Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Case of Ahmaud Arbery: When Racism, Guns, and Inequality Collide

By now, most Americans have heard of Ahmaud Arbery. The shocking video of his murder at the hands of the faux vigilante father and son duo has gone viral. In February, Mr. Arbery was jogging in the Georgia city of Brunswick, when he was accosted by two men who said they believed he was robbing homes. They approached him, harassed him, and then shot and killed him. 
Here we are again in America with another high-profile case of a race-inspired, minimally prosecuted murder. The tragic list is long: Emmett Till, James Byrd, Travon Martin, Eric Garner, and Botham Jean represent just a few. This violence is not uncommon as African Americans are the most likely victims of U.S. hate crimes. The sheer reliability of these incidents force the nation to engage in uncomfortable self-reflection. Like a painful medical procedure, we must take the difficult steps of exploring the root causes of the disease and not just the symptoms. The symptoms, the two racist gun-toting men eventually arrested for the crime, are acute. Yet we exert time and energy on them at the expense of tackling the greater national disease; what Dr. King called the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. These pernicious and persistent evils represent America’s true sickness.

Racism is a historic national cancer. Yet our collective denial and desire for cheap grace are as ineffective as a person trying to hide and ignore a large tumor. No matter how much we try to move on, we cannot. Consequently, most Americans have just learned to accept it; passively consenting to a certain racial caste system that is reflected in our public spaces. Every trip to a mall, airport, or restaurant reinforces the inequality to which we have grown accustomed. People of European descent sit in first class, own our industries, and occupy the top rings of our capitalist society. People of color occupy the poorest and most dangerous communities, and disproportionately are the greatest victims of our failure to live up to the promise of equality. The average African American family has 1/10 the wealth of the average European American family. Home ownership, the greatest source of wealth for Americans, is 30% less in communities of color. With this backdrop, African American achievement is seen as exceptional rather than customary. Our collective psyches have been emblazoned with these disparities. Accordingly, most of us are both victims and perpetrators of America’s racial hierarchy. Armed with this delusion, a dark-skinned man running through a neighborhood is easily and traditionally perceived as a potential criminal. When you come from a group that represents the bottom of the caste system, it is common for others to believe that your life does not matter.

Furthermore, capitalistic materialism has left a moral vacuum longing to be filled. The faulty principles of self-reliance and individualism allow the wealthiest nation in the world to willfully ignore the causes behind our glaring social inconsistencies. Americans consistently consider the economy their greatest priority in choosing leadership. Our deity-like focus on this sector as our greatest political and social hope allows us to honor those who place corporate profitability above all. As long as some individuals can make money, Americans are happy. Education takes a backseat to entertainment, justice to jobs, and freedom to financial prosperity. Those that are left behind are considered responsible for their own failure. In this individualistic model the greatest sin is not injustice, rather the blasphemous notion that justice is more important than profit.

Coupled with both racism and materialism is the problem of the violence born out of a militaristic culture. With over 300 million guns in a nation with a population just shy of that number, we have the dubious distinction of being the most heavily armed society on the planet. 23,854 and 14,542 Americans die by firearms through suicide and homicide, respectively. We spend more on the military than the next top ten spending nations in the world combined. Why? What makes us so afraid, so bloodthirsty, so sad and angry, so willing to turn to violence to solve our problems? For every social ill that we face, racism, depression, poverty, anxiety, and drug use, easy access to guns serves to fuel the flame. So, what can we do? I will provide that analysis in a future continuation of this piece. However, we must not look at this latest example of bigotry and violence in Georgia as isolated. Clearly, it is who we are. 

The God of the Bible instructed the early believing community to not “deny justice or show partiality.” There were heavy social consequences laid out for the early Jews in the book of Deuteronomy for infractions like murder. The principle of restitution was set forth to address violence and wrongdoing. Human beings, made in the image of God, have an innate desire to see good rewarded and evil punished. When this doesn’t occur, even children are unsettled and confused. Where there is no justice, there is no peace. Consequently, our society must do the hard work of ensuring justice for African Americans or this nation will face perpetual turmoil, tragedy, and violence. We must confront our historic and current practices of slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, redlining, and economic exploitation. Otherwise we are left with simplistic and ignorant explanations for our obvious inequality that serve only to further promote racism. Without this kind of painful and comprehensive treatment, America’s cancer will prove fatal.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

COVID-19, States rights, and Compassion

In the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858, Senator Douglas stated "If the people of any other territory desire slavery, let them have it. If they do not want it, let them prohibit it. It is their business, not mine."
These comments summarize America's long battle with the states' rights position. Since the days of the Federalist Papers, this nation has vacillated between centralized policies that guarantee equal protections across all 50 states, and the freedom for states to do as they choose. For the poor and disenfranchised, this ideology has always left them unprotected, forgotten, and victimized.

The states' rights argument was used in the 1860's to justify southern secession from the Union in defense of slavery.
The states' rights argument was used in the 1930's to justify resistance against certain New Deal reforms.
The states' rights argument was used in the 1960's to justify denying the progress of Civil Rights movement.
The states' rights argument was used up until the 1970's to justify denying the creation of a federal Department of Education.
The states' rights argument was used in the early 2000's to justify the federal government's weak response to Hurricane Katrina.
The states' rights argument is being used currently to justify allowing for wholesale voter suppression across the nation.

It is no secret that the quality of housing, education, and public safety citizens receive depends heavily on the state in which they live. Southern states are drastically poorer than those in the north.
And while a combination of factors contribute to these disparities, these states should not be left to fend for themselves. What impacts one impacts us all. 

The spread of the COVID-19 virus is the largest economic and social crisis of my lifetime. Yet in the face of this, currently 10 states have failed to pass stay-in-place orders for their residents. President Trump has stated that is he is reticent to force compliance. Consequently, responses to this tragedy in unemployment benefits, housing, and food provisions vary drastically across the nation. This must change. In times of great peril, the entire nation relies on the federal government to use its unparalleled resources to mobilize and save lives quickly. In every historic situation just mentioned, it was the federal government that averted disaster. Crisis leaves no room for the states rights ideology. It must be rejected in fighting the novel coronavirus if we are to mount an effective response to this international pandemic.

As a part of the stimulus package, the federal government has put in place payroll protections through the Small Business Administration. These are a step in the right direction, however, they leave workers unnecessarily unprotected. The response of many employers to the economic challenges we currently face has been to downsize. Close to a million people were laid off last month and there were 6.6 million unemployment claims just last week, the most in US history. Unemployment systems, run primarily at the state level, are overwhelmed. Cases are well reported of people who’ve sat on the phone for hours and reached no one. Mortgage companies are left to create their own solutions, many providing only limited borrower deferment plans which require full repayment at the end of a 3-month period. 

By allowing for states to create their own stay-in-place orders, their own unemployment and welfare responses, and their own rules on social distancing, we leave too much to chance. People's lives are at stake. Looking at the centralized responses of nations like S. Korea, Germany, Denmark, Great Britain, and Canada, it is clear what is possible. The federal government should step in immediately and create a national shelter-in-place policy, national rent and mortgage freezes, and monthly cash payments to citizens. Anything short of this assures that many will fall through the cracks. Their lives depend on our collective response.

Christ elevated compassion as the essential quality of this life. Our existence will ultimately be judged by how we treat "the least of these." He rarely taught spiritual principles without providing physical charity. If judgment for the individual will be based on this, does this sentiment extend to societies, to nations? If the federal government has the ability to protect the lives and well-being of millions, how can it be seen as anything but negligent or downright evil to avoid doing so? It is time for those with power to exert it in a comprehensive and visionary manner that alleviates suffering and protects the most vulnerable. The time to act is now.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Marijuana is legal. So, should Christians light up?

Recreational marijuana use is now legal in the state of Illinois. While medicinal marijuana has been lawful for years, this conversation now goes much further than people looking to deal with pain relief. The debate has now turned to the usage of this substance in the general culture, particularly by people concerned with its moral implications.

Let’s put this in context. Marijuana is the most commonly used substance after alcohol in the United States. Its presence in popular culture is ubiquitous. Consequently, the marijuana legalization movement is both an acknowledgment of this reality and an effort to rectify the injustices of the decades long War on Drugs. Millions of people, most heavily people of color, bore the weight of the government’s discriminatory initiative. The United States now boasts the distinction of having the world’s largest prison population. Communist China with over a billion residents and a highly repressive government has over a million less inmates. Marijuana decriminalization and overall legalization represent one significant step in addressing this national injustice.

Yet are there any moral barriers to using the drug? Should Christians join in? As with most issues, the Bible provides guidance. Yet for those looking for a “thou shall or shall not smoke marijuana,” will not find it. Rather, there are a few clear principles that address this.
Primarily, the book of Genesis provides for the usage of every plant on the Earth. According to this, what grows from the ground is a gift from God and is to be used. Cannibus has a host of historic uses that extend from food to pain management and clothing. Consequently, there is no clear prohibition against the plant in scripture. However, there are a few facts to consider. The THC in marijuana has been proven to have a long term impact on cognitive development. Additional health impacts include memory loss, impaired coordination, and loss of the ability to concentrate. Smoking any substance has a whole host of health challenges. Furthermore, marijuana functions primarily as a depressant, slowing down a person’s motor skills. Considering biblical instruction about sobriety and lethargy, the concern may be less about whether one can use the drug and more about rather one should.

I Corinthians 6: 12 is a guiding rule for this issue. It teaches that “Everything is permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial.” While not all users fall into the cultural stereotypes of the derelict “Cheech and Chong” lifestyle, we must be careful about buying into the false promises of substance escapism. Often those most in need of sobriety for survival are most likely to use outside medication for internal peace. In this way, we should exercise restraint with respect to this and other intoxicating substances. Biblical teachings on the use of wine are helpful in this case. Moderate alcohol consumption is seen in various places throughout the Bible.  Drinking wine is acceptable,yet drunkenness is not. The question for marijuana users is whether there is a corollary way to view this. Is there an acceptable amount of marijuana usage that does not intoxicate to the point of “drunkenness”? 

The lines on this issue may be a little more nuanced than most people desire. Many want clear and simple demarcations of right and wrong. This is not always possible. Moderate, infrequent usage may be tolerable, yet this will require maturity, discernment, and some self-examination. There are benefits to the new world of legal marijuana. I am grateful that millions of people will no longer face the weight of the criminal justice system for the distribution of a plant, and that new economic opportunities may exist. However, there are always two sides to every story. Believers should carefully consider both.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Bible and the Ballot-Illinois Midterm Endorsements

This is the first time I have done political endorsements. People are constantly asking me what I think about candidates, however, I typically stick to providing them with tools to research for themselves. Increasingly however, I feel compelled to do more. As a person of faith, who cares deeply about the issue of biblical justice and protections for the marginalized in our society, I understand the need to promote leaders who reflect these concerns. Furthermore, given the severe cost of political corruption, it is also important to elect candidates with a history of conducting themselves in an ethical fashion. My endorsements are, obviously, not the only way to view these candidates and referendum questions. Sincere and thoughtful people from all perspectives can arrive at different conclusions. I fully support the government fulfilling its God-ordained role of promoting order and justice (Romans 13:1-7). I also am committed to policies that protect the most vulnerable in our society over those who are in a more fortunate position. I believe this to be God’s heart. (Prov. 29:7) For this reason, each candidate has been considered through this lens. I honestly understand the limits of any political candidate or movement. Consequently, I don’t recommend the following candidates because of some false messiah-like hopes I have. I support them because they appear to be the best candidates running based on the aforementioned criteria. Hopefully, my analysis will help you in the difficult process of researching a host of candidates and issues. Happy voting!

Illinois Governor and Lieutenant Governor-After using his millions to essentially buy an election, Bruce Rauner has proven to be ineffective in the art of governing. Whether fully to blame or not, his budget crisis and inability to coalesce his own party make him weak. JB Pritzker has also bought his way to statewide prominence. However, he appears to have a greater heart for addressing inequality and a solid plan to deal with issues like education and healthcare. We should elect him and hold him accountable to his pledges. If he proves to be ineffective or unconcerned with the aforementioned issues, the next election is only four short years away.

Illinois Attorney General-Having two African American candidates vie for the top legal job in the state is a rare opportunity. Ericka Harold, a dynamic young lawyer, is too ideologically obsessed to win statewide. For this reason Kwame Raoul, the successor to Obama’s State Senate seat, is the best choice. Although Raoul is the recipient of large donations from the Democratic establishment, his record of ethical conduct, commitment to criminal justice reform, and ability to work across the aisle clearly make him the strongest candidate. 

Illinois Secretary of State-Jesse White is uncontested

Illinois Comptroller- The incumbent, Susan Mendoza, is strongly considering a run for mayor of the City of Chicago. In fact, a video announcement of her mayoral campaign leaked this week. Consequently, I support the Republican candidate, Darlene Senger, simply based on this revelation. Mendoza may turn out to be a great mayoral candidate, however, the people of Illinois deserve a candidate committed to doing this job first. While there is a libertarian candidate in the race as well, I cannot support the libertarian ideology. Its commitment to minimalist government through laissez-faire economic principles is socially irresponsible, historically ignorant, and lacks compassion for the marginalized among us.

Illinois Treasurer-Michael Frerichs is clearly the candidate most committed to the issues facing struggling workers and students. He is heavily supported by a host of labor, education, and environmental groups in the state. Furthermore, his proposal for increasing college savings programs at the state level will provide much needed support to working families faced with the rising costs of college education. Lastly, he’s been recognized nationally for his work in government ethics and accountability. For these reasons, I will support him.

Representatives in Congress (2-year terms, one in each district)-This position is geographically based, therefore you should research on your own.

State Senators (4-year terms for one in each of the following Districts that are partly or entirely in Chicago: 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, 20, 39)- This position is geographically based, therefore you should research on your own.

Representatives in the General Assembly (2-year terms, one in each district)- This position is geographically based, therefore you should research on your own.

Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (3 to be elected to 6-year terms; 2 to be elected separately to 2-year terms)-Barring some major crisis of water pollution, resource mismanagement, or ethical scandal, it is difficult to determine which candidates will be most effective in keeping our water supply safe and clean. The current Democrats in office have managed to keep the ship steady while adding new initiatives designed to protect the environment. However, supporting one of the many Green party candidates running for these seats would not be a poor choice given their party’s undying commitment to the environment. Take your pick on this one.

President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners-Although she has announced her intentions to run for mayor as well, current President Toni Preckwinkle is running unopposed. Her re-election is a simple formality.

County Clerk of Cook County- Current Clerk Karen Yarbrough is running unopposed.

Sheriff of Cook County- Current Sheriff Tom Dart is running unopposed.

Treasurer of Cook County- Current Treasurer Maria Pappas is running unopposed.

Assessor of Cook County-Fritz Kaegi has made countering the corruption and racial bias that plagued the office of Assessor Joe Berrios his number one priority. Kaegi has focused his efforts on outreach to the mostly poor minority communities impacted by erroneous low assessments of their home values. Additionally, he has personally and professionally spent time in the faith community working towards a biblical view of justice for the poor. He should make a great Assessor.

Cook County Commissioners (4-year terms, one in each district)

Commissioner of the Board of Review (Property Tax Appeals) of Cook County (Districts 2 & 3)

Circuit and Sub-Circuit Judges (to fill vacancies as needed)-The judges are often the most difficult section of any ballot. Using the  website will make your research extremely simple. Each judge is endorsed by associations of lawyers. Endorsements from groups like the Black Women Lawyers Association, the Chicago Council of Lawyers, Women’s Bar Association, the Cook County Bar Association, and the Hispanic Lawyers Association give pretty clear indications of their relationship to poor and minority groups in our area. A cursory look at these endorsements, using the previously mentioned website, should help make the decisions easier.

The City Council assigned three citywide advisory referendum questions to appear on the ballots:

- Should the City of Chicago ban the use of plastic straws within the corporate city limits? Many recent studies have alerted the public to the environmental hazards associated with disposing of these items. I’d hate to see them go, but I’d had to see the planet impacted as well. Consequently, we should support the ban.
- Should the City of Chicago seek that the State of Illinois create a homeowners' property tax exemption for families in municipalities of over 500,000 that have lived in their home for over 10 years and whose income is under $100,000? Yes-property taxes, which fund education in Illinois, are heavily burdensome to middle class families. Restructuring our tax code to provide less exemptions at the top and changing our state education funding system is a sure-fire way to deal with inequality in the state. I support the measure.

- In the event marijuana is legalized, should the City of Chicago appropriate revenue from the sale of marijuana to increase funding for Chicago Public Schools and for mental health services?
Of course! While I am not a huge proponent of marijuana legalization as a revenue source (Although I support decriminalization, there are other revenue options devoid of marijuana’s social costs/externalities) any potential cash income should be used for students and mental health services. 

The Cook County Board assigned three countywide advisory referendum questions to appear on the ballots:

- Shall the minimum wage in your municipality match the $13 per hour Cook County minimum wage law for adults over the age of 18 by July 1, 2020, and be indexed to the consumer price index after that?
Minimum wage laws have historically protected low-income workers from exploitation. They should be supported more often than not. While businesses often complain about their increased costs, the generous benefits in the US tax code still give them solid ground on which to function. Even at $13, many workers face heavy economic insecurity and should be supported in their quest for social mobility.

- Shall your municipality match the Cook County earned sick time law which allows for workers to earn up to 40 hours (5 days) of sick time a year to take care of their own health or a family member’s health?
Yes-The United States is woefully behind most industrialized nations with respect to worker benefits.

- Should the State of Illinois strengthen penalties for the illegal trafficking of firearms and require all gun dealers to be certified by the State?
Yes-gun violence claims the lives of 12,000 Americans each year. Even responsible gun owners should be in favor of stiffer penalties for the illegal trafficking of firearms.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Bible and the Ballot Voting Workshop

Here are a few resources to prepare you for the November 6th 2018 general election… Using this website, you can find information on your public officials, polling places, and download a SAMPLE BALLOT based on your address. You can use this for research and take the sample ballot into the polls with you on election day. You will find a comparison of candidates and questionnaires.  You can search the voting records of your current public officials. These are resources for researching judicial candidates Highlights campaign donations

Important Dates:
11/1/18                                                                                Last day to request ballot for mailing
11/5/18                                                                                Last day to early vote
11/6/18                                                                                General Election Day

Voter Bill of RightsYou have the right to:

  1. Cast your ballot without interference.

  2. Vote if you are in line by 7:00 p.m.

  3. Go to your home precinct and present IDs on election day to (a) register to vote or (b) update your registration, and then cast a ballot if you have not voted already at this election.

  4. Vote at your old polling place if you moved less than 31 days before the election.

  5. Get help voting from the election judges or from an eligible relative or friend.

  6. Use endorsements, sample ballots or notes while voting.

  7. Protect the secrecy of your ballot.

  8. Check your ballot choices and correct any mistakes.

  9. Have your ballot counted fairly and impartially.

  10. Have your young child with you in the voting booth.

Remember, your vote matters!      Happy Voting!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Crime, poverty, and superhero citizens 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9

I recently spent a week in New York City wandering around, visiting old friends. While there, I decided to catch a train to Harlem, the African-American cultural mecca. Unbeknownst to me, my subway ride would the most enlightening and inspiring event the entire week. 

In true New York fashion, a battle over space on the subway platform bubbled over into a full-scale argument. A gentleman confronted another passenger, and what seemed like a simple disagreement quickly became much more. The men, from different ethnic backgrounds, became increasingly aggressive with one another and one lifted his shirt to flash a possible weapon. A middle-aged African-American woman stepped up to this gentleman and grabbed him by the arm. She said to him, "Don't do this brother. You know when the cops arrive, they'll shoot you first. You know that's what always happens. Step back so you can save your life and ours." The gentleman pulled back, collected himself, and walked away. She immediately ran upstairs and outside of the subway. I walked up to her, thanked her, and asked her why she did it. “I saw the guy may have had a gun and I didn’t want to get hurt. I was concerned for myself and everyone else," she said. Motivated by self-interest or not, it takes a great deal of courage to play peacemaker. She momentarily set her own safety aside and decided to get involved. That day she was a true hero who most likely saved lives. 

The causes of violence and subsequent solutions are not complicated. The man who was persuaded to walk away felt disrespected and without agency to prove his own value. He appeared neither wealthy, important, nor powerful. He had nothing to lose, making him a perfect potential victim or perpetrator of crime. According to the Bureau of Justice, there is a clear correlation between crime and poverty. Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (39.8 per 1,000) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households (16.9 per 1,000).  In a city like Chicago, known for its high levels of gang violence and murder, half of the residents are low-income or living in poverty. 

The desperation, social isolation, and hopelessness of poverty make these statistics possible. With nearly 40 million Americans living below the poverty line, this issue is not isolated. It is all of our problem. Yet when ordinary people step forward and become agents of peace, we have a chance. When people move beyond their own sense of fear and work towards the greater good, we have a chance. When average citizens realize that we are all responsible for a safer and more equitable nation, we have a chance.

Aristotle wrote that poverty is the parent of crime. Consequently, solving poverty requires holistic solutions that are both institutional and individual. Not only must the government commit to this perspective, but also citizens. As we collectively work to promote peace in the face of conflict or help to root out poverty one person at a time, we change the future for us all. Individuals like the woman I met in Harlem can be a great catalyst for this change. As a nation we should empower, support, and learn from people like her.  

Friday, October 5, 2018

Justice and the Van Dyke Verdict

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. Prov. 29:7

The verdict in the Jason Van Dyke trial, was a watershed moment in Chicago and American politics. Some viewed it as evidence of American justice coming to fruition for a traditionally marginalized group. Others saw it as a sad day for police officers, setting the precedent for their criminal prosecution. Still others thought the jury, which convicted Officer Van Dyke of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, failed to go far enough. 

What can scripture contribute to this discussion? 

It is difficult to ignore the obvious connections between this case and the biblical principle laid out in Proverbs 29. McDonald, a ward of the state, with no wealth, family, or major support structure was not considered a model young man by any accounts. His short life reflected the kind of deviance that makes demonizing him relatively simple. However, this is why his story so tragic. 
McDonald is the exact kind of person that deeply required society's justice in life and now even more in death. 

By definition, the concept of justice means "acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright and good, conforming to a standard of correctness, or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments". Providing justice for the poor and disenfranchised is a biblical priority because, by nature, we tend to overlook this group. Universally, humans have always heaped respect and admiration on the rich and powerful. They are consistently deemed worthy of our highest levels of veneration. The life of a teenage, African-American, poor, orphaned, drug-user is easily devalued in most circles. For this reason, it wasn't difficult for Van Dyke to shoot repeatedly because he subconsciously recognized McDonald's societal lack of worth. Imagine the potentially different police reaction if McDonald was an ostensibly wealthy and drugged out bar-hopper in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood.   

Race and class are as much a part of the American identity as they have ever been. The infamous videotape, which clearly displayed an excessive use of force, was perceived differently based on who was watching. Those who could empathize with McDonald and his identity had a drastically different reaction than those that connected with Van Dyke. However, justice is not about tribal divisions and class-informed perceptions. It is about impartially upholding what is right and fair, particularly for the powerless among us.

Biblical justice is blind. Although extremely difficult to attain, we must strive towards this end. The verdict in this case represents a step in the right direction. 

The Case of Ahmaud Arbery: When Racism, Guns, and Inequality Collide By now, most Americans have heard of Ahmaud Arbery. The shocki...