How Do We End a Culture War?

In June 1996 the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hundreds of locals were present in protest of the event, and rightly so. The KKK has, since its inception, been a force of racism and bigotry. One protestor present that day was 18 year-old Keshia Thomas.

During the protest someone announced over a megaphone that there was “a Klansman in the crowd” The man was quickly knocked to the ground and kicked and hit with placard sticks.

As people shouted, “Kill the Nazi,” Keshia Thomas, fearing that mob mentality had taken over, decided to act. Thomas threw herself on top of the man she had come to protest, protecting him from the blows.

When asked about her actions, Thomas said, “Someone had to step out of the pack and say, ‘this isn’t right’… I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me… violence is violence – nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea.”

This photograph was named one of Life magazine’s “Pictures of the Year” for 1996

Now, contrast Keshia Thomas’ story to that of Bahar Mustafa, the diversity officer at Goldsmith’s University whose job it is to promote good relations and practices towards different minority groups. Mustafa’s job is currently under scrutiny after she tweeted “kill all white men”. She sought to justify her actions by arguing that this phrase and others that she’s used are a way to “reclaim” power for minorities and women. Mustafa seems to believe that such sayings are appropriate weapons against racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry, perhaps made all the more potent for their shock value and aggressiveness.

I offer these stories as examples of some of the ways we have come to confront the specter of racism. The first is a story of love, the second, of cultural warfare. I don’t know if Keshia Thomas is Christian but it certainly would come as no surprise because her actions exhibit precisely what all Christians are called to do. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us clear instructions on how to deal with our enemies saying, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” He continues, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Keshia Thomas had the opportunity to hurt someone she thought hated her, or even to stand by and watch as others did it but instead she protected him. She responded to hate with love and gave mercy for bigotry. In a political sphere entrenched in a culture war this is not the kind of response that most American politics, conservative or progressive, demands of us, but it is what Jesus demands of us and as Christians that’s something we should take far more seriously.

Mustafa said only BME (black and minority ethnic} women and non-binary people were allowed to attend an anti-racism event.

Mustafa’s confrontation of course represents another extreme. Like Thomas, Mustafa protests the evils of bigotry but hers is a justice without mercy in which hate is traded for hate and bigotry returned in response to bigotry. In contrast to the love Jesus demands we show our enemies, these tactics are meant to silence, shame and destroy. They are weapons of war that hurt the innocent and the guilty alike. Mustafa’s statement “kill all white men” is reminiscent of the Massacre of Beziers. In 1209, after the city had been taken by Christian crusaders there was the question of what to do with the enemy as the innocent of the city were mingled among them. One abbot allegedly said “kill them all and let God sort them out” which is precisely what happened. Mustafa’s flippant tweet shares the same sentiment that abbot expressed 800 years ago.

The metaphor of war in describing our cultural encounters is evident everywhere. Opponents on hot-topic issues like abortion and homosexuality are often portrayed as being at war with one another and one need merely turn on the TV to witness a constant barrage of angry epithets from both sides. Divisive language meant to garner support from one side and dehumanize the other are frequently employed: categorizations like “makers” and “takers” for example. Accusations of racism , sexism, freeloading, and even communist conspiracy abound. Any advantage that can be obtained to help your side or hurt theirs will be used. Like destroying a small business owner’s livelihood when they refuse to bake you a cake. In the culture wars there are only two kinds of people. There are the good guys and then there’s everyone else.

While the rhetoric of war may be an effective tactic in ginning up support for one’s cause, when it comes to overcoming bigotry and establishing ourselves as a peaceful and tolerant society such weapons are ultimately self-defeating. To realize such a society means giving up the win-at-all-costs, scorched-earth mentality; it means seeing our opponents, not as enemies to destroy, but as humans in need of love. The culture wars and a tolerant society are incompatible because to achieve such a society means being willing to sometimes back down from a fight, even lose, rather than demonize and scapegoat the enemy. It means turning the other cheek and walking a mile in another person’s shoes

Ultimately, we may not be meant to win the culture war but we are called to end it. Such a tremendous task can only be accomplished by an equally radical commitment to love as Jesus taught us. The division and hurt present in our nation today will not be healed by epithets or witty remarks but by genuine encounters with our “enemies” in which we say, “you are loved.”

Capital Punishment – Blinded by Vengeance

Last week, I read a chilling article from The Atlantic titled The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett. The author, Jeffrey Stern, in one of the best written I’ve ever read (on any topic), shares just how corrupt and unethical capital punishment is in this country. Corruption and ineptitude that led to prisoners being administered inadequate and untested cocktails of drugs by unqualified personnel, culminating in the torturous executions of multiple inmates.

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In a post-holocaust world, Conservative politicians want to execute people in gas chambers.

The Supreme Court is currently ruling on a case involving the botched executions of three inmates in Oklahoma, including Clayton Lockett. Undeterred from their blood lust, Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma passed a law in April allowing for execution by gas chamber just in case the Supreme Court rules that lethal injections are unconstitutional. That’s right, in a post-holocaust world, Conservative politicians want to execute people in gas chambers. It should cause us serious alarm when the champions of capital punishment tend to be “pro-life” Christian Conservatives with 76% of Republicans favoring the death penalty for convicted murderers.

There is no adequate justification or defense of the death penalty in the United States today – especially if one is calling themselves a Christian. The reasons are numerous, not only in variety but in kind – ethical, theological, and economic arguments for the abolition of capital punishment are legion.

Pragmatically, it’s a fact that death row inmates cost states more than those serving life sentences, in some cases three times as much. Additionally, there’s no evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime. Furthermore, we are killing hundreds of innocent people because 4% of those on death row are likely innocent, this fact alone should be enough for to stop us from implementing the irrevocable punishment. And if these facts are convincing enough then we must consider that 3-7% of executions are botched with inmates screaming in agony as their given unreliable drugs prescribed, not by a doctor, but by the prison’s warden or attorney.

The sheer evil and stupidity of capital punishment is even more evident for Catholics living in the United States. Quoting Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Catechism states that while the teaching of the Church does not outright prohibit the death penalty, but only if there are no other means to protect innocent people from violent criminals. The Catechism continues:

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means…Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent” (CCC 2267).

In other words, the only way that a Catholic in the US can licitly support capital punishment, no matter how heinous the crime, is if it can be proved that there are no other means to protect society from the convicted criminal. Otherwise one would be contradicting the Catechism, St. John Paul II, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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The death penalty, like abortion, is an issue where Catholics, along with other reasonable people, are blinded by self-interest.

The death penalty, like abortion, is an issue  where Catholics, along with other reasonable  people, are blinded by self-interest. In the case of  abortion we can’t see past the inconvenience of  having a baby and the restriction that pregnancy  puts on our sexual preferences and practices.  Likewise, we are blinded to the evil of capital  punishment by our desire for vengeance and the  “need” to see bad men suffer. Like the prophet  Jonah who lamented over God sparing the city of  Nineveh, we have such a desire to see the wicked  suffer that we make viewing areas for executions.

So, when confronted with a convicted murderer and terrorist like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, do we fall blindly into lockstep with the jury and all who wish to see Nineveh burn for it’s crimes? Or do we look on this man with the eyes of Christ?

Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”(Matthew 25:34-36)

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We are commanded to look at the incarcerated and see the face of Christ.

Our Lord explicitly identifies himself with the terrorist, thief, murderer, rapist – thus we are commanded to look at the incarcerated and see the face of Christ. How does a Christian respond to the evil of the Boston Marathon bombings? I think the Jesuit priest, Fr. James Martin, said it well in a recent Facebook post:

You don’t have to feel much pity for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I don’t. But that doesn’t mean that his life is not sacred. And the more I live as a Christian, the more I am convinced of this truth: every human life is utterly sacred.

Tonight let us pray for the victims of the Boston bombings, both living and dead; for those who mourn the dead and comfort those who were so terribly injured; and also, difficult as it may be, but as Jesus commands us when he asks us explicitly to pray for our enemies, for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

 

Linked sources and further reading:

  • The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett
    – http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/06/execution-clayton-lockett/392069/
  • Lethal injection case exposes U.S. top court’s death penalty divide
    – http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/29/us-usa-court-deathpenalty-idUSKBN0NK1EP20150429
  • The Trouble with Oklahoma’s New Execution Technique
    – http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/oklahoma-death-penalty-gas-chamber-117156.html#.VVzh2vlVhHx
  • Americans’ Support for Death Penalty Stable
    – http://www.gallup.com/poll/178790/americans-support-death-penalty-stable.aspx
  • The slow death of the death penalty
    – http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21601270-america-falling-out-love-needle-slow-death-death-penalty
  • 1 In 25 Death Sentence Prisoners Is Likely Innocent, Study Finds
    – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/28/death-sentence-prisoners-_n_5229094.html
  • 7 Things You Should Know About The Death Penalty, Even If You Support It
    – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/15/death-penalty-boston-bomber_n_7294748.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000013
  • Evangelium vitae
    – http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church
    – http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm
  • Having the wrong debate about the boston marathon bomber
    – http://www.catholicvote.org/having-the-wrong-debate-about-the-boston-marathon-bomber/
  • Death penalty / Capital punishment
    – http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/death-penalty-capital-punishment/
  • Fr. James Martin’s Facebook Page
    – https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin
  • Killing Capital Punishment
    – https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/death-penalty-public-support-firing-squad/
  • Dzokhar Tsarnaev Gets the Death Penalty
    – http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/05/dzokhar-tsarnaev-death-penalty/393446/?utm_source=SFFB
  • There’s still no evidence that executions deter criminals
    – http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/04/30/theres-still-no-evidence-that-executions-deter-criminals/

 

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and the Director of Religious Education in small town USA. He’s studied just enough Theology to get him into trouble. Click here to see his other posts for The Porch.