A Transformational Moment
Sojomail - June 5, 2008
Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.
- Robert F. Kennedy, in a speech in Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966. Today is the 40th anniversary of his assassination. (Source: Wikiquote )
A Transformational Moment
I was still in the U.K. on a book tour Tuesday night, just having finished speaking to a forum at the British Parliament with ministers from all three parties about the relationship between faith and politics. Then I stayed up until 4 a.m. to watch Barack Obama claim the nomination of the Democratic Party for president of the United States. It was my birthday the next day, and I recalled those days when the relationship between faith and politics for many black and a few white Christians was that if you stood up for civil rights -- especially the right to vote for black Americans -- it could get you killed. So I was not only blurry-eyed but also more than a little teary-eyed as I watched a young black man announce that he was ready to run for president of the United States, and for most of America to assume that he had a chance to win.
Race was the issue that led to my own confrontation with the church that raised me. It was my “converting issue,” though the conversion led me out of the white church of my childhood, not into the church. A church elder bluntly told me one night that “Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That’s political and our faith is personal.” I was only about 15, but it was the night I think I left, in my head and my heart. And a couple years later, I was gone altogether.
The little evangelical church that my parents had started and that was my second home was simply wrong about race -- completely wrong. Race was the issue that fundamentally shaped my early social conscience. What I saw in Detroit and in the country I had grown up to love seemed fundamentally wrong. I learned there were two Detroits and two Americas, one white and one black. And it seemed contrary to the religion my family had taught me to treat people in a fundamentally different way because of the color of their skin. But the church didn’t agree and we parted company for most of my student years, with me only coming back to faith after a fresh encounter with the radical gospel of the New Testament. I came back with the realization that God is indeed personal, but never private, and exploring what that means has shaped the rest of my life.
So watching Obama, a black man, win the nomination of a major party for the presidency brought back a virtual flood of memories and feelings. That Barack is a friend of 10 years made it all the more personal. This morning I heard several interviews on NPR with black Americans about their response to Obama’s nomination. One older woman said, “A black man running for president, did you hear what just I said? A black man running for president of the United States ....” She just kept repeating the words, and succinctly captured my own personal feelings.
Yes, it is truly historic, and the U.K. newspaper headlines captured that sentiment, as did papers around the world. Nothing could change the image of America more than this. But it is more than historic; it is very personal for many of my generation. A new generation just sees this as natural -- he’s an inspirational leader who happens to be black, which matters little to them. But for my generation -- I’m dating myself now -- this is a transformational moment, one we didn't think would come in our lifetimes. Race was the issue that changed us, shaped us, determined our path, and even defined the meaning of our faith. Now a black man is running for president of the United States. Amazing grace.
It doesn’t take much for Red Letter Christians to recognize that the hostilities between Muslims and Christians have increased greatly as of late because of certain geopolitical events—particularly as we consider what has been happening in the Holy Land and the consequences of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It is not surprising that the Islamic world is growing more hostile toward the gospel than ever before. Around the world, Muslims are viewing the American army in Iraq as a Christian army reviving the likes of the medieval Crusades, which were marked by a massive slaughter of Muslims and the occupation of holy Islamic lands by so-called "Christian" conquerors.
There is a general feeling that a leadership vacuum has been exposed by the xenophobic violence. The events in Zimbabwe are a case in point. Yesterday, June 4, the leader of the opposition party was arrested, detained for eight hours, and was later released. This happened at a time when two of Africa’s most powerful leaders were meeting in South Africa -- the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa. It’s a historic moment and opportunity for these two leaders to use the crisis in Zimbabwe and the xenophobic violence to articulate a vision for Africa informed by human rights, justice, democracy, and nonviolence, and to make a commitment to stand up against any violation of these values in Africa. The situation in Zimbabwe affords them an opportunity to practice and promote this vision and values. It remains to be seen if this moment in history will be capitalized upon or allowed to slip.
The problem comes when "politics" comes to mean "dirty politics" or "partisan politics" or "narrow, wedge-issue, litmus-test, culture-wars politics." So when people suggest that caring for the environment is not a political issue, what they really mean (I think) is that it shouldn't be a partisan issue, a wedge issue, a left-right issue. Rather, they're saying that as followers of Christ, we shouldn't begin with the question, "What would Karl Rove (or James Carville) do?" We should ask the more obvious and Christian question. We should start with faith in our Creator and then move to politics in a spirit of justice, kindness, and humility -- not start with partisan politics and use faith to buttress it on the one hand, and not reduce faith to the private, personal realm so it has nothing to do with politics on the other.
A recent New York Times story, "Taking Their Faith, but Not Their Politics, to the People," highlights the challenge faced by followers of Christ who seek to integrate their faith with all aspects of life, including political life in a democracy. The article suggests to me a question that we should raise more frequently when people address "faith and politics," or "faith versus politics," namely: "What do you mean by politics?"
If close to 25,000 children a year are victims of child exploitation and prostitution in the Dominican Republic, the followers of Jesus must say, "Hands off!" We must speak and act. We who follow the one who said, "Let the children come unto me and forbid them not, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" cannot be silent. I, for one, am going to join hands with all those who say the children of the world are not for sale. What I learned from the Inocencia Project is that our solidarity calls us to be part of a message that provides justice and hope. If indeed "the world is our parish," there continues to be a call to move beyond our local congregations and start organizations or help existing organizations, whether they are faith-based or not, to be a part of God’s transformation and message of hope in the world.
Some days the material writes itself. As reported by The Washington Post , Mary Stevenson’s son claims that as his mother penned the infamous poem, "Footprints in the Sand," he seeks any royalties earned from said literary work. For those of you who tend to walk away from Christian kitsch, "Footprints in the Sand" describes that moment when two sets of footprints morph into one as Jesus goes from walking beside you to carrying you when you are too weak to carry yourself. Inspirational to many, insipid to others, the poem has been plastered on plaques, postcards, posters, prayer cards, and pretty much anything else that can produce a biblical buck.
I have the pleasure of starting us off. Allow me to jump into the future about 24 years. A freelance language artist, Langstyn Huse (one of several figments of my imagination), has a recently syndicated column, the Absurdity of Modernity. In brief, it's political satire related to the issues of the 2032 election. Enjoy...
I believe that most of our faith metaphors have either been domesticated, adulterated, appropriated, become insular, or are utterly sedate. They either serve little, serve the wrong, serve ourselves, or serve nothing. All of which is a serious problem, for images move the hearts of humanity. They motivate and inspire. If images of a creation saved from a flood of its own contempt, or of a small and wayfaring, yet covenant people given a gift for the whole world, or of an exiled and seemingly forgotten people desperately trying to hold onto a promise of restoration, or the tragicomedy of the violent genocide of all that is good, beautiful, just, and true that gave way to a resurrection no one saw coming that unleashed grace upon the world, sent forgiveness viral and invited all to join in recreation -- if such images do no more than simply make us excited (a feeling of diminishing return, to be sure) or uncomfortable (a feeling we undoubtedly don't like but to which we are easily inured), we're -- or better yet, the world is -- in trouble.
I am honored to have carried the Olympic Torch and found it a true gift as a Franciscan Sister to represent those who follow St. Francis - the one for whom the city of San Francisco was named. St. Francis was a man of peace, a person who respected all people, and who honored all creation. As a Franciscan Sister, I also strive to be a woman of peace, a person who respects others, and who honors all creation. This is what the Olympic Spirit is about: peace, respect, and honor.
I did not mean to say, "No, I think we’ll stay local now" when I wrote that the authenticity of our public witness, which must be transnational, depends on our faith that God has already given us a new way of life in local, everyday practices. I only wanted to say that I’ve learned we can’t really say much to the state house or the White House if we’re not repenting of the evil in our own house. Jesus said it like this: Before you try to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own.
I think we basically always face the same problems: 1. Can we shut up long enough to hear God? 2. When God speaks, can we be obedient? 3. Can we be loving enough to non-believers that they will ever believe that our God is love? I believe that the world knows that things are bad and they are searching for a prophetic voice, but even more they are searching for people who believe so much that they are willing to put their own comfort on the line. If we could do that, we could take the world by storm.
Faith in Brief: Cynicism is spiritual poverty
The Times (UK)
Jim Wallis, the author of God’s Politics, said: "The physical poverty of the South is mirrored by the spiritual poverty of the North. The primary manifestation of that is cynicism. It is the deadliest combination in the world. If you are cynical, you can't change anything." +read more
(a culture of) Life after the Religious Right: An Interview with Jim Wallis
The Other Journal
Jim Wallis: I can say that we work hard at that, but you make tough choices. I’m on no democratic advisory groups or committees or candidates’ advisory teams. I talk to them all. Anyone who wants to talk with us can talk with us, but I go out of my way not be identified especially with either party. +read more
Hazards for both sides when politicians court pastors
Religion News Service
Churches finding path to the future
The Times Union (NY)
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