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Presented January 18, 2015, by Ellen Taylor
Listen to a recording of "Not In My Name"
28:06 minutes - 25.7 MB - Not In My Name .mp3 file.
As I told you several weeks ago when Dan Conboy spoke, I've been thinking a lot about the concept of what people deserve. What got me on this train of thought was the way people were so quick to blame Michael Brown for getting shot in Ferguson. Then the report on torture was released. And there's talk of building a new jail, which has people talking about what Adams County inmates do or don't deserve. Once my mind was on that train - well, to quote Jethro Tull - there was "no way to slow it down," so I had to write this talk.
We have a natural tendency to look for the reasons things happen. We call it our sense of justice. When something good happens to someone we like we say, "can't think of anyone who deserves it more." When something bad happens to someone we like, we say "He didn't deserve that." When someone we don't like seems to be benefiting in a way we deem unjust, we count on delayed justice, and say "He'll get what he deserves." When we don't see justice occur, we imagine that it will happen beyond our knowing. Whether it's the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven and hell, the Hindu concept of karma, or the more literary sounding "poetic justice," we want some system of reward and punishment. We want people to get what they deserve. But we're not willing to rely completely on organic justice. In many cases, we feel the need to make it happen, so we have laws and legal punishments to help keep people from harming others, and that helps us make sense of the world.
The problem with that as I see it, is that because we are human, we are fallible, and we too easily lose sight of our alleged goal. We too easily let our fears, our emotions, and our egos take over.
Let's start with Michael Brown. An unarmed teenager is shot and killed by a police officer. We don't think of our society as one in which police shoot people for no reason, so it's natural for us to look for a reason. Brown must have done something to deserve being shot. It wasn't long after the shooting that we heard about him stealing from a convenience store. But according to initial reports, Officer Wilson did not know that at the time. He stopped Brown for walking in the street, which is not a death penalty offense, so that can't be the reason. Later reports said he heard it on his radio during his encounter with Michael Brown and his friend. Ok. Let's say Michael Brown had just stolen some cigarillos and let's say Officer Wilson knew that. Now we have a reason. It's ok to shoot Brown dead because he stole $10 worth of tobacco. Oh, wait. Stealing is not a crime for which the death penalty is given in this country. Well, Wilson must have been afraid for his life. Now we have a reason. Oh, wait. Brown did not have a weapon, and depending on who's telling the story, he was either 35 or 148 feet away from Wilson's car when he was killed. Had our system been allowed to work, Michael Brown would most likely have been charged with theft. And maybe assault. And maybe resisting arrest. He probably would been placed on probation, which in my opinion, is more appropriate than death, considering the crime(s). While I believe that racism is very much an issue in the Michael Brown case, that really is not my point today. My point is that by looking for excuses to kill this boy, we assume some culpability for his death. When we say that a public servant is justified in taking a life, we as the public he serves, have to own that action.
In the American legal system, the public's interest is represented by the government. In most criminal cases, the charges are brought by the State. Think about all the courtroom dramas you've seen in which the prosecutor says, "The People call this witness, your Honor." "The People of the State of . . . .rest." That's you and me. WE are the people. WE are the people in whose name charges are filed and punishments are given. WE are the people in whose name our government officials act.
I've known the phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" for as long as I can remember. I have understood it to mean that the government represents the people - we vote for representatives to make decisions on our behalf and in our best interests. But I hadn't really thought about the phrase as it relates to our criminal justice system until several years ago. In 1997, a woman named Karla Faye Tucker was making national headlines. Karla Faye Tucker was on death row in Texas for having stabbed two people to death with an ice pick. The crime was gruesome - she stabbed the male victim 28 times and reportedly said she experienced sexual gratification with every stab. So when she received the death penalty, there wasn't much fuss. But as time passed and she waited on death row, she found Jesus. And as her execution date approached, people started to take up her cause. My memory of the case is that the issue was not simply the morality of the death penalty, but whether or not she deserved the death penalty now that she had seen the light, as if her newly found Christianity was what made her life worth saving.
I have never supported the death penalty. It just makes no sense to me to say "you killed someone and killing is wrong so we're going to kill you." But in Karla Faye's case, I couldn't get past the born-again hoopla. I didn't say she should be executed, but I did say that her profession of faith was not the reason not to execute her. I remember talking about this case with Father Bill. For those of you who don't know Father Bill, he is a Franciscan friar with a PhD in scripture who used to teach at QU. Bill grew up in Quincy and now teaches graduate students in a seminary in Florida. He is one of the smartest and funniest people I know and I love talking to him about religion. Anyway, Bill and I were talking about the Karla Faye case. I asked what he thought of the idea that remorse and repentance could allow a murderer to go to Heaven. I don't remember his response to that question, but I do remember that at some point in the conversation, he said the real issue had nothing to do with what Karla Faye had done or what she believed. When I asked what he meant, he said that capital punishment is about US, not the person being executed. Because people who are executed are killed by "the People of the State," an execution makes killers out of all of us.
Once he said that, I thought "Duh!" As I said, I'd always opposed capital punishment on the "two wrongs don't make a right" premise, but had still never really thought of it as killing in my name. But of course it is because I am one of "the People."
I laugh at myself now for not having gotten that sooner; it seems so obvious. And the sentiment has been very much a part of my thinking for ages. I can't tell you how many times I've said "It's not about them, it's about you." Any time my own boys or my students have wanted to get back at someone or reciprocate a wrongdoing, I've used that line. The eye-for-an-eye mentality has always annoyed me. I admit that I sometimes wish for poetic justice - part of me would love to see Dick Cheney spend the rest of his life in poverty in the deserts of Iraq or Afghanistan - but deep down I do understand that an eye for an eye serves only to make the whole world blind. And I do understand that harboring ill will toward another person serves only to incubate negativity within myself. As today's meditation words indicate - that kind of negativity only makes us negative, it doesn't hurt the object of our ill will. Half the time, the person we think we're directing our negative energy toward is completely unaware, so we are only poisoning ourselves.
Think about how often you've told your children, or your parents told you, something like "you can't control other people's behavior; you can only control your own." Or "you need to make the decisions you know are right. Don't make bad choices just because someone else did."
I'm betting we've all had that conversation at some point in our lives. As parents or teachers, it's easy to see that we don't want our kids to hurt others, and it makes perfect sense to us to encourage them to take the high road. We can see, on that small scale in those situations within our immediate circle, that retribution is counterproductive.
But sometimes we have a harder time seeing it on a larger scale, in situations beyond our personal sphere. "Well," you may say, "hitting your brother because he hit you is very different from lawfully executing someone who had a fair trial and was found guilty by a jury of her peers of stabbing a man 28 times with an ice pick ." Of course it is. Or is it? Is it really different in any way other than degree? Your brother hits you so you hit him. A person you don't know kills another person you don't know, so you kill her. It still boils down to the "eye for an eye" mentality. We can't expect our children to stop hitting back if we're not setting the example. If we aren't willing to practice what we preach, we can't expect anyone to take our words seriously, so now we're killers AND liars.
We can say we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and we can say we believe in justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, but those words mean nothing if we don't apply them to a black teen who steals cigars from a quickstop. Those words mean nothing if we don't apply them to a woman who stabs two people with an ice pick, or to a man who may have information about plans to attack the United States, or to anyone who commits any act we find objectionable.
After the torture report was released, I saw quite a few facebook posts showing photos of wounded American soldiers with captions that said things like "This is why I don't care how we get information from terrorists." My initial reaction to those posts was "and this is exactly the kind of attitude that makes Americans targets in the first place." The idea that we can do whatever we want because we're America makes me cringe. My second reaction to those posts was "but that makes us no better than them." How can we condemn terrorists for terrorizing us if we terrorize them? My third reaction was an extension of the second and of Bill's point. "It's not about what they've done. It's about what WE do." We like to puff up our chests and say we're the greatest country in the world. We're a democracy. We're civilized. We value human rights. We even implement sanctions against countries we feel violate basic human rights.
And yet it's ok for us to torture human beings. It's ok for us to hold people in prison indefinitely without filing charges. It's ok for us to violate our own laws when it suits us to do so - the very laws we tout as making us better than the other guys.
I read an interview recently with FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan. Soufan was a lead investigator of Al-Qaida before and after 9/11. He was an early interrogator of detainees before contractors were brought in to use "enhanced interrogation techniques," aka torture. In his interview with salon.com, Soufan says:
There's a reason many of us were against these techniques; it's not because we were a bunch of tree-huggers. It's because we know they don't work. If you look at the CIA's own code of conduct, it talks about how these techniques produce false information and false answers and don't work. The CIA Inspector General, long before the Senate report, said there was no evidence of a single terrorist attack being disrupted because of these techniques . . . and he talked about the dangerous strategic implications on the reputation of the CIA and on the United States from doing something like this. And by the way, it's against what we stand for as a nation . . . . We [rebuke] other nations for doing waterboarding; we prosecuted Japanese officers and executed them because they waterboarded our POWs in WW II. So we can't just become the enemy.
I admit it is much more difficult to turn the other cheek when the offense is serious. It's easy to tell an 8 year old to ignore an ornery brother whose behavior, while extremely annoying, is ultimately harmless. It's harder to take the high road when the offense causes real damage. But that's the real test of a value, isn't it? It's easy to believe something that requires no sacrifice. It doesn't take a whole lot of commitment on my part to affirm the worth and dignity of every person if I encounter only people who are loving and kind and generous. Affirming the inherent worth and dignity of someone like Mahatma Gandhi doesn't take much conviction. Someone like Adolph Hitler is another story. But if I start qualifying my so-called values when they get uncomfortable, I can't really call them my values.
I often think of the monologue Michael Douglas delivers in The American President, one of the greatest speeches ever given, in the movies or in reality. Here's part of it:
America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours." You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.
I say we have to apply the same logic to religious beliefs. You want to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person? You want justice, equity, and compassion in human relations? Then let's see you affirm the worth of someone who has killed another human being. Let's see you treat someone whose actions you deem evil with compassion.
How? How do we deal with heinous behavior compassionately and acknowledge worth and dignity? Theoretically, our justice system is designed to do that. The right to trial by a jury of peers, the right to face your accuser, the provision for public defenders, Miranda rights, etc. These are all safeguards that in theory help us treat even the most despicable criminal with some dignity. In theory. It's up to us to make it work in actuality. One way to make it work is to speak up when those who act on our behalf act counter to our beliefs. When a prosecutor refuses to charge a police officer for shooting or strangling an unarmed man, when the state executes a convicted murderer, when a federal agency tortures a prisoner, we must say "not in my name."
Whether we're talking about children hitting back, police shooting an unarmed teenager, the state executing a convicted murderer, or the CIA waterboarding so-called enemies the state, it all boils down to our perceptions of what others deserve. But - at the risk of repeating myself - it shouldn't be about what others deserve. It should be about what WE know is right. We may not be able to control the other guys - little brothers who hit, teenagers who shoplift, strangers who murder their friends, or fanatics who launch suicide attacks. But we can control how we respond. We can determine how WE treat people. We can practice what we preach. We can affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person by treating every person with dignity. We can say "You will not do that in my name." We can and should protest actions taken in our name which contradict our values.
These issues - capital punishment, wartime interrogation techniques, etc - are usually discussed in the political arena, and I assume most of us support the separation of church and state. We agree the pulpit is not the place for political campaigning. I would not stand here and tell you who to vote for. But I have to acknowledge that my political views spring from my religious views. I believe what I believe politically because of what I believe religiously and morally. I take "affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person" to mean we shouldn't kill or torture people. I take promoting "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" to mean we should not only allow, but insist that our legal system work as intended. So I also have to agree with the line attributed to Mahatma Gandhi - "those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is."
Carol Nichols said in her talk a couple weeks ago that true faith is a constant struggle. I could not agree more. Real belief is reflected, not in our words, but in how we proceed when that belief is tested. If we ignore our principles in times of trouble, there's not much point in having them. We don't need them when things are going well. And if we don't put them into action outside these walls, they form the "illusion and thoroughly vulgar conception" that Socrates warned us of.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.