Economy

Pope Francis Calls on Catholics and the Church to Kneel Before Poor Families

Photo via Alessandro Di Meo / Catholic News Service / RNS

Pope Francis speaks at the Vatican on June 3, 2015. Photo via Alessandro Di Meo / Catholic News Service / RNS

Pope Francis praised poor families and their ability to “save society from barbarity,” on June 3, at a general audience at St. Peter’s Square in which he also named war and individualism as twin evils.

Addressing crowds of followers undeterred by the hot summer weather, the pope urged them to “kneel before these poor families.”

“They are a real school of humanity and they save society from barbarity,” he said.

Making Jesus a Patriot

IN A RECENT interview, Wendell Berry reiterated how perplexed he was that many Christians who are guided by a deep love for God can participate so willingly in an economy that is rapidly devastating God’s creation. In his new book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse offers a narrative that sheds light on how our churches got into the mess that Berry bemoans. As the book’s subtitle indicates, the primary story that Kruse traces is that of the genesis of “Christian America,” which unfolded not in the era of the Founding Fathers, as David Barton and other conservative Christians contend, but rather in the mid-20th century with industrialists who rallied churches to oppose FDR’s New Deal.

Kruse’s story began in the 1930s with the decision of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to invest in “spreading the gospel of free enterprise” and its alliance with an organization called Spiritual Mobilization, which carried NAM’s message of libertarian politics and free enterprise to churches across the United States. These efforts to promote the synergy of Christian faith and big business picked up steam in the 1940s and blossomed in the 1950s, finding an ally in the White House in Dwight Eisenhower. Symbolic of this movement’s successes were the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (1954) and the adoption of “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the U.S. (1956), both during the Eisenhower presidency.

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In Sickness and Health

WHAT IS OUR responsibility to expectant mothers, workers suffering from prolonged illness, or parents with children dealing with a significant sickness? Many Christians will assume the “our” in question refers to individual believers or the church as a community of believers. But what if the “our” refers to society as a whole? How is the question answered then?

This is more than an abstract question. Across the U.S.—at local, state, and federal levels—governments are debating policies that would expand paid sick leave. The issue itself isn’t complicated: Some workers have paid time off when they or a family member falls ill, while tens of millions of others—disproportionately low-wage workers—do not. The latter often face the difficult choice of struggling through shifts while sick or staying home and putting their livelihoods at risk.

The benefits of paid sick leave policies are well documented, with studies detailing the economic benefits paid sick leave provides by lowering employee turnover and training costs, reducing public-assistance spending, and improving productivity. “Working sick costs the national economy $160 billion annually in lost productivity,” according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Even greater gains can be realized when expanded family leave policies are included.

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When Decemberism Crucifies Christmas

Volodymyr Baleha / Shutterstock.com

Volodymyr Baleha / Shutterstock.com

One of the dominant dogmas of the season seems to be both loud and clear: Our value as human beings is often dictated by our capacity to contribute toward economic growth.

This is what happens when Decemberism crucifies Christmas.

One may define “Decemberism” as a state in which the value of human life is determined exclusively by our personal rates of production and consumption. We notice this condition most often, of course, in December. Decemberism is the predominant religious tradition of the so-called “holiday shopping season,” and the significance of Christmas is consistently crucified as a result. As Victor Lebow states:

“Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

In striking contrast to the Christmas ramifications of God’s incarnation, to be a human of any value in our current context is closely connected with supply and demand, even if it all leads to our personal and public self-destruction.

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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Do Black Atheists Have Different Concerns Than White Atheists?

Sikivu Hutchinson, a well-known atheist speaker and member of Los Angeles’ Black Skeptics. Photo courtesy of Diane Arellano/RNS.

Absolutely, say organizers of a first-of-its-kind conference to be held by atheists of color in Los Angeles this weekend. And, they add, it’s about time those issues got some attention.

Called “Moving Social Justice,” the conference will tackle topics beyond the usual atheist conference fare of confronting religious believers and promoting science education. Instead, organizers hope to examine issues of special interest to nonwhite atheists, especially the ills rooted in economic and social inequality.

“Atheism is not a monolithic, monochromatic movement,” said Sikivu Hutchinson, an atheist activist, author and founder of Los Angeles’ Black Skeptics, one member of a coalition of black atheist and humanist groups staging the conference.

“By addressing issues that are culturally and politically relevant to communities of color, we are addressing a range of things that are not typically addressed within the mainstream atheist movement.”

The conference is unusual for an atheist gathering in another important way — its lineup of speakers includes members of the religious community. Hutchinson, often an outspoken critic of religion, described the conference as “effectively an interfaith conference.”

Taking the Long Road Home

HERE’S WHAT Slow Church is not: A how-to manual with five easy steps to make your congregation more thoughtful. A celebration of how using the word “community” often on your church website will multiply your pledge and attendance numbers. An ode to really, really long worship services.

Rather, Slow Church explores being church in a way that emphasizes deep engagement in local people and places, quality over quantity, and in all things taking the long view—understanding individuals and congregations as participants in the unfolding drama of all creation. Authors C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison are self-proclaimed “amateurs,” insofar as they are writers-editors and lay leaders, not professional pastors, theologians, or congregational consultants. But this book is richly informed by their experience in their own church contexts (Englewood Christian Church in a gritty neighborhood in Indianapolis for Smith; an evangelical Quaker meeting in small-town Oregon for Pattison), conversations with other church communities, and close reading of classic and contemporary literature on culture, Christian community, scripture, and spirituality.

The book’s name is a reference to the International Slow Food Movement, which resists the homogenizing and industrializing effects of globalization on food. Smith and Pattison cite sociologist George Ritzer’s argument that fast-food principles, what he calls “McDonaldization”—marked by efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control—are taking over broad areas of culture in the U.S. and beyond. The authors see McDonaldization affecting churches as well, as church-growth methods and the pace of consumer culture push congregations to seek faster gratification and achieve business-inflected benchmarks. Slow Church is an argument to return to the countercultural roots of the church, the ones that call it to be salt and leaven in the places it is planted. Smith and Pattison write:

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A Burning Truth

BETWEEN 6:30 AND 7 nearly every morning, a dark rumble drifts up through the chilled air from the railroad tracks at the bottom of our hayfield in the Adirondack foothills of New York. A line of more than 100 black tanker cars, mostly full of fracked Bakken oil from North Dakota, rolls southward. They will pass the field where our neighbor’s kids play, then close alongside beautiful Lake Champlain, which defines this region, and on to Albany, where the oil will be put on barges and floated down the Hudson River to New Jersey, to be stored or refined.

Tanker cars like these have been blowing up recently. An accident north of us, over the Canadian border, flattened a downtown and killed 47 people. These cars carry a mix of crude oil and volatile compounds arising from the fracking process, making them dangerously flammable. I worry about my small town’s volunteer fire fighters, all of whom I know personally and admire greatly, who do not have the expertise or the equipment to deal with an accident like that.

Watching the tanker cars, I am also haunted by a scene seared into my memory five months ago. We are driving east along U.S. Route 2 in North Dakota, our small camper in tow, trying to pass through Williston, smack in the middle of the Bakken oil fields.

As the sun sets, we see hundreds of oil and gas rigs flaring excess volatile gases in huge plumes of orange flame. Processing plants spew fumes of God-knows-what. There are row upon row of metal trailers, boxes really, actually used as housing for people. Unrelenting traffic beats a path on the undivided highway under furious construction, with no breakdown lanes or turn-offs for miles. Huge water tankers and oil trucks force us to move onward at 60 mph; there will be no rest for us here, as all campgrounds, gas stations, and parking lots are filled with the rigs of the temporary workers.

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No Short or Easy Struggle

FIFTY YEARS AGO, on Aug. 20, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law. It had already been a momentous year. The Civil Rights Act was signed in early July, ending legal segregation. Mississippi Freedom Summer was underway, with hundreds of volunteers joining in voter registration campaigns. The effort to overcome poverty was the next step toward economic empowerment.

The Act created 11 different programs, including the Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and both rural and urban Community Action Programs. Collectively referred to as the “War on Poverty,” the programs were coordinated by the Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1965, Medicaid and Medicare were created to provide health insurance for people in poverty and the elderly, and Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided funding to school districts with students in poverty. It was the most comprehensive package of social legislation since the New Deal.

Results of the programs have been mixed, with the most striking gains for older Americans. According to a special report from U.S. News & World Report, “While the national poverty rate has ultimately fallen by 4 points since 1964, when the War on Poverty began, from 19.0 in 1964 to 15.0 percent in 2012, the poverty rate for people over 65 has plummeted by more than two-thirds, from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 9.1 percent in 2012.” But with the poverty rate still at 15 percent—46.5 million people in the country currently live below the poverty line—where do we go from here?

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The Impact Of Cafeteria Religion On Political Engagement

These tensions are also increasingly relevant to the Democratic Party. After decades of playing defense when it comes to faith and politics, Democrats have begun to coalesce around a set of issues important to the faith community. Organizations like Faith in Public Life,NETWORK, Sojourners, PICO and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (all of whom the authors consulted for the Faith in Equality report), provide external communications and political support to core Democratic issues, including economic fairness and addressing inequality.

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