rarely, if ever, gets the consent of the spirit of men upon whom it is used. It drives them underground, it makes them seek cover, if they cannot overcome it in other ways. It merely postpones the day of revenge and retaliation. To believe in some other way, that will not inspire retaliation and will curb evil and bring about social change, requires a spiritual maturity that has appeared only sporadically in the life of man on this planet. The statement may provide the machinery, but the functioning of it is dependent upon the climate created by the daily habits of the people.

May we tax our own resourcefulness and may these good peaceful things be so in us. (From Deep Is The Hunger, 34-35)

A Recent Journey With A Friend

The initial question.

The reasons we participated.

The preparation for an interruption which wasn’t really.

The long ride, trading sentences and looking out and catching up.

The nervousness of being surrounded by people so different and so similar.

The mumbling that became words which turned into songs.

The string of cameras and the open streets.

The rhythmic stamping of our feet.

The commitment to stay.

The commitment to stay together.

The rumbles of thunder.

The hard-won meal in a hurry.

The symbols of darkness and light.

The gas masks, water bottles, and signs.

The jumping and chanting and watching and waiting.

The circles of prayer, the clusters of pain.

The playful way we wondered what in the world we were the doing.

The amplified voice of that one man commanding them, not us, to leave.

The joking.  The questions.  The long silence.  The disgust-filled prayers.

The heavyset, sweating leader we stood with and for.

The shock to our bodies from the weight of the evening.

The words of that one sister, the missionary, who checked us all.

The stark contrasting pictures of justice.

The greetings and the welcome words.

The shaking of our heads and the wringing of our hearts.

The long, aching journey home.

The stars, bright like flashes, overhead in the darkness.

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.


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.