The Common Good

Uncommon sense

Sojomail - April 12, 2006

Quote of the Week : A general speaks out
Batteries Not Included : David Batstone: Uncommon sense
Theologically Connect : Passover in Spanish in the streets of America
Faith in Action : A retired Methodist missionary versus the IRS
Culture Watch : April is poetry month!
Sojourners in the News : This week's media round-up
Boomerang : Readers write
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"My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions - or bury the results."

- Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, former director of operations at the Pentagon's military joint staff, writing in Time magazine. Newbold resigned four months before the invasion of Iraq, but has only now gone public with his criticism of the war.

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Uncommon sense
by David Batstone

The Massachusetts legislature passed a remarkable piece of legislation last week. It became the first U.S. state to create universal health care coverage. The bill passed the legislature with ease; better news yet, Gov. Mitt Romney - on whose proposal the legislation originally was based - has said he'd sign it.

At present, nearly half a million of the state's residents do not have any kind of health insurance. That will change under the new plan. The state is already using a computer system to search for the Medicaid eligibility of hospital patients and enrolling those who are. Under the new legislation, employers also will share an added responsibility. A fine will be assessed on companies with more than 10 employees who do not offer health insurance; the penalty of $295 per employee per year is pitched to cover an individual's premiums. Those individuals who fall outside the two foregoing camps will be required by law to buy health insurance. If they fail to do so, they will be penalized on their state income taxes.

If all goes according to calculation, the financial impact of the universal health care system will be minimal. Why? More healthy people participating will drive down the cost of premiums, and more people blessed with health insurance will receive preventative care that will reduce expensive visits to emergency rooms.

"It is not a typical Massachusetts-Taxachusetts, oh-just-crazy-liberal plan," Stuart H. Altman, professor of health policy at Brandeis University, told The New York Times. Indeed, that's what is so impressive about the bill. A Republican governor, Romney, worked with a strongly Democratic legislature and Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy to design a plan that cuts across the ideological agendas that typically torpedo health care reform. After the efforts of Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to re-make health care crumbled nearly a decade ago, most pundits declared it impossible to reach any consensus on health care. But Massachusetts shows that sensible and financially-sound alternatives can be crafted if the goal is to fix the problem.

Now, if we could only apply the same pragmatic approach to cure our national health care system and treat other social problems ailing us: inadequate education, fossil fuel dependence, immigration issues, and deficit reduction. I don't know about you, but I am so beyond party politics. I am looking to support policies that actually can deliver results, and do so for the most vulnerable in our society.

For that reason, I am excited about the partnership we at Sojourners have made with Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a network of business leaders willing to take a leadership role in national spending priorities.

The group has drafted a bill to be presented to the U.S. Congress under the title The Common Sense Budget Act. Launched in the House of Representatives a few weeks ago at a press conference, the movement counts among its allies members of Congress, former military leaders, and business leaders.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the legislation: 1) Increase federal investment in programs that build strong communities here and abroad; 2) Use $60 billion of funds recouped by eliminating Pentagon spending on weapons systems designed to thwart the former Soviet Union. In effect, the plan represents no additional expense to the American taxpayer; 3) Maintain America's ability to defend itself from terrorism or other threats.

Essentially, the bill would take 15% of the Pentagon budget (aimed at outdated systems; this funding is not applicable to Iraq and Afghanistan) and make it available for domestic human needs programs.

Sure, we could all find something to quibble about with such a proposal. The far Right has never met a military budget item that it cannot embrace, and the far Left would like to re-direct 100% of the Pentagon budget for social programs. But this bill aims for a more pragmatic, consensus approach to national priorities in our society. For example, Lawrence J. Korb, who was Ronald Reagan's assistant secretary of defense, has done an analysis of the Pentagon budget and argues that America can cut $60 billion in waste from the defense budget without affecting our ability to fight terrorists. That report and more supporting materials can be found at the Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities Web site.

Our national priorities need a major adjustment. A troubling story graced the same front page of The New York Times last week that featured the groundbreaking Massachusetts health initiative. Titled "Big Gain for Rich Seen in Tax Cuts for Investments," the article described how an analysis of Internal Revenue Service data revealed how much the wealthiest Americans have gained under the Bush tax cuts. In brief, the change in the tax code allowed Americans earning more than $10 million to cut their taxes by an average of $500,000.

Such policies do not reflect the kind of priorities I want to see in a democratic country. We sorely need sensible alternatives that put two of our most cherished values - equal opportunities and well-being for all citizens - into practice.

+ Take action to support the Common Sense Budget Act

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The Triumph of Good Friday

For nearly forty years, the Paradoxical Commandments have been used by Christians worldwide. In his new book, the author of the commandments explains that Good Friday is a key to understanding them. On Good Friday, Christ triumphed over all that the world did to him. In the face of cruelty and pain and hate, Jesus loved people anyway. He forgave people anyway. And He saved people anyway.

Jesus Did It Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments for Christians by Kent M. Keith + G. P. Putnam's Sons + ISBN 0-399-15326-8

Available at bookstores and at


Passover in Spanish in the streets of America
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Passover is happening in the streets of America this week.

It is coming not from a written book, but from the hearts, minds, legs, and prayers of a people. It is happening in Spanish and "Spanglish" more than in Hebrew.

More than 2 million people in the streets against a pharaoh who is saying, "Let us make it a criminal act, a felony, to live in the U.S. without documentation. Let us make it a felony to feed, heal, educate, or comfort these criminals. Let us build a wall, with guns to kill anyone who dares to cross" - just as the ancient pharaoh ordered the murder of the male children of a folk whose name, "Hebrews," meant "the ones who cross over"; the wetbacks.

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Love, Love, Love, And Other Essays
By Charles Taliaferro

In 43 brief essays from the life of a philosopher, Charles Taliaferro guides us toward the heart of human being in all of its absurdity and joy. Electrocuted by his coffee maker during class, battling dragons on his rooftop, and accompanying his father to the border between life and death, Taliaferro recommends to us a life vulnerable to silliness, pain, and the depths of love they create in us. Hilarious and sobering, Love, Love, Love investigates what we need most to live humanely, humorously, faithfully, and well.


A retired Methodist missionary versus the IRS
by Clare Hanrahan

To help finance a future George W. Bush has painted as permanently at war, the IRS has raided Ruth Clark's bank accounts, taking all her money. Every month, the IRS has continued to seize 15% of Clark's Social Security income, leaving this retired Methodist missionary without adequate means to meet her living expenses.

"I intentionally live on the edge of poverty to avoid paying for the war machine," Clark said. "Would it be right for me to murder? Would it be OK for me to make children orphans? Do you think it would be OK for me to support a war where children are maimed, where they lose their arms, their legs, their eyes? How can I pay for that?"

+ Read the full article

For more information on war tax resistance, visit:

+ National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee

+ National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund

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Listen Closely...Can You Hear It? There's a science-and-religion discussion going on around us, affecting our policies, our health, and the way we live our lives. Let Science & Theology News, the monthly publication devoted to the dialogue among science, religion, and health, be your guide. We dissect the biggest topics - such as intelligent design, altruism, mind-body medicine - but also analyze how science and religion interact in places you might not expect, from medical ethics to corporate social responsibility, from popular culture to the dynamics of human relationships. Sign up today for a free four-issue trial


April is poetry month!
by Rose Marie Berger

In 1922 T.S. Eliot published his epic anti-war poem The Wasteland, which begins:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

In these opening lines, Eliot implicitely calls to mind - for the post-World War I reader, those of the Lost Generation - the flowers of Flanders fields that bloomed as a result of the increased sunlight due to deforestation from warfare and the increased fertilizer of the decaying bodies of soldiers (see John McCrae's 1915 In Flanders Fields). Eliot, however, turns the image from the poppies of the killing fields of Flanders to the lilac. Eliot draws on Walt Whitman's 1865 elegy written after the death of Abraham Lincoln (who was killed on Good Friday, April 14, 1865) When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sire to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

The lilac is fast-growing and sweet-smelling and returns every year both in times of war and peace. In T.S. Eliot's context, this offers the reader a measure of solace and beauty in very ugly times.

This April - in our own very ugly times - the Beltway Poetry Quarterly asked 46 authors from the mid-Atlantic region to respond to the U.S. military's ongoing presence in Iraq. "When the politicians are compliant and the press is distracted by the next sparkly thing," wrote guest editor Sarah Browning, "the poets continue to believe, to speak out, and to say no to fear."

+ Read "The Wartime Issue" of Beltway Poetry Quarterly

Rose Marie Berger is poetry editor of Sojourners.

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The Secret Message of Jesus
by Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren, one of Time magazine's "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America," is back. His latest work, The Secret Message of Jesus, leads readers on a journey as ground-shaking as it is life-changing. The quest: find the essential message of Jesus' life - even if it overturns conventional ideas, priorities, and practices.

"Through the years, I have frequently had an uncomfortable feeling," wrote McLaren, "that the portrait of Jesus I found in the New Testament didn't fit with the images of Jesus in the church." Out of that nagging discomfort arose McLaren's most revolutionary book to date.


This week's media round-up

Top stories:

Faith Has Led Johnson, Wallis Differently Dayton Daily News
Johnson and Wallis both are evangelical Christians but their faith has led them in different ways. Johnson, a conservative, is senior pastor of the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster and chairman of the Ohio Restoration Project, a statewide voter registration effort. He was a strong supporter of the constitutional amendment that Ohio voters approved in 2004 to ban same-sex marriage and has made opposition to abortion a top priority. Wallis, a progressive, is founder of Sojourners, a movement that tries to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice. His ministry emphasizes peacemaking and fighting poverty and hunger.

Taking Back The Faith The Nation
I traveled around the country trying to understand what has brought us to the political-religious crisis of our time and what, if anything, is being done about it. The most consistent answer to my question is the Rev. Jim Wallis, whose barnstorming book tour for his bestselling God's Politics took him to fifty-six cities in twenty weeks and brought him into question-and-answer sessions with crowds of 1,000 to 2,000 people at a time.

The Religious Left: It is Fruitful and Has Multiplied Slate
Lo and behold, there is a religious left. A week doesn't seem to pass without some group convening a conference on religion and liberalism. Last year, Rev. Jim Wallis' progressive manifesto, God's Politics, became a best seller; now Jimmy Carter's book attacking the religious right is on the list.

More Sojourners in the news:

Surprise! Evangelical Politics Isn't Univocal Action Institute

The Moral Dimensions of Budgets and Taxes The Anniston Star

Federal Budget Plans Cut from Those Who Need Help Most Pensacola News Journal

Going Out and Coming In The Jamaica Observer

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We need some helping hands at Sojourners! If you are in the Washington, D.C., area and have a few hours of time to volunteer, we would love your help. For information and a listing of our needs, click here to check out the current opportunities.

Jamestown, New York church seeks a non-ordained minister of youth, gospel, and world, a "weaver of wonder." Full-time position for a college graduate or equivalent. Leadership experience with youth, willingness to serve an impoverished urban community. More info:

Follow Jesus: Teach service, peacemaking: Gather 'Round Sunday school curriculum nurtures children, youth, and parents in becoming followers of Jesus. The Talkabout and parent's guide help parents talk about faith with children at home.


Readers write

Tawnie Olson writes from New Haven, Connecticut:

I enjoyed reading Jim Wallis' comments on the difficulty of attaining humility ["'Humility is difficult,'" SojoMail 4/6/2006]. It is one of the hardest virtues to attain to, and is indeed something that we can only receive through God's grace. I would like to share one practice that has helped me become more open to receiving God's gifts of humility and love. Remembering and meditating on Christ's crucifixion, while it may sound depressing, has instead deeped my awareness of his intense love and consideration for others. It has helped me to see how small I am and how far I have to go. I still care very much about social change, but I find it very hard to remain arrogant at the foot of the cross.


Lauren J. Sullivan writes from Santa Maria, California:

I must agree that it is difficult to maintain an attitude of humility while fulfilling a call to the prophetic vocation. It helps me to remember that humility means, in essence, "down to earth," and a "prophet" is not someone who foretells the future but one who accurately describes the present.

Jesus teaches us the necessity of exercising discernment when he tells us, "By their fruits you will know them." An important distinction exists between "passing judgment" and "exercising discernment" - commonly mistaken for passing judgment. People often accuse others of passing judgment when they are simply making an observation. These are important distinctions to make, because the prophetic vocation is critically important in a world in which lying is rampant. We really do need the voices of dissent, the voices of those who can make these critical distinctions and tell it like it is.


Ingrid Hill writes from Iowa City, Iowa:

Years ago, I read a meditative biblical commentary that suggested humility - which might be seen as a kind of "humiliation," or figuratively dragging one's lower lip in the dirt (humus) - really ought to be framed as knowing one's precise place in God's plan. No more, no less. It seems to me that when God calls a person to prophetic witness, it takes an enormous amount of courage to overcome one's natural human self-consciousness and fear. Not to mention the threats from church and civil authorities when one's prophetic witness strikes the nerve God means it to strike.

Jim Wallis has always been a hero to us less-visible witness-folk out here, but this article struck a slightly off-key note for me. The world and lots of nominally Christian churches spend enough energy discounting, silencing, beating down, and persecuting those engaged in prophetic Christian witness - which all the biblical prophets experienced themselves - that honestly, self-flagellation hardly seems the ticket. It's tricky in the isolation of prophetic ministry to keep one's nose above water, even when we know Jesus is risen. By contrast, my discernment (not judgment) says many pastors might check themselves in the humility department. Being an outsider does tend in itself to keep one humble, praise God.


Paula Hughes writes from Courtenay, British Columbia, Canada:

To me true humility is not merely inactive wishywashiness, but an honest attempt to hold ourselves to as high, if not much higher standards as those to which we hold others. Recently I lost a friend over arguments about the Right-Left divide, gospel-inspired vs. fundamentalist Christianity, and American politics in general. I had to examine all my beliefs and ideals and sort out which were genuinely caring for others and which were motivated by my own pride, and I had to study and learn about the beliefs that people who disagreed with me obviously sincerely held. It was a very painful and confusing and humbling process, but fruitful, and I am grateful for it.

To me, the most distressing aspect of the culture wars is that so many people attack the character of those they don't agree with instead of responding fairly to their ideas. I think that we have to work to overcome our insistence that we alone are correct in our views and to make every effort to present sound arguments not rhetoric. But I confess that having experienced the effects of communication being distorted by emotions, I am not so hopeful that we will be able to see and hear each other clearly anytime soon. But in all humility we can only keep trying!


Amy Pemberton writes from Louisville, Kentucky:

I have to disagree with Chaplain Dobbs [Boomerang 4/6/2006] I think Jesus did use satire, especially in the parables (Walk the Extra Mile would be a good example.) We tend not to realize it because Jesus' humor, like all other humor, is time- and culture-bound.

I think we have to be careful in answer any call to humility. Too often it is used as way to keep those who are down "in their place." Where I think it can be helpful to activists is as a call to stop and reflect, to make sure that they are really serving "the least of these" and not just their own egos. To do that well you may have to act in ways that draw attention to yourself. That does not neccessarily indicate a lack of humility, as long as you are doing it for the right reasons - after all, Jesus definitely drew attention to himself.


Want to make your voice heard? Click here to respond to SojoMail articles Boomerang is an open forum for all kinds of views, though we reserve the right to edit published responses for length and clarity.

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