Words Matter - Justice, Misquotes, and Tweets

I might as well weigh in on the whole Bin Laden thing. If you'd like to read the opinions of smarter people let me know and I'll send you some links. Of course, if you wanted to read the opinions of smart people, you probably wouldn't be here. I guess what I really want to write about is not the event, but the words that have generated since the event. 

During his press conference after OBL had been killed, President Obama claimed that justice had been served. My immediate reaction was "no it has not. Revenge has been taken, but justice has not been served." I said those things aloud, I posted them on facebook. A healthy discussion was had about "what is justice?" My tune has changed a bit. A degree of justice was served. Actions have consequences. That's one of my favorite lines to throw around. OBL was a mass murderer. There's no getting around it. He gleefully took credit for numerous heinous acts across the globe. He considered himself outside of the bounds of normal laws and, most importantly, he had designs of doing the same kinds of actions again. He had to be stopped. His crimes had consequences. A modicum of justice was achieved. 

And yet, I use a pretty simplistic definition of justice. Justice is when things that were wrong are made right. I still can't adequately answer the question of what was made right. But the problem here may be the limits of my perspective. For me, 9/11 was a scary thing I watched on TV. I don't say that callously. To the extent that I am effected by larger geo-political realities, it effected me, but I didn't lose anything, except for maybe a naive and false sense of security in the fact that things like that don't happen to the United States. My point is, I wasn't a victim. I was an observer. The question of whether justice was done shouldn't be answered by observers, but by victims. For some, something significantly wrong was made right on Sunday night. They can't recoup their losses, but they may be resting easier. 

As a theologian, I say justice wasn't done because I believe that God's great end is creating community. Justice would have been done if in someway we could have managed to restore OBL into the human community. That's a solution that was impossible on this side of eternity. So in world of brokenness, we make the most of imperfect solutions and with an understanding that God's grace can bring out good out of any situation and that human sin can bring evil out of any situation. Amen and yuck! 

"Justice" is fun because it's one of those million dollar words. God is a God of justice. We work for justice. We pray for justice. We talk about social justice. Some of us get criticized for talking about social justice too much. Words like that have great meaning. I'm constantly reminded of the power of words, even when it feels like my own words have little to no power at all. 

On Monday a quote was floating around the internet that was being attributed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The funny thing was that half of the quote was an actual quote, the other was just someone else's thoughts that got blended with the quote. The quote got attacked as if it was invalidated by the source. The words themselves were powerful, powerful enough that we wanted to attribute them to a man that many of us consider a hero. That fact they were actually the words of a random anonymous make them less powerful? 

During Lent my church did a thought provoking Bible study on discipleship from The Thoughtful Christian. The author made some claims about which were the "authentic" letters of Paul. See, there's a dirty little secret that many of seminary grads keep to ourselves in order to keep our jobs: The Bible wasn't written by the people you think wrote it (gasp!!!!). He talked about the seven undisputed letters then showed how the unauthentic ones give a different version of discipleship. See, putting Paul's name on your letter back then was about the equivalent of attributing a quote to MLK. It added validity. The danger of that in biblical studies is that we attribute some things to Paul and the early Christians (such as hierarchical governance and male domination) that may not have been apart of the early church's life together. Words matter and who says those words matter. Apparently, who we think said words matters just as much as who said them. 

Words can get you into trouble. Interesting commentary on the OBL situation came from one of my beloved Steelers. Running back Rashard Mendenhall questioned people celebrating the death of another person, particularly a person they didn't know. Fair enough. Lots of people made that assessment. Then he went on. He talked about not being sure that OBL was behind 9/11 and doubting whether planes could really take down a building. It smacked of conspiracy theory. The Steelers president responded quickly, noting how proud the organization was of the President and our armed forces. Lets not forget that former Steeler president Dan Rooney is an ambassador for the White House. Let's also not forget that Mendenhall had come to the defense of Adrian Peterson (running back for the Minnesota Vikings) when he compared the NFL players to slaves and the NFL owners to slaveholders. Mendenhall claimed that anyone who knew the business would see parallels. So this may have been strike two for Rashard in a game that might only require two strikes. We'll see. In an age where any yahoo can put words out into the atmosphere for public consumption (as this yahoo is currently doing) what is the responsibility involved in how we use our words? Should we self censor? We have a right to free speech, but our employers have a right to relieve us of employment. 

Howard Thurman once said that there is no real freedom without discipline. As I understood it, he was saying we are only as free as we are disciplined. And yes, you should value that statement more because I paraphrased Howard Thurman. If that is true, then our freedom to use words is only a freedom if we are willing to use our words in a disciplined way. It's difficult to self discipline when we now have so many ways to get our words out there. Technology has developed more quickly than our etiquette on how to use it. 

This afternoon I misread a website and tweeted that today was Miles Davis' birthday. That seemed wrong, so I fact checked myself AFTER the fact and realized that Miles' birthday isn't for a couple of weeks. You would have thought I was in CIA the way I backtracked on that tweet. Not saying that CIA covers things up. (Paging, Mr. Mendenhall). I didn't want wrong information to be associated with me. I speak publicly at least once a week. That has made me want to be very careful with the words I use. I want people to hear from me the best approximation of truth that I have. I want to communicate love and grace in my words. And ultimately, I want my words to help bring about justice, real justice where relationships are restored and wrongs are righted. 

from Paris Hilton to Mumia Abu Jamal

So recently two efforts have been circulating around the internet to keep people out of jail. Let's deal with the first thing first. The following is the Paris Hilton petition. I have highlighted the portions I find particularly comical:

The Honorable Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

Paris Whitney Hilton is an American celebrity and socialite. She is an heiress to a share of the Hilton Hotel fortune, as well as to the real estate fortune of her father Richard Hilton. She provides hope for young people all over the U.S. and the world. She provides beauty and excitement to (most of) our otherwise mundane lives.

Hilton is notable for her leading roles on the FOX reality series The Simple Life and in the remake of the Vincent Price horror classic "House of Wax". In addition to her work as an actress, she has achieved some recognition as a model, celebrity spokesperson, singer, and writer. (sidebar: didn't she receive recognition for something else?)

As most of America now knows, Ms. Hilton was just charged in a Los Angeles court with DUI and sentenced to 45 days in Century Regional Detention Facility in California beginning on or before June 5, 2007.

We, the American public who support Paris, are shocked, dismayed and appalled by how Paris has been the person to be used as an example that Drunk Driving is wrong. We do not support drunk driving or DUI charges. Paris should have been sober. But she shouldn't go to jail, either.

As depicted on Friday night's episode "Nancy Grace" on Headline News (May 4, 2007), countless celebrities have been "slapped on the wrist" for similar incidents recently. Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson, Tracy Morgan, Wynonna Judd, to name a few, were arrested and never did a day in jail after their initial arrests for drunk driving /DUI /DWI charges. Rappers Busta Rhymes and Eve still walk free after both being arrested for the same charges as Ms. Hilton just this past week. Brandy's California Highway accident, although no proof of DUI was evidenced in her accident, resulting in the death of a young wife and mother in California, yet Brandy walks free as of today, never doing any time and A WOMAN HAS BEEN KILLED most likely due to her reckless driving!

Yet, Paris Hilton did not hurt, injure, or kill anyone or anything, and yet she must do jail time.

This petition is to ask Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to pardon Paris Hilton for her mistake. Please allow her to her return to her career and life. Everyone makes mistakes. She didn't hurt or kill anyone, and she has learned her lesson. She is sincere, apologetic, and full of regret for her actions as she explained tearfully to the Judge handling her case in court yesterday.She is distraught and understandably afraid.  (worl'd's tiniest violin playing for Paris Hilton)

WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT to save our Paris from ending up at the Century Regional Detention Facility! Please sign to tell The Honorable Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of the State of California, to think about the welfare of this young woman who has made a mortal error and deserves a second chance like so many others in our great nation have been served with after a mistake they have made . If the late Former President Gerald Ford could find it in his heart to pardon the late Former President Richard Nixon after his mistake(s), we undeniably support Paris Hilton being pardoned for her honest mistake as well, and we hope and expect The Governor will understand and grant this unusual but important request in good faith to Ms. Paris Whitney Hilton.  (hilarious!!!!) 

Okay, I obviously don't have much sympathy for PH. Forty-five days in resort, girl's camp prison don't strike me as too bad. I hope Arnold pardons her sometime in September. That would be funny.

What's not funny is an email I received from a friend of mine this week. I'm not sure if the Mumia Abu Jamal case was big on the West Coast, but it was a big deal in PA for awhile. Here's the letter I received:

Hi Friends,
Perhaps you may know about Mumia Abu Jamal and his situation, why he is an icon and/or his writings.  In the last few weeks I have been meeting with a group of folks from around Pittsburgh (including Say, my housemate) who are quickly trying to raise awareness on his case because he is going in front of the 3rd Circuit Court  of Appeals in Philadelphia on May 17.  If his case is approved, he will be able to attempt to have his case overturned again.  If he is denied, Governor Rendell will probably seek a moratorium and he could be killed within a year of the decision.
I find this case of great importance not only because Mumia has maintained his innocence of killing a police officer since arrest in December 1981, but because of its implications in the fairness of the law. 
The United States Justice System is supposed to stand on 4 main pillars of justice.  The right to 1) a jury amongst peers, 2) an impartial judge, 3) evidence of facts,  and 4) a competent lawyer.  Mumia received none of these.  Instead...
1) In a city (Philadelphia) of 40% African Americans, only one jury member was black.
2) The judge had been heard by another judge and a stenographer as saying "I'm going to help them (the jury) fry the n******."
3) There was no ballistics test on Mumia after the crime was committed.  The bullet in the officer was not the type that went in the gun Mumia legally owned
4) The lawyer assigned to Mumia went in front of the judge asking to be removed from the case because of his own incompetencies and lack of resources.  The judge denied the request.
This case is of great importance, not because of only one man who had was unjustly convicted, but because of its implications for justice in a racist system.
I strongly urge you to raise your voice against injustice in our world and take part in the vigil to occur on May 16th.  Thanks for reading and for your consideration in taking part in such important event(s).  I realize some of you are not in the Pittsburgh area, but if these issues are important to you, I am sure there is a group meeting that is also concerned about the life of Mumia and the cause of peace and justice on his behalf.

Now this is a real issue of justice that will not get the kind of press that Li'l miss "American Celebrity" will receive, but it is a matter of a man's life and it seriously questions the integrity of our justice system. I'm proud that I have freinds whose faith compels them to seek out justice for those whose voices go unheard. I hope any readers I have that are in the Pittsburgh area will attend the planned vigils. My own faith compels me the see what I can do to be of service.

Let justice roll down like water...