Showing Deference to the Rich: ‘Affluenza’ and “The House I Live In”

I recently watched Eugene Jarecki’s remarkable documentary, The House I Live In, which is about the American ‘war on drugs’ and the burgeoning prison population it engendered and continues to engender.

Rarely do I find myself murmuring and tsk-tsking during a movie, but this one was highly affecting; an intimate look at how history, racism, economics, and politics have created a system that no one is proud of and no one really likes. Even the cops and prison guards who claim to love their jobs express unease with the human suffering and unbalanced scales of justice that lead to it.



One particular story has stayed with me.

A man named Kevin Ott was found in possession of a small envelope of meth; prior to that he’d been arrested twice, again for possessing small amounts of illegal drugs (meth and marijuana).

He’s been in prison for seventeen years. And he will be there until he dies: Ott is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Because he was a three-time offender, his state’s mandatory sentencing laws required that he be put away for life.

Let me emphasize again: in prison for life, for non-violent crimes. And he is merely one of thousands.

This is not to say that I condone the possession of illegal drugs. But putting people like Kevin Ott in prison for life exacts a tremendous cost, not just in the half-million or so dollars to keep him incarcerated, but, more seriously, in the cost to Kevin–who, of course, is deeply repentant–and to his grieving family.

The film, and this case, were particularly moving because another story that’s captured my mind this week is that of the 16 year old Ethan Couch–a child born after Kevin Ott began serving his life sentence–who, last summer, killed four people and seriously wounded several others (including one who is “minimally conscious” and permanently paralyzed) when he plowed his father’s truck into them, drunk on beer he’d stolen from Walmart. Marijuana and Valium were also found in his blood, in addition to alcohol three times over the legal limit.

Couch’s defense built a case that’s been getting a lot of buzz because of the testifying psychologist’s use of the term ‘affluenza': young Ethan, they argued, simply never has had the opportunity to learn right from wrong, or to learn limits, because his family’s wealth has always protected him. Indeed, there are elements of the “poor little rich kid” in his story; he apparently often stayed home alone, was never punished after being ticketed by a police officer for being drunk in a car with a naked and unconscious 14 year old girl last year, and his father sounds like a real and possibly criminal creep.


Couch is not going to be serving any prison time, at least, not for the deaths of those four people. Instead, he’s going to be packed off to a plush “rehab” center in Southern California for two years–to the tune of a million of his Daddy’s dollars–where he’ll have organic food, horseback riding, massages, swimming, and so on. He’s on probation for ten years, which is no joke, of course, but…

You won’t see Kevin Ott getting any organic food or massages for the rest of his life. For possessing drugs. And harming no one.

I can’t pretend I understand that a bit. And I can’t pretend that I’m not sad that my faith in our justice system is shaky at best.

“You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” (Leviticus 19:15)

I know that God is the only truly just judge. I know that these tales of injustice will always be with us. Which is why I’m grateful to the ones who tell the stories, and why I urge everyone to listen.

{The House I Live In Official Trailer}


{Watch Anderson Cooper grill the psychologist who witnessed for the defense of Ethan Couch}




It’s OK To Say “Happy Holidays” To Me.

I’m only dimly aware of the ongoing ‘debate’ and (largely manufactured?) outrage over supposed ‘wars on Christmas,’ which is possibly the least-endangered of holidays celebrated in America, but my friend Michelle Van Loon’s excellent post, “Sexy ‘n Spiritual Tees For Jesus” (doesn’t the title just make you want to click?) reminded me that that’s a thing. She writes:

“purchasing Jesus-y fan swag isn’t too far removed from more familiar consumer expressions of Christian team loyalty: boycotting retailers who say “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas,” or lining up around the block to buy deep-fried chicken sandwiches as a sign of solidarity with a Christian business owner. All of these decisions share an underlying assumption: The world will know us by our consumer purchases.”

American Christians are excellent at wielding their considerable consumer power to protest the atrocity of non-religiously-affiliated companies offering non-specific holiday greetings to customers in an increasingly diverse and non-religious society, but, as I hinted in my article on the Bangladesh factory fires, many are slower to embrace things like concern for justice and fair trade: these things smacking, as they do, of “liberalism.”

I, for one, don’t have a problem with “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings,” even though we mostly only celebrate Christmas (New Year’s Eve is for people who either don’t have kids or for people with kids that actually sleep in once in awhile). After all, there are quite a few Christian holidays in this ‘season,’ even if they’re not all popularly celebrated among Anglo-Americans. There’s St. Nicholas’ Day, St. Lucia Day, and Three Kings Day…and that’s before we even get to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Have you ever been in a foreign country when they’re celebrating a holiday that’s not one you’ve ever even heard of, much less celebrated?

When we lived in Germany, we experienced a few of these. The shops are closed, everyone is celebrating in their homes or even in the streets (the Germans love their fests) and you are sitting there alternately wishing that you could be in on the fun or that the grocery stores would be open and you could get on with life.

If someone said “Happy [Whatever] Day” to me on one of those festagen, especially without inviting me to share their festive celebrations, I would have felt even more excluded.

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Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but if you do, trust me: saying “happy holidays” to people, especially if you aren’t sure they celebrate Christmas, isn’t a betrayal of your ‘values.’ It’s a friendly way to let other people in on the joy you feel this season without wishing them something that amounts to “Happy [Whatever] Day” and makes them feel more excluded than they may already feel.

There are better ways to express your values this season. Like buying fair trade. (Here’s a great shop!) Like sharing with those who have nothing. Like offering a kind word (or an invitation to share the holiday feast?) to one who might otherwise be excluded.

After all, hospitality, unlike saying “Merry Christmas!” is one of those things Jesus actually urged us to do.

{repost from a previous season.}

Pontifex Says: Neglecting the Elderly = Covert Euthanasia. The Justice Issue We Ignore.

It was not without reason my friend John rebelled at the thought of going into a nursing home: the majority (60%) of nursing home residents have no visitors, which isn’t surprising when you consider that more than 50% of nursing home residents have no close relatives and an incredible 46% have no living children. When you compound those numbers with the astounding estimate that as many as nine out of 10 U.S. nursing homes are understaffed (and many of those staff are underpaid), you can begin to see why the institutions are dreaded and feared–and why many people quickly decline when they enter them.

When he was a cardinal, Pope Francis remarked that ignoring the elderly amounts to “covert euthanasia.” We’re guilty of this by the simple fact that Pope Francis’ comments on World Youth Day about women and the gay community received widespread media attention, while these remarks merited little to no attention whatsoever:

“A people has a future if [they] go forward with both elements: with the young, who have the strength, and things move forward because they do the carrying, and with the elderly, because they are the ones who give life’s wisdom. […] We do the elderly an injustice. We set them aside as if they had nothing to offer us.”

My friend John played the saxophone in multi-racial jazz bands in New York City in the 1930s and served his community as a volunteer firefighter for 50 years without once missing a meeting. He was similarly faithful as a church member and Sunday school teacher, and the consummate family man. His hair turned prematurely white after he used his bayonet to gently probe the sands of Iwo Jima for hidden explosives to deactivate. After being shot, he spent more than two years in military hospitals battling infection and fighting to keep his life and his leg. When I was a ballet-obsessed 10-year-old, he built me my very own barre out of repurposed scraps.

What could a young evangelical have taught him about cultural engagement, creativity, self-sacrifice, faithfulness, generosity, thrift, courage, or suffering? What young evangelical could not have failed to learn a thing or two from his long and remarkably full life?

I certainly did.

As the ranks of older Americans continue to swell, we who are young must reject the cultural narratives equating aging with decline and increasing irrelevance. We must resist the falsehood that it’s our generation that really “gets” it and realize how much older people have to teach us.

And we must remember to call and visit the older people in our lives—bringing coffee and compassion, leaving behind the condescension—remembering they were once as young as we, and that, if God wills, we will one day be as old as they.

{from my first–and recent–contribution to Q Ideas. Please click through to read it all.}

When We Are More Interested in Evangelical In-Fighting Than Serious Issues of Justice

My dad used to tell a joke from the pulpit, back when “damn” was a much stronger word in evangelical/fundamentalist circles than it is now.

It went roughly like this:

“Millions of people die every day from preventable causes without ever having heard about Jesus’ love, and most of you don’t give a damn, and most of you are probably more worried about the fact that I said ‘damn’ than about the fact that millions of people die daily from preventable causes without ever having heard about Jesus’ love.”

I have a new post up at her.meneutics, Christianity Today’s women’s blog that, quite frankly, I don’t expect too many people to read.

It’s about how it’s perfectly legal in most states to shackle pregnant women while they are in labor.

Here’s just one bit of the piece, from a highly publicized story from a few years back:

When Shawanna Nelson was brought to the hospital, her contractions were two or three minutes apart and very intense. She cried out for pain medication and begged for a cesarean.

Instead, Shawanna was given two Tylenol and kept shackled to her hospital bed—a shackle lashing one hand to an IV pole and another fastening her legs together until the delivery of her nine and a half pound baby—Shawanna herself weighed only about 100 pounds at the time.

She was serving time in an Arkansas prison for identity theft and writing bad checks. She had no history of violence, yet she was accompanied throughout her labor and delivery by an armed guard.

Any woman who has felt even one intense contraction knows that laboring woman is anything but a flight risk. Moreover, those who’ve given birth un-medicated also know that being able to move freely eases pain and prevents injury: as a result of her shackled labor, Shawanna suffered nerve damage and an umbilical hernia that required surgical repair, among other physical problems and in addition to mental trauma. The American Medical Association has called the practice of shackling laboring women “medically hazardous” and “barbaric”—it poses a risk to the health of the mother and to that of her unborn baby.”

Hideous, right? And yet. Maybe we’re all so accustomed to the hideousness we see on TV and on the Internet every day that we just click on by.

And maybe, for some of us, it’s because her name is Shawanna and she’s black that we can’t imagine extending her the same sort of mercy–whatever her crime–that we would extend to our own wives and daughters.

Maybe it’s because the ACLU and Prison Fellowship and Virginia’s conservative Family Foundation all AGREE that this shackling has to stop that there’s no real story of partisan mudslinging, where the conservatives get to pick on the liberals and the liberals on the conservatives.

Because don’t we all love to get to take sides and entrench within them, and pat ourselves on the back for being so much more enlightened than the “other” side? As I wrote last year, in the blogosphere, it can seem like everyone is always talking about what they are against, and, frankly, it often has quite the Pharisaic tone:

  • Lord, I thank you that I am not like those bleeding-heart social-justice-y Sojourners Christians
  • Lord, I thank you that I am not like those uptight, theology-obsessed Gospel Coalition Christians
  • Lord, I thank you that I am not like those sling-wearing, tree-hugging crunchy mamas
  • Lord, I thank you that I am not like those career-driven, daycare-using mamas
  • Lord, I thank you that I am not like those complacent, suburban dwelling churchgoers
  • Lord, I thank you that I am not like those hipster new-urbanism loving churchgoers
  • Lord, I thank you that I am not like those lefty, wealth-redistributing Democrats
  • Lord, I thank you that I am not like those right-wing, poor-people-despising Republicans

Screen shot 2013-08-05 at 1.03.19 PM(image via

Even as I’m writing posts like the one on chaining laboring inmates, I know that they’ll get only a little attention.

And that’s fine. I don’t write what I think will be popular, I write what I think is true and important.

But it does annoy me that when I write posts about ‘biblical’ gender roles or bikinis or modesty or whatever the issue of outrage du jour happens to be, the sparks of interest fly.

It just makes me wonder what many of those most loudly vocal and critical (or adulating and approving) on social media are really interested in: the justice and mercy and truth and righteousness that they claim to be supporting by responding vigorously to whatever foolish thing John Piper or Mark Driscoll or Douglas Wilson has just said or by praising whatever “hot” post has just been penned by whomever is currently judged the paragon of evangelical hip-ness.

Is the appeal of some of these posts–and I include myself as one who has been caught up in this online drama–the adrenaline-pumping thrill of smacking those folks down as we show off our own cleverness in parsing their heinousness by demonstrating how an offhand comment about modesty is a slippery slope to women being held cruelly, legally, and rightly in (mostly symbolic) chains?

I guess it’s just a lot less adrenaline pumping to read about the actual women in actual chains. Who exist. Legally. In these United States.

And sorry for the cranky tone here, but I do find that depressing.

{Sign the petition to end shackling of pregnant women here.}

Read the rest of my her.meneutics post here.

“Absolution can be Disconcerting; Gimme Some Fire ‘n’ Brimstone!”

I’m delighted to point you to another good review of my book, this time in The Christian Century, by Valerie Weaver-Zercher.

Early in the review she talks about the general readiness we all have to be screamed at about our many and varied food woes, but how my book, even though it gets into some sordid details, doesn’t deal in fire ‘n’ brimstone.

I come by that honest: my Daddy may be a Baptist preacher, but he ain’t never been the screaming kind, not even when that’s what people wanted.

Here’s a taste of Weaver-Zercher’s review:

A substratum of biblical and theological earthworks fortifies Stone’s argument: that no matter how broken or polluted or alienated our food and eating practices have become, eating remains a great and God-blessed practice, one that should give us pleasure instead of guilt. Her refraction of scripture through the lens of food as gift is one of the greatest contributions of this slim volume. The Genesis account of Eden as an example of biodiversity, the story of Ruth as a narrative of food justice, the Bread of Heaven as more than a spiritual metaphor: some of these theological points are not new, but Stone makes them accessible without diminishing their depth.

Another gift of this book is Stone’s refusal to bow to food orthodoxy of any kind. Regarding the gift of eating communally, she writes, “Better the occasional meal shared with friends at McDonald’s than organic salad in bitter isolation.” She acknowledges that McDonald’s food “can’t speak clearly of God’s love and provision for creatures because of the many, many injustices involved at every stage of its production.” Of course, a meal home-cooked with ingredients from one’s garden speaks more lucidly of God’s provision than chicken nuggets and Diet Coke any day. But Stone doesn’t push us toward perfection. Instead, she nudges us toward greater faithfulness, suggesting that occasionally this might mean holding one food ideal more loosely than another.

{You can read it all online–free, no paywall–here.}