Friday, September 5, 2014

Peace: More or Less

in Toledo, IA

Back in July, I preached a sermon at the three local United Methodist congregations, filling in for Pr. Brian Oliver. He had a sermon series going on the fruits of the Spirit, and gave the Anabaptist guy the one on peace. My outline/notes appear below...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Willa Cather's bishop on miracles, vision, and love

Here is a stunning passage from Willa Cather's novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop:
"Where there is great love there are always miracles," [the bishop] said at length. "One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices of healing power coming suddenly from far off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always."
I was in dire need of a novel this summer and picked up this book at a great independent bookstore in downtown Chicago when my family was vacationing there last month. The book turned out to be worth its weight in gold. I had previously read Cather's My Antonia in my undergrad, and my prof for that class was a Cather scholar; so I knew I was in for goodness going into it.

And that passage above speaks to me on a number of levels...

Friday, August 8, 2014

Sexist Economics 101

in Toledo, IA
Emerging economics scholar, Kate Bahn, points out...
Early (US) census takers at the turn of the twentieth century were instructed not to consider women as employed if they were not earning at least a majority of the family’s income. Men were not subject to the same strict definition of employment. Because a lot of the work women did to earn money was done within their homes, it was not considered actual work unless it brought in money above a certain threshold.
(Source: How Gender Changes Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Nation)

The word "economy" comes from the Greek word oikos, which can be translated as "household." In the ancient world, the household was more than the nuclear family, it was the site of economic production.

This is blatant evidence that modern conceptions of economics/economy are incredibly limited and therefore limiting in any number of ways. In this case, women's work in the home wasn't counted as "real" or "worth it."

I've argued somewhat recently that Wendell Berry's work on economy is far more fruitful and equitable...

(H/T Ric Hudgens - @rdhudgens)

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.