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The Beast

If you’ve been following the news about the humanitarian crisis involving unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America—you’ve undoubtedly seen references to “The Beast.”

This is, of course, what migrants call the series of freight trains that begin near the border between Mexico and Guatemala and head north towards the United States. Migrants risk life and limb to jump aboard these trains as they accelerate after picking up or dropping off cargo. And if the migrants are lucky—that is, if they don’t fall off, get shoved off, or otherwise get assaulted—they ride on the roof for hours, before connecting to the next train on the long journey north.

The Beast is also the title of a book by the young, award-winning Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez. The book is riveting and gritty, and at times it left me rattled. But for those who sense that the epithets employed by talking heads on cable news may not do justice to the human weight of the story, I highly recommend it.

It’s one thing to pontificate from a safe distance; it’s another to experience the harrowing journey aboard The Beast for yourself. And that’s exactly what Martínez did. After having a conversation with a priest who describes the migrant corridor through Mexico as “a cemetery for the nameless,” Martínez sets out to discover those names and to share their stories—you know, the kind of thing a good journalist does.

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Beginning in southern Mexico and continuing all the way to various spots along the United States border, he introduces us to specific Central Americans and tells us about their lives. He accompanies them for portions of their journey, riding the train, braving the elements, sleeping in migrant shelters, dealing with coyotes, dodging narcos, asking questions. The result is a remarkably up close look at the perils of the migrant journey. As Martínez writes,

On top of a train there aren’t journalists and migrants, there are only people hanging on. There is nothing but speed, wind, and sometimes a hoarse conversation. The roof of the cars is the floor for all, and those who fall, fall the same way. Staying on is all that matters.

I’m sure those who are reading this have a variety of views on what should be done about the nearly 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America who have arrived in the United States since last October. That’s understandable. After all, the causes of the crisis are complex and easy fixes will inevitably fall short. Regardless of your stance, though, I’d encourage you to learn the names and stories of at least some of the people behind the statistics. If you don’t know how to do that for yourself where you live, let Óscar Martínez introduce you to Auner, Pitbull, and El Chele. To Paola, Saúl, and Keny. To Wilber, Epifanio, and Erika—and to a number of others.

Those we meet in the pages of The Beast are not all heroes, that’s for sure, nor are they all victims. But the men, women, and children we meet are all actual human beings, and when it comes to humanitarian crises, human beings beat caricatures any day of the week.

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What Gives You Hope?

This summer, Comment Magazine is hosting a series of symposia in which they ask friends of the magazine a fun question and then share the brief responses. They asked the first group what they’re reading these days.  They asked the second group what rest looks like for them this summer. I was invited to participate in the third group, responding to the question: What gives you hope in your corner of the world? Here’s what I had to say:

This spring I spent a day at Fuller Seminary’s campus here in Phoenix, where N.T. Wright was speaking on the life and teaching of the Apostle Paul. During a wide-ranging Q&A time following one of the lectures, someone asked Wright how he managed to maintain a sense of hope while serving as Bishop of Durham, given the problems he inevitably encountered within his congregation, his diocese, and in the Church of England as a whole. Wright acknowledged that he dealt with his share of discouragement, but that being a bishop gave him a unique vantage point to continually see pockets of hope throughout the diocese—even when other challenges near and far would have prompted despair.

I’m not a pastor, nor am I a bishop, but I found myself resonating with his response as I reflected on my own work. Here in Phoenix, after all, we have good reason to be discouraged as well—and not just because it’s that time of year when temperatures hover well above the triple digit mark. Bad as that may be, even worse is the fact that our city and state have come to serve as punching bags. You may have seen the recent article, for instance, that declared in no uncertain terms that Phoenix is ”the worst place ever.”

But some of us genuinely enjoy living here, believe it or not. I happen to be one of those people. I love the big skies punctuated by desert outcroppings. I’m inspired by the can-do attitude I encounter among our city’s entrepreneurs, artists, and activists. I’m grateful for the abundance of flavorful Southwest cuisine like the carne adovada at Richardson’s. And the list goes on.

Phoenix has it’s share of challenges, to be sure, and complicity in this city’s brokenness is something we cannot ignore. But I believe there is good reason for hope, even here in “the world’s least sustainable city.” I sometimes find myself discouraged when I read the news, hear about the latest proposed boycott, or consider how few of my neighbors’ names I’ve actually gotten to know. But when I come across signs of life in otherwise hidden corners of our city, my imagination is stirred and my hope is renewed.

You can read the rest of the responses—which include goose droppings, pick-up basketball, and Thomas the Tank Engine—over at Comment‘s website.

If you’re not familiar with the magazine, I encourage you to check it out. Goofy symposia contributors like me aside, they publish a lot of thoughtful stuff under the rubric of “public theology for the common good.” And as I recently tweeted, the print magazine itself is a sensory delight to behold.

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How to Talk About God

“It’s heartbreaking how divisive people can be when it comes to their opinions about God. There’s nothing so destructive as when the conversation is reduced to: You’re an idiot if you believe – you’re an idiot if you don’t. Like the late John Coltrane and Johnny Cash, and contemporaries Bono and Dylan, the great American songwriter Paul Simon keeps bringing his spiritual search into the public square. A few years ago, Paul got a tip to meet with one of the people I do trust to speak out loud, the late John Stott. Here’s a transparent, honest interview Paul did that recounts his meeting with Mr. Stott. In my opinion, this is how you talk about your spiritual life and quest in public without coming off as a lightweight, a bully, or a know it all. This is human, artistic process in full view where every sphere of life and curiosity finds it’s way into your art. The art informs the world but turns back to you, continuing to inform you, bring you pleasure, and inspiring your eyes to see and your ears to hear.”

– Charlie Peacock, Ending the Decade of Quiet

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Introducing Flourish Phoenix

Yesterday, after months of hard work, a new project I’m really excited about finally saw the light of day. It’s called Flourish Phoenix and it’s all about celebrating the good, the true, and the beautiful here where we live—and honoring those who faithfully, sacrificially, and creatively help to make those good things happen.

I hope you’ll like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to our RSS feed, and/or sign up for our email newsletter (using the form on the lefthand side of the homepage)—however you prefer to follow magazines and blogs online.

But this isn’t just a one-way thing, with us producing content and you consuming it. So if you’re here in metro Phoenix, I’m hereby inviting you to help us shape Flourish as it grows.

Want to write for us, telling a story about a great example of collaboration for the common good? Want to contribute a guest post to our blog on something you’re passionate about? Want to share your photography and videography skills with us? Want to introduce us to unsung heroes in your community who make good things happen without concern for their own “personal brand”? Want to share overall suggestions for ways to make Flourish Phoenix better?

Whatever it is, I’d love to be in touch, so please shoot me an email.

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The Good of Politics

For decades, James Skillen has been thinking deeply and carefully about politics and public policy from an evangelical perspective. Despite the culture wars raging to his right and to his left, he has managed to maintain a degree of nuance and sanity that is all too rare among political commentators, Christian or otherwise. Needless to say, he’s someone I’m committed to learning from.

The founder and former executive director of the Center for Public Justice, a non-partisan think tank that seeks to apply Christian principles to public policy issues, Skillen has long advocated a robust view of civic responsibility, believing that Christians are called to collaborate with others for the sake of the common good.

9780801048814He has written a number of books, including Recharging the American Experiment: Principled Pluralism for Genuine Civic Community and The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square. His latest work, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction, can best be understood as a natural continuation of his life’s work.

Skillen begins the book by situating his exploration of political engagement in the story of God’s redemptive work in scripture. He emphasizes a theology of the kingdom in which Jesus, who is Lord over all, is not out to obliterate kings and kingdoms but rather to establish true justice in their midst. He goes on to reflect on the political significance of the biblical teaching that all people are created in the image of God. As image bearers, we experience blessings and assume responsibilities, including political ones.

The second part of the book provides a sweeping historical perspective on political thought, spanning from Polycarp, Constantine, Augustine, and Aquinas, all the way to Calvin, Luther, and the Anabaptist Reformers.

The book concludes with a section of reflections on what it looks like for Christians to engage politics today. Skillen pays some attention to particular political issues—like marriage, family, economics, and the environment—but rather than prescribing political solutions, he’s far more interested in providing a framework for thinking about civic engagement and public policy.

Skillen structures the book in this way for a very clear reason. He wants to show that despite everything that has changed in human society over thousands of years, certain principles remain constant:

In the course of history, from the time of God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai until today, many things have changed, for better and for worse: the responsibilities of governing officials, the structure of states, the patterns of economic life, the obligations of family members, and most other conditions and institutions of human society. Nevertheless, the normative precepts of God still stand: love your neighbor, do justice, be merciful, be good stewards, walk humbly with God. The questions for us today are essentially the same as those of ancient times, but we must try to answer them in circumstances of greater societal differentiation, a shrinking globe, and a rapidly expanding world population.

Unfortunately, though the book checks in at around 200 pages, it tries to do too much. Its three sections—identified in the subtitle as “biblical, historical, and contemporary”—probably belong to three separate books. While it’s important to consider how the Bible’s teachings should inform our civic engagement, large portions of the first section seem tangential. And though there is much to learn from the ways political thought has developed across time and space, attempting to summarize two millennia of world history in a little under 70 pages is inevitably going to be problematic. The third section, in which we turn to contemporary applications, likely gets closest to what readers would have anticipated from the beginning in a book framed as an “introduction” to thoughtful political engagement.

Those already familiar with Skillen will be familiar with the distinctly Kuyperian perspective that frames the concepts in this book—concepts that draw heavily on the thinking of the Dutch politician, journalist, and theologian Abraham Kuyper. At times the influence is overt, but more often it’s implied, as for instance when he makes a case for “principled pluralism” and when he argues for different institutions to be able to do what only they can without other institutions unnecessarily intruding—what Kuyper and his followers refer to as “sphere sovereignty.”

At certain points he pits his own Kuyperian views in contrast to both the libertarian and liberal inheritors of John Locke’s political paradigm (loosely representing Republicans and Democrats in the contemporary United States). He also writes in contrast to the Anabaptist political vision of John Howard Yoder, as well as Yoder’s contemporary heirs like Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Hays.

Like Skillen, I believe that there is a good side to politics, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And sharing the broad strokes of the Kuyperian view, I believe that political life is a legitimate Christian calling. Though there are ways that The Good of Politics could have been better, I have no doubt that this book will help many as they seek to navigate the messiness of political engagement as followers of Jesus and citizens of his already-but-not-yet kingdom.

This review originally appeared in the Englewood Review of Books.