Slow Kingdom Coming

I’ve always thought of myself as a justice-oriented, do-gooder-type person, but over the years, I’ve become a bit fuzzy about what exactly that means. For example, most people would say it’s good to donate to charities and worthy causes, but how many times have charities and worthy causes misspent, misappropriated, or misjudged? What about donating goods after natural disasters? International adoptions? Microloans? Many things that sound good on the surface—and that are almost always well-intended—aren’t necessarily doing the good work we think they are. It also seems that far too often when someone says “justice,” what they really mean is good intentions and a quick fix.

In his new book, Slow Kingdom Coming, Kent Annan makes clear that good intentions can only take us so far, and that the work of building God’s kingdom is anything but quick. He writes, “we don’t want to think … that our good intentions are enough, as though God wouldn’t expect us to love our neighbors in the best possible way.” And the best possible way, he continues, is by creating deep and lasting change that, almost by definition, comes slowly.

You can read the rest of my review of Slow Kingdom Coming at Red Letter Christians.

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Is the American Way the Jesus Way?

Brian Zahnd is the co-founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation in Saint Joseph, Missouri. Brian is known for his focus on embracing the deep and long history of the Church and wholeheartedly participating in God’s mission to redeem and restore His world. He is also the author of several books, including, A Farewell To MarsBeauty Will Save the World, and Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness. Today, as we in the US prepare to celebrate Independence Day, Brian talks to us about the conflation of flag and cross, Christianity’s long history of accommodating itself to the pressures of nationalism, and the transformative hope of local churches to overcome both of these distortions of the true message of Christ.

You’ve said that for many American Christians, the American Way and the Jesus Way are essentially the same way of being human. What do you mean by that?

Many American Christians would be hard pressed to identify five examples of how the Jesus way differs significantly from the American way. In the civil religion of America, the Jesus way and the American way have been conflated into the same mode of being human. In essence this means Christianity exists primarily to support the supreme idea of America. Put just so it sounds ludicrous, nevertheless it remains the tacit assumption of American civil religion. But authentic Christianity is a radical challenge to all other allegiances.

Christians confess that Jesus is Lord and thus “We the People” are not. Christians are far more committed to the Beatitudes than the Bill of Rights. Christians believe that only Jesus has a manifest destiny to rule the nations. Christians proclaim that “the last best hope of the world” is Jesus, not America. And that most American Christians would view these assertions as controversial reveals just how deeply the Jesus way has been subverted by the American way.

You can read the rest of my interview with Brian Zahnd at Red Letter Christians. He’s an amazing writer and speaker — the interview is truly worth a read!

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Freeing Men From Patriarchy’s Chains

Carolyn Custis James is president of the Whitby Forum, a ministry dedicated to addressing the deeper needs that confront both men and women as they work together to extend God’s kingdom in a messy and complicated world. She is also the founder of Synergy Women’s Network, a national organization for women emerging or engaged in ministry leadership. She is the author of six books, including Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, and Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing Worldwhich is scheduled for release this month. In Malestrom, Carolyn explores how our culture’s narrow definition of manhood is upended when we consider the examples of men in the Bible and Jesus’ gospel. She shares with us today how Jesus’ gospel liberates men from the strictures of patriarchy and restores them to their true calling as God’s sons. 

What is the malestrom?

The maelstrom—a powerful whirlpool in the open seas that threatens to drag ships, crew, and cargo down into the ocean’s watery depths—offered the strong image I needed to represent the power and seriousness of what men and boys are facing. A slight alteration in the spelling, and Malestrom was born. Put simply,

The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species—causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons.

These currents can be overt and brutal, leading to the kinds of atrocities and violence we witness in the headlines—wars, school shootings, ISIS beheadings, and the trafficking of men and boys for sex, forced labor, and soldiering. The number of male casualties on the giving and receiving ends of the violence is beyond epidemic. But these currents also come in subtle, even benign forms that catch men unawares yet still rob them of their full humanity as God intended.

The repercussions of such devastating personal losses are not merely disastrous for the men themselves, but catastrophic globally as the world is depleted of the goodness and gifts men were originally designed to offer.

You can read the rest of my interview with Carolyn Custis James on the Red Letter Carpet.

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Churches Unite to Reverse Foster Care Wait List

In recognition of foster care awareness month, this month’s Red Letter Carpet features Aaron and Amy Graham. Aaron and Amy have a career-long history of helping those in need: prior to moving to DC, Aaron started the Quincy Street Missional Church in a low-income neighborhood of Boston where he served for five years, and Amy served as a foster care social worker. In 2013, they co-founded DC127, a faith-based non-profit with a mission to unite churches around reversing the foster care wait list in Washington, DC. It both recruits and supports foster and adoptive homes and prevents children from entering the child welfare system by supporting families in crisis through its partnership with the national Safe Families for Children movement. Aaron and Amy also founded the The District Church, where Aaron is lead pastor and Amy is the discipleship pastor. They have adopted two children, Elijah and Natalie.

You can read my interview with Aaron and Amy here.

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Immigration: A Matter of the Spirit

Marco Saavedra is an artist, poet, writer, and sometime-dishwasher at his parents’ restaurant in the Bronx. He’s also an undocumented immigrant and one of nine Dreamers who, in 2013, turned themselves over to border patrol at Nogales, AZ to lift up the plight of two million deported immigrants under the Obama administration. The previous year he had put himself in the hands of Florida immigration agents to infiltrate the Broward Detention Facility and expose the abuses occurring there. Dozens of detainees were released as a result. Today Saavedra’s deportation case is still pending, but he continues to make art, to voice protest, and to lift up the urgency of the lives of those around him. He speaks with us today about how faith has influenced his actions past and present, and how the current debate over immigration is not simply a matter of politics, but rather a matter of the spirit.

By purposefully placing yourself in the hands of border guards, you could have been deported to Mexico, a place you haven’t been since you were a baby. How did your faith impact your decision to take such a personal and possibly life-altering risk?

Yes, of course, faith has always been crucial in my migration journey. The last words I said before turning myself over to border patrol two years ago were:  “There is no fear where there is perfect love” (to loosely quote St. John), and I meant that. And to go further into my past, faith was the only thing left after my parents and I first came into this country illegally 20 years ago; we had already left behind our language, native home, extended family, culture and everything known until that point. Our migration started (as I believe most all do) with faith and was sustained by it. And so when I turned myself over to immigration 20 years later—in order to raise up the plight of the deported—it was only adding to that faith that instructs us to “love one another as [Jesus] has loved us” (John 13:34).

Is social justice activism of this extent the province of the young? What about the middle-aged, the old, those with small children, aging parents, etc. Do the social justice teachings of Jesus require such action from these folks as well? Why/why not?

You can read the rest of my interview with Marco at Red Letter Christians. When you’re done there, check out the remarkable photography of Steve Pavey of Hope in Focus.

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Woman of Ink, Woman of the Cloth

Social justice Christian? Right wing fanatic? Death penalty proponent, or death penalty protestor? The media doesn’t always show it (okay, it NEVER shows it), but there’s actually a wide array—huge!—of Christian thought out there. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a good example of that. Some folks call her the devil, while others think her work with misfits of all stripes is a God send. I got to talk with Nadia on the phone the other day, and would love to share some of that conversation here.

In a dichotomous church world of traditional/conservative, weird/liberal, how do those in the latter camp resist the urge of a sort of reverse snobbery?

I don’t know that I’ve ever really resisted it. It’s still there, but it’s in bad from to assume I’m right about it. I feel it and think it, and I’d be lying to say I didn’t. The problem comes when I think God agrees with me or is co-signing on it, or it’s somehow the prophetic thing to assert that my snotty opinions are God’s truths. What is lacking on both sides of the equation—fundamentalism of the left or fundamentalism of the right—are two things that I won’t do without in my life anymore since I was raised in a fundamentalist setting, and those two things are joy and humility. I don’t see a lot of joy and humility being allowed when your main thing is holding some sort of line. I saw an advance screening of the Selma movie and it was incredible. I put up on Twitter the next day that I couldn’t wait for the rabid liberals to tell me why me thinking the Selma movie is amazing actually makes me a horrible racist. There is incredible pridefulness in social media. You aren’t really allowed to say if you like anything, because immediately someone will have some article about “What Selma got wrong.” It’s unbelievably prideful. You know, I enjoyed the movie and thought it had a lot to recommend it. But there is a lot of joy stealing out there in terms of no one being allowed to say they think anything is good, because someone will immediately come place themselves above you, saying “here’s why you got that wrong.” It’s not helping anyone. With Charlie Hebdo we’re talking about freedom of expression, but how much is that limited at this point because you’re afraid you might use the wrong word or say the wrong thing? It’s crippling.

You can read the rest of my interview with the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber here.

Loosing the Chains of Debt: An Interview With Geoffrey Chongo

Geoffrey Chongo is the Head of Programs at the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection (JCTR), located in Lusaka, Zambia. JCTR is a church-affiliated civil society organization that conducts evidence-based advocacy on political, social, and economic issues. The JCTR works through four main programs: economic equity and development, social conditions, faith and justice, and outreach, and uses the social teachings of the Church as the basis for its advocacy. 

JCTR has written that the social teachings of the church are a rich resource for empowering people to work for social justice, yet this is often the church’s “best kept secret.” How can we, as people of the church, help expose this secret for the powerful tool that it is?

Church Social Teaching is commonly referred to as Catholic Social Teaching. It is a set of knowledge resulting from careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence. It espouses principles such as the inherent dignity of human beings. Other principles include the common good and God’s option for the poor. If these principles where honored and to become the basis of our action, both in private and public life, they could promote interest all in society.

JCTR tries to create awareness of these principles especially among people who occupy public life and whose decisions affect many people. JCTR also refers to the principles as Church Social Teachings and not Catholic Social Teachings as they apply not only to Catholics but to all churches and human beings so that all people can identify themselves with them.

Your organization has developed one of the most widely-cited statistical tools for evaluating poverty in Zambia: the basic needs basket (BNB). How does the BNB work, and how has it helped lessen the impact of poverty on the average person in Zambia?

The Urban Basic Needs Basket (BNB) is a tool that helps JCTR to monitor the cost of living in 15 selected urban towns throughout Zambia. Prices of selected essential and non-essential items that constitutes an urban BNB for an average family of five (as determined by government official census statistics) are surveyed and analyzed on a monthly basis and results used to advocate for policies that improves the living conditions of people. Stakeholders such as employers and trade unions use the urban BNB data to bargain for decent wages.

The urban BNB has had positive impacts on the lives of average individuals. Recently, Government introduced a minimum wage law for lowly paid workers such as shop workers, making reference to the JCTR Urban Basic Needs Basket. JCTR has also used the urban BNB data to push for tax measures that reduce the cost of living such as increase of tax free threshold for salaried employees and removal of VAT (Zero Rating) on selected goods on which poor people spend most of their income.

The BNB and its accompanying survey—the Satellite Homes Survey—have also given birth to wider surveys such as the Households Access to Selected Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) in various towns in Zambia (2012-2014). These have resulted in building awareness in communities on ESCRs. We have seen communities such as those from Livingstone and Monze districts (in Southern Zambia) demand their rights and engage with duty bearers to receive access to water and electricity, respectively.

As regards the rural BNB, this is a tool that looks at food and nutrition security as well as access to various social services through a household and key informant questionnaire that is administered quarterly. This research has helped provide platforms for community members to engage with local/district leaders in setting the agenda for Constituency Development Funds as well as to give service providers and local leaders information on needs as presented by the community. Though development in these areas is slow, progress has been seen where toilets and boreholes have been sunk to provide better sanitation such as in Masaiti (Copperbelt province), Kazunula (Southern province) and Mambwe (Eastern province).

I know that debt relief is a topic important to you and to JCTR. How has government debt impacted the everyday life of the average person in your country, and what can be done to alleviate the negative consequences of debt?

You can find the rest of my interview with Geoffrey at Red Letter Christians.

Geoffery Chongo (JCTR)