blaming the victim?

I am reprinting in its entirety a response to a Facebook message posted a week ago by Franklin Graham. The open letter has thirty-two original signatories, including members of the Sojourners community, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Christian educators, and community activists.

Here is Franklin Graham’s post:

Listen up–Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY. Parents, teach your children to respect and obey those in authority. Mr. President, this is a message our nation needs to hear, and they need to hear it from you. Some of the unnecessary shootings we have seen recently might have been avoided. The Bible says to submit to your leaders and those in authority “because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.”

And here is the response:

(If you would like to add your name to the letter, you may do so here)

An Open Letter to Reverend Franklin Graham

Dear Rev. Graham,

We write to you in the spirit of Matthew 18: we aim to reconcile with you. You have sinned against us, fellow members of the body of Christ. While your comments on March 12 were just a Facebook post, your post was shared by more than 83,000 people and liked by nearly 200,000 as of Monday morning, March 14, 2015. Your words hurt and influenced thousands. Therefore, we must respond publically so that those you hurt might know you have received a reply and the hundreds of thousands you influenced might know that following your lead on this issue will break the body of Christ further.

Frankly, Rev. Graham, your insistence that “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” “Listen up,” was crude, insensitive, and paternalistic. Your comments betrayed the confidence that your brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those of color, have afforded your father’s ministry for decades. Your instructions oversimplified a complex and critical problem facing the nation and minimized the testimonies and wisdom of people of color and experts of every hue, including six police commissioners that served on the president’s task force on policing reform.

In the nadir of your commentary, you tell everyone to “OBEY” any instruction from authorities and suggest that the recent shootings of unarmed citizens “might have been avoided” if the victims had submitted to authority.

And you bluntly insist, “It’s as simple as that.”

It is not that simple. As a leader in the church, you are called to be an ambassador of reconciliation. The fact that you identify a widely acknowledged social injustice as “simple” reveals your lack of empathy and understanding of the depth of sin that some in the body have suffered under the weight of our broken justice system. It also reveals a cavalier disregard for the enduring impacts and outcomes of the legal regimes that enslaved and oppressed people of color, made in the image of God — from Native American genocide and containment, to colonial and antebellum slavery, through Jim Crow and peonage, to our current system of mass incarceration and criminalization.

As your brothers and sisters in Christ, who are also called to lead the body, we are disappointed and grieved by your abuse of the Holy Scriptures. You lifted Hebrews 13:17 out of its biblical context and misappropriated it in a way that encourages believers to acquiesce to an injustice that God hates. That text refers to church leadership, not the secular leadership of Caesar.

Are you also aware that your commentary resonates with the types of misinterpretations and rhetoric echoed by many in the antebellum church? Are you aware that the southern slavocracy validated the systematic subjugation of human beings made in the image of God by instructing these enslaved human beings to “obey their masters because the Bible instructed them to do so?”

Your blanket insistence on obedience in every situation exposes an ignorance of church history. God called Moses to resist and disobey unjust authority. Joseph and Mary were led by the Spirit to seek asylum in Egypt, disobeying the unjust decrees passed down by authority figures in order to ensure the safety of Jesus. And Paul himself resisted authority and ultimately wrote Romans 13 from jail.

In modern times, Christian brothers and sisters abided by Paul’s command to the persecuted Roman church. They presented their bodies as living sacrifices. They refused to conform to the oppressive patterns of this world. Rather, they were transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:1-2) Throughout the Jim Crow South, in El Salvador, and in the townships and cities of South Africa Jesus followers disobeyed civil authority as an act of obedience to God — the ultimate authority, the Lord, who loves and demands justice (Psalm 146:5-9, Isaiah 58, Isaiah 61, Micah 4:1-5, all the prophets, Luke 4:16-21, Luke 10:25-37, Matthew 25:31-46, Galatians 3:27-28). Likewise, Christians who marched in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and Madison, Wis., follow in the holy footsteps of their faithful predecessors.

As one who understands human depravity, your statement demonstrates a profound disregard for the impact of sinful individuals when given power to craft systems and structures that govern millions. The outcome is oppression and impoverishment — in a word, injustice.

Finally, if you insist on blind obedience, then you must also insist that officers of the justice system obey the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right of all to equal protection under the law. Yet, reports confirm unconscious racial biases in policing, booking, sentencing, and in return produce racially disparate outcomes within our broken justice system.

Likewise, you must also call on officers to honor their sworn duty to protect and serve without partiality. The Federal Bureau of Investigations director, James B. Comey, acknowledges that law enforcement has fallen short of this mandate : “First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”

Let us be clear: We love, support, and pray for our police officers. We understand that many are doing an excellent job under extremely trying circumstances. We also understand that many officers are burdened by systems that routinely mete out inequitable racialized outcomes.

For the past nine months, many of your fellow Christian clergy have been engaged in sorrowful lament, prayerful protest, spirit-led conversations, and careful scriptural study to discern a Godly response to these inequitable racialized outcomes within America’s justice system. We have wrestled with God like Jacob, begging God to bless us with peace in our streets and justice in our courts.

Rev. Graham, as our brother in Christ and as a leader in the church, we forgive you and we pray that one day you will recognize and understand the enduring legacy of the institution of race in our nation.

Now is the time for you to humbly listen to the cries of lamentation rising nationwide. We do not expect you to be an expert in racial issues, police brutality, or even the many factors that go in to our complicated and unjust criminal system. We do, however, expect you to follow the example of leaders and followers of Jesus throughout the scriptures and modern history. We expect you to seek wise counsel and guidance first from those who bear the weight of the injustice and second from other experts in the field.

Ultimately, we invite you to join us in the ongoing work of the ministry of reconciliation.

In Jesus,

Onleilove Alston
Executive Director
Faith in New York

Dr. Brian Bantum
Associate Professor of Theology
Seattle Pacific University

Rev. Leroy Barber
Global Executive Director, Word Made Flesh
Chair of the Board, Christian Community Development Association

Rev. Phil Bowling Dyer
National Director, Black Campus Ministries
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Austin Channing Brown
Resident Director and Multicultural Liaison
Calvin College

Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
Author, Social Justice Handbook and Just Spirituality
Co-author, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith

Dr. Christena Cleveland
Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies
Bethel University

Rev. Dr. Orlando Crespo
Latino Leadership Circle
Board Member, National Latino Evangelical Coalition

Rev. Léonce B. Crump Jr.
Lead Pastor
Renovation Church

Dr. Curtiss Paul DeYoung
Executive Director
Community Renewal Society

Rachel Held Evans
Author, Blogger, Advocate

Rev. Dominique Gilliard
Executive Pastor
New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland, CA

Josh Harper
National Director for Urban Programs
Intervarsity Christian Fellowship

Lisa Sharon Harper
Chief Church Engagement Officer

Dr. Troy Jackson
Director, The AMOS Project
Co-author, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith

Micky ScottBey Jones
Director of Training and Program Development
Transform Network

Kathy Khang
Intervarsity Christian Fellowship

Steve Knight
Transform Network

Rev. Michael McBride
The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, CA

Jimmy McGee
CEO and President
The Impact Movement

Rev. Soong-Chan Rah
Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism
North Park Theological Seminary

Rev. Dr. Gabriel Salguero
President, National Latino Evangelical Coalition
Pastor, Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra
Coordinator of Welcoming Congregations Network
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Dr. Andrea Smith
Board Member
North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies

Rev. Efrem Smith
President and CEO
World Impact

Rev. Gail Song Bantum
Executive Pastor
Quest Church

Alexie Torres-Fleming
Organizer, Advocate, Speaker

Jonathan Walton
Blogger, College Student Organizer, Poet

Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove
School for Conversion

Jim Wallis
President and Founder

Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner
President, Skinner Leadership Institute
Co-Chair, National African American Clergy Network

Ken Wytsma
Kilns College

speaking truth to terror

“Violence is always the product of a falsification of religion.”

– Pope Francis


By a 82-56 margin, the Maryland House of Delegates voted Friday to ban the death penalty in that state. The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has pledged to sign it.

“To govern is to choose, and at a time where we understand the things that actually work to reduce violent crime, when we understand how lives can be saved, we have a moral responsibility to do more of the things that work to save lives,” O’Malley said at a news conference.

“We also have a moral responsibility to stop doing the things that are wasteful, and that are expensive, and do not work, and do not save lives, and that I would argue run contrary to the deeper principles that unite us as Marylanders, as Americans, and as human beings,” O’Malley added.

zero dark thirty misleads about torture

From the National Religous Campaign Against Torture:

Zero Dark Thirty is a work of fiction that depicts graphic acts of torture. The movie’s implication that the use of torture produced critical intelligence is false. In particular, the clues that were essential to the hunt for Osama bin Laden were obtained through humane methods. Torture, in fact, produced false leads that wasted valuable time and staffing.

Read the rest of the article: Zero Dark Thirty: The Facts and the Fiction

thinking about grace

Grace is not license to do whatever we want; grace is freedom to do whatever God wants.

everyone loves a parade

Last Friday evening, I rode in a parade through the streets of downtown Waterloo. I saw some of you along the route: Lee Jensen and all the Prescotts, Kurt Kaliban, and Grant and Klara Hornung. It was a beautiful early summer evening, a great night for a parade.

It was, of course, the My Waterloo Days parade. I rode in a black Toyota convertible with Frieda and Anna Mae Weems, invited to join them as a board member of the Cedar Valley Civil Rights Peace Walk Memorial Committee. This committee exists to promote the development of a Peace Walk memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington Park, to commemorate Dr. King’s visit to Waterloo in 1959 and to serve as a symbol of our community’s commitment to peace in the midst of an often fragmented and divisive society.

Thousands of Waterloo’s residents lined the streets of the parade route, watching and waving and cheering, and it was a thrill for us in the car, having the advantage of moving among all of them, to appreciate the scope and diversity of the crowd. We have a beautiful city! We are an emblem, a case in point, of the melting pot that is our nation. The parade brought together, side-by-side, rich and poor, mayors and street people, young children and old men, African-Americans and Bosnians and Africans and Hispanics and European-Americans. For a few moments, we existed, not in our isolated and separated neighborhoods and working places, but together, all of us sharing a parade, all of us sharing this beautiful summer evening.

It was a glimpse of what we are, as a community, as a people, a glimpse that convinces me all the more of the appropriate purpose of a memorial, a peace memorial to Martin Luther King, and of the honor it would be to have it here, in our neighborhood. Don Damon said he saw me that night in a TV report about the parade. He scolded me because I wasn’t smiling. Sorry, Don! But I am smiling now as I think about that parade and about all the people, all God’s beautiful children, I saw along the way …

not my world

We live in different worlds — still, worlds divided by color, and being divided by color, offering to those who live in them a sharply different range of options and possibilities.

For the past year or so, I have been part of a team working with local African-American parolees, trying to provide them a broader base of support and accountability as they make the transition back to life outside prison. I have come to understand during this brief experience that as a society we are sending them terribly mixed messages. We want them to “reintegrate,” to “rehabilitate,” to keep from re-offending, to get a job, to become responsible, contributing members of our communities, and yet, at the same time, the system, of which we are a part, keeps them from getting jobs, brands them as different and not like the rest of us, treats them as third-class citizens, offers them no realistic path toward reintegration or rehabilitation, not to say, reconciliation.

I read today an article in the latest issue of Christian Century, an interview by Amy Frykholm with Michelle Alexander, author of the 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Here’s a snippet of one of Ms. Alexander’s comments which pointedly illustrates the sort of world my African-American neighbors have to live in …

I believed, for example, that the explosion in our prison population could be explained primarily by poverty, poor schools and broken homes—conventional explanations offered by the media and mainstream politicians. Back then I thought that blacks were more likely to use and sell illegal drugs than whites. I thought that the War on Drugs was aimed primarily at rooting out violent offenders and drug kingpins. I also believed that although life might be difficult for people after they are released from prison, those who worked hard and had self-discipline could make it.

I came to realize that the explosion in our prison population, especially the explosion in the number of blacks in prison, is not driven by crime or crime rates. People of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at the same rates. The War on Drugs does not root out violent offenders. On the contrary, the people who come into the criminal justice system through the drug war are not violent and are arrested on relatively minor drug offenses—the same kinds of offenses that occur frequently in middle-class white communities and are largely ignored.

Those released from prison are trapped in a legal second-class status for life. Finding work is not just difficult after prison; it is downright impossible. Ex-offenders are locked out of the legal economy. They are denied access to public housing; they are denied food stamps. And to make matters worse, they are saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs—and often the need to pay back child support. Paying all of these fees can be a condition of parole.

I came to see that we have, yet again, created a vast new legal system for racial and social control, a penal system unprecedented in world history—a system that locks the majority of black men in many urban areas into a permanent underclass status. And yet we claim, as a nation, to be colorblind.