The Common Good

Don't Put a Restraining Order on God

Sojomail - December 8, 2004

Quote of the Week Solzhenitsyn on comfortable danger
Batteries Not Included David Batstone: Don't put a restraining order on God
Piece of Mind SojoPoll: Should CBS and NBC air the UCC advertisement?
Media Watch Sojourners in the News
Spiritual Practices Advent reflection: 'God amidst the idols'
P.O.V. Democratic values
Under the Wire The slippery slope toward torture
Global Vision Resistance to 'Washington Consensus' grows in Latin America
Signs of the Times Custom-printed Bibles for U.S. Special Ops on the way
Boomerang Readers write
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Long periods of well-being and comfort are in general dangerous to all. After such prolonged periods, weak souls become incapable of weathering any kind of trial. They are afraid of it. Yet it is a fact that difficult trials and sufferings can facilitate the growth of the soul. I know there is a widespread feeling that if we highly value suffering this is masochism. On the contrary, it is a significant bravery when we respect suffering and understand what burdens it places on our soul.

- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Source: Daily Dig


Don't put a restraining order on God
by David Batstone

In Cupertino, California, a public school teacher ignited a cultural powder keg this semester when he supplemented the standard-issue history book with materials backing up his contention that religion was central to the founding fathers.

In New York City last week, several major television networks banned a paid advertisement produced by the United Churches of Christ. The commercial features a core value of the UCC church - that it welcomes with grace all people into its community regardless of an individual's background.

These recent, high-profile events give us a clear view into the often muddled moral values debate that rages from shore to shore in America today. They show both cultural conservatives and cultural liberals using the same arguments to restrict public conversation. More pointedly, each side of the polar (as in cold...war) divide is happy to ban a message from the public square if that message does not align with its own cherished beliefs.

I expect a spirited debate from both ends of the spectrum, so better to address the assumed frontline counterattacks. Liberals claim they are upholding the cherished separation of "church and state" when they put a restraining order on God from entering public schools. The Constitution, however, nowhere stipulates that religion should be deemed a taboo subject in public life. The state (and by extension public schools) is prohibited from the establishment of religion, indeed. But that's a far cry from outright exclusion.

Steven Williams wants to teach his fifth-graders how deeply Christian values shaped early America. So he passed out to his class William Penn's "Frame of Government of Pennsylvania" in which Penn wrote, "Government seems to me a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end."

Talk about crossing the church-state wall! With that kind of pedigree, we should kick Pennsylvania out of the Union posthaste. Wait a minute, put Delaware on that list as well. A list of religious clauses in the 1776 Delaware state constitution requires officeholders to "profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son."

To ban any reference to religious conviction in the early history of America would be rewriting history. So that's ridiculous. But the complaint goes deeper in the Cupertino case, because Williams is a practicing Christian who wants his students to realize that faith in God continues to be an important element in government. A parent of a student at the Cupertino school complains, "This is not about teaching history, this is about indoctrination."

I honestly do not know if Williams is directly proselytizing in the classroom. I bet not, though I would not be surprised if he hopes that a seed of faith might be planted in his students' lives. For most secularists, it does not matter. Any teaching about religion in history or contemporary life is akin to "indoctrination."

Cultural conservatives likely are standing atop their chairs cheering at this point. But why don't they apply that same enthusiasm to defend the right of the United Church of Christ to proclaim its message on national television? It's because they are no less interested in legislating their own narrow stream of moral values. They, too, want all Americans to be converted into their own image.

After reading all of the hype about the "controversial" commercial, I went to view it on an Internet site. I was totally shocked at how innocuous it was. In my opinion, it also captured the gospel stories of Jesus accepting into table fellowship those very people that his society deemed as "unclean." Like it or not, UCC theology and ethics has a firm grounding in the biblical tradition of grace and freedom.

The commercial does not address gay marriage as much of the conservative media would lead you to believe. It does not even address the gay lifestyle, beyond showing two men who fit the stereotype approaching the church steps and being turned away by a bouncer. At another point, two women standing together smile broadly at the camera. I suppose that's the offensive "lesbian" moment.

But even if the United Church of Christ did promote more directly its theological position that God blesses gay people, even to marriage together, is that sufficient reason for censoring its message? I hope you agree with me that it is not, for I would like to reserve that same open platform for other faiths and other values. Surely, we could all come up with extreme, destructive viewpoints that do not merit public access, whether they offer divine justification for their values or not (the KKK comes to mind). But that's not the case here.

Maybe the toughest challenge of living in a democracy is to respect the freedom of other people to live according to values that are not your own. Real freedom, however, does not thrive in a moral vacuum (the ardent secularist) or a moral straightjacket (the ardent theocratic). What does my ideal of democracy look like? I can sum it up in a single sentence: A person arrives at faith freely, practices it openly, and uses dialogue with others about their own life path to deepen their understanding.

+ Read more commentary by David Batstone

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SojoPoll: Should CBS and NBC air the UCC advertisement?

The ad in question has already been approved for airing on the ABC Family, AMC, BET, Discovery, Fox, Hallmark, History, Nick at Nite, TBS, TNT, Travel, and TV Land channels. The UCC and other activist groups, such as ActForChange, have circulated online petitions asking NBC and CBS to air the ads.

+ See the ad and decide for yourself

Which statement below most closely approximates your opinion?
(We acknowledge that complex issues cannot be boiled down to so few options, but please choose the phrase closest to your place on the available spectrum.)

[] Yes. I affirm the ad's important message.
[] Yes. I may disagree with particular UCC positions, but controversy is no reason to exclude the ad.
[] No. Networks have the right to set their own policies on controversial issues.
[] No. I don't like the ad, and don't want it to be shown.

+ Click here to vote in the poll

+ View the poll results


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Sojourners in the News

Democrats, at last, trying to get religion
+ International Herald Tribune

Religious Leaders Clash on 'Meet the Press'
+ The New York Times

Jim Wallis on 'Meet the Press'

Moral values has wider implications
+ The Plainview Daily Herald (Texas)


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Advent reflection: 'God amidst the idols'
by Walter Brueggemann

Advent is not just about the birth of a baby, even this special baby. It is about the coming of God, the "good news" of God's incursion into a world that seems closed and well-defined against any such incursion.

The modern American church, an enmeshed church, is infested with idols, that is, false articulations of God. Conservatives tend to think the God question is settled in some sure formula; liberals tend to think it is not terribly important, and so it may be safely entrusted to conservatives.

But our texts insist that faithful people must continually consider who God is. This lively discussion is necessary because our dim discernment of God is mixed with trappings, conventions, vested interests, lesser loyalties. Can we spot the real God amidst the idols at the time of the coming?

This commentary is excerpted from "The Help of the Helpless," which appears in Sojourners' sermon preparation resource, Preaching the Word.

+ Read the full commentary

+ See a sample of Preaching the Word for the third week of Advent

+ Learn more about the Preaching the Word sermon preparation resource


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P.O.V. ^top

Democratic values
by Bob Burnett

In the aftermath of the Republican victory on November 2, Democrats are debating how the party should respond to the increasing political power of conservative Christians. Two alternative strategies have emerged: One is the "if you can't beat them, join them" position, which contends that Democrats should assert their own religiosity. The other is "retool the message," which argues that Democrats lost because they weren't clear, in general, on what they stand for - other than not wanting Bush to be president - and that, specifically, they did not offer a clear alternative to the Republican rant on "family values."

As a left-wing Christian, a Quaker, I do appreciate the sincerity of many Christians who publicly proclaim that they have taken Jesus into their hearts. My concern is not with the truly faithful, however much I may disagree with their theology, but with politicians who assume the mantle of piety to further their careers. I believe that many Republican officeholders are hypocrites who pose as devout Christians while they are actually dedicated to serving their own ambitions. I don't want to see Democrats lose what little integrity they retain by pursuing the same self-serving tactic.

+ Read the full article

P.O.V. articles offer a range of views that do not necessarily represent those of Sojourners. We welcome your responses at


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The slippery slope toward torture

Greg Miller, writing in Stanford Magazine, summarizes the U.S. military's official standards of detainee treatment: "The rules surrounding interrogation are strict but ambiguous. The guiding principles are the Geneva Conventions, which ban 'physical or mental torture,' and outlaw 'outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.' The Army's interrogation field manual is more explicit. It bans 'the use of force, mental torture, threats, insults or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind.' But in the same breath, it notes that the ban on the use of force 'is not to be confused with psychological ploys, verbal trickery or other nonviolent and non-coercive ruses.'"

Miller goes on to describe how thoughtful liberal arts-educated military interrogators found themselves searching for loopholes in these regulations on a slippery slope toward torture when confronted with hard-to-break prisoners suspected of terrorist ties.

+ Read the full article

More recent headlines on allegations of torture by the U.S. military:

Report to Defense alleged abuse by prison interrogation teams
+ The Washington Post

Red Cross: Guantanamo tactics 'tantamount to torture'
+ Reuters

U.S. generals in Iraq were told of abuse early, inquiry finds
+ The Washington Post

Rumsfeld in Iraq abuse complaint

Ethics and the shadow of torture
+ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly

Roots of Abu Ghraib in CIA techniques
+ National Catholic Reporter


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Resistance to 'Washington Consensus' grows in Latin America

Traci Hukill writes on AlterNet that although far from perfect, left-leaning regimes in Latin America are providing needed resistance to the so-called "Washington Consensus" and its mandated neo-liberal policies - such as unfettered free trade, limited government spending, and the privatization of state-held utilities. "Citizens throughout Latin America have been steadily turning leftward since the late 1990s, electing leaders in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela with strong social agendas and demonstrated independence from the U.S." But the outlook is far from rosy. As Hukill writes, "The leftist presidents may have sailed to victory on populist agendas, but the realities of their agreements with the IMF, and of their economies' dependence on foreign investment, limits what they can do."

+ Read more


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Custom-printed Bibles for U.S. Special Ops on the way
by Steve Peacock

Although the International Bible Society (IBS) indeed will crank out a limited-run, special edition of the New International Version Bible in the near future, it's unlikely that readers will discover, for example, a previously unreleased surprise ending to the Good Book. Rather, according to, a site for federal government procurement opportunities, the Department of Defense intends to award the IBS a sole-source contract for the production of 10,000 Bibles containing military-specific messages and imagery. The Bibles - which will be distributed to soldiers of the elite U.S. Special Operations Command - will feature a "custom-designed cover" and "Army designed color photographs and text inserts."

It appears that IBS's crafting of the Special Ops Bible will rely on the "new package, same great taste" approach that the commercial sector often takes when introducing a new logo or easy-grip handle for an existing product. It's hopefully safe to assume that though the Bibles are new, they will not be "improved." IBS has an extraordinary task ahead of it, as they must juxtapose, hypothetically, Christ's "Blessed are the peacemakers" pronouncement with army-centric motivational messages and images. A tough job indeed, given the context of 100,000 "excess casualties" - consisting mainly of women and children - that U.S. and British military forces may have caused since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as indicated in the Oct. 29, 2004, edition of The Lancet, a British medical journal.

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Readers write

Laura Rose writes:

I wanted to write and thank you for the publication of Jim Wallis' letter on reconciliation ["The power of reconciliation," SojoMail 12/1/2004]. Honestly, I am probably one of the more conservative of your subscribers, especially on certain issues. My political views would very much represent a checkerboard of blue and red! Above all, in this recent election, I have felt a sense of bewilderment. I felt as if I were in a foreign land. The personal letter of Jim Wallis concerning his reconciliation with Bill Bright was such a breath of fresh air to me. This is the gospel that I recognize: one that can bring together disciples laboring in different vineyards through the redeeming love of Jesus Christ.


Anne Bessac writes:

Yes, as an individual I seek to act in love to my enemy and neighbor. I am concerned that "let's work together" and "reconciliation" will really be tools for silencing folks who want to work for different solutions to problems than Bush's. I am most concerned that as a Democrat I will have no voice versus having the minority voice. So I look to the Democratic leadership to effectively support and work for the issues that won my vote of support - and not for Bush, not to be reconciled to them. So I do not want to be reconciled with the agenda of the Republicans or the Moral Majority. The policies and agendas are politically offensive to me.


Michael Rothbaum writes from Harlem, New York:

I am a rabbinical student, a progressive, a supporter of a Palestinian state. I look to Sojourners as a fellow voice for justice in the religious world. Though I agree completely with the words of Sgt. Aman [Quote of the Week, SojoMail 12/1/2004], I can't help but be troubled by their prominent inclusion in your e-mail. This seems to be representative of the Left's apparent unwillingness to extend to Israel an appreciation for the burden it carries. I am completely against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I look forward to a Palestinian state soon, in our days. Yet I resent that many progressives take little or no time to understand the larger context of Israeli policy.

What is that context? Simply put, it is the fear and insecurity that so many Jews carry with them, every day, all over the world. I refer not only to Nazism, though the Holocaust was catastrophe enough. I refer as well to pogroms in Russia, expulsions all over Europe, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, vicious and slanderous charges of secrecy, greed, murder. Too many of these charges orginated in church teachings. The Christian Left fails in its mission when it ignores the psychic scars left on Jews from two millenia of oppression, rape, and murder, and chooses instead to smugly "tut-tut" abuses in the one place millions of Jews consider - finally - a safe haven. It is only when progressives and moralists begin to acknowledge their own responsibility in creating the desperate need for a Jewish homeland that an honest discussion about ethics can begin.


Leighann Prothro writes from Washington, D.C.:

I always appreciate your articles. They strengthen my resolve to be faithful to what and where the gospel is calling me. I was pleasantly suprised to find an article in this week's SojoMail about my favorite band, Wilco ["'Tis better to give than receive," SojoMail 12/1/2004]. Thanks for covering the band that not only makes the best music on earth, but takes a "gospel" approach to the record industry.


Katie Farrar writes from Helen, Georgia:

I am not a Christian, but I love your newsletter and am always inspired by it. I live in the heart of fundamentalist Christian country, so I am always heartened to see that not all Christians preach intolerance and revenge. I know this is a silly thing to write my first letter to you about, but as my family and I have been observing "Buy Nothing Day" for many years, I was so glad to find the link to "Buy Nothing Christmas" ["Give me justice or give me nothing," SojoMail 12/1/2004]. The catalog is great, and I shared some of the songs with everyone on my e-mail list. Thank you for the work you are doing - Sojourners gives me hope for Christianity.


Rt. Rev. Leland R. Somers, of Independent Catholic Churches International, writes from Clearwater, Florida:

When Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world," he did not mean that he had no interest in this world's politics of power, oppression, and economic exploitation ["Politics and Christ," SojoMail 12/1/2004]. What Jesus meant was that his kingdom is not one of power, domination, and control enforced by violence and death with the complicity of the religious elite of his world. In the kingdom of God (heaven) that Jesus proclaimed, the reality of life is turned upside down. The exploiters stop their exploitation; the religious leaders stop their games of rule-making and money-taking from the already exploited to maintain their positions of power and privilege and their complicity with the very powers of exploitation that they should be standing against.

The reign (kingdom) of God is of this world; not this world of exploitation, oppression, and death but this world of healing, compassion, and justice, right here and right now. Religious and political leaders don't like the good news of the kingdom of God today any more than they did in Jesus' day. They still like to be greeted on the street corners and get the first places at the table.


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