TIME Race

‘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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TIME faith

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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TIME faith

The Problem With #AshTag on Ash Wednesday

The Church is in danger of stripping its rituals of their solemnity and meaning for the fleeting, ephemeral popularity of a social media event

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Let’s just go all the way this Ash Wednesday and stop imposing ashen crosses on foreheads all together.

Instead, let’s simply impose hashtags made of ash.

Because, if we are honest, that’s largely what this day has become about.

The #AshTag, not the ashes.

The virtual, not the real.

The immortal digital, not the mortal flesh.

Ash Wednesday is no longer about repentance and self-examination but about retweets and selfies.

Welcome to #Ashtag Wednesday. Last year, we saw the rise of Ash Wednesday as a trending social media event instead of a solemn service. Clergy mugged for cameras in sacristies with ash on their foreheads. Parishioners shared selfies with the world.

The whole world saw Christians standing on the virtual street corner praying and making their fasts public spectacles. We did the exact thing the Gospel for the day asked us not to.

It is a frustrating trend. A dear friend once said she loved Ash Wednesday because, unlike Easter or Christmas, it was the one day on the Christian calendar that couldn’t be commodified by popular culture.

But what is impossible for man is certainly possible with the church.

Get your #AshTag in church. Where will you get your #AshTag? Post your Ash Wednesday selfie and you might be one of 50 lucky people to win a book!

These are actual pitches this year — by religious organizations — for Ash Wednesday services.

These churches, leaders or organizations aren’t encouraging people to receive ashes as part of the liturgy, as a way to enter into Lent, or as a way to ponder our mortality or the sobering reminder that we are dust and will return to dust.

Rather, they are implicitly encouraging people to come to church in order to post of selfie. It fetishizes ashes. It centers the purpose of ashes in the public consumption of photos and social media rather than in reminding us of our mortality. The systemic push within the church for Ash Wedneday selfies is an exercise in whistling past graveyards. That’s the unfortunate context of the call to “get your #Ashtag.”

So, while I truly hope people don’t post their Ash Wednesday selfies this year, I really can’t blame them. This isn’t about the individuals posting selfies. It’s about the church itself, which is promoting it, driving it, and attempting to create cool trends rather than to call people into deeper meaning for the season of Lent.

In doing so, the Church is in danger of stripping its rituals of their solemnity and meaning for the fleeting, ephemeral popularity of a social media event.

Ash Wednesday is, if nothing else, a reminder of our mortality. How ironic that now there is a rush to immortalize our piety on this day through the eternal digital life where neither rust destroys nor moth consumes.

We store up these treasures on Twitter.

We have hollowed out the holy call for self-examination with narcissism.

We’ve exchanged the sacred for the selfie.

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TIME Parenting

Christians and Spanking Culture: How and Why to Stop It

Given who we are and how we act, why do we have such impossibly high expectations for our children?

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The “cool pope” is speaking out in favor of physical discipline, bringing spanking back into the news.

Though I come from an evangelical background, I admire the pope, and so found his latest comments frustrating.

I don’t spank my children. (Full disclosure: my children are still quite young—but so far, so good.)

My relatives all spank their children with reckless impunity. To them I know it seems so simple: the actions of the child who has disobeyed is immediately met with the power and authority of their mighty hand, by which the child immediately learns that he or she has done wrong.

But I don’t discipline my kids that way. And people judge me for that. One relative mentioned casually to my husband, “You guys can get away with not spanking, because your kids listen—but my kid won’t do anything unless she’s spanked.”

I wanted to argue; I wanted to answer, “That’s because you’ve trained your child to be completely unresponsive to any form of discipline other than spanking. Your child knows that when you simply ask her to do something, you don’t mean it—you only mean it when you spank. (And no, my kids do not always listen.)”

The idea that not spanking is some sort of easy, overly lenient parental response is baffling to me. It would be much simpler to smack my kids every time they did something wrong (especially when I’m angry at them) than it is to consistently treat them like human beings deserving of the same respect that I believe I’m entitled to.

So many parents make discipline a battle for control, when anyone who has researched effective conflict resolution knows that compromise and empathy, not forceful demanding, is the solution to problem-solving.

Spanked throughout my own childhood, I wasn’t taught anything about non-violent parenting until, curious about what other options might be available to me, I researched the matter myself. The number of experts who tell us (with decades of peer-reviewed research studies and staggering statistics to support their findings) that spanking is at worst harmful and at best simply ineffective is enormous.

But people don’t listen to that overwhelming evidence—often for the same reasons they ignore the science behind climate change and vaccinations. They don’t want to be told what to do, and so find it easy to ignore research that doesn’t fit in with their personal philosophies.

We expect our children to act like adults. We think they should be able to sit still for hours, listen to every command, follow all the rules, never speak above a whisper, and never express any negative emotion to a situation they find upsetting. We think their problems don’t matter, and we don’t value their feelings.

The truth is that we adults can’t even meet the standards of behavior most of us set for our kids. I lash out at my spouse when I’m frustrated. I may break speeding laws on occasion. I don’t think I’ve ever spent a day at work where I haven’t deviated from my duties and goofed off online, if just for a few minutes.

Given who we are and how we act, why do we have such impossibly high expectations for our children?

Proverbs 13:24 says, “Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.” Rather than take the Book of Proverbs as simple suggestions, written thousands of years ago for a specific community in a specific time period, conservative Christians think of it—and especially its passages on child-rearing—as living, breathing words written directly to them. What they hear in the words above is, “If I don’t spank my children, I hate them.” So, for them, not spanking their children brings them instant guilt for failing as parents.

The problem is that, even if you take the Bible at face value, the Hebrew translation the for word rod is shevet—a stick or staff used to guide and lead sheep, like a shepherd’s crook. The word shevet appears in one of the most beloved passages in the Bible, in Psalms 23: “Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.”

The rod—the shevet—is not an object of pain. It is an object of comfort, love and protection. This is the sort of vision I have for my children when I raise them. I don’t need their absolute obedience. My goals for them are that they grow up with the fruits of the spirit. I want them to be understanding and empathetic to the effect their actions have on others around them. Violent, authoritative parenting is not the way in which it will be possible for me to meet this goal.

Most conservative Christians—especially God-fearing, red-blooded Americans who want their children to grow up respectful and reverent of authority–believe that honoring and obeying one’s parents means honoring and obeying God. Well, I do want my children to honor and obey me—but not because they are physically afraid of me. I want them to feel about me the way I feel about God, which is that I honor and obey Him because I know that he loves me, cares for me, and would never harm me.

Jennifer C. Martin is a writer in Richmond, Virginia.

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TIME faith

The Christian Case for Vaccinating Your Kids

A bottle containing a measles vaccine is seen at the Miami Children's Hospital on Jan. 28, 2015 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images A bottle containing a measles vaccine is seen at the Miami Children's Hospital on Jan. 28, 2015 in Miami, Florida.

Maybe it’s time we love our neighbors’ children as well as we love our own

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Look, I get that nostalgia is big right now.

We’ve got more 19th century beards, vinyl records, backyard gardens, and banjo music in the United States than at any other time in probably the past 50 years.

It’s a throwback to those halcyon days of previous generations.

But do you know what I’m not nostalgic for?

Measles.

Like not in the least.

I’d be just fine without a new revival of one of the world’s most infectious diseases.

Or any other disease, for that matter, preventable by a readily available vaccine.

Of course, nostalgia, like the decision not to vaccinate one’s children, tends to be primarily an indulgence of the white and wealthy. Parents who refuse vaccines tend to be in both of those demographics. Any time a trend like this, with such clear and dire public health consequences, skews white and wealthy, then we must acknowledge that it’s also a race and class issue.

Some, though, want to frame this as an issue about personal choice. It’s about what individual parents are compelled to do with their own children by the government, some argue.

For Christians, however, this selfish individualistic mentality — the what’s good for me and mine and who cares about anyone else — goes against the core teachings of Jesus. One clear ethic resounding throughout the life of Jesus and his teachings is that we don’t have the luxury of ignoring each other. Instead, we have a responsibility to care for each other.

Vaccines aren’t about individual choices or even individuals. It’s not about you and your children. It’s about us. All of us.

It isn’t about how best to love and protect my children.

It’s about how best to love and protect all of our children.

It’s about us as species finally making headway against killer diseases after millions of years of evolution and high child mortality.

It’s about us as a human family, joining hands to protect each other and particularly the vulnerable whose compromised or weakened immune systems can’t handle vaccines.

So maybe it’s time we love our neighbors’ children as well as we love our own.

So, if you are a Christian, and you are wondering whether you should vaccinated your children, look at the teachings of Jesus. That’s right, I think Jesus would have been pro-vaccine. He was a healer, after all. Vaccines have prevented scores of disabling and deadly diseases in children. And had they had vaccines in first-century Galilee, it might have cut down on Jesus’ miracle workload, which he seemed to dislike anyway.

In fact, the vaccines that have prevented polio or the measles might well seem like miracles to people who remember when those diseases ravaged lives, when they could not be stopped by science and vaccines but only prayed against in desperate hope.

So, when you take your children to the doctor, check your privilege as a white, wealthy, or healthy person.

Don’t let your privilege and personal choice harm others or put the vulnerable at risk.

Indulging in nostalgia is fine, really, just so long as you aren’t endangering your neighbor.

So spin your vinyl.

Pluck your banjo.

Grow your beard.

Plant your vegetables.

But love your neighbor.

And vaccinate your children.

David R. Henson is a priest in the Episcopal church.

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TIME faith

10 Ways to Make the Internet a Better Place

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Try to listen, no matter how hard

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Lately I’ve been lamenting at what a toxic place the internet can be. But instead of lament, I would like to contribute something more helpful to make dialoging with people on the internet a little less toxic, and a little more right. Here’s 10 things we can do to make the internet a better place for everyone:

1. Remember that avatars aren’t just avatars — but are real people with a real story.

It’s easy to lose sight of an individual’s humanity on the internet, but remember, this is a real person with a real story — and you don’t know their story. Try to remember that you’re not really talking to a cartoon avatar, but a real, live, human being who has their own story that led up to their nasty comment.

2. Know that you’re probably not seeing the individual’s true personality.

I am convinced that 99% of the nasty people you encounter on the internet probably aren’t like that in real life. They’re probably people who love their kids, don’t kick their dog, are generally kind to others, and who would be treating you completely different if you were sitting in their living room.

3. Remember that people are more than simply their position on a single issue.

When we encounter folks on the internet, it’s usually in response to a post that is dealing with one specific issue. Remember that you cannot gauge the totality of their personhood by their position on one, single issue. If you were to sit down with them, you might find a host of other things you agree on or have in common.

4. Consider that mean people are often feeling scared, insecure, or threatened.

When people lash out online, there’s usually good reason —and that reason most likely could be linked to feelings of fear, insecurity, or that their worldview is being threatened. Many people are afraid that if they discover one area of their belief system is wrong, everything else could collapse on them too (even though that’s rarely the case). For these folks, there is a need of self preservation to defend and argue, because they’re trying to protect their worldview from falling apart.

5. Don’t say things that you know will needlessly escalate a person.

Some of us are better at pushing people’s buttons than others, but we all know how to do it. Remember that a human being is not a toy to be maliciously played with, and saying things that you know will have a high likelihood of setting them off for no good reason should probably remain unsaid.

6. Remember that gentle responses often disarm.

This won’t be the case 100% of the time, but quite often you’ll find that if you respond to someone gently and kindly, they’ll soften up a bit to the point where you might be able to have a real conversation with each other.

7. Remember that responding with a defensive attitude can make you look as obnoxious as the person you’re talking to.

The best way to go from the receiving end of nastiness to the giving end of it, is to respond defensively. I get it — no one likes to feel attacked. But, the best thing you can do is to walk away when you’re feeling defensive because commenting from a defensive posture before you’ve had time to sit with your thoughts is a fast-track to becoming as nasty as they are.

8. Try to listen, no matter how hard.

A lot of nasty people just want to be heard, but haven’t quite caught on yet to the concept that they’re more likely to be heard if they knock off the obnoxious behavior. Consider taking the first step — help them by listening to what they’re really trying to say. Perhaps being heard will help them to cool down a bit.

9. Don’t engage when you’re in bad space.

When you’re in bad space, that bleeds into your comments regardless of whether or not you can always see it. You’re less patient, less kind… less everything that’s good in the world. The best bet is to just avoid participating in the comment section when you’re in a bad mood.

10. Remember that you’ve done that too.

It’s easy to judge that nasty person you encounter online, but remember: there’s a good chance that someone else has a story where you were the nasty person. We all have our bad days. We’ve all done it. Just remember that the person you’re talking to might be just like you, but on a bad day.

We both have good days, and we both have bad days — but let’s try some of these 10 items and see if we can make the internet a better place for all of us.

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

No, God Will Not Determine the Outcome of the Super Bowl

The exterior of University of Phoenix Stadium
Gene Lower—AP The exterior of University of Phoenix Stadium, host of the 2015 Super Bowl, in Phoenix, Arizona.

According to a recent survey, one in four Americans believe that God determines the outcome

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Stop giving glory to God after athletic events.

You are going to make the baby Jesus cry.

Honestly, you are going to make every version of Jesus cry (except for Republican Jesus). Republican Jesus wants you to give glory to God after utterly defeating another team. We’ll get to why in just a minute.

But first a little theological ground work.

The “Providence of God” is fancy seminary talk for how involved God is on a day to day basis in making stuff happen. There are all kinds of biblically supported stances on this, from God having a very high involvement to God having no involvement at all.

For example, if you give God thanks for getting the parking spot closest to the doors at Wal-Mart, you have a very high understanding of the Providence of God. Essentially, you are saying in spite of all the bad crap that happens in the world (wars, starvation, painful diseases, death, torture) God is more interested in making sure you don’t have to walk too far to get a cut-rate deal on pants with an elastic waist made by people around the world working for slave wages.

I’m here to tell you, looking at the realities of this world, a God with a high Providence is not a God you actually want to worship.

Let me talk you through this.

Let’s go back to that sports example. As a matter of fact, let’s get real specific.

When the Seattle Seahawks made a stunning comeback to make it into this year’s Super Bowl, after the game their quarterback, Russell Wilson (reportedly an all-around good guy), told reporters asking about their win, “God is good, all the time, every time.”

When I heard that I immediately posted to my Facebook page: “Dear Russell Wilson, great comeback but please stop saying “just… God is good.” I promise you, God had nothing to do with it.”

The responses came rolling in.

Some were very supportive and hundreds of people “liked” the status.

But some were not supportive; and others were, shall we say, a bit aggressive.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Religion News Service tells us that one in four Americans believe that God will determine the outcome of the Super Bowl.

Many of the folks who had a problem with my post were disappointed that I was being so down on someone thanking God for success at their career.

But, let me ask you: what does that say about God?

Do you ever hear the losing team thanking God or do you hear the person who just lost their job because of something someone else did thanking God?

Now we are beginning to get at the problem of a high Providence of God.

If God helped you win the game or be good at your job (or helped you with whatever), what does that say about the losers of the game or the person who got fired?

Did an all-loving God not help them in the same way that you were helped? If not, why? Are you that much more deserving than they are?

At this point, we usually hear someone say, “But God’s ways are mysterious.”

One: That is such a copout. Two: Even if God’s ways are mysterious, I see the end results and I still don’t think that’s a God worth worshiping.

Take the high Providence of God and blow it up to a global scale.

Whether we like it or not, whether we mean for it to or not, thanking God for what we get in life implies something about God’s relationship with and care of those who aren’t as fortunate as we are.

By simple virtue of being born in a first world nation, most of us find ourselves living lives that folks born into less favorable circumstances would see as living as kings and queens. From the simple day-to-day conveniences of indoor plumbing to the often overlooked security of not having to worry about an actual war breaking out in our city, we live lives that many would call blessed.

Should we give thanks to God for it? Should we imagine that God has placed us where we are with the benefits that we have, and left others to walk for miles simply to get clean water for that day?

Should we imply that God helps some and causes others to suffer?

Is that what an all-loving God looks like to you?

That’s not what it looks like to me.

It is, however, a God that Republican Jesus would like.

That Republican Jesus is a God who finds some people to be more deserving, more blessed than others — a God who believes some nations are far superior to others. That’s a God who is just fine with some nations winning the global economic battle while others struggle to feed their people.

Shouldn’t we give thanks to God for our successes?

Honestly, I don’t think so.

Not because of what it says about us, but because of what it says about those who aren’t fortunate enough to have the same blessings.

More specifically, I don’t think so because of what it says about God. It says that God’s hand is in everything and that God chooses to bless some people more than others.

That’s not a God that I’m going to worship – “mysterious ways” or not.

So, please stop giving thanks to God after winning sporting events.

I promise you, God had nothing to do with it.

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

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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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