Category Archives: Lament

The Call towards Peace

Called towards Peace in a Culture of Violence

[originally published in the 2/11 issue of the Concord, the literary journal of Luther Seminary – St. Paul, MN]
[painting by Alex Roulette]

Driving past that spot became a sort of ritual for me – a litany my body would recite.  An act of devotion to a child who had been gunned down on a sidewalk I couldn’t, for the life of me, distinguish from the others around it.  A sidewalk I couldn’t distinguish from those I had grown up on two states away.

Weeks earlier the evening news had described details more concretely: South Side of Chicago, 15-year-old African American boy, sophomore in high school, robbed at gun point, fatally shot in the chest.  Within hours of the initial report he had a name: Marquell Blake.

In any sensible world these details alone would have been enough to unhinge an average day.  Chicago though, like many American cities, has been awash in tragic details all too similar to these in recent years.  By April, Marquell Blake was the 32nd Chicago Public School student shot and killed in the 2008-2009 school year.  Several journalists had already remarked that the death rate of students from Chicago was 24 times higher than that of soldiers from Chicago serving in combat zones in Iraq.

Even so, it wasn’t until I heard the final detail that something shook loose within me: 7700 block of South Carpenter Avenue.  This shooting had occurred a mere four blocks from the church where I had been doing my internship for a Masters in Urban Ministry through SCUPE and Luther Seminary.  Something about the proximity to a place that had become dear and personal to me through daily work and connections meant that I couldn’t just excuse this as just another tragedy in another part of town.

In Auburn Gresham I had heard the stories of the diligent work of tireless community members to better their neighborhood, had heard the sermons and the press conferences calling city and church leaders to no longer simply provide the vigils and eulogies after acts of violence but to actively work to prevent violence.  This was a community like all of the others I had lived in: people cared for each other and came together to address mutual concerns.

Suddenly, I came to see that I had been sold a false bill of goods.  Since childhood, I had been taught that some neighborhoods were safe and some weren’t.  It was implied that, as long as I stayed within the respectable racial, cultural, and socio-economic borders I would float through life excused from the impact of violence.  This de facto division of the world into safe and not safe, into good neighborhoods and sketchy neighborhoods, was as a veil drawn over my eyes.

In a flood, I recalled the teenager who was shot dead on his bike just up the hill from my childhood home in suburban Minneapolis.  I saw the face of the middle school student in pristine Rochester, MN who had taken his own life with his father’s rifle.  I felt a pang go up my side like I used to get on long runs with a friend who abruptly ended his own life after returning from active duty to civilian life with his family.

Now I am convinced: there is no safe and no unsafe America.  We all breathe the common cultural air of our environment and that air is currently polluted with the toxins of violence.  On streets, in families, in schools, at our borders and across the oceans, America has come to rely on the intoxicating atmosphere of violence often as a pathway to power (individual, institutional, international, etc.) but sometimes merely senselessly.  As a result, we have lost the creativity and hope to imagine a world that doesn’t opt for violence as a first resort.

Prior to the recent shootings in Tucson, Arizona, faith leaders had been wrestling with concerns over an ever increasing tolerance for violent rhetoric, random shootings, domestic violence, and war zones as they prepared for a conference on violence in March of 2011.  The unrest and concerns of these religious leaders have been highlighted by the tragic events in Tucson and the continuing gun and community violence in Chicago and other metropolitan areas.

It is in critical times such as these that faith and community leaders from across the nation will gather at the SCUPE Congress on Urban Ministry to commit ourselves towards Peacemaking in a Culture of Violence.  The faith community is finally finding its collective voice on this issue – teachers, social workers, psychologists, and law enforcement have all weighed in – but the church has not.  Now is the time for faith institutions to join in action and in voice on actively resisting violence in our streets, in our cities, and throughout our nation.

Theologians and faith leaders like Walter Brueggemann, Shane Claiborne, Renita Weems, James Forbes and Michael Pfleger have answered our call to be prophetic voices of peace at the conference.  What is needed now are individuals committed to adding their voice to the growing call for peace by participating in the gathering.

As future and current church leaders will you join leaders from communities all across the nation in taking a stand against violence and discerning a path forward in which our churches can play a vital role in creating a more peaceful future for all people?

We hope to hear your voice at the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry.

For more information please visit: www.congressonurbanministry.org

Peacemaking in a Culture of Violence


Speak Life Spoken Word

Another local opportunity has come to my attention for those of you in the Chicago-land area.  Speak Life will use poetry and prayer to lift up the epidemic of violence in our city.

Speak Life spoken word event


Oscar Grant: Murder as Accident

Last January I was in Berkeley taking an urban ministry class entitled “Refuge in the City” with Bishop Yvette Flunder.  Earlier that month, January 1st in fact, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22 year-old African American man, was shot in the back by a transit officer on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station.  Video capturing the shooting showed Grant subdued by numerous officers, lying facedown on the platform, when he was shot by the officer above him.

Public outrage, protests, and rioting occurred in Oakland in the aftermath of the released cell phone footage captured by at least one passenger on board of a stopped train as the incident played itself out the nearby platform.

Was this lethal use of force a tragic accident or a brutal abuse of police power?  The question still lingers.

The way it comes across in the video it’s pretty hard to image a justifiable circumstance for shooting this young man.  However, footage can be deceiving, especially grainy, cell phone footage.  The officer, Johannes Mehserle, claimed that Grant was struggling and reaching into his pocket so he fired his .40 caliber pistol which he mistook for his stungun.  BART transit officers carry two firearm shaped weapons: the pistol on the right side of their body and a X26 Taser on the left side.  Defense for officer Mehserle claimed that he never received adequate training with the taser while the prosecution highlighted how different the actions of pulling the gun versus pulling the taser would have been.

40 Caliber Pistol & X26 Taser

40 Caliber Pistol & X26 Taser

When I talked to friends back home no one had heard of the shooting.  I was shocked at the lack of coverage in the national news, especially in the face of substantial riots in Oakland.  Flash forward to this July.  The transit officer has just been convicted of involuntary manslaughter – not murder.  The outrage in Oakland is back and so is the lack of coverage… and when the media does cover the story they focus on the symptoms of rioting and looting rather than the injustice which caused them.

While it is shameful to use justifiable outrage and protests as an excuse for rioting and looting, it is just as shameful to use the rioting as a smoke screen for a frank and honest civic discussion of this incident and the verdict.  Something was horribly wrong about this story back in January of 2009 and something is still horribly wrong in August of 2010.

Reaction to Verdict of Johannes Mehserle

People React to the Verdict on July 2, 2010

If the media remains committed to its usual subterfuge and avoidance of critical engagement with vital issues of our day, something must be done.  Is there another forum we can foster where this public discourse can happen?  I suggest that we both hold our media accountable to its vocation as a source of news, dialogue, and thoughtful discernment as well as begin work to create our own forums and open spaces for these lifebloods of democracy.  Democracy itself might just be in the balance.

Jail Killer CopsHere is a New America Media article wrestling with the taser vs. pistol defense and a brief write-up (and link to the aforementioned video) from Mother Jones that doesn’t seem interested in mincing words when one of the words is murder.

Also, here is a podcast that discusses the incident and repercussions in depth and addresses the racial undertow that makes these set of events possible.  The podcast is hosted by a wonderful and fiery author, cultural analyst, poet, essayist, and activist Ewuare Osayande.


Who Decides when Enough is Enough?

Cover article from a recent Chicago newspaper

Like many other large American cities, Chicago has been rocked by incidents of violence on such a regular basis that many residents simply seem to have tuned it out.  Sure, every now and then some report of recent violence will raise the collective eyebrows of the masses but, for the most part, most seem resigned to suffer the violence of this grand city or unmoved because this violence has yet to affect them or their community.

With the recent shooting of Michael Bailey, a well-loved police officer who was due to retire in a few weeks, many Chicago-ans are being reawakened to the crisis.  The reports say that many have simply had enough.

Many others, though, had enough months or years ago…  And even now, with the renewed interest and political power of a population that is half frightened and half outraged, it isn’t clear that a solution to the epidemic of violence is any nearer.

Eulogizing at the funeral services for Bailey last Friday, Father Michael Pfleger spoke passionately about the need for the transformational involvement of citizens rather than passive by-standing that stems from fear and indifference.  Pfleger, a friend of the Bailey family, combined a moving remembrance of the slain officer with inspiring and resolute words calling people to individual and communal action.  Not one to let the chance to make a point slip by, Father Pfleger also broadened the focus by citing public policy issues like the ease of handgun availability and a proposed law that would title handguns like states title automobiles.

Continuing a familiar theme that seems consistently to fall upon deaf ears, Pfleger restated his conviction that violence in America has reached epidemic levels: “People dying in the streets of urban America is a national emergency!”  (ABC currently has footage of the entire eulogy on their website)

What remains to be seen is if the lament and outrage of cities like Chicago, overwhelmed with violence and fed-up with things seeming only to get worse, will lead to the awareness and urgency that leaders like Pfleger are calling for.

Will the outrage over the recent shootings of three Chicago police officers (3 in 2 months) be strong enough to spark the transformation that the shootings of Chicago Public School students (508 shot in 16 months) couldn’t?


McDonald vs. Chicago – Supreme Court Decision pt. 1

The Chicago pseudo-newspaper/tabloid RedEye released graphics mapping Chicago’s 2010 homicides in today’s issue.  The statistics are disheartening enough when put in terms of numbers, 217 homicides in 6 months, but when you see it on a map it’s downright overwhelming.  You can visit RedEye’s interactive homicide map and even though the view is by month I will link, eventually, with the map for all of 2010 so far.

RedEye Homicide Map 2010 Through June

This perspective revealing the scope and embeddedness of violence in Chicago comes little more over a week after the United States Supreme Court ruling that effectively makes Chicago’s 28 year-old ban on handguns null and void.  While the city has countered by enacting various restrictions to help counter the rulings potentially disastrous outcome for Chicago an unavoidable feeling that there is less and less citizens and local governments can do in the face of this relentless American gun culture.

We can look to the proliferation of Conceal & Carry as evidence that guns are becoming more and more “available” around our nation:

“All but two states have legalized at least some form of concealed carry,
with most allowing any citizen who qualifies
(no felony criminal record, meets a certain age requirement,
and can qualify with a firearm) can get a permit.”
– conceal carry.org

Those who are not quick to believe that “more guns means more safety” are being backed up against a wall where the  foolishly simple solution of more guns is increasingly becoming gospel truth.  I use that word gospel quite seriously.  The brilliant Gary Laderman article “Hate the Sinner, Love the Gun” proposes that America’s love of their guns is more than even culture… it is religion… and “the gun is the religious object par excellence”.  While the article will probably provoke some readers by its boldness it does do the essential task of translating a stale, vapid, dumbed-down debate into a deep and rich new terrain.

This is the intention of the upcoming 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry, to engage with the violence in our culture in a multi-faceted, multi-leveled manner that doesn’t ignore the complexity of social realities.  We not only believe that the problems we face are complex but that the gospel of Jesus can challenge, heal, and redeem these complexities.  Even as we await with Eschatological hope the coming reign of the Prince of Peace we strive to reawaken and re-emphasis the peacemaking that is inherent in the Way of Jesus in every good day given to us.

Daley at the '68 Democratic National Convention

One good piece that has helped give depth and breadth to my wrestling with issues of handgun-control is the two WBEZ produced shorts on the history/evolution of Chicago’s handgun ban.  As well as being incredibly informative, the presentation is remarkably even-handed.  Wherever you stand on issues of handgun-control I am sure you will appreciate the complexity they engage because,  as I recently overheard at lunch in a busy restaurant, “Wherever there is a large complex problem there is a short simple solution… that is wrong”.

Oh, and seriously, read that Laderman article!


National Guard in Chicago?

In the month since SCUPE announced the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry, violence in the form of homicide has increased in Chicago (home to the upcoming Congress).  A little over a week ago Chicago saw 7 deaths and 18 wounded in one night – predominantly by gunfire.  Outbreaks of violence have raised the profile of the issue across the nation, especially in light of two Illinois State Representatives (John Fritchey and LaShawn Ford) making a public plea for Governor Pat Quinn to call in the National Guard to cap the violence.  The proposed solution, which isn’t expected to gain much traction with average citizens or government officials, reveals an inability to engage the epidemic of urban violence on anything but a surface level.

As SCUPE continues planning and organizing for March 1 – 4 of next year, we are mindful of the vital potential of this gathering.  The theme for the 2011 Congress will be “Peacemaking in a Culture of Violence” and it will seek to address the violence flaring up in our society from a Christian perspective.  We believe that the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry will be one of the most important in the 30 plus year history of the Congress, for rarely has the focus of a Congress aligned so drastically with a pertinent and urgent need in our society.

We cannot effectively respond to the violence in our homes and in our streets if we do not respond to the violence in our culture.  By engaging with both the tragic instances of violence and the interconnected systems that promote and sustain this violence, we will expand our vision for action and the effectiveness of our response as Christians.

As Christians we believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ speaks directly to the violence in our lives and in our culture, and that this gathering can be serve both as a refocusing and a re-dedication towards this pressing, radical, and beautiful gospel message.

“So far this year there have been 113 murders reported homicides, according to Chicago police statistics.  During that same period New York has had 139 murders and Los Angeles recorded 199, although both cities have larger populations.  The number of casualties Chicago has so far this year is only slightly higher than last year at this time, 109, and less than the 134 for the first four months of 2008.”[1]


[1] http://abcnews.go.com/US/illinois-lawmakers-request-national-guard-stop-crime/story?id=10478710


Insurrection

Peter Rollins

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to be one of about a hundred people crammed into the upper room (how biblical) of Trace pub here in Chicago for an evening of poetry, song, dj-ism, philosophy, and some of the most courageous and dis-lodging theology I have recently encountered.  The evening, promoted as a “provocative cocktail of incendiary theology, haunting soundscapes and musical lament”, did not disappoint.  Poet/singer songwriter Pádraig Ô Tuama held court with his arresting verbal imagery and “sad stories and sadder songs but with funny stories in between” while artist/DJ Jonny McEwen provided a musical backdrop that held the evening together like a liturgy.

The real draw for me, and most of us there I suppose, was the esteemed and inspiring Peter Rollins.  Peter has any number of things going for him.  First off, Peter is a master story teller.  He weaves narrative a parables (like those in his most recent book The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales) that are effortlessly compelling and, more importantly, impel the listener to paradigm shifts that lead to action.

The second thing Peter has going for him is that he is much smarter than you or and I.  He has a wide and deep understanding of the philosophical and theological conversations that have been going on for centuries and well as a willingness to infuse our current context into the discussion.  Pair this with a wicked adeptness for communication complex ideas with ease and you end up with a situation not unlike someone accurately explaining to you in 30 seconds a ten minute conversation you’ve overheard in a foreign language you don’t speak (like this scene from Lost in Translation).  Long-winded analogies aside: you will like what you hear from Peter, you will be challenged by what you hear from Peter, you will be changed by what you hear from Peter.

The last thing Peter has going for him is that he speaks with the most intriguing and beautiful Irish brogue.  It is so pleasant to the ear that I’d probably listen to a recording of him snoring just so long as the accent came through.

Peter Rollins at Trace Pub - Insurrection 2010

There isn’t enough space here to give this Insurrection experience its fair dues.  Primarily, this is because the evening itself was fashioned like a communal parable.  It provoked, inspired, confused, empowered, and moved those of us in that room precisely with its undefined edges and opaque core.  In a way that church seldom even approaches these three liturgical rabble-rousers allowed the mystery of the divine and the resurrection the breathe into the room instead of merely stopping short at trying to explain or classify.  It really was an upper room experience.

Instead of trying to force this mystery into words, allow me to post a few audio moments from the evening so you can experience it yourself.

Audio from the abbreviated NYC Insurrection here.

Insurrection review article: ‘In an Upper Room’ by Devin Bustin