Authority or Power?

Ta-Nehisi Coates helpfully differentiates between power and authority.

African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity. The skepticism of Officer Darren Wilson’s account in the shooting of Michael Brown, for instance, emerges out of lack of police authority—which is to say it comes from a belief that the police are as likely to lie as any other citizen. When African American parents give their children “The Talk,” they do not urge them to make no sudden movements in the presence of police out of a profound respect for the democratic ideal, but out of the knowledge that police can, and will, kill them.

Those – like me – who aren’t regularly plundered by this country (see this video for examples of what plunder as cultural appropriations can look like) can follow Coates’ reasoning, but there are good reasons why we struggle to actually believe it.

But for most Americans, the police—and the criminal-justice system—are figures of authority. The badge does not merely represent rule via lethal force, but rule through consent and legitimacy rooted in nobility. This is why whenever a liberal politician offers even the mildest criticism of the police, they must add that “the majority of officers are good, noble people.” Taken at face value this is not much of a defense—like a restaurant claiming that on most nights, there really are no rats in the dining room. But interpreted less literally the line is not meant to defend police officers, but to communicate the message that the speaker is not questioning police authority, which is to say the authority of our justice system, which is to say—in a democracy—the authority of the people themselves.

I’ve felt this strongly over the past few months, the need to qualify any criticism about unjust policing. There is such a strong pull to limit an unjust situation to its primary actors – a rouge cop, for example – in order to preserve the authority of the overall system. Austin Channing has observed this tendency and points out the regular practice of “balancing” after any criticism of authority: it “becomes necessary to also admit that there are problems in the black community- black on black crime, fatherlessness, poverty, etc…” But she’s not having it:

It is not that I am unwilling to talk about these other devastations that plague some communities of color. In fact, I welcome conversation about these realities. But you should know in advance that I don’t relegate the conversation on race to shootings and incarceration rates. Racism is far too effective, conniving, and complete to define only these. So lets talk about poverty, but lets do so without forgetting about slavery, jim crow, redlining, white flight, contract sales, and the extraction of wealth from generations at the hands of government, courts, real estate agents and landlords.

This is our challenge. It’s nearly impossible, within a society where the majority experiences respectful authority and many others experience oppressive power, to respond to injustice in a manner that will seem balanced to everyone. Thankfully, balance is not the goal for Christians, including we who are cozy with corrupt authority. No, the goal is truth. And if Jesus is any sort of precedent, in our pursuit of truth we’ll reject false authority and find our place on the receiving end of corrupt power. We’ll be in very good company.

“What we believe on the inside can never be removed from what we do on the outside.”

Yesterday evening I attended a poster show hosted by Iraq Veterans Against the War. I went with a friend who is a veteran and who has worked with this group for a long time. The posters were well done but this particular one caught my eye.

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Close-up of a poster from a show hosted by Iraq Veterans Against the War.

A portion at the bottom of the poster read:

Joshua was trained as an Aribic translator and worked as an interrogator at Abu Grahib prison from June 2004 to January 2005. During an interrogation in Abu Grahib, a 22-year old self proclaimed jihadist suggested that Casteel was not following his own Christian faith. “He said I wasn’t fulfilling the call to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies. When posed with that kind of challenge, I had nothing I could say to him. I absolutely agreed with him. My position as a U.S. Army interrogator contradicted my calling simply as a Christian.”

Joshua Casteel died from lung cancer a few years ago, likely from his exposure to chemicals at burn sites during the war. I am grateful for his costly witness to Jesus.

Martese Johnson and the Unimpressive Work of Justice

Martese Johnson was bloodied by the police on Wednesday. The UVA student is a graduate of Kenwood Academy, our neighborhood high school and the school my boys may very well attend a few years down the road. You’ll not be surprised to know that Johnson is Black. Hopefully you’ll also not be surprised to know that he is double-majoring in Italian and media studies, has no criminal record, and is on the university’s honor committee.

Martese JohnsonBlack Lives Matter. And yes, this still needs to be made plain.

I was thinking the other day about some of the emails and comments I’ve received since our church participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in our neighborhood. People have seemed impressed by that protest. (Others, I’m sure, had other opinions but they’ve mostly been polite enough to keep those to themselves.) I’m glad we protested. It was the right thing to do. But, relatively speaking, it wasn’t all that impressive. It cost us a couple of hours, some time in the cold, and maybe a confusing conversation with our children.

Important as it sometimes is, protesting is easy. Changing the system that allows for Martese Johnson to be bloodied by those meant to protect him is hard. Very hard.

There are ways our church is taking small steps to be on the side of justice and systemic change. Mostly it’s complicated and involves a lot of conversations, meetings, organizing, and prayer. It’s hard to capture in a blog post or photo.

One of the groups I’ve been meeting with will gather on Saturday for another conversations. Over the past months this diverse group has been a safe place for anger and lament. We’ve done our best to tell the truth- all of it. And now we are asking about the next steps we must take together. What can be practically done? How might we measure momentum and success in ways not tied to supremacist and consumeristic metrics? It’s tough and good.

The video below is one we’ve share with each other ahead of our meeting. In it Michelle Alexander makes the case for a new civil rights movement and, in her own way, shows why people of faith must be deeply involved.

Each time I hear an ugly story like the one involving Martese Johnson I’m forced to evaluate my priorities. Am I contributing to the system that allows this to go on, or have I found ways to hinder and subvert it? We’ve got a long, unglamorous road ahead of us filled with many important moments, some impressive and others not. In Michelle Alexander’s speech I hear the provocative challenge for Christians to take seriously the way of our Savior. It’s a way that seemed highly unimpressive in the moment yet it’s the only way to find life where there should only be death.

Franklin Graham’s “crude, insensitive, and paternalistic” comments.

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.

An Open Letter to Franklin Graham.

I’m grateful for these thoughtful folks – some personal friends among them – who took the time to respond to Franklin Graham’s condescending post from last week. I have nothing to add to what they’ve said so clearly and directly except this: Rev. Graham, you’re not helping.

The “bizarro-world” of Population Loss in Chicago

And that’s how we arrived at the bizarro-world reality that Lincoln Park actually lost roughly the same number of housing units as Englewood between 2000 and 2012.

You can see how dramatic the effect is by looking at population growth around the borders of downtown: where relatively loose downtown zoning holds sway, the number of residents boomed. But instead of gradually tapering off as you get further away, there are sharp drop-offs all around the central area. Often, a few blocks where the population grew by 50% or more are right next to a few blocks where population actually declined. In most cases, zoning plays a crucial role in those disparities.

But so what? Why does any of this matter?

For one, it matters because if the number of housing units in a neighborhood is capped, as that neighborhood becomes more desirable, affluent new arrivals will outbid existing residents and people of moderate income, pushing up housing prices and creating newly segregated enclaves. If we want regular people to be able to live in some of our safest, most transit-accessible neighborhoods, allowing the supply of housing to grow with demand is a crucial part of that affordability.

“Unnecessary population loss on the North Side is a problem for the whole city” by Daniel Kay Hertz.

This blog is a must-read for Chicagoans interested in how and why the city works the way it does.