TIME Culture

The True Heroism of American Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s biopic reveals what it takes to be a true hero

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American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s biopic of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, scored six Oscar nominations last Thursday and made $90 million this weekend—a January earnings record. It’s already a critical and commercial smash—one of the most successful R-rated films ever.

Weird for a movie that people seem to hate so much.

Never mind the praise: Criticism of Sniper has been withering. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore went on Twitter and called snipers “cowards” (though he later denied his tweets were a direct reference to American Sniper). Comic actor Seth Rogen seemed to compare the movie to Nazi propaganda. Lindy West, writing for The Guardian, called Kyle a “racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.”

The movie, critics say, has been commandeered by some as an uncritical salute to a guy who became a hero by killing upwards of 160 men, women and children.

But I think both the movie’s most ardent fans and vocal critics got the movie all wrong. Sure, Eastwood is giving us a hero in American Sniper—just not the one we think we’re getting.

Eastwood knows a thing or two about the topic. As an actor, he came to embody a certain heroism—a long, lean, dispenser of frontier justice. But as a director, Eastwood has shown more skepticism toward traditional heroic journeys. He deconstructed what it means to be a hero in his Oscar-winning directorial turn in 1992′s Unforgiven. In 2008′s Gran Torino, he gave us the opposite of Dirty Harry—a hero who performed his greatest heroic act by not fighting back. Yes, Eastwood gave us patriotic war heroes from the battle of Iwo Jima in the 2006 film Flags of Our Fathers, but not blindly so. And the following year, he unpacked the same battle from the perspective of the Japanese in Letters From Iwo Jima. So to suggest that American Sniper is a slavish, superficial biopic might not be giving its director enough credit.

Chris Kyle (played by a fantastic Bradley Cooper) probably wouldn’t call himself a hero. Rather, he might characterize himself like his father did—as a sheepdog, protecting the sheep from the world’s wolves. He serves four tours of duty in Iraq, and for him the conflict is not a reason to wring his hands or mull the inherent brutality of war. It’s a job. No, more than that: A calling. He was meant to serve his country in this manner. He was made to protect his brothers in uniform. And Kyle serves his calling with the same laser-like focus that made him such a lethal marksman. He does not question. He does not doubt. He serves.

“Do you ever think that you might have seen things, or done some things over there that you wish you hadn’t?” a Navy doctor asks him.

“Oh, that’s not me, no.” Chris responds.

“What’s not you?”

“I was just protecting my guys,” Chris says. “I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took. The thing that haunts me are all the guys that I couldn’t save.”

Kyle doesn’t struggle because of what he did, but rather what he didn’t—or, now that he’s back home for good, won’t. He thinks that some people will die because he’s not around to protect them.

People call Chris Kyle a hero because he’s so good at his job. And, to the soldiers and SEALs he protects, he is.

But Eastwood doesn’t leave it at that. Even as he saves lives in Iraq, he takes them, too—necessary, Chris believes, but sad nevertheless. Meanwhile, his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and children suffer at home without him. And when he comes home, Chris isn’t the man he was or should be. He’s distant and distracted. Sometimes inexplicably angry. When he returns home, he struggles to relate to his wife and young kids (an issue a lot of returning vets have). He can’t quite turn off his wartime self at home.

“If you think that this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong,” Taya tells him. “You can only circle the flames so long.”

To me, it seems Chris’ real act of heroism was to leave Iraq and return home for good—to reclaim his wife and family, to be the husband and father they needed and deserved. It wasn’t easy to become that man again, to set aside his legend for a more domestic legacy. It’s relatively easy to be a war hero when you’re built for war. But to be a hero in your own house? Now, that’s hard. It requires a different sort of heroism and courage and tenacity—something that doesn’t win you any medals or get you any book deals. But it’s what Chris had to do.

Yes, Eastwood acknowledges Chris Kyle as a war hero, which I think he was. But the Chris Kyle we meet in American Sniper is more than that. He’s a complex, conflicted man, full of his own strengths and weaknesses. And if Eastwood celebrates this multifaceted man, it’s as a husband and father—a man who put down his gun to pick up his son.

Paul Asay is an author, journalist, and entertainment critic.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME faith

Becoming King: How David Oyelowo Prepared Spiritually for Selma

"I’ve never approached any other role the way I approached this"

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I had the chance to speak with the British actor David Oyelowo who portrays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the film. Born in Oxford, England to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo, 38, was raised in the Baptist church. His Christian faith continues to be a driving force of his life and work. Below is a transcript of our conversation about faith, film, Dr. King, and the extraordinary Selma.

Cathleen Falsani: I heard that when you first read the script for Selma, you felt that God meant it for you. Please tell me a bit more about that story.

David Oyelowo: I felt God tell me … no, I know God told me. God told me I was going to play this role in this film.

The reason I have been quite vocal about that is because, in all honesty, I wouldn’t cast me as King — certainly not seven-and-a-half years ago. It was on July 24, 2007 that I felt God tell me that — I know the date because I wrote it down. It was so strange. Of course I knew who Dr. King was, but I had never watched him, heard him, and certainly never felt that, ‘Oh yeah, that’s someone I should play at some point as an actor.’ But I just knew it.

I know God’s voice. It’s the same voice that told me to marry my wife, it’s the same voice that gave me the names of all of my children. I know that voice and it has never failed me in my literal life and in my spiritual life.

So I proceeded to put myself on tape for the director who was attached [to the film] at that point. And then much to my chagrin and surprise, he didn’t agree with God on that one. And so I didn’t get cast in 2007. It wasn’t until 2010 that I did get cast.

In the meantime I went on this amazing journey that just continually confirmed for me that God had called me to do this. I played a Union soldier in Lincoln, and American fighter pilot in Red Tails, I played a preacher in The Help and then I played the son of a butler in The Butler. And even though I was British and that was one of the reasons why I thought I can’t play Dr. King, but God gave me these opportunities that taught me what it was like to be an African American in this country over the last 150 years — from Lincoln [set] in 1865 to The Butler that went all the way up until Barack Obama’s election.

So yeah, then you look at the divine timing of the film dropping at this time in American history. I can absolutely trace the divine nature of this.

CF: Isn’t it a gift when we’re able to see that thread running through? It’s not often that we get such a clear glimpse of God’s plan, I suppose.

DO: I have to be honest — it’s only retrospectively that I can look back on it and see it. There were many frustrating moments when I thought, Did I hear right? I know how Moses must have felt in the wilderness.

CF: Tell me a bit about how and if you spiritually prepared yourself for this role and for the performance. Is there anything different you did this time than you’d done for other roles?

DO: Absolutely. I’ve never approached any other role the way I approached this. Because I always knew that I couldn’t do this on my own.

One of the things I spotted early on was that when you see Dr. King giving a speech, that is a human being absolutely flowing in their anointing. That is someone who is taken up by something other than themselves. I know it because I have had glimpses of it myself when I’m flowing in a spiritual space that transcends my soul. And I felt the only way to play Dr. King was to do all the preparation I could, and then just trust that if God truly has called me to do this, He is going to come alongside my talent, alongside all that I am doing in the way of work, and make it more than I could make it on my own.

I truly felt every day on that set that something other than me flowed through me. There were times I felt God lifting me through scenes. There were times when bizarrely — and it almost flies in the face of my own theology, really — but I felt Dr. King very close to me in the playing of the role. And the only way I knew that it could ever possibly happen was for me to be open to it, for me to sort of let go of the reins and hope that that openness allowed something other than me to flow through me.

So it was absolutely different. I don’t normally do that. I’m normally a control freak. So letting go was what I needed to do and what I think, certainly, is something I will try to apply going forward.

CF: It’s a wonderful lesson to learn, although it’s terrifying to let go of those reins. But I know that when I do, something really magnificent can happen, something far bigger and greater than I ever could have hoped for on my own.

DO: Right. Exactly.

CF: I visited the Selma set in Montgomery last summer and had a chance to speak to [the actor] Wendell Pierce [who portrayed civil rights leader Hosea Williams] and a few others and watch some of the filming. Oddly enough, one of my roommates from college [Elizabeth Diane Wells who portrays Marie Reeb, the wife of slain Boston minister the Rev. James Reeb] has a small role in the film. She is a person of faith. I know Wendell is a person of faith, as are a number of other people in the film including Oprah Winfrey and yourself. I wonder whether there was a different kind of a vibe on the set? What was the spiritual vibe like while you were filming in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and other places?

DO: A hundred percent there was — we all went to church together. There was a lot of praying together, especially before some of the tougher scenes. And [the director] Ava [DuVernay] was very picky in terms of the people she had around the film. I think she knew, I think we all knew, that this couldn’t feel like just another gig to people.

This was a spiritual endeavor because these were spiritual people and the engine for what they did was their spirituality. King and his band of brothers were largely made up of preachers. And the philosophy of nonviolence, the philosophy of love in the face of hate, was born out of their Christian faith.

It’s one thing to talk about that, it’s another thing to be able to project it truthfully. I don’t think it was an accident that most of the people on the set, certainly when it comes to the actors, were Christians or people who had been raised that way so they had a frame of reference for it.

It absolutely does affect the film you’re watching because what sometimes happens in Hollywood, when Hollywood tries to make a film about or that has faith as a part of it, that is written by or is being portrayed by people who don’t believe in what they’re doing, it shows.

And it feels inauthentic, and it feels, actually, patronizing. It feels like you’re almost making fun of faith because if you don’t believe it, you cannot truly — I don’t believe you can enter into it in a way that feels truthful and powerful.

CF: What I find really interesting in having watched the film now several times is that it’s mighty spiritually, but when I first saw it, I wasn’t thinking about the spiritual heft. I was thinking about Dr. King as a young man — as a human — in a way that I don’t think I had before. He’s almost this mythic character, certainly in the American consciousness, but here I saw a man who was just a young man, a man who was faulted and fragile, but who was brave and courageous, and allowed himself to be used by God.

DO: That’s exactly what we set out to do. I think that when you read the Bible, when you read about David, when you read about Joseph, when you read about Moses — when you read about all of these incredible human beings that God chose to shine a light on in his world, they were all fallible and yet they did great things.

And the great things they did were when they surrendered and let their calling dictate their steps. But the reason they are in the Bible is because they are us. We are all, we all know what it is like to have hope deferred. We all know what it is like to battle against our own sin. But what is truly transcendent about us as human beings is the fact that we are human and yet there are these moments, these times when God flows through us, and we are transcendent. And that’s what the combination of God and us leads to. And that is what you see so, I think, powerfully in the film.

I love the moment after Bloody Sunday when Dr. King calls for “people of faith” to come and join him. Because he knows that in order for this to be successful you cannot have people who are coming with anger, bitterness, and those who just want to riot and perpetuate strife.

What is truly powerful is love in the face of hate. That is the best of us as people, when we operate in sacrificial love. And that is the kind of thing that we were very keen on showing in the film. And I am very glad to say I think we really were successful in that.

CF: You did and you were. It’s quite eloquent in that manner and the story that you sayDr. King is telling in the film is the same story you yourself are telling as an actor and as artist. I thank you for that and I thank you for this film. I think it’s going to have long-lasting and far-reaching spiritual and cultural heft.

DO: Oh, bless you.

CF: Bless you too, David.

Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion journalist and author, and serves on the advisory board of ONE Moms/ONE Girls & Women, part of the ONE Campaign. This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME faith

10 Things Christians Shouldn’t Do at Christmas

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It's not actually Jesus’ birthday

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Ah, Christmas! “The most wonderful time of the year.”

A time to gather with family and friends and, with smiles on our faces, pretend we aren’t quietly measuring who received the best present and which of our relatives really, really needs to stop drinking.

A time to hang tinsel and baubles from the tree, and time to hang up our hopes of losing that last 10 pounds this year.

Such a joyous season!

The real point here is that Christmas is what we make of it.

For Christians, however, there are some very specific things you can’t do if you want to actually honor and follow the person we say we celebrate this season.

So, I give you my “10 Things Christians Shouldn’t Do At Christmas.”

As with my other “10 Things” lists (which are linked at the end of this post), this is not intended to be a complete list, but it is a pretty good start.

10) Celebrate Consumeristmas

For many people, Christmas starts with standing in line on Thanksgiving Day.

‘Tis the season for mass consumerism.

Regardless of where you personally think Christmas began, Christmas has slowly drifted into the bog of consumer madness.

Like frogs in a pot of slowly boiling water, we never saw it coming.

For Christians, this is particularly problematic because the guy we are celebrating this time of year told us that collecting stuff here on Earth is not the way to follow him. (My apologies to Kirk Cameron whose seasonal movie wants us to believe otherwise.)

9) Forget Those Without Food

Jesus once said that when we feed the hungry we are feeding him.

Anyone want to guess what it means when we ignore the hungry?

How about forgetting about hungry children and their families as we scrape the leftover Christmas ham from our plates into the trash?

Maybe we need to change the name of the season to Gluttonousmas? Too many presents, too much food – too little consideration for those in need.

8) Forget Those Without Shelter

No room at the inn.

One of the key moments in the story Christians celebrate is the moment when Jesus was almost born in the streets of Bethlehem.

Our need to clean up the Christmas story assumes that the innkeeper told them to use the manger but the Bible says no such thing. There was no room at the inn, leaving Mary to place her newborn child in a smelly feeding trough.

For that night they were without shelter.

Throughout his life Jesus would spend his ministry with no place to lay his head.

This time of year we celebrate a homeless man.

Do our actions, do the places we spend our money, honor that?

7) Forget About Immigrant

We three kings from Orient are. . .

Besides sounding like Yoda wrote a Christmas carol, there are a number of things messed up about that line.

First: We don’t actually know how many there were.

Secondly: They were magi, not kings.

Finally: We also do not know where they were really from other than “from the East.”

What we do know is they were foreigners and their revealing of the king’s plans to kill all newborn boys in hopes of putting an end to Jesus turned Jesus’ family into immigrants in Egypt.

Our Christmas story is replete with images of people journeying to new lands. Because of it, Christmas should cause Christians to recommit to embracing immigrants.

6) Miss The Message About Resisting Abusive Power

Mary and Joseph and their family had to flee their homeland because King Herod strong-handedly used his power to squash out what he saw as a threat to his power.

I can guarantee you two things: One, in the house where Jesus grew up, the narrative of why they had to flee to Egypt and of the senseless deaths imposed on other families by the powerful was a story that was told time and time again. Two, the focus on abuse of power in Jesus’ teaching and his constant willingness to confront it was no accident.

Christmas should cause Christians to recommit to confronting those who abuse power.

5) Forget Those Without Presents

If you have two coats give one away.

In announcing the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist told us what God was asking of us. Coats were just an example – a placeholder if you will.

If you have two Christmas presents give one away.

4) Insist Your Religious Celebration Rule Them All

This time of year far too many Christians remind me of Gollum and his Precious. (A LoTR shout out in a Christian Christmas post! C’mon Peter Jackson, give me some promo love!)

One holiday to rule them all: “We nee-eeds it. They stole it from us!”

Never mind that Jesus was Jewish or that there is a list of other celebrations that occur this time of year, there’s a certain cultural privilege in the air that seems so very un-Christian to me.

You can just about bet that the folks calling out for the dominance of Christmas with shouts about what they think is a “war on Christmas” would be singing a new song if Judaism were the dominant religious culture and this time of year radio stations across the land played Chanukah songs.

Technically, they would be singing a new song – not just metaphorically.

3) Get Mad About People Saying “Happy Holidays”

To those who get upset about folks saying, “Happy Holidays,” rather than, “Merry Christmas”: you know what “holiday” is short for, right?

Holy day.

Do you really have a problem with people calling Christmas a holy day?

Nah. Of course you don’t.

2) Think That It Is Actually Jesus’ Birthday.

Um. So… dang, this is hard.

I’m really sorry to be the one telling you. Um, let’s see.

Remember how when you were growing up the Sunday school teacher told you Christmas was Jesus’ birthday?

Yeah.

Well, um… they lied.

Yeah. Sorry about that.

We don’t actually know when Jesus was born. It was probably in the spring or summer because “the shepherds watched their flocks by night” – something which typically didn’t happen much in the winter in that region. Not to mention they were returning to Joseph’s hometown for a census, which is something that would have probably been done during warmer weather.

Want to celebrate the fact that Jesus was born? Ok.

Want it to actually be on his birthday? Good luck with that.

1) Confuse The Religious Observance With the Secular Holiday.

It may be that December the 25th was picked as the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth to compete with or even to adopt the followers of the pagan celebration of Saturnalia, which included decorating with evergreens, gift giving and parties.

Hmmm, why does that seem so familiar?

I bring this up to make a simple point.

A lot of our “War on Christmas” problems would rightfully go away if we simply acknowledged that there are two celebrations of Christmas each year.

One is religious and one is not.

Most of this article actually points to the issues that happen when we conflate them.

So, let’s stop doing it.

Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME politics

Crime and Punishment in America: What We Are Doing Wrong

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

10.2 million people sit in prison cells today around the world– and almost half of them are right here, in the United States. While in the US we like to boast about being “#1″ we forget that we’re actually #1 at a lot of things that we probably shouldn’t be proud of – and having the highest incarceration rate in the world is one of them.

And, it’s not just our incarceration numbers that should be a shock to our system, but the recidivism rate that we should find most concerning. In a study from 2005-2010, researchers found that 3 out of 4 former prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years after being released from prison.

Simply put, the way we approach crime and punishment doesn’t work.

I remember back to my days listening to talk radio and the initial chatter of prison overcrowding once we started to realize that our prisons were beginning to bulge at the seams. I distinctly remember the solution one commentator had: build more prisons.

Unfortunately, the approach of building more prisons and punishing more harshly (aka, mandatory sentencing, three strikes laws, the war on drugs) hasn’t worked and has only led to more of the same. In fact, some of our harsh approach to crime and punishment has actually led to more crime as nonviolent offenders (such as folks going to jail for marijuana offenses), come out on the other side of prison more “hardened” than they were to begin with. Throw into the mix the huge vocational barriers someone with a criminal record faces, and our situation is ripe for failure– one that actively produces more crime and brokenness, not less.

Actually, it’s beyond ripe for failure – it has failed. Past tense.

The traditional American approach to crime and punishment doesn’t work.

This past week I’ve been reading a great new book by Derek Flood called Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and really connected with his thoughts in a section called A Practical Guide To Enemy-Love. In regards to our failed approach to crime and punishment he writes:

We commonly think of justice in terms of retribution. When we speak of a person “getting justice ” we mean getting punishment. Love of enemies challenges this understanding of justice and asks: what if justice was not about punishing and hurting, but about mending and making things right again? What if justice was not about deterring through negative consequences, but about doing something good in order to reverse those hurtful dynamics? What if real justice was about repairing broken lives?”

I’ve certainly spoken of this difference between restorative justice and punitive justice both here on the blog and in my book, Undiluted, but Flood brings up some really good additional thoughts on the matter. He goes on to say:

“The sad fact is that our current prison system has become a factory for hardening criminals rather than healing them. Instead of learning empathy and how to manage their impulses and emotions, the brutal culture of prison life teaches inmates that one must be brutally violent in order to survive. Because of these patterns learned in prison, the alarming repeat offense rate is sadly not all that surprising. Locking someone up in the hell of prison life naturally breeds violence, not reform repentance. People do not learn empathy by being shamed and dehumanized. Retribution gains popular support by appealing to our most primitive impulses, but in the end results in a broken system that perpetuates hurt instead and cycles of violence.”

In the book, Flood cites a successful program that clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of a restorative justice approach over a punitive approach: the RSVP program run by the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Department. In this alternative program, they took some of their most violent offenders and tried a restorative approach instead of just locking them up and throwing away the key. This program that taught them communal living, personal dignity, development of empathy for others, and how to manage their own emotions, had some results many might find surprising: an 80% reduction in violent recidivism, and the total elimination of assault on prison officials (pg. 185).

The effectiveness of restorative justice compared to punitive justice is simply amazing. But, that really shouldn’t be a shock to us. Why wouldn’t restoring a life work better than simply subjecting it to punishment?

The American approach to crime and punishment needs some re-framing because the old way simply doesn’t work. A punitive focused approach results in over populated prisons filled to the brim– both with some folks who justly should be there, and some who probably should not. All however, are forced to acclimate to a violent prison life that simply turns them into “hardened criminals” even if they didn’t arrive as one. When they are released, they face so many barriers to reintegration into society that the violent survival mechanisms the prison system taught them quickly become one of their only tools to move forward in life.

We cannot continue a system with this philosophical approach and think that we’re actually doing justice– we’re not. Justice, as I write in Undiluted, is about “making the world a little less broken and a little more right,” and as Flood points out in Disarming Scripture, our current system does anything but that.

The solution?

We must become people who long to see a life restored instead of a life destroyed, and we must become willing to do whatever it takes to make the former happen, while resisting the easier path of doing the latter. Together, we can begin to influence culture in such a way that we reform our penal system to become something that sees justice as a life restored instead of punishment given.

Benjamin L. Corey, is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore.

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TIME faith

Forget the War on Christmas, There’s a Real War on Thanksgiving

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Consumerism pulls us away from the holiday's life-affirming experience

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

The “War on Christmas” is nothing more than a distraction. It’s part of a war-on-the-holidays shell game – a misdirect. While the religious right is up in arms about people saying “happy holidays,” the real battle is being fought on Thanksgiving.

You? You’re watching the wrong shell.

We all are.

And we are losing the meaning of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving and its origins have a long and slightly contested history. The thread that runs through all those histories and origins is the thread of giving thanks for what we have. Hence, “Thanksgiving.”

We Americans are so clever, aren’t we?

The thing is, we are slowly losing that essential ingredient of giving thanks in the way we go about our Thanksgiving celebrations and it’s a big problem.

Thankfulness for what we have is essentially the holiday’s umami. Umami is one of the five basic tastes. It rounds out our culinary experience making it fuller and giving it an enjoyable, lasting aftertaste.

Appreciation for what we have does the same for Thanksgiving: it makes it a fuller experience, and it carries the enjoyment far into the future.

In many ways, it’s a life affirming experience.

Thanksgiving is becoming something much less than that because of consumerism. Consumerism pulls us further and further away from that life-affirming experience. Consumerism is serving as a giant turkey baster, sucking out the essential goodness of our Thanksgivings and basting the bottom lines of big-box stores with it instead.

With so many stores now opening their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day, the irony couldn’t be any clearer.

It’s as if they are taunting us with it.

And us? We are completely buying it.

Literally.

On a day about being thankful for what we have, many people will be rushing out to buy more stuff. Seriously, the irony of it all is thicker than week old, refrigerated gravy.

Rather than enjoying time spent with family or friends, people will rush out to battle strangers in an effort to buy more distractions. Distractions from what they already have. Distractions from what really matters in life. Distractions from time spent with others.

There is a war on Thanksgiving and the average American is slowly losing it and so many of us don’t even see that it’s happening. The tryptophan-induced malaise from a turkey holds nothing over the disconnect induced by the media’s constant bombardment of us with messages telling us we will not be happy unless we are gathering in more stuff.

Thanksgiving as a celebration and as a day of appreciation for what we already have is a threat to all of those who profit from our purchases. They are so threatened that just a single day a year set aside to be satisfied with what we have gives them the heebie-jeebies like a child at the kids’ table who’s just been served Brussel sprouts.

The profiteers see this Thanksgiving as their D-Day. D-Day on Turkey Day. This is their Normandy. They have finally made landfall and have started to swing the momentum of the battle. In making the comparison, I do not mean to take lightly the lives lost nor the reason for D-Day. I make the comparison to suggest exactly how seriously those who are waging the war on Thanksgiving are taking it.

At the same time, I am aware of those who need to work on Thanksgiving and those who do not get a paid day off. I am equally aware of those who do not have family or friends or much for which to be thankful. The solution, however, is not ramping up a buying fury which requires even those who would like to celebrate Thanksgiving at home to come in to work. The solution is to have better hiring practices. The solution is to pay a living wage. The solution is for companies to show their thankfulness for their employees by giving them a paid holiday on Thanksgiving – on that day of all days.

The shell game continues. Shouts of “war on Christmas” started even before cute little ghouls and ghosts made their way around our neighborhoods on Halloween.

As the two sides of that war powered up their bullhorns to shout their messages back and forth (of which, I too am a contributor), the war machines of Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy and so many more fired up their printing presses and spat out their consumer propaganda in full color flyers for our Sunday papers.

I choose to be a conscientious objector on this Thanksgiving Day.

I will not take part in the consumerism frenzy – not even the day after. As a matter of fact, instead of giving money to profiteers, I’ll be giving a donation to a fair wage or worker’s rights organization. I invite you to do the same!

So, on second thought, I’m mounting a protest – a sit-in, if you will. It will take place around my table and around yours. Join us! Let us gather together in chants of “we will not be moved” – and not just because the tryptophan’s kicked in.

If we stand, let us stand for those who do not have enough on this day. Let us stand for those who need shelter or companionship rather than standing in line waiting for the store doors to open so that those who already have enough can have more. Let us stand for those who deserve to be paid a fair wage, and let us stand for those who deserve to have time-off to celebrate this day.

Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church.

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Christian Colleges Need to Remember Their Biblical Values

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Our trans community deserves our love, too

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

Title IX protection of transgender students on college campuses is clashing with Christian colleges’ claimed right to religious expression. What to do?

How do we accommodate trans students and protect these colleges’ stated values? It’s a huge question, and it’s not going away.

This Huffington Post piece gives an overview of the battle in many university campuses, including George Fox, Simpson and Spring Arbor.

In a letter to the Department of Education, interim Simpson President Dr. Robin Dummer wrote that the school cannot “support or encourage” an individual who lives in “conflict with biblical principles,” noting that students who violate campus standards for biblical living are subject to disciplinary measures, including expulsion. For example, Simpson would not permit a “female student presenting herself as a male” to use the restroom, locker room and living accommodations of her choice or to participate in men’s athletic programs, Dummer wrote.

Alright, got it. Dummer wants to protect Biblical principles. He did not specify which Biblical principles he means, but I don’t think he included all the relevant principles values in his letter — I found a few more.

  1. 1 Samuel 16:7 People look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart. We do not know others’ hearts, we can only guess. God sees things we do not see. You may think that being transgender is just an act of defiance or something you can stop by drawing a line in the sand. But God sees more than we do, which is one reason God does not tell us to draw those lines.
  2. Romans 8:1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. Why are we so quick to condemn when God does not condemn? Do we know better?
  3. Matthew 7:3-5 “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” That’s really the point. We have so much going on, so much we don’t understand, so much we give a pass on for ourselves but not for others, that we really are in no place to ever determine right and wrong. It goes all the way back to the Tree of Knowledge.
  4. Luke 18:13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ This is to be our posture. Humility. Gratitude. Love. Period.
  5. Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good;And what does the Lord require of you
 but to do justice, to love kindness,And to walk humbly with your God? Could that be stated any better? It is enough to fill our plates for the rest of our lives.
  6. Matthew 7:12 “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” If you were transgender, you would not want your school to draw the lines you are drawing — no doubt about it. And to think you could not be there, well here’s another verse for you.
  7. 1 Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. Figure out a way to make this work for your transgender students. Don’t just stand on your predetermined ideas here. Be tenderhearted toward these people. Sympathize with what they must deal with and all they have gone through. If they were just being belligerent to cause trouble, that would be one thing, but they are not.

Clearly, these Biblical values are not part of many Christian college policies towards transgender students – all stated “in Jesus name.” And they are not part of how much of the church treats anyone they deem as somehow “less than.”

Why not?

If you understand transgender students, or any human being from a place of humility, God might indeed show you something you have not yet seen.

At the very least, you would glimpse God’s heart toward God’s children.

That reflects true Biblical Values and the “astoundingly good news” that is the gospel.

Susan Cottrell is a speaker, author of Mom, I’m Gay—Loving Your LGBTQ Child without Sacrificing Your Faith, and founder of FreedHearts.org.

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Hey, Canada: I Am a Muslim Convert, Not an Extremist

When asked about my religion, authorities assume I'm being manipulated

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A few months ago I was applying for a job when I was suddenly required to attend an in-person interview with a member of the intelligence services. I was interviewed by a white male, who very politely went on to ask me questions for the next two hours. The most puzzling part of the interview though was that I suddenly saw my life through a very gendered lens.

I was asked about my conversion to Islam and whether or not a “boyfriend” had tried to recruit me for the purposes of “extremist activities.” I was also encouraged to provide a list of people who I thought could potentially be “radicalized.” The cherry on top was that he said that as a woman I am much more susceptible to “influencing” because women who are in-love do “inappropriate” things. Leaving aside the fact that the guy automatically assumed that I was heterosexual and that there was a man in my life, I felt quite confused.

To make things worse, the same story and questions were repeated in the context of my Latin American background and my mother’s activism with Indigenous communities. What it came down to was that I, as a woman of multiple identities, could be a threat, but I could also be a valuable ally against “extremists.” Now, keep this point in mind. In the 80s Latin Americans were their time’s radicals. These days the List of Terrorist Entities in Canada mostly targets Middle-Eastern and North African organizations; however, Latin American revolutionary movements featured heavily in this list, and even now former involvement with a revolutionary movement can be problematic for immigration purposes. In addition, today Indigenous communities continue to be seen with suspicion because of sovereignty movements and anti-capitalist approaches. Yet, “extremism” is not new to Canada (Here are a few examples).

Weeks after my interview, following another attack against military personnel, Canada’s Parliament was attacked. Several theories about the perpetrator were given throughout the day, but little information was publically available. But finally the identity of the shooter was released: Michael Zehaf-Bibeau , a convert to Islam, had attempted an attack against Canada. As the events unfolded, I wrote a piece in my blog, as I feared that Muslims would be put, once more, at the centre of political discourses about “extremism” and “terrorism” followed by anti-Muslim sentiments.

The Muslim community was quick to act in an attempt to proactively show their commitment to peace and to Canada. Several media sources showed how Muslims across the country condemned the Ottawa shootings. The Global News, CBC and CTV have featured pieces showing Muslims standing up against extremism. A social-experiment video was applauded in media outlets after it “demonstrated” that Canadians are not Islamophobic despite the earlier attacks; and pictures of solidarity among community members circulated widely after a Cold Lake mosque was vandalized, and the community (Muslims and non-Muslims) got together to erase the graffiti.

But other processes are taking now place. Muslim leaders across the country (mostly male), in an attempt to disassociate themselves from extremism, have released a number of documents that have put many Muslims at odds. In partnership with the RCMP (Police services) they released “United Against Terrorism,” a handbook outlining the difference between jihad and terrorism, and providing Muslim parents with tips on how identify “radicalization” among children and youth. In theory, it may sound like a good idea… However, when the handbook is religion-specific and it is published in partnership with the same institutions that perpetuate racial profiling and criminalization of Muslims in Canada it only propagates the idea that Muslims are violent terrorists and a danger to the country.

Interestingly enough, the handbook mentions the word women only three times, and the word “girl” is never mentioned, the assumption being that girls and women are less likely to be “radicalized.”

In the past I have talked about how female converts to Islam are often depicted in the media. Images of brainwashed, almost-fakely-modest women permeate these portrayals. Female converts are infantilized in an attempt to take away the agency of their conversion. What is more, Muslim women, converts or not, who take up violent conflict, are seen less as agents than their male counterparts. But gender issues aside, the handbook was so problematic that even the RCMP withdrew its support.

Now, Muslim leaders are trying different things to appease the government and, to some degree, the communities across Canada that continue to display anti-Muslim sentiments. In Calgary, an imam has created a background checklist to determine a convert’s likelihood of becoming radicalized. Once more, a good idea in theory, except that, what are you going to do with those who are flagged as potential “radicals”? Not let them convert? Or call the police? On what grounds?

The Islamic Supreme Council also published an information document warning converts against “extremism” and “radicalization.” Once more, women do not feature here (except in two instances), and the tone maintains the infantilization of converts. It turns out that some of us are deemed as ‘right’ sources of Islam, while others not so much… Yet, at the heart of the issue is that it almost seems like a scapegoat strategy. Muslim converts are now “the other” even in Muslim communities.

God forbid we deconstruct the terms “extremism” and “radicalization” to recognize their political use. God forbid we talk about political, economic, social and mental health-related issues when discussing “extremism” and “radicalization.” And God forbid that for once converts to Islam, particularly women, are attributed any kind of agency or knowledge. The sad part is the above documents have some support from Muslims, who think that “screening” converts is the way to go. As if the meanings of “radical” and “extremism” weren’t political and contextual, and as if exclusion played no part in acts of violence.

The question is, how is the marginalization of converts the answer to Islamophobia?

Eren Arruna Cervantes is a writer for Muslimah Media Watch and a university student whose research focuses on the politics of gender and women in organized religions.

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No, Brittany Maynard Did Not Commit Suicide

Brittany Maynard
Brittany Maynard Maynard Family—AP

What we can learn from "Falling Man"

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

The past few days have been filled with news that terminally ill 29-year-old, Brittany Maynard, has ended her life with medication prescribed by her physician. She did so under legal physician assisted suicide provisions in the state of Oregon. Had Maynard not taken the medication, she would not have lived much longer, and the final moments of her life would likely have been painfully debilitating, as her brain cancer took over.

In the weeks leading up to her death, Maynard succeeded in not only completing her “bucket list” but also in sparking a national discussion on “death with dignity,” or what is commonly called physician assisted suicide.

Admittedly, I thought the matter was settled in my mind before Brittany’s story became a daily topic. Until Brittany I was absolutely, positively against the idea that physician assisted suicide should be legal. However—and here’s another of Brittany’s accomplishments these past few weeks—I don’t feel the way I did a few weeks ago.

Part of my shift has been because of the discussion and reasoning that came from Brittany herself, and part has been from some of the judgmental condemnation I’ve seen of Brittany online—judgmental attitudes that caused me to re-think my association with that side of the issue. However, the real shift in my thinking came from sitting in my rocking chair next to my wood stove late in the evening, watching a program about iconic photography from the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

One of the most recognized images from the terrorist attacks is an image that has been called “The Falling Man” by Richard Drew, and I’m sure you probably recognize it. The image is of an unidentified man who was trapped on one of the upper levels of the Trade Center, and ultimately made the decision to jump to his death instead of being burned alive or suffocated by smoke.

I can’t imagine making that choice. I’ve tried, but I can’t.

There are no exact numbers, but some have estimated that upwards of 200 people made that difficult choice—choosing to jump instead of dying by fire or smoke.

On one hand, one could say these people took their own lives—that they committed suicide—but that wouldn’t really be fair, would it? NYC officials didn’t think so either, and had their deaths classified as homicide by blunt force trauma instead of suicide. A spokesman for the NYC medical examiners office stated:

“Jumping indicates a choice, and these people did not have that choice,” she said. “That is why the deaths were ruled homicide, because the actions of other people caused them to die…”

The Falling Man, and others like him, didn’t have a real choice to live or die—they only had a choice in which way they died: smoke and fire, or by falling. For their children to have to walk through life saying, “my dad committed suicide” is less than fair and completely untrue—they didn’t choose to die (the very definition of suicide), they just chose how they died.

This is precisely why I’m losing my patience with my fellow Christians who are condemning Brittany Maynard for her decision to take the pills her doctor prescribed her. Brittany didn’t wake up one morning and say “I hate my life and I’m going to kill myself,” just like those who jumped on 9-11 didn’t step up to the ledge and jump because they were in debt or trapped in a bad marriage.

It seems disingenuous to force someone to choose between two ways of dying and then turn on them in judgement for picking the least painful of the two options.

Like the 9-11 jumpers, Brittany didn’t have a choice in dying, she only had a choice in how she died. You see, there are people like Brittany—terminally ill with imminent death looming—who are essentially trapped in a burning building from which there is no way of escaping with their lives. For some of these people, the idea of being burned alive or having to inhale smoke until death overcomes them becomes less appealing than stepping up to the ledge and accepting a quicker, less painful fate.

In all the years since 9-11, I’ve never once heard a Christian speak up in judgement and condemnation over the 9-11 jumpers. I’ve never heard someone say they sinned because they “hastened death instead of accepting God’s timing.” I’ve never heard anyone say that failing to condemn their choice is a “slippery slope that could send the message that suicide is okay.” All I’ve ever heard about the 9-11 jumpers is how difficult their choice must have been, and how sad it is that their lives were taken by terrorism.

Why then, should we say those things about Brittany—or those who choose to die more quickly and less painfully in response to a terminal disease—a death sentence that becomes their burning building? It’s not a choice to die (suicide). It’s just a choice to pick the most painless way to die.

Christians should be the people who are the least judgmental and the most compassionate—the ones who recognize the truth that while the 9-11 jumpers didn’t commit suicide, Brittany Maynard didn’t, either.

She died because of terminal cancer, and that is very, very sad.

Benjamin L. Corey, is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore.

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Let’s Leave the Bible Out of the Ballot Box

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One thing we could all do, if we care about our democracy, is get out on Tuesday and vote

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

On Tuesday, Americans will go to the polls to make some very important decisions regarding the life of our democracy and everyone is vying for our attention, our money and our vote! Elections are about power: who has it and who doesn’t. People who have traditionally lacked the power to create the best life for themselves and their families can demand their share of the pie. On the other hand, those who have traditionally held the reigns of power will fight all the harder when they realize they’ve been forced to share. Case in point: Christian churches. In particular, conservative, evangelical churches, some of whom have recently gone so far as to give their church members sample ballots with the church’s preferred candidate. This is, of course, against IRS code and could result in the church being fined and losing it’s 501(c)3 status. That some churches feel entitled to do this is just one evidence of their hubris and their sense of entitlement to control the American political process.

The nuance about religion in public life, however, is this: people get their moral and political values from a variety of sources, one of which is religion. Other sources include family, school, books, civic groups, etc. What is reprehensible to me and most fair minded people is the attempt, on the part of some, to legislate unique religious beliefs and/or practices. When Christians, for example, based solely on what the Bible says about same sex relationships, seek to prohibit same sex couples from enjoying the same legal benefits as any other couple, we have a problem. Because the opponents of marriage equality have not been able to make a convincing secular argument, states are one by one equalizing marriage. This is as it should be. Were it not for religion, this would have long since ceased to be a debate.

On the other hand, what I think is not only acceptable, but unavoidable, is for people to bring their values into the voting booth. What else could you possibly do? As such, some people will vote for candidates who promise to lower taxes because that fits with their values of small government and individual autonomy. Others will vote for candidates who promise to create a better social safety net even if that means higher taxes for some, because that fits with their values of shared, communal responsibility and the common good. These are the ideas that should be openly debated in a democracy.

Decisions about these matters require the careful application of our reason and our moral sensibilities—our heads and our hearts. For years, when I was a pastor, I championed causes of justice and peace and anchored those convictions in my reading of the Bible. The Hebrew prophets demanded justice from those who would use dishonest scales and Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple court to express his anger at the rich and privileged fleecing the poor in the name of God. These stories fired my conscience and animated my teaching. The problem is that other pastors, with a different reading the Bible, rallied their congregations to oppose a woman’s right to choose, deny LGBTQ people the same protections under the law, and maintain Christian hegemony in the United States. Try as I might, I could never escape the feeling that the Religious Right and the Religious Left are mirror images of one another—”using” the Bible for their own political agendas. Just because I agreed with the Left more frequently than the Right didn’t mean that both sides couldn’t make their point from the Bible. Naturally I felt my reading of the Bible was more “faithful” and “true” to the original intent, but I could never escape the fact that the Bible could be interpreted in such a way to endorse a sort of theocratic agenda. Just last week I heard a pastor quote Proverbs 14:34,

Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people.

Of course, righteousness means obeying the Christian God and sin is defined by anything that goes against the will of God, as taught in the Bible.

Having left the church I am able to see more clearly the mimetic nature of the religious left and right. What is also clear to me is that our democracy still needs to wrestle with the notion of the “common good.” Our system of government attempts to honor the wishes of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority. This is a tension well worth struggling for. People for whom the system is working well need to think not only of their own interests but also the needs and interests of others. Often, the two are not as far apart as they may seem. When it comes to public education and access to health care, for example, healthy, well-educated people are a public good for our whole society.

As our country continues to pluralize, Christian conservatives, who for decades could take for granted that their values were the values of the entire country, feel the country slipping from their grasp. These Christians—generally middle to upper-middle class, conservative, white, Christians—are afraid that everything they worked so hard to build is being destroyed. And so, efforts of the conservative churches today to control the political process is the last gasp of a world that is fading away. It even makes sense that they would perceive their loss of control as persecution.

One thing we could all do, if we care about our democracy, is get out on Tuesday and vote. And if you really care about democracy, work to get traditionally disenfranchised groups within your community out to the polls. Instead of trying to stack the deck, let us fight for the rights of those whose voices are currently not being heard!

Ryan Bell was a pastor for 19 years before resigning in March, 2013 due to theological and practical differences. He writes about his experience at Year Without God.

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What Christianity Without Hell Looks Like

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It would allow Christians to point upward to God’s love

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The idea that the Bible declares hell a real and literal place is no more valid than the toxic lie that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

Yet the idea that hell is real persists. Why? Because over the centuries those in positions of power within the institutions of Christianity have methodically, relentlessly, and with great art used the doctrine of hell to exploit the innate fear of death that is harbored by one and all.

Show me a Christian terrified of hell, and I’ll show you a Christian ready to pay good money for the assurance that he is not going there.

If you don’t think the “doctrine” of hell is about the accrual of money and power, then God bless your naiveté.

For the rest of us, it’s certainly worth asking what a Christianity without hell would look like. Well…

A Christianity without hell would be literally fearless.

A Christianity without hell would have nothing to recommend it but the constant and unending love of God. It would allow Christians to point upward to God’s love—but never downward to His/Her wrath.

A Christianity without hell would be largely unevangelical, since there would be nothing to save anyone from.

A Christianity without hell would trust that God’s loving benevolence towards all people (emphasis on all) extends beyond this life and into the next.

Bringing peace about the afterlife, a Christianity without hell would free Christians to fully embrace this life, to heed Christ’s commandment to in this life love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

In short, a Christianity without hell would be a fearless, trusting, loving, divinely inspired source of good in the world.

And this Christianity would be more biblical—would be truer to not just the words but the very spirit of Christianity—than any Christianity that posits the reality of hell.

I want that Christianity. I insist upon that Christianity.

Tell me I’m not alone.

John Shore is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question.

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