Inflated Language and the Death Penalty

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When Felix Ortega crashed into Tad and Leigh Anna’s car and killed them, he and the police officer who was pursuing him in a high speed chase took my life, too.

I never believed Ortega committed murder, though. There was no intention to kill them. He didn’t go after them. He killed them. That was enough. That was bad enough. Yet, the prosecutors charged him with two counts of murder. I thought vehicular homicide would have been an accurate charge. Or manslaughter.

Because he was undocumented and, I suppose, because it was a high profile case involving appealing teenage sweethearts, there were those in Huntsville who wanted to drag him from the jail and murder him in return.

I don’t know much about the law in Alabama, but I do know this is a death penalty state. We have the highest per capital death penalty rate in the US, outranking even Texas. And, until this year, a judge could impose a death penalty when a jury suggested life imprisonment in its verdict.

As it happened, in a plea bargain Ortega exchanged a jury trial for a bench decision. He received 15 years which I thought was sufficient.

What I would have liked to see was less emphasis on inflating the language, the charges, and the responses and more emphasis on the high-speed police chase which contributed in no small way to Tad’s and Leigh Anna’s deaths and the interruption of Ortega’s life.

But few were interested in that. An in-house investigation, during which the officer said the magic words, “I backed off”, culminated in his receiving not so much as a reprimand if what I’ve been told is accurate.

It doesn’t matter to me that at the last second he “backed off” when he had spent many minutes pursuing Ortega who had been headed out of town. Being pursued, Ortega made the fateful decision to try to elude the officer and, instead of heading out of town, made a left turn onto one of the busiest arteries in Huntsville and toward the highly congested intersection where the light had just turned red.

During sentencing, the District Attorney, as has become customary walked us and Tad’s family into the courtroom as a unit in a visual announcement to the judge that what we had undergone was a worthy of the maximum sentence. Ortega was there in shackles. But the officer was nowhere to be seen.

After sentencing Ortega apologized to the families. Privately, he apologized to Leigh Anna’s father and me. He expressed profound remorse.

We never heard a word from the police officer or the police department. Not the night of the accident, not any time since.

Inflated language, inflated charges, inflated responses. There seems to be a sense that inflation somehow says what happened was horrific. Or somehow that we care.

But they seem to carry with them their inverse—no language, no charge, no response at all.

Reviews of The Second Cooler

The Second Cooler Main Graphic, Kilpatrick

Excerpts 

“Connects the dots between immigration and trade policy. Highly recommended.”
State Senator Chip Shields (D-Portland, Ore.)

“Blew me away.” Jose Perez, DREAMER

“Goes where few other films go–no filters presented, required, or encouraged.”            Victor Palafox, DREAMER

“After I watched The Second Cooler, I could barely move. Profound.”
Rev. Dr. Alice Hunt, President, Chicago Theological Seminary

“Transforms those who watch it.”
Rev. Delle McCormick
Former Executive Director, BorderLinks, USA

“Strong in giving voice to those who might otherwise be voiceless.”
David Person
Member, Board of Contributors, USA Today

“Nothing short of magnificent!”
Dr. J. David Gillespie
Author, “Challengers to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two Party Politics”

“We all need to shout about this film! It is prophetic and can change lives and systems.”
Rev. Howard Williams
Weatherly Heights Baptist Church

“Tackles the issue head on.”
Eric Lee
LabourStart.org

“Hard to dismiss or forget.”
J. Wayne Flynt
Co-Founder, Alabama Poverty Project and Sowing Seeds of Hope

“Riveting!”
Kay Campbell, The Huntsville Times

“Compelling!”
Paula Clayton Dempsey
The Alliance of Baptists

About The Second Cooler

The Second Cooler Main Graphic, Kilpatrick

The Second Cooler. Directed by Ellin Jimmerson. Narrated by Martin Sheen.

12 million migrants are in the US illegally? Why? Who benefits?

The Second Cooler is a documentary about illegal migration shot primarily in Alabama, Arizona, and in northern and central Mexico. The premise is that Arizona is the new Alabama—the epicenter of an intense struggle for migrant justice. The documentary’s purpose is to bring basic migration issues into focus. Those issues include the impact of free trade agreements on migration, the lack of a legal way for poor Latin Americans to come to the United States, the inherent abuses of the guest worker program, the fact that many migrants are indigenous people, anti-immigrant politics in Alabama, the thousands of migrant deaths at the border, and an escalating ideology of the border.

Awards

Best Feature Documentary, Peace on Earth Film Festival, Chicago, 2013

Film4 Change Award, AMFM Festival of Art, Music, and Film, Palm Springs, California, 2013

Humanitarian Award for Ellin Jimmerson, AMFM Festival, 2013

Film Heals Award, Manhattan Film Festival, New York City, 2013

Official Selection, Arizona International Film Festival, Tucson, 2013

Official Selection, Boston Latino International Film Festival, Boston, 2013

Official Selection, Red Rock Film Festival, Hurricane, Utah, 2013

Official Selection, Dominican Republic Global Film Festival, Santo Domingo, 2013

Official Selection, Impugning Impunity: ALBA Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, New York City, 2014

 

 

Lot’s Wife

This article by guest contributor, Seff R. Davis, originally appeared in a different version in Impact Magazine, September 27, 2017.

Summary: How is the smiting of Lot’s wife compatible with a God of love? One possibility is that the story works as an allegory for all people trapped between the life they know and the fuller life God intends for them. Through an interpretation of Hawksley Workman’s song “Safe and Sound” and the personal experience of her mother’s death from early-onset dementia,  Seff R. Davis considers that perhaps Lot’s wife was mercifully protected from her suffering until such a time that she’s ready to move on to the better place God has promised. 

 

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Lot and daughters escape the destruction of Sodom. Mosaic at Monreal Cathedral.

The character of Lot’s Wife has always been a difficult one to reconcile with a God of love. Why does God smite this woman for looking back on the burning city that was her home? Can such a story reveal anything loving about God?

According to Jewish tradition, Lot’s Wife, who is given the name Edith, was watching for her daughters, who were married to Sodomite men.  If God smote her for disobeying God’s command, God seems like a monster, killing a mother for worrying about her daughters’ lives or mourning their deaths. Could God really smite her merely for being sad to see her city die? Don’t we all love people who aren’t righteous, and doesn’t Jesus?

One way to avoid that interpretation is the possibility that she’s punished for being like Jonah, hoping to catch a glimpse of vengeance, thinking, “I want to watch those rapists burn!” This seems in keeping with the Jewish commentary remembered in the Passover service that says that when the angels cheered the Red Sea falling in on the pursuing Egyptians, God said, “How can you cheer when my children are drowning?” But unlike Jonah and the angels, who are merely reprimanded for their blood-thirsty thoughts, smiting her for wanting vengeance while raining fire and sulfur on others makes God not only monstrous but hypocritical.

Another possibility is that maybe this is just God in a weak moment. God is doing dirty work and is embarrassed to have it witnessed and acts out of that shame. How much murder is done because we can’t stand there to be a witness to our sins, in a paradoxical attempt to murder the murderer in ourselves reflected in our victim’s eyes? But that reading doesn’t make the story any better, does it?

In the essay “The Outskirts of Sodom” in Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christians’ Biblical Memoirs,  Tyler Heston offers a much more appealing alternative, with Lot’s Wife being an allegory that applies to queer Christians, “frozen at the intersection of two supposed conflicting realities– sexual orientation and faith.” I’d like to see the church that did not accept him for his sexuality respond to seeing themselves recast in the role of Sodom! Quoting Jeanette Winterston’s novel Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, he says, “Pillars hold things up and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing yourself.”  Lot’s wife then need not be seen as a horrible person, and neither is God. She is merely not ready to accept the blessing of a new life in a new, less violent place, and God is unable or unwilling to force her into that choice.

There’s a song that Hawksley Workman sings, written by Matthew Ryan Corrigan, that offers a related alternative. In “Safe and Sound”, a couple drives into the night, the voice of the song the driver, “you” the passenger, who sometimes trusts the driver to get to the destination but sometimes consults a map. “You slept through the last small town… your eyes are closed like you truly believe you’re safe and sound with me.” Later, ‘you’ wake and cry and we’re given the first hint that though the song works if it’s about two lovers or a parent and an older child, an allusion to the story of Lot’s wife hints that it could also be God speaking to a human: “No turning back, no turning into salt. Behind us the city was crumbling but baby, we’re not to fault” and we are reminded yet again, “you’re safe and sound with me, just like you always will be.” And yet, despite these assurances, “You read the map like you’re reading poetry. And it might just take you forever to believe you’re safe and sound with me.”

God tells her not to look back because it’s not her fault: maybe Lot’s wife was looking back out of guilt and was trapped by it, unable to move on. What if Lot had done a little better in the bargaining with God? What if she had been able to convince her daughters and sons-in-law? Even in cases when it’s very clear a person isn’t at fault, like a natural disaster, survivor’s guilt can be agonizing and keep a person from enjoying the blessing of a new life after the event that killed others.

Instead of smiting as they escape Sodom, God is incredibly gentle with your traumatized state: “my shirt sleeve dries your eyes”. The escape is the fulfilment of a promise of care, as God says, “When things got too rough, I promised you we’d leave.”

That line was on my mind when my mother was dying. Her brain was bleeding uncontrollably and that caused a terrible seizure as parts of her brain rapidly died. She was in terrible pain but unable to speak and I asked for more pain-killers. I knew that the amount of pain-killers needed to take away that much pain would mean she’d probably never wake again, never look at me and say, “Sweetheart” again, or even squeeze my hand and know I was with her, but I wanted her to be comfortable even more than I wanted her to be able to comfort me. “When things got too rough, I promised you we’d leave.” This is a mercy God gives all of us, a knowledge that when life becomes truly intolerable, we leave it, and my dearest hope is that it’s for a better place.

Out of love, I asked for my mom to be taken out of the agony she was in. Maybe instead of being punished, being turned into a pillar of salt was an act of mercy— “pillars hold things up and salt keeps things clean”, and a pillar can feel no pain. Maybe Lot’s wife was sort of cryogenically preserved— flash frozen to await a brighter future.

There’s no judgement in this song for not trusting that you’re safe and sound, no annoyance at your need to consult a map, just a gentle acceptance that “it might just take you forever to believe you’re safe and sound with me.” And Christian hope is we do have forever to finally believe. Christian hope is having faith that the Bible has it right when God says that in the fullness of time, everyone will “Turn to me and be saved, Every knee will bow to me, every tongue will swear allegiance” (Isaiah 45: 22,23) and every soul will be ready to be welcomed by God at the better place. I hope that even if it takes forever, Lot’s wife, that all of us, will move on to the better place God has promised, and that the daughters she has waited so long for will finally run into her arms and together, they will walk on to the better place God has promised.

Seff R. Davis is genderqueer. She teaches high school students with developmental disabilities. Her article, “The God Who Said: ‘My Bad'” was included in Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christians’ Biblical Memoirs (Wipf and Stock, 2017). She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy and a Master of Arts in English from McMaster University, a Bachelor of Education from York University, and studied theology at Emmanuel College of the University of Toronto. She is passionate about disability rights, opera, and the novels of Marilynne Robinson. She lives with her partner, one-year-old daughter, and a retired racing greyhound named Lady Gaga in Toronto, Canada. Please contact her @SRLimDavis.

Dear President Obama, Turn The Grief-Bearing Ship Around

The Wall, Sasabe, fence and barrier

 

In a different form, this article originally appeared in the Mobile Press Register, 2011. Altered, it appeared in Patheos.com, August 29, 2014.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2014/08/an-open-letter-to-president-obama-and-members-of-the-united-state-congress-turn-the-grief-bearing-ship-around/

Dear President Obama and Members of Congress,

I am a Baptist Minister to the Community. My ministry focuses on the production of a migrant justice documentary, narrated by Martin Sheen, called The Second Cooler. I first felt called to make the documentary because I was heartbroken for the families, especially the mothers, whose children died under the blazing Arizona sun as they were trying to cross the heavily militarized border into the United States.

Through a terrible twist of fate, I joined them in grief.

On the night of April 17, 2009, my sixteen year old daughter, Leigh Anna, and her precious boyfriend were killed by a drunk driver in Huntsville. The car exploded on impact and Leigh Anna’s tiny body was consumed by flames. The driver was an undocumented migrant from Mexico.

My family and I lost a lot that night. A daughter, an only sister, a granddaughter, the son-in-law we might have had, grandchildren, an aunt, cousins. And on that fiery night we became one of the broken families with broken hearts and broken dreams.

One of my favorite memories of Leigh Anna was the day, about two years before her death, when she went with me to Athens. The Ku Klux Klan was holding an anti-immigrant protest. We went to participate in a counter-protest. I remember her holding a neon-yellow sign, as big as she was, that had one word written on it in big, black letters: LOVE.

I have my memories, but I grieve and I grieve and I grieve.

There is nothing special about my grief. It is no different from that of the young mother in Huntsville whose infant was suffocated by an anxious coyote in that treacherous southwestern desert. Or the grandparents of other children who have died of the brutal cold there, alone and scared. Or of the children whose fathers have been snatched from them and put into deportation. Or the mothers now making plans for someone else to take their children if they should be deported.

And I am reminded of Mary, prostrate with grief at the foot of her crucified son.

I am reminded that recklessness does not belong only to drunk drivers. Or to police officers engaged in high-speed chases.

Recklessness also belongs to the powers, princes, and potentates who wash their hands of the grieving people they accept as the collateral damage of their policies and programs. Who wash their hands of the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams.

And as I think long thoughts about Leigh Anna and that reckless night, I recall that I worship the God who said, “No!” to Pharaoh and his recklessness. The God who said, “No!” to Nebuchadnezzar and his recklessness. The God who said “No!” to Caesar and his recklessness.

I worship the God of the Exodus, the God of protection for those in fiery furnaces, the God of Resurrection. The God who takes sides with the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams. The God who defies expectations and delights in dramatic reversals.

I remember Saul on the road to Damascus who heard a voice saying, Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” And he encountered himself in that profound moment and Saul became Paul, announcing the reality of the God who had effected the dramatic reversal, the dramatic “No!” to Caesar, the dramatic Resurrection.

And I recall John Newton, steering his deadly ship filled with desperate, grieving human beings bound for slavery. And that in an unexpected moment John Newton encountered himself on that alien sea, encountered his own recklessness, turned around his ship with its cargo of broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams unsold, and wrote those endlessly beautiful words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

President Obama and members of the United States Congress, in the days and weeks ahead, the political talk and strategizing about “comprehensive immigration reform” will resume. In its guise as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, “reform” is a deadly ship, a ship filled with nothing but more broken families, more broken hearts, and more broken dreams.

But I believe you already know this. In your efforts to further militarize our southwestern border with this package, carelessly disregarding the more migrants who are sure to lose their lives there, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to extend the system of indentured servitude duplicitously called the Guest Worker Program, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to push all undocumented people into the deportation system under the guise of a “path to citizenship”, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives.

I am asking you to encounter yourselves as did Paul and John Newton and turn this deadly grief-bearing ship around. I am asking you to reject political calculating with other people’s lives and begin working for justice.

 

Selma: Does Ava DuVernay Tell Truth to Power?

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This article originally appeared in the Raven Review, February 5, 2015.

There is much to like about Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma. It is a long overdue movie about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is undeniably powerful, exceedingly well acted, and gorgeously shot. As a ticket buyer, I liked it very much.

Selma, however, is being hailed as a movie which tells truth to Power. My question is whether it succeeds in that respect.

This is important to consider. Princes and potentates are not the only locations of Power – audiences are, too. The audience for Selma will to some extent determine how America’s future plays out.
In an interview with Tavis Smiley, DuVernay revealed she does not like historical dramas. That comes through. Her portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson is careless, as Bill Moyers and others have said, presenting LBJ as both condescending to MLK and wanting to “go slow” on voting rights. DuVernay dismisses complaints in “Rolling Stone” saying she “wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie”.

The year prior to Selma, LBJ had capitalized quickly on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to push through a stalled Civil Rights Act. When challenged to go slow, he shot back, “Well, what the hell’s the Presidency for?” After Selma, he announced before television cameras that he intended to enact a Voting Rights bill. Invoking the Movement’s anthem, he leaned in emphatically and said, “we SHALL overcome!” It was electrifying. With that well-understood reference, Johnson had announced not only that he intended to achieve voting rights, but that he intended to dismantle the South’s entire caste system. That scene in Selma, which should have been riveting, is flat. Watching it, I was baffled as to DuVernay’s intention.

Accurately conveying who LBJ was does not imply making him into a white savior. Had she wanted to create a story centering on LBJ and MLK about failed v. successful moral authority, DuVernay could have shifted the focus of the movie to Vietnam. It was in Southeast Asia that LBJ constructed his moral downfall. It was there where MLK emerged as America’s full-blown prophetic voice. But DuVernay chose Selma and it was not in Selma that LBJ faltered. DuVernay opened wide the door to LBJ. She had an obligation to tell truth to the Power that is her audience about him.

I grew up in Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama, two places which in the movie provide back drops to Selma. My parents were civil rights activists there. In the movie, Mrs. King is shown listening to an anonymous phone caller threatening the lives of her children. My mother, too, received those calls. I can imagine that Johnson, the most famous “race traitor” of the day, was well aware that hidden racist crackpots might have them in the crosshairs of their well-oiled rifles. Yet, he and his family, as did my and other families, persisted in plain view of those hidden crackpots. Does she tell truth about Southern whites who were allies in the struggle, often at palpable social and personal risk, to the Power that is her audience? In my opinion she does not.

When JFK was assassinated, his brains blown out over his wife’s exquisite pink suit, the children in my 7th grade classroom erupted in foot-stomping cheers: “the nigger-lover is dead!!” The day after MLK was assassinated, a neighbor in “Bombingham”, where we lived then, joked to my father: “Did you hear they got the man who killed King? Got him for shootin’ coon out of season!!”.

These things happened in Selma, too, but we don’t see them in the movie. The wide, wretched sociopathy that turns otherwise decent people into momentary degenerates who delight in murder does not come through. DuVernay does not successfully convey the long unbending stretch of injustice which humiliated so many thousands at the hands of these momentary degenerates and that made a battle on the Edmund Pettus Bridge all but inevitable. She does not convey this truth about the era to the Power that is her audience.

DuVernay told Jon Stewart that she had wanted to “deconstruct’ and humanize King. She took the easiest route – exposing his infidelities. Infidelities which are none of our business. Using characters and issues she introduced, there were other ways to go.

Emphasizing King’s failure in Albany would have been one. King bailed out of Albany’s jail after two days. Having entered Albany bearing the derogatory sobriquet “De Lawd” for never having participated in a Freedom Ride, he lost stature among Movement people there. More intriguing is the reason why King and the Movement failed there: Albany’s Sheriff Laurie Pritchett out-Gandhied King. The story of King being schooled in the tactics of non-violence by a small town racist Southern sheriff could have humanized him indeed.

DuVernay could have edited out Coretta King who serves primarily to convey King’s infidelities. In the remaining female-less space DuVernay could have emphasized Diane Nash, Viola Liuzzo, or Nina Simone, all of whom received a nod in the movie.

Simone, for example, in “Mississippi Goddam” caustically sang about being told over and over to “go slow.” DuVernay could have humanized King by depicting him as the Movement’s Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth saw him: as a “go slow” man. DuVernay may have succeeded in humanizing King by exposing his infidelities, but she failed in telling truth to the Power that is her audience about King’s sometimes uneasy place within the Movement itself.

I want to emphasize that I liked Selma very much. I hope everyone will go to see it. I also hope that those who think it has achieved greatness in terms of telling truth to Power will reflect upon the issues I and others have raised.

Ellin Jimmerson

Rev. Ellin Jimmerson has a Ph.D. in 20th Century US cultural and intellectual history. She is the director of a migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen.

 

Peterson Toscano

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“Falling for Ebed Melech”

Text: “Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. The king happened to be sitting at the Benjamin Gate, So Ebed-melech left the king’s house and spoke to the king,“My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take three men with you from here, and pull the prophet Jeremiah up from the cistern before he dies.”— Jeremiah 38:7-10

Excerpt: “When I finally came to my senses and came out gay, I refused to toss out the Baby Jesus and the Bible with the anti-LGBTQ bathwater. I began to discover Bible characters routinely left out of the abridged versions of Bible stories preached from the pulpit. It was through this creative dialogue with the Bible that I fell hard for eunuchs.”

Bio Peterson Toscano uses storytelling to promote justice and equality. Through original performance lectures, Peterson opens up discussions about lgbtq issues, privilege, the Bible, justice, and climate change. He created the performance lecture Transfigurations—Transgressing Gender in the Bible, which unearths gender non-conforming Bible characters. His personal essays about his experiences with conversion therapy have appeared in the Gay and Lesbian Review, Liturgy Magazine, and Huffington Post. He contributed to the Lambda Award winning anthology, Gender Outlaws—The Next Generation. Together with artist Joey Hartman-Dow, he has created the illustrated story, The Amazing Adventures of the Afterbirth of Jesus. A self-described Quirky, Queer Quaker, Peterson speaks at universities, conferences, and in the media. As the host of Citizens’ Climate Radio and the curator of ClimateStew.com, he draws on storytelling and comedy to present climate change as a human rights issues. His climate change presentations reveal the interconnectedness of power, privilege, justice, polar bears, and coffee beans. These include his performance lectures, Everything is Connected—An evening of stories, most weird, many true and Climate Change—What’s Faith Got to Do, Got to Do with It? He lives in Central Pennsylvania with his partner, Glen Retief. www.petersontoscano.com

Invitation to a dying Church to free itself. John Dorhauer

“An entire reformation was birthed when the Bible was given to the common worshiper. It’s amazing what the Spirit will do when she is not withheld from those who need her most. In Rainbow in the Word, Ellin Jimmerson invites a dying Church to free itself from the constraints of its long-held homophobia and exposes it to the biblical insights of today’s most marginalized voices. New life will emerge on the other side of this.” — JohnCDorhauer, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ.

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Highly recommended! Brian D. McLaren

“In the debate about the place of LGBTQ persons in Christian churches, often only the voices of straight, white theologians are heard. Rainbow in the Word introduces us to the beautiful voices of LGBTQ persons themselves, people who, against all odds, have kept the faith and who can speak for themselves. No conversation about these courageous and articulate Christians should take place without their own voices being heard. Highly recommended!” — Brian D. McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration

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Our sexual identity is not a liability. Jamie Arpin-Ricci

“When so many conversations around LGBTQ people in the church centers around debating our legitimacy, Rainbow in the Word reminds us that our sexual identity is not a liability to be defended but an essential contribution to the Church’s understanding of Scripture and of God. This unique book invites us into richer hues and brighter colors as we encounter the Creator whose divine image is reflected in us all.” — Jamie Arpin-Ricci, author of The Cost of Community

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