The drug war: where would Jesus stand? Who would Jesus jail?

There was a great story on Al-Jazeera America posted yesterday, regarding the push by faith leaders to end the war on drugs and establish more reasonable sentencing guidelines. The quote that ended the story hits home:

“We believe the greatest stimulus for the mass incarceration of our loved ones is the failed war on drugs that has spent billions and billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of lives, for primarily a public health issue,” said the Rev. Michael McBride, director of urban strategies at Lifelines to Healing in Berkeley, Calif. “Mass incarceration is the civil rights movement of our generation, and the faith community is at the forefront.”

Emphasis mine.

Let us remember the words of Matthew 25

34 … ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father,inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Jesus traveled with a diverse group of people, outcasts included. He told a crowd ready to stone an adulterer that if they looked deep within them, they would see their own hypocrisy. The New Testament emphasizes that no person is beneath redemption; a system that throws millions to rot in prison cannot be a just one. Yet today there are huge numbers of prisoners serving serious time, despite their crimes being small and non-violent.

When the decision comes, Jesus triumphed empathy towards prisoners, not condemnation. Those that rejected a religious duty not only damaged the prisoner that needed them, but also themselves.

It is good to see a diverse group of faith leaders come together to speak with a united voice. In some modern Christian circles there can be an undercurrent of hypocrisy- people who triumph life in one instance yet don’t find the injustice in war and capital punishment. Often I see pockets that seem more at home with the Old Testament than the New. I won’t generalize, it would be unfair of me; there are many who see the grave danger of mass incarceration, religious and non-religious.

Chart based on US Department of Justice statistics

I don’t believe in God, though I am a proud Unitarian Universalist, but I find great wisdom in the words and actions of Jesus. Often people put words in his mouth, use him like some use Martin Luther King Jr. to gain false credibility. There is a sense of power with this movement, that only comes when a group of people truly grasp the mission they need to embark on. There is not the sense of dissonance that accompanies some journeys, where the premise is twisted or unfair.

I’ve been involved in the prison reform movement for several years now- I founded reddit’s prison reform community (reddit.com/r/prisonreform) and marched during the hunger strike in California prisons that opposed solitary confinement The problem truly is massive, there needs to be a mass movement to counter it. Big problems demand big solutions. I’m glad to know there are religious leaders alongside other activists and the families affected by mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, and other policies that stuff existing prisons and demand the construction of new ones.

Noah: filling Biblical plot holes

This contains spoilers for Noah. Yes, it’s not just the Bible tale verbatim.

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Today I saw Noah. Overall I found the film engaging and well-constructed. It definitely is a Biblical film for the 21st century- drawing deep into the Apocrypha and willing to make the lead protagonist something more than a paragon of virtue in a wicked world. It wrestles with the whole Flood in human terms- what would it be like to be doomed as the flood began? And what would it be like to be one of the few who survived, but had to listen to the cries of the dying?

The Old Testament has known consistency issues. If one thinks of scripture as something more than a set of books, it would be trite to call them “plot holes”. Revelation is not plot. But there are lots of outstanding questions in Genesis, and the Noah story is no exception.

Director/writer Darren Aronofsky digs deep into both the Apocrypha and modern fantasy literature to create an alien antediluvian world- a time where fallen angels walked the earth, and artifacts from the Garden of Eden were still carried by Adam and Eve’s descendents.

Aronofsky solves a couple logistical questions people have about Noah. How did a single man and his small family create a giant wood boat the size of a cruiser? The fallen angels, turned into horrible rock monsters, help Noah (who clearly has the favor of God) to seek redemption. How did they get so many animals together? God sent divine rivers out across the world and called the animals to the Ark? How did they feed all of them? Noah and his family concoct a sleeping smoke that puts them all into hibernation.

The approach to the nuts-and-bolts issues in Old Testament scripture is interesting, and it is nice to see a Biblical film try to flesh out the realities of life in the time of Genesis. By far the largest, and most important effort in Noah is to clarify why Noah’s clan were selected by God (though in the film, “the Creator” is exclusively used), and why everyone else was so terrible that they needed to be purged from the Earth.

Genesis itself is incredibly unhelpful. Here is the entire explanation of the moral landscape, in Genesis 5:11-13:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.

Clearly things had degenerated to an awful point- using “corrupt” three times in two verses gives that impression. But besides being corrupt and violent, there is not much to go on. Noah is described as righteous and godly, but not much past that.

Noah centers its entire story and conflict around the differences between the two groups. It casts most of the world as descended from Cain- they are violent, wasteful, and have an insatiable lust for land, resources, and the flesh of any animal they can get their hands on. Noah, his wife, and their three sons are descended from Seth. They appear to not be not only vegetarian but do not rely on animals in any capacity. Noah preaches conservation- use only what is needed, and look after the Earth that God gave man.

The landscape of the film is desolate- whole forests cut down, mountains turned into vast now-abandoned mines. Animal and plan life is scarce because the people of Cain have used it up to create their technologically-advanced civilization- at least Iron Age. One could see God’s flood as an environmental necessity- Nature must defend itself from complete destruction. In this light, the central idea of the Flood becomes more acceptable. Noah understands responsibility and stewardship. He will be able to create a better world. That is why he is chosen.

Overall this helps one wrestle with the theology of the Noah story. While I am not a Christian, my beliefs and current participation in the Unitarian Universalist church make me sympathetic to the idea of a universally-loving god As written, the Noah story seems like God killing a vast number of people due to general grievances. Used to a modern system where guilty parties need to be tried in an evidence-based system, it feels odd to think of such a vague scenario as holding a critical moral and religious lesson. The argument in Noah is consistent and frequent- there is great danger in people who think of humanity as supreme, and all of Nature subservient and there to please and fulfill. Characters deal with the flood in a realistic way- drawn between their duty and their common ground with those said to be wicked. It is more satisfying, and the detail that Noah injects gives the whole tale depth and dilemma.

The film is not perfect, but I appreciated a narrative that attempted to supplement scriptural stories and provide a new idea of what the land that Noah and his kin saw was like. The myth is fully realized- it feels distant, yet the underlying themes draw in the modern audience.

 

Rohingya now face a different, but familiar hell

The big news in Southeast Asia has been the ejecting of Doctors Without Borders from western Burma. This comes due to a dispute with the government regarding their treatment of the stateless Rohingya people- which the Burmese government views as squatters and parasitic. From the linked story:

The BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, says MSF is one of the few agencies providing treatment for Rohingya who would otherwise be turned away from clinics and hospitals.

The government says that MSF has prioritised the treatment of the Rohingya community over local Buddhists.

The final straw may well have been MSF’s statement a month ago that they had treated people after an alleged massacre of Muslims by Buddhists near the border with Bangladesh, our correspondent says.

Displaced Rohingya have serious food security issues.
Credit: Andrew Stanbridge/Al Jazeera

The conflict between the Muslim Rohingya and mostly Buddhist surrounding people has gone on for decades, but the humanitarian situation has been especially dire recently.  I wrote a brief piece last year that is still as relevant today. These people also live in Bangladesh but face similar issues- at best, they are ignored. Two weeks ago a huge number of Rohingya fleeing by boat were intercepted by Thai authorities and sent back into the country they were fleeing from.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Now that I’m now through 100 posts, the one thing I’ve noticed is that though this was started as a Unitarian Universalist-tinged blog, it’s rarely directly about that. Quite a lot of time has been dedicated to issues of justice, equality, and minority rights. That fact that most of my essays here could be tied into one or more UU Principles if I had wanted to is probably good proof that I’m hanging out in the right religious community.

I met Marcella during a summer debate program in Washington D.C in 2008. While we didn’t converse all that much during the camp itself, through the magic of instant messaging we’ve become close friends and talked regularly through our respective college experiences. She let me read the final draft of her senior thesis about the history of anarchist guerrillas in Franco-era Spain- a fact I mentioned when I posted that amazing photo of Marina Ginestà.

For two or three years, her sister had been sick with very nasty, aggressive forms of cancer. Endured multiple cycles of treatment and remission, but it kept coming back. Eventually she went into hospice and died. It was hard on Marcella in a way I can’t understand nor properly articulate.

A few days later I messaged her on Skype. I offered what condolences I could, and found her in a bit of a crisis. Not only had the cancer been aggressive and in the long run incurable, her time in the hospice was ugly. Marcella had come back from graduation to see her go through her final days. She did not die the peaceful death we wish for ourselves one day. Quite the opposite.

And so Marcella talked with me about one of the great questions. The one that perhaps more than anything has led people to cease believing in god or a certain religious system.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

I offered my view on the matter, which might have been a bit blunt to some people but was well-received. Personally, I find some solace in there being no god- because then there’s no higher force that was supposed to prevent crap like this from happening.

In a purely naturalistic world, Marcella’s sister died because of chance- some people will get cancer in their lifetime, some will not. There are environmental factors, but a lot of it you can’t control. If you believe in a powerful god that should uphold all that is good and just in the world, you now have to rationalize what happened to your loved one. As she came from a devout Irish Catholic family, the “it’s God’s will” explanation was common. Ultimately, we both felt that imagining a higher power with such a strange, often unfair way of doing things just seemed wrong.

My paternal grandmother, a devout Presbyterian and the most pious and charitable person I’ve ever met, was diagnosed a few years ago with fast-moving small-cell cancer in multiple organs. The radiation therapy just bought her a year and a half, as there was no hope of eliminating it all. When she died, there were thousands of people her age that were healthy but also criminals, or selfish, or bigoted. If you look at things from a cosmic perspective, it seems deeply unfair.

Taking the question of why do bad things happen to good people (and vice-versa) and eliminating the supernatural element gives us a very different question. A question that Unitarian Universalists both answer and act through. Working towards sexual and racial equality, safeguarding the environment, giving poor students and the homeless the help they need to live and succeed- it’s all an attempt to give people the help they need when bad things happen to them, or prevent bad things in the future.

If we take the positions that the jury’s still out on the supernatural, and that the most concrete step towards justice is to create a Heaven on Earth, then the good and bad in the world become our personal concerns. There’s no chance to eliminate all the evil in the world, but much can be done to make things more fair and more free. When I look at the question why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t see a question of god, but a question of how the world works.

On the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism

I don’t know them. I know what they generally entail, having heard sermons and read them. But I don’t know them, can’t recite them, don’t know what #4 says versus #5.

In some ways this reminds me of the fact that sixty percent of Americans, which has a majority Christian population, can’t name half of the Ten Commandments. Also a fun fact

50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.

Does my ignorance of what the exact definition of the seven principles make me the same as a Christian who can’t name the four gospels, or a Jew or Catholic who can’t name most of their own versions of the Ten Commandments? It’s an open question.

But the sixty percent statistic also has another side- that people from non Judeo-Christian backgrounds are likely equally if not more ignorant of teachings within Judaism and Christianity- or their own faiths. The crossover of people of one faith being ignorant of another is something I’d like to say I at least beat the spread on. I for instance, can name half of the Ten Commandments: kill, steal, parents, wife, goods, monotheism, graven images. That adds up, if we include the fact that some of that is often merged, we get to at least five.

So while I don’t know the seven principles particularly well, I do consider myself decently aware of other religions. Zoroastrianism is a term I get at some level. Jainism and Shinto are schools of thought I have some knowledge of. I took a year of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, as well as a year of world religions in secondary school. While I haven’t read in full a major religious text,I do have most of the Gita and parts of the Old and New Testament under my belt. I often flirt with having a minor in religion just to get to read more relevant texts- I prefer it to traditional philosophy, which I find much denser.

So I submit to the public- it’s not really important that you’ve got your own creed backwards and forwards, the key is to be well-versed in other creeds. For it’s not the lack of knowledge of what we believe that causes conflict- most often it is the lack of knowledge of what others believe. I think much of that is self-evident in the current conflict between Islamic governments and the secular/Judeo-Christian West- mutual intelligibility. Which is interesting in an of itself that most of the conflict is between countries with Abrahamic backgrounds- but I would compare it to bringing Julius Caeser back from the dead to talk to a modern day Latin professor. They both speak ostensibly similar things, but it is likely they would have serious issues understanding one another.