I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: "Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It's like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old.
I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: “Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It’s like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old. The train ends up here at Sing Sing.” But then he said, “Some of us have been converted, and when we get out, we’re going to go back and stop that train.”
That’s exactly what President Obama’s launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” is calling us to do: to stop the train that is taking young men of color from broken economies, schools, families, and lives into despair, anger, disengagement, trouble, violence, crime, prison, and even death at an early age. This is an urgent and long-overdue moral call that must supersede all our political differences.
While the president’s agenda has always included goals intended to help all Americans, this launch was painfully, powerfully, and prophetically specific.
I have great respect for religion writer Jonathan Merritt, even though we disagree on a lot of social and theological issues. He evoked a maelstrom about his article suggesting the Arizona law allowing businesses to deny service to LGBTQ people was less than Christian, and yet he stands behind his words.
Basically, many prominent voices from the Baptist and Neo-Calvinist camps went berserk about his call for tolerance; never mind that he didn’t even take on the moral issues surrounding LGBTQ identity itself. It was simply enough that he called for equal treatment of all people as fellow human beings, period. But he broke rank with the conservative Christian rank-and-file, which depends heavily on uniformity of voice and position on key issues.
Merritt took a risk, knowing full well that he’d likely suffer for it. And he did. In a small online forum of fellow religion writers, he expressed dismay both at the aggressive, hateful nature of peoples’ response from the right, as well as the relative palpable silence from the center and left.
For that, to the degree that I can speak for myself and others like me, I’m sorry, Jonathan. When someone steps out like this, putting himself at risk, we should rally to support him, as much as those on the right rally behind causes.
In the Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, Baphumelele Respite Care Centre and Clinic serves abandoned children as well as ill adults. The staff faces daily the anguish of caring for babies and older children with serious congenital alcohol and drug syndrome or HIV/AIDS complications. A compassionate professional team and scores of volunteers provide education and rehabilitative residential care for countless patients and support to child headed homes.
A nurse friend on the staff gave witness to the disparity between day-to-day realities when faced with the inadequate response by government and societal leaders. It is stunningly the case in South Africa in the post-Mandela era. The clinic was started in 1989 by the local founding-director Rosealia Mashale, “Rosie,” who could not abandon vulnerable children to the trash heap.
Even with more than 25 similar agencies active in the sprawling location of mostly substandard housing and services there are thousands still in need.
Professor Jonathan Jansen, a trusted commentator in South Africa and author of We Need to Act, reminds citizens to leave their comfort zones and contribute to righting the wrongs of society
Arizona has been in the news because of an attempt to get a law on the books that would give Christian business owners the right to refuse products or services on religious grounds. Many commentators feared it would create a right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. A robust debate has ensued around the question of whether it is Christian to refuse service for any reason or more Christian to serve everyone without qualification. It’s a good debate and it has revolved around the interpretation of certain Biblical texts – the so-called “clobber texts” and whether they condemn homosexual behavior; the call to be neighborly and love our enemies and whether that includes a bit of tough love now and then. My view was well explained by Benjamin Corey – I’m on the love everyone, no exceptions side of this debate with Ben. To my way of thinking, the law was very un-Christian and I’m glad that Gov. Jan Brewer refused to sign it .
But despite Ben Corey’s eloquence and my agreement with him, we didn’t really settle anything. These verbal jousting matches about whose interpretation of Christianity is more true, important as they are, don’t go deep enough. I’d like to introduce a historical element by looking closely at what religion is and how it has functioned in human history. The question I want to ask is not whether it’s Christian to exclude someone but whether it is religious. I’d like to make the case that the answer is yes, it is religious, and propose that Christianity, and any religion that emphasizes the unity of humanity over our differences, is therefore not a religion like other religions. Christianity is therefore more radical than most of its adherents realize.
“Never in my life has my very faith been called into question like this.”
That’s what young evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt told me this week. His statement followed a media firestorm, ignited when both he and Kirsten Powers, weighed in on proposed laws in Kansas and Arizona that would have allowed business owners to deny service to gay couples, based on conservative religious beliefs about homosexuality. Merritt and Powers each suggested that justifying legal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples might not be the best form of Christian outreach and raised consistency issues of whether discrimination would also be applied to other less than “biblical” marriages, or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.
Their columns in both the Religion News Service and the Daily Beast have provoked intense responses from many Southern Baptists (where Merritt has his own heritage), those who call themselves Neo or “New” Calvinists, and other assorted critics from the political right.
Neither Merritt nor Powers took clear theological positions on all the sexuality issues involved. But both have been stunned by the responses from emails, tweets, and angry phone calls. The 1,200 Twitter notifications, messages, and calls from “leaders” that Merritt has received in the last few days include, “You only pretend to worship Jesus.” “You’re not a Christian.” “You are the enemies of Christianity.” “You’re marginalized now.” “You’re damaged goods.” “You’re on the outs now.”
Merritt and Powers were not questioning the gospel; they were “just asking whether we should discriminate against a whole group of people.” Both columnists believe Christians can honestly disagree on these complicated questions surrounding sexuality, but wanted to raise a discussion about whether passing laws that discriminate based on one religious point of view was wise, especially in this rapidly changing culture.