TIME Religion

Don’t Blame The Central African Republic Conflict On Religion

We in the United States need to act to help our brothers and sisters in the Central African Republic

Recently, I was invited to attend a dinner for a delegation of religious leaders from Central African Republic (CAR). Seated at the table were Catholic, evangelical, and Muslim leaders, as well as those leading the relief and advocacy efforts in CAR. The purpose of the dinner was to make connections with American counterparts and to help shed light on the crisis.

Media portrayals of CAR have focused on a Christian vs Muslim narrative which distracts from the political and economic instability that led to the overthrow of the government in March 2013 and resulted in protracted violence . The conflict did not start as a religious war and as these three faith leaders demonstrate, it is not rooted in theological differences.

But the religious narrative that should be shared is the story of these three men—Dieudonné Nzapalainga, theCatholic Archbishop of Bangui; Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, President of the Central African Islamic Community; and Reverend Nicolas Guérékoyame, President of the Evangelical Alliance of the Central African Republic. They have a strong, unified desire to see peace and stability restored to their country, to protect the Muslim citizens who are fleeing the violence, and to bring reconciliation to their war-torn neighbors. They are already living out their faith in powerful ways—since December, the Archbishop has housed Imam Oumar Kobine Layama and his family because their home was destroyed. Rev. Guérékoyame asked the group to pray that the Imam and his family would be able to have a new home in order to live securely and to meet with the remaining Muslims in the country. And in fact, the Reverend himself shared that he’s often on the phone with his family because his neighborhood is being overtaken by violence.

As the night continued, the three faith leaders shared some hard truths about the conflict in their country. CAR is 180 out of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index. Much of the violence has arisen due to political instability which has led to economic instability. There are only 20 registered businesses in the country. There is very little normal schooling. Many of the young men were recruited to join the Seleka—a loose alliance of bandits, fighters, and rebels, often from Muslim countries outside CAR—because they were promised jobs in the army. The jobs never materialized. And many of the young men involved in the anti-balaka, the largely Christian groups that formed in retaliation, are motivated because they don’t have work. Commenting on the massive unemployment that has crippled his country and contributed to the violence, Rev. Guérékoyame, pointed out, “When a young person has a way to get his daily bread, he won’t be manipulated.”

And the faith leaders are rightfully concerned about the suffering young people in their country. Archbishop Nzapalainga spoke at length about the efforts the leaders are taking to re-educate the youth in their country toward peace. “We knock on the door of their mind, which is created in the image of God and say ‘thou shalt not kill.’”

Sharing a meal with these men was a reminder of what we believe as Christians —that through the cross we’ve become part of a family and identity that transcends nationality, race, class, and political and theological distinctions.

It is a fact that it’s easy for many Christians, particularly in America, to forget. As the Rev. Guérékoyame said to the group, “We are your brothers and sisters. We’ve been wondering when you are going to help us.”

I asked the question at dinner and I ask it now here: How can we help?

The primary concern is the political instability in their country. The United States should reopen our embassy in CAR. If the ambassador had remained in the country, the decision to get troops earlier to secure the country may have been expedited. We must also request that our ambassadors to the UN fulfil the humanitarian pledges we’ve made.

It has not escaped the notice of many of us who care about this issue that 20 years ago this past Monday, the Rwandan genocide began. Approximately one million Rwandans were killed during the crisis—which was largely ignored by many in the west who failed to act sooner. Starting today, aid groups and individuals plan to call attention to CAR on Twitter using the hashtag #CARcrisis. The best way to honor the dead is to prevent other lives from being lost due to inaction.

Because our brothers and sisters in CAR are wondering, “when are you going to help us?”

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

TIME Religion

Hate Won’t Win

Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church
Ryan Pfluger for TIME

Fred Phelps died early Thursday morning. Phelps was best known for his deeply rooted hatred and promulgating the tasteless slogan “God Hates Fags.” His little group of mostly extended family members that comprised the 59-year-old Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, carried their signs with such ugly and painful statements all over the country. Phelps’ small cult got the most attention for their protests of military and other high-profile funerals, claiming that the slain soldiers deserved to die as a consequence of God’s judgment against America’s tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Such shameful and angry messages, understandably, caused great pain among the mourners and family members grieving their loved ones.

The Washington Post story on Phelps’ death was appropriately headlined “Dry eyes for Fred Phelps,” and commented, “Westboro is an ugly family affair. So ugly that two sons (Mark and Nathan) and a daughter (Dortha Bird) fled their father and his “church.” Another story in the Post reported that Phelps’ group even protested the funeral of Fred Rogers, aka “Mr. Rogers,” explaining that the children’s TV show host neglected to warn young viewers that sodomy is a sin.”

Phelps was 84. The circumstances and health of the last several months of Fred Phelps’ life are surrounded with some mystery. He seemed to have died alone except for a few of the family members who comprised his cultish followers. One estranged son expressed his grief that his father had hurt so many people and reported that the family members who had left Topeka were now being blocked from returning to see Phelps. The Westboro family reports there will be no funeral. The obvious question is, “who would even have bothered to attend, or protest?”

It would be a mistake to celebrate Phelps death, or any death, for the extinguishing of life is, by nature, a moment of loss.

But Fred Phelps’ chosen path shows the sad emptiness of hatred as a way of life, while demonstrating the pain and suffering it causes so many others. His death again reveals that hate never triumphs, but always ends in lonely defeat. Fred Phelps certainly did not leave the world a better place, and he will answer to God for the life he lived, the choices he made, and the harm he inflicted.

Fred Phelps justified his despicable beliefs by distorting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He demeaned people who were created in God’s Image and preached a theology that lacked any room for grace. But a core tenet of Christian faith is the idea that God’s amazing grace can overcome the reality of human sin. While Phelps could not allow himself to be kind and loving towards those he disliked, God’s love is more than sufficient to overcome his hate. In the end, God loves this world and grace will win regardless of what Fred Phelps or any other self-proclaimed, hate-mongering preachers say.

That’s the beauty of a loving and infinite God who transcends the limitations of human life.

We all have choices to make about hate. We can see the dangers of hate overwhelming our lives – as it did Fred Phelps’ – and all the pain and destruction it causes in the world. We must decide to deal with the anger, which can lead to hatred that we allow to grow and fester within us, because letting it linger can slowly erode and undermine our own moral integrity and choices.

Hatred is ultimately the antithesis of a loving God and the corruption of the world that God has created. Those who use the name of God to legitimize their hatred have blinded themselves to the reality of God’s love and intentions for the world. Love does win in the end. May God lead us all away from the hatreds that too easily beset us as human beings and draw us into the love that can only save us—and the world.

The passing of Fred Phelps is not something to be grateful for, but a powerful reminder of the destruction hatred causes. It illuminates the loneliness that results from a life devoted to resentment and bitterness. But Christian faith audaciously proclaims that love conquers hate. This is a lesson that Fred Phelps is perhaps just beginning to learn.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

TIME Immigration

An Evangelical’s Plea With the GOP on Immigration Reform: Put People Before Politics

Republicans have a chance to forgo dysfunction and show their compassion

Do conservatives have any compassion left? As House Republicans wrestle with whether to reform our nation’s immigration laws, that is the question evangelical leaders like myself are asking.

After recently releasing long awaited standards outlining their policy priorities, many assumed this represented a firm commitment by Republican House leadership to tackle an issue that had long vexed their party and our nation. We were then stunned to hear the whispers of growing opposition within the caucus. Speaker Boehner surprised us by declaring progress on the issue this year to be “difficult.”

What had changed?

The answer, they admit, is politics. Many GOP House members are concerned about the political ramifications of an immigration overhaul. They are worried about the reaction from voters, especially their primary voters, in districts that have been gerrymandered to be ideologically conservative. They don’t want to risk distracting public attention away from their relentless attacks on Obamacare and all the difficulties created by the implementation of a major expansion of health care insurance. They claim to not trust President Obama or his willingness to enforce immigration laws, despite the fact that his administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other. They are perilously close to letting their strong dislike for the President blind them to the realities of human suffering perpetuated by an immigration system that no longer meets the needs of our nation.

What hasn’t changed is the moral crisis created by the failures of the status quo. Every day millions of families live in fear of their lives being irreparably disrupted or dislocated because of one member’s immigration status. Human beings searching for economic opportunity, but frustrated by a complicated and unresponsive visa or legal guest worker system, die as they venture across vast desert expanses, making a desperate attempt to find a better life. Undocumented workers, many of whom are women, have their rights and dignity violated on a daily basis because they have little recourse against their employers. Young people, who came here as children, live as “illegals” in the only country they have ever known as home.

It has become abundantly clear that immigration reform is the moral test of our politics.

Evangelicals have been at the forefront of the push to fix our broken immigration system. Long considered an important political constituency, our engagement has drawn significant attention for its breadth and depth. We aren’t motivated by political calculations or economic self-interest, but by the call of Jesus who audaciously proclaims that the way we treat the most vulnerable members of our society, including immigrants, ­the biblical “stranger,” reflects how we treat Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). We stand outside of a broken political system, urging our leaders to prioritize the common good. We believe that what is morally right should never be nakedly sacrificed for political gain.

These convictions are inspired by our faith but they are also rooted in our experiences. Take, for example, the now very typical story of Mike McClenahan, the senior pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in Southern California. After baptizing children whose parents live in fear of deportation, and building outreach ministries to immigrants in his community, he realized that the gospel’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself” required advocating for immigration reform.

Thankfully we aren’t voices crying out in the wilderness. Public opinion is squarely on our side. According to a recent CNN poll, 54% of Americans believe a path should be created that allows undocumented immigrants the opportunity to earn citizenship. Previous polls have demonstrated that evangelicals support comprehensive immigration reform over an enforcement only approach by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. A majority of voters in GOP swing districts embrace taking action. Business leaders and law enforcement officials have also been prominent proponents of revamping current policies.

Speaker Boehner and Republicans in the House of Representatives face a serious quandary. Do they pass the moral test by following the will of the American people in finding common sense solutions that reform our immigration laws? Or do they fail to uphold their responsibilities as public servants by letting politics triumph over people?

We have arrived at a critical moment of significant moral importance. As I often remind legislators and pastors alike, the policy debate is over. It is just a matter of time before immigration reform is enacted. The only questions left to decide are how much more suffering we will tolerate as a country and how many more families we will tear apart because our leaders refuse to put people before politics.

Immigration reform can be the great exception to the dysfunction that has come to define Washington. This is the chance that conservatives need to show the nation they have not forgotten how to be compassionate.

Jim Wallis is the President and Founder of Sojourners. He is the author of On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good.

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