TIME faith

13 Ideas for Being a Better Human

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Hatefulness has seeped into our everyday existence. Here's how we can bring back common decency

There’s nothing like a campaign season to remind us of the worst of humanity. It’s not unusual to catch a bit of a stump speech and think, is that person part of the same human race that I am?

What’s happened to us that we’ve become such a people of hate? What’s happened to us that we live in such fear and hatred instead of love and kindness toward each other? And I start to wonder, further … when did it become so unusual to be kind and decent toward one another? I mean, the simple act of smiling at someone you don’t know almost seems old-fashioned and ridiculous these days, doesn’t it? When did that happen?

It’s times like these that I find myself doubling down on kindness. It’s my instinctual response to hate; my way of reminding myself that the little choices we make all day long are stabs back at the darkness.

I’m reminded of a good friend whose wife, when my friend would start to get in a big huffy hurry to get out of the house, would intentionally slow down. Her slowness boldly challenged his hurry, and usually forced him to surrender. Now, I’m not so naive to think that my small acts of kindness, combined with yours, will fell the haters of the world … oh wait, yes I am. I am that naive. I think it comes with the faith territory.

When hate is raging, intentionally bring the light. Remember what it means to be a human being. Here are some very, very simple ideas for increasing the light and reminding ourselves each day that we’re human again. (Bonus aside: watch how kindness has a crazy way of transforming the energy around you, healing others, and going freaky viral (google “Starbucks chain of kindness.”))

1. Say hello to someone in the elevator. You might even wish them a good morning. (I know, crazy, right?)

2. Open a door for someone who has their arms full.

3. Pull your elderly neighbor’s trash cans in for them on trash day.

4. Compliment a co-worker on a project or a good idea.

5. Thank your waiter, or the person who bags your groceries, or your kid’s teacher. When you thank them, look them in the eyes and mean it.

6. Give someone a hug (check out the research on the healing power of hugs).

7. Let someone into your lane on the freeway. (Just do it already, as a rebellious act of kindness!)

8. Buy a big box of granola bars and hand them out as you drive past the beleagured souls on street corners.

9. Attend a church service in another part of town with people who don’t look like you.

10. Get someone a drink of water (that’s from Anne Lamott).

11. Read a poem by David Whyte, or Mary Oliver, or Maya Angelou, or the Persian mystic Hafiz. (This is more for you than anyone else, but you know what they say — when one person finds inner peace, thousands around them are saved.*)

12. Apologize to someone you were short with yesterday.

13. End your day by looking back over the last 24 hours and noticing where you felt most connected to yourself, others, and the world. Give thanks for the big and small moments of connection, of kindness, of decency you showed or received this day.

Simple, right? That same good friend with the ‘slow’ wife also told me once that Christianity is really quite simple — we’re just supposed to love each other. That’s it! So simple, he said with a smile, and yet oh-so-hard to practice.

Let’s stack the deck in favor of kindness versus hatred. It’s time to double down and bet big on the power of small gestures of love, practiced intentionally and in increasingly regular intervals, to win the game.

*St. Seraphim of Sarov said it first.

Deborah Arca is the Director of Content at Patheos.com. She joined the Patheos team in 2009 after serving as the Program Manager for the Programs in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah belongs to a progressive United Church of Christ Church in Englewood, Colo. She is also the managing editor of the Progressive Christian Channel and Book Club at Patheos.

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The Gift of the Millennial Catholic to the Church

There seems to be a generation of non-ideological, millennial Catholics just waiting to renew Church and society alike

Dire predictions about the future of Catholicism in the United States are presently (and perhaps always have been) omnipresent. Can the Church sustain a public presence in the world with a declining national demographic, especially among millennials? Will the nation-state impinge upon the religious freedom of those practicing Catholicism? Is the Church at a point in which she must disengage from public life and nurture among herself the faithful remnant?

As a theologian influenced by Augustine, I tend to read cultural signs very realistically. I am worried about declining Mass attendance, as well as the drop in sacramental marriage and infant baptism. I see Catholic universities and colleges too often willing to give up their particularity for the sake of empty words like excellence and prestige. I wonder about the undergraduate students with whom I work whose account of human flourishing are devoid of an integral Catholic vision. In other words, I worry.

But, in the end, I cannot maintain my sourpuss disposition about the future of Catholicism in the United States. Though sociology can report upon the dire state of present Catholic practice, it cannot predict the future of the millennial Church just now coming into positions of leadership in Church and society alike. At Notre Dame, I encounter every semester undergraduate and graduate students who have chosen the Catholic Option. These students have immersed themselves in the theological tradition of the Church. They upset traditional categories of liberal and progressive by singing Latin polyphony on the weekends, spending summers in Calcutta serving the poor, and taking courses where they learn to critique forms of conspicuous consumption. They write plays about the perils of eating disorders, organize conferences around the effects of pornography, and feel deeply uncomfortable belonging to either the Democratic or Republic party.

They eschew a form of clericalism in which ordination bestows every human gift possible; yet, they love priests, seeing them as signs of an alternative way of happiness in the world, of radical self-gift. They are frustrated and even angered by approaches to catechesis that did not treat them as thinking Catholics. They are tired of tepid preaching, bad liturgical music, and churches that are modeled off of the latest shopping mall. They read John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis — at the very same time. They are philosophers, scientists, engineers, lawyers, and those who give themselves over to full ecclesial ministry as priest or lay person. They get married and have families, offering their particular talents in the context of parishes throughout the United States. They have encountered a Catholicism that is not reducible to party politics but offers an integral vision of human life.

Yet the problem in today’s Church is a reticence to invite these very millennials into positions of leadership. National ministry organizations, as well as the USCCB, continue to bemoan the absence of millennials in the Church only to pass over the remarkable millennials already in the Church. Catholic universities seem at times unwilling to employ these post-ideological millennials as faculty members and staff, changing the tenor of the discussion relative to Catholic identity. Parishes often see these millennial Catholics as passive recipients for the reception of sacramental grace, rather than active disciples, who could be catalysts for parish life — preachers and teachers for the present generation. Rather than study millennials as some foreign entity in our midst, the Church would do well to employ their particular genius for our time.

So, I am cautiously non-pessimistic about the future of Catholicism in the United States, because there seems to be a generation of non-ideological, millennial Catholics just waiting to renew Church and society alike. They are not perfect (and they need formation). They are not some universal salve for the administrative, pastoral, and theological bungles that often take place within the Church. But, they serve as sacramental signs of a form of integral Catholicism, which can move us past old arguments and old wounds toward the renewal of the American Church and, indeed, of the world itself.

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How Christians Get Interfaith Marriage Wrong

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The rise of interfaith marriage might indicate shift towards a more open and progressive American spirituality

While Christianity is American’s most popular religion (70% of people in the U.S. identify as such), pastors and scholars all let out a collective gasp at the latest findings from the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Study. According to Pew, 2015 might be the year of the religious “nones,” as those who do not identify or affiliate with any faith tradition are on the rise, while the number those who call themselves “Christian” is declining. With an eight percentage point drop in just eight years, we are all wondering what American Christianity will look like in two or three generations.

The bright (or bleak, according to some) spot in the latest Pew report? Since 2010, interfaith marriages have increased, and now four-in-ten Americans marry a spouse of a different religious group. This is a 20% increase since those who were wed prior to 1960.

Trends in the decline of Christianity’s dominance and the rise of interfaith marriage might indicate shift towards a more open and progressive American spirituality. But, it doesn’t take much Googling to uncover advice against the modern paradigm of the “nones” and blended faith families. Naomi Schaefer Riley, journalist and author of ‘Til Faith Do Us Part, ignited the contemporary interfaith marriage conversation in 2013 with the publication of her research of such partnerships. Schaefer Riley is herself a willing participant in the interfaith marriage movement (she’s Jewish; her husband is a former Jehovah’s Witness), but still outlines the perils of such unions.

For decades, pastors and rabbis have contributed to the cacophony of concern: “divided” households lead to the confused religious lives of future children, and then there’s the age-old, much-debated Christian argument of being “unequally yoked,”with another, a phrase attributed to Paul the Apostle.

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14, NRSV)

But, how does a Biblical warning allegedly issued by a 1st century theologian bode for the would-be interfaith couples of 2015?

I was raised in rural North Carolina as a Southern Baptist who took the Bible literally. It was my infallible guide for life, and a simple yet unwavering faith marked my adolescence. I assumed that everyone who lived both in and outside of my tiny tobacco town was as steeped in Baptist beliefs as I was. I didn’t awaken to the possibility that folks practiced anything besides baptism by immersion until attended a Moravian women’s college for my undergraduate studies, and Duke University for seminary.

At school, I learned that the Bible is a complex, layered manuscript written over time whose canon took centuries to develop. There was far more to this book than the poetic King James sound bites that had rolled effortlessly off my 13-year-old tongue.

Armed with my deconstructed assumptions, I joined a progressive Baptist church whose members comprised mostly of retired university faculty. There were only a handful of already-married 20 and 30-somethings in our parish, and while my new faith community was intellectually and spiritually fulfilling, I was lonely. So, I did what many female Millennials raised in South do to a find “godly, Christian man”: I went online.

I took an intense eHarmony questionnaire which forced me to decide: was I open to dating someone of another faith? I checked all the “Big 5” of the world’s religions, certain I wouldn’t end up with anyone outside the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). But, as luck—or providence—would have it, I was matched with a devout Hindu who lived as a monk and priest for five years.

Because my now-husband and I are each ordained in our respective Christian and Hindu traditions, our first dates consisted of theological talk, and we became serious students of one another’s religions. But the nay-sayers were already warning against our courtship, and so we tackled 2 Corinthians 6:14 head on, digging and wondering. The result was surprising.

An ancient scripture meant to deter us from getting involved with each other actually brought us together. Our core beliefs in God became the focus of our study and relationship, not the issues that divided us.

And, like good clergy, we consulted Biblical experts. A local scholar explained that, for the vulnerable and fledgling Christian faith of the first century, the chief concern was to spread the Gospel, not to impede it. The Greek for word “marriage” is not even used in this text, even though modern readings apply it to interfaith marriage. Rather, “yoked” signifies “work,” as one would yoke oxen together to plow or haul. Therefore a more effective way of interpreting 2 Corinthians 6:14 might be to consider the essence of what the author meant by “working” with unbeliever.

In first century, an “unbeliever” would have been anyone exposed to but was not faithful to Christ’s teachings—someone not characterized by devotion, love, peace, mercy, and forgiveness. In the context of the early Church, it’s easy to understand why Paul might caution those first generations of “believers” against being “yoked” with someone for whom Christ was not relevant. If the goal was the spread the Gospel, “working” with an unbeliever might have impaired it.

Today, my husband’s deep Hindu faith has taught me to dig deeper into what Jesus would have me do. Perhaps Paul might have even considered me an “unbeliever,” as I claimed to be a baptized Christian, but my life did not inwardly and outwardly reflect the Gospel. Since marrying Fred, I re-attuned my life to Christian spiritual practices: spending more time in contemplative prayer, practicing non-violence through a vegetarian diet, limiting my consumption, and increasing my service to others.

Much to many Christians’ dismay, it took a person of another faith—a seemingly “unequally yoked” partner, to strengthen my Christian walk.

The concerns over the tenacity it takes to be yoked to a partner of a different faith are certainly valid. But perhaps the more important question to pose is how each partner’s individual spiritual journey strengthens their collective faith and results in their passion to share God’s love.

Fred and I have found that it’s not so much about having the same faith as it is about having deep faith.

Om and alleluia.

J. Dana Trent is an author and teacher. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she is ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition. Her awarded winning book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk tells the story of her eHarmony-born interfaith marriage. Dana blogs at jdanatrent.com and tweets@jdanatrent.

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Live Life With the GPS Off

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You never know where that journey may take you

When is the last time you got lost? I don’t mean you missed a turn that you should have taken and you experienced a short inconvenience. I mean genuinely seriously lost, as in stuck on a back mountain road with no idea where you were and the sun was quickly setting.

I can remember the last time I got lost.

I was on my way to visit my then fiancee, now wife. She was working for the summer in a camp near some small town in Pennsylvania. I was working at an internship in Chicago. I printed out all the directions I thought I would need and began the drive east. Most of the drive was easy of course. All I needed to do was stick to the highways. It was when I finally got off the main roads, only a few miles from the camp, that I got really lost. The directions at that point started telling me to do things like “look for dirt road three houses after the the wooden sign in the road for the general store.” It took me a bit of going back and forth, asking a few people for help and stopping frequently to find various points along the way but eventually I made it.

As I began just another routine car trip this past week to a destination not far from my home but somewhere I had not been before, it dawned upon me that the summer of visiting my now wife was the last time I ever got lost while driving. It is practically impossible to get lost now. We don’t even need those clunky GPS devices anymore. All we need is our phone and a good battery, or at least a good charger. So it was that as I started my short trip last week to another place I had not visited before I drove there like I was a local.

What have we lost though in always having a GPS nearby? While our travel times have been greatly reduced, is there something we have lost in the process?

Along with that last time I got lost on the road those many years ago, it was also the last time I pulled down my window and asked another random passerby for help. It was one of the last times I intentionally stopped to take in the scenery all around me. It was a time when I needed to focus on the details of the landscape, of the small town surrounding me and of the type of roads I was driving on. I can still remember the winding road right before entering the town and the small locals bar and homemade ice cream shop not far from each other. I can remember the rockiness of that last dirt road leading to the camp and the smell of farmland around me. I can visualize the Amish family that lived not too far from the place where hundreds of young city kids came to experience the outdoors.

In the beginning of the Jewish people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land they come upon a fork in the road. They can go straight, the most direct route or they can take a winding path through the desert. The quickest route posed the immediate danger of the Philistines but the long path also posed another type of danger: the unknown. The simplest way of understanding the decision of God in that moment was to choose the danger of a more distant unknown than the immediate and pressing danger of the Philistines. A people just freed from years of slavery only a moment ago would not be able to persevere against such a mighty and early threat to their existence.

However, if you parse the words carefully, something truly interesting happens. The Torah in Exodus 13:17 says “God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, ‘Lest the people think again when they see war and go back to Egypt.’” The language of “for it was near” should strike us as an odd choice of words. Could it not have said “even though it was near,” thereby fitting in with the meaning of the verse in a much simpler fashion?

The Midrash Mekhilta in contemplating this language choice offers a number of possible interpretations. One of them struck me this week as I reflected on how many years it has been since I’ve truly been lost. Why did God have the people avoid the closest route home? Why not take them the shortest way? The Midrash reflects that God was concerned that if they went into the land right away they would become so self-confident in the homes they would have built and the agriculture they would have cultivated that they would have forgotten the Torah almost immediately. They would have forgotten their purpose. Therefore, God takes them through a 40-year journey through the wilderness of Sinai to imprint the Torah in their DNA so it could never easily be forgotten.

What an incredible insight! God purposefully took us the long way so we would learn to pay attention, to see the details, to not lose sight of the world around us and the bigger picture. Ultimately, the people were not actually lost. There were sign posts along the way and God guiding them along the path. Yet, in choosing the road not yet taken, we are taught the value of turning our GPS off once in a while. Taking our time. Letting the journey sink in. Not only do some of our most lasting memories get made this way but some of our biggest insights are developed while lost as well.

The next time I head for a trip to a place I have not yet been before immediately turning on my GPS app, I’ll start the journey. You never know where that journey may take you.

Rabbi Ben Greenberg is Planning Executive of SYNERGY Manhattan at UJA-Federation of New York. Previously Rabbi Greenberg was a community organizer in Chicago, the Orthodox Jewish Chaplain of Harvard University and the Orthodox Rabbi of Harvard Hillel and also served as Senior Rabbi of an Orthodox Union affiliated congregation in Colorado. While at Harvard he was a member of the Executive Committee of the Harvard Chaplains and was appointed to an advisory committee by University President Drew Faust. During his time in Colorado, Rabbi Greenberg was a member of the Board of Directors of Hillel of Colorado and of the Executive Committee of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council.

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12 Things Clergy Spouses Want You To Know

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We have a life beyond the church

I’m an Episcopal priest and my wife is a “parish” priest, which means that her “day job” — if there were such a thing in a church (not) — is shaped by the rhythm and demand of caring for the spiritual needs of a congregation.

So, I have experience as a clergy person and as the spouse of a clergy person. The spouses don’t often get a chance to tell their own story, but if they could, here are twelve things I think they would want you to know:

1. We are thrilled to be here. This isn’t just a job. God has called our spouses to this endeavor and we share that conviction.

2. We are not all women. Some of us are men. We could elaborate, but that should be obvious.

3. We are not all interested in shopping, knitting, the altar guild, and the sewing circle. We are way past the minister’s “little woman” era.

4. Please don’t ask us to take messages home to the pastor, minister, or priest. Speak directly to our ordained wives and husbands. We were taught that triangular behavior is a bad thing and it is.

5. We do not have secret information we can share with you. Our spouses don’t tell us everything and, even if they did, we couldn’t share it with you. Clergy who keep confidences are clergy who can be trusted. The rest are just gossips. (See item 4 above.)

6. We are not unpaid employees. Please don’t assume that we are part of a “two-fer.”

7. Don’t expect us to type or play the piano and organ. (See item 6 above.)

8. We want to be involved. We will support our spouses. But we need the freedom to choose our own way of contributing — Just. Like. You.

9. We have a life beyond the church. We are heavily engaged in our own careers and in nurturing our families. (See items 6, 7, and 8 above.)

10. Some of us are part of a clergy couple. Too often people and judicatories assume that if one of us is paid, it’s unfair to pay the other. Nowhere else on the face of the earth do people make that assumption. If we are contributing on an official basis, we should be compensated.

11. Our homes are our homes. We will gladly welcome you and entertain you. But even if you provided housing, that does not mean that we don’t value and need our privacy.

12. Please don’t pick on our families. Like you, we are a work in progress, in need of God’s grace and your patience.

Finally, please remember: When our spouse became your pastor, priest or minister, you became our family and our home. We live where we live and worship where we worship because of you. We will grieve with you, celebrate with you, live among you, and worship God with you.

We hope that you will welcome us as family, friends, and fellow pilgrims.

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.

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The Theology of a Biker Gang

What happened in Waco is a microcosm of our world situation


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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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


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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