Tag Archives: justice

The Fury Behind the Furor

In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict (not guilty), I found myself in quiet reflection, wondering why exactly this case bothered me. Black children (children of all races, actually) die tragically and unjustly every day and yet those don’t bother me. As a side note, that’s a sad indictment of me and my indifference to human suffering. Still, why did Zimmerman’s verdict stick with me for some time?

Two things disturb me greatly, three make me angry (with apologies to the Hebrew poets for borrowing their literary convention): the deafening silence from the evangelical community, the counterattack by non-blacks who suggest that racial disparities don’t exist, and the reminder that my son will grow up in a hostile legal system.

  1. To be fair, some evangelicals did respond. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, had a great blog post where he recognized that his talk with his son will be different than mine. The Gospel Coalition had several people reflect on the results (although at first blush, many seem to be African-American bloggers). However, in the conservative evangelical circles that I live day-to-day, life moved on. I heard more people talk about their planned missions trips overseas than about the death of a teenager killed while standing his ground against a stranger. By implication and action, the (mostly Caucasian) people around me simply didn’t care that Trayvon died. Predictably, only the few African-Americans in my circle found the results disturbing, and all of us for similar reasons.
  2. It didn’t help that, pretty consistently, when African-Americans brought up the racial disparities, the public has responded that (a) racism doesn’t exist, nor does injustice nor white privilege. Unfortunately, the record of Supreme Court decisions indicates that the courts have consistently ruled against fairness for African-Americans and, as just one example, even the U.S. Higher-Education System Perpetuates White Privilege. In other words, our social and legal system are document-ably against African-Americans. Telling me that it’s just my imagination that women in the place that I work and live clutch their purses when I’m around and move between me and their children, or tell their daughters they’re not allowed to be romantically involved with me (an actual experience for me, circa 2008) doesn’t help .
  3. It bothers me that I have to explain to my son one day that the reason that parents snatch up their kids when he goes to the park and suddenly leave, or move to swings on the opposite side of the park (both true, actual, experiences within the last three months of this writing) is because of his skin color. If he stands up for himself, the public and the law will first vilify him and then justify his attacker. In spite of the guaranteed constitutional rights, the courts will not support or protect him in many cases, or it will take years before the courts recognize the wrongs perpetuated against him.

And that makes me angry.

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What is Just (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few weeks, the George Zimmerman verdict (acquittal) has caught your attention. Commonly, you’ve probably heard (or seen) “It’s not just,” or “Justice failed,” or even “Justice wasn’t served.” You’ve probably also heard people counter that justice, by definition, was served in this case. This led me to wonder what, exactly, justice means.

  • Dictionary: According to Mirriam-Webster online, justice is, “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments,” and, “the administration of law; especially: the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity.” Related definitions include, “the quality of being just, impartial, or fair; the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action; conformity to this principle or ideal (righteousness),” and, “the quality of conforming to law.”
  • Philosophy: According to Wikipedia, the philosophical concept of justice is, “Justice is a concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, equity or fairness, as well as the administration of the law, taking into account the inalienable and inborn rights of all human beings and citizens, the right of all people and individuals to equal protection before the law of their civil rights, without discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, color, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, or other characteristics, and is further regarded as being inclusive of social justice.” Both Plato and Aristotle see justice as harmony, both in and between the individual and as a quality of the state. Locke, on the other hand, sees justice as an inherent quality of the universe similar to the laws of physics. By implication, law is an attempt by humanity to quantify that which God wrote into the fabric of creation.
  • Virtue: Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues, and is the proper tension between selfishness and selflessness. In some sense, it is giving to everyone what is due and as such, seems to be the pivotal virtue of the four as one can view the other virtues as expressions of justice.
  • Theology: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says, “The original Hebrew and Greek words are the same as those rendered “righteousness.” This is the common rendering, and in about half the cases where we have “just” and “justice” in the King James Version, the American Standard Revised Version has changed to “righteous” and “righteousness.” It must be constantly borne in mind that the two ideas are essentially the same.”

So back to the question: was the George Zimmerman verdict just?

It seems unjust to me that an armed man can chase a boy for several minutes and then shoot that same boy while claiming no culpability in that boy’s death. Zimmerman’s actions appear both reckless and negligent. While Zimmerman may have broken no law (or did not commit murder) as he was charged, it does not remove from him the responsibility for Trayvon’s death. The tragic, and unjust aspect, is that the law supports him in killing Trayvon.

And that is, by definition, injustice.

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Seeing Emmett Till in Trayvon Martin

“Remember Emmett Till.”

Three simple words, and my father and mother repeated them to me several times in my life. They associated several ideas behind that simple phrase but the chief one was this: you are a black man living in a world hostile to you. Simply put, they reminded me that the world would pre-judge me and treat me unfairly. It would consider me hostile and a threat by virtue of my existence alone. In a group of my peers (I attended predominantly white schools), if all of them were causing trouble and the authorities arrived, those authorities would look to me first as the source of conflict. My peers could argue with police over tickets; I dare not if I valued my health and life. I would need to dress better, act better, live better than those around me.

My parents, unfortunately, were right. Time and experience have proved them true. Repeatedly.

Upon hearing the George Zimmerman verdict, I couldn’t help but hear those three words and see the parallels between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin.

  • Emmitt (14) and Trayvon (17) were both teenagers when they were killed.
  • Both made typically teenager-like (impulsive, unwise) decisions in carrying out the activities that led to their death. In Emmitt’s case, he dared whistle at a white woman. In Trayvon’s case, he dared to stand his ground after feeling threatened.
  • The killers in each case acted in accordance with the common social and legal bounds. In Emmitt’s case, the jury knew the perpetrators killed Emmitt, but felt the killing of a black boy deserved neither life in prison nor the death penalty. In Trayvon’s case, we have not heard from the jury (as of this writing) but their vote for acquittal was a vote against 2nd degree murder and manslaughter.
  • Both Emmitt and Trayvon were accused of bringing on their own murders. In Emmitt’s case, one of the killers talked about “putting Emmitt in his place,” while in Trayvon’s case, some media commentators asserted that Trayvon’s manner of dress—a hoodie on a rainy day—was thug gear and made him seem suspicious.
  • Both Emmitt and Trayvon’s killers were charged only after tremendous political and social pressure as well as national attention.

I have to admit: I was disappointment, frustrated, and ultimately unsurprised by the verdict. Based on what I could see of the case, Zimmerman’s actions were legal, but they weren’t good. Zimmerman has the right to carry a weapon and to use it if threatened. From a legal perspective, it doesn’t matter that he chose to follow Trayvon for over four mintues (and for those of you who think that’s no big deal, here’s a challenge for you: set a four minute timer on your phone and start walking; don’t stop until you hear the timer buzz and imagine that someone is following you the whole time—how might you react in that case?).

I also know that, when my son comes of age, I will teach my son the lesson my parents taught me with a simple, three-word phrase:

“Remember Trayvon Martin.”

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Social Justice, Brain Development, and Christian Responsibility

She studies how poverty might change the brain – CNN.com.

Stumbled across this interesting article. It discusses how, Dr. Martha Farah, founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Neuroscence and Society, examines the impact of poverty on brain development. In particular, she notes several issues:

  1. “Poor children don’t get as much exposure to language as their wealthier counterparts, research has found, and they tend to get more negative feedback. What they do hear is not as grammatically complex, with a narrower range of vocabulary.”
  2. “Stress is another huge factor in these disparities. Parents of low socioeconomic status have uncertainty about having basic needs met, dangerous neighborhoods, crowding and other factors, causing stress for children and their parents. Stressed parents are less patient and affectionate, further stressing their children, according to Farah.” On the surface, it should be plainly obvious that a stressed child will learn less. A child thinking about whether they will eat will not have the mental space to memorize facts or think beyond their immediate concern.

Granted, she has only begun her studies and so much of the article involves research hypotheses and conjecture. Also, the writer (as do I) resists the urge to say, “my environment made me do it,” and instead looks at the implications of poverty from a long-term standpoint. However, this reinforces the idea of privilege and the generational spiral of systemic discrimination. In plain English: poor and uneducated people make children who are poor and uneducated. This is a general principle, not a firm rule (I can think of at least one personal example of someone who has parents who barely graduated high school who themselves has a PhD).

It seems to me, however, that Christian responsibility demands that we care for the “least of these” by working to ensure the poor have not only access to a better way, but also the training and resources to sustain that better way as an expression of the gospel. Sidestepping the role of government in carrying this out, I assert that the role of Christians is to act as agents, advocates, champions, and support for helping children and families in dangerous and low-income neighborhoods. This doesn’t mean “hand-outs” (as in giving them stuff) or “hand-ups” (as in providing jobs). I think that Freire has it right when he advocates for cooperation and unity as a means to free the poor from the poverty cycle, as well as his idea that the “oppressed” must liberate themselves rather than waiting for the “oppressor” to liberate them. In that, I think the critical pedagogy advocates may be on to something.

Here’s the thing: Christianity (and especially evangelical Christianity) has to change this attitude of viewing the poor as the enemy, and obstacle, or a problem (as some of the political rhetoric frames it). Instead, we need to consider the poor as people who need to hear the gospel, and the manifestation and intersection of the gospel in this case has to do with their educational and economic situation. It’s time for the poor to experience the Kingdom of Heaven.

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On Bombings and Burials, Part 2

Last time, I wrote about the imago dei as a reason for Christians to step up and help bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev. At the time of this writing, it appears that someone else had the same idea. That said, let me put forth another reason as to why Christians (and the United States) needs to step up and bury Tsarnaev. First, a few questions:

  1. Do you believe the government acted rightly in attempting to arrest, and ultimately killing, Tsarnaev?
  2. Do you believe, assuming his guilt, the crimes Tsarnaev committed justified the actions taken against him? In other words, did he deserve death as a response to bombing the marathon, resisting arrest, and attacking the police?

If you answered ‘yes’ to those questions, then you’ll probably agree that justice was served in this case. We can define justice in many, many ways to define justice. From a legal standpoint, it seems to me that Tsarnaev’s death satisfied the principles of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, reparation and denunciation in jurisprudence. It did not satisfy rehabilitation. The state’s response created harmony (as in Plato’s Republic), it followed divine command (see the just war theory and Augustine’s argument’s in favor), and is fairly consistent with natural law. By most common measures, Tsarnaev’s death brought justice.

And yet, we still resist the idea of granting his body a final resting place; we reject the idea of his innate human dignity, even in death. A question: if justice occurred, if we truly believed that his punishment fit his crime(s), if he received his just desserts (both here and in the hereafter) then shouldn’t we accept that satisfaction? I suspect that, for all of our lip service, we actually don’t believe that justice was served. If we did, we would respond to him as an image-bearer, not as a ‘monster’, or ‘walking garbage pile’ or ‘human fecal matter’ to use just three of the terms bandied about.

Admittedly, I believe that we will not experience true justice until the eternal state. All things will not be right until the King makes all things right. I also believe that we have a taste of justice in the form of good government and law in this present age—an appetizer for the main course to come. In that light, I believe Christians must cease our insensitive and contradictory vitriol toward criminals who received punishment for their crimes and instead, treat them as if justice has been served. This doesn’t mean a blanket open arms—God forgave Adam and Eve, but He didn’t let them back into the garden—but it does mean we should act according to what we believe.

So, Christian, do you believe that God is just and good? Do you believe that He can and does act through others to enact His will? Do you believe that He will make all things right? If so, then let that belief permeate all you do.

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