Friday, August 05, 2016

Jason Hesiak: Made in America, Part 1

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.
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.

The Story

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.

The Verdict

"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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