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Sacred Paths - Unjust Judgment From La Raza
November 3, 2007
by Vern Barnet
Click For Full Size Suppose that a denomination, not gay-friendly, is planning to have its national church convention here. Then a local homophobic minister makes an issue of the fact that the city has a domestic-partnership policy and that some city employees are gay. And maybe the minister adds that the city library has copies of the Harry Potter books with that recently outed Dumbledore character ? presented respectfully at that! The denomination says it will pull its convention from Kansas City unless the gay employees are fired and the books removed.

Now suppose that a city, say San Diego, is served by a state lawmaker who vigorously supports the Minutemen, a group described by some as favoring law enforcement and by others as prejudiced against Hispanics. The leading national Hispanic organization plans to hold its 2008 convention there. Friends, the first situation is fantasy. The second is reality.

Consider this additional reality: A mayor of a Midwestern city appoints a woman to the Parks Board because of her interest in improving facilities for inner-city children. The mayor does not know she is a member of the Minutemen. Her views have no bearing on her unpaid work as a member of the Park Board. The citizens did not elect her. The leading national Hispanic organization is furious with the mayor and pulls its 2009 convention from that city. Of course I?m talking about what has happened in our own town. We all are being punished because of one woman?s association with a group some people (including me) don?t like.

Two points. First, although I think Mayor Funkhouser erred in appointing Frances Semler to the Park Board, he also could not cave in to the threats of La Raza without establishing a precedent. If he gave in to that group, it would pave the way for giving in to others, including homophobic groups.

Second, let?s look at the idea of collective punishment, the whole city affected because of an individual. Did you have a teacher who knew that James did a bad thing, and yet she punished the whole class? Her anger made her irrational. She could not see that her punishment of the group for what an individual did made all the students lose respect for her. Rather than handling the incident with tempered measures, she wanted to show she had power.

Except for the hope of showing power, what explanation is there for the irrational acceptance of San Diego, where the offensive lawmaker was elected, but the rejection of Kansas City, which did not elect Semler to the Park Board, which makes no laws?

Collective punishment has a long theological history in the West. In the ?Ten Commandments? passage of Exodus 20, God says he is jealous and threatens to punish the children of the wicked ?unto the third and fourth generation.?

But in Ezekiel 18, God relents and says never more will people have to use the proverb, ?the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children?s teeth are set on edge,? effectively renouncing collective punishment of children yet to be born.

As Christians have often interpreted the Bible, we are all guilty of Adam?s disobedience, the sin transmitted, according to St. Augustine, through sexual intercourse to the entire human race. As the New England Primer put it, ?In Adam?s fall/ We sinned all.? Talk about collective guilt!

Yet the Bible also observes that justice is not assured, for ?the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all? (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

From such observations, a powerful religious impulse has arisen to respond to the fact that life is often unfair. That impulse is to share one another?s burdens. This has taken many forms, from commercial insurance, where risks are shared, to social programs by religious groups and by governments to help those in need, to provide a ?social safety net.?

In my opinion La Raza has unjustly hit all of Kansas City because of a single individual. Such collective punishment is akin to prejudice, unfavorably characterizing all folks of a certain category.

Minorities ? identified by race, gender, age, national origin, religion, color, and disability, sexual preference ? know the sting of discrimination.?Members of any minority should know better than to engage in a blanket judgment such as
collective punishment.

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The Rev. Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.
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