About Neal

An expressive writer, talker, rapper, and kazoo player; passionate about the expression of wisdom, love, sports, and grace in today’s world.

And Justice for All

Did Jesus have to die?

Do we?

Justice” is one of those words, like “love” or “faith”. Most of us can agree that these are good things yet, because there are so many different interpretations of these words, our realities of justice, love, and faith are often limited by our (pre)conceptions. The American ideal of justice, as it stands now, is incomplete, inaccurate, and fundamentally flawed based on a weak misplaced value of Christian atonement.

cross-and-gavel

Justice is hard to define. As I have been learning from Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva, there can be procedural or legal justice when laws and policies are enacted; there can be distributive justice where resources are spread from pockets of communities into greater realms; there can be restitutional justice when criminals are required to pay a consequence; and there can be restorative justice as an effort to return the world to proper balance.

Christianity, at the moment, is in the middle of a tug-of-war mostly between an idea of restorative and restitutional justice that has been going on for over 2000 years ago.

Christians have been in dialogue about Jesus’ life and Jesus’ teachings, yet more than anything we have been obsessed with his death. It is no wonder that our violence-obsessed culture is infatuated with Jesus’ crucifixion but as a result, we not only minimize his life, we lock ourselves into a narrow atonement theory that assumes Jesus had to die.

What does atonement theory suggest about a God whose creation is incomplete so that an atonement is required? What does it suggest about a Creator who is out of touch with humanity and requires an intermediary to testify on humanity’s behalf? What does it say about the life of Jesus that the only matter of influence is his death?

This is important because how we understand Jesus’ death affects how we understand Justice. I do not believe Jesus came to make restitution but rather, to lead restoration.

Currently, well over half (32) of the United States have a criminal justice system where death is required. This number compiled does not even go so far as to assert that life in prison is a different yet equal kind of death. Are we as Americans more focused on providing a forum for restitution or a forum for restoration.

 

pope-francis.si

Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the International Association of Penal Law. According to Katie Zavadski, he had some pointed things to say about some of America’s favorite things — torture, the death penalty, and mass imprisonment -… calling on Christians and “men of good faith” to fight “not only for the abolition of the death penalty,” but also to improve prison conditions. “A sentence of life [without parole] is a hidden death penalty,” he said.

He’s right. We cannot allow ourselves to be so obsessed with violence and restitution that we take for granted the impact of life. We must work to educate our children, and our adults with criminal records to the extent that we are using grace, love, forgiveness and opportunity (the core of the gospels of Jesus’ life) as motivation, as opposed to death.

As we seek to understand and proclaim Jesus to be somebody whose life mattered significantly, whose way provided salvation, and whose teachings urged towards restoration, we must also work to provide a legal system that is fair and economic and social conditions that provide ample opportunities for citizens to choose their destinies so that their lives matter more than their deaths.

Death is not greater than grace.

Not 2000 years ago. And not today.

 

 

An Open Letter To Raven Symone

Dear Raven Symone,

I am sorry.

I confess that what I know about you entirely consists of that by which you do not want you to be known. I know that you are an actor, a black American, and after watching your recent interview I learned that you are a lesbian.

I am sorry.

In the past several days since you told Oprah Winfrey that you do not like being labeled, your preferences (both in lifestyle and semantics) have been analyzed, criticized and even applauded by those who don’t pretend to know you but assume to understand your responsibility as a celebrity, a person of color, and a woman in a homosexual relationship. That response has spread as wide as criticism from distinguished members of liberal academia to praise from perennial jackass Glenn Beck.

I am sorry.

Because I don’t think anybody is really listening to you. Very few people are talking about the struggles that you acknowledged just seconds before agreeing with the insinuation that you don’t like being labeled gay or African American. Nobody heard you say that as a 12 year-old, you did not have the language to locate yourself in terms of your sexual orientation and your most instinctual desires. Nobody seems to be talking about your lamentation that you don’t feel connected to any roots in Africa.

It is not my place to suggest to you whether or not you are responsible to the demographic identifiers such as “gay” or “African American” because my struggle with white privilege means that I do not often walk through stores, interact with my lover, or put myself in the sphere with the weight of having to represent an entire group of people.

However, what I am hearing from the words that you are not saying is that the labels that you have been given, the identifiers of certain traits that were endowed to you by the Creator, have been restrictive to you; and frankly, in disagreement with the majority of the Twittosphere, I don’t see where this speaks to you. These restrictive labels speak more to our failure to you as fellow Americans.

And with the understanding that each of us was created in the image of the Creator, I believe, that we as Christians have failed you too.

You see, I believe that our unique composition of various distinctions serves to illuminate more of the mysterious nature of God, and for any quality that shapes you to be restrictive is both a theological and syntax failure. I believe that the culture(s) that we choose to identify with enhance our communities and not to separate us.

As a result, I will be much more diligent to use adjectives with great sensitivity when working with young men and women are looking to understand, develop, and express themselves in the context of the many communities through which they may identify. And I pledge to be more sensitive to the language that each individual prefers as opposed to the language that is most comfortable to me. Further, I pledge to be patient to give the space that is sometimes needed to struggle with identity labels.

I see it as my responsibility to create environments where men and women are able to explore their own race and sexuality on their terms as they define them and I invite fellow Christians to join me in working for those environments., though I acknowledge we are not there yet.

And I am so sorry.

Scaraoke and Biblical Self-Defense

Scaraoke & Biblical Self-Defense

 I am afraid that liberal Christians may be relying too much on biblical understanding and not enough on their own biblical reading.

Further, when we rely only on a certain handful of “go-to” scriptures (Micah 6:8, anybody) as opposed to committing ourselves to know the bible more wholly, we are robbing ourselves of a full understanding of our scriptures.

It would be like listening to our favorite songs without the music, or the beat, or the lead-singer who had the emotion and intention behind her!

 

Though it would make my mother proud, I am almost afraid to ask.

Have you read the Bible lately?

I’m afraid to ask because of the connotation that is more than likely attached to any conversation you might have ever had with somebody who asked you a similar question.

When I was feeling anxious as a college freshman, when I was battling addictive “medicine” in the valleys of a confusing time, and when I was worried about the health of my wife and soon-to-be daughter, I have had people ask me some near-rendition of “So, have you read your Bible lately?”

The literal suggestion in those instances is that there is wisdom in the scriptures that can be quite applicable to someone who is feeling alone and abandoned, powerless and stuck, or fearful and ill-prepared. However, the implication is that the answer is simple and already known by the one asking the question.

I think this is a fair generalization: fundamentalists use their bible.

They might not know the, but they certainly use the bible.

Fundamentalists use the bible to oppress those who doubt or struggle, enact their political agendas, and keep women, minorities, GBLTQ folk, and many more “in their places.” So, what do you use the Bible for?

I feel comfortable with an understanding of a God of justice and mercy but I have not always been as willing to struggle with the scriptures that don’t readily lend themselves to that portrayal of God. I haven’t always been as willing to read texts less accessible to me such as Hosea, Deuteronomy, and That Book Which Shalt Not Be Named By Progressives (Leviticus).

So instead, I have relied on biblical understanding – theologians, preachers, strangers, agnostics, fellow pew-sitters, priests, and rabbis – to guide me through my faith. However, relying on other people’s understandings robs me of the opportunity to become fully invested. It leaves me vulnerable.

It allows me to be a Christian with all my head, but not with all my heart.

Further, minimizing the Hebrew Bible minimizes the very God that Jesus understood (as illustrated in this wonderful article by Pete Enns). To minimize the Hebrew Bible is to miss out on the love of God’s people and God’s pain over human suffering as expressed in Hosea. To minimize the Hebrew Bible is to fail to acknowledge the hunger for God and the quest for righteousness of the Deuteronomists.

Perhaps the Bible doesn’t specifically say much of everything.

Perhaps what makes the Bible more complete is the diversity that it represents. Sort of like humanity, isn’t it?

If you, like me, are tired of a narrow understanding of the Bible, what are you willing to do about it?

Let us not grow weary of the fight to struggle with our text, claim our text, and use our text in the struggle to prove that our God’s justice and mercy go together like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong.