Reality TV’s ‘The Briefcase’ Looks at Line Between Need, Greed

Photo courtesy of ©2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc / RNS

The Wylie family from Rio Vista, Texas. Photo courtesy of ©2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc / RNS

If a briefcase of money fell in your lap, would you keep it, share it, or give it all away?

The new reality show The Briefcase is asking that question. But viewers and ethicists are asking more:

How could CBS put this on the air? Are there better ways to address the financial challenges of the middle class?

The hourlong show, which airs its fourth episode June 17, introduces two families each episode with the struggles of bills and not enough money coming in to achieve all their goals — whether dealing with a lost job, medical bills, or the potential costs of in vitro fertilization.

The Ice Bucket Challenge and Its Discontents

A child dumps ice water over his head. Image courtesy Suzanne Tucker/shutterstoc

A child dumps ice water over his head. Image courtesy Suzanne Tucker/

The Ice Bucket Challenge, or "IBC," needs little introduction. Over the past month or two, it's been the internet phenomenon of challenging friends, family and co-workers to participate in some combination of donating to the ALS Association, becoming educated about the disease, or dumping a bucket of ice-cold water over their head and video-taping it. The rules are somewhat (pardon the term) fluid—but basically, invitees are given 24 hours to respond and challenge up to three persons. I don't have precise numbers—they're still increasing—but ALSA has reported over 3 million donors and over 100 million dollars raised in the past few month. Not to mention the payoff of seeing your dear ones get soaked and squeal, shudder, or grin and bear it.

But I think it's also raised a second topic into public debate: the ethics of action and motivation. And even beyond the philanthropy going on, I think that's worth talking about, and I suspect it will be the Challenge's more enduring legacy.

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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Russell Moore on Sex (Answers to the Questions You Didn't Ask)

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, right, leads a June 9, 2014 panel. RNS photo courtesy Paul W. Lee

The issues sound like they belong on the therapist’s couch:

The couple that hasn’t had sex eight months into their marriage.

The parents who can’t deal with their son’s homosexuality.

The male teen who wants to be called by a girl’s name.

But they’re also the kinds of topics that frequently crowd the inbox of Russell Moore, who recently marked his first anniversary as the Southern Baptist Convention’s top public policy expert.

Though he often grapples with contentious political issues — the Hobby Lobby case, religious persecution, and, most recently, the immigrant border crisis — Moore has spent much of his first year at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission writing blog posts on Christian sexual ethics.

“Probably day to day I’m dealing with more church issues of how do we deal with these tough ethical issues,” he said recently.

Giving Thanks for a True Disciple

Glen Stassen

MY DEAR FRIEND Glen Stassen passed away on April 26. Glen was a key ally, a kindred spirit, and a deeply respected member of the Sojourners board. In my view, Glen was the most important Christian ethicist of his time because he taught us what it means to follow Jesus.

Many years ago a tall, thin, and very bright young man came to visit Sojourners community in Washington, D.C. He told us he was an ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and that he wanted to live with us and volunteer serving the poor. Glen stayed in one of our households and served on our food line, distributing bags of groceries to low-income families just 20 blocks from the White House. From my first conversation with him to the last, Glen Stassen never stopped talking about Jesus—and how Christians must not just believe in Christ in word but also follow him in deed. His most influential book, Kingdom Ethics, co-authored with David P. Gushee, was also the passion of his life and work.

Before Glen became a professor, he had a promising career in nuclear physics. He loved his work, but he was not willing to work in weapons development so he left to attend seminary and become a biblical scholar. Eventually, Glen formulated a powerful vision of “just peacemaking.” Using the creative and critical practices of conflict resolution, Glen’s framework guides us toward effective and faithful actions to both prevent and end wars.

In everything he did, Glen sought to bring Christian ethics to public life. Working with Glen on the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, I quickly discovered that he was not just an ethics theorist but a gifted practitioner who knew how to mobilize movements and change public policy. As a true disciple of Jesus, Glen wanted to change the world.

I HAD THE great blessing of offering the opening prayer at his funeral. Here is what I prayed:

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In the Name of Security

THE SAD RECORD of human history shows that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception—in criminal justice systems as well as in interethnic, intercommunal, and international conflicts.

The use of torture in such situations—and brutalities that might fall short of torture but are nonetheless brutalities—can have many motivations. Torture demonstrates absolute power. Torture wreaks vengeance. Torture intimidates. Torture punishes. Torture coerces behavior change. Torture harms, and sometimes the sheer (perverted) pleasure of doing harm is enough motivation. And yes, torture is sometimes deployed to elicit information, confession, or “actionable intelligence.” (This was the main ostensible reason why the U.S. tortured after 9/11. But other factors on this list should not be overlooked.)

Torture appears to come all too naturally to fallen humanity. That is a still quite useful theological term that conveys the belief that humanity was created good by a good God but has fallen into sin and thus has suffered disastrous individual and collective damage to its character. Fallen human beings and human communities resort easily to torture.

So one way to talk about the ethics of torture and brutality is to start exactly here—with the historically and theologically grounded claim that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception in human history, a dark but pervasive aspect of the behavior of fallen humanity. But what if we turn the discussion of torture upside down in what might be a constructive way?

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Pope Francis: An Imitation of Christ

Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photo: Paul Haring/Catholic News Service. Via RNS.

Pope Francis is TIME's Person of the Year. But that is only because Jesus is his "Person of the Day" — every day. 

Praises of the pope are flowing around the world, commentary on the pontiff leads all the news shows, and even late night television comedians are paying humorous homage. But a few of the journalists covering the pope are getting it right: Francis is just doing his job. The pope is meant to be a follower of Christ — the Vicar of Christ.

Isn’t it extraordinary how simply following Jesus can attract so much attention when you are the pope? Every day, millions of other faithful followers of Christ do the same thing. They often don’t attract attention, but they keep the world together.

Respect for Clergy Drops, But Among Republicans, Not So Much

A clergy member next to a cross looking out a window. Photo courtesy Berents via Shutterstock. Via RNS.

Clergy used to rank near the top in polls asking Americans to rate the honesty and ethics of people in various professions. This year, for the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1977, fewer than half of those polled said clergy have “high” or “very high” moral standards.

But opinions on clergy differed markedly by party, with Republicans viewing them far more favorably than Democrats.

Overall, 47 percent of respondents to the survey gave clergy “high” or “very high” ratings, a sharp drop in confidence from the 67 percent of Americans who viewed them this way in 1985.

Cell Phone Spying: Would Jesus Even Care?

Rena Schild /

Rally against mass surveillance in October in Washington, D.C., Rena Schild /

As if it wasn’t chilling enough to learn that NSA cronies are poring over your web browser history, now we discover that Barack Obama sits in bed at night and listens in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls to Domino’s.

Okay, maybe those are a bit of a stretch, but quite a buzz has been generated as of late about the revelation that the United States does, indeed, monitor the communications of leaders from allied nations, including the cell phone activity of Chancellor Merkel. For some, the collective reaction has been more of a collective shrug, as if such impositions should be expected from a global superpower that generally prefers to maintain that status. But for others, there’s a clear sense of shock and outrage.

For starters, let's clarify: nations cannot be friends.