Hearts & Minds

One Church, One Body

From "12 Years a Slave"

IN OCTOBER, Sojourners hosted a Washington, D.C. premiere for the faith community of the extraordinary film 12 Years a Slave. The compelling story about Solomon Northup—a free man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery—is an accurate and well-produced drama, worth seeing for its cinematic merits, but primarily as a start to a conversation about race in America that is long overdue.

In her New York Times review titled “The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias,” Manohla Dargis wrote that 12 Years a Slave “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States—but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” The film reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.

The enslavement of millions of people of African descent by white Americans was always violent, and too intense for most white people to really accept the truth. Most white people, white Christians, and white churches tolerated slavery for 246 years. This historically horrendous evil existed because we tolerated it. That’s why evil always continues to exist: because we tolerate it.

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Waiting for the Coming

ADVENT IS UPON US: Waiting for the coming of Christ. But do we really know who he is or what his kingdom brings? His Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount are good reminders.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount simply has “blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). Taking Matthew and Luke together, the kingdom will become a blessing to those who are afflicted by both spiritual and material poverty. The physical oppression of the poor will be a regular subject in this kingdom, but the spiritual impoverishment of the affluent will also be addressed and healed. Spiritual poverty is often the result of having too much and no longer depending on God. Jesus offers blessings and healing to those who are both poor and poor in spirit.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Those who have the capacity to mourn and weep for the world will be comforted by the coming of this new order. Jesus’ disciples would later hear him say that loving their neighbor as themselves was one of the two great commandments (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). To feel the pain of the world is to participate in the very heart of God and one of the defining characteristics of God’s people.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Christ’s kingdom turns our understanding of power upside-down. Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, promises the same when she prays about what Christ’s coming means: “He has scattered the proud ... brought down the powerful from their thrones ... lifted up the lowly ... filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). And when Jesus is asked who will be first in his kingdom, he tells them it will be the servants of all.

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Waging Peace in Syria

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, President Obama told the American people that the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad of Syria was a moral atrocity that required international consequences.

Religious leaders agree with the necessity of a determined response to the Assad regime, which is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 of his own people, including the brutal use of chemical weapons on civilians. But many faith leaders are asking tough moral questions about what that response should look like.

We fundamentally reject the assumption that refraining from military action is “doing nothing.” We need more imagination and a deeper response than the traditional one of military strikes, which haven’t proven effective and almost always have serious unintended consequences, risk dangerous escalations, and consistently create more suffering for innocent civilians.

As religious leaders, we are called to peacemaking, not just peace loving, which requires harder and more imaginative work than merely falling into old habits of military “solutions.” Our priorities should be to mobilize global support for the many vulnerable Syrians—including the millions of refugees—and to do the hard work of conflict resolution that could lead to a political solution.

BUT THE CRISIS in Syria also gives us an opportunity to rethink how we respond to conflicts. The “war fatigue” in America is deeper than just the national tiredness of war. It is also the result of the failure of military responses in answering the real threats of terrorists and brutal dictators such as Assad.

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Equal Protection — for All

THIS SUMMER, two Supreme Court outcomes dramatically affected the reality of the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” In the first, a key component of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down, jeopardizing equal justice under the law especially for black, Latino, and low-income people whose voting rights have historically been assaulted and have continued to be suppressed as recently as the 2012 election. Efforts to increase barriers to voting for people of color, especially those with lower incomes, are already underway in several states. The Supreme Court’s decision was morally shameful.

The decision revealed how politically partisan this bench has become. The conservative justices have aligned themselves with the extreme right-wing politics that has taken over today’s Republican Party—one that has deliberately encouraged and practiced voter suppression against minorities, low-income people, the young, and the elderly.

America has made great progress on racial justice because of the tireless and courageous efforts of many. But the illusory idea of a “post-racial” America is exposed as a lie by this nation’s criminal justice system, the many recent attempts at racially based voter suppression, and now this decision by the Supreme Court.

That same week, the Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional and discriminatory against same-sex couples. The religious community is clearly divided on the issues surrounding marriage equality and what the Bible says about homosexuality. But I believe, along with a growing number of people in the faith community, that equal protection under the law is essential. While some Christians are conflicted about the theological issues involved, they also don’t want churches to be the ones standing in the way of civil rights.

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My Unexpected Diagnosis

THIS IS A very personal column. Last December I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. There were no symptoms, just a routine blood test. I was on a conference call when the doctor phoned with the biopsy results, but I continued on with the other call assuming I could return it later to hear that there were no problems. There were problems, he told me, and I would need to see a surgeon.

I felt incredulous about the news. I was about to launch a book tour and everything seemed to be in control. Sojourners was involved in intense advocacy work around immigration reform, gun violence, and the budget/sequester battles. There had to be a mistake, or surely some convenient treatment would suffice. Certainly, I would work this all out privately, and stay on schedule for everything else. But then came further testing and discussions of medical options—and anxiety began to grow.

The tour for my latest book, On God’s Side, had to be postponed without announcing why. I kept the health news to a small circle of family, friends, and senior staff, and I did my best to go on as if this wasn’t happening. But it was.

My care shifted to the research center at the National Institutes of Health. There, I took part in a new program using resolution MRI to guide surgical decisions. Such opportunities are available to anyone (people can find out about the work of NIH on its website—sadly, this critical work is being severely cut in the sequester). The NIH staff’s extraordinary knowledge of cancer was immediately evident, as was the wonderful care they showed me.

 In early June, I had major surgery for prostate cancer. The surgery “couldn’t have gone better,” the doctors say, and I seem to be recovering well. They keep telling me to go slow and take my time, which is not only good physical advice for healthy recovery but also spiritual counsel for those of us who sometimes tell time by how much we hope we are changing the world.

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Overcoming Violent Fundamentalism

TODAY THE Middle East—where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25—is a region dominated by humiliation and anger. Failure plus rage plus the folly of youth equals an incendiary mix.

The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep. We can start with the fact that what we consider our oil lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive regimes, the presence of foreign troops on their land and in their holy places, and the endless wars waged there, ultimately fueled by the geopolitics of energy. Add to that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and around the world.

Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Muslim world. Fundamentalism—in all our faith traditions—is volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it is hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.

Three principles may help us navigate a path out of this mess. First, religious extremism will not be defeated by a primarily military response. Ample evidence proves that such a strategy often makes things worse. Religious and political zealots prefer military responses to the threats created by Islamic extremism. Ironically, this holds true on both sides of the conflict; the fundamentalist zealots also prefer the simplistic military approach because they are often able to use it effectively. Fundamentalists actually flourish and win the most new recruits amid overly aggressive military campaigns against them.

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Loving Like Christ

Gordon Cosby, photo by Ed Spivey Jr.

GORDON COSBY was perhaps the most Christian human being I have known. But he would always be the first to raise serious questions about what it meant to be a “Christian” and lived a different life than many of his fellow pastors and church leaders who call themselves Christian. Gordon was happier just calling himself a follower of Jesus. He always told people who wanted to call him “reverend” to just say “Gordon.”

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A Global Call for a New Social Covenant

IN THE PAST 20 years, the world has witnessed the death of social contracts. We have seen a significant breakdown in trust between citizens, their economies, and their governments. In our own country, we can point to years of data painting a bleak picture of the confidence Americans have in any of our traditional institutions.

Former assumptions and shared notions about fairness, agreements, reciprocity, social values, and expected futures have all but disappeared. The collapse of financial structures and the economic crisis that followed not only caused instability, insecurity, and human pain; they have also produced a growing doubt and basic distrust in the way the system functions and how decisions are made.

This year, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we looked to the future and asked, "what now?" At a key session—"The Moral Economy: From Social Contract to Social Covenant"—a document was announced that kicks off a year-long global conversation about a new "social covenant" between citizens, governments, and businesses.

It is really a call for worldwide discussion about what values are needed to address the many difficult challenges the world is now facing. Inequality, austerity, retrenchment, maldistribution, conflicts over resources, and extreme poverty all raise questions about our values.

The introduction to the covenant says: "The choices made about each issue are determined by the values we hold—the values applied by government, business, civil society, and individuals. Those choices need to be self-conscious—not based merely upon the inertia of accumulated interests. This is not merely a philosophical enterprise; it is an urgent matter that requires moral courage. The stakes are high."

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What Does It Mean to Be on God's Side?

"My concern is not whether God is on our side...but to be on God's side."
"My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side." - Abraham Lincoln

I RECENTLY FINISHED a new book, which we launch on April 1, the day after Easter. The beginning of the Easter season is a liturgically appropriate moment for the introduction of a hopeful book in what many feel is a hopeless time.

I wanted to tell you, our faithful magazine readers, why I wrote this book, and why I called it On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good.

This is not just another book for me. I wrote it during a three-month sabbatical that started in a monastery overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Every day started before sunrise with prayers, walks, yoga, and exercise, followed by writing the rest of the day. My other discipline was not to write or comment publicly on the news. I watched the nation's political discourse each night after a day of writing and found it more depressing than ever. It was an election year.

The resulting book is not about politics in the narrow sense, but about how to engage our personal and public lives with an ancient but timely idea and practice—the common good—that has long and deep historical roots across many religious faiths and secular notions of democracy. I sought to explore the biblical and theological roots of the idea, and then apply it to the most basic questions of economic trust, the role of government, civility, renewing democracy, globalization, conflict resolution in a violent world, and, of course, what our faith can contribute to the common good with the world as our parish. Most compelling, I found Jesus' call to love our neighbors to be the gospel foundation for serving the common good, and the excerpt in this issue, "A Gospel for the Common Good" (page 16), makes the case for that.

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A 'Historic Moment' on Climate Change?

A RECENT RETREAT of evangelical environmentalists raised this theological question: Should we have expected most people in the developed world to hear the scientific evidence proving the great dangers of climate change and then decide to quickly change themselves—their view of the world, their lifestyles and politics—and to withdraw their support from the fossil fuel economy that is threatening the planet and its people?

Those of us gathered at the retreat didn't think so. We human beings just aren't that smart, wise, good, or unselfish. It's more human to deny the evidence, attack the messengers, delay the response, and just hope everything works out. That's what many have done. And since our political system is even more dysfunctional than most of the people it represents—and is bought and paid for by the gas and oil interests that control the economy—the chances are low for courageous and far-sighted leadership.

So what kind of wake-up call will it take to reduce the carbon emissions we humans create, which are warming the earth's temperature and endangering our future in increasingly dramatic ways? Perhaps it will take disruption and devastation—which is becoming the "new normal." So-called once-in-a-lifetime storms are now becoming frequent, with Superstorm Sandy only the most recent example.

Sandy seemed to get people's attention in a way we haven't seen since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf. It came in a year when the lower 48 states suffered the warmest temperatures and most disruptive weather patterns since such records have been kept. We're already spending billions in emergency aid for the victims of hurricanes and weather disasters; those numbers will only increase. In addition to Sandy, we had 10 other billion-dollar weather disasters in 2012, including Hurricane Isaac and terrible tornadoes across the Midwest and Great Plains.

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