The Common Good

Sojourners

Dispatch From Ferguson

Editor's Note: Rev. Alvin Herring is on the ground in Ferguson, Mo. Following is his account of the events of Aug. 17. 

Last night democracy was trampled not as the media would suggest by the angry footfalls of sullen youth determined to disturb the peace and wreak havoc in their own community, but by the heavy march of a police force that seemed determined to create tension and antagonize young people — young people who are carrying the trauma of nights of unrest and lifetimes of dehumanizing racism.

We witnessed with our own eyes beautiful young people peacefully marching in step to cries of “hands up, don’t shoot.” We saw the very young holding older siblings’ hands and the old being pushed in wheelchairs by teenagers who had pain in their eyes but strong voices lifting up their laments to a nation that must find the will to hear them. And though they were clearly agitated, they were courageously hewing to the commitment to act peacefully in the face of an overwhelming police response that seemed determined to escalate an already tense situation.

Law enforcement was outfitted with the machinery of war. The officers wore military fatigues and carried automatic weapons. They were helmeted, with their faces obscured, and in the darkness they looked more like machines than human beings. They perched atop huge military vehicles with glaring lights and screeching sirens. It was otherworldly — and all of this to face down a group of wounded children, wounded tonight and many nights before this night.

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Sweaty Spirituality: Fighting Obesity with Paul (Romans 12:1-8)

Do you want to know a secret about working out? Here it is: we don’t grow our muscles in the gym. When we lift weights we perform controlled damage to our bodies; we literally tear our muscle fibers, forcing our bodies to adapt. We improve outside of the gym by consuming healthy foods. To “battle the bulge” requires a commitment to strenuous exercise and healthy eating. All who have enjoyed (or endured) a strenuous workout or have disciplined their dietary practices understand that results are impossible without bodily sacrifice — no pain, no gain.

Furthermore, if it is true that we are what we eat, then Christ-followers ought to take a long, hard look at the kinds of things we are putting into our bodies. Paul’s words to the Christ-followers in Rome offer us some food for thought (pardon the pun; couldn’t help myself).

Paul beseeches us to present our bodies as living sacrifices, that is, to submit our lived reality to the standards that God deems acceptable. Such a way of being in the world is deemed reasonable — spiritual even, as the NRSV translators put it. This is our tangible act of service to God.

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Tweets v. Tweaks: Financing Seminary Education (Part III)

Editor's Note: This is the final piece in a three-part series on Financing Seminary Education. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here

“The higher education industry is facing a multi-pronged and existential threat composed of successive waves of disruptive innovation” (Butler, “Tottering Ivory Towers,” American Interest (Sept/Oct). It seems higher education, including seminary education, is going the way of the music and media industries! Our 2,000-year-old business model of “sage on stage” could be truly doomed. The appearance of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) over the past few years has thrown many higher education institutions for a loop, and more innovations are on the way.

In response to these new innovations higher-ed institutions, including seminaries, have tweaked their business models with a few technological modifications such as PowerPoint, email, electronic research, and online courses. But, will it be enough? Butler says “no” and so do the trends. The reality is graduates of today’s higher-ed institutions are not evidencing the competencies expected and/or hoped for by their future employers. Consequently, accreditation standards, at an all-time high in complexity, are now beginning to be challenged. Simultaneously, tuitions are costly, the economy is tough, and the job market is even tougher. The end result is that students are graduating with large amounts of student loan debt and potential students are opting out of the education market.

We began the 21st century with denominations and churches that no longer fit the needs of a shifting society, a Congress that votes against the poor and the middle class, and seminaries that face multi-pronged threats to their existence. It’s time for an overhaul!

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Imagine it IS Your Family

Our nation has a problem. It is not a “black” problem or a “white” problem, but a “human” problem that we all succumb to — and have the power to change. Our beloved nation was NOT “conceived in liberty” OR “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” despite President Lincoln’s well-intentioned words. That was the hope, but it has never been the reality.

Many of my African-American sisters and brothers are furious. Yet another child has been felled. The challenge is this — if a tree falls in the forest and white folks don’t hear it, does it make a noise? Many of us who are white do not have the contextual experience or the “ears to hear” to understand the fear and the fury.

More than a decade ago, I pastored in a community that was predominately African American. It grew from 72 percent to 98 percent black in just seven years as a result of “white flight.” In the course of this time, the police force struggled because it didn’t listen to the people. Most of the officers were white and could legally live up to 30 miles away; as a result many (including the chief) lived in another state.

At one heated meeting, the police chief informed us what we “could” and “could not” do as we discussed community initiatives that included the older white and adolescent black residents in conversation and collaboration. Finally, as the pastor of one of the larger churches in town, I stood up and said, “Chief, please understand that we are not asking for your permission. We are telling you what we, as citizens of this town, are going to do. Now we need to know — are you with us? Or not?” The African-American residents stood and clapped loudly. I felt their pain and the reason for what some perceived as “paranoia,” but what I knew to be legitimate fury.

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Borderfree

During a recent visit to Kabul’s Emergency Surgical Center for Victims of War, the staff shared with us their sense of what's happening around the country, derived from the reports of staff working at several dozen clinics and at their main hospitals in two other provinces. They described Kabul as "a bubble." They told us full-scale wars are being fought between quite heavily armed forces in both eastern and southern Afghanistan, although the news coverage that goes beyond Afghanistan generally pertains to Kabul. The groups fighting the Afghan government include various warlords, the Taliban, drug kingpins, and foreign fighters, some of whom may be strategizing ways to cut off the roads to Kabul. The Kabul “bubble” can be quite vulnerable.

The borders now vanishing in the Middle East – the most radical transformations of the map here since the post-WWI Sykes Picot agreement – are being redrawn in chaos and fear. The bubbles that burst here are the hopes for peace in a world avid for control of this region and its resources. Unfortunately, durable structures of separation and domination make it difficult for many young Afghans to fulfill their longings to connect meaningfully, peacefully, and stably with a saner world united under one blue sky.

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What Saved My Faith

It was the beauty on the outside that drew me away.

Before social justice became trendy among evangelicals, people of all denominations, faiths, and philosophies had already been steadily working in the trenches without fanfare, caring for the least of these with a quiet strength.

Through seminary, I learned to grapple with justice being at the heart of the Christian Gospel — dignity, equality, and right to life for all — I marched out into the real world with zeal and vigor to champion the rights of the oppressed in the name of Jesus. However, I discovered the people who were doing this work often had no identification with Christianity, that those outside of church were behaving more Christian-ly than some inside.

I admired Nicholas Kristof, a self proclaimed nonreligious reporter, who tirelessly sheds light on humanitarian concerns.

I adored Malala, a Muslim, who stood up to the Taliban to bravely demand a right to education for girls.

I reflected on the justice heroes of recent history, people like Gandhi and countless other humanitarian workers who don’t claim the Christian faith for their own.

It disoriented me because for so long I believed it was only through Christ that one can walk in righteous paths; that without the Truth (which had been so narrowly summed up for me in John 3:16), everything was meaningless. I didn’t have an interpretive lens to categorize beauty that existed outside of the vessel I was told contained the only beauty to be found: the evangelical Christian church.

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Michael Brown, Iraq, Putin, Gaza: How to Reconcile the Brokenness?

A soon-to-be college-bound Michael Brown is shot by Missouri police, reportedly while holding his hands above himself in surrender and while unarmed. The resulting protests turn violent, leading ultimately to police setting up barricades, complete with snipers, tear gas, and flash grenades. Local stores are decimated and scores are injured in the resulting tensions.

Not long ago, Eric Garner, another African-American man, died of suffocation while being submitted to a choke submission hold by a New York policeman.

Last year in North Carolina, a black man was shot 10 times by a policeman. And all of this is in the shadow the Trayvon Martin, whose tragic and unnecessary death, is still fresh in our minds and hearts.

As cited on the Economist website , it’s enough to elicit a grim question from Delores Jones-Brown, director of the John Jay College on Race, Crime and Justice. “People are asking,” she says, “Is it open season on us?”

Meanwhile, half a world away in Iraq, ISIS continues to wreak havoc, and the United States has resumed an airstrike campaign after a decade of military force trying to maintain a tentative peace in a fractured nation. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t have reports of more Israeli and Palestinian blood spilled over the historic Gaza conflict, and Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to — in the words of a recent TIME Magazine article — “create problems only he can solve.” All the while, he stokes resentments between east and west not seen since the Cold War, seeking, too, to weaken the cohesive strength of NATO and to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies in Europe.

What’s happening to us?

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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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