I got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?
Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.
My feeling upon hanging up the phone — and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at my church — was, Who, me?
I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.
The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”
Eight years ago, a 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this — and please don’t get me wrong, I was excited. There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President — “Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church — we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?”
But all that came out was, “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.
The breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of, too. From Vice President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections (and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!)to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday.
And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.
The United States and Iran agreed to a preliminary deal on Iran's nuclear program today, Politico reports. The hotly anticipated deal, following stop-and-start negotiations and vocal concern from Republicans and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will include Iran dismantling two-thirds of its centrifuges and allowing rigiourous inspections by the IAEA through 2035 and beyond. In exchange for Iran's compliance, the U.S. and the E.U. will lift longstanding economic sanctions.
President Obama was optimistic but pragmatic, saying the plan was a "good deal," according to Politico:
"'[It is] a historic understanding with Iran which, if implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I am convinced that if this framework leads to a final deal, it will make our country and the world safer,' Obama said in a statement in the White House Rose Garden. The deal would 'cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.'
... Obama stressed in particular the inspection and verification aspects of the agreement. 'If Iran cheats, the world will know it. If we see anything suspicious, we will inspect it,' Obama said.
...'If there is backsliding on the part of the Iranians,' he said, 'there will be no deal.'"
The Win Without War coalition called the preliminary deal "huge news" in a statement, also released today:
"At a time when much of the Middle East is engulfed in war, the United States is on the verge of achieving one of our most pressing national security goals without dropping a single bomb. Today's progress towards a comprehensive, historic agreement between Iran, the United States, and our P5+1 partners not only ensures that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, but it demonstrates precisely how America can win without war."
Details of the plan are anticipated in late June. Read more at Politico.
"I am neither angry nor surprised by these white extremists getting caught doing what white extremists do. This is American tradition. These are the words embedded in the psyches of these white fraternity brothers before they can even speak."
In honor of Women’s History Month, check out who made this list of top religious women upholding full gender equality.
“The global response must be multifaceted. Still, as the international anti-ISIS coalition led by the United States considers nonmilitary options to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, it should focus on empowering local civil society in Syria and Iraq with targeted resources, technologies, and knowledge to build resilience and deny ISIS the moral and material support it needs to wield effective control.”
“Research on both sides of the aisle has confirmed a quiet crisis in American life: over the last few decades, the social fabric of the poor and working class has come apart at the seams. ...A vocal cadre of conservatives have cohered around a theory of what happened: the post-1960s turn away from traditional moral values. But like any theory, it must fit the available data and it must be internally consistent. This one fails on both counts.”
“These things have been silenced: the tremendous spiritual power of sexuality, menstruation, breastfeeding, and birth; the shame-map of internalized emotional violence that holds these powers in check; the capacity — and obligation — of Gospel love to dissolve the boundaries of gender. ...To tell these things has been imund, forbidden. If you tell these things, you may be held responsible for all the feelings of all the people who are shaken in their boots by what you say.”
Politico magazine traces the roots of the British man’s transformation to ISIS executioner, examining the difference between ideology-based and poverty-driven extremism.
“Renewables now generate nearly half of Nicaragua's electricity, a figure that government officials predict could rise to 80 percent within a few years. That compares to just 13 percent in the United States.”
Twenty-one aid organizations released a report this week detailing the increasing violence, impoverishment, and despair of the Syrian people. It cites, “Huge increases in the number of people in need of humanitarian aid inside Syria; 1.33 million more children are in need and there has been a 31 percent increase among the population as a whole.”
The Onion’s satire nails the complicated tensions of food and poverty in the U.S.
President Obama joined in on a Jimmy Kimmel classic bit on Thursday, reading aloud a handful of “mean tweets” aimed at him.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge was named after a Confederate general who became a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. His name, still emblazoned over the top of that now famous bridge, was a powerful and threatening symbol of white power and supremacy in Selma, Ala. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had at one time removed Selma from their list of places to organize because “the white folks were too mean, and black folks were too afraid."
But that didn’t deter a group of courageous African Americans from marching across that bridge a half-century ago, risking their lives for the right to vote in America. They were attacked and beaten by the fierce forces, led by notorious Sheriff Jim Clark, for their resistance to the frightening violence of white power.
Last Saturday, during the 50th anniversary event of “Bloody Sunday,” I spent many hours just looking at that bridge. The words that kept coming to me were “courage” and “resistance.” My question became: what bridge we will now have to cross?
Congressman John Lewis, whose skull was cracked that day as a young man, opened the main event.
"On that day, 600 people marched into history … We were beaten, tear gassed, some of us [were] left bloody right here on this bridge. … But we never became bitter or hostile. We kept believing that the truth we stood for would have the final say.”
Then Lewis introduced the president, "If someone had told me, when we were crossing this bridge, that one day I would be back here introducing the first African-American president, I would have said you're crazy.”
What happened on this bridge, President Barack Obama said, “was a contest to determine the meaning of America,” and where “the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America … ultimately triumphed.”
American Jewish leaders and activists are worried about widening political divisions between Israel and the White House, sparked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congress on Tuesday despite strident objections by President Obama.
Many are concerned about the threat to Israel from Iran’s nuclear program and the prospect of a weak deal with the United States to curb it, an issue on which Netanyahu has been an outspoken Obama critic. Even so, they believe Netanyahu’s unrestrained attacks on the White House and in-your-face visit jeopardizes the close ties Israel has long enjoyed with the United States.
“People are upset about it,” said Rob Eshman, publisher and editor in chief of the Jewish Journal, a Los Angeles-based publication and website.
“They’re obviously concerned about Iran and want a good deal and think it’s really unfortunate that Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing this — creating a conflict outside the existing conflict.”
The divisiveness among Americans mirrors that of many Israelis equally concerned the visit will plunge traditionally close relations between U.S. and Israeli leaders to an unprecedented low.
1. How David Carr Described His Messy Relationship with Faith
“I am a man who swears frequently, goes to church every Sunday, and lives in search of faith.” New York Times media columnist David Carr died Thursday after collapsing in the newsroom. He was 58.
2. Friends of the Chapel Hill Shooting Victims Share Their Memories
In the aftermath of the shooting deaths of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C., Coming of Faith compiled stories from friends of the victims. And view a collection of moving images from the Wednesday evening vigils that brought together three rival colleges and an entire community.
3. AUDIO: 'Hello, My Name is Yusor Abu-Salha'
“Growing up in America has been such a blessing. … I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture. And here, we’re all one.” In May 2014, one of the victims of Tuesday’s Chapel Hill shooting recorded a StoryCorps interview with her 3rd grade teacher. Here are clips from that interview and her teacher’s reflection on Yusor’s death.
4. U.S. Slams Sudan for Blocking Darfur Mass Rape Investigation
“Speaking at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power referred to a new report by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which accused Sudanese soldiers of raping at least 221 women and girls in the village of Tabit over the course of three days. … ‘To this day, the government of Sudan has shamefully denied the U.N. the ability to properly investigate this incident,’ Power told the 15-nation council.”
5. WATCH: Things Everybody Does But Doesn’t Talk About
In case you’re not one of the 20+ million people who have already watched this clip, check out President Obama’s BuzzFeed video debut. … You know you have trouble pronouncing February too.
I’m very offended. Or so I’m told. As a believing Christian, I’m supposed to be deeply troubled by the remarks that President Barack Obama delivered at the recent National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington, DC. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore had this to say:
The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.
Strong words. But what were Obama’s terribly offensive remarks? Here’s what the president said:
And lest we get on our high horse and think [religious violence] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
Wait… what? Why should I be offended by that? That’s a fact. That’s our history. Every Christian should be aware of what we are capable of when we turn our eyes away from the self-sacrificing love of Jesus and instead turn Christianity into an ideology that justifies terror, brutality, oppression, and war.
It should be impossible to study Western history without getting some glimpse into the terrifying possibilities that any religious system — including Christian ones — hold out for those who seek to dominate others. We humans have a long track record of twisting our most precious faith into a weapon of violence and hatred. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement; it should be a matter of ongoing repentance and prayer for people of faith everywhere.
So I’m confused.
In his annual State of the Union address last week, President Obama began his foreign policy focus by saying, “If there’s one thing this new century has taught us, it’s that we cannot separate our work at home from challenges beyond our shores.”
Unfortunately, an insidiously prevalent challenge and hugely profitable crime facing the world — modern slavery and human trafficking — was not mentioned in the President’s list of current global concerns facing the U.S. on Tuesday night. To be fair, he has given a major address on the topic before. But no president has ever raised the issue in his big annual address.
That needs to change.
Incidentally, the President just finished a multi-day trip to India, home to almost one-half of the world’s enslaved people. In a surprise and welcome development, he brought up the topic in his last speech there — a pointed one on human rights — saying, “Together, we can stand up against human trafficking and work to end the scourge of modern-day slavery.”
Raising the issue in this context is an important step in naming the problem. Indeed, one of our country’s most effective tools for fighting slavery — the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report — consistently pulls its punches specifically on India, declining to hold them fully accountable for the massive level of human exploitation there. Given India’s size and wealth, our larger foreign policy apparatus deems it more important to avoid “risking” other geopolitical concerns with the diplomatic fallout that could come from telling the truth on slavery.
This week, there was a lot of commentary about the State of the Union, the title of the president’s annual January speech before a joint session of Congress. I thought it was one of Obama’s best addresses recently because he focused on what is real for this country — growing economic inequality where only a few are doing “spectacularly well” while many families are still struggling just to get by.
The wife and mother from one of those families wrote the president a letter that seemed to have moved him, so he lifted up her “tight-knit family” trying to get through “hard times,” as she sat up in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama. Her family became a parable for the nation that is starting to do better economically but still faces hard choices that the president sought to address with very practical suggestions to support what he called “middle class economics."
Obama’s proposals for shifting tax breaks from the very wealthy to the middle class, to make possible child tax credits, days for sick leave, assistance with child care, and some relief from expensive educational costs are all proposals not likely to be supported by the new Republican Congress. But the speech begins to set what could be a long-term agenda to deal with our massive economic inequality — finally. Even the Republicans now might have to face up to the increasingly visible, embarrassing, alarming, and morally indefensible gaps between a small elite and the rest of the country.
Editor's Note: President Obama delivered his seventh State of the Union address last night (January 20, 2015). Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.
Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, my fellow Americans:
We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.
But tonight, we turn the page.
Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years.
Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe. We are humbled and grateful for your service.
America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this:
The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.
In November, when the Senate just barely failed to pass a bill approving TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) interrupted the debate that followed it to tell everyone that we hadn’t seen the last of Keystone XL. He vowed that a new bill authorizing the pipeline would be the first thing on President Obama’s desk in the next session of Congress.
Sen. McConnell is making good on that promise – with another upcoming vote, he says he has the 60 votes he’ll need to pass the pipeline, which the GOP has branded as a “jobs creation” bill with dubious claims about job numbers.
But White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced today that “If this bill passes this Congress the president, wouldn't sign it.” This promise of a veto may have less to do with the environmental implications of the pipeline, the violation of a treaty with American Indians, or the years of steady protest from vocal opponents, and more to do with giving the State Department time to finish their review process. Regardless, it’s another stalled start for the would-be Keystone XL pipeline.
The White House needs to hear from Christians who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. Click here to send a tweet to President Obama!
News agencies reported Saturday morning that weeks ago President Obama signed an order, kept secret until now, to authorize continuation of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan for at least another year. The order authorizes U.S. airstrikes “to support Afghan military operations in the country” and U.S. ground troops to continue normal operations, which is to say, to “occasionally accompany Afghan troops” on operations against the Taliban.
The administration, in its leak to the New York Times, affirmed that there had been “heated debate” between Pentagon advisers and others in Obama’s cabinet chiefly concerned not to lose soldiers in combat. Oil strategy isn't mentioned as having been debated and neither is further encirclement of China, but the most notable absence in the reporting was any mention of cabinet members’ concern for Afghan civilians affected by air strikes and ground troop operations, in a country already afflicted by nightmares of poverty and social breakdown.
While the concern for civilians may have been discussed even if not reported, it’s worth pointing out some of the suffering people on the ground continue to experience. Here are just three events, excerpted from an August 2014 Amnesty International report, which President Obama and his advisors should ha considered (and allowed into a public debate) before once more expanding the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan:
I am a newly minted American. Four years ago I passed the naturalization test and took the oath of allegiance to the United States. But I had been living as a citizen before I took the oath. Those who do not have the legal status of citizen often act as citizens. They attend PTA meetings, pay taxes, and engage in spirited public discussions about the common good. Citizenship is not only a legal status, but also a moral category and a set of practices.
President Obama recognizes this. Last night’s address described executive actions that will protect up to five million people from deportation and provide them with permits to work legally. People without valid immigration documents will be eligible to stay in the country temporarily if they have lived in the United States for more than 5 years, if they have children who are American citizens or legal residents, and if they register and pass criminal background checks.
Obama is not offering people citizenship, but his address reflected on the meaning of community belonging. “These people” often act like citizens, he seemed to be saying, because they “came to work, and study, and serve in our military, and above all, contribute to America's success.” To those of us who are citizens legally, Obama also had a message: Become better Americans.
While Republican leaders blast President Obama for taking executive action on immigration reform, some prominent evangelical leaders are welcoming the president’s plans to keep about 5 million undocumented immigrants from being deported.
Evangelicals are a key voting bloc for the GOP, but on immigration some are taking a pragmatic step away from the party. They include Hispanic leaders such as the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez who say the time has come to manage what has become a “de facto humanitarian crisis” for millions of immigrants.
“This merciful action takes place because for years our government, under the leadership of both parties, failed miserably as it pertains to immigration,” said Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Rodriguez planned to be with Obama on Nov. 21 in Las Vegas, where the President hopes to rally for his new steps.
Editor's Note: Thursday evening, President Barack Obama announced he is taking action to reform pieces of our broken immigration system. See Sojourners President Jim Wallis' recap here. Below are President Obama's remarks as prepared for delivery.
My fellow Americans, tonight, I’d like to talk with you about immigration.
For more than 200 years, our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities – people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.
But today, our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it.
Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules. Business owners who offer their workers good wages and benefits see the competition exploit undocumented immigrants by paying them far less. All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America. And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows, or risk their families being torn apart.
Last week would have been the 71st birthday of my mother who was tragically killed abroad 15 years ago. Because of my undocumented status, I still have not been able to visit her grave site. This experience is all too common in the undocumented community. This is one of the many reasons why, despite the fact that I am an American by default, I struggle with my connection with this country and with the very concept of citizenship.
My mother brought me here legally when I was 9 in 1985 after fleeing our home country of Senegal following a painful estate dispute once my biological father passed away. She found work as a diplomat at the United Nations, and I came here as her dependent. I then attended high school at Georgetown Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., and thus switched to a student visa. I continued my education in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania for two years but had to leave because I couldn’t afford the tuition. My mother was in Zimbabwe then and I couldn’t afford going to join her. Unfortunately, neither my diplomatic visa nor my student visa statuses count towards getting a Green card. When I left school, my status lapsed, and I became undocumented. Three years later, my mother was killed — a victim of domestic violence. With no “home country” to go back to and no way to adjust my status, I had to adjust myself to a life in the shadows.
It’s been 14 years since our government declared war on terrorism. How are we doing? It feels like a disastrous game of Whack-A-Terrorist, doesn’t it? We kill one terrorist hiding in one hole, and out pops another one from another hole. Now we are facing the newest threat, a terrorist organization seeking to set up a nation-state, ISIS or IS, as its leadership prefers to be called. The Islamic State, at least, would be a concrete opponent. If they hold on to territory and establish a functioning government, we could at least declare war on a tangible target. Though regrettable it would at least make sense within the logic of war in which states fight other states.
In a recent article for Patheos.com, David French uses Christian Scripture as a justification for “responding to ISIS with wrath and vengeance.” French is a lawyer, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. He claims that, according to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, while individuals are called upon to love their enemies, there is no such call placed on governments. In fact, God has instituted governmental authority in order to execute his wrath against evildoers. And apparently, or so Romans 13 puts it according to French, to know who the evildoers are one simply needs to look at who governments are punishing. French quotes the relevant passage, Romans 13:3-5:
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [Emphasis added by French.]
French concludes that American Christians should have no difficulty determining the correct response to ISIS. Why? By the fact of determining that justice must be executed against ISIS, our government has determined that their violence is not only an offense against American citizens (he names the beheading victims, journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff) but against God himself.
French’s analysis strains credulity. Doesn’t he realize that the Romans to whom Paul was writing were themselves victims of government persecution? Does he think that these persecuted Christians felt they were being justly punished? And what about Paul himself, a Roman citizen who was persecuted and executed by the Roman government? Doesn’t French realize that by his own argument, the Roman authorities were executing God’s judgment against Paul? And by his own analysis, French is a captain in a military force that is from its origins a justifiable target for God’s wrath. Why? Because the founding act of the United States was a rebellion against a government, and “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2)