To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, 337 pp.
I kept hearing Joshua Ferris on the radio on NPR in recent weeks, but always interrupted—I’d catch an appreciative glimpse from the host or quip from the author, along with the book title. When the title appeared on the “new books” shelf in my local library, it seemed a small miracle. In our small town, I often have to wait a long time for the newest NPR-promoted titles. I grabbed it up, excited to be the first one to take it home to read.
And then I started reading it, and discovered I really didn’t like it. Meeting the narrator, Paul O’Rourke, was like going on a blind date with a guy you met online, only to discover that instead of sensitive and interesting, he’s just a self-centered nerd consumed with his own loneliness, lust, and baseball. He is unable to connect, especially with women, and lacks empathy, which made it impossible for me to empathize with him. At the end of my first date with the book, which lasted for 50 pages or so, I didn’t really want to see Paul O’Rourke ever again.
Yet all that NPR press made me keep going. I realized it was outside my typical style, so I persisted in the hopes that I would be won over. In the end, I can’t say that I liked the book or enjoyed reading it, but I am glad I did bother to finish it. It had its moments, and by the end I found some sympathy for Paul O’Rourke, likely because by the end of the book he became a more sympathetic character.
Paul O’Rourke is a dentist in New York City with an elite clientele, an obsession with the Red Sox, and a terribly needy and disastrous history with social and romantic relationships. His life carries on from day to day, back and forth between his dental practice and his nightly Red Sox rituals, and the narrative we hear of this life is petulant and awkward. The plot of the book begins when someone anonymously creates a website for his dental practice, followed by a strident social media presence. The anonymous “other Paul” begins a prolific public campaign of speech for him, including allusions to a strange new/ancient religious and ethnic sect. At first, O’Rourke is obsessed and angry, but he eventually becomes intrigued and even enamored of the other Paul’s ideas. The experience sends him on a quest for a deeper engagement in life, breaking him free from his strangled approach to relationships and opening him to new possibilities. It is a hopeful story.
I think it was the passages about the experience of being a Red Sox fan that kept me going and made me want to read more. The author captures my own relationship with the Red Sox, before and after 2004.
The single happiest night of my life came in October of 2004 when Mueller forced extra innings with a single to center field and, more spectacularly, David Ortiz homered in the bottom of the twelfth, halting a Yankees’ sweep of the American League Championship and initiating literally the most staggering comeback in sports history, culminating in a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals to take the World Series. It was the validation of all those years of suffering, the cause of an unexpected euphoria, and a total cataclysm. Sometime in 2005 … the unlikely fact that the Red Sox had won finally sank in, and a malaise crept over me. I wasn’t prepared for the changes that accompanied the win—for instance, the sudden influx of new fans, none of them forged, as it were, in the fires of the team’s eighty-six-year losing streak. … I worried that we would forget the memory of loss across innumerable barren years and think no more of the scrappy self-preservation that was our defining characteristic in the face of humiliation in the face of defeat. (147)
He carries on there about becoming the team we’ve always hated, poaching players and buying victory, all the same feelings I’ve had since the Red Sox changed from being perpetual heartbreakers to repeat champions. Winning is great, but it changes what it means to follow my team. Later in the book, he reflects on the end of the 2011 season:
How happy I was that the Red Sox were acting once again like the Red Sox: a cursed and collapsing people. I didn’t want my team to lose; I just didn’t want my team to be the de facto winner. … It was our duty, as Red Sox fans, to root for Boston than it was to ensure in some deeply moral way—I really mean it when I say it was a moral act, a principled act of human decency—that we not resemble the New York Yankees in any respect. (324)
Oh, how refreshing to read someone who gets me about being a Red Sox fan.
So, the book had its moments. Excellent commentary on Red Sox fandom, interesting reflections on postmodern religion and the role of doubt, along with the problems of identity in our social media constructed culture. I may not have enjoyed it, but I finished it—and didn’t regret the time spent.
Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks by Walter Brueggemann, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 165 pp.
I adore Walter Brueggemann’s work, and I will confess to anyone who cares to listen that I think every sermon I have ever preached on a text from the Hebrew Bible has been influenced by his scholarship and pastoral insights. This is especially true of any sermons on prophetic texts, as his original outline in The Prophetic Imagination unlocked those obscure biblical books, with their poetry and lamentation, in ways that finally made them come alive for me.
I heard Brueggemann lecture on the content of Reality, Grief, Hope before reading the book, and recognized immediately the themes he had previously developed in The Prophetic Imagination, Hopeful Imagination and other books. His perspective on the prophets is that their first word calls forth the injustice, sin and loss in the community, prompting grief. Only after the people have experienced lament can they find their way to hope, the prophet’s second word. Reality, Grief, Hope adds a new dimension to the prophet’s task, a new first word before grief: reality.
Brueggemann has observed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, that the prophet must first pierce through the many layers of denial. Before the grief can flow, the people must acknowledge that something has been lost that cannot be regained. In both ancient and modern contexts, the royal ideology of chosenness (the conviction that God will protect the Jerusalem establishment and its leaders) persists long after facts on the ground demonstrate that the temple and its practices will not be protected. The ideology blinds the people from seeing any facts or reality beyond itself, and therefore traps them within a false and failing way of seeing the world, denying the change and the injustice around them.
Reality must be faced and not resisted. Their rhetoric is designed to break the bubble, to make contact with the facts on the ground—that God is here and neighbor is here—and to notice the links of chosenness in the present and future fates. (23)
Brueggemann describes this phenomenon in ancient Israel, then he describes it in the 21st century of the United States. The roots of the problem today lie in American exceptionalism, and our understanding of freedom as freedom to disregard the needs of our neighbors.
Grief is the path to piercing this ideology and its systematic denial of its own failure. Brueggemann offers an extensive catalog of biblical prophets who address this need, from Jeremiah to the Psalmist to Lamentations. He then summons preachers and prophets today to engage in the same work, naming and claiming the loss of American superiority, privilege and moral certainty.
This converging loss that is beyond denial, concerning loss of political-military hegemony, loss of economic dominance, loss of social-ethnic singularity, and loss of ecclesiastical propensity, has come to amount to a loss of moral certainty and a failure of nerve about the future. In sum, we watch as the world for which we had prepared ourselves and had learned to master is disappearing before our very eyes. (81)
When that sadness and loss remains unexpressed and voiceless, it gives rise to violence and precludes us from imagining new possibilities that might spring forth by the grace of God. The grief is necessary to move into reality and into hope.
Grief can easily give way to despair. The task of the prophet, after piercing denial with reality and unleashing the grief, is to offer hope, so that the people do not fall into despair. That hope comes always from outside the ideology, outside the system and empire. Hope comes from God.
It is rather, the tradition insists, an utterance that arises “from elsewhere,” from the God who indwells the abyss and who initiates a new historical possibility by resolve that is not disrupted by the city in shambles and is not restrained by the force of empire. (106)
Brueggemann concludes by insisting that the best possibility for prophetic work today lies in local congregations, where people are known and loved against the forces of empire.
One can see the same practice in the life of a congregation wherein people are known and named, who have birthdays and anniversaries remembered, who have their sicknesses and deaths honored, all gestures that call out an affirmed, empowered personhood. (145)
This counternarrative that disrupts imperial narrative focuses upon particular persons in daily crises, naming, valuing, and empowering persons who have been disregarded, reduced or summarized by the empire. (146)
The work of prophetic imagination has a calling, I do not doubt, to walk our society into the crisis where it does not want to go, and to walk our society out of that crisis into newness that it does not believe is possible. (160)
The church, Brueggemann claims, by living its ordinary life of caring for souls and holding out the good news, is the key to helping people and society move into hope.
Reality, Grief, Hope takes Brueggemann’s existing work to a new level, and lays a new claim upon us as pastors and church leaders to engage the prophetic work of piercing reality, opening grief and proclaiming hope in God. His insistence will not release us, and the scriptures he summons will not let us doubt. As always, Walter Brueggemann brings the Bible alive and with its vitality comes a summons to follow.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Random House Vintage Books, 2009, 669 pp.
This novel is epic–in the traditional sense of the word rather than the modern slang. It is the story of an entire lifetime–two lives, really–with a cast of characters that develop and evolve across four continents and the entire 20th century. Its nearly 700 pages flies by, with every detail coming together into a complete story. The book has everything I love–compelling characters, interesting plot, difficulties (both emotional and embodied) to overcome, and a fascinating setting. I loved it.
The narrator and central character is Dr. Marion Stone, along with his twin brother Shiva. The story begins with their sudden, surprising and dangerous birth to a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, at the Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The narrator then traces back the story of their parents, from their birth onward to their meeting and partnership. Their mother was from India, becoming a nun and nurse whose order sent her on an ill-fated mission to Africa. Their father was an English doctor born and raised in India, who was serving at Missing Hospital to escape his own sorrowful story. At their birth, their mother dies and their father disappears. The story unfolds their lives uncovering the mystery of their parents’ stories.
Meanwhile, they are surrounded by an adoring family at Missing Hospital. Two other doctors, Hema and Ghosh, serve as their mother and father, joined by two nannies/maids, Rosina and Almaz; the hospital’s odd priest/gatekeeper Gebrew; Missing’s director Matron; and even a sister in Rosina’s daughter Genet, born just a few months after the twins. Together they raise Shiva and Marion, alongside Genet, in the midst of an Ethiopia dealing with coups, poverty and more. Both boys are drawn to medicine, but follow different paths. In their late teens, there is a fracture in the relationship between the twins, and the novel reckons with that brokenness and painful reconciliation.
The author himself is a surgeon, and this book could almost be classified as “medical fiction,” if there is such a genre. Verghese writes of the human body, of surgery and illness with great detail and unique insight, but that expertise is partnered with great wisdom about human living. Just a sample few lines from the opening chapter:
We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot. I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. My intent wasn’t to save the world as much as to heal myself. Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but subconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound. (7)
Cutting for Stone is the kind of story I hesitate to share in detail, because each small detail of plot turns back on itself in the story’s resolution and I do not want to give it away. The book requires a commitment, but it is beautiful and wonderful and well worth it. I foresee this being one of my favorite books of the year, with characters and story that are easily forgotten.
The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 2009, 230 pp.
I was so excited when this book came out that I ordered the hardback copy right away. (I almost always wait for the paperback to save money.) I had learned so much about Jesus from Borg and Crossan’s work on on the Gospels, I knew that this would be a rich resource for learning about Paul from their perspective. For some reason, though, this made its way onto my way-too-many shelf of books “to be read” and did not manage to come out again until nearly five years later. Still, it was everything I had originally hoped it would be—a critical, radical reassessment of Paul and his writings that will lay the foundation for preaching and interpretation of all the letters attributed to him.
Borg and Crossan begin with some brief observations on the different roles Paul plays in Protestant and Catholic theologies, then name their three foundational statements:
First, not all of the letters attributed to Paul were written by him—there is more than one Paul in the New Testament. Second, it is essential to place his letters in their historical context. Third, his message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul, we will argue, is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic. (13)
Borg and Crossan identify the authentic letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon) as the work of the radical Paul, the disputed letters (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians) as conservative, and the non-Pauline letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) as reactionary. Stories about Paul in the Book of Acts are a fourth Paul, with some parts more reliable than others. Borg and Crossan write predominately about the authentic letters of Paul as a radical follower of the radical Jesus, because he has had a personal life-changing encounter with the mystical Christ on the road to Damascus. Occasionally, they will offer a comparison to the conservative or reactionary Paul on issues like slavery and gender equality.
Taking Philemon as a model, the authors then demonstrate “How to Read a Pauline Letter.” They emphasize that readers must “remember that, when we are reading letters never intended for us, any problems of understanding are ours and not theirs.” (29) We must “turn letter into story,” the original story that would have been known and understood by the original recipients of the letter. In Philemon, that is the story of the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon. The radical Paul argues that equality must not be limited to the spiritual realm, but must exist in the earthly realm as well—that Philemon must release Onesimus from slavery, because it is incompatible with the way of radical love demanded by Christ.
The next chapter is a basic biography, constructed from insights in the authentic letters, the Book of Acts, and other historical sources for context. They talk about his likely education and background in Tarsus (even speculating about chronic malaria as the “thorn in the flesh”), his life as a Pharisaic Jew, his conversion at Damascus, the missionary journeys, and imprisonment. The chapter ends with interesting observations about the cities in which Paul planted churches, portraying them as dense, dirty places filled with tenement-like housing and persons displaced by empire. His churches began among Gentiles who were worshiping in the synagogues, not the Jews. Labeling it “adherent poaching,” Borg and Crossan say,
Our proposal is that Paul went always to the synagogue in each city not to convert his fellow Jews, but to convert the gentile adherents to Christian Judaism. And that proposal explains huge swaths of Pauline data. (88)
Paul’s letters can be interpreted much more clearly by these gentile synagogue-goers than by those who were strict adherents of Judaism.
The final four chapters explore and explain four core theological ideas in the radical Paul: “Jesus Christ is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Justification by Grace Through Faith,” and “Life Together in Christ.” Paul’s insistence on calling Jesus Christ “Lord” is a treasonous claim against the Roman emperor, replacing Rome’s peace through violent victory with Christ’s peace through the nonviolent justice of equality. His proclamation of Christ crucified is not a scriptural account of substitutionary atonement. Instead, it is evidence of the greatness of God’s love for the world, and the entryway to the resurrection. We participate in dying and rising with Christ, born again with a radically new heart for loving the world as God does.
The chapter on “Justification by Grace Through Faith” aims to “get Paul and his letter to the Romans out of the sixteenth century polemical Reformation world and back into the first century imperial Roman world.” (157) Borg and Crossan argue convincingly that Paul sees justification by grace as a message of God’s distributive justice, “that God’s Spirit is distributed freely to each and every one of us to transform God’s world into a place of that same justice.” (160) The argument about faith and works then becomes a concern by Paul for works-without-faith, not faith-without-works.
“Faith” means a grateful submission to the Spirit transplant of God’s own nonviolent distributive justice, which empowers us to will and enables us to work toward a reclamation of this world in collaboration with God. (184)
Paul’s work was always built around communities, creating collectives of new converts to follow life together in Christ, following the non-violent path of justice and peace together, in contrast to the domination system of the world. These communities practiced love for one another, sharing meals and resources, prayers and worship together.
The epilogue addresses speculations and evidence about Paul’s death, amid ongoing tensions with the Jerusalem community led by James. When I read it, much to my surprise, I felt the same sadness I feel at the end of any good biography with a tragic death. I was sorry that the empire, likely Nero, cut Paul’s life so short. I felt as though I knew and appreciated the man in a deeper way, and I grieved a tiny bit for his death, even 2,000 years later.
I should never have waited five years to read this book. It was excellent from beginning to end. I am a sophisticated, detailed maker of notations in non-fiction books that I read. There are countless stars and underlines here, because Borg and Crossan have such an ability to explain and evidence various aspects of the scriptures in ways I want to remember. Even without the book in hand to review, I walk away with a much better appreciation for Paul’s radical ministry of love, justice and equality. Anyone who grapples with Paul and all the baggage attributed to him should read The First Paul for clarity and hope.
The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth, William B. Eerdmans, 2013, 132 pp.
Margaret Bendroth is the director of the Congregational Library in Boston, and her job is to collect and curate the historical archives of the Congregational church, which includes helping local congregations reckon with their own historical artifacts, records, stories and more. This book is a beautiful theological reflection on that work, the spirituality of engaging our history, and what it is that we are doing when we interact with our past.
The Spiritual Practice of Remembering opens with the wonderful story of a tricorne hat encased in glass in the entryway of a church. By virtue of its age and connection to a legendary preacher, the hat had become somehow sacred. I think any of us who serve congregations with a long history know about those sacred objects that hover in hallways or display cases or even in sanctuaries. Their original users never intended them to be preserved—they were ordinary practical objects—but their age and connection to the past has endowed them with something akin to holiness.
Bendroth’s book doesn’t just probe the spiritual meaning of churches’ old junk, but invites us into a relationship with the past as a spiritual discipline. Judaism and Christianity have a unique relationship as “religions of remembrance,” who worship a God active in history, defined by events in time. However, modernism in Western culture emphasizes a break from the past, freedom to define one’s own identity apart from history, and a sense of time always marching forward. Our relationship with the past, then, is as tourists—we are “stranded in the present,” with the past as novelty or nostalgia, but no depth of relationship and identification. We have moved from a medieval faith in which the past and the present co-existed all around us, with the past able to break through and impact this current reality, to an understanding of history as progress that makes the past always different, other and inferior to the present. This historicism, also found in biblical criticism that privileges factual history over other forms of biblical truth, costs us a meaningful relationship with the saints of the past. Bendroth writes:
History for grown-ups is complicated. It asks us to balance sympathy and judgment, hero-worship and sharp-eyed criticism. It recognizes and respects differences across time, but also looks for honest points of connection. … Our ancestors have a lot to teach us. This is not because they were wiser or more devout than we are or were “better” Christians, though we can’t rule out such possibilities. It is because they can point us toward what is essential. (50)
Bendroth also tackles the commodification of history as both entertainment and possession. As technology externalizes memory (photos, recordings, even Facebook place memory outside of our own identity and community, into an external place), it has become less valuable. It has also come to rely less on imagination.
There is a thin line between approaching people and events through imagination and assuming that they are in fact imaginary. The first assumes that the past was “real,” with a separate integrity all its own; the second that there is no past at all beyond what we choose to see. (70)
One of the most interesting chapters was about the way American culture is built on letting go of the past, and American religion models this “historyless.” Our emphasis on experience over tradition has helped with a more religiously tolerant society, but it has also cut us off from rich resources that can come from conversation with the past. We need not be traditionalists in order to value tradition.
The Christian tradition itself is a long conversation about the declaration that “Jesus is Lord.” … A truly creative conversation builds on what has been said before, exploring nuances and suggesting different interpretations—but never assuming that the people who began it have nothing more to say and can be safely ignored. The living do not own the conversation any more than those past or those yet to come. (94-95)
The communion of the saints is a theological idea that helps us understand this obligation, the way we the living continue to interact with the dead.
The ancestors live on in different ways, sometimes as a deep undercurrent of sadness or disappointment, sometimes as a tendency toward suspicion of outsiders or resentment of authority. They can work in positive ways too, inuring a centuries-old congregation against panic or despair. (113)
When we recognize ourselves as part of the communion of the saints, we know that “all God’s people—past, present, and future—form a single, interdependent whole.” (115)
Bendroth develops and explores many concepts that I have vaguely and inarticulately carried for a long time. As a student of history, I find much richness in exploring the life world of the past, but I had never connected that to my fascination and spiritual connection to the communion of the saints. I am also someone willing to let go of much tradition in favor of connecting with the present and future, and this book helped me think through how to engage the past in a good and meaningful way. Her mixture of stories and exploration combine for a book that is delightful, provocative, novel and engaging. I recommend The Spiritual Practice of Remembering to anyone considering the way the past can invite us to a richer present as people of faith.
The Gospel According to Star Wars: Faith, Hope and the Force by John C. McDowell, Westminster John Knox, 2007, 204 pp.
May 4th fell on a Sunday this year, and I could not resist the idea of a Star Wars Sunday. I was a child of the Star Wars era, and spent many of my young days waving a stick with the “whooom, whooom” sound of a light saber, building worlds in the yard for my action figures and acting out great scenes from the films. There is a lot of Jedi wisdom that informs my view on the world, and the mythology of the Force had a shaping influence on my development. I know I am not alone, and Star Wars Sunday was an attempt to reach out to those who are enthusiastic about George Lucas but skeptical of Jesus Christ. I ordered this book as an aid to that preparation.
McDowell’s fandom is clear from the beginning. The Gospel According to Star Wars is more of a theo-literary analysis of the Star Wars oeuvre than anything else. McDowell references not just the six films, but the corresponding novels, television series, and multiple deleted scenes. This is not for the novice. I’m an accomplished Star Wars afficiando, and much of this was beyond me–not theologically, but understanding the allusions to the Star Wars galaxy.
Still, I learned some things that were helpful. McDowell’s general approach to bringing together these two mythological worlds paralleled my own. It’s not about arguing that Star Wars is secretly Christian (it’s definitely not), or about finding micro-moments in Star Wars that illustrate Christian principles. The point is to put the two worlds side by side and see what they can teach each other. Christianity might be illumined by the ideas of the Force. One’s understanding of sin and grace might gain new understanding by brushing against the Dark Side.
The first chapter was the most helpful. In it, McDowell traces the body of work on Star Wars and mythology, including Lucas’ own thinking about his mythical world and its morality. Lucas was a deep reader of Joseph Campbell’s work on the mythic hero and his or her quest. In creating the Star Wars universe, he intentionally incorporated ingredients Campbell emphasized as important for meaningful mythology. There is a reason this story sticks with its followers–it deliberately engages in these deep questions about human life and desire for meaning.
McDowell’s chapter on “The Force of the Divine” was also among the most helpful for my purposes, because again he discloses the intentional nature of Lucas’ mythic work. Citing Lucas’ work “On Myth & Men,” McDowell writes:
He (Lucas) claims that he “put the Force in the movie to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system.” Therefore, he intends to encourage a generation of youth that has too little “interest in the mysteries of life” to begin asking questions about their existence. (17)
This affirmed the work I was doing with Star Wars Sunday, validating the experience that Star Wars evoked a spirituality that was not Christian, nor was it mature—and consequently opens the door to deeper conversation between the Force and God.
Obedience to the will of the Force is not blind acquiescence to a powerful but morally ambiguous god, and certainly is not a giving absolute significance to one’s own desires. On the contrary, it is the journey into becoming responsible for the well-being of the galaxy, or more personally, one’s galactic neighbor. This means the virtues of coresponsibility, compassion and so on, are ultimately the truth of life. (25)
That’ll preach. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”
The next three chapters grapple with the ways evil operates in the Star Wars universe. This is where the details of the various Star Wars stories became a bit overwhelming to me. Still, I appreciated McDowell’s analysis of the Manichean aspects of the Force versus the Dark Side, of Anakin as a tragic hero whose intentions are often good even when his actions are evil, and of the politics of empire. The final three chapters analyze the turn away from evil: in rebellion (which includes violence), in living a virtuous life as one who follows the will of the force, and in an eschatological hope for the future.
This is not a fun and easy read for theologians or Star Wars fans, but it is a helpful tool to generate ideas and analysis of the Star Wars world in concert with Christian theology. Its academic content is broad and deep enough to be helpful, but it’s not dense or riddled with jargon. Its Star Wars content, however, is deep into geek fan territory. I recommend beefing up on your Star Wars knowledge before diving in.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, The New Press, 2010, 312 pp.
There is so much to say about this book that I don’t know where to begin. I finished reading it months ago, and the prospect of writing this review was so daunting I got way behind on all my reviews. You just need to go read this book for yourself, because it is a seminal summary of the social mechanism of mass incarceration, and the way it is exercising social control in communities of color in the United States. This can be such a hot topic that I fear people will read this review, react negatively, and begin to respond without actually reading the book—where Alexander has the space to actually make the case. So, let me say again, READ THE BOOK. If you think racism isn’t systemic, read this. If you think we’ve taken care of civil rights issues, read this. If you think prisons are full of “bad” people, read this. If you care about social justice, racism, youth at risk, the war on drugs, voting rights, for-profit prisons, read this.
Alexander begins with a history of social systems that functioned to control and oppress black people in U.S. history and create a racial caste system that preserves white privilege. The first, obviously, was slavery. Slavery replaced indentured servitude and served to create a racial caste system that separated poor whites and blacks by according privileges to whites. When slavery was abolished, Jim Crow segregation took its place, maintaining the racial caste system. After the Civil Rights movement, Alexander details how the rhetoric of “law and order” replaced segregation as a system of racial control. Stereotypes of black “welfare queens” and criminal “predators” proliferated. Massive job loss in inner cities was accompanied by the rise of crack cocaine. The law and order rhetoric responded with the War on Drugs, including mandatory minimum sentencing and exploding budgets for law enforcement and prisons. Mass incarceration is born, and millions of people—with a massive preponderance of men of color–are placed under the jurisdiction of the prison system. It’s not just about the time spent in prison, but about the time spent on probation and the permanent second-class citizenship of a prison record.
And that’s only the first chapter.
Alexander’s next chapter deconstructs the War on Drugs as a mechanism of controlling whole communities by way of stop and frisk, consent searches, pretext stops. She documents the ways that law enforcement agencies prosper by these methods, the way that they impact communities of color far more than white communities, the lack of legal representation, and their link to ballooning prison populations. After documenting this racial bias in detail, the third chapter tackles the question of how and why the court system does not stop such blatant racially unequal justice. Alexander identifies a series of court decisions that promote a “colorblind” justice system that ban any suits or claims of racial bias. In short, it is a two step process:
The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free rein. … Then, the damning step: close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in a racially discriminatory fashion. Demand that anyone who wants to challenge racial bias in the system offer, in advance, clear proof that the racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discrimination–i.e., the work of a bigot. (103)
Chapter Four, “The Cruel Hand,” moves forward to the enormous loss of rights suffered by those who bear a criminal record, which Alexander has already shown are predominately people of color. The loss of rights and privileges is enormous—access to public housing and public assistance, difficulties in the job market due to the need to disclose a conviction, debts accrued for court and probation fees, the loss of voting rights and the ability to serve on a jury, and general social stigma attached to “ex-con” status. The fifth chapter rounds up the evidence of the other four and paints the full picture of how the system of mass incarceration functions as a massive form of social control along racial lines, with more African American adults today under correctional control than those enslaved in 1850 (180). In sum:
The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer concerned primarily with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed. (188)
If this seems absurd to you, I have only one reply: go read the book. Then we can talk more about it.
The final chapter, “The Fire This Time,” points some direction for a New Civil Rights movement with overturning the system of mass incarceration as its target. There are many obstacles, including the economic employment of massive numbers of people in the prison-industrial complex, the stigma and belief that those incarcerated are criminals who deserve their fate, and a long line of court cases that refuse to acknowledge the problem. Reading her arguments in the rest of the book, it seems insurmountable—but it is helpful to remember that segregation seemed insurmountable a mere 60 years ago. And doing nothing is unthinkable for anyone who cares about justice.
Michelle Alexander is not the first or only person raising this issue. (My husband reminded me of going to see Angela Davis at a conference on this topic in Berkeley in the lat 1990s.) However, The New Jim Crow makes the argument concisely and convincingly that mass incarceration has replaced segregation as the tool of oppression for communities of color in the post-Civil Rights era. We who care about justice must find new strategies to overcome. READ THIS BOOK.