The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

ON Scripture: Preaching Reflections on Michael Brown and Ferguson

Editor's Note: In light of this week’s events in Ferguson, Missouri, several writers at ON Scripture took a few moments to reflect upon what they would/will be preaching on this Sunday. To continue the conversation, join on Twitter at #onscripture.

Eric D. Barreto, Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary: St Paul, MN

The last thing a preacher wants to do on a Saturday night is to log into Facebook.

I exaggerate, of course, but I found myself scrambling last week when I learned of Michael Brown’s shooting last Saturday. My sermon for Sunday morning was ready to go. But I had to reassess all my work when I heard the witness of so many African American friends in particular as the news from Ferguson began spreading across social media. The frustration and disbelief, rage and disappointment, resignation and passion I heard moved me. But even more convicting was the fact that so many others were simply unaware of this event at the moment and unfazed by its repercussions.

In certain communities, no one had to pay attention to Michael Brown. In certain communities, his death did not resonate with significance. In certain communities, no one would confront the preacher and ask why she did not respond to the death of this young person.

And yet in other communities, his death was a touchstone, a cause for prayer and lament and righteous anger and faithful expectation.

These distinct reactions are a raw reminder that our communities of faith remain largely segregated. Though we worship the same God, the contexts within which we seek God’s face are radically different. In such a divided context, what does it look like to love your neighbor? What does it look like to be “one” church even as we are profoundly divided?

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Weekly Wrap 8.15.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Ferguson, Mo. Police Chief Releases Name of Officer Who Shot, Killed Michael Brown
It's been almost a week since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. This morning, Darren Wilson, a six-year member of the department, was named as the shooter in the incident. Watch the police chief's statement at the link.

2. Matt Walsh, Robin Williams, and How Ignorance Can Lead to Unkindness
Matt Walsh recently wrote a piece about suicide and depression that represents a more systemic misunderstanding of mental illness in certain faith circles. Naked Pastor writer and artist David Hayward responds in this important piece: "I would like to help Matt Walsh and his fans understand depression, suicide, and humans."

3. Why Joseph Gordon-Levitt Considers Himself a Male Feminist
(also known as a feminist) "…If you look at history, women are an oppressed category of people. There’s a long, long history of women suffering abuse, injustice, and not having the same opportunities as men, and I think that’s been very detrimental to the human race as a whole."

4. How Did America's Police Get So Militarized? 
As the photos continue to pour out of Ferguson, Mo. of St. Louis County police dressed in riot gear and driving IED-resistant vehicles down suburban, middle-America streets, Mother Jonestakes us through the history of this now-extreme militarization of local police forces.

5. Millennials and the Myth of a Post-Racial Generation
"When police shoot down an 18-year old black teen in St Louis; when toxic power plants and incinerators are placed near communities of color; when Asian Americans are still a socially acceptable butt of racial jokes; when our nation’s capital continues to use a racial slur for its football team name, racism isn’t going anywhere anytime soon."

6. World's Top Muslim Leaders Condemn Attacks on Iraqi Christians
"Their remarks come at a time when Christian leaders in Iraq have called on Muslim leaders worldwide to denounce the anti-Christian violence in the country. In the past decade, the majority of Iraqi Christians have either fled the country or taken refuge in the autonomous region of Kurdistan."

7. Asylum PoliticsWhy are dozens of Sikh refugees being detained in an El Paso immigration facility, months after they could have been paroled? 
From Texas Monthly: "When most people think of immigration across the Mexico-U.S. border, they think of impoverished Mexicans looking for work. But more than a third of the 414,397 people who were apprehended at the southwestern border of the United States last year were from other countries, and that proportion continues to increase as the number of Mexican immigrants falls dramatically."

8. In Which, Depression Is NOT Your Fault
"Since the tragic death of Robin Williams, I have seen some terrible, misinformed, and abusive bullsh*t online about depression and mental illness. This normally wouldn’t be enough to make me type as passionately as I am right now but this stuff is coming from a few vocal and influential Christians. … Heaping condemnation and guilt and fear on the heads of the suffering is akin to tying a millstone around someone’s neck. This is a heinous and evil thing to do."

9. Trapped in Texas: Tens of Thousands of Immigrants Are Stuck in the Borderlands
"We're not Mexico, and we're not the United States. We're somewhere in between." Revealing report from Public Radio International. 

10. Humans of New York Goes International
Are you really NOT one of the 9 million people following HONY? It's time to get on board, as Brandon is on World Tour (was just in Iraq, now in Jordan), photographing and interviewing whomever he comes in contact with. Storytelling at its finest.

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The Church Has Left the Building

Last year I spoke at a missional church conference in Southern California. The guy who spoke before me asked every one of these missional pastors do a simple exercise.

“Turn to the person sitting next to you,” he said, “and tell them the names of your neighbors on every side of your house (or apartment) and share one story about their lives.”

The room went abuzz.

After a few minutes the speaker called the audience back and asked: “How many of you could share the names and stories of each of your neighbors on every side of your house?” No one raised their hands.

The speaker asked how many could share the names and stories of a few of their neighbors. Only about three people in an audience of about 200 raised their hands. This was a missional conference.

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3 Ways to Cultivate Joy While Working for Change

I was among millions across the globe wrapped up in the glee of Pharrel William’s song, “Happy.” I first heard it while watching Despicable Me 2 with my family last year. As the credits rolled I remember making a mental note to add it to my workout playlist.

Pharrel even released a 24-hour video of the song on YouTube for millions to enjoy globally – creating a sort of time released happy capsule that was just a click away.

I thought about how this “Happy” anthem struck a chord in our world’s collective unconscious. “Could it be a sign that all of us, the human family, crave deeper joy and some levity?”

I think faith-based communities can discuss this for years to come at a time where joy is a necessity more than a luxury, and ministers are flaming out quicker than ever, and according to a New York Times article, suffer from depression “at rates higher than most Americans.”

Maintaining a sense of joy is then vital for my own work, especially since I lean toward New York-bred cynicism and incredulity. Activism can be rewarding, yet also extremely discouraging at times. Change can seem incremental at best, and the issues are much bigger than any one person or institution can handle. Making joy a vital ingredient in the active life of faith, within the soul of activity.

I’ve been considering three approaches in cultivating joy, a God-given, buoyant energy, in the midst of some weighty work.

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The Nature of Joy

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:9-12

War is always ugly. The loss of innocent lives is never easy to swallow. And yet, as tanks open fire on the humble homes of the Gazan poor and rockets rain down on a terrified Israeli populace we are compelled to ask, “How do we keep coming back to this profane and violent place called war?” Why do we consistently and continually fail to understand the simple principles of our own faith and the faiths of those who profess a belief in God?

These simple faith principles speak of a command to love one another and to have a deep and abiding respect for all life – especially innocent life. Then, why do we fail to love justice, peace, and mercy as God commands and seem so determined to visit such violence and destruction on our world and on one another?

Similar questions arise for me in my work as a pastor who labors in organizing people of faith to contend with the tough issues that we face daily in our country. Issues like the mass incarceration of our young, the struggle for human dignity by the poor, the lack of employment opportunities for those who desire only to feed their children and raise their families, and the millions who yearn to step out from the shadows of unjust immigration laws and be recognized as cherished citizens of an open and welcoming nation. These are the tough issues that bring me and so many other clergy and people of faith from the confines of the church into the streets and homes of those whose lives are tethered closest to the pain of injustice. In each of these instances the moral challenges seems so clear but the outcomes are incongruent with the faith principles that are designed to guide our hearts and direct our actions.

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Civil Rights Groups to Feds: Purge Your Anti-Muslim Training Materials

Civil rights and religious groups say efforts to rid federal agencies of anti-Muslim bias have faltered and prejudice against Muslims persists, particularly in the training of anti-terrorism officers.

On Thursday, 75 groups—including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Auburn Seminary, and the NAACP—sent a letter to the White House urging an audit of federal law enforcement training material.

“The use of anti-Muslim trainers and materials is not only highly offensive, disparaging the faith of millions of Americans, but leads to biased policing that targets individuals and communities based on religion, not evidence of wrongdoing,” the letter reads.

A National Security Council representative said the letter will be reviewed and a response issued.

“As we said when these news reports first came to light, the use of racial or ethnic stereotypes, slurs or other similar language by employees is both unacceptable and inconsistent with the country’s core values,” said Caitlin Hayden, National Security Council spokeswoman.

The groups point to a reference to “Mohammed Raghead” in a memo and the claim by a former FBI official that the CIA’s director is a “closet Muslim.”

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After Ferguson Protests, Church Volunteers Pick Up the Pieces

On the fourth morning after Michael Brown’s death, residents from different parts of the region came together to pick up the pieces.

Some were young, some old. The majority arrived as part of the faithful. Others trickled in after spotting volunteers marching up and down West Florissant under the hot sun. Carrying brooms and large garbage bags, they collected whatever they could find: rubber bullets, broken glass, liquor bottles, tear gas grenades.

“I needed to come out today just to get some stability,” said Gary Park, 34, an auto mechanic who lives near the area in Ferguson where Brown was shot and protests erupted. Close by is the looted and burned QuikTrip that sits as a symbol of the severity of the unrest that resulted from an unnamed cop fatally shooting an unarmed 18-year-old.

“I wanted some encouragement,” Park said.

Park is a member of Passage Community Church in Florissant, which together with a few other local congregations, organized the Wednesday morning cleanup. Pastor Joe Costephens said that although the trash-collecting effort was a last-minute plan, more than 100 people joined the endeavor.

It was a simple act but not an insignificant one, especially since authorities reported two shootings only the night before. In fact, the continued violence has put future volunteer efforts on hold, Costephens said.

 
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From 30,000 Feet, Pope Francis Reaches Out to Beijing

At Beijing’s oldest Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, Mary Zhang, 54, eagerly awaited the arrival of Pope Francis—at cruising altitude.

“I’m very excited. It’s the first time the pope has flown over China,” said Zhang, a regular worshipper at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception who volunteered to help clean the church.

“I really hope he can give a Mass in person in China one day. It’s a sign of a better relationship between the Vatican and Beijing, as flying over China was not allowed before.”

The pontiff, who landed in Seoul on Thursday for a five-day visit to South Korea, sent a telegram of greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping as the papal plane flew over northeastern China, as Francis does with any country he flies over, in accordance with Vatican protocol.

The telegram, sent early Thursday, read, “Upon entering Chinese airspace, I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation,” The Associated Press reported.

Popes have globe-trotted for decades, but none has visited China, a communist nation that crushed religion during Chairman Mao Zedong’s time. Today, China is more open but remains a “Country of Particular Concern,” according to the U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report, which last month described the continued harassment and detention of some Catholic clergy in China.

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Needed: An International Strategy in Iraq

The crisis in Iraq poses two challenges — a humanitarian effort to rescue persecuted minorities, and a security mission to suppress the extremist threat posed by the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The U.S. is right to play a leading role in aiding the Yazidis, Christians, and other threatened minorities in Iraq. The immediate threat against the Yazidis has eased, but minority groups in the region remain endangered by violent extremism. The Obama administration should work through the United Nations to turn this into a genuine international rescue effort. The greater the degree of international participation and support for the aid mission, the more beneficial and legitimate it will be for the recipients.

The U.S. is also right to call attention to the threat posed by ISIS, but we need to do more to mobilize international pressure against the group. The Islamic State is in many respects more dangerous than al Qaeda. It has conquered Mosul and other major cities, taken control of dams and oil facilities, and is steadily expanding its sphere of influence in Syria and Iraq. It has formed a terrorist army with an estimated 10,000 fighters and is now armed with tanks and advanced U.S. weapons stolen from the Iraqi army. The group poses a significant threat to the security of the region and the world.

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Remember That Our Lives Matter

It feels awkward and even a bit inappropriate to be talking about ‘celebrity news’ when so much is going on around the world: Iraq, refugees in Syria, children stranded at borders, Michael Brown’s death and Ferguson, Ebola, Ukraine, and the list tragically goes on.

But then again, it feels appropriate because it’s another reminder of the fragility of our humanity.

As has saturated the news, Robin Williams passed away this week. His life ended way too short at the young age of 63 – apparently because of suicide. While this was news to me, Robin had been struggling with intense depression – especially as of late — and was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

To be honest, I don’t get caught up too much on celebrity happenings mainly because there’s not much genuine connection. I don’t really know them personally. Make sense? Robin Williams’ death – on the other hand – just felt like a painful punch in the gut. Perhaps, it’s because Mork and Mindy (Nano Nano) was the first TV show I watched (along with Buck Rodgers) after immigrating to the United States. I deeply resonated with Mork – this ‘alien’ or ‘foreigner’ from another land trying to fit in. Perhaps, it’s because so many of the characters he played in countless movies influenced me on some level as it did so many others.

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