Saturday, October 22, 2016

Turn upside-down world right side up

Everything is turned around. Two-thirds of Americans think our country is upside down. The result of the current presidential election won’t change that.

Election Day will come and go. The winner will be inaugurated although despised by a majority. Voters will continue relying on the post-factual views of their cable TV network of choice, leading to faulty public policies and continued deadlock on matters critical to the republic. You and I have to think deeper.

I am one of those who believe this country is upside down. What would right the ship? My list starts at home.

Wyoming would be “The Equality State.” The legislature would enact hate crimes and anti-discrimination legislation and end the gender wage gap. Political, religious, business, and other community leaders would demand a Cowboy-culture where burning a Quran is as unacceptable as refusing to stand for the singing of Cowboy Joe at War Memorial Stadium.

Talk about upside down, the Equality State is the only state refusing to sign a refugee resettlement agreement, alone among a “basket of deplorables” like Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas. A “right-side up” Wyoming would welcome immigrants.

UW’s athletic program would return the millions of dollars received from the legislature last year, saying, “If we’d known that to give us this money, you’d have to cut programs for the disabled, elderly, and poor, we wouldn’t have asked for it in the first place.

Wyoming would make a serious commitment to public health. Tobacco taxes would be increased because it’s those taxes, which result in higher priced cigarettes, not parental lectures that prevent kids from starting to smoke.

Instead of one more bucking horse sculpture, monuments would be built honoring progressive icons like Mariko Miller, a courageous advocate for civil rights who was among the first to warn the country about Vietnam. There’d be statues of people like Keith Henning and Paul Johnson whose strong voices led the Wyoming workers’ movement in the middle of the last century.

In a country headed down a better path Barack Obama could run for a third term, Edward Snowden would be pardoned and traveling the country warning about threats to privacy. Bankers causing the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis would be tried in the courtroom next door to the one in which Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were being tried for war crimes.

People would stop reading the Bible literally and start taking it seriously. They’d quit worrying about other who others love. Americans would remember they learned to speak truth to power when they evolved from hating to admiring Muhammad Ali and apply those lessons to Colin Kaepernik. Isaiah would get his wish. Swords would be beaten into plowshares.

John Lennon’s “Imagine,” would be sung during the seventh-inning stretch at baseball games where there’d be no designated-hitter rule and record books would have an asterisk behind Barry Bonds’ name because he really didn’t break Hank Aaron’s home run record.

The U.S. would join the rest of the world adopting single-payer health insurance, there’d be a Palestinian state, the U.S. House and Senate would become democratic enough to actually allow the majority to rule, and gun owners would realize the NRA has been lying. Nobody is coming to take our guns.

Wyomingites would update stereotypes about the poor, admitting people are not poor because they are lazy, but because the rigged economy profits from poverty. Medicaid and food stamps are subsidies to employers who won’t pay livable wages. We’d admit that, adjusted to today’s dollar, minimum wages are lower now than those Pharaoh paid the Hebrews before Moses led them out of slavery.

People voting for Donald Trump because he might nominate Supreme Court justices would remember that while those appointments might occupy a few days of his administration, he’d be President for four long years.

My list is longer but there’s a word limit. Let’s all just work to change what we can, accept what we can’t, and humble ourselves enough to recognize the difference. Then the world will right itself.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Parable of Andrew Johnson

Sunday's sermon at Highlands

“The Parable of Andrew Johnson”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2016

Luke 18:1-8      Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Did you know that 1 of every 4 people behind prison bars everywhere in the world…one of four are in US prisons? Since 1972, America’s prison population has gone from a couple of hundred thousand to more than a couple of million? That’s why an ancient scriptural story about an unjust justice system matters to us today.

The 18th chapter of Luke is a story about un-respected, vulnerable, marginalized people who can’t get justice. They are represented here by a widow who is ignored by the system but one whose relentlessness becomes so bothersome to an unjust judge that she finally gets the justice she demands. Injustice meets bothersome and bothersome triumphs.

Let me tell you why this story matters here and now. It begins this way. In Cheyenne there was a man who was convicted of raping a woman he didn’t rape. But she said he did. Then the police said he did. Then the prosecutor said he did, and alas, the jury said he did.

It was 1989. DNA was not yet routinely available to defense lawyers although it had been known since 1953 that no two people other than identical twins shared the same DNA markers. It wasn’t until 2008, after Andrew Johnson had already spent 19 years in prison, that Wyoming finally passed a law providing that a convicted person could use the results of a DNA test as grounds for a new trial.
With a DNA test proving his innocence, it was still another five long years that Andrew sat in a prison cell before a judge ordered him released.

TWENTY-FOUR years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. From 1989 until 2013. What were you doing during those 24 years? Coincidentally, last week my grandson Finn pulled his aunt Meghan’s baptism Bible from the bookshelf. I opened it and found she had been baptized the same year Andrew went to prison. It gave me some context for the injustice. While Meghan was growing up, playing with friends, attending church camps and finishing school, going to college, learning about computers and technology, getting married and having children, Andrew sat alone in that small prison cell.

Andrew’s parable has no unjust judges. His judges rendered justice under the laws of the time and it was a just judge who looked at the DNA evidence and, over the objections of a prosecutor, ordered Andrew set free. The just judge titled his order “Order of Absolute Innocence.”
But there were unjust officials in Andrew’s story and let me tell you, the injustice got even worse after he was released. Imagine reentering the workforce after the changes wrought by a quarter of a century spent confined. You come back because you’ve been found innocent in the eyes of the law but not in the eyes of the community. A LA Times reporter told Andrew’s story this way.

Johnson had planned to move in with his mother when he got out of prison, but she died a few days before he was freed. Johnson joined his younger sister, who is disabled by multiple sclerosis and living in state-subsidized housing. The siblings split $250 a month in food stamps.

Donors moved by Johnson's plight gave him a white 1997 Camry. But one morning he discovered his tires slashed and words scrawled on the windshield in black marker: "Walk rapist." New tires cost Johnson $272.34, draining his savings. He had $1.36 in change rattling in the pocket of his donated winter coat. So that fall, Johnson trudged to the local unemployment office, broke and desperate. "You just put your work history in right here," an employee explained, pointing to a computer screen. "I just got out after 24 years," he told the employee. "I got exonerated, and I don't get any money."  

Jesus’s parable speaks of an unjust judge. Our parable speaks to an unjust system. Remember how I said that Jesus’ parable is about a widow, a metaphor for all un-respected people, a widow whose relentlessness becomes so bothersome that she finally ends up receiving the justice she demands. Our parable is likewise about un-respected people who are represented by one wrongfully convicted man and about our faithfulness manifest in our relentlessness becoming so bothersome to an unjust system that Andrew and others like him will finally end up receiving the justice they deserve and we demand.
There are people in our unjust system standing in the way of justice. Because of the injustice among some of our legislators, Wyoming is among a minority of states refusing to compensate the wrongfully convicted for the loss of the years of their lives.

But we aren’t going to allow that injustice stand. The people of Highlands are going to proclaim the Sage Brush Gospel version of the parable of the unjust judge so that it reads like this:

Then Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always, speak the truth to those with the power, and not to lose heart. He said, “In Wyoming there were legislators who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a man, wrongfully convicted, who kept coming to those legislators and saying, ‘Grant me justice.’

The unjust legislators refused; but later after the Jesus followers cried out for justice, they said to themselves, ‘Though we have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this man and those who advocate for justice keep bothering us, we must grant justice, so that they may not wear us out by continually coming.”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust say. And will not
God grant justice to his chosen ones and their advocates who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.

And when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus will find faith enough among the people of Highlands that God will move the unjust to do justice. In the coming session of the legislature, a bill will be introduced to compensate those like Andrew who are wrongfully convicted, to make right the unjust interruption of their lives.

The emphasis in the parable from Luke and our version is the same. It is on justice and how God figures into the confrontation between the vulnerable justice-seeker and the unjust power-holder. The powerful and just God takes the place of the unjust in the end, granting justice to our vulnerable brothers and sisters and those who care about them who cry out for justice day and night.

During the coming days, candidates for the legislature will knock on your doors asking for your vote. On October 25th Highlands will host a candidate forum on social justice. Take the opportunity to demand they give justice to Andrew Johnson and others like him. Call your legislator, write letters, start petitions. Become as bothersome as the widow Jesus told us about.

Frederick Douglas knew something about injustice and how to overcome it. “Power,” he said, “concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Jesus said much the same. “Will not God grant justice to those who cry to him day and night? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.”

Let us make certain he will find faith on that little part of the earth that we walked during our time here. AMEN

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Voting for labels or qualifications?

Buzzwords and party labels are mere political slogans, which Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen called “empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea.”

That statement protests the fact that too many people see their vote as little but an empty suit as they forfeit it in favor of some ill-conceived loyalty to their political party.

Let’s face it, in Wyoming most legislative districts winners are determined by whether the candidate is a Republican. People don’t choose the best-qualified candidate. They vote a party.

A second empty suit is buzzwords. If a candidate affixes labels such as “liberal” to an opponent, otherwise good candidates lose.

Imagine an election where voters take more responsibility for doing the right thing. Let’s pretend party labels don’t matter and that voters are willing to look behind the buzzwords. How then would that voter make a choice?

Take House District 8, the “bad, bad Leroy Brown district.” I call it that because, after all the Gerrymandering, it looks like Jim Croce’s lyrical character Leroy Brown after his barroom whooping, that is “like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone.”

Republican Bob Nicholas is the incumbent. He’s served since 2010. His challenger is Cheyenne attorney Linda Burt, a public servant for over twenty years, working as an advocate for Constitutional protections including privacy and freedom of speech, and criminal justice reform. She was executive director of Community Action of Laramie County, Wyoming Legal Services, and the ACLU. Unfortunately, if voters decide only on the basis of party label or buzzwords like “ACLU,” Mr. Nicholas will be reelected when maybe that’s not the best result.

Let’s add some facts. As member of the Appropriations Committee, Mr. Nicholas voted to deprive working families with healthcare by thwarting Medicaid expansion. He voted to curtail or eliminate programs providing critical support to the disabled, the elderly, and the poor.

In 2014, Representative Nicholas single-handedly killed a bill compensating those who’ve been wrongfully imprisoned. Mr. Nicholas’s conduct spurred me to write a column in 2014, which was admittedly too vitriolic. I later apologized for the harshness of my words. That apology doesn’t change the facts.

Andrew Johnson of Cheyenne spent 23 years in prison for a rape that DNA evidence later proved he didn’t commit. In February 2013, Johnson became the first wrongfully convicted person to benefit from a Wyoming law guaranteeing post-conviction DNA testing for some inmates. A judge scrutinized the DNA evidence and then released Mr. Johnson under an “Order of Absolute Innocence.”

The Judiciary Committee tried to make that right. Legislation was proposed to compensate wrongfully convicted citizens. The bill was defeated when a conference committee couldn’t agree with Mr. Nicholas’s eleventh-hour amendment shifting the burden of proof from the state to the accused.

Mr. Nicholas strategically offered his amendment when there was no further opportunity for testimony or hearings, arguing vehemently, according to news reports, that the DNA tests didn’t prove Johnson’s innocence.

Most conservatives believe someone imprisoned for a crime the evidence and a judge say he didn’t commit deserves compensation. The HD8 Republican incumbent made sure he wasn’t. So Andrew Johnson struggles as a part time janitor, rebuilding a life interrupted by nearly a quarter century wrongfully imprisoned.

Isn’t the defense of personal liberties a value Republicans support? Yeah, but there are those labels: “Democrat” and “ACLU.”

There’s more to this race than party labels and buzzwords. Ms. Burt’s career was spent defending people like Mr. Johnson as well as low-income working families, the disabled, and elderly who lost critical help because of Mr. Nicholas’s votes? Those who defend freedom on battlefields are heroes. So are those who defend freedom in courtrooms and the halls of government.

Will HB8 voters look beyond the party labels and buzzwords? Will it matter only to voters that Mr. Nicholas is a Republican or will they contemplate what he did to Andrew Johnson and others? Will they see Linda Burt as a champion of people’s rights or as just another Democrat?