‘Stand Your Ground’ Shows a Racist Culture, Continuing to Kill

Book cover, 'Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.'

Book cover, 'Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.'

Douglas writes in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, tracing the intellectual and cultural genealogy of a “stand your ground” culture — one that polices our public ‘white’ spaces, and kills men and women of color who are in them. Sadly, as the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray show, our cops and our culture are still killing innocent people of color. We aren’t a post-racial culture at all. 

Stand Your Ground takes a cruciform shape: we face the death of the cross in her depiction of the despair of a culture that kills its citizens, before rising in the resurrection hope of a black faith.

First World Problems...

Illustration by Ken Davis

WHEN YOU WORK for a Christian justice organization, it’s hard to complain about your petty personal problems. Dishwasher leaving spots on the glassware at home? Don’t mention it in the office or you get called out for a “First World problem.” Not happy with your cable company? “Dude, First World problem!” retorts a colleague, pouring coffee into his Amnesty International mug before a meeting on income inequality.

I work with people who have traveled the world working for peace and freedom, who have spent time in jail for their beliefs, but who show no sympathy when L.L. Bean messes up my order. (I purchased the medium winter pullover from their activewear collection, but they sent me a small. And it pinches when I lift my arms to pray during chapel.)

In short, my peers are saints working for a better world. And fortunately for them, they don’t have to look outside the office to see what’s wrong with that world, for I walk among them. I am he (or maybe him), the self-centered manchild whose personal preoccupations give a counterbalance to the righteous intentions of my colleagues. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

And that somebody needs new kitchen cabinets.

In my defense—I hurriedly explain to officemates rushing to their next strategy meeting on climate change, this time carrying coffee mugs from Greenpeace—our old cabinets are SO last century. In fact, they were made in the same century as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, a minor monarch whose death prompted the conflagration of World War I. But back to my cabinets.

See how I did that? I shifted from one of the darkest periods of the 20th century to trivial thoughts about new stuff in my house. And from new cabinets to thoughts of kitchen paint schemes is but a short step down the sordid trail to shameless self-indulgence. But such is the thrall of the First World and its petty charms that one can hardly escape.

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Neither Despair Nor Complacency

IN JUNE 1966, Sen. Robert Kennedy joined the National Union of South African Students for a conference held in Cape Town. Tension was running high. NUSAS president Ian Robertson had been banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, and the pressure was on Kennedy, from both the apartheid government and sectors of the anti-apartheid movement, not to attend.

Kennedy went anyway and delivered one of the best speeches of his career. “Few have the greatness to bend history itself,” Kennedy reminded the students. “But each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, [s/he] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope ... daring those ripples to build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Twenty-eight years later Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The West embraced him, celebrating his magnanimity, “disremembering” the support it gave to the very apartheid regime Mandela worked to dismantle.

In the years that followed, Mandela’s leadership enabled a country to project itself beyond the cognitive illusion that suggested there was no way out of a pending Armageddon. He insisted that things only seem impossible until there is the will to make them possible. He created and energized that will, injecting optimism and political excitement into a desperate situation. When an overenthusiastic supporter called Mandela a “saint,” he responded, “No, just a sinner who keeps trying.”

At the time of Kennedy’s 1966 speech, however, Nelson Mandela was in prison, serving a life sentence for sabotage under apartheid; no one realized he was among the “few” who would succeed in bending history. And as we know now, there are certain things that even Mandela could not do.

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The Right and Logical Thing to Do

Street art items. Photo via CTR Photos / Shutterstock.com

We’ve lost Leonard Nimoy. Justly famous as Star Trek’s iconic Mr. Spock, he was also a poet, musician, and photographer. And he was my role model.

I was 10 when I discovered Star Trek—and I immediately gravitated toward the taciturn Vulcan who embraced logic and science even as he wrestled with deep human emotion. The resemblance between Spock and the pre-teen me would have been startling had I recognized it as such; instead, I only saw a character who embodied the conflicts I felt—intellectually and emotionally.

Nimoy was a supporter of equal rights. For example, he convinced Paramount to end the pay inequity Nichelle Nichols experienced during the original Star Trek series. Later, he refused to sign on to the animated Star Trek series until Nichelle Nichols and George Takei were hired to voice their own characters. Away from Star Trek, he challenged “definitive” elements of beauty with The Full Body Project photographs.

But why did Nimoy—why does any man—work to end sexism and discrimination? 

Simply: It’s the right thing to do. That ought to be all anyone needs. At the very least, he did it for co-workers whom he respected.

Men who want to “Live Long and Prosper” work to make that possible for everyone, so that their claims to value justice for all have integrity.

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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