Justice

To Redeem the Soul of America

AT TIMES IT SEEMS VERY HARD to realize that half a century has passed since my late wife, Rosemarie, and I were in Birmingham, Ala., living out a part of our years of service as representatives of the Mennonite churches of America to the Southern freedom movement—that historic black-led struggle for the expansion of democracy in America (inadequately labeled "the civil rights movement").

It was in the midst of those powerful days, in the late winter and early springtime of 1963, when our extraordinary people's movement was spreading to dozens of communities across the South, with some important reverberations in the North, and across the world as well. Usually initiated by courageous home-grown black leaders such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham and Victoria Gray of Palmers Crossing, Miss., the determined local groups often called upon national or South-wide organizations to help them in their campaigns.

Late in 1961, Shuttlesworth, who was part of the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), asked Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC to come help the Birmingham movement. It faced a level of continuing white terrorism that led the black community to call their city "Bombingham," referring, of course, to the deadly violence they encountered whenever they attempted to challenge the white segregationist powers who were determined to keep black people in a submissive, separate, and dominated role.

When King and SCLC decided to respond to Shuttlesworth and move onto the Birmingham scene, Rosemarie and I were already friends and co-workers with Martin and Coretta, and King asked us to come participate in the struggle for the transformation of Birmingham. So we were present and in the line of marchers when King, his co-worker Ralph Abernathy, and others were arrested in early April 1963.

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Connecting the Dots

OVER THE PAST few years, we have seen tangible proof that creation is terribly off balance. Global warming is causing droughts and heat waves around the world and is making hurricanes more powerful. In my hometown of New York City, we have experienced the effects of severe weather: Hurricane Irene in 2011 and, most recently, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Sandy was an eye-opening demonstration that climate change is a poverty issue, a race issue, and an immigration issue.

Though neighborhoods of all socioeconomic statuses were affected by Sandy, poorer communities are taking longer to recover. Many of them were without electricity, heat, and water longer than were more affluent communities. For instance, residents of Red Hook's public housing projects in Brooklyn were without power and water for two weeks after the storm. My cousin Dabriah Alston, a Red Hook resident, told me that the city ignored residents' repeated requests for information about when the heat would come back on: "The bottom line is, they don't care about us. Projects are filled with poor folk, and as we all know, the poor are seldom a priority."

Hurricane Sandy shone an uncomfortable light on racial and economic disparity in New York City. As someone who was born and raised in Brooklyn, I am very familiar with Red Hook's history of poverty, and the neglect by local government. For example, only when the community near the housing projects began to gentrify did the city start to repair the nearby subway station.

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Calling of the Shepherd

WHEN POPE BENEDICT XVI unexpectedly announced his resignation in mid-February, many expressed admiration for the decision's honesty and humility, and much speculation followed about the reasons for it—and the consequences it would have.

As transition takes shape in the Vatican, Catholics around the world are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965 and which redefined the church's relationship to the world. Vatican II's final document said: "This council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems," referring in part to the "profound and rapid changes ... spreading by degrees around the whole world." Half a century ago, few could have predicted the dramatic changes that were to follow in science, technology, global integration, and social mores.

Catholics know that in the last 50 years the institutional church has been at the forefront of calls for a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world. Catholic social and ecological teaching is well developed and clearly articulated. The church has offered analysis and challenging proposals for financial reform, arms control, care for creation, and multilateral political structures of accountability in response to globalization.

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The Forgotten

Juan Camilo Bernal / Shutterstock.com
Juan Camilo Bernal / Shutterstock.com

Charles Carpenter
George Murray
Nolan Harmon
Paul Hardin
Joseph Durick
Earl Stallings
Edward Ramage
Milton Grafman

In towns all across America, streets are not named after them. School children do not learn about them. No one waits in line to see the homes where they were born. They are ... simply forgotten.

They weren’t necessarily bad men. They weren’t unimportant men. They were men of influence, men with a voice and the respect of their community. Most would have agreed; they were good men, according to one, “men of genuine good will.”  While evil men are remembered and great men are enshrined, these men … just forgotten.

They are forgotten for being on the wrong side of history. Men forgotten for being silent when “a word fitly spoken” could have made a difference. Men who are forgotten for valuing comfort and stability over justice and compassion. Forgotten because they were unwilling to call out the status quo, and show it for it was … cruel and unjust.

These are the eight men on the other side of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The recipients. Eight well educated white pastors, priests, and rabbis who by God’s providence led reputable congregations in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.

On Scripture: When People You Don’t Much Like Receive God’s Love

Waiting in line, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com
Waiting in line, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com

Our distaste for people who cut in line remains unchanged as we grow up. Whether someone gets to the front of the lunch line or the airport security check before us in an unfair way, our annoyance is raised. People who steal our parking spots during the Christmas season are the recipients of our worst thoughts. We might — just might — yell a string of expletives and death threats at anyone who has wronged us on the road or in a parking lot.

It’s not just about being orderly and following the rules. Instead, we rue the flouting of justice and fairness. I have been waiting patiently in line; what gives you the right to deem yourself better than me?

Yet if we’re honest, we will quickly realize that such outrageous reactions to outrageous behavior are no better than the line cutter or parking space thief. Moreover, our sense of injustice is quite attuned to moments of personal grievance even as we neglect how our actions may harm others. If anything, these moments of rage reveal much more about us than those we think have aggrieved us.

Using Spending Power for Good: A Conversation With Nathan George of Trade As One

Photo courtesy of Trade as One
Trade As One provides a quarterly fair trade subscription for ethical consumption. Photo courtesy of Trade as One

At the Justice Conference last weekend I had the opportunity to sit down with Nathan George, founder of Trade As One, and ask him about buying fair trade and his company's awesome — and newly launched — fair trade subscription service. Here is the fruit of that conversation.

The interview was edited for length and content.

Closing the Loop on Khalid Sheikh Mohammad?

Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images
'Camp Justice' sign near the high-tech, high-security courtroom at Guantanamo Bay. Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images

The myth that President Barack Obama closed Guantanamo his first year in office persists, but four years later the detainees are still there. Can justice be served?

I wanted to find out for myself. Over the past month, the Obama administration has started prosecuting some of the Guantanamo prisoners. They are tried in a specially constructed courtroom at Guantanamo, under military commissions rules touted to restore the rights absent under former President George W. Bush’s tribunals.

The trial logistics are a challenge: the tribunals convene periodically on the Guantanamo naval base under tightly controlled conditions. Additionally, the hearings are simulcast to military bases in the U.S. where members of the public and press are allowed to view.

I went to the Ft. Meade army base in Maryland to view the proceedings via closed circuit TV. While I was there, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, alleged ringleader in the September 11, 2001, attacks, and four other men charged with various crimes related to 9/11, were on trial. The government is asking for the death penalty for all five men.

A Pledge of Nonviolence

A Pledge of Nonviolence

1. As you prepare to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus.

2. Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.

3. Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.

4. Pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free.

5. Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.

6. Observe with friend and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7. Perform regular service for others and the world.

8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, and heart.

9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10. Follow the directions of the movement leaders and of the captains on demonstrations.

Image: Hands clasped, skydie / Shutterstock.com

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New & Noteworthy

The Whole Gospel
Ken Wytsma's Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger Things is a passionate evangelical argument for making justice central to a gospel-rooted life. For those who already embrace social justice in their faith, it is a spiritual refresher and resource for engaging with more wary Christians. Thomas Nelson

Their Future, Our Future
Girl Rising, a feature film on the power of education in the lives of nine girls from the developing world, releases March 7. It is at the center of a social action campaign for girls' education called 10x10, launched by former ABC News journalists. Learn more, advocate, or organize a screening. 10x10act.org

A Lifelong Quest
In Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African, Lamin Sanneh, a professor of world Christianity at Yale, tells of his journey from a Muslim childhood in Gambia to becoming a Christian academic in the West. An engaging personal story filled with professional insights on the global church, Christian-Muslim relations, and much more. Eerdmans

Distilled Wisdom
The booklet Old Monk gathers brief poems and short commentaries written by Benedictine sister Mary Lou Kownacki in response to Cold Mountain , a classic book by 9th century Chinese poet Han-shan. An unorthodox little devotional with wisdom for seekers and church pillars, artists and activists, monks and heretics. Benetvision

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'Where Were You?'

DURING THE SUMMER of 2003, 25 staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and their families rode a bus through 10 states on the "Pilgrimage for Reconciliation." We retraced the Cherokee Trail of Tears and explored the journey of African Americans from slavery to the civil rights movement.

As we rolled over land that had witnessed the most evil individual acts and public policies enacted on American soil, and as we heard again and again how the church was either silent or complicit, we wondered aloud: "What issue will cause our grandchildren to look back at us and ask, 'Where were you?'"

There are many we could choose from. But on this day, approaching spring 2013—a decade after our pilgrimage, 50 years after Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation—I know where I stand. On this day, I stand with my sisters and brothers in the church who are pressing our nation's leaders toward just and comprehensive immigration reform.

In the last three years, more than 1 million men, women, and children have been erased from our land through deportation. They were caught between two signs at our border: "Help Wanted" and "No Trespassing."

By law, only 5,000 "unskilled" workers are allowed into the U.S. through legal means each year. That is about the number of people processed on Ellis Island every day in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, our nation's industry and food supply rely heavily on the labor of immigrant populations. About 75 percent of all U.S. farmworkers are unauthorized immigrants. Then consider other industries: meatpacking, hospitality, restaurants, transportation. The disparity between the demand for workers and the supply is untenable.

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