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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Steps of Gratitude

Paranamir / Shutterstock

Paranamir / Shutterstock

I DIDN'T KNOW much about sepsis until it hit me out of the blue the Friday before Thanksgiving. After working late Thursday night, I woke up the next morning shivering and shaking, with my teeth rattling and full of pain; my left leg was swollen and fire-engine red.

I was immediately sent to the hospital and told frightening things about how dangerous a septic cellulitis infection can be. The ailment is random and can strike people of all ages; bacteria gets under the skin and spreads, and if it goes into the bloodstream, things can get dangerous indeed.

I am certainly not used to lying in a hospital with intravenous antibiotics being pumped into me day and night. Fortunately, thanks to my overall good health, I responded quickly to the antibiotics, resulting in a full recovery. I’ve often visited others in hospitals and been an advocate for patients in bureaucratic health-care systems, and this unexpected visit reminded me why that is so important. It is easy to feel alone in those systems and to lose your voice. I have always been impressed by nurses, who so often bring life, laughter, and even love to health systems that so easily block out such things, and some of my nurses were the delight of my lockdown hospital time.

I grew close to my roommate in the hospital, a man who, like me, is married to an English woman, and who was clearly suffering from cardiac issues. The lack of privacy through flimsy curtains forced me to overhear a doctor telling him that he had two choices: a heart surgery that the doctor thought the man wouldn’t survive, or hospice care with only six months or less to live.

Decisions about life and death often suddenly fill these hospital rooms. My leg infection quickly shrank in comparison, and being present to my roommate and his wife became very important. Friends coming by to talk to my roommate brought tears, stories, smiles, and fears.

TWO WEEKS BEFORE entering the hospital, I had gone on a much-needed personal retreat—not to lead but just to listen, learn, and be quiet. The topics of the seminar were “character” and “gratitude.” The former was intriguing, as the subject of character always is to me. But I found the latter theme, gratitude, to be profoundly challenging—and restful at the same time. Gratitude is hard. It is especially hard for those of us who see their vocation as changing the world—seeing what is wrong and trying to make it right. We see the unjust things and want to make them just, the broken things and want to help heal them; we see the bad and want the good. It can be exhausting.

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Lessons From a Wounded Healer

PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek / Shutterstock

PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek / Shutterstock

IN NOVEMBER I had the honor of delivering the first annual Henri Nouwen lecture at the University of Toronto. I was invited by the Henri Nouwen Society to speak about the connection between spirituality and social justice and to offer reflections about a remarkable man and the Sojourners community’s relationship with him.

Henri Nouwen was a deeply spiritual and deeply human man whose life and work has inspired many of us in the extended Sojourners community for the last four decades. Our relationship with Nouwen goes back to the 1970s, when he often came to visit our budding community in Washington, D.C. As young firebrands with a passion for social justice, we learned much from Nouwen, who helped teach us the importance of a deep, authentic, contemplative spirituality, which we knew we needed to undergird the hard battles for social justice. Nouwen often shared with us that Sojourners, in turn, helped push him to not lose sight of the urgent struggles for justice and peace in the midst of his efforts to help people unlock a deeper spirituality.

What drew Nouwen to Sojourners, and us to him, was our common conviction that contemplative spirituality, which was his passion and vocation, had to be deeply connected to putting faith into action for justice in the world, which was ours. We spoke together about the dangers of people pursuing spirituality in a consumer culture, where resources aimed at the inner life could become just another commodity.

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Welcoming Emmanuel

Volkova / Shutterstock

Volkova / Shutterstock 

THE MONTH of December brings with it the season of Advent and Christmas. It’s always been my favorite time of the year, because it shows us powerfully and practically how our Christian faith entered the world. The incarnation is unique among world religions. The way I like to say it: In Christ, God hits the streets. Christmas gives Christians the annual opportunity to remember the incarnation of God’s love breaking into the world—how it did and how it still can.

Advent is about waiting, and Christmas brings the newborn who announces a new order meant to turn the world upside down—and our lives with it. Christmas always renews my commitment to bring that revolutionary love into a world that so desperately needs it, and into my own life again.

In the bustle of our daily lives, with all of the distractions and struggles that come our way—even in Christian ministries—it is so easy for us to lose sight of the transforming love embodied in the person of Christ. So it’s vitally important that we have this season to remember and re-encounter and re-center ourselves on the heart of our faith: God breaking into history to transform it, and us, in the person of Jesus.

Christmas always reminds me that being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus, willing to allow that message of the reign of God, a new order of things, to break in again and again.

While that statement about following Jesus may seem obvious, how many of us really focus, on a daily basis, on living our lives as Jesus did? On saying what he said, doing what he did, behaving as he behaved? On treating people in the way Jesus treated people?

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The Matthew 25 Test

komkrit Preechachanwate / Shutterstock

komkrit Preechachanwate / Shutterstock

AS THE SEASON turned from summer to fall, I was reflecting again about Sojourners’ vocation, the focus of our mission and ministry.

Matthew 25:31-46 is my own conversion text, the scripture that brought me to Christ a long time ago out of the radical student movement. It’s also been a converting text for many others here at Sojourners over the years.

The 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel has been foundational to Sojourners from the very beginning of the Sojourners community more than 40 years ago. But I am realizing that Matthew 25 is not only foundational for us, it is really our vocational text. In other words, it shapes not just what we believe and what we stand for, but also what we do as an organization—the issues we address, the campaigns we get involved in, the statements we sign, the coalitions we join, and much more.

In that sense, I’ve been thinking about Matthew 25 in relation to issues of organizational stewardship and sustainability. Autumn is always a busy season for me and for Sojourners. Faced with many invitations, requests, and opportunities to make a positive impact on a variety of issues, how do we decide where and how to focus our ministry, energy, staff, time, and gifts? How do we be good stewards of our calling? I think that Matthew 25:31-46 provides the answer. The key moment in the passage is when Jesus says:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me ... Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

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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

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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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