Out of the Zoo: “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”

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Anthony Ray Hinton

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on Anthony Ray Hinton‘s recent talk at Messiah College.  -JF

I love history, but sometimes the past makes me angry. Learning about Nazi concentration camps makes me angry. Images of chattel slavery, newspaper articles about lynching, and documentaries about Jim Crow all make me angry. No amount of historical exposure can prepare the human heart for the amount of sorrow, frustration, and rage that comes upon seeing images of slaves scarred by their masters, of innocent black men hanging from trees, or of Civil Rights protesters knocked down by fire hoses. Indeed, historians are no strangers to the fact that we live in a fallen world, broken by sin.

I came face to face with the fallen state of our world yet again last Thursday, when Anthony Ray Hinton delivered the keynote address of Messiah’s 2020 Humanities Symposium. Anthony Hinton explained that back in 1985, when two restaurant owners were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, he was wrongly accused—and wrongly convicted—for the crime. As a result, Hinton spent nearly thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit; those thirty years in a five-by-seven cell, Hinton explained, were nothing short of hell on earth. Now an ally of the Equal Justice Initiative and a New York Times bestselling author, Hinton travels around the world sharing his story at places like Messiah College. 

Hinton had every right to be angry about spending thirty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, over and over again Hinton reminded his audience that we can’t let our anger get in the way of our compassion. Guided by his faith in Jesus Christ, Hinton forgave his oppressors, prayed for God to send him his “best lawyer” to reveal the truth, and shared the gospel with others on death row. Hinton even showed the love of Christ to Henry Hays, who was in prison (and eventually executed) for lynching a young black man. “No matter what anyone does, they still deserve compassion,” Hinton said. Even from hearing him speak for just a couple hours, I could tell Hinton lives out this truth each and every day.

Hinton’s lecture made me realize that sometimes I let my anger get in the way of my compassion—in my study of the past and in my everyday life. I find myself condemning people for their crimes, for their injustice and their hatred; I criticize others’ wrongdoing, and all too often forget that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I forget that all people, guilty or innocent or wrongly convicted, are made in the image of God and invited to be in a relationship with him. I forget that Jesus died for everyone—not just the ones who have their lives together or sit in church every Sunday. Jesus died for liars, he died for murderers, and he died for slave owners. I think that we as historians, and as human beings, need to remind ourselves of this truth daily.

In the wake of injustice, we are to choose love instead of hate. We are to choose light instead of darkness. And then we must trust that the God of the universe will work all things out for our good. It’s okay to be angry about oppression, and to be saddened by sin. But we cannot let our anger get in the way of our compassion.

Heard Yesterday In My Evangelical Church:

From yesterday’s sermon:

I think its true in our church and I think its true in a lot of Christians that I encounter that don’t go to this church.  I’ve noticed more and more recently that we are relating to the world and the culture around us through the lens of fear.  We are operating more out of fear than out of trust in God.  We are afraid and there is no good result from engaging the world from a place of fear.  There is nothing positive that comes from engaging the world as an afraid person.  It causes us to trust in the wrong people and the wrong things to protect us.  I see it in us.  We are turning to the wrong saviors. We think our salvation lies somewhere where it does not.  [We are] grasping at power in our current cultural atmosphere and trying to maintain influence.  By the way, that’s not the way to get influence–to continue grasping at it desperately.  Fear always leads to anger.  The person who is afraid long enough will always turn angry.  Fear never leads to peace.  Fear never leads to joy.  It always leads to anger, usually anger at those who are not like you.  I see it.  As I was reading these chapters in Isaiah [13-20] this week I said to myself “this is important.” 

Hofstadter: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”

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With Freedom Rider Rip Patton in Nashville

Over at The New Republic, Jeet Heer reminds us that “America Has Always Been Angry and Violent.”  He offers this history lesson in the wake of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others in Alexandria, Virginia last week.

Here is a taste:

The notion that Americans are particularly angry today has become a rote talking point in the political press, repeated year after year. In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords was shot by a mentally ill man, NBC’s Mark Murray wrote, “If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger.” In 2007, George Will wrote in The Washington Post, “Americans are infatuated with anger.” In 1996, in her book The Angry American, George Washington University political scientist Susan Tolchin described an epidemic of “voter rage.”

But long before any of these writers, amid Barry Goldwater’s demogogic presidential campaign, the great historian Richard Hofstadter began his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” thus: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers… But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Hofstadter was exactly right—not only about the anger in the mid-’60s, but also that it was “far from new.” We are not, as Podhoretz and Pelosi suggest, living in a especially or uniquely dangerous moment. Incendiary political speech and political violence have been pervasive in U.S. history.

“What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast without our pretensions to singular national virtue,” Hofstadter wrote in the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, the 1972 collection he co-edited with Michael Wallace. It shouldn’t surprise us that a colonial settler society that wiped out the Native American population, imported slave labor, and relied on vigilante violence to police newly incorporated territories should be prone to political violence. Reading through Hofstadter and Wallace’s book, one is reminded anew that American history has consisted of slave revolts and their violent crushing, race riots, labor clashes, and assassinations.

Read the entire piece here.

I first read Heet’s piece while traveling throughout the South on a Civil Rights bus tour where we learned a great deal about Martin Luther King’s theory of non-violence from several veterans of the movement who tried to order their lives around this principle. During a conversation with Freedom Rider Rip Patton in the Nashville Public Library, one of the participants on our tour asked Patton how to introduce the principles of non-violence to the students she teaches.  This participant, obviously moved by what she had heard and seen all week, prefaced her remarks by saying that she was convinced that King’s philosophy of non-violence best represented the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I am not a pacifist, but I was also struck by the non-violent philosophy of the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights Movement. I often wrote about it in my daily posts.  As Rip Patton spoke that day he referenced several passages from the Bible.  One of those passages was Romans 12:2:  “And do not be conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  Rip said that this verse was one of several Bible passages that motivated him to join the movement as a college student.

Romans 12:2 is one of the most counter-cultural verses in the New Testament.  I got the sense that the verse had layered meanings for Rip.  First, the “world” was no doubt the world of white supremacy that he had lived through in segregated Nashville.  He would no longer allow himself to be “conformed” to this unjust world.  This required action on his part.

But I also think Rip would say that the “world” of Romans 12:2 was defined by violence and anger.  As a Christian he could not “conform” to this world.  He would pursue a course of counter-cultural transformation–a path that was good and acceptable and the perfect will of God.  This course was defined by non-violence.

Heet and Hofstadter are correct.  American history has always been characterized by violence.  But it seems that the God of the early Civil Rights movement was calling its participants to something higher.

As I wrote this post I also thought about Martha Nussbaum’s recent National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture on the limits of anger as a political and social emotion.  Here are some of my tweets from that lecture:

Nussbaum: The ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem. Just like modern democracies. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: Ancients raged a “cultural struggle” against anger, seeing it as destructive to democratic institutions. #jefflec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: We should resist anger in our political culture. This is not easy. Many feel anger is needed for justice. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: “Killing the killer does not restore the dead to life. Pain for pain is an easy idea, but it is a false lure. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: We go wrong when we permit retributive thoughts to convince us that inflicting pain in the present corrects the past. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: Hard to get our head around complicated truths. Easier to incinerate the witch. #JeffLec17 #humanities #anger

Nussbaum: Fear feeds payback. Obliterating wrong-doers makes us feel better. Even just wars decline into payback & bloodthirst. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: King gets busy turning retributive anger into work and and hope. #jefflec17 #humanities #mlk #anger

Nussbaum: Democracy must give up empty & destructive thought of payback. Move toward a future of regal justice & human well-being #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: Malcolm X was wrong to criticize King’s rejection of retribution. #Mlk #JeffLec17 #humanities #MLK

Nussbaum: Retributive desires are like the wild beasts in writings of Lucretiius. Anger is powerful, but always gets out of hand. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: History teaches that we always destroy ourselves when we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger. #JeffLec17#humanities

 

“Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame”

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A couple of weeks ago I posted my tweets from Martha Nussbaum‘s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.  I am happy to report that the transcript of the lecture is now available on the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Here is a taste of “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame:”

It might seem strange to compare King to Aeschylus, though it’s really not strange at all, given King’s vast learning in literature and philosophy. He’s basically saying the same thing: democracy must give up the empty and destructive thought of payback and move toward a future of legal justice and human well-being. King’s opponents portrayed his stance as weak. Malcolm X said sardonically that it was like coffee that has had so much milk poured into it that it has turned white and cold, and doesn’t even taste like coffee. But that was wrong. King’s stance is strong, not weak. He resists one of the most powerful of human impulses, the retributive impulse, for the sake of the future. One of the trickiest problems in politics is to persist in a determined search for solutions, without letting fear deflect us onto the track of anger’s errors. The idea that Aeschylus and King share is that democratic citizens should face with courage the problems and, yes, the outrageous injustices that we encounter in political and social life. Lashing out in anger and fear does not solve the problem; instead, it leads, as it did in both Athens and Rome, to a spiral of retributive violence.

Read the entire speech here.

 

Tweeting the 2017 NEH Jefferson Lecture

This morning I wrote a post on this lecture.

Martha Nussbaum’s Jefferson Lecture offered a stinging critique to those who believe democracy can flourish, or justice can be obtained, through retributive anger.

Here are some my tweets: