TIME faith

Pope Francis Keeps Silent on Syria Strikes

Pope Francis arrives with his popemobile at the Catholic University in Tirana, on September 21, 2014.
Pope Francis arrives with his popemobile at the Catholic University in Tirana, on September 21, 2014. Filippo Monteforte—AFP/Getty Images

The pontiff's decision not to comment on latest airstrikes may be as close as he comes to an endorsement — but it has its risks

One voice has so far remained quiet since the United States and five allied Arab nations launched airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) late Monday: That of Pope Francis.

The Holy Father’s silence is a complete contrast to his all-out effort a year ago this month—almost to the week—to prevent U.S. military strikes against the Syrian regime. Then, Pope Francis dominated the news cycle with his message opposing U.S. intervention. He wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 summit that President Barack Obama was attending, urging leaders to oppose military intervention in Syria: “To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,” he argued.

The Pope singled out a Syrian refugee family during a private visit to the Astalli refugee center in Rome so he could hear their story. He flooded his Twitter feed with messages like, “War never again! Never again war!” and “How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake” and “With all my strength, I ask each party in the conflict not to close themselves in solely on their own interests. #prayforpeace.”

He declared a day of prayer and fasting for Syria and held a five-hour prayer service in St. Peter’s Square as the U.S. and France contemplated military strikes. “How many conflicts, how many wars have mocked our history?” he asked the tens of thousands of faithful gathered. “Even today we raise our hand against our brother. … We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent letters to all members of Congress urging them to vote against military intervention in Syria. The USCCB also wrote to President Obama to make clear that for the Pope and Middle Eastern Bishops “a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences.”

The Pope’s messaging this past week could not be more different. As the U.S. has considered its next steps in combating the ISIS threat, @Pontifex’s tweets have been about spiritual poverty and God’s love that does not cease. In his visit to Albania, he briefly rebuked (unnamed) religious militants who act in the name of God—“May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity,” he told diplomats at the presidential palace on Sunday—but that’s about it.

Why the change? Certainly the political landscape has shifted over the past year. The ISIS threat has risen to the global scene, and these latest airstrikes are targeting militant groups rather than Assad’s regime. Russia may now seem like less of an obvious partner for peace after its actions in Ukraine. Pope Francis himself has a panoply of issues on his agenda, from migration crises to Vatican financial reform to the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the family. Plus, there is the risk that the appearance of Vatican support for military intervention against ISIS could flame a “Christian v. Muslim” narrative that could further endanger religious minorities in the region.

The Pope is not usually a figure world leaders look to for foreign policy advice when considering military action—his role is more one of a moral symbol, and so his voice is relevant chiefly for its perceived influence in shaping public opinion. The Catholic Church traditionally holds to the theory of just war, historically accepting military intervention as a sometimes necessary step toward peace. But no one expects a symbol of peace to ever be an advocate for war — and so the Pope’s silence may be as close as the Holy See gets to giving an endorsement.

Francis did hint at his approval of the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq last month, when it began targeting ISIS positions there. So long as the international community was involved, and not just a sole actor, he told a reporter on his return flight from South Korea, “I can say only it’s licit to stop an unjust aggressor.”

He also sent special envoy Cardinal Fernando Filoni to Iraq to visit displaced and threatened minorities—Christian, Yezidi, and other—in August. “The Church as Church is and will always be against war,” Filoni, who was the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq under Sadaam Hussein, said upon returning. “But these poor people have the right to be defended. They have no weapons, they have been driven out from their homes in a cowardly way, they have not engaged the enemy.”

But silence about human rights more broadly however has its risks, especially in pivotal political moments like we are seeing this week. Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen Jr. put what’s at stake in the Pope’s diplomatic career best. “To date, the only concrete diplomatic success to which Francis can point is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling to power by opposing Western strikes [last year],” Allen wrote for the Boston Globe’s new Catholic site Crux. “Yet assuming that Assad reasserts control, the question is whether Francis will use the Church’s resources to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy. If not, his major political accomplishment could go down as propping up a thug.”

TIME Religion

The Air Force Scandal Shows Secular Americans Still Need Equal Rights

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Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and internationally best-selling author. Robyn Blumner is the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Too many religious Americans are convinced they can't trust people who don't subscribe to a faith—it's time for the secular to make themselves known

It took the threat of a lawsuit before the Air Force agreed on Wednesday to allow airmen to omit the phrase “So help me God” as part of a required oath. Until then, they claimed an airman stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was ineligible to re-enlist after he crossed out the phrase on his re-enlistment form.

This controversy will rile up many people of good will—not against the military, but against the airman. Why make a big deal out of words that the majority of Americans believe in? Just cross your fingers if you must and say the words. Why rock the boat?

Here’s why: the incident betrays a subtext of intolerance and hostility toward secular people that is embedded in American culture and public institutions. The Air Force was ready to end a man’s military career because he would not submit to its religious demands.

To secular Americans, requiring an oath to God is like asking a Jewish airman to swear, “So help me Jesus,” or asking a Christian to say, “So help me Allah.”

The objection to forcing the oath on nonbelievers should be obvious. It’s not.

But a new campaign is hoping to change all that. Openly Secular, launching today, is a new coalition of more than two dozen secular groups—one of the largest of its kind—coming together with the goal of raising awareness of the numbers of nonreligious people in the country. We include not only atheists and agnostics, but our allied organizations include religious people of many denominations who cherish the Founding Fathers’ ideal of church-state separation.

Secular Americans make up a huge and growing stratum of society. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and the nonreligious make up 20% of Americans overall and fully a third of millennials under 30 years old. But until secular people come forward and introduce themselves, the misconceptions marginalizing them will persist.

The polls are pretty startling. A Pew poll this year found that nearly half of Americans say it’s necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Another recent poll found Americans would rather vote for an adulterous or pot-smoking candidate for President than one who is an atheist.

Many religious Americans would be startled to discover how many nonbelievers they already know and like. Too many religious Americans are convinced they can’t trust people who don’t subscribe to a faith. The truth is, they are constantly trusting nonbelievers; they just don’t realize it.

Secular people are not just academics and scientists—although most academics and 93% of members of the National Academy of Sciences are nonbelievers. Secular people are in police departments protecting streets from crime. They are taxi drivers, waiters, shopkeepers. They are doctors and nurses treating the sick. And they are serving in the military, putting their lives on the line to protect the country.

Watch the videos on OpenlySecular.org to see average, hardworking Americans come forward and talk about their lives as nonbelievers.

The Openly Secular coalition hopes to eliminate the social costs of coming forward. It is lamentable that people fear they are risking their jobs, businesses and personal relationships, simply through being true to who they are.

One day soon, the stigma and disdain will be so diminished that allowing an airman to re-enlist in the Air Force without swearing to a deity he doesn’t believe in won’t have to become a federal case.

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and internationally best-selling author. He has published eleven books, all still in print, including The Selfish Gene, the blockbuster The God Delusion, and his magnum opus The Ancestor’s Tale. Dawkins is a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He was the inaugural holder of the Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and is the Prize of Japan.

Robyn Blumner is the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science in Washington, D.C. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer at the Tampa Bay Times newspaper (formerly the St. Petersburg Times), where she was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize with colleagues. Blumner was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and of the ACLU of Utah.

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 faith

Defeating ISIS Will Take More Than Military Action

In order to truly defeat ISIS, we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels

It’s time to make the obvious connections. To keep focusing on consequences for national security, but ignoring the causes will create one terrorist group and war after another. Wars can only ever attack symptoms; peace requires that we deal with fundamental reasons for conflict. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus, not the peace-lovers who keep hoping their government’s latest military strategy will work. And to hope for any lasting peace in the Middle East will mean challenging and changing the unjust oil economy we have helped to create—that not only threatens the planet through climate change, but threatens our lives and our children through constant terrorism and war.

Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” is the Chaplain of St. George’s Anglican Church in the capital of Iraq, which is now threatened by ISIS. He was in Washington this week to seek humanitarian aid and protection for the Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq who are suffering at the hands of ISIS. Over breakfast with him, I heard incredibly horrible stories of Christians being slaughtered, with most now fleeing for their lives.

White and Dr. Sarah AK Ahmed, who directs their foundation which administers aid to Iraqis, both described how Christians, Sunni, and Shia Muslims lived together in relative peace until the American invasion of Iraq. Before the war, many in the global faith community, including Pope Saint John Paul II and Christian leaders in the U.S. and the UK, warned that the bombing and invasion of Iraq could destroy and radically destabilize the country, taking many innocent lives and creating more extreme terrorism and hatred toward America across the region. ISIS is a clear result of the American war in Iraq and an occupation which failed to understand and tragically inflamed the 1,400-year sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis.

Now, the warhawks still want to bring another full out war back to Iraq.

But let’s give the hawks credit for some honesty. If we fail to deal with the underlying causes of extreme terrorism, their solution of serial American invasions and long-term occupations in many Middle Eastern countries is one credible response to continuing terrorism—Rome vs. the barbarians. Let’s be clear: ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups are indeed barbarians. Yet it is the injustices of Rome and subsequent super-powers that create the grievances that help create barbarians. The early Christians certainly didn’t side with the barbarians, but neither did they side with Rome: the Christians offered another way, and other alternatives.

The modern injustices that lead to our modern barbarians lead right back to our oil economy and the repressive regimes that produce nothing, but instead just sell the fossil fuels under their sands. It’s time to be honest: the West is guilty of creating those states, of actually defining new countries and shaping the unnatural and oppressive geography of today’s Middle East. Many of these regimes are utterly corrupt, run by elites that serve their own wealth instead of their people and systematically oppress women.

As of 2010, about 55% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa is under the age of 25. Massive numbers of unemployed, uneducated, and angry young men are very vulnerable to hateful extremists who speak the rhetoric of revenge, the savage myth of redemptive violence, and the ugly distortions of religion into their ears. Injustice results in barbarians.

To ultimately “defeat” terrorism will take more than one military action after another. It will take the end of our energy dependence on the unjust oil regimes and their fossil fuels. It will take a conversion to a clean energy future and a commitment to the stewardship of God’s earth which would benefit all of God’s children.

This weekend, many of us from the faith community will gather in New York City as heads of state convene at the United Nations for a summit on climate change. We will make the faith argument for energy conservation, for ending our dependence on dirty energy for investing in clean and renewable energy, and for protecting God’s creation from the alarming and growing dangers of climate change—brought on by our use of fossil fuels.

We must also start to make it clear that overcoming our economic, political, and spiritual addiction to fossil fuels is the only way to overcome and defeat the terrorism that is such a threat to our lives, our children, and our religious freedom in the days ahead.

This will be a long term commitment that will take time. But any short and middle term strategies aimed at protecting vulnerable people and pushing back terrorist forces will only work if they go hand in hand with our long-term conversion to a new energy economy.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The UnCommon Good is available in stores.

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 faith

The Theology Behind Obama’s Speech on ISIS

Obama drew from prominent Protestant minister Reinhold Niebuhr

Religion is creating havoc in the world. Authoritarian governments are collapsing in the Middle East, and in the absence of credible alternatives, Sunni and Shi’ite religious groupings, fueled by ancient hatreds, are fighting each other to fill the void.

President Obama gave a speech last week on what to do about it. It was a sane and sensible speech, and one that may have drawn some inspiration from a Protestant minister who was a profound political thinker and one of America’s great public intellectuals of the mid-20th century.

In 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama told columnist David Brooks that Reinhold Niebuhr was one of his “favorite philosophers.” “I love him,” Obama said, and despite the fact that Niebuhr was not a philosopher but a theologian, the President-to-be proceeded to give a very respectable capsule summary of his thinking.

Niebuhr is mentioned less frequently these days, but I heard a distinct Niebuhrian strain in the President’s speech. And that is a good thing. There is no foreign policy consensus today; in fact, there is barely any foreign policy coherence. The Republicans veer wildly from the interventionism of John McCain to the isolationism of Rand Paul. On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton is dismissive of the President’s foreign policy positions but seems to have none of her own. Yet amidst this confusion, the President spoke wisely and well, and I heard in his words some of the clarity, depth, and moral power that characterize the writings of his “favorite philosopher.”

A liberal clergyman, Niebuhr wrote forcefully about original sin and the existence of evil in the world. Setting aside the pacifism of his youth, he came to believe that liberal reformers too often exaggerate human goodness. And since nations are even more flawed than individuals, he saw power politics as inevitable. This meant that if justice were to be achieved in this world, America would have to be prepared to exercise the power that she possesses. For great nations in a messy world, there is no opting out; great powers must take chances and get their hands dirty in order to do right.

In this vein, the President was specific about the evil that is ISIS; he spoke of the attempted genocide, the mass executions, the abuse of women, and the killing of children. He mentioned the gruesome beheadings of American journalists. And he spoke as well of America’s obligation to lead in the world and to promote both justice and freedom, and did so with more passion than has been his custom of late.

But there is another side to Niebuhr, and there was another side to the President’s speech. Niebuhr affirmed power but also feared it. While individuals are sometimes humble, he believed that nations—and especially great powers—never are. They assume that they can change the world in ways they cannot. They act for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of those they are supposedly helping. They deify their own states and their own intentions. They fail to ask if what they are undertaking will help or hurt. And they do all of this, often, with the very best of intentions, certain of their own virtue. And the result? Tragedies such as Vietnam, where American pretensions led not to the justice that Americans aspired to but to suffering and disaster.

The President, it seemed to me, was clearly aware of the dangers of overreach, and he did a reasonably good job, to use David Brooks’ phrase, of “thread(ing) the Niebuhrian needle.” He talked about things that America can reasonably expect to accomplish, such as air strikes on ISIS targets and delivering humanitarian aid. He avoided the temptation to inflate the threat of terrorism, even as he pledged to keep America safe. And he refrained from the language of jingoism and belligerence to which such occasions lend themselves. And above all, he made a firm commitment that American troops would not fight a battle that, if it is to be won, must be fought by Arab armies. In short, the President more or less succeeded in balancing American assertiveness with the humility that Niebuhr prized as the essential—and usually the missing—ingredient of American foreign policy.

And this too: Niebuhr was an enthusiastic champion of the checks and balances of the Constitution. He was reassured by the idea that each branch of government would ride herd on the others and thereby prevent abuses of power in pursuing foreign adventures. Here too the President got it right in calling for the full and robust engagement of the Congress in authorizing and shaping the campaign against ISIS.

I have no doubt that the President will be subjected to a barrage of criticism from the warmongering elements of the opposition, but I find his performance impressive. The American people needed to hear a plan, and they did; they needed to be reassured, and they were. And they needed to know, as they now do, that their government will not rush off and engage us in a battle that will exacerbate rather than calm the deeply troubled waters of the Middle East, taking many American lives in the process.

What would Reinhold Niebuhr say? I can only speculate. He died in 1971, and we will never know what he would say or do. But my guess is that the President was paying attention to his teachings, and the great theologian would be pleased.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

 

 

TIME faith

What I Gained When I Lost My Religion

A former evangelical Christian reflects on the benefits of losing his faith

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

People often ask me if my life is better now that I’ve left my religion. My honest answer is that it’s a mixed bag. On the negative side, I have to say that the reactions of people who liked me better when I still had faith have been at times very strong. I usually become a target for re-evangelism for a while, but they eventually learn to quit pushing me after they realize that I’ve heard everything they have to say about this a thousand times. Most people probably just decide I’m being stubborn and/or that the Devil’s got me under a spell; but while the pushing may stop, the disappointment lingers on. Some do their best to keep a lid on that, which I appreciate, but you can still hear it in their voices and that can hurt. If you crave the approval of people, and if you live where I live, I wouldn’t recommend atheism for you.

But once you rule out how some have behaved toward me because of my unbelief, I have to say that (when I am not working too much) I am enjoying life in a way that I haven’t enjoyed it in a long time. It’s not always about what I’m doing at the time, either. Often it’s just about feeling more at home in my own skin than I ever felt when I still believed that Earth is not my home and that I’m supposed to be longing for some other place. To explain what I mean, here is a list of the things which leaving my religion has brought me. Not everyone will necessarily experience the same things I did, but these are the benefits that I see I personally have derived from this development:

1. Peace of mind. As a person who likes to try to understand the world around me, I have found that this perspective fits so much better with the world I see than the religious perspective ever did, and that brings a tangible sense of satisfaction for me. Every week, every month, I find things seem to get clearer and clearer to me. Things just make a whole lot more sense to me now. Julia Sweeney said it perfectly when she said, “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would if there were no Supreme Being.” I don’t mean that I understand everything, and I’ve still got plenty of unanswered questions. But you don’t have to be ruled by your need to have answers to all your questions. I think our religions feed that problem in order to perpetuate our need for them. Leaving your religion can free you up to find better answers to some questions while enabling you to let go of the ones that don’t really have good answers.

2. A rediscovery of a love of learning. For me personally, I found that the loss of my religious beliefs opened me up to a really big universe of fascinating and intriguing realities. I realize that faith and learning coexist in some people’s minds better than others, but more often than not they are in great tension with one another, and at times they are diametrically opposed to one another. My change of mind energized my dormant scientific side, and as a consequence I find that almost daily I learn something new which amazes me and further stimulates my love of learning about the world around me.

3. The ability to accept people I formerly judged. Religious belief taught me, for example, to judge the LGBT community for being attracted to anything other than “the appropriate sex.” It taught me that something is wrong with these people, and while it also taught me I’m supposed to love them and somehow accept them and reach out to them, I’m also supposed to condemn something that lies at the core of their identity. That’s no longer an issue for me. The main reason most people I know condemn same-sex relationships is because of their religion. Leaving your religion can free you from that burden. I now count several of them as my most supportive friends. In fact, I have found that losing my religion has opened me up to a much wider range of people because I do not have a 2,000 year old book telling me how I should see the world. I think I’m a better person for this change of mind.

4. Less judgement toward myself…for some things. Just as a loss of religion has made me more accepting of others, I am getting better at accepting myself, with certain caveats. I do not let myself off the hook for things I consider unhealthy, or unkind, or inconsiderate of others. There are good, non-religious reasons to work to eliminate those kinds of behaviors in life. I will not, for example let myself off the hook for being dishonest toward people, nor will I excuse substandard work in my professional life. But there are quite a few things which my religion taught me I should feel guilty about, and I don’t have to shoulder that anymore. This brings an improved quality of life. I will not consider it wicked, for example, to have “thought crimes” such as wanting something I don’t have or savoring the attractiveness of another person. Religion puts many layers of guilt on us for things which are perfectly natural, and the resulting manipulation is powerful. But I’m done with that now. The self-loathing and guilt my religion taught me was in retrospect incredibly unhealthy. It takes time to unlearn the negative self-talk. But once you’ve made some progress in letting that go, you can become a much happier person.

5. I give credit where credit is due, both to others and to myself. Like the preceding two, I think this makes me a healthier person than before. If someone does something good, I do not thank God for it. I thank the person who actually did it. They deserve credit for the things that they do. Doctors, for example, must get really tired of hearing people give God credit when their surgical/medical skills and learning are what saved a person’s life. My daily life isn’t so dramatic as that, mind you, but it’s analogous. The other side of this is that when I do something right, I allow myself to take credit for it. This, thanks to my evangelical upbringing, is much harder to do. I found that the Christian faith discouraged me from acknowledging positive things about myself so that I ended up with a terrible self image. I still suffer from that because I learned self-loathing so very well. But it’s getting better, little by little. I had to leave the Christian faith for that to happen.

6. Getting Sunday mornings back. Of course, it extends beyond that once you consider how much of a person’s life can be spent investing in things like prayer, worship, Bible study, witnessing/growing membership, or attending conferences which teach you how to do all these things more effectively. After you give those things up, you realize just how much of your life you get back. I never resented my religion for the amount of my time and effort it took up. I enjoyed it at the time because I believed all of it was pleasing to God and that’s all I wanted in life. But now that I’ve “given up the ghost” so to speak, I see that there are so many other valuable things toward which I could be devoting my time and energy.

7. Better health. I realize good health and spiritual commitment don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for me personally a shift in beliefs brought a shift in priorities such that my physical health became more important to me. Now I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life, and this significantly affects the quality of my life. Just yesterday I ran another one of those mud runs with some friends in another state and I had a blast. I hope to write a few thoughts and observations about that soon.

8. Better sex. You wouldn’t believe how much more you can enjoy sex once you let go of the subtle (or often not-so-subtle) body shame that accompanies religious devotion. I know a number of couples who once were devout Christians and now are both non-believers, and almost without exception they have reported an improvement in their sex lives. It’s not that religion always directly shames people for their desires and their pleasures. But the Christian faith in particular teaches you never to be totally at home in your own body. It talks as if you belong somewhere else, and this just isn’t compatible with fully embracing your own physical existence the way that really good sex requires.

9. Friends who are more fun. And the parties are way better. Even simple conversation is more entertaining, honestly. I know this may sound petty, but I’m just telling you what my experience is. When group A is dominated by a long list of things you’re not supposed to say, think, or feel, and group B doesn’t have that list, you can guess which group is gonna be more fun to be with. And again, I find it easier now to be friends with a wider range of people.

10. More realistic expectations about life. I no longer believe that I am special or that a ubiquitous, all-powerful paternal figure is orchestrating events around me for my benefit (or for the benefit of anything or anyone, really). So I act accordingly. And I find that I don’t get let down by things not going “the way they were supposed to.” I take responsibility for those things I can control, and I don’t look for a savior to come and rescue me. Again, I think I am a better person for it.

11. A greater appreciation for the preciousness of life. Once you realize this life is the only one you’re gonna get, you learn to appreciate each day in a way you never could when you believed there would be trillions more in your future. I found that a belief in eternity only lowered my evaluation of daily life and it cheapened life, in a way. But once you realize this one short life is all you’re going to get, you will find it easier to throw yourself into what you do, knowing that you need to make the most of it that you can. You won’t minimize the suffering of others (or of yourself) by saying that life will get better after you die. You might even be more motivated to be an agent of change in the world once you realize someone’s not going to come in and magically reboot the whole thing one day. It’s up to us to make the most of our one life that we can, and I find that a disbelief in the supernatural has helped me to do that.

What things could you add to this list? How has leaving your religion benefited your life? I’d like to know.

Neil Carter is a blogger, teacher, father of five, and former evangelical Christian who now writes on skepticism and life in the Deep South.

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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 Military

U.S. Air Force Sergeant Faces Ouster Over Refusal to Acknowledge God

Cadet Chapel
The Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Staff Sgt. Don Branum / Air Force

Lawsuit threatened unless mandatory oath invoking `God’ is changed

As the U.S. military battles Islamic zealots overseas, there’s a similar, but much more genteel, religious fight now underway inside the U.S. Air Force.

The service has told a technical sergeant with more than 10 years of service that he will not be permitted to re-enlist unless he declares “so help me God” on his re-enlistment contract.

“He submitted his re-enlistment contract in August and crossed out” so help me God, says Monica Miller, a lawyer with the American Humanist Association, who is representing the unidentified airman. “He was told he had to swear to those words, or else he would have to leave the Air Force.”

 

Final four words in the Air Force’s re-enlistment contract. Air Force

“We have been in compliance with Title 10 of the U.S. Code,” which spells out the re-enlistment oath, says Captain Brooke Brzozowske, an Air Force spokeswoman. But the Air Force has kicked the matter up to the office of the Pentagon’s top lawyer for a ruling. “The airman’s term of service expires in November 2014,” Brzozowske adds. “He has until this time to complete the Department of Defense Form 4 in compliance with the Title 10 U.S.C. Section 502.”

oath-form 4

The airman is based at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, and has chosen to remain anonymous. “He’s afraid of retaliation and hostility from the public,” Miller says. She says she will file suit in the case in federal court later this month if the Air Force continues to insist on her client swearing the oath.

The latest skirmish is part of a long-standing American tradition of arguments over religion, which ranges from uttering “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to displaying religious symbols ranging from crosses to the Ten Commandments on public land. The Air Force has long been troubled by religious tensions, especially at its Colorado academy.

But, according to Miller, this problem is of the Air Force’s own making. Before last fall, Air Force regulations pertaining to the enlistment oath noted that “airmen may omit the words `So help me God’, if desired for personal reasons.”

oath-5.6 old But the Air Force modified that section last Oct. 30, according to Miller, and eliminated that option:

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Miller says she finds the Air Force’s position surprising, because she handled a similar case last year for someone based at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. “They said they’d consulted their legal department, which confirmed that they could not require an atheist to say that language,” Miller recalls. “So it was very puzzling to us when this issue came up again a year later and the Air Force had a completely different response.”

Eugene Fidell, who lectures on military law at Yale University and co-founded the National Institute of Military Justice, says it shouldn’t take long for the Department of Defense general counsel to strike down the requirement that airmen declare “so help me God” when they re-up. “That provision cannot be considered mandatory,” he says. “It’s clearly a test oath, and test oaths are forbidden by Article 6 of the Constitution.”

The bottom line of Article 6: “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

TIME faith

Catholic Confession Needs to Stay Confidential

A Louisiana ruling on the seal of confession may find its way to the Supreme Court

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

I try not to make a habit of wading into swamps, but there’s something going on in Louisiana that should not be ignored. The state Supreme Court ruled that, once a penitent has waived confidentiality, what was discussed in the sacrament of confession can be fair game in court. The diocese of Baton Rouge has recently appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The case is particularly challenging because the confession in question was made by a girl who was being abused by a parishioner, and it appears from her testimony that the priest did not do anything to help her.

Much of the discussion thus far has been about what Louisiana law requires and whether or not the seal of confession supersedes it. But this misses two important questions — one about what should have happened, and one about why the seal cannot be waived, even by the person who made the confession.

What should have happened when abuse was disclosed in the confessional?

If a child told me, in the context of a confession, that she was being abused — by anyone — I would do everything in my power to counsel her to seek help, by disclosing the abuse to a parent, to a trusted adult, to a teacher or a counselor, or to me outside the confessional. (And were I told outside the confessional, I would report it to the appropriate authorities.) I would want to make sure that the child knew that it is the abuser who has sinned, not her, and that God loves her and wants her to be safe from whatever and whomever is harming her — and that no concern about being ashamed or fearing repercussions should stop her from asking for help.

What makes this case so troubling is that the victim alleges that the priest in question did almost the opposite of that, telling the child (according to her deposition) when she asked for advice on how to end the abusive relationship that this was her problem, and that she should “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”

If that’s true, it’s reprehensible. If that’s true, it’s sinful and an utter failure of priestly ministry. If that’s true, it’s an abuse of the sacrament and a betrayal of God’s mercy and justice.

But we don’t, and can’t, and won’t know if that’s true — and that leaves us frustrated and angry. I feel that way myself. We don’t and can’t and won’t know how the fourteen year-old girl explained the abusive situation, or what else — before or after or instead of the terrible “sweep it under the floor” — the priest may have offered by way of counsel. The priest doesn’t have the option to tell us whether he did something right or something terrible, and there are good reasons for that.

Why is the seal inviolable even when the penitent waives confidentiality?

The Church demands the absolute inviolability of the seal of confession, to the point that priests are expected not even to confirm that a particular confession took place. Further, the priest’s responsibility to maintain the seal is absolute even when the penitent desires to break it — to the point that if someone I was counseling outside of confession wanted to talk about matter that they had confessed to me earlier, I would ask them not just to refer to it, but to bring it back up and discuss it again themselves outside the confession.

Why? Because the seal of confession is not a contract between the priest and the penitent. The person who confesses has the right to privacy, but that’s only the beginning of what the seal protects. The Church wants to maintain the absolute freedom of anyone, under any circumstances, to seek God’s mercy without fear. If the seal of the confessional can be broken, for any reason, then that potentially becomes an obstacle to someone seeking to confess.

But wait – in this case the penitent herself wants the seal broken. Yes — but she’s not the sole “owner” of the rights in question. The priest has a duty to protect her rights but his duty also goes further, to protect the integrity of sacramental confession itself. Her decision to waive the seal might be well motivated, but in other circumstances, such a waiver could be coerced. I’m not suggesting that in this case the victim is being pressured to waive the seal; instead, I’m saying that making the seal absolutely inviolable eliminates any possibility of anyone ever being coerced to waive the seal.

Another way of saying this is that the inviolability of the seal is not a defense of the individual interests of any particular penitent, such that it could be waived when those interests call for it — it’s a defense of the availability of the sacrament to all penitents in any circumstances, whenever and wherever those may be.

Or consider it this way: someone who’s terrified and ashamed of something — whether it’s a sin they’ve committed or even abuse they’ve suffered — might not be able to muster the courage to take even the slightest risk of revelation. The inviolability of the seal offers them, and anyone who may in the future face the same fear, the freedom to seek help.

What happens next?

We aren’t going to find out what really happened in that confessional, because even if the Supreme Court upholds the state’s interpretation, I expect that the priest will continue to refuse to testify, even if he’s held in contempt and jailed for his refusal. I understand why such a refusal could be seen as cowardice and defensiveness, especially given the Church’s terrible failures, in so many cases of abuse by priests, to respond to victims and their reports of abuse, or, even worse, the Church’s sin of protecting the abusers and allowing abuse to continue.

I also understand the desire, in the present context where we keep learning more about the tragic prevalence of sexual abuse of children, to do everything in our power — including also the power of the state — to say that we will not tolerate any more of it, especially not under the guise of what ought to be sacred. Set against that very understandable desire, the Church’s assertion of confessional privilege and its own authority to interpret that privilege can seem craven, suspiciously convenient, and self-interested.

I hope that people of good will can also understand the claim that God’s law is higher than the state’s, and that the matter of confession ultimately belongs neither to the priest nor the penitent but to God alone. I hope that they can at least imagine why the Church is willing to defend the seal — and priests willing to go to jail rather than violate it — so that the rest of us can turn to the sacrament and seek forgiveness and counsel without having to submit our failings to public view and the power of the state.

Whether or not the priest in question offered the good counsel I hope he did when this poor child told him that she had been abused, he doesn’t get to defend, excuse, or explain himself. He doesn’t get to plead for forgiveness or even for understanding. He isn’t being protected for his own sake or because the Church deserves special rights. He has a responsibility — and lacks the freedom to defend himself, which are one and the same in this case — so that all the rest of us can have the freedom to seek God’s mercy and begin to work out our own repentance without having to figure out our legal standing first.

Sam Sawyer, SJ is managing editor of The Jesuit Post, a project of Jesuits in formation, exploring ways to use the web and social media for evangelization.

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TIME faith

Pastor Mark Driscoll Called Women ‘Penis Homes’

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

Things have been getting worse and worse for Mark Driscoll in recent weeks. But what I want to point out for a moment is one of Driscoll’s posts from 2001, when he was posting to a church message board under the name William Wallace II. I have rarely seen an evangelical man assert male superiority and prominence this directly.

The first thing to know about your penis is, that despite the way it may see, it is not your penis. Ultimately, God created you and it is his penis. You are simply borrowing it for a while.

While His penis is on loan you must admit that it is sort of just hanging out there very lonely as if it needed a home, sort of like a man wondering the streets looking for a house to live in. Knowing that His penis would need a home, God created a woman to be your wife and when you marry her and look down you will notice that your wife is shaped differently than you and makes a very nice home.

Yes, really. Men’s penises are on loan from God, and women were created to be “homes” for men’s penises. So much for any claims of men and women being “equal before God.” No, men were created by God and loaned penises. Women were then created by God to be penis homes.

Therefore, if you are single you must remember that your penis is homeless and needs a home. But, though you may believe your hand is shaped like a home, it is not. And, though women other than your wife may look like a home, to rest there would be breaking into another man’s home. And, if you look at a man it is quite obvious that what a homeless man does not need is another man without a home.

Notice that all women are portrayed as another man’s penis home, whether or not they are married. This squares with what I was taught—every woman is some man’s future wife, and that man owns her body even before they meet.

Paul tells us that your penis actually belongs to your wife, and once you are married she will trade you it for her home (I Corinthians 7:4), and every man knows this is a very good trade for him to make.

With his penis, the man is supposed to learn to please his wife and learn how to be patient, self-controlled and be educated on how to keep his home happy and joyous (I Corinthians 7:3). The man should be aroused by his new home, and the wife should rejoice at seeing his penis rise to greet her (Song of Songs 5:14b).

Oh yes, a man should keep “his home” sexually satisfied. And the wife, for her part, should be sexually arousing to her husband and “rejoice” when he has an erection. This sad attempt at mutuality fails when the one party is described as a penis home.

You can view the full screenshot here.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that this is the viewpoint taken by at least some evangelical men. All to many evangelical and fundamentalist advice books treat the man as the primary creation and the woman as, well, merely his helper. The man is primary, the woman is secondary. The man was created for God’s glory, the woman for man. These individuals claim that men and women are nevertheless equal before God, but that claim rings hollow when placed alongside the rest of their rhetoric.

The claim that women are uplifted and honored as caregivers and nurturers in the home also rings hollow in this context. In Driscoll’s treatment, women are no more than penis homes. Women were created to satisfy men. There is nothing uplifting or honored in that. Even many evangelical and fundamentalist women, who are attracted to those beliefs in part because of the rhetorical value they place on homemaking, must surely be appalled by Driscoll’s rhetoric.

In a sense, Driscoll’s downfall was only a matter of time.

Libby Anne is a blogger for Patheos.

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TIME faith

Ferguson’s Reach: A Shot Felt in South Africa

Racially-based injustice is America’s ongoing apartheid

I was in South Africa on August 9, when a young, unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. It didn’t take long before Michael Brown’s story was on all the news channels in South Africa. After that, in every media interview I did Ferguson came up. “How could this have happened?” all the journalists asked. When I laid out the pattern of this happening regularly to men of color in America at the hands of white police or other men with guns, they were stunned. “White cops couldn’t get away with that anymore in South Africa,” they said.

On my speaking tour I met a new generation of South African leaders who are not content to just re-tell the stories of winning political freedom. They are now laying out their own agenda and vocation—of turning political liberation into economic liberation and gender equality, goals that have yet to be achieved. Economic inequality is actually greater now than under apartheid and gender violence is a frightening epidemic. But a rainbow nation they now are and the image of a young black man with his hands in the air being shot multiple times by a white American policeman was appalling to both blacks and whites.

As a young man, I was deeply blessed and forever changed when I was invited into the South African struggle during the 1980’s. I witnessed the miracle of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and the birth of a new nation which taught me my theology of hope. Back then I learned what it means to “believe in spite of the evidence then watch the evidence change” as I often say.

Now I was blessed again, coming back to South Africa and making a deep connection with a new generation of leaders. I watched Ferguson from South Africa. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of events from our own civil rights movement it’s time for a new generation and a new agenda to be lifted up. At its heart will be reforming a criminal justice system that still reveals America’s original sin of white racism. The myths of a post-racial society have been swept away by the structural racial realities of our arrests, sentencing, and convictions. The mass incarceration of people of color is the fatal flaw that undermines the success of the civil rights movement. This is America’s ongoing apartheid.

Young men of color are vulnerable to white men with guns, whether police officers or new white vigilantes whose violence has become legally justified. Every black family in America, of every class and status, knows that to be true. Every black parent has had “the conversation”—a painful fact to which every parent with young boys must recognize and respond. And when young men of color are rightfully distrustful of law enforcement, our society is in deep moral jeopardy.

The young people I met on my trip know they cannot achieve a genuinely new South Africa without a new relationship between all races. Christians call that reconciliation, but these young people realize it can only be trusted by concrete commitments to racial and economic justice. And that applies to us too. Black churches must not be left alone to fight the mass incarceration of their young people. A racial issue must be turned into a gospel issue for churches and a democratic issue for the nation. Both the gospel and our democracy are being tested by the kind of events that keep happening in places like Ferguson.

A young black South African leader told me what happened to him when he worked for the Salvation Army in the United States. He and two of his young white co-workers were driving one night when a white police officer pulled them over. The cop asked the driver for her license and registration, which were in her bag. When my friend lifted her bag to her the cop pulled his gun and said, “What are you doing?” When he explained the cop holstered his weapon. But when the young man suggested that they turn down the car radio so they could hear the officer, the cop put his gun in the black man’s face and said, “What did you say to me?” This was in Rhode Island, not Florida or Missouri. “I grew up knowing I might get shot in South Africa, but didn’t think I would get shot in America,” my young friend told me.

This behavior is a sin—against our brothers and sisters, against true democracy in America and ultimately a sin against God. The sin must be repented of and turned around. Reversing the sins of a racist criminal justice system must become an agenda for a new generation of Christians from every race and faith community in America.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The UnCommon Good is available in stores.

TIME faith

Mormon Church Offers Rare Glimpse at Faith’s Relics

Mormon Church Holds General Conference In Salt Lake City
The Salt Lake Temple of the Mormon church on April 5, 2014 in Salt Lake City, George Frey—Getty Images

The artifacts will be on display in a new exhibit opening in Salt Lake City, where the Mormon Church is based

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are offering an unprecedented look at ancient Mormon artifacts as a part of a new exhibit at the Mormon church’s historical library.

The “Foundations of Faith” exhibit will feature a collection of 26 books, manuscripts, and documents that trace back to the faith’s founding in the mid-1800s, the Associated Press reports. The LDS church has long been known for its secrecy, but the religion’s leaders are hoping the exhibit will increase non-Mormon understanding of the faith.

“We need to be open and transparent,” Steven Snow, a Mormon historian and recorder, told the AP. “There are questions that arise occasionally, and we need to deal with them in an honest, forthright way, which we are trying to do.”

The artifacts will be on display in the Salt Lake City-based church’s library starting this week.

[AP]

 

 

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