Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In Admiration of John Dear

Years ago when I first heard the name John Dear, being a farm boy I immediately thought of John Deere tractors. But as I quipped in my 4/5 blog article, John Dear is not a tractor but detractor of the nation’s weapons of war.
For many years I have admired the man whose name really is John Dear, and I was very happy to meet him and hear him talk earlier this month. And what a talk it was!
Dear’s newest book is “The Nonviolent Life” (2013), and his passionate talk was based upon it. He contends that the life of nonviolence requires three simultaneous attributes: being nonviolent toward ourselves; being nonviolent to all people, all creatures, and all creation; and joining the global grassroots movement of nonviolence.

Dear (b. 1959) is an American Catholic priest (a former Jesuit), a Christian pacifist, and an author & lecturer. He has been highly involved in nonviolent action for three decades, having been greatly influenced by Daniel Berrigan, whom he joined in the Plowshares movement.
Remarkably, Dear has been arrested over 75 times for his acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against war, injustice and nuclear weapons. The first time he was arrested was at the Pentagon 30 years ago, on April 17, 1984.
In 1994 he spent eight months in jail for his Plowshares action of civil disobedience. That followed his arrest, along with three others, in December 1993 for hammering on an F-15 nuclear capable fighter bomber at an Air Force base in North Carolina—symbolically beating swords into plowshares.
I have just purchased and begun to read Dear’s 2011 book “Lazarus, Come Forth!: How Jesus Confronts the Culture of Death and Invites Us into the New Life of Peace.”
Since this is Passion Week, I’ve just read “Washing Each Other’s Feet” in the book just mentioned. As one might expect from Dear, he says the biblical account of Jesus’ activity on the night before his crucifixion has generally been misunderstood.
“The episode is not meant to inspire us to service. It is not meant to urge us toward self-humiliation. Rather it is a ritual of preparing our feet to walk Jesus’ road of nonviolence” (p. 162).
Dear ends the chapter contending that Jesus “calls us out of our addiction to violence. He calls us into the freedom of resurrection, into the new life of peace and nonviolence” (p. 166).
In his 2007 book “Transformation” Dear declared:
One day when the people of the United States finally wake up; dismantle their nuclear weapons; spend their billions of dollars to eradicate hunger, disease, homelessness, illiteracy, and unemployment; clean up the oceans and the earth; and renounce war forever, humanity itself will be transfigured and the light of Christ will shine brightly and lead us to an astonishing breakthrough of global hope and encouragement.
Not only because of what he has written, but especially because he has had the courage over the past 30 years to plead for peace by participating in non-violent protests, many resulting in his being arrested and jailed, I write this with deep admiration for John Dear. He continues to be an inspiring advocate for peace and justice.
In closing, from the very beginning of his 2011 book, here are Dear’s words for us to ponder—and to pray:
Lead me from death to life,
from falsehood to truth
from despair to hope,
from fear to trust,
from hate to love,
from war to peace.
Let peace fill my heart.
Let peace fill my world.
Let peace fill the universe.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

“Lilies of the Field”

The 86th Academy Awards ceremony was held on March 2, 2014. I didn’t watch it, but I was interested in reading the results the next morning.
Fifty years ago, the 36th Academy Awards were presented on April 13, 1964. I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch that ceremony either, but I was especially interested when I learned that Sidney Poitier was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Lilies of the Field.” 
That was notable, for it was the first time that award had been given to an African-American.
Back when we were poor students [clarification: we were good students but quite poor financially], we hardly ever went to the movies. But we did see “The Defiant Ones” (1958), starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.
That remarkable black and white film tells the story of two escaped prisoners, one white and one black, who are shackled together and who must co-operate in order to survive. We were quite moved by it, and after seeing it we became fans of Poitier, who was nominated for Best Actor for his role in that film.
So we were happy when Poitier then won the Oscar in 1964.
Poitier was born (prematurely) to Bahamian parents in 1927 while they were visiting in Miami. He was raised in the Bahamas until he was 15, but then lived in the U.S. from that age on.
After various struggles, he debuted in his first film, “No Way Out” (1950), when he was only 23. That was the beginning of his long, successful career as an actor, film director, author, and diplomat.
In 1968, Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, so he is officially Sir Sidney. Nearly 30 years later, in 1997, Poitier was appointed the Bahamian ambassador to Japan, and he served in that position until 2012 (although some sources say 2007).
Poitier also served as Bahamas’ ambassador to UNESCO from 2002 to 2007. And then in August 2009 Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given in the U.S.
A few days before writing this article, June and I watched “Lilies of the Field” again, the first time since we saw it in the 1960s. Little did we know then that the location of the movie would become quite familiar to us. The opening scene of the movie shows the mountains north of Tucson in the background, near to where we spent the nights during the last week of December when we visited our daughter and her family there.
Pointier plays the part of Homer Smith, a vivacious young man who stops by a house of nuns to get some water for his car’s radiator. Headed by Mother Maria, the nuns, escapees from East Germany, latch on to Homer as a man sent by God to help them build a church on their property. (Lilia Skala, who played Maria, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her sterling performance.)
While the movie seems rather unsophisticated compared to most movies now, it was a delight to watch. It depicts well how good-will and friendliness can overcome racial, cultural, linguistic, and religious differences. (Homer was a Baptist.)
The spirit of the movie is captured well by the repeated singing of “Amen,” a joyful gospel song written by Jester Hairston (1901-2000), who also dubbed the singing of it for Poitier, who is said to be tone deaf.
Yes, “Lilies of the Field” is a delightful movie. I highly recommend it—as well as the Bible verse from which the title comes.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

An Embarrassed Christian

In my book “Fed Up with Fundamentalism” there is a short section titled “An Embarrassed Southern Baptist.” Since then my embarrassment has expanded somewhat, so now in many ways I have become an embarrassed Christian.

The primary problem is that the media mainly reports on the outlandish actions of “Christians.” And there is certainly a lot of that kind of stuff to report on. I have written about some of that on my blog postings this year. For example,
    * In my 2/4 blog article, I wrote about Christians seeking in the name of religious freedom to be exempt from providing insurance coverage from their employees. I am embarrassed when I think of Christians like the CEO of Hobby Lobby and those who support him.
    * My 2/18 posting was about Westboro Baptist Church and about some states seeking to legislate discrimination against gays/lesbians in the name of religious freedom. Westboro’s founder pastor Fred Phelps has since died, but the hateful protests of that church continue.
    * On 2/28 my blog article was about racism in Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of religious people (mostly Christians) in the U.S. (And just two days ago an anti-gay discrimination bill was passed in Mississippi—and that action was praised by the Miss. Baptist Convention.)
Then not long ago there was segment on TRMS about the anti-scientific attitudes of national politicians—such as U.S Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.). In an address in August 2012 at a banquet organized by Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Ga., Broun said, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”
Rep. Broun, a medical doctor by training, serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. That is troubling, for a few years ago he received a round of applause from GOP colleagues when he claimed that man-made global warming is a “hoax” with “no scientific consensus.”
Of course, in many other ways I am certainly not embarrassed to be a Christian. For example, I am not embarrassed to be a part of the Christian group north of the Missouri River in greater Kansas City known as Northland Faith Voices. I was happy to be a part of that group as they planned and a rally for economic justice and dignity on Feb. 27.
Although I am not personally involved in their fine service activities, I certainly not embarrassed by the 8,600 churches, including a number of local churches, who are an active part of Love INC (In the Name of Christ).
Similarly, there are also many Christians serving others through the In As Much Ministry, a food and clothes pantry that serves the Liberty area where I live.
I am also not at all embarrassed when I hear outstanding Christian scholars/activists such as those I have heard in the past couple of weeks: Anglican N. T. (Tom) Wright, Mennonite J. Denny Weaver, and Catholic John Dear (who is not a tractor but a detractor of the nation’s weapons of war!).
There are Christian organizations like these, and outstanding scholars/activists like these, all across the country (and world). But they seldom make the news. The general non-Christian public rarely has a chance to hear about the kind of Christians who are lovingly serving people in need and propounding a thoughtful interpretation and implementation of Christianity.
And that’s a shame.
If there were more coverage of the positive and true things Christians do and say, I (we) wouldn’t have to be so embarrassed.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

What about Crimea?

The plight of Ukraine and especially of Crimea has been much in the news this month. That concern was heightened when on March 16 the people of Crimea voted to become a part of Russia and when on March 21 Russian President Putin signed the bill of accession, making Crimea a part of Russia (again).
There are legitimate concerns about the Crimean vote to secede. Were the people really free to vote as they wished? Or did many vote, and vote as they did, because of the nearby Russian military presence?
And then there is the question of how the minorities in Crimea, the ethnic Ukrainians and the Tatars, will be treated under Russian rather than Ukrainian rule.
This is the main concern, though: is Russia’s accession of Crimea just the first of further attempts of Putin and Russia to acquire additional territory, incorporating more land and people under Russian rule?
Some U.S. politicians have used the secession/accession of Crimea to criticize the President for being “weak”—just as some of the same people accused him of being weak for not taking military action against Iran and/or Syria.
Earlier this month according to CBS News “John McCain blames Obama’s ‘feckless’ foreign policy for Ukraine crisis.” At that same time, Marc A. Thiessen, an opinion writer for the Washington Post penned an article titled “Obama’s Weakness Emboldens Putin.”
In the March 16 referendum, though, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of independence of Crimea from Ukraine and of joining Russia as a federal subject. After the referendum, Crimean lawmakers formally voted both to secede from Ukraine and ask for membership in the Russian Federation.
Since we in this country generally praise democracy, deciding matters by majority vote, why is there such widespread opposition to Crimea becoming a part of Russia again?
Actually, Russia claims that in 1654 the Council of Pereyaslav approved the unification of Ukraine with Russia. Then in 1783 under the rule of Empress Catherine the Great, Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire.

It was on the 300th anniversary of the 1654 event that Nikita Khrushchev, head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964 (and whose wife was Ukrainian), transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Of course, Ukraine was still within the Soviet Union. That changed in 1991, though. With the dissolving of the USSR, Ukraine became an independent state. Since 1992 Crimea has officially been the Autonomous Republic of Crimea within Ukraine.
But when the referendum on the Act of Declaration of Independence was held in Ukraine in December 1991, only 37% of the electorate in Crimea voted for independence from Russia, compared to 76% for all of Ukraine (including Crimea).
After all, a large majority of the people who lived in Crimea then were ethnic Russians who spoke the Russian language. And that is even more so now: according to an article in the March 21 Washington Post, nearly 80% of the Crimeans now are ethnic Russians.
So in spite of all the worry in the West, and all of the criticism of the President in the U.S., perhaps the “loss” of Crimea is not such a serious issue—and being a part of Russian again likely seems to be a good thing to the majority of the people who live there.
Certainly it is a matter of concern that the accession of Crimea may be just the first step in Russia’s (Putin’s) annexing other lands and people. That is not likely to happen, though. At least I certainly pray that it won’t.