Friday, July 25, 2014

The Great War, a Great Tragedy

War began in Europe in July 1914, 100 years ago this month.

It was originally called the Great War—great meaning “notably large in size”—but after a second war that was even greater in size, it has come to be known as World War I.

The immediate cause of WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, on June 28, 1914, by a Serb nationalist in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.

Exactly one month later, on July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia. Within a week, Germany, Austria’s ally, had declared war on both Russia and France.

On August 4, Britain declared war on Germany. Later that month, Japan, who had been an ally of Britain since 1902, declared war on Germany. Then in October 1914 Turkey and the Ottoman Empire entered the war.

In May of the next year, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungry. Nearly two years later, in April 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany.

The Great War, truly, involved all of the most powerful nations of the world at that time.

When the armistice ending the war was finally signed on November 11, 1918, some 10 million soldiers had been killed, and millions more were permanently injured. In addition, around 7 million civilians had also died, and, as one analyst put it, “the physically broken and psychologically scarred were beyond counting.”

The formal peace accord, the Treaty of Versailles, was signed by Germany in June 1919. But the terms of that treaty were punitive; creating resentments that fostered the rise of Nazism a few years later.

Rather than being “the war to end all wars,” as many in the U.S. hoped and expected, WWI proved to be the first act in a global tragedy that was to resume 20 years later with even greater consequences.

In an outstanding new book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade” (2014), Baylor University professor Philip Jenkins points out that Christians found it easy to use “fundamental tenets of the faith as warrants to justify war and mass destruction.”

Criticism of the war from religious leaders was scant. Traditional peace churches such as the Quakers and Mennonites did speak out, and Pope Benedict XV publicly lamented “the suicide of civilized Europe.” What stands out about such voices, however, is how rare they were.

In some ways, WWI seems to show the failure of European Christianity.

In 1914, most Brits were Anglicans, most Frenchmen were Catholic as were most of the people of Austria-Hungry, most Germans were Lutherans, most Russians and most Serbs were members of the Orthodox Church. Rather than pledging allegiance to Jesus Christ, however, most people were primarily loyal to their national monarch.

It was only the U.S., it seems, that fought “over there” in the Great War for altruistic reasons, as well as, admittedly, to protect its economic interests. Although the intended goal was not fully reached, U.S. involvement was fueled by the desire to make the world safe for democracy.

Nevertheless, WWI was one of the greatest tragedies in human history, leaving important lessons for political and religious leaders to heed today.

The World War I Museum


Earlier this month when my son Ken, who is a high school history teacher in Maryland, was visiting us in Missouri, we went through The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. Some of you have done the same at one time or another. If you haven’t, I highly recommend you do so when you are in the area. It is not much fun seeing the detailed displays of the war that began in July 1914, but it is an excellent, very educational museum. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Plight of the Bumblebee

Flight of the Bumblebee” is an orchestral interlude written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for an opera composed in 1899–1900. It is a delightful piece that I have enjoyed listening to from time to time for more than sixty years.
This article, though, is about the plight of bumblebees, honey bees, monarch butterflies and other important pollinators that are now dying out at present.
You probably have been hearing about this serious problem, deserving our attention, although it doesn’t make the nightly news very often. But here are some things I have recently found and read/watched:
On April 19, 2013, Bill Moyers presented and introduced a short documentary “Dance of the Honey Bee,” narrated by environmental activist Bill McKibben. Here is the link to this significant video.
Some of you may remember that McKibben, whom I mentioned in my May 15 blog article, is a major opponent of the Keystone Pipeline. He is also a strong proponent of bees: his 2013 book is titled Oil and Honey.
Last month HuffPost posted an article with some interesting interactive photos that you might want to take a look at. The title is “This Is What Your Grocery Store Looks Like Without Bees.”
Just a month ago, on June 20, the White House issued a Presidential memorandum titled “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” That document begins with these words:
Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States.
(To see the whole document, click here.)
A few days later, journalist Gregory Barber of NPR posted an article titled “White House Task Force To Save Bees Stirs Hornet’s Nest.” As this article points out,
At the center of the controversy is the bee initiative’s language asking the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the role of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that researchers have implicated in the disintegration of bee colonies.
And as you might guess, it is the companies that make and sell neonicotinoids who are most upset. Others, though, fear that discontinued use of insecticides would also reduce the production of corn and other crops used for human and animal food.
It is reported that in the U.S., neonicotinoids shield over 90% of the corn crop from pests.
The new government action is causing a big headache especially for the Bayer company, the pharmaceutical company founded in Germany in 1863 and the first to use the name Aspirin (even having that name trademarked until the end of WWI). It is the major producer of neonicotinoids.
Just as the tobacco companies used to do, Bayer is claiming that their pesticide product is safe for use. On their current website, they proclaim, “Bayer has proudly dedicated 25 years to ensuring the protection of bees through its Bee Care Program.”
Monsanto is another major producer of pesticides that are suspected of killing bees. And like Bayer, Monsanto is trying to debunk that charge. Last year they held the Honey Bee Health Summit (info. here).
In his Memorandum, though, the President said,
The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.
I wish the Task Force well in their efforts to alleviate the plight of bumblebees and other pollinators. After all, our food supply depends on it!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Current Immigration Crisis

Representative Sam Graves from the Sixth District of Missouri is my U.S. Congressman. To keep up with his ideas and work in the House, I get his weekly email called “Straight Talk with Sam.”
Rep. Graves’s July 7 email article was titled, “Enforce U.S. Law to Secure Our Borders.” The article begins with an attack on the President. Sam writes,
Today, Missourians and people around the country are witnessing one of the most aggressive attempts to expand executive power in history. President Obama would prefer to go around Congress to enact his agenda.
The first sentence, however, is highly questionable, and the second sentence seems to be patently false.
The end of last month I heard the President say, and emphasize, that he would like to work with Congress. “I don’t prefer taking administrative action. I’d rather see permanent fixes to the issue we face. Certainly that’s true on immigration. I’ve made that clear multiple times,” the President said.
Why should we assume that Rep. Graves is correct about what the President prefers when we have the President’s own clear statement about the matter?
Rep. Graves is certainly right in pointing out that there is a current humanitarian crisis caused by tens of thousands of “unaccompanied alien children” who have crossed into the U.S. illegally in recent months.
There are highly conflicting opinions, however, about what has caused this immigration crisis and what to do about it.
Rep. Graves declares, “The reason we are witnessing the surge along our southwestern border is because the President and his Administration have refused to enforce existing immigration laws. Instead he has implemented policies, which have not passed Congress, that encourage more illegal immigration.”
Again, the Congressman’s statements are quite problematic.
During each of President Obama’s years in office, the number of undocumented (illegal) aliens who have been deported has been far more than the number deported during each of the years President Bush (W) was in office.
True, concessions were made by President Obama for children who had been brought in by parents who came without documentation. And it is true that such concessions did not have the approval of Congress.
But they were approved by the Senate, so it wasn’t exactly the President acting on his own.
A major part of the current immigration crisis has been caused by the Republican-controlled House, with members like Rep. Graves, who have refused, and who continue refusing, to act for immigration reform.
Rep. Graves is requesting “an explicit public commitment from the President that he will not extend legal status to newly arriving illegal aliens–regardless of age.”
To the consternation of some people, this seems to be what the President is going to do.
A week before Rep. Graves’ email, it was publicly announced that the President was trying to get a 2008 law changed in order to make it possible for unaccompanied children to be sent back to their home countries more quickly.
Most of the children who have sought refuge in the U.S. have been living in terrible conditions—otherwise they would not have risked trying to get into the U.S. No doubt many of them will be killed, injured, or raped if they are forced back into their country of origin.
Seeking to provide for so many needy children in this country is clearly a problem. But isn’t indiscriminately sending them back too callous and too lacking in compassion?
In 1980 alone, about 125,000 Cubans came to the U.S. and found refuge here. Can’t more be done to help the children coming to this country now?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

“Jiko Manzoku”

The World Cup matches currently being held in Brazil started on June 12 and the final match between Argentina and Germany will be in Rio de Janeiro on July 13.
Perhaps, like me, you don’t know or care a lot about soccer. And many of you may be more interested in the upcoming games of the XXXI Olympiad, the Olympics that will also be held in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2016.
Ninety years ago, back in the summer of 1924, the Olympic Games were held in Paris. Many of you probably have seen “Chariots of Fire,” the British historical drama film about the ’24 Olympics.
That movie, which won the Academy Award for the best picture of 1981, is partly about Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman.”
Liddell was born in China in 1902, the son of Scottish missionary parents. Eric became an outstanding athlete at Edinburgh University, excelling at rugby as well as track.
His best event was the 100-meter dash, and he was selected to run that event for the 1924 British Olympic team. He was greatly disappointed, though, when he heard that the qualifying heat for the 100 meters was going to be held on Sunday.
As a devout Christian, he believed that to engage in an athletic event on Sunday was to violate the Commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. He refused to compromise.
So rather than competing on Sunday, later that week, on July 11, he ran the 400-meter race—and surprisingly won the gold medal, breaking the world record.
The following year, in 1925, Liddell became a missionary to China. He was ordained as a Christian minister on his first furlough in 1932.
Then in 1943 he was forced into a Japanese internment camp in China, dying there in February 1945 of an inoperable brain tumor and malnutrition.
Liddell was certainly a man of great talent, winsome personality, and deep Christian faith. But to be honest, I have mixed feelings about his refusal to compete in an Olympic event because it was on Sunday.
On the one hand, I generally admire people who stand up for, and act on, their Christian convictions. But it depends on what those convictions are and whether standing up for them enhances or detracts from one’s Christian witness.
In Japan I often heard the term “jiko manzoku,” translated into English as “self-satisfaction.” “Jiko manzoku” is often used in criticism of people who do things that don’t particularly help anyone or anything but just makes them feel good about themselves.
Back in the 1980s, I heard a preacher tell how when traveling on Sunday night, if necessary, he would wait at a service station until after midnight to buy gas because he didn’t think it was right to make purchases on Sunday.
He now laughs at his previously held belief and accompanying actions.
I’m sure he felt very “righteous” about living by his convictions then—but no doubt it was mostly a matter of “jiko manzoku.” It didn’t particularly help anyone else.
Jesus wasn’t big on keeping the Sabbath when it came to matters that were about “jiko manzoku.” But he was big on loving others and helping to meet their needs: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, lifting up the fallen, and forgiving sinners.
Liddell also served others as a missionary. His life and work in China is far more praiseworthy than what he did, and didn’t do, in Paris in July 1924.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

I Pledge Allegiance . . . .

Well, yesterday was another Fourth of July celebration here in the U.S. And tomorrow there will also be lots of patriotic talk in many churches across the land.

By the end of the day on Sunday, many people in the country will have pledged allegiance to the U.S. flag over the three-day weekend.
But that will not be the case for the people at Rainbow Mennonite Church (RMC), at least on Sunday —or for the people in most Mennonite churches across the nation, I assume.
Like the Quakers and other smaller Anabaptists groups, such as the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites are not big on pledges of allegiance.
The sermon at RMC will not be a particularly patriotic one either. I should know, for I am the one who will be preaching.
Our pastor and several others from the congregation will be in Waxahachie, Texas, for the Mennonite USA Western District Conference Annual Assembly. So I will be preaching in place of Pastor Ruth.
The Anabaptists from their beginning in the sixteenth century have generally been opposed to taking oaths. And a pledge of allegiance has often been considered a type of oath.
It was/is different among Southern Baptists. I know because I was a SB church member for twenty years, and also a (part time) SB pastor for eight years, before going to Japan in 1966.
During those years I was involved, in one way or another, in Vacation Bible School activities almost every summer.
It may have been different in other denominations, but in SB churches the daily VBS program started with a procession. All the children and teachers marched into the church auditorium following three older children bearing the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible.
And then the pledge of allegiance was said—to the American flag, to the Christian flag, and to the Bible, always in that order. Following that, the American flag was placed in front of the church—always on its right, the place of honor, as stipulated by the flag code.
Perhaps there was little problem with pledging the Christian flag—other than it taking second place to the American flag. Of course, there is a problem when the pledge to one flag conflicts with the pledge to the other.
Back in 2004, two Mennonite college professors penned a “Christian Pledge of Allegiance.” From the beginning of the Iraq War the year before, there were reports of children and youth in public schools being pressured to participate in saying the pledge of allegiance to the American flag.
June Alliman Yoder and Nelson Kraybill thought it was important for Christians of all ages to have an alternative statement that expressed allegiance to Jesus Christ. Here is what they came up with:
I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ,
and to God’s kingdom for which he died—
one Spirit-led people the world over,
indivisible, with love and justice for all.
I had not seen this pledge until a couple of weeks ago, but I like it.
Personally, I haven’t said the pledge of allegiance to the American flag for years. As a Christian I give my allegiance to Jesus, who said that no one can serve two masters (see Matthew 6:24).
But I am convinced that such a stance is not anti-patriotic. In fact, pledging allegiance to Jesus and following his teaching should do more to help the people of the country, and the world, than repeating the words of a pledge.
That’s how I see it. What about you?