*Identities changed to protect those involved.
“Come on,” I said. “You want all of these good things for yourself. That doesn’t seem consistent with not going to school.”
“It’s not,” responded Rashid*, a handsome, African-American young man who was surprisingly engaged in counseling. “Some days I just didn’t have a choice.”
“You’ve always got a choice, man,” I said.
“No, like I really didn’t have a choice.”
“Like you didn’t have a choice whether to get up out of bed because you were too lazy from being up too late the night before?”
“No – like I woke up and my mom was gone and I had to watch my 2 year-old brother. And I had to clean the house and get all of the laundry done – he didn’t have no clothes.”
I met Rashid through Community Court, a diversion program that allowed juvenile offenders take an alternate sentencing route, provided the charges against them are relatively minor and first-time.
On court day, they were interviewed by team members consisting of police, firefighters, pastors, teachers, social workers, counselors, members of the Department of Agriculture, and more. Instead of being given a fine and some time in the juvenile detention center, they might receive thirty hours of community service, ten hours of counseling, restitution, and an essay assignment entitled, “The impact of shoplifting on my future.” If they completed this kind of disposition successfully, the charges never landed on their adult records.
Some may think this approach is soft-hearted. But the motivation was the reality that for those already interacting with the legal system as minors, the likelihood of interacting with it again as adults – over and over again, actually – is very high.
The program was an overwhelming success until its grant-funding ran out in 2012. With the traditional, punitive approach, the recidivism rates for adolescents in the Commonwealth was over 50%. Over the course of four years, our recidivism rates were well under 10%.
Community court brought in kids from all different walks of life, but they mostly fell into two categories. The first was largely Caucasian, middle and upper middle class, and the charges were usually related to underage drinking and trespassing. The second was largely African-American, and charges were usually possession of marijuana, assault, and truancy.
The latter group represented a disproportionate amount of the local populace. African-Americans represented 52.4% of Community Court participants, yet they only made up 29% of the population at large. Compare this to Caucasians who made up 43% of the participants, but 63% of the population.
In short, a kid like Rashid is much more likely to end up interacting with the justice system than my children simply by virtue of his skin color. This really should come as no surprise, given that over 60% of the people in prison are minorities, and two-thirds of drug offenders are people of color, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In my former life as a licensed private investigator, I worked for a firm in Nashville, TN that dealt almost exclusively with murder cases. And we always worked for the defense.
In particular, I focused on sentencing mitigation. If the Commonwealth of Tennessee served notice that they intended to seek the death penalty on a murder charge, it was my job to investigate the accused’s life from the time of birth all the way to the time of the alleged crime, gathering stories, photos, memorabilia, and anything else I could that painted an accurate picture of what that person’s life was like.
I did all of this in the hopes that even if the accused was convicted, I could present the jury with what was always a mountain of mitigating evidence before assigning the death penalty. Sadly, research shows that jurors rarely deviate from their pre-determined vantage point on the death penalty. In other words, if the jury believes it to be an acceptable practice at all, you’re going to the chair.
It is probably no big shocker to discover that if you’re accused of murder, and certainly if you’re guilty, your life was probably pretty screwed up. But my 10+ years as a psychotherapist listening to people describe trauma and abuse look like a walk in the park compared to this.
Once, in a little armpit town in Oklahoma, I investigated the life of David*, a man who was already on death row and facing his second set of capital murder charges. In the process of my investigation, I found out about David’s father, who raped both his sons and daughters, and made them fist-fight till one of them passed out. And I found out about his mother, who punished her sons by whipping their penises with a switch, and accused her daughters of being “whores” when they tried to confront her about their father’s rape of them. In a successful effort to collect additional welfare checks, David’s parents conspired together to take in his cousins, all of whom were subjected to the same kind of torture, such as when David’s father wrapped their genitals in duct tape as punishment.
After hearing about all of this, one night I went back to my room at the Best Western, drew the blinds, and wept bitterly until I fell asleep for about 10 hours straight. I remember wondering if this was what Jesus felt when He wept over Jerusalem, knowing that the evil that had befallen the world was utterly total and beyond fixing, save His death on the cross.
An undergraduate student of mine recently described The American Dream as that philosophy which supports “a person [who] strives to better herself. You may fall but you get right back up and continue to grow. The failure comes when you refuse to grow and develop.”
I wonder, where do we place Rashid and David in such a philosophy?
Rashid and David don’t have much in common, actually, except how much their lives – in different ways and for different reasons and to different extents – profoundly contrast with what we might consider “normal.”
Because their lives were so different than many of us, their capacity for growth, for change, and any semblance of traditional, American success is likewise radically different. If you want to minister to them, your model must encompass the reality that not all people are capable of changing in the same ways, or along the same trajectories. And perhaps, some people are not capable of changing at all – they didn’t start the race at the same point, and some start so far behind they’ll never hit the finish line.
For Rashid, it’s extremely unlikely that he will finish high school. In fact, Rashid was removed from Community Court for failing to complete his sentencing requirements. With a mother who is a dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic and no one to pay the rent, school is simply not a priority contrasted with caretaking for himself and his siblings. His perspective is short-sighted, yes, but only in a hand-to-mouth sense, like choosing between paying the rent and buying food. He was 16-years old, and all things considered, doing remarkably well not to be slinging dope or strung out on it himself. If he doesn’t go to school, I don’t blame him. Asking him to prioritize anything other than “living” is like asking a fish not to swim.
For David, the abuse he suffered, including being made to inflict pain on those he loved, was so cruel and deliberate that the unfolding of his life was virtually guaranteed to end up with his maligning others. And ultimately, maligning them in ways that would result in his own demise on Kentucky’s death row. To suspect that an individual can go through what he did and turn out any other way is a willful rejection of good sense.
For both of them, the American Dream never happened because it was never a possibility, and it wasn’t because they “refuse[d] to grow and develop.” Their situations were so completely racked with abuse, neglect, trauma, dysfunction, sin, and evil, in real, palpable ways, that no amount of personal choosing on their part would have been sufficient to outpace. In their worlds, choosing to overcome dysfunction is like trying to plug a sinkhole – you’re filling up space but the bottom is dropping out from underneath you. This is no doubt some of what Jesus was referring to when he said, “In this world you will have trouble.”
When He went on to say, “But take heart, I have overcome the world,” it is naive to believe that Jesus meant, as I foolishly told Rashid, “you always have a choice.” This is closer to the Gospel according to Disney – something about “no matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” It’s nonsense.
This is not to preclude the possibility that Jesus might deliver Rashid and David, but this is by far the exception if it means extrication from their circumstances. Jesus usually seems more interested in delivering people within their circumstances than from them.
How? The rest of us, of course.
Jesus taught that the true measure of a society, and certainly the measure of its Christ-likeness, is how it looks upon people like Rashid and David, and others who are beyond hope of passing muster, and to what degree they are cared for. This includes the poor, the mentally ill, the handicapped, and the marginalized. The Gospels even remind us, “For ye have the poor with you always.” But the American Dream far too often sees them as an obstacle to our nation’s actualization.
As Christians, and American Christians in particular, we’ve got to understand that the evil in this world is not only in people, but in systems – of schools, and churches, and societies, and families.
Therefore, when Jesus saves a person’s soul, and even when he doesn’t, it is our systemic obligation to see His vision for them made plain on Earth as it is in heaven, in their lives, here and now.
In that sense, systemic change is not part of the mystical work of Christ in the individual, but the practical work of royal priesthood of which we are all a part, having been stirred to love and good works in Christ’s name on His behalf, “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12)
This is the call of Jesus Christ.
It starts with recognizing the Rashid and David are not obstacles to our nation’s actualization, but that the ways we love them may in fact be our path to it.
“The litmus test of our love for God is our love of neighbor.” ― Brennan Manning, The Wisdom of Tenderness
This post is part of a synchroblog with The Despised Ones, on the topic of Social Justice, Solidarity, & the American Dream.