The God Who Takes Sides

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, your loving kindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord

“For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.” Isaiah 9:4.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. Matthew 4:23.

Chrystul Kizer, the teenager pictured above, is now nineteen years old. She was told in November of last year by Judge David P. Wilk in Kenosha County, Wisconsin that she must stand trial and face life in prison for murdering the man who sexually assaulted, imprisoned and forced her into a life of prostitution in her early teens. The crime was committed when Chrystul was just seventeen years old. You can read the full story in the Washington Post, December 17, 2019. The pertinent facts are as follows:

Chrystul was one of a few children born to a single mother who was herself a teenager when she gave birth to Chrystul. The family was living in Indiana and Chrystul’s mom was working to support herself and her family at several low paying jobs. Her on and off boyfriend was abusive both to her and to the children. Though the family contacted the police on several occasions when the boyfriend became particularly abusive, the responding officers would simply tell him he had to leave the premises-which he did, only to return a few days later. The family finally moved from Indiana to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to escape the situation. There they lived in a Salvation Army shelter for several weeks before finding an apartment.

By this time Chrystul was just sixteen years old and her life was beginning to unravel. Chrystul’s mother’s attention was consumed by Chrystul’s older brother who was having repeated scrapes with the law. Chrystul became involved with a young man three years her senior. Like her mother’s boyfriend, this young man was volatile and abusive. Though she left him several times, once after he was convicted for brutally assaulting her, she returned to him repeatedly because she felt she had no alternatives. At this vulnerable point in her life Chrystul met a thirty-three year old white man named Randy Volar over the website, “backpage.”[1]  Chrystul learned about backpage from a school friend and placed an add on the site hoping to raise money for “snacks and school supplies” in exchange for sex. Volar was the first to respond to the ad. He treated her with kindness at first, complementing her on her appearance and bringing her gifts. But his genuine motives became clear when he began pimping her to johns at cheap hotels and using her to produce child porn. When Chrystul told Volar she wanted out, he threatened to kill her.

In February of 2018, police arrested Volar on charges of child sexual assault, a felony punishable by up to forty years in state prison.  The police searched his home confiscating laptops, hard drives and memory cards, along with women’s pajamas, bikini bottoms and underwear. The hard drives contained hundreds of child pornography videos, featuring girls who appeared to be as young as twelve, and more than twenty videos of Volar with underage black girls-one of which was Chrystul. But on the same day police arrested Volar, they released him. Records indicate he paid no bail but was told he would be summoned to court. The court summons never came. He remained free until Chrystul, then 17, went to his house one night in June and allegedly shot him in the head, twice. She lit his body on fire, police said, and fled in his car. She was ultimately apprehended, arrested and held on $1 million bail.

Most states, Wisconsin included, have a law that gives sex-trafficking victims an “affirmative defense” if they can prove at trial they committed a crime because they were being trafficked. In most cases, however, the law has been applied to charges of prostitution or theft committed at the command of the trafficker. The defense has never been interpreted as applicable to homicide. Consequently, Judge Wilk held the defense inapplicable and ordered that Chrystul be tried for premeditated murder as an adult.  “The court is satisfied that a blanket affirmative defense to all acts leads to an absurd result,” said the judge. He stated further that ruling in Chrystul’s favor would set a “dangerous precedent.”

Damned right it would. It would be a dangerous precedent for male celebrities, CEOs and United States Presidents who seem to think that they are entitled to the bodies of any young girl they fancy. It would be a frightening precedent to male Senators and their accomplices who put an attempted rapist on the Supreme Court despite what everyone acknowledged as the credible testimony of his victim. Acquiting Chrystul would send a message to law enforcement that the lives of Black girls matter and when they find out that someone is sexually abusing them, they had damned well better do something to stop it. With all due respect to Judge Wilk,[2] acquitting Chrystul would not have been “an absurd result.” The absurd result is further punishing this young woman, whose childhood was stolen from her by a brutal predator, by robbing her of the rest of her life. This ruling reeks of racism, injustice and utter cruelty.

Thanks be to God, Judge Wilk’s decision has been overruled. It was, in fact, overruled twenty-six hundred years ago by the prophet Isaiah who declared the release of the captives, the breaking of the yoke of servitude and the liberation of the oppressed from the rod of the oppressor. It was overruled when Jesus emerged from the wilderness and began “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” God’s verdict has been spoken. To the “cruel majority” of which the poet sings and those of us who benefit from its systemic injustice, this precedent is dangerous and downright scary. But seen from the perspective of people like Chrystul, the news couldn’t be any better. The only question remaining is where we choose to stand.

Some might say that the connections I have drawn here between sexual predators, law enforcement procedures, purveyors of sexist jokes, the confirmation decisions of United States Senators and the predatory acts of our President are tenuous. I disagree. Men like Randy Volar do not materialize out of thin air. They are encouraged and enabled by a culture that devalues women. They find support in the growing chorus of misogynist voices that have become louder, bolder and increasingly found within the “main stream.” Their predatory behavior is reinforced by a criminal justice system that minimizes the worth and credibility of people of color while favoring that of white people. As long as men are convinced that they can victimize women with impunity and, more particularly, women of color, we can expect travesties like the ruling in Chrystul’s case to continue.

It is all well and good for churches to issue social statements condemning racism and misogyny. But that only goes so far. What needs to happen is for ordinary people to shine “a great light” into the dark corners of bars, bowling alleys, coatrooms, boardrooms, police precinct lounges and, yes, church potlucks, parking lots and committee meetings where racist and sexist jokes, language and attitudes too often find a safe haven for expression.  It’s time to break the embarrassed silence when Uncle Ned airs his racist opinions at the family reunion because, well-that’s just Uncle Ned and we don’t want to make a scene. We jolly well do want to make a scene. It is time for pastors to stop speaking in generalities and start naming names. So if our bishops will not condemn as heretics evangelical religious leaders referring to Donald Trump in nearly messianic terms and the United States as God’s chosen people, I will. If the Southern Poverty Law Institute will not declare the GOP a hate group, I will. If no one else will go so far as to say that everyone who pulled the lever for Donald Trump on November 8, 2016 owes a sincere apology to their wives, mothers and all the other women in their lives, I will. Lasting cultural change does not begin with elections, landmark legislation or mass protests. It begins with people on the ground deciding that the status quo is intolerable and saying so-whenever and wherever they can.

I understand that what I have said might be taken as “judgmental,” “divisive” and “polarizing.” Some might say that I am hindering dialogue and reconciliation within the Body of Christ. That might be so. But there comes a time when one has to choose between peace in the ecclesiastical household and justice in God’s world. Sometimes, you have to choose between freeing the slaves and preserving the union. Sometimes you have to decide whether you will stand with people like Chrystul or go on placating the powers that keep her imprisoned. I think I know where the God of the Exodus stands.

Here is a poem by Jerome Rothenberg reflecting all too well the prevailing conditions of our time that yield up victims like Chrystul. May the people who walk in darkness know the light of Christ!

A Poem for the Cruel Majority

The cruel majority emerges!

Hail to the cruel majority!

They will punish the poor for being poor.
They will punish the dead for having died.

Nothing can make the dark turn into light
for the cruel majority.
Nothing can make them feel hunger or terror.

If the cruel majority would only cup their ears
the sea would wash over them.
The sea would help them forget their wayward children.
It would weave a lullaby for young & old.

(See the cruel majority with hands cupped to their ears,
one foot is in the water, one foot is on the clouds.)

One man of them is large enough to hold a cloud
between his thumb & middle finger,
to squeeze a drop of sweat from it before he sleeps.

He is a little god but not a poet.
(See how his body heaves.)

The cruel majority love crowds & picnics.
The cruel majority fill up their parks with little flags.
The cruel majority celebrate their birthday.

Hail to the cruel majority again!

The cruel majority weep for their unborn children,
they weep for the children that they will never bear.
The cruel majority are overwhelmed by sorrow.

(Then why are the cruel majority always laughing?
Is it because night has covered up the city’s walls?
Because the poor lie hidden in the darkness?
The maimed no longer come to show their wounds?)

Today the cruel majority vote to enlarge the darkness.

They vote for shadows to take the place of ponds
Whatever they vote for they can bring to pass.
The mountains skip like lambs for the cruel majority.

Hail to the cruel majority!
Hail! hail! to the cruel majority!

The mountains skip like lambs, the hills like rams.
The cruel majority tear up the earth for the cruel majority.
Then the cruel majority line up to be buried.

Those who love death will love the cruel majority.

Those who know themselves will know the fear
the cruel majority feel when they look in the mirror.

The cruel majority order the poor to stay poor.
They order the sun to shine only on weekdays.

The god of the cruel majority is hanging from a tree.
Their god’s voice is the tree screaming as it bends.
The tree’s voice is as quick as lightning as it streaks across the sky.

(If the cruel majority go to sleep inside their shadows,
they will wake to find their beds filled up with glass.)

Hail to the god of the cruel majority!
Hail to the eyes in the head of their screaming god!

Hail to his face in the mirror!

Hail to their faces as they float around him!

Hail to their blood & to his!

Hail to the blood of the poor they need to feed them!
Hail to their world & their god!

Hail & farewell!
Hail & farewell!
Hail & farewell!

Source: Rothenberg, Jerome, A Paradise of Poets, (c. 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998, 1999 by Jerome Rothenberg, pub. by New Directions Publishing Corp.). Jerome Rothenberg is an American poet, translator and anthologist. He is the son of Polish-Jewish immigrant parents and was born in New York City. He attended the City College of New York and received his master’s degree in literature from the University of Michigan in 1953. Rothenberg served in the U.S. Army in Mainz, Germany from 1953 to 1955, after which he did further graduate study at Columbia University. He published translations of German poets, including the first English translation of poems by Paul Celan and Günter Grass. He also founded Hawk’s Well Press and the magazines Poems from the Floating World and some/thing. He currently lives in San Diego, California. You can read more about Jerome Rothenberg and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

[1] “Backpage” was a classified advertising website that had become the largest marketplace for buying and selling sex by the time that federal law enforcement agencies seized it in April 2018.

[2] I do not mean to suggest that the judge in this case is solely responsible for Chrystul’s cruel fate. From what I can see in the record, Judge Wilk gave this matter considerable thought before rendering his ruling. Judges are required to interpret the law as it is, not as what, in their opinion, it ought to be. Moreover, one can hardly expect judges to rule justly when the defendants brought before them have been arrested, charged and processed under a criminal justice system infected with racism and weighted heavily against people of color. This is a classic example of what we say in our confessional liturgy, namely, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” In a very real sense, individuals cannot be anymore just than the society of which they are a part.

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