A Journey Toward Radical Welcome

Photo via Vibe Images /

Photo via Vibe Images /

I had the sense, as a child, that God’s goodness and mercy would only follow me all of the days of my life if I was “good” and Christian. And I had the sense that good and Christian was a narrow way.

This meant two things. First, only “good” people, loving and kind people, people who had not erred or strayed or made mistakes or broken the law or never “back-slid” were the sheep worthy of grace and mercy. Second, only Christian people were in the fold. Not Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs — no, the steadfastly loving God had only space for those of us who accepted Jesus and our Lord and Savior AND who had lived sinless lives.

My child-like sense of “good” shifted when I was a teen serving as an elder in the Seventh Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Being up close and personal with my pastor, the late Rev. Oliver Brown, III and the adults around the table were first- hand lessons of the wide-open space of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

These good people — ordained people — were flawed and funny. They fussed and fought. They forgave each other, as God forgave them. My idea of good stretched and breathed and exhaled judgment and inhaled, experientially, that only God is good, that God in Jesus Christ shows this goodness in a particular way, and that all of God’s people are flawed and loved.

As a young adult before seminary, living life in the world, working, loving, breaking up, making up, having growing pains about identity and purpose and vocation, my spiritual muscles strengthened around the concept of the good shepherd who would love me enough to come and get me if I wandered.

Jesus is the ideal shepherd, the model shepherd, the best kind of shepherd; the one who makes the promises of God available to all of God’s people by laying down his life for the sheep.

I had not yet made the leap but most certainly have now to John 10:16.

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

This loving Shepherd has a huge and diverse flock. 

Is the U.S. a Model of Interfaith Harmony for a Violent World?

Photo: Robin Marchant / Getty Images for SiriusXM / RNS

Cardinal Timothy Dolan (right) hosts a minister, a rabbi, and an imam. Photo: Robin Marchant / Getty Images for SiriusXM / RNS

Is religion the cause of so much of the violence racking today’s world? Or is faith just one of many factors? Or collateral damage?

Those are tough questions, the kind that are usually posed to religious leaders, not by religious leaders.

But Cardinal Timothy Dolan wanted to switch things up on his weekly radio show, so he invited a minister, a rabbi, and an imam to tackle that issue. What sounds like the opening line of a joke was actually an in-depth discussion of “the rise of religious intolerance.”

“I don’t know if there would be anything more pertinent today, or more timely today, than religious harmony, or the lack thereof,” Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, said March 31 in opening a special edition of his program on the Catholic Channel of the SiriusXM network.

“The elephant in the room is that today, whether we like it or not, religion is often the cause of scandal,” he said.

“Religion is supposed to be an overwhelmingly positive force that brings people together, that increases love and understanding, human progress and human enlightenment.”

But many people today — believers and nonbelievers alike — see religion as the opposite, he said, and “that keeps the four of us up at night.”

A Muslim Actor Plays Jesus. It Works.

Screenshot from 'Killing Jesus' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Killing Jesus' trailer.

In a world surging with anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the persecution of Christians, a Muslim is soon to portray Jesus in a film called Killing JesusBased on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book of the same name, the film seeks to capture the human dynamics and political milieu around the controversial death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Haaz Sleiman, a Lebanese-born American Muslim, was chosen to play the lead as the Jesus character. His selection makes him virtually the first actor of Middle Eastern descent to ever play the role in any mainstream film.

While National Geographic’s attempt at authenticity should be celebrated, the casting of Sleiman has, instead, stirred quite the controversy.

Imagine — in a context where religious tribalism is growing fiercer, a Muslim is embodying the role of a Palestinian Jew and central figure to Christianity. Is this a heretical impossibility or is this a picture of something beautiful?

On Tuesday, I sat down with Haaz to explore the uniqueness of this moment in his career and how the experience of embodying the life and teachings of Jesus has left him forever changed.

What immediately stood out is the grace with which he is handling the criticism from Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Rather than worrying about the controversy, Sleiman feels lucky to have had the opportunity. For him, it was the “ultimate experience as an actor” as he had been “heavily shaped” by Jesus during his childhood. Growing up in a Muslim home, he was taught to revere Jesus as the prophet equal to Mohammed who had come to reveal the beauty and potential of humanity. To play this role gave him a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “become the character that he truly believes in.”

Is the Language of Business Enough?

I’M PRIVILEGED to be part of a program called the Prime Movers Fellowship, a circle of mainly younger-generation social change agents launched by Ambassador Swanee Hunt and her late husband, Charles Ansbacher. In December, the Prime Movers had a retreat with the Council of Elders, an inspiring group of civil rights era activists. Those two days contained some of the most profound conversations I’ve been part of in 10 years.

Rev. Joyce Johnson facilitated masterfully, opening sessions with prayer and sacred song. Rev. John Fife spoke about launching the Sanctuary movement through churches. Rabbi Art Waskow connected the theme of the Eric Garner killing (“I can’t breathe”) with the climate challenge (“We can’t breathe”).

Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center told a story about driving into the North Carolina mountains to try to convince a white supremacist to cancel a Ku Klux Klan rally in Greensboro. “I was driving alone,” he explained, “and halfway up the mountain I started to get a little scared. So I stopped my car and got down on my knees to pray. I felt God tell me I was doing something necessary, and I felt my courage return.” He got back into his car and drove on to the meeting.

AFTER THAT STORY, Rea Carey, a Prime Movers fellow, made an observation: When a civil rights era activist speaks, it is almost always infused with a deep religious commitment. When a younger-generation civic leader speaks, words such as “strategic plan,” “long-term objective,” and “metric” are far more common.

It was a striking enough insight that about 20 of us gathered in a breakout session to discuss it.

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Obama Condemns ‘Distorted’ Faith at National Prayer Breakfast

 Photo via REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

President Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 5. Photo via REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

President Obama on Feb. 5 called for an emphasis on what is just about the world’s religions as a way to counter the ways faith has been distorted across the globe.

“We see faith driving us to do right,” he said to more than 3,500 people attending the annual National Prayer Breakfast. “But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or worse, sometimes used as a weapon.”

He urged believers of all faiths to practice humility, support church-state separation and adhere to the Golden Rule as ways to keep religion in its proper context.

“As people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends,” Obama said.

“Here at home and around the world we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom: freedom of religion, the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.”

Reconciling the Faiths: An Interview with Fr. Nabil Haddad

Fr. Nabil Haddad, photo from Cynthia J. Martens

Fr. Nabil Haddad, photo from Cynthia J. Martens

Fr. Nabil Haddad is a passionate and energetic man. As a Melkite Catholic priest and dean of Old Cathedral in Amman, Jordan, he is especially passionate about fostering peace and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. This work keeps him very busy, as he travels often to bring his message of peace as far and wide as possible.

The day before we met, Fr. Nabil announced at a press conference a new initiative called Karama. Karama is the Arabic word for dignity. He stressed the importance of coexistence between the Abrahamic faiths and how this can be achieved through education focusing on human dignity and by talking about citizenship. Fr. Nabil said this approach is very successful in reaching the hearts and minds of the Muslim community.

“Do not make the religion of Islam the problem,” he said. “Instead use our vibrant witness – that is what is lacking in other societies.”