Hearts & Minds

Nuclear Summer

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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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Billy Graham's Conversion to Peace

IN 1978, a Sojourners subscriber sent me this quote from a European newspaper reporting on Billy Graham’s visit to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland: “The present insanity of the global arms race,” Graham said, “if continued, will lead inevitably to a conflagration so great that Auschwitz will seem like a minor rehearsal.” The U.S. media had not reported on Graham’s statement.

I wrote to Billy Graham and asked if what he said, after visiting Auschwitz for the first time, indicated a change of heart for him on nuclear weapons. Billy wrote back to say it did. He agreed to an interview with Sojourners to explain how his thinking had changed about the nuclear arms race, saying that it felt to him like a moral and spiritual question and not just a political issue.

August marks the 71st anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. When President Obama visited Hiroshima earlier this year, he encouraged leaders to “pursue a world without nuclear weapons” (which is sadly and dangerously ironic coming from a president who is overseeing a 30-year, $1 trillion upgrade of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal).

Billy Graham, in that 1979 interview with Sojourners, was clear in his view of the threat posed by nuclear weapons:

Is a nuclear holocaust inevitable if the arms race is not stopped? Frankly, the answer is almost certainly yes. Now I know that some people feel human beings are so terrified of a nuclear war that no one would dare start one. I wish I could accept that. But neither history nor the Bible gives much reason for optimism. What guarantee is there that the world will never produce another maniacal dictator like Hitler or Amin? As a Christian I take sin seriously, and the Christian should be the first to know that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, as Jeremiah says. We can be capable of unspeakable horror, no matter how educated or technically sophisticated we are. Auschwitz is a compelling witness to this.

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The Categories That Divide Humanity

John M Anderson / Shutterstock
John M Anderson / Shutterstock

THE GREAT POLITICAL and historical reality behind the incendiary rhetoric and conflict we have been experiencing in our country is this: In just a few decades, America will no longer be a white-majority nation; we will instead be a majority of minorities.

Some of our citizens, especially many older white Americans, are deeply fearful and resentful about the potential loss of white supremacy and privilege. They will not let this happen without a fight. Already there is a clear strategy to try to ensure that the changing demographic does not change America. There is a five-part strategy in place to delay, obstruct, and veto the new America.

First, gerrymander congressional districts. Second, shift the goal of immigration reform away from full citizenship, preventing the enfranchisement of 11 million new voters. Third, incarcerate mass numbers of citizens, leading to their political disenfranchisement. Fourth, put in place new voting regulations that make it harder for many people to vote. Fifth, elect a strong-man candidate who promises to do to “whatever it takes” to ensure that America does not change.

GLOBALLY, those who are on the “wrong” side of the categories, the most marginalized, find themselves most vulnerable to the devastating impacts of climate change, war, displacement, and poverty. As conflict rages in the most fragile countries, millions of people, many of them women and children, are displaced from their homes. The global response has been unacceptable. In Europe and the United States, politicians have stoked xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments to block refugees seeking asylum. Walls are being built to keep the “others” out. Aid and relief to these areas are being cut in favor of expanding military budgets. Race sits at the intersection of all of these issues.

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Denouncing the Politics of Hate

William Perugini / Shutterstock
William Perugini / Shutterstock

WHAT ISIS AND other terror groups who share their views want is precisely to terrorize us. They want to turn our fear of them into fear of everyone who looks like them, and everyone who follows the religion they are trying to hijack. They want us to suspect, fear, and hate the 1.6 billion people of the world who practice Islam—including millions of Muslim Americans. They want to provoke us to anger, and they hope that in our anger and pain we will overreact.

Right now, unfortunately, they are succeeding with too many of our fellow Christians, and even with some of the candidates for our highest political offices.

When ISIS terrorists succeed in provoking Islamophobic responses, they come closer to their goal of dividing the world into two categories—Muslims and non-Muslims—which also brings them closer to their goal of claiming the mantle of being the only “true defenders” of Islam. Islamophobia thus directly helps the terrorists recruit more young Muslims to their cause and makes it harder for other Muslims to work against them.

Here are some ways that we can deny the terrorists their victory:

FIRST, WE MUST focus on life and the terrible human suffering that these attacks are causing all over the world. When you add up all of those killed, maimed, wounded, and traumatized—and all their family members, friends, fellow congregants, and co-workers—the number of human beings impacted by terrorist violence is almost countless. We must also include the impact on all of our children whose fears these attacks kindle, and the fears we in turn feel for them.

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Parenting for Racial Justice

Lauren Simmons / Shutterstock
Lauren Simmons / Shutterstock

WE ARE A baseball family, with our two boys playing on many teams over the years with multiracial teammates, coaches, and leadership in the organizations shaping those programs. I have long been a Little League baseball coach, and my wife, Joy, has been commissioner at every level too.

In baseball, talent and teamwork are the metrics and measuring sticks, not the race of one’s teammates. For both of my boys, their teammates are their closest friends.

Being a Little League coach (for 11 years and 22 seasons!) has given me a place to reflect on our nation’s racial issues. Playing baseball brings you closer together. My son Luke often says his high school teammates are the best friends he’s ever had, and at every level of Little League, my players always testify in our final team meeting of the season how they have become such close friends. Being teammates really does help overcome racial bias and prejudice, because it is the issue of proximity that finally helps human beings understand one another and learn empathy. On Little League teams we are all cheering for one another, looking out for one another, picking one another up when we fall down or make a mistake, and learning to be positive as we work together for our common goals.

One of the best things to watch over the course of a season is how, across racial lines, the parents of players become friends as well. It is especially interesting to see how the conversation topics develop over time, moving from “just baseball” to school and future, to work and family, to sharing of life experiences, and even to national events, which sometimes includes race. What becomes clear is that we all care more about our children and their future than anything else, and beginning to talk about our kids’ futures together can be a very powerful moment.

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Tweets from the Town Hall

JP Keenan / Sojourners
JP Keenan / Sojourners

TRAVELING AROUND the country this winter has given me a tremendous opportunity to promote multiracial truth-telling in many local communities as well as to foster multiracial commitments to action in service of racial justice.

During the first two weeks of the “town hall” tour around my new book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, we engaged an audience of tremendous diversity—multiracial, intergenerational, interfaith, secular, and intersectional. The audience and panelists at these forums have been baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, and again and again we’re seeing new insights and directions as a wide variety of people and perspectives are brought into the dialogue.

In Baltimore, leaders who were in the streets with their congregants following the death of Freddie Gray, such as Revs. Heber Brown III and Brad Braxton, talked about the lessons they learned from the protests and how those lessons must be applied across the country in the days to come.

In New York, Heather McGhee, president of the public policy organization Demos, said that successfully navigating our country into the new demographic reality—in a way that removes both privilege and punishment based on skin color—could be the first opportunity to truly realize our “American exceptionalism.” I often speak against the notion of American exceptionalism, but I wholeheartedly agree with McGhee’s assessment.

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How Many Tears?

Gina Jacobs / Shutterstock
Gina Jacobs / Shutterstock

EARLY THIS YEAR, I was invited to the White House for an important meeting. A young couple entered at the same time I did, carrying their baby—which struck me as unusual for a meeting with leaders at the White House.

They introduced themselves and their 15-month-old daughter. Then the couple told me this: “Her 6-year-old sister was shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.”

Then I understood. They were there for the same meeting I was—President Obama’s announcement of new executive actions on background checks and other gun enforcement and safety issues.

The East Room of the White House was full of the victims and family members of victims of mass shootings, which occurred 372 times in 2015, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870. (As defined by the Mass Shooting Tracker, a mass shooting is any in which four or more people are shot.)

Many families that had lost children or parents were there. Former member of Congress Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, were there. Many remember the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in which a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia shot 19 people, including Rep. Giffords, six of whom were killed, including a 9-year-old girl.

IT WAS THE PEOPLE and the faces that most moved me—and moved the president. Much was made the next day of his emotional response. When he said, “Our unalienable right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness—those rights were stripped from college kids in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara, and from high-schoolers in Columbine, and from first-graders in Newtown,” he had to wipe tears away from his eyes.

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama said. “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”

I have seldom seen President Obama so emotional. I know the hardest day of his presidency was when he had to go to Newtown to meet and talk to the families of the 26 students and teachers who had lost their lives to another mass shooter. And it is clear to me that Obama was responding as a dad who has two girls of his own.

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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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