Thursday, February 4, 2016

Honoring the Memory of Bonhoeffer


In spite of the fact that I have long admired him greatly, quoted him in sermons and chapel talks, and included him in university/seminary lectures, up until now I have not written about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in any of my previous blog articles (and this is my 499th one).

Today, though, on the 110th anniversary of his birth on February 4, 1906, I am happy to post this article in honor of Bonhoeffer’s memory.

As most of you probably know, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis in a German prison in April 1945, just weeks before the end of WWII in Europe. He was 39 years old, the same age as Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated on an April evening 23 years later.

Bonhoeffer was born into an upper middle class family and could easily have become a medical doctor or a lawyer. Instead, he chose to become a pastor and a theologian. And then he chose to become one of the leaders among the small percentage of Christians in Germany who stood up in opposition to Hitler and the Nazis.

Before Hitler’s rise to power, though, Bonhoeffer spent the academic year of 1930-31 as a student and teaching fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. For six months during that year he regularly attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church and sat under the preaching of Pastor Adam Clayton Powell (1865-1953).

Bonhoeffer, who turned 25 during the year he was in New York, was significantly influenced by his experience of attending that predominantly African-American church in Harlem.

In January 1933 Adolf Hitler, Führer (leader) of the National Socialist German Workers Party (or Nazi Party), was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Bonhoeffer, who was still just 26 at that time, soon began to oppose the fascism of Hitler and joined with Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth, and others to form what came to be known as the Confessing Church.

These anti-Nazi Christians in Germany drafted the Barmen Confession in 1934. They sought to make it clear that Jesus Christ was the Führer, their leader and the head of the Church, not Hitler.

Later that year, Bonhoeffer went to London to become pastor of a German-speaking church there. In 1935, though, he returned to Germany to become the head of the Confessing Church’s seminary.

In September 1937 that seminary in Finkenwalde was closed by the Gestapo and by November, 27 pastors and former students of Bonhoeffer were arrested.

That same November, Bonhoeffer published his most widely read book, Nachfolge (“following after”), which in 1949 was published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it Bonhoeffer sought to elucidate what following Jesus really means.
 
The first chapter of the book is titled “Costly Grace,” and there Bonhoeffer rejects what he terms “cheap grace.” That term was one he had heard in New York. Before Bonhoeffer was born, Rev. Powell had used the phrase “cheap grace” to refer to the dominant forms of religion that tolerated racism, sexism, and lynching in one form or another.

For Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace” was what he saw among the “German Christians” who accepted Hitler’s fascism. But he came to see that for him discipleship meant to stand up for the Jews and to oppose Hitler—and he even joined in plotting to kill Hitler in order to save Jewish lives.

Because of his anti-Nazi activities, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in April 1943. Two years later he was executed.

Bonhoeffer wrote in Nachfolge, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That, indeed, was the cost of discipleship for him.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

What about Evangeliphobia?

At the Vital Conversations meeting that I mentioned in my previous blog article, one of the participants asked if anyone had read the novel Christian Nation. No one had—but I have now been reading it for the last several days. It is an intriguing book.

That 2013 novel by Frederic C. Rich is based on the author’s speculation of what might have happened if McCain and Palin had been elected in 2008. You will likely see me refer to Rich’s novel again in future blog articles.

As I began to read the absorbing book, though, it dawned on me that it was doing the same sort of thing that books and movies have done with regard to Islam. That is, it exacerbates fear and enmity toward people whom the author clearly dislikes and distrusts.

So, author Rich may be guilty of encouraging what might be called “evangeliphobia.” When I thought of that term, I thought that I was perhaps coining a new word. But, alas, there is nothing new under the sun.

I found use of that term as far back as 1998. And in a 2005 article posted online by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, “Who’s Afraid of Evangelicals?” refers to “the recent rash of ‘evangeliphobia’.”

In his book The Fear of Islam, Todd Green explains that Islamophobia is closely linked to essentialism, which is the idea that characteristics of some individuals in a group apply to all the people in the same group.

Isn’t that sort of thing happening to evangelicals (as well as Muslims) in this country (and elsewhere)? In some circles aren’t all evangelicals being looked down upon because of the outrageous statements and questionable activities of some evangelicals?

As most of you know, I am highly critical of Christian, as well as other types of, fundamentalism. My first book was titled Fed Up with Fundamentalism (2007). In that book, though, I differentiated between being a fundamentalist and being a conservative: all fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are fundamentalists.

And, of course, the word “evangelicals” could be used in place of conservatives in the previous sentence. Often, however, all evangelicals/conservatives/fundamentalists get lumped together as if they are all the same. That clearly seems to be the case in the novel Christian Nation.

And that is the reason for using the word “evangeliphobia.”

One of the ways to combat Islamophobia is by pointing out that there is much diversity among Muslims. All should not be judged and condemned because of the outrageous behavior of a few. That is a point insisted on by moderate/liberal Christians—such as those who gathered for the discussion of Green’s book at Central Seminary on Monday evening.

But some of these same Christians—and I don’t mean to be critical of my friends at Central—are guilty of this same sort of problematic thinking when it comes to evangelical/conservative Christians.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to tell you that I (still) consider myself an evangelical—but one who is on the far left of the evangelical spectrum, one who is a Jim Wallis or a Tony Campolo or even a Jimmy Carter type of evangelical.

However, I have many friends (and family members) who are evangelicals and far to my right theologically and politically/socially. But they are not political extremists and don’t deserve to be lumped in with the evangelicals who are exposed/condemned in Christian Nation.

Let’s beware of the unfairness of evangeliphobia we well as of Islamophobia.

***

RECOGNIZING THE DIVERSITY AMONG EVANGELICALS
      For a recent article that clarifies the diversity among evangelicals, see 7 types of evangelicals — and how they’ll affect 2016.”


Monday, January 25, 2016

Combatting Islamophobia

Back in May 2013 I wrote about Islamophobia (see this link) and mentioned it again in October 2014 (here). But fear of Muslims, which is basically what Islamophobia is, seems to be stronger now—especially since the San Bernardino shootings—than it was two or three years ago.
 It goes without saying that there are radical terrorists in the world. ISIS (ISIL) is a real and ongoing threat to peace and safety in the Near East as well as in the Western world. The extremist activity of some groups or individuals who self-identify as Muslims cannot be denied and should not be ignored.
 At the same time, the lumping of all Muslims together and harboring suspicion against, or promoting rejection of, all Muslims because of the terrorist activities of some who say they are Muslims is grossly unfair.
 This month the group which meets under the name Vital Conversations discussed the book Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism (2013). The author, Maajid Nawaz (b. 1978), is an ethnic Pakistani born in England. As a teenager he was radicalized, and then a few years later he rejected the Islamism that he had embraced.
 Nawaz became the co-founder of, and continues as the leader of, Quilliam, a think tank based in London that seeks to combat Islamism and its extremist activities. (To understand the distinction between Islam and Islamism is crucial.)
 In 2011 Nawaz gave a TED talk in Edinburgh with the title “A Global Culture to Fight Extremism.” He is an admirable example of a Muslim fighting valiantly against radical Islamism.
 Ahmed el-Sharif was our guest at the January Vital Conversations meeting. Ahmed was born in Sinai and came to the United States in 1979. He is a chemist, and became an American citizen in 1985.
 Ahmed is also the founder of the American Muslim Council of Greater Kansas City. There is no question about him being a devout Muslim. But for those who have met him and heard him talk, there is no question about him being a peace-loving, sweet-spirited man.
 This evening (Jan. 25) Central Baptist Theological Seminary here in the Kansas City area will be holding its Spring Convocation. Following that, at 7 p.m. veteran professor Richard Olson will lead a discussion of Todd H. Green’s book The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West (2015). 
Green, who is a professor of religion at Luther College in Iowa, has written a very helpful, easy-to-read but scholarly book that I found well worth reading.
 To pick up on just one point, Green explains that just referring to “Islamic terrorists” encourages Islamophobia. That is the main reason President Obama has generally not used that term.
 Even back in 2008 Rudolph Giuliani’s criticized the Democratic National Convention for not using those words, and the President has been repeated castigated for not using that label.
 For example, about a year ago CNN reported that Sen. Lindsey Graham had said, “We are in a religious war with radical Islamists. When I hear the President of the United States and his chief spokesperson failing to admit that we’re in a religious war, it really bothers me.”
 Last month Donald Trump called for barring all Muslims from entering the United States (at least temporarily). Then early this month, in his first television ad of the presidential election campaign, Trump reiterated his call for a ban on Muslim entry to the U.S.
 Trump’s statement about Muslims is clearly an expression of, as well as encouragement of, Islamophobia. And sadly, his strident voice is just one among many.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Honoring a Good Bond

Monday was the federal holiday honoring the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. My previous article, posted on January 15 (his actual birthday), was partly about King and the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech he gave in 1964.
This article is about Julian Bond, one of King’s younger co-workers in the civil rights struggle. Bond was born on January 14, 1940, the day before King’s 11th birthday. In addition to being a premier civil rights leader, Bond was also a politician and a college professor. He died on August 15, 2015.
Like King, Bond went to Morehouse College in Atlanta. While a student there in 1960, Bond helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Because of his extensive involvement in the civil rights movement and his political activities, he didn’t graduate from Morehouse until 1971.
After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, Bond was one of eleven African Americans elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. Even though he had not yet finished college, he ran for a House seat in November 1965 and won.
But the Georgia House overwhelmingly refused to seat him in January 1966. They took that action because Bond had publicly endorsed SNCC’s strong opposition to the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Bond and MLK Jr. cast their ballots in Atlanta
to fill Bond’s “vacant” seat for the Georgia House.

Not only did Bond approve of SNCC’s anti-Vietnam War statement, he was a pacifist—as he publicly stated that same month on “Meet the Press.” In that interview he said he developed his pacifist views at the Quaker high school he had attended.
Since the Georgia House declared that Bond was not suitable to be seated, an election was held to fill the vacancy. Bond was elected again. The House refused to seat him again, so another election was held. And guess what: Bond was elected for the same seat a third time!
The standoff was settled when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Bond’s First Amendment rights were being violated and that he could not be barred from serving in the Georgia House. So Bond was finally seated as a state representative.
Bond served in the Georgia House for nine years and then went on to serve in the Georgia Senate from 1975 to 1986. During his tenure in the state legislature, Bond wrote over 60 bills that were ratified as law.
His political career came to an end in 1986 when he narrowly lost his bid for the U.S. House to John Lewis, the seat that Lewis still holds after 30 years.
In 1971, the year he graduated from college, Bond co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center with Morris Dees, a lawyer, and served as the president from its beginning until 1979. Then toward the end of his career, Bond was chairman of the NAACP from 1998 to 2010.
Bond began his teaching career in 1988. He taught as several different universities, but mainly at the University of Virginia from which he retired, and was made professor emeritus, in 2012.
Yes, Julian was a good Bond who deserved the many honors he received, including 28 honorary degrees and a 2008 Library of Congress Living Legend Award. His contributions to racial equality and social justice in this country were significant, indeed, and I am happy to honor his memory here.
But from what I heard at MLK Jr. programs over the past weekend, there still is much that needs to be done for racial equality and justice.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Unarmed Truth and Unconditional Love

The year 1964 was a difficult one for the United States. The nation had suffered the assassination of a beloved President in November of the year before.
The war in Vietnam was heating up in 1964: the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which escalated the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, was passed by Congress in August. By the end of the year more than 23,000 U.S. troops were there.
Public protest against the war also began that year Joan Baez led six hundred people in an antiwar demonstration in December. It was also the time of great racial tension across the nation, especially in Alabama and Mississippi.
On December 10, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., whose actual birthday is today, gave his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize which he had been awarded—and at that time he was the youngest person ever to receive that prestigious prize.
As was true for many of his public talks, King’s address on that December day in Oslo, Norway, was a powerful one. In spite of all the negative things going on in the world and in the U.S., King was positive and hopeful about the future.
In that memorable speech King said,
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.
President Obama’s seventh, and last, State of the Union address was delivered on Tuesday of last week. It is noteworthy that in his speech, the President referred to King and quoted his words about “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”
Then at the very end of his hour-long talk, the President emphasized that he was “optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
I am not sure what all King, or the President, had in mind by uttering those words. But at the very least it is an expression of hope that truth is more powerful than falsehood and that love is more powerful than hate—in spite of what might seem to be the case at times.
That same confidence in the future was expressed by Theodore Parker (1810-60) in words that both King and Obama have quoted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
There is a lot of negativity in our country now, and that “gloom and doom” is being stoked by the politicians running for the White House this year. Because of 24-hour cable news, people constantly see and hear about the bad things that are happening.
Almost three-fourths of the general public in the U.S. is dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country.
Given the mood of the nation and all the criticism constantly heaped upon him and his presidency, it is remarkable that the President was able to be so upbeat in his SOTU message.
And in spite of all the negativity, it is heartening that just as King did in his 1964 speech, President Obama was able to emphasize that, indeed, unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Second Bill of Rights


Last week I posted a blog article about President Roosevelt’s famous “four freedoms” speech, which was his State of the Union address delivered 75 years ago.

Three years later, on January 11, 1944, FDR gave his 11th (!) State of the Union talk. He had just recently come back from an overseas trip during which he had conferred with British Prime Minister Churchill in Cairo and then had attended the “Big Three” summit with Stalin in Tehran.

In addition to being exhausted, he had also caught influenza from which he was still recovering. So the President chose to send his 1/11/44 “State of the Union” message to Congress in writing and to read the message to the American people from the comfort of the White House.
That talk was another of FDR’s “fireside chats” to the whole nation. It was a highly significant talk, for in it he set forth what he called a second Bill of Rights. (Hear part of it here.)

The Second World War would not be over for another 19 months, but FDR was looking past the end of the war, which he confidently thought the Allies would win.

In that momentous “chat,” he asserted that a “basic essential to peace—permanent peace—is a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.”

The President clearly was reinforcing two of the freedoms he had emphasized in his State of the Union message three years before.

He went on to aver that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. . . . People who are hungry, people who are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

So President Roosevelt proposed “a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all.” He explained that those rights include . . .

** The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

** The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

** The right of farmers to raise and sell their products at a return which will give them and their families a decent living;

** The right of every business man, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

** The right of every family to a decent home;

** The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

** The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, and sickness, and accident and unemployment;

** And finally, the right to a good education.

Immediately following this listing, the President went on to assert, “All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.”

There was some progress in the U.S. toward realizing these goals in the first 20 years following the end of the war.

But in the 1960s it began to be increasingly realized that some, especially African-Americans, were not being treated fairly and their economic rights were not being realized sufficiently.

The struggle goes on as even today, for example, many of our political leaders oppose increasing the minimum wage and have voted to repeal “Obamacare” without proposing any way to provide adequate medical care to many “fellow citizens.”

Friday, January 8, 2016

Seeking to Reduce Gun Violence

This week President Obama has announced concrete steps seeking to decrease gun violence in the U.S. Incomprehensibly, even before he announced what those steps were, his political opponents were denouncing his proposed actions.
Why, why is there so much opposition to efforts to reduce gun violence in this country? I just don’t understand it.
Yes, I understand that many people own guns and like the feeling of security they get from gun ownership.
Yes, I understand that many people think that the Second Amendment guarantees gun ownership by every American citizen (maybe with a few exceptions).
Yes, I understand that some people fear federal control and want to be free of government regulations.
But why, why is there so much opposition to the President’s efforts to reduce gun violence?
 On Monday, prior to the President’s announcement of his plans, Representative Sam Graves in his weekly email to us, his Missouri 6th District constituents, promised that he will “aggressively oppose the President as he seeks to limit the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding American people.”
But really, Sam, is that what the President is seeking to do?
Some right-wing rhetoric was even stronger. For example, on January 4 Fox News commentator Todd Starnes declared, “President Obama is plotting with his attorney general to get our guns.” And a little later he blatantly said, “This president ultimately wants to disarm the nation.”
Then Starnes charged that the President was “declaring war on law-abiding citizens.”
 But Graves and Starnes, as well as the Republican presidential candidates who also ripped into the President’s proposed plans before even listening to them, are incorrect and (willfully?) misleading in their charges.
Unfortunately, many people heard only the criticism by the President’s political enemies rather than listening to what the President actually said.
In his Tuesday speech, as well as in his town hall meeting yesterday evening, the President emphasized shoring up holes in the federal background check system for gun purchases, kick-starting so-called smart gun technology, and devoting millions of additional dollars to mental health services.
That certainly doesn’t sound like infringing upon the Second Amendment. And Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the chief law enforcement officer of the U.S., has publicly stated that the President’s proposals are “consistent with the Second Amendment.”
In his Jan. 5 talk, the President stated his position very clearly: “Contrary to the claims of what some gun rights proponents have suggested, this hasn’t been the first step in some slippery slope to mass confiscation. . . . this is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns. You pass a background check; you purchase a firearm.” 

He went on to state that the steps he is taking “will actually lead to a smoother process for law-abiding gun owners, a smoother process for responsible gun dealers, a stronger process for protecting the public from dangerous people.”
Oliver Munday, New York Times 

 The editorial board of the New York Times explained in a Jan. 4 article that most of the executive actions of the President “are aimed at making it harder for criminals and other dangerous people to get their hands on a firearm.”
They also emphasized that his actions are what even gun-rights activists want: “keeping guns from people likely to use them in crimes, and enforcing gun laws already on the books.”
That sounds like a reasonable plan and something Congress should have done long ago, but didn’t—and still doesn’t seem to want to.
So my perplexity remains, Why is there so much opposition to the President’s efforts to reduce gun violence? It just doesn’t make any sense.