Let the Spiritual Cloning of Chuck Colson and His Centurions Begin
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“Charles Colson seeks to create clones to send forth with his evangelical message.”
This slug sitting atop a photo of the former Nixon staffer and Evangelical heavyweight certainly catches the eye. And even more so when it graces the front page of the Style section of today’s Washington Post.
The article does a fair job of presenting the sincere, measured tone of Colson. You get a feeling of the political warrior who has turned his life around since being incarcerated and released. He’s a pragmatist and an idealist. He’s adamant in his beliefs and willing to argue his point of view, but softly and without concession.
This profile only feeds my conflicted reactions to Colson’s approach to faith, ministry, and politics. In many ways, he remains the same ol’ junkyard dog that knows how to martial forces and impose his will and way of thinking. It’s an admirable trait when you think about his good work with prison ministries and charitable causes. He believes in the redemption of his cause. That is an admirable trait.
On the other hand, he now is trying to create a movement based on his personal Christian ideologies that veer to the far right. Using a term like “Centurions” to describe his followers who have been schooled in his methodologies seems dangerous to me — in the perceptions it creates and the militant connotation the term evokes, hearkening back to the days of the Roman army and commanding legions of 80 to lead Christian soldiers into the battle for America’s soul.
I definitely recommend reading the two-page profile for yourself. Let me know what your read is.
How Do We Live and Honor Each Other Despite Our Differences?
by Krista Tippett, host
“Restoring Political Civility: An Evangelical View” with Richard Mouw was as hard as any show in my memory to produce, edit, script — and even to justify, as news unfolded while we were creating it.
I have known Richard Mouw for 15 years and interviewed him on this program in its early days. Other Evangelical Christian leaders have been more visible in American political and media life: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and on the more progressive side Jim Wallis and Richard Cizik. I have followed them, but I have also always kept my ear and eye on quieter figures like Richard Mouw. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary, with more than 4000 students from 70 countries and over 100 denominations, he is training generations of Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and global leaders.
And in this political season, in which values have once again — and with a new edge of hysteria — come to be a rallying cry for viciousness, I wanted to speak with him again. A book he first wrote in 1992, Uncomon Decency, has just been released in a revised version with the subtitle, “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” Mouw has long been a kind of bridge person — theologically conservative on some issues and more progressive on others — but he most fervently insists that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes.
I’ve wondered rhetorically how our political life would have evolved differently if the Christian re-emergence into politics in the late 20th century had modeled a practical love of enemies. My own deepest despair at present is not about the vitriol and division per se — as alarming as they are. It is about the fact that we seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view. What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do. And that is the ultimate moral slippery slope, for everyone on it and for the fabric of our civic life.
Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and “honor” of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of “convicted civility.”
We had impassioned and difficult discussions on our production team about his ideas, and the complications and contradictions they present. When he says that, as a Christian, he sees other human beings as “works of divine art,” can that genuinely apply to a person whose sexual identity he defines as fundamentally wrong? And then, in the thick of creating this show, the Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide — one of a string of suicides of gay youth. This sharpened a question of whether religious views condemning homosexuality — however civilly expressed — inevitably fuel hateful, even fatal, behavior.
With all of this on my mind, I was struck by an open letter the Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote in direct response to those teen suicides. Though Mohler is to the right of Richard Mouw theologically and culturally, his letter takes an unexpectedly kindred tone. Mohler leads the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and one of the most conservative. He spends the first few paragraphs of his statement reiterating his firm theological conviction that homosexuality is a sin. But in words that echo a search for a new way of “convicted civility,” Mohler confesses, “Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear.” And he asks, of the faithful and of his church leaders, “What if Tyler Clementi had been in your church? Would he have heard biblical truth presented in a context of humble truth-telling and gospel urgency, or would he have heard irresponsible slander, sarcastic jabs, and moralistic self-congratulation?” I read in Mohler’s statement a profound shift of tone, if not of position — and an opening to new ways of being.
This all drives towards a question I pursue in so many of my conversations: How does social change happen? We will not all be “on the same page,” as Americans like to be, on sexuality or many other issues for generations to come. The 21st century has opened up questions Western civilization thought it had put to rest. Some of them are intimate and raw, terrifying in every life at some point and therefore all the more unsettling when we are forced to ponder them out in the open together. Same-sex marriage is but the tip of an iceberg of human redefinition: What is relationship? What is marriage? What is friendship? What constitutes a family? In this messy moment, we retain our rights and responsibilities as human beings and citizens to discern our truths and live by them. But we have no choice, at the same time, if we want this to end well, to search for new ways to discern our multiple truths while living together.
Richard Mouw suggests that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences. I want to believe him, to believe that this is one answer to the question of how social change happens. If I didn’t believe that a new kind of conversation can also be a starting point for walking forwards together — living together, differently — I would not do what I do.
And yet, maybe another reality we have to live with is that these critical new conversations will start small, in many places, compelling us to connect dots for a while in lieu of convening the sweeping dialogue we might hope for. I’d point to a few that we’ve pulled together at onBeing.org with this show, including Albert Mohler’s letter in its entirety as well as a Religion Dispatches report about an historic meeting between a senior Mormon elder and LGBT Mormons.
We’ve also posted a piece we admire by fellow journalist Sasha Aslanian titled “Sex, Death, and Secrets” — featuring an interview with two lesbian pastors who’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of discernment within their own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
And we’ve posted another kind of contribution to civility, an act of care for “despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future” — a video project called “It Gets Better” that was created by syndicated columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry. Both come from families with conservative religious roots, and we see photographs that bespeak the embrace they’ve both received as members of these families. They are photographs of love that has overcome convictions — or chosen to live in a gracious, loving tension alongside them. This too is possible. Please add your thoughts, stories, and pictures — your dots, if you will — to this difficult, dispersed, essential conversation.
Richard Mouw: A Twitterscript with an Evangelical Leader on Civility
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This coming week we will be releasing our latest show, which focuses on the topic of incivility in political, religious, and civic culture with one of the leading Evangelical Christian leaders in the United States today. On September 8, 2010, Krista interviewed Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian philosophy and ethics, which we live-tweeted (@softweets) from behind the glass of Studio P at Minnesota Public Radio. Here’s a compilation, our Twitterscript if you will, of all those tiny nuggets, and a few exchanges with our followers:
- Tweeting Krista Tippett’s interview on civility with @richardmouw
Wed Sep 8 14:11:57 2010
- “The antichrist has changed across my lifetime…in the 1980s it shifted towards Islam” - @richardmouw
Wed Sep 8 14:12:47 2010
- On civility, @RichardMouw quotes the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah: “Seek the shalom of the city in which God has placed you.”
Wed Sep 8 14:18:06 2010
- “What does it mean for me to honor the Muslim..the Mormon..the people of unbelief who are hostile towards Christianity?” - @richardmouw
Wed Sep 8 14:18:22 2010
- “What I owe to my mother and friends, I also owe to the stranger. And that’s more than toleration.” -@richardmouw on going beyond tolerance
Wed Sep 8 14:19:11 2010
- “Evangelicalism goes back + forth between alienation to a takeover mentality - but alternate between two theologies.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 14:26:32 2010
- “I do think Jesus is a model of civility - of convicted civility.” -@RichardMouw, president of Fuller Seminary
Wed Sep 8 14:32:48 2010
- “For starters concentrate on your own sinfulness and the other person’s humanness.” Evangelical leader @richardmouw on gentle Christianity
Wed Sep 8 14:32:55 2010
- “Glenn Beck + anti-Islam have revived the Evangelical sense that they’re taking something away and we need to get it back.” - @richardmouw
Wed Sep 8 14:36:42 2010
- “It’s very important for a leader to approach people having a hard time controlling their fears.” -@RichardMouw on conservatives’ concerns
Wed Sep 8 14:42:13 2010
- @mindywithrow You’re welcome! It’s tough keeping up. in reply to mindywithrow
Wed Sep 8 14:42:52 2010
- “We have to be careful that we not sin in the process of acting on those concerns.” @richardmouw on “Glenn Beck followers’” moral concerns
Wed Sep 8 14:45:42 2010
- “We’re not messiahs. And God isn’t going to hold us responsible for righting all the wrongs in the world.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 14:48:27 2010
- “Instead of telling Mormons what they believe, asking them what they believe.” @richardmouw on a “gentle” approach w/ those we disagree with
Wed Sep 8 14:51:19 2010
- “GK Chesterton once said, ‘It’s bad to have false gods. But it’s also bad to have false devils.’” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 14:52:44 2010
- “Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation.” - @richardmouw on the realization that all people are a work of art
Wed Sep 8 14:53:02 2010
- “Even in expressing our differences we’re dealing with people that are precious works of divine art” @richardmouw
Wed Sep 8 14:57:41 2010
- “One of my stories about learning in civility was going to a gay Mass at an Episcopal church.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 14:58:38 2010
- “I’m gratified by a growing Christian subculture of the more conservative side that are willing to think some new thoughts.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 15:04:05 2010
- “There’s a common life. There’s something that bonds human beings together that politics can’t create and shouldn’t destroy.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 15:07:58 2010
- RT @expatminister: ah yes, the oft-quoted Jeremiah 29. Much more complex, much harder than “I know the plans…” bumper sticker. Good tho…
Wed Sep 8 15:09:57 2010
- “I think more and more we’re committed to bringing people in (@FullerATS)… It’s important to create these kinds of spaces.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 15:11:51 2010
- “We need safe places. The problem is that there aren’t safe places any more.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 15:13:21 2010
- “If more people who have influence and leadership positions can give their blessing to this [civility] and encourage this…” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 15:19:56 2010
- “In many ways, we are living in a world that’s much like some of the best years in Christianity in the past.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 15:23:50 2010
- “We have to bracket those kinds of [social] issues and live with more mystery on that.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 15:26:29 2010
- “We need to see He [Jesus] calls us to go out to identify with the things he cares about.” -@RichardMouw
Wed Sep 8 15:31:00 2010
- And that concludes our live-tweeting of Krista’s interview with evangelical leader @RichardMouw. Thanks for reading!
Wed Sep 8 15:32:35 2010
Autism and Being Human, Another Take
by Krista Tippett, host
Our show on autism with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder remains one of my favorites. And I’ve been enjoying a wonderfully written and moving memoir by Emily Colson about life with her son Max, now 19. Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free has a prologue and an epilogue written by Charles (Chuck) Colson. Colson, of course, served in the Nixon White House and went to prison for the Watergate scandal, then went on to found Prison Ministries International. He is now something of an Evangelical Christian elder statesman, whom I met and interviewed several years ago together with two Evangelicals of different generations.
Chuck Colson and his daughter have created a searching and sometimes surprising exploration of what autism may teach us about what it means to be human, written from a devout and searching Christian perspective. It is an important addition to our literary and cultural encounter with autism, and I recommend it.
Martin Marty Swings and Connects
by Kate Moos, managing producer
A good one. Martin Marty rarely swings for the fences, but when he does he knocks it out of the park. In today’s Sightings column, he takes aim at the son of Billy Graham:
Franklin Graham on Islam and Violence
by Martin E. Marty
Aestas horribilis, Queen Elizabeth might call the summer just past, or those who care about civility in religious discourse and interfaith relations might judge it to have been. While Sightings took August off, forces, agencies, and voices of prejudice and, frankly, hate-mongering, did not. “Protest mosques,” “Restore America,” “Burn Qur’ans” and many more are keywords in our internet memory. One set of these keywords is so illuminating and nearly normative that it merits comment before we enter a new but not necessarily more promising season. I refer to the pronouncements of evangelist Franklin Graham on Muslim genetics, competition for souls, Islam as killer, and scriptures.
Genetics first: There is no need to repeat Graham’s bizarre charge that Islam is passed through the genes of a father to a son. Scholars of Islam find that idea nowhere in its teachings. Conversion-expert Graham should understand that one becomes a Muslim the way the born-again in Graham’s tradition become Christian: by making a profession of faith and a commitment through word and action. We won’t go into the political dimension of this issue with reference to Graham’s subject, the President of the United States, because, as long-time readers know, Sightings does not “do” Presidents.
Competition for souls, second: Graham’s work is often positioned along lines crossed in Africa, where Muslims kill Christians and Christians kill Muslims. There is little point in going into “Who fired first?” or “Who killed most?” In religion-based warfare, there is never really a first and a second; there are only debates about first and second. Graham has chosen to attempt conversion in the second most tense area known to the two faith communities. Without doubt, there is ugliness and murder, but we picture militant Muslims speaking of Christians the way Graham speaks of Muslims. Call it a draw. (By the way, “the undersigned” is a Christian who sees a place for evangelism.)
Islam as killer of Christians, third: Graham has repeatedly charged this year that Islam, which he frequently calls “a very wicked and evil religion” is mandated to kill, and that it kills. He does not qualify his remarks, as the word “very” suggests and even though he is often cautioned about the possible lethal consequences for Christians and Muslims if things get more heated. Historians have no difficulty finding Muslims in killing modes. The problem is that historians also find Christians in killing modes, from most years of Christendom, when the sword advanced Christianity, down into our own time. Think of the Christian justifications in World War I. Think Christian killing Christian in Rwanda, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
Fourth, scriptures: It is easy to find passages in the Qur’an and other classic Muslim texts in which Allah’s people may or should kill to advance God’s cause. Isolating these chunks of the Qur’an which are by now most familiar to Americans calls for overlooking Islam’s many peace-promoting texts. And it also means overlooking parallel biblical texts. There are far more pictures in the biblical texts of a warrior God licensing and, yes, commanding “omnicide,” killing of men and women and children who stand in the path of God’s people. Yes, all that was long ago. Now, you will never (at least I never) find Jews or Christians who think that killing people of another faith is a scriptured mandate for them.
Let’s hope and work for a less horrifying autumn.
Rev. Franklin Graham preaches at Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts in April 2009. (photo: Rachel Ford James/Flickr via Creative Commons)
A New Generation, A Simple Revolution
Krista Tippett, host
In his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne quotes the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” Shane Claiborne has given himself over to finding and emulating “real Christians” — past and present — who “act accordingly.”
We’ve updated and refined our show with Shane Claiborne and re-released it in our podcast and on the radio because he has continued to grow in appeal and influence, even as the politicized Evangelical voices that dominated the news when I first interviewed him in 2007 have receded. We also supplemented this interview with a written Q&A update on his work and thinking that is fascinating and inspiring. I hear echoes of Shane Claiborne’s influence — or rather, echoes of the emerging universe of which he is a charismatic exemplar — in the recent decision of the Southern Baptist Convention to take on Christian responsibility for the natural world and climate in a whole new way. I am confirmed in my sense that he represents something larger than himself and his community when I speak with Evangelical leaders and hear from them that the evolving story of younger Evangelicals is scarcely being told.
And the story Shane Claiborne has to tell addresses a question I encountered in our culture in 2007 and continue to encounter today. Born of longing as much as curiosity, it goes something like this: How can we possibly move beyond the rancorous stalemate of our culture — the culture war divides into which even religion has fallen and which religion itself has inflamed?
Shane Claiborne’s life was at one time a kind of microcosm of that stalemate and is now a tale of contrast to it and life beyond it. It also illustrates how new generations — and others in “older generations” whom they are inspiring — are pragmatically redefining the meaning of a life well lived. He puts it succinctly, I think, when he says that he and his companions are less interested in what they will do — be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher? — than in what kind of person they will be — what kind of doctor, lawyer, or teacher.
Shane Claiborne’s theological heart and mind were first captured by 40 homeless families in north Philadelphia who moved into an abandoned Catholic cathedral and were rewarded with an eviction notice. As he tells it, he and over 100 students from his Christian college, Eastern University, put their lives alongside them and helped catalyze a minor miracle. The media of Philadelphia was galvanized. People opened their homes. Section 8 housing was made available. In the end, all 40 families had found or been given a permanent place to live. And Shane Claiborne was set on fire by this experience of resurrecting the essence of Christianity quite literally, as St. Francis of Assisi said before him, in “the ruins of the church.”
In making this kind of connection, Shane Claiborne exhibits a capacity I’ve observed in others his age and younger — an ease of movement, in thought and conversation, between what is ancient and what is modern, what is local and what is global. It is almost as though they are not constrained by space and time as previous generations have been. They draw with immediacy, even intimacy, on the words and example of St Francis, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. And they bring a 21st-century twist to a classic adage of how to be of help to needy others. So, Shane Claiborne says, his community gives people fish and also teaches them to fish. But beyond that, he adds, they are compelled to ask, “Who owns the pond? And who polluted it?”
One could certainly make the case that the culture wars, with a strong religious component, have not ended but simply assumed new forms. And yet, and still, maybe these New Monastics are as much a great story of our time, and ultimately more defining a force, than what will dominate the headlines today and tomorrow. I recall a conversation I had with Benedictine nun Joan Chittister (I’m sure she wouldn’t want to be called an “old monastic”) a good decade ago. She told me about St. Benedict, one of the founders of the entire monastic enterprise. Benedict had his share of problems in his day, the sixth century, including being poisoned and reviled by other religious people who didn’t like what he was up to. And Sister Joan pointed out to me that if you had observed him and his followers in the midst of the great historical drama of the Roman Empire of his time — one little community here, another there — you would never have guessed that they were starting a movement that would endure into the 21st century, and along the way keep European learning and civilization alive — from the margins — during Europe’s Dark Ages.
Happily for all of us, Shane Claiborne knows his history. Ask him if he thinks that the constellation of small communities he’s a part of can really change the world, and he’ll tell you that this is the only way it’s ever been done. The New Monastics are part of larger, important, and underreported stories of religion in the present, including the evolution and diversification of Evangelical Christianity, and the way in which young people are challenging “religion as usual” with their keen insistence on authenticity and spiritual depth.
Shane Claiborne: Interview with a New Monastic
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Your community, The Simple Way, has expanded in the last several years, even in terms of physical space. What used to be one house is now six residences. I imagine life at The Simple Way has changed quite a bit. How has it changed from its humble beginnings?
We are turning into a little more of an intentional village than an intentional community. We had a big fire about four years ago that burned down our main house and community center, and it caused us to step back and think about where we are headed together. Instead of building back the center, we decided to buy up some of the abandoned and troubled houses on the block and grow into them — and to build a park on the old land where our houses used to be.
What’s cool is we are a little more decentralized and sprinkled in the neighborhood. It is less about a house on the corner with a bunch of missionaries and more about a neighborhood that is on a mission together. So now we still gather for prayer and meals, but it is just as much neighbors as “relocaters” to this neighborhood.
What’s it like living there now?
Growing a community is sort of like raising a kid; there are different stages. Each has its own charm and its own awkwardness. We continue to stay true to our original vision: “To love God, love people, and follow Jesus.” But now, we are not a bunch of young folks in one house. We like to say we are a web of subversive friends plotting goodness together with an open invite for new conspirators. In fact, you can have a bunch of folks living in a house and not have community, and you can have community without all living in one house. Things are still hubbed out of our neighborhood here in inner-city Philadelphia with the gardens and murals and open fire hydrants on hot days, but all sorts of stuff has been born, provoked, and inspired by the story here in Philly. I like to believe we are still committed to doing small things with great love. After all, Mother Teresa’s mantra has always been close to our heart: ‘We can do no great things, only small things with great love.’ What is important is not how much we do but how much love we put into doing it.
What’s gained and lost with this type of success and growth?
The world is infatuated with success and growth, bigger is better. So we started The Simple Way as a prophetic critique, calling ourselves a 501c3 anti-profit organization. I guess The Simple Way is less simple now. Ha ha ha. But no less fun. Now we just get to give more money away. We are helping to rebuild a hospital in Iraq that was bombed by the U.S. and that I visited again this year in January. We have a football league now where young men are being mentored and learn character (and conflict management!) on the football field, with over 150 kids on a dozen teams, each sponsored by a local congregation. We still get to help kids with homework, but now we also get to see some of them beat the odds and actually make it through high school and even to college. So we are doing all sorts of new stuff in the neighborhood. And around the world.
We have a magazine now called Consp!re magazine and a directory of communities called Community of Communities. I suppose the great thing is it really does feel like a movement. After all, we are not spreading a brand or a franchise but just want people to inspire each other to live meaningful lives that are not centered around themselves but around God and neighbor. Just as important as choosing a campaign or issue or cause, it is important to choose relationships with real people. We will not “Make Poverty History” until we “Make Poverty Personal.” And, unfortunately, it is often more popular to talk about poor folks as it is to talk with poor folks.
You cited Martin Luther King Jr. in a previous conversation with Krista: “‘We’re called to be the Good Samaritan and lift our neighbor out of the ditch.’ But after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say, ‘Maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be transformed.’” What does that road look like today in terms of a sustainable, self-reliant community?
Yeah, we can’t just swat at the mosquitoes, we have to do something about the swamp that is producing them. As long as we uncritically care for victims, the systems will continue to produce victims. That’s why charity has to lead to justice, otherwise we just end up accommodating injustice with our philanthropy and volunteerism. In fact, sometimes charity is a way we quell our guilt but do little to change our lifestyle, much less challenge systemic injustice or take on the principalities and powers.
As we mature, we get to ask new questions, deeper fundamental questions about poverty and violence — and not just respond to the symptoms. For a while we were giving people food, then we started asking why people are hungry. You know the old give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish they eat for their life — and then there is more. You start saying, “Who owns the pond?” “Who polluted the pond?” “Why does a fishing license cost so stinking much?”
The great thing about community is that we can feel like we are part of something bigger and more holistic than ourselves. We are more together than any of us is on our own. Some folks will love feeding people. Others will love tearing down the gates around the pond. Regardless, we celebrate that each is critically important and incomplete without the other.
One of the things we have really wrestled with this year is the gun violence. In 2006, guns murdered 27 people in Australia, 59 folks in England, 190 folks in Canada, and 10,177 people in the U.S. We have nearly one homicide every 48 hours in Philly. So we are trying to teach kids conflict resolution and nonviolence as we see it exemplified in Jesus and the cross. And eventually, after you hold a kid as he bleeds from gunshot wounds, as I did a few months ago, you also start to ask, “Where are they getting the guns?” And the answer is that there are a few notorious irresponsible gun shops in Philadelphia. So we have begun to approach the owners asking them to sign a voluntary code of responsible business that our mayor and 300 other mayors insist would decrease gun violence. When they refuse, we have gathered outside the gun shops and held vigils and prayer services, even direct action putting our bodies in the way of the trafficking of guns. And it seems to be working; the worst gun shop in Philadelphia closed down last year, but we have many more to go.
We also see things like the bio-diesel coop creating jobs for formerly homeless folks. It’s all about having imagination and creativity as we interact with the patterns of injustice and oppression.
You travel and speak quite a bit, and you’ve been invited to speak in a dozen countries in the upcoming year. What are you learning from other communities that you’re taking back to The Simple Way?
It’s funny. Four years ago when I wrote my first book, the publisher said, “Social justice books don’t really sell, but we like yours because you don’t argue people into social issues. You story people in.” Now after about half a million sales, it seems like I get a social justice book every few weeks to do a foreword or cover-blurb for. There is a new Christianity emerging in post-religious right America. And it is arising from a generation that is convinced that we cannot settle for a Christianity that uses our faith as a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the hells around us. And it comes from a growing movement of Christians that not only care about people, but are genuinely and intimately in love with Jesus. People care about the fragile world we live in. They are reading the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other and asking, ‘How does my faith affect the way I live?’
Can you share a story that illuminates what you’re learning?
What’s beautiful is there are many different expressions. Protestants and Catholics are living together in Northern Ireland. Black and white South Africans are raising their kids together outside Johannesburg. Israeli and Palestinian Christians are fighting the home demolitions together. Christians along the U.S. border have created sanctuary houses in places like Arizona and are helping folks get proper documentation and confront terrible laws (We even met folks that had organized worship services along the wall with Christians living on both sides serving each other communion by throwing it over the wall.). That is what I see. Christians living with brilliant courage and creativity and whose faith causes them to engage the world and the injustices facing our world.
I am excited as I see these sorts of communities because they catch people’s attention. And I believe the Gospel spreads best not through force but through fascination. In the past few decades, much of Christianity has become less and less fascinating to the world. But I see so many signs that this is changing, and there is a whole new crop of Christians that are reading the words of Jesus and asking, “What if he really meant the stuff he said?”
Conversely, faced with these commitments that take you away from Philadelphia and The Simple Way community, how do you stay connected to the people you care about and love? What have you learned from them as your stature has grown publicly?
Actually one of the things that’s really hilarious is seeing neighbors who I’ve known for years stumble across a story I’ve done in Esquire magazine or see me on CNN and come over hooting and hollering. The cool thing is, after we laugh it off, we go right back to jumping in the fire hydrants or weeding the garden. One of my favorite moments this year was getting to take a ton of my neighbors along with my family from Tennessee to commencement at Eastern University where I got an honorary doctorate. It was the most beautiful site to see kids I had mentored, and had seen grow up, with my mom and pop and some of my favorite scholars. Then a couple of weeks later I got to go with kids here to the high school graduation around the corner and celebrate them. There are lots of heroes here.
In the end, community keeps you pretty grounded. People who know you well are not overly impressed by you. Ha ha ha. I have a quote on my wall that says:
Dear God, forgive me for thinking too highly of myself.
Dear God, forgive me for thinking too lowly of myself.
Dear God, forgive me for thinking of myself too much.
Is it vital that you stay grounded in The Simple Way community so that your message stays true to how you’re actually living? How does this message deepen as you live and work?
We are always tempted to abandon the small things in pursuit of the big things — to leave community for the sake of the movement or to leave the grassroots to lobby on Capitol Hill. There are book deals and TV shows and clothing lines. Oh my… We can convince ourselves that there are more important things to do than help Tyreek with his homework or sit on the steps and listen to Betty talk about her husband beating her up again. But those are the important things.
As I look at Jesus, one thing that strikes me is how He is constantly present with pain and struggles around him. The Gospels are filled with interruptions and surprises — someone whose daughter just died, a party that ran out of wine, someone pulling on his shirt or asking him for something. He lives in those interruptions, the very things we don’t have time for and try to squeeze out of our predictable routinized lives.
I love trying to connect my public vocation with my life in the neighborhood. I’ve gotten to travel with families here and take homeless folks to Yosemite as I travel. And I continue to try to have integrity with how I travel — having folks offset the carbon footprint and insisting on staying in homes not hotels so I get to meet real people and save real money. Ha ha ha. I am grateful for a community that supports me as I do that.
I also find it utterly important not to think too highly of ourselves if God should graciously use us. One of my friends has reminded me that there is a story in the Old Testament where God spoke through a donkey. He says, “God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and God has been speaking through asses ever since.”
Evangelical Environmental Evolution
Krista Tippett, host
News this week of a remarkable conversion, as the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and one of the most socially conservative — takes on environmental stewardship with both humility and boldness. The Southern Baptist Declaration on Environment and Climate Change is introduced with words like this:
“We believe our current denominational engagement with these issues have often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice. Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better. To abandon these issues to the secular world is to shirk from our responsibility to be salt and light. The time for timidity regarding God’s creation is no more.”
I can’t help but hear echoes of Ellen Davis here, and be confirmed in my sense that her kind of theological reasoning has spread much farther and deeper than has heretofore been visible on the surface of our public life. It is also a reminder of the effect of up-and-coming generations in and around Evangelical Christianity, like Shane Claiborne, who has continued to grow in visibility and influence since I interviewed him in 2006. We’re putting him back on the air this week.
Shane Claiborne — and this week’s Southern Baptist declaration — are reflections of a fascinating process of discernment and self-examination that has taken place in many quarters in the aftermath of the intense, electorally oriented, Evangelical political focus that culminated in the early 2000s. As Richard Cizik — then VP of the National Association of Evangelicals — said on SOF a few years ago, Evangelicals’ core virtue of “conversion” can be a powerful force when they change their discernment about something and throw themselves behind it. We called that show “The Evolution of American Evangelicalism.” And the group Cizik is now leading, The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, is yet another expression of that ongoing dynamic.
The fact that change is possible is one of the simplest and most powerful antidotes to despair about entrenched divisions in our culture. I cleave to that reality, and I see it borne out every day.
Volunteers with the Southern Baptist Convention based in Kansas clear debris from a yard in Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina struck the coast in 2005. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A Soldier to His General
Eboo Patel, Guest Contributor
You might be surprised by what our nation’s most famous Evangelical Christian has to say about Muslims.
I first met Rick Warren at the Aspen Ideas Festival a few years ago, where he was doing a talk on leadership. Somebody in the audience asked him — with no lack of scorn — if he thought everyone was going to heaven. That’s when I realized how much of a risk Warren had taken by coming to Aspen — a town of people with a generally condescending attitude towards Warren’s brand of Evangelical megachurch Christianity.
I asked him about why he chose to come to a place where much of the audience was suspicious of him because of the title “Pastor.” He smiled and said that he liked all kinds of people, including folks with a bias against religion, but he was looking forward to getting on a plane and heading to Rwanda the next day, where he had taken on the massive project of helping a country recover from genocide. “It was faith that got them through, and it’s faith that keeps them going,” he told me.
I was equally struck by the pragmatic and profound way Warren answered the man’s question. He basically said that he didn’t come to Aspen to disagree with people about heaven, but to find common ground about working together on earth — and in his recent travels across the developing world, he had seen enough suffering to make anyone with an impulse to serve put aside their differences and develop practical partnerships that actually helped people.
I caught up with Pastor Rick at another bastion of folks suspicious of faith (I spend a lot of time in those places!) — the Clinton Global Initiative. This time, he was even more forceful about the need to focus our efforts on improving earth instead of arguing about heaven. When he was asked how “the church” could play a role in ending poverty, he responded by saying that the armies of compassion included people of all faiths.
I took him aside after his panel presentation and talked to him about the religious diversity he expressed respect for on stage.
As for how this Muslim views that Christian, here’s what I have to say: We might have different ideas of heaven, but I would happily play soldier to his general in an interfaith army of compassion solving the problems of earth.
Eboo Patel appeared on SOF as a guest in “Religious Passion, Pluralism, and the Young.” He’s also the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, a contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.