The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Friday, September 23, 2011

Strange Fruit: On the Execution of Troy Anthony Davis

Like so many others, I greeted the news on Tuesday that the Board of Pardons and Paroles for the state of Georgia had refused to grant Troy Anthony Davis clemency with shock and sadness. Wednesday morning I awoke with feelings of even deeper sadness and physical malaise. I knew that just at about the time when our congregation would be concluding our weekly prayer time and beginning our time of study, prison officials would place Troy Davis in the death chamber, strap him to a gurney, and administer a lethal cocktail of drugs that would first anesthetize him and then paralyze all his muscles, including his heart. I hoped against hope that the outcome might be different. I prayed and cried with my wonderful church family and kept vigil, sighing with relief momentarily when the clock struck 7:10 and he was still alive. Later, at home, I learned that following the refusal of a stay by the United States Supreme Court, that lethal cocktail had been administered and at 11:08 p.m. on 21 September 2011, Troy Anthony Davis was pronounced dead.

I have been an opponent of the death penalty for as long as I can remember. In 1995, while I was in seminary, I preached a sermon at Judson Memorial Church based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” The sermon was titled "Strange Fruit" from the song about lynching that Billie Holliday made famous. In that sermon, I made the point that resonates even more powerfully for me today: our system of capital punishment is a bad tree and no good fruit can come of it.

Patricia J. Williams made the point poignantly in a review essay called "The Executioner's Automat" published on 10 July 2005 in The Nation magazine: "But it is democracy that dies when we become a nation of heartbroken vengeance-seekers. The seduction of the “string ’emup” mentality is not that it’s “frontier” Justice in some cruel, cartoon-ish way. Its appeal is precisely that it is a response of insatiable sorrow, immediate payback; it is heroically grief-stricken rather than reasoned. Moreover, the rage for retribution risks obscuring the possibility of innocence, the need for due process, the presence of mitigating circumstances and the dubiety of crooked informants. And in its most extreme forms, the bloodlust risks being used to justify thestate practice of sadism upon all those guilty bodies so needing to be beaten, so asking to be broken. We despise murderers, we hate. But there is some point at which the despising takes on a life of its own; when the death-dealing actually becomes satisfying and eventually pleasurable. "

The execution of Troy Davis involved all of the dangers that Williams suggested, from the real possibility of innocence to the lack of due process to the dubiety of informants. The state's act was bad fruit from a bad tree. All state-sponsored murder is bad fruit. Racially biased sentencing is bad fruit. A vengeful public, evinced in the gleeful cheering of Governor Rick Perry’s woeful record of death in Texas by the audience at the Republican debates, is bad fruit. A disinterested public, demonstrated in the lack of attention to two other executions this week, is bad fruit. No ultimate public good can come from such a bad tree. It is making something of us and our democracy that is grotesque and evil. The only solution for us as a nation is to cut down and uproot the tree of capital punishment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Help: In Praise of Labor Done with Excellence

After a couple weeks avoiding it and another couple of weeks resigned to seeing it because I promised someone I would, I finally got to the movies today to see The Help, the blockbuster film based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Turns out Labor Day was exactly the right day for me to see it, because it helped me to focus on what The Help really was about, that is, work done well.

I avoided the film initially because I am persuaded that these feel-good treatments of black life and racism are actually counterproductive to real discussion of race relations. Sharper minds (and pens) than mine have eloquently articulated exactly what is wrong with the book and the film beginning with its ahistorical assumptions and its light treatment of the civil rights struggle.

For those of you who have been under a rock for the last few months, The Help focuses on a young white woman known as Skeeter (or Miss Skeeter to all the black characters) who after graduating from Ole Miss in the early 1960s is trying to make her living as a writer. Motivated in part by her grief over the unexpected loss of her own nanny, she choses to confront in subversive ways (never overtly) the racism and injustice inherent in the relationship between her junior league friends (perniciously headed by their president Hilly Holbrook) and the women who work in their homes. To prove yet again that the pen is mightier than the sword, and implicitly to suggest that it might even be mightier than the civil rights demonstrations, Skeeter interviews "the help," the community of African American women who make their living taking care of white people like herself. Please note that I said that the book and the movie are about Skeeter, not about the black women. Although Viola Davis renders the most noteworthy (Oscar worthy?) performance as Aibileen, the central black character and one of the narrators in the novel and the movie, this movie is decidedly NOT about black women or their perspective, since everything about her and her life, including the things we hear in her voice, focuses on white people. How we are told she feels about her work, especially about the children for whom she cares, is a obviously a figment of the fantasy life of white people like Stockett who hope that the black people who worked for them loved them.

This brings me to the primary point of this blog posting, that is, the under-appreciated and under-paid but powerful and life-giving professionalism of people who care for other people for a living — a fitting subject for Labor Day. This struck me particularly forcefully at the the end of the film (spoiler alert) when Aibileen loses her job taking care of the Leefolt family. The film focuses on the goodbye between Aibileen and the toddler Mae Mobley with tear-jearking melodrama that implies heartbreak for Aibileen who is losing a(nother) beloved child. What I realized, though, is that however much the child may be heartbroken at having lost the one person in the world who understands that she (and all children) has inherent human worth (too bad her parents didn't figure that out), the caring between Aibileen and the child is born of the WORK of caregiving done so well that it looks and feels like love to the object of the caring, whether it is or not. In another instance, the work of Skeeter's caregiver Constantine looked and felt so much like love that Skeeter actually imagined that her maid Constantine died of heartbreak at having to leave her to live with her own daughter.

That's the beauty of caring work that is done with excellence; it always looks so much like love that it is easy to forget that it's work, sometimes back-breaking, soul-numbing, spirit-exhausting hard work. Ironically, because of this beneficiaries of the labor end up devaluing it. Because it is so well done that it looks easy, they take it for granted and oftentimes resist remunerating it for what it's actually worth or even for what was agreed upon.

The teacher does her/his job with such grace and love that we imagine simply that she/he was born to teach and refuse to acknowledge the painstaking attention and even special study required to deliver lessons that make sense to individual children. The pastor ministers with both fire and gentleness and we acknowledge that the Lord has called and gifted her/him, but we forget that she/he has invested a lifetime of study (with degrees and student loans to prove it), along with hours of prayer and the burden of being on call as well as being called. The list goes on and you can feel free to add to it in the comments section.

By pointing out that work can look like love, I don't mean to suggest that professionalism and genuine human love and affection are necessarily mutually exclusive, only that the latter is nearly totally irrelevant to the point if the working person does her/his job well. I want to know that daycare providers will make a child feel loved whether they like that child or not. I want to know that teachers will teach every student whether their personalities jibe or not. I want to know that hospital and nursing home aides will treat vulnerable patients with kindness and compassion whether or not the patient elicits warm feelings. Finally, I want to insist that those who do this work and all work that makes our lives possible should be treated with dignity and have their professional excellence honored with decent pay and benefits. Happy Labor Day!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Some Thoughts about Education

It has been a long time since I have had the mental energy to attend to this blog. This is in part because as a pastor who preaches most every Sunday, a lot of my creative energy goes into the work of reading, listening, and developing preachments for the congregation with whom the Lord has called me to serve. It is also because I have a hard time putting things out that are not fully formed and thought through. Today, however, I just have a few things that I want to get off my chest.

For the last few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about public education in the United States. Less than a month ago, I preached a sermon about brain drain, the experience of knowledge loss in students that is related to the three-month break between June and September that is a part of USA public school policy. A teacher in the congregation confessed that she tensed up when I first began talking about brain drain because she expected me to join the bandwagon of blaming teachers for every problem with students' achievement, even aspects that they do not control. That teacher has good reason to feel that way because of the ongoing discussions in the bordering state of New Jersey as well as nationally about the role of teachers unions in advancing or inhibiting essential good teaching. Last week I had the privilege of hearing a learned group of sociologists and education specialists debate the sources of and solutions for the gap between the achievement of black and brown students and their white and Asian counterparts. Finally, there's the fact that Philadelphia has, once again, parted ways with its school superintendent. After a scant three years in office but a plethora of political and administrative problems, Dr. Arlene Ackerman has taken a negotiated buyout and is leaving the helm of the School District of Philadelphia.

I have some thoughts that I want to put out.

First, we have to stop scapegoating working people, blaming them for structural, political, and economic problems over which they have little or no control. That we have come to a point in our national and local politics when our default position is to resent and penalize people who work for us, as civil servants, teachers, fire fighters, police officers, postal workers, or retirees from those positions and seek to balance budgets by cutting their pay and benefits while we continue to invest in the very corporate structures and moguls who caused the economic downturn in the first place is a scandal.

Second, while reasonable people agree that accountability is appropriate in every position, including teachers, we must acknowledge that we don't have real good ways of measuring teacher success. Criticisms of standardized testing abound and we cannot ignore the increasing numbers of alleged and proven test-cheating scandals. Diane Ravitch, a George H.W. Bush appointee and former advocate of testing makes a compelling case for the problems with using test scores punitively in this NPR interview. Meanwhile, Ravitch also points out that an enormous amount of money is going into the test project.

Third, Waiting for Superman's reviews notwithstanding, the jury is really out about charter schools as a solution. Although there are some very good charter schools, there are also some very bad ones, just as is the case in general for public schools.

Here's my concern: we're pouring money and false hope into a few faddish solutions that haven't been proven and in some senses have been disproven. We need our public policy people, our educational policy people, and our communities to get together and make sure we support things that have already been proved to be beneficial, e.g. early childhood education. We need to attend to the relationship between the structure of our school year and the loss of learning, especially for poor children who don't have interesting and enlightening summer experiences. And we need to insist that our representatives stop balancing budgets on the backs of public workers and the poorest people whom they serve. We also need to figure out a comprehensive from the cradle system of education and support for children and their parents. I know that this will cost money, but it's money that we cannot afford not to spend; we just have to spend it wisely.

My two cents as a citizen.