The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

Voters, Not NRA Lobbyists, Win in Washington State

There is much reason to be distressed about the current scope of the American political sphere. After Tuesday’s midterm elections, constituents on both sides of the aisle voiced legitimate concerns about the direction of our country. Yet, on Wednesday morning there was a glimmer of great hope for the American people.

In Washington state, ballot measure I-594 introduced stricter background checks into state gun protocol. Why is this an important moment of triumph for the American people?

On I-594 the people won. Not the lobbies. Not the politicians. The people.

Washington voters made history by becoming the first state to expand background checks to all gun sales by popular vote. By strategically moving the fight for commonsense gun policies from gun lobby-dominated legislatures to the ballot box, democracy in Washington state was able to function on a person-by-person basis.

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Resisting a Culture of Fear

Fear is in the air.

Ebola. War. Conflict. Economic turmoil. Political victories. Political losses. This is the stuff of the nightly news. And everywhere we look we have a new villain to worry about, a new threat against which we ought to brace, a new sense of hopelessness.

This is nothing new, of course. The world has always been a scary place. If anything, we have become inured to the greatest threats we might face. With roofs over our heads and weather forecasters to warn us of impending storms and economic structures to cushion us from financial catastrophe, we keep many dangers at bay.

And yet in the midst of so much safety and comfort, we seem to search compulsively for something to fear, something to raise our ire, something that will keep us up at night. It is not enough to feel safe apparently; for some reason, fear is too tempting.

Anytime these world disasters emerge — whether disease or storm or war or financial crash — some Christian or another will step to the microphone to declare the end of days. Things have never been this bad before. The global crisis is unprecedented. This can only mean the dawn of the end as we know it.

Then again, the same could have been said in the days when the plague was ravaging Western Europe. The same could have been said by the victims of Western expansion in the Americas. The same could have been said by our grandmothers and grandfathers as the economic system crumbled before their eyes in the Great Depression. The same could have been said by a Jew facing the Holocaust. The same could have been said by the Nigerian girls who were stolen for the sake of a deluded ideology.

Disasters are not new. Recent disasters do not erase old ones. And old ones do not discount new ones.

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When You're Stuck Behind a Student Driver

While driving to work the other day, I wound up stopped behind this car with a sign taped to the back window that said: “STUDENT DRIVER / PLEASE BE PATIENT / THANK YOU.”

It made me smile.

I remember being a 16-year-old behind the wheel of our family’s red station wagon, learning to drive with one of those handmade signs taped to the back window. I remember my dad sitting in the passenger seat and being very, very quiet the first time I merged onto an interstate with the semis whizzing past.

Maybe that’s why when I see a car with a student driver, I don’t get upset if they take forever to decide it’s finally safe to make that left-hand turn. Or if they’re entering the highway at 35 mph and I have to slow down and accommodate them.

Been there, remember that.

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Dancing on the Grave of Division

1989 was a big year for me, and for the wider world. It was the year I left my teenage years behind. It was also the year that the brutality of government repression in Tiananmen Square rocked the world, U2 came to my home town and rocked the tennis stadium for seven nights straight, and my football team went back-to-back.

But the biggest news by far that year happened in November when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down literally overnight. For 28 years the wall had separated Berliners from each other, dividing not just a nation but whole systems of government — as well as families, traumatizing them in the process.

This is all very personal for me; I have German parents who grew up during a world war that saw their country devastated both from within and without.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of that most wonderful night when people who had been divided for decades were suddenly reunited, and thousands danced on the symbolic grave of separation, celebrating the death of division. For millions of Germans, it is no doubt one of the enduring memories of their lives. For them, Nov. 9, 1989 will never be forgotten.

I can still recall watching it on TV at my mother’s home. As I was watching, I looked over at Mum and saw tears streaming down her face, unable to believe the enormity of what was happening before her eyes. Talking to my dad later, he said he thought it would never happen in his lifetime.

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When We Choose to See Them

“Excuse me, sir. I don’t have any cash, but I have a credit card, and I’m going to that restaurant right now. If you’re hungry, I’d be happy to have you join me.”

Well, I said something like that, though my French was a little rusty, and I might not have said it quite right.

The man was sitting on the sidewalk outside the train station. I’d just arrived in Paris after an overnight ride, and I was tired and hungry. The sign he was holding caught my eye: “I’m an out-of-work architect, and I need money for rent for my son and me.”

You just never know with panhandlers and street beggars. Are they telling the truth, or have they simply figured out how to pull our heartstrings? It’s easy to choose to ignore them, or to toss them some cash and pay off a guilty conscience. Don’t stop, just toss some coins and keep rolling on by. I was living in Madrid at the time, a city of five million people. Beggars are a daily fact of life in a city like that, and you need to find a way to deal with them. Eventually they become like busy intersections, crosswalks, gawking tourists, and all the other impediments to travel.

At the same time, I couldn’t help asking what Christ would do. 

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Weekly Wrap 11.7.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

 1. GoldieBlox Releases Action Figure for Girls
“Fashion dolls teach girls to value beauty over brains. One is sold every 3 seconds.” That’s how the ad releasing a new action figure for girls opens. Looks like Barbie and Bratz dolls have some competition.

2. On the 25th Anniversary, Stunning Before and After Photos of the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. These photographs capture how life has changed in the past quarter century.

3. Gerrymandering Rigged the 2014 Election
“There are a lot of structural issues that influence congressional elections, from voter ID requirements to early voting access. But what does it matter if you’ve been packed into a district in which your vote can’t change the composition of Congress?”

4. Victoria’s Secret Got the Memo, Changed ‘Perfect Body’ Campaign
This isn’t the first time Victoria’s Secret got a marketing campaign tagline a little twisted (ahem, remember ‘Bright Young Things?’) But this time, they seem to have gotten the message — from the nearly 30,000 people who signed an online petition or tweeted #iamperfect to the lingerie brand.

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'Are You the People That Help Immigrants?'

Zach Szmara, Pastor of The Bridge Community Church in Logansport, Ind., was on a conference call when a young man entered the church. He put the call on hold to walk out of the office and meet him. In broken English, the man said, "Are you the people that help immigrants?" The man had driven more than 20 miles because he heard rumors of a church that loved the stranger.

Szmara said, "In that moment I was both humbled and convicted. I was humbled that our small church had such a reputation. Yet I was convicted that it was only very recently that I could answer 'yes' to the burning question of this young immigrant who came to me."

"I have lived overseas, and there my eyes could easily see the marginalized and the stranger in my midst. But at home in the states, I almost missed it, and almost missed how God has enriched my life because of it," Szmara continued.

The issue of immigration has dominated the headlines for much of this year. As Christians, we believe that – regardless of where we each may stand on the political spectrum – God’s heart for the immigrant is clear. In fact, the Hebrew word for an immigrant appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone, and the New Testament says in no uncertain terms that however we, as Christians, treat the stranger in our midst, is how we are treating Jesus himself.

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Don’t Forget the Nigerian Schoolgirls, or Girls’ Education

While the world’s attention is firmly fixed on the Islamic State’s continued rein of terror, applause for Malala Yousafzai — for taking home the Nobel Peace Prize — has taken on a quieter tone. Yet, her message — that girls can turn the tide against religious radicalism and repression — risks being lost.

In another part of the world, reports continue to trickle in of the failed negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram — negotiations that were supposed to include provisions for release of the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls who remain firmly within Boko Haram’s grip. In fact, there are new reports that another 20 to 70 women and girls have become the latest victims of Boko Haram’s terror, threatening the cease-fire that was to bring the original schoolgirls home. Moreover, much of the world is now eerily silent on the subject — calling into question the commitment to the return of the girls and undermining the separate campaign to improve the education of girls worldwide.

Is this Malala’s world? One where the value of female lives is an open question, and where the kidnapping of girls and women by terrorists goes unanswered? It certainly seems that way. The #bringbackourgirls campaign championed by first lady Michelle Obama and countless Hollywood stars is now a stagnant memory.

Compare this reality to the global push to educate the girls, an understood foundation for economic development and prosperity, with the paradox of the wholesale abandonment of the abducted girls, whose only crime was receiving this exact education.

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Online, Offline Faith Go Hand in Hand

God bless online media. Almost half of U.S. adults (46 percent) say they saw someone sharing “something about their faith” on the Internet in the last week.

And one in five (20 percent) say they were part of the Internet spiritual action on social networking sites and apps — sharing their beliefs on Facebook, asking for prayer on Twitter, mentioning in a post that they went to church.

“The sheer number of people who have seen faith discussed online is pretty striking,” said Greg Smith, associate director of religion research for Pew Research Center.

Megachurch pastors have mega-followings online. Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church streams his Houston services online. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has 1.8 million likes on his Facebook page. And Pope Francis has more than 4.6 million English-language followers, chiefly American, for his @Pontifex Twitter feed.

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Gay Marriage Hits Major Bump in Federal Appeals Court

The same-sex marriage movement lost its first major case in a federal appeals court Thursday after a lengthy string of victories, creating a split among the nation’s circuit courts that virtually guarantees review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 2-1 ruling from the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed lower court rulings that had struck down gay marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

More important, it gives Supreme Court justices an appellate ruling that runs counter to four others from the 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th circuits. Those rulings struck down same-sex marriage bans in Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho and Nevada, leading to similar action in neighboring states.

Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton, one of the Republican Party’s most esteemed legal thinkers and writers, issued the 42-page decision precisely three months after hearing oral arguments in the cases, with fellow GOP nominee Deborah Cook concurring. He delivered a rare defeat for proponents of same-sex marriage, who had won nearly all the cases decided from Florida to Alaska since the Supreme Court ruled against the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013.

Sutton argued that appellate judges’ hands are tied by a one-sentence Supreme Court ruling from 1972, which “upheld the
right of the people of a state to define marriage as they see it.” Last year’s high court decision requiring the federal government to recognize legal same-sex marriages does not negate the earlier ruling as it applies to states where gay marriage is not legal, he said.

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