Come, Lord Jesus . . . but while we pray and wait . . .
It is that time of year when liturgical Christians from around the world turn their calendars and attention to that season known as Advent. Though those outside the Church think that the Advent season is simply a “pre-Christmas” time in the Church, we know it to be something far more significant. During that time, we will focus on the coming of our Lord Christ in glory to complete what He started, the recreation of all things, during His first time on earth. Our readings and Collects will point us to the expectation all Christians should have towards Christ’s return, and our need for His reign in order to see that God’s righteousness, holiness, and love are fulfilled in their entirety.
Given that season, it is fitting that attention is being drawn to a particular miscarriage of justice within the borders of our own state and diocese and the need for God’s intervening mercy, grace, and justice in a dark world. I call it a miscarriage as the events of this case caused our state legislators and law enforcement officials, as well as victims’ advocates, to come together and work together to create a more just response to those charged with crimes while enslaved.
In 2011, a 16 year-old girl named Cyntoia Brown, a girl trafficked by a pimp named Kutthroat, was picked up by a man and taken to his house. Miss Brown claimed the man hired her for sex and scared her with his discussion of weapons. During their encounter, Miss Brown feared the man was reaching for a gun and shot him. She took money out of his wallet and a couple of his guns and drove herself in his truck to a nearby Wal-Mart. Miss Brown was subsequently prosecuted for murder and convicted, when she was sentenced to life in prison. Those interested in her story can view it at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/me-facing-life/ .
Although I was living outside the state of Tennessee at the time, I heard about the case through advocates around the country. As a result of this case, officials and legislators in the state of Tennessee worked to change the state laws regarding victims and survivors of human trafficking. Over a period of a few years, Human Trafficking survivors were allowed to claim, as an affirmative defense, that they were forced to commit a crime because they were enslaved by another individual. Better still, if it could be proved they were trafficked (enslaved), they could not be found guilty of the charges brought against them while enslaved. Other advances in victims’ rights also came about either directly or indirectly because of the case of Miss Brown. No longer could juveniles be charged as prostitutes in the state of Tennessee. Better still, no longer could juveniles engaged in prostitution give consent to an adult to exchange sex for money. In many ways, the response of the state officials and victims’ advocates propelled Tennessee into a leadership role in the United States regarding the treatment of those enslaved in our midst as other states sought to join Tennessee in the just treatment of survivors. Other states’ advocates and officials used Tennessee as a template for how to treat victims of slavery within their own legal systems.
I bring this all up now because of the events of the last week or ten days. Beginning last week, people from around the country began sending me various articles regarding the unfortunate case of Miss Brown and wondering what I was doing to rally my parish, my diocese, the wider Church, and even the secular world to her cause. Miss Brown’s case had been picked up by some entertainers and television personalities and gone viral. A number of the articles can be viewed at Newsweek , NBC , NY Times , Fox News , or the Tennessean , and a quick Google search will produce more by the day. I had spoken with Derri Smith, founder of EndSlaveryTn, prior to my arrival in Nashville, and I had spent some time with her since my arrival. Naturally, I wanted to make sure the facts of the case were the facts of the case. While Derri noted some sensationalism on the part of some of the press, she agreed that the essential argument regarding justice for Miss Brown was correct. Although Miss Brown’s case, and the cases of less well-known survivors, had caused a tremendous advancement in the way the legal system in Tennessee treats victims and survivors charged with crimes within the borders of our state, Miss Brown was denied those same remedies under the laws. Were Miss Brown to commit those crimes today, neither I nor Derri think it likely she would be charged, let alone convicted. For more on Derri Smith’s thoughts on the case, check out a recent post at here.
Make no mistake, Miss Brown recognizes that a man is dead directly because of her actions. She will have to live with the image of that encounter and the certain knowledge that she took his life for the rest of her life. Miss Brown is not even asking that she be treated under the laws of today; she is asking instead that her crime be commuted to second-degree murder. But make no mistake about this either: Miss Brown was impacted by the fact that she was forced by another human being to exchange sex with strangers for money. We know far more about the life of sex slaves today than we did just a decade ago. Some deal with the pain of their life through the use, sometimes forced by the slaver, of alcohol and drugs and crazy combinations of both. Prostitutes are more likely to experience concussions at the hands of violent “customers” than NFL players who wear protective gear, and we are just beginning to understand better how such brain injuries influence the behaviors of those athletes. What do such injuries do to the rest of us? And, as human trafficking has gained a bigger foothold in the public eye, we have come to realize some of the dangers with which the slaves live with daily. Given her life, was her response understandable? Absolutely. It is also tragic and lamentable that a life was taken. It is for these reasons, and countless others, that Christians cry for our Lord to come, especially during this season of Advent.
But, absent His reappearing, we Christians have work to do on earth. Those moved by her case and legal residents of Tennessee can call or write the Governor and the Parole Board on her behalf (1st Floor, State Capitol 600 Charlotte Avenue Nashville, TN 37243 (615) 741-2001 or Bill.Haslam@tn.gov or the Parole Board at Tennessee Board of Parole 404 James Robertson Parkway, Suite 1300 Nashville, Tennessee 37243 or via e-mail at: BOP.Webmail@tn.gov). We encourage personal letters or e-mails rather than form letters as a personal appeal conveys a higher level of interest and involvement than mass mailed forms. Those with personal relationships with the individuals can engage in even more ways. Those outside the state, but aware of the leadership role of Tennessee with respect to the legal rights of those who have been trafficked in our midst, can also write the Governor and Parole Board encouraging them to act in the interest of justice—she likely would not be convicted of the crimes under the laws of today, laws that exist and were changed because of her case in 2011! While the Governor and Parole Board have no legal obligation to listen to those outside the state, we have no doubt that they appreciate the perception around the country that Tennessee has been viewed as a national leader in this fight and that their inaction to address her case diminishes the perception that they are leaders. Those with friends and family living in the state can encourage residents of Tennessee to get involved, to speak up, and to advocate for one whose case changed the very way law enforcement and society deal with those enslaved among us. And, everybody can sign the petition that has been started by those entertainers and personalities on her behalf at Change.org or Moveon.org . In the immortal words of Dr. King, “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.”
What of those who claim another faith tradition or no faith tradition? You are every bit as needed in this discussion as are Christians. American society is engaged in some serious reflection right now. The #metoo campaign, the outing of particular misogynistic behavior by men in power and authority, and the struggles we are having regarding racism, speak to that reflection and our societal understanding of justice. Miss Brown is being punished for a crime which some prosecutors would likely choose not to prosecute and which many citizens would likely not convict while serving on a jury, given the changes in the laws and our increasing understanding and awareness of these issues. Is it just, is it fair, that she remain behind bars, now knowing that?
As I travel around the country discussing the stories of rescued men and women, of those that helped rescue them, and of those who help treat them on the long road of recovery, I often end my discussions with a quote from a famous man from my faith tradition, William Wilberforce, one who is credited by some historians with leading the fight against the Atlantic Slave trade. “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” We as members in our society have an obligation to participate in its living out, no matter our backgrounds, no matter our desires. Now that you know what has happened to Miss Brown, what will you do?
In Christ’s Peace,