Providence and Politics

Last week, a Liberty University student asked Gov. Mike Huckabee to account for his recent surge in the polls. "There's only one explanation for it, and it is not a human one," Huckabee claimed, "It is the same power that helped a little boy with two fishes and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people. And that's the only way our campaign could be doing what it is doing." In other words, God apparently wants Mike Huckabee to be president-or, at the very least, win the Iowa caucuses. And, [...]

Forever Young

If today we do not have a strong spirituality of aging, if we idealize youth more than old age, if we do not age gracefully, I wonder how much we have lost?

Time is no longer filled with presence and possibility, but has become merely a place for problem-solving, critique, and a necessary self-assertion. I have a tile on my hearth that says “No wise man ever wished to be younger.” (No wise woman either!) That is what you know by the second half of life and what you cannot know in any other way—although it’s possible to get to the second half of life and still not know it, as cosmetic surgeons can tell us.

It all depends on whether you actually “experience your experiences” and allow them to expand you. This is what I call natural contemplation or true presence. Without it, we just become elderly but do not become elders.

Maybe that is our problem. In Albuquerque where I serve, we have named our men’s ministry M.A.L.Es, which is an acronym for “men as learners and elders.” We saw that there were two things that most men are not naturally drawn toward: ongoing spiritual growth and their needed vocation as elders in family and society. Borrowing the phrase from Erik Erikson, we hope to create “generative” men who can actively care about the next generation.

For more than 14 years, I was a jail chaplain in Albuquerque. During that time I met many men and women who had been ravaged by life and had closed down, but I also met some who were actually wise elders (yes, even in jail!). I remember one older Latino man who served as a father figure for many of the younger men on his cell block, most of whom had huge father wounds. He told me that he has practiced different virtues during various periods of his life. For six months to a year at a time, he would focus on one, such as patience, mercy, positive thinking, or hopeful conversation. I recognized the “old” spirituality in the Christian tradition of “the cardinal virtues.”

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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Looking Forward in Hope

Whenever I read Luke’s account of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:25-38), I always picture a late afternoon in winter. Nature has slowed down. The day is dying. Things are slowing down in the temple, but Simeon and Anna—two faithful old people—are there.

Their long lives are drawing to a close. Maybe they are still physically robust, or maybe their bodies are trembly and their joints creaky; Luke doesn’t tell us. We know, though, that their spirits are strong and their faith is powerful. We know that their priorities are clear: They are looking forward in hope, not backward in bitterness and despair.

Luke’s story is a grandparent story. This is a story of the coming together of the great thresholds—birth and approaching death, beginnings and endings. Endings that are, in truth, new beginnings. Simeon and Anna—do they know each other? Maybe it’s a first time at the temple for Simeon, righteous and devout. Luke tells us that he has been waiting for a bittersweet message: looking forward to the consolation of Israel and the promise that he will not die until he has seen the Lord’s messiah. Even as he yearns for the good news, he knows that it presages the end of his earthly life. So now he has come in response to the message.

Anna, on the other hand, has been around seemingly forever—a fixture in the temple. She’s not just a pious old lady—she is a prophet. I have to wonder: Who conferred that identity upon her? Female prophets in the Bible are few and far between. Of course, there was Miriam, Moses’ sister, who saved her infant brother by a timely deception. Years later she joined him in a song of triumph. Spunky, she argued with the menfolk and was stricken with leprosy as a divinely ordained punishment. Anna is no Miriam, but she is spunky in her own distinctive way: Decades of faithful presence in the temple, a patriarchal place par excellence, cannot have been easy.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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'Come Let Us Reason Together'

The public discussion between evangelicals and progressives has been dominated by too many false choices and too much mutual misunderstanding. It is time to work for common ground on some of our most critical issues. There is a compelling vision we can address to the many Americans who are actually more “purple” than “red” or “blue.” What could evoke their convictions, reflect their values, summon their commitments, and change America? What would a broader and deeper moral politics or values politics begin to look like?

To ground that new politics, we need a better understanding of the role of faith in public life. Political appeals—even if rooted in religious convictions—must be argued on moral grounds, rather than as sectarian religious demands, so that the people, whether religious or not, may have the capacity to hear and respond. Religion must be disciplined by democracy and contribute to a better and more moral public discourse. Religious convictions must therefore be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. Religious people don’t get their way just because they are religious (in a nation that is often claimed to be a Judeo-Christian country). They, like any other citizens, have to convince their fellow citizens that what they propose is best for the common good—for all of us and not just for the religious. Clearly, the work to be done includes teaching religious people how to make their appeals in moral language and secular people not to fear such appeals will lead to theocracy.

This kind of effort could result in a new political agenda that doesn’t fit the standard right/left battles of American politics and is more consistent with our deeply held values. That new agenda would be good news for the majority of American who are alienated by the political extremes and are hungry—not for a soulless centrism—but for a new moral center in our public life.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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No Religious Tests

I couldn't help but be struck by a bizarre similarity in two back-to-back events this week: the YouTube/CNN Republican forum and the swearing in of Pakistan's President Musharaf broadcast by NPR. Although worlds apart, both demonstrated what happens when religion and politics mix in a less-than-productive way-the insistence on religious tests for holding office.

In the case of President Musharaf, he took the oath of office to a country with Islam as the state religion by swearing that [...]

My Response to a Muslim Call for Common Ground

Christianity and Islam comprise the world's largest communities of faith - 2.1 billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims. If these two religious traditions cannot find ways to keep peace between themselves, the world will be in very serious trouble. As Brian McLaren posted earlier on this blog, a group of 138 Muslim scholars and clerics recently sent an open letter to Christians around the world, [...]

Canned Compassion

Thanksgiving is the time of year when American generosity is clearly visible. We make donations to our local food banks and homeless shelters and volunteer in soup kitchens. But do we really believe that is the solution to hunger?

Mark Winne, former director of Connecticut's Hartford Food System, answered the question in yesterday's Washington Post. In a piece titled