Regardless of our politics, surely we can agree that 2016 was a brutal year. What made it so ugly were the steady expressions of hatred against every imaginable group – African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, Middle-Eastern refugees, Asians, LGBTQs – and a litany of others. It is not an exaggeration to brand 2016 as “The Year of the Scapegoat.” We use here theologian René Girard’s definition of scapegoating: “the strange process through which two or more people are reconciled at the expense of a third party or who appears responsible for whatever ails, disturbs, or frightens the scapegoats.”
Religious views matter when it comes to drug policy in this country. That’s why it was significant when Rev. Franklin Graham, who inherited his father’s evangelical network about 15 years ago, came out strongly against marijuana legalization three weeks ago. The timing of his announcement is no surprise. In the last two years, four states have voted to tax and regulate marijuana, thereby eliminating sanctions for low-level possession and use. Voters in five more states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada) will consider similar ballot initiatives on election day November 8. Rev. Graham intends to campaign across the nation in the next two months to urge people of faith to vote “No.”
As we head into the deep summer days of August, let’s take a moment to celebrate a major step forward for drug policy. Illinois has just become the 21st state to decriminalize the possession of low levels of marijuana. We are grateful for the more than 50 Illinois clergy who have signed the Religious Declaration of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, which includes marijuana decriminalization on our agenda. We thank the more than 30 who petitioned Governor Rauner to sign the bill after the General Assembly had passed it in mid-May. Based on the testimony from those who worked on this bill in Springfield, our voices made a difference.
“Theology and Peace” is an informal association of pastors, theologians, and lay people that seeks to advance the intellectual work of philosopher Rene Girard as the basis for transforming North American Christianity. On May 24-26, this group held its 9th annual conference in Northbrook, Illinois on the topic “People and Policing: Compassion for OUR Violence.” CNDP Project Coordinator Rev. Kathryn Ray offers the following reflection. “My son was about two years old. I had taken him to the park to play… Two little boys, one blond-haired, the other red-headed, ran down to the car where my son was playing. Seeing them coming, my son immediately jumped out… The little red-headed boy… saw my son looking on… With all the venom that a seven- or eight-year-old boy could muster, he pointed his finger at my son and said, ‘You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong. … At two years old my son was already viewed as a criminal.” (pp. 86-7) In her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas shares this story to illustrate the depth to which the criminalization of African-American men and boys has permeated the American psyche. In 2012, a neighborhood watch captain singled out Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, as “suspicious” character, pursued him, and killed him. In acquitting his killer, the jury determined this characterization to be justified. Trayvon Martin had not committed a crime. But like Kelly Brown Douglas’s son, he had been criminalized- he had been named “criminal” by another. The label led to his murder.
State legislators in Rhode Island are considering whether their state should become the fifth in the nation to legalize marijuana. On May 10, the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Providence, Thomas J. Tobin, issued a public commentary in opposition. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, offers this letter in response.