The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

The Southern Baptists' Challenge on Race

In the wake of tragic shootings of unarmed black men at the hands of vigilantes and white police officers, many institutions across American society, from the president on down, have sought to foster “national conversations” about race.

Perhaps surprisingly, an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention is sponsoring one of the most important and fruitful such conversations. The SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has hosted a summit on racial reconciliation last week in Nashville, Tenn.

Founded in 1845 in a split over slavery, the SBC has made laudable efforts to overcome its racist past. Some moderate and liberal Southern Baptist leaders prophetically denounced racism and supported the civil rights movement, but those very leaders were forced out of the denomination during a period of conservative resurgence in the 1980s. Today’s SBC leaders are in the tenuous position of saying that moderates were right about race but wrong about everything else.

Southern Baptist leaders are determined to challenge the lingering indifferent or crude attitudes on race where they still exist among the denomination’s mostly white, mostly Southern constituency.

Charged with carrying out the SBC’s political priorities, the ERLC is best known for its advocacy for religious freedom and against abortion and same-sex marriage. Yet in the wake of unrest over last year’s deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., the ERLC hastened its plans to hold a summit on race.

The Nashville event drew more than 500 clergy, lay leaders, and seminarians from across Southern Baptist life. Thousands more watched a live stream online. The speaker lineup was male-dominated but was decidedly mixed race. The ERLC was much more eager to hear from ethnic minorities at this summit than it was to hear from gay people at its fall conference on homosexuality.

While the sexuality conference projected certainty and unanimity — acceptance of homosexual expression is inconsistent with Christianity and will not be tolerated in Southern Baptist churches — white Baptists came to their race summit with genuine humility and a spirit of repentance for the harm racism has caused.

Dean Inserra, lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Fla., challenged the audience: “When you say a school or neighborhood has ‘gone downhill,’ what are you saying?”

Conceding his own need for greater empathy, Inserra recalled asking a black clergy colleague to help him understand how police violence affects black communities.

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Hope Matters

It is Holy Week. And I must admit I’m challenged by it. I’m the kind of person who is much more comfortable in my mind, in words on pages, and in thoughts strung together. I am much more comfortable there than in my body, in my own feet stepping down the street, in my own hips, thighs, calves, swaying arms cutting air, swinging, bobbing, Reebok-ing anywhere.

This wasn’t always the case.

There was a stint in high school, and again in college, and again in grad school, and again in the other grad school when I believed in my body’s capacity to excel — and so it did. I sailed around that high school track multiple times without stopping! I dove for the ball in the students v. teachers volley ball tournament, and I danced: jazz, tap, ballet! In college I rode my bike everywhere. In grad school I did interval training and in the other grad school I did power-walking — and Jenny Craig.

Mind you, all of these periods came in short bursts that propelled me forward for a time and then I would slow down, go into myself, and come out again with another burst in a year or two.

But my last big burst was about eight years ago. I haven’t swayed anything or bobbed anywhere for any significant amount of time since.

I felt it coming on. I knew it was happening when it was happening, but I had no idea I would become consumed by it.

“I just don’t feel like getting up to go walking,” I’d tell myself at my normal walking time.

“What if today is the day I get jumped and raped in the park?”

So I stayed home, convinced I was safer in my bed. Then I moved to a city I didn’t know and the rationalizations took deeper root.

And so, for eight years I have lived like a dualistic gnostic — pushing myself toward spiritual renewal while allowing my body to grow stagnant, stiff, and bloated.

What triggered it? I’ve asked myself that question many times over the years.

A recent event in my life crystalized it for me: Loss had stifled me. A loss locked my feet and knees and would not let me move forward. This loss was loss of hope.

Most of us have that area of our lives where we struggle to hope. For me it is that space down deep where I hide the dream of a family: a loving husband and laughing children and a rockin’ writing and speaking schedule — yeah! It’s my dream.

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Learning from Undaunted Women

Sitting in Prajwala's small conference room adjacent to a chaotic market, I asked Sunitha where the strength came from to charge ahead into danger, violence, and sometimes even rejection by the women Prajwala served. I don't remember her exact words - but the gist was that the strength came not from herself, but from faith in her own experience of God. Not a God owned by some religious denomination, but the real One. That One who never let Sunitha down when it was time to pay the staff, deal with the mob, handle corrupt police, or remain resolute in the face of failure.

I have been blessed and humbled to have met these three women and remain inspired by what they do, particularly their commitment to empowering other women and girls. Sunitha told me to not just show up and feel sorry. Send money if you are inclined, but most importantly, speak about sexual slavery and trafficking to everyone you know. Don't allow anyone to pretend it isn't going on in your own community. Only when all men are vocal about this and intolerant of any abuse of women will things improve.

I pray that I may develop a sliver of the courage Anna, Anna, and Sunitha model.

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Weekly Wrap 3.27.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. How Yemen Became the Middle East’s Latest Regional Nightmare

As Saudi Arabia and Egypt say they’re prepared to send in ground troops, here’s a look at how Yemen got to this point.

2. God and Jeb

“[Jeb] Bush wants Christian conservatives to pay attention to what he's done, not just to what he says. But in a Republican presidential primary, can actions — much less actions more than a decade in the past — actually speak louder than words? Can quiet faith, and quiet support from some religious leaders, carry the day against a field full of outspoken Christian warriors?”

3. A Response to Critics of the Open Letter to Franklin Graham

Jesus says ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.’ Jesus does not say, ‘If another member of the church sins against millions, and hundreds of thousands begin to follow his lead on the issue, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.’”

4. Women & Leadership: Public Says Women Are Equally Qualified, but Barriers Exist

And it might not be the barriers you would think. “Only about one-in-five say women’s family responsibilities are a major reason there aren’t more females in top leadership positions in business and politics. Instead, topping the list of reasons, about four-in-ten Americans point to a double standard for women seeking to climb to the highest levels of either politics or business, where they have to do more than their male counterparts to prove themselves. Similar shares say the electorate and corporate America are just not ready to put more women in top leadership positions.”

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National Latino Evangelical Coalition Calls for Death Penalty Repeal

The National Latino Evangelical Coalition has voted to support repeal of the death penalty, calling it an anti-life practice. Urging their 3,000 congregations to support efforts to end capital punishment across the country, NaLEC joins an increasing number of Christians across the country and internationally who are realizing afresh the moral problems with the death penalty. Most recently Pope Francis went beyond the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church to call the “death penalty inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”

“After prayer, reflection, and dialog with anti-death penalty organizations like Equal Justice USA,” said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of NaLEC, in a news release. “we felt compelled to add our voice to this important issue. As Christ followers, we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed.”

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Expanding Clean Energy in Maryland Would Protect the Poor

Pope Francis is a straight shooter who does not mince words: "If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us,” the pontiff said last year. “Never forget this!”

The pope’s warning and calls for action have galvanized many religious leaders from across Maryland to step up our efforts to protect God’s creation from climate change disruptions. We understand that it is the poor and most vulnerable among us who are bearing the brunt of human-induced climate change. Unless we act now, the impacts of devastating super-storms, massive floods, droughts, and crop failures will only accelerate. Refusing to bury one’s head in the sand and facing squarely the reality of climate change is a fundamental issue of justice and respect for life.

This is why I, a Franciscan friar priest, have joined more than 230 Maryland religious leaders, including Bishop Dennis Madden of the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and six other leaders of Christian denominations across Maryland, in issuing an urgent, moral challenge. We are calling on Marylanders — including our elected officials — to take action on climate change by helping to shift our state’s energy policy towards renewable, clean energy sources.

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Agree to Disagree: Millennials Talk Sex and Morals

When it comes to consensual sexual ethics among millennials, all behaviors are on the table … if the time is right. For the same generation in which no single religious group claims more than about one in 10, there is also little clear generational consensus on sex and reproductive health, a new report finds.

“Across seven behaviors related to sexuality [including: using contraception, sex between minors, unmarried cohabitation], there were no issues for which a majority pronounced them morally wrong in general,” the report, authored by Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox at the Public Religion Research Institute, states.

Millennials prove a regular source of fascination for commentators and other millennials alike. This is the generation that launched a thousand think pieces, and understandably so — in study after study, millennials consistently defy both traditional categories and expected reactive categories alike. (We’re an obstinate bunch.)

When it comes to sex, PRRI’s new release highlights what its authors call “situationalist ethics” — a flexible set of acceptable behaviors. Far from displaying a lack of moral code, the report suggests millennials embracing nebulous but durable moral through-lines that eschew the “whats” of behavior for the “hows” and “whens.” 

For example, in the case of sex between two adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship, millennials are evenly divided for and against (37 percent), with a significant number saying it depends on the situation (21 percent).

When it comes to abortion, most say it depends on the situation (39 percent), though more say it’s morally wrong than morally acceptable. Using artificial forms of birth control is by far the clearest point of agreement, with a full 71 percent saying it’s morally acceptable and another 14 percent depending on the situation — only 9 percent rejecting the use.

The report examines how our generation’s religious, racial, and political diversity is shaping attitudes, but it’s worth nothing how educational attainment is shaping moral frameworks, too. Much of the report’s findings reflect similar attitudes on broad categories across racial and religious lines, while noting some stark differences when broken down by educational attainment. (Not discussed in the report, but well-documented elsewhere — the crucial question of poverty and economic mobility when it comes to sexual norms.)

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Rape Culture on College Campuses: Advice for Survivors

Have you ever blamed yourself for some horrible thing that happened to you? When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45, I immediately started to wonder what I had done to cause my body to betray me like that. Maybe I’d eaten the wrong foods or not taken good enough care of my health – I know it wasn’t exactly logical, but I needed to find a cause and “me, myself, and I” turned out to be a convenient target. Thank God that my pastor, now of blessed memory, responded forcefully. “Don’t even go there,” he said, shutting me down before I’d gotten more than a few words out of my mouth. “You are not to blame.” He told me that bad things happen sometimes for no good reason and I should focus on my healing and not waste energy blaming myself. That was that for me. I trusted him so much that I stopped blaming myself right then and there.

A Culture of Victim Blaming

What does this have to do with victims of rape on college campuses? Rape is a really, really bad thing and rape victims desperately want to understand why this awful thing happened to them. The news coming out of college campuses seems full of accusations and rumors of college women being victimized by their classmates. Just as I did after my cancer diagnosis, victims can make the same mistake I did and blame themselves. It doesn’t help that too often the response they get from the culture around them blames them too. The term “rape culture” is being used because it conveys that the problem of rape is compounded after the assault when victim suffering is denied and perpetrators excused. What rape victims need – especially young, vulnerable college-age women – is a response as forceful and believable to them as my pastor’s was for me. To their credit, college campuses are wrestling with finding the right combination of policies and responses to convey loud and clear, “You are not to blame.”

Counseling services and the formation of student support groups on campus have gone a long way toward removing the stigma of blame from victims. And many campuses have for years honored the risk of post-traumatic responses by including so-called “trigger warnings” on syllabuses. These warnings alert students to reading assignments, movies, or discussions that might trigger a post-traumatic response. Students can choose to opt out of those classes and/or assignments, which goes a long way toward honoring their stories and demonstrating concern for their wounds. Survivor groups have also reacted strongly when other types of triggers are not acknowledged appropriately by the university. For example, a debate on the Brown University campus about the term “rape culture” included one panelist who was likely to criticize the term, which ignited protests from a student group seeking to make the campus a safe place for rape victims. The university agreed to create a safe place on campus for victims to recover from the trauma of having their viewpoints “invalidated.”

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A Muslim Actor Plays Jesus. It Works.

In a world surging with anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the persecution of Christians, a Muslim is soon to portray Jesus in a film called Killing JesusBased on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book of the same name, the film seeks to capture the human dynamics and political milieu around the controversial death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Haaz Sleiman, a Lebanese-born American Muslim, was chosen to play the lead as the Jesus character. His selection makes him virtually the first actor of Middle Eastern descent to ever play the role in any mainstream film.

While National Geographic’s attempt at authenticity should be celebrated, the casting of Sleiman has, instead, stirred quite the controversy.

Imagine — in a context where religious tribalism is growing fiercer, a Muslim is embodying the role of a Palestinian Jew and central figure to Christianity. Is this a heretical impossibility or is this a picture of something beautiful?

On Tuesday, I sat down with Haaz to explore the uniqueness of this moment in his career and how the experience of embodying the life and teachings of Jesus has left him forever changed.

What immediately stood out is the grace with which he is handling the criticism from Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Rather than worrying about the controversy, Sleiman feels lucky to have had the opportunity. For him, it was the “ultimate experience as an actor” as he had been “heavily shaped” by Jesus during his childhood. Growing up in a Muslim home, he was taught to revere Jesus as the prophet equal to Mohammed who had come to reveal the beauty and potential of humanity. To play this role gave him a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “become the character that he truly believes in.”

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Church of England Loses No Time, Appoints Third Woman Bishop and First to Oversee a Diocese

The Church of England’s commitment to advance the cause of women took another step forward March 26 with the appointment of Rachel Treweek, 52, as the next Bishop of Gloucester in the southwest region of England.

That makes three women bishops in the space of three months since the church overcame its long-standing opposition to women bishops late last year. On March 25, the church appointed its second woman bishop, Alison White, 58, as suffragan bishop of Hull.

But Thursday’s announcement was even more dramatic. Treweek will be the first to run a diocese on her own. She will be one rank below archbishop and will become the first woman bishop to sit in the House of Lords, the British Parliament’s Upper House.

Twenty-six “Lords Spiritual” — all Anglican, all male — sit in the House of Lords.

In a statement, Treweek said the appointment was “an immense joy and privilege.”

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