The Common Good

God's Politics

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.
 

+Continue Reading

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. 

+Continue Reading

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.

 
+Continue Reading

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.

+Continue Reading

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.

+Continue Reading

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.”

 

+Continue Reading

Mary’s Song

Mary, the mother of Jesus, sings at Christmas. It's not your typical carol. Hers is a song of thanks and praise, but Mary's sweet soprano voice is deceiving. 

Her canticle, The Magnficat, is recorded in the Gospel According to Luke. The text is assigned to be read in the churches Sunday.

Mary sings about politics and economics, the dangers of unchecked power and the foolishness of false pride, and what it means for persons and nations to eschew the common good. 

Mary sings of the outstretched arm of a Holy God who is effecting a great reversal in the world: the proud are scattered, the mighty brought low, the lowly raised up, the rich sent away empty and the hungry filled. 

Mary sings the world forward, toward a global community of justice and compassion. 

A first thought? How uncharacteristic of an expectant mother, this song! A second thought? Perhaps not so unusual. 

+Continue Reading

Hope in the Dark Times

The first time I really got it, I was 16 years old.

I had traveled by myself to visit distant relatives in Paris, with the hope of improving my French. Somehow, a weekend visit to the beach ended up with me on an unaccompanied trip on a train from a lazy seaside town back to the city. “I’m lonely here, God,” I thought. “Would you show me you are with me?”

Looking out the train window, there was a brilliant sunset hanging over the fields of canola flowers. There was my reminder of God’s love! As the train curved away from the sunset and it fell out of view, I sat back in my seat, satisfied with the gift I had been given …  only to start up again as the train took a sharp curve to the left, the sunset back in full view.

“Oh,” I thought, “that’s what they mean by love being abundant and our cups overflowing. I get it.”

The first time I really got it, I was 18 years old.

On my first winter break back from college, I was driving in my parents’ car, listening to the radio. On air was a county executive discussing why a curfew might be a good idea for the county’s youth. According to him, instituting the curfew would help police arrest young people they suspected of other crimes. The implication was that it would only be enforced against those people who looked suspicious. Another voice on the show expressed concerns that what this meant was that the curfew would only be enforced against black teenagers.

“Oh,” I thought, “this is what they mean when they say the police target people they instinctively assume to be suspicious, even if they haven’t done anything wrong. I get it.”

+Continue Reading

The Myth of Crying Rape

The fact that the journalistic “scandal” got more public attention than the original story should give us pause. And the narrative that is playing out in the story’s wake — the one that says the college campus rape crisis is nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by the left — is disturbing.  

+Continue Reading

A Merry Little Climate

The ink is barely dry on the latest plan to deal with climate change. One can hardly claim that Lima was a resounding success, but it’s not a complete failure either. With 2014 looking to be the hottest year on record, very fast action indeed is needed to keep a global mean temperature below 2 degrees celsius over pre-industrial levels. Given that people are suffering now from less than 1 percent celsius, it is already too late to avoid some consequences of climate change. However, there is still time to avoid the worst of the scenarios, and Lima at least commits all nations to act, even if the harder decisions are to be made in Paris in 2015. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking.

In Australia, things have looked pretty grim for those of us concerned about the future. While I’ve been encouraged as I have gone around speaking at churches and Christian organisations, and seen the enthusiasm for something to be done, our reaction in the public sphere has often been muted. There are sections of the church who could be showing much greater moral leadership on this issue. Climate change is an issue for all Australians — indeed for all of humanity, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or politics. The reality of a drying continent, a longer and more volatile fire weather season, and deadlier heatwaves does not discriminate.

Further, with the removal of the carbon tax, an attack on the Renewable Energy Target, and the continued pushing of coal at state and federal level, we seem to be going backwards, not forwards. It is heartening to see an about-face on the Green Climate Fund, but it simply isn’t enough to play Good Samaritan when you are one of the robbers waylaying the innocent.

+Continue Reading