Sentencing Disparity in the American Oligarchy

Judge T.S. Ellis’s lenient sentence of Paul Manafort came as a jolt. It should not have. I know better. So do you.

I am an ordained minister of the gospel who has spent lots of time in courtrooms. It was a short step from pulpits of privilege to a criminal defense law firm founded by the American Indian Movement and African-American civil rights center. I left the pulpit, but the faith that points to an essential human dignity went with me. Irrespective of the seriousness of the charges and crimes, I saw, or tried to see, a dignity and worth in defendants no court sentence can take away.

Legal Rights Center clients convicted of serious crimes were sentenced to the state prisons, about as far from the comforts of federal prisons as their neighborhoods were from gated communities and country clubs.

Unlike the inmates of Faribault and Stillwater who have been found guilty of street crimes, a great number of the guests of the federal correctional system are doing time for white collar crimes. There’s a world of difference. Yet, as to sentence disparity, they are the same.

Comparing Judge Ellis’s 13 year sentence of African-American Congressman William J. Jefferson (D) from Louisiana in 2009 with the 47 month sentence of the former chair of the president’s presidential campaign committee draws attention to the ugly realities of race and class we often see but quickly forget or choose not to see at all.

We do not live in a democracy; we live in an oligarchy—
“government by the few, especially despotic power exercised
by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish
purposes.” I’ve been waiting for people in high places to say it.

Goldman Sachs executives’ testimony Tuesday before the
Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations4 brought the
elephant into the living room, but the name of this species of government remains unspoken for understandable reasons.

A democratic republic is a constitutional form of government
where the people rule through their elected representatives
gathered in deliberative bodies. The faces and voices of Goldman
Sachs’s executives demonstrated the intransigent arrogance of the
private institutional concentration of the wealth and power of deregulated capitalism.

The matter is growing more serious.

The “small and privileged group” that operates corruptly and
selfishly knows that elections are bought and sold in America. No
one gets elected without big money. Goldman Sachs executives’ testimony Tuesday before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations brought the elephant into the living room, but the name of this species of government remains unspoken for understandable reasons.

Excerpt, gordon c. stewart, “The american oligarchy — 4/29/10,” p.126, Be Still! Departure from collective madness (2017, wipf & stock).

Nine years after publishing The American Oligarchy, the reality is, for the most part, the same. But there is a difference. The selfishness of “despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes” (Encylopaedia Brittanica definition of oligarchy) feels heavier now. The judge’s lenient sentence of Paul Manafort caught me off-guard. How quickly we forget!

“The American Oligarchy” was first published by MinnPost.com with the title “They may squirm in hearings, but Wall Street Oligarchs know who has he power.” With Minnpost’s generous copyright permission, it became one of Be Still!’s 49 essays on faith and the news.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 9, 2019.

Ode to Mama

Leah Thomas and family

Leah Thomas and family

Leah Thomas was known as “Mama” by her clients. She was an attorney at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis when she “fainted” at a coffee shop on her way to work. This poem was read at her funeral. We called her Mama because she treated the “juvenile offenders” she represented as though they were her own children. Leah’s older brother had been a member of the Black Panthers in Chicago.

ODE TO LEAH THOMAS

Like light
Like joy
Like sun breaking through a storm
Her laughter
Brightens the room
Breaks the ice
Fills it with peace.

Mama walks lightly
Amid the trials and the cares
Quick as a black panther
Steady as a turtle
She coos the tenderness of
the turtle dove
walks with the strength of a lion.

With steady hand
With sturdy faith
And clarity of mind
She laughs
And soars her craft
Through clouds and storms
To lead us on and through.

Like light,
Like joy,
Like sun breaking through a storm,
She laughs,
She brightens the room,
She wipes our tears
She fills us with her peace.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Executive Director, Legal Rights Center, Feb. 1, 2005.

Into the Cocoon of Sorrow

The return of the prodigal son - Rembrandt drawing

The return of the prodigal son – Rembrandt drawing

During seven years as Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center, Inc. a nonprofit public defense corporation founded in 1970 by American Indian and African-American civil rights leaders, there were sacred moments when the lawyers would call me in to meet a suicidal client in a jail cell. Sometimes the person in the cell was guilty of murder or manslaughter. They were beside themselves. All I could do was be there with them as a kind of quiet presence of hope and the possibility of forgiveness and new life.

I knew then that we were sitting right in the middle of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Gospel of Luke 15:11-32). In Jesus’ parable, the son, who has convinced his generous father into giving him his inheritance before his father’s death, has squandered it all, and, after finding himself in desperation, eating the left-overs in the pig sty of “the far country”, he staggers home to his father. He comes beating his breast with remorse and shame. “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him,” and orders the finest robe for him and a magnificent feast to celebrate his son’s return from “the far country.” When the older brother who has stayed home obediently objects, the father of the two sons declares: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, but is alive, was lost, and is found!”

Only after returning to parish ministry did I discover The Book of Common Prayer’s rite for the reconciliation of a penitent that is constructed on the story of the return of the son to the father. For those in the bowels of despair, remorse, and guilt, there is no word from inside one’s own self that can crack open the cocoon of horror, self-disgust, and condemnation. When I found this rite, it moved me deeply. I adapted parts of it for the Prayer of Confession in morning worship at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.

RITE FOR THE RECONCILIATION OF A PENITENT from The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church)

The priest and penitent begin as follows

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions only too well,
and my sin is ever before me.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
have mercy upon us.

Penitent: Pray for me, a sinner.

Priest: May God in his love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and his unfailing mercy. Amen.

The Priest may then say one or more of these or other appropriate verses of Scripture, first saying:: Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.

Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Matthew 11:28

This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I Timothy 1:13

If any man sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and nor for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. I John 2:1-2

The Priest then continues:

Now, in the presence of Christ, and of me, his minister, confess your sins with a humble and obedient heart to Almighty God, our Creator and our Redeemer.

The Penitent says:

Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and I have wandered far in a land that is waste.

Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . . . . (Here the penitent confesses particular sins)

Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Priest may then offer words of comfort and counsel.

Priest: Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?

Penitent: I will.

Priest: Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?

Penitent: I forgive them.

Priest: May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of sorrow and faith, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

The Priest then lays upon the penitent’s head (or extends a hand over the penitent) saying:: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Priest concludes: Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go (or abide) in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.

Penitent: Thanks be to God.

In remembrance of Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas was an attorney at the Legal Rights Center. Born and raised in southside Chicago, Leah’s older brother had been a member of the Black Panthers. She was raised with the cry for social justice in her bones, full of faith, smiles, laughter, and steadiness, a sturdy legal advocate and “mother” to the juvenile clients she defended in Hennepin County District Court.

She fainted one morning getting her coffee at Panera Bread. Days later she was gone. The funeral was held at her African-American church in Minneapolis. As Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center and Leah’s colleague and friend, I offered the following Tribute to Leah at the funeral.

Like light

Like joy

Like sun breaking through a storm

Her laughter

Brightens the room

Breaks the ice

Fills it with peace.

Mama walks lightly

Amid the trials and the cares

Quick as a black panther

Steady as a turtle

She coos with the tenderness

of the turtle-dove

walks with the strength of a lion.

With steady hand

With sturdy faith

And clarity of mind

She laughs

And soars her craft

Through clouds and storms

To lead us on and through.

Like light,

Like joy,

Like sun breaking through a storm,

She laughs,

She brightens the room,

She wipes our tears

She fills us with her peace.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Legal Rights Center, Inc., Feb. 1, 2005.

His Own True Self

He sits and smiles,

Douglas (“Doug”) Hall at home in Wabasha

His dog Sparky
Resting against his leg,
His eyebrows hanging
Like willow branches.

The bell has tolled
For him, a tolling
Like a wind-song
From the North
Marking the end.

He sits and smiles,
Peaceful, thankful,
Accepting, connecting
With those he loves,
Caring for those he will leave

The earth, his home,
Calls him to itself,
Beyond eternal claims
Or expectations,
He sits at peace

Mortal flesh he knows
Cannot prolong itself,
Nor should it seek what it
Cannot attain
Beyond its measure.

No control of time
Which bears us all away,
No need to storm
The barricades now
Against the end of time.

He sits and smiles
In gratitude
For wonders of sun and shadow,
For all creatures great and small,
For family love and friends.

For these he sits and smiles –
This self-disclaiming man
Who intended nothing
But his own true self
In whatever time was his.

– Gordon C. Stewart, October 2, 2004

Doug Hall was a giant of a man. He was revered throughout the state of Minnesota as the quintessential “street lawyer” in Minneapolis, a nationally known labor lawyer who left his practice to become the founding Director of The Legal Rights Center, Inc, “a law firm of, by, and for the people.” The people were indigent American Indians and African-Americans.

A few days after receiving the call from Doug and Mary with the news that Doug had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Kay and I spent time with them at the farm near Wabasha, MN. Kay captured a picture of Doug that day with his dog Sparky.I went home and wrote a reflection that later became the opening words of the Memorial Celebration for his life.

A former Chief Judge in Minnesota’s Fourth District Court recalled pulling Doug aside one day into his chambers.

“Doug, I thought you should know a lot of people are talking around the courthouse.”

“Hmmm,” said Doug.

“They’re saying that you’re a communist.”

Re-telling the story all these years later, the Judge starts to laugh and pauses. I beg the question: “What did Doug say?”

Through laughter and tears, he says, “He smiled and said, ‘Hmmm..and what’s their point?'”

His memorial service was a rare event: a collection of street people, former clients, MN Supreme Court Justices, a U.S. District Court Judge who began his legal career with Doug as his mentor, the founders of the American Indian Movement (“AIM”) and African American community leaders, colleagues and friends, Indian drumming, and the sounds of Paul Robeson and Old Joe Hill. The Poem “His Own True Self” opened his Memorial Celebration in Wabasha followed by these words:

We are a diverse bunch.  We are the colors of the rainbow.  We are rich and dead broke.  We are former defendants and former fellow counsel.  We are Supreme Court Justices and District Court Judges – and we are “customers” of the court system and the corrections system.  We are public defenders and prosecutors, probation officers and corrections officers, restorative justice practitioners, legislators, union organizers and people from the streets. But mostly we are just people who all share the same destiny, the same dependence and interdependence.  And no one here is to be treated with more honor than another.

Doug Hall with Sparky

A Visit with Mary

Mary with Maggie

Mary with my dog Maggie

Visiting with a 91-year-old friend with terminal cancer, the discussion turns to her final wishes.  Mary is a child psychologist by profession, a retired professor whose pioneering work with children at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis’ Children’s Hospital is a legacy that will remain long after she is gone.

Raised in a strict Calvinist Christian tradition in Michigan, her soul long ago had come to drink from gentler wells – the quiet gatherings of the “Quakers,” the naturalist spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi and of American indigenous spiritualities that saw the sacred in the cirrus clouds, the fluttering of a leaf, a chickadee at the bird-feeder on the deck, or the circling of an eagle overhead.

When her husband died three years before, the family gathered privately to inter Doug’s ashes in a small opening in the woods on their farm near Wabasha. Doug, like Mary, is legendary in Minnesota…in a different sort of way…the street lawyer with the pony tail who started and led the Legal Rights Center with leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the chosen intermediary between the federal troops and the AIM members at the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973 – Dennis and Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt, Leonard Peltier, et. al..

The family marked the spot with four stones pointing North, East, South and West – the “four directions of the four corners of the earth.”  Early the next morning, the day of the public celebration of Doug’s life, one of Doug and Mary’s daughters had walked out to that tiny clearing in the woods. A bald eagle was sitting very still in the center of the four stones above Doug’s ashes.

I asked Mary at the time what she made of that.  With great respect, she paused…and said she didn’t know, and something to the effect that native peoples seem to be in touch with mysteries that elude the rest of us.  er statement struck me at the time because in our talks about death and dying, she had always indicated that she believed that life is lived between the boundaries of birth and death.  The eagle sitting on Doug’s ashes in that tiny opening in the woods didn’t seem to convince her of something beyond the grave, but she held a kind of sacred openness to the possibility, a respectful not-knowing about human destiny, the universe, and our place in it.

Now, three years after Doug’s death, we sit together, as we often have, over a lunch of shrimp, salad and fresh bread at the table that looks out at the bird feeders in the old converted mill on the farm up the hill from Wabasha.  Three of her five children are there.

Missy asks Mary whether she has told me her plans for her service when the end comes. There is a long silence as she goes away to some far off inner place – some wooded glen where no one else can go.  Her eyes are distant, dream-like, looking off to some far off place, sorting through her long spiritual journey to fetch the right words out of the forest of 91 years of memory.

Finally she speaks… softly.  Quietly.  Deliberately. “I want you to do the prayer and I want the benediction.”  “What kind of prayer?” I ask.  She looks at me quizzically, as if I should know.  “Something classical with the gravitas of tradition?”  “Yes,” she says.  “And what kind of benediction?” I ask.  “Blessed are the peacemakers,” she says.  “And music. What about music?”  “Oh, yes” she says, “Bach, Mozart, Beethoven…and ‘Let there be peace on Earth’”… and she wanders off again into that most personal space where no one else can go.

Ninety-one years summed up in four-words “Blessed are the peacemakers” from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

She is growing weary now. It’s time for her afternoon nap.  We say good-bye. I leave this sacred place of Mary’s world, get behind the wheel to drive home, turn on the radio, listen to news that is so far removed from Mary’s world and Jesus’ with all the saber-rattling and the name-calling, and I wish we all could have lunch with Mary or take a walk to the wooded glen where the eagle sat still above Doug’s grave at the center of the four corners of the earth.

———————————————-

For eight years Doug and Mary Hall’s farm was a second home. Mary’s pensive spirit and Doug’s activism made them natural parents of the state-wide movement for restorative justice in Minnesota and the Minnesota Restorative Justice Campaign.

Blessed are the peacemakers. RIP.

America’s Future: Restorative Justice

Click HERE for “Ending student expulsions: Minneapolis Public Schools, Legal Rights Center partner for restorative justice.”

Public Schools face daunting challenges. Unlike private schools that can select their students, the public schools are just that – they belong to all of us, they educate the whole population, not just the cream that is skimmed from the top. Urban schools systems like the Minneapolis Public School System provides education to the poorest of the poor, the middle class, and wealthier families committed to public education.

In Minneapolis alone, the students coming into the schools speak over 80 different languages from as many different cultures. What happens in the public schools will determine America’s future.

The restorative justice partnership between the Minneapolis Public Schools and Legal Rights Center is a natural. Legal Rights Center, Inc. (LRC) was founded in 1970 by four leaders of the American Indian and African-American communities in Minneapolis, and a lawyer named Doug Hall. Clyde and Peggy Bellecourt, Syl and Gwen Davis, and Doug Hall gave birth to a law firm that belongs to the people, a non-profit law office staffed by community advocates and street lawyers who work for the people of the street.

Michael Friedman, the current Executive Director of LRC, continues the tradition of the spirit and heart of these founders.

Douglas Hall, Founding Director, Legal Rights Center, Inc.

During the last decade of Doug Hall’s life, I served as Executive Director of LRC. Kay and I spent many hours, days, and weekends with Doug and Mary on their farm near Wabasha, MN. Doug had become convinced that restorative justice offered the best hope for empowering and repairing communities affected by multi-generational violence and trauma. In his last years, Doug gave birth to the Minnesota Restorative Justice Campaign and served as its chair for three years.Michael Friedman, the board and staff of LRC are carrying the torch for Doug and Mary Hall, Clyde, Peggy, Syl, and Gwen.

The day of Doug’s memorial service, his daughter Claire walked through the woods to the small clearing where the family had buried Doug’s ashes. There were four stones pointing in the four directions. In the center were Doug’s remains. A bald eagle sat in the center of the stones on Doug’s ashes. While his ashes remain there on the farm, his legacy and spirit are soaring in the new partnership to stop the prison train before it gets on the tracks…in the school system.

“The Leper” sermon video

Given today’s story about Lesbian Presbyterian Pastor Jane Spahr and Lisa Bove, and comments made on Huffington Post’s story,that impugn the authenticity of gay and lesbian clergy and others who read the Bible differently, last Sunday’s Sermon “The Leper” is posted here for all who would like a more generous way of living the faith.