The Common Good

God's Politics

What Faith Leaders Can Do To Help End the School-to-Prison Pipeline

September is often associated with the celebratory beginning of a new school year. It’s a time of hopeful anticipation for students, parents, and teachers filled with new school supplies and new friends.

In many communities, however, the beginning of the school year is a cause for concern and anxiety.

Instead of hallways filled with artwork and sports trophies, many students will walk into prison-like environments complete with metal detectors, and the presence of police and armed security officers. These officers have more than a chilling effect. They also have the authority to arrest students, often for minor misbehavior. When you couple the harshness of the school environment with zero tolerance policies that criminalize children’s non-violent infractions like being late to class, violating a dress code, or even chewing gum, one can begin to see the school discipline crisis.

The patchwork of overly harsh disciplinary policies that funnel children directly from the classroom to the juvenile justice system is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. In schools across America, students, especially students of color, who should be sent to the guidance counselor to find out what’s really wrong end up at the police station. These policies are expensive, unjust, and ineffective. They also lower academic achievement, lead to dropout, and do little to make schools safer.

Even more troubling, we find that the rules are different for children of color, who are punished more often and more severely than white students for the same offenses. These students are not behaving any worse than others, but they are disciplined at a higher rate because of racial bias. These same patterns we see in schools are also playing out in the criminal justice system: African Americans are imprisoned at higher rates and given more severe sentences than whites for the same offenses.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a moral and racial justice crisis. Solving the problem will require an all-hands-on-deck solution.

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Cradle-to-Prison vs. Kindergarten-to-Graduation

With a new school year upon is us it's appropriate to take a closer look at the troubling and complicated relationship between our nation’s public schools and its criminal justice system.

Growing up in an economically challenged neighborhood in Detroit, it still pains me to remember the sheer number of kids, disproportionately African-American boys, who passed through the juvenile detention system and would later go on to either spend time in prison or who are still in prison now. America’s criminal justice system was omnipresent.

The sad fact is that not much has changed. It’s actually gotten a whole lot worse. America represents less than 5 percent of the world’s population but we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Since the 1970s our prisons have grown by 700 percent. This growth has been most explosive and disproportionate among people of color. Looking at males over the age of 18, 1 out of every 15 African-American men and 1 in 36 Hispanic men in the United States are currently incarcerated. Meanwhile, only 1 in every 106 of white males over 18 are behind bars.

It’s tough to ignore the glaring racial disparities at the center of America’s prison industrial complex. As an African-American woman, Christian, and mother, it breaks my heart and, at times, even tests the limits of my faith. But I also believe in a faith that can move mountains. When it comes to our nation’s criminal justice system, we’ve got mountains to move.

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The Image of God vs. The School-to-Prison Pipeline

I walked across the school yard and through the ominous painted doors of St. Athanasius Elementary School for the first time. My mother and I had walked hand in hand the long city block from home to the school, across the school yard, through the entrance, down the hallway, heels now echoing against linoleum and lockers as the smell of chalk and mimeographed copies wafted from each classroom we passed.

We entered my second-grade classroom where I was greeted by the teacher who told me to take my seat four heads from the front. That seat was my second home for half of every day for a year.

I had high hopes for second grade. At the very least, I hoped it would be safe. It wasn’t.

The girl who sat behind me demanded 25 cents per day to be my friend — or else. But worse, the white woman charged with teaching our classroom full of African-American children ruled us as if we were in her military camp … or worse… prison.

My teacher once punched me in the back because I forgot to hand in an assignment — in second grade.

Now take that single act of aggression and magnify it: a punch in the back becomes a suspension, an expulsion, or an arrest. Then systematize it. Call it a “Zero Tolerance” policy and spread it across 90 percent of schools in the United States. Then apply the policy inequitably, such that African-American children are punished at higher rates and more severely than white children. That is what happened when the culture of severe punishment promoted by the Tough on Crime movement permeated education systems throughout the 1990s.

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The Blood Did It: Why Michael Brown's Death Was Different

One month ago, the city of Ferguson, Mo., was violently shaken by the shooting death of an unarmed black man whose name is Michael Brown, Jr.

This is not the first time we’ve stood in this place. Michael Brown has been added to the roll call of unarmed black people killed by those hired to protect and to serve. His name joins the names of:

John Crawford , an unarmed Ohio man gunned down inside of a Walmart while examining a toy gun sold in the store.

Eric Garner , an unarmed New York man killed, after stating several times that he was having difficulty breathing, by an officer using an illegal choke hold.

Sean Bell , an unarmed New York man shot multiple times outside of the venue for his bachelor party the night before his wedding.

Oscar Grant , an unarmed Oakland man who was handcuffed, face down, before he was fatally shot.

And so many more black lives, both male and female, ended by the reflexes of a legal system designed to police some and protect others.

So why did the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. ignite such a firestorm of rage in a region and a nation where slain black bodies are commonplace?

This is not one of those neighborhoods that cause political analysts to pontificate over “how something so tragic could happen here.”

These are not deaths that leave communities and congregations struggling to find deeper meaning and psychological factors that might have contributed to the tragic loss of life.

As a matter of fact, since the death of Michael Brown, there have been two killings of black men with documented mental challenges, Ezell Ford of Los Angeles and Kajieme Powell, killed only a few miles from the site of Michael Brown’s death. Yet there have been no roundtable discussions of the role of mental illness in our society sparked by these deaths.

What made Michael Brown’s death different?

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War Is Not the Answer

That was a bumper sticker Sojourners published at the outset of the Iraq war more than a decade ago. American church leaders had not only opposed the war but offered an alternative: "An Alternative to War for Defeating Saddam Hussein, A Religious Initiative." We not only presented it to Colin Powell’s personal council and Tony Blair, but also printed full-page ads in every major British newspaper the day before their Parliamentary debate and vote on the war. The U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Affairs, Clair Short, told me the only real alternative on the table in their Cabinet meetings was “The American church leaders’ plan,” which, she said, was seriously discussed. U.S. and U.K. leaders showed they were drawn to an alternative plan to war that would remove any weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein might have had (which he did not) and even to ultimately remove him from power but without going to war. Pope John Paul II was also opposed to the potential war. Both the Vatican and the American church leaders warned that the potential costs of a war in Iraq could include increasing the scope and threats of international terrorism. ISIS is that sad prophecy come true; the habit of war prevailed.

I have always believed that any alternative to war must still address the very real problems at hand — just in a more effective way. To say that “war is not the answer” is not only a moral statement but also is a serious critique of what doesn’t work; wars often fail to solve the problems and ultimately make them worse. War has to answer to metrics, just as more peaceful alternatives do. The war in Iraq was a complete failure with enormous human and financial costs; ISIS is now one of the consequences.

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Commemorating 9/11, Commemorating Christ

Churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2001, and people gathered on that day, and for some days later. There was a draw to sacred space in the midst of our everyday space being turned into dust–profane, unholy, hollowed out. The liturgies I attended in those days that followed were stripped down, bare, and profoundly vulnerable. The psalms were prayed. People wept together. We clung close. We resisted asking questions of meaning, and allowed ourselves to grieve, to lament.

A lot fewer churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2002. And even fewer today. The gravitational pull to gather in sacred space has waned. And it has become impossible, for the most part, to disentangle our liturgies from our politics. No longer gathering together out of unvarnished need for the divine presence, some of us gather now precisely to ascribe meaning to the unfathomable through the inextricable linking of nationalism with religion.

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On 9/11 Anniversary, a Survivor Seeks a National Day of Discussion

As a survivor of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I worry about how we will remember that tragic day 50, 100, even 200 years from now.

I worry because our nation does a poor job of commemorating our most historic heroes and events. Our efforts to honor history consistently lead to one of two disappointing outcomes.

Our official holidays have become increasingly commercialized. Consider the relatively recent exploitation of Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Virtually all other anniversaries have been marginalized. Consider how little attention is paid each summer to the July 20th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, one of humanity’s most impressive achievements.

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Ted Cruz Booed Off the Stage When He Touts Israel-Christian Solidarity

After he said “Christians have no greater ally than Israel,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was heckled off the stage at a Sept. 10 gala to raise awareness of beleaguered Mideast Christians.

Cruz, the keynote speaker at the Washington, D.C., dinner, sponsored by In Defense of Christians, a new organization spearheaded by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, prompted boos and cries of “stop it!” and “enough” and “no!” as an increasingly louder crowd told him to get off the stage.

The incident, first reported by the online news organization The Daily Caller, was captured on video by EWTN, the Catholic television network. The video shows that Cruz tried to continue speaking, but many in the audience, in a hotel ballroom, expressed anger when he included Hamas in the list of militants out to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East.

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“In Defense of Christians” Seeks to Protect Brethren from Egypt to Iraq

Watching ancient Christian communities stand nearly defenseless as Islamic militants roll across swaths of the Middle East, coalitions of Christians are banding together to sound the alarm and demand government action.

The most recent effort is a three-day conference (Sept. 9-11) in Washington, D.C., which gathered Orthodox Christians, evangelicals, Roman Catholics and others for prayer, speeches and a lobbying push on Capitol Hill.

“If Christian voices are able to ring out as one from Egypt to Syria to Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, then we really do believe it will be possible for Middle Eastern Christians to survive,” said Andrew Doran, executive director of In Defense of Christians, which organized the conference.

Doran, who describes himself as a Catholic with a great affinity for Orthodox Christianity, said the gathering has shown how Middle Eastern Christians can put aside their sometimes 1,500-year-old disagreements and take up the cause of their beleaguered brethren.

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From 9/11 to ISIS: Resolving the Paradox of the U.S. War on Terror

It’s been 14 years since our government declared war on terrorism. How are we doing? It feels like a disastrous game of Whack-A-Terrorist, doesn’t it? We kill one terrorist hiding in one hole, and out pops another one from another hole. Now we are facing the newest threat, a terrorist organization seeking to set up a nation-state, ISIS or IS, as its leadership prefers to be called. The Islamic State, at least, would be a concrete opponent. If they hold on to territory and establish a functioning government, we could at least declare war on a tangible target. Though regrettable it would at least make sense within the logic of war in which states fight other states.

In a recent article for Patheos.com, David French uses Christian Scripture as a justification for “responding to ISIS with wrath and vengeance.” French is a lawyer, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. He claims that, according to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, while individuals are called upon to love their enemies, there is no such call placed on governments. In fact, God has instituted governmental authority in order to execute his wrath against evildoers. And apparently, or so Romans 13 puts it according to French, to know who the evildoers are one simply needs to look at who governments are punishing. French quotes the relevant passage, Romans 13:3-5:

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [Emphasis added by French.]

French concludes that American Christians should have no difficulty determining the correct response to ISIS. Why? By the fact of determining that justice must be executed against ISIS, our government has determined that their violence is not only an offense against American citizens (he names the beheading victims, journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff) but against God himself.

French’s analysis strains credulity. Doesn’t he realize that the Romans to whom Paul was writing were themselves victims of government persecution? Does he think that these persecuted Christians felt they were being justly punished? And what about Paul himself, a Roman citizen who was persecuted and executed by the Roman government? Doesn’t French realize that by his own argument, the Roman authorities were executing God’s judgment against Paul? And by his own analysis, French is a captain in a military force that is from its origins a justifiable target for God’s wrath. Why? Because the founding act of the United States was a rebellion against a government, and “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2)

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