The Common Good

Sojourners

Ferguson and America’s Love Affair with Violence

In Ferguson, an unarmed black teenager was killed by police. In reaction, thousands took to the streets in protest. However, rather than attempting to listen, the heavily militarized police immediately made a show of force with armored vehicles, assault rifles, riot gear, and tear gas. People tweeted photos and videos more reminiscent of scenes from Baghdad or Fallujah than of a little Midwestern suburb in America.

Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired into the crowd of peaceful protestors. Multiple reporters were assaulted and arrested. One cop was caught on video screaming “Bring it, all you f---ing animals! Bring it!” Another appeared to be indiscriminately pointing his rifle in people’s faces and yelling “I will f---ing kill you!”

This raises the question: Is what we saw night after night in Ferguson simply a matter of a few “bad apple” cops, a local isolated problem? Or is it indicative of a wider attitude of the police in relation to the use of violence and force? Is it an anomaly, or is this what police in fact consider normal and right? In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, a 17-year veteran of the LAPD gives us what he believes to be good advice from the perspective of a cop:

“If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me ... and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. ”

In one sense he is of course right. If a guy has a gun at your head you should definitely not argue, and just do what he says. But one is led to ask how this reasoning is substantially different from saying to a child, “Honey, when dad is drunk and gets mad, don’t talk back, just be real quiet.” That’s probably sound advice, too, but it begs the question: Is this the world we want to live in? Is that as good as we can do?

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To Spiritually Thrive, We Must First Spiritually Survive (And Help Others Do the Same)

Theology doesn’t save us from spiritual burnout — people do.

No matter how convincing our doctrines and beliefs may be, they’re ultimately empty and unsatisfying if there’s no human relationship personifying them.

Throughout our faith journeys we’ll be faced with moments of suffering, hopelessness, and sheer desperation — sometimes lasting for what seems like forever. We’ll want to give up — sometimes we will.

These hardships can devolve into isolation, bitterness, and ultimately transform what was once a healthy spirituality and turn it into a total rejection of God. Within Christian culture we label this as “burnout,” but in reality it’s more of a “falling out.”

Not only do we have a falling out with God, but we also disassociate ourselves from other believers and those closest to us. When we feel hurt, betrayed, or abandoned by people we assume God is to blame, causing us to doubt God’s love for us — even questioning God’s very existence.

Many quit faith not because of a newfound disbelief in God, but because of broken and unhealthy human relationships — people are the main reason we give up on God.

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Stop Taking Attendance

At a church I used to serve there was a well-intentioned person who after every service would tell me how many people were in attendance. “We had 47 today, Preacher,” he would say. I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he would have to tell me a low number like 35. A smile beamed across his face when we had more than 50. No matter the number, he would tell me without fail.

In every church that I have ever visited or served there has been an emphasis on the number of people that attend the morning worship services.

After years in the ministry, I have come to the conclusion that the church needs to stop taking attendance — immediately.

For many churches the process of collecting attendance is to get an accurate account of people in worship, to measure how many people occupy space in a pew. Some churches have notepads in the pews so people can fill out their information and place it in a designated area. Others have a volunteer to manually count the people in attendance. No matter how small or big the faith community is, an attendance is taken. Some congregations publish the number of people in their church bulletins or have it on a sign in the sanctuary to compare last week to this week.

For too long churches have measured their ‘success’ and ‘failures’ on the number of people that darken the door on 11 a.m. on Sunday morning. The quickest way to get people to wring their hands in worry is to tell them that numbers in worship have dropped. Visions of the church closing its doors will run through people’s minds inciting more and more anxiety.

It’s no secret that the church in the American culture is not where most Christians would like it to be. The church that was once the central hub of the community is now a place where a subset of people goes on Sunday mornings. The church has been in a decline for some time, and I believe this has caused us to become more inward focused. As the church began to experience decline numerically, the church’s reaction was to try making everyone left happy — from the ministers and worship leaders to the custodial staff. The boat was not rocked, things stayed the same, a course was laid, and no deviation would be acceptable.

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A Funeral, a Stick Figure, and Joy

The television show Castle involves a mystery writer (Richard Castle) who helps a New York City homicide detective (Kate Beckett) solve tough cases. Beckett decided to become a police officer after her mother, a community activist, was murdered and the case was never solved.

In one episode, Castle notices that Beckett keeps a stick figure in the top drawer of her desk at the precinct. It’s odd-looking. The sticks that form the limbs don’t match exactly. The head looks like one of those football-shaped coin purses. It’s all held together by what appears to be seaweed and twine.

Castle wants to know the story behind it.

Beckett tells how on the day of her mother’s funeral, she was really sad so her father took her to Coney Island, one of her favorite places. They walked along the beach in their funeral clothes for a long time. It became a special time for the two of them.

At one point, they decided to gather items that had washed up on the beach and they made the stick figure.

So, why does she keep it in her drawer?

“He’s a reminder,“ Beckett says, “that even on the worst days, there is a possibility for joy.“

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Give Us New Eyes

It’s been said that our politics are often shaped by what we see out the window. 

Twenty years ago, if you would've asked me if I thought police treat people fairly regardless of race, I would have confidently said, “Yes” — just like 70 percent of white folks in the recent Pew survey. In fact, 30 years ago, if you would've asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I’d have said “a policeman.”

I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, which was still very segregated. Growing up, we knew the police officers by name. On more than one occasion, the police saved the day, and countless news stories celebrated the heroism and courage of police officers. 

My mom and I used to go on walks together in a park, and I always looked forward to bumping into the officer who patrolled the park. She was tough as nails but always greeted me with an enthusiastic smile and a big bear hug. At the age of ten, she appointed me a “Junior Officer,” and she gave me a “real metal badge.”  I felt like I was at the top of the world, and on my way to be officer of the year.

And then my window changed.

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Women's Equality Day: Our 5 Most Popular Posts in 2014 by Women

Today, August 26, is Women's Equality Day. The date was selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. In honor of such a day as this, we decided it’d be fitting to highlight the voices of women by sharing our top five posts (by number of page views) authored by women from the past year. 

  1. A New Normal: Ten Things I've Learned About Trauma, by Catherine Woodiwiss (Sojourners Associate Web Editor)

  2. Not As Helpless As We Think: 3 Ways to Stand In Solidarity With Ferguson, by Rachel Held Evans

  3. How Not to Raise a Daughter, by Sandi Villarreal (Sojourners Web Editor and Chief Digital Officer)

  4. World Vision Reverses Decision on Same-Sex Marriage, Calls It 'A Mistake,' by Sarah Pulliam Bailey

  5. How I Kissed Evangelizing Goodbye, by Cindy Brandt

And while we’ve come a long way over the past 94 years, we also recognize there is still much to be done.  So stay tuned to our Women and Girls Leading through Faith and Justice Initiative.  We hope to have some exciting updates to share soon (including a new hire — you can still apply for our Women and Girls Campaign Associate position here)!

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Churches Must Be Safe Places

Church leaders often worry that Sunday morning is the “most segregated day of the week.”

On Sundays, churchgoers gather inside congregations that are remarkably monochromatic. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Koreans with Koreans, and so on.

This phenomenon, however, is more than discomfort with diversity. It is also a search for safety. In the historic black church, for example, worshippers can assert the dignity and worth that a white society denies them. For three hours on Sunday, the need to avoid offending whites doesn’t govern their lives.

As we are learning in Ferguson, Mo., African-Americans feel unsafe — far more than many whites have realized. Young black men, for example, flinch whenever a police car passes — a vulnerability that money, job, and education can’t overcome.

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Traffickers Come in Many Forms

The 2009 movie Taken throws its audience into the world of human trafficking. An American teen girl and her friend are taken while on a European vacation and sold into the sex trade through a multinational mob-ran human trafficking ring. The girl is ultimately rescued by her secret agent father played by Liam Neeson. With an estimated gross profit of $145,000,000, it is clear that audiences liked this action-packed thriller. While entertaining, unfortunately, Taken dramatizes and stereotypes traffickers. Contrary to what's portrayed in popular movies, there are many types of traffickers beyond the stereotypical pop-culture swarthy, heavily accented, and foreign organized crime ring.

First, many corporations participate in human trafficking by turning a blind eye to the working conditions of either their workers or the workers of their suppliers, vendors, contractors, and subcontractors. For example, the chocolate and fine jewelry industries are notorious for using slave labor. Beyond these well-known industries, exploitation occurs in the garment making trade, unscrupulous adoption agencies, and agriculture.

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What 'Normal Politicians' Should Look Like

The 2014 election-year posturing forces me back to November, 2010, when a living parable walked into freedom after 15 years of house arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma/Myanmar's opposition leader, waved to her supporters and awakened our stagnant conscience.

Suu Kyi ranks among the elite of real-life parables. "I should be like them," we typically think. "Everyone should." They're the true norm. Saint Francis was one such parable. So was Gandhi. So were Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn. Pope Francis may be another. They shame our insipid, glitz-and-glitter leaders, whether they're overpaid CEOs or I'll-say-anything-to-get-votes candidates. They show us that politics is more than winning elections and business is more than making money.

In fact, they shame us all. We reward the attack ads. We elect the politicians and hire the CEOs. We diminish human beings to mere consumers and interest groups and file them into marketing categories. We breed our rant-and-rave culture and turn it loose.

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Harlem's Influence on Bonhoeffer Underestimated in 'Strange Glory'

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the second Bonhoeffer book by the University of Virginia religion scholar, Dr. Charles Marsh, whose many other books include analyses of civil rights figures and history. Marsh is himself a child of the south, and his authored works have centered on prominent figures who model a commitment to justice in the face of southern white supremacy. Strange Glory is no different. Marsh’s depiction of Bonhoeffer is the first cradle-to-grave biography to highlight the seminal nature of Bonhoeffer’s experience in America, with African Americans, for his prophetic resistance to Nazism. Marsh also speculates that Bonhoeffer harbored an unrequited longing for more than friendship from his student and closest friend, Eberhard Bethge. Yet, with Strange Glory, I find speculation about Bonhoeffer’s sexuality less intriguing than the question of what Marsh’s representation of Bonhoeffer intends to offer us today.

Bonhoeffer spent a significant amount of time in Harlem while he was a postdoctoral student in America at Union Theological Seminary during the 1930-31 school year. Bonhoeffer became a lay leader at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and many Bonhoeffer scholars believe that his time there was seminal for his prophetic Christian resistance to Nazis. Yet Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Harlem is somewhat ambiguous for the Bonhoeffer that Marsh constructs. Instead, he emphasizes Bonhoeffer’s travels through the Jim Crow South, positioning the south (or, southern blackness) over against the north or northern, Harlem blackness as the primary source of African-American Christian influence on Bonhoeffer.

In fact, Harlem blackness gets a bad rap in Marsh’s Bonhoeffer story with this juxtaposition of southern vs. northern blackness.

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