[on reparations for the African-American community ]

[This semester I’ve been enrolled in a course called “Law and the African American Experience.”  My last assignment was to write a short opinion article answering the question, “Should the Federal Government pay reparations to Black Americans for 400 years of slavery and discrimination?”  My opinion is what follows.]

How ironic that a nation whose anthem rings of liberty, whose flag waves for freedom, and whose great wars were fought in the name of independence has been built on the backs of men and women and children who have yet to taste the fullness of any of these “unalienable rights.”  Even with an occasional attempt to garner integrity in our soul in the years that followed the cessation of formal slavery, a shameful abundance of promises have been broken.  If a ever a people deserved to ask for reparations, black Americans certainly do.

Ah, reparations.  The feisty word that’s sure to enliven the oppressed, while dismaying the benefactors of oppression- yes, even those who might nod ever-so-slightly in non-committal agreement that reparations might be due.  Reparations, we all assume, concern a debt which must be paid.  And debts, we reason, are strictly financial transactions.  And money, is in no small demand everywhere for everything.

Yet the conversation about reparations for 400 years of slavery and discrimination should not begin nor end with money.  The dignity of an entire people cannot be recovered by means of a paycheck.  Nor will their voice of unrest become settled at the fleeting sight of cold hard cash in every one of their hands.  The cry for justice may subside for a moment, but it will be an utterly short moment.  How absurd to believe that we could so boldly cut open the chest of a people, rip their heart out, trample it for 400 years, and expect that placing gold coins in their palm will instantly heal them.  In fact, the very notion that life, well-being, and freedom that has been taken outright and determinedly forsaken can be restored by anything less than a total commitment heart, mind, body, law, and pocket seems like a mockery of humanity.  Money alone does not make true amends – repentance does.

True repentance is more than a trite apology, more than a scrambled attempt to move past guilt.  True repentance involves a reckoning with oneself about the extent of damage our beliefs and our doings have inflicted upon another and furthermore, upon the world.  That reckoning leads us to a new set of purer convictions by which we may begin to rightly-relate to ourselves and all that we once destroyed.

If the African-American community is plagued today by fatherlessness, which has its roots in the forced separation of families over the course of slavery’s somber years, then the black family is precisely where both our social energy, our mindful consideration, and our financial resources should be intentionally directed.  If that fatherlessness has been further perpetuated by the ills of the criminal justice system and our senseless War on Drugs, then every black man in every prison in America should be given the opportunity to succeed through education and rehabilitative services and a fair chance at employment post-incarceration.  If the education of the African-American community is in shambles because of years of neglect, then the nation should be giving of their best and their brightest to shore up this critical ground.  If the economy of the African-American community is stilted because everything was taken, nothing was given, and furthermore, no chance of acquiring was granted, then by all means the nation ought to make a willful pledge to invest mightily in this sphere.

Debts, we reason, may linger on for some years with no real disconcerting penalty.  Ignorant we are, of the bitterness we are stacking up against ourselves.  Bitterness is a terrible seed to sow; it yields a fruit of poisonous demise.  Yet sown we have, year after disgraceful year.

we who bind.

{excerpt from a journal entry I wrote today…}

    The concept of incarceration as punishment doesn’t make sense to me.  It never has, and I doubt it ever will.  In fact, I do not wish it to.

     I can understand that wrongs need to be made right.  Every human being with breath in their body knows this.  That is what I live for.  But that a wrong done against society can somehow be made right by stripping a life of all purpose and locking it in a miserable cell is to me, utterly illogical.  If a man has harmed another man or wrought some great tragedy on society, let him, at the very least, have the opportunity to make it right.  Send him to a field, let him toil all day, let him pray all night.  Let him sit and learn and strive to better himself.  Let him work to earn and to give back all that he has stolen.  And if what he has stolen cannot be replaced, let him at least labor to fill with goodness the place on earth he has left empty. 

When we as a society, take a man who owes us a great debt and lock him in a cell and forget about his existence, we take his debt upon ourselves.  We deny him his God-given right to pay his own debt, and we inflict his great burden upon ourselves and our children.  In our desperate clamor to reclaim what has been taken from us and exact vengeance on the taker, we allow ourselves to lose even more – perpetually, over and over.  We who bind are also bound – by our own unforgiveness, fear, and the steep financial cost of keeping men in chains.  

WHY, as a non-pot-smoking follower of Jesus, I believe we should legalize marijuana

Before I begin describing why I think marijuana should be decriminalized, I need to first tell you a bit about myself:

I am a 25-year old, white female. 

I am a follower of Jesus. I want everyone in the world to know and experience the love of God.  My whole life is dedicated to this mission. 

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology & Sociology, and I am working on my Master’s degree in Criminal Justice. 

Although my current income would likely not meet middle-class standards, I would likely be considered culturally middle-class. 

I have never once so much as smoked a puff of marijuana.  I have never done illicit drugs of any kind. 

The only thing I have ever smoked was clove-flavored cigarettes, commonly referred to as “blacks.” I’ve done that maybe 5 times in my life.  I drank before I was 21 only once – in England where it isn’t illegal. 

I was raised in a conservative home.  I was a pastor’s daughter.  I attend a conservative Nazarene university.  I was a Resident Assistant at my university… which basically meant I got paid to make sure students didn’t smoke pot or drink alcohol.

I think using marijuana is a pretty dumb idea.  I do not recommend it, nor do I condone it.  I am of the opinion that the world would be just fine without the stuff.  I think it is a waste of time, a waste of brain cells, and a waste of money.  I have regularly challenged my pot-smoking friends to quit.   

I think using all drugs is a terrible idea.  I think smoking tobacco is terrible idea.  I think abusing alcohol is a terrible idea.  I think abusing sugar and caffeine are terrible ideas too.  

I know it is easy to abuse any substance.  I know that addictions are sneaky, that they hang on for dear life, that they are super easy to succumb to, and often times terribly hard to overcome. 

At one point in my life, I was overweight, addicted to sugar, and used food to cope with stress on a daily basis.  I am so grateful that God rescued me from my self-abusive lifestyle!  Its been a long journey, one I am still on.  I can honestly say though that my life looks completely different than it did 5 years ago.  I am a healthy weight.  I run a lot.  For the most part, I eat only fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, organic dairy & occasionally meat.  I use only raw honey and maple syrup for sweeteners, and I never drink caffeine.  I enjoy a beer or a glass of wine once or twice a week.  Once in a while I still eat dessert and enjoy it… although I almost always feel sick afterwards.  

Okay. 

I just wanted to get all of that out there.  I do not wish to be written off as a liberal, hippie dope-head.

I have spent the last 2 months studying our Criminal Justice System in America.  I still have a long ways to go before I could even remotely be considered an expert in the field.  But I have already come to one personal conclusion:  The criminalization of marijuana is senseless.  May the criminalization of all drugs is actually senseless… I honestly haven’t arrived at a definite decision on that one yet.  But I can say that I have really thought through what is considered to be the most minor of all drugs: marijuana. 

I’m not going to write a term paper here. I’m just going to summarize what I have been learning through numerous books, articles, research statistics, and discussions with classmates currently working in the system:

-The Great War on Drugs is not the epic moral battle we’ve all been led to believe it is.  Politicians from BOTH Democratic and Republicans have used the “get tough on crime” platform to win the nation’s support and votes.  Campaigning strategies have included intentional publicizing a few extreme cases of violent crimes associated with drug use, followed by advertising candidates as the knights in shining armor who swoop in and save the nation with their hardcore policies.  Each president tried to outdo the last guy with how “tough” he is on crime.  What do we end up with?  The highest incarceration rates in the WORLD.  We have a fourth of the world’s prisoners.  And we have less than 5% of the world’s population.  So much for the “land of the free.”  As a follower of Jesus, I want to support policies that are bringing life and wholeness to our nation.  I question whether severe sentencing and mass incarceration are accomplishing those goals.  I do not want to be blindly misled by propaganda. 

-Did you know that police departments get federal funding to wage the War on Drugs?  Politicians who promise to be tough on crime have to show the nation that they are serious. They offer incredible financial benefits and resources to  police departments who will spend more time & energy fighting drugs.   So what do they do?  The logical thing of course!  Protect their sources of funding by focusing on busting people for drug use.  I’m not talking about assaults, robberies, shootings, or rapes.  I’m talking about people walking down the sidewalk with a bag of weed in their pocket.  As a follower of Jesus, I cannot condone actions taken by public service agencies that are based almost solely off legalized bribery.

-Basically in the last 30-40 years, the United States decided to cut BILLIONS of dollars in public housing, drug education, subsidies for single mothers who baby daddies are in jail, as well as many other welfare programs.  At the same time, we have begun to spend even MORE than we cut on building new prisons and fighting the infamous “War on Drugs.”  As Michelle Alexander pointed out, essentially prison is the new public housing solution.  As a follower of Jesus, I am compelled to consider the poor, the homeless, the orphans and widows.  And the prisoner.  Jesus was concerned for the prisoner too.   

– Although studies have proven over and over again that whites sell & use drugs as much or more than blacks and Hispanics, the rate of minorities being incarcerated for drug crimes is astronomical compared to the rate of whites being incarcerated for similar drug crimes.  We think we have arrived at racial equality in this nation and that the horrors of slavery are a nightmare of the past.  We are wrong.  As a follower of Jesus, I cannot embrace a system that elevates one race of people over another.  

-Have you heard of the 3 strikes law?  Its a law in California that mandates that 3rd time felonies are automatically sentenced to life in prison.  I just read a story about a young man who was caught three times selling marijuana.  He’s 24.  He’s going to prison for life.  Not because he is a murderer, not because he is violently raping innocent woman, not because he bombed a school.  Because he sold a plant that some people smoke.  That’s it.  A whole life will get wasted in prison.  

-Did you know that anyone convicted of a felony is no longer eligible for public housing, food stamps, voting rights or federal student aid?  That’s fine by me, you might think, I don’t want to pay for a criminal to have welfare assistance. Lots of Americans think this.  The problem is, we don’t think any further… That felon is going to leave prison with no home, no food, slim chance of getting a job since no one wants to hire ex-convicts, no chance for education… for the rest of his life.  And at least for a long time, he’ll also have no opportunity to voice his concerns at the poll booth.  So what happens?  A person does what they have to do to survive and if that means selling drugs again, they’ll do it to stay alive.  So back to prison they go… and the cost of shuffling them through the courts racks up again.  Let me tell you this – your tax dollars could be spent on getting this guy some housing, some food stamps and some Medicaid and give him a starting chance at becoming a productive part of society.  Or your tax dollars can be spent on giving him housing, food, and healthcare IN PRISON.   So I did the math yesterday.  Here’s the rough numbers: $12,000 for food, housing, and healthcare in society.  $18,000-30,000 for worse food, worse housing, and worse healthcare in prison. PER YEAR.  (Oh yeah, and did I mention chances of that person becoming mentally ill in prison are pretty high?)  As a follower of Jesus with a responsibility to care for those in need and to steward my money wisely AND as a rational human being, I cannot justify these policies in any way. 

-Think of someone you know who smokes pot.  Come on, almost all of us know someone who does. Most of us know a lot of people who do.  I am thinking about this guy I know who smokes pot and is about my age.  He is a super sharp dude, from a well-off family.  Has a Bachelor’s degree, going to school for his Masters.  His dad works for the government.  He has a great personality, is a kind man.  He’ll be a great dad someday and he has so much to offer the world. I’m telling you this with absolute confidence: the world WILL NOT be a better place if he gets caught and sent to jail.  His family would be heart-broken, the economy would be missing out on both his working and spending, his future employers would miss out on a brilliant member of their team, the university would lose his brain as well as his money, his friends would miss out on his care and involvement. 

Now I am thinking of another young woman I know who smokes pot.  She is still a teenager, she has a young daughter.  No education, no job, a poor family, no advantages in life.  She loves her daughter and her family fiercely. She gets into fights, and is caught up in a lot of urban core drama.  And I can honestly say that the world will still NOT be a better place if she is caught and put in jail.  Her daughter needs her, her family needs her. Just because she isn’t educated now, doesn’t mean she won’t ever be. She is the future of of our nation.  She will learn nothing in jail except more violence and more ways to do drugs.

– Why not legalize the production and sales of marijuana and tax the hell out of it?  We have done that with tobacco.  If Joe Schmoe can buy blunts at CVS with his Ibuprophen and Marlboros, that sure takes away from the dope-head on the corner making bank from illegal sales. 

-Why can we not learn from the Prohibition Era?  Alcohol has far more devastating effects than marijuana.  Yet when we as a nation attempted to criminalize the production, sales, and use of alcohol, organized crime RAGED.  Some of our nation’s most notorious criminals came during the Prohibition… hello, anybody remember Al Capone ??  Eventually the mayhem that ensued was not worth the fight. 

-Why not use all the billions of dollars we use on “fighting” marijuana, and since we are clearly not winning the war anyways, why not put all those precious dollars toward educational marketing discouraging marijuana use and effective rehabilitative programming?  That’s what Portugal did.  Worked brilliantly for them.  Or better yet, why not create jobs for the thousands (maybe millions) of bored, unemployed people who have nothing better to do than smoke their brains out? 

Yesterday, over lunch at an Indian cafe, my champ of a husband Myles was listening to me process and was challenging me on different things I’ve been learning lately.  (He is studying Urban Planning, so we tend to have rather intense dates, haha.)  He asked me, “So if you think it is wrong to use marijuana, how could you legalize it?  Shouldn’t your morals line up with your policies?  For example, Joe Bidden believes that life begins at conception.  But he doesn’t think he should impose his beliefs on women. His policy is not in line with his morals.” 

I thought it was a valid question.  Here was my reply, “The repercussions of criminalizing marijuana compromise way more of my morals than decriminalizing it does.  Sure, I don’t think it is right for people to abuse marijuana.  I also don’t think its right for people to drink a 6 pack of beer, smoke a pack of cigarettes, and eat McFlurries everyday either.  I think the devastation that the War on Drugs has left on our nation compromises so many standards of justice, equality, and the well-being of our nation.  

…Besides, the abortion issue is about the life and death of a human being. The marijuana issue is about a controversial plant.” 

Lots of Christians in the prayer-and-fasting movement seem to like Isaiah 58.  I like it too.  It’s a powerful passage, rich with God’s heart for people.  In light of all I am studying though, it’s bringing a whole new light to God’s words:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed[b] go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.”

We seem to like Isaiah 61 as well:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;[a]
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;[b]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.[c]
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.”

Makes me think twice about our incarceration rates. More than twice actually.  This passage is making me think about our prison system all the time these days!

My intent in writing this post is two-fold.  For starters, my head and heart are welling up with passion for the things I am learning and I felt if I did not write I might internally combust!  I am not pretending to have everything figured out.  I am on a journey to discover God’s justice for our whole nation and the nations of the Earth.  Secondly, perhaps more importantly, I felt compelled to invite you into the challenge I constantly feel from God these days: 

To seek out truth, to ask His perspective on the world, to care about everything He cares about, to know exactly what I am supporting and why.  

 

–> If the topic of the Drug War and the criminalization of drugs interests you in any way, I HIGHLY recommend the book, “The New Jim Crowe” by Michelle Alexander.  While she deals with the entire War on Drugs and particularly targets crack cocaine, the state of affairs in our nation is laid out quite clearly.  I can honestly say that her conclusions line up succinctly with many other articles and textbooks I have been studying.  

the Perfect One for the job

I awake this morning to the all-too-familiar sound of loud rap music blaring from upstairs neighbor’s stereo.  I stretch my legs out and yawn.  At least this morning its not the sound of someone being punched in the gut over and over like I often hear as violent video games and movies are played in the room above mine.  I can’t help but think how perfectly lovely this morning could be if it weren’t for the ruckus upstairs.  My own apartment is still and the sun is streaming in my one in lone window, filling my tiny room with an amber glow.

My mind is already wandering away, even though I have yet to pull the covers off.  I am thinking about all the conversations I had at work yesterday.  Crowded around a booth, rolling silverware into napkins, my co-workers had started asking me questions about why I chose to live on the East Side of Kansas City for two years, why I actually wanted to live by the intersection of 39th & Troost of all places – a location notorious for shootings and violent crime.  Those questions led to all kinds of story swapping.  Soon the talk was full of crimes committed against us, unjust court proceedings, crooked lawyers, racial hatred.  I saw again what I have seen a thousand times – people stuck in faulty systems, wrong relating perpetuating more Wrong Relating.  I saw again how one act of injustice spirals into injustice fifty times over, and how as a result many will be imprisoned – whether by actual incarceration or by being physically restricted by legal proceedings and debt, or by emotional imprisonment by hatred and bitterness.

As I roll out of bed and began to get ready for my day, I am thinking about how different classes of society tend towards different kinds of crime.  Violent crime is always associated with impoverished urban areas.  And all the people I know who are in DUI trouble are middle-class individuals who have enough money to drink and money for cars to drive.  We even have a special name for upper-class felons: “white-collar crime.”  My mind floods with the statistics I’ve been reading in a Criminal Justice book* Myles gave me for Christmas:

-Nearly one-fourth of the inmates in the entire world are found in American jails and penitentiaries… but the U.S. accounts for  less than 5% of the entire world population.

– U.S. incarceration rate septupled between 1973 and 2003, rising from under 100 inmates per 100,000 citizens to 715 inmates per 100,000 citizens. The crime rate, however, remained unchanged.  It was exactly the same in 2003 as in 1973.

– While it is estimated that 89,000 to 141,000 women are raped in the U.S. each year, government reports show that anywhere between 250,000 to 600,000 men are raped in prison every year.  

– When we consider only the African American population, there are an astonishing 4,834 inmates for every 100,000 citizens. 

The numbers and many others like them disturb me deeply all the time.  They scream to me, “This is NOT OKAY.”  They provoke me  as much as the hundred and one stories I could personally tell you of our justice system failing.

This morning I move about the kitchen, preparing a breakfast for myself.  I am thinking about how because so few people on the earth choose to walk on Paths of Right-Relating, that governance is necessary.  I am thinking about how such a vast, complicated  governing structure has become developed solely because of how many people will not choose to Rightly Relate to each other, to themselves, and to the earth.  I am thinking how faulty the structure is, because it is continuously developed by people and groups of people who have no clue how to Perfectly Rightly Relate.  I am thinking that this whole epic disaster so ironically named the “Justice System” is in need of an absolute overhaul.  I am thinking what I have thought all along these past many years, that there is actually nothing just about the justice system – for anyone.  Not for victims, not for society, not for criminals, not for future generations.  I am thinking about all the extensive time, resources, and research that has been invested in keeping the citizens of our nation safe  from each other, and how our greatest united effort as one of the most “powerful” nations on the earth to simply keep our own people Rightly Relating has miserably failed.  I am thinking, “Who could EVER bring true justice to the earth?  We are in dire need of a Perfectly Right-Relating Ruler, a Man who knows the very end of all Justice, who is All-Knowing and All-Wise, who wields All Power.”

I am thinking of a Man named Jesus.

I am thinking He is the Perfect One for the job.

I am thinking He is not only the Perfect One, but He is the Only One.

Then I think that Jesus is the most brilliant thing the Trinity ever came up with.  A Person who carries complete Divinity in His bones.  An All-Sufficient God who is capable of walking on dirt in skin-clad muscles.

A God-Man who subjected Himself to the equally faulty, unjust governance of Rome two thousand years.  A God-Man who was Himself a convict, who won His greatest victory over Wrong-Relating for all of eternity by submitting Himself to capital punishment for a crime He did not commit.

Yes.

Yes, Jesus is the Perfect One to Rule the earth.  And how I long for the day when He does!

Two weeks ago I finished applying to go to graduate school in the fall.  I want to pursue a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice.  Although I’ve been toying with the idea of more thoroughly studying Criminal Justice since I finished my undergraduate four years ago, a few months ago I found myself challenged to get serious about actually doing just that.  I can no longer be content with my limited knowledge.  I want to learn everything that has already been discovered about the interplay between poverty, racial discrimination, mental illness, crime, and justice.  I want to learn how courts determine Justice, and everything that our prisons do in attempts to correct people who are Wrongly Relating.  I want to know exactly what methods have been already tried, which one are working and which ones are failing.  And while I sit in class, and while I read articles, and while I write research papers, I want to ask that Man Jesus about His Great Ideas of justice.  I want to ask Him about His plans to Rule the nations of the earth with His Perfect Right Relating.  I want to examine His ways of Right Relating that He has left for me to unfold in Scripture.  I want to KNOW inside and out His Perfect Paths.

I want to because I can.  Because Jesus is my Friend.  Because the path He walked has made it possible for me to be Perfectly Right-Relating right alongside of Him.  I want to because the more I study and observe the theories and methods of Criminal Justice and the more I take in the REALITY of the ways of Jesus, the more I fall absolutely in love with Jesus.

He is The Very Best.

A few months ago, I sat down in the park one day, and asked God very directly, “Should I go to graduate school to study Criminal Justice and why?”  He immediately gave me a vision of Jesus on the cross, tried as a criminal, dying a death of punishment with two criminals next to Him, spending His last words conversing with thieves.  He showed me the criminal who died with Jesus who was promised eternal life.  In all my seeking out of these matters over the past six years, I had never once considered that scene.  In the moments that followed that vision, I felt God inviting me to go on a journey to discover Him as the Perfect Right-Relating One, to discover the paths He has inscribed for men to follow Him, and to begin to Rule the earth with Mercy as He does now and as He will fully in a Coming Day.

So I say YES.  Yes, the Perfect Jesus.  How could I resist Him?  And why would I ever want to?  He is the Best in Every Way.  There is No One like Him – not even one.

Notes:

-Did you know that “righteous” means “right-relating”?  When I learned that, it changed the entire way I view the world.

-The book I refer to is called, “The Convict Christ” written by Jens Soering, who is serving a life-long prison term.

– Isaiah 9:6-7, Revelation 19:11-16, Revelation 21: 1-8 are all Scripture that coincide with this post.