The Common Good

God's Politics

The Grand Jury and the Rorschach Test

What do you see when you look at this picture?

In essence, that is the question St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch asked the grand jury to determine in his case against Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo.

According to an early report in TIME, McCulloch made an unusual move: He did not specify a specific charge for Wilson. 

In a recent phone interview, Denise Lieberman, co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition and senior attorney for the Advancement Project, explained to me: “Grand jury proceedings occur in private, so we don’t know exactly what’s been said … However, we’ve been told that the prosecutor is not making a recommendation to the jury about whether to indict and what charges … That is fairly unusual, if in fact that is true.”

Rather than specifying charges, two senior attorneys in his office are presenting all the evidence as it becomes available and letting the grand jury decide what charge(s), if any, that evidence warrants. McCulloch’s office claimed this process is fair because the grand jury, which is representative of the community of St. Louis, is able to see all of the evidence and then offer its decision.

According to Ed Magee, a spokesperson from McCulloch’s office, grand juries usually only review a few pieces of evidence. “Normally they hear from a detective or a main witness or two. That’s it,” Magee said in an early September interview with the Washington Post.

By presenting all the evidence to laypeople, reportedly without legal interpretation, McCulloch is basically raising a proverbial Rorschach to the grand jury and saying, “see what you see.” That is not a passive act in a society where 75 percent of people tested display some measure of unconscious racial bias.

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The Underside of Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving.

I love the food, the fellowship, the friends and family, the football, and did I mention that I love the food.  Unashamedly it might very well be my favorite holiday.  Yet, despite all my warm feelings about Thanksgiving, I am not blind to its historical shortcomings. 

As Jane Kamensky says, “…holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now.” I think she’s right about this.  In so many cases, our national celebrations and observances are mere expressions of our collective aspirations and not our actuality.  One clear example of this is the history and practice of the Thanksgiving holiday.

As it goes, every year people throughout this nation gather for a commemorative feast of sorts where we give praises to God for the individual and collective blessings bestowed upon us.  This tradition goes back to the 17th century when the New England colonists, also known as pilgrims, celebrated their first harvest in the New World. 

On the surface, this seems harmless enough but a closer reading of history tells a more dubious story. 

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Weekly Wrap 11.14.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Interstellar Isn't About Religion (and Also It Is Totally About Religion)
"While the film has a marked admiration for science—it is science, in the end, that helps humanity to rescue itself—it has just as much respect for wonder and awe and what you might call, in the broadest and perhaps even the narrowest sense, faith."

2. Drones Now Patrol Half of U.S.-Mexico Border
In an era of increased security but finite resources, the U.S. government has dispatched Predator Bs to sweep remote areas and detect people (or cows, it seems) entering the country.

3. Why John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight Is Better Than The Daily Show and Colbert 
Where Stewart and Colbert simply reaffirm shared values, "Oliver’s brand of journalism (which is, of course, couched as cheerful Sunday-night entertainment) often has an actual, demonstrable impact on public consciousness.”

4. The Most Heartbreaking Place in America Is Called ‘Friendship Park’
ThinkProgress’ Jack Jenkins and Esther Boyd traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to chronicle the struggles of immigrant life. In this first piece, they tell the story of immigrants whose only glimpse of family is through an 18-foot steel fence between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. 

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Justice … not ‘Just Us’

I am a professor of religion at a small liberal arts college in Decorah, Iowa. For the last two weeks in my Religion 239: Clamoring for Change course, students and I have been reading the book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude. We have been discussing the issue of “justice,” and we have been playing with an image of God as one who works from the bottom-up on behalf of many rather than one who works from the top-down on behalf of a few.

A fundamental principle within this “bottom-up” theology is the idea of God taking sides (a view quite common in most of the “liberative” theologies). Many people, however, are often uncomfortable with the idea of God taking sides. They often assert that such an image contradicts the idea of an impartial and all-loving God who cares equally for all people.

A bottom-up theology of God asserts that God is a God who exists in relationship with all of creation at the same time every created thing is in relationship with every other created thing. While the relationships that involve human beings may be governed by several principles, I believe one principle that governs all human relationships is the principle of “justice.”

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A New Hymn-Prayer for Donor Sabbath

From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

The Need Is Real: You can literally be a lifesaver by being an organ donor. Here are some important facts about donation:

• Someone is added to the waiting list every 10 minutes. Over 120,000 people are waiting for organ donations.

• Each day, an average of 79 people receive organ transplants. However, an average of 18 people die each day waiting for transplants that can't take place because of the shortage of donated organs.

• People of every age give and receive organ donations.

Hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette has been a chaplain for a hospital and several hospices. She is grateful for suggestions for this hymn from her husband Bruce Gillette (he has served on a hospital ethics committee), hospital Chaplains Tim Rodden and Sister Julian Wilson and ethicist Christian Iosso. This hymn is dedicated to the memory of Roy Timmer, a faithful Christian, a wonderful friend and an organ donor who helped many people.

God, Each Day You Give is Precious

A Hymn for Donor Sabbath

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The Oracle of Certainty: From Ancient Athens to ISIS

Thank the gods we don’t believe in the utterances of oracles anymore. We don’t search for omens in the entrails of sacrificed animals or believe that women in drug-induced trances can foretell our destiny. Because the ancient Greeks fell for this superstitious mumbo jumbo, they were led into two disastrous wars that had devastating consequences. The great anti-war playwright Euripides offers his critique of wars and oracles in his play, Iphigenia at Aulis, now playing at the Court Theater in Chicago. My talented friend Jeanne T. Arrigo is in the chorus of this production and I have her and the Court Theater to thank for bringing this ancient gem to my attention.

Two Oracles, Two Devastating Wars

Iphigenia at Aulis was first performed a year after Euripides’ death in 406 B.C.E. He wrote it in response to Athens’ nearly 30-year war against Sparta. Known as the Peloponnesian War, it ended in 404 B.C.E. with Athens’ surrender, her fleet destroyed, and the city starving after a four-month siege. Euripides felt that part of the reason Athens went to war in the first place was that the Oracle at Delphi had predicted victory “if they did their best.” Not only did this encourage the outbreak of the war, but it probably made a negotiated settlement impossible. Because why would anyone cease the pursuit of victory if victory has been assured? The Oracle’s prophecy lent an aura of inevitability to the outcome of the war, which in effect robbed the Athenians of their agency. They marched to war like automatons in service of the gods.

To convince Athenians that they were on a path of self-destruction, Euripides dramatized a scene from the beginning of a previous bad military adventure, the Trojan War. As the Homeric story is retold by Euripides, the Greek armies are assembled in the port city of Aulis. Agamemnon is their general, ready to lead a thousand ships to attack Troy to recover Helen, who has run off with young Paris of Troy. The nation has mobilized to avenge this insult to Helen’s husband, Menelaus (Agamemnon’s brother) and all of Greece.

Unfortunately for Agamemnon, there is no wind. The soldiers soon tire of waiting and, despite their war lust, they are threatening to go home. But an Oracle has foretold that Artemis will raise the winds and bring certain victory on one condition: that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to her. Under pressure from the troops and his own lust for glory, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter and the thousand ships are launched. The war is on, and the play ends with the fleet sailing eagerly across the sea.

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Congress Voting on Keystone XL Pipeline Today

Today the House of Representatives is set to vote, yet again, on the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline
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An Open Letter to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon

An imminent grand jury verdict in St. Louis County will determine whether to indict Ferguson police office Darren Wilson on criminal charges for shooting Michael Brown. News reports have detailed the expectation of violence in the St. Louis area after the decision is handed down and the mobilization being planned by law enforcement in response. This is an open letter to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon urging him to maintain peace and protect those exercising their right to free speech. I encourage you to read the letter and join me and others across the country in signing it now. Your voice can make a difference. Sojourners will send the letter and signatures to the Gov. Nixon. – Jim Wallis, Sojourners

Dear Gov. Nixon,

For the last several months, the nation’s eyes have been on Ferguson, Mo. Few had heard of this small St. Louis suburb until Michael Brown was shot and killed by a member of the city’s police department — whose mission is supposedly to serve and protect. Now this community is an infamous global symbol of the nation’s continued struggle for racial equality and the troubling trend of police militarization.

Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” These are not idealistic thoughts or nice sentiments to be dismissed when tensions and conflict arise. Rather, they are wise words of truth that should guide our thinking in moments of distress. We need to make Jesus’ instruction real and consider Dr. King’s words a practical exhortation for the ensuring peace and public safety in Ferguson once the grand jury has made the decision of whether to indict Darren Wilson.

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Ending Implicit Bias

The other night in Central Park, three African-American young men were stopped by a police officer and asked if they had or were selling drugs. The answer was “No!” They were three students from Columbia University making their way from the East Side to the West. This tale unveils the problem of implicit bias in our society today.

The reason the three college students were stopped in Central Park was because they were “walking while being black.” Because of New York’s stop-and-frisk practice that targets black and brown young men, a growing number of African-American and Latino youth are being introduced into the New York state criminal justice system daily.

The statistics are staggering. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites in the U.S. prison system. One out of every 15 African Americans over 18 years old are incarcerated, while 1 out of every 106 white males of the same age are incarcerated. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that there are more African Americans in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1865. As Jim Wallis has argued, racism is America’s original sin.

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In Wake of Ferguson, a Bid to Make St. Louis a More ‘Compassionate’ City

Some might argue that if there is one thing this city could use more of right now, it’s compassion.

Even before civil unrest surfaced in the region after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, local leaders were trying to find a way to cultivate more of it. But how exactly? And how would we know when we had enough?

Unlike other commodities, compassion is difficult to quantify.

But that hasn’t stopped the formation of a worldwide movement for compassionate cities. St. Louis is the latest municipality to vie to be part of the sympathetic pack, which includes Louisville, Ky.; Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; Seattle; and other cities from around the world.

On Nov. 13, in an effort to bring St. Louis one step closer to officially signing on to what noted religion scholar Karen Armstrong coined as the Charter for Compassion, advocates will host the first-ever town hall meeting dedicated to the crusade.

“We’re wired for compassion and what we would hope for and work toward is compassionate energy and action becoming an increasing factor in decision making and planning across the St. Louis region,” said David Mehl of the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis, a key member of a group of about 30 local leaders pushing that the city, like others around the nation, agree to the charter’s terms.

“The situation in Ferguson and beyond makes this all the more relevant.”

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