The Common Good

Sojourners

When 'Saving the World' Hurts

In recently released Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World, Jonathan Hollingsworth and his mother, Amy Hollingsworth (best-selling author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers) tell the story of college-age Jonathan’s mission trip to the African country of Cameroon. After participating in a short-term mission trip to Honduras, Jonathan felt inspired to serve others in a more profound way. When he connected with a missions organization that promised him a year of exciting opportunities to serve in Africa — and he was able to raise the necessary funding — he seized hold of the opportunity with a vulnerable heart and a zeal for personal sacrifice.

After reading the above description, you might be surprised to learn that Runaway Radical is actually a story of spiritual abuse. But by the time Jonathan prepared to leave for his yearlong trip to Cameroon, his entire family — and his supporters — were groomed for abuse. They were groomed by ideas perpetuated by many people and many organizations, teachings many Christians would follow without much of a second thought. The first idea asserts that everything done in God’s name is good. The second idea works in companion with the first, declaring there is always more you can be doing, more you can be sacrificing, to prove your commitment to your God and to his mission.

When Jonathan traveled to Cameroon, not only did his host prevent him from serving in the ways he had hoped, his mission organization used him and his funding for their own selfish purposes with little regard for his health and well-being. During his time in Cameroon, Jonathan’s organization forbade him from developing relationships with locals whose behavior did not follow their stringent moral code, defined for him who the “real” Christians were, and denied him immediate access to medical care. Jonathan also learned that the leader of the organization lied to him about the status of the the supposed projects of which Jonathan was to be a part.

What began as Jonathan’s eager and well-intentioned trip slowly and painfully morphed into a constricted and disillusioning journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish.

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The Wisdom of Those Who Plant Seeds

The day after Easter, it snowed. I was carrying in my last buckets of sap before leaving for Portland and was not surprised by the flurries, but they still stymied my expectations of warmer weather. The equinox had passed several weeks before, and while the start of spring had been marked on the calendar, it was (is) dragging its feet in coming.

Who has known the mind of God or even a good 7-day weather forecast?

We see and know in part. Certainty has never been the steady state of the human condition. Our lives are stretched with the awareness that clarity, at its best, comes with a smudge.

The experience of knowing we do not know can be felt in different ways. One is confusion, another, mystery. Both are confrontations of the hidden or unknown, but one brings us to awe and the other despair. One can leave us feeling isolated and the other in wonder at our relationship to that which is so much greater than ourselves.

The space between the two is not in the level of knowledge but rather our relationship to the knowing and unknowing itself. In the midst of our unknowing, we are faced with a choice: passive uncertainty or the stumbling action of faith. The beginning of wisdom is not the expectation of certainty with knowledge but the understanding that the kind of life most worth living is always an act of faith.

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A Journey Toward Radical Welcome

I had the sense, as a child, that God’s goodness and mercy would only follow me all of the days of my life if I was “good” and Christian. And I had the sense that good and Christian was a narrow way.

This meant two things. First, only “good” people, loving and kind people, people who had not erred or strayed or made mistakes or broken the law or never “back-slid” were the sheep worthy of grace and mercy. Second, only Christian people were in the fold. Not Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs — no, the steadfastly loving God had only space for those of us who accepted Jesus and our Lord and Savior AND who had lived sinless lives.

My child-like sense of “good” shifted when I was a teen serving as an elder in the Seventh Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Being up close and personal with my pastor, the late Rev. Oliver Brown, III and the adults around the table were first- hand lessons of the wide-open space of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

These good people — ordained people — were flawed and funny. They fussed and fought. They forgave each other, as God forgave them. My idea of good stretched and breathed and exhaled judgment and inhaled, experientially, that only God is good, that God in Jesus Christ shows this goodness in a particular way, and that all of God’s people are flawed and loved.

As a young adult before seminary, living life in the world, working, loving, breaking up, making up, having growing pains about identity and purpose and vocation, my spiritual muscles strengthened around the concept of the good shepherd who would love me enough to come and get me if I wandered.

Jesus is the ideal shepherd, the model shepherd, the best kind of shepherd; the one who makes the promises of God available to all of God’s people by laying down his life for the sheep.

I had not yet made the leap but most certainly have now to John 10:16.

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

This loving Shepherd has a huge and diverse flock. 

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Paris and the Challenge of Real Change

Even as the clock ticks down to COP 21 in Paris this coming December, agreement has yet to be reached about exactly what the conference could or should accomplish. There is little consensus concerning outcomes that might actually bring about change. Not unlike other issues where binary thinking has predominated, we are presented with an either/or scenario: economic collapse and damaging human impact, or economic prosperity and destructive impact on climate.

What is different now, however, is that the economic axis has shifted. Crucial to the Paris discussions is the fact that Western-driven economic theory and practice, rooted in the competitive polarities of prosperity versus paucity, now dominate the globe, while Western economies themselves do not. And it is this largely binary economic way of framing the issues of the environment that militates against significant accomplishment in Paris. Not unlike Copenhagen in 2009, or Kyoto in 1997, governments are posturing so as not to give away economic advantage. National prosperity continues to trump the environment.

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Environmental Justice, Inclusiveness, and Mother Earth

The prophets’ preoccupation with justice and righteousness has its roots in a powerful awareness of injustice. That justice is a good thing, a fine goal, even a supreme ideal, is commonly accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of injustice. Moralists of all ages have been eloquent in singing the praises of virtue. The distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression, in their comprehension of social, political, and religious evils. —Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. —Martin Luther King, Jr.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is defined as:

The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

As we consider this definition, and look around our communities, do we find this fair treatment taking place? Are we aware of how economic and environmental decisions are made? Many times it can become so overwhelming that we think it best to leave it to the experts. Unfortunately, this can lead to exploitation, as discrimination typically takes place in poor and underserved communities where people may not understand their rights, or they choose not to fight back out of fear. As we dig deeper and the shackles are removed, we begin to see how economic and environmental justice are connected and how this exploitation is directly related to incentives like government funding, tax breaks, and land grabs that favor corporations over human beings and the environment. Does the end result benefit all God’s creation or just a wealthy few?

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'Did God Kill Jesus?' Author Talks Suffering, Reconciliation, and the Cross

It was the means of agonizing humiliation and execution and has adorned the banners of armies through which some of the most brutal violence was perpetrated in history. It is a symbol worn by the faithful and sometimes the fashionable. It has famously been described as a stumbling block and foolishness. The cross is central to the Christian faith — but what does it mean? And how could this symbol of weakness also be a source of strength for followers of Christ?

As Christians ponder the mystery and meaning of the cross and Christ’s resurrection in this Easter season, I read Tony Jones’ new book, Did God Kill Jesus? which explores and analyzes various atonement theories through history and culture and considers whether the most famous — penal substitutionary atonement — is really the most accurate. Although Tony and I do not necessarily share the same views, I realized that our perspectives are not as far off as I had thought. I recently had the opportunity to interview him about the book and how his study and meditation of the cross has shaped his understanding of the crucifixion and what that can mean for the faithful.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

JV: You touch a bit on this in the book (but for those who might not read it), what do you believe are the theological and social implications of holding to a belief in penal substitutionary atonement? Could you elaborate on what you think those implications are? And do you think there can be anything redemptive or beautiful in Christians holding to a substitutionary atonement theory of the crucifixion?

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What One Person (or Two) Can Do in Transition Cultures

Not many people traveling in southern Africa consider Venda in the northern Limpopo Province a worthy touristic or project partnership visit. For years visitors to the South African Development Community have seen this more isolated, beautiful mountainous area of northern South Africa as a shortcut to Kruger National Park or to/from Pretoria and Johannesburg en route to the wonders of the 1,000-year-old Great Zimbabwe ruin or majestic Victoria Falls.

Perhaps a quick stop was worthy on the Musina-Beitbridge border to photograph the “great, green, greasy Limpopo River” made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s “How The Elephant Got His Trunk.” Not much else would interrupt the dash on the N1, similar to America’s own Route 1 from Canada to Florida.

Big mistake! As I found out when saying ill-advisedly to our travelling companions that “there really is nothing to see or stop for in the area … and we do have an important dinner appointment in Pretoria.” The twofold result was a serious late night ”domestic” with my more adventurous and intuitive wife, Karen, and secondly, a necessary, more open-minded review of the unexplored albeit minimalist pages on the Venda Region section of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guidebooks. Alas the travel guides seemed to have the same misperception as my 30-year-old wisdom.

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Lauren Hill and the Morning Fog

As I stepped outside the gym at Mount St. Joseph on the morning of Oct. 23, I immediately noticed the sun working hard to burn off a thick fog that had obscured the sunrise.

And I thought: That’s what Lauren Hill is doing.

I’d just finished talking to Lauren. You might know her story. Lauren was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor during her senior year in high school. She asked God for a little guidance on what she should do with her final year of life.

Ask, and you will receive. She wanted direction. She got it.

Lauren decided to go ahead and attend Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati and play basketball, even though she had only months to live.

The goal was to play in a game and score a basket. As it turned out, she played in four and made five baskets — 10 perfect points.

She also started a foundation to raise money for cancer research, hoping doctors will find a cure for other young people after she’s gone.

Yeah, I know: Spending your precious, limited time helping others instead of worrying about yourself. What a concept.

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Confusing Jesus with Daredevil

Like many comic book fans, I spent the weekend binging on Daredevil, Marvel’s newest release. The entire first season was created for Netflix, and it dropped in its entirety on Friday. I waited until Saturday night to dig in (longer than some friends of mine), and I was hooked from the opening scene.

It's a scene that opens with Matt Murdock (lawyer-by-day alter ego of the masked vigilante Daredevil) sitting in a confessional. He begins by telling the priest about his father, a boxer who fought harder than his record could ever show. He ends the conversation by asking not for penance, but for future forgiveness — forgiveness for what he’s about to do. “That’s not how this works,” the priest says.

Yet so much of how Murdock as Daredevil works in this latest iteration of the character is how we want it to work. Based closely on Frank Miller’s writing of the character, Daredevil proves to be someone who deals justice unflinchingly. This isn’t someone who hesitates when the situation allows for a grim, overly firm hand. Contrast this with Batman, a character who struggles to commit severe violence even when it seems to be the only option.

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Christian Leaders Voice Support for Iran Framework Agreement

This week, more than 50 Christian leaders came together to voice our support for the framework of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany), concerning Iran’s nuclear program. Sojourners published the leaders’ statement as a full-page ad in Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., political newspaper widely read by members of Congress and their staff.

The statement, signed by leaders from all the major streams of American Christianity — Roman Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Pentecostal — is reprinted below. We want to share this letter with you, the Sojourners community, and the broader public. I urge you to prayerfully consider adding your own voice in support of the diplomatic process and share the opportunity with others. Read it, discuss it in your churches, and add your name. This is a historic opportunity for diplomacy to triumph over armed conflict, and as people of faith, you can play an important role in helping the process succeed.

—Jim Wallis, Founder and President, Sojourners

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