Sunday, July 14, 2013

Race, state justice, and radically ordinary theology

From Toledo, IA
This is the third post in a series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. For a bit of context, see the intro post, and posts one and two.

A few things happened this morning that have given focus to my reflection on the introduction to our book. This is also the first post that wasn't first written out over our e-mail conversation, so in some ways I'm breaking from that thread. I hope you guys won't mind, and I think you won't given the circumstances...

Those circumstances are: The family of Trayvon Martin, and indeed a great many more people, are grieving today. For those seeking justice in the wake of Trayvon's death last year, yesterday's ruling - that the gunman, George Zimmerman, was found not guilty of any wrongdoing - is a terrible tragedy, and a miscarrying of justice. I won't dwell on this news or the case other than to say it grieved my heart this morning as I scrolled through my Facebook news feed.

After reading a few reflections on the ruling, I turned to this morning's lectionary texts for devotional reading, and was immediately floored when God put Psalm 82 before me/us. It's worth quoting in full:
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: "How long will you [i.e. the gods] judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? ... Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

They [i.e. the gods] have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, "You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince."

Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

The Powers shall die

As Jon's post was inextricably tied to his reading of Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist, mine has been influenced by my simultaneous reading of Branson Parler's Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder's Trinitarian Theology of Culture. In chapter 5, Parler lays out Yoder's robust theology of "the Powers" or "the principalities and powers" as Paul refers to them in his letters. Parler summarizes:
...for Yoder, institutions are not merely empirical or merely visible or public. Every institution and every political and cultural practice concentrates and suffuses power - a power that enables humans to serve God and empower one another or a power that attempts to supplant God with idols and overpower other humans and creation. (p. 137, emphasis added; also c.f. Walter Wink's many writings on the topic; also see Richard Beck's amazing "Warfare and Weakness" series on Experimental Theology)
As a kid, I had what could be called a fairly "de-mythologized" understanding of this "powers" and "spiritual conflict/warfare" stuff. Christians who spoke that language were looked upon by me with some suspicion. But I've had my mind changed over the past five years, and Yoder's "Powers theology" has become influential in my own thinking.

It's therefore affected how I read the psalm above. We get the picture of almighty God sitting in a divine council, judging (negatively) "the gods"/Powers for miscarrying justice by failing to "maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute." The psalmist then makes the rather daring claim that these supposed "gods" are no less creaturely than humankind and will perish like us. This is dynamite political theology, folks, and its arc is bent toward justice! So about these "gods"...

Irony and injustice kiss*

The United States and its legal and justice systems are Powers, and these Powers are just as fallen as the human beings who created them, and seen theologically they are more than the sum of their human parts. They are capable of doing good, but they are capable of doing great harm. (This means that the state isn't necessarily, categorically "evil," as some accuse Yoder of saying.)

Likewise, the ideological construct of race and the existence of racism is a Power. And Powers collude...

From my recent reading of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, I'm convinced that this nation is 1) still deeply racist and 2) that racism has been inscribed into this nation's justice system. Additionally, as Hauerwas has argued elsewhere, the United States is a society obsessed with death and finding ways to cheat it. (His familiar refrain: "Does anyone really think we'll get out of this alive?") This death obsession shows up in myriad ways, but I would argue that Florida's "stand your ground" law for firearm-carrying citizens is born out of this obsession/fear of death. (To say nothing about the phenomenon of citizens carrying concealed firearms...) "Stand your ground" is the law that exonerated George Zimmerman from any wrongdoing in his shooting and killing of another human being, but it is a law that - when seen theologically as a Power and colluding with the Power of racism - is as deadly as it is unjust. This is a dark parody of God's compassionate justice.

From a restorative justice perspective, David Anderson Hooker argued presciently last year in the wake of Trayvon's death:
...today, the fact that the family and supporters of the family of Trayvon Martin are looking for relief to a justice system that has historically discriminated against African Americans seems na├»ve and idealistic, if not fully wrongheaded.  But I think the greatest disappointment will come from the hope that the judicial system could actually provide justice. 
Sadly, that has come to pass. But restorative justice practitioners and Christian radicals shouldn't be surprised (and aren't, from what I've seen in my social media circles).

What about this book you're reading?

Near the end of the introduction to our book in question, Coles & Hauerwas state that "Race is, for us (and, we believe, for America), the fundamental challenge" (13). Indeed. But radical ecclesia/church and radical democracy (and I'd throw restorative justice in there!), as they see it, both hold that "other worlds are indeed possible" (9) and that both must draw on the resource of hope: "There is a strong relation, we believe, between hope and imagination" (8) - and it takes imagination to 1) even see the fallen Powers that animate our world, powers in which we are caught up; and 2) to imagine and then enact alternatives to such fallenness and seemingly hopeless tragedy.

That's what I'm excited for as we continue to read this book: The powerful stories of those who have stood up to and sometimes even triumphed over the Powers (even if that triumph is martyrdom), and to look for resources to participate in:
the emergence of a multitude of peoples enacting myriad forms of the politics of the radical ordinary in ways that, first, displace and relocate our human efforts to tend to each other in our commonalities and differences away from the megastate and corporate power; and, second, struggle (with intransigent suspicion) to radically transform these powers - where we cannot entirely displace them - so as to make them increasingly responsive to the pressures of people cultivating knowledge, power, and hope through relationships of everyday attentive reciprocity. (8)
May it be so. And for Christians, may it be so in the power of God's radical enlivening Spirit!

(* - With thanks to Logan Mehl-Laituri for uttering this phrase on Facebook, reacting to the news of a black woman in Florida sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing warning shots into the air against her allegedly abusive husband. When held up to the Zimmerman case just concluded... So much for equal treatment under the law.)

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