Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pets and the police: Neighboring in the 21st century

in Toledo, IA
"Hey! Hey! Hey!" (thanks to Gary Larson)
Photo by glenn_e_wilson via Flickr
The dog would not stop barking. It barked morning, noon, and night. Out there in the front yard, seemingly barking at every visible moving object large or small, or every movement of air however slight. It just. Did. Not. Stop. Barking! And its owners, our neighbors whom we didn't and still don't know, were nowhere to be seen. This was a problem.

As a telecommuter that works out of my home office and as a family that tries to have our windows open as much as possible during Iowa's more pleasant seasons (limited as they are), the incessant barking of a neighbor dog has a real impact on the quality of my daily life. I had endured it for a few weeks, but finally I decided something must be done. But what?

One option seemed straightforward enough: Go over to the neighbor's house, knock on the door, and ask with all possible humility and kindness to please, please, do something about the dog's incessant barking. The only problem with this route was that we'd seen these particular neighbors displaying some rather troubling ways of relating to each other while outside their house, for all the neighborhood to see and hear. So I was not thrilled about what kind of reception I'd receive for my complaint, no matter how gently presented.

So I called the cops. But let me back up a bit...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Immigrant or Refugee?

in Toledo, IA
Master and protégé - Gustave and Zero in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

There's a moment in "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which I watched last night, that struck me as particularly poignant social commentary. For the sake of not spoiling any of the plot, I'll speak as generally as I can...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Following and Straying: The paths of my ancestors

in Toledo, IA
"Foggy Morning Frolic" by Mike Gilchrist & his cat, Wink
(used w/ permission)
My grandfather, Dale Mullins, started his adult life as a farmer. This wasn't a "start" so much as it was a continuation of what he was born into on his family's farm outside of Monroe, Iowa. Born in 1915, his father passed away when Dale was only 24 years old, at which point he took over full control and care of the family farm. He was born and died in the same house and lived out and worked most of his 77 years on the same 80-acre piece of earth overlooking and rolling down into the South Skunk River bottom that meanders nearby.

My other grandfather, Max Gumm, started out much the same, having grown up on his family's farm about an hour northwest of Monroe near Jefferson, Iowa. Unlike my maternal grandfather, though, Max altered course a few years into farming. He felt, as us church folk say, "the call"...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: The New Jim Crow

in Toledo, IA
[Note: The following review appears in Brethren Life and Thought Vol. 59, No. 1 (Spring 2014): 85-86. Reprinted here with permission.]

Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

“Devastating.” It is a word that adorns the back cover of this book, attributed to Forbes Magazine. It is also the word that kept recurring in this white reviewer’s mind while reading through this terribly important book which documents the latest manifestation of societal racism in this country: the mass incarceration of predominantly black men. Its author, Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and professor of law at The Ohio State University, presents a comprehensive and damning account of the complex and interlocking systems of social control that give teeth to this nation’s oldest shame. Her work also reveals that in the age of Obama, we are far from being a “post-racial” society. If anything, she argues, we are regressing.

“Devastating,” then, operates in a range of senses. First, the book leaves the individual reader feeling devastated because of the expansive reach of the systems under scrutiny and their sickening consequences. Next, it devastates those systems in that Alexander’s account pulls back the veil of their alleged purpose (“War on Drugs,” “Get Tough on Crime,” etc.), revealing them to be racist forms of social control. Finally—and this is extrapolating from the text itself to theological and ecclesiological implications—it is devastating to the church in the United States in that we have for the most part stood idly by while this system has been conceived, constructed, and functioning now for over thirty years.

But just what are those systems? Alexander’s central claim is that “something akin to a racial caste system currently exists in the United States” (2). This system flies the banner of the “War on Drugs,” a phrase first uttered by President Nixon in the early 1970s, which became a federally-mandated, institutional reality under the Reagan Administration in 1982. Alexander describes the consequences of this War on Drugs as mass incarceration, a term which explicitly refers to the explosion of the U.S. prison system in the past 30 years, where there are now “more people in prisons and jails today…for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980” (60), and where this nation now has the highest incarceration rate in the world (6). The racial dimensions of this system are what led Alexander to the apt description, “The New Jim Crow,” because of its propensity to lock up a hugely disproportionate number of black and brown people, mostly young men, where now “(t)he United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid” (6). More than simply prison, though, mass incarceration also refers to “the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (13). From public housing arrangements, militarized police forces, restrictive employment policies, debt collection, welfare, regressive Supreme Court decisions, to political disenfranchisement—the net result is the creation of an “undercaste” (13), a racially-defined and stigmatized group subject to “permanent social exclusion” (13) through a “closed circuit of perpetual marginality” (95).

This is the New Jim Crow, and Alexander argues that it appears to be more durable than past forms of institutional American racism partly because—as an elitist backlash against the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s—it must claim itself to be colorblind. This has been accomplished by a shift in rhetoric from overtly racist attitudes in publicly stated positions and policies to using “tough on crime” language, which is yet today the lingua franca in Washington when it comes to criminal justice deliberations; no politician—Democrat nor Republican—with a desire to stay in office for long wants to be seen as “soft on crime.” Hence, draconian drug laws have been enacted and functioning for over twenty years, and police have been given carte blanche when it comes to discretion in searches and seizures.

This rhetorical shift to supposed race-neutrality has been accompanied by popular media forms—news reporting and crime shows—that have helped cement the image of “criminal” as that of a young, black male into the American conscious and subconscious social imagination. Now that the War on Drugs and the “criminal blackman” stereotype (107) have become normalized in society, denial has become exceedingly easy. "Many people 'know' and 'not-know' the truth about human suffering at the same time,” Alexander argues, and “(d)enial is facilitated by persistent racial segregation in housing and schools, by political demagoguery, by radicalized media imagery, and by the ease of changing one's perception of reality simply by changing television channels” (182). Or perhaps in the digital age, denial is even easier as we self-select our Facebook and Twitter friends, the blogs we follow, etc. Through the synthesis of social media and the consumer culture of leisure and entertainment, it has never been easier to be blind to systemic injustice.

So where does this leave the church? Sadly, the only place it shows up in Alexander’s book is when families of criminals who are subject to their loved one’s stigma find no place for love and compassion. “Church? I wouldn’t dare tell anyone at church,” Alexander reports one woman saying (166). This should rightly convict those of us in Christ’s body. But Alexander does at times marshal the spiritual fortitude and force of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the final chapter, Alexander calls for a new kind of civil rights movement that takes the new racial realities of The New Jim Crow into account. Her constructive proposals sometimes contain echoes of New Testament teaching, such as love for strange neighbors and enemies, and removing logs from our vision: “We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love” (244).

Would that the body of Christ practice such love in our own fellowships and let that love flow out into work for radical, restorative justice in the age of mass incarceration.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The bi-vocational blues

in Toledo, IA
Yep; we have that much | (c) Jeff Parker/Cagel Cartoons
Student loan debt has been a hot topic of conversation lately, at least in my social media circles. It's always a hot topic for my wife and I because, well, we have a ton of it. Like three-masters-degrees-at-a-private-university-all-subsidized-by-student-loans worth of it.

Six years ago, when we first told my family that we were moving to Virginia for grad school, they were not impressed. My brother kind of angrily told me that I was being irresponsible with my family's financial wellbeing. At the time I thought, "No I'm not!," but there are plenty of days this side of the transaction that I wonder...

Debt certainly has set constraints around my call to the ministry, particularly in my rural context. The number of Church of the Brethren congregations in my district that could afford to employ a pastor full-time are very few. So when we moved back to rural Iowa, it just so happened that my not feeling a particularly strong calling to pastoral ministry worked in my family's economic favor. Even if I'd wanted to be a full-time pastor, I likely couldn't do it around here; so I kept my technology job for Eastern Mennonite University, an arrangement that looks to continue for the foreseeable future.


Friday, May 9, 2014

#BringBackOurGirls: Righteous, compassionate justice

in Toledo, IA
Nate Hosler, with the
Church of the Brethren Office
of Public Witness
The Scripture from Ephesians guiding yesterday's prayers for the abducted girls in Nigeria focused on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the name above all names, the name to which ultimately every knee on earth and in heaven will bow, and every tongue will confess as "Lord."

I'm alluding there to another Scripture, this from Philippians 2:1-11, which talks about the kenotic/self-emptying nature of Jesus' lordship. It is not a lordship enforced by the power of the sword, but rather it's a power born of suffering and absorbing the world's violence. It is a path that Jesus calls his disciples to talk, individually and collectively in his body, the church. We are to be a crucifom/cross-shaped people.

Today's daily prayer focuses on God's justice, which in this situation we actively and desperately desire. In the face of such horror, even people far separated from it such as myself want to see these innocent girls redeemed and the men responsible brought to face justice. But both our burning desire for justice and concrete expressions of justice must themselves be brought under the Lordship of Christ. We must think carefully about what God's righteous, compassionate justice might look like even in horrific situations such as this.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

#BringBackOurGirls: Jesus, redeeming Lord

in Toledo, IA
Dr. Rebecca Dali, of the Center for
Caring, Empowerment,
and Peace Initiatives.
(Photo by Stan Noffsinger)
The Toledo church plant project received a letter from the denominational offices of the Church of the Brethren today. It contains a list of name, those of the more than 200 girls abducted from a school in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. Many of these girls have connections to the Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigheria (EYN), the CoB in Nigeria.

The denomination has also provided a daily prayer guide for this horrifying tragedy. The page shows a photo of my fellow Christian peacemaker, Nate Hosler, demonstrating in D.C. with many others on behalf of the abducted girls. Nate and his wife, Jennifer, spent a number of years in Nigeria teaching Christian peackemaking and my correspondence with them has been edifying. While I don't have any personal experience with the EYN, I have many friends and colleagues here in the U.S. like Nate and Jennifer who do. So the horror I've only barely been able to grasp myself has been brought somewhat closer to me through these connections. I do indeed join my prayers with them and all the saints who are praying for this horrible situation...