change

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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Divest from Fossil Fuels: Money Talks

LAST SPRING, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an architect of the South African freedom movement, called for “an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet.” Tutu—along with millions of people of faith and conscience—understands not only that it is morally right to address climate change, but that money talks. “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” said Tutu.

The fossil-fuel divestment movement has its roots in grassroots mobilizing, churches, local governments, and student campaigns. The movement has grown exponentially in the U.S. since Maine’s Unity College became the first campus to divest (in 2012) and the United Church of Christ became the first denomination to formally divest (in 2013). Today, divestment from fossil fuels is gaining momentum, with increasing numbers of asset owners committing to moving their money.

In fact, this campaign has grown faster than any other previous divestment movements, including those against apartheid in South Africa and tobacco. A number of factors indicate that we are at a tipping point. Here are four: 1) last year was the hottest year on record, 2) expenses related to climate change are skyrocketing, 3) significant financial risks are now associated with fossil-fuel investments and the divestment movement is growing, 4) and the economics of renewable energy products is improving, so investments in these products is growing.

Despite unmistakable signs that climate change is spiraling out of control—from unprecedented droughts to sea-level rises—20 years of global negotiations have not slowed the emissions of heat-trapping gasses. A new, effective lever of change is clearly needed.

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Conquering A Great Divide

WE LIVE IN an age of deep fragmentation. Like the ancient Gnostics, who believed in a deep divide between mind and body, we too are inclined to elevate the mind, or the spirit, over the body. The critic Harold Bloom once suggested that the religious practice of most Americans is “closer to ancient Gnostics than to early Christians.”

Ragan Sutterfield’s new memoir, This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith, recounts the story of his own struggles amid the fragmentation of our times. Having wrestled with being overweight since his childhood, Sutterfield eventually finds himself with a failing marriage and at his heaviest weight. He is faced with the incongruity that he is an environmentalist and farmer, doing grueling work to care for the land and creation, and yet taking poor care of his own body.

This is My Body is a compelling story of conversion, not unlike St. Augustine’s Confessions, as Sutterfield finds himself drawn out of the typical U.S. sort of Christianity that has little regard for the body and into a deeper faith in Christ, in which spirit and body are deeply interwoven. After the collapse of his first marriage, Sutterfield surrenders himself to the disciplines needed to care better for his body, specifically controlling his diet and becoming serious about exercise. From this conversion point onward, Sutterfield begins to learn and experience an incarnational faith in which our bodies cannot be taken for granted. He writes:

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Cuba, North Korea, and Freedom

THOUGH SOME HAVE accepted “axis of evil” characterizations of Cuba and North Korea, my experiences of the two countries—nine visits to Cuba and one week in North Korea—have led me to far different conclusions: There are very few similarities between the two nations, and neither is inherently “evil.”

Music infuses the air in Cuba as in no other of the 60 countries to which I’ve traveled. The streets are alive. Children play baseball and soccer in the streets. Cafes, parks, and other public places are crowded and noisy. Nearly everyone I’ve met has treated me like a long-lost friend, even more so when they learn I’m American. There is a natural affinity between Cubans and Americans. More than 100 flights a week ferry people between Havana and Miami.

In North Korea, the streets are eerily quiet. There is virtually no visible human interaction. North Koreans are forbidden to make eye contact with Westerners. There appear to be no public gathering places except the massive government plazas where military parades and government rallies are staged. I was never allowed to go anywhere without a “minder.” I traveled with a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) official who was born in North Korea and returns there frequently. His counsel: “Assume that everywhere you go you are followed and that every conversation you have, no matter where, is bugged.” His relatives received permission to travel from their home village to Pyongyang to visit him. In our hotel room, he turned the television volume up to full blast before they began talking quietly. On one early morning walk near our hotel (the only time I was unescorted), I took a few photographs. By the time I returned to the hotel, government representatives were waiting in the lobby, demanding to see all my photos and instructing me on which ones to delete.

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Meet the New Boss (looks familiar)

Illustration by Ken Davis

IN MID-JANUARY, the gavel of power will change hands in the U.S. Senate. Mitch McConnell, in a touching act of cross-party reconciliation, will reach across the aisle and forcefully pry the symbol of legislative authority from the desperate grip of Harry Reid. Although the outgoing majority leader said after the midterms, “I have been able to strike a compromise with my Republican colleagues, and I’m ready to do it again,” Reid later clarified that what he meant was the compromise he would strike would be across the knuckles.

After warding off repeated blows, however, McConnell will be the new leader of the Senate, a massive change in political power that will go virtually unnoticed to the public, since he and Reid are both grim-faced, elderly white men whose rare smiles cause parents to cover their children’s eyes and bring their pets indoors.

Indistinguishable in their sour demeanors, they are like brothers separated at birth: two joyless Caucasian babies muttering in their hospital cribs, already soured by the knowledge their lives will be spent in fruitless conflict, the only bright spot being they’ll have comfortable leather seating at work.

Both men are well into their seventh decade, with most of their adulthood spent in politics, another reminder that the true power of incumbency is simply outliving everybody else.

You would think that the many benefits of longevity would include a lifetime of wisdom but, for these two men, sitting long at the feast of reason is no guarantee of peckishness. (Sorry. My router is down and I’ve been reading 19th-century English literature instead of streaming videos of cute animals. It’s the baby kangaroos I miss the most.)

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15 Things the Church Needs to Do In 2015

The church in 2015. Image courtesy Creativa Images/shutterstock.com

The church in 2015. Image courtesy Creativa Images/shutterstock.com

It's that time of the year again, when we stand on the precipice of a new year and look forward to what is in store for us in 2015. Last year, I wrote 14 Things the Church Needs to Do in 2014, and many of them are still true for 2015. However, given the events of 2014, the church now also has a monumental opportunity to provide healing, justice, care, and compassion in new and exciting ways — ways I believe are important for the church in the upcoming year. 

Good News About Smart Giving

IT’S EASY to lose heart when tackling the painful challenges we live with—poverty, racism, violence, sex trafficking. We volunteer and donate our time and money, but do those efforts really make a difference?

Nicholas D. Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and Sheryl WuDunn, a former Times reporter who works in finance, had the same question; A Path Appears is the result of their investigation. The husband-and-wife team canvassed the giving world, interviewing socially minded people working as individuals or in community with nonprofits, corporations, for-profit organizations, and everything in between. Turns out millions of lives are being transformed next door and across the globe—including our own.

Bernard Glassman, for example, is an aeronautical engineer who wanted to do something about homelessness. After researching the issue for six months, he decided jobs were the most urgent need and started Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, N.Y., a for-profit company whose mission is to employ homeless men and women.

Danone, a large food company that includes brands such as Dannon and Stonyfield, worked with Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus to develop a yogurt that would reduce malnutrition among Bangladeshi children. The endeavor also provided jobs for women who sold the yogurt. The project experienced multiple setbacks but also successes—because all the players sought creative solutions to malnutrition and were willing to test them.

This latter point reflects a growing trend Kristof and WuDunn see among charities and nonprofits—relying on evidence rather than intuition for what works and what doesn’t. “Every aid group in the history of the world has claimed that its interventions are cost effective,” they write, but those evaluations are often “as rigorous as those of grandparents evaluating their grandchildren.”

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How to Suppress the Vote

IN THIS YEAR'S midterm elections, hundreds of thousands of Americans will have a much more difficult time casting their ballots than they did two years ago. And it won’t be because of rain, or early winter snows, or other acts of God.

It will be because powerful people don’t want them to vote.

Why? They stand to gain politically if the “wrong” people can be kept away from the polls. It’s the opposite of a “get out the vote” campaign—“keep out the vote” describes it better.

The tradition of keeping particular sectors of the population from taking part in the franchise goes back to the founding fathers. John Adams, for instance, believed that only rich, successful, smart people should vote—and only people of a certain race and gender, of course.

“Such is the frailty of the human heart,” Adams wrote in May 1776, “that very few men who have no property have any judgment of their own.” At the time, politicians in Massachusetts wanted to allow men who didn’t own property to vote. Adams thought that was a bad idea. For him, no property meant no vote.

Adams felt that young people, the poor and illiterate, and many other ordinary citizens lacked the basic judgment needed to cast wise ballots. Most of them, he felt, knew just enough about public policy to be dangerous. If the ballot box was opened to “every man who has not a farthing,” he wrote, then all sorts of other unworthy souls would soon demand the right to vote as well.

Most of the other founding fathers agreed. In 1790, 10 out of the 13 original colonies allowed only property owners to vote. But by 1850, only three of the then-31 states had such property-owner restrictions. Since then, the other efforts to limit access to voting—from a $2 poll tax in Mississippi to literacy tests—were fought and eventually eliminated.

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Why Work to Change the World?

"God might be there, out among the vines." Photo via mythja/Shutterstock.

It’s hard to follow through on our commitments. It’s hard to do what we know to be right.

We don’t need Jesus to remind us of all that. Most of us figured it out easily enough on our own.

What, then, does Jesus contribute to our understanding of what a well-lived life looks like? Can he help people of faith be agents of change, people who look at our fouled-up world and make differences that will benefit other people and will give voice to God’s desire for human flourishing?

A Parable and Its Surrounding Story

When we read about a parable Jesus tells concerning two sons -- one who verbally refuses his father’s command to work in a vineyard but later changes his mind and obeys, and another who agrees to toil in the vineyard but does not keep his promise -- we might be tempted to moralize it. We may assume its message is simply “Actions speak louder than words!” or “Don’t be such a hypocrite!” or “Obey your father!”

How boring.

How ineffective.

More serious: how inattentive to what’s going on at this point in the Gospel according to Matthew.

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