In a nation increasingly alarmed by violence, we need less violent and more humanizing language in our debates, discussions and disagreements. We do not show our “better angels” when we advance attack ads, slander character and seek to destroy opponents.
Rather, we demonstrate a cultural inability to handle disagreements—from the politics of our nation to the streets of our cities.
For that reason, we ask our politicians to show their better angels in all discourse.
Recently, Michael Nutter, the mayor of my city—Philadelphia— called the perpetrators of violence “idiots” and worse, stating that we will “track you down like the dogs you are.”
Mayor Nutter exudes passion when it comes to the violence that ends the lives of young black males, and he clearly recognizes the human and emotional cost that street violence brings to city neighborhoods. But like many who stand on the right side of seeking peace, he gave in to his lesser angels
As a Philadelphia minister, I continue to applaud and support the mayor’s work to reduce violence in our city. But as a person of faith, I reject any dehumanizing language that reduces our young people, especially our young men, to anything less than human beings created in the image of God.
The mayor is right: the violence is unacceptable, and I salute his ongoing attention to the matter while so many others only “came to faith” after Newtown.
But we need humanizing language that points to the possibility and reality of redemption.
Violent young men can change.
So many people read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and become engrossed in the historical narrative surrounding mass incarceration that they miss her concluding chapter’s call for a humanization of the criminal justice system.
She argues that our system does not recognize the humanity of inmates, even the humanity of staff persons, who occupy the spaces we call prisons and jails.
The faith community offers this consensus: all people are created by God in God’s image, and should be treated and respected as such. Christianity, Judaism and Islam converge on the point of the Creator ‘s love for creation. Violence against that creation receives condemnation.
Our nation’s preoccupation with dehumanization and violence provides opportunity for the faith community to offer an alternative. Our affirmation of the dignity of all human beings critiques not only the violence of the streets and its perpetrators, but the dehumanization of persons, even when perpetrated by our political system and its leaders.
Countless studies show how the violence we consider to be criminal behavior finds root in the inability to resolve conflict.
Simply put, “beefs” lead to violence, whether they reflect gang activity, dating relationships, or maters of “respect” (or even, in one recent Philadelphia shooting, which team you favor).
In the video documentary “A Justice that Heals,” Steve Young, the father of a murder victim, bemoans that young people use readily available “handguns” to settle schoolyard disputes. David Kennedy ‘s important book-length plea “Don’t Shoot” contains the story of a Boston street worker marveling that he had seen a fistfight after so many years of conflict resolved at the end of a gun barrel.
Conflict resolution is a problem. But name-calling reflects not only frustration, but an escalation of conflict.
Can the faith community provide leadership in the humanization of all involved in the matter? Can we speak of the humanity of young man involved in violent behavior? Can we offer alternatives to violence, whether proffered by rhetoric or rifle, word or weapon, Uzi or utterance?
One part of the answer lies in our ability to reassess our own uncritical use of violent language in colloquial references to preaching which “wrecks the house” and “kills” the congregation—as Theresa Fry Brown, a professor at Emory University, has noted.
Another rests in developing strategies of conflict resolution within our communities of faith that pay homage to those of opposing views as human beings worthy of our love. There have been too many instances where people who come to church from “the streets” lament the congregational battles as too reminiscent of the violence and confrontation they wished to escape.
No, the best we have to offer in the community of faith is a humanizing language, a humanizing culture and a humanizing engagement.
Those whose violent behavior we abhor are still human beings whom the Creator loves. Our language and behavior toward them constitute the ground upon which we can reach and engage them.
“Don’t Shoot” author David Kennedy’s affirmation that gang members both respond to rational argument and fear the violence of the streets points to the humanity of the worst of our perpetrators of violence and argues that they are not beyond the pale of our reach.
But our view of them must fit our religious affirmations. They are not dogs: they are men—and women. They can be redeemed, they can be productive. A nation which nurtures a culture of revenge, as ethicist T. Richard Snyder argues in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment— falls short in its capacity to restore those whose behavior we abhor.
There is another way.
I recently attended a meeting of the steering committee of the Third Annual Lonnie McLeod Symposium, an annual gathering of faith communities to mobilize for prisoner reentry. McLeod’s widow, Jacqueline, convened a group of us to set the agenda for faith communities to embrace and empower men like her late husband whose lives had been redeemed from violence and death.
As I looked around the room, I realized that while all of us had criminal records, I was the only “skid bid”(person with a relatively short–1-2 years–sentence) in the room.
Everyone else had served major time as the consequence of a violent action. I also noted that each person in the room had been transformed through a relationship with some person who had affirmed their humanity and seen them not as a dog, but a person.
Can we as people of faith offer the same hope of reconciliation? Can we look beyond the dehumanizing stereotypes?
Can we reconnect with our friends and family members who continue to sell the noise on the streets by remembering the days when they were baptized or dedicated, sang in the children’s choir, went to Sunday School and played on the streets they now make dangerous?
The men organizing the Lonnie McLeod Symposium say yes.
Harold Dean Trulear, a regular contributor to TCR, is director of Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Initiative, and Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University. He welcomes comments from readers.