Thursday, April 19, 2018

Human Rights & Human Wrongs: A Ground Motive Series

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A Ground Motive Series

“Human rights” occupy a strangely fraught place in political discourse today. In one sense, they bear the burden of being obvious. To deny the moral weight of human rights among those of good faith would be strange, at best, and suspicious, at worst. After all, few judgments are more immediately meaningful—and morally charged—than to say that an individual or institution is guilty of violating human rights. We might disagree about whether this is true or false in particular cases, of course. But we do not disagree that such a thing is possible.

However, like so many other concepts integral to our fragile humanity, the precise meaning of human rights is decidedly not obvious. Do human rights “exist”? Are they visible, however faintly, under the ever-sharpening gaze of cutting-edge neurobiology? Are they compelling fictions, devised naively by brilliant but outdated theorists of yesteryear? Are they gifts from God?

These questions are philosophical (and theological) in nature, but they are not academic—at least, not in the sense of being conveniently irrelevant to concrete scenarios of human concern. If anything, the present moment intensifies our embarrassment at such ambiguities even more palpably than previous generations. Whatever else might be the case in Trump’s United States, the Brexiters’ Britain, Zuckerberg’s social media, or Kim Jong-un’s Democratic People’s Republic, with respect to human rights, one thing is clear: things are unclear.

It is in this sober, clear-eyed spirit that we kick off our new series, “Human Rights and Human Wrongs,” here on Ground Motive. We will feature two kinds of reflections: on the one hand, we will present pieces dealing with various theoretical approaches to human rights and their significance in today’s world; on the other, we will engage thoughtfully with concrete contemporary events, thus sparking further reflection on the practical ways in which the language of rights affects our society. The idea is to “do what we do” at ICS—engage pressing questions pertaining to our responsibility before God in a world steeped in the bondage and decay of injustice—albeit publicly, i.e., in a spirit of conversation open to anyone interested.

In “Human Rights and Human Wrongs” we will feature the diverse, and in some cases directly opposing, views that represent the constituencies that make up ICS, its partners, and its communities of support. In light of this, we invite you to engage in this dialogue by submitting your reflections or responding to the posts in the series in the comments section. Our hope is to overcome the original discomfort proper to deep dialogue through a process of communal discernment and reflection, through which we can generate new ways of thinking about our societies, their challenges, and their futures. We look forward to your contributions and comments!

Please email Héctor Acero Ferrer at with your submissions.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Violence On All Sides

by Dean Dettloff

Ferguson, 2014

This September in St. Louis, police arrested well over 100 people during protests that lasted for several days. Demonstrators were responding to the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white man who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man, as a member of the St. Louis Police Department in 2011. The killing came at the end of a chase during which Stockley was recorded by a dashcam saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it,” referring to Smith. Stockley claimed to find a gun in Smith’s car; the gun was found to have no DNA evidence showing Smith had ever touched it, though it did have Stockley’s DNA.

Before the verdict was released, the SLPD was already preparing for a confrontation, remembering the events of the nearby Ferguson revolt three years earlier in response to the killing of Michael Brown by white Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. A year after that, the Justice Department found the Ferguson Police Department was glaringly racist, based on a lengthy investigation that revealed that despite Ferguson’s black community making up two thirds of the population, they made up 93% of arrests there. Unsurprisingly, many in St. Louis found Stockley’s acquittal to be one more in a series of mishandled cases involving the death of black people in Missouri at the hands of white police officers.

Protests started peacefully but escalated when police agitated the crowds in the evening. Social media circulated the usual protest scenes, with a video of an older woman being trampled by St. Louis officers in riot gear emerging as an especially troubling and viral moment. And in response to the usual protest scenes, the usual protest reactions began to emerge, too.

Archbishop of St. Louis Robert Carlson condemned the violence in a press release saying, “While acknowledging the hurt and anger, we must not fuel the fires of hatred and division… Reject the false and empty hope that violence will solve problems. Violence only creates more violence.” The statement summarizes what has become a default position for many Americans, Catholic or otherwise: the onus is on the protesters to keep calm, and while the rage that erupts is understandable, that rage needs to be reined in. Violence begets violence, not change.

The response seems reasonable enough, especially in a country that saw the political and spiritual witness of Martin Luther King Jr. It also seems reasonable coming from Archbishop Carlson, a representative of a church whose spiritual leader, Pope Francis, has been a vocal promoter of nonviolence around the world, even delivering a message on the 50th Day of Peace entitled “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace.

Yet reasonable as it might seem, we should ask whether or not general condemnations of violence obscure more than they reveal about what happens on-the-ground in situations like the one in St. Louis. In the first place, exactly what we mean by “violence” is usually left undefined and assumed, though criticisms of protest violence often revolve around either the destruction of property or potential bodily harm.

We should ask whether or not general condemnations of violence obscure more than they reveal about what happens on-the-ground in situations like the one in St. Louis.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Judgment, Religion, and Modernity in The Keepers

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This post is part of our "popular mythology" series, investigating the intersections of religion and popular culture.

By: Kiegan Irish

Recently I found myself thoroughly wrapped up with a new documentary series called The Keepers. The series is interesting for a number of reasons. It seems to be a continuation of the trend in 'true crime' documentaries that has had such widespread appeal lately. The Keepers is extremely well shot, edited, and researched, especially given the quality of some of the offerings in this genre. It is also profoundly disturbing. It deals explicitly with sexual violence, and some of the interviews where the cases are described in detail are difficult to watch. That being said, I think that the series raises some important issues about the relations between guilt and judgment as well as religion and modernity, and handles them in a unique and thoughtful fashion.

The story of the series revolves around two women who had been students at a Catholic girl's school in Baltimore in the late 1960s. During their time at the school, a young and beloved nun was brutally murdered. The police investigation carried out at the time came up with nothing and the case was eventually abandoned. Years later, in their retirement, the case still haunts the two women and other students of the school and members of the community. They band together and attempt to seek all the information they can, regarding the murder. During their investigation, they uncover connections to a sinister conspiracy.

The real story then, we're told, is not the murder itself, but the cover up. The murder of the nun called Sister Kathy in '69 was committed precisely because she had threatened to report the abuse.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

If you do not forgive… III

by Henk Hart

Original text John 20:21-23 Greek New Testament (SBLGNT)

21 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν· Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν· καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς. 22 καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον· 23 ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς·
ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.
Reading the text once again

The 10 references to the same gospel I surveyed last week suggest that 20:23b from that very gospel may not offer support for church discipline. In a 2012 report of the West Coast Presbyterian Pastors Conference, Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message, said about this difficulty that “this verse always bothered him.” So he translated it in The Message as: “If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” In material for the Lectionary Mat Skinner wrote: “Failure to bear witness, Jesus warns, will result in the opposite: a world … left unable to grasp the knowledge of God. .... Jesus is not … granting the church a unique spiritual authority. He is simply reporting that a church that does not bear witness to Christ … leaves itself unable to play a role in delivering people from all that keeps them from experiencing the fullness that Jesus offers.”

The problem can perhaps be addressed by reading the text differently. Peterson leans that way in responding to 20:23b by exclaiming: And then what! He seems to imply that leaving people unforgiven creates an intolerable situation. So does Skinner. If they are right, we can take 23b to mean: and so forgive, never leave people unforgiven. Had 23a read: "When people are hungry, feed them," 23b would have been immediately clear: "if you don’t feed them, they remain hungry.” So: when you forgive sins they will be forgiven, lest people will continue as they are. Never fail to forgive. John’s great commission is: Forgive.

John 20:23b now urges us always to forgive, following the tenor of the gospel, in line with Paul's canon of the new creation (end of Galatians 6). John’s interpretation of Pentecost is the inbreathing of a new Adam who, as in Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3, following Jesus in love, is filled with all the fulness of God. I read these kinds of texts as giving us a new interpretation of humanity made in God’s image. The fulness of God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7a now no longer needs to be completed with vs 7b. In Jesus the fulness of God’s love covers all iniquity. As in John 3:17-18a "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned….”

Forging a new tradition

But John 3:18b says: "whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son….” And vs 36: "whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” How can I maintain my different reading in the face of these clear condemnations? I respond that these condemnations are not part of the church’s mission. They are not God's intent in Jesus. The church is not called to condemn, but to be a means of grace. The gospel simply asserts the meaning of living outside the life-giving forces of love. All the more reason to read 20:23b as I propose.

Our world cries out for love and the gospel focuses on love as the core of the church. To practise love, we must overcome a centuries old tradition about reading a text. That’s been done before, also in connection with sin. We seem constitutionally inclined to respond to transgression, trespass, disobedience in just one way: punishment. So the post-resurrection church believes it must practice discipline to remain true and reads John as commanding this.

A reading of Scripture about our nature can be based on a mistake. In Reformed theology Augustine’s teaching of original sin was once very influential. Today we know his doctrine represented his misreading of Romans 5:12. Is it possible that we also misread John 20:23b? Are we free to work at a new tradition?

Restitution for abused victims

It is difficult to abandon an established tradition without the strengths of a new one. Breaking new ground often misses the mark again and again. Failure can tempt a return to Egypt. Entering a phase of the Reformation without church discipline will meet with resistance. But if the church is to become the special institution where love has no barriers, these hurdles must be taken.

What will a church do when acceptance of abusers seems to leave the abused without healing? Abused people, especially by clergy in a position of power in the church, rightfully look for restitution. Can they trust the church to restore them if the perpetrator is not punished? These questions easily arise from thinking in terms of a punitive model. But an institution devoted to extend God’s love to all is called to bring healing to those broken by the transgressions of others as well as to those others.

We have learned from the “truth and reconciliation” (t&r) process that restorative involvement of both sides of a bloody collision of norms and practices holds out promise for healing and reconciliation, serious shortcomings notwithstanding.* That process was adopted by secular states. It could therefore recommend itself even more to churches for development as a faith oriented process that moves beyond punishment. Punishment can indeed give a victim some satisfaction, but it does not restore. The strategies of t&r were forged in the crucible of seeking restoration after cruel political conflicts. Their path often resulted in truly moving results.

T&R looks for 'restorative justice’ rather than adversarial and retributive justice. It aims to heal by uncovering what really happened, finding truth and exposing lies, and making room for mourning, forgiveness and healing. Following this way churches can forego punishment and at the same time do justice to both abuser and abused. This provides a more Christlike way to read John 20:23b and a way to deal with transgression that incarnates love.

*Desmond Tutu’s Assessment: Despite these challenges and limitations, the TRC was internationally regarded as successful and showed the importance of public participation in such processes, including the initial decision-making process leading up to the establishment of a truth commission. The hearings of the TRC attracted global attention, as it was the first commission to hold public hearings in which both victims and perpetrators were heard. While amnesties are generally considered inconsistent with international law, the South African TRC provided some basis for considering conditional amnesties as a useful compromise, particularly if they help to secure perpetrator confessions.The South African TRC represented a major departure from the approach taken at the Nürnberg trials. It was hailed as an innovative model for building peace and justice and for holding accountable those guilty of human rights violations. At the same time, it laid the foundation for building reconciliation among all South Africans. Many other countries dealing with postconflict issues have instituted similar methodologies for such commissions, although not always with the same mandate. The South African TRC has provided the world with another tool in the struggle against impunity and the search for justice and peace.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

If you do not forgive… II

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by Henk Hart

Original text John 20:21-23 Greek New Testament (SBLGNT)

21 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν· Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν· καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς. 22 καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον· 23 ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς·
ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.

Problems with the current reading of John 20:23b

When the disciples are commissioned Jesus tells them that if they do not forgive someone’s sins, these sins are not forgiven. (John 20:23b) In this context a disturbing question arises: are we reading this right? Forgiving is one of the meanings of the new life. Paul ends Galatians 6, in which he tells us to bear one another’s burden if someone has sinned, by saying “what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule.” How could that include leaving people in their sins?

If indeed the last chapters of John are intended to explain what resurrection means, is there no immediate tension in reading 20:23b both as evidence of the resurrection and also as a mandate not to forgive someone’s sins?

I do not believe, given the context of the entire Gospel, such a reading is necessary and I hope to show that the problem is not one of poor translation. It is possible to simply read 23b as it stands and find it emphasizing new life. But first: is John's gospel consistent with retaining someone's transgressions as part of the meaning of resurrection?

Ten grounds for considering a different reading

*In the Prologue to his gospel John refers to the Word Incarnate as full of grace and truth (vs 17). He links us to Exodus 34:6-7a, the astounding self-revelation of God as forgiving and full of mercy, without a link to vs 7b. In the Old Testament this usually means that the reference intentionally does not include God’s resolve to punish iniquity (7b). In John, only the forgiving and merciful God becomes incarnate.

*John points to Jesus (vs 29) as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. He refers to God’s inclusive, cosmic love. Calvin’s exuberant reading of 20:23a as an unconditional pardon raises no expectation of limits on God's cosmic love. Nothing here points to reading this same Jesus as later commanding us to retain the sins of some.

*The miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 3) focuses Jesus’ mission on the restoration of joy as the basis for the disciples’ trust. So one would not expect John later to undermine this trust by involving the disciples in declaring some sin unforgivable.

*John 3:16 characterizes Jesus's mission as, again, an expression of God's love for the cosmos. Had Nicodemus been present at the commissioning in John 20, would he not have been surprised hearing vs 23b as a limit on God’s love?

*In John 8:3-11, Jesus tells a woman caught in adultery that he does not condemn her. He also does not assure that her sins are forgiven. Instead he tells her no longer to live in sin. And while he does, he is writing in the sand with his finger, just as the 10 commandments were written with God’s finger. But this time he may have written his new commandment: enter the life of love.

*The new commandment is made explicit in John 13:34, 15:12, 17 without any hint of leaving room for intentionally not forgiving sins. Jesus’s followers are to love one another as Jesus loved them. And Jesus loved them as God loved Jesus.

*In John 's post resurrection stories I read resurrection to mean darkness is overcome by love. He does not say the empty grave tells us Jesus is risen (John 20:4-10). Instead he tells stories that begin in darkness and give way to new life, to love, to forgiveness, all telling us that in Jesus a new creation starts.

*The first evidence of resurrection is the restoration of Eve in the commissioning of Mary to “go and tell” the disciples (John 20:17). She, a woman, is the first to be commissioned as messenger of good news. The Word that was in the beginning and brought us grace and truth incarnate has begun the work of resurrection, of making all things new. Leaving people in their sins does not fit in this commission

*The commissioning of the disciples (John 20:20-23) follows a clear path to new life. First the disciples are told to continue Jesus’ very mission: as the Father has sent me. Jesus then breathed on them to give them the Spirit. The Greek text leaves little doubt that this breathing was like God’s breathing life into Adam. Then they are commanded to forgive and reminded that without forgiveness people remain in their sins. I will say more about how I read forgiving in this third step of the commissioning. In this sequence resurrection can hardly include leaving people in their sins.

*In John 21:15ff the commissioning of Peter takes the place of forgiving him. I will retell this dramatic story in my own words to bring out the subtleties that translations do not reveal. Peter is asked three times whether he loves Jesus and three times he responds by saying Jesus knows. There is never a straight: Yes, I do. The first time Jesus asked: Do you fully love me more than the others? Peter responds: You know we are true friends. The second time Jesus leaves off the more than the others. Peter do you fully love me? Peter: You know we are true friends. The third time, which upsets Peter, Jesus comes down to his level: Are we really friends? Peter: You know everything, you know we truly are friends. Each of the three times Jesus commissions Peter to look after Jesus’ followers and then explains how this will lead to a hard life. Did Peter “get it,” we might ask? Was he renewed? At the end of the conversation Peter sees his close friend John and asks Jesus: And what about him? Jesus gently rebukes him: That’s for me to know. Peter’s renewal is really a sad story. But Jesus does not say he doesn’t forgive Peter. Nor does he discipline him.

Peter's story, more than anything else, make clear to me that in Jesus, full of grace and truth, we know only the God of mercy and forgiveness in Exodus 34:6-7a. God as known in Exodus 34:7b, who does not overlook iniquity, is nowhere in sight. So what is John saying in 20:23b? I will go there next week.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.