Justice

The Gospel of Kelly Gissendaner

Hands on prison bars. Image courtesy Kaspars Grinvalds/shutterstock.com

Hands on prison bars. Image courtesy Kaspars Grinvalds/shutterstock.com

Georgia clergy just delivered 500 signatures of faith leaders and 40 boxes of names from around the world — calling for a stop to tonight’s execution of Kelly Gissendaner. And there are more than 55,000 folks on the Groundswell petition that launched just yesterday, and more than 1,000 new names are coming in every hour. 

But some suggest it is like speaking into thin air — that there is no chance the governor or the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole will listen. After all, Georgia has already executed two people this year, more than any state other than Texas.

But there’s a Georgia case that would suggest otherwise, that all this may not be in vain — that of Billy Moore.

After 17 years on death row for a murder he openly confessed to doing, Billy Moore’s execution was stopped — by a groundswell of support from faith leaders (including Mother Teresa), people of conscience, and even the victim’s family. And it was the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole that stopped his imminent execution. In fact, they eventually decided his rehabilitation was so complete and compelling that he was eligible for parole a year later.

So thousands of Georgia citizens and folks around the world are hopeful. Tonight there is an opportunity — not to be “soft on crime” or to ignore wrongdoing, but to bear witness that redemption is possible. Tonight Georgia leaders have a chance to recognize that people can be healed, rehabilitated, restored — and that they do not have to be forever held hostage and defined by the worst decision they made. 

The Old Man and the C-note

IN THE LARGEST currency change that the world has ever seen, the euro was launched on New Year’s Day 2002 with great excitement and ceremony in 12 eurozone member countries. At the time, the shared currency was considered to be a vehicle for tying together separate states and cultures with numerous economic benefits, particularly to trade, employment, and tourism.

Now imagine a humble, 90-year-old Catholic priest, vibrant yet shrunken and bent with age. In Italian, he addresses a group about the euro in the celebratory year of its launch. In one hand he holds up an unconsecrated host; in the other, a one-euro coin. They are the same shape, and nearly the same size. But the coin is shiny silver and gold. The priest speaks simply and directly about how, despite their similar appearance and promise of life enrichment, the euro is deceptive. The dominance of finance and capitalism that it supports is a false idol, he says, which leads to addiction.

This story was recounted by a number of Italian press outlets at the time. It contributes to the mythos of this man who writes extensively about the Eucharist, which he believes, in contrast to the euro, creates a relationship not just with God but with our fellow human beings.

That priest is Arturo Paoli, now 102 years old and still quite active.

After spending most of his life overseas, Father Paoli returned to his native Italy in 2005 and lives in Lucca. Despite being a prominent activist, writer, and thinker in Catholic circles for nearly 70 years, he is largely unknown in the English-speaking world. (I am aware of only three of his 50 books having been translated into English: Freedom to be Free [1973], Meditations on Saint Luke [1977], and Gather Together in My Name [1987]. Of Paoli’s countless articles and public addresses, only rough web translations are available.)

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Why We Must #ReclaimMLK

A memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr gazes towards the Washington Monument i

A memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr gazes towards the Washington Monument in DC. Image courtesy Steve Heap/shutterstock.com

In cities and towns across our nation, this weekend’s coordinated actions for the #BlackLivesMatter movement center on reclaiming Martin Luther King Jr.’s radical legacy. As you may recall, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and President Barack Obama — among others — invoked the nonviolence of King in their calls for peace following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approached, organizers had to field countless criticisms by white people telling them, “King wouldn’t approve of what you’re doing” and “I’ve studied his work, I know he wouldn’t react like you have.”

Based on comments like these, it stands to reason that white people in the United States may need a jolt of reality about King’s anti-capitalist agitation.

King was outspoken against capitalism’s oppressive clutch on both the national and global levels. King made it clear that racism and economics were intimately intertwined. I’m reminded of his classic quote, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

King acknowledged that the discussion of class couldn’t be divorced from the discussion of race. While both conversations make us uncomfortable, somehow we would rather remember King as a civil rights leader only, and not also as a vocal critic of capitalism who instead favored a form of Democratic Socialism.

I often hear criticisms that protesters are disturbing the peace, employing overly aggressive tactics, and generally making people too uncomfortable. The hypocrisy in these claims is that King disturbed the peace, used aggressive tactics, and made people extremely uncomfortable. Why do we call for peace when what we mean is order?

Recharting Our Course

USERS OF MAPS—that’s all of us—may suppose that what we see is factual, accurate, bias-free. Of course location, distance, elevation, and comparative importance are reliably shown!

Not so fast, says social activist and pastor Ward L. Kaiser. A map may be “right” in some ways but still dangerous to the way we live in the world.

Why? Because maps are layered with meaning. Surprisingly, their most important messages may lie beneath the surface. In his full-color book How Maps Change Things, Kaiser helps the reader to dig in and discover some of those hidden, mind-bending messages.

As a college chaplain I am acutely, sometimes painfully, aware of the often-hidden narratives and symbols that define us as individuals and as a culture. This book has helped me analyze how maps—an increasingly pervasive form of symbolic messaging and storytelling in our time—connect us to power and privilege or consign us to society’s also-rans.

Examples make the case: An intriguing regional map developed for schools in Cuba raises the question of how this image contributes to that nation’s distorted view of the U.S. A secret map of Iraq drawn up in Washington so shifted our perception of that country that it lubricated the decision by the U.S. and other Western powers to go to war there. Several of the most popular maps of the world support a Eurocentric or North America-centered worldview, aggrandizing “our” place in the world and downplaying the importance of developing nations.

Kaiser’s point: Maps are always selective, often biased, constantly nudging us to see, think, and behave in particular ways. We shape maps; equally important, they shape us. Like the faith we hold, maps powerfully influence how we live in the world. And maps may work with our faith or against it.

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10 Resolutions for 2015

A new day. Image courtesy eelnosiva/shutterstock.com

A new day. Image courtesy eelnosiva/shutterstock.com

Some people don’t like the idea of New Year’s resolutions, but I do. We often only use the word in the context of this season, but “resolution” is a nuanced noun. Some of its definitons include:

A firm decision to do or not to do something — see: intention, resolve, plan, commitment, pledge.

The quality of being determined or resolute — see: determination, purpose, steadfastness, perseverance,tenacity, tenaciousness, staying power, dedication, commitment, stubbornness, boldness, spiritedness, bravery, courage, pluck, grit.

The action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter — see: solution to, settlement of, conclusion to, “the peaceful resolution of all disputes.”

In a world of seemingly endless conflicts, I sure like the sound of that. We need more of all of these qualities just now. All three meanings of resolution are wonderfully attractive to me — and timely for this brand new year. So here are my 10 resolutions for this 2015:

#DialInForJustice

Renewed democracy requires new traditions of social action. Image via BrAt82/shu

Renewed democracy requires new traditions of social action. Image via BrAt82/shutterstock.com

To be black in America is to listen to death daily. To hear mothers wailing at unnecessary funerals, to see fathers mourning lost sons, to offer graveside prayers that puncture the heart of God — this is the sorrow song of a people, and a nation, haunted by racism.

Over our heads however, I hear the sweet, dark sounds of freedom in the air, calling for the dry bones of democracy to arise from the segregated sinews of our society. The multiracial chorus of protestors chanting, "I can't breathe," the die-ins, the walk-outs, and the highway-halting actions of youth from New York to Chicago to Tallahassee to Los Angeles represent a thirst and hunger for righteousness that includes and yet transcends voting.

To join within this symphony of justice, I am calling faith communities to participate in a national #DialInForJustice during the month of December. The goal is to call the Unites States Department of Justice and local police departments, communicating our desire to see systemic reforms to policing in America. This initiative seeks to lift up faith-filled voices alongside the already existing trumpet blasts of groups like the Organization of Black Struggle, Dream Defenders, PICO, Sojourners, and so on.

Gratitude with Hope

Thankfulness. Image courtesy Nikki Zalewski/shutterstock.com

Thankfulness. Image courtesy Nikki Zalewski/shutterstock.com

I'm grateful for the warm, safe shelter of my home when there are 610,042 experiencing homelessness on any given night in the U.S.

I’m grateful for more than enough to eat when there are 805 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active live.

I’m grateful that I have clean drinking water when over 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related causes.

I’m grateful that I have good health when so many people do not have access to decent medical care, like the 5,459 people who have died from Ebola this year, and the millions more who die each year from preventable diseases.

I’m grateful I have clothing to wear when in the poorest of places, the lack of proper clothing costs lives, and hundreds of millions still live in conditions of material deprivation.

I’m grateful for my freedom when the U.S. had 1.57 million inmates behind bars, the highest percentage of a population of any developed country in the world.

I’m grateful for my citizenship when there are over 11 undocumented immigrants in the U.S. living in the shadow of constant fear.

But I’m especially grateful for the people I know, and the ones I don’t, that are working for justice and peace; a world where all our brothers and sisters have the basic necessities of shelter, food, clean water, decent medical care, and warm clothing. A world where every human being’s dignity is respected and valued. A world Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven.

What Good Is Christian Faith to Contemporary Protesters?

Protesters march in downtown Washington, D.C., on March 4. Photo by Kaeley McEvoy / Sojourners

As I followed protesters along the National Mall after the non-indictment of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, I was particularly struck by the comments of one black gentleman named Houston. Putting down a sign that said “Boycott Christmas,” he took a speaker, called for quiet, and, in the midst of the crowd, began to preach:

“We must move on to that new day in which justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. It is time for black and whites to take hand and hand and move this nation beyond the pitiful historical dilemma … So black and white together, we must move on to where even the stones will shout out, ‘It’s time for America to be one.’”

“Amen,” someone shouted.

Amen, indeed.

Drawing on Amos 5:24 and Luke 19:40, Houston had brought the riches of a deep biblical tradition to bear on our contemporary political struggle. Like the early Christians, he called not only for justice but also for reconciliation between races. His faith had inspired him to act.

Or so I thought.

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