A Culture of Practice Based in Principle

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It somehow doesn’t surprise me that many of our practices in Restorative Justice have come to us from New Zealand. Within days of the recent terror attack in Christchurch, the nation had acted on gun laws. What this tells me is that there is some connection between a moral and political will there that is broadly lacking in our own culture and society. MacRae and Zehr talk about using Family Group Conferencing for Restorative Justice in “serious and complicated cases, and the power of practice based in principle.” This last part is what I have struggled with since coming to seminary: do we really have a culture of “practice based in principle” in the US right now? We have cultures of practice based in principle, but I think, especially where it counts, they are the exception.

NZ passed their landmark Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act with provisions for FGC in 1989. In the US today we not only incarcerate youth (unsurprisingly: disproportionately black youth) in staggering numbers, many in adult facilities, but, according to the Sentencing Project, only 21 states (and the District of Columbia) “do not have any prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, either due to laws prohibiting the sentence or because there are no individuals serving the sentence at this time.” A majority of states still allow the sentence, with 3 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana — accounting for nearly 2/3 of all JLWOP sentences.)

We could not be further from NZ on this.

I was reading this great article about African Prisons Project from ideas.TED.com. The program, founded in 2007 by then-law student (now a barrister in the UK), Alexander McLean, provides “high-quality legal advice, training, and education to those living and working in prison” across Kenya and Uganda. Through highly structured training programs, legal support services and “empowering Changemakers” in the short-, medium- and long-term, APP seeks to “place the power of the law into the hands of the poor, enabling them to make, shape and implement the law.” It’s pretty incredible, transformative stuff, and not just in theory.

So I’m reading about this and I come across this quote from John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations:

Certainly in the US but also from what I’ve seen globally, most prisoners weren’t given adequate educational opportunities to begin with. The most fundamental reason why a society needs to give education to people in prison is because it failed them in the first place…. It’s a moral issue at heart, but it also makes sense economically, with numerous studies that show how it’s cheaper to educate than to incarcerate. If we don’t want to keep recycling people into and out of an expensive system, then education is key to reducing the recidivism rate.

I agree with all that, but it was the last sentence that caught me. Who is the “we” there? I think Dreisinger probably means, “we” as in “society”. But there are plenty of stakeholders in the current system and society who clearly do want to recycle people (mostly people of color) into and out of this system, and that’s the piece we need to reckon with.

The truth is: the economics can work for the people who need the economics to work, not only for the profits but also the perpetuation of white power. But the profits are there. From the local economies that are conned into hosting prisons, to the corporations and private contractors who build, maintain, and provide services to them and the businesses that use cheap (or in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas: free) prison labor. Those numbers are great for business!

So are we being disingenuous or credulous when we make arguments about the “inefficiency” of slavery for the slavers? Or about the cost, which society, not the slavers, bear? Michelle Alexander talks about the need for a “great awakening” — not to the facts, which we possess — but to the evil to which we’re a party. The arguments against mass incarceration that focus on economics seem laughable, based on the outrageous lie that the economy is supposed to function for all of us, that vast sectors of the economy that enrich the few don’t actually flourish on widespread poverty, oppression and racial inequity. The Slave economy of the American South worked very well for slaveholders:

by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.

Why do we continue to pretend otherwise? This is not a rhetorical question. Treating it as such is a kind of compound cynicism. If we want to create a culture of practice based in principle, to re-establish some connection between a moral and political will, we have to keep speaking our principled truth, explicitly, in a loud, clear, prophetic voice. The economic argument is not going to win this one.

Intolerable Civility

Valentin de Boulogne, Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple, c.1618

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ (John 2:13-16 NIV)

I can hear it now, can’t you? “What has happened to civility?” “Couldn’t he have just asked nicely?” “Here’s this guy who hangs out with publicans and prostitutes, and all the sudden he can’t handle a few money-changers in the Temple?” “What a hypocrite!” “Yeah, where’s the tolerance?” Pretty sure that’s how this would go down on Meet the Press.  

It is probably no coincidence that the “civility movement” always seems to gain steam when the marginalized have been pushed so far they must raise a ruckus simply to be heard. But we know as well from recent events that even silent protests, like “taking a knee,” can provoke charges of incivility when the message is one that threatens privilege. As Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic last year when the immigration and family-separation crisis sparked outrage: “Civility is … wielded as a cudgel against those already facing obliteration that dictates to them how they must face it” by “a majority inclined to ignore the violence done in its name—because in the end, they will be alright.”

Like the language of civility, that of tolerance can be a kind of cudgel as well, an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Tolerance speaks even more frankly than civility of inequality in the social order. Think of the profound asymmetry of the active and passive of the verb: while we may feel pride at our ability to tolerate others, how does it feel to “be tolerated”? Tolerance remains a pillar of the political life of a secular society, but like the language of civility, it is inadequate — I would argue inappropriate even — for communities of faith and coalitions of conscience.

Whether in our own communities or in interfaith conversations, tolerance, aside from indicating entrenched (if implicit) bias, is the language of spiritual scarcity. And if you doubt this, think again of a verb in the active and passive that communicates true abundance: to love and be loved. The language of tolerance is too often used in religious settings to begrudge admittance to those whose whole humanity we are unwilling to engage with our own. It often substitutes without our even realizing it for the language of abundance that truly opens up possibilities of transformation.

The language of tolerance and civility not only glosses over the difficult work of justice and equality, of radical love and hospitality to which our transformative communities really owe their existence and to which they must continually and explicitly recommit themselves, it also makes the work itself harder to conceive. Our uncritical use of language that continually reinforces power and privilege can actually silence the language of abundance out of which flows the courage and conviction to live in abundance with one another.

Language matters. In the beginning was the Word. Relying on the language of tolerance and civility limits what we can expect from encounters across difference and makes us complicit in the world of scarcity that this language depicts. That the language and life of abundance can embrace difference, encourage us to work together through difficulty and discord, and provide us with tools to navigate conflict in the pursuit of transformation is, for me, a fundamental article of faith. In fact, it may be what faith itself is for.

“So you’re a divinity student, huh…?”

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I haven’t even started classes yet, but I had my first, “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” conversation last night.

You know the one: where someone says “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” and you say, “uhhh…” and they launch into a forty-minute monologue about life, the universe and everything that inevitably ends with the Ancient Aliens guy.

Because I work in a Church setting (I head the Church Street Ministry of First Parish Unitarian Universalist, which works with home- and food-security in Cambridge, Mass.) this isn’t a totally unexpected  scenario, and because it’s UU, the Ancient Aliens thing is also, um, not totally unexpected. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love talking to people about Ancient Aliens. See, I’m particularly interested in the individual and vernacular “deviations” from creeds and practices, their origins in oral traditions, nascent religions and religions like Christianity in their oral, incipient stages. I am always fascinated by how people are interpreting and utilizing the received wisdom of religious traditions, de- and re-contextualizing them, mixing, matching, recycling, re-purposing, and tweaking them for their own ends.

And while I am, in fact, delighted to hear from people about their beliefs, let’s call them, although we don’t really live in an age of belief so much as credulity, I emphatically reject the idea that divinity students have any more “insight on divinity,” as one friend recently put it. You can talk to literally anyone about literally anything and get insight into divinity. That may, in fact, be the main takeaway of divinity school for divinity students (I’ll let you know in three years when I finish my MDiv).

So, yeah: the conversation started with that ominous “so you’re in divinity school, huh?” And I knew immediately where it was headed. But it’s the journey, you know?  And this one started with a visit to a Catholic shrine where my fellow pilgrim observed a worshiper in deep thrall to a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

“Isn’t that idolatry?” He huffed.

I treated this as a sincere inquiry, not a rhetorical question, which I’m guessing is, like, Day 1 of Divinity Student 101, right? (Again, I’ll let you know).

The Cult of the Blessed Virgin is right up my alley, a great example of one of the developments of early Christology so central to the establishing of orthodoxy on the nature of Christ that borrows from ancient archetypes. It took 400 years to sort that out — it was not until the Council of Ephesus in 431 that the cult of the Virgin as Mother of God was finally sanctioned. It was in committee for half a millennium.

My traveling companion was more interested in the general issue of idolatry and pagan influence, as he saw it, as evidence of an inherent and irreconcilable internal contradiction (not to say conspiracy) in the Orthodoxy of the Church. (We’re about 1/5 of the way to Ancient Aliens, for those of you keeping track of our mileage.)

“Worshiping the likeness of the Virgin Mary,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “when, hey, didn’t God say something about ‘graven images’?”

I was like: “I mean, technically it came from the Finger of God rather than His Mouth, but, yeah, something like that.”

And then: “But here’s the thing…”

I’d just been reading about the Hellenization of Christianity in those first crucial years, and suggested nascent Christianity’s break from Judaism, particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and its incorporation into the imperialist project of the Roman Empire might have something to do with the more pagan elements of worship that have come down to us today. Early Christians distanced themselves from their Jewish roots, partly because their roots were ripped out of the ground. 

He pricked up his ears at the mention of Jerusalem, and, wresting the wheel, he took a sharp turn to the right, pulled into a dark alley, and picked up Louis Farrakhan, whom I had not even seen on the side of the road there! I mean, bowtie and all!

“Why,” he asked, a note of heightened indignation creeping into his voice, “do the Jews think that’s their land?” He didn’t wait for an answer, instead repeating Minister Farrakhan’s inflammatory contention that “the State of Israel has ‘no home’ in the Middle East and that the Holy Land does not belong to the ‘white Jew.’”

Now, I suppose I could have said WHOOAA. HEYYY. HEY NOW NO. PULL OVER. LET ME OUT OF THIS CAR.

But this is, as they say, The Work.

And anyway, we were now halfway to Ancient Aliens. I mean, let’s ditch Farrakhan at the next Gas Food Lodging. But I might as well stick it out, right? I could almost make out the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán peeping up over the horizon up ahead, as we raced past a thousand years of Secret History via The History Channel.

“There are written records they don’t want us to see hidden in a room somewhere!” my comrade cried, his eyes bright as a fire worshiper on the twelfth day of Izcalli. “They’ve kept the truth from us!”

Not to be gendered about this, but I feel like the belief that there’s always a windowless room somewhere with the truth hidden away in a desk drawer is a very mansplainy way to look at truth. Because if it’s all stuffed in a file cabinet on Skull Island or whatever, you can always Mission: Impossible that shit, right? Just, like, bust in guns blazing and catch the Illuminati by surprise, steal back the truth and save the day!

I get it. The idea — you might even call it faith — that there is hidden proof is one of our species’ most persistent idées fixes. It may come from our early days digging for tubers and cracking the shells of nuts with stones.

The certainty that a staggering Truth is being hidden and withheld is part of our popular understanding of the forces of oppression at work in our world. It’s also a way we’ve been conditioned, or maybe condition ourselves to deny the power of our own truths. But what if what’s really being hidden on Skull Island is not the Truth that No One Must Know but the Truth That Everyone Knows?

My fellow seeker nodded sagely.

“Yeah,” he said, appreciatively. “You know, how is it that they’ve never found human remains in any of those pyramids in Mexico.”

I was like: “uhhh, I’m not sure that’s… ”

He gave me a significant look that cut me to the quick. We had arrived.

“I’m not saying it’s aliens, but…”