What If It’s Not the Prisoner Who Needs Forgiveness?

Screenshot from Redemption of the Prosecutor

Screenshot from Redemption of the Prosecutor

We started making our new documentary “Redemption of the Prosecutor” for the same reason we always do: someone told us a story.

Bill Mefford works in the social justice office of the United Methodist Church, and he called us last August to say he’d just seen an amazing talk. The talker was one Preston Shipp, a devout Christian and former prosecutor from Nashville who went into a local prison to teach. When Preston heard the inmates’ stories, he began to realize how unjust the system was. He was especially torn up about an inmate named Cyntoia, who was Preston’s star student and had received a life sentence as a juvenile. Preston underwent a spiritual crisis that boiled down to a fundamental question: “How can I reconcile the job I was being asked to do as a prosecutor with my faith in Jesus, who proclaimed release for prisoners?” We won’t give away the ending, but there’s a surprising twist that left us saying this is a story that needs to be told in churches across America.

An Incarceration of Silence

Hands behind bars, Dan Bannister /

Hands behind bars, Dan Bannister /

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world; one third of those incarcerated are serving long-term sentences for petty, non-violent crimes. One out of three African-American men will serve some sort of time under present law enforcement practices and the current criminal justice system. In Washington, D.C., that number jumps to an estimated three out of four. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

More than 50 people gathered at Emmanuel Church of God in Christ in southeast Washington, D.C., on Sunday afternoon to hear the Rev. Louis Hutchinson remind them of these facts. Rev. Donnell Smith called the trend: “legalized discrimination.”

On Scripture: How Long Does Darkness Last?

Darkness illustration, imy /

Darkness illustration, imy /

For the sake of the world, we should all be feminists. And given what we know about the role of independent, empowered women in the community of disciples, for the sake world, we might be “Christians.”

Raymond Brown, the late, great scholar of John, writes: “In this Gospel, where light and darkness play such a role, darkness lasts until someone believes in the risen Jesus.”  

Therefore no darkness, no heartbreak, no grief, no injustice can long stand where the Risen Christ is proclaimed. Jesus Christ is the light of the world.  The light shines in the darknessa and the darkness does not — cannot — will not overcome the light. 

Economic Inequality: Should We Call It Sin?

Occupy protests in London. dutourdumonde /

Occupy protests in London. dutourdumonde /

While having lunch recently with Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam, I was asked an interesting question.

Putnam is appalled at the radical lack of equality of opportunity in the U.S. today, and he wanted to know if evangelical preachers would dare to say what his pastor said when he was a teenager. Putnam told me that back then, in the midst of Martin Luther King’s great campaign against segregation, his devout Methodist pastor dared to preach that “racism is a sin.”

Professor Putnam asked me, as an evangelical, whether evangelical pastors today would be ready to declare today’s great economic inequality of opportunity a sin. That’s a great question.

Graduation Day for the Electoral College

2012 Electoral College Map, Globe Turner, LLC / Getty Images

2012 Electoral College Map, Globe Turner, LLC / Getty Images

The United States is the only democratic country in the world where a candidate can be elected as president without earning the highest number of votes.      

In the midst of competing campaigns and critical choices leading up to Election Day, one of the most common assumptions is that U.S. citizens directly select their president. However, far too many fail to fully understand that such direct selection is not our reality, for within our complex electoral system – known as the Electoral College – the will of the people does not always translate into final results. During the presidential elections of 1876, 1888, and 2000, the leader in popular votes did not claim victory, and some believe a similar scenario may take place in the near future. And so, when a candidate receives the majority of votes but is not sworn into office, we recognize a gross injustice that requires immediate and significant transformation.

Sin and Chewing Gum

Man blowing bubbles photo, olly /

Man blowing bubbles photo, olly /

Yesterday, I was walking through Dolores Park and heard a street preacher, saying "If you've ever stolen a stick of gum, then you are guilty of sin! If you've ever looked at Facebook at work, then you've stolen from your employer, and that's sin!"

Of course we all know where he was headed: If we have sinned—even with a trivial infraction like a stick of gum—then God who is holy must punish us for all eternity in Hell unless we accept Jesus right now.

I mean, seriously, gum? Why can't God just get over it? Is God less moral than all of us are? This is not a picture of holiness, it is a picture of a petty tyrant. Aside from the horrible picture of God that this gives us (and honestly, who could ever love, trust, and feel safe around a God like that?), what this ultimately does is trivialize sin. It makes sin into a petty infraction of little consequence. 

Activism, Slacktivism or Distractivism?

hoto of Ugandan children by David Sacks/The Image Bank/Getty Images. Illustratio

Photo of Ugandan children by David Sacks/The Image Bank/Getty Images. Illustration by Cathleen Falsani.

I struggle to know how much is enough. I hear about Joseph Kony and the many children he’s exploited as child soldiers. I get angry, discouraged. I write about it, talk to friends about it.

And then my life keeps moving and I don’t think about it again for days or weeks.

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, is gunned down on the street. The nation is divided, both outraged about the killing and fearful of the threat to gun rights and laws of self-defense.

And then we talk about something else.

Today’s issues include the nuns going head-to-head with the Vatican, as well as stories about still more preachers being busted for spousal abuse, or expelled from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.

Tomorrow it will be something else.

Justice for Trayvon Martin: Million Hoody March

Residents attend to a town hall meeting 2/20 to discuss Martin's slaying. Getty

Residents of Sanford, Fla. attend to a town hall meeting 2/20 to discuss Martin's slaying. Via Getty Images.

On February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Fla., George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy. Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch "captain," says he was acting in self-defense, and — incredibly — Zimmerman has yet to be arrested or charged with a crime.

However, thanks to the organizing efforts of Mr. Martin’s parents, civil rights groups, media commentaries, and concerned citizens, our latest racialized miscarriage of criminal justice is now getting the widespread attention that it deserves.

On Monday, the US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced it would launch an independent investigation into the causes and circumstances of Mr. Martin’s death.

Liberty Has Been Ransacked: MOBILIZE!

Human Circles of Protection

Human Circles of Protection

It’s time for people of faith to get up off the couch, out of the pews, and MOBILIZE!

THIS WEDNESDAY Sojourners and other groups in support of the Circle of Protection will coordinate Human Circles of Protection, a national effort by people faith to show congress and the world that Jesus followers want an America where our credo is bond: liberty and justice for all!