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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Everyone Wants Affordable Housing--But How to Do It?

One sure thing came out of today's Durham City Council work session discussion on agenda item 29:  Affordable housing draws strong support from Durham's City Council.  What kind of development to carry out is where there is disagreement.  Some support a Durham Can proposal for a development that could provide 80-100 units of housing affordable for households making 40% to 60% of the Area Median Income, which would be up to $43,000 for a household of two people.  Working class, lower end of the middle class--about  40% of Durham's population is below that threshold.  They are people with steady jobs, earning a salary or a high hourly wage, starting families, building careers.  They are the backbone of our community.

Others insist any development should have a wider range of incomes, including some above the AMI.  One comment from Mayor Bell praised a development that has 40 units above AMI and 100 units below AMI.  That calculates to over 70% below AMI, and certainly there should be room for much or most of that to include the targeted population of 40 to 60% of AMI.

Others spoke in more vague language of "some" affordable housing.  Reasonably, a mixed-income development which targets affordable housing would not fall below offering homes to at least 15% of resident families who make below 60% of AMI.  But I think we can do better than that. 

The only sort of sour note in the conversation was the way that some people implied that Durham CAN was proposing to build a Cabrini-Green Homes style of housing structure.  The comparison is far off base.  Unlike that infamous Chicago development of thousands of highly concentrated public housing units, this proposal is for no more than 100 units.  It is not a public housing project, but a private venture supported through a public partnership.  The target income range, while below AMI, is at 40% AMI a higher base level than Habitat for Humanity housing (starting at 30% AMI) and has the same upper limit at 60% AMI.  Although I do not see why providing housing for very low income residents should be a problem for downtown planning, that is not what this particular proposal aims to do.  On the east end of downtown, Durham is having good success in building strong neighborhoods with even very low income levels. Higher income citizens are eagerly moving into East Durham.  People are not destined to remain so divided, unless market forces work alone to shape housing.  Several speakers praised diversity.  But diversity is exactly what current downtown development is preventing.

In conjunction with adjacent buildings, it would be part of a mixed-income neighborhood strategy and a strong head start to catch up with the goal of 15% affordable housing near the transit station.  Right now there is 0%, and none planned in the "pipeline" of development that will lead to 2200+ units within a half mile of Durham Station.  Even 100 units will be less than 5% of the goal for affordability.  There is much more to do, and getting this development underway will be a good start.

I remember getting a list of salaries for professors at one of the area universities a few years ago.  Barely a third of faculty at this historic university would make a salary above 60% of the AMI.  These are committed, hard-working, highly intelligent, community-minded citizens, many of whom live in Durham.  They are strong contributors to any community.  I think people like these university professors, along with school teachers, artists, construction workers, police officers, mechanics, and others who would fall in this income category are exactly the kinds of citizens we want living in any of our neighborhoods.

I believe there is still an opportunity to make this project happen at Durham Station.  Either Durham CAN's proposal or some other version of a development including significant affordable housing is right for this property.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Cooper Should Have Retried the Officer Who Killed Jonathan Ferrell

NC Attorney General Roy Cooper says that the killing of Jonathan Ferrell by Charlotte police officer Randall Kerrick fits the legal description of manslaughter.  He says the killing was illegal because the officer clearly went against department policy.  Even so, he believes he and his prosecutors are right not to retry the case after the first trial ended in a hung jury.

Cooper justifies his position by saying that the prosecutors made the best case possible for conviction.  He says that the eight of twelve votes for acquittal from the jury is a strong indication that a retrial, lacking any powerful new evidence, would fail again.  He says the difficulty of getting an indictment of Kerrick in the first place, when there was no case made by the defense, is another reason to believe that getting a conviction is highly unlikely.

Ministers from Charlotte, NC, came to Raleigh to ask Cooper to change his mind in this case.  They made quite compelling arguments in favor of pursuing a retrial.

1.  The duty of a prosecutor is to pursue a verdict when a crime has been committed.  Cooper said that he and his prosecutorial staff agree on this: "the elements of the crime of voluntary manslaughter were met by the facts and the law in this case."  A grand jury believed they saw enough evidence to call for a trial to determine whether the officer committed a crime.  It is not the duty of the prosecutor to predict in advance whether a case can win, nor to choose not to prosecute some crimes, especially crimes as serious as voluntary manslaughter.  It is an abdication of duty to decide now that a previous hung jury means that there cannot ever be a conviction.  Still that is what the AG Office's statement said: “Meeting the standard of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt could not be achieved.”

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/crime/article32625516.html#storylink=cpy

2.  A hung jury has not spoken.  It has, for all intents and purposes, remained silent.  A mistrial is not a trial.  A jury that gives no verdict is a discussion group.  In the words of Rev. William Barber, II, "A hung jury is not a spoken jury."  Yet AG Cooper said, "We need to listen to what the jury said."  They did not say anything, or perhaps what they did say was gibberish.  They have not spoken anything that the public can understand.  They have thrown up their hands and passed the decision on to others.

3.  Pursuing justice is not something to give up on.  Even granting the pessimism expressed by Cooper concerning a retrial, the clergy delegation pointed out that the struggle for justice requires going against the odds.  Particularly in communities of people who have historically been denied justice, one cannot always depend on winning every battle.  Sometimes, the battle lasts for decades, and many court cases fail along the way before a powerful precedent emerges to change the direction of case law.  From Dred Scott to the Brown v Board of Education case, there was slow, not always steady, progress to eliminate barriers to equality for African Americans.  The history of lynchings has its corresponding history of failed prosecutions against those who murdered innocent people for the crime of being black.  That history is still being told in the twenty-first century in excessive force and killing at the hands of police.  Fearing the prosecution's case may lose is not reason enough to give up on prosecuting.

4.  It seems that future similar cases need only aim for a hung jury to end prosecution.  Cooper cites the sentiment of jurors who said that any future group of twelve jurors will be unable to arrive at a verdict.  How could they know that?  This particular issue raises one of the most dangerous implications of this case.  It seems to say that in criminal jury trials, in particular cases concerning excessive use of force by the police, a defense attorney can aim for a hung jury.  Selecting jurors whom they expect will disagree, presenting a case that will encourage prejudicial differences of opinion, or using whatever sorts of tactics they can imagine that will bring a hung jury would seem to be enough to avoid a conviction, since a hung jury seems to be enough reason to give up on prosecution.

Above I wrote that the hung jury has not said anything that the public can understand.  Perhaps I need to qualify that statement.  Dr Rodney Sadler has commented that the public may very clearly understand what the official conversation is leaving out.  The ongoing conditions of living in a society still shaped by its history of slavocracy, of white supremacy, of Jim Crow, and of de facto apartheid by neighborhood and congregation, means that a jury is selected from a population of people who do not understand one another and can only with great difficulty see things from one another's point of view.  

Divisions along lines at the intersections of race, ethnicity, and class play an enormous role in how criminal justice is meted out.  When a police officer looks at a black person, all kinds of cultural assumptions play a role in what that officer perceives to be happening, and the assumptions are demonstrably very different than when the person looked upon is white.  The same can be said about jurors.  As long as the claim, "I feared for my life," remains a carte blanche for deadly force against a suspect, a society that automatically fears black men will continue to allow police to kill them with impunity.  The era of lynchings has not come to an end.  We are now observing its continuation in the streets of New York City, Ferguson, Waller County, Baltimore, and Charlotte.
  • What are the duties of public officials in the criminal justice system?  
  • What constitutes completing the process of seeking justice in a criminal prosecution?  
  • What role do citizens have in demanding public responsibility to carry out justice?  
  • What can and should churches and ministers do to promote the carrying out of justice in their communities? 
I've already addressed the first three questions:  public officials must pursue justice to arrive at verdicts in criminal cases; a hung jury is not a "spoken" jury; fighting on against the odds is the proper social orientation toward justice.

I'll offer a couple of brief remarks on the last question.  Churches follow Jesus in specific places and times.  Their discernment of how to live in these contexts is shaped by the interplay between their formation in the incarnational ministry given by Jesus.  Being among the people, pursuing the good of the people and the community in which they live--the form this takes will vary in time and space.  In a time of persistent and far too frequent use of excessive force by police, which destroys lives, undermines hope and love, and cuts short faith, churches and ministers may take a representative position and provide advocacy for reorienting structures and systems toward justice.  This sort of intervention is what the clergy speaking to AG Cooper have been doing in many neighborhoods of Charlotte.

A second response to the last question has to do with the racial separation of church people.  Church people's responsibility to one another and to God is clear in the gospels.  Jesus taught his followers and his opponents that the primary path of righteousness comes through loving God and loving one another.  Gustavo Gutierrez calls this process "conversion to the neighbor."  A Christian has to quit being caught up in his or her own way of seeing things and learn to see life as the neighbor sees it.  A Christian must love the good of the neighbor, and not only as an afterthought.  That means the rich need to learn to see what the poor see in the world.  Whites need to learn to see what blacks see in the world.  There is a place for reciprocity here, but most important is to recognize that the "normal" way of things is shaped by the view of those in power.  The crucial step is for majorities and for the powerful to open their eyes and hearts to those who have been held down or pushed to the margins.  This conversion to the neighbor should follow the path of Rev Barber's constant theme that in North Carolina we are dealing with a "heart problem."  Churches ought to be on the leading edge of this process of knowing one another and loving one another across the barriers that keep people apart and keep those who benefit from division on a path of injustice.

Along with incarnational representation and with conversion to the neighbor, the church must uphold its calling to a prophetic ministry.  In the tradition of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah of old, the church must be the bearer of truth to those who hold power, especially when they fail to live up to their calling to seek the good of the people, to protect the widow, orphan, and marginalized, to promote peace and justice, and to build beloved community.  Part of fixing the heart problem is what Rev Barber has called being the "defibrillator."  It's an aggressive intervention to save a life that could be lost.  A prophetic word must challenge the ways of those who have become misleaders, for their own good and for the whole body which suffers from their failure.  Who else will speak if the church does not?  God will not be without a witness, but God is calling for the church to be that witness to righteousness, to justice, to the good that God intends for this world.  It is also a witness against greed, against domination, against violence, against injustice, against the evil that corrupts social systems and those who lead them.  There is no doubt that this group of Charlotte clergy intends to continue down this road of witness to the justice and blessing God intends for creation.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Durham's Housing Crisis and the Wise Exhortation of James

Today I heard a sermon based on a passage from the New Testament Letter of James.  It made me think about the current crisis of affordable housing in Durham and strategies to fix this problem.  Addressed as a letter, James looks more like a collection of wisdom teaching and moral exhortations.  Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Jr., pointed us to the first ten verses of chapter 2.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
Housing has been driving economic restructuring for more than a decade.  At first, it was the housing bubble created by overinvestment and irrational exuberance about buying up mortgages.  That led to all kinds of bad risks in writing mortgage loans, misleading people without experience in dealing with real estate markets, repeated selling of a property for inordinate profits, lying about the reliability of mortgage-backed securities, and in general lots of swindling, taking the money, and running.

When that manipulated, false market crashed, more restructuring happened through a foreclosure crisis.  Housing values dropped so far that many business's and investor's paper wealth disappeared overnight.  High-risk securities and credit default swaps were exposed to be the emperor's new clothes.  An economic recession led to massive layoffs and soaring unemployment.  That put millions of people into foreclosure.  Efforts to ease the foreclosure crisis failed as the "bailout" turned out to benefit only the banks, the brokerages, and the very actors who had caused the economic crisis.  Average workers and homeowners were left high and dry, unable to pay for their overpriced mortgages.  The powers of government and financial institutions resisted any serious plan to offer principle reduction or debt forgiveness, which had successfully restored the economy after the Great Depression.

People who did manage to stay in their homes found the new housing market to have very low demand, so that if they needed to move or get more space for a larger family, it was almost impossible to sell their homes.  Slowly, the market started to recover.  First, all the bargain housing sold.  Next, slowly people began to be able to sell near the uninflated prices before the housing bubble.  There are still many pockets of foreclosed neighborhoods, and not all housing prices have recovered.

But now we are seeing what looks to be another bubble emerging.  Cities and municipalities are putting capital into downtowns.  They are trying to bring recovery and prosperity to city centers.  A new generation, facing a long period of high gasoline prices and tired of traffic jams for commuters has regained interest in living downtown.  These trends attract developers, which is something that is good for all of us.  Every city wants to see vibrant businesses and neighborhoods.  However, prices are skyrocketing for central city housing.  As rents and purchase prices rise, speculators begin to look into other nearby streets and communities for more land to buy up.  Lower cost housing gets razed, and the occupants have to look elsewhere, away from their neighborhoods and friends, to find a place to live.

We know this process as gentrification.  Some see it as only good--better housing units replace older, unmodernized, sometimes run-down units.  Property values rise.  More money in the neighborhoods attracts businesses and jobs.  I don't think anyone is against those kinds of things.  But many are bothered by the callousness that some have about displacement of people, relationships, institutions, and communities.  They also wonder why it is that lower income people always get displaced and told to go somewhere else.  Why can't redevelopment create spaces for people to continue in the networks and neighborhoods where their families have lived for years and decades?  Why is redevelopment only targeted to attract new colonizers of old and established communities?

No one is surprised that developers want to maximize their profits on the risk they take in building new housing.  We know they won't take those risks if they can't expect to make a profit.  Building new housing takes big up-front capital investment, so we don't begrudge developers a profit.  On the other hand, part of building a good city to live in means that people of various income levels need to share in the benefits the city has to offer.  If I live in Durham, I will depend on city, county, state, and commercial institutions to help structure schools, fire protection, medical care, and public safety.  Doctors and entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical executives and hi-tech wizards may have six- and seven-figure incomes.  But teachers, firefighters, nurses, and police will live on more meager salaries.  Shop clerks, wait staff, cooks, mechanics, maintenance workers, and cleaning staff--all of these people will contribute to making a city a good place to live.  They are fellow-members of the community, not merely servants to the ones who have more money.  All of us need a place to live.  All of us deserve to enjoy the benefits of a flourishing city.

That's why, in the wisdom of our civic traditions, leaders have seen fit to put in place programs and incentives to make sure there is adequate housing for people of many levels of income.  One such program, the Low-Income Housing Credit, provides tax subsidies for developing affordable housing that enable developers to make a profit.  Durham CAN and Self-Help Credit Union want to use that subsidy to build 80 to 100 units of housing downtown, by the Durham Station Transportation Center and across from the NC Mutual building.  City leaders have expressed a desire to see better affordable housing opportunities, and by donating this land for affordable housing development, they can do their part in helping make Durham affordable to more of its citizens.

These units would be affordable to people who make 40% to 60% of the median income of Durham County.  That means up to $37,000 for a household of one, or $43,000 for a household of two, and slightly more for larger households.  These people, working hard to bring home enough money to feed, clothe, and shelter their families are of equal importance to a flourishing city as those who make the median salary or more.  Durham has had notable success in the recent past with some affordable housing, and we hate to see that only in the past.  We are hoping this project can be the next planting of a seed, the down payment, toward a new strategy and plan for creating more high-quality, affordable housing in neighborhoods all around Durham.

Sadly, there are some who have said that downtown is for the millennials, for entrepreneurs, for people with higher incomes.  They say that Durham can find a way to provide affordable housing for lower incomes somewhere else, somewhere less in demand, somewhere less desirable, somewhere out of the way of the profits a select few desire to make.  Those kinds of arguments sound to me like there is some kind of insider decision-making going on about who gets to live in what neighborhood and who gets pushed out.  It seems that someone has in mind a "certain quality of people" that are acceptable for Durham's nice downtown.  Others need not apply.  If there is no property available for affordable housing downtown, the doughnut hole, then the next step, and we see it happening already, will be no affordable housing in the doughnut ring around downtown.

Moderate- to low-income people get pushed farther and farther away from the neighborhoods with rich heritage.  Will the last remnant of Hayti be a museum surrounded by residents who know and care nothing about the struggle and achievement of families who built a prosperous community when all odds were against them?  Will Walltown go the way of Brookstown, Hickstown, and Crest Street, to be a faint memory of a lost past?  Cities change, and neighborhoods change.  That is inevitable.  But will people of various economic levels have access to the historic neighborhoods of Durham?  Or will the profiteering incentive lead to closing off the central city from people of moderate to low income?

Enter the wise exhortation of James.  James saw a problem in some churches of his time.  He saw that people became overly impressed by the wealth or affluence of some who came to their churches.  They catered to them.  They escorted them to the best seats.  They fawned over them.  But when people whose clothes were plain or even a bit worn came into the church, they directed them to the side or the back, or even suggested they stand by the wall sit on the floor.  The text says they were showing favoritism, based on the apparent affluence of those who came to their churches.

James reminded them of the Lord whom they serve.  He reminded them of the way of Jesus, who was himself from a working class home, born under bad conditions, sympathetic with beggars, outcasts, prostitutes, and others who found themselves on hard times.  His co-workers had mostly made their livings fishing and other hard work.  James, probably from the same family as Jesus, knew what it was to be looked down on by those who thought they were better.  He reminded them that the social dynamic of poverty was exploitation, and that the wealthy gained their affluence often through paying low wages or otherwise mistreating their workers.

James knew showing favoritism was not the way that Jesus had taught and planned for his followers to live.  "Love your neighbor as yourself" was Jesus' motto.  His life and ways had shown he meant every neighbor--Samaritan and Jew, blind and sighted, man and woman, worker and manager.  If it came to a question of injustice, Jesus took the side of the oppressed and stood up to the oppressor.  James said this to remind the churches that Jesus had come to reinstate, to kick-start, God's plan for this world as a good society, "There should be no one in need among you."

So when leaders in our city say that downtown is only for millennials, we wonder which millennials do they mean?  What about millennials who become teachers?  Don't some millennials become firefighters and police officers?  I think that some millennials are nurses, city staffers, cooks, and mechanics.  Aren't they welcome downtown?  Of course, I don't think anyone intends to have only one age group in the neighborhood.  Will there be room for all economic levels, age groups, and other segments of society, or are we back to drawing red lines on our maps to indicate who we will let live in which districts?

Now I understand that James is writing to the churches, and that Durham is not a church.  I also recognize that municipalities may not do everything the way churches do.  Yes, I am familiar with the distinction between church and state.  But I also want to say that the faith of the church is that Jesus came into the world to recall Israel, and all others who would come to join in, to build the kind of beloved community that God made this world to be.  While I would not think it appropriate to ask the city to enforce everything the church believes in, I do think there are many points at which our purposes of building a flourishing community may coincide.  Not cordoning off portions of the community by wealth and class and ethnicity and race and age and family size is one of the goals that the church and the city may have in common.

One theologian said that there are times when the social agenda of the church may appropriately blend with the social agenda of the communities with which the church shares space and time.  He said it is kind of like a "spiritual osmosis."  An idea like "no more shacks" that drove the Christian community of Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia, to create the housing model of Habitat for Humanity over time became widely accepted by people who had no connection to Christian churches.  Church or not, most people see that this plan works, and volunteers come from all creeds and no creed to build Habitat houses together.  Making room for affordable housing in the central city, near transit stations, in the doughnut hole and all the surrounding rings of the city is a similarly worthwhile goal.  People don't want to be displaced.  They want to be able to find housing near their jobs, near their schools, near the places they like to go for fellowship, friends, and food.  At all income levels, people want to share in the good things of life.

Durham must not have a housing policy which says to the wealthy and affluent, "Please, as our favorites, take the best places in which we have invested heavily, creating them just for people of your kind," and then turns to the moderate- and low-income citizen and says, "You, who are not our favorites, are on your own, and you'll have to go away from all the good things our city has invested in, because they are for someone else."  I think James's wise exhortation speaks to this issue of urban development.  Let's keep the best, that is all, of Durham available to all of it's citizens, and not show favoritism.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Standing Up When It Seems Too Much: Reposting "Put On the Armor of Light"

I suspect that most of us have arrived at times when it seems that the obstacles are too big for us and the opponents are too strong for us.  In such a time, the Apostle Paul's words to the Roman church become a lively message to us.  In the shadow of a powerful and greedy empire, they read his words of hope that still speak to me in these times that can be very discouraging for people who love justice and pursue the common good.  Respectability politics will not achieve justice, only delay it.

This sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on September 7, 2014.

Romans 13:8-14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
             Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (NRSV).
In the text that was read this morning, the Apostle Paul makes remarks of the same sort that the Prophet Micah did many centuries before.  As Micah had posed the question, “What does the Lord require of you?”, now Paul offers the guidance that we should “owe no one anything, except….”  Micah said that it is really pretty simple.  Do justice.  Love mercy.  Walk humbly with God.  Paul says they should narrow it down to this:  love one another.  That’s all you owe anyone.  That’s what Jesus said really mattered.  That’s what God expects of you.  That fulfills the whole stinking law, every jot and tittle of it.  Of course, you can learn by studying the specifics of the law, but Jesus already told us how to sum it up:  Love your neighbor as yourself.
So in the way that you live with others, if you love them, you will do no wrong to your neighbor.  And the law is largely about telling you what wrongs not to do.  So love, and you won’t do wrong.  That’s why love fulfills the whole law—every bit of it.
Paul was continuing a train of thought from what to us is the previous chapter.  Of course, Paul did not divide his letters into chapters and verses.  Like you or I, he just wrote out his sentences and paragraphs.  The chapters and verses were added later by readers who wanted to be able to analyze and talk together about the books in a systematic way.  That way, you and I can quickly get on the same page for conversation and study.  But Paul did not have chapters and verses.  So I should say he was continuing a train of thought from a few paragraphs before.
In our habit of speaking, in chapter 12, verse 10, he started talking about living toward Christian love with one another as God’s people.  Just before this section, he had written about how everyone has gifts from the Spirit, and we are not all the same.  But each of us has something to offer to one another and to the whole group, like parts of the body all have their function.  He told them back there, “Let love be genuine.”  Those verses were part of the wedding vows Everly and I spoke in 1980.  That short sentence is now engraved on the gravestone where she is buried.  “Let love be genuine.” 
It was a commitment we shared with one another.  In so many ways, we certainly fell short of the ideal, but it was a byword for how we knew we ought to live in relation to the world and the people God had given us.  But it is not a statement specifically about the love of married people.  It is about the love that we have for one another in the church.  It is the love God expects us to have for all God’s children.  As followers of Jesus, married people and families should also live up to this kind of love.  So Paul is making it plain here.  Love genuinely.  Love honestly.  Love thoroughly.  Love wholeheartedly.  Love the lovable people, and love the unlovable people.  Love when you are eager to do so, and love when you are on your last nerve. 
But, we may ask, isn’t there something or someone I can hate?  Paul says to hate evil.  Don’t harbor your evil thoughts.  Don’t plot evil devices.  Don’t fixate on evil responses.  Don’t seek revenge.  Hate evil, but don’t act evilly to oppose it.  Hold fast to what is good.  Keep on imagining the good possibilities.  Look beyond people’s troublesome actions to see the good that is in them.  Think of ways to return good for evil.  Do not repay evil for evil, but put your mind on a noble response to the times when you are wronged.  At the climax of this reflection, he tells them there is a way to fight evil:  overcome evil with good.  Let good grow and snowball and expand and press outward until it overwhelms all the evil it can find.  Don’t let evil overcome you.  You get out there in all the goodness that God can produce in you and let that goodness overcome evil.
Paul knew that the times in which these Roman Christians were living were evil times.  Powerful people wanted to persecute them, put them in jail, fire them from their jobs, take away their homes, make outcasts of their children, drive them out of town.  Rulers were selfish and devious, and so were their assistants and lackeys.  Soldiers and police were directed to obey the whims of the rulers.  They might not have the strength of conscience to realize that the policies of the leaders were twisted and wrong.  Paul was not deceived.  He knew his own life had hung in the balance of unjust laws and unjust rulers before.  So he acknowledged that the times were rife with evil.  He warned the Christians to watch out.  And he taught them that even in an evil setting and situation, God had a different way for them.
He could tell them this because Paul also knew that the time in which these Roman Christians were living were good times.  They were fertile with opportunities for virtuous living.  They could watch the growth of their love touch their neighbors and their neighborhoods.  God was not defeated by the Imperial power.  God was just getting started showing them all that God can do.  So when they come up against violence and wrong, Paul said to live peaceably with all.  He said don’t avenge yourself, but stand up against evil by doing good.  Don’t flag in your zeal.  Be ardent.  Be motivated.  Work it out.  Yes, work it.  Work that goodness that God has placed in you.  Be intense about fighting wrong, but do it with goodness. 
Paul knew that the Roman Christians should have hope.  Knowing that hope, they could rejoice even in hard times.  They could show patience when they suffered because their hope is in God.  They could continue in prayer, knowing that God is with them and guiding them into the next opportunity to overcome.  Love one another.  Show mutual affection.  Outdo one another in doing right and honoring each other.  Make sure no one is in need.  Show hospitality.  Love, love, love, love, love, in word and deed.  Because God created this world to be good.  God’s goodness has been poured out in your lives.  Good will prevail, even if not in every moment, if not in every situation.  Even after setbacks, we can build a better world in God’s power and grace.  Death is defeated.  Christ is risen.  Good will prevail.
Paul had pressed this case hard in that earlier section, the second half of chapter 12.  Then he took a kind of aside.  He chased a rabbit.  He made an illustration of sorts.  He planned to finish his exhortation about love, but there was this little matter of the Empire to deal with.  He started talking about how they should act toward Caesar and Caesar’s minions.  But he talked about it in vague terms.  He talked about his enemies in abstract terms.  He did not say anything about Caesar, per se.  He didn’t name Caesar or any of the lesser officials.  He did not say anything about the Empire or the Senate or the Roman Legions or the Centurions.  He did not name any of the officials or even their offices.
Instead, he talked in broad theological terms about divine creation.  He talked about God’s good work in creating humanity as social beings.  He talked about the concept of authority in the abstract.  He said that having a system of authority is a good thing.  Ruling authorities, in general, help make our lives better.  Human authorities, as a concept, contribute to a better life for us.  In the ideal, authorities reward good and punish evil.  According to its purpose, authority maintains justice. 
But of course, Paul has been talking previously not about theory, but about the facts on the ground.  The facts on the ground were that Roman authorities were prejudiced toward their own kind.  The facts on the ground were that Christianity was an illicit, an illegal community of faith.  The facts on the ground were that everywhere Christianity had raised its liberating message of God’s love for the least and the lowly, people in power had gotten angry.  From the synagogue officials to the Sanhedrin.  From the Proconsuls to the Procurators.  From the Kings to the Emperors.  From the Pharisees to the Sadducees to the who knows who sees you practicing Christian faith, people wanted to shut it down.
That’s what Paul was telling them in the discourse about letting love be genuine, hating evil, and overcoming evil with good.  The facts on the ground were that the authorities, not in concept, but in flesh and blood, were coming down hard on the Christians.  The facts on the ground were that people who in theory were supposed to keep the peace were disturbing the peace.  Officials whose job was to serve and protect were self-serving and destroying lives in the streets.  Paul understood what was what.  He knew that everybody who had a title did not live up to the duties of office.  He knew that power, once it is in someone’s hands, can become a tool of domination.  That is what he and the Christians in Rome saw.  It’s what they knew.  It’s the yoke they felt on their shoulders.
So he said, in theory, they should recognize the goodness of authority.  They should cooperate with authority to do good.  They should not resist authority just to get their own way.  Paul was not being a respectability preacher here.  There have been a number of people lately talking about “respectability churchfolk” and “respectability preaching.”  They mean those people who try to find the fault in an unarmed youth’s behavior for his own death.  They mean those people who say that if the black community could just work harder to stay in school, to dress conventionally, to keep a job and keep their noses clean, then things like Ferguson would not happen.  That’s what they mean by the “respectability” view. 
But Paul was not talking respectability, and neither am I.  Paul was not saying that the answer to our oppression is to be more docile in obeying our oppressors.  He was not saying that the real problem is us, so we need to mend our ways.  No, he knew who was troubling the world.  God was not doing this.  The church’s service to God was not doing this.
If the powers that be want to keep people down, it does not matter how respectably people act.  They will get pressed down on.  So the answer is to press back.  That’s why Paul was saying that they need to get serious about resisting evil in the world.  They should continue their efforts to overcome evil with good by pressing the authorities to do the good they should do.  But he was not fooled into thinking that Caesar or his minions were likely to do the good.  That’s why he reminded the church to go ahead and pay taxes to whom taxes are due and revenue to whom revenue is due.  But then he turns the phrase.  He speaks with irony and from the point of view of faith.  He does not say that some people who demand your respect may not deserve your respect.  No, he is not that explicit.  He does not say that Caesar has not earned the honor that he wants you to show.  No, he is more subtle.  He says to pay respect to whom respect is due.  (Wink, wink.)  He says give honor to whom honor is due.  (“You know what I mean?”)  God deserves our honor.  Caesar probably does not.
But just so we don’t conclude that he means to start blatantly disrespecting the officials, and blatantly dishonoring Caesar, he goes back to his previous theme about loving our neighbors.  Now, we are finally back to the text we started with.  He says owe no one anything except love.  Martin Luther, the 16th-century reformer translated that verse as a declarative statement, not an imperative.  He said it means that you don’t owe anyone anything, except you do owe everyone love.  God made us for love.  God made us to love one another, to be loved by one another, to receive love from one another—God made us for love.  So even Caesar gets our love.  Even the harassing official on the street gets our love.  Love does no wrong to the neighbor.  Love fulfills all our requirements and obligations.  Not just a feeling of love, but more importantly a way of treating someone.
Having made his case about love that’s genuine, that overcomes evil with good, that supersedes whatever resentments or desires for revenge we may have, Paul then starts talking about how important it is for us to stand strong in the face of evil.  He does not mean for us to sit back in our bedrooms thinking loving thoughts about those who do evil.  He does not mean for us to wait around the kitchen table until the tide of evil forces overwhelms and swallows up our whole neighborhood, our town, our community institutions.  He does not mean hiding behind church doors, shouting and singing while the neighborhood dies.  No we can’t just nap while destruction is happening all around us.  Overcoming evil with good is not a passive admonition.
We have to know what time it is.  It is the time for God’s good news.  It is the time for people to know that we can live together in harmony.  We can live together in love.  It’s the time that no one any longer has to be trying to dominate anyone else.  People can make a life without domination systems.  So if it was not real to you when you first got saved, then it needs to become real to you now that God is not interested in just a little bit of our lives.  God is not interested in just 10% of the church people to be part of the struggle.  God is not interested in just a token commitment.  God wants the whole of us.  God want you, and God wants us, and God wants you and me and us to be building the beloved community.  That is the whole reason God made the world and put us in it.  God wants to see that loving, just community come into the light of day.
Paul tells them to lay aside the works of darkness.  Now somebody might try to twist the term darkness here and make out that dark is equivalent to black, and that somehow blackness is opposed to God.  But Paul was not talking that way, and we know better than to fall into the trap of that kind of thinking.  Darkness here is the absence of light.  Light is the beacon that shines upon the realities of the world and reveals the truth.  Darkness is the world hiding from the light.  What is hidden from the light is afraid, is ashamed, is deceptive, is indifferent.  But in the light of day, we have to take a stand.  We have to show who we are and what we live for.
Paul says that the light is our armor.  Armor is our protection.  Bringing the truth into the light of day is our hope, because Jesus himself is the truth.  The love of God is the truth.  People able to get along and treat one another right is the truth.  Enough good gifts of God to feed and clothe and shelter everybody is the truth.  Letting everyone have a good education is the truth.  Paying people a decent, living wage is the truth.  Finding ways to keep people in their homes is the truth.  Our armor is joining together in the truth. 
You or I alone might try to stand up to the powers that be and get ignored.  But we are not alone.  God has put us together into a holy nation, a peculiar people.  Together, in solidarity with one another and with God, we can stand up to the powers and be heard.  This is the heart of the labor union movement.  The people with the capital, the people with the money—these people know that they need to organize into corporate boards and chambers of commerce and political action committees if they are going to make the world go their way.  Their hope is that the workers and the average people will stay disorganized.  A labor union exists to provide the organization necessary to stand up to the owners and managers who want to be in charge of our lives.  In a way, the church is a labor union of the neighborhood.  We organize together and care for our neighbors with the intensity and capacity to be a union of neighbors, loving our neighbors.  We join Durham CAN to operate as a union of people of faith and people of commitment to press our theoretical public servants toward being actual servants of the people.  The union makes us strong.
What time is it?  Paul says we had better know.  It is a time when people full of fear are trying to shut down and shut out and shout down and shut up the voices of those who are suffering.  They are belittling and humiliating teachers.  They are closing off access to voting.  They are shutting down jobs and taking them places where the poor workers have no protections.  They are refusing to hear the cry of the poor.  They are warehousing the desperately unemployed in prisons.  They are blaming the victimized and the marginalized for all the social ills.  They are shooting down our children in the streets.  They are claiming that the 1% deserve to own half of all the goods in the world.
We’d better know what time it is.  We have to lay aside the works of darkness.  The works of darkness are many.  Hiding out and believing we cannot make a difference is one of the works of darkness.  Get out in the light and stand for truth.  Being satisfied that we have a home and a job and not caring about others is a work of darkness.  Get into the light.  Letting some misguided police (I know it’s not all of them) continue to do whatever they have made it their habit to do, just because they can get by with it, is a work of darkness.  Pressing for reform is our armor of light.  Paul says don’t get discouraged and drown your sorrows in drunkenness.  Don’t go out and party because you think the world is going to hell anyway.  Get into the light.  Shine a light for God.  Shine a light for justice.  He says don’t take up the ways of the oppressors and sink into debauchery.  Don’t say that since the world is all corrupt anyway, I will now join the corruption of licentiousness, and consider that I have a license to do whatever I “blankety-blank” well please. Being free from the law does not mean that each of us can be a law unto ourselves.  Let a light shine into that despair that wants to give up on making things work, and let that light bring the hope of Jesus Christ who showed us another way. 
And don’t slip into the darkness of arguing and quarreling with one another.  We can find a way together to move forward.  It is the deceiver that tells us that it has to be my way or the highway.  Let the light of cooperation and solidarity shine.  And Paul says don’t become jealous of who is getting the credit.  If the Mayor or City Manager can bring a change, then let them claim the credit, even if they did so only because we pushed them and nudged them and scared them into doing it.  If the Police Chief wants to turn around and start policing in a fair and just and transparent and clean manner, then let him have the credit, no matter how slow he was in coming around to the light.  If the legislature wants to do right by our teachers and our voting citizens, let them have the credit, even if they did it kicking and screaming in resistance to the flood of people crying for justice.  Let the light shine above and beyond jealousies.  If justice is done, we don’t care who gets the credit.  We know God is the one who gets the credit.
So dress yourselves up to be the image of Jesus Christ that the world needs to see.  He did not count his own life above others.  He did not let even the small children or the disabled widows be disrespected.  He did not tolerate the poor being mistreated or the haughty and wealthy acting proud.  Paul says we should get dressed in Jesus.  Go to our closets, pull out a hanger with Jesus on it, and put that on.  Wear Jesus out into the wide world.  It’s a graphic image of the deep theological claim that in his life and death and resurrection, we have been united to Jesus.  God has drawn us into God’s own self.  So our image should be a beacon of God in the world.  We are the Jesus the world an see.  Jesus is the light of the world, and we keep on shining that light.  Be a light.  Be a beacon.  It’s a dangerous and troubling time.  But it is a time ripe for goodness.  The harvest is plentiful.  The workers are few.  We must work while it is day. 
Drawing on the words of songwriter Kyle Matthews (“My Heart Knows,” See for Yourself, Benson Records, 2000.)

We’ve thought it through,
And we’ve decided
We’re sure of You,
Whatever happens to us…
Whatever happens to us.
And if you lead
Where there is no path,
Where there’s no way out
And no way back,
We will go where we have to go;
Give what we have to give;
Face what we have to face;
And we will live where we have to live.
Our hearts know where home is.
Our hearts know our home is with You.

The road is rough—
Our courage leaves us.
The way of love
Was never easy for You.
And it won’t be easy for us.
But If you’ll reach down
From time to time
And let us feel
Your hand in ours,
We will go where we have to go;
Give what we have to give;
Face what we have to face;
And we will live where we have to live.
Our hearts know where home is.
Our hearts know our home is You.

Our hearts know, Lord.  You are our home.  So lead us now.  Lead, us Jesus.  Lead, kindly Light.  Lead and we will follow.  Thanks be to God.  Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Where Can Durham's Workers Live?

In October 2012, Indy Week published an article called "Durham's Affordable Housing Crisis," written by Lisa Sorg.  It featured the closing of the Lincoln Apartments, reported to be eliminating affordable dwellings for 200 low-income residents.  On a much larger scale, it told the story of too few affordable housing units for so many of the working poor.  These people work in the service industries building a new economy in which only the highest levels of management see increasing wages.

What has often been misunderstood as a problem for only those working poor has become a problem for many workers holding critical public service jobs:  police officers, fire fighters, school teachers and other school employees.  In addition, as new economic development occurs, restaurant and cafe serving staff, maintenance and cleaning workers, retail workers, and many others need housing that is convenient to their work.  The affordable housing crisis is a workforce housing crisis.

City planners and architects have had opportunity to learn a great deal about how to develop affordable housing successfully, if they want to learn.  Mixed income communities are much more successful than overly stratified, class segregated communities.  The world of work and commerce is made up of people with many different roles and responsibilities, and they constantly share space and interact.  Clerical workers and managers, store owners and checkout clerks, chefs and food preps--all need a place to live, accessibility to their work, places to eat and shop, and safe neighborhoods.

New age redlining would say that certain urban playgrounds are for entrepreneurs and young urban pioneers, not for low-income workers.  But how is this different from the kind of politics of urban development that led to ghettos and housing "projects" that became icons of public planning failure?

Durham's affordable housing situation has not been solved since 2012, and in fact it threatens to become much worse.  As older neighborhoods become destinations for house flipping and gentrification, Durham is developing a new doughnut hole where only the wealthy can live.  Houses that needed repair are now being restored, enlarged, and upgraded, taking housing out of the affordable range.  Property values surge, meaning that even more modest homes in a redeveloping neighborhood also become unaffordable.  I'm not telling anything new, just saying it again.  Most of Durham's already limited affordable housing is threatening to disappear.

The incentives adopted to urge developers to include affordable housing in their projects have not produced the desired outcome.  With thousands of new housing units built downtown, none are affordable.  Moreover, some developers want to claim that a house costing $250k is still affordable.  What do they think that most workers earn in Durham?  I am for increasing wages, but while we are waiting for that to happen, housing costs need to be proportional.

Recent study of Durham's affordable housing situation recognize that the potential of Light Rail Transit means neighborhoods with affordable housing may see their property values rise and the affordability disappear.  This creates a mandate for the city and county to take action.  The best leverage they have is existing property that they own.  In these situations, they can require affordability as part of a plan for development.  Federal housing funds and various public and private partners committed to affordable housing are available for this kind of development.  What it will take is a public commitment to see that all residents can afford quality, safe housing.

Durham CAN and Self Help have proposed using a parcel of land in downtown Durham for a mixed-income affordable housing development.  The land is next to Durham Station Transportation Center and near NC Mutual and American Tobacco.  It would give members of Durham's workforce access to housing near the jobs and commerce which are booming downtown.  Approximately 90 high quality units of various size could be made available through this project.  City officials have been looking at this proposal, and it is no surprise that there are differences of opinion about how to use this piece of real estate.

Often the conversations about such projects get derailed by misunderstandings or out-and-out misinformation.  A focused affordable housing development is not the same thing as a ghetto.  Mixed-income affordable housing provides opportunities for low-wage workers as well as for low-salary professionals like police and teachers who are being squeezed out of town by rising housing costs.  NC State Employees Credit Union has a strong interest in affordable housing for its members, and funds to support projects. 

To be honest, some of the arguments against affordable housing are coded language against potential Latino or African American residents.  One would be hard-pressed to find someone who would publicly oppose ethnic and racial diversity in downtown, but approaches to affordable housing which push it all away from downtown still smell and look like redlining.  Durham does not want to take the path of cities which cannot recruit these workers because the affordable housing is just too far away.

Mixed-income affordable housing in places where retail and service businesses are already thriving does not lead to blight.  In this location, affordable housing will lead to improving neighborhoods, greater use of transportation services, and a stronger Durham.  Success in this case can help to promote future projects that will build a better Durham for all of us.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Missiology of "Out-Messaging" ISIS

I recently finished an essay on the notion of "light" in Christian missiology, including analysis of how in the modern age it became a cipher for spreading Western civilization.  One part of my research focused on John Winthrop's sermon about being "a city on a hill" because "the eyes of everyone" were watching.  In light of the "mission" of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop's use of that text takes on a subordinate relationship to commercial development and acquisition of land to expand the influence of England. 

Well, today I was listening to foreign policy writers discussing the frustration over the continuing appeal and growth of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  As they bemoaned the ineffectiveness of efforts to stop the growth of this military and ideological organization, one of them kept taking it back to the PR or propaganda campaign that some believe is needed to "out-message" ISIS's own outreach.  Describing the failure of "State Department twitter" to curb ISIS, he said, "there's no sense of turning any kind of 'beacon on the hill' or  'shining city' kind of message to give any kind of alternative options to the disenfranchised and the humiliated and the oppressed populations who have somehow made this decision that I'm going to become a person who is on the other side of the cage from that Jordanian pilot and light him on fire."

I wish I had had that quotation when I was writing.  It is about the best example of using that Matthew 5 text to describe promoting Western civilization that I have heard.  Without any direct attempt to be theological, this theological resource was pulled from the knapsack to promote a soteriology of civilization.

Men Claiming Divine Right to Enslave and Rape Women

It's not something new, but it's back in the headlines this week.  With no effort to hide it, the quasi-governmental structures of ISIS have developed rules and institutions to govern and bless sexual slavery of women, better known as rape.  Moreover, they claim that they do so on the basis of the findings of a specific research assignment given to scholars who delved into the traditions of their faith.  Having just noted (in a previous post) Octavia Butler's narration of sex trafficking and rape in a future post-apocalyptic world (not in any way implicating Islam or the Quran in her account), it struck me that her book was again highly relevant for my continued reflection.  To quote from the beginning of the NY Times article
In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl, the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted.
He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her.
When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.
This morning I heard a commentator on the radio say, with reference to sex-slavery and other recent stories about ISIS that this is a new kind of entity in history, one we have not dealt with before.  I think that exaggeration was part of an argument to display a contrast between Al Quaeda and ISIS, but it is clearly not true that there have not been other groups who justified ethnic cleansing, rape, slavery, sex-trafficking, and genocide, either in the name of religious beliefs or of political power.

The Times article offers a fairly extensive analysis of the orchestrated and highly organized process by which thousands of Yazidi women and girls in particular have been kidnapped, documented, advertised, displayed, and sold as sex-slaves.  We are rightly appalled.  It tells about very young men who have bought these women and girls as well as bought into the ideology that justifies their rape.  From the outside, it is not hard to offer the criticism that very young, lonely warriors are susceptible the ideological framing of rape as pious duty.  They have given their all to a divine cause which includes establishing a righteous patriarchy.  They are ready to go to their deaths, and this heroic self-understanding can become justification for acts one might not otherwise believe right.

It is very easy for people in our culture to see this as a terror originating in Islam.  Certainly Islam does not escape all critique for justifying slavery or oppression of women.  On the other hand, neither do Christianity or Judaism.  The perspective of any of these faiths toward slavery has not been purely abolitionist, and perhaps for the majority of their histories they at times endorsed and certainly tolerated slavery and men's control over women's bodies and sex.

There is a long (thousands of years) history of writing about men claiming the right to force sex upon women.  Scholars argue about whether such ideas ever existed as codified law or were widely practiced.  Priests or kings seem at times to have claimed the right to first sexual relations with women who would marry, although actually exercising that right would be hard to organize.  It may have been practiced less often than used as a threat to demand a tax or tribute to the ruler.  In ancient Roman times, this was called in Latin the ius primae noctis, or the right to the first night.  The medieval term from from French was droit du seigneur, or right of the Lord.  Scholars of European history have claimed they find no evidence that such a practice was prominent in medieval society.  Yet it certainly shows up among the demands presented in late medieval and reformation era peasant revolts. 

For instance, in a document known as "To the Assembly of the Common Peasantry" (May 1525), the anonymous author cites the abuse of the New Testament to provide theological justification for the oppressive practices of the nobility, including sexual abuse of women (Michael Baylor, The Radical Reformation).
Do not let yourselves be led astray and blinded to any degree because every day the authorities endlessly repeat what the Apostle Peter says in I Peter 2:  "You should be submissive to your lords, even if they are rogues," etc. ... St Peter's view means something very different; for according to their interpretation, we would have to deliver our pious wives and children to them, so that they could satisfy their lust with them (109).
Various peasant uprisings cited this lordly claim to sexual rights as one cause of their revolt.  The existence of this tradition, even if not widely practiced, demonstrates a cultural assumption about the availability of women for sex at the will of men. 

More present for the experience of people in the USA is the recent history of enslaved African Americans.  I need not repeat the theological justification for slavery that emerged in the churches of the US and other European-influenced cultures.  One element of this domination system was the slave-holder's claim over the sexual lives of slaves, especially female slaves.  Extensive testimony from former slaves documents this history, such as the National Humanities Center document "On Slaveholders' Sexual Abuse of Slaves,"

A Washington Post article, "A Tender Spot in Master Slave Relations," reviews some of the literature on the subject of the rape of slave women.  Citing one book by Adele Logan Alexander, Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879, the article turns to a comment made by Julian Bond, claiming that the book's stories of slave women bearing mixed race children was also his own family history.
Bond said: "I often talk about that history. My great-grandmother was a slave. She had been given to a woman as a wedding present, and when the bride became pregnant, the bride's husband, my great-grandmother's owner and master, exercised his right to take his wife's slave as his mistress. He was a Presbyterian minister. Two children came from that union, James Bond and Henry Bond, and James Bond was my grandfather."
A minister claiming the right to his slave's body gives iconic representation to the abuse of theology to support the sexual will of men in power.

I pray that the despicable practices revealed about ISIS will end, and that good people will continue working to bring them to an end.  They are one part of the horror of modern slavery and sex trafficking including other regional quasi-governmental groups such as The Lord's Resistance Army in East Africa or systematic sex-trafficking along the Interstate Highway System in the United States.  It's a recurrent political dynamic of human societies, and one that any follower of Jesus must refuse to accept.  All human beings are created in the image of God, not only males.  Moreover, in Christ the divisions we would create to build systems of domination are rejected.  "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  I recognize that interpreting that verse would be another long essay.  For now, let it stand as a Christian rejection of domination systems, including patriarchal and classist claims for domination over women's sexual lives.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cultural Encounters and Miscegenation in the Imagination of Octavia Butler

A few years ago, my son David talked to me about science fiction writers.  David is a voracious reader, one of the side effects of growing up in the home of two teachers.  One of the marvels of this young man is the way he used to read large collections of a genre and compare and critique.  When we talked, he was explaining to me the ideological patterns he saw in science fiction as different authors constructed utopian and dystopian visions of worlds to come.  I had not given it much thought, but there is neocon science fiction and liberal science fiction.  I also had not thought about the fact that most of these science fiction writers envision a world much like the dominant narratives of most fiction--populated by white males as the agents of history.  So he told me about female writers and one particularly interesting black female, Octavia Butler.

Butler has won awards from the science fiction world for her writings.  So science fiction writers in general have appreciated her work.  Aspects of her work resonate with many science fiction novels and stories:  there are alien beings, interplanetary travel, advanced technologies, apocalyptic wars, biological variations that blend what we think of as animals and plants, and social structures that differ from conventional families and political structures.  So for science fiction readers, you get what you expect from Butler.

What you may not expect is a sophisticated account of race and gender.  I read a trilogy that is variously called the Xenogenesis trilogy and Lillith's Brood when republished as a set in one volume.  As the trilogy name indicates, the issue of foreignness and difference is at the heart of this multigenerational narrative.  Moreover, at the core of it is the fear of what "miscegenation" means for the existence of a race, or even for the human race.  I will do my best to avoid any spoilers about critical eventualities in these stories.

The human character whose presence continues through each novel is Lillith, a survivor of a devastating apocalyptic nuclear war on earth which destroyed human society and made the planet uninhabitable.  The reader meets Lillith on an alien spaceship that is a dwelling, more than a ship, in orbit near Earth.  She is slowly learning where she is, who she is with, and what will be next in her life.  What becomes clear quickly is that some small portion of humanity was saved from certain death by an alien race of people, the Oankali, whose existence involves exploring the solar system searching for habitable planets and compatible races of beings with whom to join their lives.

Lillith becomes quickly concerned about her future among the Oankali.  They describe their family structure to her, and it becomes apparent that they hope, or plan, for her to become a human mate within a complex family of humans and Oankali.  They have the ability to manipulate genes and cell structures.  They learn from each species they meet and evolve into better forms of their species.  They call this process "trading."  From their point of view, each species benefits.  From Lillith's point of view, she and her descendents will lose their identity as humans and be absorbed into the Oankali.  This theme never goes far below the surface throughout the whole trilogy.  Lillith never arrives at a comfortable resolution.  That's not telling too much.  It is part of the dramatic driving force of the stories.

As fiction is able to do, these stories ask again and again about what might constitute miscegenation.  Part of the question being asked is whether there is such a thing as continuity of identity that passes through multiple generations.  Are humans always changing, and what changes disrupt their humanity?  In contrast to the fear of blending Oankali DNA with human DNA, Butler describes the surviving humans who begin to repopulate the Earth as the remnants of many ethnic and cultural groups.  More of the population of the Southern Hemisphere survived, and some communities are made up of a variety of "races" living together.  Their greatest hope is to repopulate the Earth, but they express little concern about separating the races.  The narrative occasionally makes passing remarks about various communities with greater and less diversity, and with some residual attitudes toward difference based on skin color.  So it is not a naive depiction of post-apocalyptic race relations, but a politically credible view of how human difference might diminish in human social relations when a more overwhelming difference becomes a challenge.  Butler's explorations here are tentative rather than dogmatic.

The exploration of difference between the Oankali and humans has depth of insight.  The Oankali seem sure that their approach to interspecies relations is consensual, although their technological advantages belie some aspects of the consent.  The social power of the Oankali sets a tight range of options for humans.  They are not willing for certain outcomes to occur.  They believe there is an inherent flaw in humanity, and they want to eradicate it.  Here Butler is delving deep into the forgetfulness of contemporary racism.  The Oankali are not inclined to be violent toward humans, and they understand their relationship to humanity as benevolent.  They are seeking to elevate humanity to live longer, be healthier, achieve greater things, and survive as a species.  In return, they are strengthened by elements of humanity they have discovered and absorbed into themselves.  But if their plan is carried forward, will the semi-consensual assimilation of the residents of Earth leave anything recognizably human?  Butler pushes deep into this question through the entire series.

Turning another direction, Butler is also challenging gender politics.  The somewhat dystopian world that results from non-cooperation with the Oankali shows humanity in a harsh perspective as women become commodities for trade and suffer rape and violence at the hands of raiding parties.  In contrast, the Oankali exist as a three-gendered community.  Male and female in Oankali existence do not fit into conventional human stereotypes.  A third neither male nor female gender, the ooloi gender, plays perhaps the most powerful role in the society and family.  Females are largest and strongest.  Males are gatherers and more conversational.  Ooloi are most scientific and political, and they are the key marriage partner in reproduction.  I am not sure I have meditated long enough on the implied gender politics, but it does seem obvious that describing a three-gendered species is a device for Butler to examine the ways that domination and equality function.  The ooloi are benevolent dominant partners, but from the perspective of their human interrogators, their ability to dominate by using biologically sophisticated means, no matter how benevolent, remains a problematic part of their relationships.

I'll not try to pretend to be an expert on Butler's work today.  I'm not going to do any theological speculations at this point beyond the implications of race and gender politics that I have already mentioned.  I do look forward to reading more of her books, as friends have talked with me about some of their favorites already.  Thanks to David for pointing me in this direction.  As is almost always true, an intense foray into narrative fiction was a great mind refresher for me.
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