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The Gospel and the Jena Six

We tend to like our tales in simple, clear cut, with no middle ground. Good guys in shining armor who are noble and pure with bad guys all evil, every action despicable. The movies are great sources of larger than life heroes taking down truly evil villains to restore order. But in the real world, things get a little more complicated.

            A recent example is the unfortunate tale of the town of Jena (pronounced gee-nah) Louisiana. The town would not be a poster child for equality among the races. As recently as 1991, former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke carried LaSalle Parish, of which Jena is a part, in his gubernatorial campaign.

But by all accounts, the segregation found in Jena has been for some decades mostly self-imposed rather than institutional. Blacks and whites favor different places to gather. There may have been a black section for school events, but not because the school imposed it, so much as that is how students naturally gathered.

There was one exception—the “White Tree.” Teachers and administrators now say that students of differing races did occasionally hang out under the tree. But there is no disputing that just over a year ago, a black student spoke to a school assembly to ask for permission to sit under the live oak known as the white tree. The next day nooses were hanging from the tree. News accounts vary as to whether the number of nooses were two or three, but all agree that three white students were found to be responsible.

The principal called for expulsion. According to the Associated Press, the school board sent the three students to an alternative school for about a month, and then gave an in-school suspension of two weeks. Nothing else was done about the incident and tensions continued to run high. Several altercations were reported between whites and blacks.

Then on December 4, 2006, things came to a head on the schoolyard in an incident not directly linked to the nooses when six blacks beat a white student, Justin Barker, until he lost consciousness. The student was treated and released from the hospital and attended a ring ceremony that night. The district attorney charged the six students, come to be named the Jena Six, with attempted murder, citing the boys’ sneakers as potentially lethal weapons.

In July 2007, Mychal Bell, the first of the six students held for the schoolyard incident, was tried as an adult on the charges. This is where things get complicated. Bell, who turned 17 since the fight, is widely reported to have been an honor student. That is true. It is also true that he was on probation for at least two counts of battery and a count of criminal damage to property. The truth is that he is no shining knight nor is he the all-evil villain.

The 90 percent white parish produced an all white jury that deliberated for two hours before finding Bell guilty of the reduced charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit it. The conviction could have resulted in a 15 year sentence. An appeals court overturned the verdict saying as a 16-year old at the time of the incident, he should not have been tried as an adult.

Eight days ago thousands of marchers from around the country descended on the tiny town outnumbering its 3,000 residents as they came bearing signs proclaiming “Free the Jena Six.” The nonviolent protest came on the day that the verdict was being handed down and the move to juvenile court felt like a victory. Since then, Bell has been denied being set free while waiting for the appeal. And white supremacist websites have posted the names, addresses and phone numbers of the families of the six boys under the headline “Lynch the Jena 6.”

Now let’s stop for a moment and assess where we are. Just as the fiftieth anniversaries of many significant moments in the Civil Rights Movement are passing by, we find a “Whites Only” tree in Louisiana draped with nooses after a black student asks for permission to sit there.

Yet, this is not exactly like the systematic racism being dismantled in ages past, that was signified by the matching water fountains for “white” and “colored” and non-matching schools for the same. The tree is a better symbol for the lingering self-imposed segregation that is more difficult to root out.

I can find no justification for hanging nooses from the tree. It was an action that could only have been intended to threaten the worst of our racial past and was not merely a harmless prank. Do we really still have to debate what a noose means? Given that taken at face value, the intent must have been to terrorize non-white students in to avoiding the tree, then one would have expected harsher punishment. 

Yet, I can also find no justification for six students beating on one student. Those odds have never represented what I think of as a “schoolyard brawl,” coming closer to images of mob violence. Though I can’t imagine that if justice was truly blind, even such an attack would have teens stand for trial as adults for attempted murder.

The problem is justice. Freeing six students who beat another student without having them stand accountable for their actions is not just. Neither is 15 years in prison. At the same time, threatening lynching for sitting under a tree should result in harsher penalties than in school suspension.

So where is God in this? If Jesus’ own life and ministry are the indication of the heart of God I take them to be, then Jesus is on the side of breaking down the walls that divide people. Jesus’ own ministry at pulling the outcast in, loving the unlovable, and showing righteous indignation at injustice, clearly places him on the side of creating a society that mirrors the equality among people to be found in the Kingdom of God.

All of us approach God as sinners in need of redemption and in this class and color make no difference. All of us are fallen and none of us totally reflect the values of the Kingdom to which God calls us. This is why there is a tree under which all peoples can gather. That tree is the cross of Jesus Christ, under which we see that all of us were created by God, all of us are loved by God, and all of us can be redeemed by Jesus.

Racism is alive and well in the world in which we live. Breaking down that sin of racism is much more complex than can be captured in a four-word slogan like “Free the Jena Six.” The action of cutting down the “White Tree” in Jena is a nice start. But now that the tree is gone, the underlying racism remains.

Here in Camden County as there in Louisiana, the real battle is in breaking down the dividing walls in our hearts. As long as we base our initial reactions to one another on the color of skin rather than on the content of their character, then there will be places just as segregated as the “white tree” in Jena whether we name that prejudice and segregation or not.

So where is God in this? Continually heart broken at the needless pain and suffering we cause one another. God created us for love, loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. To dismantle the sin of racism means to tear down the dividing walls within our own hearts. Having done so we then need to speak as a community against any ways in which our community still supports the type of injustice seen in a “white tree.” As long as there are public places some may not stand without threat, there will be incidents of violence breaking out against that injustice. We need instead to stand together to speak love against that injustice.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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