The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

Jesus Can't Breathe

My friend Peter Heltzel, along with a cohort of some 75 faith leaders in New York, have called the lack of police accountability in New York and elsewhere “a spiritual problem.” They’re right, and it’s a problem that requires a spiritual response.

But beyond all of this, there is a greater spiritual sickness I see — one that is not being discussed nearly enough. It reaches both to the deeply individual level and to a global scale. It is the question that Dr. King asked, and ultimately died for — as well as others, past and future. It was a principle for which Jesus was willing to die as well. And yet the wound festers.

Violence, or the threat of violence, is real. And the human response of fear to such a threat is a normal, socially-accepted response. It is a deeply rooted instinct, honed by human evolution over millennia, to defend ourselves against a perceived threat. However, if we want the systems around us to change, we have to consider that the fear-and-violence response has failed us, time and again. Despite using it, we still have both fear and violence. And those with power exploit those fears to further personal agendas and to manipulate others.

We hold out hope that changing leadership at local, state, and federal levels ultimately will save us from ourselves. But as Walter Wink wisely said, "If you want systems to really change, you can’t just change the rulers; you have to change the rules entirely."

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Why God Is Sending Christians Straight to Hell

So much of Christianity has become about avoiding hell. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is sending Christians straight to hell.

Christians need to stop thinking of heaven and hell as primarily places we go after we die. Heaven and hell are primarily realities that we experience here on earth.

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God, also known in the Gospels as the kingdom of Heaven, is a present reality. You don’t have to wait until after death. In fact, you shouldn’t wait because it’s here. It’s now. It’s among you.

Now, if the kingdom of God is a present reality, we can safely assume that hell is also a present reality. In fact, the word Jesus frequently used for “hell” was the term Gehenna. Gehenna was well known in the ancient city of Jerusalem as “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Within the valley was a place called Topheth, where people would sacrifice their children, thinking that God demanded this sacrificial violence. As the prophet Jeremiah explains, this hell on earth is a purely human creation and God had nothing to do with this hell. Jeremiah said about those who sacrifice their children, “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind.”

God doesn’t command the fires of hell; it doesn’t even come to God’s mind! Who, then, does command those fires? We do! René Girard said it succinctly in his book The Scapegoat, “[We] create [our] own hell and help one another descend into it.”

Hell is a place of suffering caused by spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. What does the kingdom of Heaven do when confronted with the violence of hell? The kingdom of Heaven goes straight into it.

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Injustice Has Many Names

There is power in a name.

One of the things happening in our world right now is that people are “naming” injustice. No longer are we just talking about statistics, numbers and data. We are lifting up the names of the victims of a failed justice system. And there is something in a name that humanizes and personalizes the issue, and wakes us up: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice.

The numbers have names.

They remind us of the collateral damage of a failed system, and the urgency of this moment. We can’t make injustice history until we make injustice personal.

For many people of color, the victims of injustice have had names for a long time. Emmett Till helps us know how far we have come; Eric Garner reminds us how far we still have to go. But now these names are being talked about in homes and around dinner tables all over the world.

Every name of a life lost is an image of God. When we lost them, we lost a little piece of God’s image in the world. They are friends, sons, sisters, fathers and neighbors.

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Keep the #LightForLima Alive: Interfaith Groups Hold Vigils for Lima Climate Negotiations

Sunday night, people of all faiths gathered across the world for interfaith prayer vigils for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Lima. In 13 countries, participants in #LightForLima prayer gatherings joined together in solidarity for collective song and prayer in hope that the negotiators at the UNFCCC will make decisions that will preserve the state of the earth for future generations.

Organized by the international multi-faith organization OurVoices, groups in SydneyOttawaNew YorkLondon, and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere joined together to light up solar lamps and candles to share hope for successful negotiations in Lima. Desmond Tutu provided groups with this powerful prayer which was read at vigils across the globe last night:

Holy God, earth and air and water are your creation, and the web of life is yours.

Have mercy on us in the face of climate chaos.

Help us to be keepers of your Earth:

to simplify our lives,

to reduce our use of energy,

to share the resources you have given us,

to raise our voices for justice

and to bear the cost of change.

We kindle this “light for Lima” as we pray for the climate change negotiations in Lima, Peru.

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Retreats Aim to Help LGBT Youth Recapture Some of Their Broken Spirituality

Jordyn Garrett left home so he could become Olivia. Lerato “Lee” Mokobe left South Africa to pursue her dreams, but can’t return because of the dangers her home life and culture posed to her identity. Sarah Silva left her home because of sexual abuse and unhealthy family relationships.

They’re not even old enough to rent a car, and yet they’re living homeless in New York City. But these and other young adults found themselves a family in the Reciprocity Foundation.

The Reciprocity Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to helping the city’s homeless youth realize their full potential by developing their passions and reconnecting with their spiritual side. Many of the youth they work with are people of color or part of the LGBT community, and many come from religious backgrounds.

“Many (of these youth) feel negatively towards religion since it has contributed to their isolation from their family and/or homelessness,” said Taz Tagore, a Reciprocity co-founder.

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A Tame Kind of 'Wild'

Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Dallas Buyer’s Club) and writer Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy) attempt valiantly to solve this problem, and achieve some moments of real beauty in the process. However, they never quite find a way to effectively connect Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) in her lowest moments, which include heroin addiction, the termination of a pregnancy, and divorce, with the woman we’re watching hike from Mexico to Canada — a woman who, while troubled, seems to have it considerably more together.

It also doesn’t help that the conversations Strayed does have on the trail tend towards the kind of dialogue that feels less like natural conversation and more like a talk between archetypes spouting bumper-sticker wisdom. The conversations that come up, about choices, regrets, and mistakes made, are all valuable. But the way they happen feels sanitized.

Ultimately, Wild does manage to present some solid thoughts on the process of grief and redemption. Strayed’s observation that everything in her life, both good and bad, led her to becoming a stronger, better person is important. Just as important is the film’s point that our relationships with others are vital to our survival and growth.

There’s no doubt that Strayed’s own experience was powerful and tough. But in its translation to film, particularly a film with a plot and performance tailor-made for awards season, Wild is a movie that’s afraid to upset people. It acknowledges the hard stuff, but barely hints at the true emotional complexities of its story and of its main character. Where it ought to challenge, it merely suggests. And while that’s okay, it’s disappointing that it isn’t more.

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Leaders Across all Faiths Gather for Joint Declaration Against Modern Slavery

Last week, the campaign to end human trafficking took a large step forward. Religious leaders from the Christian Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions joined with Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim leaders to jointly declare their intention to end modern-day slavery.
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5 Takeaways from Pope Francis' Latest Interview

Gay marriage was never on the agenda at the recent Bishops’ Synod on the Family and the subject “did not cross our minds,” Pope Francis said in a new headline-grabbing interview.

Keeping to a format that has become a favorite for this pope, Francis used a high-profile interview to shed light on his thinking, and Vatican policies, on a number of hot-button social issues.

In an interview published Dec. 7, Francis told the Argentine daily, La Nacion, that the Catholic Church must help parents support  their gay children. At the same time, he maintained that allowing, condoning or even adapting to same-sex marriage was still not on the church’s agenda.

This was one of several controversial issues he broached in the interview with papal biographer Elisabetta Pique:

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Can The Privileged Imagine Injustice?

Imagination is defined as, "The faculty of imagining or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses."

For privileged Christians who have lived the majority of their lives receiving the benefits of systematic wealth, power, comfort, favor, and convenience, it can be almost impossible to conceive of a world where injustice, inequality, and perpetual oppression are daily struggles.

Many privileged believers experience an entire existence completely devoid of the suffering, trials, and endless forms of racism, stereotyping, and injustice that are the daily realities faced by the likes of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and millions of others who have lived under completely different — and radically unfavorable — circumstances.

Thus when parties from both sides try to communicate with one another, it is extremely difficult, frustrating, and nearly impossible to even begin to comprehend each other’s worlds — unless you utilize the spiritual discipline of imagination.

In the Bible, Jesus is constantly challenging the status quo and striving for justice, peace, and reconciliation against cultural factors and precedents that seem impossible to overcome. For the human vessels that God calls upon, they are required to imagine the inconceivable, accept the unthinkable, and break out of their stubborn paradigms in order to embrace the Divine.

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Considering 12 Sides of Jesus

Not surprising, this whole endeavor to understand what it really means to follow Jesus in today’s world is proving to be nothing short of overwhelming. Though I’d like to start my year-long effort to live this out on New Year’s Day, I’m not entirely sure I can get my hands around this Jesus we’re talking about by then. I mean, I grew up reading Scripture, have written several books about Jesus and the Bible, but somehow I’m always left with a sense that there’s more — a lot more — about Jesus and about being a follower than we generally consider.

As part of my effort to approach the year, I’ve decided to break down various dimensions of Jesus, based both on my own reading of the Gospels (and Epistles to a lesser degree), as well as the interpretations of scholars, theologians and activists I respect. So for now, I’ve broken this down into twelve categories, so that I can focus on one per month as intently as possible. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some other things I’ll decide to do all year long (like pray the Lord’s Prayer), or some things I’ll try once that may or may not fit within that month’s “Jesus dimension.” But when I consider the following twelve ways of looking at Jesus, it feels like a pretty comprehensive approach.

I’m also assembling a group of mentors to help me with each of the respective Jesus Dimensions below. I figure that, rather than having a dozen disciples, I could use mentors way more than followers if I have any hope of making this work.

But I’m interested in what you think. Am I missing something? Do any of these simply not ring true at all? 

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