The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

The Oracle of Certainty: From Ancient Athens to ISIS

Thank the gods we don’t believe in the utterances of oracles anymore. We don’t search for omens in the entrails of sacrificed animals or believe that women in drug-induced trances can foretell our destiny. Because the ancient Greeks fell for this superstitious mumbo jumbo, they were led into two disastrous wars that had devastating consequences. The great anti-war playwright Euripides offers his critique of wars and oracles in his play, Iphigenia at Aulis, now playing at the Court Theater in Chicago. My talented friend Jeanne T. Arrigo is in the chorus of this production and I have her and the Court Theater to thank for bringing this ancient gem to my attention.

Two Oracles, Two Devastating Wars

Iphigenia at Aulis was first performed a year after Euripides’ death in 406 B.C.E. He wrote it in response to Athens’ nearly 30-year war against Sparta. Known as the Peloponnesian War, it ended in 404 B.C.E. with Athens’ surrender, her fleet destroyed, and the city starving after a four-month siege. Euripides felt that part of the reason Athens went to war in the first place was that the Oracle at Delphi had predicted victory “if they did their best.” Not only did this encourage the outbreak of the war, but it probably made a negotiated settlement impossible. Because why would anyone cease the pursuit of victory if victory has been assured? The Oracle’s prophecy lent an aura of inevitability to the outcome of the war, which in effect robbed the Athenians of their agency. They marched to war like automatons in service of the gods.

To convince Athenians that they were on a path of self-destruction, Euripides dramatized a scene from the beginning of a previous bad military adventure, the Trojan War. As the Homeric story is retold by Euripides, the Greek armies are assembled in the port city of Aulis. Agamemnon is their general, ready to lead a thousand ships to attack Troy to recover Helen, who has run off with young Paris of Troy. The nation has mobilized to avenge this insult to Helen’s husband, Menelaus (Agamemnon’s brother) and all of Greece.

Unfortunately for Agamemnon, there is no wind. The soldiers soon tire of waiting and, despite their war lust, they are threatening to go home. But an Oracle has foretold that Artemis will raise the winds and bring certain victory on one condition: that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to her. Under pressure from the troops and his own lust for glory, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter and the thousand ships are launched. The war is on, and the play ends with the fleet sailing eagerly across the sea.

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Congress Voting on Keystone XL Pipeline Today

Today the House of Representatives is set to vote, yet again, on the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline
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An Open Letter to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon

An imminent grand jury verdict in St. Louis County will determine whether to indict Ferguson police office Darren Wilson on criminal charges for shooting Michael Brown. News reports have detailed the expectation of violence in the St. Louis area after the decision is handed down and the mobilization being planned by law enforcement in response. This is an open letter to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon urging him to maintain peace and protect those exercising their right to free speech. I encourage you to read the letter and join me and others across the country in signing it now. Your voice can make a difference. Sojourners will send the letter and signatures to the Gov. Nixon. – Jim Wallis, Sojourners

Dear Gov. Nixon,

For the last several months, the nation’s eyes have been on Ferguson, Mo. Few had heard of this small St. Louis suburb until Michael Brown was shot and killed by a member of the city’s police department — whose mission is supposedly to serve and protect. Now this community is an infamous global symbol of the nation’s continued struggle for racial equality and the troubling trend of police militarization.

Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” These are not idealistic thoughts or nice sentiments to be dismissed when tensions and conflict arise. Rather, they are wise words of truth that should guide our thinking in moments of distress. We need to make Jesus’ instruction real and consider Dr. King’s words a practical exhortation for the ensuring peace and public safety in Ferguson once the grand jury has made the decision of whether to indict Darren Wilson.

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Ending Implicit Bias

The other night in Central Park, three African-American young men were stopped by a police officer and asked if they had or were selling drugs. The answer was “No!” They were three students from Columbia University making their way from the East Side to the West. This tale unveils the problem of implicit bias in our society today.

The reason the three college students were stopped in Central Park was because they were “walking while being black.” Because of New York’s stop-and-frisk practice that targets black and brown young men, a growing number of African-American and Latino youth are being introduced into the New York state criminal justice system daily.

The statistics are staggering. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites in the U.S. prison system. One out of every 15 African Americans over 18 years old are incarcerated, while 1 out of every 106 white males of the same age are incarcerated. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that there are more African Americans in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1865. As Jim Wallis has argued, racism is America’s original sin.

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In Wake of Ferguson, a Bid to Make St. Louis a More ‘Compassionate’ City

Some might argue that if there is one thing this city could use more of right now, it’s compassion.

Even before civil unrest surfaced in the region after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, local leaders were trying to find a way to cultivate more of it. But how exactly? And how would we know when we had enough?

Unlike other commodities, compassion is difficult to quantify.

But that hasn’t stopped the formation of a worldwide movement for compassionate cities. St. Louis is the latest municipality to vie to be part of the sympathetic pack, which includes Louisville, Ky.; Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; Seattle; and other cities from around the world.

On Nov. 13, in an effort to bring St. Louis one step closer to officially signing on to what noted religion scholar Karen Armstrong coined as the Charter for Compassion, advocates will host the first-ever town hall meeting dedicated to the crusade.

“We’re wired for compassion and what we would hope for and work toward is compassionate energy and action becoming an increasing factor in decision making and planning across the St. Louis region,” said David Mehl of the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis, a key member of a group of about 30 local leaders pushing that the city, like others around the nation, agree to the charter’s terms.

“The situation in Ferguson and beyond makes this all the more relevant.”

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A Christian Should Lead Christians

Is the pope Catholic? Is the president of the Christian student club Christian?

These questions might seem equal in their wry obviousness. They’re not. In the massive California State University system, as at some other universities, new anti-discrimination rules for student groups mean it can no longer be required that the president of the Christian student fellowship is Christian, or that the head of the Muslim association is Muslim, or that the officers of any group buy into the interests and commitments of that group.

Student clubs that refuse to accept the new rules will find themselves on the sidelines when it comes to meeting space, recruitment opportunities and other valuable perks that go with being an officially recognized group.

Such is the fate that has befallen InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a national campus ministry that finds itself “derecognized” in the 450,000-student Cal State system for insisting that student leaders of its campus chapters affirm the basic tenets of evangelical belief.

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Pope Francis to Build Showers for Homeless in St. Peter’s Square

In his latest bid to ease the suffering of the poor — and upend the expectations of the papacy — Pope Francis plans to build showers for the homeless under the sweeping white colonnade of St. Peter’s Square.

Three showers are to be built into refurbished public restrooms provided for Catholic pilgrims along the marble columns leading into the historic basilica, which was completed in 1626.

The Vatican’s deputy spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said Nov. 13 that the project was a joint initiative of the pope and Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner who distributes charity on the pope’s behalf. Construction is due to begin Nov. 17.

It’s an unconventional move, even for a pope who constantly preaches that more should be done to help the poor. It also could rankle traditionalists as the homeless line up to wash beneath the extravagant apostolic apartments that Francis shunned after his election.

“I think it’s a good thing,” said Adrian Sztrajt, a 27-year-old homeless man from the Polish city of Chelm. “I would like to go for showers there.”

Sztrajt and his companion Grzegorz Bialas, also from Poland, sleep with half a dozen others under the porticoes in front of the Vatican press office beside St. Peter’s Square.

Bialas said he’s a fan of the pope but thinks the showers are “a bad idea” since they could attract hundreds of homeless to the Vatican. He also said it was possible for the homeless to get a shower elsewhere in Rome.

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Catholic Church Losing Ground in Latin America

In just one generation, Latin America has seen the number of people who identify themselves as Catholic plummet, with more people becoming Protestant or dropping religion altogether, a new report shows.

The shift is dramatic for a region that has long been a bastion of Catholicism. With more than 425 million Catholics, Latin America accounts for nearly 40 percent of the global Catholic population. Through the 1960s, at least 90 percent of Latin Americans were Catholic, and 84 percent of people surveyed recently by the Pew Research Center said they were raised Catholic.

But the report released Nov. 13 found that only 69 percent of Latin Americans still consider themselves Catholic, with more people switching to more conservative Protestant churches (19 percent) or describing themselves as agnostic or religiously unaffiliated (8 percent).

Even last year’s election of an Argentine as pope to head the Catholic Church has led to conflicting feelings in Latin America.

“While it is too soon to know whether (Pope) Francis can stop or reverse the church’s losses in the region, the new survey finds that people who are currently Catholic overwhelmingly view Francis favorably and consider his papacy a major change for the church,” the report said. “But former Catholics are more skeptical about Pope Francis. Only in Argentina and Uruguay do majorities of ex-Catholics express a favorable view of the pope.”

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Hashtag Activists Battle Online Anti-Muslim Speech, but #DoesItWork?

ISIS terrorist rampages, waves of anti-Muslim hate speech and fear-mongering Islamophobia are inspiring an outburst of online activism in the form of Twitter hashtags.

The question is: Does it work, especially over the long term?

An army of “clicktivists” — a mix of earnest advocates and pointed satirists — has entered the fray armed with 140-character positive, peaceful or humorous counter-messages.

Using names such as #TakeOnHate, #IStandUpBecause, and #NotInMyName, the pushback approach promotes the complexity, diversity and positive contributions of Islam and Muslims. Others, such as #MuslimApologies, offer sarcasm in service of the same message.

Yet the hashtags are often immediately co-opted by trolls spewing an opposite message. And some experts question whether clicktivist campaigns have lasting worth.

Linda Sarsour has no doubt they do. She’s a Brooklyn-based Palestinian activist in the streets and on social media and a co-creator of #TakeOnHate. The hashtag is accompanied by a resource website, launched in March by the National Network for Arab American Communities.

“The insidious thing about anti-Arab hate speech is that it seems to be acceptable, where the ‘N-word’ or anti-Semitic remarks are not taken with the same degree of outrage,” said Sarsour, who was chased down the street in September by a man who was later arrested for threatening to behead her

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Should Pope Francis Visit Turkey’s Extravagant Presidential Palace?

Pope Francis’ penchant for austerity and humility will face a diplomatic challenge when he visits Turkey’s new ostentatious presidential palace on his first visit to the country later this month.

Francis will be the first foreign dignitary to be welcomed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the new 1,000-room palace when he visits Ankara on Nov. 28.

Turkish architects have written to the pope urging him not to go to the palace built by Erdogan and known locally as the “White Palace.”

Larger than the White House or Buckingham Palace in London, the enormous palace was inaugurated last month and expected to cost more than half a billion dollars.

The palace was built on land bequeathed to the state as a forest farm by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the World War I general and revered founder of the modern Turkish republic.

The pope is scheduled to give a speech at the palace after a visit to Ataturk’s mausoleum on the first leg of his three-day visit to Ankara and Istanbul.

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