The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

Standing Against the Death Penalty: It’s About the Families of the Victims

“We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly…We, deeming that to see a man put to death is as much the same as killing him” (Athenagoras of Athens, a Christian philosopher writing a defense of Christianity, speaking against state-sponsored killings and abortions, around 177 A.D.)

I am not sure where it originated, but somewhere someone started a rumor that if you are against the death penalty then you are soft on crime and care more about the guilty than the victim. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

Through marriage, a close relative of mine was murdered. I officiated the funeral. I attempted to comfort my family. I know the pain and evil of murder. I also know the pain and evil of a justice system that freed the killer after a few short years behind bars.

As a minister, and more importantly as a follower of Jesus, I take his words about visiting prisoners seriously (Matthew 25:36). I believe in forgiveness and grace and mercy. I believe in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). I also realize you don’t get placed on death row for being a boy scout. People do need to pay for their crimes. The more serious the crime, the more serious the penalty. But ultimately, as a follower of Jesus, I believe in reconciliation. I believe in redemption. I believe no one is outside the realm of God’s mercy and grace.

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Stopped Cold By A Pepsi Can

Let me tell you about the time I got re-directed by a Pepsi can.

It happened a few years ago. I’d started rethinking a lot of things about my life — what I wanted to accomplish with it, how God played into all of it — and decided to write my thoughts as I went along.

Eventually I got the idea that I could package my writing into a book that might help others who are going through the same things. Writers fantasize about some day having a best-seller; maybe this would be mine. I wrote and wrote and wrote and stepped back one day and read all of it and realized something.

It was awful.

I’m not so good at this type of writing. Expressing thoughts and feelings is a lot harder than reporting on events. Words are so inadequate. It’s so easy to cross the line between being helpful and being insufferable. At times, I sounded like a pompous ass.

So, what to do?

I went back and rewrote. And rewrote again. I decided to try to make it breezier and more conversational — that’ll do the trick. I read it again and realized that I now sounded like a breezy, pompous ass.

It’s called writer’s block, and it felt like a dead end. Maybe I should wait a few years and try again then. Hit define and delete, give up the struggle and move on. That seemed like the best thing to do. Stop trying to create for now.

I went jogging to mull it over.

It was a beautiful autumn evening with a wonderful, warm breeze out of the south. I’d just finished my jog and was walking around the block to cool down, enjoying the wind on my sweaty face, when a sound got my attention.

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Not As Helpless As We Think: 3 Ways to Stand In Solidarity With Ferguson

I’ve been calling it the Summer of Helplessness.

From the conflict in Gaza that has left more than 1,000 civilians dead, to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the skies of Ukraine, to the Ebola breakout getting worse by the day, to the shooting of yet another unarmed black teenager here in the U.S., the news of late is enough to make a person feel paralyzed with helplessness and despair. My prayers these days are of the tired, desperate sort: How long, O Lord? Will you hide your face from us forever?

But when it comes to violence and oppression, we are rarely as helpless as we think, and this is especially true as the events unfolding in Ferguson force Americans to take a long, hard look at the ongoing, systemic racism that inspired so many citizens to protest in cities across the country this week.

I’ve heard from many of my white friends and readers who say they aren’t sure how to respond to the anger and grief they are watching on TV or hearing from their black friends. They want to be part of the solution but don’t know where start. They may even feel a little defensive when they hear people talking about white privilege or inaction on the part of white Christian leaders. I’m in the process of learning too, but as I’ve listened to people of color whose opinions I trust, I’ve heard them issue several calls to action we can all heed.

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War on Drugs. War on Terror. War on Us?

As America began to gear up for its incredibly wasteful (more than $40 trillion since 1972) and utterly futile “War on Drugs,” there were three critical federal actions that contributed to our current vastly over-militarized police forces.

In 1981, the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act was passed. This law authorized military collaboration with civilian law enforcement agencies and dramatically expanded the Army’s participation in counterdrug efforts and included arming and training of local police with military grade weapons, free of charge, at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense.

Then, in 1984, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, supposedly to assist in controlling the crack cocaine infusion in urban communities. This law, tied to a civil forfeiture provision, allows law enforcement to seize property without a conviction, or even charges being levied, if a person is suspected of illegal drug activity.

Finally, in the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act (each year this bill funds our military) there was included a provision — “Section 1208” — that allowed the Secretary of Defense to transfer weapons and ammunition that was “suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities.” This law was supposed to give police the firepower needed to “effectively” execute the Drug War. In the 10 years that followed, thousands of tanks, helicopters, grenade launchers, and assault rifles were granted to municipal police forces.

But the militarization of our police forces was not yet complete.

Enter the “War on Terror.”

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Housing, Homogeny, and Hostility

I am white. Most of the people near my house are white. This is the way it is for most of us white people in the U.S., and as we continue to be shown, the consequences are both critical and countless.

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits all forms of housing discrimination, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that millions of instances occur each year, thus residential segregation continues to be a common facet of modern day life. To put it simply, white people tend to live by other white people, and it is the way it is by no accident.

Segregated neighborhoods are often reinforced by the practice of racial “steering” by real estate agents, or when landlords deceive potential tenants about the availability of housing or perhaps require conditions that are not required of white applicants. In addition, lending institutions have been shown to treat mortgage applicants differently when buying homes in non-white neighborhoods in comparison to their attempt to purchase in white neighborhoods. As a result of such practices, white people tend to live in a state of residential separateness, for as the most recent U.S. Census date confirms, genuine racial integration is — for the most part — alarmingly rare.

Of course, our own behaviors contribute to our current state of affairs. White people seem to prefer housing located by other white people. As a result, far too many white people are willing (and able) to pay a premium to live in predominantly white neighborhoods. So equivalent housing in white areas commands a higher rent than others, and through the process of bidding-up the costs of housing, many white neighborhoods effectively shut out people of color, because those without white skin are more often unwilling (or unable) to pay the premium price to buy entry into such white neighborhoods. As a result of such white flight and isolation, not only do we witness a rise in racial ignorance and indifference, but it also leads to increased injustice in the form of disproportionate hostility directed at people of color.

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Anxiety and Christian Leadership

When I began a Masters of Divinity program at Wesley Theological Seminary, I was convinced that my generalized anxiety would be a wrinkle I’d iron out as I became more competent in preaching and pastoral care. What I failed to recognize was that my aptitude for ministry in itself was not the issue. I already felt called to hospital chaplaincy and had had experience working with the sick and dying as a nursing assistant. However, despite all the practical knowledge I’ve continued to gain at Wesley, anxiety has remained a debilitating problem.

When my anxiety was at its worst this past spring, I often asked myself, what business do I have pursuing ordained ministry? How can I serve others if I can’t take care of myself? Last week, regarding the suicide of Robin Williams, I heard frequently: “How can someone so funny do that?” The best answer I’ve found is that even when we are in great pain and anguish, feeling isolated from others, we don’t stop doing what we do best. Even in times of depression, and drug and alcohol abuse, Williams never ceased to do what he did best — make people laugh when they most needed to. Likewise, despite my anxiety, no matter how I attempt to close out the world, I still feel called to the ministry of chaplaincy, to bring healing to others through my presence.

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Pope Francis Hints He Might One Day Retire

Addressing journalists on his return from his intense five-day visit to South Korea late August 18, Pope Francis bantered with reporters and lightheartedly said he may only have “two or three” years left to live.

The 77-year-old pontiff covered a range of topics on the flight back to the Vatican—from war-torn Iraq and his desire to visit the U.S. next year to his personal health, hinting he may retire early.

He was asked how he lived with the immense popularity he has generated around the world, evident when crowds chanted his name on the streets of Rio de Janeiro during his first official visit to Brazil last year.

“I try to think of my sins, my mistakes, so as not to think that I am somebody,” he said. “Because I know this will last a short time, two or three years, and then (go) to the house of the Father,” he said during an in-flight media conference.

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Christians, Yazidis Need More Than Escape: Catholic Relief Official in Iraq

Kris Ozar, 37, is in charge of programming for Catholic Relief Services in Egypt and is now in northern Iraq coordinating the charity’s emergency efforts with other groups, such as Caritas Iraq. He has been working with Christians and Yazidis forced to choose between conversion to Islam or death by the Islamic State.

Ozar spoke with Religion News Service’s Kimberly Winston from Irbil, Iraq, about the challenges refugees face. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: The Christian and Yazidi refugees have been rescued from Mount Sinjar. What is the situation where you are right now?

A: From my window, I can see a church compound and it is filled with tents and there are hundreds of people inside those tents. Everyone talked about getting (the displaced people) off Mount Sinjar, and that was an amazing challenge, but what we forget is that the most amazing challenge lies ahead.

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‘Moral Monday’ Expands to a Week of Social Justice Action Across U.S.

The Moral Monday movement, birthed by activists who protest the actions of the North Carolina General Assembly, will expand to 12 states on August 22 in a so-called Moral Week of Action.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the NAACP in North Carolina and organizer of the Moral Monday movement, announced that Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania , Tennessee, and Wisconsin would join up.

Each state is mobilizing social justice activists and clergy to call out governors and state legislatures for “regressive attacks” on the people Jesus called “the least of these,” Barber said in a press call on August 19. Last year, more than 1,000 people were arrested during a series of Moral Mondays in North Carolina.

The objective is to push for the politicians to “repent and reform,” he said. But the marchers will have a daily theme promoting positive actions, not only decrying current policies, he said. Each state sets its own program, but most emphasize the same issues as North Carolina. After each rally there, participants will fan out to register voters.

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What 'The Leftovers' Can Teach Us About Hope and the Christian Faith

Editor's Note: Spoilers ahead! You've been warned.

Over the past eight episodes of The Leftovers, HBO’s latest drama based on Tom Perrotta’s play of the same name, viewers have been treated to a case study in grief and faith in the midst of a life-changing event. Unlike the Left Behind series, which incorporated Christian triumphalism with terrible theology, The Leftovers examines the deeper human and spiritual issues of what would happen were two percent of the population to suddenly disappear. It is powerful and beautiful and really hard to watch (especially Episode Five). It asks the question: does life go on when your world is changed forever?

The show offers a variety of responses to the Sudden Departure of October 14: Kevin Garvey, the police chief who seems to be losing his mind after his wife leaves him for a cult and after his father needs to be committed; Nora Durst, who’s lost her entire family, so she keeps everything exactly as it was when the Sudden Departure occurred; Rev. Matt Jamison, Nora’s brother whose faith has been shaken because he was not taken; the town dogs who have become feral; and finally, the creepiest citizens of Mapleton, the Guilty Remnant, or the GR as they’re “affectionately” known.

This past week’s episode gave us a greater understanding of the GR. Although the nihilistic views of the Guilty Remnant are quite different from those of Christianity, I was struck by their powerful and strategic mission of witness. The cult was formed out of the recognition that everything changed on October 14 and that to pretend otherwise was foolish. The group, in their white clothes, their silence, their stripped-down existence, bears witness to the fact that they are living reminders of what happened. They are fundamentalists about their cause and willing to die for it — even if that death comes from their own hands.

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