The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

An Open Letter to Franklin Graham

We don’t know what prompted Rev. Franklin Graham to log onto Facebook and pound out the words that lit a firestorm last week. But within one day, tens of thousands of his faithful followers liked and shared his short, patronizing post that called “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” to “Listen up” and tune in to his take on why so many black people have died at the hands of police officers recently. According to Graham, the problem is “simple.” It can be reduced to their lack of obedience and bad parenting.

By Monday morning, more than 80,000 people shared the post and almost 200,000 liked it. Sojourners’ Jim Wallis penned a strong response.

On Friday an evangelical pastor based in Oakland, Calif. (the birthplace of the Black Lives Matter movement), Dominique Gilliard, shared the post with a small diverse group of evangelical leaders who decided to craft a collective response. This open letter was crafted by the collective efforts of Rev. Leroy Barber (CCDA and Word Made Flesh), Gilliard (New Hope Oakland), Dr. Brian Bantum (Seattle Pacific University), Micky ScottBey Jones (Transform Network), Efrem Smith (World Impact) and me (Sojourners). We didn’t know if our words would resonate. We only knew the truth that we must speak in response to Graham’s outsized influence coupled with apparent ignorance. In the end, a broad representation of national evangelical leaders agreed to sign this letter to Graham as principal signatories.

We invite you to read it, discuss it in your churches, and add your name to the many who say “No more!” We will not tolerate this type of flippant, patronizing commentary from faith leaders on critical issues that mean life and death for many in the body of Christ and in communities across America. We won’t tolerate it, even one more day. Rather, we invite all with open hearts to enter into dialogue — and to join us in the ministry of the gospel — the ministry of reconciliation.

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Being a Man, a la Paul

Paul teaches a bedrock unity in marriage. Both the Christian wife and husband are members of the Church which is Christ’s body (v30) and have further cemented this with particular devotion to union with each other (v31). Since we have this fundamental unity, a divisive gender identity in marriage or elsewhere is impossible to accept—it sets up barriers where Christ recognizes none.

As such, men inside or outside of marriage must follow Christ’s example in giving of themselves for others, particularly to those who rely and trust on them. This is why domestic violence is such a satanic perversion of masculinity: it replaces a protective, self-sacrificial love with a violent, domineering authority. A relationship which should point to Christ and the Church instead becomes controlled by power and violence.

Paul forces me to think differently about what it means to be a man. I need to reorient my actions in a way that recognizes that Christians, male and female, are all part of one body of Christ. That should push men, especially those in positions of authority, to a love that seeks to build up and to serve rather than domineer. That love, rather than a macho authority, is the true mark of a man.

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Inward-Focused or Outward? Christian Congregations at a Crossroads

American Christianity is at a crossroads — again. It’s the latest in a long string of crossroads.

In the run-up to revolution, American branches of European denominations — such as my Anglican ancestors — had to declare loyalty to the crown or to an emerging rebellion.

In the 1830s, congregations throughout the restless nation had to decide whether they served whites or all people, including Native Americans.

In the mid-19th century, denominations were forced to choose between continued slavery and a commitment to freedom.

On it went. During each era of change and expansion, Christian communities had to decide what they stood for and what the gospel meant to them. Would they serve immigrants who spoke a certain language or all people in the community, one class in the emerging industrial society or all people, enclaves of status and like-mindedness or whole communities?

Whatever choice was made, each congregation and denomination found a way to justify it. The choices themselves didn’t flow from Scripture. Rather, in stepping up as theologians for slavery or abolition, for white rule or open access, for changes in women’s place or perpetuation of patriarchy, preachers wore out their Bibles and seminary training looking for rationales to do what they wanted. They claimed absolute authority for what, by any reasonable standard, was simply their preferred way of doing things.

Now Christianity in America faces a similar crossroads that turns on the question: Do we serve only ourselves and people like us, or do we serve the larger community, especially its outcasts and vulnerable?

Up to now, the church has focused on who crossed the threshold into our pews and who had leadership roles within the fellowship. Now the challenge is to go out into the world, see what the needs are, and rethink how we do things in response to those needs.

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Presbyterian Church (USA) Approves Same-Sex Marriage Amendment

The Presbyterian Church (USA) approved an amendment to include same-sex relationships in its constitutional definition of marriage on March 17.
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What If Jesus Wasn’t the Answer?

I gave up street evangelizing a long time ago. It was a short-lived career — a few weekends into town with a friend, praying for God to help us meet someone we could share Jesus with. It quickly (thankfully) became clear to me that this business of following God is much better done in the context of long-term relationships with a broader understanding of salvation and mission.

Any time we try to confine the big and beautiful Good News of God into a simplistic message small enough to fit onto a tract or a 10-minute awkward conversation, we cut out too many important details. The truncated gospel of the Four Spiritual Laws requires that we get to the point — Jesus is the answer — as quickly as possible, lest our conversion, I mean, conversation partner gets away from us.

For Jesus to be the answer, there’s got to be a problem, and so we belabor the problem in order to solve it.

The mathematical equation of the gospel made sense to me when I was a child and perhaps into young adulthood. Prove the problem and solve the equation. Everything was simple, organized, and neatly categorized.

Somewhere along the way, it stopped making sense.

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When the World Looks Back

Lent is a season of preparation. But the process of preparing for Easter does not need to be all negative commitments and focused on the things we don’t do.

One opportunity for developing new positive practices during Lent involves learning to see. The Gospels recount at least three different instances after the resurrection in which followers of Jesus were not able to recognize or “see” him: Mary at the tomb mistaking Jesus for the gardener, the road to Emmaus, and the delayed reaction when Jesus gave great fishing advice.

The truth of Easter is not always readily apparent. It requires the ability to see clearly. This means rubbing our eyes, clearing them of gunk, and focusing our vision.

Having recently shifted from spending most of my day in an office to spending almost all of it outside, I’ve been ruminating on what it might mean to practice seeing the non-human or natural world more clearly. Here are my initial reflections:

Have you ever been moved by a sunset? A star-filled canopy of the night sky? A canyon-filled horizon? A towering wooded cathedral?

What was the feeling? Gratitude for the beauty? Humility in the midst of grandeur? Inspired to greatness while experiencing greatness? Joy in celebration of it all?

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Utah’s New Law a ‘Toolkit’ for Fighting LGBT Discrimination, Say Activists, Legal Experts

Utah’s new law extending employment and workplace protections to LGBT people and conscience protections to individuals, churches, and faith-based associations extends an olive branch to both groups, even as it misses one key sticking point.

Panelists for two discussions hosted by the Brookings Institution on March 16 described key features of the legislation, noting that it is:

  • Unique to Utah, with its distinctive religious and political history, not a template for other states or for federal legislation.
  • A measure of healing between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and LGBT people.
  • A law that says nothing about whether bakers, florists or other vendors must accept customers planning a same-sex wedding, even if such marriages violate their religious beliefs.
  • A layer of robust protections for religious groups.

Even though other states may not replicate this law exactly, it can serve as a toolkit for orchestrating opposing forces to find common ground, legal and political, experts said.

Former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, a Mormon who cautioned that he was not a spokesman for the church, called the legislation “a great victory for the protection of conscience.”

Leavitt said the LDS church convened the effort to write the legislation with LGBT activists in an effort to heal the tensions between the two communities, inflamed when the church joined efforts to ban same-sex marriage in California in 2008.

“It is a doctrine of the church that marriage is between one man and one woman and it will not change,” said Leavitt.

But it is also a doctrine of the church that “Jesus Christ would not abide by the withholding of shelter or sustenance or care.”

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Will Pope Francis Have a Short Papacy? Don’t Bet On It

In a wide-ranging interview he gave March 13 for the second anniversary of his election, Pope Francis touched on a variety of topics, from his concern about bad homilies to his upcoming U.S. visit to his one real wish: to go out for a pizza without being recognized.

But leading most of the news coverage were his remarks suggesting that he expects his papacy to be short, perhaps lasting no more than another year or two.

“I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief: four or five years; I do not know, even two or three. Two have already passed,” he told a Mexican television station.

“Say it ain’t so, Pope!” as the lead on the New York Daily News’ story on Francis’ “shocking comments” put it.

“I just want him to be around for as long as possible,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan told the tabloid.

“I need him. We need him. The church needs him.”

To be sure, the prospect of Francis’ imminent retirement — or demise — would be dismal news for Francis’ many fans, and perhaps a rare lift for his opponents.

In fact, Francis has suggested on several other occasions that he did not expect his papacy to be too long, and one can understand why he would say that:

  • He is 78 years old, and while he is amazingly active and productive, he suffers from various pains and potentially more serious health issues. His aides worry about the pace he keeps, and he repeatedly ignores their pleas for him to slow down.
  • In recent decades both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II were targets of assassination attempts (a shooter in St. Peter’s Square critically wounded John Paul) and in a world reeling with terrorist attacks and religious strife, Francis knows he is a potential target.
  • John Paul reigned for 26 years, the third-longest papacy in history, so compared with that even a decade-long pontificate would seem short.
  • John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, opened a new option — which Francis has praised — when in 2013 he became the first pontiff in six centuries to retire, and after just eight years, at the age of 85.

But a closer reading of Francis’ remarks, and analysis from those who know the pope, say that’s not what he meant, at all.

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Love Is the Root of All Evil

Editor's Note: Christian Piatt was invited to preach at Portland First Christian Church on March 8. The biblical text was from Mark 11:15-19, in which Jesus cleanses the temple by driving out the moneychangers during passover from Herod’s temple. This is an adapted version of his remarks.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a rock star. I don’t have a way to project a picture of how I looked back in those days, but I’m sure if you ask, Amy would be more than happy to show one to you. She gets a good laugh about me with my blond hair, all the way down to the small of my back, my silk shirts and my little round John Lennon sunglasses.

Yeah, it may sound ridiculous now, but back then, I was kind of awesome. At least in my own mind, I was.

From the fifth grade on, I played the drums, at least until I figured out that girls didn’t pay a lot of attention to the drummer. So my sophomore year in high school I switched to singing and playing guitar. I was in different bands through college, worked for a few record companies, and had fun.

A LOT of fun.

But I was also kind of a mess. Rock star living is hard living, it turns out, even if you’re not actually famous. And being in bands is great, until you’re out of college and still working as a waiter at TGI Fridays so you can play gigs at night. In other words, I was going nowhere.

But more important, I wasn’t as happy as I thought I’d be. I mean I had fun, enjoyed myself most of the time, but I wasn’t actually happy.

I kind of put my musician days on a shelf until I met Amy, and she convinced me — not exactly kicking and screaming, but close — to go visit her church in Denver. I said I’d go once if she promised never to ask me again. She agreed, so I went. And it wasn’t as awful as I had expected. People were nice. They were good to each other. They were real, not just what they were told “Christians” were supposed to be. Plus they went out for beer afterward and I thought Amy was pretty hot, so I went back.

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Americans of Faith Must Reconsider Stands on Nuclear Weapons

Setsuko Thurlow was 13 when “progress” came to Hiroshima in a white-hot flash. In the dark silence following the nuclear bomb blast, Thurlow recalls children crying, “Mama, help me. God, help me.”

Her sister lived for four days. Many of her 351 dying schoolmates “looked like skeletons with skin hanging from their bones.”

They perished in agony.

Today, Thurlow and other survivors travel the globe, sharing their stories with a new generation for which nuclear weapons are an afterthought — seemingly a hypothetical and abstract threat.

The end of the Cold War had a mixed effect on the nuclear equation. Through dogged diplomacy and effective institutions, disarmament continues, though at a slower pace in recent years. There are now 10,000 operational nuclear warheads in the world, down from a high of 64,000 in 1986.

But the specter of nuclear terrorism and regional conflicts between nuclear weapons states makes nuclear weapons even more dangerous in our international system. Deterrence theory, which governed strategic thinking during the Cold War, is a much less compelling framework today.

Thankfully, most states have forsworn these armaments. Nuclear weapons are not vital to any state’s legitimate security interest. No state or NGO has the capacity to respond to the unfathomable humanitarian crisis that would follow an accidental or intentional use of a nuclear weapon.

Thus a growing global consensus now acknowledges the extreme risk nuclear weapons pose.

Pope John XXIII stated unequivocally in his 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” “Nuclear weapons must be banned.”

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