The Common Good

Sojourners

‘American Sniper’ or ‘Selma’ — How Christian Is Your Movie Choice?

It’s no surprise when we talk about the influential power of the Christian pocketbook when it comes to politics, culture, or any other part of the social fabric in the United States. The conversation has been evolving for quite a while now, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its standout moments. One such moment was the unexpected box office power of The Passion of the Christ. Large numbers from various faith communities urged their members to buy tickets in an effort to send a message with their purchase. They wanted the box office numbers to speak for Christian influence in the notably secular realm that was, and is, Hollywood. They wanted their money to talk.

I don’t see it as much of a coincidence that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, American Sniper finished its four-day debut on Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — with a historic $107.3 million take. The previous best for a non-Hollywood-tentpole drama? The Passion of the Christ with $83.8 million.

Now, these two openings aren’t directly comparable. There are obviously different sets of circumstances surrounding the two films, including star-actor power, Hollywood support, and (for the purpose of our discussion) how much Christianized effort was involved. The buzz around American Sniper isn’t the same as when people purchased tickets to show support for The Passion of the Christ, even if they didn’t plan on seeing the film. Still, American Sniper brings us face to face with the issue Americans can’t escape in our modern society: the conflation of faith and patriotism.

A week ago, Sojourners ran an article from Religion News Service highlighting the role of Christian faith for Chris Kyle, the sniper and main character played by Bradley Cooper in the Clint Eastwood film. Several quotes from his book were used to call attention to the prominence of faith for Kyle in real life versus the lighter take on it shown in the movie. The article ends with one such quote:

“I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. … But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”

Even if such language is patriotic for those who defend a black-and-white, us-versus-them ideology when it comes to combat, it is disturbing at best in a Christian context.

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What I Learned from My Time in Solitary

I started this year in solitary confinement.

It’s not that I am regularly in prison or that I had behaved so badly. I was simply in a mock solitary cell located in the sanctuary of a church. I was only there for an hour. I knew I would be getting out.

But that hour did offer a glimpse into the world of how solitary confinement is used – and abused – in our nation’s prisons. And it offered a glimpse at the reform efforts that are gaining steam all across the country, including in my home state of Wisconsin.

When Kate Edwards, a Buddhist chaplain who has worked in the Wisconsin prison for the past five-and-half years, closed the door behind me, I was alone, but hardly in silence.

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This Is What It Looks Like to Help End Human Trafficking

I am co-owner of an online boutique store that empowers survivors of trafficking with employment.

I am a social entrepreneur.

I am an abolitionist.

I am…uncomfortable with these kinds of labels.

Because at the end of the day, I’m very ordinary, and these descriptors seem to imply that I’m not.

I live an ordinary life. I wake at the crack of dawn to drive my kids to school and then return home to work, trying to get most of my business done during the hours that my children are at school. Snow days and random holidays are the bane of my work life, and the words, “Sorry, hon, I’m working right now. Give me a minute?” come out of my mouth more than I’d like. I spend the lion’s share of my days on my laptop, troubleshooting, responding to emails, thinking about future lines of clothing, and making sure that the expenses won’t be more than that month’s income. Sometimes, in the midst of the daily humdrum of life, I forget that what I’m doing really does make a difference, half a world away, in the lives of survivors of trafficking.

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The Wrong Messenger and the Smell of a Neck Bone

I am the Dean of Students at Covenant Theological Seminary, the National Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). I am the pastor of South City Church in Saint Louis. South City Church is a PCA congregation, and it is predominantly white. I am a retired full colonel PCA Army chaplain. I was born and raised in North Saint Louis city. My father now lives in Ferguson, Mo. I am a black man. If that comes as a shock, believe me I understand; it is a shock to me every morning when I wake up and go to work at Covenant Seminary in West Saint Louis County, a mostly wealthy and white suburb. It shocks me every time I walk into my church in South Saint Louis and remember that I am one of only 47 black pastors in my denomination and that I work in a mostly white conservative, evangelical church. I am constantly at the feet of Jesus asking for help in navigating the racial, cultural, and generational waters around me. It is a wonderful opportunity, but it is challenging for someone like me; I grew up believing that white people never really wanted to be in close proximity to black people unless they were the ones controlling the situation. There was also the belief that the only black people who were successful in white organizations were the ones who did not mind being tokens without real dignity in the system. There may be people who believe these things about me. I have even questioned myself as to why I have been given so many opportunities in the PCA. I sometimes don’t like the answers that come to mind.

Recently, a young pastor asked my opinion on cross-cultural ministry. He asked me how an African American got two positions as both Covenant’s Dean of Students and as pastor of South City Church. I explained, “it makes no sense, since so much of the history in our denomination makes me the wrong guy for the job! But through God’s sovereign will, here I am!” His response was, “I guess God always sends the wrong messenger.”

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Free Speech, Big Fish, and Calls from God

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris was an act of absolute evil. The fact that people sitting down for a simple editorial meeting at their work site could be killed due to hate is disturbing beyond words. It is a tragedy for all involved – for those killed, for the family and friends of those killed inside of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, for the officer killed on the street outside, and for those involved in the hostage situations as the perpetrators were tracked down. It is also a tragedy for Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others who often find themselves being impacted by radical fringe elements who often do not represent the basic tenants of their faith or beliefs.

It can be so hard to watch these violent terrorist events unfold around the world. And we often try to explain them way too quickly. In this instance, some immediately blamed all Muslims for the attacks. Others immediately chastised the editorial decisions of Charlie Hebdo and the cartoons this satirical magazine has published of the Prophet Mohammed. Still others protest that this is a “simple” free speech situation. They say that the cartoons posted by Charlie Hebdo were satire but harmless and that the attackers were trying to silence them.

But free speech is an interesting and complicated thing. The question is often about the limits of free speech.

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Explaining 'Black Lives Matter'

It is difficult to understand why people, particularly Christians, view a statement as patently obvious as “Black Lives Matter” as a subject for controversy. However, sometimes the most obvious things still need to be said.

So:

Black lives matter because God made every one of us in God’s image. Black lives matter because the Bible tells us that we are part of a body and the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” Black lives matter because God pays particular care to those crying out under the burden of injustice and oppression.

As people of faith in a neighborhood that has been rocked by protests, tear gas, and arrests, we have sought to stand in solidarity with those who are groaning under the burden of oppression. We offer some physical support — hand warmers, a cup of coffee, an extra pair of socks, but we also offer our presence. The Bible often refers to Christians as “witnesses,” and there is something important about simply standing next to our neighbors in the streets and seeing what is actually happening.

We firmly believe that Jesus needs to be down in the clouds of tear gas and he lets us, his people, participate in his reconciliation by bringing him there with our own two feet. Christians, and particularly evangelicals, need to be in the streets. Our neighbors are just outside our doors, crying out that the system is broken and that our culture doesn’t value the lives of our brothers and sisters. We, as Christians, believe in sin and brokenness and we need to live out our belief that God values all of God’s people even as our culture picks and chooses who is worth caring about.

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In Times of Dire Distress

Maybe I am the only one wondering “What can I do?” as I watch and read the news of demonstrations throughout the country. I have a lot of excuses. I can’t go to the protests tonight because my son has a concert. I don’t coordinate the church service and announcements, so I can’t control what will and won’t be said. I’m on sabbatical so I won’t be a part of the conversations that I hope will happen between colleagues at meetings. But I hope I am not the only one wondering what can be, needs to be, ought to be done.

The videos are chilling – Eric Garner’s life is being choked out of him until he goes limp on the sidewalk and Tamir Rice is being gunned down, the police squad door barely opening as the officer drives by. The images of protests and protesters being tear gassed and throwing canisters back at police armed in riot gear remind me of the summer I spent in Korea, marching in protests against U.S. military presence. That was the summer I learned about wearing damp handkerchiefs near my eyes and over my nose to help with the sting of tear gas and how to wet the wick of a homemade Molotov cocktail before lighting and lobbing. A few years later in a hotel room in Indiana after a job interview, I watched protests and riots take over Los Angeles. Living with, wrestling with injustice day in and day out is a bit like a kettle of water just about to hit boiling. At some point, the water boils, the steam is released.

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Invest in Women, Divest from Trafficking

Human trafficking is an overwhelming and complicated issue. 

(Actually the root causes of human trafficking are complex. But there’s nothing complicated about treating people like people, not property).

Yet, how can those with little time to volunteer or a burgeoning desire to make some kind of difference do so?

Support socially responsible businesses! Here are five groups dedicated to helping sell the products of at-risk women and girls, as well as trafficking survivors—supplying them with work and the means to provide for their families.

Engage in smarter buying—invest in women, in their work, and in their futures.

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A Journey to Full Restoration

Mint's life has been changed since working at NightLight. Having an economic alternative is an essential part of bringing liberation to women who have been trafficked or prostituted. The exit or rescue is only the beginning of freedom. At the same time, a job alone does not restore a woman to her true identity and humanity. There is a well of pain and trauma that lies beneath the surface.

Most organizations that provide after care for survivors struggle to support the financial burden of restoration. When the rescue is over, the support often dwindles before the woman is fully restored and ready to thrive on her own. Without intentional and holistic after care, victims who are rescued often find themselves vulnerable again. Left alone, the familiarity of their slavery can begin to look like the best option for survival.

A successful business can provide the wages and benefits needed to sustain a woman while giving her the opportunity to reach full restoration. When the greater community invests in freedom products, we can help vulnerable women reach their full potential.

For Mint’s sake and other women and girls, may it be so.

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Weekly Wrap 1.16.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Can the U.S. Ever Figure Out its Messed-Up Maternity Leave System?
“According to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, there are only two countries in the world that don’t have some form of legally protected, partially paid time off for working women who’ve just had a baby: Papua New Guinea and the U.S.”

2. Post-Evangelicals and Why We Can’t Just Get Over It
Rachel Held Evans pens this spot-on column about identity and why it can be difficult to “simply” ditch the label: “When you grow up believing that your religious worldview contains the key to absolute truth and provides an answer to every question, you never really get over the disappointment of learning that it doesn’t.”

3. This Is What the Oscar Nominations Look Like Without All the Men
A really great visualization.

4. From Lone Wolf to Wolf Packs, What Paris Says About a New Model of Terror
If some interpretations of the recent terrorist attacks hold true, they "point to a dangerous evolution [in] global jihadism: an acceleration in hard-to-detect lone-wolf or wolf-pack attacks that hinge more on the proliferation of an ideology than actual sponsorship by any group.

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