What do Mennonite boys need to know?

Dear Joel,

I’ve shared here before that our oldest, 13, is one of two non-Mormon Boy Scouts in a troop organized through a LDS church.  Sometimes, it’s a little awkward, both the Boy Scout part and the Mormon part, but we’ve embraced the challenge of making this work.

Right now, members of the troop are working on their “Duty to God” badges. For the LDS members of the troop, this process is guided by a 100+ page book that outlines all the Bible and LDS-specific scriptures that the boys have to study and other things that the boys need to learn how to do–to serve in their church, to adhere to LDS dietary rules, etc.

Lots of religions have worked with the Boy Scouts of America to create a similar set of guidelines for children of their faith to earn their Duty to God badge. Not surprisingly, Mennonites haven’t. So, working with our local troop leaders, we’re compiling a list of things we want our child to know about religion broadly and the Mennonite faith in particular.

Image result for whoopie pie

Above, whoopie pies, which are obviously on our list of things every Mennonite child should know. 

I’m interested in hearing from others what THEY think are foundational texts, histories to know, practices to keep, etc. to understand Mennonite faith and that are understandable to a history-loving 13 year old.

Thanks for any help,


Why conservative Christian theology prohibits deporting Dreamers

Dear Joel,

There are a million reasons why deporting young adults who entered the US as children without proper documentation is a terrible idea. It sends people into the shadows of society. It’s going to cost a ton, both in terms of the cost of deporting and the loss of these people to the US. It wastes the talents of some of America’s best people. It’s cruel. It’s racist (of course–this is why it exists at all).

But here is another reason:

If you think that the parents of these young people committed a crime by bringing them here (and you aren’t connecting undocumented immigration with US foreign policy or an economic system that relies upon undocumented labor), you are punishing those children for the crimes of their parents.

If you are a conservative Christian, you should support undocumented children because Jesus was an immigrant child. And because welcoming the stranger is the story of faith. It is the most important rule ordering our relationships to other people in the entire Bible.

Image result for undocumented children

Above, Trump supporters, who probably consider themselves good Christians, hold a sign saying “Deport and Build the Wall.” The logic here is that we can punish children for their parents’ actions. You can argue that, I suppose, but it’s antithetical to Protestantism’s primary way of understanding the death of Christ. 

But, hey, if you missed that somewhere in your Christian formation, or maybe all you understand about Christianity is substitutionary atonement, perhaps this will make sense: God doesn’t punish people for the sins of their parents (It’s CENTRAL to the idea of substitutionary atonement–you stand alone before God.). And the US government doesn’t punish people for the crimes of their parents.



No compromise on DACA–or the wall

Dear Joel,

You asked earlier this week what Democrats would be willing to trade to insure that the Trump administration would not deport young people who came to the US as children without the benefits of legal immigration.


Yes, politics is the art of compromise, and I think those in Washington should do more of it. I think that well-intentioned, well-informed, caring people can genuinely disagree about how we define a problem, how we measure it, where we should place it in our national priorities, and how (or even if) we should resolve it. Most problems have more than one solution, and we know at least a few things that work toward addressing our hardest problems–racism, poverty, climate change.

Against those intractable problems, this wall isn’t terrible. I mean, it’s stupid and expensive and unnecessary, since the problem of mass illegal border crossings just isn’t happening, and it’s disruptive to those who live on the border, including the wildlife. Oh, and it will require a massive land grab that I hope prompts the Lone Star state to threaten a Texit. And, yes, it’s racist, which is the only reason it was even suggested.

But all of those are reasons to think that the border wall isn’t going to happen anyway. Most Americans oppose it. Most Texans don’t want it.  But, as November taught us, the majority doesn’t rule in our political system. What really matters is whether members of Congress can find the gumption to vote against this wall.

I think we can help them.

I think we can fight the wall and win on purely practical grounds. Texas needs help right now. Florida is about to need our help. (Yes, Puerto Rico too–and even more, but the people who live there aren’t white Republican voters who have the power to stop the wall.) Every dollar on a border wall is a dollar taken away from a person now displaced by hurricanes. Republican Senators Cornyn, Cruz, and Rubio, Florida’s 16 Republican Representatives (out of a total of 27), and Texas’s 26 Republican Representatives (out of 36) need to understand that any vote for a border wall is a vote against help for hurricane clean up and rebuilding. No member of Congress who lives on the border supports the wall, and they need to understand, from their own constituents, that dollars for the wall will hurt their home states. They need to hear it all the time, and they need to remind their friends in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama that, next time, it could be them up to their armpits in sewage and snakes.

Image result for irma

Above, a view of Hurricane Irma.

If it feels mean to trade hurricane relief for Dreamers, please trust that I’m not trying to withhold help for those whose lives have been upended by climate change. I’m trying to make sure that the wall doesn’t get built, Dreamers don’t get deported, and help is provided for those hit by hurricanes. We can do all of them because, well, call me dopey, but we’re America.


Dear Christians: Donald Trump is discrediting your witness

Dear Rebecca:


Rod Dreher is, as you’d expect, largely on board with The Nashville Statement, with some caveats. But he acknowledges it’s a disaster among young people, and you probably won’t be surprised to find out why.

An older pastor said that it is impossible to separate the Nashville Statement from the massive support white Evangelicals gave to Trump. Impossible to separate, I mean, in the mind of the young.

“But Russell Moore signed it, and other Trump critics among Evangelicals,” I said.

“I know, and I’ve tried to tell people that,” said this pastor, a conservative Evangelical. “It doesn’t matter to them. All they see is a bunch of leaders of a movement who voted for a sexually corrupt man like Donald Trump are now trying to take a public stand on sexual morality for gays. It’s totally hypocritical to them. I don’t know how the Nashville Statement drafters and signers didn’t see this coming.”

Indeed. My very first reaction to the statement — despite Russell Moore’s involvement — was that I wasn’t very much inclined to take moral instruction from people who supported Donald Trump for president.

The main defense of The Nashville Statement has been that it constitutes a rather orthodox expression of Christian thought on homosexuality, historically, and that while the culture has moved on, the Essential Truth of God has not.

Fair enough. But here’s the funny thing about your witness: People want to make sure that you’re consistent in it. That you’re not a hypocrite. Otherwise, they’re less inclined to believe you when you insist on orthodoxy.

So if you disdain sexual sin except when it occurs by a powerful man courting your vote and willing to pander to you, welp, that sure makes your values look terribly convenient. In short: An evangelical movement that hadn’t tied itself to Trump might’ve had more credibility with The Nashville Statement than it did.

Me? I don’t care much for the orthodox Christian view of things either way. What I see in my life, and among my friends, makes a mockery of the idea that such loving relationships are disordered. Shit, man, we’re all disordered.

But I’ve tried to respect that people with orthodox views on the topic really believe that’s what God requires of them, and they’ve got — at the very least — quite a bunch of tradition backing them up on the matter. That same tradition, though, would’ve cast Donald Trump out of polite society long ago. That’s not what happened. Which means The Nashville Statement has been accorded more or less precisely the level of respect that’s deserved.

What are we willing to trade for DACA?

Dear Rebecca:

I take it as a given that — following Donald Trump’s DACA announcement — we’d both like to see Congress pass a law giving the so-called “Dreamers” a chance to stay in the U.S. legally and even create a pathway to citizenship for them.

So. What are we willing to give up?

Republicans control Congress, after all. Not all Republicans are immigration hardliners — lots, with the business community, love them all the cheap labor that immigration, legal and otherwise provides. But it remains the case that a unified GOP is probably going to want to pass a bill that lets them tell their constituents: “See! We made the country safer!” Just giving the Dreamers a legal pathway to stay isn’t going to get the job done. Giving the GOP a win might.

So I say: Give them the wall.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Trump’s wall is stupid. Probably ineffective. Mexico certainly won’t pay for it. And it goes against everything we’ve been taught about our country being a hope for people around the world who needs hope.

I also think most Republicans recognize that failing to come up with a solution on DACA will be a disaster — condemning people who are here to a lawless grey zone, at best, or requiring their deportation to “home” countries they don’t know at worst. That’s why President Trump, for all his anti-immigrant bravado, punted the issue back to Congress.

Still, I don’t trust the GOP simply to do the right thing. Do you?

So. A compromise of sorts will be probably needed. One that lets them look tough on immigration. Maybe it’s increased funding for ICE, or reduced numbers of legal immigrants. Of all the options on the table, building a wall seems like it might be the least bad.

There’s going to be a temptation among Democrats to hold out. And certainly, nothing should be conceded before both sides get to the negotiating table. There’s also no reason to give away the store. But if we truly believe that anything but legal status for the Dreamers amounts to a disaster — and I do — then we probably have to be willing to compromise, to not let perfect be the enemy of accomplishing something good. That means we’ll have to give up something we’d rather not give up. In politics, this is how it often works.

So. What are we willing to give up? There are real lives depending on the answer.

Sincerely, Joel


Why Doesn’t Donald Trump Want to Support People Leaving Hate Groups?

Dear Joel,

Did you catch Here & Now last Thursday? Host Robin Young interviewed Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist recruiter who now works with the non-profit Life After Hate to address rightwing violence and extremism. The organization was founded by and is led by “formers”–people who have left rightwing extremist violence behind–and it offers a number of programs, including ExitUSA, which seeks to build “off ramps” for people seeking to leave hate groups.

I’ve met Christian and some other members of the group in the past, including two summers ago at a conference sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice. I was there because of some work I was doing on domestic hate groups in the US, which made the team of researchers I’m part of and Life After Hate stand out together. Most of the folks at this meeting were working on foreign-based organizations working in the US and Muslim extremists. Before Trump, it was clear that most government support went to combat terrorism by Muslims, not the white Christian men I tend to study.

Worldwide, that makes sense. In much of the world–in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has done tremendous damage; in the Philippines, where ISIS hopes to stake a claim in Southeast Asia–the small but violent faction of Muslims who want… well, what they want varies a lot by who we’re talking about.  But to the extent that they want bad things for people who don’t believe exactly as they do (whether those people are other Muslims or Christians or Jews or someone else), we have to pay attention.

In the US, though, it’s pretty well established that far right violence has killed more people in the US in recent years than have Muslim terrorists.  Our geographic distance from Muslim-majority nation is one reason why. Our strict vetting procedures for immigrants and refugees are effective; indeed, no Muslim refugee has ever committed a terrorist act that has killed anyone.

In contrast, between September 12, 2001 and December 31, 2016, the Government Accountability Office counted 23 fatal “Radical Islamist Violent Extremist-Motivated Attacks,” which resulted in 119 deaths. In comparison, during that same period, 62 fatal “far-right violent extremist-motivated attacks” which killed 106 people. When you consider that attacks in San Bernardino and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando accounted for nearly half of those killed by perpetrators with links to Islam, you start to see that rightwing  domestic extremists are at least as much a danger to the US as are Muslim extremists. (The GAO’s count, by the way, is pretty conservative. Other groups that track terrorism put the number of deaths at the hands of rightwing groups higher than those attributed to radical Muslims.) White supremacists, in particular, are responsible for the most deaths, according to a Joint Intelligence Bulletin provided to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

Anyway, guess which presidential administration just cut funds for research on domestic extremism? Yeah, the one led by a man who can’t distinguish between the “fine people” of the current neo-Nazi movement and those who protest against them.

Picciolini’s Life After Hate had won a grant from the government to continue their work on getting people out of hate groups–domestic de-radicalization, you might call it. Life After Hate saw their number of contacts skyrocket after Trump’s election, Picciolini reported, from two or three calls a week to five calls a day, as folks seek help for themselves or a loved on. They worry, he said, that their child will be “the next Dylann Roof.”

In her interview, Robin Young asked Picciolini why the group was suddenly defunded. Picciolini said he wasn’t told. Instead, the money, which had been promised in January simply disappeared this June.

Young pressed him a bit. Hadn’t he made some tweets about Trump that might not have set well with the administration?

Sure, he had. Here is what Picciolini wrote:

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 5.09.41 PMThis doesn’t look, to me, too much different from what Trump himself promised all along: That he would “Make America Great Again” by whipping up racist fervor against minority groups, that he’d get white voters out by being explicitly appealing to their racism (This was a campaign strategy that Kellyanne Conway bragged about.). This was the plan, and everything Trump has done since coming to office has been an extension of this. He promised us a racist president, and he has made good on that campaign promise.

And Trump isn’t alone. He’s not unique among Republicans in his willingness to foment violence against non-whites, Muslims, and Jews. It’s happening in your own state house. 

In news coverage of the way that the government de-funded Life After Hate in response to some criticism on Twitter, I haven’t seen any news outlets report the second part of Picciolini’s tweet, which makes the point clear: How do we get white supremacy out of the White House after the White House has been under the leadership of Trump, Bannon, and Gorka?

The White House itself is a source of energy for white supremacists. They are emboldened by Trump. Walking that back is going to be hard. 

His point was clear. I understand Robin Young’s hesitation to mention that second part of the statement, which links Trump to white supremacy. It has to be hard to be a political reporter right now, when the executive leader of the nation is a liar and a racist but you have to still report on him like he’s a legitimate leader.

But Young should have asked the question: Do you think Trump cut funding for this program because it gives negative attention to the alt-right, which he deliberately fosters good will with?

I can’t speak for Picciolini.

But the answer is yes.


PS. Readers, you can donate to Life After Hate here, if this is a mission you want to support.

In God We Trust. Churches? Not so much.

Dear Joel,

You probably saw the viral outrage this week: Houston megapastor Joel Osteen refuses to open the doors of his 16,000-person church, formerly the Compaq Center and home to the Houston Rockets, to help Hurricane Harvey victims. First it was the church was flooded, a statement disproved by intrepid journalists who headed out to Lakewood to document the absence of flooding. Then it was that no one from the city had asked the church to respond, so I guess it just didn’t occur to Osteen to offer, even as he saw countless smaller houses of worship doing so. Then it was that the church was never officially closed–it was just getting ready to respond, even though it has lead time that could have been more effectively used to prepare.

Osteen was properly shamed on social media and TV for his vacuous assurances that “God’s got this,” which is reassuring since Osteen wasn’t lifting a finger.

But I’m not here to beat up on this very, very wealthy and very, very vacuous pastor, even though he should have known better. (If there is one thing Osteen knows–and that is a big IF–it’s how to make his fluffy theology look good. He should have been able to do better here.) His behavior makes perfect sense because his theology says that people become materially rich and their riches are protected by God because of their faith. So when he tells people to just have faith in God (and not, you know, demand help from Houston’s elite), he’s telling a Prosperity Gospel theological truth: if you want out of material poverty, faith is the only thing that will get you there.

Image result for inside of lakewood church

Above, a scene from the interior of Lakewood Church in Houston, which is more than 600,000 square feet and can seat more than 16,000 people. 

This is a kind of Social Darwinism of religion: the rich are rich because they have faith, and the poor are poor because they don’t. Handing over your faith-earned money isn’t going to help poor people, not really, because they don’t have the faith that is a prerequisite to material wealth.  What good would it even do them to have a 10.5 million dollar house if they don’t have faith? For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Osteen quickly moves to argue for the costs of caring for the displaced to be born by taxpayers. In opening the church, the church announced that it was “prepared to shelter people once the cities and county shelters reach capacity.”

In other words, as a last resort.

Christians might argue that this isn’t good enough. It’s the actions of the innkeeper who directs a laboring Mary to the barn, not the Good Samaritan who lifts the injured man onto his own donkey and opens a tab for him an inn where he can be cared for.

What Osteen shows us here is what historian Alison Collis Greene’s No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta (Oxford 2015) documents very clearly: The effort that it takes to keep people safe, housed, fed, and out of poverty is too great for churches. Very simply, they can’t do it.

This doesn’t mean that churches don’t have economic value to a community–they do, though they also have economic costs to communities.

What it does mean is that, like the rest of us, Joel Osteen is a socialist when it comes to (un)natural disasters. 

Hurricane Harvey may cost up to $90 billion, according to current conservative predictions. That’s about 24% of the total value that religion adds to our economy each year. To find the funds to cover the costs of Harvey alone, every Christian in America who SAYS they go to church would need to pitch in about $750 this year. That might not seem like a terribly high figure until you realize that 1) half of the people who say they go to church regularly are lying, which means that the honest ones would have to pitch in $1500 and 2) it actually IS a lot.

Churches can’t distribute risk across a large population. All they can do is ask money for the people in their pews. Only a government can force us to do the work of providing for those who are in need.

God may work in mysterious ways sometimes, but we probably shouldn’t believe in a deity who uses natural disasters to make a point–and, anyway, God was quite clear on the matter of flooding in particular.

Can God use Hurricane Harvey convince conservative Christians to stop undermining the social safety net? It’s a miracle I’m praying for.


PS. Readers: Where are you donating to? Mennonite Disaster Service might be a good option if you are interested specifically in an organization with an excellent reputation that focuses on rebuilding houses for the long term. Donate if you like what they do–and, better, yet, donate and start to volunteer NOW so you are ready to go in a few months when they will need more volunteers in Houston.