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Rewriting a Prison Sentence

Photo courtesy Free Minds

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM in the United States is gaining momentum with each graphic video showing fatal police abuse. In the aftermath of the many deaths of unarmed black men and women and the city-wide protests that erupted in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, it is not surprising that presidential hopefuls are making bold public statements about the need to change a system that is profoundly unjust, overly punitive, and excessively costly to run.

At the other end of the spectrum, away from TV cameras and political wrangling, activists such as Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor, co-founders of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, are dealing with decades of draconian anti-crime policies that have resulted in mass incarceration rates marked by racial disparities that have had a devastating impact on families and communities.

The numbers speak for themselves. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has nearly 25 percent of its prison population. According to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization working to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, more than 2.2 million Americans are now locked up in prisons and jails across the country—a 500-percent increase over the past 30 years. Furthermore, those who are incarcerated come largely from the most disadvantaged segments of the population.

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Report Counts Sharp Spike in Global Anti-Semitism

Photo via REUTERS / Charles Platiau / RNS

A woman lights candles in front of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris. Photo via REUTERS / Charles Platiau / RNS

The number of violent anti-Semitic attacks around the world surged nearly 40 percent last year, according to a report released April 15 by researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

The report found there were 766 recorded incidents against Jewish people in 2014 — the worst year for attacks since 2009. It was released ahead of Israel commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began April 15 at sundown.

The attacks were “perpetrated with or without weapons and by arson, vandalism, or direct threats against Jewish persons or institutions such as synagogues, community centers, schools, cemeteries, and monuments as well as private property,” the authors of the report, based at the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University, said.

In 2013, there were 554 registered incidents.

Children of Holocaust Survivors More Anxious About Iran Nuclear Threat

Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Baz Ratner / RNS

Ultra-orthodox Jews visit Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Baz Ratner / RNS

As Israelis mark Holocaust Memorial Day on April 15, a study by researchers at Bar-Ilan University has found that the adult children of Holocaust survivors are more fearful than their mainstream peers about the threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

Given that many studies over the decades have found that children of Holocaust survivors are deeply affected by their parents’ traumatic experiences, Amit Shrira, the study’s author, set out to discover whether these second-generation survivors were more anxious over a potential Iranian bomb than others of their generation. His study was published in Psychological Trauma, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

Shrira compared the feelings of 63 children of Holocaust survivors whose parents lived under a Nazi or pro-Nazi regime to those of 43 children whose parents either fled to unoccupied countries or immigrated to Israel.

The study found that second-generation survivors “exhibit greater preoccupation with the Iranian nuclear threat” than the comparison group.

Studying Interfaith Leadership

CAN YOU GO to school to become an interfaith leader? An increasing number of faculty, staff, and students on campuses believe the answer is “yes.”

Interfaith leadership courses are starting to crop up at colleges across the country. At New York University and Nazareth College, you can even get a minor in the area. The organization I lead, Interfaith Youth Core, recently organized a conference for university faculty interested in this area. We expected 30 people to show up, and got nearly 120. This all suggests that this may be a field whose time has come.

Academically speaking, “interfaith leadership” is part of the larger field of “interfaith studies.” Just as you might study education at a university to become a teacher, in the future you will be able to take coursework in interfaith studies in preparation for a career in interfaith leadership.

Interfaith studies looks at the myriad ways that people who orient around religion differently interact with one another and considers the implications of that interaction for everything from personal lives to global politics. It’s a field that asks questions such as: In what religious groups is the intermarriage rate growing fastest, and what are the distinctive dynamics of such relationships? What types of political arrangements seem to foster positive interaction between faith communities, and what types are associated with interreligious tension? How effective are current religious education programs in forming young people in faith traditions?

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For Those Who Study or Think About God

lithian/Shutterstock

It's easy to make thinking about or studying God an idol. lithian/Shutterstock

"It's about God, stupid." I can still hear Dean Richard Hays addressing Duke Divinity School at its convocation two years ago, reminding a room full of ambitious, intelligent, and talented theologians to keep their priorities in line. "You will all be writing papers, reading books, studying for exams. Some of you will be worrying about getting published and applying for Ph. D programs. But just stop. Just remember: It's about God, stupid."  

Meanwhile, I sat there in awe at this powerful message, but also amused at how he just called three hundred graduated students at Duke "stupid." 

Yet Dean Hays was right on target. We needed to hear it.

A Year of Living Beth Moore-ishly

Photo courtesy of Beth Moore

Sure Beth Moore might have big hair and use church-ladyisms, but she knows Jesus. Photo courtesy of Beth Moore

I think what turned me off the most was the hair. It was just so ... big. And the scrappy “don’t mess with Texas” vibe. And the fact that evangelical moms all over the country were fans. As a third generation New Yorker, cynicism and snark have been bred into me, along with an affinity for black clothing and pretentious coffee. So it has surprised everyone — including me — that I have spent the past year going through (and recommending) Beth Moore studies.

How did it happen? Well, I moved from my hometown of New York City to Washington, D.C., and while I was exploring various employment opportunities, I had a lot of free time. The wife of the former associate pastor at the church I’d started attending invited me to join a “women’s Bible study” that met on Friday mornings. They were doing a Beth Moore study called Breaking Free. It seemed fishy to me — who are the only women who have free time on Friday mornings? Moms. And Beth Moore?  I had spent six years attending and four years on staff at a church in New York that got super famous because of its own rockstar, hyper-intellectual, and somewhat post-modern teaching. We prided ourselves on not being ... well, like Beth Moore.

Still, I was trying to be open to life in my new city so ...

I walked into the group a couple of minutes late wearing gold sequin pumps, skinny jeans, and a red leather jacket — what I would normally wear to bum around town in my old life. I could not  have been more out of place amidst the yoga pants and baby blankets. But I met some of the most awesome women I’ve known in D.C. and more importantly — I met Beth.

What Good Is a Ph.D. for Reading the Bible?

Kjetil Kolbjornsrud / Shutterstock

A close-up of a christian woman reading the Bible. Kjetil Kolbjornsrud / Shutterstock

When I was a Ph.D. candidate in Yale University’s New Testament program, I had the honor of preaching at an ordination service for a classmate who was being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Following the service, a number of my classmates asked me why I wanted to spend four-seven years working on a Ph.D. in New Testament when I clearly had a "gift" for preaching. I responded that it was actually my academic study of the Bible coupled with my life experiences that illumined and enlivened my preaching.

I did not grow up reading the Bible. I was almost 19 years old and a U.S. Army soldier stationed in the Federal Republic of Germany when I purchased my first Bible. A series of life-changing events led to me "accepting Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior." A few months after purchasing my first Bible, I attended a revival service at a local church. I returned to post that evening describing the service to fellow soldiers, who, along with myself, comprised a group self-identified as the "Soul Patrol." We were African-American Christians who strongly believed in the necessity of Christian evangelization.

Church Giving Reaches Depression-Era Record Lows

RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Offering plates passed at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

WASHINGTON — Collection plates are growing even lighter as Protestant church member giving reached new lows in 2011, and tithing probably will not recover from the recession, according to a new report by Empty Tomb, a Christian research group.

“Is the issue that the church is not providing an authentic alternative to the consumer mindset?” said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb. “Over a period of time, if the church isn’t providing more of an authentic alternative, the church will lose.”

The percentage of a church member’s income given to the church dropped to 2.3 percent in 2011 (the latest year for which numbers are available), down from 2.4 percent in 2010, according to the Empty Tomb study.

On Scripture: Studying the Law As We Study The Word (2 Timothy 2:8-15)

Medicine illustration, violetkaipa / Shutterstock.com

Medicine illustration, violetkaipa / Shutterstock.com

As people of faith, we sometimes don’t take time to prepare ourselves for what is ahead. With so many things vying for our time and attention, it is difficult to educate ourselves about all facets of critical matters. Even in our relationship with God, we gloss over important details that will guide us into a closer walk and become content with a distant half-hearted relationship. However, a casual walk with God is not one we should settle for. By delving into God’s Word, we are able to draw upon God’s wisdom for guidance and find a deeper relationship with God as we travel through this journey of life.

In a similar fashion, we cannot settle for casual knowledge of the Affordable Care Act, which is now upon us and “gives Americans unprecedented information about the health plan choices in their own communities.” The Kaiser Family Foundation reports in a recent poll that 51 percent of all Americans are still unsure about how the ACA will affect them. 42 percent of Americans thought that Congress had overturned the act or that the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional. And, many Americans worry that they will have to shell out more money due to the new health reform law. This uneasiness and misinformation certainly warrants a closer look as we journey through the multiple avenues of the Affordable Care Act.

 

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