Friday, August 05, 2016
Jason Hesiak: Made in America, Part 2
O.J. Simpson: Made In America, Part 1
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
16 They have mouths, but do not speak;
they have eyes, but do not see;
17 they have ears, but do not hear,
nor is there any breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them become like them,
so do all who trust in them.
Psalm 135: 15-18
O.J. Simpson signing autographs in Buffalo International Airport, 1980
Here, the story continues of my confession of racism and of God’s working to heal myself, and, hopefully others, through his rule and for his glory. Click HERE to read Part 1.
We were at Bob Kardashian's mansion. O.J.'s playing tennis. Everybody's having a good time. I'm 'Black Bob,’ man. I don't wanna be around these people, cuz they're all phony to me. I said: 'O.J. Look around you, man! These people don't care nothin' about us! Just a few years ago, these guys woulda drove down Filmore in their Rolls Royce, and they would never even spit on us.' I said: 'Now? They actin like we they long lost brothers?' I said: 'Man, the only reason we're here is cuz we're jocks. And you're O.J.' And he looked at me, he says, 'Mmm,yea.' He says, 'I understand what you sayin.' An' he rubbed his tennis racquet, he says, 'But I AM O.J.,' and ran off, on the field, laughing. And I was like, I mean, I was furious, because I said:'He's lost! He's lost his identity. He doesn't know who he is, any longer.' I think he had been brain washed!
- A childhood friend of O.J.’s, Joe Bell
Black and white people had both watched the same trial. On the very same television programs. They had all both seen the same pieces of evidence, the same witnesses called, the same courtroom drama. And, yet, about three out of every four people in the country, directly along racial lines, well, DIDN’T see the same trial! How was this possible!?
One of the jurors in the OJ trial, a black woman from a poor section of Los Angeles, later being interviewed in “OJ: Made in America,” explicitly came out and said that her own specific decision to acquit Simpson was “payback for Rodney King.” This juror represents how much of the black community experienced that trial, I think. Just as I don’t view their feelings about 39th and Dalton, Latasha Harlins, or Rodney King are illegitimate, I don’t think that that juror’s decision had an illegitimate basis.
She herself later (after OJ’s going to prison for kidnapping and theft) came to sort of regret her decision, because she later realized that OJ probably committed murder. She also said, though, that, at the time, she did what she thought was right. Her whole thought process about the trial was based on her story and that of her people with whom she identifies herself. I can understand how she thought and felt, considering the circumstances.
My reaction to the OJ verdict, however, had a whole different basis in the first place. My disgust was based on the same things that Tomi Lahren bases her idea of justice on in THIS VIDEO. For Tomi Lahren, Johnny Cochran “played the race card.” Race had nothing to do with it. He just brought race into it, so he could win the case. Tomi Lahren trusts the justice system and its methods and bases for truth. I am Tomi Lahren. I trust in the cool, rational headed “facts.” I trust in the science, the genetic testing of the blood samples, in the rule of law and the judicial process. I have no reason not to. That’s why my heart was screaming “INJUSTICE” when I watched the OJ verdict announced.
We trust in what we identify with. Both OJ and I trusted in “the brain-washers.” Jesus’ justice is, however, depicted on the cross, not in American courtrooms.
So, watching “OJ Simpson: Made in America,” I realized that my history, my training, tell me that my seeing the OJ verdict the way I did determines not only my ability to be successful in the world but my very identity. In school, I was graded on being able to see and understand these things. I took that evaluative process very seriously. I treasured high grading of my self.
Watching “OJ Simpson: Made in America,” I realized that the African American community, while watching the OJ Simpson trial and verdict unfold, already understands that truth is founded on trust. For them, all truth has an obvious element of human specificity and contingency. Matthew 7: 24-25 is spoken by a human being in a specific, contingent context.
African Americans have seen and closely experienced far too many instances where the facts, despite rumors to the contrary, actually turn out to be unimportant to the supposedly “objective” justice system. No one has to convince them that there’s no such thing as uninterpreted facts, that such “facts” are a figment of the Enlightenment imagination, even though many (both whites and blacks) probably don’t know what the Enlightenment is. A bunch of old, scholarly, white guys who were, like me (and the rest of us), shaped by Enlightenment history, apparently had to bang into my head the unfactualness of facts for fifteen years before I started to understand what they meant.
Watching “OJ Simpson: Made in America,” I realized more clearly that the biggest fact that has clearly been rendered unimportant to the justice system before the eyes of the black community has been their own worth and dignity as human beings in the world. So, they tend to live in a whole different world and be shaped by the values of a whole different community. “The facts” have all too often determined the black community’s inability to be successful in the world. So, they tend to more often grade themselves differently, I think.
Watching OJ’s verdict played out on “OJ Simpson: Made in America,” I realized that, for Johnny Cochran – and every other black man and woman in America, for that matter – no one “played the race card.” For them, race was clearly and obviously already part of the story. We trust in what we identify with. If racism wasn’t, in the words of Joe Bell, “the most powerful narrative in America,” then there would have been no evidence of Mark Fuhrman’s past racism for Johnny Cochran to attack. As a white man, I say that that is legitimately true REGARDLESS of whether or not Fuhrmann really was racist by the time Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered! And, that’s because the narrative of racism was available to Cochrane because of both Fuhrman’s former obvious racism and because of the larger racist history of our country in which Fuhrman had been participating.
All of that is to say the reason why it was possible for the whole country to watch the same trial and yet see two totally different things, which I realized while watching “OJ Simpson: Made in America.” White people saw science, facts, evidence, and the justice process at work, because they saw a justice system in which they were placing their trust and with which they identified them selves. White people trust the system, because it’s a white system, which happens to be part of why it has favored white people for so long. Just as the black community has 39th and Dalton, Letasha Harlins, and Rodney King, white people have the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the East India Company.
White people were looking to systems of truth and justice founded by white people: systems like modern science and modern Western style courts. Black people, having already developed a profound distrust and lack of hope in those very same white systems of truth (bad grades do not equal stupidity) and justice (criminal history doesn’t equal lawlessness), were trusting people (namely, O.J. Simpson) to bring light to the story of their own people.
While watching “OJ Simpson: Made in America,” I realized that it’s not necessarily or absolutely “bad” that OJ was acquitted, and that black people saw that as vindication in the wake of Rodney King. I also saw that it’s not necessarily or absolutely “bad” that I was complicit in racism in how I viewed the OJ verdict.
Neither people group was operating on a universally legitimate standard of truth or justice that could render their ideas of truth and justice as good, right, true, and noble, while rendering the other ideas of truth and justice bad, wrong, false, and unworthy. Just as I actually operate on that basis of trust while presuming that what I’m trusting in is based on some supposedly objective standard, the black community, in how they experienced the OJ trial and verdict, had standards while primarily, you could say, living the story based on the human elements of trust and hope (or lack thereof). Considering the histories, neither basis of truth or falsity is totally illegitimate.
What is “bad” is that different such bases of truth and justice point to what seem to be fairly accurate indications of just how racially broken apart our country is. About three in four whites, while forming their opinion of OJ Simpson’s guilt or innocence, trusted in the objectivity of “the facts” that presumably, in their estimation, had nothing to do with the particular, contingent human element of trust. On the flip side of the coin, about three in four blacks, while forming their opinion on the same topic, trusted in something completely different. The reason I say this is an indication of brokenness is because we trust in what we identify with.
O.J. Simpson football card
I don’t remember his exact words, but, regardless, he could have said, “I like pizza,” and I’m pretty sure the crowd would have reacted the same way, which was rip roarous applause. When he finished talking, the whole church literally jumped up out of the pews with loud shouts of joy, clapping like they had cymbals in their hands.
Watching this footage of O.J. at church, what stood before my face while watching my heart unfold before me as if from a magic lantern from behind my TV was three-fold.
First: After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Again, from my recent study of N.T. Wright and David Fitch, I had before me a view of what we would now call racial unity in the visible, local body of believers as a witness to the presence and reign of the One true God of Israel embodied in Jesus Christ whose Spirit was present and at work as the only possible explanation of how two groups of people who would otherwise never be united in such a way as to identify themselves as One body together before the world are, instead, living in a community of love together, a community that gathers for worship of the One true King with and under whom they all identify together.
The true justice of God is displayed on the cross, not in American court rooms. True justice is lived out in the cross-shaped community that is an extension of the broken and pierced body of Jesus Christ.
Second: White people – that would be me - still in shock, indignant, and incredulous over the lack of justice in O.J.’s verdict, watching him speak to a black church in Los Angeles to such a cacophony of applause, thinking, “Why would that preacher give the pulpit to someone who was obviously an unrepentant murderer like that?”
Third: All these African Americans shouting for joy….on the TV screen of my heart.
As I discussed above, this is not just a matter of one’s opinion, take it or leave it, of OJ’s guilt or innocence. The reason Caucasian and African Americans had such different reactions to OJ Simpson is because they are trusting in different things, and trust runs as deep as the blood by which we identify ourselves.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Sundays are the most segregated day of the week.” The national spectacle of the OJ Simpson verdict, then, confirms MLK’s point, that the blood of our ancestors is thicker than the fiery waters of baptism into the body of the One True King. Of course, by “our” ancestors there, I don’t mean Abraham and Jesus the Christ. I mean Egyptian Kings and Thomas Jefferson. “Our” blood by which “we,” the American (evangelical) church, has life, is not the blood of Jewish fathers and kings who have adopted us Gentiles as their own. Instead, “our” blood is that of tribal and territorial ancestors.
In ancient times, those ancestors were worshiped more explicitly as gods. I say “more explicitly,” because we are - quite obviously, if we take the public facts set before us – governed by those same gods. In ancient times, they were thought of as gods, because they caused things to appear in the world that, without those gods, we would otherwise not see what it is that we do in fact see.
Can you think of another explanation of why Sundays are the most segregated day of the week? If Sunday mornings are an indication of the depths of our brokenness, the implication here is that different gods of competing tribes are at war over control of the territory where they find them selves. Either that, or the different tribes don’t think of them selves as being in the same territory in the first place. Perhaps, the reason we saw two different OJ Simpson murder trials was that we live in two different worlds, each crafted by our ancestral and territorial gods.
What I am suggesting, then, is that my confession of my racism is also a confession of my worshiping of a false god. My inability to see through the lenses of my black brothers and sisters – I realized in this moment when the screen of my heart was being played out before me through “O.J. Simpson: Made in America” – was not only because of but animated by my idolatry. The White American justice system, the white Enlightenment systems of the truth of science, forensics, and genetic testing, these were my idols. These are our “idols of silver and gold.” They “have eyes but do not see,” and “have ears but do not hear.” “Those who trust in them become like them.” I was shaped into the image of my idolatry. Truth is the words of the Christ. Justice is the cross and resurrection.
I treasured success in understanding and participation in these systems made by white human hands. I trusted in them, and I was thus shaped in their image. I “became like them.” Thus, the reason I was shocked, saddened, and angry when OJ was acquitted was because my very identity was challenged rather than affirmed. I identify myself with the success of the systems of justice and truth by which our judicial system operates. This is why I was blind and deaf to seeing and hearing the OJ verdict any other way and as an affront to justice.
What I am suggesting then, is that my confession of racism, which is also a confession of worshipping a false god, was also – I realized in this moment when the screen of my heart was being played out before me through “O.J. Simpson: Made in America” – the vision and prompting of the Holy Spirit towards the actualization of Revelation 7: 9:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
How different that is from the unholy vision of Sunday – still – being the “most segregated day of the week.”
Of course, if, in light of all that has already been discussed here, we begin to think through what it would really and truly and very practically take for whites and blacks to live and worship together in a community – and I don’t mean with a token white or two in a black church or a token black or two in a white church – then, what we arrive at is worship of the One True God of Israel who has adopted us, Egyptians and Europeans alike, into His family. The church’s having the same demographic as the DMV would mean a people who treasure Jesus Christ above all else. The painting of Jesus on the wall of the Sunday School classroom would be of a Jewish Jesus, not a black or a white one. It would mean TRUSTING IN Jesus. It would mean the gift of seeing, both our own sin and the glory of God. And, it would mean that, if we trust in him, we would become like him.
The reason – while watching the OJ verdict - I felt my heart strangely warmed, while at the same time confronted with the shock, sadness, and anger was, because I was more fully being given identification in Jesus Christ and his community. This juxtaposition in my being between exhilaration and profound sadness was also because I was, at the same time, repenting of trusting in what I was realizing was becoming old, dying, and rotting, false treasures. Before that, I really had no idea that my trust in the American justice system was both my complicity with racism and my lack of trust in the One who brings and embodies true justice.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
Jason Hesiak: Made in America, Part 1
Matthew 7: 24-25
I don't know how I ended up here. I just don't know how I ended up here. I thought I lived a great life. I thought I treated everybody well, went out of my way to make everybody feel comfortable and happy *heavy sigh* I felt the goodness in my self, the goodness I needed. I don't feel any goodness in myself right now. I feel empty. I feel TOTALLY empty. I thought I had something. Last thing I gotta say is please remember me as ‘the Juice.’ Please remember mee as a good guy. (June 17, 1994)
– O.J. Simpson, on what it's like trying to be your own god, after achieving fame, recognition, adoration, and extravagant wealth (in other words, after achieving what most of us spend most of our energy eagerly seeking after).
- from: “O.J. Simpson: Made In America” (on ESPN back in June, 2016)
O.J. Simpson Hertz Rent-A-Car advertisement
Consider the following a confession of my racism along with the story of how God is working to heal not only myself but , I hope, others, for his own glory. Do notice that the story doesn’t really start with me.
I had zero intentions of watching ESPN’s O.J. Simpson: Made in America special. “Who cares about O.J. Simpson, some celebrity who killed his wife more than twenty years ago. Why is this such a big deal? I don’t want to participate in this idol worship!” Then, with nothing else more interesting saved in the DVR, I sat down to watch an hour of one of the episodes while eating dinner one night. By the time I finished watching, well after I was finished with dinner, my world had begun to change. I felt God was teaching and training me into something. Of course, I then had to watch the rest of the series.
First, there was 39th and Dalton. In the midst of Raegan’s “War on Drugs,” in the summer of 1988, the police got a tip that a particular apartment in the South LA (“the hood,” gang territory) was a crack house. An army of police descended on the block, utterly destroyed the apartment, rounded up dozens of residents, left their own legitimized brand of gang graffiti, humiliated and beat numerous neighbors while charging none with a crime, and managed to find, on the whole block, six ounces of Mary Jane and one ounce of cocaine. Furniture was smashed. Holes were punched in walls. Family photos were destroyed. Cabinets and cabinet doors were ripped down. Doors were ripped off the hinges. Sofas and mattresses were slashed. Mirrors were shattered. Clothes were doused in bleach. Refrigerators were emptied and their contents strewn throughout the apartment. Toilets and sinks were returned to dust.
In the aftermath, there was literally no floor space to walk through the apartment without walking over top of the destroyed possessions and structures of what formerly had been the home of a single mother. Six adults and twelve children on the block, obviously living month to month or day to day in the first place, were left homeless and hopeless.
Joe Bell is a childhood friend of OJ’s. They grew up together in the projects. By the time 39th and Dalton happened, OJ had been living in Brentwood for years. O.J. was probably the only black man living there, it being an upscale neighborhood filled with the highest class of society. Bell’s commentary on 39th and Dalton, delivered with a tone of obviousness and incredulity, was, “That never would have happened in Brentwood!”
Then, in 1991, a 15-year old African American girl named Latasha Harlins walked up to the counter of a convenience store in Los Angeles to buy some Orange Juice. She pulled out the money to make the purchase and was met with a fight from the 51-year old Korean woman behind the counter, who happened to own the store. Letasha gave up the physical struggle rather quickly, and, when she turned to try to get away, leaving the O.J. on the counter, Soon Ja Du (the Korean attendant and owner of the gas station) shot her in the back of the head with a handgun. Latasha died immediately. In November, 1991, the store owner’s defense claimed that Letasha was trying to steal the O.J., but the Korean woman was convicted of murder. She was then sentenced by a white judge to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and restitution to the Harlins family for funeral expenses. Zero prison time. None. None whatsoever. Please explain that without coming to the conclusion that Letasha’s life was apparently considered unimportant.
And then – Rodney King. I don’t think I need to explain that one. The riots sparked by the acquittals and light sentences for the defendants in April of 1992 in the case say that the black community in Los Angeles had had it.
As I watched these stories unfold, I realized that, perhaps, black lives truly don’t matter. At the very least, black people understandably and legitimately got the message from the world that they are less than human. What doubt that remained was melting away. I began to see why they would be angry. I began to see that, for black men such as Ben Watson, who says inspiring things about love and publically works towards peace, the question is not whether or not to be angry. The question is what to do with that anger. The only other option is the route O.J. took for many years before his murder trial: meritocracy over what a white person might think of as racialized identities.
"What are all these niggers doing in Brentwood?"
- O.J. Simpson, while being led away from his home after being arrested for murder. (O.J. Simpson: Made in America, Part. 3)
I have, for a long time now, had some sympathy and even a sense of passion for racial justice. Watching these events unfold, as through the eyes of the African American community in LA, still constituted, though, for me, the beginnings of a change. I began to be able to see the world, quite actually, through new eyes. It wasn’t any longer a matter, for me, of judging between two sides of a debate. It was getting much deeper than that.
I have studied N.T. Wright a lot in recent years. He, along with David Fitch in The End of Evangelicalism?, showed me what it means to be given an identity in Christ. He showed me that, outside of the identity and mission of God, the world runs on idols that see the world in a way that is blind to Christ and hopes for a whole different future. I mean blind not necessarily or only in the sense of looking elsewhere but also in the sense of being able to look directly at Jesus but see only your own image, as if in a mirror dimly. The justice system is not immune to this idolatry. What connects those ideas (identity, mission, idolatry) to my viewing of this story of O.J. Simpson is, Wright and Fitch showed me that how we see the world cannot be disconnected from our identity, from who we are and consider ourselves to be.
And, further, those questions of identity and vision are deeply intertwined with the story in the scriptures of the spiritual battle between powers at work in the world and the One who truly has all the glory and power forever and ever. After all, those in power are who determine what we see in the first place, and, thus, who we become. The choosing of our selves’ allegiances is the choosing of who (or what) we take to be most powerful(ly true).
I had all of that in mind as I, twenty years after the fact, watched different peoples’ reactions to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. As footage much like this (please watch the linked video, or what I’m saying will really make no sense) came across my TV screen, the footage, in that moment, served almost as a magic lantern for my heart.
According to one study presented in ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America,” black and white people in the USA, in the eight-month-long process of the 1995 trial, got further apart regarding their opinion on OJ’s guilt or innocence. Before the trial, 63% of whites thought O.J. was guilty, and 65% of blacks thought he was innocent. After the trial, 77% of whites thought O.J. was guity, and 72% of blacks thought he was innocent. As you can see from the above video, black people were, for the most part, jubilant, happy, and overjoyed. They cried tears of joy and vindication. White people, however, were, for the most part, shocked, angry, and indignant. They cried tears of sadness over the desertion and neglect of justice.
It was as though I were having an out of body experience. I, myself, was shouting inside, “NO! NO! This can’t be! He did it! He killed those two innocent victims! This is a disgrace to justice! The science and facts of the case say that he OBVIOUSLY did it!” And, yet, there on the screen of my heart, after I had begun to be able to see the world through their eyes, I was watching black people shed tears of joy and jumping up and down and hugging each other exuberantly. I was broken. I was contrite. I was angry (at myself or at O.J.’s jury?). I was sad.
I was also filled with a deep, profound, and strange, stirring river of joy, realizing that my world was changing forever. The very ability to see the juxtaposition between my “natural” reaction and the reactions of millions of black men and women around the country constituted a turning to a new way of seeing the world. As I noted previously, this means that I began to take on a new identity. N.T. Wright also talks about faith being the identity badge of the people of God. Fitch talks a lot about identity and character being shaped by community to which we belong.
I realized, in that moment of the magic screen of my heart being played out in front of me, NOT ONLY that, for black people, they were not just watching the O.J. Simpson murder trial. They were watching the whole history of their people. They were watching their ancestors working themselves to death in hellishly hot cotton fields, being dehumanized on whipping posts, supposedly being freed from slavery only to fall into multiple other forms of it over time, hanging from trees and dragging alive behind speeding trucks being driven by white men in positions of social and political power, being banned from using the same water fountains and bathrooms as white people, having their apartments ransacked by police with little to no accountability, having their neighbors humiliated and beaten for no reason, having their daughters shot in the head by a Korean woman who got her fingernails clipped in return, having justice be parodied on national TV for all to see in the many broken bones of their brother Rodney King.
NOT ONLY did I realize that black people were not just watching a Judge Judy show with some random and meaningless drama for her to judge the fates of some random individuals, but they identified with O.J. Simpson. He was what he had always been: one of America’s biggest celebrity idols. To watch the trial of the century for 8 months was to watch themselves on trial after, over and over and over and over again being found not only guilty but not worthy of real trials. For 8 months, the black half of the country held their breath in the hopes that them and all of their ancestors would finally, at last, be vindicated, be found worthy of true justice! Their own story was being played out vicariously before them.
The white half of the country ALSO held their own collective breath in the hopes that justice would be done. The difference was that justice looked very different to the two different groups of people, as evidenced quite clearly by the above video and by the previously mentioned survey. And, here I was falling so hard in line with my white half of the country as I watched the verdict being announced. Courts of justice didn’t always run on “rule of law” and on scientific evidence. “You shall not bear false witness against a neighbor.” – Exodus 20: 16.
Watching the announcement of OJ’s verdict on the screen of my heart being played out before me, then, was to watch my own judgment. In the seeing and opening up of the story of O.J. Simpson’s verdict, it wasn’t OJ who had been on trial. It was me. I was on trial, and I saw that I stood guilty. By the very fact of how I had seen the world, I was complicit in racism. I did not, I now saw, truly identify myself with Jesus, his truth, and his justice. But, like him, my heart was now pierced. I was guilty, but I was being set free.
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