Thursday, February 3, 2011

Casting Stones! .... a study on the "war on drugs" and racism

They wanted to kill this woman.
They wanted to see her suffer.
They wanted to throw countless rocks at her.
They wanted to see this sinful woman die a horrible bloody death!
They wanted to be involved in this legalized murder, so they forced this helpless woman to stand before them in the middle of the temple courtyard!

They were accusers who also had ulterior motives.
They were a mob of ravenous righteous religious leaders.
They were considered the upright citizens of their day!
They were the dignified men who governed the day-to-day activities of first century Israel!
They were society’s daily watchers, condemners and judges.

These prestigious men purposely did this in front of Jesus. They had a hidden agenda. They wanted to test him. This woman had been caught in the very act of having an adulterous affair with a gentleman; by having sexual intercourse, the Mosaic Law taught this extremely harsh and deadly form of punishment! They devised a plan, laid out the script by trying to trap and condemn the crazy revolutionary 1st century rabbi who was always proclaiming a new Kingdom! They persistently sought his response! Finally Jesus stood and simply said, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her!"

One by one these scribes and Pharisees left the scene. Not a single stone was thrown. The older men left first until Jesus was left alone with just this poor ashamed, guilt-ridden and condemned lady. Overcome by uncontrollable fear and humiliation, she stands awaiting her fate, wondering what this unusual guy will say and do.

Jesus had been squatting and writing something in the sand, he stands up in the middle of the temple courtyard and looks at this lonely terrified lady and observes, "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?"

"No! No one Lord!"

"I do not condemn you, either. Go! From now on sin no more!"

She had encountered the liberating Jesus who sets captives free! As a result of His grace and mercy; she was able to freely walk away and given a fresh opportunity to remain in her newly liberated state.

The man she was caught in bed with did not stand condemned next to his lady-friend. The righteous fellows must have allowed him to roam freely! That man took advantage of his privileged position, and simply wandered away! When offered the opportunity to run, would we take that advantage and bolt? He had bypassed the whole justice system. Maybe, just maybe, he was from the same upper-class sect as the accusers. I don't know! Yet, there is one thing we do know; he was a man, so he had been granted amnesty from her hostile firing squad!

We can't overlook the injustice recorded in this biblical story: the religious, the rich, the powerful and the elite had tried to condemn someone who was weak, fragile and insignificant. They did this while the sins the more prestigious person was simply pushed under the rug and forgotten.

Adultery was an underground secretive crime in the days of Jesus, whereas today it openly runs rampant in western society. In 1st century Israel, the leaders could pick and choose whoever they wanted to punish and use them as examples or, in this case, to test! Today, no-one is stoned, given a lethal injection or even thrown in jail for cheating on their partner. In fact, the media has focused on and glamorized adultery. While the Law does it’s best to stay away from these affairs, there are still countless consequences. Adultery results in the couple and their children suffering a lot of inner turmoil and interpersonal conflict. The court of law is used to settle custody battles, file a divorce and monetary obligations. In this age of narcissistic sexual freedom the tragic result is a lot of interpersonal nastiness and slinging mud, yet I want to analyze a very different subject….

Sam was standing on his favorite corner, Wilson and Broadway, selling individual cigarettes at 50c each or 3 for a dollar. For an unknown reason the police roll up on him, they search him and find $550 cash, cartons of cigarettes and a few nickel bags of marijuana! They handcuff him and throw him in the back of their squad car, take his cash, cigarettes and charge him with “possession of and intent to sell a controlled substance”. With his money taken, Sam ends up having no money to bail himself out and has to sit in one of Cook County Jail's infamous cages for nearly 2 months. Sam's over 40, a first time offender and he is now on probation for the next 2 years!

The police, prosecutors, public defenders and the Judge all did what was right in accordance with the Law. Sam had committed a crime and had to pay the price for his iniquity! Possessing a few joints meant that Sam had committed a felony! Being homeless and unemployed, Sam had taken a risk by starting his own business by selling loose “squares” (cigarettes). Without a license, selling squares is illegal as a misdemeanor (like speeding, urinating in public or jumping the turnstiles), but being penniless and bored he took the risk. He had been doing well in saving and had set aside that money for future housing, but now it was gone. All his cash had been legally taken by the police. In the 1980's, when Reagan declared the "war on drugs", his administration set up many financial initiatives to help eradicate public enemy no.1! This was declared one of them; the Police were encouraged to use their legal rights and take any money found on a person possessing drugs and use it for their own precinct!

I see Sam nearly every day; he still rests upon the trash can on his favorite corner, but now he is scarred by this felony. This non-violent criminal offense will affect him for the rest of his life; that pocket full of baggies will now hinder all and any future housing and employment possibilities. Incarceration adds to their sense of hopelessness and is actually more likely to increase the possibility of prolonged addiction than help someone overcome it. He has been figuratively stoned by a group of powerful men and women who stood him before them and rendered a harsh, yet entirely legal, judgment!

What intrigues me, while also saddening me; is how easily we stone people like Sam, but we simply let others walk away free. We stone and condemn some, while justifying and glamorizing others!

One of my favorite musicians, James Hetfield from Metallica, publically admitted to years of heavy substance abuse in their documentary “Some kind of Monster”. He, like so many musicians and actors, have over indulged in a lot of hard-core drugs; using cocaine, crack, heroin, crystal meth, ecstasy and so forth for years and years. In the height of their addictions, coupled with the amount of money these celebrities have, they would logically be possessing (also giving away and selling) far more than Sam was holding that day the police decided to stop and search him. James doesn’t end up doing time in prison; he freely chooses to go to a financially exclusive rehabilitation center, giving himself the chance to overcome his life-altering addiction while creating an opportunity to reap the benefits that can result in long-term rehabilitation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the police don’t continually stop and frisk the likes of James Hetfield, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Snoop Dogg. I’m glad they are not serving extensive years behind bars for their announcements or public displays of being high. I’m glad James, Eric and many other celebrities have been to Rehab and turned their addicted lives around. I’m glad they sing and speak about their struggles to overcome and create avenues for other addicts to overcome. I’m truly glad for them. I just wish the people I work with would be given those same opportunities.

Let us not forgot, even President Obama recalled many times when he smoked marijuana and enjoyed the sensation of being high. Imagine if he had been stopped, frisked and taken away in cuffs on one of those days; Barack Obama would now have a felony on his record and it would be unlikely he could get gainful employment, much less become the president of the United States.

Ahmed made a mistake. Without a dime to his name, he chose to do a very foolish thing. He decided to hold some bags of marijuana for small-time, but well known, local gang-banging drug dealer. Ahmed was homeless, jobless and needed a few dollars, so he simply said “yeah, I’ll do it”. As he sat on the street with his girlfriend and a number of friends, the police rode up on him, picked him out of the crowd and found 15 dime bags on him. They obviously knew he possessed these drugs, so they cuffed him and shoved him in the back their squad car as the dealer continued to wander the streets of Uptown!

Ahmed’s foolish mistake cost him 4 years downstate in a penitentiary. He’d been in prison before, so that’s why you’ll still find sitting him in his lonesome cell now! 4 years for a foolish error. 4 years for $150 worth of marijuana. 4 years for breaking the law. 4 years for trying to make a few dollars in a city with an 18% unemployment rate. That percentage increases to well over 50% when you are black, poor and already have a criminal record. Ahmed took the risk, broke the law, and is paying the price.

Years ago, I remember standing on the loading dock and watching Mike walk with two of his lady friends. The police drove the wrong way up the one way street. They pulled over and immediately told the women to keep on walking. Then the routine started; Mike spread his legs, he put his hands against the wall and they patted him down. A few seconds later he was cuffed and placed in the back of the squad car. I didn’t see Mike for well over a year: all 3 individuals were crack addicts at that time, but he paid the price and was sent to live in a locked cage because these undercover cops had just seen him buy crack for personal use on another street.

Mike, Ahmed and Sam are just 3 people I know of too many examples I could mention; people getting arrested and sentenced for non-violent low-level drug crimes. They all violated the law. They all knew the consequences. They all paid and are paying the price. In accordance with the American law, they all deserved their punishments. They all continue to reap many consequences, because society has conveniently learnt to notice and condemn that bold X that lives on any felon’s back. Though James was addressing a very different subject when he wrote these words from Metallica, they scream of the unforgiveness felons feel when they are being permanently locked out of public life; “I label you, you label me and we dub thee unforgiven!”

Before we reach to the ground, pick up stones and start hurling them at this group of guilty men and women, we need to observe and listen to the liberating words of Jesus; “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her!"

Through statistical evidence and my own actual observation, I can testify that it isn’t just poor black and brown folk that use and sell drugs. Studies show that the prominent number (75%) of both users and sellers are white. This evidence actually keeps to our societal norms and proves that our segregated lifestyle does not just simply desegregate in the drug world. In other words; people sell to their peers, cliques, social groups, clubs and other people in their neighborhood. In other words; college kids sell to college kids while business men sell to business men. It is an urban myth that the majority of users from the suburbs or a small rural town run to a big city gang-banger standing on a corner in the hood to get their stash.

People in jail and prison have increased multifold (500,000 to over 2.3 million today) since Reagan declared the “war on drugs” in 1982. These numbers do not include the over 5 million folk who are currently on probation or parole today. Statistical evidence shows a very sad reality: predominately poor black and brown men continuously fill our prison gates and court rooms at horrendous rates, while almost all others get to live freely while using and selling all the drugs they want.

And the voice of Jesus echoes loud and clear; “he who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her!"

When I was a taxi driver working the graveyard shift, it became very clear to me that people from all spheres of life bought, sold, used and became addicted to drugs. I was able to witness nearly all the negative consequences of the illegal drug industry. I would continually drive and watch the people who society considered upright citizens indulge in their secret lives. As a taxi-driver, I became a listening ear and watchful eye to the dark side of lawyers, police, fashion designers, military personnel, sports stars and even clergy. These affluent and prominent men and women over-indulged in enormous amounts of narcotics and booze, picked up prostitutes, were sexually repulsive and secretly indulged in everything and anything imaginable.

When I started working with the homeless, I quickly discovered there is little difference from what I saw driving taxis. Some indulge while others don’t. Their usage, buying and selling of drugs is relatively the same. The only difference is the enormous disparity of money being spent to support their habits. As time went on, I discovered another disparity; a horrifying set of consequences, punishments and priorities fall on certain people, while others can walk freely and continue to indulge in their secret or open lives. In Chicago, poverty stricken black and brown folk are being sentenced to prison at despairing ratios that is drawing world wide attention. In certain neighborhoods, shocking statistics like one out of every seven black men between 18 and 35 are currently incarcerated.

All this brings me to the all important question: How do I connect the biblical story of the woman caught in adultery to America’s current infamous war on drugs and their love affair with mass incarceration?

In the days of Jesus, a large number of people should have or could have been executed due to their sexually explicit lives. History shows women were far more likely to be labeled a whore and stood before the firing squad. Let us not forget; King David forcefully coerced a beautiful young married teenager named Bathsheba to sleep with him. Maybe, the woman caught in the very act of adultery was also a victim of a powerful male seducer. When Bathsheba found out she was pregnant, David then used his power, wealth and prestige to cover up his adulterous ways, and then he used his power again to commit murder! No-one dared challenge the mighty king of Israel, until God sent his fearless prophet Nathan to confront him. God did not put the weaker person, Bathsheba, on the judgment seat. God deemed the powerful one guilty and, as a result, David humbly repented. The king should have been stoned in accordance with the Law, yet our Grace-full merciful God gave him a lighter punishment and showered him with forgiveness and grace.

King David was “a man after God’s own heart” who still took advantage of his powerful position. This abuse of power by the elite still happens today, and I personally believe it is exemplified in our “war on drugs”.

I write all this as a drug-free individual. I have actually never even smoked a joint. In the past, I have engaged in two substances that are far more fatal; alcohol and cigarettes, yet they are both legal. Statistics show that in the US more people die every year through just drunk driving than all drug related deaths (this includes all who are tragically killed in the illegal drug trade). The disparity sharply rises to about 5 to 1 when we consider all alcohol related deaths in comparison with all drug related deaths, and the disparity is even more horrifying between tobacco and illegal drugs. Another little unknown fact is that more people actually die every year from legal medications than all illegal drugs. I write this to bring to light certain realities; that substances such as crack, heroin and marijuana have been demonized as highly dangerous and criminal, while others have been promoted, glamorized and judged as unhealthy. Maybe it would be wiser to declare all these addictive substances as major health risks when they are overused?

Ironically, as a drug-free person, I am actually guilty of drug crimes. I have knowingly and unknowingly driven people possessing and smoking marijuana along with many other illegal drugs; when driving taxis, many customers would generously give me buds that would sit in my cab for weeks. I have hung out with people possessing crack and other drug paraphernalia. I have been in people’s houses that are full of drugs. This and much more, deem me guilty of felony drug crimes. People are serving time in prison, lost housing and employment because they simply did what I did. Yet the fact remains that millions upon millions of people in the USA use drugs every year and are therefore commit felony drug offenses, but only a tiny fraction of that enormous number are actually being arrested and sentenced.

When Jesus was writing in the sand, he could have risen and done something entirely different. He had the power to do anything. He could have started a protest by rallying his disciples and marched around the temple chanting catchy phrases. He could have called a legion of angels to descend from on-high and let them start hurling rocks at the accusers. He could have stood in front of them and yelled “stop!” He could have simply walked away and thought she’s an unrighteous whore who deserves what she’s about to get!

What Jesus did do was quite strange and extremely risky. He never orchestrated a “top-on-down” revolution by requesting a meeting with Caesar. He always met people where they were at and revolutionized the situation with his love, courage and bizarre responses!

His words “he who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her" was an open invitation to cast stones in her direction. Yet the subversive actions and words of Jesus were always cloaked with the redemptive and liberating love of His Kingdom! The eyes of the elite were also opened that day as they were able to see that their own iniquity was no different from the fragile woman they were about to execute! So they simply dropped their stones and wandered into the busy streets of Jerusalem! The mob, saturated with all their elitist peer pressure and propaganda, had been dispersed with the challenge to re-think and to question their own presuppositions. I believe their minds had also been liberated that day!

A few years ago, I arrived back at CCO with a van full of donated vender sandwiches, soda and a zip-lock bag of powdered sugar. A couple of our clients gathered around to help us take them in to the kitchen. Silas sees the bag and decides to kid around by pretending it’s a bag of cocaine. His girlfriend is sitting across the street with her young daughter, so he sneaks around the van laughing and playing his little game. As he does this, an undercover cop car cruises down Clifton and observes this suspicious activity. They obviously radio in, because about 2 minutes later two regular squad cars (3 cops) arrive and start questioning and patting him down. Embarrassed and frustrated, Silas starts mouthing back at the two officers interrogating him, claiming they had no right to harass him. I walk up to the older cop who is standing by himself, explain what happened and tell them I’ll go get the powdered sugar from the kitchen. By this time, both Silas and the young cops are in a power struggle and verbally insulting each other. Silas was about to lose a battle he was never destined to win. The older cop looks at me and nicely suggests, “You better calm your boy down, because these young cops won’t hesitate to plant something on him and send his butt to prison for a long time!”

That is what I did. I allowed my ears to absorb his angry rant, I allowed my eyes to fixate on his eyes and I kept on telling Silas what the older cop had told me. I told him that if he doesn’t be the “bigger man” by humbly calming down and resisting the urge to fight and argue, his butt was going downstate in shackles! As Silas chilled out, the red faced cops began to return once more to their natural pale color of calm, their guns retreated back into their holsters and they got into their cars and disappeared. Silas wandered across the street with a sheepish smile, sat next to his girlfriend sitting with their child and vented all his built up frustration. He was relieved at the fact he was able to remain free!

I discovered something very important that day; my duty was not to stage a major protest or rally troops to march down to the 23rd precinct and demand automatic firings of 2 power-tripping thuggish cops (they wouldn’t listen anyway!). The Kingdom of God calls us to liberate captives by loving the poor and oppressed. We live out this calling by walking the same roads they do and constantly moving in liberating revolutionary love!

Working at Cornerstone, I get the privilege to meet and hang out with countless people who were once “locked up” and have now been “locked out” of society. As followers of Jesus, these opportunities give us many chances to work toward emancipating both the minds and the people who step into our paths; whether rich or poor, black or white, in control or imprisoned. Liberation starts by simply treating these men and women as “fearfully and wonderfully made” human beings, not as that feared criminal society has deemed unworthy of employment, housing, having the right to vote, receive benefits or sit on a jury. Setting the captives free simply means loving these rejected and dejected human beings as “ourselves”, and countless opportunities of liberating love will arise. As we do this, many who are addicted will come seeking help and freedom from their addictions; we pray, we talk, seek treatment, use harm-reduction techniques and work toward certain goals together.

I know I do not have the power to change this oppressive system, as it is far too big and has been thoroughly engrained into our psyche with very effective techniques by all the administrations since Reagan declared this war in 1982! Various civil-rights lawyers and human rights groups have brought about subtle changes like drug courts, expunging records, changing certain mandatory minimum sentences and the Smart Act in Illinois, but they are sadly few and far between. I have joined in with some of these actions, but I believe ultimate change needs to come from the bottom on up! Change happens when we are not governed by the oppressive regimes, but rather by the Kingdom of God and we move in Love, in his Spirit and with courage.

Jorge was over indulging with his pitchers of beer, bottles of gin, pain medication and, I suspect, he occasionally smoked crack when coerced by a couple of his buddies. This combination often caused him to become very irrational and have schizophrenic episodes. It was getting worse and the possibility of getting employed and housed was drifting further and further away from him. One day, Jorge was somewhat inebriated and his psychotic episode was at crucial point. We had often tried talking him into treatment, but he was resistant, so I ended up calling 911 and requesting the CIT (Crisis Intervention Team). The CIT didn’t come, but regular police came, so I met them at the door and told them I needed them to use all the de-escalation techniques the CIT officers’ had been trained to use; they listened. They advanced in a non-combative quiet humble way, hiding their guns and Jorge ended up in Illinois Masonic Hospital. Not Cook County Jail!

A week or so later, Jorge returned to CCO and I got him into a great treatment facility. Jorge is now employed, housed, drug and alcohol-free, doesn’t over indulge in his medications and loves studying his bible. He has been set free due to the relationships we had established with the police; who were willing to resist the urge to be loud, intimidating and threatening and humbly help our homeless friend. Jorge had been set free because he knew he was loved and important to both Jesus and us.

A couple of years after Silas was nearly arrested for joking around with bag of powdered sugar, a friend of his (who I don’t know) got a huge SSI lump sum of over $20,000. He invited Silas over to his place, and they spent large amounts of cash and saturated the following week with alcohol, prostitutes and crack cocaine. Word gravitated to the street; “Silas is out there, we must stop him!” Using their own techniques, some homeless friends and fellow gang members tried their best to rescue him from this horrifying binge. It didn’t work! Ahmed comes to me, reveals his fears and we try to hunt him down. We find him bug-eyed, anxious and fidgety. We talk. We pray. Silas ends up detoxing and then gets into treatment, freed from his addiction and given a chance to live in that new found freedom.

I have known Joe for years. I have seen his pattern. In and out of prison! On and off parole! There had been many days he would come into my office and bitterly weep, continuously seeking freedom from the cold hard prison walls, the bondage of parole and the alienating affect of being addicted to crack and alcohol. We talk. We pray together. We set goals and Joe starts reducing the devastating harm drugs and alcohol have done to him. Today, Joe is happily housed and starting to function as God intended him to live! He is experiencing the liberating affect of our loving God.

Many opportunities arise and continue to arise!

As I finish writing this, Darrell and I take a brief road trip to visit Ahmed in prison. His eyes light up, a big smile appears on his face, he hugs us and yells “my family” for all to hear. The guard reminds him to stay behind the yellow line and then we go sit at our assigned table. We laugh, reminisce, discuss plans for his future, set realistic goals and unite in fellowship. As we delve into his past, he mourns about the loss of his mother while behind bars 6 years ago and how we are his first ever visitors. He has spent nearly eight years of his adult life isolated in assigned cages and he finally got to go into the visitation room. He calls us his family and support network; the people he can trust. He tells us how he’ll need us when he returns home to the North-side of Chicago because he’s ready to win his battle and live his dream. Suddenly we get the note, time is up and we got to go! As we leave, it once again becomes very clear to me why Jesus calls his people to visit “the least of these” in jails and prison.

Our God is a creative God who calls us use our spiritual imaginations to create opportunities to offer freedom. We may never prevent masses of poor people being carted off into a penal system that only re-enforces bondage, but liberty will come through our love.

When we take the time to visit the incarcerated; freedom comes
When we write letters to the lonely souls sitting in their sad cages; freedom comes
When we house someone who ends up homeless due to a past they wish to forget; freedom comes
When we offer people employment whose felony prevents them a chance to start again; freedom comes
When we stop and listen to people venting their endless frustration of being considered a second class citizen; freedom comes
When we are courageous enough not to believe the stereotypes and the propaganda; freedom comes
When we live a life of revolutionary love by standing with and advocating for the least of these; freedom comes

When we willing to fearlessly live out the words of Isaiah, the very words re-iterated by Jesus;
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
Freedom comes.

John 8 does not tell us if this woman committed adultery again. Jesus offered her an opportunity to live in the new-found freedom by saying “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more”. It was now her responsibility! We must do likewise! We must be Kingdom dwelling, God fearing, courageous people who are around, creating opportunities and offering people chances to live in their own liberty.

If we are…
fellowshipping with the people,
loving the people,
caring for the people
and being Jesus to the people,
miracles will happen and we will do a little part in preventing the endless and fruitless unfair stoning (incarceration) of a certain section of society.

…… and we will see freedom rise in our midst!


If you want to read more about this subject, I recommend Michelle Alexander’s enlightening and very powerful book; The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Also the organization, Human Rights Watch, has done multiple in-depth studies on the racial disparities of those incarcerated; in 2003, Illinois convicted and sent to prison 57 times more black men than white men. (Please remember that ratio multiples when you consider that African Americans make up only about 15% of Illinois’ population)
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