Micah Bales is a writer, teacher, and grassroots Christian leader living in Washington, D.C. He is a founding member of Friends of Jesus, a new Quaker community, and has been an organizer with the Occupy movement. Micah lives together with his family in DC's Ward 7.
In his writing and public ministry, Micah seeks to encourage conversation and reflection about how the living presence of Jesus makes possible reconciliation and transformation around questions of economic inequality, racial justice, and care for the creation. You can read more of his work at www.micahbales.com, or follow him on Twitter.
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3 Reasons Pope Francis' Visit Could Change America
Pope Francis will be arriving in Washington, D.C., tomorrow, and we locals are getting ready for a huge celebration. Public officials have warned us to avoid travel for the next few days. We’re expecting the roads and public transportation to be flooded with thousands of pilgrims making their way to see the head of the world’s largest Christian communion. It’s gonna be a beautiful mess!
The pontiff's visit to the United States will be an enormous spectacle. I have no doubt that many will find it inspiring and uplifting. But what’s the ultimate impact? Could his time in the U.S. make waves that go beyond traffic delays and photo ops?
Here are three reasons that the pope’s arrival could mark a tipping point for American culture.
Why Pope Francis' Encyclical Gives Me Hope
By choosing to focus on the plight of the poor and the groaning of the earth itself, Francis is tapping into something much deeper than denominational squabbles and political maneuvering. He is seeking to make an end-run around the tedious shouting matches of privileged contenders in pitched ideological battles. This is a pope, not of the pundits but of the people – and of the planet.
We’re all connected. Just as the body of Christ is one – despite all of our institutional and ideological boundaries – all of humanity, all life is one. We’re rooted together in the soil that feeds us, in the natural ecosystems that sustain our very existence.
Nonviolence in the Face of ISIS?
A couple of folks I really respect – Kate Gould of Friends Committee on National Legislation (aka, the Quaker Lobby), and Jim Wallis of Sojourners – were recently on the O’Reilly Factor. For those of you who don’t watch cable news, this is a television program where Bill O’Reilly basically screams at people and incites hatred of anything non-white, non-rich, and non-Republican. I normally don’t watch the show. But when I heard that Kate and Jim were going to be talking, I tuned in.
I knew almost immediately this wasn’t going to be good. It’s Bill’s program, so he gets to frame the question. Here’s what he asks: Do Christian pacifists have a solution for stopping ISIS?
It’s the wrong question.
Does Obama Owe Christians An Apology?
I’m very offended. Or so I’m told. As a believing Christian, I’m supposed to be deeply troubled by the remarks that President Barack Obama delivered at the recent National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington, DC. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore had this to say:
The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.
Strong words. But what were Obama’s terribly offensive remarks? Here’s what the president said:
And lest we get on our high horse and think [religious violence] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
Wait… what? Why should I be offended by that? That’s a fact. That’s our history. Every Christian should be aware of what we are capable of when we turn our eyes away from the self-sacrificing love of Jesus and instead turn Christianity into an ideology that justifies terror, brutality, oppression, and war.
It should be impossible to study Western history without getting some glimpse into the terrifying possibilities that any religious system — including Christian ones — hold out for those who seek to dominate others. We humans have a long track record of twisting our most precious faith into a weapon of violence and hatred. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement; it should be a matter of ongoing repentance and prayer for people of faith everywhere.
So I’m confused.
The Power of None
A couple years ago, a survey found that one in five Americans don’t identify with any religion. For Americans under 30, the number was far higher – more like one third. This report is being cited constantly throughout the religious-nonprofit world. In many quarters, there seems to be a deep sense of shock at the decline in religious membership.
Me? I’m not surprised at all. What does surprise me is our failure to see that affiliation with a traditional, God-centered religion is no longer the primary way that many Americans express their deeply rooted need for faith. We humans are relentlessly religious animals, and post-modern America is no exception. We’re just embracing a different kind of faith.
The State of the Communion
Tuesday was a big day here in Washington, D.C. The president of the United States addressed both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, laying out his State of the Union. In this annual speech, the President lays out his vision of where the country is at, and where we are headed. With great pomp and circumstance, the Commander-in-Chief delivers a message for the whole nation.
Tuesday night was a big moment for my community, too. The D.C. small group of Friends of Jesus gathered for our first small group meeting of 2014. We caught up with one another after many weeks apart. We experienced the story of Acts 2 in the form of a bibliodrama that we acted out together. We shared a time of deep worship and prayer.
Let's Go Beyond Consumerism, Citizenship, and Individualism
This morning at breakfast, I was reading an article in the newspaper about how the Affordable Care Act is negatively affecting some individuals — especially those who buy their own insurance, rather than receiving it through an employer. The article was interesting, but what struck me the most was the way the problem was framed. Rather than approaching the story from a public policy angle, the article mainly focused on the reaction of consumers of health-care goods and services. The crux of the article was whether some individuals should be required to buy a product they might not want or need so that other individuals could have affordable access to health-care products they need desperately but might not be able to afford under the old regime.
The dilemma was presented as a story of tension between healthier consumers and less healthy consumers fighting to get the best deal for their health-care dollars. But could there be another way of thinking about health care, and about our society as a whole? Is there a framework that would allow us to consider these questions in a way that assumed connection, caring, and community between individuals, rather than the zero-sum competition of the market?
The Gods of the Market
For most of human history, religious faith has been central to the life, economy, and government of virtually all societies. Babylon, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome: all of these empires explicitly traced their authority from heaven, the gods, or other transcendent concepts that can only be described as religious. Religious acts were political acts, and vice versa. To challenge the status quo of the ruling authorities was to call into question the religious authorities, as well. Expressions of faith were serious business.
For more than a thousand years, Western Christianity was the theological glue that held European society together. We can still observe remnants of these former times in the civil religion of the United States. Even today, presidents invoke the name of God during speeches. Prayers are spoken before sessions of legislative bodies. New citizens and government employees are required to swear oaths of loyalty to the state. Our civil structures still bear traces of a time when Christian religious concepts were deeply intertwined with government.
For the most part, however, theistic religion is being pushed steadily out of our civic life.
What comes into your mind when you hear the word apocalypse? Most of us think of us think of the total destruction of the world, or at least life as we know it. Think zombies roaming the streets, feasting on brains. On the other hand, my sarcastic generation is doing a pretty good job of using apocalypse as a silly word. I remember a few years ago when we had a large winter storm here in Washington, D.C.; it was instantly dubbed Snowpocalypse!
The English word apocalypse derives from the ancient Greek apocalupsis, which is the original title for the infamous Book of Revelation. Revelation involves a lot of fire, smoke, battles, and things generally blowing up, so it’s understandable that today we would associate apocalypse with end-times battles. However, the word apocalypse contains a much deeper meaning. Far more profound than the long-awaited zombie hordes – or even the end-times prophecies of some churchgoers – this ancient, misunderstood word is an essential tool for comprehending the world we live in.
Apocalupsis is a term that means unveiling – as in setting aside a covering to discover what lies underneath. At the most basic level, the Book of Revelation is about removing the blindfold that the Powers have pulled over our eyes, allowing us to see the world as it really is. Revelation is about unveiling Empire, exposing the ways in which powerful interests destroy the earth and enslave other human beings to promote their own luxury and power. Despite its reputation, Revelation is not about a future-oriented, earth-hating vision of universal destruction. On the contrary, it is a vision of a new creation and universal restoration – the world finally set right and edenic harmony restored in the midst of the city.
OK – great, you may be saying. Nice to know, but how is this relevant to me?
Fair question. It’s true that the Book of Revelation was written almost 2,000 years ago. Those were the days of the Roman Empire – think Ben Hur and Spartacus. For sure, things have changed a lot since then.
Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.