White privilege and justice: Rape sentences of the absurd


Those of us who despise the death penalty often take unpopular stances regarding the Christian themes of mercy and God's justice (as opposed to criminal justice or punishment of evil). To stand firmly against the state-authorized execution of an individual who has committed an act of gross evil, or betrayed his neighbors and their safety through acts of terror, ss to some a similarly treacherous act. Yet, many Christians stand firm in their opposition to to capital punishment, even when the state has proven the guilt of an individual and sanctioned the penalty as just. According to the Gospel of Jesus, the execution of Timothy McVeigh is as unjust as the gunning down of Trevon Martin or the ambush of police officers responding to a call for help.

One thing to be made clear before moving forward - the church is not called to forgive murder, treason, or terror; not when it occurs in the lives of others and our ethical point-of-view is peripheral at best. While the church is called to practice forgiveness, the fact of forgiveness is uniquely personal and loaded with emotional and mental dangers and consequences. Forgiveness can be refreshing to the soul, and necessary to being whole and unified with the Spirit of God. Forgiveness, however, cannot be something so simple as to follow the easily-stated righteousness of those only marginally affected by violence, defaulting to an unexamined path of failing to participate in the painful work of reconciliation.

So, it is not the church's business to forgive the murderer, but to witness to the path of reconciliation, making it possible for a victim to forgive when it is healthy to do so. We can not forgive our racist forbears any more than we can expect the descendants of slaves to forgive white folks for racism because the Bible calls for us to forgive. However, there is much to be said for perspective, especially when matters of conscience tend to conflict with popular opinion. Especially, I confess, when my own conscience will conflict with a popular opinion that tends to have justice in mind at every angle.

It is not my business, nor my intention, to call for the church, or the victim of Brock Turner, or the millions of individuals re-victimized by judge Aaron Persky's decision to publicly display the nature of how privilege works to the advantage of white males by sentencing a rapist who commited acts of gross evil in sight of witnesses; to forgive anyone involved. Not only have I no wish to forgive these two men, I have no legitimate authorization to offer forgiveness. I have no legitimate claim on pursing those victimized by these two men to engage in the process of forgiveness. I am not their therapist, pastor, or congregational partner, and, I am not representative of a higher morality. I am only representative of a sectarian ethic that has the uneasy call to question the matter of how we perceive justice, and how a prison sentence will somehow indicate that justice has been done in the face of white privilege.

While I can discuss the issues of forgiveness in the case of rape, judicial malady, or white privilege as a matter of my own wholeness, not the wholeness of others, I feel called to discuss the matter of Christ-centered justice and mercy. Please remember; justice and mercy do not excuse actions, legitimize evil or criminal behaviors, nor should these themes ever act against the interests of victims of violence or evil. Believe me when I say, that, in reading accounts of the rape committed by Turner, I believe that evil was present in this act. To suggest that Brock Turner somehow needs to receive the same penalty as poor whites, African Americans, Latino's, and other marginalized persons who commit acts of violence does not, in my mind or my reading of the Scripture, speak to the nature of justice or mercy.

Yet, how can this seemingly light-handed justice with concern for making a rapist whole not facilitate the repeated victimizing of the woman who's life was derailed? Such is the hard work of reconcilation and justice. My concern is with our calls for prison sentences for folks ranging from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to Hillary Clinton to Dick Cheney seem to make us feel that prison, indeed punishment, is the only option. The fact that behavior is indeed criminal, and that our response is to criminalize such behavior, does not insist that we must incarcerate persons for lengthy terms, because we already perceive that this creates gross injustice for persons of color and immigrant. The fact that we begin to put white boys in jail for long stays will suddenly make our penal system just or equitable. Victims will not be served best by this, nor will our culture.

For us to choose prison as the only just response to criminal behavior or the embodiment of evil entirely misses the point of mercy and justice. This claim has absolutely nothing to do with forgiveness. Prison reform, firm consequences that address privilege and not loss of dignity, and the designing of new ways of responding to criminal behavior, violence, and evil is the way of the cross, and the way of the Christian peace-maker. To recognize this is to bring to light the dehuminzation, racism, and classism that are inherent in the punishments meted out by the state to those without privilege. Justice is served mainly when victims regain dignity and self-determination. While incarceration may be an eye for an eye, and sometimes lead to a victims sense of safety, it hardly works to resolve greater social issues, and often leads to worse criminal behaviors once an incarcerated individual is transitioned back into the society.

Judges, rapist, racists, and other individuals and institutions who embody evil and perpetrate gross violence will not be changed by prison. Certainly, as I believe in my soul, we will not experience change either. I do not know if six months in jail is enough for this white boy or not. I know that a man of color would have received years to decades in prison, much of this due to lack of competent representation. The question peace-makers should ask is, what is a greater miscarriage of justice. That white boys get away with rape, or that we live in a culture of rape and the men in our lives still don't get it. It is not enough to tell the men in our lives that no means no. We must come to terms with male privilege and white privilege and erase it, at very least in the church. Undoubtedly, it seems easier to maintain male privilege, white privilege, and emotionally corrupted cultural norms by putting those who cross the line in jail. The church, however, need to do more. We need to go about the business of erasing privilege and working wholeheartedly with persons who have embodied evil in their actions against others to bring salvation to all involved – both victim and victimizer.

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