1

When being ‘pro-life’ really isn’t: How I became a Democrat who opposes abortion

The Supreme Court is now set to hear an abortion case originating from Mississippi — a case that both sides of the abortion debate point to as a threat to the continued existence of the rule of law imposed by the court’s 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade.

In the relative calm before that storm, can we find room for conversation, even respectful disagreement, stripped bare of bullhorns, protest signs and unreasoned hatred for our neighbors who happen to disagree with us?

Both of America’s major political parties have deliberately politicized abortion for decades, often staking out cartoonishly simplistic positions on a decidedly complex question. In so doing, they have sacrificed good-faith discourse on the altar of heated, superficial rhetoric. This scorched-earth political strategy has unquestionably proved fruitful for both parties at the ballot box, but it also has fueled the corrosive polarization that now infects our political process to its very core. We are left with plenty of invective, but little room for the common ground or the common good.

“Both of America’s major political parties have deliberately politicized abortion for decades.”

Poll numbers tell the sad, but predictable, story. Recent Gallup polling shows that, over the last quarter of a century, the percentage of Republicans who self-identify as “pro-life” has risen from 51% in 1996 to 68% in 2020. Conversely, the number of Democrats who self-identify as “pro-choice” has increased from 58% to 72% over that same period. In short, views on abortion largely have become a marker of partisan political identity, with neither party’s tent seemingly large enough to welcome differing opinions on the subject, or even to tolerate nuanced discussions of the issue.

The impact of this polarization is particularly acute given the percentage of American voters whose ballots are determined solely by the abortion question. Separate Gallup polling shows that, as of 1992, 13% of American voters were committed to vote only for a candidate who shared his or her personal view on abortion. By 2020, the number of “single-issue voters” had doubled, with 24% of all voters (and a full 30% of voters who self-identified as “pro-life”) declaring that they would only vote for a candidate who shared their stance on abortion.

My history of voting against abortion

These numbers are not abstract for me. They are deeply personal.

As a born-and-bred evangelical Christian who first became eligible to vote in the early 1980s, I cannot remember a time when my politics were not steeped in the language of the abortion debate. The “pro-life” rhetoric of the Moral Majority deeply resonated with me — so much so that, even years after I first found myself deeply disagreeing with almost every other public policy position staked out by the GOP, I still felt tied to that party by the question of abortion. Simply put, if you are firmly convinced that each of the more than 600,000 abortions performed in the United States annually represents the killing of an innocent child of God, made by God in God’s own image, being a “single-issue voter” seems like a very reasonable stance.

“I cannot remember a time when my politics were not steeped in the language of the abortion debate.”

My dismay over the steadily decreasing, but still alarmingly high, abortion rate in America remains unabated. I believe as strongly today as ever that a nation in which almost 200 abortions are performed for every 1,000 live births is a nation that does not cherish human life as truly sacred in all of its forms and stages. It does not surprise me that such a nation would continually favor unfettered access to guns over the lives of its own children, or that it would feed those same children into the gaping maw of constant wars just as soon as they are big and strong enough to hold guns themselves.

I am dismayed, but not shocked, that such a nation allows its poor to starve homeless in its streets so that it can slash the taxes of its wealthiest citizens. I remain convinced that, in each of these cases, the blood of those destroyed by our sinful indifference cries out in anguish to God from the American soil on which it has been spilled.

Being ‘pro-life’ but no longer Republican

Other things have changed for me, though. As a result, my decidedly “pro-life” views on the abortion question no longer tie me to a Republican Party whose views on almost every other subject — from war, to poverty relief, to health care, to gun control, to the death penalty, to climate change — can only be described as “pro-death.”

“My decidedly ‘pro-life’ views on the abortion question no longer tie me to a Republican Party whose views on almost every other subject … can only be described as ‘pro-death.’”

First, as a lawyer, and particularly as a lawyer who regularly deals with complicated questions of constitutional law, I have become much better informed as to the extent to which legislative or judicial restrictions on abortion offer only thorny paths of uncertain efficacy, not bright-line solutions.

While the contours of the right remain murky and shifting, there can be no real debate that Americans enjoy a constitutional right of bodily integrity and privacy. Thus, for example, if I were the only possible bone marrow donor match for a critically ill patient who likely would die absent a donation, I think almost all of us would agree that I would then have an ethical or even a moral obligation to submit to the surgery.

As noted in the oft-cited case of McFall v. Shrimp however, I would have no legal obligation to allow the use of my body in such a way as to save another’s life, and no court could compel me to do so.

Rather, in the colorful language of the McFall court, for the state to compel such conduct on my part would be, legally speaking, the “revolting” equivalent of allowing the government “to sink its teeth into the jugular vein or neck of one of its members and suck from it sustenance for another member.”

Balancing constitutional interests

Of course, like almost all constitutional rights, our right of bodily integrity and privacy is a qualified one, and we may be forced to suffer at least a relatively minor incursion against that right if called for by substantial and legitimate public interests on the part of the state. Thus, for example and of particular note in today’s COVID 19-impacted world, the Supreme Court held as early as 1905 in Jacobsen v. Massachusetts that an American citizen can be forcibly required to submit to a vaccination over their own personal objections, religious or otherwise, where their vaccination is shown to be vital to combat a national epidemic.

“That right must somehow be balanced against the pregnant woman’s own fundamental constitutional right of bodily integrity and privacy.”

Particularly in the abortion context, even for persons like me who believe that an unborn child has a right to life and that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting that right, that right must somehow be balanced against the pregnant woman’s own fundamental constitutional right of bodily integrity and privacy.

That tension between important and often competing rights rests at the heart of Roe v. Wade, with Justice Blackmun prefacing the court’s opinion in that case by noting that — while personal views on abortion tend to involve “deep and seemingly absolute convictions” resting in part on an individual’s religious training and moral values as well as, in some cases, his or her “exposure to the raw edges of human existence” — the court was called to decide the matter before it “by constitutional measurement.”

An imperfect but good-faith solution

Especially viewed through that lens, the oft-criticized outcome of Roe v. Wade — and its authorization to states to restrict or even prohibit abortions, but only in the final trimester of pregnancy — begins to look like an imperfect but good-faith attempt to balance and preserve the competing constitutional interests of pregnant women, unborn children and society as a whole.

While many heap scorn on the court’s decision essentially to tie the unborn child’s constitutional right to life to a hypothetical point of viability (rather than to either conception or birth), they do so while forgetting that the question of when life begins has presented a challenge to the church as well as the courts for centuries, with not even the Catholic Church officially declaring that human life begins at the moment of conception until 1869. Centuries of Christian thinkers (including Thomas Aquinas) believed that “ensoulment” did not occur until some intermediate stage of fetal development (as late as 80 days after conception) so that the death of an unborn child prior to that point in time did not constitute a homicide.

Of course, even if the social conservative Holy Grail of reversing Roe v. Wade were soon to be grasped compliments of today’s significantly right-leaning Supreme Court, the result would not be a nationwide ban on abortion. Instead, the question of when, if ever, an abortion would be allowed would be thrown to each individual state.

Abortion tourism

The patchwork quilt of laws that would result is reflected in the fact that six states (Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota) have preemptively adopted “trigger” laws that would immediately ban most or all abortions upon any reversal of Roe v. Wade, while seven other states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada and Washington) have adopted similar measures that would operate to ensure state-wide abortion rights in the event that Roe v. Wade were to be overturned.

Such disparity in state laws would necessarily increase the already present-day fact of “abortion tourism,” with persons located in states banning abortion traveling to another state with different laws to obtain an abortion. Of course, “abortion tourism” is an option only open to those wealthy enough to afford it, essentially leaving legal limits on abortion only applicable to the poor.

“Even if Roe v. Wade were overruled today, the bottom-line impact that decision would ultimately have on abortion rates in America is far from clear.”

In short, even if Roe v. Wade were overruled today, the bottom-line impact that decision would ultimately have on abortion rates in America is far from clear.

Such thought, over time, led me personally to the conclusion that, for persons truly appalled by America’s abortion rate and committed to lowering that rate as much as possible, legislative or judicial pronouncements restricting abortions are not the panacea claimed by the far right.

Policies that actually reduce the abortion rate

Ultimately, however, the difficulties associated with implementing legislative or judicial restrictions on abortion were not the primary reason I abandoned the belief that my opposition to abortion justified my continued Republican votes. Instead, that change primarily sprang from my discovery of the seemingly counter-intuitive but indisputable fact that, while abortion rates have continued to decline since 1980, the percentage of decline has consistently been greater under “pro-choice” Democrats than it has under “pro-life” Republicans.

More specifically, official CDC statistics show that the abortion rate under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush remained between 23 and 24 per 1,000 women yet dropped to 16.2 per 1,000 women under President Clinton. The decline in abortion rates then largely plateaued under President George W. Bush, falling only to 15 per 1,000 women during his eight years in office.  During President Obama’s term, the rate plummeted to 11.6 per 1,000, the lowest recorded abortion rate in America since two years before Roe v. Wade was decided.

“It is absolutely true that the surest means available to reducing abortion rates in the United States is to decrease the rate of unwanted pregnancies.”

One clear reason for this seeming contradiction is the Democratic Party’s long-term commitment to making contraception freely available, especially in communities wracked by persistent poverty. Reflecting the impact of such efforts, a study spearheaded by Jeffrey Peipert of Washington University found that providing free access to birth control to a group of women in the St. Louis area led to abortion rates over the course of the three-year study ranging from 4.4 to 7.0 per 1,000 (compared to a national average at that time of 19.6 per 1,000) — effectively slashing abortion rates by one-half to two-thirds.

In a related vein, birth rates for teenaged mothers plummeted to 6.3 per 1,000, in stark contrast to the national average of 34.3 per 1,000.

In short, it is absolutely true that the surest means available to reducing abortion rates in the United States is to decrease the rate of unwanted pregnancies (with the Brookings Institution determining that unwanted/unintended pregnancies accounted for 90% of all abortions). Democratic policies on affordable health care, including low or no-cost contraception, tend to do exactly that.

Public policy that backfires

Conversely, a study by a pair of professors at the Stanford University School of Medicine that was published in The Lancet in June 2019 documents that the United States’ so-called “Mexico City Policy” — a policy prohibiting not just the use of American funds by foreign NGOs to perform abortions but, rather, cutting off all American funding to foreign NGOs that perform any abortions as part of their overall work, which has been consistently enforced by Republican presidents and rescinded by Democratic presidents for decades — caused a 13.5% drop in the use of modern contraceptives in certain sub-Saharan African nations, resulting in a staggering 40% increase in the abortion rates in those same nations.

Similarly, Guttmacher Institute research published in 2015 estimates that defunding Planned Parenthood, a rallying cry for GOP candidates nationwide, would increase abortion rates in the United States by approximately 15%, given the resulting loss of access to contraception within poor communities.

“Those same policies tend to actually increase the number of unborn children aborted in the United States and abroad.”

Simply put, while the GOP’s abortion-related policies play to the sensibilities of its conservative base and allow for the use of some tailor-made “family values” sound bites, those same policies tend to actually increase the number of unborn children aborted in the United States and abroad.

I still stand with the unborn

Today, I am a “pro-life” Democrat, not because I no longer view abortion as an essential or determinative question but, rather, because I do. It is a political decision driven by my belief that almost all Americans — whether self-identifying as “pro-choice” or as “pro-life” — should be able to find common ground when it comes to measures which, without imposing any further restriction on a woman’s right to choose to maintain or terminate a pregnancy, have the ultimate impact of preventing tens of thousands of unnecessary abortions.

Until such common ground is reached, I intend to stand with the unborn and to cast my votes for them by backing candidates and policies that have been shown to actually decrease abortions, not just demonize them.

Chris Conley

Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.

 

Related articles:

Can Christians come together to reduce the need for abortion? | Opinion by Susan Shaw

50 years later, abortion remains a political smokescreen | Opinion by Dwight Moody

As state legislative sessions come to an end, anti-abortion bills are rising to the top




Apartheid in Palestine and a Christ who stands on the other side of the wall

Today, the Holy Land burns. The latest round of evictions of Palestinians from their homes in favor of the illegal Israeli settlement of the Occupied Territories predictably has led to violence which has, equally predictably, spiraled into death and destruction with no end to the violence, or the escalation, in sight.

These events have some thinking back to 2014 and the violence that wracked Gaza then. My thoughts turn even further back in time.

As a white college Republican enjoying the cramped comfort of a University of Georgia dorm room in the mid-1980s, I was blissfully unconcerned about apartheid. When I thought about it at all, my thoughts quickly dissolved into platitudes about the need to stand with the South African government against communist encroachments, or they were displaced by dispassionate musings about the role of human rights concerns in formulating American foreign policy. Then I heard the words. Really heard them: “The man is dead. The man is dead.”

I had discovered Peter Gabriel and his haunting anti-apartheid anthem, “Biko,” and had been inspired to learn more about Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who was butchered by the South African government as part of “business as usual in Police Room six-one-nine.” As I listened and read, a sense of visceral horror awakened in me at the reality of a government and society in which the murder of a Black man for daring to demand to be treated like a human being could be viewed as casual. As ordinary. As mundanely routine. 

Standing with the ‘other’

I since have learned to listen to other voices appealing not just to my humanity, but to my faith, demanding from me a commitment never again to stand silent in the face of such dehumanizing brutality. Listening still, I am now beginning to more fully appreciate the reality of a Christ whose entire life and ministry were marked by solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed.

A Palestinian woman mourns over her son Rasheed Abu Arra, who was killed in clashes with Israeli forces, during his funeral in the Village of Aqqaba near the West Bank town of Tubas, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo / Majdi Mohammed)

I have become convinced there is no other place for a Christian to stand than with the “other” unless we want our prayers of “thy kingdom come” to be ignored as hypocritical blather by the God who created all human life as sacred — who formed it with God’s own hands and brought it to life with God’s own breath.

In particular, few things speak more clearly to my current understanding of what it means to be a Christian — a person who responds to God’s grace by actively and faithfully engaging in Christ’s kingdom work in the world — than does the Kairos Document. Created by a collaboration of South African clergymen and published in September 1985, the Kairos Document courageously condemned apartheid as heresy and called upon Christians worldwide to work for its end.

I have heard these voices and have taken them to heart. They will not let me stand silent in the face of Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine. It is unjust. It is indefensible. It is apartheid.

This is apartheid

While the Israeli government lashes out at any suggestion that its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can rightly be characterized as apartheid, facts are stubborn things.

“While the Israeli government lashes out at any suggestion that its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can rightly be characterized as apartheid, facts are stubborn things.”

As defined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid in the early 1970s, apartheid consists of certain “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” According to the ICSPCA, such “inhuman acts” include steps taken to “divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos”; the maintenance of a justice system marked by “arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment”; and the “deliberate imposition of living conditions” calculated to harm or destroy the oppressed people group.

As to the first of these “inhuman acts,” it is impossible to credibly dispute that the bantustans of South African apartheid have given way to the separation wall and military checkpoints of the Israeli system of hafrada in the Occupied Territories when speaking of a purposeful division of people along racial or ethnic lines. It is no accident that the terms “apartheid” and “hafrada” both mean separation. The languages of origin may be different. Little else is.

Palestinian mourners carry the body of Rasheed Abu Arra who was killed in the clashes with Israeli forces during his funeral, in the Village of Aqqaba near the West Bank town of Tubas, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo / Majdi Mohammed)

As to the second of these “inhuman acts,” Amnesty International has persisted in spotlighting the illegal detentions, and uses of torture and even lethal force, that mark purported efforts to maintain “law and order” by Israeli Defense Force occupation troops. By way of a single anecdote, as of December 2019, 186 Palestinian children were being held for indeterminate lengths of time as security detainees in Israeli prisons, denied access to a lawyer or even a parent during interrogation, and facing trial in special military courts.

Inhuman living conditions

It is the last type of these “inhuman acts,” though, that are sometimes less immediately discernible. They are no less unjust, nor are their consequences any less damaging. Simply put, Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories offers a textbook example of the “deliberate imposition of living conditions” intended to harm or destroy Palestinians as a people group.

Unfortunately in this regard, the Israeli occupation has been marked by incidents that only can be fairly described as acts of environmental terrorism. For example, in the 1980s, a Geshurei Industries fertilizer and pesticide plant in Israel was shut down because of its chronic and severe violations of pollution laws. It was allowed to relocate to Israeli-occupied land near Tulkarm in the West Bank and to resume operation without restriction, subject only to an injunction that it had to pause operations whenever the wind was blowing toward Israel. As of 2010, many of the trees around Tulkarm had become decayed and rotted stumps, the land surrounding the plant had become completely incapable of use for agriculture, and the local Palestinian population was suffering from a dramatic surge in various illnesses including respiratory problems and eye infections.

Sign photographed by the author on a trip to see the traditional baptismal place of Jesus in the Jordan River.

Perhaps most shocking of all is the damage caused Palestinians by Israeli control of the water supply in the Occupied Territories. In a 2009 study, the World Bank determined that, while Israeli settlers then constituted only 15% of the population of the West Bank, they were given 80% of the available fresh water supply. In short, 450,000 Israeli settlers were given access to more water than were 2.3 million Palestinians.

A call to stand with Palestinian Christians

In light of these and many other similar facts, the call of my faith to stand with the Palestinians is not faint. If I need a reminder of my calling, though, I need look no further than the Kairos Palestine Document — a 2009 manifesto created by Palestinian Christian leaders, echoing the sentiments of their South African brothers a quarter of a century earlier, standing bravely against the apartheid jointly faced by both themselves and their Muslim neighbors, and calling on their brothers and sisters in Christ around the world to lend their voices to their cries for justice.

Sadly, that plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears in terms of the majority of American evangelicals who, as a group, seem uniquely invested in viewing the Israeli occupation of Palestine as not only legal, but biblically mandated.

For example, a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2004 revealed that religious belief and affiliation were largely determinative of most Americans’ political views about Israel and Palestine. When asked whether the United States should favor Israel over the Palestinians as a matter of foreign policy, those poll participants who self-identified as secular rather than religious largely rejected that notion, with only 23% approving and 51% disapproving of that idea. Among American Catholics and mainline protestants, those numbers stayed relatively unchanged, with only 31% of Catholics and 33% of mainline Protestants approving the premise that United States policy should deliberately favor Israel over the Palestinian people. Remarkably, however, 64% of poll participants who identified themselves as “traditional evangelical” approved of the United States deliberately and officially siding with Israel at the expense of Palestinians, with only 18% disapproving of that notion.

American evangelical disinterest in the plight of Palestinians stands wholly at odds with one of the truths voiced in the Kairos Palestine Document — the fact that the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the economic and other harm worked thereby, has had a drastic and perhaps irreversible impact on Palestinian Christian communities.

“The Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the economic and other harm worked thereby, has had a drastic and perhaps irreversible impact on Palestinian Christian communities.”

A decade ago, almost 85% of the population of Bethlehem was Christian. Today, a Christian community that had survived and often thrived under centuries of Ottoman or Islamic rule has been decimated, with only 22% of the population in the town of Jesus’ birth remaining Christian. The fact that some Palestinian Christians now face backlash because of the very public support given the Israeli occupation by American evangelicals can only be expected to worsen the problem.

American evangelicals and the end times

This seeming disconnect becomes more understandable, if utterly contemptible, when it is realized that American evangelical support for the Israeli occupation has nothing to do with a desire to improve the current situation for the Jewish, Muslim and Christian people who call the Holy Land home. It has everything to do with speculative dispensationalist theology and a self-interested hope of speeding up the “end times.”

In this regard, a 2018 Lifeway Research survey of self-identified American evangelicals found that 80% believed the formation of the current Israeli nation-state and the “repopulation” of both Israel and Palestine by Jewish people “returning” from around the world was in direct fulfillment of prophesy and was bringing closer the return of Christ. For these American evangelicals, the goal is a shorter wait for the rapture, even if that means that the Jewish settlers whom they now purport to support will be forced to convert or burn forever in hell.

“The here-and-now ethical demands of the kingdom of God have been lost in Left Behind-fueled dreams of a distant heaven.”

While practicing a faith that calls for sacrifice of self for others, their Christian Zionist views speak to a different set of priorities. The here-and-now ethical demands of the kingdom of God have been lost in Left Behind-fueled dreams of a distant heaven.

To paraphrase Munther Isaac’s The Other Side of the Wall: A Palestinian Christian Narrative of Lament and Hope, a paradigmatic expression of a godless worldview is seen when powerful and privileged people build a wall between themselves and their powerless and destitute neighbors, and then justify their own selfish conduct by dismissing or even demonizing the unfortunate poor on the other side of the wall.

Hope from the other side of the wall

For people of power and privilege, the people on the other side of the wall are at best invisible and undeserving of consideration. At worst, they pose an existential threat. Such a view simply cannot be ascribed to Christ, or to those who would faithfully follow him.

With Jesus, we see an impulse to rip apart all the barriers erected by our selfishness and callousness, to preach good news to the poor, to announce release to the captive, and to stand hand-in-hand with those on the other side of the wall.

Despite the gloom that persists, I see rays of hope. Despite its critics and its flaws, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is beginning to bring the type of economic pressure to bear on Israel that hastened the demise of apartheid in South Africa. And recent polling suggests an incremental, but discernible, lessening of unquestioning support for the Israeli occupation among younger American evangelicals.

“Surely the continued bloodshed is so repugnant to the shared Jewish, Muslim and Christian idea of the sanctity of human life that change must come.”

I do not know what the future holds. In particular, I do not know whether a “two-state solution” (in which a Jewish Israel shares a border with a separate and sovereign Palestinian state) is still possible, or whether Israel’s aggressive illegal annexation of the West Bank in recent years eventually will result in a “one-state solution” in which Israel and Palestine are combined into a single, secular, democratic, nation with both Jewish and Palestinian residents sharing equal rights and equal votes. I sense, however, that the current state of affairs cannot long continue.

Surely the continued bloodshed is so repugnant to the shared Jewish, Muslim and Christian idea of the sanctity of human life that change must come. Surely people of faith will awaken to the horrors of apartheid and of war, and finally hear their holy call to be peacemakers. To be kingdom builders, not heaven seekers.

What I do know is that the hope I have finds its voice in the heartfelt words that conclude the Kairos Palestine document: “In the absence of all hope, we cry out our cry of hope. We believe in God, good and just. We believe God’s goodness will finally triumph over the evil of hate and death that still persist in our land.”

To those beautiful words I would just add my own prayer, with one last nod to Peter Gabriel (who doesn’t seem to have strayed as far from his Christian roots and imagery as some suspect): “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire. Once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher.”

I pray that the flames are those of the Holy Spirit, working through the people of God to bring justice and peace where both are desperately needed, not the fires of war, fueled by greed, racism and self-interest.

Chris Conley

Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.

 

Related articles:

Trump’s Middle East peace plan makes sense until you read it, Christian peace activist says

Baptist convention denounces ‘oppression and violence’ toward Palestinians

Criticized for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, White House cuts funding for Palestinian refugees

 

 




Remembering Jamorio and praying for justice

I don’t think all police officers are bad people. I think many are good people, trying to do a very hard job for very little pay, and that they are doing so out of a real sense of service to the community. I am friends with such police officers and attend church with them, so I know they exist.

I once was firmly convinced that this was a fixed rule with only the rarest of exceptions. I thought that there were so few bad apples that they could not taint the whole barrel, and that the “good cops” could be counted on to effectively police the “bad cops,” protecting others from harm. I believed that our criminal justice system truly was just and that justice was indeed blind in terms of racial equality.

Chris Conley

I now know that those rosy, non-critical, views were rooted in blissful ignorance and white privilege, not in reality. Those views largely died for me on Feb. 12, 1998. They died with a 10-year-old Black boy named Jamorio Montez Marshall.

Jamorio was sent home from school, accused of having stolen five dollars from a classmate’s backpack. He was then beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend. They were not alone, however, in their guilt for Jamorio’s brutal, senseless death.

Shortly after the violence began, a duplex neighbor courageously called 911, reporting what she believed to be an act of child abuse. Two white police officers responded to the scene. They were met at the door by Jamorio’s mother and by her boyfriend, who was holding a leather belt in his hand. The buckle had been ominously removed.

The officers did not ask to see Jamorio. They did not try to determine the relationship, if any, between the belt-wielding man and the child. They told the two adults that it was their right to spank the child, but not to let things “go too far.” They did not seek to discover whether there was a history of prior incidents involving Jamorio on file with the Department of Family and Children Services. There was.

“I don’t think all police officers are bad people. I think many are good people, trying to do a very hard job for very little pay.”

911 call transcripts revealed that less than 2 minutes lapsed between the time of the officers’ arrival at Jamorio’s front door and their departure from the scene. Jamorio’s fate was sealed. He was once more mercilessly beaten, this time for well over an hour, with the two adults taking turns, one holding the child down and the other beating Jamorio with the belt until his or her arm got tired, and then they would change places.

It was an unspeakably brutal and agonizing death, with medical examiners later equating Jamorio’s injuries to what they would expect to find after a fall from a 10-story building. Reluctantly, I agreed to represent Jamorio’s brothers and sisters in a wrongful death lawsuit against the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.

That reluctance sprung from my assumption that there had to be some logical explanation for what would otherwise seem to be a gross dereliction of duty. Maybe the officers were over-worked and had to rush from the scene to another crisis. Maybe they had misunderstood the situation. The blissfully naive me simply could not grasp that the answer was much more sinister.

All that changed during the depositions of the police officers. I’ll never forget the cold feeling that crept over me as one of these white officers explained without even a hint of reluctance that he did not spend more time on the scene because he had “real crimes” to investigate and because of his belief this was just how “those people” behaved.

I was shocked. I was changed. I began asking questions whose answers would eventually shred my assumption that the criminal justice system in America is remotely just in its treatment of persons of color.

As a long-time litigator in an area of law that is notably expert-witness-driven, I’m well acquainted with the notion that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. That being said, decades of rigorous statistical analysis have revealed dramatic racial disparities that cut across our entire criminal justice system — disparities that are so pronounced and consistent that they cannot be attributed to chance, nor can they be explained away as an indirect result of economic racial disparity in America (so that what we are seeing is the impact of disparate levels of poverty in communities of color coupled with the close link between extreme poverty and crime).

No. The only possible explanation is that Black Americans find neither justice nor equality in our so-called criminal justice system, and that they are, instead, deprived of such fundamental rights based solely on the color of their skin.

“The only possible explanation is that Black Americans find neither justice nor equality in our so-called criminal justice system.”

By way of a notable recent example of such research, a study by Stanford’s Open Policing Project determined that Black drivers are 20% more likely to be stopped by police officers than their white counterparts. Any possibility of an innocent explanation for this gap evaporates in the face of the study’s further finding that this disparity almost completely disappeared as to arrests made at night — when it is difficult or impossible to see the driver’s skin color.

This same study helps show that the race-based discrimination does not end there at the moment of initial contact. Rather, Black drivers who are stopped are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be searched as part of a traffic stop, even though multiple studies have shown that guns, drugs and other contraband are more likely to be found in cars driven by white persons.

As to the use of excessive or lethal force, the National Academy of Sciences published a study in August 2019 finding that Black men between the ages of 25 and 29 were three times more likely to be killed by police officers than were white men the same age. Black women were killed twice as often as white women.

Racism continues to operate in the place of equality or justice as we move from roadside stops to our courthouses, infecting arrest rates and conviction rates. For example, an ACLU study in April 2020 clearly portrays the race-fueled disparity in arrest rates finding that — even though almost identical percentages of Black and white persons use marijuana — Black persons are arrested for marijuana possession 3.5 times more often.

Once convicted, sentencing in America is likewise blatantly racist. For example, the University of Michigan School of Law undertook a study of federal court sentencing in 2014, finding that the average sentence for a white person convicted of a crime in our federal courts was 55 months. For Black persons, the average sentence was 90 months. Even when all possible confounding factors were accounted for, the study concluded that Black persons receive, on average, 9% to 13% longer sentences for identical criminal conduct that cannot be explained by any factor other than their race.

“It is with regard to the barbaric institution of capital punishment that racism is perhaps at its most self-evident.”

It is, however, with regard to the barbaric institution of capital punishment that racism is perhaps at its most self-evident. In particular, a pair of landmark studies by David Baldus, a professor at the University of Iowa, are truly chilling.

In his study of death penalty cases in Philadelphia between 1983 and 1993, Baldus determined that Black persons were 38% more likely to be sentenced to death based solely on their race. His study of capital punishment in Georgia in the 1980s found that prosecutors sought the death penalty 70% of the time in cases involving a Black killer and a white victim. Those same prosecutors sought the death penalty in only 15% of the cases involving a white killer and a Black victim.

As I type this, I am thankful for the news of April 20 from Minneapolis, and I pray that the conviction of Derek Chauvin will provide some sense of peace to George Floyd’s grieving family and that they can draw comfort and strength from even a vague semblance of justice for the brazen, cold-blooded murder of their loved one. 

I am praying even more for committed efforts by all Christians — both inside and outside the criminal justice system — to tear up the racism that infects every stage of that system by its sinful and evil roots. I am also thinking of Jamorio and wondering how much more Black blood will have to be wrongfully spilled before that prayer becomes reality.

Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.

 

Related articles:

What should we learn from the Derek Chauvin verdict? | Opinion by Mark Wingfield

USC study finds Blacks three times more likely to be stopped by police in LA County




We cannot now close our border to those fleeing the horror we helped create

Why should we open our border to poor people from Central America?  What if they are really terrorists?  What if they have COVID, or something even more contagious?  How can we afford to take care of “their” children when we can’t even take care of “our “own?

When I hear such questions, I have to fight back a real sense of disgust. Daily, we watch shattered refugee families tearfully sending their children to make their way alone in a foreign land in a desperate, last-ditch, effort at securing them a future. It takes a remarkable lack of empathy and compassion to see the crisis as theirs alone. It’s like a driver who feels horribly wronged when he has to sit through a green light because an ambulance is rushing a dying patient to an emergency room.

“It’s like a driver who feels horribly wronged when he has to sit through a green light because an ambulance is rushing a dying patient to an emergency room.”

I’ve been especially sickened listening to American politicians on both sides of the aisle blame each other for “our immigration crisis” without stopping to ask how we can save and protect so many frightened children in such need — children loved by God and made in God’s image.

I hear echoes of a much older, darker, voice. I hear Cain.

Chris Conley

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Given how clearly Scripture answers, “yes,” I don’t think God would have been impressed with Cain’s question under any circumstances, but I wonder if Cain at least had the good sense to wipe Abel’s blood off his hands and clothes before asking it.

It doesn’t take much imagination to hear Cain’s question being repeated here and now in the context of our “immigration crisis,” especially if we reflect honestly on the United States’ shameful history in Central America — one that has left our own hands and clothes soaked in the blood of the innocent.

I think of Guatemala. For years leading up to the 1950s, Guatemalans had struggled against killing wealth inequality and poverty thanks largely to the United States looking out for what it perceived as its own best interests on foreign soil. As a result, while poor Guatemalans starved, an American corporation — the United Fruit Company — controlled much of the land and almost all of the wealth in Guatemala and staffed its massive plantations with Guatemalan peasants toiling in poverty. Native Guatemalans working the land of their own nation were ordered to always give the right of way to a “white man,” and to always remove their hats when speaking to one. It turns out Jim Crow can be exported.

“Glorious Victory” is the sarcastic title of this painting by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera that shows Col. Carlos Castillo Armas greeting U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in a humiliating way, who is holding a bomb with the face of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and surrounded by banana stalks and dead children, next to whom is the U.S. ambassador, John Peurifoy, accompanied by several soldiers and the director of the CIA, who whispers in his brother’s ear, while on one side the archbishop of Guatemala, Mariano Rossell Arellano, is seen blessing the act, while the people of Guatemala protest.

Unsurprisingly, a majority of Guatemalan voters decided enough was enough, electing Jacob Arbenz Guzman as Guatemala’s president in 1951. Arbenz almost immediately enacted his “Decree 900” — a measure that would have, for the first time, made land ownership a reality for Guatemala’s suffering poor, and especially for its indigenous Mayan population, and would have ensured that Guatemalans could earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Raising the specter of communism, the CIA (urged on by the United Fruit Company) staged a political coup in 1954, removing a popularly elected Guatemalan president and replacing him with a brutal, pro-American, military dictator, and consigning the Guatemalan people to political turmoil and violence that would last decades.

For those of us losing our distance vision thanks to the aging process, however, we need not peer back as far as 1954 to see the Guatemalan blood dripping from our own hands and clothes as we look today’s Central American refugees in the face and dare to ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” All we need to do is focus on 1982.

The latest in a string of brutal military dictators to claw himself to power was Efrain Rios Montt, trained at the notorious School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone, whom President Reagan effusively praised as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment” — one whom Reagan claimed wanted “to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”

Now-declassified CIA correspondence indisputably shows that, even as Reagan was making this statement — and propping up Rios’ regime with weapons and training for his “death squads” — he was being told by his own intelligence community that there were mounting signs of “suspect right-wing violence,” with vast numbers of Guatemalan corpses “appearing in ditches and gullies.”

At the height of Rios’ blood-soaked, United States-supported, butchery, 3,000 civilians were “disappearing” (being murdered and buried in unmarked graves) per month. Guatemala collapsed into a full-scale, brutal civil war lasting until 1996.

Before a very tentative peace was reached, 45,000 civilian non-combatants had been “disappeared” by the Guatemalan government, almost 500 Mayan villages had been destroyed, 1 million Guatemalans had been turned into refugees, and more than 200,000 more Guatemalans were dead.

“United States-supported right-wing governments continued to engage in corruption that would make the mafia blush.”

These aren’t opinions. They are facts. Can you hear Cain yet? Can you see the blood on his hands and his clothes as he self-righteously asks whether he is his brother’s keeper? Can you see it on ours as we echo that question even today?

I’m old enough to remember the 1980s and the violence that engulfed Guatemala and much of Central America under the Reagan administration. You don’t have to be. Until the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina in 2015, United States-supported right-wing governments continued to engage in corruption that would make the mafia blush, and which continues to wreck the entire nation with poverty, crime and death.

Just as a snapshot glimpse, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala determined that a shocking 95% of the far-too-common murders committed in Guatemala in 2006 never were solved. The ghosts of the dead still haunt Guatemala. The people understandably flee.

As a lawyer, I can confidently proclaim that the law is a remarkably odd thing, especially until you are disabused of the notion that law, justice and morality are synonyms. Early in law school, I was shocked to learn that I had no legal duty to save a man drowning in a pool, even if I could do so easily and at no risk to myself. Cain-like, it turns out that often in the eyes of the law, you are not your brother’s keeper. Unless you are the one who threw the man into the pool in the first place.

“We cannot now close our border to those fleeing the horror we helped create.”

Then, even the law would look at your bloody hands and clothes and declare that, by your guilt, you have been made your brother’s keeper. Having harmed, you must save. Even in this crabbed sense of “duty,” having ignored our own border to make Central America unlivable for so many of its native sons and daughters in the name of the “best interests of the United States,” we cannot now close our border to those fleeing the horror we helped create.

How much more so when we look not through the lens of law, but with eyes of faith? From that view, even without an understanding of the unsavory role played by America for decades in Central America in deliberately destabilizing an entire region with deadly consequences in the name of American corporate profits and anti-communism, we have a moral obligation to the “least of these among us” — to those fleeing crushing poverty and violence to find a better way of life for themselves and their children in America.

If Christ is truly not simply with, but in, the poor stranger — and I believe he is — it is time for disgusting questions to stop, and for love and welcome to start. In that sense, maybe this is our crisis after all.

Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.




My journey toward LGBTQ inclusion: God still speaks

As a cisgendered heterosexual male, my own sexuality was not a problem in the Southern Baptist faith of my youth and young adulthood. Having come of age with the Moral Majority, though, I cannot remember a time when the question of other people’s sexuality — or their homosexuality, more specifically — has not cast a long, troubling, shadow.

My own thinking remained fixed until a few years ago. I was convinced that being gay or lesbian in terms of sexual orientation was not sinful, as it was not a matter of choice, but that acting on those impulses was sinful. That did not mean, for me at least, that a person in a same-sex relationship could not be a Christian. Thankfully, even then, I was aware enough of the logs sticking out of my own eye to know that a church closed to sinners would sit entirely empty, in terms of both its pews and its pulpit. Its doors would most definitely be shut to me.

Chris Conley

Still, I believed that the holiness of marriage as a sacrament would be dangerously encroached upon by any sanctioning of same-sex unions by the church. It would be a loving of the sin, as well as a loving of the sinner. It was a line I thought could not, and should not, be crossed. In short, my own thinking largely tracked the pronouncement this week by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

How my views changed

Where I once was, though, is not where I found myself over the last few years. I had watched too many churches come apart at the seams over this question and had shared my life with too many faithful, loving, Christians who happened to be gay or lesbian not to feel the need to prayerfully re-examine my own thinking.

Having done so, I have come to the belief that the church should bless loving same-sex marriages in the same way it blesses heterosexual unions. I do not cast stones at anybody who continues to hold the views I used to share or that the Vatican has declared anew this week, but I do want to share the three thoughts that have shaped my thinking and that have changed my own mind and my heart on this question — a question that is so crucial to so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

The first of these thoughts turns back to the matter of logs and specks, and the recognition that the church exists in a world that never looks exactly like God planned. As such, I candidly admit that I still suspect that same-sex sexual acts may be sinful to the extent that we define sin in keeping with the Vatican’s belief that homosexual relationships deviate from “God’s plan for marriage and family.” Again, though, even speaking from the experience of almost three decades of marriage to a wife I do not remotely deserve, I’m fairly confident that no marriage blessed by any church truly or completely mirrors “God’s plan for marriage and family.”

“I’m fairly confident that no marriage blessed by any church truly or completely mirrors ‘God’s plan for marriage and family.’”

I’m not just talking about the adultery and domestic abuse that is far too widespread in marriages between heterosexual Christians. I’m also thinking about the moments of petty jealousy, anger and selfishness that tend to rear their heads in even the best of marriages given the unfortunate fact that all marriages involve the union of two deeply flawed people desperately (and constantly) in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

The more I pondered that fact, the less room I saw for a principled pronouncement that same-sex unions posed any more of a threat to the sanctity of marriage than did any other marriage formed by Christians inherently incapable of fully living into God’s perfect will or God’s original, pre-Fall, design.

About those ‘clobber verses’

Second, and for me, more important, where the Bible stands on the question of same-sex marriage is not as clear-cut as I initially believed. In this regard, I’m not of the school of thought that the few passages of Scripture that seem to pretty clearly condemn the morality of same-sex relations can simply be dismissed as so-called “clobber verses,” or that they can be wished away through tortured interpretation and highly selective wordsmithing.

Nonetheless, those verses seem to be given too much weight, all while ignoring the indisputable fact that Scripture as a whole, and especially the New Testament, is marked by a dramatic, evolving, bent toward grace and inclusion — one that seems to be constantly expanding God’s own definition of God’s people.

“The New Testament is marked by a dramatic, evolving, bent toward grace and inclusion.”

Eunuchs are not much of a current topic in the United States, but their treatment across Scripture is eye-opening and, at least to me, speaks loudly to this point. As a clear pronouncement of Mosaic law, all eunuchs were excluded from fellowship with God and with God’s people. See Leviticus 21:17 and Deuteronomy 23:1. Nonetheless, by the time of Isaiah, God was offering a word of hope in which God declared that eunuchs who covenanted with God would be found acceptable and would be given “an everlasting name that will endure forever.” See Isaiah 56:3-5.

Also, when we see Philip’s response in Acts 8:26-40 when asked by a eunuch, “What keeps me from being baptized?” we are not seeing Philip act out of a lack of knowledge of the Mosaic law. Instead, we see him act out of a clear understanding of a risen Christ and of the world-transforming power of an empty tomb.

We see Philip choose to live out the love of God rather than the judgment of the law. I am now firmly convinced that a church that makes that same choice must make room for all God’s children at its marriage altar, treating their sexuality as a slight matter when dealing with the all-powerful, ever-expansive love, grace and forgiveness of Christ.

God still speaks

Finally, and in a somewhat related vein, I was saddened to hear the (in my opinion) cramped notion of church reflected in the Vatican’s declaration that the Catholic Church “does not have and cannot have” the authority to bless or recognize same-sex unions.

“God is not a Netflix series that ran for two seasons.”

While I do not claim to have a perfect or full understanding of God, I’m firmly convinced that God is not a Netflix series that ran for two seasons (Old Testament and New Testament), but which has now been canceled and no longer can speak a new word to us about who God is or what God wants from the church. Such a view denies the reality of a living church indwelled by the living, still-speaking Spirit of God. That is the reality of the church we see in Acts — a church prayerfully seeking out a newly  spoken word in response to real-life questions for which it found no clear answers in the already-spoken words of Scripture.

I believe much damage has been done to the church, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ, by Christians lacking faith in the idea that the church can yet listen for a new word from God and must stand ever willing to breathe that word into life by changing its mind. A church unable to do that is no longer the church; it is a museum. It is a church that worships a Christ still tightly entombed in the past, not a living Christ who still has a word to speak to his own.

Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.

 

Related articles:

10 things we’re learning about the LGBTQ debate in the church | Opinion by Mark Wingfield

Vatican makes clear that Catholic churches might welcome LGBTQ Christians but cannot bless their unions

On LGBT: What I have learned since ‘Changing Our Mind’ | Opinion by David Gushee

My quest to find the word ‘homosexual’ in the Bible | Opinion by Ed Oxford




Racism is never an innocent joke

I don’t think Baptists today are particularly gifted in the spiritual discipline of confession of sin.

We’re glad to echo Romans 3:23 and declare that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but we tend to avoid candid discussions of how sin has infected our individual lives in specific, concrete, ways.

Chris Conley

To do so strips away the abstraction from sin and brings it too close to home. We may not want to confess a sin if, by doing so, we’re forced to acknowledge and recall our own past shameful conduct and expose it to the light of day. We know we can’t hide our sin from God, but we often can hide it from others. And we want to. I want to confess a very specific sin.

In the late 1970s, a 14-year-old me heard a racist joke. I laughed. I later repeated that joke to others. They laughed as well. This has haunted me ever since. Almost a half century later, it literally makes me nauseated to think about it.

Even as a child, I was sufficiently steeped in white privilege — no, let’s call it what it is, white supremacy — to know what made that joke “funny.” It stood for the damnable lie that a Black person, by the mere fact of being born Black, is lesser. It sought under the guise of humor to keep people of color “in their place” by reminding them that it is a place well beneath that of any white person.

In all honesty, even as a 14-year-old, I knew enough to know that this bedrock principle of white supremacy was a ridiculous lie. My personal hero, Henry Aaron, was a Black man, and I so deeply admired his courage and grace in chasing his dream in the face of hatred and bigotry that the adult me would later name my own son in his honor.

I adored my elementary school principal, Frank Wiley, another Black man, and hoped some day to be the type of man he was. I so deeply admired him that I was later drawn to Martin Luther King Jr. because there was something in his voice and bearing that reminded me of Mr. Wiley.

I had too many Black friends whom I knew to be at least my equal (on their worst day, and my best day) to think my whiteness was a badge of superiority. But that just makes my sin worse.

“I still laughed at, and repeated, that joke — basically because a shameful calculus told me that fitting in with the crowd was more important than respecting the dignity of people of color.”

Despite understanding full well the lie that forms the foundation of racism, I still laughed at, and repeated, that joke — basically because a shameful calculus told me that fitting in with the crowd was more important than respecting the dignity of people of color, including people who loved me and who just happened to be Black.

I’ve carried the shame of that episode for 40 years, and I still remember the sickening feeling of knowing that what I was doing was wrong even as I did it.

For my friends, especially my friends who are persons of color, I am deeply sorry. My biggest fear in writing this is that it will damage our friendship. Frankly, I do not think that is very likely, because I know you well enough to be fairly certain that I will be shown much more love and grace than I deserve. Still, I owe you the honesty of a past sin confessed in deep remorse.

I know, though, that being sorry for a sin of past racism is helpful, but not enough. Confession without repentance is just as hollow as it is ineffectual.

On a positive note, the shame of that day all those years ago has left me aware that — as a white person living in a nation that privileges that status — I must be constantly mindful of the racism lurking at the door which may, in ways I may not even recognize at first blush, lead me to think of “white culture” as normative if not superior.

I remember even as an adult visiting the home of a dear friend, seeing a painting depicting Christ as an African man, and being momentarily taken aback. I devoted most of the rest of the day prayerfully coming to grips with the impact of a lifetime spent unquestioningly soaking in the equally, if not more, jarring pictures of Jesus as a blue-eyed white man — images that had beamed down at me from stained glass and from a host of Sunday school room posters.

I was able to wad up that cramped, literally white-washed image of Jesus and let it go and to embrace a much more honest view of Christ — thanks to a simple willingness to be vigilant as to my own latent racism.

More important yet, I know that repented racism carries with it a calling — both from God and from my neighbors — to actively work for a future where all such racist ideas are crumpled up and discarded, and to use my own voice to call attention to the present-day realties of white privilege and systemic racism. That is the type of true confession my sin calls for.

“Too many Americans still stumble at the point of confessing our past sins and talking honestly about a nation whose wealth was built largely on the backs of enslaved people of color.”

Imagine what following a similar path through confession to repentance could mean for our nation. Amazingly, too many Americans still stumble at the point of confessing our past sins and talking honestly about a nation whose wealth was built largely on the backs of enslaved people of color and which then spent decade upon decade keeping people of color “in their place” through segregation where possible, and through lynchings and terror where necessary.

We must come to grips with that past even as we honestly search out the myriad of ways that our nation’s current structures and institutions serve to maintain and even grow systemic racism.

Most of all, our national confession of past and present racism must be coupled with active repentance. I do not know how to even begin to estimate what amount of national investment will be needed in terms of reparations to try and repair the harm done, nor do I know what form such reparations will need to take to best serve that goal. I know beyond all doubt, though, that the current realities of systemic racism show that such reparations have not yet remotely been made, and I know that God calls out with God’s children for justice regardless of the costs.

I also imagine a similar path for our white American churches. We cannot move forward honestly absent a sincere confession that too many churches — including my own, which I love — were built largely thanks to tithes paid by slave owners on profits made through the sweat and blood of people held in chains. The dedication speeches for the Confederate Monument that stood for decades in Athens, Ga., were delivered from the pulpit of my church.

“The dedication speeches for the Confederate Monument that stood for decades in Athens, Ga., were delivered from the pulpit of my church.”

These are facts that must be acknowledged and mourned. We must then aggressively examine our current church practices and structures and be willing to uproot any and all barriers to making a life in Christ shared with our brothers and sisters of color a reality.

Finally, we must commit ourselves as congregations to champion racial justice, seeking to not just confess, but to repair and heal.

Racism is many things. One of those things it never is, and never was, is an innocent joke. I am sorry that I ever acted in such a way to make it seem like it was.

Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.

 

Related articles:

You cannot follow Jesus and endorse racism. Period. | Opinion by Mark Wingfield

Learning to breathe in the Spirit by confessing, ‘I can’t breathe’ | Opinion by Patrick Wilson

How slavery still shapes the world of white evangelical Christians | Opinion by Richard T. Hughes




During Lent, I’m learning to walk with a limp

As a small-town Southern Baptist, I had little if any idea what Lent was until I lived with Scoop.

Scoop, my junior-year roommate at the University of Georgia, was a somewhat intermittently practicing Catholic — he called himself a “High Holy Catholic” since he rarely attended Mass other than on the holy days of obligation. He did observe Lent, though, receiving the imposition of ashes and giving up a whole host of things (from meat, to candy, to profanity), which promptly made him miserable and surly.

Chris Conley

Needless to say, 40 days is a long time, especially for a college student, and Scoop’s initial surly resolve eventually gave way to guilt-riddled lapses, with the avoidance of profanity being the first casualty. In short, my first impressions of Lent were less than favorable.

As I’ve aged and taken on a bit more of a liturgical bent, though, Lent has become more important to me — and much more personal. Oddly, my own thoughts and prayers throughout Lent inevitably circle around the narrative of Genesis 32:22-32.

You know the story, and it’s a really strange one, even by Genesis standards. Jacob has an all-night wrestling match with God (at least in my Protestant tradition’s reading of the text). He comes away from the encounter with a blessing, a new name and a permanent limp.

I don’t want to discount the importance of the new name or the blessing but, for me, it’s the limp that takes center stage during Lent. From my perspective, in fact, there had to be a limp. Otherwise, the story would make no sense.

What is a limp? It’s something out of place and out of step. It’s unnatural. It’s halting, painful and unseemly. It’s noticeable, but not endearing. It stands out in the crowd, but more in the way of contempt than honor. Nobody wants a limp.

If we’ve really encountered God, though, and actually been touched by God, shouldn’t we have a limp? God calls us to love those who hate us. To treat the poor, the sick, the prisoner and the stranger with honor. To seek peace, not war; to value others more than self; and to live as if we think the Lord’s Prayer is factual and present-tense, not aspirational and distant.

“If we’ve really encountered God, though, and actually been touched by God, shouldn’t we have a limp?”

In short, God calls us to walk with a limp — to be plainly out of step with the rest of the world. That is sometimes painful, and often embarrassing, but it is vital.

How do we claim to have been changed by an encounter with the living God, if we walk, talk, look and sound just like everyone around us? We can’t. So we limp, but with the assurance that — when we finally see God in all of God’s glory — we’ll realize that the place where God touched us and changed us isn’t the one broken part. It was the one part healed, and our limp came from the rest of our lives still being out of joint, waiting to be touched by God, as well.

For me, Lent has become the season of being mindful of my limp, more than adjusting my diet in the vain hopes of killing two birds with one stone — of showing my love of God through abstaining from foods I shouldn’t eat anyway, hoping to shed a few pounds as a bonus. Rather, I try to be mindful throughout Lent of those occasions where my faith does manifest itself enough to actually leave me out of step with those who do not share in it. I try to be equally mindful of areas in my life where I should see a limp, but don’t. Think how different a stride forward we would see, both as individuals and as a nation, if Christians just focused on their limp.

And, learning from my time with Scoop, I try to leave room for grace rather than guilt. I try to realize that my failures to limp as often as I should just tends to show that God hasn’t stopped our wrestling match quite yet. Thanks be to God.

Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.

 

Related article:

This year, I need Lent | Opinion by Kate Hanch




Private property or the public good? Thoughts on wealth, taxes and justice

Growing up in the 1970s, there were some things I was sure of. One such truth was that America is a Christian nation — founded by Christians, based on Christian principles, uniquely favored by God.

I suspect many Christians who recently have found themselves caught up by the idea of “Making America Great Again” may have had this mythical Christian America in mind. Leaving aside the thorny question of what it might actually mean to be a Christian nation in an increasingly pluralistic culture, America’s Christianity is far from self-evident, especially if we look at the truest barometer of a value system at work — our national checkbook.

Chris Conley

For a nation always ready, willing and able to buy more bullets and bombs (spending more on our defense budget than the next 10 highest-spending nations combined), we never can seem to scrape together enough funds to house and feed our poorest children or to provide even basic health care to our sickest neighbors.

Despite a true embarrassment of national riches, spiraling wealth inequality is, in fact, creating two Americas — a nation of the obscenely wealthy and a nation of the desperately poor.

Of course, neither the America of our past nor any other nation ever has achieved perfect equity in distributing its wealth, but the trend in America is not one toward justice, nor is it sustainable.

According to the Pew Research Center, as of 1944, the top 1% of American families claimed 11.3% of the nation’s pre-tax income, while the bottom 90% earned 67.5%. As imbalanced as that distribution of wealth seems, it pales in comparison to the current state of affairs.  By 2013, the top 1% of American families’ income share had doubled to 22.5%, while the bottom 90% had seen its share drop below 50% for the first time ever, plummeting to 49.6%.

The ugly truth told by these numbers is even more clearly seen on almost any city street corner, where brand-new luxury cars speed past persons who are homeless, begging for spare change.

Whatever such a nation may be, it is not Christian. Whatever else it reflects, it does not mirror the values of the kingdom of God.

It is not a nation that looks like a God who “secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Proverbs 13:23). It does not sound like a Christ who came to preach good news to the poor and release to the oppressed (Luke 4:18).

“Rather than modeling the kingdom of God, America mimics Sodom in being ‘arrogant, overfed and unconcerned’ for the plight of the poor.”

Rather than modeling the kingdom of God, America mimics Sodom in being “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” for the plight of the poor (Ezekiel 16:49). On a visit to America today, I fear that God would find the plunder of the poor in the McMansions of the rich (Isaiah 3:14-15), and would despair to see the lifeblood of the needy soaking the designer clothing of the wealthy (Jeremiah 2:34). Many of us would be found lacking in God’s love as, despite our comfort and wealth, we still can look upon our brother in need without pity (1 John 3:17).

Given this shocking disconnect between the reality of America and the Christian principles on which she purports to stand, you would think Christians would be universally in favor of restoring a tax burden on the nation’s richest citizens commensurate with their disproportionate wealth so that we can strengthen and expand the public services needed to lift our poorest neighbors out of their poverty.

Instead, the backlash to such proposals has been pronounced. Even the slightest move toward more progressive taxation is shouted down as “ungodly socialism,” with Zachary Garris urging that “God is a capitalist” and Ralph Drollinger opining that the “Bible is pro-private property rights,” as “God knows that personal ownership of private property is fundamental to every individual’s ability to express his highest possible self as a reflection of his being created in God’s image.”

Let that soak in for a minute, but don’t let the shock of learning that we best bear the Imago Dei in our ownership of our stuff deafen you to “Christian economist” Gary North’s admonition that any movement toward democratic socialism essentially re-writes the Eighth Commandment to state, “Thou shalt not steal except by majority vote.”

Such a notion of a sacred right of personal wealth insulated against any demands imposed by the common good may, unfortunately, be American in tone, but it is not Christian in flavor. It bears no resemblance to God’s community in the Old Testament, where landowners were told that the edges and gleanings of their own fields did not belong to them, but instead, by law, belonged to the poor (Leviticus 19:10).

Such a notion shares no common ground with the first Christian communities which, for at least one shining moment before the light of the first Easter began to fade from memory, could boast that there were “no needy persons among them” as those Christians who owned property sold it, redistributing the proceeds “to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:34-35).

The idea that undisturbed ownership of personal property is the key to our reflecting God’s image would be puzzling to Saint John Chrysostom, who urged that “what we possess is not personal property, it belongs to us all,” and who admonished that “thine” and “mine” are “chilling words” that should be eliminated entirely within the church.

“Economic justice is plainly not a problem calling for a ‘lemonade stand’ solution.”

St. Basil the Great would be surprised to learn that the poor have no lawful claim to the excess wealth of the rich, given his understanding that “the bread in your larder belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you allow to rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”

None of this is to say that — like the rich young ruler — we are each called to sell all that we own and give the proceeds to the poor. I do not have the faith needed to do that, but my mustard seed of faith does lead me to support the type of progressive taxation in the United States which, although likely to diminish my own personal wealth, will afford me an opportunity to “render unto God” while “rendering unto Caesar,” serving the common good rather than my own selfish interests.

I also have the wisdom to see that such a governmental approach is absolutely essential, as sole reliance on voluntary private charity that cannot leverage the massive wealth accumulated and held by the richest of our nation’s citizens and corporations never can meaningfully address a problem of the size and scope of America’s poverty epidemic. Economic justice is plainly not a problem calling for a “lemonade stand” solution.

In sum, and to borrow from Saint Augustine, “Blessed … are those who make room for the Lord, so as not to take pleasure in private property. Let us therefore abstain from the possession of private property — or from the love of it, if we cannot abstain from possession — and let us make room for the Lord.”

If we can do that, maybe the myth of a Christian America could at least begin to approach reality. In that sense, we might — individually and as a nation — actually start reflecting the image of God, rather than recasting that image in the form and shape of our own greed and materialism.

Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.




Three signposts for American Christians in a changing world

A lot can change in 40 years. As a decidedly liberal and middle-aged me looks back at the Reagan Republican twenty-something I once was, I’m forced to ponder the road that led from there to here.

I worry that similar pondering is needed on the part of American Christians, especially those of a white evangelical, stripe. While never perfect in the past, how have we reached a point where our language and symbols are so readily coopted to spew hatred, violence and division? How have we become so infatuated with political influence that it is often unclear where the line is drawn between Christ and political party?

Chris Conley

I still stumble, but I think some of the signposts I’ve passed can help point a way forward. It’s clear that the road many of us are on now is a dead end.

The first signpost was a recognition that my Christianity was not, in fact, the Christianity of Jesus. The Christianity of my youth was pretty non-demanding, with Jesus basically acting as a “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Say the right things, get dunked and, when you die, you get to hang out on a cloud playing a harp rather than burning in Hell. Christianity was all about the past (what Jesus did back then) and the future (after I die) and wasn’t really concerned with the present.

I now see it completely differently. The truth of the empty tomb as historical fact is important, and I still believe it, and while playing the harp forever doesn’t excite me it beats roasting in flames. But, if I think the tomb is really empty, that Christ is really alive, and that his kingdom has come “on earth as it is in heaven,” then every day carries a present-tense choice to act on my faith or not.

Now matters. Eternally. I’m not called to be a Christian, but to Christian. I think we’re well past time for evangelicals to come to grips with this truth, to leave behind our “Left Behind” books, and to get busy making the current world better reflect the in-breaking of the kingdom that started so many Easters ago.

The second signpost was a recognition that unjust privilege exists and that I’m living it. While centuries of trying to dehumanize persons of color has left horrible scars on communities of color, it also has dehumanized the dehumanizers.

We meet heartfelt pleas of “Black Lives Matter” with snide retorts of “All Lives Matter” — not out of some benign universalism, but because we can’t stand the taste of saying that someone who isn’t white should be valued and isn’t. We don’t oppose persons whose sexuality differs from ours because of some burning desire to protect the sanctity of marriage; we just like having an issue we don’t struggle with that we can use as a bully pulpit to announce our own purity while ignoring the million and one ways we fall short every day.

“God wants us to use the platform of our privilege to speak for those who don’t share in it.”

If God wants anything from our present-day Christianing, God wants us to use the platform of our privilege to speak for those who don’t share in it.

Finally, and for some painfully, the third of the signposts involves a recognition that “patriotism” is often a fancy word for bigotry and selfishness. If all persons were lovingly made by God with God’s own hands in God’s holy image, there is no theologically safe ground to draw a line on a map and declare “us” and “them.” Leave aside that America can trace its path along the slave routes of the Atlantic and the Trail of Tears (and has found space to condemn the evils of other nations while treating the dropping of atomic bombs on civilians in Japan as somehow justified). Even if we buy into the ever-more-popular myth of a blameless America, there is no “them,” there is no “other.” To claim this is to deny Christ.

We are in a dark time, but Christ’s light as always is breaking in. The question is whether we’re willing to make the changes needed to throw open the windows rather than shutting the blinds.

Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.