Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hypothetical Verdicts: Crutcher, Shelby, and Blame

Last night a jury in Tulsa reached a verdict in a high-profile case in which a police officer, Betty Shelby, shot and killed an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher. When she shot him, Crutcher was neither doing what she ordered him to do nor posing a clear threat (he was walking away from her with his arms raised, apparently putting those arms on the side of his car). Like so many other cases like it, the jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict.

I want to begin by saying​ something about this case that I think ought to be uncontroversial. What happened in this case is that a man with a drug problem who in fact posed no threat encountered, as part of a routine traffic stop, an officer who set out that day to serve and protect, not to kill people. And yet the officer shot the man, killing him. When that happens, something has gone terribly wrong.

What went wrong was not an "act of God." Crutcher did not die from an illness or a natural disaster. He was shot. And yet he did nothing that deserved death. He was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, and he wasn't perfectly obedient to the officers commands. But these are not the sorts of things that warrant death. And so something has gone terribly wrong.

That is the uncontroversial thing I want to l say. But now come the difficult questions. Suppose we accept the jury's judgment that the officer was not responsible for what went so terribly wrong. Who is, then? Is it appropriate to blame the man who died--blame him because in his confused state he wasn't absolutely and perfectly obedient, because he went to put his hands on his car in a move that trained officers (but not the man) have learned bad guys might use to grab for a gun? Is that the choice the jury was given? Blame the white woman in the police uniform, the one sitting in front of them looking earnest and just like them, a good citizen who means well; or blame the drug-using black man who is gone, who is nowhere in sight because he is dead, dead by a bullet lodged in his lung, a bullet propelled there by the twitch of that earnest woman's trigger finger?

Perhaps the jury had too few options. Perhaps when it comes to assessing responsibility for something that has gone so terribly wrong, juries are forced into a false dilemma.The jury was not given the option to  deliver, for example, the following hypothetical verdict: "We cannot convict you because the fault is wider than you and deeper than you. You were just there at that moment with the legacy of our cultural conditioning and our collective fears; you were there, and the systems and practices and norms of our society came together in you, pulling the trigger and making a man die, a man who posed no threat. But it could have been any one of us, and we would have done the same."

There was no option for saying that. Should there be?

Shelby and Crutcher were not alone in that moment. I don't just mean that other officers present and the helicopter whirring overhead. Social forces came together in that moment--including, perhaps, the white majority's collective fear of black men, a fear that we feed and perpetuate in all kinds of subtle ways. We feed it and perpetuate it in the unconscious minds of children who grow up wanting to serve and protect. And then one day an officer is afraid that she won't make it home alive--even though as a matter of fact the man was moving slowly away from her with his arms in the air.

Are we quicker to jump to threat scenarios when it's a black man than when it's, say, a white woman? To Shelby, it seemed like a vivid possibility that Crutcher, drugged and disoriented, might lunge through the car window to grab a gun, spin towards Shelby, and fire with deadly aim. It was so vivid, so live as a threat that she shot and killed this man whose hands were in the air, who had no gun, no gun at all. Would it have struck her as such a vivid possibility, such a plausible source of fear-- something demanding such immediate, fatal, and irrevocable action--if Crutcher had been a white woman? Also, would empathy and fellow human feeling have been potent in that case, acting to curb fatal mistakes by making them seem more dire?

I'm not talking here about overt racism. I'm not talking about deliberately discounting black lives because they are black. What I'm talking about are unconscious, implicit biases formed in us through social conditioning, biases we don't even know we have and which shape our perceptions in moments of crisis when there isn't time to make more steady, considered judgments.

Did the jury find her not guilty in part because they share the same fears, the same unconscious presuppositions that shape how they envision unfolding events? Did they identify with her and her perspective because they were subject to the same social conditioning? Was it especially easy for them, because of our shared culture, to understand why that unarmed man who was not engaged in hostile or aggressive action could appear to the officer in that moment as a deadly threat?

If this were a freakish case, an unheard-of anomaly in the American landscape, then we might accept the verdict, say "Whatever it was that went wrong, the jury looked at the evidence and decided it wasn't the officer's fault," and then move on with our lives. But we don't have that luxury, because this is not some unheard-of anomaly in American life.

If we accept the verdict, that means we must look beyond the officer to determine what went wrong, to discern what brokenness in our society needs to be fixed so that tragedies like this don't keep happening.

A guilty verdict would have said many things. Among them, it would have said to my black friends watching the trial with trepidation and a thread of hope that this time, in this case, a black life mattered. But a guilty verdict might also have said, "We've found the culprit, the source of the problem. It was this particular woman. The rest of us are off the hook." If we accept the verdict and we accept that black lives really do matter as much as white lives, then we need to ask why this sort of thing keeps happening and what we can do to fix it.

Maybe, in our current world, "not guilty" means "No one's to blame! We're off the hook!" while "guilty" means "That one person is to blame! The rest of us are off the hook!" Maybe there is no way, with the verdicts on offer, for any verdict to ever move us to ask what has gone so horribly wrong and what we can do, what we must do, to change things.

And so we return to my hypothetical verdict, a different kind of "not guilty" verdict: "Not guilty by virtue of the fact that we, society, are collectively to blame for the forces that came together in that tragic moment; not guilty because any one of us, conditioned as we have been conditioned and socialized as we have been socialized, might have done the same thing in that moment. Not guilty because we are all guilty, not guilty in a way that demands collective responsibility. Not guilty in a way that does not erase guilt but demand accountability."

And maybe that "not guilty"verdict needs to be paired with a different kind of guilty verdict: "Guilty by virtue of being an agent of something deeper than the individual, of social wrongs that found expression in this person at this moment but are not isolating to the individual; guilty in a way that does not let others off the hook but recognizes the deep roots of tragic wrongs and demands collective responsibility and broader accountability."

In our individualistic culture, we don't like those kinds of verdicts. Such verdicts would be a call to action, a call to social change. Easier to treat not-guilty verdicts as exonerating not only the individuals but also ourselves, and guilty-verdicts as heaping all the guilt on the bad guys so that the rest of us can feel cleansed.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bishop Oliveto, the United Methodists, and the Law of Love

A Personal Issue

On April 28, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled that when the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC consecrated Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop, it violated church law. The law in question is an old one from the 1970's, one that precludes "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from serving as church leaders in the UMC. Bishop Oliveto, in case you haven't heard, is in a same-sex marriage.

Although I am now a Lutheran, I was raised in the Methodist Church: a mid-sized suburban UMC congregation in upstate New York. I was confirmed there and was active with the UMYF--the United Methodist Youth Fellowship--throughout Junior High and High School. One of my fondest memories from that time was an extended canoe trip through the Adirondacks with the youth group and the pastors of the church. It was a week of connecting powerfully to God's creation, and experiencing its beauty and power through the Wesleyan lens our pastor preached from his own canoe, a paddle in hand. Among the experiences that have given me a vivid sense of God's presence, this one ranks among the most formative.

I say all of this because I want to explain why these events in the UMC are personal for me. Although I am today part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was shaped by the UMC. When I picture a church, it is still that UMC church of my childhood that springs first to mind. And when I think about pastors who forged my faith in a God of love, one of the first to come to mind is Rev. Harrington, sitting in that canoe, his voice rolling along the river as he invited us all to take in the majesty of God's world.

Also, when I view the current turmoil in the UMC I recall the ELCA's struggles over these same matters, struggles I was personally involved with in numerous ways. I know first-hand what it feels like to be part of a church that's trying to find a way forward when it comes to inclusion of sexual minorities. At different times I was on both the losing and winning sides of the ELCA's fitful journey. Neither side was without its share of anguish. And so I look at the church of my childhood, and I share the pain.

Not Just an Issue

The controversy is so grave and difficult because it isn't about an "issue." It's about the fate of real people. It's about Bishop Oliveto but not just her. It's about Rev. Karen Dammann, who was put on trial and risked being defrocked for admitting to her congregation that she was in a committed relationship with a woman. It's about Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked for performing same-sex union ceremonies for members of his congregation. Closer to home, it's about Oklahoma pastor Kathleen McCallie, a friend of my wife who loved her work as a UMC minister but who faced the same choice as Creech, and in anguish chose to follow her conscience and so be expelled from the church and ministry she loved.

This is not an "issue" that members of the UMC can just agree to disagree about and then worship together amidst their differences. Why not? Because this is about the actual fate of real people within the worship life of the church. It is about who gets to perform which roles in worship. It is about which couples can get married in a church service, which ones can sit together in the pews without being labeled as sinners for it. It is about who can show up with their partners at an adult Sunday School class about building stronger marriages, and who will be told, "Your marriage should be voided, not made stronger, because your love for each other is a sin and the meaning and richness you find in life partnership is an abomination."

Love and Same-Sex Marriage

It's because of the persistent recurrence of cases like Bishop Oliveto's, cases that continue to cause so much turmoil and pain, that I felt compelled to write my forthcoming book on same-sex marriage and Christian love, The Triumph of Love. I cannot, in a blog post, do justice to all of the arguments in that book. But I want to sketch out a few of them here. In that book I argue that, if we want to love our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we should apply to them the same model of sexual restraint that has served heterosexuals through history: all of us should be urged to express our sexuality within the bonds of marriage.

Marriage, at its best, becomes a crucible for learning faithful love over a lifetime. Marriage is not just a source of joy but a source of meaning and growth in love. To withhold that from gays and lesbians, most of whom are as ill-equipped for life-long celibacy as their heterosexual peers, has substantial costs for their welfare.

But the cost goes deeper than simply losing out on something. The Christian tradition has long held that all same-sex intimacy, even in marriage, is a sin. If you think this, you think Christian communities should be structured accordingly. You think gays and lesbians should grow up being taught that their sexuality is fundamentally broken, that their intimate partnerships are an affront to God no matter how faithful and virtuous and life-enriching they might be. You think gays and lesbians should be systematically excluded from participation in the most foundational social and cultural unit. Not only are they forced to live their lives without the kind of love and companionship and lessons in Christian love that marriage brings. They are taught that, in a fundamental sense, there is not a place for them.

Because Christian communities have long been built around these assumptions, many gays and lesbians have been born and raised under these conditions. And so we know what it is like for them if we listen compassionately to their stories. I have done such listening, as have many other Christians who are, like me, progressive on this question. Like many others, I have learned some important lessons from that listening, lessons underscored by the corpses of those driven to suicidal despair by the conviction that they will never be acceptable in the eyes of God unless they close themselves off to their most intense yearnings for love and closeness. Countless witnesses reinforce a shattering message: traditional teachings on homosexuality can be soul-crushing for the sexual minorities who grow up in communities that teach it. While some break away, others just break.

Of course, much has changed in recent years. There are growing pockets of acceptance. Many sexual minorities have found peace and a place at the table within Christian communities. Instead of having to choose between their faith and their sexual/romantic selves--or having to live the lie of the closet--many are finding places where they can have what heterosexuals take for granted: the integration of Christian faith with their human longing for sexual intimacy and loving partnership.

To believe that all homosexual sex is sinful is to believe that such opportunities should be withdrawn and the closet door slammed shut. But that doesn't sound much like love to me.

Burying Talents

The current policies of the UMC perpetuate the marginalization of gays and lesbians. But they also diminish the church community itself. This is apparent in the current case of Bishop Oliveto.

In a statement earlier in the week, Bishop Oliveto made an interesting observation about the hearing that could decide her future as a UMC bishop: "What is fascinating about today’s hearing is that no one questioned the gifts and graces I possess for ordained ministry and specifically for the episcopacy. And no one has looked at my work and said my abilities for this task are lacking."

No one questioned this for the simple reason that her abilities aren't lacking. Had she been in a heterosexual marriage rather than a same-sex one, no one would have questioned her consecration. She felt called to the ministry. She felt called to the episcopacy. And according to friends of mine who are part of the Western Jurisdiction and who have met her, she is a person of grace, poise, wisdom, and competence.

When a class of people are excluded from church leadership even though they have the requisite gifts and have experienced a call, it is as if they are being forced to bury their talents. When Christ tells His parable of the talents, He concludes it by chastising the servant who chooses to bury the talent given him by his master. But Rev. Karen Oliveto chose to use her talents, not to bury them. She chose to use them on behalf of the UMC. The Western Jurisdiction chose to let her do so. If the UMC as a whole forces her out of the episcopacy--and the recent ruling is a clear step in that direction--then it is the UMC that is burying Oliveto's talents, and hence the UMC that must face Christ's censure.

Law and Obedience

The law of the UMC is plain enough, and the Judicial Council was probably right that according to that law, what the Western Jurisdiction did was unlawful. But this policy is the law of a human institution, and there is a higher law than that. The decision of the Western Jurisdiction to consecrate Bishop Oliveto despite church law was a case of civil disobedience. The purpose of civil disobedience is not to defy the rule of law. Its purpose, rather, is to seek to change an unjust human law based on a deeper obedience to a higher law.

Oliveto's consecration expressed Christian deference to a divine calling, one not beholden to the laws of a human institution. More importantly, it expressed allegiance to the law of love, the law that Christ lifted up as our most fundamental commandment.

Not everyone agrees, of course, that God would have the audacity to call a married lesbian to the episcopacy. Not everyone agrees that love for our gay and lesbian neighbors requires us to abandon the old teachings that have for so long been a source of so much suffering. But motives matter--and the motive in this case was not disdain for the rule of law but a sense of faithfulness to a higher law. One might disagree about what that higher law requires of us, but such disagreement does not change the motives involved.

Love Admidst Disagreement

But this brings me to the final point. The perspective I've articulated is hardly uncontroversial. I can already hear the clamoring questions: Doesn't it ignore what the Bible says? What about Church Tradition and Natural Law arguments? Isn't it clear from these things that God really does prohibit same-sex romantic love? And doesn't it follow from this that someone who makes a marital commitment to such love is making a commitment to sin? And isn't a commitment to sin incompatible with church leadership?

That is the conservative stance. I find it wholly unpersuasive, for reasons I explore in depth in my book. But I can't reproduce my entire book in a blog post, so let me limit myself to two points here.

First, the argument I've sketched out here, which challenges the conservative stance, isn't coming from secular culture but from the urgings of the law of love and my understanding of what that law requires. This is a Christian case for overturning the UMC's policies on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Even if you think that case is defeated by biblical arguments, it doesn't mean there is no case--a case that, if we trust what Jesus had to say, is rooted in nothing less than the most important commandment of all.

The second point is this: While defenders of the conservative view are sometimes moved by ugly motives such as homophobia, many are moved by sincere belief. Many are pained by the suffering of their LGBT neighbors and grieve the tragic frequency of gay suicide, but they have been convinced that the condemnation of homosexuality is God's word and that the solution to LGBT suffering must be found in something other than opening the door to same-sex marriage.

This is as true in the UMC as it is in other denominations. Those who defend the UMC's ongoing marginalization of LGBT Methodists cannot simply be dismissed as homophobes. Those who celebrate the Oliveto ruling are not all motivated by hate.

Perhaps they haven't heard, as I have, the litany of anguishing life stories, tales of suffering wrought by anti-LGBT policies of exclusion. If so, we need to invite them to hear those stories.

Perhaps they've listened to a handful of LGBT Christians who tell a comforting tale of becoming ex-gay (comforting, at least, if you don't want to find yourself standing opposed to the dominant teachings of your community and its understanding of the Bible). If so, we should invite them to consider those stories in a broader context that includes the many stories of hopeless efforts to "change," often followed by years of living a lie, a pretense of healing, and stumbling into unwise and ultimately tragic heterosexual marriages in a desperate effort to belong.

Perhaps they've been immersed in a theology whose views about the Bible make it seem as if there is no choice but to stand fast to the view that homosexuality is sinful, no matter what gays and lesbians may say about the alienation and despair that this inspires. There are those who think they would betray the very word of God if they shifted their stance, if they did anything short of continuing to endorse existing policies. And it doesn't matter how many talents get buried. It doesn't matter how many gays and lesbians are cast to the margins. The Bible is clear.

If this is what they think, we should dig into our understanding of what the Bible is and what it says. We should think together about the Bible's history, its context, the languages of the ancient authors, and the alternative ways of understanding how the Bible is related to the will and word of God. We should think together about which Christian approaches do the most to honor the incarnating, loving, sacrificing, redeeming God to whom the Bible testifies.

Those who stand witness to just how crushing LGBT marginalization has been must rise up in loving defense of the victims. Hearing what we have heard and believing what we believe, it would be unloving for us to do anything else. At the same time, we must strive to reach out in love to those who are sincerely convinced that God calls them to perpetuate policies of exclusion. Anger can be fitting, because there is such a thing as angry love. Painful honesty about the horrific consequences of their beliefs--honesty that pulls no punches in the name of "niceness"--can be appropriate, because love demands truth.

But we cannot descend into hate. We cannot resort to violence--either outward violence or verbal abuse or spiritual violation. We must remain open to fellowship when the terms of fellowship don't require complicity in perpetuating harm.

And if we wade into the fray--if we really wrestle with the conflicts and controversies--it can become very hard to sustain a spirit of love towards those we think are complicit in perpetuating harmful policies (or those we think are betraying the Word of God).

And so we need to open ourselves up to the grace that is beyond us, the transforming power of a divine love that can persist where merely human will must fail.