Black Lives Matter

A white officer was shot in cold blood by a mentally ill black man in Texas. Given the context, some interpret this as an example of how #blacklivesmatter is anti-white. Charles Blow responds beautifully.

Countless amounts of ink will be poured and video shot misdirecting this outrage. I don’t have much to add. But when a policeman gets shot the might of the state will be behind him. It’s always illegal to murder someone, but when it’s a policeman, the consequences are justifiably severe.

But when a black man gets shot by the state, the presumption is guilt. So when someone says #bluelivesmatter I think, yes, we know that. All our public institutions will now be defending the legacy and family of the dead officer. As they should. They are fundamentally public servants.

But black people, however, don’t get that luxury. The default position is blame.

At its core, black lives matter asks for one simple thing: fairness. It’s not fair when any person shoots any other person and gets a free pass – even when they are policemen. And although nobody denies justified shootings – thats the implicit contract with the state, the public deserves to know when and how such shootings are justified. And police, like every other citizen in the country, must be held accountable. Nobody should be above the law – especially its enforcers.

Given the amount of video footage of cops performing poorly, it’s now even more apparent we must find ways to prevent the shooting of innocent people. This is the claim that so many white people refuse to recognize: the shooting of an unarmed innocent person is always morally repugnant, no matter what the intention of the policeman is.

I’m incredulous when I hear people implicitly defend the shooting of an innocent. Because no matter how any person interacts with a cop, when they are not threatening him, they don’t deserve to die. Just because a cop is afraid doesn’t give him the justification to kill someone else. Nobody has that right. When you choose to be a cop you must learn other criteria: for example, you are afraid, and the person has a gun.

I have not touched on racism. But it’s racism that permits this blind spot. We call it “institutional” in part because it’s not about any single racist person, but a series of practices that circumscribe black life.

A friend of mine who’s father was a cop said that what’s discouraging to him was that cops know that some of them are unfit. But instead of creating a process to correct the institution, they create a wall of silence. This disserves the police who try to do their work with integrity.

The police refuse to recognize the arms race that the #NRA has forced them into. Of course they’re afraid of the public. Because guns are everywhere. And they’ve bought into the myth that it’s impossible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Further, if the policemen believe they are at war with the citizenry, that means there’s a serious problem with our public life. They must not be defensive, but seek to be a part of the solution, taking ownership for their mistakes.

People often say that if a criminal wants a gun, they can get a gun. But that’s not true. Making owning a gun risky drives the price up. Trying to get a gun on the black market for $150 is going to be a lot different when the penalties are higher. As the comedian Jim Jeffries jokes, the black market for a gun in Australia now is $30,000. Criminals generally don’t have that kind of money.

Unless they’re on Wall Street.


Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu

Two police officers were murdered Saturday at 2:45pm.

This crime highlights the connection between the escalation between cops and the communities they serve,with the ubiquity of guns. When the people are armed, the police can’t easily distinguish between the ones who are dangerous and those who aren’t.

Further, there is another dimension worth examining. The killer had just engaged in an act of domestic violence; it’s a crime that is particularly dangerous for both the partner and the police as well. It seems clear that what we should do is find ways to get communities and cops to work together to get guns off the street; and identify those individuals who are likely to purchase a gun and use it on a partner or a police officer. I wonder if preventing domestic violence should be central to what the police do – I suspect it will be even more useful than the broken windows theory. Track it and see what’s revealed.

Pat Lynch, however, isn’t helping the problem. I suspect, however, his rhetoric has more to do with upcoming contract negotiations than with the issues at hand. But the mayor isn’t responsible. the murderer is. If anything, there’s been an outpouring of support from many of the people who have been protesting against the cops. Lynch’s rhetoric is inexcusable.

Yes, there are some who chant “fuck the police” at marches. At best it’s in poor taste, and worst incendiary. But speech is exactly what the police are supposed to protect. The best test of that rule is when you hear speech you don’t like. That’s when we need protection the most.

Leaving my house today, I ran into a cop who had helped me a few months ago. He was walking his puppy, a beautiful German Shepherd. I said, “Tough times. Terrible tragedy.” He said, “It’s demoralizing.” He blamed the media. And then he said, “they should just release all the grand jury tapes. Then they would all know.”

It was a sentiment members in my parish had shared. Without transparency, trust becomes impossible to build. Although there will always be those who really hate the police, even poor, black communities want police presence. Small steps toward openness might go a long way. People might still see different things, but the intensity of the response would be diminished.

And now, let us turn our eyes toward the NRA.

Torture and Christians

I am one of those Christians who believe that torture is outside the realm of Christian behavior. It distinguishes the legitimate actions of the state and the church, and the church must have no part in it.

So I was initially surprised when reading about a poll that indicates that Christians, overall, supported torture in greater numbers than the unreligious. But on the other hand it makes sense.

For those of us who see secularity, as a logical outgrowth of the Christian tradition, this should be seen as a success. This view holds that Christianity has pervaded the culture so thoroughly that we expect the state to uphold the integrity of the body. Our expectations of the behavior of the state are now different than how a pagan state had viewed torture. I do worry that this hold is shaky – more of the elites in this country are now formed by The Fountainhead rather than the Sermon on the Mount. But that non-religious people do not support torture should be comforting. There is no intrinsic reason why they should have inculcated such views.

But over the last 40 years, as liberal protestantism has diminished, Christians by and large have become captivated by the Republican party. They are its foot soldiers. So it might be that what is really happening is a defense of the Bush-Cheney years, a way of reconfirming one’s previous position. It takes too much psychic energy to admit one is wrong and change one’s mind. In short, Christians who support torture do so because their political allegiances form how they are religious.  They are politically captive.

The benefit of knowing Christ means that we realize we can afford to be wrong, to be transformed, to change, while also remembering we are still worthy of love and respect even though, and perhaps because of, the mistakes we make. A faithful Christian must be able to take the risk of being willing to change one’s mind and conform with Christ, not with the needs of the imperial state.

The purpose of torture has always been, primarily, to silence dissent, invoke fear, and force conformity. After 9/11 the administration instructed the CIA to conduct these exercises, creating conflict within the organization. Those responsible for ordering these practices should be held for war crimes.

The Resignation of Bruce Shipman

Last week, The Rev. Bruce Shipman resigned as the Episcopal Chaplain at Yale. He had written a letter to the New York Times about the connection between Israeli actions and the recent anti-Semitic violence in Europe, and quickly received the approbation of numerous pundits. Since then, he has been vilified as an anti-Semite, with mainly a single letter as evidence, his background and previous views exposed and critiqued before the press. Others even accused him of raising the specter of the holocaust and describing him and his words as vile and sickening. Even more, he hates Jews.

Really? This is dialogue? Did I read the same letter?

The argument is that Fr. Shipman was blaming the victim. Perhaps. This accusation implies that victims cannot also be perpetrators. In the context of war, the argument is a good way of justifying that the Palestinians caused their own problems (blaming the victim, indeed). In this way, Israel abdicates its own responsibility for conducting a war, offering the comfort to her supporters that the obliteration of Gaza was necessary and unavoidable. They just had to do it.

This view, however, ignores the possibility that in any conflict, the dynamic includes multiple partners. Might it be that no individual or single institution is singularly responsible; we all have dirty hands? This alternate perspective, of course, disappears when we’re talking about good vs evil, and because our side – by nature – is always on the side of good.

When did we all become such Manicheans?

The argument that Israel is responsible for increased occurrences anti-Semitism requires some excavation. Perviously, Norman Finklestein argued such in his book The Holocaust Industry, where he posited that the “shakedown” of Swiss banks and the institutional diminishment of other genocides might have increased European resentment towards those organizations seeking reparations. I’m not sure how to evaluate such claims, but what’s plausible that is that money, opportunism and moral righteousness make an appealing, and appalling trifecta.

For some, this is construed as reaffirming anti-Semitic stereotypes; but for some of us, opportunism is universal behavior. To claim that such accusations are anti-Semitic becomes a slight-of-hand, a get out of jail free card that directs away from  crime itself. The power to accuse someone of anti-Semitism ensures an impenetrable armor of righteousness. It makes it harder for some to gather justice when the accusation doesn’t actually fit the behavior.

Let us be clear: anti-Semitism, like all hatred of minority communities, should be swiftly condemned. In Shipman’s case, contra the headline of the American Interest, he was referring to institutional actors (the patrons, like the United States of America itself) who do influence policy, not all the Jews themselves. I’d be a little more precise: Israel should not be blamed for anti-Semitism, but be unsurprised by blowback. Both Hamas and Israel might want to consider the long term consequences of their violence. Israel’s previous support of Hamas and ambivalence toward Fatah, and their success in occupying the West Bank have had repercussions. And I’m not the sort who compares Israel to the Reich, nor do I think that Israel is creating an apartheid state. But it’s evident that living in Palestine isn’t kittens and rainbows, and Israel bears a greater responsibility for the conditions on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza.

The other question is practical: Do American Jewish Institutions do have an impact on Israel, or on our own relationship with Israel?  It seems to me that if Israel has an impact on the decisions of the United States, a realist position identifies those institutions that have credibility in Israel. My own institutions do not; but I know of plenty of Jewish institutions that have stronger relationships. I work with some them in a variety of ways to keep our dialogue going and identify ways to create peace. I would say, even, they DO feel responsible already.

Unfortunately, there is an unintended consequence of his resignation. It implies the anti-Semitic belief in a Jewish conspiracy to overwhelm honest public conversations about Israel. It makes Shipman’s critics look like powerful, abusive, easily frightened bullies. Who’s really scared of an academic Episcopal cleric? No person who knows Fr. Shipman would accuse him of having a single anti-Semitic bone in his body. And yet, the opposition has gone on to gang up on him (crucify?) for his imprecision and error. What is unfortunate is that these are the sorts of critics who seem motivated by the view that peace between Israel and Palestine is a zero sum game. One side’s victims can be known and acknowledged; the others deserve their fate.

Shipman never advocated violence against Israel, or its elimination. He is not a militant supporter of Hamas. He has toured the holy land with Jews and Arabs. After he wrote the letter, he met with Professor Maurice Samuels, director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism.  Is that the action of someone who is a vile Jew hater? No. Because he isn’t, in spite of the claims of his critics. Misinformed? Possibly. Tone deaf? Surely. Wrong? Who knows?

Shipman should have stayed, if only to illustrate that honest, hard conversations in the academy are necessary. Let him be called names; let him be engaged; let his error be corrected.

But let the conversation continue.

Race, Miley, etc

Today is the fifty year anniversary of MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech.  When I was a child, my dentist had a big poster of that speech on his wall, the words floating as a silk-screen print.  As I would get my teeth cleaned, I’d reread the selection over and over if only to distract myself from the invasiveness of the procedure.

And here we are.  I’m not sure how I would assess our culture’s current level of racism.  Certainly we have a lot to do in our institutional life:  we’ve decided that jail is how we will house people of color, especially black men.   The drug war has become the way live “institutional racism.”

It is true that people are less likely to have conscious views about racial inferiority, and the instinctive discomfort of difference has changed.   But plainly, we see our racism in our economic choices as a nation:  instead of investing in schools or jobs we buy prisons and soldiers.   Mass incarceration creates and ensures a class of people, mainly black men, will always struggle to have wider choices in their lives.  The drug war is the vehicle. I’m not interested in changing hearts.  That’s for the Lord.  But we can, as citizens, change our institutional priorities.  To be an anti-racist means opposing the war on drugs and struggling with the institutions that economically benefit from the prison industrial complex.

And Miley.  I admit, I am old enough I have no experience with her previous incarnations.  The song?  Meh.  But it wasn’t the spectacle of transgressive sexuality that was bothersome (how I miss subtlety and innuendo), but the strange way she harnessed race in her act.

I was startled – I find large cute stuffed animals disconcerting, the way others experience clowns or mimes.  I had questions:  is this a commentary on fetishes?  What does the protruding tongue mean?  Hunger?  Sensuality?  Or is it simply a weird face?  Is Miley wearing a costume or a bikini?  It looks hot.  Not sexy hot, just uncomfortable.  Yes, she should take it off.  Why was she wearing it in the first place?

Can someone sit her down and feed her a big plate of Fettucini Alfredo?

Is this a minstrel show I’m watching now?

She is singing some words and she says she can’t stop.

Am I supposed to be aroused?  Who is Robert Thicke?  Is that a lap dance?  Why is he wearing a suit?   God, that song is so overrated.

Miley Cyrus can’t stop.  But I could.  So I did.

The Repeal of DOMA

Yesterday I broke open a bottle of champagne with a couple friends, a demi-sec Lanson, in celebration of the Supreme Court decision.

While pleased, I still find it startling when people think of it as a religious issue.  For me it’s a simple matter of fairness about benefits.  Someone else’s choice of partner does not change how I practice or what I believe.  I am not offended if someone calls a partnership a “marriage,” and I find it perplexing when we think that God is worried about these sorts of definitions.   And ff God does have a specific idea about marriage, I’ll make my case before the judgment seat and explain why I have erred on the side of charity and magnanimity for gay people.   I’m not worried – the scriptures say that God is merciful.

There remain ways gay people live outside of marriage that can inform the culture about what a joyful sexuality might look like.  And so I wonder if the conversation on marriage distracts us from some opportunities to understand how we might negotiate our rapidly changing culture.  Although I think marriage is a crucial, imperfect sacramental institution, perhaps we can learn from gay people rather than insist they fit into a less threatening box.

And while all of this is happening, we’re seeing politicians actively attack reproductive health; the economy remains owned by a small class of powerful people; and our decision-making bodies have stalled on climate change.  I find it disturbing that some who are most transforming (damaging?) our economy are the same people who fund marriage equality.  So while I take joy that this symbol – and the benefits – are extended fairly, I hope that this enthusiasm can extend to other important movements upon which the fate of our country, and perhaps the world, depends.

Emory and the politics of compromise

The president of Emory has gotten quite the ass-kicking for calling the 3/5s rule an example of a good compromise.  I admit, I’m perplexed by the push back in part because I’m skeptical of the counterfactual histories his critics presume.

Certainly the best thing was for all people at all times to recognize the immediate humanity of all people.  It would have been desirable and magnificent if such could have been an option.

But we are far from that time.  Can we know how those founders thought?  Certainly counting blacks completely would have given them some humanity; but it would have mainly strengthened southern power:  they wouldn’t have been able to vote.

The most moral option would have been for Southern States to admit they were wrong and the voting rights of their slaves.  But, however luscious and joyful such an image is, it was probably not an option anyone considered.  Unpropertied white men couldn’t vote either.

Perhaps not counting slaves at all would have been the just option, given they had no real representation.  But in that case, we would not have had a country.  And it also signifies that slaves were not actually people.

I do not think that this compromise was the best world.  In my world, if I were God, all people have always been equal, brilliant, understand evolution, the big bang, and math.  We would all love everyone.  But in a different world, one I do not understand, perhaps the 3/5’s rule was a compromise that was worthy.  One does not need to believe that slavery or the dehumanization of blacks was moral to also acknowledge that we make compromises that are imperfect, frail and open to change.  As this one was.  The better option for blacks at this time – counting as nothing – may have been worse in the long run.  We do not know.

But I do think the president of Emory has been misunderstood by well-meaning people.