Common Ground: Common Good


As Jim Wallis, from Sojourners, observed this week: “A sad reality in the past year or more has been our ongoing struggle to engage in difficult conversations — with our longtime friends, with coworkers, or even with family members across the Thanksgiving table.”

“We’ve always had differences around social and political issues — racial justice, immigration, religious identity, health care, guns, etc. — but those divisions,” Wallis stressed, “are starker than ever. Our traditional and social media have become so fragmented and polarized that we find ourselves practically inhabiting a different reality than those we disagree with; we only really hear or engage with the perspectives of those with whom we already largely agree. This is not a tenable situation for our country — or for our families. If we are to maintain meaningful relationships, we need to actively engage in difficult conversations with people we disagree with and find some common ground for the common good.”

My reflection this week is about Muslims in America: American Muslims.

Some time ago a “friend” emailed me that he really feared that Muslim terrorists were taking over the United States. I wrote back that I was more afraid of gun-slinging, radicalized white evangelical Christians. The next day I was “unfriended” on Facebook.

Muslims make up about 1 % of the total US population. Nevertheless, many Americans are suspicious (and ignorant) about Muslim beliefs and motives. President Trump has said he wanted to ban Muslims from entering America. It is impossible however to take America out of American Muslims; and 92 % of American Muslims say they’re proud to be Americans—about the same as the general public. American Muslims reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in other countries.

According to statistics published this week by the Pew Research Center, however, the number of assaults against Muslims in the United States rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, surpassing the peak reached in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Hate crimes, intimidation, and vandalism against Muslims have risen significantly. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in early 2017, found that three-quarters of Muslim American adults (75%) say there is “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims in the U.S.

There is a natural human tendency for people to fear what they really don’t know. And most Americans simply do not know Islam or Muslims. President Trump’s divisive rhetoric reflects the dark side of this unfamiliarity. In the long run, however, I remain optimistic. Once more Americans become friends and neighbors with Muslims, anti-Muslim prejudice is bound to subside. We need better information and more inter-religious dialogue and continuing education.

Christianity and Islam are the largest religions in the world. They are both monotheistic religions and share, with Judaism, the Abrahamic Tradition. We all believe in the same God.

Although there are Christian terrorists, Christianity is not per se a terrorist religion. Islam isn’t either. Terrorist groups are EXTREMIST groups. Extremists regularly ignore the actual words written in their scriptures, whether the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Qur’an.

Ever since 9/11, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, prominent Muslims, Islamic organizations, and Islamic scholars have repeatedly denounced extremism, terrorism, and terrorist attacks. Muslim Americans have been successfully integrating into U.S. society. In fact, they are more opposed to intolerance and violence than many other Americans. Nevertheless, ignorance continues to cloud the U.S. public’s perception of Islam. “Jihad,” for example, is a term that is often misunderstood and associated with violent radical militants. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, however, the word jihad means to “strive, struggle and exert effort.” It is a central and broad Muslim concept that includes the struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, the struggle to improve the quality of life in society, and the struggle by military forces in the battlefield for self-defense or fighting against tyranny or oppression.

Although there is much hysteria about it, especially among American extremists, Sharia Law, also known as Islamic Law, is primarily about protecting the innocent and upholding Islamic values. Islamic scholars in the United States see no conflict between Muslim values and the U.S. Constitution. American Muslims are proud to be Americans and proud to be Muslims. It takes a long time for prejudicial stereotypes and ignorance to subside. I remember very clearly the revival of nineteenth century Nativist fears among many Americans when the Catholic, John F. Kennedy, became President of the United States in January 1961. There were fears that U.S. Catholic bishops and the pope would soon take control of the USA.

As Americans, from all religious traditions or from no religious traditions, we all need to learn from each other and work together. Our country is going through some critical times. It does no good to promote ignorance and further polarization.

Happy Thanksgiving!

We still do indeed have much to be thankful for. – Jack

Echoes of Theocracy


November 11, 2017

The United States is a representative constitutional democracy. In our constitutional democracy the authority of the majority is limited legally and institutionally, so that the rights of individuals and minorities are respected. In this way – if it works properly — the common good can be maintained, the human dignity and equality of all can be assured, and everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be maintained.

At various times in the history of our country, however, echoes of an undemocratic theocracy have reverberated across the land. 

Nineteenth century Manifest Destiny, for example, stressed the virtues of the American people and their God-given mission to redeem and remake the world in the image and likeness of the United States.  

At the end of the Spanish-American War (12 April 1898 – 9 August 1898), as the United States was becoming an imperial power, President William McKinley felt called by God and addressed a delegation of Methodist church leaders: “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way — I don’t know how it was, but it came….that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker) and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States.” 

Like many of you, I remember the words of former President George W. Bush about invading Iraq: President Bush claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When he met with a Palestinian delegation during the Israeli-Palestinian summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, four months after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bush told the delegation: “I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.” 

In a theocracy, religious belief shapes the law of the land, the head of state is considered divinely appointed; and religious leaders control society’s values and norms. Today we find powerful Islamic theocracies in Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. There is not much room in a theocracy for development, dissent, or debate because the society’s leaders are understood to speak and act with the authority of God. Most often, however, the theocratic God is one made in the image and likeness of authoritarian men and women. 

The United States is not yet a theocracy, but we hear strong echoes of theocracy coming from the Donald Trump/Mike Pence presidential administration and their key advisors. A few days ago, ex-White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, gave a speech at a Republican Party dinner in Warren Michigan, on the anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential election. In Bannon’s words, the anniversary should be called “the first anniversary of the high holy day of MAGA.” Bannon is a strange fellow who compares himself to “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, and Satan.” In his vision of America’s future, he calls for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” He considers himself a Catholic Christian, but I see little in his value system that resonates with Catholicism or Christianity. If one can say he has a theology, it is a complex amalgam of varied and sometimes contradictory ideas drawn from far-right nationalism, alternative Christianity, pseudo-historical narratives, and Islamophobic fiction. There are no doubts about his influence on the rhetoric and early policies of the Trump administration. He was a co-author of Trump’s first inaugural address, with its refrain of “America first” and God’s chosen and “totally unstoppable” nation. Yes, Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council in April 2017; but hestill holds a key position as White House chief strategist, very close to the ear of the president. 

One of Mr. Trump’s current key religious advisors is the Southern Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress. In early August 2017, Jeffress praised President Trump’s aggressive statement about North Korea as an expression of God’s will. “When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers,” Jeffress said, “the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.” Pastor Jeffress is using the Bible to publicly advocate for President Trump’s right to rule by divine fiat: basically that Trump can do whatever he thinks best. 

Another key presidential religious advisor is Ralph Drollinger, a former NBA player, who founded Capitol Ministries (CapMin) 20 years ago, which originally focused on evangelizing politicians in Sacramento, CA. Today CapMin has greatly expanded its Washington DC influence on the Trump cabinet with a clearly theocratic focus. Drollinger dreams of an American Christian theocracy; and he wants “disciples of Christ” to take over the US Government.  

Ralph Drollinger is ardently fundamentalist. He interprets the Bible literally. He believes the world was created in six days. He rejects the notion of human-made climate change and warns against the sin of homosexuality. A 2016 letter signed by Drollinger on the CapMin website says, “In no way is God’s Word pro LGBT. Only a Scripture twister could reason otherwise.” Drollinger also believes that women with young children who work outside the house are “sinners;” and he warns that Roman Catholicism “is one of the primary false religions in the world.”  

Since March, Drollinger has been holding weekly fundamentalist Christian Bible-study sessions, in the White House, for Trump’s cabinet members. Drollinger has become the in- house spiritual advisor to Vice President Pence and Cabinet Secretaries Carson (Housing and Urban Development), DeVos (Education), Perry (Energy), Perdue (Agriculture) and Pompeo (CIA), Attorney General Sessions, and others close to the president.  

Drollinger in fact now has three weekly Bible studies sessions in Washington DC: one for the House on Mondays, one for the Senate on Tuesdays, and the one for the Trump Cabinet on Wednesdays. His version of Christianity stresses that the state must become an “avenger of wrath” and pursue its God-given responsibility to “moralize a fallen world through the use of force.” His alternative Christianity has little place for Jesus’s stress on compassion, love, and tolerance. His vision is also strongly male-dominant. Drollinger again: “The Bible says that men need to be taught by men. It doesn’t ever say that women should be teaching men.… Of course, women can teach, but only women, or males under a certain age. But female legislators can also sit in on a male Bible study. I have a lot of female legislators that sit in on my ministry.… It’s hard to get around the fact God seems to be describing male leadership here. I may not have set it up the same way, but he did, and I just want to be true to that. That’s what it means to be a servant who just wants to carry the meal out of the kitchen correctly and not alter the meal.” 

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Nevertheless, the United States, to stress it again, is not a theocracy. It must not become a theocracy. I think the greatest problem in a theocracy is that the leaders of a theocratic nation use the fear of God to impose laws and programs that directly benefit only themselves. For a country to develop and improve, its leaders must recognize when change is necessary. Theocratic governments, however, cannot do this because they are usually grounded in an unchanging religious belief which must be obeyed as the primary truth. Finally, the punishments that are imposed on troublesome citizens in a theocracy are often primitive, inhumane, and cruel.  

What to do? The biggest protection against theocracy is a strict separation of church and state. It protects the state. In ensures that legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government can freely exercise their responsibilities. It preserves, protects, and defends the constitution. A strict separation of church and state protects and safeguards religious institutions as well. It ensures that they maintain leadership and control over their own religious institutions.  

A strict separation of church and state also protects what we call public morality. Public morality maintains the moral and ethical standards in a society that protect individual life and freedom and support and maintain the common good. For all social groups. For all religious groups. For all non-religious groups. For all racial groups. Etc.  

Yes of course, religious institutions do have a responsibility to critique social attitudes and trends, and recommend appropriate changes and adjustments to public morality’s values and norms. They do not, however, control public morality. Their responsibility is to enter into the common good dialogue that must be part of any healthy society.  

To summarize: In no way does contemporary America need a self-promoting Christian ayatollah to run the show…. 
Take care. – Jack

Theses for A Contemporary Reformation 



4 November 2017

Martin Luther was a young theologian when he posted his 95 theses in 1517. As a much older theologian in 2017, I am posting 7 “theses”or areas where the need for church reform is contemporary and urgent. (There are of course many more areas but — unlike Martin — I need to pay attention to my word count.) 

(1) Youth Exodus 

          A bishop acquaintance emailed me this summer that young people have gone astray and lost their faith. “Too much sex and hedonism,” he said. “They are not interested in God anymore.” I emailed back that I still work with young people and my perspective is different. 

          Maybe the real problem is that too many institutional church leaders have gone astray and aren’t all that interested in young people anymore. Who is listening to their questions about faith and life? Who is paying attention to their search for God in our haphazard world? Right now, about 39% of our young adults (ages 18-29) are religiously unaffiliated.  

          A couple weeks ago I was in a taxicab, on my way from O’Hare airport to a conference center in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. It was a 40 minute drive, and 5 minutes into it the young cab driver asked me what I do. I told him I was an historical theologian. At that point, he turned off the radio and began to tell me his life story: married, two small children, Catholic Latino background, doesn’t go to church anymore, and feels estranged from traditional religion. He talked to his pastor, who told him he was a secularized sinner, should go to confession, and had lost his faith. He feels cut-off from his wife and is thinking about divorce. He loves her but is not sure she loves him. They went to a marriage counselor; but the counselor told him he was a “typical loose-living immigrant” and he had to grow up and become a man. 
          “Do you believe in God?” he asked. I told him I do. “Me too,” he said. “I often experience God, here in my cab, all alone, returning to the airport late at night.“ I gave him the contact info for a couple fine young Chicago-area ordained ministers whom I know. “You need a spiritual guide and a trustworthy spiritual friend,” I told him. “Someone who understands your search, who will listen to you, and who can help you….” 

(2) Hierarchical Power Out of Focus 

          We need some ecclesiastical restructuring, and the hierarchy is a good place to begin dismantling and rebuilding. Ordination and the episcopacy are not about sacramental power nor about having power over people. Ordained ministry is about service and leadership. Jesus did not ordain anyone. He did not confer the episcopacy on anyone. He called his followers — men and women — to bear witness, to serve others, to live in his spirit, and to spread the Goodnews. Ordained ministry was created by the community of faith many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The community of faith was creative back then. It needs the be creative today.

          In our institutional restructuring, we should establish guidelines to ensure quality ministry and service. Why not five-year terms of office for pastors and bishops, which can be renewed for a second or third five-year term? In-service training, ongoing theological education, and annual performance appraisals would be requirements for maintaining one’s certification as a bonafide pastor or bishop.   

(3) The Hegemony of the Old Boys Club Must Stop Now 

          Membership, ministry, and leadership in the community of faith must be egalitarian. Men AND women must be recognized as ministers and leaders, with no distinctions in roles and functions based solely on gender. We need to push now to make it happen. We need, as well, to be supportive of those contemporary women who are already ministering as ordained ministers.

          In breaking the dominant male hegemony, we need to use inclusive language. This is not a nicety. It is a necessity. Ecclesiastical publications, hymns, prayers, and websites should be monitored and corrected. Lectors and teachers should be informed and trained about inclusive language and Sacred Scripture. 

(4) Right-To-Life Must be Truly Pro-Life 

          It is not only amazing but terribly alarming how so many right-to-life religious advocates and politicians change their rhetoric, once the protected fetuses emerge as babies and become needy children. Protecting right-to-life and being pro-life demand concerted personal, political, and institutional efforts on behalf of disabled children, the impoverished, health care, universal education, aid to minorities and immigrants, dismantling capital punishment, establishing and maintaining programs to help people move beyond drug abuse, sex education programs and birth-control as ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortion. Yes the list can go on and on.

(5) Complacency  

          Complacency among church members, in civil society, and in both major political parties is today’s capital sin. It is far too easy today to watch the news, complain a bit, and then sit back and do nothing and watch things happen. Human problems do not solve themselves. Human problems require concerted human action to repair broken lives, transform evil situations, and correct defects in our social networks.

(6) Ignorance is Not Bliss 

          When people are fed a daily print and electronic diet of down is up, paralysis is progress, enmity is harmony, stupidity is brilliance, the villain is the victim, and disgrace is honor, we need to become strong advocates for good education, critical thinking, and filtering information in a genuine search for truth.

(7) The Heart of the Matter 

          My final thesis this week is without doubt the most important one. In all of our discussions, in our moral and religious argumentation, in our political rhetoric, in tweets and on Facebook, and in our noisy demonstrations, the most important element is honoring, safeguarding, and promoting the beating of the human heart. After all……God is love.

I always appreciate hearing from my readers. What are your theses for a contemporary reformation? I am happy to post them next week. – Jack