The Common Good

Sojourners

God Occupies a Baby Crib

There is a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about the Virgin Mary that describes the baby Jesus as “God’s infinity, dwindled to infancy.” The line captures perfectly the beautiful but also shocking idea, central to Christianity, that the infinite God who created the universe also chose to descend, dwindle, become small, become helpless, become dependent on human beings.

Hopkins is right: the baby Jesus is not merely a sentimental or cute idea but is potentially radical, transformative, and controversial.

 
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What Are You Singing: O! Holy Night

I can remember hearing several times as a middle and high schooler that Christians lie the most when they sing. These claims generally came from the mouths of college-aged worship leaders during emotional praise segments at mission camps and conferences. They were usually followed up with a heartfelt plea to raise honest words and promises to God during the next song. (And if we really meant it, we would ignore the burning stares of our judgmental, worldly peers and come down front for our seventh altar call.) 

Though I generally don’t remember these scenes and indictments fondly, I have recently been contemplating the idea of honest worship, especially in relation to the Christmas season. I mean, how often do we memorize a whole song and sing along to it regularly without really stopping to contemplate the lyrics? And even when we do realize what we’re singing, how often do we actually let those words transform our hearts or actions or perspectives?  

All of these thoughts started stewing in my mind during my Thanksgiving vacation two weeks ago. Per usual, I started playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving (and by the day after I mean a few days before). As I was washing dishes, belting out my favorite version of “O! Holy Night,” I was suddenly struck with the thought What am I singing? Read the lyrics below to see if you get what I mean. (Hint: my moment happened somewhere around the second verse.)

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On Scripture: Who is He? Malachi 3:1-4

Who was Abraham Lincoln? You may get different answers depending on whom you ask. He is known as the Great Emancipator. He was a self-taught rural Kentuckyian. He was a husband and father. Also, he was a pragmatic politician. The new film, Lincoln, seeks to address this question by focusing on the political struggles for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the last few months before Lincoln’s death.

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Recently, I saw the film Lincoln, and certainly, the parallels between Lincoln and President Barack Obama are easy to see. Played masterfully by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln is a second-term president who attempts to pass major legislation through a partisan, lame-duck Congress during a time of deep divisions in the country. Newly reelected President Obama faces similar challenges. He is a second-term president who must contend with partisan politics while facing end-of-the-year spending and tax cuts in an increasingly polarized country. Furthermore, Obama has linked himself to Lincoln. For example, in 2007, then-Senator Obama announced his candidacy for president from Springfield, Ill., in front of the Old State Capitol as did Lincoln in 1858. Also, Obama used President Lincoln’s Bible at his swearing-in ceremony in 2008.

While it may be easy to see why some people would view the film in light of contemporary politics, Lincoln’s political context and Obama’s are quite different. Facile comparisons between Lincoln and Obama do both men a disservice since they serve in completely different contexts. The Civil War is not the war against terror. The abolition of slavery is not the fiscal cliff. After a point, our attempts to connect the characters and subject matter of the film Lincoln to current events seem rather forced.

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Lincoln, Christ, and America's State of Exception

I didn’t expect to leave a Friday night screening of Lincoln thinking about Jesus.

And I definitely didn’t expect the link to be an Italian political philosopher named Grigorio Agamben.

But of Lincoln’s many triumphs as an Oscar-season contender, its lasting effect is its surprisingly mature meditation on wisdom, freedom, and the necessity of employing the former when granted the latter.

Watching Lincoln reason aloud his justification for the Emancipation Proclamation, an act he admits to his advisors was dubiously legal at best, we encounter the film’s driving question: in a time of crisis when the rules no longer apply, what kind of moral vision do we want in leadership?

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Effective Sweat-Equity Rural Housing at Risk

Self-Help Housing, a sweat-equity program that helps groups of low-income people build their own homes, is praised by both sides of the aisle. So why are they planning to slash its funds?
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Wandering Stars

I learned from an article in The Sun magazine that the word eccentric comes from a Greek word that describes objects in space that don't revolve around the earth. The Greeks in ancient times saw Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn and observed that they wandered through the sky moving in a seemingly aimless way. They called these planets asteres planetai (wandering stars). The planets were not, however, wandering. They were revolving around the sun. It was the finite view of human beings that made them seem like wanderers.

Human eccentrics move in a seemingly aimless way, too. Their movements make them seem like wanderers to other human beings with finite views. They don't wander aimlessly, though. They revolve around a different center.

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Court Upholds Indiana’s Ban on Secular Wedding Officiants

A federal court in Indiana has rejected atheists' requests to preside at wedding ceremonies, saying only clergy or public officials are licensed to solemnize marriages.

A lawsuit filed by the Indiana chapter of the Center for Inquiry argued that an Indiana law that requires marriages to be “solemnized” — made official by signing a marriage license — only by clergy, judges, mayors or local government clerks violates the Constitution.

But Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled on Nov. 30 that marriage has religious roots. Therefore, government regulation of marriage is an act of religious accommodation — not endorsement — and protected by the Constitution.

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The $588 Million I (Thankfully) Didn’t Win

I played the New York lottery for the first time last week.

My $2 ticket didn't win the $588 million payout – surprise, surprise – but it did buy me several minutes of musing, most of it instructive, some of it enjoyable.

I quickly ran out of spending ideas – slightly larger apartment, new computer, clothes for my wife, a car to replace the two we sold when moving to Manhattan. I realized I couldn't even spend the income on a lottery bonanza, unless I started buying things I don't need or particularly want.

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In the end, I liked the idea of financial security, but saw little to be gained from sudden wealth. In fact, given the misery that tends to befall lottery winners, I might have dodged a bullet by not winning.

After this brief fantasy, I wondered more than ever why the wealthy work so hard to avoid taxes and other obligations of citizenship. Even though their effective taxes are lower than they were during the Reagan years and far lower than during the great prosperity of the post-World War II era, the wealthy are lobbying fiercely to pay even less in taxes. Once again, they seem willing to crash the government for everyone, rather than pay their share of its support.

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Conservatives, Progressives Call for Action on Immigration Reform

Today, both progressive and conservative leaders from the business, law enforcement, and faith communities came together in Washington, D.C., during the two-day National Strategy Session to launch a new consensus around immigration reform.

Leaders launched the event with a press conference highlighting our broken immigration system — which affects all sectors of society — and urged immigration reform in 2013 that includes legalization and path towards citizenship.

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The REAL War on Christmas: Congress’ Budget Negotiations


There is some good stuff on the God’s Politics blog this week encouraging Christians to drop their concern about the “war on Christmas.” It’s a good idea. However, as we’re getting over our huff about “Happy Holidays,” we’d like to shift your attention to the real war on Christmas: the priorities of Washington politicians that are fundamentally at odds with the hope, love, joy, and peace celebrated by Christians during the Advent season.

As political leaders engage in negotiations to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” we need them to preserve programs that reduce poverty and keep our families healthy. Unfortunately, House Speaker John Boehner and others in Congress are pushing to cut programs for the poor and vulnerable, while protecting tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

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