I heard the news a bit late, about the lack of an indictment of the police officer who, against NYPD protocols, used a choke-hold on and killed a non-threatening guy selling loose cigarettes in New York. As you surely know, the incident was caught on video tape and it was exceptionally baffling to wonder why this officer was not held accountable. Was race involved in how the man was handled? Was race involved in how the case was handled? It is a large claim to make without evidence that it was due to race that this was so mishandled, but it isn't implausible to suggest so.
On the heels of the decision in Ferguson, it has catapulted once again some very important issues onto the front burner of our national discourse.
Ironically, I missed the breaking story earlier this week as we were away from the news media while we were selling books at a gathering which was exploring the nature of subtle (and not so subtle) racism in America, and how to create what our speaker called a "cosmopolitan canopy."
What a week!
I can't tell you how my heart aches -- as yours does, too, I'm sure -- as I've listened to our speaker, Dr. Elijah Anderson, a renowned black sociologist, and read his most recent book, and heard the news about the Eric Garner trial, and followed all manner of conversations on line about Ferguson and now NYC and the general state of race relations. On PBS over the weekend, Beth and I watched a tribute to Bruce Springsteen, and I cried as I listened to Jackson Browne's moving rendition of Bruce Springsteen's song about another case of ethnically-charged police violence American Skin (41 Shots.)
Lord have mercy.
And just this morning I suggested in a class I'm teaching about incarnation, Advent, and missions, that this season is less a countdown to the Big Day, but a season to inhabit, not unlike Lent, to allow God to work on our longings, desires, laments. As I tried to write in my essay at The High Calling blog, Advent allows us to intensify our longings for the restoration of all things as we anticipate not so much a celebration of the first coming of Christ, but of the second coming of Christ.
Come Lord Jesus.
Our speaker at our event was Dr. Elijah Anderson, who has taught sociology for three decades at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania and, more recently, at Yale, and he walked us through some of his academic work and then illuminated racial dynamics in American cities. He told stories of how even middle class blacks who are often comfortable in mixed-race or largely white social settings carry great stress because of the inevitable "nigger moments" that they face. Because of the history of racial injury in our country, even slight episodes of disrespect are freighted with great and sometimes debilitating emotion. Of course we talked about Ferguson, and the clergy that had gathered for this event talked candidly among themselves about their own experiences of racial injustice. It was sobering, but helpful.
I want to tell you about how very important (and how very, very interesting) Dr. Anderson's book,The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life (Norton; $17.95) really is. But first, a bit of a report about our book-selling efforts at the event in New Jersey.
We were selling books as we do each year at a clergy retreat for priests and church leaders of the Pennsylvania Diocese (the greater Philadelphia area) of the Episcopal Church. This is not my own tradition -- what again is a warden or canon or deanery and which Rite are we using, and whose feast day is it today? -- and I guess it shows. (And I thought my evangelical friends had a lot of in-house jargon! Ha!) But these exceptionally thoughtful pastors working in the context of high church, liberal mainline Protestantism are good to Beth and me and we have a lot of fun. They let me tell them about books I love, and they often buy some of the ones I describe in my presentations up front. (Thanks, friends, for your rousing enthusiasm for my rousing books presentations! Nunc dimittis.)
From our "Book of the Year" (Steve Garber's Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good) to the new Biblical studies work by the eminent New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament, to a lovely new book on spiritual formation by Ruth Haley Barton (Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community) they were receptive and generous in their book buying.
These priests ask good questions about serious resources, and tease me just enough to show we're welcomed. (And I tease them just enough to let them know I feel at home with them.) I told them about St. John Before Breakfast by my pal Brian Walsh. They loved that he does a morning Eucharistic service at the University of Toronto which he calls "Wine Before Breakfast" and bought all the copies we had. Not too surprisingly, they bought a bunch of Cathleen Falsani's edited collection of "rants and readings of the odd parts of the Bible" called Disquiet Time. We pushed We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation, the latest Brian McLaren book designed for small groups to read the Bible through in a year; I am quite fond of it, and recommended it to them. Of course I told them about our good time recently with Chris Smith, with one of the authors of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus and sold a number of that.
We just figured you'd like to know what these folks bought, and the kinds of things we'd promote at an event like that. It was a good time, even though we had to pull an all-nighter to set everything up. It isn't every group that buys J. I Packer alongside Joan Chittister, Marcus Borg and Jamie Smith.
We are glad for friends there that worship well, serve their parishes, and are working to be sure their people grapple with the Bible, and the implications of the Bible. One of their priests, Marek Zabriski, is nationally known for his effort to get parishes to read the Bible through in a year. His edited guide to reading the Bible through, accompanied by devotional-like readings, The Bible Challenge: Read the Bible in a Year (which is published by Forward Movement and which we carry, of course) is a year's worth of daily devotional readings, written by authors as prominent as Walter Brueggemann and Barbara Brown Taylor, which illumine the Biblical reading of the day. There are guides to what to read (and why) and reflection questions for personal or small group use. His effort -- as documented in another book called Doing the Bible Better and the Transformation of the Episcopal Church -- is remarkable, and the book is a great tool for anyone wanting a moderate, balanced perspective on reading and inhabiting the Biblical story in a coherent, contemporary way.
So, yes, we were with mainline Protestant clergy who were buying books about theology, the Bible, parish revitalization, spirituality, missional service, liturgy, and more. It was a great time in the lovely book room.
And our speaker, the aforementioned Dr. Elijah Anderson, was gracious and kindly. His grandmother was a mid-wife (and knowingly named him after a Biblical prophet) and his parents worked on a plantation in the south, picking cotton in the years of Jim Crow and lynching and horrors big and small, until they moved North in the great migration. Dr. Anderson himself came of age as cities were burning after the killing of Martin King, and his own interest in people watching and trying to figure out how and why things were happening in the "iconic ghetto" grew into a life calling in urban sociology. His early books include the scholarly ethnographies, A Place on the Corner, Street Wise, and the remarkable study of inner city Philadelphians, The Code of the Street. His work is considered classic ethnography -- serious sociology which is also, in the words of People magazine, "a people watcher's delight."
I have been reading his latest book and have been blown away by how very interesting, and useful it is. I so hope people come to study it - it offers really enlightening and nearly necessary information in these days of complicated conversations about racism, white privilege, police brutalities, and what is or isn't plausible about racial aggressions in modern North America. It is called The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life and we highly, highly recommend it.
Pages could be shared just reproducing the many, many rave reviews this important book has accrued, such as Ellis Cose (who wrote The End of Anger) who called it, simply, "An amazing achievement" or William Julius Wilson, the eminent urban sociologist from Harvard, who said it is "Vintage Elijah Anderson - original, creative, engaging, and thought provoking... a must-read."
It isn't every book about racial disunity and the glimmers of hope found in truly cosmopolitan settings that earns rave blurbs from authors as diverse as Cornel West and George Wills. Have West and Wills ever agreed on anything?
It may be true, what Randall Collins, president of the American Sociological Association, says, the Cosmopolitan Canopy is "the most important book on race relations in many years."
Two things you should know about this book.
Firstly, it isn't a rant against racism - not at all like, say, the new Cornel West title which is called Black Prophetic Rage, a book of interviews and up-to-date criticism of the current status quo in race relations and public theology. Agree with him or not, Brother West is always worth reading, and we commend it to you.
The Cosmopolitan Canopy is nuanced, and at times delightful. One reviewer said that Anderson may be the nation's leading "people watcher" - and who doesn't enjoy that? He is, here, attempting to offer a major reinterpretation of the racial dynamics in America, by introducing terms such as the "cosmopolitan canopy" by which he means islands of civility and cultural convergences existing amid the ghettos, suburbs and ethnic enclaves in which segregation is the norm. Of course, he identifies "the racial fault lines that on occasion rend the 'canopy' and describes the ways in which it recovers." His stories of racial injury, discrimination, harm, are painful - in part because they are so commonplace and believable. (As the Springsteen songs puts it, "It ain't no secret...") Yet, white folks too often haven't talked with their black friends enough about this, or haven't immersed themselves in the literature. So reading this sociological account could be very, very useful.
Dr. Anderson - even though he has accumulated his experiences of demeaning discrimination over his lifetime - seems relaxed, here. Again, he is a people-watcher and he is telling the stories; again, it is urban ethnography and not very polemical. He loves the city, and he loves trying to understand the social boundaries, constructs, institutions and social locations that help create a flourishing public space. As a skilled ethnographer, he is exceptionally perceptive. And he relishes his task as storyteller and interpreter.
Doc Anderson takes readers through a
walking tour of Center City, and that first chapter is sheer delight, learning
how urban spaces do or don't facilitate multi-ethnic diversity and
civility. But then the real fun
begins, as he then moves to the Reading Terminal (a true "cosmopolitan canopy"
he says.) The Gallery Mall is a "ghetto downtown" and his look at Rittenhouse
Square offers a study of the practice of civility.
Here's the second thing you should know: not only does Anderson enjoy cities and telling the stories of their inhabitants and their patterns of behavior, he particularly loves Philadelphia. The Cosmopolitan Canopy is a study of race relations in the city of Brotherly love, and a tribute to the unique public spaces in that city of neighborhoods. Even if, like me, you do not know Philly all that well, you will love these chapters on different places in the metropolitan area that seem to invite greater civility and racial harmony. Not unlike, say, James Howard Kunstler who tells of very specific suburban messes, bad city planning and ugly architecture, you don't have to really know or care much about the particular place he is describing: you get the picture. But the book is set in Philadelphia.
You see, Anderson is not just lamenting the ghettos and the "white spaces" that dominate much American life, he is pointing towards what works, how to create more democratic and safe spaces that are civil and full of what he calls comity.
Anderson's survey of those he calls "ethnos" and "cosmos" is very, very illuminating. That is, there are those who chose to see themselves largely as part of a particularized racial enclave (this can be whites, blacks, or others, of course) and whose worldview is formed mostly by surrounding themselves mostly by people who are just like them. And there are those who have a more cosmopolitan vision, who are truly multi-racial in their orientation, comfortable with diversity. Of course there are those who have to switch sensibilities - urban blacks who live in black neighborhoods, are formed in black churches, and attend mostly black schools but who go to work in mostly white career tracks or white institutions. Some resent and find this very difficult while others seem to relish this.
Don't you just wonder about all of this?
Anderson explains for us the emotional toil and drama of being "black middle class in public" and this part was especially interesting for me. If most BookNotes readers are white, but who have black friends, it may be surprising to you how your black friends may relate in the predominantly white spaces, and how they may act in their own homes and neighborhoods. All of this was very stimulating, if hard, at times - I thought I knew a lot about this stuff, and I feel, now, as if I've got so much more to learn!
Even as Anderson documents features of a healthy civic society, and these places that are "cosmopolitan canopies" - thanks, Philadelphia! - he follows with a powerful chapter called "The Color Line and the Canopy." (You may know that "the color line" phrase comes from W.E.B. Du Bois.) There is stuff about "provisional status" that you must read, and an excellent bit about how many black employees experience the mostly-white workplace. The Cosmopolitan Canopy ends with some powerful stories that invite all readers to ask if they are committed to civility and willing to resist those who are racist or rude or uncivil.
Under the cosmopolitan canopy, city dwellers learn new ways of interacting with people they do not know who are visibly different from their own group. They become more comfortable with diversity and discover new ways that people comfortable with diversity and discover new ways that people express themselves in public. These experiences may lead people to question and modify their negative presuppositions about others. Even if they do not want to know those others intimately they practice getting along with everyone. The canopy offers a taste of how inclusive and civil social relationships could become. That people find such pleasure in diversity is a positive sign of the possibilities of urban life in the twenty-first century.
I could say more about this fabulous book of social observation, and why BookNotes readers, especially, may find it useful. I am very eager to promote it, and glad to have had the chance to listen in to these conversations facilitated by Dr. Elijah Anderson and his good books.
The Pennsylvania (Episcopal) Diocese is itself diverse - there is a white pastor of a church made up of Africans and those from the Caribbean where there are understandable regional tensions; there are clergy of every ethnic background who serve various kinds of parishioners from blue collar whites to African American professionals (etcetera, etcetera - we live in such a colorfully diverse world, don't we?) Some who serve are GLBT or in other ways seen as minorities. Women priests continue to struggle in some places with ugly discrimination and some live with great sadness and frustration for ways in which they've been mistreated. These clergy friends are candid with one another about their own sense of race relations within their collegial associations and in their own relationships, and within their churches. Was the gathering itself "white space" or "cosmopolitan"? Again, you see, just having people of different hues or backgrounds in the same room doesn't make it civil or safe, let alone cosmopolitan.
I admire any organization that desires to embody God's will, and which attempts to be attentive to the implications of the gospel; these last days reminded me of the daunting task ahead if we are to be faithful and fruitful responding to the call of the gospel to be agents of reconciliation. Dr. Anderson and his talks about the social/racial dramas played out, day by day, especially among middle class blacks, college students, professionals, and others living in places like Philadelphia, helped focus our conversation in fresh ways. I suspect it could be helpful to you, too, wherever you live and work, no matter what your race or ethnicity or status.
In our book display we had dozens of other books on racial reconciliation, ethnic diversity, growing a multi-ethnic church. We have a lot of these kinds of resources for nearly any kind of church; give us a call if you'd like us to suggest some resources.
(By the way, if you write or call, knowing something of the racial make-up, the history and fruitfulness of previous conversations about this you may have had, and the theological tradition in which you stand would be helpful as we help you by suggesting a few good resources.)
For a very good overview of the changing face of North American ethnicities, I really recommend, by the way, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church by Soong-Chan Rah (Moody Press; $14.99) and it was fun selling it to my Episcopalian friends. If you've followed BookNotes for long, you may know we are fond of Randy Woodley's lovely and challenging call to racial diversity in the Body of Christ, Living in Color: Embracing God's Passion for Ethnic Diversity (IVP; $18.00.) More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel by Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice (IVP; $20.00) tells the story of one white guy and one black guy who became friends, partners in ministry, and the struggles they had at learning to work well together and move people towards "the beloved community." It remains a life-changing book for many.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau; $28.00.)
In recent days I have had some difficult conversations with friends who do not seem to trust the uprising against the apparent sense of abuse felt by many people of color, especially when thinking about criminal justice, the police, and so forth. I do not know how you've talked about Ferguson, and if you are seeking a moderate, fair-minded, just approach - which is to say, not knee-jerk reactionary one way or the other, but seeking evidence, prudence, justice. But if you have had these conversations, I am sure you have met people (maybe you yourself are one of them) who are suspicious of the claims that race is, without a doubt, a factor in many of the situations of police violence and what seem to be unjust verdicts and mishandling of evidence by the courts.
And so, I beg you to purchase (as soon
as you can!) and read this
amazingly moving book, a book I've been saying is one of the most important
books I have read in my entire life, the stunningly outrageous, very
interesting, page-turning, and finally inspiring work by Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy:
A Story of Justice and Redemption. I will
say a bit more about this when we announce our "Best Books of 2014" at the end
of the year, as this will be named. (You could check out his powerful TED talk, or his great NPR interview, too, or visit his Equal Justice Initiatives webpage at www.eji.org/.)
For now, please read (or re-read) this review that I had published (in an slightly edited version) in Capitol Commentary, a weekly on-line publication of the Center for Public Justice, for whom I write a monthly book review column. I hope it inspires you to read the remarkable book.
For those who care to learn about the need for greater public justice, and how legal practices, lower court rulings and higher court appeals, and complex cultural attitudes about poverty and race in the United States too often subvert "liberty and justice for all" there is simply no more compelling way to be introduced to the painful realities of our land than to take up the study of racially-charged mass incarceration and the inequities of how poor people are treated by the criminal justice system. We can learn much from the experiences of those courageous lawyers who toil over legal details at low wages as they serve in legal aid clinics to help the under-represented get a fair hearing in court.
It is in such a world that even stalwart conservatives like the late Charles Colson have spoken out against the death penalty: in our terribly broken legal systems, even what some might see as a legitimate task of the state cannot be adjudicated justly. And it is into just such a situation that Bryan Stevenson has served in the deep American south, fighting unjust incarceration, and what are often poorly handled legal cases involving poor, usually black, often uneducated citizens who have been degraded and sometimes abused in U.S. prisons. His Equal Justice Initiative is an extraordinary organization, and those that have heard him speak -- at gatherings such as Jubilee or Q or The Justice Conference -- have long awaited this fuller telling of his heroic tale. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is one of the most powerful, painful, informative and inspiring books that I have ever read. It has been worth the wait for Stevenson to find time (amidst a grueling schedule of life-and-death advocacy) to pen this must-read memoir.
In this volume, we come to learn the excruciating details of several key cases on which Stevenson worked. We learn about the most egregious miscarriages of justice, the most brutalizing treatment of people in prison, and it is revealed how - in Alabama, particularly - bad laws and ugly practices have continued on with little reform or safeguards that have been instituted in most other states. In some cases Alabama is one of the few places in the country where certain choices (like putting young teens in with adult prisoners, where rape and abuse is common) are still permitted. This book documents outrage after outrage, and you will be troubled. This is an expose that needs to be read; written in Stevenson's first-person narrative, it is nothing short of riveting.
Some of the racial inequity regarding mass incarceration and extreme punishment has been documented in Michelle Alexander's rightly famous The New Jim Crow so it will come as no surprise to read her glowing endorsement: "Bryan Stevenson is one my personal heroes, perhaps the most inspiring and influential crusader for justice alive today, and Just Mercy is extraordinary." Desmond Tutu says that Stevenson is "America's young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction." Southern Baptist bestseller, lawyer John Grisham says, "Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God's work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope."
Throughout some of these stories, ironically, Stevenson is working -- against compromised prosecutors, judges complicit in gross negligence and sometimes overt, disturbing racism -- in the very town made popular by the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird. When Time magazine last month asked Mr. Stevenson about the obvious comparison with Atticus Finch, he was quick to note that Finch lost the famous fictional case. He realizes deep in his bones that lives of real people are at stake; he dare not resign himself to lose. He dare not rest in the popularity of his TED talks or NPR interviews. He simply must win more of these cases, prevent children from prison abuse, staying the gruesome execution of the innocent, offering presence and hope to the families of criminals and victims alike.
You will be hooked on this stunning story within the first few pages, and by the end of the first dozen pages, you will be feeling things you may not have felt in a long while, on the edge of your seat, wanting to know how this young man from a poor village in rural Maryland, who attended a small Christian college in Philadelphia, who was so unsure of himself at Harvard Law School, ended up staring down crass injustice with little assistance and no money in the dangerous South. You will be reminded of the awful last chapter of Dubois' Soul of Black Folk ("Of the Coming of John") and you will know that intimidation and even the fear of lynching remains a reality for many of our fellow citizens here in America. Your heart will break when you watch as Bryan visits in very poor homes with family whose loved ones have been abused by the legal system, who say to him, "These people have broken our hearts."
How can it be that "these people" remain supportive of intransigent, structural injustice, upheld by prosecutors, judges, prison officials (some who appear gruff and abusive, some who appear kind and ashamed of the outcomes of their work)? Why do not more cry out from within the legal system? What can citizens do? What might Christian lawyers and legal scholars do? This is the epic stuff of great literature, a grand story that will engage you, inspire you. As Rev. Tutu writes, "It is as gripping to read as any legal thriller, and what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the soul of a great nation."
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