The Common Good

God's Politics

World Bank Launches Interfaith Push to Eliminate Extreme Poverty

The World Bank is teaming up with global religious leaders in a 15-year effort to end extreme poverty by 2030.

About 35 religious groups worldwide, including Bread for the World, Islamic Relief International, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Sojourners, endorsed the call to action. Supporters include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, and others.

“Our approach to this staggering need must be holistic, rooted in the spiritual visions of our respective faiths, and built on a shared recognition of the intrinsic dignity and value of every life on Earth,” the call said.

Observers say it’s the first time the World Bank has tapped the reach and resources of religious groups in combating extreme poverty — partly out of a realization that the work is too big for any one institution, and also in hopes of limiting unnecessary duplication between the World Bank’s ideas and those of various religious groups.

“There’s a real convergence between these dual goals of the bank and many of the commitments and convictions of religious institutions and organizations,” said the Rev. Adam Taylor, a Sojourners and World Vision alum who now oversees faith-based initiatives at the World Bank.

During an April 9 teleconference, Wold Bank President Jim Yong Kim said the number of people living in extreme poverty — living on less than $1.25 per day — has fallen from 2 billion in 1990 to 1 billion today. And he strongly believes that with enough support, that figure could be eliminated in another 15 years.

But Kim said that in order to reach the goal, there will be two important aspects to the fight to end poverty: gathering evidence on what works and what doesn’t work in combating poverty, and enlisting the aid of religious communities.

“I believe that some of the most important leaders in the movement to end extreme poverty will be people of faith, people who are motivated fundamentally to help the most vulnerable among us,” Kim said.

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How the Happiness U-Curve Echoes the Buddha’s Teachings

I just learned about the U-curve — the basic psychological insight that most people get happier around age 50.

Judging from a variety of survey data from multiple cultures, people tend to be happy in their 20s and early 30s before hitting a less-happy trough in their late 30s and 40s, then returning to happiness in their early 50s. The line graph for this looks like a “U” stretched out on both sides, or, if you prefer, like a smile.

The predominant explanation seems to be that when we are young, we are ambitious and optimistic.

We feel good physically and have our lives in front of us. By our 40s, we start to worry about things we have not done yet, stymied by the realization “this” might be all there is. But by our early 50s we move on toward thinking “this” is not so bad after all.

At 54, I’ll admit my own experience seems to fit the pattern. I have less energy, my career has likely plateaued, and my parents will probably soon need closer care, but I still feel more satisfied. Is this because I got enough of what I desired? Or is it, perhaps, because I stopped desiring so much, or at least started desiring different things?

I teach comparative religion, so I know who spoke most clearly about satisfaction and desire. The Buddha taught these Four Noble Truths:

  • Life is dissatisfying.
  • Dissatisfaction is caused by desire.
  • Dissatisfaction will end only when the desires are extinguished.
  • The way to extinguish desires is to follow spiritual discipline. (For the Buddha, spiritual discipline meant the Eightfold Path).

I’m not kidding anybody: I have not extinguished all my desires. And I do not have much spiritual discipline. But maybe life is adjusting my desires whether I asked for it or not.

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Court Hears Arguments on Texas v. United States Injunction

Hundreds of immigrants and advocates from across the country gathered in New Orleans last week in support of President Obama's executive action programs on immigration. On April 17, the 5th Circuit Court heard oral arguments on the injunction filed in Texas v. the United States, which seeks to halt implementation of the executive action across the United States.

In February, federal district court Judge Andrew Hanen issued an injunction which temporarily delayed the extended 2012 Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs — programs that could protect as many as 5 million undocumented individuals.

A ruling is expected to be released within a few weeks but could come as early as this week.

The Department of Justice and many immigrants’ rights advocacy groups, including many in the faith community, have been diligently working to protect DAPA and DACA and demonstrate the negative impacts — including economic costs — that Judge Hanen’s ruling has created for communities across the country.  

Fortunately, the procedure to lift the injunction has been fast-tracked by the 5th Circuit Court, meaning that the judicial process has been sped up given the urgency of the overall case. Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, believes that the decision to accept the fast-track of the injunction is positive for the federal government because “it shows how the 5th Circuit seems to recognize that it is a very important case.”

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Q&A: How Would You Respond If Your Christian Daughter Became a Muslim?

Alana Raybon was baptized as a child in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She attended youth activities and vacation Bible school and even sang in the choir. But today, she wears a headscarf and worships Allah.

Her mother, Patricia, describes Alana’s conversion to Islam as “heartbreaking,” and yet, they’ve found a way to love each other despite the faith divide. They share their struggles in Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace, a book that begs a vital question: how would you respond if your Christian child converted to Islam?

Religion News Service talked to them about their experience. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Alana, tell us the story behind your conversion.

Alana: I developed a love and reverence for God in church, but I couldn’t connect with the idea of the Trinity. I didn’t let my mother know about these feelings, and patiently waited to feel a connection to this concept. In my 20s, I began searching for spiritual enrichment and came upon the concept of Islamic monotheism — the idea of God being one, solely, without any associate. I became inspired to learn more about Islam and converted to the faith as a junior in college and called my mother to share the news.

Q: How did you react, Patricia?

Patricia: I was devastated. A daughter can call from college with all sorts of news — forgetting her mother is still dealing with her own life. In my case, my husband and I had hit a low point in our marriage, my widowed mother had come to live with us, my other daughter was closing a business, and my husband had a cardiovascular emergency. In all of that, Alana called from college to say, “Mom, I’m a Muslim.” Emotionally, I had run out of steam. So I thanked her for calling, asked how her classes were going and if her car was running OK. Then after a few minutes of such talk, we hung up. Looking back, it was my oddest reaction ever to a phone call.

 

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Pope Francis to Visit Cuba Before U.S. Trip

Pope Francis will visit Cuba before arriving in the United States in September, the Vatican said April 22.

Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, confirmed the news to reporters in a statement made in Italian, Spanish, and English.

“I am able to confirm that the Holy Father Francis, having received and accepted the invitation from the civil authorities and bishops of Cuba, has decided to pay a visit to the island before his arrival in the United States for the trip announced some time ago,” Lombardi said.

The pope is scheduled to visit Washington, New York City, and Philadelphia starting around Sept. 23.

Francis would be the third pope to visit Cuba, after St. John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2012.

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What Struggling Congregations Need to Renew Their Churches

I am in a lovely college town to help a congregation discern its path forward.

It faces challenges that many church leaders will recognize: leadership, finances, isolation from the surrounding community, not enough young and middle-age adults to carry the congregation forward.

It also has pluses. The members aren’t deeply divided or mired in distrust and disdain. They aren’t afraid of change. They don’t bury the future in grand laments about a lost “golden age.”

I think they have a good shot at turning a corner and building a healthy next phase. I hear reports from across the nation that things are improving for Christian congregations. A new generation of clergy is exploring new ideas. Fresh energy is emerging. Denial is losing its hold, as congregations whose average age is 60 to 65 realize they must change or die.

Denominations are slower to adapt, but they, too, are moving forward in practical ways such as training in leadership and stewardship, and flexible deployment of resources.

Yet for this fresh day to last, church leaders will need to embrace a truth that goes beyond organizational development and resolving present issues. It’s a truth that many congregations simply cannot hear.

That truth is this: There is too much shallowness, not enough depth.

Over the years, in a process that isn’t at all unusual, we have equated faith with attending Sunday worship, maybe pitching in on a committee, and forming friendships within the fellowship. People enjoy belonging to the congregation. They radiate a palpable joy in being together. They seem content.

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Crystal Cathedral Founder’s Memorial Covered by Crowdfunding Campaign

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the “Hour of Power” religious broadcaster, once raised $18 million to build his landmark Crystal Cathedral in Southern California’s Orange County.

Yet when he was laid to rest April 20 on the grounds of the cathedral he longer controlled, his fractured family resorted to crowdfunding to cover the costs.

“Dr. and Mrs. Schuller were left financially crippled by the loss of their retirement income previously promised by the organization,” Carol Schuller Milner, Schuller’s daughter, wrote on the site GoFundMe.

“Living on social security for the past years, they were not able to preserve a fund that would cover arrangements for funeral and memorial tributes.”

Christ Cathedral — the name the Catholic Diocese of Orange, Calif., gave the building after purchasing it in 2012 — and a private benefactor covered the funeral’s basic costs, Milner wrote.

The GoFundMe appeal seeks $30,000 to establish a website, an archive of Robert Schuller’s work, and a broadcast of the funeral.

“The funds we seek will help to give Dr. Schuller a lovely, albeit modest, goodbye,” the appeal said.

To date, a little over $6,100 has been raised from 44 donors. Individual donations have ranged from $25 to $1,000 since the campaign’s start April 11. Schuller died April 2 of esophageal cancer at the age of 88.

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Charles Stanley Declines Award After Jews Question His Views on Gays

Amid a heated debate over his vocal opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley will decline an award he planned to accept from the Jewish National Fund in Atlanta on April 23.

News that the longtime pastor of First Baptist Atlanta and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention would be honored by the JNF angered many Jews who pointed to his history of vitriolic anti-gay comments.

Stanley said the award was causing too much strife within the Jewish community, and for the sake of his love for Israel, he would not accept it, according to the JNF, a nonprofit that sponsors environmental and educational programs in the Jewish state.

It was Stanley’s idea not to accept the award, JNF spokesman Adam Brill said Tuesday.

“Dr. Stanley feels that he did not want to see any further controversy and I think it’s a laudable and heartfelt decision, and we totally support and embrace it.”

Decrying Stanley’s “sordid history of virulent homophobic statements and actions,” the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity (SOJOURN) led a campaign to get JNF to change its mind on bestowing Stanley with its Tree of Life award, which was to be given to him for his support for Israel by the JNF’s Atlanta chapter on Thursday, Israel’s independence day.

“We respect Dr. Charles Stanley’s decision,” said Rebecca Stapel-Wax, executive director of Atlanta-based SOJOURN, on Tuesday.

“We are so grateful for the strong support of hundreds of people across the country. We look forward to a productive dialogue with JNF in the coming weeks and building our relationship together to support the local Jewish and LGBTQ communities and Israel.”

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Women of the Wall Pluck Torah Scroll Across Partition to Women’s Section

For the first time in its 26-year history, the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall managed to read from a full-sized Torah scroll April 20 after one of its members surreptitiously borrowed one from the Western Wall’s men’s section.

The scroll’s procurement, which was facilitated by the group’s male supporters standing on the other side of a partition, was a bold move by a group that has continuously challenged the ultra-Orthodox establishment’s sole authority over the holy site.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, has long prohibited women from wearing prayer shawls and reading from a Torah. He based his prohibition on a regulation that forbids any religious ceremony “not in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of the worshippers at the place.”

Although a 2013 court ruling confirmed Women of the Wall’s right to pray at the Wall, Rabinowitz has continued to ban anyone from bringing a Torah into either the men’s or women’s section and has placed all 100 of the holy site’s Torahs in the men’s section alone.

Although the group recently smuggled a tiny Torah into the women’s section, “you needed a magnifying glass to read it and we had to return it to its owners in London,” said Anat Hoffman, WOW’s chairwoman.

But on Monday morning, the group’s male supporters held a Torah reading service at the Wall, next to the gender partition. Once their service finished, the men opened an unlocked gate leading to the women’s section and a female WOW activist stepped into the men’s section and picked up the Torah.

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'Ex Machina' is 'Frankenstein' for the Digital Age

The question of what makes us human has been around pretty much as long as we have. Attempts at tackling it have produced a veritable hall of fame of iconic results: Frankenstein. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire bibliographies of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. The list goes on.

But the thing about big unanswerable questions is that although we may never get closer to figuring out the answers, it can be awfully fun and rewarding to keep asking them. And with advances in society and technology, the question of our humanity — and its future — seems to transmogrify by the day.

In the grand legacy of stories about what separates us from the animals (or, in this case, androids), Ex Machina, the directorial debut of screenwriter-novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) is nothing new. It’s a direct descendent of FrankensteinThe Island of Doctor Moreau, and scads of stories that have come before, bringing up classic issues of nature, nurture, and what happens when we play God. But Garland’s sci-fi thriller smartly wears those influences on its sleeve, adding to them a sharply modern sense of style, with a plausible approach that’s both intriguing and troubling to consider.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee at a large tech company, who wins a contest to hang out for a week with the company’s reclusive genius founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded house/research facility. Upon his arrival, Caleb discovers the real purpose of his visit: Nathan wants him to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot he’s created, and determine whether she can convincingly pass for human. The conflict arises when Caleb’s true role in Nathan’s test, and Ava’s own mysterious intentions, come under suspicion. How much of Ava’s behavior is what Nathan has programmed into her, and how much is she acting on her own?

Writer-director Garland has always excelled in creating satisfying thrillers with deeper questions in mind, particularly in the realm of exploring uglier parts of human behavior. In Ex Machina, he may have created his best work yet, working with a very small cast in a limited space that gives the characters plenty of chances to turn on each other in subtle, clever ways.

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