TIME Religion

What Pope Francis Could Teach Francis Underwood

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in Season 3 of House of Cards
David Giesbrecht—Netflix Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in Season 3 of House of Cards

Christopher Hale is executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

The 'House of Cards' character could learn a lot from the most successful politician in the world

As the third season of House of Cards premieres today, many of us will begin our weekends by binging on the popular Netflix series. But before we do, it would be worth taking a moment to explore the hidden religious motif that underlies the entire series.

The title itself is revelatory—Francis and Claire Underwood have built their entire lives on a “house of cards.” Francis’s ascent to the White House is achieved through political gamesmanship, lies, corruption, and even murder.

Nearly a millennium earlier, there was another Francis who was charged with building a house for himself and his people. The 13th-century saint was praying in an old church in the Italian village of Assisi when he heard God calling to him, “Francis, rebuild my church.” Saint Francis of Assisi, along with his companion Clare, then set out on a journey to rebuild a broken Church and a society that had grown corrupt and lost the original inspiration of the founder of the faith and the Gospel he preached.

Because they built their house on the timeless resources of truth, beauty, and goodness, Saint Francis and Clare of Assisi’s house still stands eight centuries later. Today, the universal leader of the Church they rebuilt even shares their charisma and their namesake.

But Francis and Claire Underwood’s house is sure to crumble. As Jesus reminds us, only a “fool” builds his home with such weak resources. If only Underwood would consider the wisdom of the other Francis across the pond.

Unlike many, Frank doesn’t worship money. But he does think that money—even dirty money is the best way to advance his political fortunes: “When the money’s coming your way, you don’t ask any questions.” Pope Francis thinks this is a dangerous proposition. He’s asked world leaders to “ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”

Frank Underwood says that “the road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties.” But Pope Francis calls Frank’s bluff: “True power is service. The Pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.”

Frank Underwood has no time for human relationships. He tells us that “friends make the worst enemies” and that “the best thing about human beings is that they stack so neatly.” Pope Francis would surely implore Underwood to remember his namesake: “Saint Francis witnesses to respect for everyone, he testifies that each of us is called to protect our neighbor, that the human person is at the center of creation, at the place where God – our creator – willed that we should be. Not at the mercy of the idols we have created!”

In the end, it will be this idolatry of power that will bring Francis Underwood down. Viewers might like him for a season or two, but every villain has his day. That’s too bad, because, as Pope Francis reminds us, when focused on the common good, “politics is a noble activity.”

And he would know. After all, it’s Pope Francis, not Frank Underwood, who is the best politician in the world.

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

Harassment of Jews Across World Hits 7-Year High

Intimidation of Jewish people was particularly prevalent in Europe

The number of countries where Jews faced harassment rose to a seven-year high in 2013, according to new study on persecution of religious groups around the world.

The Pew Research Center found that Jews were harassed by governments or social groups in 77 countries of the 198 in the study, up from 71 countries the year before. The study measured both instances of government policies that restrict religious practices and private acts of hostility and found that Jews were far more likely to face private attacks or abuse than other religious groups.

Christianity, the world’s most widespread religion, faced instances of harassment in 102 countries. Among Christians, most instances involved government harassment. Muslims were harassed in 99 countries.

Harassment of Jews in 2013 was particularly prevalent in Europe. Among 45 European countries, 34 registered instances of private attacks on Jews, a higher proportion than any other geographic region. In March 2013, for example, three men attacked a young man wearing a kippah in a Paris suburb, threatening, “We will kill all of you Jews.” In August, vandals painted a Swastika on the walls of a bull ring outside Madrid. Some 32 countries in Europe saw private attacks on Muslims.

Among the world’s 25 largest countries, the study found that overall levels of harassment against all religious groups were highest in Burma, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia. But overall, the share of countries worldwide with social hostilities involving religion declined in 2013 — dropping six percentage points from 33% to 27%.




TIME faith

Young Evangelical Leader Loses Book Deal After Coming Out

Brandan Roberts Evangelical
Cameron Sharrock Brandan Robertson of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality

In an exclusive interview with TIME, an evangelical author said his contract with a Christian publisher was canceled

A prominent Christian publisher canceled a book project this week after the author refused to say that he did “not condone, encourage or accept the homosexual lifestyle,” the author told TIME.

The publisher, Destiny Image, told author Brandan Robertson on Feb. 19 that it would no longer publish his manuscript, Nomad: Not-So-Religious Thoughts on Faith, Doubt, and the Journey In Between, for financial reasons. Robertson, the evangelical organizer for Faith in Public Life, who only makes a glancing reference to homosexuality in the manuscript, recently told TIME that he identifies as queer. He said the publisher told him there was concern that evangelical bookstores would not carry the book.

“There is much consideration for every book, every author, but the final determination is financial viability,” explains Don Nori, CEO of Destiny Image’s parent company, Nori Media Group, who declined to discuss the role that issues of sexuality played in the decision.

Destiny’s decision comes as the evangelical fight over marriage equality has intensified in recent months. Two prominent evangelical churches, EastLake Community Church in Seattle and GracePointe Church near Nashville, announced in January that they were giving full membership privileges, including the right to marry and to receive communion, to lesbian and gay congregants. Many evangelical churches, organizations and colleges are taking small, intermediate steps toward inclusion, even as others, like the Southern Baptist Convention, have maintained a hard line against acceptance of same-sex relationships.

Destiny Image recruited Robertson for a book contract last year, with no advance payment, when he was still a student at the conservative Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. “Our core vision at Destiny Image has always been to give an unfiltered voice to emerging authors who are changing the way people see Christianity,” Mykela Krieg, a communications specialist at Destiny wrote to him in January 2014 in an email obtained by TIME.

Robertson submitted a book proposal, which Krieg told him was “great,” and he signed his contract with Destiny that spring. The book is a collection of essays on his personal spiritual journey from a fundamentalist to a progressive evangelical. “It is the archetype of the millennial journey of faith,” Robertson says. “It points to a lot of the struggles that we as millennials have.”

Destiny Image was enthusiastic. “We especially love your title ideas,” Krieg emailed him. “The word ‘nomad’ stood out to both of us.”

After he graduated from college last year, Robertson, now 22, became the national spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, an initiative started by millennials to help evangelicals support civil gay marriages. He spoke at a Reformation Project conference, an effort by fellow evangelical activist Matthew Vines to raise up affirming evangelicals in every evangelical church in the country, last fall. Robertson also blogs regularly about issues of social justice and sexuality on his Patheos blog, “Revangelical,” and has been featured in numerous news outlets for his work to encourage evangelicals toward greater gay and lesbian inclusion. TIME featured Robertson in January in a magazine story, “Inside the Evangelical Fight Over Gay Marriage.

The word gay appears in his Nomad manuscript only one time, in a chapter titled “Grey,” that begins with a quote from the Nobel Literature Prize–winning André Gide, “The color of truth is grey.” Robertson writes: “One high school biology class is all that it takes to begin asking some serious questions about the book of Genesis and the origins of humanity. One conversation with a close friend who is struggling to be gay and Christian is all that it takes to begin wondering if the interpretation of Leviticus we heard in Sunday school is actually applicable in today’s context. One life shattering tragedy is all that it takes to begin rethinking the whole notion of the ‘sovereignty’ of God.”

Last week he turned in his manuscript, and three hours later, he got a reply. “I’m sure it feels amazing to have the manuscript finished!” Krieg wrote. Then she continued: “Since you’ve been receiving more media attention over the past few months, we’ve had some questions/concerns arise from our buyers, and our executive team has asked that I connect with you about your stance on a few issues that may continue to come into question.”

“As soon as I read those words, a knot formed in my stomach,” Robertson says. “I immediately knew that the problem was going to be with my very vocal support of LGBTQ equality and inclusion in the church — unfortunately, I was right.”

Robertson spoke with Krieg on the phone that afternoon. According to Robertson, Krieg explained Destiny’s concern that Christian retailers wouldn’t buy the book because of Robertson’s public advocacy for gay and lesbian inclusion in Christian communities. Krieg then emailed Robertson Destiny’s statement on homosexuality. It was the first time, Robertson says, that they asked him if he could agree with the statement. It reads: “Destiny Image accepts the Holy Scriptures as the infallible word of God and answers all questions concerning life and godliness. We do not condone, encourage or accept the homosexual lifestyle. Destiny Image renounces this lifestyle as ungodly and completely contrary to the Kingdom of God.”

The statement continues with this Bible passage from 1 Corinthians: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.”

Robertson emailed Krieg to let them know that he could not sign or uphold such a statement. “I know what this likely means,” he wrote. “But just wanted to be very clear.”

“Thanks so much for your honesty,” Krieg replied, saying that she would relay their conversation to the executive team. “I truly appreciate it, and I completely respect your stance.”

Nine days later, on Feb. 19, Destiny Image called Robertson to inform him that, “for the success of my book and for their financial reasons,” as Robertson puts it, they were no longer going to publish his book. “It just reopened all those rejections wounds,” says Robertson. “I am at a frustrated point, not for my book, but this is so symptomatic of what happens in the broader evangelical community — every day, LGBTQ individuals are told that they are no longer welcome in churches, are kicked out of homes, are fired from jobs, and forced in to reparative therapy by those who claim to represent Jesus.”

When TIME asked Nori why Destiny pulled the book, Nori did not address the role that Robertson’s position on sexuality played in their decision: “There is nothing significant to report,” Nori says. “We did not reject or refuse. As with all books, a publisher decides what is financially viable. We released the book back to the author with our sincere prayers for his success. This occurrence happens every season.”

Destiny publishes popular Christian authors including pastors T.D. Jakes and Bill Johnson.

TIME Religion

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Obama Must Confront the Threat of Radical Islam

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
Reuters An ISIS member waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, on June 29, 2014

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the founder of the AHA Foundation and the author of Infidel, Nomad, and the new book Heretic: The Case for a Muslim Reformation.

ISIS is recruiting young Muslims from around the globe to jihad, and the White House apparently doesn't understand why

Recent days have witnessed a number of attempts to grapple valiantly with the threat posed by ISIS and radical Islam. Graeme Wood in The Atlantic and Damon Linker in The Week are among those who are now confronting the theological arguments that inspire radical Islamic fighters and groups like ISIS.

Even as writers and public intellectuals explore the theological factors pertaining to Islamist violence, however, the Obama Administration has conspicuously avoided any discussion of Islamic theology, even avoiding use of the term radical Islam altogether. The White House this week held a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (a rather nebulous concept) while intentionally avoiding mention of radical Islam.

How can the Administration miss the obvious? Part of the answer lies in the groups “partnering” with, or advising, the White House on these issues. Groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America insist that there should be no more focus at the summit on radical Islam than on any other violent movements, even as radical Islamic movements continue to expand their influence in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere.

Amplifying a poor choice of Muslim outreach partners, however, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have argued in recent days that economic grievances, a lack of opportunities, and countries with “bad governance” are to blame for the success of groups like ISIS in recruiting Muslims to their cause. Yet, if this were true, why do so many young Muslims who live in societies with excellent governance—Denmark, the Netherlands, the U.K., the U.S.—either join ISIS or engage in jihadist violence in their own countries? Why do young Muslims with promising professional futures embark on the path of jihad?

Neither the summit partners nor the Administration can effectively answer these questions.

Both Denmark and the Netherlands have good governance. Both offer not only free health insurance but also free housing to Muslim refugees, along with high-quality education for their children. This should produce an outpouring of gratitude by young Muslims toward their host society, and no jihadists.

Yet there are dozens of jihadists hailing from the Netherlands, and a recent attack in Copenhagen was committed by a man who was raised in Denmark and had effectively enjoyed years of Danish hospitality.

The question is not limited to Europe. Minnesota, for instance, is hardly a state with bad governance. It offers ample opportunity for immigrants willing to work hard. Yet more than a dozen young men from the Twin Cities area have joined the jihadist movement in recent years.

How can Obama or Kerry explain this? Based on the President’s public statements and Kerry’s analysis in the Wall Street Journal, they cannot.

It is worth remembering Aafia Siddiqui, the MIT-educated neuroscientist who could have enjoyed a prestigious and lucrative career in the biotech industry but instead chose to embrace radical Islam, eventually becoming known as Lady al-Qaeda.

Or think of the three Khan siblings, who recently sought to leave Chicago in order to go live in Syria under the rule of ISIS. The sister, intelligent and studious, had planned to become a physician. The siblings were intercepted before they could fly out of the country, and prosecutors argue they wanted to join armed jihad. Defense attorneys have a different explanation, saying the siblings desperately wanted to live under a society ruled by Shari‘a law—under the rule of Allah’s laws, without necessarily wanting to commit acts of violence.

It is this motivation—the sincere desire to live under Islamic religious laws, and the concomitant willingness to use violence to defend the land of Islam and expand it—that has led thousands of Western Muslims, many of them young and intelligent and not the oft-described “losers,” to leave a comfortable professional and economic future in the West in order to join ISIS under gritty circumstances.

In its general strategy, the Obama Administration confounds two things. It is true that in failed states, criminal networks, cartels and terrorist groups can operate with impunity. Strengthening central governments will reduce safe havens for terror networks. Kerry’s argument in the Wall Street Journal is different, however: namely, that if we improve governance in countries with bad governance, then fewer young people will become violent extremists. That’s a different argument and not a plausible one. In fact, it’s a really unpersuasive argument. Muslims leave bright, promising futures to join ISIS out of a sense of sincere religious devotion, the wish to live under the laws of Allah instead of the laws of men.

In reading Kerry’s piece, I am glad that in the late 1940s the U.S. had people like George Kennan employed in its service to see the communist threat clearly and to describe it clearly. But where is today’s Kennan in this Administration? Who in the U.S. government is willing to describe the threat of radical Islam without fear of causing offense to several aggressive Islamic lobby groups?

U.S. policymakers do not yet understand Islamism or what persuades young Muslims to join jihad: sincere religious devotion based on the core texts of Islam, in particular early Islam’s politicized and aggressive period in Medina (compared with Islam’s spiritual and ascetic period in Mecca).

How does one tackle the misguided religious devotion of young Muslims? The answer lies in reforming Islam profoundly—not radical Islam, but mainstream Islam; its willingness to merge mosque and state, religion and politics; and its insistence that its elaborate system of Shari‘a law supersedes civil laws created by human legislators. In such a reform project lies the hope for countering Islamism. No traditional Islamic lobbying group committed to defending the reputation of Islam will recommend such a policy to the U.S. government. Yet until American policymakers grapple with the need for such reform, the real problem within Islam will remain unresolved.

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 Religion

Dawkins: Don’t Force Your Religious Opinions on Your Children

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist based in the U.K. and bestselling author of The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker, among many other books. He is founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science based in the United States.

We wouldn't claim our young kids are liberals or Libertarian, so why are we saddling them with our religious labels?

Last week the local government council of the London borough of Islington was reported in the Islington Gazette as having banned pork products from primary school dinners. The rumor of an outright ban has since been denied, and the truth is unclear. A good case could indeed be made for a ban, on humanitarian grounds. There is persuasive evidence, after all, that pigs have levels of intelligence and awareness comparable to our much loved domestic pets. But no such humane considerations have been mentioned here. Councillor Joe Caluori, the Council’s executive member for children and families, was quoted in the Gazette as saying: “By not having pork on the menus in our schools, we can keep down costs and reduce food waste, maximising the schools meal budget in tough financial circumstances.”

The underlying point was clarified by another spokesman from the council, as quoted in the Gazette and requoted in The Independent, one of Britain’s most respected national newspapers: “Young children, some as young as four-years-old, of different religious and ethnic backgrounds may not know which foods contain pork, or may not realise the importance of avoiding it due to their culture or beliefs.”

Whatever the truth or falsehood of the original report of the ban itself, there is something in that quotation that should leap out and hit you in the face. “Their” beliefs? The “beliefs” of four-year-old children? Did it not occur to this spokesperson that children who are too young to realize the importance of “their” beliefs might also be too young to possess those same beliefs in the first place? How can the “beliefs” of a four-year-old child be “important” to her if she doesn’t even know what her beliefs are?

Would you ever speak of a four-year-old’s political beliefs? Hannah is a socialist four-year-old, Mark a conservative. Who would ever dream of saying such a thing? What would you say if you read a demographic article which said something like this: “One in every three children born today is a Kantian Neo-platonist child. If the birth rate trends continue, Existentialist Positivists will be outnumbered by 2030.” Never mind the nonsensical names of philosophical schools of thought I just invented. I deliberately chose surreal names so as not to distract from the real point. Religion is the one exception we all make to the rule: don’t label children with the opinions of their parents.

And if you want to make an exception for the opinions we call religious, and claim that it is any less preposterous to speak of “Christian children” or “Muslim children”, you’d better have a good argument up your sleeve.

What might such an argument look like? First, some say that labeling a child Muslim, say, or Catholic, is no worse than labeling her French or Swedish. But it’s not a good comparison. Citizenship of a country, whether we like it or not, has legal implications. Your country issues your passport, you are allowed to vote in its elections, you may even be drafted to fight its wars. But if you know somebody’s nationality that doesn’t tell you their opinions about anything. That French person may be left wing, right wing, pacifist or warlike, pro or anti abortion, the death penalty, vegetarianism, Windows, Macintosh or Linux.

Unlike national labels, religious labels carry a baggage of personal opinion. Catholics believe Jesus was born of a virgin mother who never died but was “assumed” bodily into heaven. Mormons believe Jesus visited America and that Native Americans migrated from Israel. It is high-handed and presumptuous to tie a metaphorical label around a tiny child’s neck stating, in effect, “this child believes Jesus rose from the dead”, as calmly as you might write “Blood Group AB.” At very least it negates the ideal, held dear by all decent educationists, that children should be taught to think for themselves.

Second, there will be people who argue that, setting religious doctrine aside, we should still treat a child as belonging to the same cultural tradition as her parents. Jewish families observe a calendar of festivals and rituals, which are different from those of Christians, Muslims or Hindus. It is reasonable that children will participate in traditional meals on Friday evenings, will hang up Christmas stockings, will help make Diwali cakes on the appropriate day. I get that, and would be sorry to see many ancient traditions die (although I would draw the line at making children fast or chopping off babies’ foreskins). Many of my Jewish friends (almost all are atheists) see no harm in celebrating traditional festivals, and I enjoy a Carol Service in a great cathedral, or Harvest Festival Evensong in a country church.

But there really is an important difference between including your children in harmless traditions, and forcing on them un-evidenced opinions about the nature of life or the cosmos. Tradition is fine where it amounts to songs or literature, styles of dress or architecture. But tradition is a terrible basis for ethics, or beliefs about the origin of the universe or the evolution of life.

Indoctrinating your opinions into the vulnerable minds of your children is bad enough. Perhaps worse is the defeatist assumption, almost universally made by society at large, including secular society, that children as a matter of fact do automatically inherit the beliefs of their parents and our language should reflect this. Non-religious as well as religious people buy into the notion that children should be labeled with one religious name or another.

Even labeled for life: when you enter hospital, or join the armed services, you fill in a form where you have to nominate your religion (which can be “none”).

We regularly read demographic projections like, “By the year so-and-so France will be 50 percent Muslim.” Such a forecast can only be based on the assumption that all children born to a Muslim couple are little Muslims who will grow up to raise their own little Muslims in due course.

Divorce courts may be asked to decide whether a child of a broken marriage should be “raised Catholic” or “raised Protestant.” Nobody ever asked a divorce court to rule on whether a child should be “raised soccer” or “raised rugby”; “raised ornithologist” or “raised stamp collector”; “raised liberal” or “raised conservative”; “raised Macintosh” or “raised Windows.”

Feminists have successfully raised our consciousness about sex-biased language. Nobody nowadays talks about “one man one vote,” or “the rights of man.” The use of “man” in such a context raises immediate hackles. Even those who use sexist language know they are doing it, may even do it deliberately to annoy. The point is that our consciousness has been raised. Our language has changed because we have become aware of hidden assumptions that we previously overlooked.

Let us all raise our consciousness, and the consciousness of society, about the religious labeling of children. Let’s all mind our religious language just as we have learned to over sexist language. “Catholic child,” “Muslim child,” “Hindu child,” “Mormon child” — all such phrases should make us cringe. Whenever you hear somebody speak of a “Catholic child,” stop them in their tracks: There’s no such thing as a Catholic child. Would you speak of a “Postmodernist child” or a “States Rights child”? What you meant to say was “child of Catholic parents.” And the same for “Muslim” child etc.

If, when you first read the quotation from the Islington Council spokesperson, nothing jumped out and hit you in the face, please do so again. Is your consciousness raised now?

Read next: The Key to Making Your Kid a Star Athlete: Back Off

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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 Religion

Pope Francis’ Guide to Lent: What You Should Give Up This Year

Pope Francis leads the Ash Wednesday mass , Feb.18, 2015 at Santa Sabina church in Rome.
Gabriel Bouys—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis leads the Ash Wednesday mass on Feb. 18, 2015 in Rome.

Christopher Hale is executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

No need to throw out the chocolate, booze, and carbs. Pope Francis has a different idea for fasting this year.

Christians around the world mark the beginning of Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday. This ancient day and season has a surprising modern appeal. Priests and pastors often tell you that outside of Christmas, more people show up to church on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year—including Easter. But this mystique isn’t reserved for Christians alone. The customs that surround the season have a quality to them that transcend religion.

Perhaps most notable is the act of fasting. While Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during the Lenten season, many people—religious or not—take up this increasingly popular discipline during the year.

MORE Here’s What People On Twitter Say They’re Giving Up For Lent

But Pope Francis has asked us to reconsider the heart of this activity this Lenten season. According to Francis, fasting must never become superficial. He often quotes the early Christian mystic John Chrysostom who said: “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”

But this isn’t to downplay the role of sacrifice during the Lenten season. Lent is a good time for penance and self-denial. But once again, Francis reminds us that these activities must truly enrich others: “I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”

So, if we’re going to fast from anything this Lent, Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others.

In his annual Lenten message, the pope writes, “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”

Describing this phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis writes that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” He continues that, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”

MORE Pope to New Cardinals: Practice Compassion, Be Open to All

But when we fast from this indifference, we can began to feast on love. In fact, Lent is the perfect time to learn how to love again. Jesus—the great protagonist of this holy season—certainly showed us the way. In him, God descends all the way down to bring everyone up. In his life and his ministry, no one is excluded.

“What are you giving up for Lent?” It’s a question a lot of people will get these next few days. If you want to change your body, perhaps alcohol and candy is the way to go. But if you want to change your heart, a harder fast is needed. This narrow road is gritty, but it isn’t sterile. It will make room in ourselves to experience a love that can make us whole and set us free.

Now that’s something worth fasting for.

Read next: 3 Things to Know About Ash Wednesday

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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 faith

3 Things to Know About Ash Wednesday

John McCann, a layman at Trinity Church, draws a cross using ash on a man's forehead to symbolize Ash Wednesday, in New York in 2014.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images John McCann, a layman at Trinity Church, draws a cross using ash on a man's forehead to symbolize Ash Wednesday, in New York in 2014.

What to know about the start of Lent

Feb. 18 is Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the first day of Lent and signals the approach of Easter. Here are three things to know about the day.

What’s the purpose of Ash Wednesday?

It marks first day of the 40 days of Lent, a roughly six-week period (not including Sundays) dedicated to reflection, prayer and fasting in preparation for Easter. It ends on Holy Thursday, the fifth day of Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) that marks the Last Supper. In addition to certain rules about foods and fasting, many Christians (and even non-Christians) abstain from additional foods, luxury or material goods or certain activities and habits.

Where do the ashes some people put on their face come from?

They’re obtained from the burning of the palms of the previous Palm Sunday, which occurs on the Sunday before Easter, and applied during services. Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ return to Jerusalem, when people waved palm branches to celebrate his arrival. The ashes are typically mixed with Holy Water or oil.

What do the ashes mean?

The ashes, applied in the shape of a cross, are a symbol of penance, mourning and mortality. Centuries ago, participants used to sprinkle themselves with ashes and repent much more publicly, but the practice fell away sometime between the 8th-10th century before evolving into what it is today. There aren’t any particular rules about how long the ashes should be worn, but most people wear them throughout the day as a public expression of their faith and penance.

Read next: This Soccer Match May Just Be the Craziest Ash Wednesday Tradition Ever

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TIME Parenting

Christians and Spanking Culture: How and Why to Stop It

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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

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Cincinnati’s archbishop does not approve of Fifty Shades of Grey.

“The story line is presented as a romance; however, the underlying theme is that bondage, dominance, and sadomasochism are normal and pleasurable,” Archbishop Dennis Schnurr wrote of the erotic book-turned movie on the archdiocese’s Facebook page. “The movie is in direct contrast to the Christian message of God’s design for self-giving and self-sacrificing love, marriage and sexual intimacy.”

“The movie is a direct assault on Christian marriage and on the moral and spiritual strength of God’s people,” he added.

Several religious groups have cautioned against seeing the film before its release Friday. But their protests seem to be falling on deaf ears: Ticketing website Fandango has sold more advance tickets for Fifty Shades than for any other R-rated film in the site’s history.

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