Monday, August 22, 2005

Atlanta Piles On

Atlanta has become the latest city to get into the anti-panhandling act. My thoughts on panhandling last summer are here.

I still vehemently oppose anti-panhanding measures, but I personally try to give food rather than cash.

Living in New York last year taught me, sadly, that the conservatives aren't wrong in their claims that many take cash hand outs for drugs or alchohol. Still, the fact that these folks have a substance abuse problem in addition to being homeless shouldn't harden our hearts. Give food and give to treatment centers....

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sunday Comment: No Compulsion

I think we can all agree that this Indiana trial judge erred in the most fundamental sense of the term when he ordered two parents to "shield" their ten-year-old son from their "non-mainstream faith."

The belief that there must be no compulsion in matters of religion is one of those happy moments when our theological and libertarian convictions agree:

"God calls men to serve Him in spirit and in truth, hence they are bound in conscience but they stand under no compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of the human person whom He Himself created and man is to be guided by his own judgment and he is to enjoy freedom." Declaration on Religious Freedom, Pope Paul VI (1965).

"Let there be no compulsion in religion." Qur'an, Al-Baqarah 2:256

"If a man desires to become a proselyte . . . he is to be addressed as follows: 'What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte . . .' and he is made acquainted with some of the minor, and with some of the major commandments. What is the reason? In order that if he desired to withdraw let him do so." Talmud, Yevamot 48b.

"The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government . . . can force [or] influence a person to go or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion." United States Supreme Court, Everson v. Board of Education (1947).

"[T]he interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court." United States Supreme Court, Troxey v. Granville (2000).

Someone who shows such absolute disrespect for fundamental liberties should be impeached, not just reversed.

Finally Some Good News

Charitable giving across the board -- even to non-tsunami related charities -- soared last quarter according to this report.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Brother Roger of Taizé

I know this is long for my first post, but please bear with me. I want to thank 42 and Infission for the opportunity to guest post.

He wanted to help refugees of the war, just like his grandmother had done some 25 years earlier. So he moved from Switzerland to France to a little village known as Taizé in the south of Burgandy. Along with his sister, he offered a place of food, shelter, safety and compassion for those who managed to escape the reach of Nazi Germany. This conviction to help the needy grew out of his strong faith.

Understanding that many who sought refuge in Taizé were Jews or agnostics, he never prayed or worshipped in front of his guests. Instead he opted to go into the woods alone to pray and sing.

In the autumn of 1942, his little refugee community was discovered and all involved were advised to flee. However, he was able to return to his community in 1944 – this time with companions.

After the war, a local man created an association to care for young boys orphaned by the war. The long-term mission of Taizé had begun to take shape. The community was committed to serving the “least of these” in whatever way possible.

On Easter Sunday, 1949, the first brothers took the vows of celibacy, material and spiritual sharing and to a great simplicity of life. The monastic community of Taizé was born. And Brother Roger led them.

Since then, the Taizé monastic community – along with the Sisters of Saint Andrew – has welcomed and served all who traveled to the countryside of France to connect with God and with other pilgrims from all over the world. Thousands of people between the ages of 17-30 travel to Taizé each year.

As an ecumenical community, Taizé (with Catholic brothers, some Protestant brothers and actively seeking Orthodox brothers) has sought to assist the Church Universal in reconnecting with itself. This is evidenced not only in the mission work done all over the world (specifically Africa, Asia and South America), but even in its church building – the Church of Reconciliation.

I visited Taizé in July of 2001 with a group of youth and young adults from the north Texas area. My time there changed me forever. Not only have I learned the importance of contemplative study and solitary prayer – I have a better view of global Christianity.

During each evening prayer, Brother Roger would pray over those sitting around him (he would move around the large sanctuary throughout the week). I could feel the love of Christ emanating from his face as he prayed over me. I never knew him, but I know he was a great man.

Brother Roger was a close friend of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, the latter of which he co-authored a handful of books. Brother Roger was a man of peace fighting for peace.

Brother Roger died last night in a place he loved dearly – the sanctuary of the Church of Reconciliation. He died surrounded by the Community of Brothers and many pilgrims to Taizé. Despite his recent illnesses, he did not die peacefully.

Brother Roger was stabbed to death by a woman described as “probably mentally disturbed” during evening prayer on August 16, 2005.

This prayer was offered at morning prayer on August 17th:

“Christ of compassion, you enable us to be in communion with those who have gone before us, and who can remain so close to us. We confide into your hands our Brother Roger. He already contemplates the invisible. In his footsteps, you are preparing us to welcome a radiance of your brightness.”
The global Church has lost a great hero of the Faith. The global poor have lost an important advocate. The community of Taizé lost its founding leader. Heaven has gained a favorite son.

We should be in prayer of thanks for the life that Brother Roger led. We should be in prayer for strength and understanding for the Brothers and Sisters of Taizé. We should be in prayer for healing for those who witnessed such a tragedy. We should be in prayer for the woman who allegedly murdered Brother Roger for healing, forgiveness and salvation.

I leave you with a prayer by Frère Roger:
“God of peace, through the Gospel we understand that it is merciful love that counts above all. Give us therefore hearts that are filled with goodness.”
Brother Roger will be missed...

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Sunday Comment: Get Evolution out of the Spotlight

Many Christians have Evolution on the brain.

Bush's support of "Intelligent Design" and Kansas's recent adoption of pro-Intelligent Design curricula standards, among other things, have thrown it into the spotlight. I heard a fanatical sermon this morning blaming Evolution for Nazism, Freudianism, Behaviorism, Communism and Atheism. So I've got it on the brain too.

According to a recent Harris poll, only 38% of Americans believe that "human beings developed from earlier species." This is down from 44% in 1994. The proponents of Intelligent Design have certainly created the public perception of an intellectual dispute. Although I would answer the Harris poll question "yes" if put to it, I have not personally investigated the evidence for or against Evolution. The reason is that its validity or invalidity is just not that important to me.

I think the fact that Evolution is such a controversy within our churches illustrates a broader problem within mainstream Christianity today. It is a prime example of concerns about orthodoxy prevailing over concerns about orthopraxy. Where is the thundering from the pulpit about the lack of charitable giving?

As Christians, we must start concerning ourselves more with what we do and less about what we believe. We must start recognizing concrete human suffering as more critical than the Origin of the Species, the origin of the universe, or any other abstract controversy.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Thoughts from Buenos Aires

I don't claim to be an exotic world traveler, but I can definitely tell when a city has some passion, and Buenos Aires, Argentina certainly qualifies. The people here are great - friendly, helpful, and charming; their city is a wonderful blend of Europe and Latin America, all rolled into one.

On Monday, I will be venturing into Patagonia and, essentially, into a different time. I will have little to no communication with the outside world from the estancia, and it is unlikely that I will make it into town to use a locutorio (communication center) very frequently. Needless to say, this is going to be an experience.

Almost time for an asado (famous Argentine barbecue) --- it's almost 9:00 PM here.

I know this has nothing to do with the Social Gospel Today, but bear with me - I'm trying to soak up all the contact with the outside world that I can muster...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Out of town, out of touch

Blogosphere friends,

One of the benefits of two people posting on a blog is that at any given time one can pick up the slack for the other. It's a good thing I know Infission so well, 'cause I am about to become a major blog slacker. On Friday, I am leaving the country until the end of October. A law school friend and his father have arranged for me to "get back to nature" as a ranch hand on an estancia in the Patagonia region of Argentina. Crazy, huh?

Needless to say, I am very excited about the opportunity, if not a little intimidated. Not only will this be a great chance to see one of the most beautiful regions of the world, but I also look forward to developing my Spanish skills and getting to know another way of life. While I don't anticipate seeing any burning bushes in the Andes, I also hope to have plenty of free time to just stop and think about things - a definite luxury these days. I know I didn't get around to my resonse to the mega-church issue - my bad - but I assure you that 12 weeks in the middle of nowhere will only help me come up with a more articulate response.

As I really don't know what to expect (other than cold weather), I definitely value your thoughts and prayers. On that note, I leave you in the very capable hands of Infission (with some potential posts from ats54, too).

Hasta pronto, mis amigos.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Re: Reverse Psychology

In a recent Sunday Comment, I called for the left to covertly "attack" nominee Roberts from the right by embracing him. After revelations last week about Roberts' assistance to gay rights litigants, the strategy seems even more plausible. Consider this article from the Denver Post, which begins:

When the details were revealed last week about John Roberts' energetic involvement in overturning Colorado's anti-gay-rights amendment, it created some real cognitive dissonance in the evangelical community. This is a group, after all, that likes its issues - and its judges - uncomplicated.
I don't see embracing Roberts as sneaky at all. It just isn't right that Bush can appoint a rock solid economic conservative with shaky social conservative "credentials" without peeving off the Christian Right. This was their issue in 2004. If they can't get a socially conservative Supreme Court nominee, then why did they vote for Bush again?

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Sunday Comment: the Presbyterians Play Hardball

The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is borrowing a page from the Jesuit Order's playbook - attempting to effect the policy of powerful corporations through socially-conscious investing. Over the past few years, the Church has pressured companies accused of abetting human rights abuses in countries like China, the Sudan, Myanmar, Nigeria and Guatemala. This Friday, in a more controversial move, the Church threatened to dump the roughly $60 million that its pension fund and various foundations have invested in four corporations unless they cease providing military equipment and technology to Israel for use in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. The Church accused Caterpillar, Motorola, ITT Industries and United Technologies of selling helicopters, cellphones, night vision equipment and other items Israel uses to enforce its occupation.

Some Jewish leaders accused the Church of singling out Israel, even of being "functionally anti-semitic." The Church responded that it is "fully committed to the state of Israel" but that it cannot, in good conscience, invest in companies "that are doing damage and creating injustice and violence, whether that's the building of the separation barrier, construction related to the occupation, or weapons and materials that lead to suicide bombings."

I believe that Churches should do all they can to end both the Israeli occupation and Palestinian terrorism. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to track support to the latter. American companies don't deal openly or directly with suicide bombers. But they do deal openly with the Israeli military. The fact that the Church can't do much with its portfolio to prevent suicide bombings shouldn't stop it from doing what it can do to slow violence in the Middle East.

That being said, there is still an easy, principled way that the Church can insulate itself from all criticism that it is singling out Israel. Why not refuse to invest in all companies that supply any military? Should Church assets really be used to support making weapons of war, no matter who is going to use them?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Wednesday Meditation: the "Everyday" Social Gospel

Today's thoughts are a response to something I heard in the NPR "prosperity gospel" story discussed below. One mega church congregant, explaining his attraction to the "prosperity gospel" to the NPR reporter, said something that took me aback. The pastor of his new church, in contrast to the pastor of his old social-justice-oriented church, preaches a message that he can really apply to his life. He preaches, not abstract theology, but a down-to-earth lesson that you can really take to work with you on Monday morning.

I've wondered, over the past few days, what this congregant meant in this indirect critique of the social gospel. It seems to me, he could have meant any of three things: (1) the social gospel is innately too highfalutin for ordinary people to apply to their own lives or (2) proponents of the social gospel don't do a good enough job of explaining how it applies to ordinary people's lives or (3) the social gospel does apply to ordinary people's lives, but not in a way that is necessarily easy or desirable.

I certainly do not believe that #1 is true. I do believe, however, that those of us who promote the social gospel perhaps talk too much about the distribution of Gross Domestic Product and not enough about individual philanthropy, too much about "rights" and not enough about personal kindness. So today I want to talk about one of Jesus' social justice teachings that can perhaps only be applied by everday people in their everyday lives:

"Give to the one who begs from you; and don't turn away the one who tries to borrow from you." Matt 5: 42.

"Give to everyone who begs from you...." Luke 6: 30.

I see beggars on the street, holding signs, every time I go out. I'm sure that I am alone neither in this, nor in the fact that I do not find it in my heart to give to "everyone" who I see. We are too often too rushed with our own cares to stop, too worried about our own financial situation to care, or too concerned with what the beggar may do with the money to sympathize.

We should all keep non-perishable food in our cars, bookbags or briefcases. We should make a point to leave an extra five minutes in getting to our destination so as to make time for our less fortunate brothers and sisters. These are simple steps that we can take to implement Jesus' simple, yet somehow difficult, teaching on giving to beggars.

But I wonder whether a lesson like this would satisfy our convert to the prosperity gospel. I wonder whether by "apply to my everyday life," the congregant really meant, "make my personal situation better." If this is the objection (ie, #3), then I'm not sure the social gospel can ever really answer it. As Paul said, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others." Phillipians 2:4. The point of the social gospel is not to make our personal situation better, but to make others' better. This is the heart of Jesus' ethics. This is what makes Christianity, true Christianity, different from self-help philosophies.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Abandoned Souls, by John W. Fountain

I haven't posted an entire article in a long time, but given some of the recent discussions on this blog, this is too appropriate. Part II will be my response...

Abandoned Souls, by John W. Fountain (a former pastor)

Sunday morning arrived, like so many before, with a mix of sunlight and chirping birds and a warm greeting from my tiny son, lying beside my wife and me. My wife rose quickly, announcing her plan to get ready for Sunday school at the Baptist church, not far from our house in suburban Chicago, that she and our two children attend.

As for me, in what has become my ritual, I turned over and pulled the covers up around my head. I overheard my 9-year-old daughter's familiar question: "Mommy, is Daddy going to church with us?"

"No-o-o-o," my wife replied. After months of my failure to accompany them, she has abandoned the excuse that "Daddy has a lot of work to do."

Sunday mornings used to mean something special to me. But I now face them with dread, with a headache-inducing tension that makes me reach for the Advil. I am torn between my desire to play hooky and my Pentecostal indoctrination that Sunday is a day of worship when real men lead their families into the house of God.

Once, that's what I did. I am the grandson of a pastor and am myself a licensed minister. I love God and I love the church. I feel as comfortable shouting hallelujahs and lifting my hands in the sanctuary as I do putting on my socks. I once arrived faithfully at the door of every prayer meeting.

Yet I now feel disconnected. I am disconnected. Not necessarily from God, but from the church.

What happened? Probably the same thing that has happened to thousands of African-American men who now file into coffee shops or baseball stadiums on Sundays instead of heading to church, or who lose themselves in the haze of mowing the lawn or waxing their cars. Somewhere along the way, for us, the church – the collective of black churches of the Christian faith, regardless of denomination – lost its relevance. It seems to have no discernible message for what ails the 21st-century black male soul.

While there are still many black men who do go to church, any pastor will admit that there are far more who don't. Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago educator and author of Adam! Where Are You?: Why Most Black Men Don't Go to Church, contends that 75 percent of the black church is female. The church's finger seems furthest from the pulse of those black men who seem to be drifting in a destructive sea of fatalism and pathology. Without the church, most of those men are doomed. But it seems clear to me that the church will not seek us black men out, or perhaps even mourn our disappearance from the pews.

Instead, it seems to have turned inward. It seems to exist for the perpetuation of itself – for the erecting of grandiose temples of brick and mortar and for the care of pastors and the salaried administrative staff. Not long ago, a preacher friend confided: "The black church is in a struggle for its collective soul – to find itself in an age when it is consumed by the God of materialism."

I am incensed by Mercedes-buying preachers who live in suburban meadows far from the inner-city ghettos they pastor, where they bid parishioners to sacrifice in the name of God. I am angered by a preacher I know, and his wife and co-pastor, who exacted a per diem and drove luxury vehicles, their modest salaries boosted by tithes and offerings from poor folks.

I wonder why, despite billions of dollars taken from collection plates, I see few homes for the elderly, few recreation centers, little to no church-financed housing development and few viable church-operated businesses that might employ members. I scratch my head at the multimillion-dollar edifice a local church erected and wonder whether that is the most responsible stewardship for a church in a community filled with poor families.

I have come to see the countless meetings and church assemblies, camouflaged as worship services, as little more than fundraisers and quasi-fashion shows with a dose of spirituality. I am disheartened by the territorialism of churches, vying for control and membership, as a deacon at a Baptist church said to me recently, in much the same way as gangs.

But even in an age of preacher as celebrity, it is not the evolution of a bling-bling Gospel that most disheartens me. It is the loss of the church's heart and soul: the mission to seek and save lost souls through the power of the Gospel and a risen savior. As the homicide toll in black neighborhoods has swelled, I've wondered why churches or pastors have seldom taken a stand or ventured beyond the doors of their sanctuaries to bring healing and hope to the community – whether to stem the tide of violence and drugs, or to help cure poverty and homelessness or any number of issues that envelop ailing black communities.

Once, after a service at my grandfather's church in a Chicago suburb, I mentioned to a visiting pastor that there was a drug and gang war going on in his community. "I don't know nothing 'bout that," he responded. How could he not know about something that affected a community in which he was a "shepherd"?

Given the state of black men in America, given the number in prison or jail or headed that way, given the thousands of us who find our way to early graves, given the number of us who seek solace in a bottle of liquor or in illegal drugs, it seems that we would make for a plentiful harvest for a church really seeking souls.

I suspect, however, that as long as our wives, our children and our money flow through the church's doors, few are likely to ever come looking for us.

I could be wrong. My criticism might be too harsh.

But it is no harsher than my pain.

John Fountain, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author of "True Vine: A Young Black Man's Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity." His e-mail address is

Re: Reading the Economy

The Christian measure of our economy's performance must not only account for how the least are faring in this country; it must consider economic distribution worldwide. According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, hunger and poverty are worsening across Africa. An estimated 35% of Africa's population - 200 million people - are malnourished. We cannot, in good conscience, say we are in "good times" economically.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Mega Churches in the African-American Community

NPR reports on the rise of Mega Churches in the African-American community. They are drawing an unprecedented number of worshippers. But, according to leaders of more traditional African-American churches, they preach a "prosperity gospel" of individual wealth that lacks substance and betrays the legacy of Martin Luther King.

"Sunday" Comment: Reading the Economy through the Social Gospel

Last week the Commerce Department released the economic growth numbers for the second quarter. The U.S. economy grew at a "strong" 3.4% annual rate last quarter. A Saturday New York Times article cited this statistic and others regarding increasing corporate spending on equipment and inventory for the broad conclusion that the U.S. economy is in the midst of "good times."

But, as I've indicated before, those who care about the Social Gospel must read economic indicators with a more critical eye. The Christian measure of an economy's performance is how "the least" are faring. Economic growth, in other words, is not good in and of itself. Growth is good only insofar as it improves the conditions of the poor. So we have to interrogate the Commerce Department's figures on last quarter's economic growth: what does it mean for the least of these?

The Annie E. Casey Foundation reported on Tuesday that child poverty is on the rise. These findings mirror the federal government's conclusions of two weeks ago. 18% of children in the United States, 13 million, currently live in poverty. This is up from 16% in 2001. This means that almost 1 in 5 children are living on less than a family-of-four equivalent of "$18,810 in annual income."

"For years, poverty rates were dropping sharply. No we're moving steadily in the other direction," said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. (emphasis added).

It does not appear that all boats are rising in the Bush Economy. Indeed, as the Commerce Department was reporting "healthy" economic growth, it was also reporting that, in spite of this fact, "workers' pay and benefits rose more slowly than inflation in the second quarter...." In non-jargon terms, this means that, even though the economy grew, workers are poorer now than they were three months ago.

So as Christians we have to ask: where is all of this growth going? Since it's not going to workers, since it's not improving child poverty, it's basically irrelevant. No matter how much Gross Domestic Product booms, if the least aren't faring well, economic conditions are terrible.