Whitewashing Tombs

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AP photo

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. -Matthew 23:27-28 (NRSV)

SO, everybody is jumping on this image of Paul Ryan cleaning out an already clean pot. The image plays right into the dominate narrative of the left – that Republicans are coldhearted and care only for the super-rich. And it isn’t even a metaphor, it is LITERALLY happening (and yes, please look up the literal definition of literally). Paul Ryan waits until the unclean, poor huddled masses have left the building, picks up a clean pot and starts scrubbing for a photo and enrages the director of the meal ministry.

Now, this is just too good an opportunity to pass up. I am outraged, too, by this callous action seeking political gain. How dare he waltz right in with his privilege and Italian loafers (I’m assuming Italian loafers are the kind of thing you wear when you are the Republican VP candidate. I’m still waiting for an AP photo to confirm this).

I’m outraged because I know poor people. Some of my best friends are poor.

I serve as pastor of a church that has a dynamic meal ministry. We are always feeding the hungry. I know what it takes to not only serve “the least of these” but to clean up afterwards. OK, well, I don’t really know; my staff does. I’m too busy doing the important pastoring work, like writing blogs and trolling internet memes sites for sermon illustrations. But I’m sure it is hard work to scrub actual dirty pans, so I’m enraged, too.

This is the problem with righteous indignation. It is often more indignant than righteous. I want to hate on Paul Ryan for doing a foolish thing. But the truth is I’m just as foolish. I spend just as much time whitewashing tombs. I just don’t have the media recording it for all to see.

I love schadenfreude as much as the next guy. But we need to move beyond the simple answer of Ryan pimping a charity and go into a much deeper conversation about the policies of our candidates and how they will affect the guests at our meal programs.

Who’s plan cuts early childhood education, medicaid and food stamps, and the earned income tax credits? Who is really engaging in issues of poverty? These are the real issues. AND we need to look to our own hypocrisy, our own lawlessness. Because we aren’t confused about our calling. We are not ignorant of our place in the world, of which pots we need to scrub. You know O mortal what the Lord requires of you. It is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

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Why Flynn has to go

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Photo by fox6now.com

Why Flynn has to go

In the days since a coalition of civil rights and religious leaders – along with cries from many citizens and neighbors – have asked for Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn’s removal from his job many folks have asked “Why?”

This is a fair question. With all of the reports coming out concerning Milwaukee’s police, can’t it be chalked up to the proverbial few bad apples? Has Chief Flynn himself done anything that warrants his resignation or termination? Isn’t the job of our police hard enough without divisiveness from citizens? These and other questions are valid.

I have supported the community and coalition calls for Chief Flynn to go because of what I see as a pattern of disregard supported by his leadership. This pattern begins with criminals.

The actions of some officers have shown a disregard for individuals that are under arrest. This is seen most graphically and most vividly in the squad car video of Derek Williams, Jr. Officers showed disregard for his health emergency with a justification of “that’s how we treat the bad guys.” Explanations include how criminals always fake health emergencies to get out of going to jail. We see the same thinking in the illegal body cavity search that produced drugs. Since the individual was a criminal, the actions of the officers are easier to gloss over. Sure he was a bad cop, but not as bad as the drug dealer/user.

Since criminals are already operating outside the norms of society it is easy to further marginalize them. Flynn can say that the officers in Derek Williams case did nothing criminal under the cover of the wrong Williams did in fleeing from police. While this is unjust, it is easy to see how a divided city would still side with those who are called to serve and protect.

But Flynn’s leadership also is willing to disregard whole communities within this city. His recent remarks that college students are guests of Milwaukee and not citizens show how those without traditional power can be dismissed. He is willing to paint a whole demographic with the paintbrush of reckless lawbreakers. I have heard him describe the areas in the city with concentrated crime with the same disregard and broad strokes. And I have heard him describe Milwaukee’s youth in the same manner. Again, these are folks marginalized by their age, their income, their race. Now they are marginalized by the words and leadership of Chief Flynn.

Again, these are circumstances backed up with examples. Yes, students on the East side are sometimes disruptive. Yes, poor black neighborhoods have higher crime rates. Yes, youth are involved in crime. But this is the same argument that is at the core of our prejudices. Stereotypes often begin with a small reality and exaggerate it to a level where the extreme trumps the truth. Students are bad. Poor black neighborhoods (and neighbors) are unsafe. Youth can’t be trusted.

This is difficult enough, but the disregard doesn’t end there. In what is perhaps most troubling, Flynn is comfortable with disregard for victims. It is not the criminals or their communities alone that are dismissed, it is the victims of crime themselves. When crimes are misreported the victims suffer. When aggravated assault is called a minor crime, that’s a problem. When sexual assaults are called minor crimes, that is a huge problem. Violent crime has increased when Milwaukee Police’s statistics are correctly reported. Under reporting means victims suffer.

With the individuals that were innocent in the illegal strip searches, these victims clearly suffered. But it was Flynn’s inaction for years that allowed more victims to suffer. He said he waited for a pattern to emerge; apparently, 1 sexual assault by an officer does not warrant action. Victims suffer.

We see this in the story of Patricia Larry, mother of Darius Simmons, who was treated like a criminal rather than a victim. But the department says no rules were broken. Chief Flynn himself said of the Simmons care, “Six months from now, when our detectives are on the witness stand, no one’s going to care how compassionate they were at the crime scene.”  The Fire and Police commission report said, “mistakes we made, but…” All of the errors were in judgment but not in outcome. The report acknowledges the possible perception of racism while not admitting the actions of the police were indeed racist. Racism is typically not rooted in the intention (no one wakes up saying I’m going to be racist today); racism is in the action. This racism means victims suffer.

Chief Flynn is willing through his words, his inaction and his support of officer actions to disregard so many. If we allow this to remain a conversation of “us and them” his attitude can stay. But if we instead see the whole city as subject to this attitude, then we can work together to heal our city. This is not a black issue, a youth issue, a northside issue. This is a Milwaukee issue. The whole city is impacted by this. We are all involved.

Chief Flynn’s leadership sets a tone for the department and for police-community relations. His resignation or removal will not fix all the problems. It will not erase the reality of crime, the division in our city and the presence of bad cops. It will however send a clear message that we support the hard work our officers do. It says we will not allow the disregard of an appointed leader to jeopardize the work of those police on the street. It says we will hold bad cops accountable and we will value every member of the city of Milwaukee.