The Common Good

God's Politics

Je Suis … [?] How People of Faith Should Respond to Paris

Our first response to the horrible and frightening violence of Paris should be grief. False religion always makes the religious grieve, but when it engages in ghastly violence against other human beings who are made in God’s image, it should break our hearts as it breaks God’s.

These hateful terrorists, masquerading as religious believers, said on video they were the “avengers” of the prophet Mohamed. As such, they murdered cartoonists in the office of a magazine they identified with blasphemy. What these killers, and those like them, don’t understand is that they are the real blasphemers now by forcing their false and murderous distortions of Islam on the world and on other children of God. Their religion is now violence itself, a blasphemous interpretation of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace. Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, from the Reformed Church in America, has called Paris an “identity theft” of the Muslim faith. Several Muslim leaders have said that the damage terrorists like these do to the image of the Prophet Mohammed is much greater than any cartoonist could ever do.

While the tenet of freedom of speech has been invoked throughout the media coverage of the attacks, the religious implications here run much deeper. They are about how we in the faith community should respond when we are attacked by those who disdain us, disrespect us, distort us — as many believe the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo regularly did — and even viciously attack us. The magazine has often crudely, provocatively, and even gleefully satirized all religions in very offensive ways, suggesting that the fundamentalisms in all our religious traditions completely define the meaning of faith. Charlie Hebdo is apparently driven by its own ideology of secular fundamentalism, which regularly strikes out at all people of faith.

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I Am an Activist Do-Gooder in Recovery

I went to college thinking political activism was sexy. Living in a large city gave me unparalleled access to protests for countless good causes. Chanting at anti-war marches and getting arrested on behalf of climate change legislation would make interesting party stories, I thought. I quickly hopped on the Occupy Chicago bandwagon, a movement which calls for a more equitable wealth distribution, but whose leaders and participants were largely white college graduates. None of my organizing work focused on racial inequalities, but stayed in the realm of money in politics, equitable banking practices, and climate change.

My journey took a profound turn at an organizing training where I proudly stated I was there because my faith called me to advocate for the least of these. In response, a powerful, albeit brash, leader in Chicago’s movements angrily characterized me as an “activist do-gooder” who was fueled by the need to be a good white person. This label devastated me. I’m outspoken, passionate and willing to lead, I thought, so why can’t people see me as a resource? I took a break from the organizing world feeling disillusioned and miffed.

This attitude forced me to ask myself, why was I drawn to political activism in the first place? What was it that drew me to the movements in which I involved myself? And why was I so offended that someone had questioned my motives?

 

 

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Christian Leaders Should Prepare for the Long Term

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s advice to Christian leaders: Discern God’s call and learn how to sustain your inward life for the long term.

“Leaders have to know who they are,” he said.

“When everything else crumbles and when you are in situations of disillusionment, when plans haven’t worked out, when colleagues have disappointed you, there’ll come those times when you say, ‘Why am I doing this?’

“At that point, what is needed is a deep and abiding sense of God’s call.”

Granberg-Michaelson’s call led him to take on a variety of roles in his career. He served from 1994 to 2010 as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several books, including “Leadership from Inside Out: Spirituality and Organizational Change.”

Before that, he served as research assistant for U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, managing editor of Sojourners magazine, co-founder of a nonprofit organization, and director of church and society for the World Council of Churches.

Q: You’ve had a really interesting career, including working on Capitol Hill and in Geneva, Switzerland with the World Council of Churches. What did you learn from those roles?

Working in the U.S. Senate with Mark Hatfield is when I first learned about how important it was to have a group that had a deep level of trust together. And that you have to work on building that.

And then in the life of Mark Hatfield as a U.S. senator, I saw the importance of giving voice to crucial issues in ways that helped empower others. The role of prophetic ministry I really witnessed in his life in the U.S. Senate, the kinds of stances that he took against the Vietnam War, stances that were rooted in his own convictions.

Those were qualities that came out of his Christian character. But those were also qualities I saw and learned in that secular context.

When I went to Geneva with the World Council, I got to see the enormous complexities of how organizations function and how decisions are made. I was very involved in a restructuring effort.

We spent a lot of time figuring out models for how church bodies can govern themselves. And the World Council was in a deep discussion — conflict, really — with its Orthodox members at that point. I was involved in a special commission on relations with the Orthodox.

One of the key issues was how we make decisions. To the Orthodox mind, it was incomprehensible that a central committee of 150 people could meet together and by a majority vote determine God’s will.

That led to a whole fascinating journey that I’ve continued on ever since, to rethink how church bodies make decisions.

Out of that dialogue came an embracing of models of consensus decision making, which the World Council still uses today, where 150 people will come to a decision that they arrive at by consensus. It’s a discussion, a deliberation that’s led very carefully, very artfully, taking into account the opposing points of view and getting to a point where either the body as a whole agrees or a minority that may not agree are willing to say, “We will step aside and allow this to go forward.” Or convictions are held so strongly that the body as a whole decides it’s really not ready to decide this.

None of these functions by majority vote. It’s a very different model, and I think one that’s much more attuned to how the church could make decisions.

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Here’s the Faith in the ‘American Sniper’ You Won’t See in the Film

Chris Kyle, often described as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, wrote in his autobiography that he prioritized his life in the following order: God, country, family.

But God doesn’t make a central appearance in the film American Sniper, which opens nationwide on Jan. 16. The film offers a few similarities to Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s recent World War II epic about POW Louis Zamperini.

Both stories focus on the dramatic stories of warriors who died before the movie versions of their lives came out. Both American Sniper and Unbroken include an early scene of their families sitting in church. Both men struggle with substance abuse after returning from war.

And both films largely skirt the faith that Kyle and Zamperini said were key to their identity — and their survival.

As a Navy SEAL, Kyle reportedly recorded 160 kill shots during his four tours in Iraq. His story drew national attention after the release of his 2012 autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, which enjoyed a 37-week run on The New York Times’ best-seller list.

The Clint Eastwood-directed biopic starring Bradley Cooper debuted with a limited release on Christmas Day, the same day Unbroken opened nationwide.

Kyle opened his book by probing the ethics of combat as he wrote about his first sniper shot, when he had to kill an Iraqi woman holding a grenade.

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Catholic Groups Rally Against Climate Change Amid Intense Church Debate

Catholic environmental groups from around the world on Jan. 14 announced a new global network to battle climate change just as many Catholic conservatives are sharply criticizing Pope Francis’ campaign to put environmental protection high on the church’s agenda.

“We are certain that anthropogenic (human-made) climate change endangers God’s creation and us all, particularly the poor, whose voices have already spoken of the impacts of an altered climate,” the new Global Catholic Climate Movement says in its mission statement.

“Climate change is about our responsibility as God’s children and people of faith to care for human life, especially future generations, by caring for all of God’s wondrous creation,” the statement continues.

The GCCM said it intends to push for international treaties to battle global warming but said it is approaching the issue from a moral and biblical perspective and hopes to “encourage the conversion of hardened hearts.”

That could be a tall order in light of current arguments over climate change in U.S. politics and in the American church.

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4 Things You Need to Know About Terrorism and Religion

After my article on the terrorism in Paris last week, readers offered some thoughtful critiques of my position. Their comments zero in on the difficulty inherent in sorting out responsibility for violence without blaming victims or excusing perpetrators. My effort, however flawed, in analyzing this instance of violence had one goal in mind: to discredit our methods for justifying violence. What seems to have elicited the most concern is my use of the image of a dragon to discuss René Girard’s concept of the sacred. I pointed out that the editors at Charles Hebdo unapologetically embraced radical secularism. They believed that sacred structures are not only as dead as a mythical dragon, but that they have no function in modern society. I begged to differ, not because I am a fan of the archaic sacred, as Girard calls it, but because I am extremely concerned that continuing to remain ignorant of the way it functions in modern society is the greatest global threat we face today. Here are four things you need to know about the relationship between the archaic sacred and violence and how that relationship threatens our world:

1. Categorical Confusion

The archaic sacred is also called the false sacred because it generates a world in which false differences appear to be true. We see this dynamic clearly in the actions of terrorists who believe in a false difference between legitimate targets for violence (Western secularists, for example) and victims of violence who must be avenged (their religious and national compatriots). We easily condemn them for justifying their own violence with self-righteous fervor. Trying to expose the difference humans have constructed as categorical lies is the driving force behind our work at the Raven Foundation.

Let me be clear: No human being is a legitimate target for violence, period. To say otherwise is indeed to blame the victim and excuse perpetrators. However, to defend victims of violence by glorifying their deaths or sanctifying the values that apparently got them murdered is to play into the hands of the archaic sacred. Why? Because by explaining why these victims did not deserve to die, we indirectly acknowledge the possibility that some victims might indeed deserve what they get. In other words, the victims of the Paris terrorism are not to be mourned because they were good, noble, or saintly people. It wouldn’t matter if they were liars, cheats, and murderers – no one needs to earn the right to NOT be murdered. To hang on to the difference between those who deserve to die and those who don’t is to hang on in confusion to a false difference that serves only one purpose – to sanctify violence and ensure its continued presence as a plague in our world.

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Black Churches Offer Scholarships to Students at Michael Brown’s Alma Mater

They filed into the gym Jan. 12 for an assembly about graduation and applying for colleges — an intentionally vague description that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a senior class.

Instead, the seniors at Normandy High School learned that full-tuition scholarships would be given to 11 of them in honor of Michael Brown, who graduated just days before he was fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer.

Ferguson’s death — and the subsequent grand jury decision not to charge the white officer with his death — set off protests and heightened racial tensions coast to coast, followed by a similar case of a unarmed black man on Staten Island who died in a police chokehold.

“The way we deal with this situation is we breathe life into you,” said George T. French, president of Miles College in Birmingham, Ala., which is offering two of the scholarships. “We believe in you, Normandy High School seniors.”

More than a dozen local and national church leaders sat in folding chairs on the gym floor, inside a high-poverty school south of Ferguson where opportunity runs short and paying for college doesn’t come easily for most.

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Singing in the Rain to Support Our LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters

My first real participation with the tension that exists between the LGBTQ community and the church came when I was a freshman at Penn State University in the spring of 1996. As is the case on many campuses, there was a preacher who would stand outside one of the campus buildings on the green and preach sermons to students. Because he stood outside the Willard Building, he was ‘affectionately’ referred to as the 'Willard preacher.' One spring day, there was a large National Coming Out Day Rally scheduled to happen on campus on the steps of the theater that sat just opposite the Willard Building. When I walked out of my calculus class that day, I had no idea that I would be walking right into the middle of a real live demonstration of the tensions that existed between LGBTQ people and the church. On one set of steps stood a group of students and speakers calling on people to be true to who they were, to not be ashamed of their sexual orientation, and to be open and proud about it. On another set of steps, led by the Willard preacher, a group of students stood chanting, “Sodomy Is Perversion!”

I did not fully understand all that was going on in my heart that day, but I felt like I had to make a choice. One choice I could make was to join the chanters. Now, growing up I had been taught that God did not affirm homosexuality, but I did not feel good about the chanting and jeers that were happening, and I didn’t think I could do that. WWJD, right? I didn’t think this was it. A second choice I could make would be to join the gay pride group. It may seem like an easy choice, but at that time and at that point in my life, I felt that joining this group was a way of saying no to God. I was struggling in my faith, but was I ready to take this step away? I could not see a way that these two groups could peaceably co-exist, and I felt like my faith in Christ was on the line. In the end, I sat down with some friends in the gay pride group.

Fast forward to this past Saturday morning. This time the choice was easier for me. The Westboro Baptist Church had gathered with their signs in protest outside the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., where the Gay Christian Network was holding their annual conference. As an act of solidarity, support, and protection, Christians from around the Portland area gathered to build a ‘wall of love’ so that conference attenders could enter with little interference from the hateful rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist group.

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Which Terrorism Matters?

The real war on terror is not a war on Western values or American values. It is evil perpetuating crimes of power and control, and its costs are measured in real in human lives. Those lives are largely black and brown, and the focus on the danger to America with its resulting protectionism and cultural-centrism is endangering lives long term.

Church, let us not join in the narrative of self-preservation. Let us not value those who look and think like our own community more than those who are culturally different. Let us not value the wealthy more than the impoverished. Let justice-speech ring from our pulpits, and let love for the culturally different be reflected in our prayers and our financial endeavors. For the world to hear that in Christ all lives matter, we the Body must speak loudly and demonstrate that #blacklivesmatter #brownlivesmatter.

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To the Women: #MarchOn! — An Interview with 'Selma's Niecy Nash

I grew up in a household run by a woman of the civil rights movement. My mother, born Sharon Lawrence in 1948, was a teenager when she joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966, one year after Dr. King’s legendary march from Selma to Montgomery and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With the foundations of progress and protection laid, there was still much work to be done. My mother was based in Philadelphia, where she helped establish one of SNCC’s embattled northern offices.

A few years back, as I fished through boxes brimming with old papers and notepads, I discovered handwritten notes from James Forman to my mother. Forman offered detailed instruction to the then 18-year-old young woman who would become my mother only a few years later. Her job was much like mine is now: church outreach. The way she tells it, there were only a few churches in Philadelphia willing to offer their pulpits for movement people to speak. It was her job to secure those pulpits when giants like Forman, Stokely Carmichael, and others came to town.

I grew up aware of the women of the civil rights movement — my mother was one of them.

Perhaps that’s why I was so struck by the rare effort made by the film Selma to highlight the roles of women in that struggle, which by many accounts was the high-water mark of the civil rights movement. 

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