Christainity, Prison Industrial Complex, Scripture

maundy thursday: last meals

meal 2

“No Seconds” by Henry Hargreaves

It might seem odd to discuss Death Row inmates’ last meals and the Last Supper, but I don’t find it much of a stretch. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Jesus knew he would be killed in a few hours, as too those on Death Row.
  • Although it’s after this meal that Jesus will be sentenced to crucifixion. Those on Death Row are often convicted several years before they’re executed.
  • Death Row prisoners and Jesus are both executed by the State: Roman Crucifixion and US Execution.

Yet, it’s not just these similarities that I find compelling to think through last meals, it’s also in the Letter to the Hebrews that speaks of prisoners. It reads,

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Heb. 13.3)

 Who would’ve ever thought the Bible could be so political?

The writer to the Hebrews writes that we should remember those in prison, as if we are there ourselves. Death row prisoners, whom our system of justice has declared not to be worthy of existence, are our sisters and brothers. Yet, often these prisoners do not dine with their families or friends, but by themselves with guards watching. Indeed, an isolating last meal.

But this was not so with Jesus’ Last Supper. It was also no da Vinci-like portrait. It would’ve been tense, chaotic, and absolutely un-chill. There would’ve been more than just his male disciples, but also women and children and probably even some animals. It was less cozy, and more like trying to find a seat at Starbucks during a rush. When you have to stand over by the sugar and straws waiting for someone to leave their spot. That’s the Last Supper.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written decades after the Last Supper, but speaks to the heart of the Gospel, which was found that night:

To Be There.

Be there for those who have their voice actively silenced.

Be there for Death Row prisoners, no matter what the courts have said they have done.

Be there in prayer.

Be there in letters.

Be there at the table.

Be there just as Christ

who goes before us,

behind us,

and with us.

Amen.

 

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anti-war, Prayer, Prison Industrial Complex, Scripture

my prayer for ferguson, brooklyn, and the school of the americas watch

This weekend, a group of students from Union Theological Seminary and myself travelled to Columbus, GA. We gathered with over 1,000 others to protest for the closing of the School of the Americas (SOA). For nearly 70 years, the SOA has trained soldiers in South and Central America in starting coups, mass murdering los campesinos (poor folk and farmers), and killing political and religious leaders (Allende, Che, Oscar Romero). All of this filters through the ideology of anticommunist propaganda. Thousands of people, named and unnamed, have been killed in the name of freedom and democracy. They have been killed because the powerful want to stay powerful and poor lives do not matter.

As the US military teaches oppressive tactics to the South Hemisphere, we enact it on our own soil by killing black women and men. Law enforcement use their power to rule over communities and, more often than not, get away with it. They get away with tearing lives apart with a modern day lynching. For the killings of Michael Brown, Akai Kareem Gurley, and Shantel Davis, we must continue to cry out for justice. Because unless there is justice for Brown, Davis, and Gurley, there won’t be justice for us all.

justice for mike

My prayer is simply that we use our legs to protest to show our government and police officers that they are unjust in how they treat people of color in the US and around the world. Black lives matter! Brown lives matter!

My prayer is that we use our words to encourage one another. Movements die quickly when their members fight over petty differences.

My prayer is that we use our hands. With one hand, we care about the immediate needs of our neighborhoods and communities. You can’t end global poverty without first knowing and lending a hand at local shelters, soup kitchens, and Catholic Workers. With the other hand, to learn, lead discussions, and think globally about racism, sexism, ableism, etc.

Lastly, my prayer is that we use our hearts to connect with one another. In many movements, the key to being in the in-crowd is to know as much as you can about the area of interest. What if we not only focused on knowledge (How does memorizing statistics on NYC poverty help the person sleeping on the street?), but found empathetic ways to connect with one another.

Let us continue to fight against police brutality.

Fight against racism in the US.

Fight against groups that hinder our causes: the KKK, fascist and racist policies.

Fight for all people to have a decent chance at life.

ferguson

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Christainity, Liberation Theology, Politics, Prison Industrial Complex

politicizing neighbor-love

When Christians separate the notion of neighbor-love from politics and they lay claim to universal Christian love, the neighbor-love becomes impotent in the world. When the rhetoric of neighbor-love becomes an apoliticized affirmation of love and life, the neighbor-love can be meaningless and even dangerous because it romanticizes love while ignoring thanatopolitics (politics of death) that turns the undesired, the undocumented, the unwelcome into bare life–a being without any kind of protection.

– Cosmopolitan Theology: Reconstituting Planetary Hospitality, Neighbor-Love- and Solidarity in an Uneven World by Namsoon Kang, pp. 118

neighbor

This depoliticized picture is not loving one’s neighbor.

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Christainity, Justice, Liberation Theology, Prison Industrial Complex

no good, very bad, terrible horrible news: ndaa passed

The NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) was passed by Congress late Thursday night (84-15-1). It received $609 billion dollars in funding. Carl Levin, D-Mich. stated, “the bill before us is not a Democratic bill and it is not a Republican bill. It is a bipartisan, bicameral defense bill.” Those who didn’t vote for it were the outliers with very strong and differing positions from the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist, to Senator Ted Cruz, representing the  far-right-wing of the Republican party.

Senator Cruz remarked,

“Today I voted against the National Defense Authorization Act. I am deeply concerned that Congress still has not prohibited President Obama’s ability to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens arrested on American soil without trial or due process.

The Constitution does not allow President Obama, or any President, to apprehend an American citizen, arrested on U.S. soil, and detain these citizens indefinitely without a trial. When I ran for office, I promised the people of Texas I would oppose any National Defense Authorization Act that did not explicitly prohibit the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. Although this legislation does contain several positive provisions that I support, it does not ensure our most basic rights as American citizens are protected.”

The NDAA legislation is a mixed bag for Senator Cruz. He wants to make sure that American citizens cannot be indefinitely detained without a trail, which the bill as it stands now allows. It frightens me that this bill was passed bipartisan, not that I have much hope for Democrats, but that who wants US citizens to be detained? Are they working for us or for defense contractors? Because this is the first time a bill has passed that allows defense contractors multi-year agreements rather than their normal yearly agreement. Does this mean that we are going to more wars in the future? Is this Congress’ way of flipping off the American people and letting us know that we are never going to not be in a war?

Historically, this is the 51st year that the NDAA has passed. It has just been recently that the NDAA has been challenged. Most notably, this year’s Hedges vs. Obama, which sadly was rejected. Yet, why does the NDAA matter so much? Why did I wake up this morning angry when I saw on the Facebook newsfeed that this legislation was passed?

It’s because of priorities!

We would rather slash food assistance checks with SNAP than ever think about cutting our defense budget!*

We would rather budget $609 billion dollars for the military than to help poor people in the US!

We would rather encourage multi-year military contracts than aid in US economic recovery!

We would rather privatize the military and prisons than to setup better public programs and safety nets that actually work!!

God, forgive us for we have no idea what we are doing. 

ndaa

*If you haven’t checked out the Daily Show’s interview with Forbes Columnist John Tamny, you must!

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Anti-Capitalism, Christainity, Justice, Liberation Theology, Philosophy, Politics, Prison Industrial Complex

re-thinking economics, theology, and politics for a better future

The Guardian posted an article, “Mainstream economics is in denial: the world has changed“, challenging economists who teach of the greatness of our  global economic system. In Great Britain, economists in higher education dare not speak against global capitalism or even teach about the 2009 economic crisis. Clearly, this is ideology. These economists are riding on a hamster wheel of their own theories and cannot construct new theories for our present situation or the future.

I find this to be true for other disciplines in universities and in the public sphere. In seminaries, classes are taught with books by theologians living in the mid-20th century, or earlier. Few theology classes teach constructive  theologies or have students pursing their own theological voice. In the political realm, few and far between are others challenging those who have created economic and social disparities. Instead, we begrudgingly work within the political system making baby steps for the way of justice.

Radical Black Lesbian Audre Lorde in her famous speech titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” says,

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

Leaving behind the oppressive structures (the master’s house) is not an easy task. Small victories have come for some oppressed groups in the US, yet new challenges arise thus new tools are needed to dismantle it. Injustices such as the military-industrial complex, prison-industrial complex, racism with voter id laws and other structurally racist injustices, police brutality, transphobia, homophobia, anti-Islamic laws and attitudes, etc. dominate US culture and society. Thus I believe institutions in the US and Europe have fallen behind, not able to keep up with new ideas, cultures, and theories. Students are not equipped in how to think about injustices. Cultural lag infests religious communities. I don’t have any kind of answer with how to deal with our institutions. I try my best to engage contemporary questions, injustices, and trying to incorporate myself with people fighting for justice–but find it too overwhelming– trying to be on top of everything and still have a life. Possibly, the solution will come from organizations and groups of freedom fighters making demands on our institutions for justice and pushing them to think about the future. I pray I am part of it, if this is true.

Audre Lorde quote on dismantling the Master's House

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Beliefs, Philosophy, Politics, Prison Industrial Complex

stitching together a new us narrative

All ancient and contemporary nations form myths of their genesis. Specifically in the ancient world, myths were written as creation narratives. The ancient Babylonians wrote the Enuma Elish in which the god Marduk killed Tiamat, another god, and created the world out of her disassembled body. Later in the story, humans were created out of the murdered blood of Kingu, the top general of Tiamat. Violence began their nation and guided their society and culture. This rings true in the US.

In our national anthem, we sing of bombs exploding and a battle won. Every year we reenact battle scenes from Revolutionary and Civil Wars. We remember the greatness of our founders, not because they were upright and moral people, but precisely because they were fierce leaders and battled well. We uphold the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as documents of freedom and liberty. Yet, it is in these documents that slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person and freedoms are suspended for prisoners (13th amendment).

American Poverty

What we remember in our past, we inevitably pursue with our future. In the book, Vilnius Poker, one Lithuanian post-concentration camp survivor speaks to another in a library owned by the Soviet Union in the 1970’s saying:

“Listen, Vytautas, hasn’t it ever occurred to you that we have no past?”

“It depends on what we call the past. On who those ‘we’ are.”

“Me, you, that bowlegged babe outside the window. And that laborer on the scaffolding…We have no past, we never were. We just ARE, you know? We’ve lost our past and now we’ll never find it. We’re like carrots in a vegetable garden. After all, you wouldn’t say a carrot has a past?”

“So what of it?” I growled. “If we don’t have it, we don’t have it.”

“Whoever doesn’t have a past, doesn’t’ have a future, either. We never were and we will never will be, you know? We’re a faceless porridge, we’re nothing but a void. We don’t exist, you know? We don’t exist at all. Absolutely! Someone has stolen our past.”

This conversation could happen anywhere in the world. If we don’t have a past, or do not remember our past, then we are at a loss for a future. Biblical theologian, Walter Brueggemann, writes in the Prophetic Imagination that we live in the eternal now. We are blocked from any sense of time, and in its place is consumption. The eternal now has no past or future.

It is in the corners of the eternal now that we find the counter-narratives to violence and consumption planted. They have been planted by hopeful guerilla gardeners, who believe that the future is just as important as the present and past. These seeds sprout in the concrete cities overrun with violence. They grow in the homes where tragedy strikes, in the farms owned by Big-Ag, in the hearts of the abused-abuser, and in the outfield of PNC Park where players make more money than whole sections of fans.

In the heart of the Babylonian Empire, radical Jews wrote the poem of Genesis 1. The Babylonian Empire conquered most of the known world through violence and deportation. Refugee camps like neighborhoods were set up in Babylon to hold the thousands of Jews deported from their homeland. Psalm 137 rhetorically asks “How am I suppose to sing the song of YHWH in a foreign land?” They answer it by composing the theopoetic song in Genesis. Their story starts with the Divine calling, moving, breathing, and loving. God/She orchestrates everything and calls it good. At the end of the poem, God/She stands back and names the whole as very good.

The ancient exiled Jews pursed hope and justice in the face of oppression. Today we have the same predicament. America was built on the backs of slaves and graveyards of Native Americans. We should always remember our past and never let this happen again. Yet, we need to encourage new narratives to shape our future as the US. Our current posture as a surveillance, war-mongering, poor oppressing nation must change. Guerilla gardens are everywhere with seeds of hope and love planted. Let us water these plants and change our culture to sharing, transparency, and making sure people get what they need.

Some people and groups who are reshaping the American Narrative:

Howard Zinn Education Project

The Peaceful Uprising

Cornel West’s Democracy Matters

Bread and Puppet

Democracy Now!

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Anarchism, Beliefs, Christainity, Liberation Theology, Prison Industrial Complex

prisons, cultural lag, and the church

Early definitions of cultural lag focused specifically on industry and society. In Marxian terms it refers to how the substructure (production, relations to production,etc) advances in its use of technology, while the superstructure (philosophy, art, religion, family) falls behind this advancement. A simple example in today’s world would be who can purchase certain products, such as an iPad, which costs $500. Much of the general public cannot purchase such a commodity, but if in 15 years our society finds it to be necessary, then it will be affordable.

Hence cultural lag.

New definitions have been constructed, one of the famous theorist who worked on this theory was William Ogburn. He wrote,

“A cultural lag occurs when one of two parts of culture which are correlated changes before or in greater degree than the other part does, thereby causing less adjustment between the two parts that existed previously” (1957).

Ogburn broadened the original Marxian definition which only was concerned with economics and broaden it to any two parts of culture. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann hit the nail on the head, with concern to culture in the US, when he wrote,”Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now”(1).* We create ourselves through purchasing, it is what gives us hope and gives us a short attention span. These consequences include one to not be concerned with community, long-term friendships, investing in the future of the Earth, cooking food, etc. Even more so, one no longer needs to be concerned with social issues: racism, sexism, mistreatment of the LGBTQI+ community, colonialism, and other injustices in our world. This drags us down a road of Tolerance, which accepts everyone, but still allows hate without confrontation. Thus, many of the institutions focus on this tolerance and have no concern for anything else other than money. Unfortunately, these kinds of ideas have bled into the church.

One churched person, who happens to also be a theologian, has kept the social injustices that penetrate US at the forefront of their theology. This person is none other than black liberation theologian James Cone.

God of the Oppressed, which James Cone wrote, hit the bookshelves in the late 1960’s. It sought to systemically summarize and demonstrate Black Liberation theology. This was a tough experiment during that era. Blatant racism occurred openly in our institutions, not that it still does not happen today, but that it was more in your face about it. One section of his book I found particularly interesting was how he placed certain white prominent theologians during slavery times in the US into different categories with their approach to the social ill of slavery.

First, there are those who ignored slavery all together. These theologians constructed theologies separate from anything social or political. For Cone, these are the worst kind of theologians since they do not understand that knowledge is historically situated in a particular place and time.

Second, there were white theologians who taught that slavery was a good and godly act. Several theologians like George Whitfield used Scriptural passages to keep slaves in their “rightful place,” as an owner person.

Lastly, there were theologians who were part of the abolitionist movements. They actively promoted that those who were enslaved to be released. (One problem that Cone has with these theologians is that they were still constructing theology from a prestigious point of view, e.g. slaves should be be free because it would be better for society, instead of from the point of view of those who are enslaved are people and deserve the right to be free. I certainly agree with Cone on this position.)

These kinds of theologians still haunt us today. We have those who are oblivious to social structures to the point of distrust and have a theology that they believe to apply to all, thus a kind of white-orthodoxy. Then there are those who lift up institutions like the State, believing that they are absolutely God-given, this probably could only be applied to those who live in the US. Then there are those who want more out of social institutions, pushing them to move beyond themselves. Yet, at the same time believe that justice does not equate to Law.

Modernizing Conian thoughts about the cultural lag in the church, I have been thinking what the modern church ignored in relation with social issues. The first thing that came to my mind was the the prison-industrial complex. First, I have never heard these words in church. The only prison ministries that they do in church in the areas that I know of are ones that they are concerned with the spiritual lives of the prisoners. I never hear people ask why so many people are in prison or that it is so hard for people to get a job once they come out of prison. This aspect is totally ignored by the church, or at least many of the churches that I have attended.

Paul Krugman, a classic liberal commentator, wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times that concerned the prison-industrial complex. It was well written attempt to simplify the complexity of economics that concern this issue. The problem with this article is that there is nothing written against those who are unjustly placed in prison, as are many of our African-American sisters and brothers. This certainly falls under the Conian critique.

The church has been in a cultural lag for most of modernity. It was not always this way. From the beginning, it was a source of the prophetic. In many respects, we have lost that prophetic voice and thus are not inventors and critics of important aspects of culture, but allow culture to be and condemn only immoral individualistic ethical decisions. We need voices from the church who are concerned about  people who are being treated unjustly, especially those in prison.

The church must educate, organize, and act for justice for all people!

Here are some statistics from ProPublica about For-Profit Prisons in the US.

* Prophetic Imagination published for the second time in 2001.

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