Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tragedy and Injustice

Earlier today I tweeted the following:

How tragic! The death of #PhilandoCastile, no matter the officer's state of mind, is a great injustice.

It's a deep and controversial subject, and the subsequent conversation has motivated me to teach a bit more about the question of tragedy and injustice. I'll start with a table and some examples.

  Just Unjust
Tragic Branch Davidians Michael Morton
Not Tragic Nadir Hamid Soofi Wayne DuMond

Just, but Tragic

The use of deadly force against the Branch Davidians was just. I do not mean to offer an opinion about their initial entry into the compound. That's above my pay grade. But after the police say, "Come out with your hands up," and you shoot back at them, whatever happens next is on you.

That having been said, this situation is nonetheless tragic. Women and children died because they had been deceived by a religious huckster. Even if the situation is just, it is tragic.

Just and Not Tragic

Nadir Hamid Soofi went to shoot up a Garland conference dedicated to drawing cartoons of the Mohammed. Killing non-Muslims was his goal, but he failed. Instead, his final action on this earth was to learn some interesting and relevant facts about Texas.

His death was just. He was trying to kill people in the commission of a felony.

His death was not tragic. He was an evil man caught being evil. Although there is a deeper level at which I mourn the existence of false religion and the wayward state of mankind, Soofi's death was, in the simplest and most superficial sense, a thing worth celebrating (and celebrating the death of the wicked who pose harm to others is not a matter without biblical support).

Unjust and Tragic

Michael Morton went to prison for 25 years for the murder of his wife, although he did not murder his wife. He has subsequently been exonerated (story here). I know people who know him. I know of no reason to doubt his story.

Morton has suffered an injustice. Twenty-five years of his life he was deprived of his freedom for a crime that he did not commit.

The injustice that Morton has suffered is tragic. Almost all injustices are going to wind up being tragic, although…

Unjust, but Not Tragic

Wayne DuMond raped a Forrest City, Arkansas, cheerleader in 1984. Not long afterwards, men broke into DuMond's home and cut off…well, he never raped anyone else after that. Sheriff Coolidge Conley had something of a reputation in the area (I grew up in Northeast Arkansas). He kept in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk DuMond's…uh…evidence. Local opinion was that Conley had something to do with what happened to DuMond. I'm in no position to say one way or the other who assaulted DuMond, but for the sake of our thinking exercise here, let's assume that the Sheriff's office actually did this.

DuMond suffered an injustice. We do not try crimes in this way. We do not execute cruel and unusual punishment like this. What happened to DuMond was unjust.

There is nothing tragic about it. Although I do not affirm Hinduism or Buddhism, every once in a while even I want to say, "Karma, baby!"

Tragedy and Injustice

So, the major point of this blog post is to show that tragedy and injustice are separate things, somewhat independent of one another.

The death of Philando Castille is, I think, both an injustice and a tragedy. It is an injustice because I think the evidence leads us to conclude that Castille had not committed a crime and was not actually trying to draw his gun to shoot anyone, yet he is dead. It is a tragedy because here is a person who was just driving down the road one moment and was dead the next.

It is helpful to identify injustice like this because (a) justice is a biblical and theological concept that we need to learn, (b) it builds unity when we know that we all see the injustice in this matter, (c) we ought to want a society that is more just (right?), and you can't improve if you can't identify what needs improving.


We cannot easily assign blame for all injustice. Some injustice happens because we are not good enough. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Sometimes people perpetrate injustice on purpose because their hearts are evil.

Some injustice happens because we are not wise enough. The more complicated the situation, the more wisdom we require to accomplish perfect justice. But eventually we face a situation complicated enough to make us realize that we are not God and that we are not capable of accomplishing perfect justice. We will have to wait for Heaven for that. Thus, there is a level of injustice that happens even when everyone tries their dead-level best. Some of these DNA exonerations have proven this point.

When should police officers face criminal prosecution for an unjust death? People who knew and loved a victim feel one way about this question. Police officers tend to feel another way about it. I'd like to address the question in terms of what accomplishes the most justice overall, and I'd like to do it in terms that move things away from police officers (who make up only a portion of the population) toward an experience common to most of us.

In the Michael Morton story told above, a jury sentenced him to prison. Should those jurors be held responsible for his unjust imprisonment? Knowing that you might very well serve on a criminal jury some day, under what circumstances do you think that a jury member ought to be liable to criminal prosecution?

A juror can be convicted of juror misconduct in a number of scenarios. All of these involve explicitly violating the orders of the presiding judge. But we do not prosecute jurors criminally for simply getting it wrong. This is true in spite of the fact that we know (from pretty compelling statistics) that juries get it wrong in predictable ways. This is true in spite of the fact that real people suffer real harm when juries make mistakes. This is in spite of the fact that not all jurors serve equally well and not all jurors try equally hard. Why don't we put jurors in jail when they cause injustice?

The answer is pretty simple: Would you ever agree to serve on a jury if you could be imprisoned for making an unintentional mistake? If you could not avoid serving, would you ever vote to convict anyone of a crime if there were a chance that five years from now you wound up in prison because something shed some new light on the case? Probably not.

And so, the overall effect of harsh punishment against jurors for their mistakes would be less justice. Some particular defendant might get more justice in his individual case (those jurors who took away 5 years of my life will have to pay for what they have done), but the resulting damage to the justice system would mean less justice in the aggregate (Wow! Nobody gets convicted of ANYTHING any more! Especially not people with the monetary or political resources to get charges brought against jurors in the future).

In the same way, if we start sending police officers to jail left and right for honest mistakes that they make on duty, who's going to want to serve as a police officer? And even if some people take the job, are they going to stop responding to calls that they think might lead to difficult choices? Are they going to stop going into neighborhoods where they worry that they are going to face extra scrutiny? If that happens, does life become better or worse for everyone in society? Does everyone get more justice or less justice in that scenario? Who suffers the most from an understaffed or under-confident police force: people who live in high-crime neighborhoods or people who live in low-crime neighborhoods?

I do not think that Philando Castille was trying to do anyone any harm. The evidence does not support a claim to the contrary. Any fear or bias that keeps us from mourning his death is a bad thing. I do not think that Jeronimo Yanez was out looking to do anyone any harm that day. The evidence does not support a claim to the contrary. This looks quite different from what happened in Balch Springs, for example. It is possible for an unjust death to happen when a police officer does everything by the book. I think that both Castille and Yanez were frightened. I think that the end was tragic. I think that what happened to Castille was not fair and was not just. He didn't deserve it. Let us strive to do better. But I accept the verdict of the jury, and I do not think that imprisoning the police officer in this case would have given us greater justice.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Considering SBC Polity in Light of the Alt-Right Resolution

In May 2017, Pastor Dwight McKissic published to the Internet a proposed resolution in condemnation of the Alt-Right. At some time before the deadline mandated in the Southern Baptist Convention's bylaws, Dwight submitted that resolution to the convention's Committee on Resolutions. That committee can do one of three things with proposed resolutions. First, they can decide that they like the resolution so much that they will publish it without any alterations whatsoever. Second, they can change the resolution in any way they like (delete sections they do not like, add language that they think is missing that would be helpful, merge one resolution with another resolution, etc.) and then publish an alternate resolution inspired by the proposed resolution. Third, they can decline to consider the resolution, publishing nothing at all related to the resolution's content.

At this week's Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the report from the Committee on Resolutions indicated that the committee had declined to take action on Dwight's proposed resolution. Dwight challenged the report from the floor. The messengers voted twice NOT to heed Dwight's challenge but instead to honor the committee's proposal. Then, late Tuesday night, the committee changed its mind and recommended that the convention consider a revised resolution inspired by Dwight's original resolution and submitted in a newly added second report from the committee. The convention overwhelmingly agreed to receive the second report and then overwhelmingly voted to approve the new resolution.

The bigger issues in play this week are those of racism and the alt-right. Not familiar with the alt-right? Joe Carter's explainer gives you all the information that you need, or you can go visit Twitter and see how these cretins have dealt with SBC Pastors' Conference speaker Chris Davis…

…with Micah Fries…

…or with Thabiti Anyabwile…

The SBC has voted overwhelmingly to reject and condemn the alt-right movement, which these tweets exemplify.

And yet, is the Convention's stand clear? We took four votes. Two of them overwhelmingly (in effect) opposed Dwight's resolution. Two of them overwhelmingly supported the very similar substitute resolution offered by the committee. These votes contradict one another, yet they came from the same messenger body within the same 24-hour period. How can we explain this? Which vote actually represents the viewpoint of the SBC?

I will start with the obvious: Any time any deliberative body experiences an outcome like this, something is wrong with the way in which it makes decisions.

That doesn't mean that everything is wrong with the way in which it makes decisions. But polity (the way that a group makes decisions) has malfunctioned whenever a group makes decisive, self-contradictory decisions in response to a situation, the basic reality of which has not changed. If things like that happen regularly—and they do at the SBC—then it is time for the group to examine how well its polity is working for it. I believe that Southern Baptists should consider making changes to the way that we presently conduct our resolutions process.

How Our Polity Currently Works

Some of what I am about to describe is our formal polity (that is, the rules that are written in our governing documents). Some of what I am about to describe is our informal polity (that is, where our written rules give us freedom to do things in more than one way, the preferred way that we almost always choose to follow). This is the way that we pursue our resolutions process.

  1. When you go to a microphone, you lose more than you win. My personal batting average from the microphones on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention is .000 and I'm in good company. Our messengers are highly skeptical of affirming things from the floor that they aren't expecting and that they haven't fully considered.

  2. The messengers approve whatever the Committee on Resolutions recommends. Do you want to make sense of those four self-contradictory votes? Here you go: On each occasion the messengers voted to sustain the committee's recommendation.

    This reality, you might think, makes the people on the Committee on Resolutions very powerful. In a way, you'd be right. These are people who get to tell the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention what they should say that their collective opinion is, and the messengers do as they are told.

    And yet, there is a way in which this reality makes the Committee on Resolutions less powerful. How? Because fiascos like what happened this week, although they leave the Committee on Resolutions pretty much in charge of the resolutions that we adopt, make those resolutions less significant. Resolutions are important only to the degree that they represent the considered opinion of the aggregation of messengers who attend the convention's annual meetings. If that idea is a farce—if the messengers are lifting their ballots mindlessly, solely as a show of solidarity with the personalities on the platform or the institutional momentum of a committee—then the more widely that farce is revealed to be a farce, the less power our resolutions (and by extension, our Committee on Resolutions) actually have.

    Already we have resolutions on appreciation and other resolutions that messengers approve with about the same gravitas that we intend when we begin conversations with "How are you doing?" How many of the ballots cast for other, weightier resolutions are waving in the air with the same level of consideration behind them?

  3. The resolutions report comes too late for the messengers reasonably to do otherwise. Messengers arrive at the Annual Meeting each year with nary a clue as to what resolutions the Committee on Resolutions will recommend that we adopt. Often, the messengers do not receive the text of the resolutions to consider until the morning of the very day on which they will be expect to vote on them. Resolutions can be numerous. Resolutions can be lengthy. The text of proposed-but-declined resolutions (like the one Dwight submitted) do not appear in the report at all, nor does any rationale for the decision that the committee reached.

    The messengers do usually have at least an hour to read the proposed resolutions, research the issues raised therein, and form an opinion. Of course, every minute of the time that they have is time with which they are supposed to be doing something else. They are supposed to be praying. They are supposed to be listening to a sermon. They are supposed to be voting on other matters that come before them. They are supposed to be watching a video or singing a worship song. They have breakout meetings and group luncheons to attend. Time allocated in the annual meeting for people to read proposed resolutions before voting on them? Zero minutes.

    And so, almost everyone voting on Resolution #6 has not read Resolution #6. Our messengers, generally speaking, are voting on our resolutions in the dark.

    Next year I think I'll submit a resolution against Congress's voting on measures that the members of Congress haven't read, just to bask in the irony of it all.

  4. The Committee on Resolutions meets too late to propose resolutions any earlier. This year the Committee on Resolutions met on the Thursday before the Annual Meeting began. They met and met and met up through and including the arduous session on Tuesday night just to discharge their duty.

    I have never served on the SBC Committee on Resolutions, but I have both served on and chaired the SBTC Committee on Resolutions. If you haven't done so, do not hastily conclude that it is not much work. We considered the theological aspect of each resolution. What does the Bible say? What have Christians written and thought about the relevant issues down through the ages? We asked whether our convention had previously gone on the record with a viewpoint about the issue in question and about whether a new statement was needed. We explored the political implications of each resolution. Would the adoption of this resolution amount to the taking of a partisan stand by the convention? Sometimes it is appropriate to do so—is this one of those times? We explored the impact of the resolution from the vantage point of our diverse family of churches. How would the various sub-groupings within the convention react to the resolution? We explored the impact of the resolution from the vantage point of people outside our convention. What effect would it have on our relationships with other denominations? With lost people?

    And then, after all of that work had been concluded on each and every resolution, we went over the final products reviewing grammar, syntax, rhetorical effect, and logical consistency.

    I completely used up a red pen.

    This kind of work takes time. It also takes down-time to do it well. If done straight through in marathon sessions, this process does a grave disservice to the twenty-third resolution that the beleaguered committee considers. There is simply no way, meeting on the schedule that it presently follows, that the Committee on Resolutions can bring a report to the convention body any earlier than it presently does.

  5. The deadline for the submission of resolutions comes too late for the Committee on Resolutions to work much earlier. The convention president does not have to create the Committee on Resolutions until 75 days before the convention. This year, that works out to March 30. So, the committee does not even have to exist until March 30.

    Once the committee is in place, the Executive Committee can start to receive resolutions as early as April 15, but the deadline for receiving resolutions is not until 15 days before the start of the Annual Meeting. This year, that works out to May 29, or Memorial Day. The members of the committee hardly had any time to meet prior to their pre-convention meeting starting on June 8.

    These committee members already come to the Annual Meeting at least three days ahead of everyone else. They are already in the convention city for more than a week. I don't know about you, but for my part, prior to being out of town for a week on convention business, I need a few days in the office to try to get things ready at home for my absence. We cannot expect that the Committee on Resolutions should schedule another meeting between May 29 and June 8.

    Furthermore, even if they did so, I do not know how much of a difference it would make. If they were to have released the resolutions report on June 9, by that time the preponderance of messengers who are going to attend the convention are caught up in their own preparations to attend the convention or travel to the convention site. They are already busy.

How It Could Be Different

I offer the following just as a thought-exercise. How could our resolutions process look different? How could we have better, less confusing, less-likely-to-grab-the-wrong-headlines processes each year in the development of our resolutions?

Concept One: The only resolutions worth passing are those that represent the carefully considered position of the messengers.

What happened at SBC17? We voted first, then considered the vote second. That's the wrong order in which to do things, and that SBC17 transpired in this order is indisputable. That's why we wound up voting again. When we operate in this way, we delegitimize the whole process.

Instead we need to operate in this order: Careful consideration of each resolution comes first, then comes voting. Operating in this order empowers the messengers, and I believe that our system needs to work harder to empower the messengers. If anything ever tempts me to get more involved in the work of our Annual Meeting it is the idea that by doing so I would be able to empower messengers.

Once upon a time people started a discussion at SBC Voices proposing my name as a candidate for the presidency of the SBC. I demurred, but along the way I stated that if I ever were president of the SBC, my focus would be upon performing well the constitutional duties of the presidency rather than devoting all of my time and attention to the bully-pulpit or public-relations aspects of the job. When I said that, Dwight McKissic very kindly said that he would be supportive of the idea of my serving as president, but not if I solely wanted to be a "caretaker president."

Dwight, might I offer a kindly rebuttal at an opportune time? I think if we did a little more of what you have termed "caretaking"—if we would work a little bit on our process and if we would try hard to make our process empower the messengers more, remove barriers, and advocate for a fair hearing of their sentiments—without becoming an agenda-driven president, our presiding officer might free the messengers to become more effective as agenda-driven messengers. Isn't that how things ought to be in a deliberative body like our own, with the messengers setting the agenda and the president protecting their rights?

President Steve Gaines did a masterful and statesmanlike job of steering our ship away from the icebergs this week, but the better system is the one that doesn't often require such craft at the helm, is it not? Wouldn't it be better to avoid these chaotic situations from the get-go by having a better process?

I think we need to alter our process such that the good deliberation that took place Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning could have taken place before we had ever taken the first vote.

Concept Two: The deliberations of the Committee on Resolutions should take place much earlier and with greater transparency.

Let me cut to the chase: I don't see any reason why the Committee on Resolutions couldn't publish their full set of recommendations in May.

I think that the Committee on Resolutions should meet in conjunction with every SBC Executive Committee meeting. The committee should accept resolutions throughout the year. The deadline for the submission of resolutions to the Annual Meeting should be one month before the Spring meeting of the Executive Committee.

Two weeks before each Executive Committee meeting, the Committee on Resolutions should publish the full text of all proposed resolutions that it has received since its last publication and should solicit public comment from messengers from SBC churches, providing a form through which churches could submit their feedback. That form should employ some of the same safeguards that presently are in place for online registration of messengers.

At the Spring meeting of the committee, based upon the feedback that they have received and based upon their own deliberations, the committee should adopt their report. This they should submit for grammatical review. They should be able to take an electronic vote to affirm changes in grammar or style. Then they should publish the entire report well in advance of the annual meeting. I think a May 15 submission deadline would be well within reach.

What about late-breaking matters? What if we needed to speak to a major event that happened only in the latter weeks of May (for example, to express sympathy in the wake of a major terrorist attack)? The Committee on Resolutions should meet with the Executive Committee on the Monday before the SBC Annual Meeting convenes on Tuesday. Any last-minute resolutions that they wish to propose should require the approval of two thirds of the Executive Committee before being allowed onto the floor of the convention for consideration. Only those resolutions about which we are overwhelmingly agreed should be able to short-circuit the process.

Concept Three: We should only have dispute about resolutions when we are genuinely divided about their content.

Southern Baptists are not divided about the white supremacists in the alt-right. The latter two votes revealed that. What has been damaging to our convention is the fact that we wound up having a dispute over matters about which we are not genuinely divided.

The procedure that I have suggested above would not eliminate all dispute over resolutions within our convention. Sometimes we do not at all agree. When we face resolutions related to our disagreements, we will still dispute with one another over those disagreements. Even in those circumstances, however, our disputations will be better informed, and perhaps we will conduct them in the light of careful consideration rather than in the heat of partisanship and misinformation.

In general, we messengers to our conventions give too little consideration to our polity, I think. We tend not to give it credit when it helps us to conduct business well. We tend not to give it due blame when it hinders us from conducting our business well. We tend to heap plaudits or condemnations upon the people involved rather than ask whether we could organize better and achieve better outcomes.

Certainly, there is a place to praise or criticize the people involved. The best people will make a bad system work better; the worst people will make a good system work worse. But all other things being equal, even the best people will face problems when they are working through a flawed system. Sometimes I think that description fits well the people of the Southern Baptist Convention.