The Common Good

God's Politics

Pope Francis Throws the Weight of His Office Behind Tackling Climate Change

The Vatican is set to host a major conference on climate change this month that will feature leading researchers on global warming and an opening address by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The meeting, which the Vatican detailed on its website late on April 14, is another sign of Pope Francis’ “green agenda” and another potential red flag for conservatives who are already alarmed over an expected papal teaching document on the environment that is scheduled for release this summer.

The one-day summit on April 28 will also include participants from major world religions and aims to “elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment in advance of the papal encyclical,” as the papal document is known.

Another goal, says a statement on a Vatican website, is to highlight “the intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people — especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children, and future generations.”

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Lauren Hill and the Morning Fog

As I stepped outside the gym at Mount St. Joseph on the morning of Oct. 23, I immediately noticed the sun working hard to burn off a thick fog that had obscured the sunrise.

And I thought: That’s what Lauren Hill is doing.

I’d just finished talking to Lauren. You might know her story. Lauren was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor during her senior year in high school. She asked God for a little guidance on what she should do with her final year of life.

Ask, and you will receive. She wanted direction. She got it.

Lauren decided to go ahead and attend Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati and play basketball, even though she had only months to live.

The goal was to play in a game and score a basket. As it turned out, she played in four and made five baskets — 10 perfect points.

She also started a foundation to raise money for cancer research, hoping doctors will find a cure for other young people after she’s gone.

Yeah, I know: Spending your precious, limited time helping others instead of worrying about yourself. What a concept.

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Confusing Jesus with Daredevil

Like many comic book fans, I spent the weekend binging on Daredevil, Marvel’s newest release. The entire first season was created for Netflix, and it dropped in its entirety on Friday. I waited until Saturday night to dig in (longer than some friends of mine), and I was hooked from the opening scene.

It's a scene that opens with Matt Murdock (lawyer-by-day alter ego of the masked vigilante Daredevil) sitting in a confessional. He begins by telling the priest about his father, a boxer who fought harder than his record could ever show. He ends the conversation by asking not for penance, but for future forgiveness — forgiveness for what he’s about to do. “That’s not how this works,” the priest says.

Yet so much of how Murdock as Daredevil works in this latest iteration of the character is how we want it to work. Based closely on Frank Miller’s writing of the character, Daredevil proves to be someone who deals justice unflinchingly. This isn’t someone who hesitates when the situation allows for a grim, overly firm hand. Contrast this with Batman, a character who struggles to commit severe violence even when it seems to be the only option.

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Who's Watching? Brave New Technology, Same Old Fears

In 1990, my father and pregnant mother packed up their life in suburban Illinois, bundled their four young children (including me) onto a plane, and landed in Romania to teach on a grant at the University of Bucharest.  

The country was in the throes of revolution following the execution of ousted dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the transfer of power was by no means tidy or complete. The Securitate — one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world — proved difficult to shut down. All our neighbors operated under the assumption that their every move continued to be watched (one friend had taken apart his typewriter by hand and hid it so he could answer honestly that he did not keep a typewriter in the house). Being American, my parents were told to expect our apartment to be bugged.

Freedom had come, but the systems of omnipresent control proved psychologically hard to shake.

The specter of surveillance is an insidious tool. In the 1790s, British philosoper Jeremy Bentham developed a centralized prison model called the panopticon, in which every occupant is visible to a single guard. Most models, since adapted by prisons and schools around the world, leave open the possibility that there is no supervisor watching after all. Whether there is isn't the point — the mere promise of one is enough to coerce significant behavior change. Being constantly observable is the trap.  

These days, Americans don’t need a formative year spent in post-soviet Romania to feel uneasy about omnipresent surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive secret surveillance programs operating under the NSA, with enormous access to private data from citizens not suspected of terrorism or criminal wrongdoing, rocked our understandings of data privacy and civil liberty. Now, as then, it’s reasonable to worry that we’re being watched.

And if it’s not the state watching us, it’s corporations after our money. Uber tracks our movements and fires drivers for sharing links to bad reviews on their personal media, unless it doesn’t. Facebook uses emotional manipulation to collect behavioral data, but insists it’s no big dealGoogle compiles secret profiles through wiretapping but swears it would never.

So are we being watched or aren’t we? And do we care?

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Oklahoma Satanist Church Wants Permission to Distribute Books in Elementary School

Less than two weeks after a third-grade teacher in Duncan, Okla., distributed Gideon Bibles to her students, the Church of Ahriman, a Satanist church in Oklahoma City, has asked permission to distribute Satanist literature at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.

Adam Daniels, the church’s leader, said he wanted to give students a copy of Ahrimani Enlightenment, a primer and workbook normally given to new members of the church.

In a letter to the Duncan school district, some 80 miles south of Oklahoma City, Daniels assured administrators that his book is “no where (sic) near as graphic as the Christian Bible.”

Daniels said he has yet to hear back, but he believes equal access laws mean that his church has the right to distribute literature if other religious organizations are permitted to do so.

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5 Takeaways from Tuesday's White House Celebration of Gospel Music

First lady Michelle Obama hosted a discussion with musicians and students on gospel music at the White House on April 14, praising gospel’s role as “a ray of hope” in American history.

“Gospel music has really played such an important role in our country’s history,” she told more than 100 students gathered in the State Dining Room, “from the spirituals sung by slaves, to the anthems that became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement, and to the hymns that millions of Americans sing every single day in churches all across the country.”

Here are some of the lessons learned during the 75-minute event, where Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli interviewed a panel of singers and songwriters ahead of a star-studded concert that will air on PBS on June 26 as part of the “In Performance at the White House” series.

1. Gospel music is personal for the first lady.

“I’m really thrilled that we’re really focusing on gospel,” Obama said of the series that has previously featured classical, country, and soul music.

“It’s something that I wanted to do since we started.”

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Coercion or Persuasion? On Religious Liberty and LGBT Rights

The limiting of religious freedom is a perpetually contested question in American public life. Most recently, as states consider new laws and the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on same-sex marriage, gay rights supporters and traditionalist Christians appear to be on a collision course.

To make matters worse, whenever disputes between gay couples and conservative Christian wedding vendors arise, a well-funded professional grievance industry sends lawyers and media handlers out to convince the public that this is the great civil rights issue of our time.

As a new prevailing cultural consensus on homosexuality displaces a former one, it remains to be seen how the winners will treat the losers. From laws that impose punitive fines to rhetoric that places “religious liberty” in quotation marks so as to diminish it, the culture war’s apparent victors have not accorded religious freedom its due place of prominence in our public life.

The present tension between religious liberty and LGBT rights is unsustainable, but it is not insurmountable. Activists on both sides have been short on empathy for each other. Leaders have every incentive to portray their opponents as evil retrogrades hellbent on destroying society.

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Christian Leaders Voice Support for Iran Framework Agreement

This week, more than 50 Christian leaders came together to voice our support for the framework of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany), concerning Iran’s nuclear program. Sojourners published the leaders’ statement as a full-page ad in Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., political newspaper widely read by members of Congress and their staff.

The statement, signed by leaders from all the major streams of American Christianity — Roman Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Pentecostal — is reprinted below. We want to share this letter with you, the Sojourners community, and the broader public. I urge you to prayerfully consider adding your own voice in support of the diplomatic process and share the opportunity with others. Read it, discuss it in your churches, and add your name. This is a historic opportunity for diplomacy to triumph over armed conflict, and as people of faith, you can play an important role in helping the process succeed.

—Jim Wallis, Founder and President, Sojourners

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Children of Holocaust Survivors More Anxious About Iran Nuclear Threat

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.

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Lonely Widower Takes Lead in Landmark Gay Marriage Case

Jim Obergefell and John Arthur spent more than two decades living quietly together. They were never gay rights activists. Most of their friends weren’t even gay.

“John and I always joked that we were bad gays,” Obergefell recalled, “because the vast majority of our friends are straight couples.”

But when the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2013, that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages, two new activists suddenly were born — one of whom now stands at the threshold of legal history.

Fifteen days after the high court’s ruling — with Arthur in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease — the couple flew to Maryland on a medically equipped jet to be legally married on the tarmac. Then they flew back home and learned their marriage would not be recognized in Ohio.

“All I thought was, ‘This isn’t right. I’m p—ed off,'” Obergefell, 48, says now, sitting in the silence of his art-filled condominium in Cincinnati’s historic Over the Rhine district.

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