Monday, November 20, 2017

Observing World Children’s Day

As you may know, today (November 20) is World Children’s Day. At least the World Council of Churches (WCC) has been promoting today by that name. Since 1954 the United Nations has been calling Nov. 20 Universal Children’s Day—a different name with the same basic emphasis.
The Appeal
The WCC asserts that today is “a time for world community and churches to express their dedication to children’s wellbeing” (see here). Surely this is an appeal that most of us can respond to positively.
UNICEF (The United Nations Children's Fund) also calls today World Children’s Day and encourages thought and action for the sake of the children of the world (see this link).
The Problem
A sizeable number of the world’s children are in dire straits. While the numbers have, thankfully, significantly lessened in recent decades, still according to WHO there are around 15,000 children under five who die every day. Perhaps as many as two-thirds of these deaths were/are preventable.
So perhaps at least 10,000 children under five needlessly die every single day because of hunger and because of malnutrition-related and other health issues that could be remedied by inexpensive medication.
In addition, according to a UNICEF report issued a little over a year ago, nearly 50 million children worldwide have been uprooted from their homes due to violence, poverty and other factors out of their control.
Here is a picture of Rohingya refugee children reaching out for food in a refugee camp in Bangladesh—and these are better off than many Rohingya children are now. 
This is just a partial look at the problems many of the world’s children are facing at this time.
Our Response?
What can people of goodwill do for the sake of the world’s suffering children?
1) We can become more aware of the deep need of so many of the world’s children. That is one major intention of today being designated World Children’s Day—and one of the main purposes of this article.
2) We can seek, over time, to elect politicians who are concerned about the welfare of people, especially children, worldwide rather than focusing on making America “great again”—especially by such things as enacting tax reform (or “deform”) that benefits primarily the wealthiest in the land. To a large degree, the suffering of so many children, here and abroad, is a political problem—in both the narrow and the broad senses I mentioned in my previous blog article.
3) We can examine our own lifestyles and buying habits in order to see if there are ways we can share more generously to help alleviate the serious needs of some of the world’s children.
Some charities endeavor to support needy children by seeking monthly gifts to help individuals. World Vision is one organization that does that, and years ago June and I sponsored children through that organization. I have recently learned about a similar group: Kids Alive International, which has an excellent rating by Charity Navigator.
Perhaps it is better, though, to see the “big picture” and work for societal change by supporting organizations such as UNICEF (which doesn’t have a very good Charity Navigator rating), Bread for the World, or Water.org. (The latter two organizations are not just charities for children, but children benefit greatly from their activities.)
So, on this World Children’s Day, I am asking each of us to consider what we can do to help the suffering children around the world. 
And many of us have to grapple with this difficult question, especially during the upcoming holiday season: Why do my children or grandchildren need so much when there are so many children who have so little?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Religion and Politics

Recently I have been reading and thinking about the relationship between religion and politics. Two devout Episcopalian lawyers have been helpful in this regard.
The Position of Stringfellow
William Stringfellow (b. 1928) graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956. He soon moved to a tenement in Harlem, New York City, where he worked as a tireless advocate for racial and social justice. Then in 1967 he moved to Block Island, R.I. He lived, and was an active member of the Episcopal church, there until his untimely death in 1985.
Back in September, I re-read An Ethics for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, the thought-provoking book by William Stringfellow, who was a lay theologian and a stimulating author.
Stringfellow’s book was first published in 1973 during the Nixon Administration, but it seems very relevant to the present situation in the U.S. under the current occupant of the White House.
“Biblical politics” is the title of the first section of the first chapter of Stringfellow’s book. He declares, “The biblical topic is politics.” And then he continues with this long, significant sentence:
The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgment of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics (pp. 14-15).
How’s that for a weighty sentence! 

The Position of Danforth
The year of 1963 was a very special one for John Danforth (b. 1936). That was the year he graduated from both Yale Divinity School and Yale Law School as well as the year he was ordained as an Episcopal priest and admitted to the bar.
Danforth practiced law for a while but then became a politician, serving as the Attorney General of Missouri (1969~1975) and then as a U.S. Senator from Missouri (1976~1995).
In September I also read Danforth’s 2015 book, The Relevance of Religion. In his first chapter, Danforth sets forth “four broad principles” for how religious people ought to relate to politics:
(1) We should insist that politics remain in its proper place. It is not the realm of absolute truth and it is not the battleground of good and evil. (2) We should be advocates for the common good. (3) We should be a unifying force, working to bind America together. (4) We should advocate political compromise, and make the case that the spirit of compromise is consistent with our faith.
Danforth’s emphases on compromise, on working with those with different ideas, on listening to others and not idolizing one’s own position are good, important ones—and attitudes/actions that I wish more Washington politicians would put into practice today. 

The Better Position 

For “professional” politicians, Danforth’s position is a good one, as I have just indicated. But for those of us who are not politicians, perhaps Stringfellow’s position is more helpful—and challenging.
There are those, including many Christians, who say that they don’t want to be involved in politics—and most won’t be in the way that Danforth was. But people of goodwill, perhaps especially Christians, should be involved in politics the way Stringfellow suggests.  
When I wrote last November about being a one issue voter (see here), I was writing about being involved in politics in the way promoted by Stringfellow. 

Jesus said, “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Mt. 6:33). We can’t do that without being active in politics.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Becoming/Being Bicultural

Studying and thinking about Drew Hart’s noteworthy bookTrouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (2016) stirred me to reflect on a potentially helpful mindset for minorities living in a dominant culture.
The Meaning of “Being Bicultural”
“The term bicultural describes a state of having or inheriting two or more cultures (e.g., one of an ethnic heritage and one of culture lived in) or two or more ethnic traditions.” That is the opening sentence of a helpful article about the subject in an iResearchNet piece about biculturalism (check it out here).
Massey University in New Zealand gives the following explanation of the meaning of being bicultural: 

While becoming bicultural can cause problems for some individuals, for most there are far more benefits than difficulties.
The Experience of Becoming Bicultural
Last Sunday was my dear daughter Kathy’s birthday. She celebrated her 6th birthday in Japan after she and her brother Keith, who is two years older, arrived in that fascinating country with June and me on September 1, 1966.
By that November when we celebrated Kathy’s birthday with a family overnight trip to Hakone National Park near Mt. Fuji, we were well on our way to becoming bicultural.
Being bicultural, though, doesn’t usually mean an equal balance between two cultures. Our children went to English-speaking schools and we spoke only English at home. Our dominant cultural identification continued to be as English-speaking Americans.
Still, the children played with their Japanese neighbors, we became active in Japanese-speaking churches, and we enjoyed participating in Japanese cultural activities.
In my career as a full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin University, I was elected to administrative positions of increasing importance—not because I was a gaijin (foreigner/outsider) but because in spite of being a gaijin I was an integral part of the Japanese cultural and educational milieu.
For June and me, as well as for our children, being immersed in and accepting of Japanese culture did not mean giving up our American cultural identity. But we were largely able to become bicultural and to enjoy being a part of two cultures without having to choose one over the other.
Recommending Becoming Bicultural
Drew Hart is a youngish Anabaptist pastor and college professor, and his book introduced above is a good and helpful one. Last month, several of us read his book and gathered to discuss it a few days before he preached at Rainbow Mennonite Church.
Hart is an associate professor at the predominately white Messiah College (in Penn.), his alma mater. In many ways, he is a black man who has “made it” in the predominant white culture—but he is painfully aware of the racism and the injustice that still a part of that culture.
What he says about racism must be taken seriously, and what I say next about becoming bicultural does not downplay the persistent problem of injustice or the pressing need to be aware of and to combat racism in American society today.
Still, I got the impression from reading Hart’s book that he thought he largely had to give up his African-American identity to fit in with the dominant (white) culture. That is when I realized that deliberately seeking to be bicultural could be a possible solution to his, and other African-Americans’, unease at living in the majority culture.
For those within minority cultures, becoming bicultural and being able to function well in the dominant culture need not lessen their identification with or appreciation of their primary culture. 
For people born into a minority culture, becoming/being bicultural is certainly a possibility that promises many positive benefits.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

DJT and the Heritage Foundation

A year ago this week Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. Two days after the election, an article in the Washington Examiner began, “The Heritage Foundation might be the biggest winner of 2016.”

Introducing the Heritage Foundation 
The Heritage Foundation (HF), founded in 1973, is a conservative think tank that according to one ranking organization is the third most influential of the nearly 2,000 think tanks in the U.S.
The HF was established largely due to the work of Paul Weyrich (1942-2008) who, incidentally, was also co-founder (with Jerry Falwell) of Moral Majority in 1979—and the one who coined that name.
From the beginning a major funder of the HF was Joseph Coors, Sr., (1917-2003) of the Coors Brewing Company. Coors also was a generous donor to Moral Majority and other Christian Right organizations and movements.
According to their website,
The mission of The Heritage Foundation is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
While it is no longer on their website, I noted in my 2/20/11 blog article that the Heritage Foundation was then making the following appeal for new members (and for funding):
Become a Member: Donate to Heritage – Join Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and more than 710,000 conservatives in fighting liberals and advancing conservative principles as a Heritage Foundation member.
Influence of the Heritage Foundation 
In a May 2017 article in Marketplace, Atlantic staff writer Molly Ball related that soon after Reagan was elected President in 1980, the HF presented him with 2,000 ideas in a 20 volume package. Reagan handed out those ideas to every member of his Cabinet in their first meeting. 
By the end of Reagan’s first year in office, the HF estimated that 60 percent of those ideas had in some way been put into practice by the President.
Through the years the HF has been characterized as a right-wing think tank seeking to abolish civil rights laws, minimum wage laws, environmental laws, affirmative action, rights for the handicapped, and arms control.
The strongly fiscal conservative stance of the HF was seen in its selection of sitting S.C. Senator Jim DeMint, a leading figure in the Tea Party Movement, as its new president in 2013. He served in that position from 2013 until May of this year.
Influence of the Heritage Foundation on DJT 
Without question the HF has sought to influence DJT as it did Reagan. A statement they released on March 24 announced, “Trump Administration Budget Looks a Lot Like Heritage’s Plan.” 
The HF also seems to have had considerable influence on the tax cut plan long promised by DJT. On Oct. 17 he spoke to the HF and called for them to support his tax reform efforts. That seems to have been a redundant appeal, for many of the reform proposals were the HF’s suggestions to begin with.
The House version of the tax plan released last week—and crafted only by the GOP—will likely be altered in multiple ways before the final vote is taken. And it still may not pass. But as it stands now, it definitely seems to provide “an enormous bonanza for the wealthiest” people in the country. (See “Shameful GOP Tax Plan Taxes Reality,” posted on 11/2.)
Moreover, this tax overhaul plan would also allow churches to endorse political candidates, a position favored by the HF’s DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society.
We citizens of the U.S. who don’t like the way the country is going under DJT need to be aware, and beware, of the Heritage Foundation.

Monday, October 30, 2017

"Here I Stand"

Tomorrow, 31 October 2017, is the 500th anniversary of what is regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This noteworthy anniversary has been talked about for months and even years already. But please consider with me the following matters.

The Courage of Martin Luther
Roland Bainton (1894-1984) was a prominent British-born American church historian. His book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther was published in 1950—and sold more than a million copies. It was so well-written and informative that during my years as a seminary student it was one of the few books I bought that was not a textbook. 
According to Bainton, in 1517 on the eve of All Saints' Day, the Catholic holy day celebrated on November 1, “in accord with current practice,” Luther posted “on the door of the Castle Church [in Wittenberg, Germany] a printed placard in the Latin language consisting of ninety-five theses for debate” (p. 79).
That rather unpretentious act triggered such a reaction that it is generally regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Posting those theses (topics) for debate was not an especially courageous act—but standing firm despite his censure by the Roman Catholic Church was.
In June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull demanding that Luther renounce 41 of his 95 theses. Luther not only refused to do that, he publicly burned that decree of the Pope. As a result, in January 1521 the Pope excommunicated Luther—which was a “big deal” for someone who had been a Catholic priest, as Luther was. 
Three months later, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms (a city in Germany). It was at that trial where he was famously defiant. In response to the demand that he recant, Luther declared,
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe, God help me. Amen.
Bainton then notes, “The earliest printed version added the words, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise’” (p. 185).  
For his courageous refusal to recant his writings, the emperor declared him an outlaw and a heretic.
The Compromise of Luther
Luther was saved from possible martyrdom by the intervention of Frederick the Wise, the German prince who was one of the most powerful men in the Holy Roman Empire. The religious-political union of Luther and Frederick was of great benefit for Luther, but not for the great number of “peasants” in the German principalities.
The writings of Luther and new Bible-derived notions of the basic equality of all people precipitated the tragic Peasant’s Revolt of 1524-1525. Luther was not unsympathetic to the plight of the peasants, but in the end he sanctioned the violent suppression of the peasants who had unwisely sought to gain more equality through violence.
By his union with the political rulers and his approval of the slaughter of the revolting peasants—as many as 100,000 were killed!—Luther compromised his courageous stand in asserting that “the just shall live by faith.” 
There was need for a more thoroughgoing radical reformation—one that would not only change the believers’ relationship to the church but also to the state.
The Reformation after Luther
There can be no doubt about the tremendous importance of the Reformation started by Luther 500 years ago. But also of great importance is the “radical reformation” started eight years later by a small group of Christians in Switzerland. 
I am looking forward to the 500th-anniversary celebration of that reformation in 2025. The courageous “here I stand” position for many of those reformers meant martyrdom.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Revelation: The Most Misused Book in the Bible

While I usually try not to make strong, dogmatic statements that cannot be empirically supported, I am quite certain that the book of Revelation is the most misunderstood and misused book in the Bible.
A Traditional View of Revelation 
Growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist church, it was not uncommon to hear sermons about the impending end of the world based on passages from Revelation, the last book of the Bible.
Especially when visiting evangelists preached “revivals” at my home church, Revelation was often used to emphasize that the end times were upon us for sure and we had better get ready for the rapidly approaching doomsday. I still remember hearing frightening sermons along those lines in 1950 or before.
Twenty years later, the final Battle of Armageddon still had not come, but Hal Lindsey wrote powerfully about the impending end times in The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), said to be the bestselling non-fiction book of the 1970s.
Especially over the past 200 years, the Bible has been used frequently to predict the imminent end of the world. The books of Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament have also been used for such “prophecy,” but the main basis has been the book of Revelation.
But I have long been convinced that the traditional “dispensational” view of Revelation is wrongheaded and that the widespread way Revelation has been used among conservative Christians is erroneous. 
A New View of Revelation 
In the early 1960s, my understanding of Revelation greatly changed—and greatly improved, I believe—by reading the book Worthy is the Lamb: An Interpretation of Revelation (1951) by Ray Summers, who was one of my seminary professors.
One of the main points that I realized from reading Dr. Summers’ book is that Revelation was written for Christians at the end of the first century, not for the purpose of prophesying what was going to happen in the last half of the 20th century.
During each of my two pastorates while a seminary student, I taught Revelation over the course of many Sunday evenings, using Worthy as the Lamb as the main commentary for interpreting that difficult book of the Bible. 
Repeatedly, I reminded those in attendance that every part of Revelation was written to help/encourage the persecuted Christians at the end of the first century. Thus it is important, first of all, to see what meaning each part of the book had for them. 
To say the least, it would not have been helpful for the early Christians to learn that Revelation was predicting how Russia was going to trigger the Battle of Armageddon in the 1960s or ’70s.
A Recommended View of Revelation 
This article on Revelation was prompted by Brian Zahnd, author of the previously introduced book Sinners in the Hand of a Loving God. Three of the chapters (7~9) of that engaging book are about Revelation, and last month BZ preached a sermon at Word of Life Church where he is pastor on “What About the Book of Revelation?” (That sermon, which you can hear here, is certainly worth listening to).
BZ also agrees with my opening dogmatic statement. He writes, “The book of Revelation is easily the most misunderstood and misused book in the Bible” (p. 149).
Revelation is, truly, an important part of the Bible. It must, however, be read and interpreted wisely. If properly read and interpreted, it gives us Christians hope for the future and strength to oppose political idolatry and evil in the present.
Rather than neglect Revelation because of its misuse, we need to pay attention to its abiding message, even for us today.

Friday, October 20, 2017

What Belongs to Caesar?

Since July 1, Thinking Friend Cindy Molini has been pastor of the United Christian and Presbyterian Church in Lawson, Mo., which is about 25 miles northeast of where I live in Liberty. In response to her kind invitation, I have the privilege of preaching in her absence this Sunday (Oct. 22). 
A Trick Question for Jesus 
As I never did as a pastor but have often done over the past 10-12 years, I chose my text for Sunday’s sermon from the lectionary, deciding to use Matthew 22:15-22, the Gospel reading. In response to a trick question, that passage contains Jesus’ well-known words: 
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. (CEB)
Those who were seeking to trap Jesus in order to silence him and his movement asked him: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Doesn’t this mean that the strict Jewish people wanted to follow the Torah much the same way that strict Muslims want to follow Sharīʿah?)
Answering either in the affirmative or in the negative would ignite explosive opposition. The Jews would have strongly disapproved of Jesus sanctioning the payment of the Roman taxes; the Romans would have condemned non-payment of those taxes.
So, Jesus asked for a coin that was used for paying the taxes, noted the image (Greek: eikon) on the coin, and then made the oft-quoted statement about rendering to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God. 
A Tricky Situation for Pacifists 
Last night (Oct. 19) the symposium titled “Remembering Muted Voices: A Symposium on Resistance and Conscientious Objection in WWI” opened at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. (You can learn more about that event here.)
One feature at this symposium is the premier of traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” developed by Kauffman Museum, affiliated with Bethel College in Kansas. 
(That exhibit will be at Rainbow Mennonite Church from Oct. 24-29; if you are or will be in the Kansas City area during that time, you are cordially invited to go see it.)
What do pacifists do when their country goes to war and able-bodied young men are expected to fight for their country? It is a tricky situation, one with no solution without censure. 
Some follow the expectations, or demands, of their country and become soldiers—often to the disappointment of or embarrassment to their pacifist families and/or churches. 
Others follow the teaching of their church—the historic “peace churches” are the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) that began in the 1740s and the descendants of the Swiss Anabaptists (mainly the Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren) dating back to 1525—and refuse military service.
The latter are the “conscientious objectors,” many of whom suffered greatly—some to death--during World War I, although most were treated with more civility in World War II and afterward.
So, What Belongs to Caesar? 
While they may not all articulate it in this way, most of those who are, or who support, conscientious objectors are also inclined to support the government (“Caesar”) by paying taxes, although some few are war-tax opponents. Nevertheless, most believe that human beings are created in the “image” of God and thus belong exclusively to God, not to Caesar.
Those who belong to God must follow the teachings of Jesus, which contain no sanction to kill. Since they believe that all people bear the image of God, there can be no justification for killing other people—even in war. 
Caesar may legitimately claim our coins, but never our allegiance and obedience to God in whose image we are made.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

In Praise of Pascal

Many years ago I made a list of the top ten modern (since 1500) theologians and/or philosophers by whom my thinking had been most influenced. The first name on that chronological list was, and remains, Blaise Pascal. That French genius, who died 355 years ago in 1662, was a man whose ideas are certainly praiseworthy still.
Pascal’s Precocity 
There is no question that Pascal (b. 1623) was a precocious child. He reputedly discovered for himself the first 32 of Euclid’s propositions while still a boy, and as a teenager he invented the first calculating machine.
In his twenties, Pascal confirmed the existence of the vacuum and instigated the development of calculus. His expertise as a physicist is such that “pascal” became the name for “a unit of pressure in the meter-kilogram-second system equivalent to one newton per square meter.”
Later, “Pascal” became the name for “a structured computer programming language developed from Algol and designed to process both numerical and textual data.”
There is no question that Pascal from an early age excelled as a mathematician, physicist, and inventor. However, it is because of his deep religious experience and then because of his keen thinking as a Christian philosopher that I find him most worthy of praise.
Pascal’s Profundity 
Pascal’s great contribution as a Christian thinker came after a profound religious experience in November 1654, when he was 31 years old. At that time he wrote, and then carried with him until the time of his death, the following testimony of that mystic experience:
Fire!
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ. . . .
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
Following that “night of fire,” Pascal abandoned his pursuit of science until just before his death and decided to write a book for the vindication of the Christian faith. But, alas, he died at the young age of 39 before the book was published and even before his copious notes were organized.   

By 1670, though, Pascal’s thoughts were published, without much organization, under the name Pensées—and the book is still published in various translations and editions, including more than one on Kindle. 
While some of Blaise’s thoughts may seem a little blasé, many are quite profound. Of particular import are these contentions:
The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: . . . (423)
It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason. (424)
(Pascal’s quoted words are all from A.J. Krailsheimer’s 1966 translation of Pensées.) 
Pascal’s Paradoxicality  

It is particularly Pascal’s dual emphasis on opposites that I have found most helpful. For example, concerning reason: 
If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous. (273)
Pascal’s paradoxical view of human nature is of great significance. “Man is only a reed, but he is a thinking reed.” (200)
He repeatedly wrote about both the wretchedness and the greatness of humans.
Pascal also averred, “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.” (562)
Wikipedia interestingly, and correctly, summarizes Pascal’s paradoxicality in these words: “In the Pensées, Pascal surveys several philosophical paradoxes: infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life, meaning and vanity—seemingly arriving at no definitive conclusions besides humility, ignorance, and grace.”
Many of Pascal’s “thoughts” are praiseworthy and unquestionably worth thinking about—perhaps especially in the present day.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Deplorable Persistence of Racism

In spite of having an article ready to post this morning, I felt compelled to write this piece yesterday, the day after VP Pence’s theatrical protest of the protesters at Sunday’s NFL game in Indianapolis. 
Trump’s/Pence’s Protest 
As has been in the news so much, too much, in the past weeks, the President has made some players in the National Football League (NFL) the target of repeated criticism. It all started back on Sept. 22 when DJT spoke at a rally in Alabama for Senate primary candidate Luther Strange. 
At a loss for appropriate words, as is often the case, at that rally DJT publicly called some NFL players SOBs. That was his depiction of those who have knelt rather than standing and saluting the flag during the singing of the national anthem.
From the next day on, DJT has persistently tweeted criticism of the protesting players, NFL owners, and the NFL in general for permitting such protests. 
DJT approved (or ordered?) Pence’s “political stunt,” as some have characterized it, of walking out of the stadium when (according to this article) on Oct. 8 for “the second week in a row, the 49ers had more than 20 players kneeling during the national anthem with their hands over their hearts.” 
(It has been reported that the cost of the Veep’s trip to Indianapolis for his brief appearance at the game cost us U.S. taxpayers around $200,000.) 
The NFL Player’s Protest
At most of you know, the protest of the NFL players was initiated last year by Colin Kaepernick, the then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. During his team’s last preseason games, Kaepernick sat and later kneeled during the singing of the national anthem. 
Actually, Nate Boyer, a U.S. Army veteran convinced Colin Kaepernick to kneel, rather than sit, while protesting police brutality during the national anthem, and Kaepernick has clearly said that he has “great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country.”
In a post-game interview on Aug. 26 last year, however, Kaepernick said,
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
The protest against racism of mostly black NFL players has greatly escalated this year after the President’s public remarks and persistent tweets.
Racism’s Persistence
Not only are DJT’s tweets persistent, the prevalence of racism seems to be quite persistent also.
Last Sunday when I was checking Yahoo! Sports online to see how the Colts-49ers game turned out, I began to read comment after comment in support of Trump/Pence and in criticism of the protesting NFL players.
Sadly, there were dozens of comments dissing the protesters before I saw one that mentioned the point of the ongoing protest of the black players: the persistence of racism.
I couldn’t help but wonder if many of those who wrote were not in the batch of “deplorables” that Hillary so famously/infamously mentioned last year. For example, here are a couple of the racist comments I happened to see:
“Blacks destroy their neighborhoods, why not their workplace?”
“No more NFL games for me. I'll just go skiing instead. There aren't any black skiers or blacks within 199 miles of a ski area.”
The nation continues to face real and perplexing problems. Kneeling during the national anthem isn’t one of those problems. Racism is. When are DJT and the VP going to deal seriously with that problem?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Why Study the Bible?

For the first time in a long time, on Sept. 24 I attended a Sunday School class in a Southern Baptist church. That experience was the springboard for the question posed above.
Questioning Bible Study
June and I spent the last weekend in September in southwest Missouri. On Sunday morning we attended a very lively Baptist church in a rural area several miles south of Springfield. 
The study material used for the class we attended was the “Explore the Bible” quarterly produced by LifeWay, the publishing company known from 1891 to 1998 as the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board.
Exodus and Leviticus are being explored during this fall quarter; the Sept. 24 lesson was on Exodus 14:13-28. In the class we attended, the King James Version was the translation used, although LifeWay also offers two other translations.
By the end of the class, attended by 12-15 older adults, I began to wonder about the purpose of it all. There was almost no attempt, either by the teacher or the quarterly, to make the class any more than a study of the events found in the Bible passage.
After returning home, I was able to buy a digital copy of that Sunday School quarterly online. Here are a couple of statements in it indicating what readers might learn from study of Ex. 14:13-28. (i) “God delivers His people, providing a way of escape.” (ii) “Believers demonstrate faith in God by obediently following His directions.”
Bible Study Questions
In listening to the Sunday School teacher, who was quite articulate in his lecture about the Bible passage, there were several questions that I would like to have raised. I did not have any chance to do that—and it probably would not have been appropriate to have done so as a visitor.
Here are some of my questions: If the Church is God’s people today, will God provide us a way of escape from our “enemies” similar to that provided to the Israelites whom Moses led to and through the Red Sea?
Since God did not tell the Israelites to build up armed forces and fight against the Egyptians militarily, why do so many U.S. Christians seem to think they should be supporters of massive armed forces now?
Then, what are God’s directions to believers today? Is God directing Christians in the U.S. to support the current President? My guess is that probably 80% or so of the people in the church I attended on Sept 24 voted for and continue to support DJT, even though (or because?) he threatens to unleash “fire and fury” upon North Korea and to “totally destroy” that country. Is that God’s will?
So, why study the Bible to learn about the past without considering or discussing what lessons there might be for the present?
Of course it is much easier, and far less controversial, for a teacher or a quarterly to deal with information about the past than to struggle with present-day implications of the Bible passage being studied.
Purpose of Bible Study
There is, certainly, some value in studying the Bible for understanding its content in historical context. Shouldn’t the primary purpose of a Sunday School class, though, be seeking to understand the meaning and challenge of the Bible for us in our context today?
But who is willing to engage in the hard work of that kind of Bible study? And to what extent would our interpretation be shaped by our political views rather than the latter being shaped by the Bible?
Still, we surely need to study/explore the Bible with the intent of finding it a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths.


Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Hochstetler Massacre

September 19, 1757, was a terrible, terrible day for the Jacob Hochstetler family in Northkill, Pennsylvania. A new trilogy of historical novels brilliantly tells the story of the massacre that occurred then and the long-lasting repercussions of that tragedy.
The Facts
As the roadside marker indicates, the first Amish-Mennonite congregation in the U.S. was established by 1740 near Northkill Creek in Berks County, Pennsylvania, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia. (For some inexplicable reason the date seems to be off by ten days.)
The home of Jacob Hochstetler and his family in Northkill was attacked by a band of Delaware and Shawnee Indians on the night of Sept. 19, 1757. It was an unspeakable tragedy for the family. Jacob's wife, whose name is not known, and two of the children were killed; Jacob and two sons, Joseph and Christian, were taken as captives.
Several months later, Jacob was able to escape from the Indian settlement and to return home. Joseph was 15 when captured and while completely resistant to his captors at first, he gradually assimilated into the Indian community and was reluctant to return to his Amish home when he had the chance to do that several years later.
Christian was captured when he was 11. He had the hardest time going back home when freed and becoming a member of the Amish community again.  
Plaque at the original Hochstetler homestead.
The Trilogy
Ervin Stutzman is the author the “Return to Northkill” trilogy, consisting of Jacob’s Choice (2014), Joseph’s Dilemma (2015), and Christian’s Hope (2016). They are engaging historical novels by an author who comes from the Amish tradition.
On the first Sunday I attended Rainbow Mennonite Church in 2011, I met Clif Hostetler and he has been a good friend (and soon became a Thinking Friend) ever since. Jacob Hochstetler was Clif’s 5th great-grandfather. (The original German name was shortened by many of Jacob’s descendants.)
(Clif loaned me Stutzman’s books, and I enjoyed reading all three of them between April 2016 and January of this year.)
Author Stutzman (b. 1953) was born into an Amish home in Iowa and was baptized in an Amish community in Kansas. He later joined a Mennonite church. Stutzman, who earned a Ph.D. at Temple University, has been the executive director of Mennonite Church USA since 2010—and he is also a descendant of Jacob Hochstetler.
The Lessons
There is room to mention briefly only two of several “lessons” that can be learned from the Hochstetler massacre and its repercussions.
(1) The choice referred to in the first book of the trilogy is primarily about whether Jacob and his sons would use firearms to shoot the attacking Indians. The sons thought they should. Jacob’s choice was to remain true to the Anabaptist teaching of nonviolence. 
In Stutzman’s novel, Jacob tells God in prayer before the attack, 
This farm belongs to you. My family belongs to you. And if people come to take them from me, I will not take up arms against them. I will be faithful to you as my Savior and Lord. You alone are my defense (p. 72). 
Clearly, that choice resulted in the tragic slaughter of Jacob’s wife and two of his children. Many would say it was a foolish choice. But if he had killed some of the Indians then, it is quite likely that a later raid would have resulted in him and all his children being killed.
(2) The Indian way of life is attractively narrated. Far from picturing the Native Americans as “savages,” Stutzman portrays Indian culture in an appealing way that fosters harmony rather than animosity. These books promote deeper understanding of, and harmony with, others (“the other”) as well as nonviolence.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Plantinga's Prestigious Prize

Alvin Plantinga is not a well-known name among the broader public, but his is one of the best known and most respected names among contemporary Christian philosophers. Yesterday (Sept. 24) he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize at The Field Museum in Chicago.
Who Is Plantinga?
Alvin Plantinga is an American philosopher whose main work is in the philosophy of religion and epistemology. He served as president of the Society of Christian Philosophers from 1983 to 1986.
The son of first-generation immigrants from the Netherlands, Plantinga was born in 1932. He graduated from Calvin College, where his father was then teaching, and then after completing his Ph.D. at Yale University, his teaching career was mostly at Calvin College and the University of Notre Dame.
Plantinga’s most influential books are God and Other Minds (1967), and a trilogy of books on epistemology, culminating in Warranted Christian Belief (2000). The later was revised for a wider audience and published as Knowledge and Christian Belief in 2016.
Also, Alvin Plantinga is the title of a book published in 2007 by Cambridge University in their “Contemporary Philosophy in Focus” series. 
Meeting Plantinga
The Society of Christian Philosophers organized a conference on the campus of Peking University in the fall of 1994. I was able to fly from Fukuoka, Japan, to Beijing (about a 4½ hour flight) and attend that stimulating meeting.
There were several top Christian philosophers from the U.S. there, but it was Plantinga whom I most wanted to hear—and I was not disappointed in what I heard at the meetings and in the personal chat I had with him while walking across the spacious campus of Peking University, the premier university in China.
That academic meeting, which fruitfully focused on dialogue between the Christian philosophers from the U.S. and the Chinese philosophers who taught at Peking University and were atheists, was led by Plantinga. I was impressed by his brilliant mind, his respect for the Chinese scholars, and his deep and reasoned Christian faith.
Plantinga’s Prize
John Templeton was a financial investment whiz and a philanthropist. According to the Templeton Prize website (see here), Templeton (1912-2008) “started his Wall Street career in 1938 and went on to create some of the world's largest and most successful international investment funds.”
After becoming a wealthy man, in 1972 Templeton “established the world's largest annual award given to an individual, the Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
The first Templeton Prize was awarded to Mother Teresa, and a wide variety of religious practitioners and academics have received the prestigious, and lucrative, prize in the succeeding years. (This year Plantinga received $1,400,000 as the recipient of the Templeton Prize.)
Some “liberals” have been critical of some choices for the Templeton Prize, such as Billy Graham in 1982 and especially Charles Colson in 1993 and Bill Bright in 1996. But most recipients have not been conservative Christians; for example, the Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama in 2012 and to Desmond Tutu in 2013.
(For those of you who have the time and interest, I recommend opening the Templeton Prize website, here, and following the links to the various articles and videos found there.)

I am grateful to Alvin Plantinga for the significant contributions he has made to critical thinking as a Christian philosopher. His being chosen as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize accentuates the fact that Christians can, indeed, be deep, cogent thinkers. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Bible is Like a Rorschach Test

Long before I read Brian Zahnd’s new book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God I had made a note to use the above title for a future blog article. Thus, I was surprised when I read this in BZ’s book: “Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test: our interpretation of the text reveals more about ourselves than about God” (p. 14). Quite true!
Literal and Metaphorical Rorschach Tests
Rorschach inkblot #10
The story of the background and development of the Rorschach test is thoroughly told in a book by Damion Searls published earlier this year under the title The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. (I have only scanned the book, but here is the link to Thinking Friend Clif Hostetler’s review of it.)  
Rorschach created the inkblots test for the purpose of psychological analysis and evaluation. But the popularity of those tests has resulted in their metaphorical use also.
In his book, Searls reports that in 1993 Hillary Clinton said to an Esquire reporter, “I’m a Rorschach test” (p. 263). And then in 2008 Barack Obama said to a New York Times reporter, with a somewhat different meaning, “I am like a Rorschach test” (p. 309).
Truly, as the Rorschach test amply illustrates, people look at the same thing, or same person, and come to widely different conclusions about the nature and significance of those things or persons.
That is true for the Bible also.
The Bible as a Rorschach Test
How people read and interpret the Bible varies greatly. For example, the Bible as seen by fundamentalist Christians is different in multifarious ways from how it is seen by those of us who are not fundamentalists.
The passages of the Bible a person chooses for evaluating current issues tells us a lot about that person. Their use of the Bible is, truly, like a Rorschach test.
For a case in point, consider Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Last month (here) I quoted Jeffress saying that God has given Pres. Trump the authority to “take out” Kim Jong-un. That dangerous assertion is based on his selection and interpretation of “God’s Word” as found in Romans 13.
Then on Sept. 11, in commenting on the immigration issue and the “Dreamers,” Jeffress told Fox News (see here) that “God is not necessarily an open borders guy.”
According to the Dallas pastor, the Bible teaches that God has established borders and instituted the government to protect its citizens. Thus, he says, those Christians who emphasize compassion based on Gen. 1:27 are telling only one side of the story.
It seems quite clear than when Jeffress looks at the Bible, he sees a book that supports the current President of the U.S. and the bulk of the Republican Party. That doesn’t tell us much about the Bible, but it tells us a lot about Jeffress and the “evangelicals” who agree with him.
The Proper Criterion
In his book mentioned above, Zahnd emphasizes that all of the Bible should be read from the viewpoint of Jesus. That is, the Old Testament, the letters of Paul, and all other parts of the Bible must be interpreted in light of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Baptists used to have it right: the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message clearly and importantly stated: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
Thus, when Jesus is the basis for interpreting the Bible, we find a perspective considerably different from that of Pastor Jeffress.
What does your interpretation of the Bible say about you?


Friday, September 15, 2017

Problems with Philanthropy

To the Stars through Difficulties is a new book by Kansas author Romalyn Tilghman. I recently read Romalyn’s delightful novel and enjoyed hearing her discuss it on Wednesday afternoon.
The Case of Andrew Carnegie
The Carnegie libraries of Kansas are the backdrop of Tilghman’s novel. Early on she informs her readers that industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) built 59 libraries in Kansas in the early 1900s and that “he gave the country 1689 libraries that served thirty-five million people by 1919.”
That is impressive philanthropy! And it is only part of what Carnegie did with his great wealth.
But on the same page Romalyn acknowledges Carnegie’s “despicable treatment of mineworkers, including the murder of seven men in his attempt to break up the union,” and reports that some Kansas communities “refused to take his tainted money even for the promise of a library.“
She then rightly states that Carnegie was “both a philanthropist and robber baron (p. 7).”  
The Case of John D. Rockefeller
Andrew Carnegie vied with John D. Rockefeller as being the richest man in the world. Like Carnegie, Rockefeller (1839-1937) also started life in rather humble circumstances but through hard work, ingenuity, and shrewd business deals he also became a man of great wealth.
From boyhood and throughout his lifetime Rockefeller was a faithful Baptist church member—and a tither. From his early 50s, he deliberately began his philanthropic activities.
A chapter in Ellen Greenman Coffey’s small book John D. Rockefeller is titled “The Pious Robber Baron.”
In a later chapter, “An Investment in Good Works,” Greenman tells of Rockefeller’s increasing involvement in giving his money away under the tutelage of Frederick T. Gates, a young Baptist minister whom he employed.
Among the many projects Gates (1853-1929) led his boss to support, one of the best-known is the Rockefeller Foundation, established in 1913 after years of planning.
Rockefeller’s philanthropic work, however, was partly in response to the negative publicity he had suffered from Ida Tarbell’s 1904 book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, in which she depicted Rockefeller as “miserly, money-grabbing, and viciously effective at monopolizing the oil trade.”  
The Case of Joan Kroc
Recently, June and I watched “Founder,” the 2016 movie about Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s restaurants into the wealthiest fast food chain in the world—but not without the use of devious means.
Joan was Krok’s third wife. They married in 1969, when Ray was 67 years old, and she inherited his wealth after his death in 1984. Their story is told in Lisa Napoli’s 2016 book titled Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.
Joan’s $1.5 billion gift to Salvation Army is said to be the largest philanthropic gift ever made by an individual in the U.S. The bulk of that gift has been used to build and maintain 26 Kroc Centers throughout the country.  
Problems with Philanthropy
Very summarily, here are some problems with philanthropy, clearly seen in that of the three people mentioned above:
(1) There is a problem of how the wealth of the philanthropists is gained, particularly when it is by exploitation of workers and shrewd (bordering on illegal) business practices.
(2) Then, most philanthropists tend to aggrandize themselves in their charitable giving. Everyone knows of Carnegie libraries, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Kroc centers.
(3) And then consider these insightful words by William Jewett Tucker, a contemporary critic of Carnegie:
I can conceive of no greater mistake, more disastrous in the end to religion if not to society, than of trying to make charity do the work of justice.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Are Anti-Gay People/Groups Hateful and Mean?

It is rather astounding that the straight/gay issue seems to be the most debated, most divisive, and most destructive point of contention among Christians and Christian organizations today. Is there any way to lessen the discord caused by this contentious wedge issue?
Opposition to the Nashville Statement
The gay/straight problem was thrust into the spotlight anew by the issuance of the “Nashville Statement” on Aug. 29. That statement by conservative Christian evangelicals vigorously upheld traditional marriage and rejected same-sex marriage. (Here is a link to the complete document.)
As could have easily been predicted, there was prompt opposition to the Nashville Statement, including derogatory comments about the signers, many of whom are Southern Baptist pastors and leaders of SB institutions and agencies.
Soon there were public statements from the other side, such as the one by the noted pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. On Aug. 30, she issued the “Denver Statement” which counters point by point the articles of the Nashville Statement.
Bolz-Weber’s statement does not denigrate or malign the signers of the Nashville Statement; she merely contradicts their arguments one by one.
But other opponents have called the signers of the Nashville Statement mean and hateful (homophobic).
Some of the signers may, in fact, be mean and hateful—but are they all and should they all be disdained in that disrespectful way?
Opposition to the SPLC
Perhaps emboldened by the Nashville Statement—or challenged by the opposition to it—on Sept. 6 forty-seven conservative evangelicals sent a letter (see here) asking the mainstream media not to cite data on hate groups compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). 
In part, they wrote:
The SPLC is a discredited, left-wing, political activist organization that seeks to silence its political opponents with a “hate group” label of its own invention and application that is not only false and defamatory, but that also endangers the lives of those targeted with it.
That is a rather defamatory statement against a group whose founder, Morris Dees, has been repeatedly targeted by his opponents.
Moreover, if SPLC identifies some anti-gay Christian organization as hate groups, it is because they have seen how some people have “acted out” against LGBTQ people on the basis of the stated position of those groups.
Opposition to the Opposition
Here is my stance on this prickly issue:
(1) I strongly disagree with the Nashville Statement and basically agree with the Denver Statement. Further, June and I have been supporters of the SPLC since we came back to the U.S. to live in 2004; we have sent monetary gifts to them every year since then and will continue to do so.
(2) Still, it is most likely that those who signed the Nashville Statement did so not because of malice but because of their religious convictions—and those convictions are held primarily because of the way they interpret the Bible.
(3) Admittedly, the anti-gay sentiments of the signers of the Nashville Statement can be, and have been, shamefully used to treat gay people in mean and hateful ways. But for most of the signers that is not their intention; many of them probably seek to be loving without being affirming.
(4) Since many gays and lesbians have been caused to suffer as a result of the teaching and/or preaching of conservative evangelical organizations and churches, the SPLC has every right to oppose the hateful activities which have been spurred by those groups.
(5) Judging others, calling them names, and ridiculing their beliefs only creates greater division, larger wedges, and more animosity. Thus, it is imperative for us Christians to work on building bridges between people with conflicting convictions and incompatible interpretations of the Bible.