Hearts & Minds

Nuclear Summer

AS YOU READ this column, diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union are working with their Iranian counterparts to finalize a deal concerning Iran’s nuclear program. I strongly believe that Christians should support the framework for this deal, announced in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 2, as the best chance to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state and—equally important—the best chance for the United States to avoid armed conflict with Iran.

In the days following the announcement of this framework, Sojourners authored and published a statement of support, which was signed by more than 50 Christian leaders (see statement here). Part of that statement reads as follows: “It is the sacred responsibility of all those entrusted with political power to pursue, with patient perseverance, every option that makes the destruction of war less possible, in order to protect human life and dignity. This becomes an even more urgent moral and spiritual imperative when we have the chance to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, with their terrifying potential of mass destruction ... a goal that reflects the binding commitments made by 191 U.N. member states, including the United States, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

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July 2015
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Finding the Way of Hope

ONLY SOCIAL MOVEMENTS really change history. Developing, nurturing, and supporting a new generation of leaders is central to the long-term success of these movements. As leaders like me get older and look to the future, mentoring young leaders is particularly important. More and more of my time is spent doing that mentoring, not only broadly but in relationship to particularly promising young leaders whom I have met. It is some of the most important and enjoyable work that I do.

For many years, Sojourners called together large conferences on biblical justice and peace. Thousands of people came year after year, and many positive things happened—new relationships, connections, projects, and organizations—even marriages and families! Now, several other groups are having justice and peace conferences, which is exactly the kind of “competition” Sojourners has always hoped for.

Last year, some of our younger staff came up with a great idea—to have a leadership “Summit” for people already providing leadership for the biblical vision of justice and peace. All the participants would have to be nominated by credible leaders doing this work, and instead of Justice 101 with big speakers and standing ovations, this would become a new, creative environment for moving justice agendas forward—Justice 202. We didn’t publicly advertise these gatherings—instead, the invitation spread by word of mouth as leaders, especially younger ones, were drawn together by experienced justice leaders who nominated them.

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Hate Breeds Hate

Islamaphobia

Yorda / Shutterstock

IT'S BEEN A difficult few months to be a Muslim living in the United States. Amid the continuing violence in the Middle East and the polarized debate over the Iran nuclear negotiations, Islamophobia in the U.S. is just about as bad as it’s ever been.

While this fear, distrust, and even hatred of Islam and/or Muslims takes many forms and gains traction in a number of ways (as Ken Chitwood explains in his article on page 22), it’s important to understand that Islamophobia gains much of its power and attention from a relatively small number of people who have dedicated their lives and careers to perpetuating a distorted, extreme view of what Islam teaches and what most Muslims believe. It is in fact a tragic irony that professional Islamophobes and Islamic extremists such as the so-called “Islamic State” perpetuate and benefit from a very similar and very warped interpretation of Islam. Both seek to convince the world that many Muslims in the U.S. and around the world either share or should share this radical fundamentalist perspective.

Purveyors of strident hate speech against Muslims and those that embrace violent extremism in the name of Islam actually benefit from each other’s existence and actions. The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) is the group behind the anti-Muslim ads on public transportation in several major cities. This spring, AFDI sponsored a contest in Garland, Texas, where participants were invited to “draw the prophet” Muhammad. The contest was attacked by two radicalized ISIS sympathizers, who were shot dead by police.

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Building Beloved Communities

ONE OF MY favorite descriptions for the people of God, what the New Testament calls the “body of Christ,” is the evocative language of “the beloved community” used by Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.

beloved community is a powerful vision of a new coming together, a new community that welcomes all peoples in their diverse ethnicities and nationalities. Everygroup, clan, and tribe is included and invited in. That dream and vision undergirded King’s movement for civil and voting rights, both spiritually and philosophically, and deeply reflected his own underlying moral belief and hope as a Christian minister.

Yet in one of his most famous quotations, King also said this: “I am ashamed and appalled at the fact that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.” He said this in 1953, while he was still associate pastor at his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. But obviously, and most painfully, that quote is still true today.

Incredibly, prior to 1998 there was no good national data on how many U.S. churches were “multiracial.” In this context, a multiracial congregation is one in which less than 80 percent of members belong to any single race. This definition is now widely used by scholars of modern religion, including Michael O. Emerson, the definitive scholar on multiracial congregations. According to scientific surveys of U.S. congregations of all faiths, Emerson has observed that “7.4 percent of U.S. congregations were multiracial in 1998, [and] in 2010 that figure had grown to 13.7 percent.” In other words, truly multiracial congregations in the United States are still very much the exception to the rule. At the same time, it is highly encouraging that their number nearly doubled in just over a decade.

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A Turning Point on Poverty?

IT’S BEEN HALF a century since Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, and obviously this is a war that we still haven’t won. According to the Census Bureau, in 2013 there were still 45.3 million Americans living in poverty. That’s nearly 15 percent of the American people, including one in five children and one in three children of color.

Progress has been made on global poverty, with the proportion of people living in extreme poverty worldwide cut in half between 1990 and 2010, but the World Bank estimates that 1 billion people worldwide still live on less than $1.25 per day. Push that up to a mere $2 per day and the number is 2.2 billion people—almost a third of all the people on Earth.

I’ve always described the central fact of God’s economy as this: There is enough, if we share it. There’s no question that we have the resources to end poverty globally and domestically. What we lack are the moral resolve, the political will, and better strategies to make it happen. Yet those three may finally be coming together. I believe there are new confluences occurring that could be both helpful and hopeful.

At a meeting at the World Bank in February, a new alliance with the faith community was envisioned that combines proven strategies for overcoming poverty with a prophetic call to people of faith and moral conscience to end extreme poverty by 2030. In the faith community, I see a new generation of Christians rediscovering those Jesus calls the “least of these” in Matthew 25. Even in politics, I see individuals across the political spectrum beginning to ask new and challenging questions about finding better approaches to addressing poverty.

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Torturous Logic

THE SENATE Intelligence Committee finally released in December its long-delayed report on “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the CIA in the U.S. global “war on terrorism.” That these techniques—including waterboarding, “rectal feeding,” weeklong sleep deprivation, threats to harm detainees’ children—constituted torture, in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, is a reality that is difficult to deny. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her colleagues should be commended for facing and exposing the grim truths behind our nation’s post-9/11 conduct.

Unfortunately, recent polling has revealed some disturbing attitudes among Americans on this issue—particularly among Christians. A Washington Post/ ABC News poll conducted shortly after the Senate report’s release found that 59 percent of Americans believe the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified, compared to just 31 percent who believe it was unjustified. Startlingly, among Christians who were polled, that number rises to between 66 percent and 75 percent who believe the techniques were justified. In this same poll, 53 percent of respondents indicated they believe these techniques produced important information that could not have been obtained any other way, compared to just 31 percent who disagree.

These poll results fly in the face of the Senate report’s findings. Some of the key phrases from the report summarize the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program as follows: “Not an effective means of acquiring intelligence”; “complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions”; and “damaged the United States’ standing in the world.”

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Choosing the Side of Justice

THE ISRAELI/PALESTINIAN conflict has claimed countless lives, caused unimaginable trauma, and devastated families and communities for decades. As Christians, we should lament this ongoing tragedy and commit ourselves to the cause of peace. However, we must also confess to and repent of the fact that American Christians have often been an obstacle to peace in the region.

On one side of the conflict, many evangelicals have historically been uncritical supporters of Israel. This support often stems from dispensationalism—the belief that a Jewish state must exist in the Middle East in order for Christ to return. Because the continued existence and thriving of the Israeli state is viewed by these Christian Zionists as nothing less than God’s will, they have historically been unwilling to criticize or even question Israel’s behavior. This reflexive and one-sided support for the Israeli government and military has made it much more difficult for the U.S. to be considered an honest broker in the peace process.

In contrast to evangelicals, some mainline Protestants and other liberal Christians have also been a problem to peace by taking an unrelentingly negative attitude toward Israel. Some Christians from this camp have gone so far as to argue that the premise upon which the modern state of Israel was founded is unjust and illegitimate. Given the present reality of Israel’s existence—not to mention the horrors of the Holocaust—coming to the table with that position is not helpful to having a productive conversation about creating peace in the region. Furthermore, when Israel’s critics downplay or fail to acknowledge Israel’s very real security concerns, it diminishes the validity of their critique of Israel’s actions.

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'We Were Strangers Once, Too'

IF YOU'VE been following Sojourners’ work for the past few years, you know that we have been deeply involved in efforts to reform our nation’s broken immigration system. In the wake of President Obama’s game-changing executive actions in November and the political firestorm they ignited, it’s appropriate for us to reflect on how we got to where we are today and where we might go from here.

After the 2012 elections, it seemed all but certain that we would see comprehensive immigration reform become law during the 113th Congress. The electorate in 2012 had a higher percentage of Latino voters than ever before, in keeping with our country’s changing demographics. The mandate seemed clear for political leaders on both sides of the aisle to prioritize immigration reform or risk alienating a constituency vital to winning future elections.

Beyond this narrow political calculus, however, many of us became deeply involved in the struggle for immigration reform because we strongly believe that fixing our broken immigration system is a moral imperative, and long overdue. Our faith as Christians compels us to struggle for a more humane immigration system. Indeed, the scriptures could not be clearer. In the Old Testament, the Lord commands: “Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

In the New Testament, the stranger and all who are vulnerable are at the very heart of the gospel. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers a vision in which caring for them is the defining mark of God’s kingdom: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

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Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

ORTHODOXY AND orthopraxy—strange theological words from Sojourners’ past.  But I was recently thinking back to the theology with which Sojourners began—43 years ago—and how it is still so central and fundamental to me today.

I remember the word that we so often used back in our formative days: “and.” As young Christians, we said our fledgling little movement was committed to evangelism and social justice, prayer and peacemaking, spirituality and politics, personal and public transformation, contemplation and activism, real salvation and real social change, orthodoxy and orthopraxy—which means starting with a biblical and Christ-centered personal faith and then living and practicing that faith in the world—in ways that changed both our own lives and public life. “And” was our big word in a church that was so divided and polarized. Another way we expressed it was calling for a “third way” beyond conservative and liberal, evangelical and mainline.

I want to refer back to some of the earliest expressions of our critique of both the conservative and liberal theologies of the time. Please forgive some of the passionate and movement language from the later 1960s and early ’70s (and the generic “male” language), but this was written when I was 23, in 1971! Yet the heart of the editorial commitment expressed so long ago remains true of Sojourners today:

We contend that the new vision that is necessary is to be found in radical Christian faith that is grounded in commitment to Jesus Christ. ... The offense of established religion is the proclamation and practice of a caricature of Christianity so enculturated, domesticated, and lifeless that our generation easily and naturally rejects it as ethically insensitive, hypocritical, and irrelevant to the needs of our times.

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How To Overcome Evil

LIKE MUCH OF the world, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about ISIS over the past few months. I’ve been horrified by the accounts of the so-called Islamic State’s barbarism, and I lament their perversion of one of the world’s great religions.

Most of all, I’m outraged at their disregard for human life—at their wanton killing of Shia Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and anyone else who doesn’t share their radical vision. Pope Francis has said that it’s legitimate to act to protect innocent lives in this case, and I don’t disagree with him.

Yet I believe that Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, which requires us to think beyond short-term military solutions and address the systemic issues that breed crises like this one. And I strongly believe that to have any moral authority in the current crisis, we must first confess the Western policies and attitudes that have contributed to where we find ourselves today—and then repent of those policies and attitudes.

The first thing we need to confess is a shallow and, at best, incomplete understanding of ISIS. Alireza Doostdar of the University of Chicago Divinity School wrote, “[We] seem to assume that ISIS ... has suddenly materialized out of the thin ether of an evil doctrine. But ISIS emerged from the fires of war, occupation, killing, torture, and disenfranchisement. It did not need to sell its doctrine to win recruits. It needed above all to prove itself effective against its foes.”

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