The Common Good

The Grand Jury and the Rorschach Test

What do you see when you look at this picture?

In essence, that is the question St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch asked the grand jury to determine in his case against Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo.

According to an early report in TIME, McCulloch made an unusual move: He did not specify a specific charge for Wilson. 

In a recent phone interview, Denise Lieberman, co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition and senior attorney for the Advancement Project, explained to me: “Grand jury proceedings occur in private, so we don’t know exactly what’s been said … However, we’ve been told that the prosecutor is not making a recommendation to the jury about whether to indict and what charges … That is fairly unusual, if in fact that is true.”

Rather than specifying charges, two senior attorneys in his office are presenting all the evidence as it becomes available and letting the grand jury decide what charge(s), if any, that evidence warrants. McCulloch’s office claimed this process is fair because the grand jury, which is representative of the community of St. Louis, is able to see all of the evidence and then offer its decision.

According to Ed Magee, a spokesperson from McCulloch’s office, grand juries usually only review a few pieces of evidence. “Normally they hear from a detective or a main witness or two. That’s it,” Magee said in an early September interview with the Washington Post.

By presenting all the evidence to laypeople, reportedly without legal interpretation, McCulloch is basically raising a proverbial Rorschach to the grand jury and saying, “see what you see.” That is not a passive act in a society where 75 percent of people tested display some measure of unconscious racial bias.

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Ending Implicit Bias

The other night in Central Park, three African-American young men were stopped by a police officer and asked if they had or were selling drugs. The answer was “No!” They were three students from Columbia University making their way from the East Side to the West. This tale unveils the problem of implicit bias in our society today.

The reason the three college students were stopped in Central Park was because they were “walking while being black.” Because of New York’s stop-and-frisk practice that targets black and brown young men, a growing number of African-American and Latino youth are being introduced into the New York state criminal justice system daily.

The statistics are staggering. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites in the U.S. prison system. One out of every 15 African Americans over 18 years old are incarcerated, while 1 out of every 106 white males of the same age are incarcerated. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that there are more African Americans in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1865. As Jim Wallis has argued, racism is America’s original sin.

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My Sin, Your Sin: The Way to Freedom

After your recent relocation to a new city, you are invited to a local congregation by one of its members. After that first visit, you don’t find anything compelling you to come back to worship the following Sunday.

Now fast forward five years. For some unknown reason, you find yourself visiting that same congregation. But this time, it is obvious that something dramatic has happened; a new senior pastor has been called, and, in less than a year, the transformation of the church has been dramatic. The trend of slowly losing members has now stopped. To the delight of longtime members, almost every Sunday new people are accepting Christ or renewing their commitment to Christ. Vibrant children, youth, and family ministries are now in place. Ten percent of the budget is dedicated to local and global mission. People are growing deeper in their faith. The congregation of a little less than 400 begins to grow in such a way that during the following five years it reaches 1,600 members. This time around, you and your family decide to join this congregation. Your faith is reenergized and you feel like you are finally in the right place.

The story could end here and we could say, “This family happily and faithfully journeyed with this congregation for many years.”

There was only one problem in this successful congregation. 

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Forgive Us

I attended Catholic school for one year as a child. My second-grade year in Philadelphia’s St. Athanasius left me with a strong sense of the mystery of the church. The most mysterious space there was the confessional booth. I wasn’t allowed to enter because I wasn’t Catholic, so I just sat and watched others enter with pinched brows. Then they would exit with peace painted over their faces.

There is a scene in the book Blue Like Jazz where author Donald Miller sets up a confessional box in the center of the Reed College campus. But Miller’s confessional worked in reverse. Students of Reed, which is known as the most liberal campus in the country, entered the confessional booth with curiosity, cynicism, skepticism, or worse — to disprove this thing called Christianity. But what they encountered upon entry was disarming — even healing. Rather than prompts to confess their sin, Miller sat on the other side of the veil and confessed of the sins of the church. This was a revolutionary act in the context where, according to Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman’s modern classic, UnChristian, the general consensus about Christians is decidedly negative.

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Let Us Demonstrate to the World How Repentance Works

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” —2 Chronicles 7:14

Confession and repentance are messy and painful, and they don’t come natural to us. Our human heart is in a natural state of denial. Without an external agent, God, we are unable to recognize our prejudices, offenses, and sins.

In the previous text God speaks to God’s people, those whom God claims as God’s own. We belong to the Creator and to each other. That means that regardless of how we perceive others, and regardless of how others perceive us, bonds that can’t be broken tied us up. The relationship we share is held together by the very identity of God. Mother Teresa reminded us “we have forgotten that we belong to each other — that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister.”

It is necessary that we understand that this belonging is mutual. I belong to you and you belong to me. There is no escape; we can’t change this relationship. It is only when I recognize others and welcome them into my life that the fullness of God’s identity in me is revealed. No one is an outsider. No one should be left out at the door of my heart; to do so is to deny my God-given identity.

 
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Forgive Us, Lord

Often we do not know how our words and actions affect and harm others. However, ignorance is not an excuse. As the body of Christ, we must be willing to look deeply at the implications of the choices we make. When those choices cause harm – intentionally or unintentionally – we must repent and ask for forgiveness.

Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith was a cry from my heart and the hearts of my coauthors as we wrestled with what it means to be the church of “Good News” in the 21st century. So many people do not see the evangelical church from that perspective. The church – rather than being Good News – is often a painful place where broken people, judgment, and criticisms prevail.

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Engaging Ferguson's Youth with Humility and Repentance

“Get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity.” –1 Timothy 4:12 (The Message)

In our recent book Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong-Chan Rah, and I call the American church to a posture of repentance due to all the times we have not only been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of God.

As an organizer and director of the AMOS Project in Cincinnati, I’ve discovered that a humble spirit of repentance is critical to powerful work around racial and economic justice. There can be a strong temptation to replay colonialism by having all the answers and believing we are God’s gift to the oppressed. We white evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this arrogant path. Humility and a repentant spirit are key to a healthy engagement and partnership in our work.

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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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