The Common Good

Sojourners

5 Things to Know About ISIS and the Theology of Evil

As an evangelical theologian and pastor, I want to say that ISIS is evil. Evil is a term we don’t normally hear in the media or politics, which is likely a good thing given our lack of public morality and civility these days. Indeed, judgementalism was condemned by Jesus, but is still often practiced by many churches — so humility is always called for. But it is still a responsibility of the faith community to name evil where it clearly exists in the world. And by any standards, the actions of ISIS are evil.

The latest report issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq on “The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Iraq,” catalogues the human rights atrocities committed by ISIS, making it abundantly clear that this group is evil. They include:

  • attacks directly targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure,
  • executions and other targeted killings of civilians,
  • abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and gender based violence perpetrated against women and children,
  • slavery and trafficking of women and children,
  • forced recruitment of children,
  • destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance,
  • wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms.

The report goes on to identify the targeting of ethnic and religious groups — such as Christians, Yazidis, Shi’ite Muslims, and many others —and subjecting them to “gross human rights abuses, in what appears as a deliberate policy aimed at destroying, suppressing or expelling these communities permanently from areas under their control.” The report describes the actions as possible “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.”

In light of these sober findings, the faith community must remind the world that evil can be overcome, and that individuals involved in evil systems and practices can be redeemed. But how to overcome evil is a very complicated theological question, which requires much self-reflection. In trying to figure out how to overcome evil, it is often helpful to first decide how not to. Here is a good example of how not to respond to the reality of evil.

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Transpartisanship: An Alternative to Political Dysfunction

The phenomenon of “creeping normality” allows for significant changes to be deemed acceptable when they occur gradually over time, in relatively unnoticed increments, rather than single steps or dramatic and noticeable instances. The “boiling frog” metaphor, which illustrates the familiar account of an unassuming amphibian that is slowly and successfully cooked to death, reveals not only how such instances can occur, but also how a calculated and protracted alteration (produced by those with power to turn up the heat) can possess disastrous results if not noticed and properly countered (by those left in the water). We need not look far for modern-day examples.

Extreme partisanship has crept into our political normality. As revealed last year by the Pew Research Center, our civic temperature is methodically rising, perhaps beyond the boiling point. The study states:

“The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. [As a result], the center has gotten smaller: 39% of Americans currently take a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative positions, down from 49% in surveys conducted in 1994 and 2004.”

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Why We Must Change How We Change the World

It’s hard to be optimistic about changing the world when our news cycle is dominated by terrorism, violence, and disease. When world events shock us, sometimes our best hopes cave in to our worst fears. Even the most radical activist may be tempted to give up.

But there is a different narrative that summons those of us who dare to care. It begins when we confront the things that have kept millions from breaking free from poverty and injustice. It ends when we find the courage to change how we change the world.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which consistently ranks among the poorest countries in the world and the most dangerous for women, a group of peacemakers are changing the narrative. Last year I met a Congolese woman who told me how her husband was killed in crossfire between warring militias, how she was violently assaulted by the soldiers who were supposed to protect her, and how she fled her village with her eight children under the cover of night. In the wake of her suffering, she joined a group of women to save small amounts of their own money each week. From her savings, she launched a soap-making business. Over time, she employed others and taught her sisters how to do the same. She helps others to forgive their perpetrators and, together, they are determined to stop the violence against women in a land known as the rape capital of the world.

Today thousands of peacemakers like her are changing Congo, and their numbers continue to swell. They are “waging peace” to save Congo one village at a time.

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Lent: The Kingdom of God as the Truth of Easter

Australian Catholic Archbishop Mark Coleridge shares a powerful reflection on the Lord’s Prayer:

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Obama Vetoes Keystone XL

President Obama rejected the construction of the Keystone XL Feb. 24, angering the Republican majority in Congress and inspiring environmental activists.
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The Oscar Scandal: Sean Penn, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Responding to Racism

“Sean Penn’s ‘Green Card’ comment may have ruined the entire Oscars.”

That was the headline from the Huffington Post. I didn’t watch the Oscars, but I’m always curious about pop-culture scandals. What could Sean Penn have said that was so egregious that it threatened to ruin “the entire Oscars?”

Penn delivered the award for Best Picture, which went to Birdman. After Penn opened the card, he took an awkward moment to gather his thoughts about how he would introduce the winner, whose director happened to be his long-time friend Alejandro Iñárritu.

That’s when Penn delivered the scandalous introduction, “And the Oscar goes to … Who gave this son of a bitch his green card? Birdman.”

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ISIS Versus the West: A Clash of Civilizations?

Is the Islamic State — ISIS or ISIL — different from other Islamist terror groups? If so, is the difference one of substance or simply degree? Or is there any real difference at all?

The question preoccupies the best intelligence professionals and academic students of the Arab Muslim world, but so far has produced more confusion than certainty about what we’re witnessing.

Maybe we’re too close. Maybe we’d gain perspective by going back in time — to 1993, say, and an article by a Harvard history professor, Samuel Huntington, in the magazine Foreign Affairs and later in a book titled The Clash of Civilizations.

Huntington saw a grim future and a different kind of war. While nation-states remain principal players in world affairs, he wrote, the great conflicts of the future will be between “different civilizations.”

“The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics,” he wrote. “The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

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Thoughts on Lent From a Non-Churchgoer

It snuck up this year, as though I’d almost forgotten about it until I saw friends in another time zone posting Mardi Gras pictures. Mardi Gras is this week? I thought. That means Lent begins this week?! Maybe it’s because I don’t go to church right now, or because I’m not in a spiritual community like I was before I moved cities. But for whatever reason, it came fast and unexpected, and something inside won’t let me pass it up. As much as I disagree with some of the traditional teachings about Easter and various interpretations of why Jesus was crucified, I have always had a penchant for Lent.

Lent is a time that draws out the heart’s ability to draw nigh to your Creator. Of drawing closer to God, to others, to the wide open world around us. A time for spiritual reflection and inner examination. A time to pause. A time for simplicity. A 40-day season containing strong, beautiful symbolism. Death from life. Life from death. The two are inseparable. Hope is reborn, recycled out of crushed pain and heartache. The timing of this season enhances the meaning all the more to me, as we begin Lent in the waning winter, in which it is still snowing as I write this. But we end Lent well into spring.

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From Generation to Generation

What do you want to pass on to your grandchildren? What will you give to future generations?

There’s a special spot on my shelf for books my grandparents handed down to me over the years. I cherish the collection of love poetry my grandfather gave my grandmother for a wedding anniversary decades ago. I treasure my grandfather’s old prayer book and hymnal. Depending on your family history, most of us will have at least a few old treasures from generations before.

Some things pass from one generation to another with special care—a family wedding ring, a chess set from the home country, old pictures. Other items, however, pass with less care and planning. My wife, for instance, has her grandmother’s old cookie jar. It’s made of cheap, simple glass and is completely unremarkable except for the memories of cookies eaten at grandma’s house it evokes.

Families aren’t the only ones thinking of passing things along. Politicians, skilled at tugging heartstrings, speak often of “future generations.” 

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4 Questions to Ask Before We Wish Death Upon ISIS

With the unimaginable evils being committed by ISIS and other terror groups around the world, many Christians are calling for their violent destruction — some even voluntarily taking up arms.

At first glance this may seem like a heroic, brave, and honorable act, but before we start killing our enemies, Christians must ask themselves four very important questions:

1. Did Jesus clearly tell you to kill these people?

In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly instructs his followers to avoid violence and promote peace.

Jesus states things like:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matt. 5:9 ESV)

And …

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matt. 5:38-39)

And …

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