Common good

A Handbook for Justice

FAITH-ROOTED Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World outlines a theological cartography of social change. In this critical intervention, Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel reimagine—and as a necessary consequence, rechart—the landscape of vision, action, and strategic planning needed for social change.

Full disclosure: I have attended several trainings conducted by the co-authors. Indeed, the dual authorship of the text is a principal strength. Faith-Rooted Organizing blends the voice of an evangelical-activist theologian in Heltzel with the homespun profundity of a seasoned pastor and campaign organizer in Salvatierra. The authors delight readers with complementary writing styles: Heltzel speaks through theological propositions, interpolated intermittently with jazz references and theological punch lines; Salvatierra communicates through proverbs, organizing anecdotes, poignant biblical passages, and narrative side notes.

The result is a well-argued and accessible text that should resonate from the seminary to the sanctuary. Their driving thesis is that faith communities, especially Christian ones, should organize for social change in a way that is rooted and guided by the stories, symbols, sayings, and scriptures of our faith. Faith-Rooted Organizing functions as an instruction manual on effective advocacy while providing a theological rationale and vocabulary for a vocation marked by tremendous victories and colossal failures, breakthrough partnerships and fragmented coalitions, glimpses of beloved community and portraits of democracy stillborn.

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Happy Birthday, Prostate Cancer, and the Common Good

Birthday cake icon, Super3D / Shutterstock.com
Birthday cake icon, Super3D / Shutterstock.com

Last week, I celebrated my birthday. This annual occurrence has taken on new meaning in light of what happened last year around the same time. I had major surgery for prostate cancer. The diagnosis was quite unexpected, with absolutely no signs or symptoms beforehand. But my health provider, Kaiser Permanente, caught it in time and the doctors at the National Institutes of Health performed a very successful operation that removed all of the cancer. So far, regular tests have shown there is no more cancer in my body and for that, our family is very grateful.

Gratitude is the right word and the deepest feeling I had while celebrating my birthday, one year after the cancer surgery. The emotion of that gratitude went even deeper when we lost one of my dearest friends, Christian ethics professor Glen Stassen, just a few weeks ago — to prostate cancer that spread outside of his prostate. They didn’t catch Glen’s cancer in time.

I vividly remember my response after the surgery last year — a new recognition of how fragile and utterly precious life is and especially how utterly priceless your closest relationships are — the ones you love most in the world. For me that’s my wife Joy, and my sons Luke and Jack. My larger family got included in that too, my dearest friends where I live and work, and around the world, my extended community.

I resolved to operate every day with that recognition of how precious my life and relationships are to me. 

New & Noteworthy

LIFE WITH PURPOSE
In Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, Steven Garber writes eloquently of the challenge "to see with the eyes of the heart, to see oneself as responsible for the way the world is and isn't" without succumbing to cynicism. IVP Books

SAVED SONGS
Just months before civil war erupted in Syria, a small group of Syria Sufi musicians known as NAWA were recorded peforming nearly lsot melodies, songs, and poems on Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo. This is the first album in a planned four-part Sacred Voices of Syria series. Cowbell/Lost Origins

WORKERS SPEAK
The oral histories gathered in Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy, compiled and edited by Corinne Goria, give a too rare chance to hear from manual laborers around the world and learn of the dangers and abuse they face daily. Voice of Witness

PEACEFUL COURAGE
The historical novel Jacob's Choice, by Ervin R. Stutzman, follows Jacob Hochstetler, an Amish settler in the 1700s who endures the killing of family members and captivity in the midst of the French and Indian War, all putting his pacifist beliefs to the test. Based on actual events. Herald Press

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10 Personal Decisions for the Common Good

WE LIVE IN an age in which we are encouraged to make decisions that further our personal benefit. This attitude is so pervasive that it extends even to our spiritual lives.

There is a danger in making our faith so personal and inward, so focused on the first commandment to love God with all our hearts, minds, and strength, that we forget to keep the second commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Though our culture would tell us to look out for number one, Christ’s upside-down kingdom offers a different and subversive message: Lose your life and you’ll find it. The church was designed to display the “manifold wisdom of God” by creating a community full of people who, like Jesus, put others before themselves and seek the common good. Christian community is intended to be a living witness, to demonstrate and to anticipate the future of the world that has arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, it’s impossible to keep the second commandment without loving God with everything we have, but it’s also impossible to keep the first without loving our neighbors as ourselves.

A thriving common good and the quality of our life together are deeply affected by the personal decisions we all make. The commons—those places we come together as neighbors and citizens to share public space—will never be better than the quality of our own lives and households.

But what does that look like on a practical level? How can the choices we make as individuals reinforce the common good and promote human flourishing? As I’ve asked myself these questions, I’ve come up with 10 personal decisions we can make to further the common good.

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Loose Threads

Single thread, itsmejust / Shutterstock.com
Single thread, itsmejust / Shutterstock.com

I noticed a loose thread in a blanket the other day and was reminded of something my mom always said: Never pull on a loose thread. All that will do is make it worse. It’ll yank on the other threads and wind up creating a knot. Even if you do manage to remove the one loose thread without doing too much damage to the fabric, it’ll leave a space that starts the nearby threads working their way loose, too.

Soon, the whole thing unravels. Removing even one thread from the fabric creates big problems.

Isn’t it the same with us?

Each of us is a thread woven into the fabric of our world. We’re looped around each other, pulled tightly to one another, intimately bound to one another. We’re so closely intertwined that we can’t be separated without making it all unravel.

By ourselves, we are a thread. Together, we are a blanket.

The weaver made it so.

A Leap of Faith: Confessions from Davos

Jim Wallis speaking at the World Economic Forum
Jim Wallis speaking at the World Economic Forum

"We are perhaps among the most included in this global economy. So how will the most included reach out to the most excluded this year?"

Editor’s Note: The following text and video is from Jim Wallis’ closing talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling those in positions of leadership to implement values that benefit the common good.

In our opening session for this 2014 annual meeting, we heard a letter read to us from Pope Francis, a leader who has captured the attention of the world. He called us here to “deeper reflection” and to “reshaping the world.” He said something quite striking, “I ask you to insure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”

So, to that deeper reflection: I believe that for many of us here at Davos, there was a moment — a remark from a session, a smaller discussion, a meal interaction, a personal conversation, or a walk in the snow — that made us think and feel some things we don’t normally focus on in our day-to-day environment back home. It could have been an insight, a new angle or framework, a challenge, or a reminder of things lost — something that struck you more deeply than just more talk and made an impact on you. Often these insightful moments are about our values, or challenge our values, or bring us back to a moral compass that we have, or would like to have, or miss from earlier in our lives.

Why the Debt Ceiling Matters

AS FIGHTS ABOUT the budget and other economic issues are again riveting the nation’s capital, the rest of the country yawns. Possible government shutdowns, threats to default on our nation’s debt, and proposals to decimate food assistance for struggling Americans seem to be business as usual in Washington, D.C. These budget battles have become so frequent that it is tempting to dismiss it all as political posturing. But that would be a mistake.

The biggest challenge facing Congress should be a non-issue. The debt ceiling is simply the amount of debt the U.S. is legally allowed to hold. It is about paying off the bills that Congress has already incurred from past appropriations—not about giving permission for new government spending, as many people falsely assume. Congress has raised it nearly 100 times since the end of World War II, but it only recently became a political football. Because the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling and defaulting on our nation’s obligations could be catastrophic, some leaders have tried to leverage it for political gain. After the country came close enough to a default in 2011 to receive a credit downgrade, President Obama has responsibly refused to negotiate over raising it. His assumption is that GOP leaders in Congress wouldn’t throw the economy off the cliff for their own political gain. The American people are left watching this game of chicken and hoping somebody blinks.

While this is clearly a partisan game, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The U.S. has always honored its debts. Should the country default, the market turmoil and long-term effects could be catastrophic for the global economy. Domestically, it could throw the U.S. back into recession.

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Interdependence Day

Network concept, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com
Network concept, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

As we celebrate our nation’s independence this week, it’s good that we also celebrate our interdependence. Everything that we do, everything that we have, all that we are bears the fingerprints of countless others from around the world who have brought us to this moment and sustain us in it.

We tend to overlook this reality. We like to think of ourselves as independent. We dread those times when we feel dependent upon others — when we’re sick or struggling and need some sort of assistance. We’d rather do it ourselves and feel independent, even though we‘re really not.

Lessons in Creating Ubuntu

Conversations in Transition is a veritable graduate course in what South Africans call ubuntu, or good neighborliness.

Charles Villa-Vicencio and Mills Soko present 23 narratives of both well-known and unsung heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. These narratives are filled with instructive words of wisdom for seekers of peace with justice in countries emerging from post-tyranny chaos and in long-established democracies alike. Historians and activists will find hope in the stories of South Africa’s courageous, diverse citizens, as well as prophetic insights and warnings as the subjects address post-apartheid violence and oppression in a country still on the edge.

My own experiences lead me to an unqualified endorsement of this invaluable compendium. Over several decades I have pondered repeatedly two particular conversations, one with a Jew in Israel and the other with a Muslim from Cape Town.

An effort was made to introduce the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process into the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the end of an evening with South African officials and members of the Israeli and Palestinian communities, the director of a Jewish study center in West Jerusalem, Benjamin Pogrund, shared a revealing comment. He said, “TRC will never work here because Israelis do not have the theological and philosophical understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation that Muslims, Christians, and Jews shared in South Africa in order to bring unity and liberation without major conflict.”

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A New Wave

FOR ANYONE who’s sick of explaining that not all evangelicals are flag-waving, Quran-burning, gay-hating, science-skeptic, anti-abortion ralliers, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians provides a boost of encouragement. Written by frequent USA Todaycontributor Tom Krattenmaker, this who’s who of “new-paradigm evangelicals” explains how a growing movement of Jesus-followers are “pulling American evangelicalism out of its late 20th-century rut and turning it into the jaw-dropping, life-changing, world-altering force they believe it ought to be.”

Unlike their predecessors, these new evangelicals are characterized by a willingness to collaborate with members of other religions and no religion for the common good, warm acceptance of LGBTQ folks, a rejection of the dualistic pro-life vs. pro-choice debate, and a desire to participate in mainstream culture rather than wage war against it. All this “while lessening their devotion to Jesus by not a single jot or tittle.”

Admittedly, the book’s cover photo doesn’t quite do justice to Krattenmaker’s observations. Featuring young worshipers in a dark sanctuary with hands uplifted and eyes closed, each apparently lost in a private moment of four-chord progression praise, the cover looks more like a Hillsong worship concert circa 1998 than cutting-edge 2013 evangelicals. (If you’re unfamiliar with the four-chord progression, Google “how to write a worship song in five minutes or less.” You’re welcome.)

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