The Common Good

God's Politics

So What's the Deal With Ash Wednesday?

Chances are you’ll see a bunch of folks walking around with shmutz on their foreheads this Wednesday. The ‘Splainer asks what having a dirty forehead has to do with being a Christian and why this ritual is gaining in popularity.

Q: Excuse me, but why do you have dirt on your forehead?

A: Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day many Christians mark as the first day of Lent, the time of reflection and penitence leading up to Easter Sunday. Clergy all over the world dispense ashes, usually made by burning the palm fronds distributed on last year’s Palm Sunday, making the sign of the cross on the bowed foreheads before them. As they “impose” or “dispense” the ashes, the pastor or priest reminds each Christian of Genesis 3:19: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Q: Well, that’s cheerful. Why would anyone want to start a workday on such a downer?

A: It isn’t intended to be a downer. It’s supposed to be a reminder that our lives are short and we must live them to the fullest. OK, maybe it’s a little bit of a downer — that verse from Genesis is what God said to Adam and Eve when he expelled them from the Garden of Eden for their sins. But there’s a big party the night before Ash Wednesday. That’s Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” a secular observance that evolved out of “Shrove Tuesday,” the last hurrah – usually marked by eating of pancakes or other sinfully sweet foods – before the solemnity and penance of Lent set in.

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What the Chapel Hill Murders Reveal About the Place of Muslims in American Society

RALEIGH, N.C. — Deah Barakat took my class “Islam in the Modern World” at N.C. State University a few years ago. He was curious about Islamic history, contemporary spiritual and political movements, and was great in class discussions. I’ve taught thousands of students in the last 11 years here, but Deah stood out for his enthusiasm, kindness, calm demeanor and obvious charisma.

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha were the very best people. They embodied the core Islamic principle of “ihsan” — doing that which is both beautiful in itself and beautifying to the world. They volunteered to assist poor and homeless people. They planned to travel to camps in Turkey to help Syrian refugees in need. They were creative, intelligent, kind, generous. There are no words for how much we have all lost when they were gunned down and murdered in their Chapel Hill condominium last week.

Yet many insist their murders resulted from a dispute over parking. While the particular motives of the shooter cannot be determined at this stage, it is abundantly clear that these deaths were not just about parking. It is also clear the emerging discussion is about the place of Muslims in contemporary America. As we analyze the meaning of Deah, Yusor, and Razan’s murders, we are also peeling back layers of societal debates about Islam, Muslim-Americans, and the culture of intolerance and violence taking root in the U.S. On some level, it does not matter whether the shooter actually intended to kill three Muslims because they were Muslim. The public conversation is revealing several collective concerns in stark and disturbing ways.

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LGBT Groups Plan Pilgrimage to See Pope Francis — With Support from Their Bishops

ROME — On its 15 previous pilgrimages, the Catholic gay rights group New Ways Ministry drew maybe two-dozen people to visit holy sites in places like Assisi and Rome.

This year, the number of pilgrims unexpectedly doubled to 50.

Chalk it up to the so-called Francis Effect, where the pope’s open-arms acceptance is giving new hope to gay and lesbian Catholics who have felt alienated from their church for decades.

What’s been even more surprising is that both New Ways and a similar Catholic LGBT organization in Britain are finding support from the Catholic hierarchy in their efforts to meet the pontiff when they both visit the Vatican on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, the period of penance and fasting preceding Easter.

For example, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, head of the papal household and the top aide to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, responded to New Ways’ request for a papal meet-and-greet by reserving tickets for the group at Francis’ weekly public audience in St. Peter’s Square. It’s not a private meeting — which is tough for anyone to get — but it’s not nothing.

 
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Rape Culture Is Real

The term "rape culture" is a sociological theory in which individuals who sexually harass and assault others are given a social license to do so, as they live in a society that makes excuses for perpetrators and blames victims for their own abuse. Feminist theorists often argue that rape culture beliefs are socialized into young men and women from childhood. Young men are socialized into beliefs that they have power and/or control and entitlement over others' bodies from a very young age. Likewise young women are socialized into believing they control men’s desire and lust via their clothing, behavior, and attractiveness. The theory of rape culture argues that these social beliefs facilitate sexual harassment, inappropriate sexual touch, sexual assault, and sexual objectification of others by reducing the stigma of engaging in unwanted sexual behavior and by increasing a since of entitlement from men towards women.

In Christian spheres of influence there has been an increasing focus — via Sojourners, Christians for Biblical Equality, and likeminded groups — to exposing how social beliefs, church leaders, and authoritarian theology has contributed to rape culture beliefs in the church and in the larger community. This focus comes in the midst of a media debate between social conservatives and social progressives about the very existence of rape culture. Inspired by conservative opposition to the recent publicity from the White House on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, this debate was further inflamed by the retraction of a Rolling Stone article about allegations of sexual assault at the University of Virginia. In response, it has become popular in recent months for conservative commentators to argue that there is no such thing as "rape culture."

This escalation of rhetorical debate is dangerous because it distracts from the real concern that rape culture theory was developed to address — that we help socialize dangerous behavior in children by our actions, inactions, and modeled beliefs. 

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Dean Smith: Reflections on an Outpouring of Love

Coach Smith planned his funeral so that the music and Scripture would reflect his deeds and the values of his heart:

  • Howard Lee, the first African-American mayor in North Carolina, read 1 Corinthians 13. Through the reading, Coach reminded us that God is Love.
  • We sang “Now Thank We All Our God.” Through the hymn, Coach stressed he was so grateful for God’s grace that he could not help but show his gratitude through service to others.
  • His granddaughter, Morgan, read Matthew 25. Through it, Coach told us that what counts is how we treat the “least of these” — for that is how we treat Jesus.
  • We sang “Amazing Grace.” Through it, Coach reminded us that its melody and lyrics are so transcendent that they are sung even by those at the most advanced stages of dementia (and they include Coach and my own mother who died last year).
  • We departed to “Lift High the Cross.” Through it, Coach uplifted us from our sorrow with a reminder that ours is a faith of triumph.
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Little Christs in Disneyland

I was listening to public radio in Boston recently when a public health expert half-jokingly noted that to find the hotspots of anti-vaccination fervor you could follow these steps:

1. Look at a map of where the Whole Foods are located.

2. Place a pin down where there is a Whole Foods.

3. Draw a 10-mile radius around the pin.

The point being — and this expert was only kidding a bit — that anti-vaccination is largely found among white, highly educated, wealthy advocates.

To me, what’s more obvious about this is when we are white, highly educated, and wealthy — like many of our mainline Protestant congregations — then the feelings of being in control and being free are so important that we are willing to risk the health and lives of others for the sake of being some sort of adjective like “natural” or “free.” Vaccines, designed to protect, become oddly reversed as a possible threat to freedom and “natural living.”

In reality, it is only our privilege that allows us to consider not vaccinating. The same sin that has deeply troubled our sexuality is also at the root of this crisis — the deep-seated belief that the highest good will be that we are free to do whatever we want to our bodies. This continuing belief in total freedom not only fails to take seriously human failings but continues to create crises wherever it goes.

When we view this world as a place where we can make decisions about our lives without regard to the impact to our neighbors, we have failed to heed Jesus’ own words that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have failed to hear from the apostle Paul that our bodies are now God’s temples, and that they are now for the sake of the world.

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Addressing the Changing Face of Faith

The 6.5 million people in the greater Houston area now surpass New York City and Los Angeles as the most racially and ethnically diverse urban area in the U.S. That's the site where a broad spectrum of U.S. church leaders met this week to consider the impact of immigration on their congregations, and on the rapidly changing expressions of Christianity within North American culture.

The group gathered at the annual convocation of Christian Churches Together in the USA, which includes the leadership of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, several Pentecostal and evangelical denominations, the Orthodox Churches, some Historic Black churches, and nearly all the major historic Protestant denominations. All of these are experiencing the impact of immigration. Most dramatically, for instance, 54 percent of millennials — those born after 1982 — who are Catholic are Latinos. Of the 44 million people living in the United States who were born in another country, 74 percent are Christian, while only 5 percent are Muslim, 4 percent Buddhist, and 3 percent Hindu.

While church leaders in the U.S. have expressed united support for the reform of U.S. immigration laws, this is the first time an ecumenical body has gathered to examine together the actual consequences of immigration on the life and witness of its churches.

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The Gospel of Mark: Manifesto of Political and Religious Defiance

I’m starting to think that Che Guevara and the Jesus of the Gospel according to Mark have an awful lot in common.

I should explain, first, that I’m in the first month of My Jesus Project, a year-long effort to more deeply live into the life, teaching and example of Jesus through prayer, study, and action. Each month, I explore a new dimension of Jesus with a mentor. This month is 'Jesus the Radical' with Christian Anarchist Mark Van Steenwyk. So of course coming from this point of view is going to impact my month's reading of the Gospel according to Mark. It's supposed to.

But in my 43 years of being exposed to the Bible, never have I seen the Jesus of Mark in the way I’m starting to see him now.

There are two recurring themes throughout the first several chapters in Mark: crowds and healing. The crowds following Jesus represent his growing power and influence — a growing threat to the occupying authorities of the Roman Republic — and though there are many general accounts of healing, the ones explicitly detailed in Mark all point to some act of political or religious defiance in the midst of the miraculous act of compassionate healing.

He’s either claiming the authority to forgive sins in front of religious leaders, healing on the sabbath, coming in contact with “unclean” women (like the bleeding woman in chapter five) without undergoing a cleansing mikvah  ritual immediately afterward, or he’s touching dead bodies (also chapter five) without cleansing himself as well. So far, throughout the first half of Mark, every account of healing or forgiveness stands in direct defiance of some political or religious rule.

All human laws bow at the feet of the authority of God, which is not a rule of law, but rather a subversive, paradigm-shifting “from the bottom up” rule of love and compassion for others, first and foremost. Period.

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Violence Begets Violence: ISIS and its Origins

Where does the violence end? And how did it begin?

In such a moment, we imagine ISIS as “different” from ourselves, a whole distinct category of the species homo sapiens. We did the same with Nazis back in the day, as if genocide’s engineers had not been the brothers and sisters of our own immigrant citizens, as if they were not the grandparents of the amiable Germans and Poles we befriend today. We forget, by the way, our own history of torturing — often burning alive — our own African American citizens, grandchildren of those this nation had enslaved. Our own president condemned ISIS and its grotesque ways, and he also reminded us that the potential for such violence dwells within every society. Naturally his opponents went nuts: they are nothing like weare, they cried.

But we are like they are, and they are like we are. Violence breaks us down. 

 

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Can Obama Walk the Tightrope of Religious Rhetoric in a Polarized America?

After taking heat from the religious right for saying Christians and Muslims have all committed horrors in God’s name, President Obama is now angering the religious left with an upcoming White House conference on combating ”violent extremism” that seems to focus only on Muslims.

The back-to-back controversies raise the question: Can Obama — or any president — safely discuss faith in today’s political crosswinds?

No, say experts who keep a close eye on presidential God talk. It’s a perilous walk, taken without a safety net as news and social media voices wait to savage him in a nanosecond.

Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast triggered fury when Obama mentioned the Crusades, the Inquisition and Jim Crow segregation laws as examples of Christian violence in God’s name.

“This is not unique to one group or one religion,” Obama said. “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

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