Commentary

New & Noteworthy

THROUGH THEIR EYES
In 2011, Raul Guerrero provided 100 Kodak disposable cameras and taught basic photography skills to nine young students in the Newlands area of Moshi, Tanzania. The Disposable Project book brings together their images of their community, with text by Guerrero. the-disposable-project.com

JOURNEYING
“Migration has been, for centuries, not only a source of controversy but a source of blessing,” Deirdre Cornell writes in Jesus Was a Migrant. Inspired by ministering among immigrants in different settings, this is a beautifully written set of deeply humanizing reflections on the immigrant experience and Christian spirituality. Orbis Books

FAITH AND STRUGGLE
The New Black is a documentary film on how the African-American community is grappling with gay rights. Focusing on the campaign for marriage equality in Maryland, it shows activists, families, and clergy on both sides of the campaign, with special attention to the role played by the black church. newblackfilm.com

OUTSIDE THE BOX
Some Christians happily become “non-goers” to official churches. In How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community, Kelly Bean explores the reasons and the channels some have found (or founded) for service, pastoral care, and discipleship. Baker Books

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God's Security Strategy

Jesus asks us to love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us, and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. What does this mean for U.S. policy in Afghanistan?

It means we should imagine what it would be like to be an Afghan civilian, with legitimate grievances about the corruption of the current Afghan government, along with a continuing sense of repression and humiliation by both external forces and the Taliban. What if a foreign government dropped bombs on our towns in its effort to kill terrorists among us? How would we want to be treated if Afghanistan were our own country?

The Taliban are rightly condemned for their intolerance to pluralism, as well as for their discrimination and violence against women and others who don’t follow their interpretation of Islam. To love our enemies means that it is also right to imagine ourselves in the shoes of even the Taliban—or, at least, in the environment where they took root: the cold and windy refugee camps where, over decades, poor, landless children of a nation ravaged by imperial powers grew up angry, defiant, humiliated, and ready to fight for revenge.

Jesus also tells us to pay more attention to the log in our eye rather than the speck of dust in our neighbor’s. There is no doubt Afghanistan is full of dust. But what are the logs in our own eyes? Elements of U.S. policy in Afghanistan simply don’t make sense.

First, there is widespread evidence that the presence of U.S. troops and bomb-dropping drone aircraft ends up fueling the insurgency and helping the Taliban and al Qaeda recruit new members. We need to question the strategic, as well as the moral, rationale for the U.S.’s militaristic approach.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2009
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With All Your Mind

When he was asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Many of us struggle to live up to this challenging decree. But a special conflict of the mind exists in many Christian communities—how to accept evolution and still love God. I regularly get e-mails from young people in crisis: Having been raised to believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, they encounter overwhelming evidence to the contrary in a university class, and their world starts to come apart. What a terrible and unnecessary tragedy!

A recent Gallup poll indicates only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution. Among weekly churchgoers, that number drops to 24 percent. So even if you are personally comfortable with evolution, you are probably surrounded by many others who are not.

The evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming: Most scientists would now say Darwin’s theory is as well-established as gravity. The fossil record is compelling and continues to grow, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a 47-million-year-old primate. The study of DNA, greatly accelerated by the Human Genome Project, is even more convincing: Darwin himself could not have imagined a more persuasive record to prove our descent from a common ancestor through the process of natural selection.

Accepting evolution does not lead to atheism, regardless of arguments you may hear from the new atheists. Many geneticists and biologists like me are completely comfortable with the idea that God used the mechanism of evolution to carry out God’s creative plan. And what an amazing mechanism it is!

“Young earth creationism”—which insists on an ultra-literal reading of Genesis—is not a viable alternative. This view is neither consistent with the vast body of scientific data nor required by scripture; Saint Augustine was quite clear that such a literal reading would be a mistake.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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When Governments Kill

On most public policy matters, Jim Wallis and I disagree. Both of us, however, do believe that the death penalty should be abolished—although we may not agree on how that should be done.

I’m a Catholic. Because of my Christian faith, and because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I oppose the death penalty. I’m a conservative as well, and because my political philosophy recognizes that government is too often used by humans for the wrong ends, I find it quite logical to oppose capital punishment.

I have been criticized by some conservatives for my opposition to the death penalty. On the other hand, some conservatives have told me they question capital punishment or even oppose it, but believe that the conservative “position” is to support it. Fortunately for me, even if someone were to question my conservative bona fides (I’ve never been called not conservative enough, trust me), I wouldn’t care.

The fact is, I don’t understand why more conservatives don’t oppose the death penalty. It is, after all, a system set up under laws established by politicians (too many of whom lack principles); enforced by prosecutors (many of whom want to become politicians—perhaps a character flaw?—and who prefer wins over justice); and adjudicated by judges (too many of whom administer personal preference rather than the law).

Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life. In other words, it’s a government system that kills people.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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What's Done in the Dark

Jesus taught, “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). In other words: The truth will come out. President Obama was right to release memos describing CIA interrogation techniques that add up to torture. Whether or not those who ordered the torture and devised the legal opinions to justify it will face prosecution remains an open question.

History shows us that at some point, some way, somehow, the truth comes to light. And the truth is deeper than a list of facts. The truth is facts in context, facts in use, facts and consequence, facts and meaning. Truth is the heart and soul of existence.

History also teaches us the harvest of terror and torture—continued cycles of violence, psychological trauma, and corruption of a national soul. There is no new thing under the sun. The French-Algerian anti-colonial war is an example of what happens when terrorism and torture become tactics of war: The ends never justify the means, and both practices leave deep wounds that are slow to heal. Terrorism caused the French public to become weary of the war, but that same public also became appalled by torture done in their name. And, since the anti-colonial war, Algeria has been plagued by terrorism, which is used as a tactic by factions seeking power.

As for torture, it tormented the torturers. Writing in The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon wrote of the psychological damage the violence caused to those on all sides, including those who inflicted torture. In one case, a European police inspector came to the clinic where Fanon worked for psychiatric help. He had been torturing his wife and children. Fanon wrote: “At home he has a constant desire to give everyone a beating. And he violently assaults his children, even his 20-month-old baby.” The torturer spoke of being worn out by the torture.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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Good Riddance to the 'War on Terror'

In April, a new American president—the son of a black Muslim father from Kenya and a white Christian mother from Kansas—stood on the floor of the Turkish parliament and, in a historic address, declared that the United States “is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” The fact that President Barack Hussein Obama felt it necessary to make such a statement is evidence of how thoroughly the “war on terror” has become synonymous with a crusade against Islam. So much so, in fact, that the current administration has decided to jettison the term completely and replace it with the more innocuous, if a bit silly, “overseas contingency operations.”

Not surprising, the new phrase, which sounds more like a backpacking trip through Europe than a multipronged military conflict, received a healthy dose of ridicule in the American press. But the change in terminology is not an insignificant move. Indeed, it may be the first step toward fashioning a far more effective response to the challenge posed by radical and extremist forces in the Muslim world than we saw from the previous administration.

On Sept. 16, 2001, President Bush launched the so-called war on terror with a sentence that reverberated across the globe: “This crusade,” Bush said, pausing for what seemed like an eternity, “this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.”

Crusade. The word hung in the air like an undetonated bomb, long enough for its myriad implications to come to mind—long enough, surely, for that one most-devastating inference to be fully absorbed. This is no simple word, but an emblem for an era when the cross of Christ was brandished as a sword by one barbaric, theocratic empire against another barbaric, theocratic empire. It certainly did not help matters that the word “crusade” is rendered into Arabic as hurub as-salib—“The Wars of the Cross”—which is how the Arab press reported Bush’s statement: “this war of the cross ... this war on terrorism.”

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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Out of the Media's Eye

Before I met a refugee family from Burma, I was mostly unaware of the southeast Asian country. For a year of Sunday afternoons, I taught this family English, took them to the library, and helped them apply for green cards; they taught me courage, hope, resilience—and the story the newspaper headlines hadn’t.

All four children were born in a Thai refugee camp, where the parents had lived the better part of their lives, nearly 20 years. One afternoon they slipped a video into their church-donated VCR and implored me to watch with them. “This Pop’s village,” the oldest girl told me as a lazy river lined with men fishing and women chatting appeared on the TV. Then her face grew serious. “We can’t live there again,” she said.

I drove home wondering: How many other stories haven’t I heard? And how do we learn of, and engage with, the places and stories outside the media’s eye?

The media has blind spots, and they threaten to become our own. The 24-hour news cycle loves novelty; it has room for short-lived cyclones and monk-led protests, but not decades of continuous oppression and ethnic cleansing. There’s also the matter of access. Countries embroiled in human rights abuses are hard, sometimes even impossible, for reporters to get into. North Korea is currently detaining, and plans a June trial for, two U.S. journalists who were covering the plight of refugees along the Chinese border. When and if the media gains access, it often must trade full disclosure to do so; the information that passes censorship can wind up being lukewarm pseudo-truth.

The truth is that Burma is not the only place that’s been hidden. Armed conflict in Colombia has created at least 2.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs)—perhaps as many as 4.6 million since 1985, according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement. The genocide in Rwanda was weeks old before international attention caught on.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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Why a Green Economy

We find ourselves immersed in simultaneous economic crisis and environmental crisis, with crumbling financial institutions and melting polar ice both making higher ground look mighty good. While conservation and care for creation often have been treated by business and industry as luxuries or outright attacks on the bottom line, more and more people are coming to understand that an economy that requires the degradation of the environment and injury to people is untenable. There are other ways to generate prosperity without slowly killing the planet and the people on it.

In the framework of a green economy, things like creating renewable energy sources, making buildings and processes more energy-efficient, cleaning up the industrial messes we’ve made, and doing urban forestry projects are recognized as profitable on multiple levels.

Companies profit financially as they ride new waves of innovation and demand for environment-friendly goods and services and create business models that are sustainable in all senses of the word. People in poverty profit, as they receive training for jobs that both provide a living wage and a vocation with a future. In some cases, those same workers benefit as their new jobs help clean up environmental hazards that had been imposed on them and their families. We all win, as the cumulative changes in energy use and production generated by green businesses help to reduce the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere.

Perhaps this sounds utopian and, despite the wages of climate sin weighing on all of us, too expensive for hard times. But as you listen to some of the green economy leaders we talk with, you’ll see that while they have their ideals, they are also quite pragmatic. They are social entrepreneurs who want to create long-term, self-sustaining change and new businesses—not new forms of charity. They don’t think this will be easy. They simply know it’s too important not to try.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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'Winning' in Afghanistan

Few things are certain about the complex insurgencies raging in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but one thing seems clear: A military surge and escalation of the war will make matters worse, not better. The presence of large-scale foreign forces in Afghanistan is the problem, not the solution. Local opposition to U.S.-led military operations is growing, and adding more troops will likely fuel further resistance and increase support for al Qaeda-inspired extremism.

U.S. military attacks in the region validate Osama bin Laden’s warped portrayal of America waging war on Islam. More than 80 percent of the population in Pakistan believes that American policy is directed against Islam, according to recent polls. Equal percentages consider the United States more of a threat than al Qaeda or the Taliban. As long as these attitudes prevail, there will be no end of would-be recruits willing to blow themselves up to kill Americans and their allies.

Over the decades, Washington has pumped tens of billions of dollars into the region in an elusive search for military solutions. The Pakistani military and intelligence forces we fund have actively supported the Taliban. Some of the Afghan warlords we armed in the 1980s are now leaders of the insurgency fighting U.S. and NATO forces. Jalaluddin Haqqani, whom former member of Congress Charlie Wilson described as “goodness personified,” currently commands one of the most ruthless Taliban factions.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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