The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

The Rev. Richard McBrien, Outspoken Liberal Theologian and Notre Dame Scholar, Dies at 78

The Rev. Richard McBrien, a renowned Catholic theologian at the University of Notre Dame who wrote comprehensive works on church history and delivered punchy sound bites from a liberal perspective, died Jan. 25. He was 78 and had been in poor health for several years.

McBrien joined Notre Dame in 1980 and quickly became not only a standout for the theology department but also an outspoken liberal commentator just as Pope John Paul II, who was elected in 1978, was pushing the Catholic Church in a more conservative direction.

In his media punditry and in a weekly column that ran in some diocesan newspapers — and was increasingly barred in others — McBrien argued for the ordination of women as priests, optional celibacy, and birth control, among other things. That made him a hero to progressives and the bane of conservatives, who often lobbied the hierarchy to discipline him.

Despite courting controversy, he always remained a priest in good standing.

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Pope Francis and America’s Shifting Views Toward Catholics

Did you catch the shoutout to Pope Francis during President Obama’s State of the Union address? It’s only the third time in history that’s happened.

Francis’ name will resurface in Congress later this year if and when he accepts an invitation to address lawmakers — that would be a historical first — during his September trip to Philadelphia, Washington, and New York.

“We might say, really, the highlight of the Washington visit might be his speech to the joint meeting of Congress, to the Senate and the House of Representatives,” said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, a member of the papal visit planning committee.

However, such a speech will be far more than a “highlight.” With a Catholic vice president and a Catholic speaker of the House looking on behind him, the speech will serve as a vivid reminder of how far Americans have come in overcoming deeply embedded anti-Catholic prejudice and bigotry.

That bigotry includes Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1813: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. … In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.”

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How Franklin Graham Transformed a Debate about Duke Chapel into a Culture War

Franklin Graham’s Facebook fulminations last week about plans to issue the Muslim call to prayer from the bell tower of Duke Chapel transformed what could have been a nuanced campus debate about religious establishment, sacred space, and pluralism into a countrywide fracas that calls to mind 1980s culture wars.

He helped generate enough publicity to ultimately lead a school better known for porn stars than piety to reclaim its chapel for Christianity.

Why did Franklin Graham’s Facebook post carry this much power? Two reasons. One, some people simply love his narrative about Islam. Recent polling shows that a significant number of Americans believe that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, and voice substantial support for police profiling of Muslims. Graham’s narrative builds off these suspicions that go far beyond his conservative evangelical constituency.

But more important, he’s a Graham. He carries the power of his father’s name and his legendary evangelistic ministry, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, or BGEA. According to Grant Wacker’s new biography, Billy Graham is the closest thing America has had to a pope, beloved by many for his ability to channel the ideals of middle America as much as a convicting gospel. The fact that, despite his retirement in 2005, the BGEA continues to use his likeness in promotional materials and that political candidates left and right still clamor for photo ops with Billy Graham are testaments to his enduring status as “America’s Pastor.”

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The Super Bowl and the Church in a Culture of Dominance

Americans enjoy football because, to a degree, football reflects the values of strength, courage, strategy, self-discipline, teamwork, and celebrity that American culture holds dear. It’s also refreshing to watch someone else get crushed by a 260-pound linebacker after you’ve had a lousy week at work.

The problem develops when we let football (or other sports, or a military, or corporations, or other forces) define strength in terms of dominance.

I’m not trying to dump on football. I’m noting that it’s a game largely devoted to imposing one’s will on another. That competitive value can be fine on a field, but when it seeps into our society, neighborhoods, and families we should be wary.

Because when dominance is the name of the game, there will be victims.

The Super Bowl might prompt us to consider the hazards of an ethos in which rewards go to those who say “We take what we want” and follow through on it.

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Not A Game

In a few days, Americans will gather across the country to watch the Super Bowl.

But what many of them don’t know is what happens outside of the stadium—a seedy underworld that profits off the sale of American children.

Every year, approximately 100,000 children are forced into prostitution in the United States—and many are illegally “bused in” to locations hosting major sporting events like the Super Bowl. Once the game is over, victims are relocated to the next profitable event.

The trafficking of our kids is not a game.

I can tell you firsthand that homeless children—desperate for food, shelter, and comfort—are the biggest victims of this horrific industry. At Covenant House, we’ve seen too many of these innocent children come through our doors.

I can also tell you that no homeless kid sells his or her body by choice. In a survey we conducted with Fordham University, almost 25 percent of homeless kids were either victims of trafficking or felt they needed to trade sex in order to survive.

ALL of them greatly regretted having to trade their bodies—a trauma that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.

We are doing everything we can to help these victims, as well as ensure that homeless kids who are at risk of becoming victims never fall prey to this vile industry.

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Resistance. Lamentation. Action.

When stories of human trafficking or dramatic rescue operations come across our news feeds, we are understandably shocked. For a moment, our attention is grabbed and we feel genuine outrage toward the traffickers and, hopefully, compassion for the trafficked persons. But to what end? 

Sadly, the underground and criminal nature of human trafficking helps to keep the stark realities out of sight and, consequently, out of the minds of most people. When we do think of human trafficking, it tends to be as something that happens “over there” or in seedy brothels. It is somehow easier to blame the bad actors, pimps, traffickers, and sweatshop managers rather than recognize the multiple ways that we are connected to human trafficking through our everyday actions. Because we are, in fact, connected. As Pope Francis observed in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “There is greater complicity than we think. The issue [modern slavery] involves everyone!”

Human trafficking is present in virtually every human community. Moreover, because the majority of people held in slavery today are forced to work in agriculture and mining, it is inevitable that products make it into the supply chain and our shopping carts. Sex trafficking also does not happen in a vacuum, but rather in a social context which tolerates, and even normalizes, sexual exploiation and the commodification of the human person.

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In Over My Heart: Friendship and the LGBTQ Church

I am in over my heart on the LGBTQ situation within the church. As a Christian ethicist, life-long evangelical, and devoted Christ-follower, my heart aches to the point where it’s breaking.  I have friends, students, and family who are gay or lesbian, and my faith in Christ would be worse off without them. Among other things, they witness faithfulness to God amidst exclusion and persecution.

Fortunately, I’m in a church where being in over your heart is a good thing. Now called the Evangelical Covenant Church, my denomination’s founders called themselves Mission Friends at the outset. We began as a renewal group in Sweden around the practices of reading Scripture and hospitality. We began out of a love for spiritual formation, and we countered the dominant culture by allowing all people to be readers of Scripture.

Scripture reading in rural Sweden developed as a subversive practice. Though they were few and poor, lowly and insignificant, our Covenant forebears enacted justice by crossing prohibitive lines of class, gender, and age. Three things sustained them: the Jesus of the word; a new spirit of freedom and joy; and the word of God and the sacraments. As a result, these faithful groups gained the capacity to hear God’s word through the hearts and minds of individuals who differed from one another.

This practice of diverse interpretation amongst lay people forged ahead through the strength of friendships. The name “Mission Friends” grew under the Psalm 119 banner, “I am a friend of all who fear thee,” and the people of the movement treasured friendship and unity in Christ above any doctrinal or confessional statements. They believed that friendship is not only the method of advancing the gospel — it is the heart of the gospel. Friendship reflects in the simplest terms the way that the Evangelical Covenant church does ecclesiology, or life together.

 
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A Future in Prison

The Bureau of Prisons contacted me today, assigning me a prison number and a new address: for the next 90 days, beginning tomorrow, I’ll live at FMC Lexington, in the satellite prison camp for women, adjacent to Lexington’s federal medical center for men. Very early tomorrow morning, Buddy Bell, Cassandra Dixon, and Paco and Silver, two house guests whom we first met in protests on South Korea’s Jeju Island, will travel with me to Kentucky and deliver me to the satellite women’s prison outside the Federal Medical Center for men.

In December 2014, Judge Matt Whitworth sentenced me to three months in federal prison after Georgia Walker and I had attempted to deliver a loaf of bread and a letter to the commander of Whiteman Air Force base, asking him to stop his troops from piloting lethal drone flights over Afghanistan from within the base. Judge Whitworth allowed me more than a month to surrender myself to prison; but whether you are a soldier or a civilian, a target or an unlucky bystander, you can’t surrender to a drone.

When I was imprisoned at Lexington prison in 1988, after a federal magistrate in Missouri sentenced me to one year for planting corn on nuclear missile silo sites, other women prisoners playfully nicknamed me “Missiles.” One of my sisters reliably made me laugh today, texting me to ask if I thought the women this time would call me “Drones.”

It’s good to laugh and feel camaraderie before heading into prison. For someone like me, very nearly saturated in “white privilege” through much of this arrest, trial, and sentencing process, 90 percent (or more) of my experience will likely depend on attitude.

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Five Reasons Why Citizens United Matters Five Years Later

Five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations are welcome to the same free speech rights that are allotted to individuals and can therefore spend freely on direct political advocacy.

To those unfamiliar with the topic, Citizens United essentially opened the flood gates for dark money to flow into the Washington electoral circuit. Within the five years since this decision the amount of money spent on political campaigns has steadily increased each election cycle. The most recent midterm elections cost $3.7 billion dollars.

Why should this matter to Christians?

1. Divine dignity is silenced.

The Center for Responsive Politics reported that only “666,773 individuals donated more than $200 to campaigns in the 2014 election cycle." What does this mean? Only 0.2 percent of the population funded the elections. Only the wealthiest Americans, through Super PAC funding and private corporation contributions have influence over the electoral state. The voice of the average American is almost completely silenced because they do not have financial influence. This becomes an issue of morality when we see each citizen as an individual with divine dignity. When the voice of the individual is silenced, the voice of the Divine is also silenced because only the economically elite are heard.

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The Religious Politics of Abortion Are More Nuanced Than We Think

Abortion politics are never very far beneath the surface in American life, but every year around the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, handed down Jan. 22, 1973, they take center stage.

The annual March for Life on Jan. 22 will draw more than 100,000 demonstrators to Washington. Religious conservatives will march in protest, firm in their belief that abortion should not only be considered a sin, but also a crime.

And religious liberals, though often skeptical about the morality of abortion, will affirm their belief that a decision to end a pregnancy should be left solely to a woman, her doctors, and her conscience.

In the years after Roe v. Wade, most evangelicals came alongside the Roman Catholic Church to oppose legal abortion. Mainline Protestants, at least among denominational elites, strongly advocated for abortion rights, even though mainline clergy are evenly divided on the legality of abortion and do not talk about it much.

But while conservative religious activists at the March for Life and progressive religious leaders supporting the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice do speak for a subset of the people they purport to represent, the absolutism of polarized activist elites betrays the more ambivalent views of rank-and-file Americans.

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