The Common Good

Putting Down the Mighty From Their Thrones

Sojomail - December 18, 2003

Quote of the Week Aragorn for president
Hearts & Minds Jim Wallis: Putting down the mighty from their thrones | A man of care and compassion
Religion and Politics Season's greetings from the American empire
Palestine Journal Emmanuel in occupied Bethlehem
By the Numbers Weeping in the holy land
Warning: Satire We got 'im
Values for Life Play money, real lessons
Soul Works Advent: The necessity of waiting
Culture Watch Bill Moyers on NY's Riverside Church
Boomerang Readers write
Web Scene A voice from Bethlehem | The truth uncovered | Reader to reader

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"Everyone thinks [Aragorn] is the man for the job, because he has humility, a concern with the consequences of his actions and words on others, and an interest in finding common ground with other people. All are qualities which I wish there were more of in real life in our modern-day leaders. There's an unfortunate lack of humility and overabundance of arrogance."

- Viggo Mortensen, frequent critic of the Bush administration and actor playing Aragorn in the film versions of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Source: Associated Press

Putting down the mighty from their thrones
by Jim Wallis

The news of Saddam Hussein's capture came as I was finishing preparations for a Christmas sermon. The text at the heart of my message was Mary's song of praise from the second chapter of Luke's gospel:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Mary's "Magnificat" proclaims a great reversal of the power relations of this world, brought about by the birth of Christ. That social revolution is absolutely central to the Christmas narratives, which include a murderous rampage by King Herod against innocent children in the vain search for the one child whom the Roman vassal rightly feared might spell the end of his rule. None of that, however, gets into the commercial and cultural narrative of Christmas in America 2003; no challenge to the political and economic powers will interrupt our mall shopping, and the only break in the constant advertising juggernaut are the holiday tributes to our military forces in Iraq, fighting "the war against terrorism."

My first thought on hearing the breaking news was that Mary had predicted the downfall of the brutal and tyrannical Saddam, just as the hearers of this gospel in her time would have understood it to mean the collapse of their oppressive Roman rulers. Rulers everywhere have reason to be concerned about the new kingdom brought about by the birth of Christ: The more unjust their rule, the more they ought to worry. This new king, says Mary, will turn the world upside down.

Mary's stunning announcement about the high and mighty being brought low and the lowly exalted is at the heart of the Christmas story - this is how the scriptures portray the social meaning of the Son of God born in an animal stall. Mary is herself a poor young woman, part of an oppressed race, and living in an occupied country. Her prayer is the hope of the downtrodden everywhere, a prophecy that those who rule by wealth and domination, rather than by serving the common good, will be overturned because of what has just happened in the little town of Bethlehem. Mary's proclamation can be appropriately applied to any rulers or regimes that prevail through sheer power, instead of by doing justice.

But the leaders of the world's last remaining superpower, who now claim credit for Saddam's downfall, will likely miss the point of Mary's song, and certainly show no understanding of how her words might also apply to them. It is theologically accurate to say (and was proven historically true) that Mary was prophesying the end of "Pax Romana" (the "peace" of Roman rule) in her great Magnificat - but not only of Rome. If those who would enforce a new "Pax Americana" (a term that they themselves now like to use) continue their vision of success through unilateral dominance, they too could suffer the same fate as Rome, or even Saddam. That is part of the meaning of Christmas that you won't be hearing this year in the media's messages of good cheer.

America has now found Saddam. But have we found safety or security? Some say things may become even less secure, both in Iraq and at home, so long as the American occupation continues.

Saddam should now be brought to justice in the kind of fair trial he never gave others. The Iraqis should be the primary ones to hold him accountable for his horrendous crimes, but the international community should have an important part to play as well. The Bush administration should now finally move to genuinely internationalize the peacemaking and decision-making strategy in Iraq and allow the United Nations to oversee the process of writing constitutions and having elections - they are simply better at that than we are.

The capture of Saddam could mark the end of the war and the beginning of genuine nation-building, but only if Americans give up their control and allow other nations to help shape and secure a new Iraq. All of that seems unlikely now, with the United States seeming to savor its more imperial style. But, if we take Mary seriously, Pax Americana not only won't work, it won't ultimately prevail. That's both a Christmas promise and a Christmas hope.

A man of care and compassion
by Jim Wallis

Former Illinois Senator Paul Simon unexpectedly passed away last week following heart surgery. Most media tributes praised his political honesty, integrity, ethics, and courage, and his commitment to the less fortunate, especially children living in poverty.

But few noted the reason for these qualities - his Christian faith. A local TV station reported that his pastor, Rev. Robert Gray, "describes Simon as a man filled with care and compassion for the underprivileged...." And he said Simon took that same kind of compassion into the political arena.

Read more at:

Do more than wish for peace - act for peace this Christmas. We'd like to extend a special offer to you to give a gift to Sojourners on behalf of your loved ones, and we will send the recipient of your choice an e-card as a special gift from you describing your alternative gift for peace given in their name. Please click here to give the gift of peace in action in the name of your loved ones this holiday season.

Season's greetings from the American empire

According to the Washington Post, the Cheney family holiday card this year features this quote from Benjamin Franklin: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" A quick look at the full context of the original quote shows that Franklin, who was poetically calling for daily prayer at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, was in no way claiming divine sanction for military imperialism (of the sort that the new country had just thrown off). In fact, one of Franklin's worst fears is that humanity might "despair of establishing Government by human Wisdom, and leave it to Chance, War, and Conquest."

George W. Bush's family Christmas card also carries an intriguingly out-of-context quote: "You have granted me life and loving kindness; and your care has preserved my spirit." This verse from Job (which the White House press release calls a "psalm") comes immediately before a 10-verse accusation that God is persecuting Job: "Yet...bold as a lion you hunt bring fresh troops against me" (Job 10:13-22).

Read more about the religion of the Bush administration in Sojourners:

Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush's theology of empire

The Project for a New American Empire: Who are these guys? And why do they think they can rule the world?


Emmanuel in occupied Bethlehem
text and photos by Ted Haddock

Most Christmas Eves I'm part of the traffic forging about the mall on a desperate mission to find some last-minute gift. But last Christmas Eve I walked alone through Bethlehem's streets watching Palestinian refugees scrambling to find enough food for their hungry families, making the most of the daylight hours as some managed without electricity or heat in their cinderblock homes. Others gathered to discuss whether there could be any celebration in Manger Square. Was it safe? Would the break in curfew last through the night? Could anyone get through the checkpoint into Bethlehem? Could one get out again? Surrounded by military installations, ditches, a horizon of razor coils, cement barricades, and demolished roadways, Bethlehem was reduced to a virtual prison camp with few allowed in or out even if they had the correct papers. Streets were scarred with marks of tank treads, homes pocked with bullet holes, and some buildings collapsed in piles of debris from Israeli bulldozers and rocket fire. I thought of the symbolism in this place - of Emmanuel and the struggle to preserve hope in the midst of suffering. And there, in Bethlehem under military curfew, I found myself in an unusual sort of reenactment of the Incarnation.

Read more, and view photos at:


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Visit Heifer International!

Weeping in the holy land

Number of Israeli and Palestinian children killed since September 2000: 605

Today, as after Jesus' birth, there is weeping in the holy land - parents "refusing to be consoled" because their children are no more (Matthew 2:18). "Who will wipe away their tears?" is a new report released by World Vision, in partnership with The Parents' Circle-Families Forum that was established by bereaved Palestinian and Israeli parents, highlighting the tragic vulnerability of children to the ongoing political conflict. The report includes the stories of Tha'er Al Howt, Smadar Elhanan, and Christine Sa'adeh. As Muslim, Jewish, and Christian children, respectively, they represent the children who are the innocent victims of this conflict - and the three communities struggling to find a way out of it.

Read more at:


Hearts and Minds BookstoreLooking for books noted in Sojourners? Frustrated that many bookstores don't understand the kind of titles you want? Want to support a small independent business trying to offer a radical Christian witness in the marketplace? Order through Hearts & Minds, . We do new book reviews each month---see our rave of Lauren Winner or our passionate critique of the sexist Wild at Heart. From Henri Nouwen to Wendell Berry or Walt Brueggemann; Ron Sider to Marva Dawn; John Perkins, Joan Chittister or Dan Berrigan, we stock books to inspire the mind and enlarge the heart.

We got 'im
by Ed Spivey Jr.

Best to You
After nine months in hiding, Iraq's former dictator-in-chief finally suffered the full fury of the American military, which, according to the video of his capture, includes a complete dental exam and a light scalp massage. But the important thing is, Saddam Hussein has been arrested and is no longer a threat to Republican hopes for a second presidential term. As a side benefit, he's also not a threat to the Iraqi people, many of who celebrated in the age-old tradition of firing rifles into the air. (Fortunately, nearby American soldiers resisted their own tradition of returning fire.)

Read more at:


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Play money, real lessons

Overwhelmed by the flood of end-of-year charity appeals in your mailbox? Making decisions about giving is hard enough, but how do you pass values of cheerful but discerning generosity on to your kids? Stuart Stotts writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "I got about $300 worth of Monopoly money and laid it on the floor. 'Pretend this is real money,' I said. 'Your job is to figure out who to give it to.' I put out a small stack of fundraising letters and brochures. 'What should we do? We can give it all to one group, or spread it around. You decide.'"

Read more at:


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Advent: The necessity of waiting
by Scott Garber

Waiting is not some kind of purgatory on the way to glory. It is not the dead space between God's will and my lack of faith. It is not a teaser designed to enhance the ultimate victory. It is not a satanic obstacle or a tumor that you pray for God to remove. Waiting is grace and is, therefore, the permanent dynamic of the Christian life, a key to the most abiding virtues.

Without waiting there can be no hope, for you cannot hope for that which you already possess. If we are seeking God we are always waiting on multiple fronts. And when God resolves one of them, there will soon be something else to take its place. Without waiting there can be no true love for God. We all experience warm, fuzzy feelings when we get what we want right away. But when we have to wait, when we have to question our own desires, when God seems distant - then love must mature.

- Excerpted from "At the Intersection of Maryland and Godot," in the monthly e-newsletter Unconventional Wisdom. Scott Garber is senior pastor at Washington Community Fellowship in Washington, D.C.


Life & Peace Institute
An International Ecumenical Centre for Peace Research and Action based in Uppsala, Sweden, seeks an Executive Director.
For more information visit our homepage:, or contact Ulla Vinterhav at Application deadline: January 16, 2004.

Bill Moyers on NY's Riverside Church

In a climate where much of the world perceives American Christians as fundamentalist conservatives, Manhattan's Riverside Church stands out as a remarkable exception. In a December PBS special, "Speaking to Power," NOW with Bill Moyers tells the story of this extraordinary place of worship and profiles its spiritual leader, Rev. James Forbes, whose candid observations of contemporary public policy and religious doctrine stand in marked contrast to fundamentalist Christianity.

Check local listings at:


Visit the newly updated to explore and grow stronger in a way of life shaped by Christian practices. Now featuring an online library of free downloadable resources - study guides, essays, sermons, and more. Apply for a grant of up to $10,000 to strengthen Christian practices in your local community. Sponsored by the Valparaiso Project and funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc.

Readers write

Todd Steele writes from Fort Wayne, Indiana:

Thanks to David Batstone for his column regarding the apalling state of unethically bad customer service. I too have suffered astonishingly similar experiences with my cell phone provider (Verizon), my cable company (Comcast), and my computer vendor (Dell). I find myself wondering why Mr. Batstone chose not to name the firms he describes in his article. Wouldn't it be useful to your readers and effective in changing the bad practices of consumer businesses if we all called them to account publicly and directly? For some of us, the bad service and unwarranted fees may be primarily an irritation. For those less fortunate, they may be a real hardship.

The challenge of public disclosure, of course, is that consumers must be ethically honest and accurate in describing their bad experience, and in giving the company a reasonable opportunity to resolve it. I, for one, trust the editors, writers, and readers of Sojourners and SojoMail to rise to that challenge. Jesus instructed us to turn the other cheek and to forgive those who persecute us, but he didn't hesitate to publicly call the Pharisees and other leaders of his time to account for their misdeeds.


Lynn Jaeger writes from Roslyn, Pennsylvania:

It is a good thing to go over one's bills with a fine-toothed comb. Not only do you find hidden fees and overcharges, but it is a potential opening for a real questioning of one's spending priorities. I have found many overcharges on my bills, but lately it seems I am finding more "legitimate" charges that give me pause as to why I was spending my (God's!) money the way I have.


Justin Alexander, U.K. coordinator for Jubilee Iraq, writes:

Thanks for plugging Jubilee Iraq in the last SojoMail. There's a real danger that people see Bush and James Baker III talking about this issue and assume either (a) it's unnecessary to campaign because the politicians have got it all wrapped up, or (b) it's wrong to campaign on an issue that the administration seems concerned about. The truth is that what the U.S. and U.K. governments are pushing for is not what the Iraqi people want or need. The U.S. aim is a restructuring of debt through the Paris Club, which will result in Iraq making significant service payments on Saddam's debts for decades.

What Iraqis are calling for, however - as revealed in our interviews with 30 prominent Iraqi politicians, clerics, and civil society leaders - is a fair process of arbitration to demonstrate that most of the debt is illegitimate and the Iraqi people have no obligation to repay it. This will result in the cancellation of most of the debt without the imposition of any economic conditions. Also, it will reveal the truth about the financial support given to Saddam by many countries, to the detriment of the Iraqi people. We cherish your prayers and support.


Jackie Wyse writes from Almere, The Netherlands:

First, thanks to Sojomail for the weekly dose of thought-jolting and soul-stretching. I am glad for it. Second, in the December 10 edition of SojoMail, I was interested in "By The Numbers," which offered a number of "top 5 lists" regarding the reading habits of ministers across the theological spectrum. Interesting and worthy choices, all... however, I couldn't help but notice that all of the selected authors are male, and most (if not all) are white. Thus I send this e-mail not to indict Sojourners (you were just reporting the facts), but rather to mourn the infamous glass ceiling that still limits the influence of the words and ideas of women and people of color - even (especially?) in our churches.


Jeremy L. Jones writes from Chicago, Illinois:

I have been following the debate on homosexual marriage over the past few weeks with some interest, and I would like to agree with Nev Pierce: Some of the justifications for such unions are flawed, even if heartfelt. Unlike Pierce, I am not at all bothered by homosexual marriage - no more, indeed, than I am bothered by accompanying my hatless girlfriend to church - but it strikes me that our arguments are a bit weak. If the idea of "consenting adults" has now become the litmus test for a "moral union," why not legalize polygamy and polyandry too? Indeed, if we look at the arguments made in the Massachusetts case, we might be startled to find that the ban on such marriages is equally discriminatory. Many migrants would certainly say so. To counter that multiple partner unions are unequal is a non-starter - many if not most standard marriages in the U.S. are founded on inequality.

Ultimately, "civil" morality is still morality, and still comes from somewhere (often religion). As much as we might like it to just emerge from nature, without human interference, it does not. Decisions must be made. If we are reinventing morality and law, then we should be bold enough to say so. The logical vacuousness of much progressive argumentation just leaves us open to the (deserved) scorn of those fighting against change.


Boomerang is an open forum for all kinds of views that do not necessarily represent those of Sojourners. Want to make your voice heard? Include your name, hometown, and state/province/country in a brief e-mail to: . We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

A voice from Bethlehem

Sponsored by the the Lutheran-affiliated International Center of Bethlehem, a new Web site aims to promote the human face of the Palestinian people and their religious communities. By empowering the Palestinians to tell their stories, this new media ministry strives to be the voice of the voiceless:

The truth uncovered

See a preview for the new documentary film "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," plus interviews from among the film's more than 20 experts - including employees of the CIA, Pentagon, and foreign service - testifying about the truth behind the reasons given for the invasion of Iraq.

Reader to reader

In response to last week's Boomerang letter suggesting donations to libraries, one reader recommends this site, which facilitates the collection of donated books for redistribution to needy libraries across the U.S.

Donate now to support our work.

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