The Common Good

God's Politics

Converting People: I Don't Buy It

I was recently talking with friends about looking people up online. I told the story of being unpleasantly surprised to find, on someone’s Facebook profile, that he was affiliated with a sports-themed summer camp in the Middle East run by Christians with the not-as-subtle-as-they-think motivation of converting (or at least … influencing) young Muslim campers. As I told the story, I could see that I had probably picked the wrong audience: friends who, while they might not have signed up for such a project themselves, certainly knew people who would. I trailed off lamely, debating with myself whether to bother noting the obvious as an excuse for my reaction: that they had grown up in conservative churches and I in a liberal one.

But thinking about it later, I realized it was more than that. “I don’t believe in converting people,” I wanted to go back and say to them. “Not in the way that I don’t believe in wearing white after Labor Day — like a personal preference or moral objection — but in the way that I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” I do not believe it happens.

To be more specific, I don’t believe in people converting people. Conversion, obviously, happens. And other people may be there, even standing by and handing the convert a pamphlet. The convert may even be saying, “Because of you, I am converting!” But I don’t buy it.

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American Nuns: Grounded Leadership in Conflict

Last week the Vatican released the final report on its unprecedented investigation of Roman Catholic sisters in the United States. Six years ago, when the Vatican announced the apostolic visitation (its formal name), many of the sisters whom the investigation affected responded with hurt and anger. Now, thanks largely to competent, spiritually grounded leadership on the part of American sisters, the spirit is conciliatory.

When the Vatican launched the investigation in 2008, under Pope Benedict, to “look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States,” the announcement was met with suspicion and apprehension. Since the Vatican had previously only ordered an apostolic visitation when a group had gone astray, sisters wondered what the Vatican wanted to investigate and why. Some congregations reported that their elder sisters felt that their whole lives had been judged and found wanting," remembers Sr. Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the U. S. When Sr. Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., learned of the visitation, she warned sisters to be cautious, treating the visitors as “uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house.”

In a situation that could have escalated badly, American sisters rose to the occasion.

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Terrorists Win: 'The Interview,' North Korea, and the Tragic Irony of Christmas

Unfortunately, we will not be able to watch Kim Jong-un’s assassination on the big screen this Christmas. We will not be able to cheer as the brutal dictator’s helicopter explodes in the air “ while Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ plays on the soundtrack.” We will not be able to fulfill this Christmas Day fantasy by watching The Interview because the terrorists have won.

The FBI now claims that Kim Jong-un’s government is behind the act of terrorism. In retaliation for the movie, a state-sponsored North Korean cyber-terrorist group called “The Guardians of Peace” hacked into Sony Pictures and leaked sensitive information, including internal emails, future Sony films, and sensitive employee records. “The Guardians of Peace” also threatened movie goers with a “9/11 style attack” on every cinema that shows the movie.

After the threats were made and many theaters decided to pull the film, Sony Pictures canceled the release of The Interview. Sony said in a statement:

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.

Washington and Hollywood are also in an uproar:

“Wow. Everyone caved. The hackers won. An utter and complete victory for them,”tweeted Rob Lowe. Jimmy Kimmel claimed that pulling the movie was, “an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.” Steve Carell said it was a, “Sad day for creative expression.” Sen. John McCain stated “yielding to aggressive cyber-terrorism by North Korea … sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future.”

And White House officials are exploring retaliation, saying security leaders “would be mindful of the fact that we need a proportional response.”

The terrorists may have won the battle, but the United States will win the war!

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Dreaming of God With Us

Author's Note: As we close out Advent, when we so quickly determine what’s our legal right or what we’re owed or what “the Bible really says” when, after all, we’re just simply too quick to judge. In these days where we must affirm #BlackLivesMatter, where we must stand up for victims of rape and abuse, and where we must struggle with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers for full inclusion, sermons like this are humbly offered.

We know the Christmas story well.

Those of us that have grown up with regular, annual, church-going rhythms — we essentially hear this story once a year.

Even so, those with no regular church commitments — people from all walks of life, people of faith or no particular faith, people from varied faiths — if you asked your friend, your neighbor, your cousin, a stranger on the street, I bet at least 50 percent of the time they’d be able to share the gist of the story:

Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary.
Mary was married to a guy (named Joseph).
There were angels, and wise men, and shepherds.
And I think there was a manger.

We know this story well.

But we hear it so often it becomes rote — literally a mechanically, automatically, mindlessly routine on repetition in our brains.

Yeah, yeah, yeah — 6lb 8oz baby Jesus, in a manger, Virgin Mary, Adopted Dad Joseph, sheep, shepherds, angels, stars at night, wise men, white Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer …

You get my point.

So, let’s hear the story one more time and lean in a bit to this wild world of dreams, angels, and ancient Jewish marriage contracts.

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In Celebration of the 'Average' Church

You may have never attended an "average" church, but you've certainly seen one. Older buildings, often made of dark brick, old-fashioned roofs that slope down from the center — possibly a bell tower and a steeple. St. Stephen's. Redeemer. Hope. Resurrection. St. Thomas. St. Vincent. Beautiful Savior. The names recall an age gone by — not just the 1950s, when neighborhoods walked together to Sunday morning worship, but also an age 2,000 years ago, when the world was changed by the witness of Stephen the martyr, and Jesus' resurrection from death on a cross in Jerusalem brought freedom and life to a world hungry for God's love and redemption.

If you've never been in an "average" church, or even if you have, long ago, you may wonder what it's still there for. The median American church has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday morning. More than half of American congregations worship between 7-99 people each Sunday. They are strikingly homogeneous. In 2010, just 13.7 percent of congregations reported being "multiracial." Thirty percent of congregations still didn't have a website in 2010.

Reading these statistics, it may seem easy to despair — to drive by one church and then another, to attend worship there on Christmas Eve and wonder why you bothered.
 

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How A Drunk Man Got Home One Christmas Eve

I was 6 years old, growing up in Cleveland. It was Christmas Eve. The traditional Slovak meal was ready on the stove — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise. 

My dad was an alcoholic. During the Korean war, he went off to serve as a paratrooper. He was wounded. My mom said the experience changed him. He brought some personal demons with him when he returned. 

Those demons seemed to emerge especially during the holidays. When my dad got off work, he’d go to a bar downtown near the butcher shop where he worked. The other workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and keep drinking. He couldn’t stop. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons. Who knows? 

While he was at the bar, we were home waiting. And getting hungry. 

Finally, my mom decided we would eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with the footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes. Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. My mom got very anxious, afraid that something bad had happened. 

Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger. 

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Wearing Black in Advent

On a Sunday when the dominant color in Christian churches is pink — a symbol of joy for the third Sunday of Advent — I was wearing a black shirt, black pants, and a blue tie. Others in our congregation were wearing various combinations of black or blue.

This was a modest way of showing solidarity with African Americans and a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” while still showing empathy for the police in the Madison, Wisconsin, area who have worked hard over the years to have a diverse force that works to serve rather than dominate the varied racial and ethnic communities that exist here.

But even with a nod to the pressure police are under these days, the dominant focus was on the series of killings of unarmed black people. And we know that not all police departments have made the same efforts that have happened here over a generation — and that our police departments are not perfect either.

The movement to wear black on December 14 came from several African-American denominations across the nation. Here in Wisconsin, Rev. Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, joined faith leaders in urging people to wear black to church on that Sunday.

 
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Weekly Wrap 12.19.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Hero mom calls into C-SPAN to berate her arguing pundit sons 
Whether or not your family expects heated political debate over the holidays, you''ll appreciate the way this mom quiets her sons.

2. 14 Women of Color Who Rocked 2014 
From the creators of #BlackLivesMatter to the founder of an organization focused on women with incarcerated loved ones, meet the women of color at the forefront of the fight for justice.

3. The Myth of Crying Rape
From Jim Wallis and Sandi Villarreal: "The reality is, these survivors are often re-victimized by a system that interrogates rather than advocates and then fails to deliver justice in a vast majority of cases ... Failure to recognize the sins of power and domination that influence the acts of violence against half of God’s creatures is simply bad theology."

4. Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State
A win for environmentalists that could set an important precedent.

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Did Jesus Really Never Say Anything About Homosexuality?

In the realm of biblical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, I’ve always found one — “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality” — to be particularly weak.

After all, Jesus also never said anything about rape, molestation, bestiality, torture, cyber-bullying, insurance fraud or elaborate pagan rituals involving self-mutilation and child sacrifice. That does not, by default, earn any of those things the Lord’s unconditional seal of approval.

What’s more, I’m not sure if the argument’s underlying premise is even true. Because, in the Gospels, Christ may indeed have failed to specifically broach the topic currently preoccupying the American Evangelical church, but he did address the subject, in a manner of speaking, in Matthew 22 and Mark 12.

In those two brief, but pivotal, passages of scripture, Jesus captures the essence of the Christian ethic, mission, calling and faith in an incredibly simple and beautiful way. And he did so, interestingly, not as a standalone teaching, but in answer to a question from his critics.

It starts when a group of Pharisees, taking the tag from the Sadducees — who had been silenced in the previous back-and-forth — descend on Jesus, with the goal of ripping open a can of good, old-fashioned pwnage, first-century style.

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Australia’s #IllRideWithYou — An Advent Expression of Emmanuel

“If you don’t feel safe alone, I will ride with you.”

These words have so much depth.  

When an armed man with unidentified ties to radical Islam took control of a Sydney café for over 16 hours on Monday, a social media campaign under the hashtag #IllRideWithYou started rapidly trending on Twitter. Australians started the hashtag to stand in solidarity with Muslims during the immediate tension following the siege. In a matter of hours, the hashtag became an international movement creating over 480,000 tweets.

The hashtag was inspired when one user tweeted the story of a young Muslim woman who removed her hijab (traditional Islamic head scarf) while riding public transportation because she feared that identifying herself as a Muslim would put her in danger of misdirected violence toward innocent Muslim citizens in the aftermath of another extremist fueled act. The tweet continued to describe another young woman who “ran after her at the train station [and said] ‘put it back on. I’ll walk with u [sic]..’”

This original tweet inspired Tessa Kum, an Australian TV content editor, to reply with a message that sparked a movement. From her handle @sirtessa, Kum tweeted,

“If you reg take #373 bus b/w Cogee/Martin Pl, wear religious attire, & don't feel safe alone: I'll ride with you. @ me for schedule.”

 

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