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Archive for January, 2011

Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles for what they would become. God does not punish Jacob as he lies sleeping because he can see in him Israel, the foundation of a people. God loves to look at us, and loves it when we will look back at him.

Even when we try to run away from our troubles, as Jacob did, God will find us, and bless us, even when we feel most alone, unsure if we’ll survive the night. God will find a way to let us know that he is with us in this place, wherever we are, however far we think we’ve run.

And maybe that’s one reason we worship — to respond to grace. We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us his own.

— Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, A Vocabulary of Faith

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Not exactly a day many people circle on their calendar, but nonetheless a moment when we all should pause and reflect. We must never forget the stories of survivors, such as the one shared in this video.

At the same time, even in the darkest of moments hints of light can peek through. Read Sarah Wildman’s story in Slate about one Jewish woman who survived World War II by hiding in Berlin.

Hanni Levy, an orphan, managed to escape from a work camp just as the Nazis gathered the other laborers for transport to the Auschwitz death camp. She found shelter among a number of non-Jewish households until she was taken in by Viktoria Kolzer, an older woman who worked as cashier at a local cinema. Wildman writes:

Frau Kolzer, it turned out, had a boy at the front. And she was terribly afraid for his safety. So she made a bargain with God: If he saved her son, she’d save Hanni. Or rather, she hoped that saving Hanni would protect her son. “She said, ‘OK, you come to me, and maybe my son will come back from the war.’ ” Hanni remembers.

Kolzer is now among Germans remembered at the small German Resistance Memorial Center, dedicated to preserving the stories of those Germans who did resist against Hitler. Dr. Beate Kosmala, the center’s senior researcher, told Wildman:

We cannot now create a new story—’all these wonderful rescuers in Germany’—but we know the group is bigger than we expected, and that is really amazing. We are careful not to overestimate it—that’s important I think—but there are ordinary people here, and not only people with money or people who had very good positions. So visitors see that ordinary people could do something. That is our main message: People could act. Could react. Because many Germans after the war were saying, ‘We ourselves had to suffer under dictatorship! We couldn’t do anything! We were persecuted as well!’ These examples show what was possible, what people could do.

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When the Academy Award nominees were announced early Tuesday, I was delighted to see Charles Ferguson’s superb “Inside Job” among the five finalists for Best Documentary. In my world, it would be a finalist for Best Picture, period. But it’s not my world.

At the same time, I was disappointed and surprised to see other worthy films from the semifinal pool of 15 left off the list of finalists, especially “The Tillman Story.”

That’s not a knock on the other films; documentaries are a crowded field with many worthy candidates. Two of my favorites from this past year, “The Oath” and “A Film Unfinished,” didn’t even make the round of 15.

Still, I wish the Academy had made room for the quiet but powerful film “Enemies of the People.” After reading about the film last August in The New York Times (here and here), I couldn’t resist blogging about it. Finally, this past week the film gained a showing in Seattle in a tiny screening room at the Northwest Film Forum.

“Enemies of the People” lived up to the advance billing it received in the Times. It is a searing character study, following Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath in his quest to explain the Killing Fields in the 1970s, where an estimated 2 million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. 

As part of his quest, Thet Sambath spent years building a relationship with Nuon Chea, No. 2 in the Khmer Rouge to Pol Pot. Only near the end of the film, just before his detention for trial on human rights charges, did Chea begin to explain why he felt so many had to die.

His answers are a mix of paranoia and racism; if there’s regret or remorse it is difficult to see. Yet we see that paradox of humanity: He sees Thet Sambath as a friend; he plays with an infant grandchild; he is surrounded by loving family members. Yet he is responsible for the deaths of millions.

The disconnect between these realms in his life represents the rupture of his soul, which took place long ago. There is no sense to be found here, no explanation that is satisfying as Nuon Chea allows us to peer into an abyss of his own making.

But the documentary is about more than Chea; Thet Sambath finds two men at the other end of the chain of command, men who carried out scores of killings and literally had blood on their hands as well as their souls. I’ve never seen such hollow eyes in human beings; their interiors have been devoured by rot of their crimes.

Denial could not protect them. In fact, to finally talk about their actions brought some degree of relief, and they even sought out others to add to their stories, which peel back the layers of depravity step by horrifying step.

Still, their relief is incomplete, even as Thet Sambath approaches them more as a confessor than as an accuser. They can find no redemption.

As for Thet Sambath, who lost his father, mother and a brother to the Killing Fields, there is some peace as his quest concludes. In the film’s final scene, we see Thet Sambath walking over the crest of small hill as his voice speaks of finally being able to move on in his life. Perhaps there has been some redemption for him as well, redemption from sorrow that only truth can salve — at least partially.

He has not allowed anger and bitterness to consume him. In this courageous film, he has provided a service for the rest of us, however sobering, and a warning about how madness can consume a nation.

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Both pain and grace are used by God to change our hearts, to extend our capacity to love, even when the price of such love may be high. In some mysterious way the triune communion of God — Father, Son and Spirit — shares our lives and enters into our suffering and need.

— Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor

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When I saw the comments of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley earlier this week I tried, really tried, to find a way to give him the benefit of the doubt.

As first reported in the Birmingham News, Bentley was speaking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King once served as pastor. The News reported:

”I was elected as a Republican candidate. But once I became governor … I became the governor of all the people. I intend to live up to that. I am color blind,” Bentley said in a short speech given about an hour after he took the oath of office as governor.
   
Then Bentley, who for years has been a deacon at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, gave what sounded like an altar call. 
   
“There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said. ”But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.” 

Bentley added, ”Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”

As is often the case in politics, Bentley’s inelegant sentence turned into a classic gaffe story, with press accounts and bloggers  latching onto his comment about non-believers not being his brothers and sisters. The last part of the quote — “I want to be your brother” — disappeared.

Instead, that one jarringly negative sentence overwhelmed everything else. Bentley and others may not feel this is fair, but I also can understand why this is the case.

Bentley’s evangelical faith fuels a continual urge to proclaim the Gospel to others. However, it’s one thing to say that you hunger for others to know the joy and peace that you’ve found in Christ, which includes a strong bond of fellowship. It is quite another to turn that honorable desire around and declare that those who do not share your faith are not your brothers and sisters.

Such a statement signals a negative and needlessly binary view of others: Are you with us or against us? Are you friend or foe? Bentley may never have meant it that way, but as life teaches us what we mean isn’t necessarily what others hear. As a politician Bentley ought to understand that. To say on one hand you are governor of all the state and then say on the other that those who don’t share your faith are not your brothers — well, there’s an obvious tension between the two. Especially if you are not a Christian.

No surprise, then, that he grabbed others’ attention for all the wrong reasons.

Bentley did the right thing in apologizing:

What I would like to do is apologize. Should anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised, I want to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ If you’re not a person who can say you are sorry, you’re not a very good leader.

Bentley also met with local religious leaders, and according to WSFA in Birmingham:

The governor said when he made the comments to the church audience he assumed he was speaking as a private citizen and not as the Governor of Alabama.

Two observations about the apology.

First, Bentley’s apology is a variation of the classic frame, “I’m sorry if I offended anybody …” Such a statement, however sincere, apologizes more for the consequences of the original comment than for the comment itself. That distinction is significant because it suggests that if no one is offended, no harm was done. In that light, this is a very limited apology.

Second, his statement about speaking as a private citizen clashes with his own comments during the speech that “I became the governor of all the people.” I’m aware of how folks compartmentalize their lives — but on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis? I think not. Such an excuse tends to undermine the apology, rather than explain his act.

As stories go Bentley’s blunder enjoyed a very limited half-life in today’s hyper news cycles, already fading into the background. Nonetheless, it is instructive reminder for Christians of the power of language and the care required in one’s words. Such care is necessary not for the sake of image-building and public relations savvy. Such care is necessary because words always have an impact, and therefore for a Christian they require wise and humble stewardship.

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Well, Fox does have some standards.

According to Huffington Post, Fox has decided that this advertisement, for a web site titled jesushatesobama.com, is not acceptable for airing during the Super Bowl. I looked at the web site (so you don’t have to) and its “Jesus Hates Obama” garb. It contains this statement:

Do we really believe that Jesus hates Obama? Of course not! However, we do believe in freedom…as in the freedom to make fun of the Obama administration with novelty t-shirts…our products may be a joke but so are the policies of this administration.

Glad to see that they took the president’s call for civility to heart.

I suspect that they will be laughing all the way to the bank. Being rejected for the Super Bowl will pay off  big with all the free publicity they’ll get from news media and blogs (I know, I know — here I am giving them what they want).

Yes, they have the right to make fun of the president — and to embarrass themselves while providing one more sorry example of “Christian” witness.

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I have to hand it to Bono: He sees hope and promise in the United States that we have trouble seeing in ourselves. The newest expression of that hope is his tribute to Sargent Shriver, who passed away Tuesday at age 95.

As the AP video notes, Shriver was much more than a Kennedy in-law — perhaps most notably he was the founding director of the Peace Corps. Bono recalls meeting Shriver in the late 1990’s, and since then he has worked with Shriver’s son Bobby on various social justice projects.

Bono writes:

The Peace Corps was Jack Kennedy’s creation but embodied Sargent Shriver’s spirit. Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty but Sarge led the charge. These, and the Special Olympics, were as dramatic an incarnation of the ideas at the heart of America as the space program.

More telling is Bono’s sense of what drove Shriver:

He was not Robert or Bob, he was Sarge, and for all the love in him, he knew that love was a tough word. Easy to say, tough to see it through. Love, yes, and peace, too, in no small measure; this was the ’60s but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at him. No long hair in the Shriver house, or rock ’n’ roll.

He and his beautiful bride, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, would go to Mass every day — as much an act of rebellion against brutal modernity as it was an act of worship. Love, yes, but love as a brave act, a bold act, requiring toughness and sacrifice.

His faith demanded action, from him, from all of us. For the Word to become flesh, we had to become the eyes, the ears, the hands of a just God. Injustice could, in the words of the old spiritual, “Be Overcome.” Robert Sargent sang, “Make me a channel of your peace,” and became the song.

What if more Christians — myself included — became more determined to make themselves channels of God’s peace? What a song that would be.

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The always-insightful Lauren Winner reviews Jeffrey Stout’s recent book “Blessed Are the Organized”:

Near the end of the book, Stout turns his attention to Barack Obama. Stout recalls a conversation Franklin Roosevelt had with labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph. FDR told Randolph “to go out and make him do what was necessary to bring racial segregation to an end.” During the 2008 campaign, Stout says, Obama “reportedly” told the story of FDR and Randolph’s conversation to a group of donors.

Obama’s seizing of FDR’s words gets to the heart of Blessed are the Organized. If Obama has broken our hearts, those of us who worked hard for his election and then failed to keep up the organizing once he was in office must in part blame ourselves. Obama could be forced to do more if only we — we the citizens — would pressure him into doing it.

Alas, “on the principal questions facing his presidency,” argues Stout, “Obama has no one to whom he can say, ‘Make me do it,’ and expect that enough organized pressure will be brought to bear on the base of his spine to permit him to resist the demands of organized corporate power.”

That bracing observation raises the question of what prevents many of us from devoting more time and energy to the hard and time-consuming task of organizing. Are we simply too tired, after long days spent in the service of corporations? Is the problem that, because of the requirements of modern economic life, we move so frequently — and thus lack the sense of investment in our communities that organizing both requires and fosters?

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In a story published by both ProPublica and The New Yorker, reporter Peter Maass re-examines one of the iconic moments of the Iraq War: the televised toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square.

He finds that while the U.S. military was primed to take advantage of any opportunity to burnish its image, a willing press corp was more than eager to do the job itself.

Tightly cropped TV images created the illusion of a larger, more festive crowd surrounding the statue than really existed. Moreover, a large number of people in crowd were photographers and reporters, many of whom had been staying at the large hotel on the square. Meanwhile, commentary from TV reporters on the scene at times abandoned all pretense of critical thinking, as was the case with this British reporter: 

Maass argues that the media frenzy of words and images turned into a “visual echo chamber,” and even reporters on the scene who tried to place this moment in context found themselves either being overridden or rewritten by editors and supervisors back in the states. Elsewhere in Baghdad fierce fighting continued, and the monstrous looting that followed the fall of Saddam was already under way.

Firdos Square, however, overwhelmed the larger picture. The account of San Francisco Chronicle Reporter Robert Collier was particularly telling:

Collier … filed a dispatch that noted a small number of Iraqis at Firdos, many of whom were not enthusiastic. When he woke up the next day, he found that his editors had recast the story. The published version said that “a jubilant crowd roared its approval” as onlookers shouted, “We are free! Thank you, President Bush!” According to Collier, the original version was considerably more tempered.

“That was the one case in my time in Iraq when I can clearly say there was editorial interference in my work,” he said recently. “They threw in a lot of triumphalism. I was told by my editor that I had screwed up and had not seen the importance of the historical event. They took out quite a few of my qualifiers.”

Maass notes that one study by scholars found that Fox News replayed the image of the statue’s fall an average of every 4.4 minutes. CNN averaged once every 7.5 minutes.

Perhaps the worst consequence of this coverage was that it created the illusion of victory, followed by a precipitous drop-off in news coverage of a war that was already evolving into an insurgency. This reminded me of the famous photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima; that iconic photo left the public back home with the sense that the battle was won. In fact, the vicious fighting on Iwo Jima continued for another month. Our battle in Iraq continued for the remainder of a decade.

Such consequences were not the worry of the Bush Administration, however. While they may not have facilitated the toppling in Firdos Square, it jumped on the opportunity supplied to them by a credulous press by issuing statements tied to the moment. And when one U.S. soldier draped the Stars and Stripes over Saddam’s face, the Pentagon immediately sent orders for it to be taken down.

Back in the United States at that time, any hint of critical thinking in news coverage was likely to be blasted by conservative pundits and activists as another example of liberal bias by a press determined to undermine the U.S. combat effort. The story of Firdos Square paints an entirely different picture, that of a press caught up in the moment and failing to do its job — tell the truth.

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To speak with a prophetic voice, to challenge your neighbors with uncomfortable, unpopular truths — one can do that while preserving the dignity of the other.

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood that. He did not need to demonize others, but his civility neither muted his passion nor rendered his words bland.

As Marybeth Gasman notes, for King it was imperative to speak against injustice. Silence was not, and is not, an option, he said:

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

May we honor King not just by remembering his words but also by responding to the challenge his life poses to our own.

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