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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated leading a Living Wage Campaign in Memphis, Tennessee.
In an address to strikers in Memphis on March 18, 1968, King stated, “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” The struggle for racial integration must be matched by a struggle for economic justice. Justice is not only about access to public places, but also about jobs.
Forty-two years after Dr. King’s death, the struggle for racial and economic justice wages on amidst an economic crisis. After years of over-spending, speculative trading, and expensive wars, America’s economy is ailing. Yet the rich and elite continue to prosper, while the poor struggle to make ends meet. This economic struggle is particularly acute in New York City; where over 2 million city residents receive food stamps and struggle to put bread on the table.
Most of us grew up with the mantra “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It is one of the most popular among a multitude of life lessons instilled in the form of catchy phrases or rhythmic recitations.
It is introduced to us at a tender age to teach us how to deflect hurtful language in the form of childhood sneers and jeers, a jingly skin-thickener in preparation for what often grows into the malicious gossiping common to the teen years. In the beginning, it serves as a handy rebuttal against playground intrigue, held ready in the same little back pocket that may also contain a frog or melted candy from last Halloween. Yet it is a sentiment that sticks with us well past our formative years, and to which we often subconsciously refer in adulthood: no one can hurt me, change me or sway me by what they say to me, or about me. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We are raised on this phrase, and in America, our social conditioning toward individualism and self-determination reinforces the sentiment into our grown psyche. But is it really true?
It was only a moment, but in 50 years I don’t think I have ever been more frightened for our future as I was when the news of the Tucson shooting added to the wave of killings and hatred across the globe that has launched 2011.
I say for a moment, because as the despair threatened to take hold, stories emerged from the unlikeliest of places to drive the darkness back.
For 25 years as a journalist I have covered trouble spots around the world – often where religious extremism and ignorance have fanned the flames of hatred and violence. As a reporter you seem to become immune to the despair, but this time it was different. Coptic Christians massacred in Egypt on New Year’s Eve, a mob in Pakistan cheering the assassin of the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province who stood up for a Christian woman, Christians massacring Muslims and Muslims massacring Christians in Nigeria – again. And a little nine year old girl, born on 9/11, lies dead in Tucson, Arizona along with five other innocent victims whilst their Congresswoman fights for her life. And the year barely a week old.
What makes me believe there’s hope? The love that motivated ordinary Muslims in Egypt and a man who paid with his life in Islamabad – Muslims risking their lives for Christians.
“Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.” - Isaiah 5:8
As the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow I find myself reflecting on what that means for the rich. For that small minority of us with access to toilets, bank accounts, clean drinking water and adequate food, what does it mean for this gap to continue to grow? Perhaps it means a guilty conscience as we live a life of relative luxury? Or perhaps it means we are missing out on something that is fundamental to how God calls us to live.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” The golden rule. As evangelicals, we know it by heart. However, the better question is: do we live it by heart?
In 2008, a poll commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Mercer University revealed that close to six-in-ten white evangelicals in the South thought torture could be often (20%) or sometimes (37%) justified in order to gain important information. This compared to roughly half (48%) of the general public who believed that torture could be justified in a Pew Research Center poll conducted around the same time.
However, the poll displayed a shift in evangelicals’ responses when asked using the “Golden Rule” argument against torture: the U.S. government should not use methods against our enemies that we would not want used on American soldiers. A majority (52%) of white evangelicals agreed. This movement represented a 14-point increase from the 38% of white evangelicals who initially said that torture is rarely or never justified.
"When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream." (Psalm 126:1, KJV)
In this season of anticipation and hope, thousands of undocumented immigrants and their allies who were hoping and anticipating that the “DREAM” Act would pass were severely disappointed. The Senate failed to pass the vote for cloture that would have changed not just the lives of these young men and women but the future of the nation. These young women and men went by the name of “Dreamers” for they dared to dream of a welcoming nation that rewarded the hard work and industrious study of some of our most promising sons and daughters.
So what exactly did the Dream Act ask for? It asked for a path to citizenship for young men and women who would complete 2 years of college or military service. In addition, these young people had to meet the criteria of having been brought to the United States by their parents when they were 16 years old or younger. These young people must have lived in the United States for 5 consecutive years, they could not have a criminal record, and they must have completed high school in the United States or a U.S. G.E.D. In short, these are the children this country dreams about.
I can imagine my response if someone told me I needed to be concerned about human rights as a young believer. I would have smugly said something like this: “I’m not concerned about Human Rights. I’m concerned about Human Wrongs!”
Back then I understood that we are sinners. Now I realize that we are also the sinned against. I am still concerned about human wrongs, but I’ve learned a few things. One important lesson: It’s wrong not to affirm human rights! Jesus’ ethical demands, to love your neighbor as yourself and to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, makes human rights a priority.
I want to speak briefly about the massively important biblical teaching about human rights as it applies to Muslims in the U.S. Then I want to conclude by looking at freedom of religion as it relates to Christian-Muslim relations. The most famous human rights document--the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--is written in purely secular terms (http://www.un.org/rights/50/decla.htm). However, there is a robust biblical basis of human rights that undergirds and shapes the moral foundations of this famous declaration.
War. Talk of war. Climate change. Talk of ecological disaster. Taxes. Talk of a nation facing bankruptcy. Sometimes it can all seem too much.
There’s a safe place I go to in my head which I want to share with you, only this time I am about to jump on a plane to actually go there.
Candle light plays on the fat, comforting stone pillars, as it has done for nearly a thousand years. The warm glow of the candles kicks off the sheen on the old oak pews and the choir processes up the aisle of the old Norman Church in my village back in England. Midnight Mass in an English country village, packed to the rafters with worshippers. Tell that to those who say Britain is a post-religious country!
As we reach the midpoint of Advent this week, society is going crazy with the frenzy of preparations for Christmas. Perhaps, like me, you find the consumerism of Christmas overwhelming.
The thought of 450 billion dollars spent (in the U.S. alone!) trying to find the right gift for the person who already has everything is nauseating. That’s over twice as much as it would take to provide clean water for everyone on the planet, nine times as much as it would take to meet President Obama’s commitment to the Global Fund and double the rate of HIV positive people receiving treatment, and 450 times as much as it would take to erase the debt of over 20 low income countries (The Jubilee Act).
Left on our own we would be overwhelmed by the demands and pressures of this world. But the good news of Advent is that we are not to be left alone. Like it or not, the Kingdom of God is approaching. There is perhaps no simpler statement of Jesus’ mission than in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Since the origin of Christian social ethics in the late 19th century as an Anglo-American academic-ecclesial discipline, economic problems have been at the center of our profession’s concerns.
Christian ethics was born during the days in which the contrast between the vast prosperity of the industrial barons and the vast suffering of those who worked for them became unbearable. The moral concerns that drove early Christian ethics helped contribute to the regulation of industrialization’s excesses during the Progressive Era. The same social compassion supported the creation of a modest social safety net during the Depression and New Deal era.
As a Christian ethicist, I stand in a tradition that both rejected communism as an alternative to laissez-faire capitalism and recognized very early that the only way capitalism would or should survive was through legal regulation of its worst excesses. I don’t say moral regulation because, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us in his formative work Moral Man and Immoral Society, huge group entities and social structures do not respond to moral suasion. If you are asking a corporation -- or a group of corporations, or an entire economic structure -- voluntarily to act in such a way as to limit profit, you will fail. You will have to coerce it to do so under the power of law or some other countervailing power, such as the organization of labor.