TIME faith

The Theology of a Biker Gang

What happened in Waco is a microcosm of our world situation

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Five rival biker gangs descended upon a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas on Sunday. Hundreds of gang members began stabbing, beating, and shooting each other. Weapons included chains, knives, clubs, and guns. When the fight ended, 9 people were dead, 18 were sent to the hospital, and more than 170 people were arrested.

Waco police Sargent W. Patrick Swanton stated, “In my nearly 35 years of law enforcement experience, this is the most violent and gruesome scene that I have dealt with.”

One of the biker gangs is called the “Bandidos.” They originated in Texas during the 1960s. In 2013, federal law enforcement produced a national gang report that identified the Bandidos as one of the five most dangerous biker gang threats in the US.

And they have a theology and an anthropology that you should know about. They’re summed up in one of their slogans:

God forgives. Bandidos don’t.

We can easily dismiss that slogan as a biker gangs attempt to intimidate, but do not dismiss it. That pithy statement tells a profound truth about both God and humanity.

Anthropology of a Biker Gang: Bandidos Don’t Forgive

Let’s start with the anthropology. When it comes to forgiveness, we are all much more like a biker gang than we’d like to admit. Take what happened in Waco, for example. A group of rival gangs come together to fight because they have a relationship based on hostility. They refuse to forgive because biker gangs respond to violence with violence. That’s the pattern that they have developed.

It’s not just biker gangs who have that violent pattern. We all do. Violence is a human problem. For example, our political and judicial systems are based on that pattern. The same principle of retaliation that consumes biker gangs also consumes our culture.

Biker gangs such as the Bandidos are a violent and evil menace to society precisely because they refuse to forgive. And whenever we refuse to forgive, we become just like a violent and evil biker gang that is a menace to society.

Bandidos don’t forgive because we don’t forgive. Whenever someone insults us, we tend to insult back. When someone hits us, we tend to hit back. When someone attacks our country, we attack back. That’s the reciprocal pattern we tend to fall into when it comes to violence. For example, will our society respond to Sunday’s biker gang violence with forgiveness? No, we will respond with violent punishment of our own – maybe even the death penalty. Which leads me to ask some question:

How would the biker gang situation be different if one of the gangs decided to respond with forgiveness?

How would my life be different if I responded to insults with forgiveness?

How would the world situation be different if on 9/11 the United States decided to respond with forgiveness?

We will never know the answer to that last question. But what we do know is that our violent response didn’t solve the problem of violence that we face; in fact, it may only have perpetuated it.

Theology of a Biker Gang: God Forgives

And here’s the good news: God forgives. The theological truth of the Bandidos slogan is that God isn’t like us. God doesn’t hold on to grudges. God forgives.

But please understand that God’s forgiveness doesn’t make violence okay. Rather, it stops the cycle of violence by refusing to play the game. The best example of God’s radical forgiveness is on the cross. Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

God forgives.

That’s true. But the truth that the Bandidos biker gang doesn’t understand, and what we so often fail to understand as well, is that God calls us to participate in a culture of divine forgiveness, as opposed to a culture of human violence. The first step is to realize that we all have a tendency toward violence in thought, word, and deed; and so we are all in need of receiving God’s forgiveness. Then, as we receive from God’s well of abundant forgiveness, we are able to share that forgiveness with others.

There is an urgency in our current situation. What happened between 5 biker gangs in Waco is a microcosm of our world situation. Our hope in the face of violence is in following the God of radical forgiveness. As René Girard prophetically says in his book The Scapegoat, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be enough time.”

Adam Ericksen has been the Director of Education at the Raven Foundation since its founding. He received his Masters in Theological Studies from Garrett Evangelical Seminary and has been the Youth Pastor at a UCC church since 2006. Adam’s interests include interfaith dialogue and using mimetic theory to read the Quran. He is the husband of Carrie, father of three, is 5’10, has brown eyes and does enjoy long walks on the beach. You can follow him on Twitter @adamericksen, friend him on Facebook, or do whatever people do on LinkedIn and Google+.

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TIME faith

The Gospel According to B.B. King

In this file photo taken Aug. 22, 2012, B.B. King performs at the 32nd annual B.B. King Homecoming, a concert on the grounds of an old cotton gin where he worked as a teenager in Indianola, Miss.
Rogelio V Solis—AP In this file photo taken Aug. 22, 2012, B.B. King performs at the 32nd annual B.B. King Homecoming, a concert on the grounds of an old cotton gin where he worked as a teenager in Indianola, Miss.

"I’m awed by his handiwork, the forests and oceans and sky that surrounds us"

Legendary blues artist B.B. King died last night at the age of 89.

King’s influence on American music can’t be overstated. Through his dirt-road voice and exuberant guitar work (often on his famed favorite Gibson guitar Lucille), King brought the blues to mainstream audiences. You can read The New York Times‘ obituary of King here, but for my money, King might’ve been one of the greatest American musicians ever, ranking alongside the likes of Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Billie Holiday.

The blues themselves are, of course, quintessentially American—the yin to gospel music’s yang that, together, undergird jazz and rock. And I think there’s a little gospel in the blues themselves. Few blues songs reference God or Jesus directly, of course: They’re laments of a life or a love gone wrong, a beautiful, primal sigh. But that’s what many Psalms did back in their day, too: They were anguished, pit-of-the-soul cries set to music about heartbreak and angst and despair. The Psalms were painfully honest, just like the blues. And under each, I think, you find an underlying sliver of hope—hope in a brighter, better day. For many blues artists, including King, that hope was pinned on Jesus.

King was a Christian who, as a boy, sang in a gospel choir and was inspired by his own pastor to pick up the guitar. “I believe all musical talent comes from God as a way to express beauty and human emotion,” he once said according to Christian Today. He had a lot to say about God and faith, according to the story. And I loved what he said about God’s creation.

“I believe God created everything. I’m awed by his handiwork, the forests and oceans and sky that surrounds us. I believe God made us. But our nature isn’t always godlike.”

When I heard about King’s death this morning, my mind didn’t float back to any of King’s classic songs—”Don’t Answer the Door” or “The Thrill is Gone” or “Why I Sing the Blues.” I remembered “When Love Comes to Town,” King’s duet with Bono and U2. Bono wrote the song specifically for King, and musically, it’s a meeting at the corner of the blues and gospel music. A shout of joy when the chains of sin have fallen away. On the version I have on my iPhone, King growls out these lyrics:

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide

What follows isn’t the version I’m most familiar with. But it’s still pretty cool.

Paul Asay is an author, journalist, and entertainment critic who now serves as a senior associate editor for the popular Christian entertainment review site Plugged In. He has been published in a variety of other secular and Christian publications, including The Washington Post, The Gazette in Colorado Springs, YouthWorker Journal and Beliefnet.com. You can follow Paul on Twitter (@AsayPaul), visit his website or just think nice, happy thoughts about him in your spare time.

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TIME faith

If America Became a Christian Nation

They probably wouldn't like what it looks like

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With political season kicking off again, so is the season where folks begin to use the term “Christian nation.” Some claim we were one, some claim we are one, and some say we need to become one. Yet, each time I hear that phrase I have an inner Princess Bride moment where I say to myself, “you keep using that word, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

Because truth be told, if America actually were to become a Christian nation, I don’t think the people who advocated for it would be too happy with the end product. Since Christian is supposed to mean “little Christ” or “Christ follower,” we actually have a way to offer some clear cut examples of what a Christian nation would look like– because all we have to do is look at what Jesus taught, and how Jesus lived, as a model to pattern national behavior.

So, what if we became a Christian nation? Well, a few things would have to change… drastically. Here’s a few quick examples:

We’d Have To Abolish the 2nd Amendment.

The 2nd Amendment is so beloved by American Christians that this alone would likely be the sticking point preventing us from ever becoming a Christian nation. Jesus taught his disciples that they were to never use violence to respond to evil (Matthew 5:39) and that they were to actively love their enemies. He also lived a life of nonviolent enemy love as a model for us to follow– and living our lives patterned after how he lived his is the ultimate proof that we belong to God (1John 2:6). A Christian nation would have no room for the 2nd Amendment.

We’d Have to Replace the Department of Defense with the Department of Enemy Love.

Refraining from killing one’s enemies is just part of the package with Jesus- he also taught that enemy love was to be an active love. He taught his disciples that they were to bless their enemies, serve their enemies, and actively do good things for them. In this regard, disbanding our military would be the first thing a Christian nation would do, but the second thing would be that they would begin actively loving enemies. Converting the Department of Defense into the Department of Enemy Love and using those billions of dollars to bless the world- particularly the Muslim world- would be a good start towards having a nation that looked like Jesus.

We’d Have to End Capital Punishment.

Of course, there would be no capital punishment in a Christian Nation because Christ is the one who disrupted a public execution and told the executioners that only a perfect person was qualified to serve in the role of executioner (John 8:7). This means the role of legitimate executioners has been vacant ever since, and would not exist in a Christian nation.

Eradicating Poverty Would Be One of Our Most Pressing Concerns.

In Matthew 25 Jesus gives us a picture of the final judgement day, and describes the scene as he gathers “all nations” before him. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending which side you end up on) Jesus doesn’t give the nations a theology exam. However, he does judge them based upon whether or not they took care of the poor and vulnerable– and those who did not (professing Christians) are told to “depart.” A Christian nation would remember that feeding hungry people is one of the boxes on Jesus’s judgement day score card.

We’d Freely Care for the Sick.

Healing people of illnesses was one of the central aspects of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Any nation worthy of calling itself a Christian nation would also be a nation who freely and indiscriminately provided healthcare for the sick and lame, just as Jesus. Jesus even freely healed a man who was paralyzed because of his own stupid life choices (John 5:14), so any Christian nation would be extremely generous in the provision of healthcare.

We’d Become The Most Loving Nation Toward Immigrants.

That passage in Matthew 25 where Jesus judges the nations? Welp, one of the other items on the score sheet is “welcoming immigrants” (Matthew 25:35). A Christian nation would be seen as the most pro-immigrant nation on earth.

We’d Do Away with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Kids all across the country begin their days by standing, facing a piece of fabric, and taking a pledge to give their allegiance to it. In a Christian nation however, we would recognize that it is impossible to serve two masters and would be repulsed at the idea of pledging our allegiance to anyone but Jesus himself. Furthermore, we wouldn’t take oaths in a Christian nation (Matthew 5:34), so the entire practice of pledging allegiance to the flag would seem creepy to us.

We’d Pay Our Taxes Without Complaining About It.

It seems many of those who think they want America to be a Christian nation see taxation as a form of thievery, but when Jesus weighed in on the issue (speaking within a culture that had a high taxation rate) he simply noted that we should pay to Caesar whatever belongs to him. Jesus had his big moment to expose the evils of taxation and missed it- essentially telling his followers to pay it and move on. In a Christian nation, we’d all be like Jesus: telling people to pay their taxes.

As over-the-top as some of these seem, they’re all things that Jesus directly taught and modeled for us to emulate. Any Christian nation, by definition, would have to be a nation that lived out the teachings and example of Jesus, and would be a radical anomaly on the world scene.

So, politicians can use the term “Christian nation” all they want, but I don’t think any of them understand what the term actually means– nor do I think any of them would find a Christian nation appealing.

A Christian nation doesn’t exist, nor will one ever exist. However, the Kingdom of God does exist, right here, right now– and you’re invited to live within it, where all of those above things are lived and practiced already.

Benjamin L. Corey holds a Master of Arts in Theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, a Master of Arts in World Missions (Cum Laude), also from Gordon-Conwell, and is a member of the Phi Alpha Chi Honors Society. Ben is currently completing his doctorate at Fuller Seminary in the field of missiology. In addition to writing for Patheos Progressive Christian, Ben is a contributor for: TIME, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, Evangelicals for Social Action, Mennonite World Review, and The Good Men Project. He has also been featured as a guest on HuffPost Live, the Drew Marshall Show, and Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang. Ben is a syndicated author with MennoNerds, a collective of some of the top Mennonite & Anabaptist voices today.

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TIME Culture

The Modern Day Scarlet Letter

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"We no longer have the kind cruel civic Christianity that The Scarlet Letter depicted, yet we still have the shaming scaffolds"

In the April 1886 issue of The Atlantic Monthly Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, reviewed his father’s The Scarlett Letter. Towards the conclusion of his stunning, 9,000+ word essay, the younger Hawthorne reflected on the moral irony of Hester Prynne’s world:

This [the scarlet A] is her punishment, the heaviest that man can afflict upon her. But, like all legal punishment, it aims much more at the protection of society than at the reformation of the culprit. Hester is to stand as a warning to others tempted as she was: if she recovers her own salvation in the process, so much the better for her; but, for better or worse, society has ceased to have any concern with her.

“We trample you down,” society says in effect to those who break its laws, “not by any means in order to save your soul,—for the welfare of that problematical adjunct to your civic personality is a matter of complete indifference to us,—but because, by some act, you have forfeited your claim to our protection, because you are a clog to our prosperity, and because the spectacle of your agony may discourage others of similar unlawful inclinations.”

But it is obvious, all the while, that the only crime which society recognizes is the crime of being found out, since a society composed of successful hypocrites would much more smoothly fulfill all social requirements than a society of such heterogeneous constituents as (human nature being what it is) necessarily enter into it now.

Likely as we are as 21st century Americans to congratulate ourselves for not behaving the way our Puritan ancestors did, things aren’t as different as you might think. Millennials may be an urbane, diverse and “tolerant” generation, but they are also caught in a vicious cultural mire of shaming, vindictiveness, and postmodern puritanical preening that rivals their 17th century ancestors.

Owing largely to the recent publication of Jon Ronson’s well-reviewed book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, some light is being shed on the cavernous world of social media “shaming,” a merciless phenomenon that is more common and more serious than many—perhaps most—believe. Of course, few people would be surprised to learn there are dark corners of the internet or that digital anonymity can bring out the worst in people. But the problem of public shaming goes beyond meanness. In its worst manifestations, shaming is a weapon wielded by volunteer morality gatekeepers to, as Julian Hawthorne put it, “trample you down.”

Ronson’s work has resulted in the publication of several frightening stories, such as what happened to Justine Sacco. Yet few commentators on this social phenomenon–including Ronson–seem willing to explore shaming’s causes or offer a serious moral worldview of public confrontation. Listening to shaming stories is important, of course, but we are not likely to overcome this vicious trend if we cannot speak in clear and objective language about it.

Julian Hawthorne’s insights into his father’s novel might be helpful in remedying our deficient understanding of contemporary public shaming. Hawthorne is on to something when he identifies the public shaming of Hester Prynne as non-redemptive and merely the removal of a “clog” from the engine of the culture. The hypocrisy of the moral authorities of Puritan Boston was not only that they were guilty of sin as well, but that they turned sinners away from the society and the hope of redemption under the pretense of holiness.

In the case of online shaming, this is even more apparent. What happens in social media is far from the reconciliatory purpose of confrontation as taught by Jesus in Matthew 16. As Ronson notes in his chilling accounts, the purpose of social media shaming seems to be to deluge an offending person(s) with enough derision and scorn that they are forced to disappear from the public eye in a kind of enforced penitence. Social media shaming is not at all meant for reconciliation or personal healing; quite the opposite, in fact—the more offense and outrage can be generated, the better. Exacerbating all this is a communication medium that rewards participants not for temperance, patience and forbearance, but for immediacy and cleverness. If outrage is the currency of social media, shaming is a blue-chip stock.

As Hawthorne writes, the impulse behind the shaming of Hester Prynne was not a desire for moral rectitude but removal of a cultural wart. If the sinner is removed from the public square, the people can resume trusting in the merits of their membership in society. This contra-benevolent desire to keep the community free of anything that disturbs a narrative of cultural holiness is remarkably descriptive of much of our culture-warring today. Consider the astonishing absolutism with which some proponents of same-sex marriage engage those who disagree with them. In many cases, the motivations are made explicit: Opinions which contradict a majoritarian view on sexuality must be exiled out of the public square. What is this, if not a Puritanical impulse to keep society “pure” and maintain the citizenry’s religious faith in it?

The Scarlet Letter’s context was, of course, a Christian-Puritan one. That is not the case in our American culture today. Instead of an assumed, civic Christianity, the country is embracing an assumed, civic secularism. Traditional religious beliefs are welcomed as long as they are not exposed to the population at large. Keeping certain beliefs isolated from the mainstream of culture–thereby maintaing a sort of doctrinally “pure” public square–is often peddled under misleading language about “separation of church and state.” What is really happening is the substitution of one culturally-ruling philosophy for another.

In other words, we still have Puritanism today, only of a secular kind.

Our progressive sensibilities have not, alas, resulted in a genuinely compassionate culture. We no longer have the kind cruel civic Christianity that The Scarlet Letter depicted, yet we still have the shaming scaffolds (they’re called social media now) and we still have ineffable moral codes that must not be trespassed. These codes may not be Levitical but they are indeed legalistic: laws about privilege, sexual autonomy, “trigger warnings,” and much, much more. Violation of these laws can and do result not only in public shame but legal prosecution.

It surely must befuddle those on the inside track of our transforming culture—just as we seem to be learning what true progress is, we rebuild the shaming scaffolds of our Puritan forefathers. Can we not have a culture that embraces the moral equivalence of all forms of sexual expression, the existential (read: non-transcendent) nature of love, and the casting off of ancient beliefs about God and the universe, while simultaneously widening the margins of civic life to include all kinds of beliefs, even those that discomfort us? Cannot we live out the promises of the Sexual Revolution while saving a place in our midst for those who opt out?

No, we cannot. The reason is simple: A broken American conscience cannot be trusted. Compassion is a class that secularism doesn’t offer. Exchanging the Puritanism of Arthur Dimmesdale for the Puritanism of Alfred Kinsey is not progress. Cultural elites may say we are becoming a better people because we break with human history on the meaning of marriage or the dignity of human life, but a glance outside suggests otherwise.

Samuel James serves as Communications Specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention. In addition to his main blog on Patheos, Samuel’s writing has also been featured on The Christian Post, World Magazine, The Gospel Coalition, Canon and Culture, Mere Orthodoxy, Real Clear Religion, Commonwealth Policy Center, Jesus Freak Hideout and other places. Samuel is a lifelong resident of Kentucky and is a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville. A longer version of this essay first appeared at samueldjames.net.

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TIME faith

5 Challenges Atheists Face

We have a bad reputation

Yesterday was Openly Secular Day and Tom Krattenmaker used the opportunity to bring up five challenges atheists still face.

I wanted to summarize his points and add a few thoughts of my own:

1) Even though we’re despised in some parts of the country and discriminated against in some ways, we don’t really get bullied or picked on. That makes it harder to gain sympathy for our views.

Krattenmaker is right (and I’m glad he is, because the alternative would be awful). We often make a lot of comparisons between our movement and the LGBT movement, and this is one area where that just falls apart. LGBT individuals have it much worse than we do on this front. (For that reason, I don’t buy the notion that the treatment of atheists is “America’s last prejudice.”)

That said, how do we make people more likely to trust us or consider us electable? Atheists who have the opportunity to do so need to talk more about their values and share stories about what they’re gone through. We have to find a way to get people who might disagree with us about God to be on our side in other ways. That doesn’t happen if we spend a lot of our time insulting them (publicly or otherwise).

2) We have a bad reputation.

We do. And what I said above still applies here. When you think about the most famous atheists — known to people beyond our community — the ones who immediately come to my mind are comedians (who mock religion) and authors (who criticize religion). All of that has it’s place, no doubt, but whenever possible, we need to promote and support voices who are tough to dislike. It’s tough to find Neil deGrasse Tyson-types who can reach out to multiple kinds of audiences without necessarily alienating them while talking about atheism (which Tyson doesn’t do). But the more people like that in the public eye, the tougher it is to pretend we’re all evil and immoral.

3) Too many people think God and morality go together.

That’s unfortunately true as well. Once again, this is a matter of stressing our Humanism: That not believing in God or an afterlife compels us to act certain ways right now. We have to fight for civil rights and against injustice because it’s not like these things will all get sorted out after we die.

Already, there have been advertising campaigns stressing how we’re “good without God,” though a catchy slogan is no match for tangible actions. That means more volunteering, more charity work, and being on the front lines on issues where religion gets it wrong.

4) We dismiss religious groups that might otherwise be natural allies on a host of church/state separation issues.

I’ve definitely experienced this, but that’s changing. That’s why Foundation Beyond Belief always includes an organization run by (non-proselytizing) religious groups in our slate of charities each quarter. That’s why the Secular Student Alliance has done more work recently with the Interfaith Youth Core. That’s why I’m a firm believer that achieving our common goals is more of a priority than debating who’s right, whether we’re supporting progressive churches for being LGBT inclusive or joining religious leaders in protests when we see racial inequality.

5) We have to stop being the “others.”

Krattenmaker is saying that most people still don’t know any open atheists, and that makes it a lot easier to demonize us. That’s why events like Openly Secular Day are so important, and why I just love to see people using new media to speak out about their non-belief. They’re using YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and their campus groups to send messages to strangers who may not know what freethought looks like. This is such a huge change from a couple of decades ago, and it’s only going to get better on this front in the future.

To be sure, those aren’t the only challenges we face, but they’re pretty accurate from a broad public perspective. I’m an optimist about all of them. When you considering how much worse things were for us, on all five fronts, a few decades ago, it’s incredible how far we’ve come. The path ahead of us looks bright.

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. He is a former National Board Certified high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago, where he taught for for seven years. Hemant has appeared on CNN and FOX News Channel (really). He currently serves on the board of directors for Foundation Beyond Belief (a charity organization targeting non-theistic donors) after spending several years as the chair of the board of the Secular Student Alliance (which creates and supports college atheist groups nationwide). He is the author of three books, including I Sold My Soul on eBay (WaterBrook Press, 2007) and The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide (Patheos Press, 2012). You can reach him at Mpromptu@gmail.com.

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TIME faith

The Story Behind Passover

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The most celebrated home ceremony of the Jewish year is ultimately about living and experiencing a family story

Passover is many things. It’s a freedom from slavery story, a survival story, and a celebration of Spring story. But, as the most celebrated home ceremony of the Jewish year, sitting down at a Seder is ultimately about living and experiencing a family story.

Seder. The word literally means “order” but beyond the 15 rituals of the Passover dinner experience, including the retelling of the exodus from Egypt, there is the story created by every family during the eight day holiday.

As it states in the Old Testament (Exodus 10:2), when God commands Moses to speak to Pharoah, (he) says “And in order that you should tell into the ears of your children and grandchildren…” Explaining the meaning behind this statement, Chabad Rabbi Chaim Meir Bukiet wrote, “By telling the story, it comes to life for both the one who is telling the story and the one who is listening” for all the generations to come.

As I child, I was the one watching and listening and I always wondered why we were being subjected to the Jewish version of a holiday rerun. Every year it was the same TV producer who showed up in the guise of my mother with a “to do” list for preparation and planning for the days before and after the Seder. My step-father stood in for the TV announcer, rehearsing his lines and writing a new script each year.

It started the same way every year in the weeks leading up to Passover. Although the Jews in Egypt left hastily and most likely with little thought to the state of their homes or preparing food for the journey, getting ready for Passover in my home meant my mother would be orchestrating days of cleaning, cooking and carefully re-ordering our home.

This was followed by the spring shopping trip to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy new clothes and my annual “cutting out the label” ceremony as I didn’t want my classmates in our blue-collar school to know where my mother bought them.

Back at home, I watched my mother review her cookbooks, make a shopping list and unpack all the china, glassware and silver. Our house would become swathed in the sweet aroma of her matzah cereal, as she baked the nuts and honey, crumbled matzah and coconut together from a recipe that I thought was hers until a discovery many years later that it was from, The Complete Passover Cookbook by Frances R. AvRutick.

There was always great excitement on the night before Passover when my step-father would guide all of us by the hand in the dark with a candle, spoon and flashlight in the ancient tradition of finding the last Hametz (forbidden during Passover) in the form of breadcrumbs he had hidden around the house. Once found he would burn all of it inside a bag and we would mourn the loss of all bread until Passover ended.

Finally, we would sit down to a dinner which was different each year as my family personalized the ceremony sometimes with plays or magic tricks, poems or modern stories based on the holiday. I often complained that our Seder was so much longer than those at my friend’s homes, many of whom were using the Maxwell House Haggadah, one of the best marketing strategies ever created to encourage Jewish families to speed through the story and get to the “good to the last drop” coffee.

The morning after Seder, we eagerly awaited the first matzah brei breakfast — a sweet or savory treat — and the many leftover charoses and matzah sandwiches we’d enjoy. However, there was also the absolute embarrassment of packed matzoh sandwiches at school and the insistence of my parents to bring it into restaurants, thus assuring everyone in our small Texas town knew we were Jewish.

Looking back at these rituals of Passover, I realize they were as much a part of the story as the actual exodus tale. When I became a parent it was no surprise that I continued many of these same traditions and added my own twist on others.

We do clean our house for Passover but don’t often use china or silver as we prefer to be more casual or have dinner at our friend’s home. We do shop for new clothes (but not at SFA) and I have become known for making my mother’s Passover cereal as a gift. I have also, over the years, developed a tradition of making many different types of charoses from around the world including Sephardic, Egyptian, Israeli, and even a California charoses made with avocado.

We’ve done hunts in the dark for Hametz over the years but often turned it into a bread and candy discovery tour (a Jewish version of an Easter Egg hunt). Many times I have written my own Passover ceremony with poetry from Rabbi Sheryl Lewart’s book Blessings for the Journey or Celebrating the Jewish Holidays edited by Steven J. Rubin. And, I’ve collected props and songs for storytelling and scour the internet each year for alternative Haggadahs.

Our family rituals and traditions, along with travel and Study Abroad in Israel with Alexander Muss High School, have become part of the thread I’ve now woven into the Passover story for my children. Once we were slaves — once we dreamed about freedom and a nation in Israel. Now we are free, now we have a country and now we have the power to pass these stories and traditions (both religious and personal) onto our children and our grandchildren.

No matter what your tradition for Passover, when we say “Next Year in Jerusalem,” we’re saying it because our ancestors made it possible.

Karen Rappaport is the Director of Admissions for the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (www.amhsi.org), a Study Abroad program with more than 43,000 Alumni including her children. A member of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, CA, she has been an active congregant and participant in its popular Women’s Seder for many years. She prides herself on being the best haametz hunter and afikomen hider in the family and welcomes both Elijah and Miriam to her table. Her Passover claim to fame is the seven different types of charoses she makes for seder.

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Why Indiana’s Controversial Act Does Not Represent Religious Freedom

Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act blurs important lines between authentic religious freedom and 'Christian freedom'

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Nearly 20 years ago, I was working at my local newspaper when a small controversy arose concerning religious freedom and gay rights. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) wanted to send speakers in to the local Catholic schools to give presentations; the school board said that this would violate their right to instruct students in accord with the teaching of the Church.

At the time I was an atheist in a lesbian relationship. So I called the school board and asked if they could explain why their decision was not just blatantly homophobic. They sent me a small pamphlet explaining Church sexual teaching. I read it, thought it was bizarre but coherent, and ended up writing an article defending the right of Catholic schools to teach Catholic doctrine. My thinking was that although I disagreed completely with what the Church taught, I believed that religious freedom is an essential principle of liberal democracy.

One of the challenges of living in a liberal democracy is that you have to be willing to play nice and get along with people who you’d much rather kick in the eye. It doesn’t matter whether the disagreement is ideological or religious, philosophical or academic, visceral or personal. Part of the social contract that you accept as a citizen is that you agree not to force others to act in accord with your personal beliefs.

But there are places where this gets sticky. Every so often a conflict arises where the way that one person chooses to live impacts another person’s right to live in accord with their own beliefs. The present conflict over Senate Bill 101, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, concerns these kinds of situations.

What do you do, for example, if the only hospital in town is a Catholic hospital and a woman wants to have her tubes tied? Or if a nurse working at a secular hospital refuses, for religious reasons, to assist in abortions?

I think it’s important, on liberal grounds, to recognize that people’s right to act in conscience must be protected under the law. The fact that a woman wants a tubal ligation should not give her the right to force a doctor to perform surgery which he or she considers to be mutilation. An employer does not have the right to compel one of its employees to participate in an act that she or he believes to be murder. These are serious violations of the individual’s freedom of conscience, and in so far as Senate Bill 101 is intended to defend people’s rights in situations like this, it’s a very important piece of legislation – not just from a religious freedom perspective, but also as a defense of the core values of liberalism.

Unfortunately, SB 101 seems also intended, by some lobbyists behind the bill, to blur important lines of distinction as it equivocates between authentic religious freedom and “Christian freedom.” Eric Miller, the Founder and Executive Director of Advance America (an organization that provided much of the impetus for SB 101) says, “It is vitally important to protect religious freedom in Indiana…It was therefore important to pass Senate Bill 101 in 2015 in order to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs!”

Religious freedom is a much broader concept that includes mosques, Buddhist businesses, and Vedic beliefs. When “religious freedom” really only means Christian rights, it’s not religious freedom in the sense intended by the American Constitution, or by Catholic teaching.

Advance America gives three examples of situations where Senate Bill 101 will “help.” The first is the provision of peripheral services such as baking or flowers for gay marriages. The second is transgender bathroom use. The third is the use of church property for gay weddings.

The only one of these that really has anything to do with religious freedom is the last one. The other situations described have nothing to do with freedom of religion. They’re just blatant opportunities for public displays of discrimination.

It’s something that I’ve seen before. When I was growing up, my town experienced a major demographic shift: we went from being a primarily white, middle-class suburb to being one of the largest South-East Asian communities in North America. I remember hearing arguments about restricting signage to English and French (Canada’s two official languages), arguments that single-family housing should exclude extended families, arguments that prohibitions on head-gear at schools should be extended to turbans and hijabs. People claimed to be arguing about city planning, Canadian culture and school safety. They were really just being racist, and nobody was fooled.

The same is true in Christian communities that want to deny services to LGBTQ people. No one in these communities would actually want to live in a world where this kind of religiously-motivated service denial was the norm. A society in which Baptist wedding photographers refuse service to Catholics because they might have to take a photo including a statue of Mary. Where you stand in line forever at Walmart only to discover that your Jehovah’s Witness cashier won’t ring through your coffee. Where Muslim restaurant owners refuse to serve women unless they’re dressed according to Islamic standards of modesty.

The difference between a valid conscientious objection and an arbitrary refusal of service lies in the difference between material co-operation with an act, and superficial involvement with it. Refusing to dispense abortifacients, for example, might actually prevent an abortion from happening. Refusing to bake a cake, on the other hand, is just a needless annoyance that makes Christianity look bigoted, intolerant and petty.

Melinda Selmys is a convert to Catholicism, a contributor at Spiritual Friendship, and the author of 4 books including Sexual Authenticity and Eros and Thanatos.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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How to Get Over an Addiction to Facebook

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Robert Galbraith—Reuters

The key is to foster a contemplative relationship with social media, rather than an addictive one

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Hi. My name is Carl and I’m a Facebook addict.

(“Hi, Carl!”)

This past weekend, against my better judgment, I got into an unpleasant debate in a Facebook group with a young person whom I do not know. No need to go into details here — let’s just say that by the end, nobody was edified. Much of my weekend got swallowed up in a back-and-forth conversation that generated much more heat than light. I’m embarrassed that I allowed myself to get so thoroughly triggered, and that I kept going back for more, even once I realized that the conversation was not productive. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time. But hopefully, this was a “bottoming out” experience, that will force me to create a new relationship with social media: a contemplative relationship rather than a compulsive (addictive) one.

Monks like to say that the heart of monasticism is “I fall down, I get up; I fall down, I get up.” Apparently that’s true for social media as well—at least for me.

As a first step in my “recovery,” I’ve done something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while now. I asked Facebook to convert my personal account (with thousands of friends, most of whom I have never met in real life) and merge it with my existing Facebook Page dedicated to my professional life as a writer and speaker. By doing so, in one fell swoop I have unjoined all the groups I was a member of, and my FB presence is now centered on my work life rather than my personal life. In essence, it’s wiping my slate clean so I can start fresh.

I’ve known a lot of people who have done variations on this: put their Facebook account on ice for Lent, or simply deleted a bloated account and starting fresh with a new one. Since all the conventional wisdom about being a freelance writer nowadays is that one must be on social media, I resisted the temptation to simply nuke my entire Facebook presence (but yes, I was tempted). After all, recovering from a social media addiction can be like recovery from overeating or compulsive spending: the goal is to form a new and healthier relationship with the addictive substance.

So what can someone like you or I do to foster a contemplative relationship with social media, rather than an addictive one where too much time is spent online or too much arguing and debate happens there? Here are a few thoughts on the matter, and I’d be curious to hear from others about what they think.

1. Follow the Rules. Facebook recommends its users only initiate (or accept) friend requests with “people who know you well, like friends, family and coworkers.” In a similar way, LinkedIn recommends only sending “Invitations to connect” to people “you know and trust.” Clearly, there’s no hard and fast rule about what this means — but in the past, I was too quick to accept friend requests from anyone who wandered by. Not only has this meant I’ve had to spend lots of time reading posts that weren’t relevant to my life, but also that I’ve had to deal with too many spammers and trolls. I’m an American and so I’m susceptible to our national dogma that “more is better” — but on Facebook, more friends is not necessarily better. Quality, not quantity.

2. Know the difference between an account and a page. Facebook frowns on using one’s personal account to promote a business, and suggests that if you have a product or a service you want others to know about — even if it’s just a blog — that you set up a public page to get the word out. I’ve had a public page for some time now, enabling me to keep my personal and professional lives separate (posting links to my blog on my page, pictures of my cats on my account) but the lines have often seemed too blurry. But it seems to me that Facebook guidelines can sort this out: the personal account is for a relatively small number of close friends, family and co-workers. The page is for everybody.

3. Be careful about joining groups. My unpleasant conversation this weekend took place in a group, and I should have known better: the group where it happened embodies a certain perspective and I was arguing for a point contrary to that position. No wonder it ended badly. But even when it’s all peace and love in a group, it can be the kind of setting where someone like me can invest a lot of time agreeing with people who agree with me. And then the weekend’s gone and the lawn never got mowed.

4. Manage the timeline. I have some family and friends who I love dearly, but in real life we don’t talk politics. So why do I allow myself to read their political rants on Facebook? All it does is make my blood boil, and there’s no point arguing back — the few times I’ve tried, it always just escalates. Facebook allows you to remain a friend with someone but to disallow their posts from showing up on your timeline. Obviously, if you want to stay in touch with someone this might not be an ideal option, but it can be a great way to keep loved ones in your FB circle while also protecting your blood pressure.

5. Make use of Facebook’s “Friends List” feature. Some people are close friends. Others, just acquaintances. Facebook allows us to invisibly mark each connection accordingly (we can also tag family members and set up custom lists). Then, when we post something, we can decide if the general public sees it, or just friends/acquaintances, or just close friends. It’s a good way to manage who gets to see pictures of the new kitten and who gets to read about our deepest hopes and fears.

6. Disengage. Obviously, from what happened this past weekend, I’m still working on this one. But it’s a simple principle: if someone posts something I vehemently disagree with, I don’t have to post a clever or snarky reply. I’m sorry to say it, but I find it’s all too easy to get argumentative with people online, usually about something I feel passionate about — but online arguing rarely does anybody any good. If I must post something, I’m going to try to be as objective/factual as possible, state my case, and then let it go. If the other person(s) tries to pick a fight with me? Disengage.

7. Forgive. When I make a mistake online — whether spending too much time on Facebook, or getting caught up in an unpleasant exchange — I have to remember to forgive myself; after all, we all do foolish or hurtful things from time to time. And when it involves somebody else, I need to forgive them too, if necessary. Forgiveness doesn’t mean I can avoid making positive changes — but it does mean I can let go of the sting of old mistakes when what’s done is done. I once heard a recording of Thomas Keating where he suggested that remorse is healthy only for about 30 seconds! The point behind remorse or contrition is that it impels us to make positive changes. After that, it has served its purpose and needs to be released. Forgiveness is how such release takes place.

8. Pray. It’s humbling for me to admit that, after having a Facebook account for six years, I still don’t do a very good job at limiting the amount of time I spend on it, or maintaining boundaries between my personal and professional lives, or avoiding getting into useless debates and arguments. Well, I’m only human: “I fall down, I get back up.” But maybe the single best strategy is to remember the Jesuit principle that we can find God in all things. Yes, even social media. If I can bear in mind that my time on Facebook or Twitter or Patheos is time spent in the presence of God, maybe that can help me to be a bit wiser, a bit more loving, a bit more present. Which leads to my final and most important point:

9. Be Silent. I’m still working this one out, but it’s becoming obvious to me that silence needs to be an ingredient in my social media engagement. I need time off from Facebook, whether that means a Sabbath day when the computer never gets turned on, or a “Great Silence” period of eight hours or so each evening/night to give it a rest. Just as important, silence needs to be an element of how I am present online: this is a corollary to #6 above, where I can choose to respond to inflammatory or triggering posts with the generosity of silence rather than the intensity of debate.

Okay, this is a work in progress. I’d love to know your thoughts: what do you do to maintain a contemplative relationship with social media?

Carl McColman is a life-professed Lay Cistercian — a layperson under formal spiritual guidance at a Trappist monastery. He is also an instructor with Emory University’s certificate program in creative writing, and regularly teaches the craft of nonfiction, as well as writing and journaling as a spiritual practice.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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‘So This Is Selma?’

Fifty years on, Selma's progress has been more symbolic than substantive

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Patheos Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the March from Selma: Fifty Years Later. Read other perspectives here.

“So this is Selma?” Every time we make the drive from Dallas to my hometown of Georgiana, Alabama, my husband asks the same question — the same way. His tone, reflecting a bitter surprise, reveals his constant struggle to reconcile the Selma of history and the Selma of today.

Despite knowing this about his question, I immediately get defensive.

Southerners often, Alabamians always, get defensive when outsiders say anything about anything in our state or region. Even as I am rattling off the statistics and history of our LA region (Lower Alabama for the uninitiated) better than any visitor’s bureau could do, I know in my heart that every time we turn on US 80 and encounter this gray city full of rundown shops and shuttered homes, I whisper his question as an indictment not only on the city of Selma but on the entirety of the movement of which it is one of the crown jewels — “So this is Selma?”

Let me concede the obvious. Yes, progress has been made. The fact that an interracial couple can drive through Selma and raise not one eyebrow; while discussing the fact that the Black congresswoman who represents Selma was a part of Billy Tate’s multiple championship debate teams at Selma High; in an America that has a bi-racial president is progress. Yet, like the preparations that are being made to welcome the world to Selma this week for the fiftieth-year celebrations of the March to Montgomery — in the face of the stark reality of African Americans in America — our progress has been more cosmetic than structural.

This week, as in times past, the black and white films will be shown. John Lewis’ scars will be bared for the world to see, and white folks and black folks will decry the ugly past and point to a progressive future. We will divide the world into the evil and the saved; we will pat ourselves on the back; we will sing about how we shall overcome and the first and third verse of the Negro National Anthem (only Bill Clinton can sing the whole thing without notes) — all without really asking, “So fifty years later…what do we really have?”

In the win column, we can put President Obama and Congresswoman Terri Sewell; my ability to attend and graduate from the University of Alabama; my choice to marry a white man and not face a lynching mob; and our ability to sit with family and friends of all colors in a fine restaurant in Butler County, Alabama to celebrate my mother’s life. Seventy-seven percent of residents of color in LA have a high school education; 60 percent of them own their own home — much higher than the national average — a definite win. Television shows written, produced, and starring African Americans occupy the top twenty-five shows in American viewership — win.

But if we are keeping score, then the points in the loss column are numerous. The industries that closed their doors in Dallas County, Alabama when the city government of Selma become increasingly black — loss; 35 percent of Dallas County’s residents below the poverty line — loss; only sixty-three building permits in the entire county in 2013 — loss. Looking nationally, one can only become more saddened. Only 50 percent of African Americans own their home — loss. Thirty-three percent of African American children are raised in poverty — loss. Thirty-eight percent of African Americans of working age are not in the workforce, which means that while the U.S. unemployment rate is hovering at 5.3 percent, African American unemployment remains in the double digits at just above 10 percent — another loss. The number of black-owned business is less than 7 percent and the incarceration rate for black men and women is double that statistic — another loss.

Here is the deal: I could keep going but I don’t want to depress myself, nor do I want to get so angry that I turn over a table in the Admirals Club where I am writing this. It is a complex thing being black in America in the 21st century. If you are a part of the families that struggled to get by, climb over obstacles, and move into the middle class mainstream, you are tempted to see the world as half full. But when you look at the structural barriers that are necessary to facilitate “making it” you realize the system at best is designed just to allow a few to get out, to become “freaks of nature,” and rhetorical weapons to be used against those who are chained to the realities of a world designed for their erasure.

For every Maria Dixon, Terri Sewell, Ben Carson, and Oprah Winfrey, there are thousands who struggle in schools with substandard resources, in forgotten neighborhoods, with health care only for necessities rather than prevention, and in food deserts where finding a bottle of Jim Beam and a lotto ticket are easier than a piece of fresh fruit. In no other context would we accept a 40-50 percent failure rate, yet when it comes to the lives of African Americans we celebrate the exceptions rather than the reality. We point to the “lucky ones” and reassure ourselves that the “movement” was a success (then always with the codicil that more needs to be done) and wonder aloud why the others can’t just pull up their pants and move forward.

Don’t get me wrong — there is a huge role for personal responsibility. Poverty and oppression does not equal a lack of self-respect or dignity. However, a first-year communication student can tell you that when the message that “you are inferior and other” is structured into the laws, economy, politics, and culture and reified over two centuries, it shapes both the way in which you are treated by others and, more importantly, how you see yourself.

As a scholar of organizational rhetoric, I must say with a sick admiration that neither the Babylonians nor the Romans could totally destroy a native people’s ability to resist and organize systematically the way that America destroyed whole tribes of African descent. The destruction of culture, language, religion, and most of all self-confidence, was so complete that there is celebration of minor victories while ignoring the defeats that render the population unable to engage in systemic change. The beatings on the Edmund Pettis Bridge were mercifully short compared to the constant onslaught of messages that remind African American children every day that if they make it, it will be because just this once the odds were in their favor.

“Aren’t they supposed to be getting ready for a big celebration?” my husband asked as we drove through Selma last weekend. “Yes,” I said sharply. “Doesn’t look like they are making much progress,” he said sadly. No it doesn’t but it will get better — please Jesus let it get better.

Maria Dixon Hall is an Associate Professor of Communication at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. She is an academic, consultant, and theologian that believes that strategic communication is at the heart of every successful endeavor.

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Is There a Future for Jews in Europe?

The fight against anti-Semitism in Europe is linked to the fight against Islamophobia

A young girl’s bat mitzvah is cut short. The life of a volunteer security guard is permanently cut short. The Jewish community of Copenhagen is only the latest in Europe to face the rising tide of anti-Semitic violence. It is almost impossible to comprehend how a community that still within living memory experienced the most systemic attempt at their genocide in history, now once again, faces the fear of terrorist attacks. This time though it is very different. Despite the strong emotional resonance this is not the 1930s all over again. Instead of state governments actively acting as the agents of death and destruction, they are working to protect their Jewish communities. Brian Lehrer on New York Public Radio noted how much of a difference this is in contrast to the past two millennia of European government behavior toward the Jewish communities within their borders. This is not the 1930s.

Yet, it is hard to deny the palpable fear of those within the communities under assault. The Jewish Agency, the organization responsible for facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel posted the following tweet from France last week:

There are thousands, possible tens of thousands, of European Jews now seriously contemplating immigration to Israel. To be sure this is not the only picture. There are countless pictures of people defiantly proud of the places of their birth and determined not to leave. When I visited the French city of Marseille in the summer of 2013 as part of an interfaith conference I met with members of the Jewish community who despite regular acts of intimidation and assault remained determined to stay. The story of thousands lining up to attend seminars on immigration to Israel is as honest a depiction of the current Jewish reality as are the countless stories of those who will not leave. Both stories are true. It is within that framing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the following words to the Danish Jewish community in the wake of the shooting at the synagogue:

“Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe… To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”

Was Netanyahu right to call for a mass wave of immigration of European (and indeed worldwide) Jewry to Israel? Was this within his responsibility as Prime Minister of Israel? Should he have offered support in other ways? Was this only political maneuvering as the upcoming elections in Israel loom large?

The Chief Rabbi of Denmark, Jair Melchior, responded critically to Netanyahu: “Terror is not a reason to move to Israel.” Others have praised his call as courageous and the right thing to do as the Prime Minister of Israel.

Is there a future for Jews in Europe?

First, it needs to be said as clearly as possible: The fight against anti-Semitism in Europe is linked to the fight against Islamophobia. They are the same fight. I wrote about their connection last week.

In regards to the question of whether the Jews of Europe have a future in Europe, I pray that there is a clear answer to that question but alas there is not. Do the Jews of Europe have the absolute right to live in their countries freely and safely? Yes. Is there a valuable role for a vibrant Jewish diaspora, not only in North America but elsewhere? Yes. Should the Jews of Europe stay? I do not know.

As I think about that question I keep on being haunted by the image of my great-aunt sitting in my parents living room crying about our family who chose not to leave Vienna before it became too late. I am haunted by the historical record of rabbis, community leaders and others reassuring the European Jewish community it would all be fine. I am reminded of the recent retrieval from the New York Times’ archive of its first article on the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1922 that claimed:

“But several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.”

Yes, this is clearly not the Europe of the 1930s. Yes, we are blessed to have European states striving to protect all of its citizens, Jews included. Yes, as Prime Minister Valls of France said “France without its Jews is not France.” This is all true, but just because it is not the 1930s does not mean it is not the rise of something new and something we did not predict.

I do not know if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments were merely opportunistic, misguided or insensitive. I simply know that if I am ever asked the question should I stay or should I go, I do not want to be the one who says stay and need to live with the possible horrible consequences of that advice.

Rabbi Ben Greenberg is Director of Programs at Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago.

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