Monday, October 24, 2016

13th: Review of film by Ava DuVernay

"Neither slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States." 13th Amendment to the US Constitution

13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay (director of SELMA), begins with a stark statistic.

The United States holds 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners.

13th (titled after the 13th amendment) seeks to answer the question: Why?

DuVernay picks up the story after the Civil War, making a case that targeted incarceration of blacks began as a means to rebuild the Southern economy.

Lynchings became increasingly more common during the Reconstruction era, setting the stage for Jim Crow legislation, a series of state and local laws in the South that enforced racial segregation.

The "separate but equal" status they sought to justify was anything but.

In 1954 the US Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools, but the practice still remained. Causing Martin Luther King Jr. to comment years later, "Justice too long delayed is justice denied."

13th makes the point that after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, mass incarceration of blacks began. Prior to that time, the incarceration rate had been flat, but the sheer volume of people in prison speaks to the point: In 1970 there were 357,292 people in prisons across the US. By 1985 that number had increased to 759,100. And by 1980 there were 1.1 million people in prison.

A big part of the reason for the increase was the infamous "War on Drugs" started during the Nixon Administration. 13th makes a case that the War On Drugs turned drug addiction to a crime issue rather than a social issue.

A decade later, Ronald Reagan took the economic inequality that existed among the races, bringing the War on Drugs to another level, instilling a fear and law-and-order attitude in relating to inner city communities. During this time period (mid to late 1980s) criminologists coined the term "super predators" in an attempt to identify minority members who committed crimes.

The effect of this stereotyping was plainly evident. "We make them their crime" said Bryan Stevenson, head of the Equal Justice Initiative. "You have then educated a public, deliberately, over decades to believe that black men in particular, and black people in general, are criminals."

The administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton featured the continuance of the get-tough-on-crime message. (Bush pushed for and signed the Crime Control Act of 1990, while Clinton pushed for and signed the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act of 1994). And the number of people in prison continued to grow. From 1,179,200 in 1990 to 2,015,300 in 2001.

During President Clinton's tenure in office, in particular, he signed into law a bill that helped fuel further expansion of the prison system, and eventual privatization of it, making it a multi-million dollar industry. Of that bill, Clinton was to later admit: "I made a mistake. I signed a bill that made the problem worse."

In 2014 the US prison population was 2,306,200. (Keep in mind that 40% of those incarcerated in prisons across the country are black.) Even though the incarceration rate has leveled off in the past year, 13th points out that if you are a black man, you have a one in three chance of being incarcerated.

As an example of how police can target minorities, before Ferguson became famous, there was an average of 3 warrants per household in the city, which is 67 percent black. An investigation found that most of these warrants were for minor offenses.

13th ends with a visual montage of disturbing images of photos of slaves with scars from whippings and lynchings to civil rights marches. The narrator says "This is what segregation looks like."

The final quote of the documentary comes from Bryan Stevenson, who takes the part of a person who asks: "How could you have tolerated slavery and lynchings? Segregation? If I had been living in a time like that, I would never have tolerated it." Stevenson goes on to make the point, "But the truth is we are living in a time like that, and we are tolerating it."

Throughout the film, DuVernay includes several experts to back up the points her film makes, including Stevenson, Jelani Cobb (Professor of African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Professor of History at Harvard University), John Hagan (Professor of Sociology & Law at Northwestern University), Malkia Cyril (Director of Center for Media Justice) and Charles Rangel (Congressman from New York City).

DuVernay's documentary isn't easy to watch, but it remains engaging and necessary in its straightforward examination of the incarceration system in the US.

Here's the trailer to 13th.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Real Queen of Katwe

QUEEN OF KATWE is a film about Phiona Mutesi, an unlikely chess prodigy from Katwe (pronounced kah-tway), one of Kampala's (Uganda's) largest slums.

When Phiona was three years old, her father died of HIV/AIDS.

When she was nine Phiona had to drop out of school because her mother could no longer afford to send her, and she was needed to help bring food to the table by selling maize in Katwe's street market.

Around this time, Phiona followed her brother, Brian out of Katwe one day. He was headed to the Sports Outreach Institute, run by Robert Katende, where kids were playing chess.

Tim Cruthers, writing a feature story on Phiona in 2011 for ESPN magazine, reported that in Uganda, chess was "a game so foreign there's no word for it in Luganda, their native language."

"Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog," Cruthers wrote. "To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. To be female is to be an underdog in Katwe."

Cruthers described Katwe as being a place with no sewers, human waste flowing freely, helped by torrential rains so powerful that during storm season, people sleep on roofs or in hammocks tied to the ceiling to keep from drowning.

"Chess is a lot like my life," Phiona told Cruthers. "If you make smart moves you can stay away from danger, but you know any bad decision could be your last."

When asked, Phiona couldn't tell Cruthers her birthday because  of the sheer reality of life's harshness there. "Nobody bothers to record such things in Katwe."

"When I first saw chess," Phiona said. "I thought, what could make all these kids so silent? Then I watched them play the game and get happy and excited, and I wanted a chance to be that happy."

QUEEN OF KATWE details Phiona's rise from the day she followed her brother to Sports Outreach Ministry and began playing chess, to her eventual success. She represented Uganda in chess championships in Sudan and then in Russia.

Although QUEEN OF KATWE is a powerful film, there is another story within its story. That being the life of Robert Katende, a born-again Christian who runs the Sports Outreach Ministry. Katende was Phiona's initial chess instructor. (That's Katende with Phiona in the photo to the left.)

Katende knew well the harshness that Phiona was trying to escape because he had experienced it.

According to an article that Tim Cruthers wrote for The Guardian, earlier this year, Katende lived with his grandmother until he was four. Then he was reunited with his mother. That's when he learned his first name was Robert.

Katende's mother died when he was eight and he spent the next 10 years being shuffled among aunts. He also became very good at soccer.

He eventually got a job with Sports Outreach Ministry teaching soccer. But he noticed the kids who couldn't play, watching from the sideline. Katende began teaching these kids chess, playing after soccer matches. These six children formed the original group called The Pioneers.

After two years, Katende had grown the group to 25. That's around the time Phiona followed her brother.

Cruthers notes that Katwe is a place where about 40 percent of teen-aged women have kids. Katende offers an insider's view of it. "I call it a poverty chain. The single mother cannot sustain the house. Her children go to the street and have more kids and they don't have the capacity to care for them. It is a cycle of misery that is almost impossible to break."

Phiona is now 20 years old and she is considering applying to Harvard University.

Meanwhile, Phiona has earned financial security from the book Cruthers has written about her and the recent movie contract (for QUEEN OF KATWE). She has bought her family a home located away from Katwe.

When Cruthers asked Phiona if she'd seen QUEEN OF KATWE, Phiona pointedly replied, "No. I haven't seen it yet. I already know the story,"

Here's the trailer to QUEEN OF KATWE.

QUEEN OF KATWE benefits from a triad of excellent performances that include Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi, Lupita Nyong'o as Phiona's mother (Nakku Harriet), and David Oyelowo as Robert Katende. Director Mira Nair skillfully weaves in equally good performances of the children playing The Pioneers, as well as Katwe itself - offering remarkable scenes of everyday life there. The film is a Disney Pictures and ESPN Pictures production.

Photo Credits:
top photo:
middle photo taken by Stephanie Sinclair for ESPN
lower photo taken by Muyingo Siraj for The Guardian

Monday, October 10, 2016

5 Take-Aways from the Presidential Debate

Five take-aways from the most recent presidential debate.

1. Who won?

Not the voters, or the American people.

There was too much time spent by the candidates criticizing each other. And not enough time on details of solutions offered (although the democratic candidate actually spent considerably more time on this than the republican).

As one undecided voter mentioned to a New York Times reporter after the debate: "There haven't been enough positives on either side for me to make a firm commitment."

2. Who told the truth?

Not the republican candidate.

Take a look at any of the major newspaper's morning-after fact-checking and you'll get a more detailed scoop. Here's what the New York Times team found.

According to the Times, the republican candidate lied or was grossly misleading in 14 out of 16 allegations - a rate of 87%. The democratic candidate was misleading only twice.

Here's a handy summation of the debate by the New York Times' David Leonhardt, from a liar-liar-pants-on-fire perspective.

3. Who behaved like an adult?

Mostly the democratic candidate.

The republican candidate pranced around the stage and glared a lot. The democratic candidate mostly sat down when not answering questions and refrained from interrupting. Which the republican candidate did repeatedly.

It's quite telling when one candidate can't keep still long enough to actually listen to what anyone is saying, while refusing to take direction (from the moderators) and defaults to insults when feeling intimidated.

The republican candidate made clear indications towards dictator-like behavior. (Telling the democratic candidate that if he had been president, he would have locked her up.) This remark needs to be seen in light of how the same republican candidate says he would handle the media (take away the 1st Amendment right to a free press) and nations (build a wall around them) who disagrees with him.

This behavior trait during the debate is an extension of his stoking anger among supporters by appealing to their fears. And it's a pretty good indication of how the republican nominee would operate if elected.

4. What about the candidates' relationship with their respective parties?

The democratic candidate has the full support of the party that nominated her.

The republican candidate continues to upset and divide his party's leadership. In fact, prior to the debate, there had been wide-spread reports of a movement within the republican party to get the nominee to quit the race so that the vice-presidential nominee could become the party's standard-bearer. This feeling is shared among major party donors as well.

The republican presidential nominee's response was to lash out at any republican that disagreed with him, promising retaliation, going along with point #3.

Which leads a person to wonder: If the republican party's leadership won't vote for its standard-bearer, why should anyone else?

5. Evangelical Christians no longer have a sufficient reason to endorse the republican candidate.

It might be a good thing to note that God isn't a republican, democrat, independent or libertarian and isn't limited by our political system.

That's a really good thing because the republican candidate, by his own admission, has done some very unchristian things. And the compilation of his statements against Muslims, Mexicans, and women are incriminating. So much so that well-know Christian evangelical women, like Beth Moore, Christine Cain and Sara Groves have come out against him.

In Ava DuVernay's new documentary 13TH (referring to the 13th Amendment, that states there shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude "except as punishment for a crime") DuVernay includes footage of the republican candidate talking about "the good old days..." when protesters would be physically assaulted. Trump is heard encouraging his followers to "punch them (protesters) in the mouth." He is also seen declaring, "I am the law and order candidate."

At one point, earlier in the campaign, the republican candidate said: "My voters are extremely loyal... I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters."

That doesn't sound like loyalty as much as willful ignorance.

Here's a transcript of the second presidential debate, with annotations, from the Washington Post.

Photo credit:

Monday, October 3, 2016

Is being frustrated a sin?

Recently I bumped into a friend at the neighborhood library.

She was walking out as I turned the corner to go in, fresh from a walk around a beautiful park that is directly in back of the library.

In response to her asking: "How are you doing?" I answered: "I'm feeling frustrated."

To which she replied, "Oh, no, that's a sin!"

We went on to chat about a number of things, but her response to hearing that I was frustrated got me to thinking.

Is being frustrated really a sin?

According to Merriam-Webster, frustration is "a feeling of anger or annoyance caused by being unable to do something."

The same source says that being angry is "a strong feeling of being upset or annoyed."

After looking up these definitions, the relationship between frustration and anger became readily apparent.

That frustration could lead to anger should be no surprise. (And I need to make it clear I'm talking about frustration experienced when trying to accomplish something positive, for the common good.)

For instance, when I read or hear about social injustice I can get frustrated. Reading Jim Wallis' books, Values Redefined, God is on Our Side, and America's Original Sin made me frustrated, because Wallis clearly points out some snags in our social fabric in America.

At times, I found myself becoming frustrated at the seeming inability of our country to honestly confess our collective sin of racism and move on to healing.

I would submit that, in this example, frustration is an appropriate response.

To take another example, one of the candidates who is running for president has frequently made extremely negative statements about immigrants. This candidate has claimed that undocumented immigrants are "pouring across our borders..." on their way to committing "great amounts of crime."

In response, this candidate has promised to build a wall across the Mexican border to stop the tide of this illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, according to a Bloomberg View editorial,the facts are quite different. Bloomberg cites the Pew Research Center (and several other research organizations), noting "the number of undocumented immigrants in the US peaked in 2007 before dropping sharply - with more undocumented Mexicans, in particular, leaving the US than entering. Net illegal immigration is flat and has been for years."

This same presidential candidate wants to deport some 11 million undocumented immigrants. (Two thirds of them have been in the US for over a decade and four million live with their children who are US citizens.)

The Center for American Progress estimates this action would cost the US $900 billion in lost revenue over a decade, while reducing our gross domestic product by over $4 trillion. This doesn't include the actual cost of deportation.

The bottom line is that illegal immigrants aren't 'pouring across our borders' and we don't need to build a wall (that could conservatively cost billions of dollars) to stop a floodtide that isn't happening.

When I hear such blatant misinformation being recklessly used to stir up misguided dissent, it makes me frustrated. When I think of the human and fiscal cost of following this ill-conceived plan it makes me frustrated that more people don't see it for the racism that it is.

So, what's the proper response?

The Bible says it's ok to be angry. But it also advises us not to sin. (Psalm 4.4).

Paul, writing to the Ephesians says "Therefore, put away lying. `Let each one of you speak truth with your neighbor,' for we are members of one another." (Ephesians 4.25).

Paul is referencing Zechariah 8.16 here, making the point that we should speak the truth to each other because we're part of the same spiritual family.

There's a connection then between being frustrated and using that frustration to correct a wrong. That's what fuels social progress.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Sylvia Pankhurst, Gandi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mother Teresa and many others saw injustice and responded with frustration and were motivated to do something positive about it. Jesus also became frustrated at times even as he encouraged his followers to join him in learning to love each other.

The key seems to be found in 'not sinning' while engaging in the work of identifying and advocating for social change. Recognizing that frustration, when properly used, can lead to creative solutions that benefit all of us.

As always, I invite your comments below!

Photo Credit:

Monday, September 26, 2016

What are you afraid of?

What are you afraid of?

Is it a scary movie? Or walking to your car in a dark corner of a parking lot late at night? Or hearing heavy foot steps from behind you, getting closer?

Wikipedia defines fear as a "feeling caused by perceived danger or threat. Ultimately it causes a change in behavior, such as fleeing or hiding."

(Remember being taught the "flight or fight" response in your Introduction to Psychology class?)

Lou Dzierak, writing in Scientific American noted that "the behavior of people around us may influence our response to threatening situations."

In the same article, Michael Lewis, Director of the Institute for Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School said that "fear has a certain contagious feature to it."

In 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression, during his first inaugural address President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." He reminded the American people that despite outwardly dire circumstances, they had a choice in terms of how to respond.

So, if we don't want to spread fear, what is the opposite of it?

Christianity Today says faith, peace and confidence are fear's opposites. Which jibes with Merriam-Webster's listing of assurance, confidence, courage and fortitude as fear's antonyms.

King David, who knew a thing or two about fear, wrote "In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe." (Ps. 4.8).

From personal experience, he also wrote "Though a mighty army surrounds me, my heart will not be afraid. Even if I am attacked, I will remain confident." (Ps. 27.3)

Jeremiah wrote down what God had to say about fear: "Blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit." (Jer. 17.7-8)

There have always been terrible events, both at home and worldwide, that cause fear. It isn't a question of fear being justified, But it is a question of how we choose to respond when fear knocks on our door.

We can become anxious, frightful, agitated, and, in general, let fear bring out the worst in us.

Or, we can choose to look outside of the circumstances, outside of ourselves. To trust God.

When we do this, we are actively choosing faith.

With this option comes peace, hope and confidence. Not in ourselves. Not in being able to figure it all out. Not in denying the circumstances. But in choosing to look beyond them.

This perspective can make all the difference.

Photo Credit:

Monday, September 19, 2016

Who is in your cloud?

Recently I attended an awards ceremony where all three recipients made reference to the importance of having other people in their lives who set examples and kept them focused on the common good.

After the ceremony I got to thinking how these examples equated to the 'vast cloud (or crowd) of witnesses' that Paul writes about in Hebrews (11th chapter).

Spiritually speaking, Paul writes about how important it is to remember that "we are surrounded by a huge crowd of witnesses." (Hebrews 12.1) For Paul, this 'huge crowd' included Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, and Rahab among others.

The importance of having such witnesses, says Paul, is that it keeps us strongly connected to "the life of faith" (Hebrews 12.1)

This connection serves a multitude of purposes. Among them are staying connected to sources of encouragement, wisdom and grace.

Thousands of years past the time of Paul, our culture may have changed significantly. But the social fabric that keeps our culture together hasn't.

We still need examples of those who have gone before us. We still need a family that feeds our soul. We still need a connection to a 'cloud of witnesses.'

And I'm wondering, who is in your cloud? Who is watching over you?

Who has guided you in your journey thus far? Who sets the example that you follow?

You might think that these are questions that only children or youth need to consider.

But I would suggest that its importance never ceases, because if we aren't following someone's example, we are probably setting one for someone else. And we can only lead to the extent that we have been led.

This is indeed powerful stuff.

For example, there have been hundreds of studies that point to the fact that those who are abused are very likely to become abusers themselves.

In part, the rate of recidivism among those who have been incarcerated is high because, while incarcerated, prisoners are surrounded by other prisoners with very few positive examples of how to re-direct their life.

So it isn't only the young who need to choose their friends carefully.

But even if our friends should come up lacking, it's encouraging to know that we can draw inspiration from those who have gone before us.

Your 'cloud of witnesses' can be any of your spiritual sisters and brothers.

In taking this view, I would offer that among my witness cloud are Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Dan Berrigan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Jane Addams, Steve Biko, Nelson & Winnie Mandela, Marian Wright Edelman, Bryan Stevenson, Jeremy Courtney and Malala Yousafzai.

While most of these folks have passed on, some have not. Most of these individuals achieved their status as adults, but some, like Malala Yousafzai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize when 17 years of age, were quite young.

What does this 'cloud of witnesses' have in common?

. They were firmly focused on the common good, often at the risk of their own lives
. They helped initiate major social change
. They gave sacrificially, often with little material reward
. They were spiritually grounded
. They were not influenced by their culture's definition of 'success'

I encourage all of us to spend some time asking, who is in your 'cloud of witnesses'? What do they have in common?

And let's regularly ask: Who is watching over you?

Photo credit:

Monday, September 12, 2016

5 Things to Think About

Here's a few things to consider today.

1. Sometimes it's the little things in life that count the most.

It isn't always the big, more obvious, in-your-face sort of events that move us.

More often than not, it's the everyday, subtle things. If you choose to focus on them they can recharge you.

Dew on ornamental grass. The cool, clean, freshness of the morning air at the start of the day. A monarch butterfly lighting on a flower. Rose-hued clouds reflecting the sunset.

A baby smiling at you while you're waiting in the grocery line check-out can stop you in your tracks.

Little moments like these happening throughout the day can refresh us if we let them.

2. You don't have to have it all figured out.

Nobody has it all figured out.

If someone tells you that they do, it's a sure sign that they don't.

Life is complicated. It's intricate. It's delicate.

The Bible says that the things of the Spirit can't be discerned with the natural mind.  (1 Corinthians 2.14).

Do yourself a favor and give yourself permission to realize the limits of logical thinking.

3. Relationship is more important than dogma.

As far as spiritual development goes, relationship is more important than dogma.

One of the few groups that Jesus openly admonished were the religious leaders of his day. He got angry with them because they thought they had God all figured out.

We can learn a lesson from them if we value relationship with God over dogma.

4. You don't know what you don't know. 

This point is related to point No. 3.

It flows from it.

If we refuse to consider anything outside of our own experience or understanding, then we are limiting ourselves.

Simply admitting that we don't know something brings the freedom to learn and grow.

5. God loves you.

Life being what it is, there will be suffering, pain and challenges.

That doesn't mean that God somehow stopped loving you. That doesn't mean that God became angry and decided to punish us. (There's a scripture that reads, "For God loved the world - meaning us - so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him." John 3.15-17)

Most followers of God's Son are good at reminding us of the first two verses of this scripture, without mentioning the final one - the part about Jesus not coming into the world to judge but save.

It is during times of trial that faith can grow if we decide to trust God.

What do YOU think?!!

Photo Credit:
diagram from Art & Psychology: https:goo.go/OoNwYB