Interpreting the “Powers” Anthropologically

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” — Pogo, in a 1971 cartoon by Walt Kelly

I’ve come to see Mark 3:21-27 as one of the most important passages in the Bible. It is Mark’s — and thus the Gospel writers’ — first “parable.” It is the clearest example of Jesus reinterpreting a “higher power” in purely anthropological terms.

The worldview of ancient religions is largely that of a “polytheism,” a belief in the existence of a panoply of various deities and “spirits.” Even in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have continued a tendency to view entities such “Satan” or “Powers and principalities” as higher powers that have some sort of existence independent of human beings. We see Satan as some sort of higher power unto himself. Or, in modern worldviews, an example might be seeing the “free market” as some sort of benevolent natural force having independence from human interaction (see the earlier blog “Opposing Faiths: Free Market Vs. Easter”.)

Here’s why it is so important to recognize Jesus in a passage like today’s as demythologizing an entity like “Satan”: our human “polytheism” is part of the original sin of not taking responsibility for the consequences of our complex collective actions. That is, the things we do together in community that create higher powers are transcendent of us as individuals. Many of these are good. Participants in Alcoholic’s Anonymous, for example, experience the working of the healing Twelve Step community as a “higher power” that helps them defeat the higher power of alcohol in their lives.

According to Mimetic Theory, the Original higher power of human beings is the collective accusation and murder/expulsion of a scapegoat which grants the community an experience of temporary peace. It is a collective action that must be religiously repeated to maintain the peace. And as collective human actions evolve into human institutions and cultures, the collective accusation and murder/expulsion of a scapegoat is embedded as a structuring principle, a “Logos” which, as Heraclitus proposed, is the ‘father and king of everything.’ And the big payoff is this: by interpreting our collective violence as gods, we don’t have to accept responsibility. We collectively kill a human being on an altar and it’s because the gods commanded it.

It is only in light of the cross and resurrection that we can say with Pogo, “We have the enemy and he is us.” The Original higher power was good to the extent that it helped us to survive as a species, saving us from imploding by our own intra-species violence. But it is sinful in that it is still violence itself and blocks us from ever experiencing a lasting peace for the entire human household. In the terms of Jesus’ parable, we remain a house divided.

The Gospel unveiling of our mythology is exemplified by this first parable of Jesus. In a riddle, Jesus is exposing Satan as our own collective accusation and expulsion of those we label as an evil higher power. It’s what the scribes from Jerusalem have just done to Jesus, accusing him of being in league with Beelzebul — initiating a process of accusation and, eventually, a collective murder that will be completed on the cross. Jesus has come to expose our original sin, and this riddle about Satan casting out Satan is the first glimpse.

A crucial element of a New Reformation is to further demythologize our collective violence that remains as strong as ever in our institutions and cultures. (Once again, a good example is the myth of the “free market” addressed in the earlier blog.) Here are further comments/explication on this crucial passage:

Girard - The Scapegoat1. “The Parable of Satan Casting Out Satan” of Mark 3:23-27 is a pivotal text for Mimetic Theory. It is the first biblical text on which I heard René Girard speak (in the early 90’s); he first wrote on it in ch. 14 of The Scapegoat (1982). For those not familiar with Girard’s take: when Jesus asks, seemingly rhetorically, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”, Girard essentially answers, ‘It happens all the time. In fact, that’s what human culture is founded on. Our anthropology can be summarized by the phrase Satan casting out Satan.’

According to Mimetic Theory, our species survived because the satanic accusation and expulsion kept the peace when hominid groups were imploding through intra-community violence. The dominance hierarchies of other mammals were no longer keeping the peace among our ancestors. We were too embroiled in mimetic rivalries, and we were learning to use lethal weapons (clubs, rocks, etc.). The mechanism that entered the void is a “scapegoating mechanism,” an accusation turned into collective violence against an accused. The all-against-one violence brings peace to the majority. And the superhuman aura surrounding the victim (who was both blamed for the conflict and appears to have caused the peace) becomes the beginning of the experience of the sacred. The ensuing hierarchies of human culture are based on the dualism of sacred and profane and were religious from the very beginning of our species.

From earliest ancient near east sources, Satan is the Accuser. Subsequently, “Satan” also became a general name for the Evil One whom we want to cast out. So Satan the Accuser seeks to accuse and cast out Satan the Evil One. In short, “Satan casts out Satan” is the briefest description of a gospel anthropology unveiling the mechanism which has ordered human community since its beginnings. It describes the sinful ordering of our origins; it names our Original Sin.

2. In Mark’s account, there are two crucial clues to the truth of this reading. Mark introduces it with the first use in his Gospel of the word “parable,” which has the meaning of “riddle” in his portrayal of Jesus. “Can Satan cast out Satan?” is thus a riddle, not a straightforward rhetorical question.

Second, and even more important, the context itself is a classic instance of Satan casting out Satan. The scribes from Jerusalem are accusing Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul. They, of course, think they are doing God’s work of accusing an evil one and then working to cast him out (which they will eventually succeed in doing). But Jesus’ riddle names them as doing satanic work by virtue of their accusing. Their actions comprise an instance of ‘Satan casting out Satan,’ not God casting out Satan.

The truth that Jesus means for us to see, then, is in the stated consequences: a house divided against itself cannot stand. The human way of trying to keep a house together will never ultimately work because it always relies on expelling someone, on being over against someone. Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom — the household — of God, which will build a household on the stone the builders rejected. Jesus will let himself be cast out under the satanic accusation and build God’s household on forgiveness. Jesus concludes, “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Satan’s reign is at an end precisely because his age-old game is that of Satan casting out Satan, resulting in a house divided that cannot stand.

3. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has recognized the key role of Satan in the Gospels. In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright dedicates a significant section on “the Satan” at a crucial point in his argument (section entitled “The Real Enemy Identified: not Rome, but the Satan,” pp. 451-463). Jesus cannot be seen as the victorious Messiah unless we know who is the enemy defeated.

Yet Wright’s analysis of “the Satan” is still somewhat underdeveloped in light of its centrality to his argument. What kind of power and authority does Satan have? Girard’s answer is swift and clear: Satan’s power is anthropological — that is, it derives from the ways in which human beings organize themselves into community and culture. If we were to organize differently, Satan’s power would disappear. Jesus came inaugurating that different way of organizing, around forgiveness rather than accusation, and his unveiling of the satanic powers have dealt them a death blow. Satan is losing his transcendent powers; he has fallen from heaven like lightning. Thus, Girard’s anthropology of grace can greatly enhance our understanding of Satan in the Gospels — especially the book in which he makes it central, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

Girard - I See Satan4. There are important ontological matters at issue here. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, chapter 3 on “Satan” is crucial, but there is another important passage (at the end of ch. 5 on “Mythology”) that speaks to the ontology of Satan:

Why do the Gospels, in their most complete definition of the mimetic cycle, have recourse to a figure named Satan or the devil rather than to an impersonal principle? I think the principal reason is that the human subjects as individuals are not aware of the circular process in which they are trapped; the real manipulator of the process is mimetic contagion itself. There is no real subject within this mimetic contagion, and that is finally the meaning of the title “prince of this world,” if it is recognized that Satan is the absence of being.

Satan is not at all divine, but in naming him we allude to something essential that I mentioned briefly in my chapter about him [ch. 3], a matter of great interest in this book: the origin of primitive and pagan gods. Even if Satan’’s transcendence is false, totally without reality in a religious sense, on the worldly plane his works are undeniable and formidable. Satan is the absent subject of structures of disorder and order, which stem from rivalistic relations among humans. When it’’s all said and done, these rivalries both organize and disorganize human relations.

Satan is mimetic contagion as its most secret power, the creation of the false gods out of the midst of which Christianity emerged. To speak of the mimetic cycle in terms of Satan enables the Gospels to say or to suggest many things about the religions perceived by Christianity as false, deceptive, and illusory that they could not say in the language of scandal, the reconciling power of unanimous violence.

The peoples of the world do not invent their gods. They deify their victims. What prevents researchers from discovering this truth is their refusal to grasp the real violence behind the texts that represent it. The refusal of the real is the number one dogma of our time. It is the prolongation and perpetuation of the original mythic illusion. [Girard uses “myth” in the specialized sense of telling a story of reality from the perspective of perpetrators of scapegoating violence. Conversely, “Gospel” is telling the story of reality from the perspective of the Forgiving Victim of scapegoating violence.] (pp. 69-70)

Girard is saying that Satan has no real substance outside of our human relations. He is the name ancient peoples gave to those structures of human relations themselves. So when modern people declare the gods of ancient peoples to be unreal they throw the baby out with the bathwater. We no longer name those structures as real, as “satanic,” as having to do fundamentally with accusing and expelling. Jesus in this passage shows that he understood the anthropology behind the name Satan and continued to use the name in order to speak to the thinking of his time. We may choose to use other nomenclatures for the anthropological reality, but we must not throw out the anthropological insight or we risk perpetuating the perpetrators’ mythic version of reality.

5. There is ontological danger which an underdevelopment of “Satan” risks. If we don’t carefully define Satan’s power anthropologically, the danger is Manichaeism, or some brand of cosmology where the powers of evil have some form of ultimacy to rival God’s power of good. I think that N.T. Wright, in his more recent book Simply Jesus, walks the tightrope of this danger. I couldn’t agree more with his overall point and the move he makes to get there, when, at the end of the chapter on the cross, he once again gets to the crucial question. He writes:

Somehow, Jesus’’s death was seen by Jesus himself, and then by those who told and ultimately wrote his story, as the ultimate means by which God’’s kingdom was established. The crucifixion was the shocking answer to the prayer that God’’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. It was the ultimate Exodus event through which the tyrant was defeated, God’’s people were set free and given their fresh vocation, and God’’s presence was established in their midst in a completely new way for which the Temple itself was just an advance pointer. That is why, in John’’s gospel, the “glory of God” — with all the echoes of the anticipated return of YHWH to Zion —is revealed in and through Jesus, throughout his public career, in the “signs” he performed, but fully and finally as he is “lifted up” on the cross.

How can this be? How can the horrible, ugly, and brutal execution of a young prophet be the means of establishing God’’s kingdom? What does it mean to say, as we have done throughout this book, that the point of the story is that God is now in charge, if the means by which that is accomplished is the death of the one who had gone about making it happen?

There is of course much more that could be said on this subject. But, trying to boil it down and keep it simple, I think we can and must say at least this. In Jesus’’s own understanding of the battle he was fighting, Rome was not the real enemy. Rome provided the great gale, and the distorted ambitions of Israel the high-pressure system, but the real enemy, to be met head-on by the power and love of God, was the anti-creation power, the power of death and destruction, the force of accusation, the Accuser who lays a charge against the whole human race and the world itself that all are corrupt and decaying, that all humans have contributed to this by their own idolatry and sin. The terrible thing is that this charge is true. All humans have indeed worshiped what is not divine and so have failed to reflect God’’s image into the world. They, and creation, are therefore subject to corruption and death. (pp. 185-86)

I suggest that the “much more that could be said on this subject” needs to be anthropology, namely, Mimetic Theory, which makes accusation and the Accuser central to our understanding of what generates and underlies all human culture. Otherwise, phrases like “anti-creation power” can be read like the Dark Side of the Force in the Star Wars saga. The following passage is so close to how a Girardian might speak of the cross, as Wright amplifies his own image of the Perfect Storm:

In addition to the gale of Rome, the high-pressure system of Israel’’s distorted ambitions, and the cyclone of the returning purposes of God, we perhaps need a downward vortex, a giant whirlpool, that threatens to suck down into the black depths all who sail too close to it. One might even tie the themes together and suggest that the gale and the pressure system are themselves driven by the same forces that are dragging down the dark waters: Rome and rebel Israel are the unwitting tools of the Satan, the Accuser, the great force of anti-creation.

And one might suggest that Jesus, precisely because he believed that in his public career “the time was fulfilled,” believed too that all these powers of evil were gathering themselves for one last battle, one last attempt to thwart the good purposes of the creator God, to pull the cosmos and the human race down into the depths. The only way, he believed, by which this great anti-creation power could be stopped and defeated would be for him, Jesus, anointed with God’’s Spirit to fight the real battle against the real enemy, to take the full power of evil and accusation upon himself, to let it do its worst to him, so that it would thereby be exhausted, its main force spent. (pp. 187-88)

It is so close to the insight of MT’s anthropology, and yet the last line also teeters dangerously on the brink of Manichaeism. The way in which to avoid giving evil an ontological status that rivals God is to give it an anthropological one. We interpret the powers and principalities as embedded in the social DNA of our species, that is to say, as embedded in the way we have always organized ourselves into community based on accusations against scapegoats. That is why Satan is the Accuser with a capital “A.”

But, on the other hand, it is also why Satan has no firm ontology. Satan disappears if human beings come to organize themselves in another way — for example, the alternative way that Jesus has come to offer us by letting himself become the one accused and cast out. Jesus is the Forgiving Victim who is now the new basis for human community and culture. As such he is the inaugurator of God’s Kingdom, God’s new culture. He is the first born of a new anthropology, the Son of Man, the New Human Being. He rescues us from the deadly and sinful powers of the old anthropology and offers us a new way to be human, a new anthropology, a life lived in the Spirit instead of in the flesh. Just as we discover ourselves as the enemy, we are graciously invited to join God’s Way of becoming more truly human, a Way of flourishing rather than thwarting our own lives.

(P.S.–I believe that an example of falling into the trap of not anthropologically demythologizing the satanic powers is Gregory Boyd‘s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, especially Part VI, “The Principle of Cosmic Conflict,” which allows for many powers in the Bible without performing Jesus’ anthropological reading. It’s an enormously important book, as an evangelical pastor demythologizes divine violence through the lens of the cross — perhaps the most crucial element of a New Reformation. But such a huge project will not be fully completed without a demythologization that finds an anthropological interpretation of the Satanic powers. Human responsibility will once again be let off the hook.)

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Mark Your Calendars!

June 17-20, 2019
12th ANNUAL THEOLOGY & PEACE CONFERENCE
“Engaged Mimetic Theory: 
Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu”
Nashville, Tennessee
Stay tuned for our forthcoming list of speakers!

René Girard

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mimetic Theory, as articulated by René Girard, offers profound insight into human nature, desire, rivalry and the tendency to create scapegoats on both the individual and systemic levels.

Martin Luther King‘s vision of Beloved Community offers an antidote to the disease that mimetic theory diagnoses.

Coming out of the context of apartheid South Africa, Desmond Tutu‘s theology of Ubuntu helps us understand our inter-dependence as a fundamental truth of being human, namely, that “I am only because we are.”

Desmond Tutu

The Beloved Community affords us the opportunity to move beyond our tribal tendencies and the scapegoat mechanism that insidiously infects our hearts, our communities, our political institutions and even our churches, and to enjoy inter-dependence and inter-dividuality in the spirit of Ubuntu.

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Healing Tribalism

(The following is the opening essay for my recent lectionary page Proper 11B.)

Tribalism. The new darling word for what ails our culture-in-crisis. Yet while our current fascination with tribalism may be new, the reality of tribalism is anything but. In fact, it may be said to be as old as sin itself. It has become increasingly clear to me that the church’s recent teachings on salvation have acted to hide a more biblical account of God’s saving actions in Jesus Christ.

Case in point: my personal history with today’s Second Reading, Ephesians 2. Growing up Lutheran, we preferred the first half of Ephesians 2, especially verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Salvation by grace through faith; it doesn’t get any more clear. The part in verse 10 gets a bit knotty with its mention of being created for good works as our way of life. Some brands of Lutheran seem allergic to “good works” because one might be tempted to see them as the way to salvation. My brand of Lutheranism taught that you just had to be careful that the good works are the result of salvation by grace, not the pre-requisite.

What we Lutherans never seemed to get to, however, was the “therefore” in verse 11 and the ensuing verses that shows us the details of what salvation looks like. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a proclamation about the healing of that age-old sin of tribalism. Yes, tribalism! When St. Paul characterizes salvation by grace itself as God in Jesus Christ creating one new humanity out of two, isn’t that the healing of tribalism? All the ways in which the human family divides itself into tribes is now being healed through the blood of Jesus Christ, who on the cross let himself be considered as one from an enemy tribe, the outsider, the criminal. And God raises him up as the promise of healing our tribalism. One new humanity out of two.

The need for a New Reformation could not be more clear here. The Reformation not only got stuck on verse 8, but it proved its missing the point of salvation in verses 11ff. by practicing another deadly form of tribalism, namely, Protestant vs. Catholic — and the many splintering versions of Protestantism that followed.

In addition to working with Ephesians 2 in the 2018 sermon (extemporized; no text), I brought in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil of Genesis 2-3 as the symbol of our fall into tribalism. The common reading of the fall into sin that I was taught in Reformation theology sees only the disobedience of eating of the forbidden fruit as sinful. The knowledge of Good and Evil was presumed to be a good thing; the disobedience was presumed sinful. But this reading plays into the serpent’s injecting envy into the mix, persuading Eve that God is holding out on them with knowledge. A reading of this passage in terms of Contemplative Spirituality recognizes it as the beginning of dualistic thinking, the judging of everything as Us vs. Them — tribalism! Here, for example, is Richard Rohr in The Naked Now:

I call contemplation the tree of life, as compared to the other tree “in the center of the garden” of Eden, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9), because these two serve as ideal metaphors for the two minds. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents “either-or” dualism, which we are strictly warned against, and even told not to eat. The tree of life promises access to eternal things (3:22), grows “crops twelve times a year,” and sprouts “leaves that are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). It accesses the deep ground of God and of the self. The contemplative, nondual mind is a tree of continual and constant fruitfulness for the soul and for the world. (105)

And in The Divine Dance Rohr makes the role of love clear. No true knowledge can be gained without love:

You cannot know things if you don’t first of all grant them a foundational respect, if you don’t love them before you grab them with your mind. This is surely what Genesis warns us against from the beginning, in archetypal Eden: you’ll eat voraciously from that forbidden tree of knowledge before you know how to respect and honor what you are eating, which creates very entitled and proud people. All of life becomes a commodity for our consumption. (102)

Oughourlian - The Genesis of DesireAlso fresh for me in 2018 was presenting on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the perspective of Mimetic Theory. I had given a PowerPoint presentation at the 2018 COV&R Conference in Denver (July 11-14) titled, “‘Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil’ and Tree of the Crucified Messiah: Symbols of Original Untruth and Its Healing.” Perhaps the Girardian who developed this symbol the most as the biblical symbol of untruth is Jean-Michel Oughourlian, in chapter 2 of his book The Genesis of Desire, a very close reading of Genesis 2-4. James Warren, in his incisive summary of Oughourlian’s reading of Genesis 3, gives a portrait of human history that is uncomfortably familiar in this age of Trump and populist authoritarianism, an apt description of tribalism:

Human history thus becomes the kaleidoscopic reflection of a thousand variations of this kind of ‘knowledge of good and evil,’ with human activity characterized by wars and interpersonal hostilities based upon each side’s claimed possession of the ‘good,’ along with a labeling of the other side as evil. Utopian schemes, dictatorships, and even democracies will distinguish their own brands of good and evil, and seek to create the good society by eliminating evil-doers who threaten to pervert the structure. All over the planet human beings will gather themselves into associations large and small, defined by their perception of ‘good’ and characterized by attempts, both crass and subtle, to exclude the evil other. All of this will be experienced as what we call ‘morality,’ which is a function of the fall into rivalrous desire. (Compassion or Apocalypse?, 47)

But the deepest theological analysis of this symbol takes me back 26 years to the first Girardian book I read, Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s Sacred Violence, weaving Mimetic Theory in with St. Paul’s theological analysis in Romans.

Only after the serpent had persuaded her by this deception to imitate God’s acquisitive desire for the fruit did it become desirable to her; she learned rivalry from mimesis’s misrepresentation of the divine desire as envious. The moment of mimetic acquisitiveness has been reached and the train of events leading to the Sacred set in motion. Thus desire transforms God from creator, to whom one should be related in gratitude, into rival, to whom one is related by envy, and it does so by manipulating the prohibition (Rom 7:11). This is the act of sin as envy (phthonos). (93)

And so the envy and rivalry interact with the “knowledge of good and evil” in a way that leads to sacred violence, where even God gets caught up in the scapegoat mechanism:

This is the background of Paul’s statement that sin used the Law to deceive and kill Adam (Rom 7:11). According to the story they gained the knowledge of good and evil. According to our theory this “knowledge of good and evil” is acquisitive and conflictual mimesis with the divine. Before the transgression they knew only good — namely, that the creator is beneficent and generous, and free of envy. After the transgression they had imputed both evil and good to the creator in making God a rival. Thus faith as trust in the divine goodwill was at an end. Now the Law produced not faith but anxiety and rivalry with God and one another.” (96-97)

What does the Law ultimately produce? “For the law brings wrath. . .” (Rom. 4:15). Notice carefully, that Paul does not say “wrath of God.” He simply says wrath because he is trying to help us see that the reality of wrath is a human problem, not a divine one: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). I take this to mean a crucial contrast. Our wrath worked out against each other in tribalistic sacred violence is contrasted with the revelation of God’s righteous judgment of mercy, forgiveness, and love. (For more, see my essay on the “wrath of God” in Romans.)

How do we stem the current tide of a rising populist tribalism and its accompanying human wrath worked out against others? Will God’s righteousness truly be revealed in contrast to another ‘day’ of human wrath? The answer to both questions is forbearance. God’s righteousness, says St. Paul, is forbearance, a forbearance we can learn in obedience to Jesus the Messiah. The verse right before the cited contrast in Rom. 2:5 says so: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). And a chapter later Paul tells us the meaning of the Messiah’s sacrifice on the cross as a revelation of God’s righteousness: “God did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed. . .” (Rom. 3:25).

I give the last word to Richard Rohr in this beautiful portrait of how forbearance can meet tribalism:

Jesus forbears our brokenness so that we can do the same — for ourselves and, finally, for one another. He knows, as only the mind of God can, that what we refer to as evil is really goodness tortured by its own hunger and thirst, goodness that has not been able to experience being received and given back. “Evil” is what happens when human beings become tortured with this desire for goodness that they cannot experience. And then we do the kind of horrible things we see on our televisions and social media streams: killing each other, humiliating each other, hurting each other in abuses of power and privilege, showing a complete inability to even recognize the imago Dei in other beings or in ourselves.

True seeing extends your sight even further: the people you want to hate, the people who carry out the worst atrocities, are not evil at their core — they’re simply tortured human beings. They still carry the divine image. Hitler and Stalin carried the divine image. Hussein and Bin Laden carried the divine image! I am not inclined to admit this, but it’s the only conclusion that full seeing leads me toward. The forbearance of God toward me allows me to see the divine dance in all other broken vessels.

If I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that seeing in this way robs me of a certain privilege I’ve allowed myself my whole life: I have always eaten generously from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The categories are clear in my mind, which makes judging come naturally. Kindness and forbearance? Much less so.

As I’ve entered this dance more and more, God has taken away from me the power to choose who are the good folks and who are bad ones; I no longer have the freedom to choose who I show respect to, which races I feel more comfortable around, and what religions — or religious subgroups — I don’t like.

“Those secular liberals!”Rohr - The Divine Dance

“Those fundamentalists!”

“Those Republican [or Democrat] idiots!”

But I’ve been dining my way through an alternative. Invited to a conscientious dietary shift, I eat instead from the Tree of Life, offered from the center of the archetypal Garden for all who enter the flow with bleeding and forbearing hearts. What a difference it makes: in this glorious, undifferentiated, freely-offered life, there is no longer a “they,” there.

It’s all “we.” (The Divine Dance, 176-78)

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GIVING THANKS

Daily we are reminded of the very real forces which threaten to dismantle our democratic way of life, which scapegoat the most vulnerable members of society, which seem to have little to no regard for the preservation of life on our planet. In this climate many of us struggle to keep hope alive and our spirits high. Over the past several years Theology & Peace has been fortunate to encounter a number of inspiring figures who, in the face of adversity, continue to persevere for the good of us all. In this season of gratitude, let’s remember and give thanks for their compassion, their vision and their strength.

FOR SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER:

kelly-brown-douglas-110x150The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is an Episcopal Priest and Canon Theologian at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. She is the Susan D. Morgan Distinguished Professor of Religion at Goucher College in Baltimore. She is a leader in the field of womanist theology, racial reconciliation and sexuality and the black church. She uses Girard as one of the few white thinkers able to illuminate the experience of the black body. She has authored Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015), What’s Faith Got To Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls (2005), which explores the black body as the key reality where struggle for black identity, faith and freedom takes place, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective (1999), and  The Black Christ (1993).

Dr. Angela Sims is Robert B. and Kathleen Rogers Associate Professor in Church and Society, and Associate Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. She holds a doctorate in Christian Social Ethics from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Principal investigator for an oral history project, Remembering Lynching: Strategies of Resistance and Visions of Justice her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Womanist Scholars Program at the Interdenominational Theological Center, the Louisville Institute, the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, and the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University. Dr. Sims is the author of Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells’s Interrogation of American Terror (2010), and co-author with F. Douglas Powe, Jr. and Johnny Bernard Hill of Religio-Political Narratives in America From Martin Luther King, Jr. through Jeremiah Wright (2013), and co-editor with Katie Geneva Cannon and Emilie M. Townes of Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (2011). A native of Louisiana, Dr. Sims is an ordained National Baptist clergywoman.

Julia RobinsonDr. Julia Robinson Moore teaches courses in African American Religion, Religions of the African Diaspora, and racial violence in America at UNC Charlotte. She uses Girard in her courses, has presented twice at COV&R conferences on the theme of lynching, and is recognized as a significant voice applying mimetic theory in the traumatic area of race in the United States.  Her first book titled, Race, Religion, and the Pulpit: Reverend Robert L. Bradby and the Making of Urban Detroit (2015) explores how Bradby’s church became the catalyst for economic empowerment, community-building, and the formation of an urban African American working class in Detroit. Her second book project, Overcoming Race in the Faith: Black Presbyterians in the New South speaks to the complexities of black and white race relations in the New South through the sacred context of the Presbyterian Church. Her third book project is titled, Corruptions in Christianity: Dismantling Racial and Religious Violence in Global Contexts. This work addresses the complicated and destructive nature of racial and religious violence in Africa, Europe, and the United States. It reveals how various mainstream Protestant organizations have sanctioned state and local violence in name of Christ.

FOR JUSTICE FOR PEOPLE AND POLICE:

Neill Franklin LEAPMajor Neill Franklin (Ret.) is a 34-year veteran of both the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department who oversaw 17 separate drug task forces and is now Executive Director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), an organization of police, prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials who want to end the war on drugs. The Law Enforcement Action Partnership’s mission is to unite and mobilize the voice of law enforcement in support of drug policy and criminal justice reforms that will make communities safer by focusing law enforcement resources on the greatest threats to public safety, promoting alternatives to arrest and incarceration, addressing the root causes of crime, and working toward healing police-community relations. Read more about Neill Franklin here

Christine MummaChristine Mumma teaches at UNC’s School of Law and is Executive Director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence (nccai.org), which coordinates the work of North Carolina Law School Innocence Projects, which studies and identifies solutions for causation issues associated with wrongful convictions. Instrumental in fighting for criminal justice reform in North Carolina, Chris has spearheaded legislation on eyewitness identification, the recording of interrogations, preservation of biological evidence, enhanced support for exonerees, and the establishment of the only Innocence Inquiry Commission in the United States. She represented Dwayne Dail, Joseph Abbitt, Greg Taylor, Willie Grimes, Larry Lamb, and Joseph Sledge in their successful post-conviction proceedings.

The Rev. Alexander E. Sharp is Executive Director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy. He has been working on criminal justice issues for 15 years. He served as the founding executive director of Protestants for the Common Good from 1996 through June 2012. He and colleague Walter Boyd joined the early efforts in Illinois to provide a second chance for those seeking to re-build their lives after prison. They were struck by how many individuals, predominantly African American and Hispanic, were incarcerated for low-level drug offenses. They began to challenge the War on Drugs.

FOR PRISON OUTREACH:

Preston Shipp served as an appellate prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. While serving as a religious volunteer and teaching college classes in Tennessee prisons, he became good friends with many people who were incarcerated, one of whom he had actually prosecuted. These relationships caused Preston to wake up to the many injustices that are present in the American system of mass incarceration. Preston felt increasing conflict between his faith in Jesus, who was executed as a criminal, and his role as a prosecutor, which required him to argue for the punishment of people he did not know. Unable to serve two masters, Preston left his career as an appellate prosecutor in 2008. Since then, he has taught in universities and churches, lectured at conferences, and written about the urgent needs for criminal justice reform, a shift in how we regard imprisoned people, and a new vision of justice that seeks healing, transformation, and reconciliation, not merely the infliction of suffering. Preston’s conversion from prosecutor to criminal justice reform advocate has left him convinced that his salvation is bound up with that of his friends behind bars. Preston lives in Nashville with his wife Sherisse and their three children, Lila Joy, Ruby Faith, and Levi.

Rahim Buford is a man of passion and purpose who uses his voice and personal experiences to make a difference in the lives of others – from young people to veteran lawmakers. He is a formerly incarcerated social justice advocate from Nashville, Tennessee. Rahim was paroled in 2015 after being locked up for 26 consecutive calendar years. While in prison, he acquired certifications from numerous educational institutions and became a leader in SALT (Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation). He received a Presidential scholarship at American Baptist College and loves being in college. Now a consultant organizer for Children’s Defense Fund Nashville Team and ICAN (Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network)member. Rahim self-published his book, Save Your Own Life, utilizing simple prose, poetry, reflection and writing exercises for youth battling the “cradle-to-pipeline.” He founded Unheard Voice Outreach to connect with at-risk youth and to assist individuals affected be incarceration. Rahim facilitates critical reading, writing, and dialogue sessions at the Metro juvenile detention center on Thursdays. Watch Rahim’s Story on YouTube

Andrew McKenna PH.D. teaches literature and scripture to prison inmates as a volunteer for Kairos Prison Ministry. Andrew is professor of French language and Literature at Loyola University Chicago and a member of the Anthropoetics editorial board. He is the author of Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction (1992), as well as of numerous articles on Molière, Pascal, Racine, Montesquieu, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Fellini, and critical theory. From 1996 through 2006, he was editor in chief of Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. He is a founding board member of The Raven Foundation and of Imitatio, foundations devoted to research and education in mimetic anthropology.

FOR BUILDING COMMUNITY AT THE MARGINS:

Elder CW Harris is the founder of Intersection of Change (formerly Newborn Holistic Ministries), a community-based nonprofit focused on community development in west Baltimore. The organization is dedicated to providing programs that enrich the economic, social and spiritual lives of those dealing with poverty related issues in the Sandtown-Winchester and surrounding communities.

Work to date has resulted in significant neighborhood revitalization of the 1900 and 2000 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue through the full renovation of six previously vacant and dilapidated buildings, transformation of 18 vacant lots into community green spaces and meditative gardens, and the creation of a dozen neighborhood murals. Programs by Intersection of Change include:

  • Martha’s Place: A recovery program for women overcoming drug addiction and homelessness that offers both a six-month transitional phase as well as a long-term independent housing phase. The program helps women achieve sobriety while maintaining a job and housing and serves approximately 50 women per year.
  • Jubilee Arts: A comprehensive art program that offers alternative to the dangers of drugs and violence in the community. Jubilee Arts provides art classes (in ceramics, visual arts, dance, and writing) six days a week and cultural activities to both children and adults and serves approximately 1,500 people annually.

CW Harris is the recipient of the 2017 Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award.

Becca Stevens is an author, speaker, Episcopal priest, and social entrepreneur. She is founder and president of Thistle Farms. After experiencing the death of her father and subsequent child abuse when she was 5, Becca longed to open a sanctuary for survivors offering a loving community. In 1997, five women who had experienced trafficking, violence, and addiction were welcomed home. Twenty years later, the organization continues to welcome women with free residence that provide housing, medical care, therapy and education for two years. Residents and graduates earn income through one of four social enterprises. The Global Market of Thistle Farms helps employ more than 1,800 women worldwide, and the national network has more than 40 sister communities. She is author of Love Heals (2017), Letters From the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life (2015), Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling (2014), The Way of Tea and Justice (2015), and Sanctuary: Unexpected Places Where God Found Me (2005).

Vince BantuVince Bantu is Visiting Professor of Missiology and Director of the City Ministry Initiative at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He directs local networks such as the Inter-Minority Dialogue, Minority Scholars of Religion and Theology, and the African American Interfaith Dialogue of St. Louis, and serves as pastor of education at Outpour Evangelical Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. Since 2004 Vince has led conference workshops for the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA).  He has participated in the Emerging Leaders Cohort, and is a founding member and contributing author of CCDA’s Theological Committee.

FOR PEACEMAKING AND RECONCILIATION:

Jonathan Brenneman and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Jonathan is Coordinator, Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking, Mennonite Church USA. He  comes from a long line of Mennonites on his father’s side and a prominent Palestinian Christian family on his mother’s side. He grew up in a small town in Ohio. After attending Huntington University, where he studied History and Philosophy, he worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams Palestine (CPT) Project in Hebron. CPT’s mission is to build partnerships to transform violence and oppression. Jonathan worked on the ground with Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers, and organized in the USA to challenge oppressive Israeli policies. Most recently Jonathan completed a master’s degree in Peace Studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute. That program included a six month internship with Ndifuna Ukwazi in Cape Town South Africa, an organization which advocates for more just land policies. He currently works for Mennonite Church USA, coordinating educational opportunities about Israel-Palestine.

Vern Neufeld Redekop is a Full Professor in the School of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University, Ottawa. His involvement in training and program development has taken him to Indigenous communities in Canada as well as to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sudan, Taiwan and other countries. His theoretical and practical insights found expression in
his book, From Violence to Blessing: How anUnderstanding of Deep-Rooted Conflict Can Open Paths to Reconciliation (2002), which included two chapters devoted to mimetic theory and scapegoating respectively and was organized around the concepts of mimetic structures of violence and mimetic structures of blessing. Subsequent research has focused on protest crowds and police, resulting in (with Shirley Paré) Beyond Control: A Mutual Respect Approach to Protest Crowd – Police Relations (2010). Oxford University Press has published Introduction to Conflict Studies: Empirical, Theoretical, and Ethical Dimensions (2012), which he co-authored with Jean-Francois Rioux. He editor with Thomas Ryba of René Girard and Creative Mimesis  (2013) and René Girard and Creative Reconciliation (2014). Current research focuses on Spirituality, Emergent Creativity, and Reconciliation and Community Dialogue processes on Social Reconciliation and Economic Development.

FOR VOICES OF WISDOM & SANITY:

Sereta Richardson is a US Army Veteran and a former Mississippi Police Officer. She is an eloquent speaker on issues of racism, trauma, social justice, and her personal experiences as a veteran and a police officer. She has spoken twice at the Annual Theology & Peace Conference, including in 2016 as a Plenary Presenter on Circle Process. She is a tireless advocate for victims of racial discrimination and violence. At present she is an active voice on social media for the release of Cyntoia Brown, a juvenile victim of sex trafficking sentenced to a life in prison for killing her abuser.

The Raven Foundation was established in January 2007 by co-founders Keith Ross and Suzanne Ross. In addition to the Rosses, the Foundation is staffed by Adam Ericksen, Maura Junius and Lindsey Paris-Lopez.  The Raven Foundation is committed to making religion reasonable, violence unthinkable and peace a possibility by spreading awareness of the transformative power of mimetic theory. Their goal is to foster peaceful individuals and harmonious communities that will reject scapegoating and violence as ways to form identity and achieve real and lasting peace. Their primary outreach is through hosting The Raven ReView blog that provides social commentary on current events, politics, religion, scandals, and popular entertainment. They also hold live events for the public to learn directly from scholars applying mimetic theory to literature, religion, history, psychology or peacemaking. Recently The Raven Foundation celebrated their 10th Anniversary with a workshop, “Hard Times for Truth”.

Brian Robinette, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Co-director of the Joint MA in Philosophy and Theology at Boston College. He taught at Saint Louis University (2003-2012). He obtained his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2003. Having twice appeared as a Plenary Speaker at the Annual Theology & Peace Conference, Brian has shared his work integrating mimetic theory with Christian contemplative practice. Distilling the wisdom of the desert monastics and contemporary teachers like Belden Lane and Martin Laird, Brian has described multiple ways contemplative practice loosens mimetic binds, freeing us from rivalry with our neighbors in order that we may truly love them.  He is author of  Grammars of Resurrection: A Christian Theology of Presence and Absence (2009), which won awards from the Catholic Press Association and the College Theology Society, and two pivotal essays: “Contemplative Practice and the Therapy of Mimetic Desire,” in Contagion 24 [2017], and “Deceit, Desire, and the Desert: René Girard’s Mimetic Theory in Conversation with Early Monastic Practice,” in Violence, Transformation, and The Sacred: “They shall be called Children of God” ed. Margaret Pfeil and Tobias L. Winright (2011). He has also published several articles, including on the thought of Thomas Merton, Jean-Luc Marion, Charles Taylor, and René Girard. He lives in Needham, Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.

Brian McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity” – just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good. Brian has appeared twice as a plenary speaker at the Annual Theology & Peace Conference, including in 2015 when he presented on Compassionate Economics. He is an Auburn Senior Fellow and a leader in the Convergence Network, through which he is developing an innovative training/mentoring program for pastors, church planters, and lay leaders called Convergence Leadership Project. He works closely with the Center for Progressive Renewal/Convergence, the Wild Goose Festival and the Fair Food Program‘s Faith Working Group. 

There are many more we could identify as sources of hope and inspiration and there are many more who work tirelessly without recognition or reward! Thank you!

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Preston Shipp on Discipleship at the Cross-Section of Faith and Life, Part 1

Preston Shipp delivered the following keynote address at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America South Carolina Synod Rostered Leaders’ Convocation on October 23-25.

Former Tennessee Appellate Court Prosecutor Preston Shipp

First of all, please accept my deep thanks for inviting me to join you for this gathering. I count it a great honor to be in the company of many good Lutherans here at the 500th anniversary of the publication of the 95 theses.

I like the title that you have chosen for this retreat, Discipleship at the Cross-Section of Faith and Life. The cross is a powerful symbol of sacrifice, and often when Jesus speaks about discipleship, he speaks in terms of taking up the cross. So as I think about the point at which our faith intersects with our “secular” lives, as if any part of life could be secular, I think about what sacrifices are we called to and willing to make at that point. During my first address to you, I would like to simply share how this played out in my own experience, how my discipleship came into conflict with my career choice, and how Jesus screwed up by best-laid plans for myself.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes,

If we are not marginalized ourselves in some way, we normally need to associate with some marginalized group to have an enlightened Gospel perspective and to be converted to compassion.

The United States has an immense population of marginalized people locked away in its prisons. It is the largest prison population in the history of the world, approximately 2.3 million people. As a result of America’s war on drugs, which has been waged over the past four decades and disproportionately against poor people of color, many of these people are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes. The collateral damage, both emotional and financial, of such mass incarceration to children, spouses, and entire communities cannot be calculated. Poet Adrienne Rich once said that war represents “an absolute failure of imagination,” and I believe the same can be said of our criminal justice policies, not to mention an absolute lack of compassion.

I first became acquainted with people who are imprisoned not from a position of solidarity, but from an antagonistic point of view. I was a prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office. I first knew that I wanted to be a career prosecutor during my junior year of college. I had obtained an internship in the local district attorney’s office, and when I saw the prosecutors in action – giving orders to police officers, negotiating with defense counsel, questioning witnesses, arguing their cases in court, comforting victims and their families – I was sold. Prosecutors were the “good guys,” wearing the white hats, vindicating victims, enforcing the law, making society safe by putting the bad guys in jail. Walter Wink talks about the myth of redemptive violence, and I bought into the myth. These people needed to be punished for what they had done. I distinctly remember one day in particular when I overheard a young prosecutor ask the defense attorney, during a break in the trial of an especially heinous case, how he could defend such a miserable blight to society and sleep at night. How indeed, I wondered. Who wouldn’t want to wear the white hat? I knew which side I wanted to practice on.

So I went to law school solely to become a prosecutor. I took every criminal law, criminal procedure, trial advocacy, and evidence course the law school offered. I spent a summer clerking in the local prosecutor’s office. Every step was calculated to prepare me for my career as a white knight. When I finally accepted a position as an appellate prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, I felt like I had achieved my dream.
What does an appellate prosecutor do?

Day after day, month after month, year after year, I drafted briefs and made arguments to the court about people I did not know. They had broken the law, and they needed to be punished. Although I knew almost nothing about these people, I was convinced that I was right and they were wrong; I was good and they were bad. Our criminal justice system, like all authorities, thrives on these us-them dichotomies. There are good people and bad people. The people on whose cases I worked were bad people, criminals – murderers, rapists, robbers, thieves. I was one of the good guys, a prosecutor. Other good guys, who were labeled judges, helped decide the cases. Even the people who were most directly affected by crime were labelled victims, and they enjoyed little or no say in how the case was resolved. In these systems, there is a category and label for everyone.

My friend and professor of religion at Belmont University David Dark has this to say about labelling people in his new book:

When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. I no longer have to feel overwhelmed by their complexity, the lives they live, the dreams they have. I know exactly where they are inside – or forever outside – my field of care, because they’ve been taken care of. The mystery of their existence has been solved and filed away before I’ve had a chance to be moved by them or even begun to catch a glimpse of who they might be. They’ve been neutralized. There’s hardly any action quite so undemanding, so utterly unimaginative, as the affixing of a label. It’s the costliest of mental shortcuts. ~ Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious

This is how the criminal justice system, like all systems, institutions, principalities and powers, tends to operate. And I played along.

Furthermore, because I was primarily responsible for prosecuting appeals, after the trial has already taken place, I had virtually no interaction with the defendants in the cases because they were often already serving their sentences. As a result, they were names without faces, they were a trial transcript that I had to read, a legal brief I had to write, and argument to make, a case to win. All I knew about them was the worst thing they had ever done. In retrospect, I can see what a dangerous position that is for a Christian to be in, called as we are not to judge lest we be judged and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and of course the Lord himself self-identified with prisoners. But I experienced no angst whatsoever. Like a lot of people, I had my life pretty conveniently compartmentalized, with the faith compartment not intersecting with the career compartment. Moreover, I was on the right side after all, helping punish evil deeds. I slept well at night.

All of this began to change for me in the spring of 2007, when my old college history professor Richard Goode called me about teaching the inaugural class in a prison college program. Inspired by the great Baptist minister, civil rights activist, and prison abolitionist Will Campbell, Dr. Goode was launching a program modeled after one that had been started at the Vanderbilt Divinity School by the great restorative justice pioneer, Harmon Wray. Richard’s vision was to take 15 university undergraduates to the Tennessee Prison for Women to study alongside 15 prisoners. Unlike the Vanderbilt program, the inmates would actually be enrolled as Lipscomb students and would be earning college credit toward a degree. And he figured what better class with which to begin than Judicial Process, as the very subject matter named the elephant in the room – half of the class had little to no experience with the criminal justice system, and the other half knew it intimately well, as the system was responsible for their incarceration, the division he hoped in some small way to overcome. And who better to teach it than a young prosecutor who was a bit too sure of himself? Looking back, I suspect Richard knew that it would be me who would learn the most from the experience.

So with fear and trembling, I started teaching my first college class in a prison. We had 15 bright-eyed, rich, spoiled college kids taking a class alongside 15 people that the State had condemned as unworthy to exist in the larger society. The inmates were awfully nervous at first about whether they would be able to do college coursework. For some of them, this was their first college class. Many of them were the first person in their family to attend college. Would they fail and be embarrassed one more time? And they were concerned as to how the traditional students would perceive them. Would they be judgmental upon seeing all of the prison garb? Would they be treated with scorn again as they had been in the past, according to their crime? Those inmates were putting a lot on the line.

The traditional students had their own apprehensions. None of them had ever been inside a prison before. Prisons are designed to be intimidating to insiders and outsiders alike. Those walls serve as much to keep people locked out as they do to keep people locked in. The first time you receive a pat down from a guard is a little nerve racking. Then they had to listen to a volunteer orientation about what do to in the event of an emergency, such as a hostage situation. As we took our seats, the traditional college kids were shaken, to say the least.

So we were all a little on edge that first night. Hoping a little honesty might ease the tension, I asked the class what we were nervous about on our first night. Fortunately for us all, one quick-witted inmate, knowing what the outside students had just gone through during the orientation, quipped, “I’m nervous that one of these college kids is going to take me hostage!” Thanks be to God, she broke the ice, and we began.

It quickly became clear to me that the coursework was just the picture frame, just a context. We could easily have been studying literature or history or anything else. The real work was bringing outside students and inside students into the same room and letting them get to know each other. Richard was using academics to carve out a little space where the lines that divide us, in this case, literal fences and razor wire, didn’t count for as much. He was hoping to build a little “demonstration plot,” for reconciliation, to use Clarence Jordan’s term. After all, if there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, insider nor outsider, if all is one in Christ Jesus and we are all made in the image of God, then those prison uniforms and identification numbers and strip searches and all the rest of the casual indignities, the dehumanizing reminders that prisons use to try and strip people of their dignity and personhood are a form of blasphemy, to use religious language.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, puts it this way,

There exists a gap between the so-called ‘normal’ world and the people who have been pushed aside, put into institutions, excluded from our societies . . . This gap is a place of invitation in which we [are called] to respond . . . the gospel vision . . . is a vision of unity, peace and acceptance. It is a promise that the walls between people and between groups can fall.

This was Richard’s attempt to start tearing down a mighty big wall.

It turns out that I didn’t know too much about the criminal justice system at all. I knew how to make an argument in court, I knew about the laws of search and seizure and how Tennessee’s sentencing structure worked, I knew everything I needed to know to do my job. But never before had I contemplated the legitimacy of an adversarial system that seeks only to punish, never to heal. I had never before thought about the ways that our criminal code makes an abstraction out of very concrete harm that people suffer, the ways we push the victims and offenders to the side while legal professionals take center stage, and the ways in which the system preponderates against a true experience of justice, including answering victims’ questions, having offenders apologize and take responsibility for their wrongs and work toward a resolution. The system doles out retribution and calls it justice, and I was complicit in the process.

I learned a lot from those 15 remarkable inmates in that first class. Although many of them had committed terrible, violent crimes, to a person they were all more than their worst moment, as are we all. They were kind, compassionate, articulate, women with the potential to do great good. Although many of them had not been in school in decades, they consistently outperformed the traditional students. They were hungry to learn; they did not take education for granted. They recognized the opportunity that Lipscomb had given them and they were determined to make the most of it. They were diligent and conscientious in their studies. They proved themselves quite up to the task of being university students. They blossomed and grew in confidence. They told their stories. And listening to their stories was the most impactful part of the class.

I was accustomed to reading a defendant’s case in a cold trial transcript. But trials seldom tell the whole story or paint a complete picture. The stories I heard from these women often involved prior abuse at the hands of a spouse or boyfriend, substance abuse, and finally a violent episode. Crime does not occur in a vacuum. Each woman had a heartbreaking story to tell of feeling trapped, hopeless, and desperate. Juries do not hear all of these details. And I was confronted with the realization that had I been in their shoes, I may not have acted any differently. The good/bad, us/them dichotomy was obliterated. I came to see that we are all pretty much the same.

Tennessee Prison for Women

 

As firmly as I had believed in the system as a young prosecutor, I was becoming increasingly convinced that the system was like a broken assembly line. The more I learned about the sheer size of the prison population; the number of people serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes; the way that the system discriminates against people of color at every stage of the process from arrest through sentencing; the way that the system not only fails to rehabilitate offenders, but actually makes it harder for them to move forward and succeed by denying them the right to vote, access to public assistance, and opportunities for education and employment, the more I came to hate the work I was called upon to do every day. How could I write another brief? I felt like I was betraying my new ideals of healing, redemption, forgiveness, mercy, and second chances, all of which should have been my ideals from the beginning, and also betraying my new friends.
I felt a bit like Nicodemus, or even Paul.

I taught in the program again in 2009. By this time, I had become so convinced that the criminal justice system is broken, and I had so come to identify with my new friends in prison, that I had to leave my career as a prosecutor. This had been more than a career decision. It was a discipleship decision. Those old compartments of mine had crumbled. I could no longer hear about redemption on Sunday and serve as an agent of retribution on Monday. I could no longer read Jesus’ instruction to care for prisoners while arguing in favor of imprisoning them. I was a cog in a wheel that was broken, and it was crushing individuals, families, and communities. I could no longer hold my career in tension with what I had come to understand to be a gospel imperative, so I quit my job.

As I started teaching for the second time at the prison, I got to know a young woman named Cyntoia Brown. Cyntoia was one of the brightest students in the program. She was a voracious reader and very enthusiastic about being in college and learning. She had a quick, sarcastic wit. She was also very opinionated and not shy about making her thoughts known. It was great fun having Cyntoia in class. As we got to know each other, we would loan each other books and trade stories. Hers was heartbreaking.

Cyntoia was born to a drug-addicted mother who abused alcohol throughout her entire pregnancy. In a sense, Cyntoia’s well-being was sacrificed in utero to her mother’s alcoholism. As a result, Cyntoia suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, the effects of which include intellectual disabilities that affect a person’s ability to think rationally and appreciate the consequences of her conduct, as well as neurological, emotional, and behavioral issues. Cyntoia’s birth mother abandoned her as a young child. As a young teenager, Cyntoia began abusing drugs and alcohol herself. She dropped out of school, ran away from home, and lived on the streets of Nashville. After being locked up in a juvenile detention facility for a while, she took up with a pimp who called himself “Cut-throat.” They lived together in a cheap motel room, and would spend the day having sex, drinking, and getting high. The pimp forced Cyntoia into prostitution. Cyntoia was again sacrificed. This time it was her trafficker who sacrificed her sexuality to pay for a motel room and drugs. Violence was at the center of their entire relationship. He physically and sexually abused her himself, and he let his friends abuse her. Cyntoia was sixteen years old.

Cyntoia Brown 2014 Transfer Hearing

One afternoon, having been put out on the street by her pimp, Cyntoia was picked up by a john at a Sonic restaurant. Cyntoia was about to be sacrificed to satiate this man’s lust. The man, a regular church-goer, was forty-three years old. He took her to his house. He showed her his gun collection and bragged about being an excellent marksman. They went to bed together, but Cyntoia tried to keep him from kissing and touching her. Cyntoia, strung out on drugs and having been the victim of several rapes over the preceding two weeks, became afraid. She thought the man would rape or even kill her. Cyntoia, having existed in a culture of violence from the time she was conceived, and having suffered unimaginable violence for months while living on the street and with her abusive trafficker, responded to her fear of more violence with violence of her own. While the man lay naked in bed with his back to Cyntoia, she took from her purse a gun her pimp had given to her for protection and shot the man in the back of the head. She took two of the man’s guns so she would not return to Cut-throat empty-handed and fled. Not long thereafter, Cyntoia was arrested, tried as an adult despite all of the mitigating circumstances, and a jury unanimously convicted her of first degree premeditated murder.

As you might expect, Cyntoia was vilified in the media: sixteen-year-old prostitute guilty of murder. You can imagine the headlines, the names she was called. All of the ways that Cyntoia had been victimized and exploited over the course of her short life – the brain damage from fetal alcohol syndrome, the drug-addicted mother and broken home, the drug and alcohol addiction as a young teenager, the prior victimization, the trauma of being physically and sexually abused, the violence she had suffered most of her life – none of it was taken into account when deciding Cyntoia’s fate. There was no acknowledgement of the many ways that her family, community, and society had failed her every step along the way, failed her right up to the point that she took a man’s life. The criminal justice system placed all of the responsibility and guilt on Cyntoia, labelled her according to the worst thing she had ever done, and gave the automatic sentence for first degree murder in Tennessee, 51 years in prison. She was banished, thrown away as worthless, essentially sacrificed once more to spend the rest of her life atoning for what she had done when she was 16. Society tied a heavy burden onto Cyntoia’s shoulders, and no one lifted a finger to help her. She would not be eligible for parole until she was 67.

As I considered Cyntoia’s tragic story, it seemed to me that she was like a mirror into which we can see some of the worst problems in our society – child abuse, mental illness, addiction, failing educational and juvenile justice systems, rape, modern-day slavery in the form of sex trafficking, gun violence. But when we – the prosecutors, jury members, judges, the whole system – looked at her, we did not confess or repent for the ways we have let so many children slip through the cracks. Instead, we blamed her. We laid all of the guilt and condemnation on her. Up to the point where she retrieved a gun from her purse, Cyntoia was a sympathetic victim. But when she resorted to violence, she became a suitable scapegoat for all of the evil she had endured since before she was born, and she was banished from the society that had failed her so many times before.

Cyntoia’s story put a fine point on my paradigm shift from a law-and-order prosecutor to an advocate for criminal justice reform. Her community had failed her too many times to count. She was a child victim of human trafficking, targeted and forced into the commercial sex trade to acquire food, shelter, and clothing necessary for survival. But the system did not regard her as a victim at all. No attempt was made to help her heal from the years of abuse that led up to her tragic, impulsive decision to resort to deadly violence rather than be victimized one more time. And after all the ways that society had let Cyntoia down, in the end, all it knew to do to her was sacrifice her again, refusing to acknowledge her as a victim, opting instead to throw her away as a wasted life.

By the time I had Cyntoia in class, she had been locked up for five years, and already she was a changed person. She had grown and matured into a funny, caring person who very much wanted another chance to tap into her potential to do good. It made me so angry that the system, the judicial process we were studying in class, had so little regard for the great potential that all people, but especially children have to change and grow and be transformed into something beautiful and wholesome and altogether different from their traumatic past. Giving a 51-year sentence to a sixteen-year-old girl constituted a complete failure on the part of society to imagine a better future, to trust that people can and do change, to be faithful to what we claim to believe about redemption. The system pays lip service to rehabilitation, but Cyntoia’s case shows that the system’s goal is vengeance, punishment, the infliction of suffering. It treats people as disposable and hopeless. It is a betrayal of our best values – compassion, forgiveness, redemption, second chances. As the quote often attributed to Dorothy Day goes, I was fed up with the “filthy, rotten system.”

But one day, I got the mail at my house. In it was an envelope from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. This was not uncommon, as I continued to receive court opinions from cases where I had served as the prosecutor even though I had left my position months earlier. But when I started to read the opinion, the defendant’s name stopped me cold: Cyntoia Brown. Without realizing it, I had prosecuted Cyntoia’s case on appeal. I had argued that she was properly tried as an adult when she was only sixteen years old. I had argued that the evidence against her was properly admitted and that the evidence was sufficient to support her conviction for first degree murder and the resulting sentence of 51 years in prison.

I was stunned. How could I have missed her name on my class roster? How could I have failed to notice that one of the students in my class was the defendant in one of my cases? But as I said earlier, the defendants in my cases weren’t real people to me. They were court records I had to read, briefs I had to write, arguments I had to make. The possibility of me ever bumping into one of these people was so remote that I didn’t give it any consideration. So the notion that the Cyntoia in my class each week, my outspoken friend and student, was the Cyntoia Brown on whose case I worked, never entered my mind. I felt horrible. It was brought home to me in an awful way that I had been a part of the filthy, rotten system, the system that knows only how to punish, never how to heal. With the terrible power of the State behind me, I had taken a stand against a child, a child who never had a chance, and I argued that what needed to happen to her was for her to spend the rest of her life in prison. What had I been thinking? Why was I ever comfortable making arguments about people I didn’t know? How many other arguments had I made which, had I been afforded the opportunity to know the person, I would not have felt comfortable making? Why was I ever willing to make such arguments about people I had not met, whose story I never heard? What happened to judge not, lest ye be judged, to be compassionate as your Father is compassionate, that what I do to the least, to the most vulnerable, I do to the Lord?

I had failed. I had betrayed and denied what is best about my faith. And I had let Cyntoia down. I didn’t know how I would face her because I knew she would also receive a copy of the opinion and would see that I had argued against her on behalf of the State. I assumed she would hate me. I was afraid she would drop out of the college program. The principality and power that is the American criminal justice system had pitted me against this girl, and I had unquestioningly gone along with it. She and I stood on opposite sides of a vast chasm. I still wore the label of prosecutor, and she was the defendant. Not only was her worst moment laid bare, but I had been an agent of retribution in a system that knows only how to condemn and punish, never to heal and reconcile.

Wednesday night rolled around, and I went to the prison for class. Cyntoia was there, but we didn’t speak as we usually did. During a break I approached her and asked if she was okay. She told me she was. I apologized for the part that I played in her case. I didn’t make any excuses; I just told her how sorry I was that I had ever allowed myself to be in the position of making arguments against people I did not even know. Cyntoia, in a moment that beautifully crystallized the wonderful person she had become, graciously accepted my apology. She told me that she understood that I was only doing my job, that I did not know her, that I had changed my mind about being a prosecutor and left that career. She said everything she could have said, but it didn’t help much. She was clearly hurt and disappointed. More than that, she was intensely vulnerable. She knew that I was familiar with her crime. Without her consent, I had received terrible information about her, and it was like a wound being reopened. All of the awful, degrading things that had been said about her in the press came rushing back. Her past had followed her into the haven of the college program.

In II Corinthians 5, St. Paul writes that we are ministers of reconciliation. We no longer regard anyone from a human point of view. But those human categories do not pass away easily. The labels that are placed on us dictate how society views us and the value it places on us. I was not sure Cyntoia and I would ever be able to move beyond the human categories that had defined us against each other. But as Chad Myers writes, “Divine realities are waiting to be realized in our lives.”

So Cyntoia and I went back to class. We resumed our discussion of judicial process and our critique of an adversarial system that defines justice in terms of punishment. Together we read Hoard Zehr’s Changing Lenses, and we imagined a system that sought transformation and healing for victims and offenders, not merely to inflict more suffering. Cyntoia remained active in the class and as adamant as ever that the way things are is not the way they have to be.

At the end of our semester, we had a celebration, which has become something of a tradition. During the party, Cyntoia and I found time to talk. I confessed that it was hard for me to reconcile the person I knew her to be now with what I had read about her in the court record. She explained to me more of her story, her context, and her upbringing. She filled me in on the details of the life she was caught up in and the terrible circumstances she had endured since she was a child. These details were not contained in the trial transcript, and were never presented to the jury that found her guilty. I came to see that had I been in Cyntoia’s position, I might have made the same choices. But Cyntoia refused to allow the label that society placed on her when she was sixteen years old to define her, and she likewise refused to define me by the role I used to play in the criminal justice system and in her case.

To experience reconciliation, Cyntoia and I had to step outside of the adversarial, retributive system that pitted us against each other. In that system, we both wore labels, prosecutor and defendant. Such human categories serve only to divide and dehumanize people. To be reconciled, Cyntoia and I had to no longer regard each other from a human point of view. We had to let the old things pass away in order for there to be a new creation, a reconciled relationship. I had to repent and ask for Cyntoia’s forgiveness and experience a kind of conversion. Cyntoia had to be willing to see me as a person and not as the role I had played in her case. We had to realize that she and I are the same.

I witnessed my good friend Rahim Buford come to a similarly profound realization on Easter Sunday, 2016. I met Rahim while I was teaching a class at the main maximum security prison for men in Nashville. Rahim was serving a thirty-year sentence for first degree felony murder. When he was seventeen years old, he was poor and living in a bad part of town. He procured a gun, which was just something young men in his position did. He used the gun to rob a restaurant. The person behind the cash register was not moving fast enough, so Rahim fired a shot at the floor to scare him. The bullet, however, ricocheted off the floor, struck the man, and killed him. By the time I had Rahim in class, he had been locked up for 25 years.

Preston Shipp and Rahim Buford at Lipscomb University

After our class concluded, Rahim came up for parole, and he asked me to be there to support him. Rahim was released in the spring of 2015. And he was eager to make a difference. He started working with the Children’s Defense Fund, talking to at-risk youth and trying to interrupt what has been called the cradle-to-prison pipeline. One day he called me and expressed an interest in going with me to the prison where I help conduct church services. This prison is out in the sticks about an hour west of Nashville. I told him I would give it a shot, though I didn’t think they’d let someone visit who had so recently been released from prison. For whatever reason, Rahim’s visitor memo was approved by the chaplain. So on my birthday, March 27, 2016, which happened to be Easter, Rahim and I went to the prison. It was his first time to go back to a prison since he was released, and this prison happened to be the place where he served the first eleven years of his sentence. He was understandably a bit apprehensive, not knowing what to expect or how he would react.

Rahim Buford at Gate

When we arrived, Rahim looked like someone returning to a dream. As we walked from my car to the prison, he simply said, “I used to live here.” As we waited at checkpoint, he mentioned that he used to wonder where his family waited before they were admitted into the prison on visitation days. Now he was sitting in the spot he had tried to imagine for eleven years. As we walked across the compound to the chapel, he showed me where he used to jog on the yard for exercise. He saw two men with whom he had served time, and they hugged him, almost in disbelief that he had returned to visit them. So few do. When we entered the chapel, he saw three more men that he knew.

During our service, we did many of the same things that had occurred in church buildings across the world that morning: we sang songs of praise, we shared the Eucharist, and we read the gospel account of Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb. Rahim even preached a powerful sermon about all people being made in the image of God and being God’s children. This is our truest identity, the very core of who we are. God’s power is at work in all of us, Rahim said, and we can have new life as a result of that power. Heads nodded. “Amens” were offered. In his homily, Rahim drew from his experience as a captive to encourage these men, who were still in a sense “entombed,” with the good news that prison and death would not have the final word.

Many of the men came up to Rahim after the service to thank him for returning to that dark place to offer a word of hope. One man stood out. In 1996, while Rahim was still serving time at the prison we were visiting, Rahim’s brother, who was also incarcerated there, had a conflict with a member of a gang. As a result, the gang targeted both the brother and Rahim, though Rahim had nothing to do with the controversy. One day, one of the gang members confronted Rahim, two other gang members jumped Rahim from behind, and a fight ensued. Thankfully, Rahim was not seriously hurt, but all of them were sent to solitary confinement. When they were released back into the general population, everyone understood that Rahim had been wrongfully targeted and assaulted, and he was entitled to vengeance. To keep the situation from escalating, however, a rival gang mediated the dispute, and determined that Rahim was entitled to compensation in the form of cocaine. As he relayed this story to me, Rahim admitted, “I haven’t always been a good person.” Once the restitution was made, Rahim and the gang dropped the issue.

Sharing his life experiences Rahim works tirelessly to steer youth away from crime life, drug abuse, and destructive behaviors.

Twenty years later, on Easter Sunday, one of the gang members who jumped Rahim just happened to attend our church service. After Rahim’s homily on new life, the man came forward to Rahim. Rahim recognized the man immediately. The man hung his head and apologized for acting violently against him. Rahim, embodying his lesson on the power of God at work in dark, death-dealing places, forgave the man, and they hugged. This Easter evening, Rahim’s word became flesh, as resurrection broke through in the form of an apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Easter happened.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics . . . To become neighbours is to bridge the gap between people . . . Only when we have the courage to cross the street and look in one another’s eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.

This is the invitation – to regard each other as neighbours. To cross the road for one another. To allow the image of God in me to recognize the image of God in you, despite any other difference between us. You don’t get much more different than a prosecutor and a prisoner. But I can say without hesitation that I have learned more about the nature of God and the gospel of love, peace, justice, and reconciliation from people in prison than in 40 years of going to church buildings and seventeen years of religious education.

In my own experience, the cross-section of faith and life is prisons. It is among people in prison that I have most fully encountered the Spirit of the living God. My salvation, it turns out, is bound up with that of people like Cyntoia and Rahim and so many more.

Following the shooting at the church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama delivered the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. President Obama said, “[J]ustice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.” This kind of justice, a justice that affirms that we are all neighbors, is not available in our courtrooms. True justice, biblical justice, the justice that prophets through the ages have longed to roll down like waters, this kind of justice “grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.

Cyntoia and I needed an experience of justice, to recognize ourselves in each other, despite the way the system had pitted us against each other. Rahim and his attacker needed an experience of justice, to recognize themselves in each other, despite the violence and animosity that had once divided them. This kind of justice is at the core of the gospel. It is where our faith connects with our daily life. Jean Vanier writes,

The Word became flesh to bring people together, to break down the walls of fear and hatred that separate people. That’s the vision of the incarnation. . . . Jesus came to change a world in which those at the top have privilege, power, prestige, and money while those at the bottom are seen as useless. . . . [O]ur deep need is to meet those on the other side of the wall, to discover their gifts, to appreciate them[.]

And when it happens, it is breathtaking. I am convinced that this is the way of God’s peaceable kingdom. This is the kingdom come – to be reconciled to and experience solidarity with the other, the one who is overlooked, pushed aside, discarded, scapegoated.

Transformed people transforming the world, not settling for the narrative of offense and retribution, not willing for any to perish under the unfair weight of labels or be sacrificed to a spirit of institutionalized vengeance, not being guided by fear or a tendency toward self-preservation but by God’s Spirit of Love. Recognizing our common humanity and dignity as bearers of the divine image, may the church make known to the principalities and powers the manifold wisdom of God. Amen. Thank you.

Where are they today? 

Inmate Cyntoia Brown delivers a commencement address before receiving her associate degree from Lipscomb. Photo by Ricky Rogers /The Tennessean.

Cyntoia Brown continues to serve out her 51 year sentence. Since 2004, Cyntoia has been working diligently to make amends for her crime.  Today, Cyntoia is an incredibly intelligent, compassionate, and resilient young woman.  She recently graduated with an Associates of Arts degree with a GPA of 4.0 from Lipscomb University’s LIFE Program (Lipscomb Initiative For Education), and she will soon earn her Bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb. As she has progressed in her rehabilitation, Cyntoia has served as a beacon of light in the prison environment.  She has helped other inmates earn their GEDs, worked in various meaningful jobs, and encouraged those around her to be their best selves.  She has maintained meaningful relationships with positive mentors in the community, many of whom feel that they have become better people through their friendship with Cyntoia.

The documentary on Cyntoia’s life has been used in educational curricula across the country to teach students in Criminal Justice, Sociology, and other disciplines about Adverse Childhood Experiences, childhood trauma, and the devastating effects of human trafficking of juveniles.  Cyntoia has served as a consultant for the Juvenile Court Master Plan in Davidson County, Tennessee, helping design a trauma-informed juvenile detention facility that will ensure safety of the community and youth by identifying design flaws that can cause juvenile facilities to be vulnerable to the introduction of contraband and abuse of juvenile detainees.  She is currently working on a Capstone Project at Lipscomb University on the issue of human trafficking, where she is further using her personal experiences to increase human understanding of the plight of juvenile runaways and trafficking victims.  She corresponds with people from around the world who wish to understand how they can use her story to keep others from meeting similar fates.

In 2010,  attorneys Charles Bone and Houston Gordon took on Cyntoia’s case pro bono after watching a documentary on Cyntoia’s story called “Me Facing Life” https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=DKSx205bqPo. Since then, a team of lawyers have been fighting tirelessly for Cyntoia’s freedom. We ask that you join us in pursuing freedom for Cyntoia. You can find more information on Cyntoia’s case in the following Nashville Scene article: http://www. nashvillescene.com/news/ article/13037415/for-a-teens- impulsive-unthinkable-act- cyntoia-brown-got-an-adults- life-sentence-was-justice- served.

Rahim Buford is a man of passion and purpose who uses his voice and personal experiences to make a difference in the lives of others – from young people to veteran lawmakers. He is a formerly incarcerated social justice advocate from Nashville, Tennessee. Rahim was paroled in 2015 after being locked up for 26 consecutive calendar years. While in prison, he acquired certifications from numerous educational institutions and became a leader in SALT (Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation). He received a Presidential scholarship at American Baptist College and loves being in college. Now a consultant organizer for Children’s Defense Fund Nashville Team and ICAN (Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network) member. Rahim self-published his book, Save Your Own Life, utilizing simple prose, poetry, reflection and writing exercises for youth battling the “cradle-to-pipeline.” He founded Unheard Voice Outreach to connect with at-risk youth and to assist individuals affected be incarceration. Rahim facilitates critical reading, writing, and dialogue sessions at the Metro juvenile detention center on Thursdays. Watch Rahim’s Story on YouTube

Preston Shipp serves on the board of Theology & Peace. In 2016 he delivered an eloquent and moving presentation at the Theology & Peace Conference, “People & Policing: Compassion for Our Violence.” Unable to serve two masters, Preston left his career as an appellate prosecutor in 2008. Since then, he has taught in universities and churches, lectured at conferences, and written about the urgent needs for criminal justice reform, a shift in how we regard imprisoned people, and a new vision of justice that seeks healing, transformation, and reconciliation, not merely the infliction of suffering. Preston’s conversion from prosecutor to criminal justice reform advocate has left him convinced that his salvation is bound up with that of his friends behind bars. He lives in Nashville with his wife Sherisse and their three children, Lila Joy, Ruby Faith, and Levi.

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