“Who can read the New Testament and fail to see that Jesus took sides and accepted freely the possibility of being misunderstood.” –James Cone, “Jesus Christ in Black Theology”

As both a parent and a pastor, I have long been a supporter of mental health care in my community. I even serve on a state-wide advisory board to help develop “systems of care” for children and youth with serious emotional disturbances (SED) and their families. So it is upsetting, and somewhat confusing, to find myself regarded as a enemy of my local mental health community.

I have been working with a local interfaith justice group as a vocal advocate for a “no” vote on an upcoming mail-in ballot. The proposed ballot measure would create a half cent sales tax to fund a new mental health campus and a significant expansion of the local jail (which would increase the number of beds there by 96%). I have learned a lot in the past months about prisons and jails, about taxes, about the complexity of the criminal justice system with all its moving parts. I have also learned about being misunderstood.

Before this ballot measure was finalized, many of us urged the county commissioners to separate the mental health funding from the jail funding—to allow citizens to vote on each item separately. The commissioners were not willing to do this, and they convinced many that they were not able to do it. Now that the two items are together, they have said that if we vote “no,” they will build the jail anyway—but they will have to take funding from mental health care and other social services to do it.

Suddenly, those of us advocating for a “no” vote are the enemies of all that is right and good in the world. Another local pastor, Rev. Eric Galbreath, recently compared our situation with that of Moses and Aaron. When the two men go to Pharaoh and ask that the Israelite slaves be allowed time to go and worship their God, Pharaoh punishes their unwelcome challenge to his authority by taking away the straw the Israelite slaves needed to make their bricks. But, of course, the slaves are expected to continue making the same number of bricks. When the people do not get anywhere with their complaints to Pharaoh, they turn on Moses and Aaron: “The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials” (Exodus 5:21).

Those who advocate for justice are often blamed for the ways people in power respond to their advocacy. Because wouldn’t things have been better for the Israelite slaves if Moses and Aaron had just kept their heads down and stayed away from Pharaoh? And wouldn’t things be better in our county if we just went along with the plan so we could get our mental health care campus?

In the short term, yes. The slaves would still have their straw. And my county would start construction on a mental health crisis center. But the slaves would still be slaves. And the jail expansion that would be going up at the same time the crisis center is built would be increasing our capacity to incarcerate people and draining resources that could be used in more restorative ways.

But if the slaves had known that this temporary suffering was leading to an ultimate freedom . . . If people in my county realized that a “no” on this measure is necessary for a better way forward . . .

Our justice group recently revealed that we are initiating a petition that would put a mental health care only funding measure on the November ballot. I thought that announcement would clear up the misunderstanding. That people would realize we do care about people who suffer from mental illness after all. That we are not just out to criticize and block, but are actually willing to work toward positive solutions for our community. I expected the hostility to subside. I expected people—at least some people—to stop hating me.

But the misunderstandings continue. And it is hard. Because I want to be liked. And I want to like other people. So I keep coming back to the words of James Cone: “Jesus took sides and accepted freely the possibility of being misunderstood.” As a follower of Jesus, I have to accept the same possibility, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

 


Rev. Joanna Harader (she, her, hers) serves as pastor at Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, KS, and is co-chair of the alternatives to incarceration research team for Justice Matters. She blogs at SpaciousFaith.com.


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2 thoughts on “The Pastor is Political: On Doing Justice and Being Misunderstood

  1. Dear Joanna: I am learning to accept that there is a high chance that there will be misunderstandings when I engage in political activism. Tell your story once – tell it again & again. I am an advocate for mental health & I have volunteered in jail ministry. One of the ways to decrease the need for jail beds is to increase mental health services but this is playing the long game. Most people in jail have mental health issues so for many – as you are finding out – the two items on the ballot are tied together. The question I would want answered is “Will your city/county earn money from other cities/counties paying to board people in the proposed new jail?” It can be lucrative to do so & those funds, in the end, would benefit your community. Go forth taking a stand on what you believe, knowing it is going to pinch now & then! I will keep you in my prayers!

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  2. Thank you, Joanna, for your courageous (and wise) long-view position. My experience in the criminal justice system would have me standing with you were that physically possible. I will be holding all of you taking a stand for separate facilities in my prayers.
    Patience & peace
    Karin

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