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CTS Issues Statement on Recent Attacks in Beirut and Paris

All the world – tout le monde – grieves and stands with France in the midst of these harrowing days.  All the world – kl alealam – grieves and stands with Lebanon.  As people of faith, our hearts can only break when God’s children turn against each other in the name of God.  And the most elemental, effective way to counter such “turning against” is to reverse the gesture, turning toward one other in solidarity, compassion, and hope.

On Friday night, I attended the student-organized vigil against racism, a gathering powerfully proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.  CTS student body president Whittney Murphy spoke eloquently that we are like the candles we held that night:  sometimes flickering in the wind, or even going out, but then rekindled by the lights of others.  The shadows may fall and the winds threaten, but together we can walk in the promise that God is with us, and that God is a light the world’s shadows cannot and will not overcome.

As we stood together in the vigil that night along Michigan Road, the attacks in Lebanon were only a day old, and the news was just beginning to come in about the attacks in Paris.  On one level, these various events – the vigil and the attacks – seem separate and distinct.  But on a deeper level, they are profoundly connected.  The same dehumanizing act of dividing the world into “us” on the one hand and “our enemies” on the other is the root of both racism and religious intolerance.  The peace and equality for which the vigil called here at home is the same peace and equality we need in France, Lebanon, and beyond.  And what’s more (and more troubling), while France has received a public outpouring of support and solidarity from around the world, Lebanon has not.  For many, this has understandably raised the question:  When it comes to the world’s solidarity and concern, don’t Lebanese lives matter as much as French ones?  If our hearts (or Facebook pages) now bear the French flag’s blue, white, and red, shouldn’t they also bear Lebanon’s red, white, and green?

In the New Testament Gospels, Jesus’ signature move is to stand with outsiders, with the forgotten or marginalized, and to reach across religious and ethnic lines of hostility.  Following Jesus as best we can, we can only heed the call to do the same.  Jesus is in Lebanon.  Jesus is standing along Michigan Road.  Jesus is in France, and in so many other places around the world, mending the brokenhearted, calling for justice, calling for love.  Wherever the shadows fall, there Jesus goes, the flickering, quickening light of the world.

And so we give thanks for student leaders, their voices clear, their faces illuminated by candles of hope.  We give thanks for all of those committed to helping to turn these horrifying attacks into renewed resolve to work toward reconciliation.  For as we approach the coming Season of Advent, those four weeks of lament and prayer that lead to a once-forgotten backwater not far from Lebanon, we know our lives depend on the love that binds us together.  So much depends on that love.  All the world – tout le monde, kl alealam – depends on it.

God’s shalom,
Matthew Myer Boulton

TIME’s 100

This week TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People”  issue hit the newsstands. These are TIME’s nominations for the leading influencers in the world, leaders and innovators and visionaries who – according to TIME’s editors – set the tone and the pace for human life today. Of this list of one hundred, how many are figures primarily associated with religion? A grand total of: four.

Here they are, in order of appearance in TIME’s unranked list. First is Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Ugandan nun who works with young women scarred by war. Second is a trio of clerics from Central African Republic – an imam, Omar Kabine Layama; an archbishop, Dieudonné Nzapalainga; and a pastor, Nicolas Guérékoyame-Gbangou – working tirelessly for peace and unity in their country. Third is the American Episcopal writer and former pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor. And fourth is Pope Francis.

That’s it. Four out of one hundred. 4%. How should we understand this?

One initial possibility, taking the list at face value, is to be struck by the apparent lack of influence wielded by religious figures today. Think of it: if we made a list of the 100 most influential people of all time, what percentage would be clearly associated with religion? 30%? 40%? More? Surely 4% pales in comparison to similar lists for even relatively recent history. Name your “top ten influencers” of the twentieth century, for example, and you’ll scarcely be able to leave out Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Paul II – and that’s just getting started.

To put this in perspective, in TIME’s list published this week, the largest group is governmental officials, who make up more than 25% of the overall one hundred. The second largest group is “artists/art entrepreneurs,” who together comprise another quarter of the whole. The group from the business world is three times the size of the religious quartet, as is the group made up by activists.

What’s more, in the brief written pieces introducing each of the hundred influencers, even the four religious figures themselves are not described in terms that are particularly, well, religious. Sister Nyirumbe is labeled an “activist”; the most unlikely of the four, Barbara Brown Taylor, is labeled an “author” (I say “unlikely” because Taylor, whom I very much admire, is hardly on the same playing field as, say, Pope Francis, or indeed any number of other religious leaders today, in terms of influence). The three African clerics make the list because of their peace work. And President Obama, who wrote the brief blurb describing Pope Francis, extols the pontiff for his humility, inclusive style, and moral clarity with regard to serving “the least of these.” Though nearly all of these people are Christian, the name “Jesus” appears only once in these four descriptions, a brief cameo at the end of Obama’s remarks – another indicator that even these four were chosen not for reasons related to tradition-specific religious content or mission, but rather because of ways in which their work is broadly humanitarian.

So a first possible reaction to the list is to be struck by the apparently plummeting line on the chart of religious cultural capital today. Religion matters relatively little at the moment, the list seems to suggest, and when it matters, it matters primarily in humanitarian or artistic-literary terms. For those who care about religious communities and leadership, this is an important, challenging, constructive way to read TIME’s list, and it raises provocative questions such as: “If religious figures are not a major influencers in today’s world, what does that say about religion?” And: “How can we expect talented young people to consider religious leadership (or indeed religious involvement at all) as a potential pathway for serving and changing the world?” And: “If we can’t expect them to do so, then whither the church?” And: “If this is as troubling as it would seem – what can be done about it? How can we change key conditions such that religious figures become more well represented in the ‘influential’ mix?”

Without sidestepping or discarding these important questions, there is another way to read TIME’s list. Namely, it can be read as saying less about the world’s influencers and more about the magazine’s editors. After all, globally speaking, we are living through an explosion of religious life today – though much of that growth is in the Global South. The overwhelming majority of the human race today is religious, often actively and profoundly so, and so the idea that only 4% of world’s most influential people are religious figures is surely suspect. Even so, however, this alternative way of reading the list also raises the issue of religion’s declining cultural prestige, at least in the West: How is it that, in a deeply religious age such as ours, TIME’s editors would see fit to publish a list such as this one? And: Now that the list is published, won’t it perpetuate the idea that religion matters relatively little? If mass media trend-spotters and tastemakers like TIME see and present religion as markedly less influential than politics, arts, business, activism, and humanitarianism, won’t they thereby contribute to the decline of religion’s cultural standing and influence?

Whether we think religion has an influence problem or a PR problem, or indeed both, TIME’s list makes clear that those who care about religion and religious leadership today have our work cut out for us. In fact, religion matters, deeply and widely. But creating conditions that help religious figures break into the ranks and networks of perceived influencers, and getting the word out about that influence, are two crucial tasks that will help define the future of religion.

much ado about “nones”

If you’re a reader of the New York Times, or a listener to National Public Radio, or a follower of the Religion News Service, you’d have good reason over the past week or so to come to the conclusion that the United States — and indeed the world — is becoming less and less religious.

The Times recently ran an article on atheism in which, almost in passing, the author cites a Pew Forum study to support the claim that “roughly 20 percent” of Americans are “secularly inclined” as opposed to religious. National Public Radio ran a series this week entitled “Losing Our Religion.” Religion News Service ran a story that The Christian Century published under the headline, “Unbelief is world’s third-largest ‘religion'”.

And yet all of this is misleading, subtly but decisively. Each of these stories, in various ways, combines and collapses three categories:  “Atheist,” “Agnostic” (these two combined currently constitute only about 5% of the U.S. population), and “Unaffiliated,” that is, those who do not claim a particular religious affiliation (the so-called “Nones,” who constitute about 15%). But if you read the Pew Forum’s report on the rise of the Unaffiliateds, you’ll find that 70% of them believe in God; 60% call themselves either “religious” or “spiritual,” and 40% of them pray. Lumping together this group with atheists and agnostics, or calling their increase a rise in “unbelief” or a case of “losing our religion,” is sloppy analysis at best.

Worse, this kind of categorization lends support to the false impression that U.S. society, and world society with it, is turning away from religious convictions and toward atheism or agnosticism — a conclusion the data simply do not support. Affiliation patterns are changing, it’s true (this is also true of political affiliations:  “Independents” are on the rise in the U.S.).  But we also live in a breathtakingly religious age:  in percentage terms, religious belief and practice are basically holding steady in the U.S. overall, and globally, no less than 84% of the world’s 7 billion people claim a particular religious affiliation — and a great many of the other 16%, while they may not identify as members of a particular brand of religion, nevertheless call themselves “religious” or “spiritual.”

Religion deeply, widely matters, and will continue to do so, both at home and abroad.  Thinking otherwise will lead our thoughts astray, whether we are within or without religious communities.  And the stories we tell about religious trends matter, too.

The more we mislabel data and suggest that “roughly 20 percent” of the U.S. population are atheist or agnostic (to take the New York Times example), the more we run the risk of concluding that religion is on the way out — the “secularization thesis” that has come and gone, and now has come again, on the American scene.  What’s more, this misunderstanding runs the risk of actually contributing to the trend it falsely announces, since it conjures visions of a stampede for religion’s exit door (“20 percent!”) — and as every antelope knows, stampedes attract followers.  On the other hand, the secularization myth may be especially tempting for historically mainline churches today, since it provides a handy excuse for any failure to attract or retain younger generations (“well, it must be them, not us”).  In other words, for churches, too, mis-telling the story leads us to misinterpret our situation.

The point here is not that Christian communities should be complacent about the rise of the Unaffiliateds, or simply rest assured that religion is alive and well.  Rather, the point is that we should read the data rigorously and wisely, resisting the “secularization” interpretation as long as the data do not support it, and instead working to be nimble enough to engage Unaffiliateds according to their own cherished values:  independence and flexibility, to be sure, but also, in many cases, a genuine, vital interest in religion and spirituality.


losing our religion?

One recent front-page Star headline, “Shifting Away from Religion,” was prompted by a new study just released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Do the study’s findings really indicate this kind of shift? There are important reasons to question that conclusion.

Protestants now make up 48% of U.S. adults, the study reports, down from 53% in 2007 (and down from 2 out of 3 in the 1960s). The so-called “Nones” – that is, those who check the box indicating “no religious affiliation” instead of any particular one – have increased by about the same percentage that Protestants have declined.

But let’s dig a little deeper into how Nones describe themselves. According to the study, they are not dominated by atheists (only 2% of American adults identify as atheists) or agnostics (only 3%). On the contrary, 70% of Nones say they believe at least somewhat in God or a higher power. That’s right: 7 out of 10 Nones say this. Even more telling, 6 of 10 describe themselves as religious or spiritual. 4 of 10 say they pray.

The takeaway here is that what most Nones seem to value is not atheism or agnosticism or anti-religiousness, but rather a kind of openness, flexibility, and independence when it comes to religious affiliation. Consider a political analogy: an uptick in those who identify as “independent” with respect to political party might indicate a shift away from a certain kind of partisanship, but not a shift away from politics itself. So too with religion.

Part of the problem here is with the word “Nones.” Digging into the data, it’s clear that this group has “no religious affiliation in particular,” but not “no religious beliefs or practices.” “Unaffiliated” is a much better, clearer term.

Two other caveats: in the supposed golden age of American Protestantism (the 1950s and 60s), significant numbers of Christians likely “checked the Protestant box,” so to speak, primarily because it was socially respectable to do so. What may be going on in the decades since is not so much a “shift away from religion” as an increase in clarity and candor about religious affiliation.

Finally, while it’s true that nearly 1 in 3 Millennials (those born after about 1980) are Unaffiliateds, the Millennial generation is also the largest in American history – and so there may well be plenty of Americans interested in religious affiliation in the years and decades to come. Moreover, down the road, the picture changes even more. Just last year, for the first time American hospitals welcomed more babies of color than Caucasian babies, and since religion so often plays such a strong role in African American and Latino communities, among others, an American religious renaissance – a “shift toward religion” – may already be on its way.

The bottom line, then, is that the Pew study has no simple bottom line. What’s really going on today in American religion – an ebb? a flow? a reconfiguration? – remains an open, important, fascinating question.

From the Wilderness

Whenever the Israelites’ “wilderness wandering” comes up, it presents a golden opportunity – especially in the current U.S. political climate – to talk about immigration.

This kind of preaching and teaching “with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other” (as Karl Barth is said to have put it) provides at least two major advantages. It’s an opportunity to consider and engage a major political issue in light of the gospel. It’s also an opportunity to consider and engage Christian life in light of a major biblical and theological motif: the idea that every disciple is fundamentally a pilgrim, a “stranger in a strange land.”

As far as immigration from the South is concerned, the reality is that our southern border is everywhere – it’s not just along the far rim of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Undocumented workers’ extremely low wages enable low prices in supermarket produce sections across the country, and a similar subsidizing effect is in place in a whole range of homestead industries: construction, housecleaning, landscaping, house painting and so on.

The U.S. standard of living depends on poor people who work for low wages and are often separated from their families for long periods of time because of immigration laws. Becoming more aware of these dynamics means becoming more aware of reality itself – and of the real consequences and costs of our everyday decisions.

It isn’t for nothing that the Bible spends so much time reminding readers that they, too, were (and so in some sense still are) slaves, strangers, aliens in a foreign land. It’s a point that might motivate us again and again to work to reform our society into a more humane, self-aware, graceful place to be.

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