Signs of the Times

¶ “One of the few missing ingredients in the wonderful new film Selma is the centrality of music during the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama march. A tiny snippet of field recordings from the march can be heard at the very end of the movie's credits, but otherwise the movie ignores the constant singing that emboldened the marchers during the four-day, 54-mile trek. Not surprisingly, Pete Seeger—who died a year ago at age 94—was there to help lift the marchers' spirits, as he did for every progressive crusade during his lifetime.” —Peter Dreier, “At Selma and Around the World, Pete Seeger Brought Us Closer Together"

The folk at The Prophetic Collection recently highlighted an amazing two-minute video of thousands of starlings creating fluid art, midair. Unmitigated grandeur.

¶ “Closing my eyes and holding still. It’s the end if I get mad or scream. It’s close to a prayer. Hate is not for humans. Judgment lies with God. That’s what I learned from my Arabic brothers and sisters.” —Associated Press report of a four-year-old tweet by Keji Goto, Japanese freelance journalist and Islamic State hostage recently killed by his captors

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Signs of the Times

First, let’s look at a few profiles of individuals in our “cloud of witnesses.”

¶ This coming Saturday, 31 January, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, OCSO (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance), the Roman Catholic community to which he was admitted on 13 December 1941 as a postulant at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Few if any figures in Christian history have more effectively rewoven the torn fabric of faith segregating personal from public, salvation from liberation, prayer from politiks. It remains a supreme irony that a monk—especially one vowed to an order known for its discipline of silence—would become at mid-20th century in the US among the most articulate commentators on a host of social concerns, as well as an enduring spiritual guide to generations since, here and elsewhere, among a wildly diverse group of Christians and other people of faith.
       •My singular favorite biography of Merton is Jim Forest’s Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (revised 2008), especially for his three-dimensional depiction of Merton.
       •Merton’s Trappist superiors refused to allow publication of his extensive correspondence around the Cuba missile crisis and the ongoing threats of nuclear war. In 2006 Orbis Books published the edited collection, titled Cold War Letters (by Christine M. Bochen, foreword by James Douglas). The book is available online in pdf format.
       •For a brief summary of Merton’s influence, see James Martin, SJ, “7 Ways Thomas Merton Changed the World.”

Read Ken Sehested’s profile of Tom Fox, "Keep to Jesus." Fox was the Christian Peacemaker Teams staff member who was kidnapped and eventually executed by jihadists in Iraq in 2006. (While you’re at the ReadTheSpirit website, browse through Dan Buttry’s “Interfaith Peacemaker” collection of stories. These are great popular education tools for interfaith understanding.

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La Terreur – Special Edition on Terrorism

WE NEED A PRIMER ON TERRORISM. This is not it, but it is a start.

You are encouraged to add your own comments, or offer a favorite quote, in the “reader comments” at bottom.

Hundreds, probably thousands, of editors and commentary writers worked late into the night last week, scouring a thesaurus in search of uncommon adjectives sufficient to the task of communicating the heinous killings in and around Paris, France, beginning with the 7 January jihadist attack that killed a dozen in the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

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News, views, notes and quotes

7 January 2015 • No. 5

¶ As of midnight on New Year’s Eve, the US’s longest-ever war, in Afghanistan, officially ended. Only . . . not quite:

      •Nearly 11,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan and are cleared for certain combat missions. A “status of forces” agreement with the Afghan government is good through 2024.
      •2014 was the deadliest year of the war for Afghans. The UN reports 3,200 civilians have been killed, a 20 percent rise from 2013. More than 4,600 Afghan military and police died.
      •The US has spent some $1 trillion in waging this war. (For perspective: A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is not quite 32 years. A trillion seconds is 31,688 years.)
      •Since the war began in 2001, some 3,500 NATO-led soldiers have died, more than 2,300 of them US soldiers; 3,200 US contractors have died. Anti-government fatalities are estimated between 15,000-25,000. Estimates for civilian deaths start at 20,000.
      •Today Afghanistan produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000 (equaling 90 percent of the world’s opium crop).

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Signs of the Times: Annotated news, views, notes and quotes

“Been a hard Advent for me spiritually, between the police misconduct & deaths, the massacre in Peshawar, and the details about our torturing people. I think we should require that every nativity scene should have a Herod in it, don’t you?” North Carolina pastor Michael Usey wrote this to Dr. Bill Leonard, church history professor at Wake Forest Divinity School, who expanded the commentary: “Inserting [Herod] into every nativity scene might restrain our sentimentalized, ‘the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’ rendering of the Christmas story, and compel an annual reflection on the ‘slaughter of the innocents,’ then and now, in ancient Scripture and on contemporary social networks. Indeed, the Times’ ‘Year in Pictures’ for Dec. 28 included a photo of sobbing Pakistani women ‘refusing consolation’ at the coffin of Mohammed Ali Khan, a 15-year-old Peshawar victim. —“Epiphanic moments,” Baptist News Global Today

Pictured at right: Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Massacre of the Innocents by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1515), National Museum in Warsaw.

¶ In case there’s still a question. The gulf between rich and poor people in America has hit a new record. An analysis released 18 December by Pew Research Center finds that the wealth gap between the top 21 percent of families and everyone else is the widest since the Federal Reserve began collecting such income data 30 years ago. Last year, the median wealth of upper-income families ($639,400) was almost seven times that of middle-income families and nearly 70 times that of lower-income families.
     The findings follow another Pew analysis published last week which finds that U.S. wealth inequalities along racial lines have dramatically worsened since the Great Recession, with the gap between white and black people at its highest in 25 years. According to that study, which also looks at Federal Reserve data, in 2013 white household wealth was 13 times that of black households and 10 times that of Hispanic households. —Wealth Gap Between Rich and Poor Americans Highest on Record, Sarah Lazare, Common Dreams

¶ 2014 has been a gob-smack to a nation thinking substantial progress was being made on racial and gender justice—mostly, I suspect, because we still don’t understand the difference between personal bigotry and structural injustice. Civil discourse is rarely punctuated by use of the “N” word for African Americans or the “B” word for women. Yet sexual assaults against women have crowded news headlines, and we’ve learned that some 400,000 “rape kits”—collections of DNA evidence from victims—are waiting, sometimes for many years, to be processed. In my home county, the Humane Society (God bless them) operates on an annual budget of $1.8 million. The women’s shelter, providing refuge for victims of domestic abuse (and their children), has a budget less than half that amount. On black-white structural disparity, see the statistics above.

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Signs of the Times: Annotated news, views, notes and quotes

17th century colonial Christmas culture war. “The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.” —John Fea, “Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America,” Pacific Standard, December 2013

Christological kleptomaniacs. Turns out, America is experiencing a rash of burglaries from nativity scenes, according to Religion Dispatches. “Thieves steel their nerves on the periphery of parks, churchyards, manicured lawns and other public places where the Holy Family resides. And then, sometime between dark and dawn, they rush in and steal the Baby Jesus. But that’s not all. Some Christological kleptomaniacs even burgle the Babe from store shelves. For example, shoppers who want to buy a manger at Scheels Home & Hardware in Fargo, N.D., will discover a sign that tells them: ‘Please ask for Baby Jesus.’ Redeemer robbers didn’t start heisting the Holy One this Christmas season. Awhile back, I reported on the BrickHouse security firm, which created the ‘Saving Jesus’ program. BrickHouse will provide crèche owners a free GPS device they can hide on or imbed in the Jesus figure. An owner of a stolen Savior receives a text or an email, reporting the nativity nabbing. Then the system enables the owner or police to track the robbers and retrieve the Christ Child.” —Marv Knox, “Will the Christ be stolen from you this Christmas?” The Baptist Standard, December 19, 2014

Francis’ Christmas takedown. Instead of cozy sentiments amid bubbly cheer, Pope Francis “turned the heartwarming exchange of Christmas greetings into a public dressing down of the Curia, the central administration of the Holy See which governs the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church.” One by one he enumerated 15 “ailments of the Curia,” saying too many cardinals, bishops and priests are living “hypocritical” lives devoted to advancing their own careers over service to God. And he called on the more ancient Advent tradition of calling to repentance. “This speech is without historic precedent,” judged church historian Alberto Melloni. Of course, Francis has a history of broaching the bounds of papal etiquette. No prelate before has performed the annual Holy Thursday ritual of washing feet other than those of priests—Vatican ecclesial rules stipulate that only “adult males” are to have their feet washed at the Mass of the Last Supper. Last year he washed the feet of two women and two Muslims at a juvenile detention center. This year it was the feet of frail and disabled persons of various religious professions. —Associated Press

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News, views, notes, and quotes

8 December 2014, No. 2

Correspondence. It’s gratifying to get words of encouragement from prayer&politiks readers. And also instructive. One friend  (thanks, Dave) wrote to say love your stuff, but added will you include some positive notes in “signs of the times”? It’s among the most common of human tendencies, to highlight the hard news and skirt the hopeful. Our letters to editors tend to be complaints more than compliments. We all tend to begrudge red lights more than we appreciate the green. Providentially, the same day I got the one note, another friend (thanks, Marty) sent a story of note (below).

Indigenous groups in Guatemala won a rare victory against corporate encroachment when the country’s legislature voted 4 September 2014 to repeal the “Monsanto Law” which would “have given the transnational chemical and seed producer intellectual property rights to crop seeds. . . . The law put in place stiff penalties for any farmer that was caught selling seed to another farmer without the proper permits.” You can find the full story at 

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Signs of the Times: Annotated news, views, quotes and notes

Welcome to the premier of prayer&politiks, an online journal “at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action.” Welcome as well to the first issue of Signs of the Times, a weekly column featuring annotated news, views, quotes and notes, for discerning the times in which we live.

¶ The launch of this site on 27 November, “Black Friday” (in the US), is intentional, as it occurs at the edge of Advent, whose first Sunday is this weekend.

¶ For readers outside the US: The day after the celebration of Thanksgiving (since 1941 always the fourth Thursday of November) in our country has effectively become the start of the Christmas shopping season. The phrase “Black Friday” was originally a derogative term, beginning in the early ‘50s, for the practice of workers calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving in order to get a long weekend holiday. (At the time, the holiday was limited to the single day.) In the early ‘60s the phrase was used by the Philadelphia Police Department in reference to the traffic jams caused by shoppers. Since then the day has emerged as the nation’s busiest shopping day of the year, when merchants provide steep discounts—though some major stores are now opening on Thanksgiving Day itself.

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