Religion

by Michael Fleshman

Hudreds gather at Union Square in New York City on May 3 to demand the release of Nigerian schoolgirls, by Michael Fleshman

The brutal abduction of several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls has stunned and outraged the world. A violent organization called Boko Haram, and its leader Abubakar Shekau, took credit for the kidnapping more than 300 female students from their classrooms at gunpoint, from a government-run school in Chibok, on April 14. In his subsequent video, the smiling terrorist leader told the world they would sell the teenage girls “into the marketplace” or forced marriages; in his latest, he claims the girls have converted to Islam. Shekau has claimed that God told him to do all of this. That is a lie. It is an abomination. It is a blasphemy against God, and people of faith from all traditions should denounce his words.

Invoking the name of God to justify human barbarity is a painfully tragic and an ongoing occurrence. If hearing these lies about God breaks our hearts, we can only imagine they must also break the heart of God. As the Qur’an warns, “Who is more unjust than he who lies against God?” This kind of blasphemy often derives from extreme religious fanaticism that can be found in all of our faith traditions — those who pervert, abuse, and use the language of religion for fear, hate, and power. These self-proclaimed religious leaders must be utterly denounced as false and human abominations of religion and must be publically condemned and held accountable by faith communities around the world.

Christian Piatt 5-01-2014
Sarah Palin in Plano, Texas in 2009, Jennifer A. Walz / Shutterstock.com

Sarah Palin in Plano, Texas in 2009, Jennifer A. Walz / Shutterstock.com

Most people in their right minds consider Sarah Palin’s statement about using waterboarding to “baptize” terrorists as insensitive at the very least. It further reinforces the notion that she will say or do nearly anything to grab a headline, even if it is at the expense of her own integrity, and perhaps that of her political cohorts or even her faith.

She’d be doing all of us a favor if she’d simply stop talking publically. But in as much as she continues to be afforded a microphone and speaking pulpit, we get to bear witness to her attempts to improvise a caricature of herself on the fly.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the statement to me is not the brazenness of it, or even the apparent lack of self-awareness or personal filter. It’s that she’s actually speaking on behalf of a significant – albeit shrinking – subset of Christian culture in the United States. It’s the strain that believes that the Prayer of Jabez (a prayer about expanding one’s spiritual territory) is a Manifest Destiny of sorts from Jesus to his followers. We’re to reach to all corners of the earth, emboldened with a “be assimilated or be eliminated” mentality at our backs.

4-24-2014
The report, by the institute’s Governance Studies Program, is based on polling and interviews with many of the top players of Washington’s religious left. This includes John Carr, formerly of the U.S. Bishops Conference, evangelical writer Jim Wallis and Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform Jewish movement.
Tom Ehrich 4-22-2014

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 15. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

A smart professor in Massachusetts noticed recently that religion’s decline in America coincided with the rise of the Internet.

He theorized that the two may be connected. Headline: “Is the Internet bad for religion?”

It’s utter nonsense, of course. The decline of mainline churches began in 1965, not in the 1990s when the Internet became commercially available. It would be more accurate, from a timing standpoint, to say that the American League’s designated hitter rule (1973) caused religion’s decline. Or maybe the “British invasion” in rock ‘n’ roll (1964).

Stephen Mattson 4-16-2014
Image via CreationSwap.com

Image via CreationSwap.com

Many people exploit the Bible to furiously cast judgment on others — sinfully using condemnation, guilt, shame, fear, and hatred to abuse others — all under the guise of “accountability” and the false premise of “Christianity.”

But according to the Bible, various people were used by God to do amazing things, and these individuals were often described as righteous and holy … even though they were dramatically flawed.

To be human is to be imperfect, and although we shouldn’t glorify sin or purposefully live in sin, we need to be careful about labeling others at “heretics,” “unbelievers,” and “sinners.” Because in reality, contrary to everything we assume, those whom we detest just might be favored by God.

Sinful attributes and misdeeds don’t disqualify you from a life of holiness, righteousness, and Godliness, but we often treat people as such — and condemn them to an eternity in hell. But according to the Bible, you might be a ‘Christian’ even if …

Suhaib Webb 4-14-2014
via TED Conference / Flickr.com

Dancers Christian Lightner and Adrianne Haslet-Davis at TED2014 - The Next Chapter, via TED Conference / Flickr.com

Among the many images of the marathon victims that emerged shortly after the attack, I remember being most struck by the photographs of the injured victims, missing their once sturdy limbs, lying in hospital beds. For me, those images perfectly conveyed how our city was feeling at that moment. We had just had something ripped away from us. We were assaulted, grieving for our loss, and outraged that any human being could dare do this to us.

How would our injured victims respond? Within days, the answer was clear. They would remain resilient. Adrianne Haslet-Davis would dance again, now with a prosthetic limb. Never a runner before, Celeste Corcoran pledged to run a marathon, now on her two prosthetic limbs. And, shaken by the tragedy, Amanda North would quit her job and launch the dream of her own artisan business.

Jim Wallis 4-01-2014

As a Christian, I grieve over the unspeakable violence wrongly done in the name of faith.

Jordan Davis 3-18-2014
Allegiance concept, LoloStock / Shutterstock.com

Allegiance concept, LoloStock / Shutterstock.com

Everywhere we turn, someone or something is vying for our allegiance. Sports teams. Car companies. Television networks. Politicians. Political parties. Flags. Countries. And of course, the church. Many of us will readily admit that Jesus taught our allegiance is to be, first and foremost, to God. That is, until someone steps on our toes and throws our church into the mix. For many, their allegiance to God and their church are so intertwined it's difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. But what does Jesus have to say about all of this?

From my estimation, God makes it pretty clear that he does not want to vie for our allegiance. Isn't that the whole point of the first commandment? Jump ahead to the New Testament and we find Jesus teaching the same thing. At one point Jesus goes so far as to tell us that our allegiance cannot be divided. Either we will love the one and hate the other, or hate the one and love the other. According to Jesus, serving two masters isn't just difficult, it's impossible. To further illustrate this point, he even turns away a would be disciple. From reading the story, this man seems to have a legitimate concern. All he wants to do is bury his father before taking off to follow in the footsteps of this rabbi. But from Jesus' perspective, his allegiance is divided, so this won't fly.

Today is no different. God doesn't want to vie for our allegiance. Yet he must, because our allegiance is divided between church attendance, theological stances, and denominational commitments (among other things), as if these things take precedence over following Jesus. 

Walter Wink 3-06-2014

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Joy J. Moore 3-05-2014

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle A

2-20-2014
In a piece over at Sojourners, Jamie Calloway-Hanauer notes that Steinem frequently speaks of the effects of religion on the feminist cause.
Christian Piatt 2-19-2014
Hands streteched toward lights, pukach / Shutterstock.com

Hands streteched toward lights, pukach / Shutterstock.com

There was a time when calling someone “salt of the earth” was a compliment. It suggested a strong work ethic, moral integrity, and someone whose priorities were in proper order. Today, it seems like more of an insult than anything else.

When surveyed about what they wanted to be when they grow up, the most common response from a cohort of school-age children was “famous.” The response revealed nothing about personal passion or ambition, let alone anything about a greater need to be addressed within the larger community. It points to the fact that one of the most revered qualities in our culture is to be known. What you’re known for is less important than simply having people know who you are.

It would be easy to speak critically of a younger group of people who seem to be losing their orientation to a greater social moral compass, but this is a bellwether for where we seem to be headed. Shine brightly, get noticed and make a place for yourself.

But the thing is, the kind of light Jesus talked about is different.

Evan Dolive 2-19-2014
'Love' written on window in the rain, Wolf__ / Shutterstock.com

'Love' written on window in the rain, Wolf__ / Shutterstock.com

Let’s face it: we are an opinionated society.

We have entire television channels and radio stations dedicated to the propagation of one particular way of thinking. Some people like this channel because they are “more liberal” while others like this channel because they are “more conservative” and the rest of the world falls into the trap that we can be objective (read: ‘fair and balanced’).

We seek out opinions from everything from a new toaster to the new medical center in the area. We want to know people’s experiences about something before we waste our time, money and energy on a futile venture. If a product on Amazon has too many “one-star” reviews I am not going to purchase it. If my friends or family members have a bad experience at a restaurant or store then I will think twice about going there myself.

Sharing our opinions or perceptions is never easy. They can be met with great disdain or hostility. ESPN prides itself on these conflicts. Its marketing plan is to put four talking, opinionated heads in a room and ask a question that none of them can agree on like “Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?” or “Is Tom Brady overrated?”

Some of the greatest conflicts in the world’s history have been over difference of opinion. Governments have been shut down over difference of opinion. Trying to “change” someone’s opinion is hard if not impossible; for some people the “damage” is done and there is no turning back.

The church is not immune to this to this.

Micah Bales 2-11-2014
Empty seats, LU HUANFENG / Shutterstock.com

Empty seats, LU HUANFENG / Shutterstock.com

A couple years ago, a survey found that one in five Americans don’t identify with any religion. For Americans under 30, the number was far higher – more like one third. This report is being cited constantly throughout the religious-nonprofit world. In many quarters, there seems to be a deep sense of shock at the decline in religious membership.

Me? I’m not surprised at all. What does surprise me is our failure to see that affiliation with a traditional, God-centered religion is no longer the primary way that many Americans express their deeply rooted need for faith. We humans are relentlessly religious animals, and post-modern America is no exception. We’re just embracing a different kind of faith.

2-07-2014
So what exactly is the problem with income inequality? Some think there is a theological problem. Jim Wallis has claimed—when calling for an increase in the minimum wage—“God hates inequality.”
Eboo Patel 2-04-2014

What will happen to U.S. civil society as the pews empty out?

Suzanne Ross 1-28-2014
Boundary illustration, Bohbeh/ Shutterstock.com

Boundary illustration, Bohbeh/ Shutterstock.com

In his New York Times column, Alone, Yet Not Alone,” David Brooks laments the “strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young.” Even more disturbing for Brooks is that in his experience, the opinion of young people is too often justified. He observes that religious believers can be “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” and “out of touch,” and he wonders why that’s so. Brooks, who is Jewish, knows that the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who calls us toward a radical love that includes our enemies. As evidence of the core of orthodox belief, he offers two giants of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Augustine, who give testimony to lives of compassion and love inspired by devotion to the biblical God. Lives that tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty as essential components rather than disqualifiers of faith.

So what gives? Why do religious believers spend so much energy reinforcing their (our – I’m one of those orthodox believers) borders, building thicker and higher dividing walls designed to keep out the underserving, the sinners whom not even God can love? Just who is kept out varies widely, but it seems religious people are utterly convinced that they are on the inside with God. No doubt about it. Musing on this sad fact, Brooks comments:

There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.

Brooks is on to something here – there is something rooted in our “human makeup” that the Scriptures fervently oppose, but it is not legalism per se.

Joe Kay 1-27-2014
Chick breaking out of a shell, S-F / Shutterstock.com

Chick breaking out of a shell, S-F / Shutterstock.com

Have you ever watched a chick break out of its shell?

My first experience with hatching was at the poultry barn at the Indiana State Fair. The building is the temporary home for hundreds of chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons each summer. And they make quite a ruckus. There’s a constant din of crowing and honking and cooing and whatever other adjectives you care to apply. Colorful feathers drift through the air.

As you walk through the front door, there’s a protected case for baby birds that have just hatched. And there’s an incubator full of eggs that are slowly being pecked and pushed apart by the little ones inside.

If you have some time, you can stand and watch a miracle unfold, peck by peck.

It takes hours for the chick to work its way out of the shell, sometimes an entire day. A 4-H volunteer sits by the incubator and records each chick’s progress during the exhausting escape from the shell into the greater world.

The chick has spent its entire life in its protective shell. But now, the nourishment of the yolk is all used up. The chick no longer fits comfortably inside the oval confine. It has no clue what lies outside the shell, but it knows instinctively that it has to break out or it will die.

Is that a good analogy for what we experience in our lives? Do we often find ourselves breaking out of shells?

Stephen Mattson 1-22-2014
Holding hands, Mats Bergström / Shutterstock.com

Holding hands, Mats Bergström / Shutterstock.com

Beyond the realm of churches, religious blogs, and bible colleges, nobody really cares about theology. What does matter is the way you treat other people.

Within Christendom, we’re often taught the exact opposite: that doctrines, traditions, theologies, and distinct beliefs are the only things that do matter. It’s what separates churches, denominations, theologians, and those who are “saved” and “unsaved.”

Historically, Christians have been tempted to categorize the Bible into numerous sets of beliefs that are either inspired or heretical, good or bad, right or wrong — with no room for doubt or questioning or uncertainty.

It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

When I'm sick, and you bring me a meal, I don't care whether you're a Calvinist or Arminian

RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Suzan Johnson. RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON — It’s been three months since the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned as the State Department’s religious freedom watchdog, and those who decry religious persecution in Syria, Sudan, and elsewhere are wondering how long it’s going to take the White House to name a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Many in the field hope it’s someone with a more diplomatic background than Johnson Cook, a former Clinton administration official and popular Baptist minister whose international experience was mostly acquired on the job.

The other factor: the more than two years it took for the Obama administration to choose Johnson Cook and to get her confirmed by the Senate.

“A continued vacancy will confirm the suspicion that already exists among foreign governments, persecutors, victims and American diplomats that the issue is not a priority,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

The White House has been tight-lipped about the timeline for a decision, as well as about any candidates it may be considering for the position, which Congress created in 1998 to highlight and alleviate religious persecution worldwide.

Here’s a short list of five names swirling around Foggy Bottom, culled from experts who work in the field and were asked who they see as likely to be under consideration, or as particularly qualified for the job.

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