Successfully Strange

It was a strange event to be sure.  Successfully strange.  As I stated in my last post, the ONE interns organized an film screening and happy hour event at the Pour House bar in Washington, D.C. that occurred last night.  It also coincided with my last day of work at ONE, a happy coincidence, ending my time on a high note.  The evening transpired without a hitch: interns from Capitol Hill, and from around D.C. poured into the bar, enjoyed the complimentary food and drinks, networked, listened to a brief speech, watched a short documentary, and went home.  Several ONE staff members commented that it was the best and most well attended event that ONE has held in DC for as long as they could remember, and we commemorated our success at the end of the evening with a group picture and a toast.  Good clean American fun. To anyone in attendance, it was a success.  To the ONE staff, it was a success.  Not only was it enjoyable, we generated over 200 new ONE members and signed up more than 15 students to take ONE’s message of advocacy and action back to their college campuses to start new ONE chapters.  But it was, as I have mentioned, strange.

Two particular aspects of the event struck me as strange.  On a macro level, the concept behind the event was slightly bizarre.  From 5:30 to 7 p.m., interns from all over DC enjoyed appetizers such as macaroni and cheese and crab dip and beverages ranging from Shirley Temples to white wine.  We lounged in cushy leather chairs, socialized, and listened to a playlist with crowd pleasers such as Don’t Stop Believin’.  Promptly at 7, ONE’s CEO David Lane engaged with crowd with a brief speech about the mission of ONE and some statistics about the gravity of the situation in Africa.  Though less light hearted than the hour and a half drinking and talking, the speech was jovial and pleasant.  Right after David finished speaking, all the screens in the bar began to play the Lazarus Effect.  Talk about sobering.  The atmosphere of the night turned a virtual 180 degrees in the opposite direction, from light hearted chatter to serious discussion of HIV/AIDS and lack of access to medication in Africa.  Without even looking, I could feel a certain intensity and discomfort settle over the crowd.  Some people walked briskly for the door, while others set down their drinks and watched Zambian men and women discuss their decent into the bed ridden hell provoked by AIDS.  Though the documentary ends on a hopeful note and demonstrates the life giving power of antiretrovirals, the abruptness of the change in atmosphere lingered over the crowd throughout the film’s duration.  In retrospect, it seems as if the night was set up to ease viewers into the film.  It is strange how the suffering of others was juxtaposed against a lighthearted atmosphere, as if the later somehow lessens the first, or at least makes it bearable.

The second element of strangeness occurred at the micro level, as the event was coming to a close.  After the film, one of my fellow interns stood up on a table with a microphone to convey a brief anecdote about his experience as a ONE volunteer, and to relay information about starting a ONE chapter on a college campus.  Right at the beginning of his speech, the televisions that once played a heart-wrenching documentary returned to their usual station, ESPN.  The ESPN announcer’s voice clamored over that of my friend and fellow intern, making it impossible to hear what he was saying.  Instead of hearing a message of advocacy and action, the crowd was informed of Brett Favre’s indecision concerning his retirement. This news, given Brett’s history of indecision, was not so shocking.  What was shocking to me was that the announcer’s message was literally drowning a message of hope and action in a sea of tiresome gossip.  It is strange how often cultural snafus overshadow our attention to more serious issues, such as extreme poverty and suffering.

That being said, the event was largely successful.  For an advocacy organization like ONE, the addition of 200 new members is no small accomplishment.  However, it also illustrated the strangeness of the way that humans attempt to cope with uncomfortable issues, such as the suffering of others.  Christians and non-Christians are equally guilty of letting gossip divert our attentions elsewhere, and of making human suffering as comfortable as possible.  My best friend Courtney Quiros, recently wrote a letter in the Daily Princetonian to this effect, claiming, “The God of the Christian tradition does not explain to us why there is suffering. Part of suffering’s horror is its very unintelligibility. Our attempts to give it reasonableness often end up looking trite, simplistic, or chillingly insensitive.” Our unintelligible response to suffering is generally to make ourselves feel more comfortable, which often comes across as painfully insensitive.  It also can manifest itself, like it did last night, as a message of suffering mitigated by an atmosphere of pleasantries.

Again, my point is not to downplay the effectiveness of the event last night in terms of awareness raising and membership acquisition.  Overall, my time at ONE has been extremely enjoyable and full of events with similar processes and outcomes.  I feel privileged to have been surrounded by so many individuals who work tirelessly to advocate on behalf of those with HIV/AIDS and other preventable diseases.   But as Christian, I must ask myself, and anyone else who claims the same: Are our attempts to respond to suffering sullied by our need for comfort? What can we do to be more proactive and less insensitive? How do we address this strangeness?

I want to close with the intention of addressing these lingering questions more adequately in my final Lived Theology paper, and with the promise that I, as a Christian, will cease to pursue comfort, but rather solutions to the many causes of suffering.

Free Food with a Side of Social Justice

On the desktop of my computer, I have an iconic picture of Martin Luther King meeting with President Lyndon Johnson in the oval office in 1963.  Dr. King is gesticulating emphatically and leaning forward, as in an attempt to imbue Johnson with his passions, and President Johnson, who looks thoroughly bored and unresponsive, is slumped over in his leather chair resting a hand against his surly face.  I love this picture.  It is a great reminder to approach even the most mundane tasks and seemingly disinterested people with an infectious fervor.  Today, I felt a bit like Dr. King must have felt during this meeting with President Johnson, though to a much less significant degree, given that I am not the figurehead of an entire movement to override pervasive racially based injustice.  However, I am a small part of a movement to combat injustice in the form of poverty and preventable disease, and today, my task, along with ONE’s nine other interns, was to venture over to Capitol Hill and distribute tickets for an event we (the interns) planned this coming Thursday specifically targeted at D.C. interns working in NGOs, and also in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  As mandated by the Gettysburg Address, it will be by the interns, for the interns.

Specifically, this event will be a screening of the Lazarus Effect, the documentary about the life giving antiretroviral medicine that individuals with HIV/AIDS depend on for survival, and a happy hour, which I guess some would depend on for survival during the work week.  Really, the purpose of the happy hour is to incentivize those who would otherwise be disinterested, to come and learn about advocacy work on behalf of those who live in poverty and suffer from preventable disease.  It is strange to think that there would need to be an incentive, or that people would be disinterested in learning about potential avenues to overcoming extreme poverty and preventable disease, but it is difficult to actively engage with the lives of others so far away when we have our own issues and concerns.  Nonetheless, during my time at the Senate and the House, I encountered some pretty disinterested people, and found out that the incentive really is important.  This became apparent when I walked into an office on the Third floor of the Rayburn building of the House and attempted to describe our event with as much energy and fervor as I could muster after the 55 offices I had already visited.  The girl I spoke with, who was also an intern, stared blankly at me as I tried to gesticulate and smile enough to overcome her indifference, but not enough to scare her.  In the end, the only thing she responded to was the happy hour.  I told her that the event was going to be held at the Pour House, a local bar, and she said, “Oh, really? Now you have my attention.”  The only thing that kept me from taking her ticket and ripping it to pieces in front of her was the picture of Martin Luther King, and his commitment to agape love.

This interaction reminded me of a book I just finished called Church, State and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement by Sandra Joireman.  In a particularly informative section entitled, “Reformed…and Always Reforming?” Joireman asks the question, “From what source should Christians be drawing their understanding of justice?”  For King, the source of justice was a deep understanding of agape love, and also a deep understanding of sin.  For the girl on the third floor of the House, it seemed to be the circumstantial correlation between free food, reduced price beer and extreme poverty.  While I have no way of knowing her particular religious affiliations (if any), it is interesting to examine the ways in which different denominations of Christianity understand justice, and how that understanding plays out in the public sphere.

Joireman begins this discourse with the Catholic tradition, pointing most significantly to their focus on the common good as the basic source of justice.  In fact, the entirety of the Catholic social doctrine is premised on the idea of the common good as trumping all human institutions that have nationalistic, even, at times, democratic, inclinations.  Therefore, the role of the state is to promote the (transnational) common good through “global solidarity and a preferential love for the poor” (Joireman, pg. 18), even if that results, like it did in Italy, in fascism.  Catholicism assumes a top down role for both the state and the church, which are two separate entities, but are both meant to promote and protect the common good.  However, since the church is presumed to be morally superior to the state, the church assumes a greater responsibility to impose Christian discipline on its citizenry, and is far more capable of determining the common good.  In my simplistic understanding, the main source of justice is utilitarian, that which optimizes the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, and is manifested publicly through a state that focuses on transnational interests, social welfare, and the promotion of Catholicism.

Moving on to the Calvinist, or Reformed Christian tradition, which emphasizes human sinfulness and reform of the whole society.  The glaring difference between the way in which Catholicism and Calvinism approaches an understanding to justice is the difference between the source, the first of which is premised on the common good, and the second on which is premised on human sinfulness.  In the Calvinist tradition, sin is placed “where it belongs, as a warping of what God made good” (Joireman, pg. 57).  The Catholic tradition assumes top down reform enacted separately by church and by state, both operating under the direction of the common good.  The Calvinist tradition enacts reform for the common good, but under the assumption that humans are irrevocably sinful.  Therefore, sin runs throughout all of society, and isn’t sequestered to just the political realm, but is also present in the realm of the church.  Even when Calvinism is present in a state that separates itself from the church, the two are inevitably linked by sin.  The state has a more limited role in enacting the common good and imposing Christian values on its citizenry, because it is presumed that they are equally capable of sin. It is common grace that comes only from God, not common goodness, which compels Calvinists to actively participate in reform in all spheres of life.  The main source of justice, or rather, injustice, seems to be human sinfulness, and is manifested public through efforts to reform all spheres of life, church and state included.

The last tradition I want to examine is that of Evangelicalism, which is premised on both top down and bottom up reform, and on a strong conception of religion as personal.  Unlike Catholicism, for Evangelicals, the state has no role in promoting true religion, because that action would undermine any religious truth.  Furthermore, sin doesn’t seem to be the debilitating affliction for Evangelicals that it is for Calvinists, nor does it seem to be the source of justice.  For Evangelicals, the source of justice can be best understood inside the phrase “soulcraft as stagecraft” (Joireman, pg. 137).  Fundamentally, Christians act as the moral conscience of the state, and can provoke both top down and bottom up reforms toward a more just state.  As Joireman says, “moral men can make decent and just states” (Joireman, pg. 137).  Under this premise, the primary role of the state is to defend the rights of the poor and the downtrodden, not promote true religion or cripple under the weight of sin.

Perhaps Martin Luther King said it best when he claimed, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority” (Strength to Love, 1963).  I would hope that if I was asked to attend an event where I could promote justice by helping to recapture the zeal of the church without undermining the critical functions of the state that protect the interests of the downtrodden, it wouldn’t take free food and drink to incentivize me to go.

The New Beer Summit and a Game of Hearts

During Bono’s infamous 2006 Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, he remarked, “I was cynical… not about God, but about God’s politics.” Several images speed through my mind when I reflect on this comment, the first being God sitting at a roundtable having a beer with Barack Obama and George W. Bush.  I also picture Henry Louis Gates and his policeman friends knocking at heaven’s door looking for the “beer summit,” and being redirected toward the White House by President Obama, who promises to join them shortly.  After Gates and company leave, I hear God initiating a dialogue between the incumbent and former presidents, booming, “Listen guys, can’t we all just be friends?”  Maybe that sounds more like something Santa Claus would say (admittedly, in my mind, God has a big white beard too), but to me, God’s politics are pretty simple: Love your neighbor as yourself, and love your enemy. That said, I believe God to be a-political.  If His message is love thy neighbor as thyself and everyone were to do just that, honesty would actually be the best policy, love would easily triumph over hatred, and politics, as we know it, would cease to exist.  However, like Bono, I am cynical about the Christo-political melting pot that has been simmering in America for well over a century.  So a more appropriate version of God’s question might be, “Has religion in America really been reduced to a political weapon wielded by those seeking to establish clear boundaries between political lines and to create ideological enemies?”  Many people would contest the notion that George Bush and Barack Obama, and for that matter, conservatives and liberals, are enemies, instead arguing that heated debate is a necessary and natural part of the democratic process.  This may be true, but the only reason that Obama and Bush are seated at my fictitious roundtable in the first place is to engage God’s question in a heated debate to prove the role religion plays in preventing friendly bi-partisan relationships in politics.

As I have said before, ONE is primarily an advocacy organization, meaning that changed is achieved by holding world leaders accountable for the commitments they have made to fight extreme poverty, campaigning for better development policies, and for more effective aid and trade reform.  ONE staff and members engage in politics everyday through advocacy, so politics are invariably tied to ONE’s effectiveness.  And as I have also mentioned, my role at ONE is primarily advocacy in the faith relations department, where I am asking church leaders and members to engage with these same politicians.  Therefore, I have become extremely interested in the particular ways that faith and politics interact.  I have also learned that there is an inseparable, and often times, tense bond between religion and politics that extends throughout American political history and holds firm today.

Historically speaking, the Right in America has held tight to its useful monopoly on the language of faith to propel its political agenda and to garner support from religiously minded constituents.  Many politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan, have used the language of faith to mobilize a group that has been termed “the religious right” to advance a variety of political causes such as pro-life, pro-equality, and even pro-rich.  The Left hasn’t fared any better, largely ignoring the undeniable connection between faith and politics by continually separating moral discourse and personal ethics from public policy, and by isolating pro-life, categorically religious voters. As Jim Wallis puts it in his book, God’s Politics, “While the Right argues that God’s way is their way, the Left pursues an unrealistic separation of religious values from morally grounded political leadership. The consequence is a false choice between ideological religion and soulless politics.”

Two Blue Moons later (in passage of time and type of beers consumed), it seems that the only thing President Obama and former President Bush can agree on is the usefulness of religion in garnering political support.  In fact, both men admit to using religion as a means to attract a very particular contingency of voters that have traditionally aligned with the more conservative candidate.  During his campaign in 2004, former President Bush made a statement to an Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, claiming, “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.”  Actual job performance and sincerity of belief aside, Bush was appealing directly to religiously minded constituents, connecting his ability to do his job with a belief in God.  Similarly, in an interview withChristianity Today prior to his democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama confessed, “Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.”  In that same interview, he also pointed to the moral repugnancy of using religion as a political weapon and denounced those who would play the Machiavelli card.  But given the historical connection between religious views and voting tendencies, it does not seem strategically sound to deny the use of religion to gather support, particularly in swing states.  And history seems to align with Jim Wallis’s argument that calls the separation between religion and politics “unrealistic.”

This subject hits close to home, particularly now that I am trying to gather support for ONE by mobilizing faith inspired congregations to take action on behalf on ONE’s political goals.  So in a sense, I am also guilty of perpetuating the use of religion to yield political results.  I am part of a project that has the expressed goal of asking a variety of different faith congregations to get involved in politics in an attempt to secure a hefty Global Fund replenishment.  Again, the Global Fund is an effective mechanism for giving aid to those living with HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis worldwide, the continued success of which depends on pledges from world governments, particularly the United States.  While I am not trying to win votes, I am encouraging faith inspired individuals to take political action by writing letters to their local representatives concerning the urgency of the situation in developing nations: AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria patients are dying every day because of lack of access to treatment.  In light of this realization, is it really morally repugnant to reach out to people who are already attuned to the message of social justice and humanitarian action to gain a strategic advantage?

To clarify this question, I would like to introduce another figure to my fictitious roundtable: the former Anglican Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu.  Today, July 21, 2010, the New York Times published an article written by Tutu himself, imploring President Obama to reconsider his pledge to help individuals with HIV/AIDS in Africa.  While Tutu speaks to the number of individuals whose lives have been spared thanks to aid programs like the Global Fund and Pepfar (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), the most interesting thing about the article is its pointed focus on the contrast between funding provided during the Bush Administration and the pledge made by the Obama administration.  Mr. Tutu points out that during the Bush Administration, about 400,000 Africans received treatment every year, and that President Obama’s current strategy would reduce that number to about 320,000.  This seems counterintuitive, given that democrats are much more likely to support aid for overseas development.  But even more than that, here is one of the most influential clergy members of all time leveraging the inherent conflict between Bush and Obama, and therefore, between conservative and liberal efforts, to [hopefully] push President Obama to reconsider his rather meager pledge to fight preventable disease in Africa.  At this point, Mr. Bush looks up from his game of hearts (or is it spades?) across the table at the former archbishop Tutu with a distinct smirk, and President Obama looks rather put out.  Mr. Tutu exchanges a cursory smile with God, and then all four return to their card game, which comes closer to resembling Hearts the longer I observe.

Through my observation of a very interesting and dynamic roundtable discussion, I have learned that religion is not a weapon, but it can be a useful tool.  A weapon is used to shed blood, but a tool is used to build and construct.  Given the inherent and undeniable connection between religion and politics, it actually makes sense to encourage faith minded individuals to take action on behalf of humanitarian goals, even those proffered by the government.  Religion should NOT, however, be used by politicians to manipulate voters and to divide constituents along distinctive partisan lines, nor should it be the deciding factor when voters determine their political affiliations.  Contrary to popular belief, a person can be a Christianand a democrat.  I am not so naïve as to think ingrained social and political dynamics will change overnight, or that there are certain aspects of party affiliation that incline religiously minded voters to associate themselves with one party and not the other, such as views on abortion.   But if religion and politics could learn to co-exist, we might all be a little less cynical.

And by the way, God won the game of Hearts, in case anyone was curious.

From Grief to Action

If I asked anyone that considers themselves a Christian, no matter what denomination, what they thought the most unanswerable and difficult question in the Christian faith was, I would bet that nine out of ten people would answer: “Why do good people suffer?” or some variation of that concept.  Similarly, if I asked anyone of faith what the mostly commonly asked question was, both among people who are already believers and people who are inquisitive about Christianity, the poll would probably reveal suffering as the theme of the question.  Suffering is one of the most widely debated and least understood topics within the Christian faith, and the source of many chasms within the church.  The same holds true for an individual’s relationship with God.  For a nonbeliever, or for someone who is considering becoming a Christian, suffering can be a reason to initiate a relationship with God, or it can be the reason to believe God does not exist.  For a believer, suffering can strengthen one’s relationship with God, or it can drive one to believe that God is a calloused, transcendent being who takes no interest in our daily lives or our happiness.  Believer or not, if we are honest with ourselves, suffering generally damages the status of our relationship with God, because a) it is extremely difficult to find joy in suffering, and b) humans, particularly Christians, tend to frame discussions about suffering in a very cynical and antagonistic manner.  Here’s a look at some typical Christian explanations for human suffering, and varying reactions:

  • Free Will: God created humanity with free will; therefore we are free to rebel against God if we choose. Since we are told in Romans that God’s will is perfect, anything contrary to his will is imperfect and evil.  Suffering is the result of making evil choices inside of free will.  On the other hand, free will is perhaps the easiest way to dismiss the existence of God and to deny his presence in our lives.  Most likely, we will blame God for allowing suffering, rather than taking responsibility for our own sinful nature.
  • God has a greater plan: If God is truly omnipotent, as Christians believe, than he is capable of using suffering as part of a greater, eternal plan.  Human suffering can carry greater significance for our lives beyond what is readily and immediately apparent.   Alternatively, we can choose to narrow our focus to the present, and become extremely cynical about how and why God uses suffering.
  • For discipline, instruction and glory: God can (and did, as is evidenced by Sodom and Gomorrah) use suffering to teach his followers a lesson about rebellion.  We can subsequently, during and after suffering, proclaim God’s glory and continue to follow his instruction.  However, we will generally ignore any lessons God may be trying to teach us and use suffering as an excuse to curse God and harden our hearts.

It seems that our individual reaction to suffering largely depends on three factors: whether or not we are able view suffering in the long term context of faith, our own perception of God (whether or not we believe he interacts with the world), and the degree of our suffering.  Given that these factors seem to determine individual reactions to suffering, do they also determine our reactions to the suffering of others? Furthermore, do Christians tend to view the suffering of others with the same antagonistic cynicism that we view our own?

Not really.  When it comes to ourselves, the longer we have felt the effects of a ‘greater degree’ of suffering, the more likely we are to become cynical about God and his presence in our lives and react dismissively.  However, when it comes to others (with the exception of Pat Robertson), when we observe the long terms oppression of an individual or group that has suffered to a great degree, we tend to react, at least initially, with a great deal of sympathy and compassion.  We may be frustrated with God for not appearing to have a strong presence in the lives of those people, but we aren’t cynical so much as we are eager for God to make his presence known.  This was my initial assumption in constructing an Action Guide for my major project at ONE entitled: The One Sabbath “Action Guide.”

In collaboration with Joel Griffith, a student from Fuller Seminary (who did the majority of the theological inference and writing… he is fantastic!) and fellow intern traveler, we produced an action (note: NOT study) guide to mobilize various faith congregations to take action around the movie TheLazarus Effect on behalf of ONE.  The choice of the word ‘action’, rather than ‘study’, describes our intention in producing such a guide, namely, that faith motivated congregations, who tend to be sympathetic, will convert feelings of sympathy into tangible actions that will provide relief to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.  Since ONE is primarily an advocacy organization, our suggested action will be signing up members and asking that they subsequently write a letter to their local congressman, or sign a petition to ask our government leaders to replenish the Global Fund, which provides grants to low GNP countries to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

Joel and I focused the action guide for Christian congregations around two sources: The Lazarus Effect documentary and John 11, the passage in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  The connection between the title of the film and the John 11 passage is obvious, but we wanted to do more than exegete scriptural implications from the film; we wanted to inspire action. Interestingly, we identified the first step toward action as grief.  Often times, we are quick to bypass grief because sympathy is a more natural reaction when dealing with individuals or groups that we aren’t intimately familiar with.  We are also quick to want to take action on behalf of others thinking that we, as privileged Americans, know best, but never take the time to fully understand their situation.  But when one observes Jesus’ reaction to hearing of Lazarus’ death in John 11, the first step toward action is clear. It comes from John 11:35, the shortest sentence in the whole Bible.  “Jesus wept.” Before taking action, Jesus simply weeps for Lazarus.  We are also told that Jesus loved Lazarus several times throughout John 11, and in tandem with his initial reaction of grief.  The first step toward action is grief, because sometimes, as Constance, a woman in the Lazarus Effect points out, “the grief is too much” to deal with on your own.  It is also an effective and meaningful way to demonstrate love, because people with HIV/AIDS are not accustomed to love, but to scorn and ostracism.

The second step is action.  John 11 connects nicely with ONE’s focus on advocacy, because just as individuals with HIV/AIDS have advocates in organizations like ONE, Lazarus had advocates in Mary and Martha.  They explain to Jesus that, had he been by Lazarus’ bedside earlier, Lazarus could have perhaps been saved.  Of course, Jesus was getting ready to perform an even greater miracle, so the advocating Mary and Martha did was limited to human understanding and ability (i.e. most of us can’t raise people from the dead…weird).  However, they were ready to speak to Jesus, someone in a position of ability, on behalf of Lazarus, just as we should be ready to speak to those positioned in the government to enact change on behalf of those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.  To put it more clearly than I ever could myself, I will borrow the words of Princess Kasune Zulu, a mother, author and Zambian AIDS activist (not to mention ONE supporter), who said, “By lifting our voice for the voiceless…we become the essence of our faith.”

Anna Gilbert Concert

Occasionally, ONE sponsors established artists to play concerts to raise awareness and to sign up new members.  The list of established artists could include Chris Daughtry, Switchfoot, and U2, conveniently led by front man Bono, a co-founder of ONE.  In fact, Bono is rumored to occasionally drop by the Washington, D.C. office to meet with David Lane, ONE’s CEO, and is even more rarely introduced to lowly interns such as myself.  The chances of this are probably one in a million (think Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re saying there’s a chance?!”), however, Bono recently had back surgery and is on bed rest in Ireland, so I guess my 15 minutes will have to occur at some unspecified time in the future.  Half past never sounds good/probable.

That being said, ONE also sponsors emerging artists, who may have a small, yet dedicated fan base who can hopefully be persuaded (see: coerced) into signing up for ONE membership, or inspired (see: coerced) to action.  Actually, coercion isn’t really necessary to raise awareness.  The difficulty lies in inspiring individuals to take action.  This past week, I was asked to help schedule a concert that would bring Anna Gilbert, an emerging artist from Portland, Oregon, to D.C. to play an awareness (and hopefully action) raising concert for free.  ONE paid for her travel expenses, but she played the show for free, and on less than 4 hours of sleep, so it could be argued she did play for a price: 6 cups of coffee to stay awake X $2.50 per cup=$15 dollars and extreme jet lag.  And let me say, if anyone’s music could inspire people, particularly Christians, to take action, it would be Anna’s.  She has a beautiful voice, complimented by inspirational lyrics and three very attractive men to play bass, drums, and electric guitar.  She has so far recorded three albums, the third being the most musically diverse and upbeat.

One of my favorite songs was called, “Nobody Told You.” The lyrics read, “Sometimes harder is much better, sometimes pains the remedy, and when you think you’re getting weaker, find strength in peace.  It’s ok to bleed, it’s ok to cry, it’s ok to ask why, its ok to wonder sit in silence have no answers, cause when the morning brings the day, there will be another way to try again.”  To me, these lyrics were a reminder of something that we all tend to forget: the importance of silence in determining the right course of action.  Too often, alone time is sacrificed to a hectic day, and action is taken before the ‘why’ is actually determined.  Dietrich Bonheoffer acknowledged this tendency, writing, “The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community. Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community. One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech.” The right silence can produce right community.  This seems paradoxical, especially when you imagine a community together in an auditorium trying to plan an action that will serve to better others, and no one is speaking. But this isn’t the awkward silence generated by a bad blind date.  It is an inner reflection that generates a decisive and effective community.  In this case, silence is golden.

Mentally Overcoming the Holistic Nature of Poverty: The ONE Focus

The last problem I mentioned, that is, the tendency to be overwhelmed by the holistic nature of poverty, can lead to inaction and an apparently lackadaisical attitude.  This is issue is one of compartmentalization, where an individual is unable to focus their attention on just one aspect of poverty.  When I first arrived at ONE, I was simultaneously excited and overwhelmed by the vision of the organization, which at first glance seemed to be ‘end poverty.’  ONE presents its volunteers, employees and the general public with an extremely holistic vision–the elimination of extreme poverty and preventable disease–that would overwhelm the operating capacity of the organization if ONE didn’t compartmentalize itself.  While organizations need to look at extreme poverty as a comprehensive problem that affects all aspects of life, (education, health, housing, policy, socio-economic status, and self-perception), focusing organizational resources on particular aspects of development ensures efficiency and effectiveness.  Despite the overarching vision, which of course represents the ultimate goal, ONE actually focuses its efforts on a particular aspect of development: accountability.

Every year, beginning in 2005, the ONE campaign has issued the DATA Report, which monitors the progress of monetary commitments that several countries made to Africa at the G8 Gleneagles Summit.   The G8 countries include Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union.  The report publicizes the original commitments each country pledged to Official Development Assistance (ODA) in Africa in terms of percent of Gross National Income (GNI) and projects the percentage of that commitment each country will have actually given to Africa by the end of 2010, when the commitments are due.  The overarching purpose of this report is, of course, to hold countries accountable to their commitments and to make recommendations for commitments to be made in the future, particularly at the upcoming G8/20 Summit in Ontario, Canada from June 25-27, 2010, and at the United Nations Summit in September, 2010 to review the Millennium Development Goals.  For example, between 2004 and 2009, the United States promised to give $3.784 billion in ODA to Africa, which represents a modest portion of GNI.  The DATA Report Estimates that by the end of 2010, the United States will have given 158% of their commitment, or $5.384 billion in real dollar amount.  The report then recommends that the United States set a more ambitious target as part of a comprehensive national strategy on global development.  On the other hand, Italy set an extremely ambitious target, committing 0.51% of its GNI to ODA by 2010. The report projects that Italy will not only fail to meet that target, but will also renege on their original commitment, decreasing ODA by $235 million to -6%.  As the report highlights, for ONE, and for donor and African countries, accountability is a key component of global development.  Existing and donor commitments must be tracked to maximize transparency, results orientation and clarity, while African leaders must be held accountable to their citizenry with regard to public promises concerning improvements in health, education and agriculture, which have thus far been only partially kept.

I had the privilege today of attending a conference held in D.C. regarding the ONE DATA Report, led by the CEO of ONE, David Lane (who is also a UVA grad, WAHOOWA!), former President Bush’s Chief of Staff, Joshua Bolten, and the head of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Pearl-Alice Marsh.  All three leaders commented on the need for increased accountability and transparency among both donor and African countries.  Mr. Lane also described the “Bono moment,” which references the moment the co-founder of ONE and lead singer of U2  realized that greater acknowledgement of African policy is a key part of the development process.  On a political level, this calls for G8 countries to support good policy coming from African governments, rather than imposing G8 crafted policies on African countries, or treating Africa like a basket case in need of western salvation.  Mrs. Marsh also commented on the need to reinforce good policy, and challenged the audience to consider this process atechnical issue, rather than a moral one.

This statement is concise and profound, especially from a theological perspective.  When I heard Mrs. Marsh’s challenge, my initial thoughts revolved around the simplicity of the statement, even to the point where I heard myself whisper, “obviously” to my co-worker sitting next to me.  But upon reflection, it hasn’t always been obvious to Western governments that policy making is a collaborative and intricate process that needs to occur alongside African countries, rather than apart from them.  The U.S. Farm Bill of 2002, which directed approximately $16.5 billion dollars toward American agricultural subsidies per year, is a perfect example of policy created in the West designed to provide aid to Africa that ended up devastating individual country’s economic and agricultural progress.  Likewise, it wasn’t always obvious to Western individuals that African individuals are just as moral (or alternatively, prone to sin) as they are.  Let’s not forget that for 300 years, westerners considered slavery an acceptable and moral institution, justifiable by the fact the African individuals were treated as biologically and morally inferior, and therefore deserving of forced enslavement.  If, as a Christian, my initial response to Mrs. Marsh’s profound statement is “Obviously,” then I obviously have some mental adjustments to make.  How many times a day do Christians judge people based on a false sense of moral superiority, and then retreat to an insular Christian community to stew in cultivated suppositions?  For many Christians, these judgments have become second nature and are made unconsciously.  But in order to participate in the world, as we have been biblically instructed to do, we must refrain from judgment and acknowledge the collective sinfulness of humanity.  Far too often, in an effort to live in the world, but not of it, we cultivate a sense of piety and retreat to what is comfortable.  But when one examines scripture, particularly Romans 12:2, there is a clear call to participate in the world.  In Romans, Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  A renewed mind means an agreement to love one’s neighbors and enemies equally, and is not a command to form exclusive Christian communities.  In order to test and approve God’s will, we must hold ourselves accountable to our mental iniquities, which will hopefully translate into an action oriented accountability and participation in the regeneration of the global community.

For a full PDF of the DATA Report, please visit:

LOVE in Song

This new Switchfoot video, inspired by John Perkins, the great civil rights leader, was sent over the ONE email list serve today…

I have heard that Lived Theology’s very own Charles Marsh connected Switchfoot with John Perkins to collaborate on this video. Furthermore, the Switchfoot band members also happen to be very big ONE supporters.  So in honor of the world getting smaller and more aware of justice because of all these fantastic connections, I have decided to do a post about modern depictions of love in song.  Specifically, I’m going to look at how popular music, while catchy and endlessly entertaining, has perverted the biblical meaning of love.  Walker Percy, in his novel The Last Gentleman,questioned countercultural sentiments of love, arguing, “Make love not war? I’ll take war rather than what this age calls love.” How did we go so wrong?

Let me begin with “Love Story” by Taylor Swift.  I may make many people, most of them 15 year old girls and college age fraternity guys, angry with this criticism.  And by the way, I am not saying I don’t like this song–I do. It’s catchy, and is exactly what every girl dreams of when it comes to love. I mean, read the lyrics and tell me this isn’t fairytale perfection. “Romeo take me somewhere we can be alone; I’ll be waiting all there’s left to do is run; You’ll be the prince, I’ll be the princess; It’s a love story, baby just say yes.”  Wow. Yes, yes, I say YES.

Unfortunately, this is a highly inaccurate picture of love.  I’m no expert, but love isn’t supposed to be easy, and there is much more to it than just saying yes (although that helps).

Moving on to “What is love?” by Haddaway.  This 80s classic should make you think of Will Ferrell and Chris Katan wearing ugly fluorescent suits and bobbing their heads simultaneously side to side in a van.  The lyrics to this one aren’t so much complex.  It goes, “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.” If the only definition of love is that no one gets hurt, than I would say that this is almost as unrealistic as the fairytale brought to us by T-Swift.  I know it’s just a four-minute song, but this is a really limited portrayal of love.

Next up is “Love in this Club” by Usher.  If possible, the chorus to this song is even less creative and even catchier than the Haddaway classic.  It goes, “I wanna make love in this club, yea; make love in this club, yea, in this club.”  Ok, I have to admit, I like this song. In fact, I have spent many long car rides blasting this song in an effort to stay awake or entertain myself for 6 hours.  Basically, this song equates love to sex.  For Usher, and most of the pop culture world, love is drinking one too many cosmos, finding someone random in a club and taking them home.  This depiction is neither a fairytale, nor is it any way to form a solid relationship.  This is the kind of love that Percy was criticizing when he said that he would rather take war over the contemporary understanding of love as sex, and I happen to agree.

Finally, we have Love is a Battlefield by Pat Benatar.  This song comes the closest to an accurate depiction of love yet.  The lyrics suggest that love is a fight, and we have to accept heartache, because it’s just as much a part of life as love.  “We are young, heartache to heartache we stand; No promises, no demands; Love is a battlefield.”  Right on.  But there is one thing that bothers me.  No promises? No demands? Love is a promise and a demand, theological context or not.  In fact, a marital relationship is a promise to love your spouse until death, no matter what.  This is accompanied by certain demands, like sharing of the remote control for the TV, communicating issues, and nurturing children.  From a biblical perspective, God promises to love us unconditionally, and commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  Almost Pat, almost.

Ultimately, I prefer love as Switchfoot and John Perkins see it.  And my agreement with Walker Percy is even more emphatic if he imagined war as Perkins does.  The theme of the Switchfoot video is “Love is the Final Fight” in the context of globalization.  The introduction to the video features John Perkins saying, “we wanna make a United States, and there will be people from every nation under God would have liberty and freedom for all.”  This message is amazingly similar to the publicly projected message of ONE, which seeks freedom from extreme poverty for all suffering individuals, particularly those in Africa.  ONE wants individuals in Africa to enjoy the same freedoms and liberties that Americans enjoy and take for granted on a daily basis.  The best way I can think of to characterize the fight for freedom from oppression is LOVE. And if love is the final fight, then we are currently engaged in the battle of our lives-and I’m anticipating that love will prevail.

The Lazarus Effect: Bringing the Dead Back to Life

In Revelation, believers are promised new life in the passage of the first earth, where God will dwell among men, and there will be no more pain and suffering.  Alternatively, if we choose not to believe and pursue desires of the flesh, we are ensured a “second death.”

Revelation 21 reads:

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

6He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

At ONE, the ultimate goal is to facilitate a second life. As mentioned before, there are many dimensions of poverty, and thus, many different components that need to be addressed in order to restore life.  One such component, that is quite literally killing millions of Africans, is lack of access and affordability of medication to treat HIV positive individuals.  Currently, ONE is working on a campaign to raise awareness and support from Congress for continued funding of GAVI, which provides ARV’s to HIV positive individuals in Africa to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child.  The tagline of the campaign is concise and powerful: “No child born with HIV by 2015”. Without ARV’s, HIV positive individuals are practically the living dead, unable to perform daily tasks such as walking to the market for food, without feeling weak.  Many are confined to their beds, and wait for death.  However, with consistent ARV treatment, these individuals get a second chance at life. This process has come to be known at ONE as the Lazarus Effect, coined by Spike Jonze in his moving documentary about Antiretroviral (ARV) administration in Africa, particularly in the country of Zambia.  Just as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, ARV’s raise individuals from a state living death to a place where they can function normally without pain and weakness.  In the Lazarus Effect documentary, a woman named Concillia, described the experience of finally getting access to ARVs as being “resurrected”.

Upon watching the Lazarus Effect, it occurred to me that there is a complex dimension to hope in the ‘new life’ described in Revelation, that presents a unique opportunity for Christianity, and for Christians.  Many individuals with HIV know what it feels like to be alive, but not really living.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if these individuals were presented with a second life, through the widespread distribution of ARV’s and the gospel? It seems the promise of Revelation, life in death, would carry particular significance for people who have experienced near death in life.  It would also seem that Christians, who posses clear directives from the gospel, should take responsibility and ownership for the distribution of ARV’s as a source of life for a hurting community.

My role at ONE thus far has been to work on ONE Sabbath, a campaign that encourages faith based communities to take responsibility for facilitating a second life.  This campaign is still in the planning stages, but so far, the Faith Relations team has concluded that the most effective way to simultaneously promote awareness and trigger action based responses would be to show the Lazarus Effect Documentary to a variety of inter-faith congregations (the awareness) and then encourage the action based response of letter writing to district congressmen (the action) asking for continued support for ODA (Overseas Development Assistance).  But more to come on that subject…once the plan has progressed past a rough draft.

To watch the Lazarus Effect online, go to:

Happy to Be Apathetic?

I know what everyone is thinking: easier said than done.  ‘Happiness’ is not really just a mouse click and $50 dollar donation to charity away.  After all, the nature of poverty is cyclical, where each contributing factor facilitates and affects others.  For example, take a child living in extreme poverty.  Because she lives in less than sanitary housing conditions and her parents can’t afford to feed her nutritious (if any) food, she is more prone to illness.  And if her parents can afford to transport her to school, she is often too tired or sick to participate. These factors–education, health, housing–all interact and affect one another, making it difficult for the poor to experience upward mobility.  There are also larger structural factors that contribute to poverty, such as corruption within government institutions and a struggling economy.  The concept of poverty is so overwhelmingly complex that just thinking about it is enough to make a person feel depressed and helpless. And when someone in the position to help feels helpless, the tempting attitude is one of apathy, because it is much easier to avoid problems than to solve them, especially when they don’t direct affect one’s own quality of life.  So the real question that anyone in a position to help must ask themselves is:  What is the source of apathy?

In his book, A Hole in our Gospel, Richard Stearns, the current president of World Vision, highlights one major source of apathy for Christians.  As Stearns sees it, Christians have mostly ignored the charge Jesus gives to his believers in the Beatitudes to help the poor and the downtrodden because of the focus on the next life.  Christians see the Beatitudes as a promise to the poor in heaven, rather than an actionable reality that will be ushered in on earth.  Stearns refers to the reduction of the gospel to an eschatological focus as “fire insurance,” in which Christians are covered for the afterlife, and must therefore accept poverty as an uninsurable worldly affliction.  This view facilitates an apathetic approach to evangelism, in which the right words can absolve Christians from the dual responsibility of word and action. John MacArthur noted the disparity between word and action in his observation that, “Hell will be full of people who thought highly of the Sermon on the Mount.  You must do more than that. You must obey it and take action.”  Similarly, St. Francis of Assisi noted, “Preach the gospel always, use words only when necessary.” Both men note that words should be accompanied by action; otherwise, the Sermon on the Mount is just a moral suggestion.

There is perhaps another, more institutionalized source of apathy, noted by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman in their book, Enough, that exists on a global scale and threatens to widen the gap between the rich and the poor.  Kilman and Thurow embarked on a journalistic quest to discover why the poorest people on earth starve when there is actually enough food produced to feed them.  On this quest, they interviewed several Ethiopian farmers, each of whom expressed frustration over the fact that Ethiopian grain couldn’t compete in the market with the price of grain from subsidized farms in the United States.  Since the Ethiopian government can’t afford to subsidize Ethiopian farms, U.S. grain monopolizes Ethiopian markets, causing a surplus of homegrown grain to go to waste.  Changing Americans policies to accommodate the growth of markets in Africa would be admitting that our policies designed to provide food aid to developing nations were actually detrimental to fledgling markets.  Perhaps the United States government appears apathetic to the expressed needs of African farmers because we are either unwilling or embarrassed to take responsibility for faulty policy. The United States is hardly calloused to the idea of foreign aid, but long term growth in developing nations requires a reevaluation of the policy that we impose on other nations, and collaboration with those countries to support organic growth.

So why don’t more people engage the directive given by Jesus in the Beatitudes?  It seems that the answer to this question lays partly in the idea of compartmentalization. Most people in the world aren’t callously apathetic to the idea of poverty, and would consider “the elimination of extreme poverty” a worthwhile cause.  But many of these people, like me, are big picture thinkers, meaning, they are excited by the vision, and can see the desired outcome surrounded by a shimmering, ethereal light at some point in the future, but are too overwhelmed to actually address the issues.  On numerous occasions, I have found myself thinking about what it would be like to live on less than $1 per day, as 1.2 billion people do, and have become too overwhelmed to even think about ways that I could help.  Poverty is such a holistic problem that it is difficult to identify the best and most effective means to help.  There is a poster that hangs in almost every division within the ONE office that quotes Margaret Mead, and reads “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”  This quote speaks straight to big picture thinkers who struggle with the overwhelming number of avenues through which to pursue the fight against extreme poverty and calls them to commitment.  If you commit to a cause, truly put thought into the details of that commitment, and are willing to put long hours into making excel spreadsheets (I speak from experience on that one), apathy will succumb to action.  Let me put it another way: if we succumb to apathy, we are disobeying a clear, biblical directive.

ONE Freedom

I have always admired loners.  You know, those people who hear the inexplicable call of nature and unwittingly follow. They are the people who are entranced by, as the great American author Walker Percy so aptly described, the prospect of “the search.”  They are the individuals who escape from the confines of ‘sick’ and ‘perverted’ society and venture into the ‘real’ world alone, embarking on a quest of self-authentication and discovery at any cost.  They are free.

I am speaking in particular about Chris McCandless, the young man whose life was documented in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild.  McCandless was from Virginia and studied at Emory University, got degrees in both history and anthropology, and then traveled across the country alone in a journey that can only have been motivated by a reckless need for self-authentication and a disdain for an increasingly materialistic society.  This is not a criticism, but praise.  McCandless seemed to have reached an intellectual level surpassing that of the majority of individuals who unconsciously exist in a society without questioning its morals, its values, or its flaws.  He not only questioned society, but ultimately gave his life attempting to exist outside of its loose morals, lackadaisical values, and irreconcilable flaws.  His story has always intrigued me, but until recently, I was intrigued mostly by his recklessness, his critical nature and his thirst for adventure.

In that unique spirit and under the pretense of being a loner, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I recently took a long bike ride alone.  I decided that I would temporarily remove myself from the demands and questionable morality of a society intently focused on consumption to cleanse my spirit and think with the clarity of a free mind.  Truthfully, I was hoping to have some sort of revelatory spiritual experience, and shared this desire with some friends earlier in the day.  While I was riding, I pulled my bike over to the side of a particularly daunting slope, promising myself I would get in better shape for the next ride to avoid having to walk my bike shamefully up hills. While I was catching my breath and nursing my aching quads, I sauntered into an open field and sat down.  Comically, I sat down directly on top of a large, cross-shaped piece of white wood.  As I bent down to pick up the cross shaped wood, I sensed the irony of the situation as I literally picked up my cross in the middle of field after having expressed interest in a spiritual experience just hours before.  At this moment, I sensed another irony.  Though I had temporarily left Charlottesville to be alone and receive whatever revelation God or nature would give me, all I wanted to do was share this experience with my friends, and show them the cut on my leg from the jagged piece of wood.  But there was no one to share with.  I was alone with nature. I was free?

The real freedom in McCandless’ experience is not his break with sick society and his glorified loner status, but in the last discovery he ever made.  This can be observed through the notes he took in the margins of his many books, particularly the last note he ever made before his untimely and tragic death.  In the margin of Tolstoy’s book, Family Happiness, McCandless, wrote “Happiness is only real when shared.”  Despite his attempt to remove himself from an immoral and materialistic society, and his willingness to abandon his relationships with his family members, McCandless’ last and most important realization was that people are meant to exist in relationship, and can achieve “happiness” only when they can share their experiences with others. This has been true since God created Eve to give Adam companionship in the Garden of Eden.  Though McCandless’ story is not a theologically informed one, and happiness is ultimately an elusive and unfulfilling pursuit, the message is clear and true: as human beings, we are meant to participate in community and be in relationship with others for ‘happiness’ to exist as a reality.

This is what initially excited me about the ONE campaign.  Historically, the name ONE refers to the percentage of GNP that countries spend on aid for development, which is less than 1%.  However, the name ONE also suggests a community of purpose.  As a ‘secular’ organization, ONE mobilizes individuals from a variety of different religious backgrounds behind the common purpose of ‘happiness’ as a reality for those suffering from extreme poverty and AIDS in Africa.  To be clear, I am not speaking of the elusive concept of happiness dictated by society, which tells its members that in order to live a fulfilling life, one needs to be rich, thin, intelligent, popular, and English speaking.  Nor am I speaking about happiness as a need to remove one’s self from the numerous I am speaking of happiness in a biblical context, which could be more appropriately named, JOY.  I am also speaking about happiness in the context of development, and human dignity associated with deliverance from extreme poverty, the overarching goal of ONE.  Finally, I am speaking of the responsibility each one of us has to participate in the fight to eliminate extreme poverty, and to restore basic human dignity to the suffering.  In this context, we strive for ‘happiness’ for those who are downtrodden as ONE in shared humanity, regardless of religion, gender, class or political affiliation. The ‘real’ challenge is working within society to correct its flaws, not running away from the prospect of malaise and suffering toward the call of a countercultural quest for self-authentication.  This is ONE, and this is freedom.