Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The End of the Bill of Rights? Civil Asset Forefeiture in the US

Burglars and other crooks across the United States manage to seize around $4 billion a year in cash and goods from their victims. That's actually less than the value of the goods and cash seized by law enforcement without the need for a trial or any form of due process. Welcome to the world of "civil asset forfeiture," a pernicious scheme that allows local officials to take your property with no more than an allegation against you, and then they can keep it to line their budgets. It's the very kind of abuse that caused our Founding Fathers to denounce the king of England and his officers. It's the very kind of abuse that the Bill of Rights seeks to banish from the land. But that abuse is back in force, and the Bill of Rights appears to be little more than a distant memory now when it comes to property rights.

Much of this happens at the local level, but the Federal Government also does its share directly. As Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post reported in March 2017, "Since 2007, the report found, the DEA has seized more than $4 billion in cash from people suspected of involvement with the drug trade." Ah, but those are drug dealers, right? Convicted, jailed criminals whose stuff should be taken! That's what we are supposed to think. "But 81 percent of those seizures, totaling $3.2 billion, were conducted administratively, meaning no civil or criminal charges were brought against the owners of the cash and no judicial review of the seizures ever occurred" (emphasis added).

When some officer says your car, cash, home, or whatever was "somehow" involved in a crime and takes it, no charges need to be filed. No trial or judicial review needs to be held. The burden (a prohibitively costly one for many) is on you to prove that the officials are wrong if you want to get it back. This is completely contrary to the principles of due process and the "innocent until proven guilty." If this can happen, and it's happening at a rapidly increasing rate, you have no property rights. The Bill of Rights then is worthless.

In Philadelphia, where I'll be in a few days, a city with a key role in the history of liberty's rise in the United States, a tragic loss of liberty is being experienced by a growing number of people like Chris and Amy Sourovelis. Officers from the Philadelphia Police Department, according to Pennsylvania Watchdog, raided their home "with guns drawn — one of them pointed at the head of the family dog — and found small amounts of the drug in the 22-year old’s bedroom." The parents had known nothing of the son's drug habit, but the police did after his son sold $40 worth of heroin to an undercover cop. The son was busted, of course, and then "a few weeks later, the cops were back to tell the Sourovelis family they had to gather their things and leave the property. The home was being confiscated under civil forfeiture rules, leaving the family homeless and forced to sleep on a neighbor’s couch." That story was reported in 2014, and I see that in a later 2015 story they were able to retain their home and made some progress in their legal battle against Philadelphia. In fact, they were luckier than many who have lost their home, truck, cars, cash, or whatever under similarly scenarios. 

According to Wikipedia's article on civil asset forfeiture, its victims face long legal battles if they want to get their property back, and it's estimated that only 1% of seized property is ever returned.

This nightmare of civil asset forfeiture began with the war on drugs during the Reagan era, where the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 allowed law enforcement agencies for the first time to retain the proceeds of successful civil forfeitures, creating a pernicious profit motive. In many cases, local law enforcement agencies get 80% of what they seize and the Federal government gets 20%. Much easier than raising taxes or getting legislators to raise your department's budget. For a review of the history of civil asset forfeiture and some of the details of its operation, see Jason Snead, "Instead of Raiding the Assets Forfeiture Fund, Congress Should Simply Discontinue It," at Heritage.org.

I believe the reason why most of you probably haven't even heard of this issue, rich in shocking stories, alarming statistics, and genuinely newsworthy drama, is that property rights are anathema to the political views of the highly unified and highly politicized mainstream media. Crying foul about this clearly abusive practice is not going to be a priority for those already bent of encouraging government to take more of your property to "spread the wealth around" for their good and their agenda. But enough such stories have come to the attention of Congress in the past that there was pressure on both sides of the aisle for some kind of reform regarding civil asset forfeiture, and thus under the Obama Administration, Attorney Genera Eric Holder actually imposed some rules that slightly softened the power of states to take your stuff. But in an expression of Trump's pro-police stance, last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismantled those protections and once again ramped up the power of the State over the citizens. See Lucy Steigerwald's article, "Jeff Sessions: Feds Have the Right to Seize Your Cash, Property," July 21, 2017. My apologies to those of you who were hoping that President Trump might turn out to be some kind of small government guy ready to squelch the rise of the police state.

So what to do? Write your congressman and speak out against this abuse. Also work with state leaders to push stronger state policies and laws against this blatant abuse of basic liberties. Quit talking about sports and celebrities and get people talking and thinking about liberty instead.

I have had conversations with a variety of well educated adults on this topic in the past few days. Almost nobody I've met seems to have ever even heard of this. I hope you'll be an exception and be a further exception by speaking out.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Pressing Forward

At a recent meeting of the BYU Management Society, Shanghai Chapter, our speaker was Jessica Liu, a local Chinese woman in a prestigious position at Marriott International and a graduate of BYU-Hawaii. She talked about the importance of adding new skills as one of the many small things we need to do in life to prepare for future opportunities. She began with a painful story.

As a student in a marketing program at BYU-Hawaii, she sometimes had to prepare presentations and images for a class. She had a roommate who was proficient in Photoshop, and several times asked her for help. Once her roommate said something like, "I can do this for you, but how about if I show you the basics of Photoshop so you can do this yourself whenever you need it?" Jessica thought for a moment and figured that she just needed help once or twice more, and since she was going into marketing and not graphic design, there really wasn't a need for that. "Umm, I'm not going to need that in the future, so how about if you just do it?" Her patient roommate understood and edited the image for her.

Not long after that Jessica had the opportunity to interview with a great company offering a position that looked like her dream job. The interviewer was impressed with her resume and background. In the interview, he said that she appeared to be a great fit. "I just have one question," he said. "Can you use Photoshop?" Jessica's heart sank. He explained that in this marketing position, the candidate would need to be able to edit images to prepare marketing materials, so Photoshop skills were essential.

Jessica told the truth and didn't get an offer. It was a terrible disappointment, but she resolved to not make that mistake again and to keep growing and adding skills.

One of the most distressing things I encounter in the world is stagnation of human talent. When people quit growing, when they feel no need to develop new talents, explore new fields of knowledge, set and achieve personal goals, and become something more in life, it makes me wonder why they wish to go on living at all.

In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, at least as taught among the Latter-day Saints and I hope many other places, I love the vision of personal growth and overcoming that is presented to us. We are urged to not give up, to endure to the end, to overcome personal weaknesses and add new layers of faith, knowledge, and ability. I love to see that hunger for growth in people. The late Hugh Nibley had it. He seemed to always be learning and exploring new things up to the end. Don't let age or health stop you. There is so much to achieve, to learn, and to do, wherever you are in life.

From Paul in Phil. 3:
12 Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.
13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
15 Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.
16 Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.
17 Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample....
20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
Peter in 2 Peter 1, sounding like something of a closet Mormon, I'm afraid, writes to Christians who already have faith in Christ, and like Paul urges them to press forward. He offers a list of things to add to their foundation of faith so that they might be (gasp!) partakers of the divine nature:
3 According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:
4 Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9 But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.
10 Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall.
And then from the revelations to Joseph Smith, we have passages like Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
77 And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.
78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;…
79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms
80 That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you....
118 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.
119 Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God.
To be able to minister effectively here in mortality, the Lord asks us to learn about nature and science, history and politics, other nations and international events, etc. He asks us to seek learning and turn to the best books (not necessarily the most entertaining video or YouTube clips, by the way). There's no end to what we should be learning and achieving in our lives as we follow the Savior Jesus Christ. As we've been taught recently by Gordon B. Hinckley and others, "Get all the education you can!" Education is actually a commandment for us Mormons, and one I'm so grateful for.

The journey isn't over once we accept Christ as our Savior. That's the beginning of an endless but beautiful journey as we strive to follow the One who said, "Come, follow me."

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Miraculous Feeding in 3 Nephi 20: Intensified Over Mark, Who Intensifies an Elisha Theme

In preparing my recent paper on the longer ending of Mark and its implications for the Book of Mormon (see Part 1 and the newly published Part 2), one of the sources I turned to was Adam Winn, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), Kindle edition. Winn finds that Mark has deftly applied themes from Elijah and Elisha in describing the ministry of Christ, and Mark's use of Elijah and Elisha themes is one of the unifying thematic elements that Nicholas Lunn points to in support of Markan authorship of the disputed longer ending (Mark 16:9-20; see Nicholas P. Lunn, The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9–20 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014)).

One aspect of Mark's narrative, according to Winn, is showing Christ's superiority to or transcendence of both of those ancient prophets by "intensifying" Elisha-Elijah themes in Mark's account. For example, the miraculous feeding of two crowds by Christ is seen as an intensified parallel to 2 Kings 4:42–44 where, during a time of famine, Elisha takes 20 barley rolls and fees 100 people with them.

Interestingly, the Book of Mormon account of Christ's ministry among the Nephites offers interesting parallels to Mark and the Elijah-Elisha accounts, sometimes with clear intensification beyond Mark. The table below compares common elements in the miraculous feedings in Mark and in the Elisha account, adapted from a table by Winn (p. 82), and compared with 3 Nephi 20.

Elisha (2 Kings 4:42-44)Christ in Mark 6:30–44 and 8:1–103 Nephi 20
Hunger/famine in land (38)Hunger implied: day or days without food (6:31, 8:1–2)Implicit since those present on first day labored through night to bring a larger crowd. Hunger and thirst mentioned also in v. 8
Small amount of food: 20 barley loaves and fig cakes (42)Small amount of food: 5 loaves + 2 fish (6:38), 7 loaves and a few fish (8:5, 7)The miracle begins with no food or wine present (vv. 6–7)
Command to pass out food: “Give to the men so they may eat” (42)Command to provide food: explicit (6:37) and implied (8:2–3)Christ commands the disciples to give bread and wine to the multitude (vv. 4–5)
Servant responds with doubt/hesitation (43)Disciples respond with doubt/hesitation (6:37, 8:4)Doubt is absent. The disciples and multitude respond with faith and unity (vv. 1, 9–10)
Command is repeated (43)Command to the disciples to sit the people down (6:39, 8:6)The command to give to the people is repeated: once for bread, once for wine (vv. 4–5)
Food distributed by a servant (44)Food distributed by disciples (6:41, 8:6)Food distributed the disciples (vv. 4–5)
A large number of people eat : 100 (44)A large number of people eat: 5,000 (6:42) and 4,000 (8:8)Multitude is several times larger than the 2,500 of the previous day (3 Nephi 17:25, 19:2–5)
Extra food remainsExtra food remains: 12 baskets full (6:43) and 7 baskets full (8:8)Remnants of food not mentioned, but remnants of Israel are cited immediately after the miraculous feeding (vv. 10, 13)

Interestingly, of the eight elements in the story of Christ’s miraculous feedings that Winn lists as having parallels with the 2 Kings 4 account of Elisha, seven of these are also found in 3 Nephi 20, sometimes with logical further intensification. What is missing is the parallel element of doubt expressed by Elisha’s servant and Christ’s apostles (2 Kings 4:43, Mark 6:37 and 8:4). This absence, though, is consistent with the emphasis on the greater faith of the Nephites at this stage. Among this tried and faithful people, Christ is able to work greater miracles, as Christ tells them in 3 Nephi 19:25. The absence of doubt as a parallel is a reasonable and appropriate reversal of the pattern apparently being alluded to in 2 Kings 4. Winn observes that reversals of themes are often used in ancient literature when building on a previous text (Winn, pp. 13–14, 29, 79–81, and 112). Thus, one can argue that Mark’s use of Elisha’s miraculous feeding in the account of two of Christ’s miracles is used with equal detail and resonance in 3 Nephi 20, while differing from Mark in some significant and appropriate ways rather than being a clumsy copy.

Other Elijah and Elisha themes used subtly by Mark are even more interesting in the Book of Mormon, in my opinion. I treat them in detail in "The Book of Mormon Versus the Consensus of Scholars: Surprises from the Disputed Longer Ending of Mark, Part 2" at MormonInterpreter.com.

As with all discussions of miracles involving food, I welcome feedback.

Monday, July 03, 2017

An Ayi for an Eye: The Tragic Story of Our Maid, Now in Jail

As I contemplate the blessings of freedom on this Fourth of July here in China, there is quite a different feeling this year as we struggle with the uncertainties and pains of a dear friend being held in detention here in China. She may be there for months before the trial and then could face up to five years in prison. We have been trying to help her and her family in this process but feel quite helpless.

A couple weeks ago we had to move from one apartment to another, and were sorely disappointed to have no help from our ayi (a word pronounced somewhat like "eye-ee" or more accurately "ah-yee," meaning maid or aunt or older woman) during that intense week. We have a diligent, honest, and intelligent woman named Zhiping (that’s her first name, pronounced sort of like Jurr-ping) who has been working for us part-time for nearly all of our six years here in China. She has proven to be completely trustworthy and honest. But when we needed her most for a difficult and unwanted move, she wasn’t there. It took two weeks to find out what had happened: our ayi is in jail.

I will carefully report what I have learned, seeking not to spread any inaccurate rumors, which would be contrary to Chinese law.

A few weeks ago she was at a mahjong (majiang) parlor where people gather to play one of China’s most popular games, superficially related to dominos and often but not necessarily associated with gambling. According to the story she has conveyed to us and her family, reported in the presence of the lawyer we helped find for her with the kind aid of my boss, she and three relatives were playing mahjong when one of them, a woman, went into a side room to play a slot machine.   As I recall, that other woman spent 20 RMB and was delighted when the machine reported that she had suddenly won 160 RMB.

This machine does not spew out coins the way Las Vegas slot machines do, but requires the customer to go to the parlor boss to receive payment. But the boss refused, and a loud argument followed. At this point, the lone man at our ayi’s mahjong table went into the side room to join in the argument. It sounded like a brawl was taking place, so our ayi opened the door to see what was happening and could tell that a serious fight was underway. She called for help, seeking to stop the fight. But when she opened the door again, it was too late. The man from her table was holding a plate, perhaps a fragment of a broken plate I am guessing, and the manager had blood all over his face and one of his eyes had been injured. His eye was apparently destroyed and he is demanding 1.2 million RMB compensation, which I understand is much higher than normal.  (Since this is a criminal case, it will go to trial even if the demand is paid, but paying up may lead to a reduced sentence.)

When the police got statements, the man who had apparently been fighting the boss and the boss both claimed that all three of the women at the table had joined in the attack. This could be true, but I understand it contradicts what our ayi says and what one or two recently found witnesses say. One could imagine incentives for both men to enlarge the net here: the victim can get a larger settlement and the man with the plate might hope to soften his burden. But both could be reporting the facts accurately. I was not there so cannot say for sure, but do not think our friend could gouge out an eye.

The police of Huangpu District in Shanghai, where we used to live, have been kind and helpful to me in the past and I know they have a difficult job. They also have a legal system much different than in the States, one that still confuses me and adds to the uncertainty for us.  With the help of my boss, we found a good lawyer for the woman, but lawyers play a relatively minor role here and evidence they may wish to present might not be considered. Further, I understand that gambling is illegal in China, so one might wonder if there are complicating factors involving the operator, though I won't speculate
 on that issue.

Please do not interpret this post as being anti-China or a critique of the Chinese legal system. China is a land with remarkable safety and a great deal of freedom, with much the West can learn from. There are also challenges and puzzles.  As a foreigner living in China, I have no right to tell China how they should run their system or how to best preserve social order and state stability. These are important and complex issues for the people of China and their officials to manage. I just mourn for the tragedy that has befallen our ayi and the risk that others have falsely accused her. If she is being blamed for a crime she tried to prevent, this would truly be tragic.

I pray that the police and judicial system will be able to separate the guilty from the bystanders in this case, which for now has been classified as a group crime. I also pray that they will be able to consider the new evidence from witnesses and also that they might allow bail for this case. Most of all, I pray that our ayi can have her freedom and that her husband can have his wife back.

Our next step is preparing the family for the hopeful possibility of bail to secure the release of their mom and wife during the months before the trial. Bail may not be granted and if it is, it can be very expensive and typically the money given won't be returned, so I have read and been told.

Maids are often impoverished outsiders who migrate from the countryside to big cities looking for work. They can feel completely helpless and lost when caught up in legal trouble in the rather foreign big city.

I welcome any advice. Donations to this blog (PayPal button on the right) will be used to help her and her family with the costs they are facing. I would welcome your prayers for our dear friend and, of course, for the welfare of China, a nation we respect with incredible people we admire and love.