Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Justice Is A Verb!
©Wendell Griffen, 2015

In the latest exercise of cultural incompetence and pandering to the storm-trooper mentality involving police interactions with communities of color nationwide, city directors in Little Rock, Arkansas voted last night by a 7-1 margin to purchase riot gear for most of the 551 members of the Little Rock police force. 

The vote to purchase the riot gear occurred despite pleas from members of the Little Rock black community who urged that directors study the issue further to determine whether riot gear is even needed in Little Rock.  As Mrs. Annie Abrams, a long-time resident of Little Rock told the directors, “We didn’t even have a riot in 1957 and didn’t have a riot when we had HBO [referring to the 1957 Central High School desegregation crisis and the mid-1990s Home Box Office documentaries about gang violence in Little Rock].” 

The Little Rock Police Department has what can charitably be called an “image problem” with communities of color. 

A former Little Rock police officer, Joshua Hastings, shot and killed a teenaged black youth, Bobby Moore III, less than three years ago.  Although Hastings was fired and later charged with manslaughter for killing Bobby Moore III, his prosecution was abandoned after two trials resulted in hung juries.  There was no riot.  There was no threatened riot.  There was no rumored riot. 

Eugene Ellison, a middle-aged black man and father of two police officers (one who yet works for the police department), was gunned down in his apartment by Little Rock police officers.  Mr. Ellison was unarmed when the police killed him.  The officers who killed him were not prosecuted.  They are still on the police force.  There was no riot.  There was no threatened riot.  There was no rumored riot. 

Little Rock’s Police Department, led by Chief Kenton Buckner, doesn’t need riot gear. It needs better cultural competence training, community relations, and better recruiting, screening, selection, and evaluation policies and practices.  Little Rock needs an independent civilian review panel with authority to investigate and issue findings regarding allegations of abusive and excessive force by police officers. 

Chief Buckner and Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore, both black men, could have been instrumental in advocating for those changes.  They chose otherwise.

So a mid-sized Southern city with a long history of strained race relations generally (albeit masked by the traditional notions of Southern “cordiality”) and clear recent evidence of tension between its police officers and people of color will now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on riot gear for the agency of city government with, arguably, the worse relationship with persons of color to make that agency more culturally competent, accountable, responsible, or competent in the use of force?  Nonsense!
Bobby Moore III and Eugene Ellison are dead.  Little Rock police killed them.  No Little Rock police officer has been injured, let alone slain, because of a riot.  One would have hoped that Chief Buckner, Manager Moore, and the seven city directors who voted for purchasing riot gear would recognize that glaring reality. 

One would have hoped that the political leadership in Little Rock would understand that riot gear doesn’t prevent or solve police-community tensions. 

One would have hoped that Little Rock learned from the deaths of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Illinois, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, that communities don’t need police to have riot gear to avoid civilians being killed by people sworn to protect and serve them.  The police need cultural competence.  They need better oversight, training, and understanding about human relations and justice. 

One would have hoped that several other members of the Little Rock Board of Directors besides Director Erma Hendrix would have bluntly spoken this truth to City Manager Moore and Chief Buckner and rejected this latest exercise in militarization of local police agencies. 

But as my father often said, “that would be too much like right.”

When another tragic (and avoidable) incident of excessive force/homicidal conduct by a Little Rock police officer happens, community tensions will intensify.  The police will turn out in their new riot gear as a “precautionary measure.”  We may expect the agency that demands riot gear without any historical justification to deploy with riot gear, riot or not.    

Police-community relations in Little Rock sank to a new low last night.  Thanks, Manager Moore, Chief Buckner, and the seven city directors who voted for the riot gear, for making bad matters worse. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015
May 17, 2015 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
15In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16“Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus—17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” …
21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

        The only thing we know about Matthias, the person chosen to round out the 12 apostles in place of the deceased Judas Iscariot, is that he was chosen by the 120 persons who gathered in the Upper Room after the Ascension of Jesus.  Matthias was chosen, by lot and following prayer, over another follower of Jesus named Justus. 

Neither Matthias nor Justus is mentioned in any of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.  What qualified them as candidates to round out the apostles?

Presumably, Matthias and Justus were associated with Jesus during his ministry in Galilee. Presumably, Matthias and Justus encountered the resurrected Jesus of Easter.  Presumably, Matthias and Justus were associated with the community that followed Jesus and heard Jesus teach after the resurrection. 

But neither Matthias nor Justus are mentioned in the Gospels as having stood near the cross of the crucified Jesus. 

Neither Matthias nor Justus are named among the followers of Jesus who found the tomb of Jesus empty. 

Neither Matthias nor Justus were with the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter.

Neither Matthias nor Justus heard the angels declare that Jesus had risen from the grave.

How did Matthias and Justus become the top candidates to round out the apostles?  How were they elevated over Mary Magdalene (identified in John’s Gospel as being the first person to speak with the resurrected Jesus)? 

How is it that none of the women who were at the tomb on the first Easter, who found the tomb empty, who were addressed by angels, and who were commissioned by Jesus to go tell the men (presumably including Matthias) that he was alive was considered a worthy candidate? 

It appears that Matthias became an apostle because the selection process was set up to favor males.  The text says that the 120 prayed, cast lots, and selected Matthias.  But the text also says that Peter defined the selection criteria for candidacy to succeed Judas Iscariot based on gender.  Despite the fact that the women stayed to witness the crucifixion and death of Jesus while Peter, the other apostles (except for John), and (apparently) Matthias deserted him, Matthias was considered more deserving of consideration than Mary Magdalene or any of the other women.

One lesson we should glean from the selection of Matthias is that we import our biases onto our notion of faith.  Sexism and male privilege, not piety or familiarity with the resurrection of Jesus, were the factors that influenced Peter and the other early leaders. 

In choosing Matthias Peter and the older apostles made maleness equal to having witnessed the resurrected Jesus.  They made maleness equal to having learned from Jesus, trusted Jesus, and followed Jesus. 

Beyond that, they made maleness more important than the fact that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who were first heralds of the resurrection.  They made maleness more important than the people who were the first eye witnesses to the resurrection, more important than the people who were first to believe Jesus had risen from the grave, and more important even than the commission Jesus gave the women who were the first to proclaim his resurrection to the yet unbelieving male disciples.

Another lesson is that because we import our biases onto our notions of faith, we incorporate those biases into how we live that faith.  In doing so, we cause ministry efforts and actions, meaning our living, to deviate from the life, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus.  When ministry efforts, practices, and perspectives perpetuate our biases rather than the example of Jesus, we distance ourselves from the power of the resurrection. 

When the first witnesses to the resurrection (women) were passed over in favor of Matthias, the resurrection didn’t lose its power.  The apostles lessened their outreach!  They chose not to include the witness of Mary Magdalene, Salome, Mary the mother of James, or one of the other women among the apostles! 

God only knows what might have been accomplished if Peter, James, John, Thomas, Phillip, Nathaniel, Andrew, or some of the remaining eleven had championed one of the women to succeed Judas Iscariot and be counted an apostle of the resurrection of Jesus!  The resurrection wasn’t diminished by their failure to do that!  Their effectiveness was limited.

The choice of Matthias also exposes our tendency to favor what we have always done even in the face of clear evidence that God has revealed something new and better, something only God can inspire us to achieve.  God raised Jesus! 

God made women rather than men the first messengers of the resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus reveals the power of God to do new things in the human experience. 

The resurrection reveals the power of God to open doors!  The resurrection reveals the power of to God tear down walls!  The resurrection reveals the power of God to “make a way out of no way” as my elders often told me during my childhood.  The resurrection of Jesus reveals the power of God to accomplish “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” as we read in the third chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 3:20-21). 

None of this—not any of that wonderful, liberating, radical, and subversive power—of God is apparent from the choice of Matthias. 

In our haste to be about God’s business let us not move away from what God has done in the resurrection of Jesus. 

·      God re-defined what it means to be alive.
·      God made those who are considered least (in this instance it was the women) first messengers of the gospel that Jesus LIVES!
·      God rejected our time-honored notions about who can do what, and even our best thinking about what can be done.
·      And God invited us, through the resurrection of Jesus, to become representatives of that liberating, overcoming, oppression conquering, and loving power, not only for ourselves, but also for people who have traditionally been excluded, marginalized, oppressed, ignored, discounted, and vilified.

The disconnect between the choice of Matthias and what the resurrection of Jesus reveals about the power and purposes of God continues for followers of Jesus, and the world at large, today! 

We witness that disconnect when followers of Jesus rally to champion the cause of Jews migrating to Israel and support wholesale land theft in the West Bank and Gaza while denying the right of return for Palestinians and ignoring flagrant human rights abuses by the government of Israel.  Choosing Matthias!

The disconnect confronts us in the way followers of Jesus genuflect before the captains of commerce.  At every level of government tax breaks are handed out to the wealthy by people who refuse to invest in social services aimed at opening doors for people who are poor, people of color, women, children, the disabled, and immigrants.  Choosing Matthias!

The disconnect stands before us when religious people throughout the world, including followers of Jesus, do nothing to challenge the conduct of wealthy nations that complain about providing help and refuge to immigrants fleeing war, hunger, oppression, and other hardships in their home nations.  We see Matthias being chosen when wealthy nations claim they can’t afford to help floundering immigrants while they pour billions of dollars into more military spending that benefits defense contractors and prop up private investment banks.

The disconnect stands before us locally.  Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson named Robert Dennis “Denny” Altes (a former state legislator from Fort Smith) to become the state drug director last week.  In 2007 Mr. Altes sent an email message to a former Fort Smith mayor in which Altes made the following comments:

"All politics are local and I am for sending the illegals back but we know that is impossible. We are where we were with the black folks after the revolutionary war. We can't send them back and the more we piss them off the worse it will be in the future. So what do we do. I say the governor needs to try to enforce the law and sign the letter of understanding with the INS and at least we can send the troublemakers back. Sure we are being overrun but we are being out populated by the blacks also. What is the answer. Only time will tell."

Mr. Altes later made what he considered an apology and said he didn’t consider his comments referring to immigrants and black people racist. 

         Denny Altes, a person with no proven education, experience, or insight concerning drug policy at any level, is the person Governor Hutchinson has chosen to direct drug policy for the entire state of Arkansas.  In 2015, followers of Jesus are still choosing Matthias!

God, who raised Jesus from the tomb, calls us to be more than modern versions of the decision to choose Matthias.  God, who loved the world so much that Jesus came to liberate us from notions of righteousness based on privilege and exclusion, calls us to see the people who remain outside our selection processes. 

God calls us to keep faith with the liberating and loving Jesus of resurrection, not the time-worn practices and prejudices of privilege and exclusion that are woven into so much of what we do and how we do it.  If the people who claim to be followers of Jesus are unwilling to do this, we should not be surprised when the rest of the world ignores our claim to be authentic messengers of the God who raised Jesus from the tomb.

Let the power of the resurrection of Jesus inspire us to see and question the ways we tend to choose Matthias in our time and place.  Let the people of Jesus lead the way in opening doors that have closed.  Let us lead the way in tearing down walls of bigotry and discrimination.  Let us lead the way in honoring those who have historically been marginalized.  We are followers of Jesus, the resurrected one!  Let us boldly act as agents of resurrection today, tomorrow, and always, to the glory of God! 


Wednesday, May 6, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Justice Is A Verb!

As someone who has devoted my adult life to studying and working for social justice (politically, economically, culturally, and theologically) I am struck by the inability of pundits, politicians, and others within the dominant community to make sense of the rage, disgust, and disenchantment expressed by poor people and persons of color in various communities across the U.S. to instances of reported police misconduct that has resulted in the deaths of poor, black, and brown people. 

Television news personalities (they call themselves “journalists” but I question if that word is fair or accurate to describe what they do and the purpose of their work on behalf of the corporate entities to whom they are most loyal), politicians, and others act as if the civil unrest demonstrates a problem within communities of color.  One can almost hear people from the dominant society ask, “What’s wrong with these people?  Why can’t they respond calmly, peacefully, and by using the established processes for getting their grievances addressed?”

Let me try and “break it down.”  Let me “unpack” what politicians and pundits and other people who speak without empathy concerning the realities of social injustice and police misconduct so clearly cannot understand or refuse to admit. 

The conduct that has been called “civil unrest” is the response of people who have been wounded, cheated, robbed, beaten, slaughtered, and historically marginalized with the tacit, and often explicit, blessing of the dominant society. 

Children have been shot and killed: Trayvon Martin in Florida, Tamir Rice in Ohio, Michael Brown, Jr. in Missouri, Rekia Boyd in Illinois, Bobby Moore III in Arkansas, Walter Scott in South Carolina, Freddie Gray in Maryland, and many more).  The politicians, pundits, and “good people” within the dominant society have not denounced the immorality of those homicides, but have “appealed” for “calm and peaceful responses” while allowing killers to go unpunished in practically every instance.

Parents and other elders have been killed.  Eric Garner was choked to death in New York.  Monroe Isadore (107 years old) was shot to death while lying in his bed in Arkansas.  Eugene Ellison (father of two veteran black police officers) was shot to death in his apartment.  The politicians, pundits, and “good people” have not denounced the culture of violence within law enforcement and societal tolerance for abusive and homicidal police behavior.  Instead, they have denounced the people who have stolen and burned property, as if stealing and burning is somehow a greater moral and social wrong than killing people. 

So let’s be clear.  The growing social “unrest” is not a statement about the character of the protestors, including those who engage in the unlawful behavior of stealing and burning the property of others.  It is evidence of a mounting resistance movement against a politically protected and socially endorsed regime of state-sanctioned and funded terrorism by rogue law enforcement agents.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned our society and world about the evils of racism, materialism, and militarism.  Politicians and pundits who profess to respect Dr. King have refused to heed his prophetic call to lead the world in undergoing a “radical revolution of values” away from placing concern about property over concern about people,

Dr. King warned that the absence of justice for black people will not be tolerated tranquilly.  In an essay published after his death, King wrote:  “When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process.  Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care—each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage… White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.”  The politicians and pundits engaged in televised head-scratching, hand-wringing, and task force convening have quoted the “I have a dream” words of King, but have remained deliberately ignorant about and dismissive of King’s warnings.

What the pundits and politicians now fail to recognize (or admit) is something Dr. King wrote in that 1968 essay published after he was murdered.  “… [T]o this day, black Americans have not life, liberty nor the privilege of pursuing happiness, and millions of poor white Americans are in economic bondage that is scarcely less oppressive.  Americans who genuinely treasure our national ideals, who know they are still elusive dreams for all too many, should welcome the stirring of Negro demands.  They are shattering the complacency that allowed a multitude of social evils to accumulate.  Negro agitation is requiring America to reexamine its comforting myths and may yet catalyze the drastic reforms that will save us from social catastrophe.”

To put it bluntly, what the politicians and pundits are denouncing as “civil unrest” are the sights, sounds, and other efforts of people engaged in a grass roots struggle against institutionalized and politically sanctioned injustice.  These struggling people are no longer willing to accept the lies of politicians and profiteers who talk about “economic development” that leaves their communities with the highest unemployment, the worst social services, the most impoverished schools, and the most people with law enforcement credentials who abuse and kill their neighbors and relatives. 

The “protestors” are denouncing the continued evidence of economic, social, and cultural apartheid in the United States.   Ferguson, Staten Island, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and other communities around the nation are beginning to look like Gaza in 2015 and like Newark, Detroit, Washington, Los Angeles, and other cities affected by “civil disorders” during the Sixties.  People who know what justice demands eventually will lose patience and refuse calls for calm when politicians and pundits allow their children, parents, and neighbors to be systematically and routinely abused, beaten,  slaughtered, and their communities to be politically and socially marginalized. 

A hint to the politicians and pundits:  If you want peace, do justice.  Until then, expect more “unrest.”  That “unrest” is what oppressed, wounded, and outraged people do in their quest for justice when they no longer trust or respect your “legitimate” processes and systems.  That isn’t something to denounce.  It is something to listen to, learn from, and use as impetus for the radical revolution of values Dr. King begged us to embrace before he was murdered for telling the truth.