The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

The Blood Did It: Why Michael Brown's Death Was Different

One month ago, the city of Ferguson, Mo., was violently shaken by the shooting death of an unarmed black man whose name is Michael Brown, Jr.

This is not the first time we’ve stood in this place. Michael Brown has been added to the roll call of unarmed black people killed by those hired to protect and to serve. His name joins the names of:

John Crawford , an unarmed Ohio man gunned down inside of a Walmart while examining a toy gun sold in the store.

Eric Garner , an unarmed New York man killed, after stating several times that he was having difficulty breathing, by an officer using an illegal choke hold.

Sean Bell , an unarmed New York man shot multiple times outside of the venue for his bachelor party the night before his wedding.

Oscar Grant , an unarmed Oakland man who was handcuffed, face down, before he was fatally shot.

And so many more black lives, both male and female, ended by the reflexes of a legal system designed to police some and protect others.

So why did the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. ignite such a firestorm of rage in a region and a nation where slain black bodies are commonplace?

This is not one of those neighborhoods that cause political analysts to pontificate over “how something so tragic could happen here.”

These are not deaths that leave communities and congregations struggling to find deeper meaning and psychological factors that might have contributed to the tragic loss of life.

As a matter of fact, since the death of Michael Brown, there have been two killings of black men with documented mental challenges, Ezell Ford of Los Angeles and Kajieme Powell, killed only a few miles from the site of Michael Brown’s death. Yet there have been no roundtable discussions of the role of mental illness in our society sparked by these deaths.

What made Michael Brown’s death different?

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War Is Not the Answer

That was a bumper sticker Sojourners published at the outset of the Iraq war more than a decade ago. American church leaders had not only opposed the war but offered an alternative: "An Alternative to War for Defeating Saddam Hussein, A Religious Initiative." We not only presented it to Colin Powell’s personal council and Tony Blair, but also printed full-page ads in every major British newspaper the day before their Parliamentary debate and vote on the war. The U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Affairs, Clair Short, told me the only real alternative on the table in their Cabinet meetings was “The American church leaders’ plan,” which, she said, was seriously discussed. U.S. and U.K. leaders showed they were drawn to an alternative plan to war that would remove any weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein might have had (which he did not) and even to ultimately remove him from power but without going to war. Pope John Paul II was also opposed to the potential war. Both the Vatican and the American church leaders warned that the potential costs of a war in Iraq could include increasing the scope and threats of international terrorism. ISIS is that sad prophecy come true; the habit of war prevailed.

I have always believed that any alternative to war must still address the very real problems at hand — just in a more effective way. To say that “war is not the answer” is not only a moral statement but also is a serious critique of what doesn’t work; wars often fail to solve the problems and ultimately make them worse. War has to answer to metrics, just as more peaceful alternatives do. The war in Iraq was a complete failure with enormous human and financial costs; ISIS is now one of the consequences.

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Commemorating 9/11, Commemorating Christ

Churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2001, and people gathered on that day, and for some days later. There was a draw to sacred space in the midst of our everyday space being turned into dust–profane, unholy, hollowed out. The liturgies I attended in those days that followed were stripped down, bare, and profoundly vulnerable. The psalms were prayed. People wept together. We clung close. We resisted asking questions of meaning, and allowed ourselves to grieve, to lament.

A lot fewer churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2002. And even fewer today. The gravitational pull to gather in sacred space has waned. And it has become impossible, for the most part, to disentangle our liturgies from our politics. No longer gathering together out of unvarnished need for the divine presence, some of us gather now precisely to ascribe meaning to the unfathomable through the inextricable linking of nationalism with religion.

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On 9/11 Anniversary, a Survivor Seeks a National Day of Discussion

As a survivor of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I worry about how we will remember that tragic day 50, 100, even 200 years from now.

I worry because our nation does a poor job of commemorating our most historic heroes and events. Our efforts to honor history consistently lead to one of two disappointing outcomes.

Our official holidays have become increasingly commercialized. Consider the relatively recent exploitation of Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Virtually all other anniversaries have been marginalized. Consider how little attention is paid each summer to the July 20th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, one of humanity’s most impressive achievements.

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Ted Cruz Booed Off the Stage When He Touts Israel-Christian Solidarity

After he said “Christians have no greater ally than Israel,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was heckled off the stage at a Sept. 10 gala to raise awareness of beleaguered Mideast Christians.

Cruz, the keynote speaker at the Washington, D.C., dinner, sponsored by In Defense of Christians, a new organization spearheaded by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, prompted boos and cries of “stop it!” and “enough” and “no!” as an increasingly louder crowd told him to get off the stage.

The incident, first reported by the online news organization The Daily Caller, was captured on video by EWTN, the Catholic television network. The video shows that Cruz tried to continue speaking, but many in the audience, in a hotel ballroom, expressed anger when he included Hamas in the list of militants out to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East.

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“In Defense of Christians” Seeks to Protect Brethren from Egypt to Iraq

Watching ancient Christian communities stand nearly defenseless as Islamic militants roll across swaths of the Middle East, coalitions of Christians are banding together to sound the alarm and demand government action.

The most recent effort is a three-day conference (Sept. 9-11) in Washington, D.C., which gathered Orthodox Christians, evangelicals, Roman Catholics and others for prayer, speeches and a lobbying push on Capitol Hill.

“If Christian voices are able to ring out as one from Egypt to Syria to Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, then we really do believe it will be possible for Middle Eastern Christians to survive,” said Andrew Doran, executive director of In Defense of Christians, which organized the conference.

Doran, who describes himself as a Catholic with a great affinity for Orthodox Christianity, said the gathering has shown how Middle Eastern Christians can put aside their sometimes 1,500-year-old disagreements and take up the cause of their beleaguered brethren.

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From 9/11 to ISIS: Resolving the Paradox of the U.S. War on Terror

It’s been 14 years since our government declared war on terrorism. How are we doing? It feels like a disastrous game of Whack-A-Terrorist, doesn’t it? We kill one terrorist hiding in one hole, and out pops another one from another hole. Now we are facing the newest threat, a terrorist organization seeking to set up a nation-state, ISIS or IS, as its leadership prefers to be called. The Islamic State, at least, would be a concrete opponent. If they hold on to territory and establish a functioning government, we could at least declare war on a tangible target. Though regrettable it would at least make sense within the logic of war in which states fight other states.

In a recent article for Patheos.com, David French uses Christian Scripture as a justification for “responding to ISIS with wrath and vengeance.” French is a lawyer, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. He claims that, according to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, while individuals are called upon to love their enemies, there is no such call placed on governments. In fact, God has instituted governmental authority in order to execute his wrath against evildoers. And apparently, or so Romans 13 puts it according to French, to know who the evildoers are one simply needs to look at who governments are punishing. French quotes the relevant passage, Romans 13:3-5:

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [Emphasis added by French.]

French concludes that American Christians should have no difficulty determining the correct response to ISIS. Why? By the fact of determining that justice must be executed against ISIS, our government has determined that their violence is not only an offense against American citizens (he names the beheading victims, journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff) but against God himself.

French’s analysis strains credulity. Doesn’t he realize that the Romans to whom Paul was writing were themselves victims of government persecution? Does he think that these persecuted Christians felt they were being justly punished? And what about Paul himself, a Roman citizen who was persecuted and executed by the Roman government? Doesn’t French realize that by his own argument, the Roman authorities were executing God’s judgment against Paul? And by his own analysis, French is a captain in a military force that is from its origins a justifiable target for God’s wrath. Why? Because the founding act of the United States was a rebellion against a government, and “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2)

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U.S. Churches Feel Beat of Change: More Diversity, More Drums

U.S. religious congregations are marching to their own drums now more than ever.

The National Congregations Study‘s latest look at the country’s churches, synagogues and mosques — the third wave of studies that began in 1998 —  finds more congregations:

  • Open their doors to gays and lesbians in active membership and in leadership.
  • Show racial and ethnic diversity in the pews.
  • Encourage hand-waving, amen-shouting, and dancing-in-the-aisles during worship.
  • Disconnect from denominational ties doctrines and rules that might slow or block change.

The study, released Thursday (Sept. 11), draws on interviews with leaders at 1,331 nationally representative congregations and updates data from 1998 and 2006 studies.  Non-Christian congregations were included in the study but there are too few for statistical analysis by topics.

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President Obama's Remarks on the Threat of ISIL

The following are President Barack Obama's remarks, as prepared for delivery, on the threat of the ISIL, delivered on Wednesday evening.

My fellow Americans – tonight, I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.

As Commander-in-Chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people. Over the last several years, we have consistently taken the fight to terrorists who threaten our country. We took out Osama bin Laden and much of al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve targeted al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, and recently eliminated the top commander of its affiliate in Somalia. We’ve done so while bringing more than 140,000 American troops home from Iraq, and drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, where our combat mission will end later this year. Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is safer.

Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. That’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL – which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

 
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Regensburg Redux: Was Pope Benedict XVI Right About Islam?

Eight years ago this Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria in which he seemed to diagnose Islam as a religion inherently flawed by fanaticism.

It was an undiplomatic assertion, to say the least — especially coming a day after the 9/11 anniversary — and it sparked an enormous outcry among Muslims and came to be seen as one of a series of missteps that would plague Benedict’s papacy until he resigned last year.

Now, with the Islamic State on the march in the Middle East, leaving a trail of horrifying brutality and bloodshed that has shocked the world, some of Benedict’s allies on the Catholic right are saying, in effect, “He told you so.”

“Regensburg was not so much the work of a professor or even a pope,” wrote the Rev. Raymond de Souza in a column for the National Catholic Register, a conservative publication. “It was the work of a prophet.”

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