The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

Obama to Host Pope Francis at White House in September

President Obama will welcome Pope Francis to the White House during the pontiff’s U.S. visit in September to “continue the dialogue … on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said March 26.

The meeting with the president and first lady will take place on Sept. 23, apparently near the start of a visit — the first to the U.S. by the Argentine pope — that will take Francis from the U.S. Capitol to New York and the United Nations and will conclude with a huge outdoor Mass in Philadelphia.

“During the visit, the President and the Pope will continue the dialogue, which they began during the President’s visit to the Vatican in March 2014, on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” Earnest said in a statement.

Those issues, he said, include “caring for the marginalized and the poor; advancing economic opportunity for all; serving as good stewards of the environment; protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world; and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”

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The Passover Seder, Designed by and for Women

On the first night of Passover, Jews ask aloud, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

For a group of 150-plus women gathered March 22 at Congregation Beth El north of Washington, D.C., that traditional question was followed by an alternative: “Why is this seder different from other seders?”

Answer: “At other seders, men traditionally lead the service. At this seder, women are the leaders.”

Women’s seders are not new. The women who gathered at Beth El on Sunday, 12 days before the holiday begins on April 3, have been at it for 19 years. These seders began in or near cities with substantial Jewish populations about a generation ago, when fewer women played leading roles in synagogues and other institutions of Jewish life.

Today, women in the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism in the U.S., which account for about 90 percent of synagogue-affiliated Jews, lead congregations as rabbis, cantors, and synagogue presidents.

Still, women’s seders proliferate, and each year, their guest lists grow.

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The ‘Pope Francis Effect?' Some Early Data Suggest It Could Be Real

Pope Francis appears more popular than ever among American Catholics, and he hasn’t even visited the U.S. yet, a trip that is planned for September and could well boost his visibility — and appeal — even further.

But will Francis find American Catholics filling the pews? Or just loving the pope from afar? That’s one of the big — and so far unanswered — questions about his remarkable papacy.

Now, one researcher may have found some signs, albeit tentative, of an incipient “Francis effect.”

Mark Gray of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate crunched the Catholic numbers from the 2014 General Social Survey, the go-to resource for sociologists. The GSS began in 1972 and is conducted every two years using face-to-face interviews with a national random sample of adults.

Gray noted that when asked to characterize the strength of their religious affiliation, 34 percent of Catholics said it was “strong,” up from 27 percent in 2012, the year before Francis was elected.

That 7-point rise was a “significant bounce,” Gray said.

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Subversive Little Crumbs

I stood at the bread shelf in the neighborhood grocery store, trying to decide which loaf I should buy. Tough decision. I looked at all the types of bread and went back and forth many times.

Which one would be best for communion? I didn’t know. I’d never had to make this choice.

Our pastor was at a conference for the weekend. As the associate minister, I would be presiding over the Sunday service for the first time. Before he left, we went over the details of all that had to be prepared.

He reminded me that I needed to buy the bread for communion.

Uh, I hadn’t thought about that. Where do you get it?

“The grocery store will do just fine.”

So there I was, looking over the loaves, wondering which one looked the most, well, communion-y. Maybe that pretty, round Tuscan loaf. Wait, maybe the nice Jewish rye over there. My wry sense of humor kicked in. Jesus would smile over that, right? Being Jewish and all.

No, better not …

I finally picked an Italian loaf — mainly because it was big and it looked pretty and it was on sale. I put it in my basket and headed for the self-checkout line.

When I scanned the loaf, the automated voice asked: “Do you have any coupons?” No, no communion coupons. Not today.

I swiped my credit card and was reminded that my purchase would earn me a few cents off my next gasoline purchase. How’s that for transubstantiation — bread transformed into bonus points?

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Nigerian Christians May Back a Muslim Candidate in Upcoming Presidential Elections

Under the shadow of Boko Haram violence, Nigerians head to the polls March 28 to elect a president and a deputy in a vote observers say is critical for the country’s stability and economic progress.

In a twist that might have been difficult to predict, many Christians in Nigeria’s north are backing a Muslim candidate to lead their country away from the brink of violence and chaos.

Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north and the leader of the All Progressives Congress party, is challenging the leadership of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south who heads the ruling People’s Democratic Party.

Some Nigerians fear that another term for Jonathan would mean institutionalization of corruption and emergence of more Muslim extremist groups in addition to Boko Haram.

And they are willing to pin their hopes on a Muslim candidate.

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Catholics and Anglicans Prepare Ecumenical Burial Fit for a King

Tens of thousands of people in Leicester — England’s most religiously diverse city — are getting ready to honor the memory of a long-despised English king with a ceremony that testifies to the already warm relationship between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

The bones of King Richard III — who was slain in battle in 1485 and vilified in the writings of William Shakespeare, who described him as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad” — will be interred at Leicester Cathedral on March 26 at a ceremony led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and attended by leading Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews, as well as members of England’s royal family.

Richard was the last king of England to die in battle while attempting to defend his throne from Henry VII. The latter went on to establish the Tudor dynasty, whose most memorable monarch was Henry VIII.

After the battle, Richard’s remains were hastily buried by Franciscan monks. In 2012, archaeologists digging in a parking lot found his remains and had the DNA checked with a known survivor of the king’s family.

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Examining Anti-Semitism on U.S. College Campuses

Is anti-Semitism rising on U.S. college campuses?

According to most statistics, yes — but the phenomenon is far more complicated than it first appears, primarily because everyone oversimplifies it.

The data, and the anecdotes, are shocking. In a study conducted in spring 2014 (notably, before the Israel/Gaza conflagrations of last summer), 54 percent of Jewish students said they had personally witnessed or experienced an anti-Semitic incident. And in just the last two months, swastikas have been painted on walls at the University of California’s Berkeley and Davis campuses and at New York’s John Jay College.

But what do these incidents mean? There is a great reluctance even to engage with the question.

Among liberals, even though it is obvious that many of these incidents are motivated in part by Israel/Palestine politics, no one wants to give hatred a pass. A swastika is a swastika, graffiti is graffiti, and collective guilt — in this case, blaming all Jews for specific actions of Israel — is always wrong.

Conservatives, meanwhile, routinely conflate anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speech. The far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center, for example, recently released its list of the American college campuses with the “worst anti-Semitic activity.” But many of those activities were protests of Israel. Extreme, perhaps, and unfair; but not really the same as anti-Semitism.

The fact is, the borders of anti-Semitism are permeable. Human speech does not divide neatly into “hate speech” and “political speech.” Thus, if we are to avoid the over-generalizations, we must be more rigorous in our definitions of the phenomenon or we risk diluting the evil of anti-Semitism itself.

In fact, a swastika is not just a swastika. Consider an anti-Israel protest that depicts an Israeli flag with a swastika on it. Offensive, to be sure. But what is it saying? It’s saying that Nazis are bad, and that the Israeli government is Nazi-like.

Now consider an anti-Semitic incident in which someone sprays a swastika on a synagogue door. Also grossly offensive, to say the least. But it is saying something very different. It is saying that Nazis are good, and we should finish the work they started.

The same symbol thus has two nearly opposite meanings.

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Telling Old Stories, Again and Again

At a church workshop last week, I set aside my carefully planned teaching and just let people talk.

It became clear that everyone had an old story they needed to tell. Until it was heard, no one in the room could or would move on to thinking about the future. And even when it was heard, half of them would keep cycling back to the old story.

I sensed that, for some, the old story contained an identity, in the sense of “this story is who I am.” I need to keep telling this story so that you know me. Until I am sure you’ve heard it, know me, and accept me, I can’t stop.

For some, the old story was the burden on their back, the cloud over their heads. This story explains why I fall short, seem hesitant or even paralyzed. If you know my story, maybe you can accept me and forgive me.

For some, the old story was the safe place, the known that kept the scary unknown at bay. As long as I keep telling this story and presenting the me that existed yesterday, I don’t have to contemplate the ways I am changing and the tomorrow that worries me.

It was like a case study in the long-ago classic, “I’m OK — You’re OK.” People wanted to know they were OK — acceptable and maybe someday even loved.

I think back to a recent lunch with the rector of the local Episcopal church, where I kept peeling the onion, telling her one thing about myself and then, if she accepted that, telling her something more. She was doing the same. If we know each other and still accept each other, then we can be in relationship.

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Sabbath Dissonance

Some years ago, Carl Jung told the story of a man who asked a rabbi why God was revealed to many people in days of old, but now nobody sees God.

“Why is this?” he asked.

The rabbi answered, “Because nowadays no one bows low enough.”

Perhaps we are looking for God in all the wrong places. In this video, Sister Margaret goes to prison. She is not Jesus. She is not God. But she believes God is there in Riker’s Island, “home” to 1300 prisoners, half of them teenagers. She listens to their stories.

“My father walked out on us ... I messed up ... I had no one to back me up.”

Their stories changed her. 

"I don’t know what it’s like not to be loved. I don’t know what it’s like to be abused, to be abandoned,” she says.

She is really saying, “I didn’t know before what it’s like to be so far down.”

These prisoners are teaching her even as she is counseling and encouraging them. Those men in Riker’s Island would probably be surprised to hear that Paul was a prisoner when he wrote this week’s lectionary selection, a letter to the Philippians.

WATCH: Acts of Compassion

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Despite Rising Anti-Semitism, Jews Thrive in Central Europe

In Cafe Elfenbein, which opened last year in a trendy Berlin neighborhood, two businessmen wearing yarmulkes — Jewish skullcaps — chat away.

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and homemade rugelach pastry fills the shop, where a rabbi has certified that all its food is kosher.

The hip addition to the city points to a trend obscured by rising anti-Semitism and terror attacks in France and Denmark that have alienated Jews. In central and Eastern Europe, Jewish life is thriving.

One major reason is that a young and more confident generation is shaping a new Jewish identity.

“Jewish life is flourishing in Berlin and the rest of the country,” said Jutta Wagemann, spokeswoman for the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

The Jewish community in Germany remains small, about 200,000 out of 80 million people. It has grown significantly from its postwar population of 37,000 in 1950 because of immigration from the former Soviet Union. The community is putting its stamp these days on the country’s cultural landscape.

In the East German city of Cottbus, an area known for right-wing extremists, a disused church was recently turned into a synagogue, providing space for the 460 members of the Jewish-Russian community.

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