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.

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