Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Do You Believe in the Rapture?


In an earlier blog article this month, I mentioned having a theological discussion my sister. One of the direct questions she asked me was, “Do you believe in the Rapture?”
If she had asked me that question 60 years ago in 1955, which was the year I graduated from high school and the year after I started preaching, I most probably would have answered Yes without hesitation. But now I had to say, “No, I do not believe there will be a literal Rapture.”
My sister, just as some other family members and friends who hold to a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible, likely thinks her unchanging view of the Bible and theology means she is upholding “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
The Rapture is considered very important by conservative Christians—and not believing in the Rapture is considered a serious matter. In his bestselling book “Four Blood Moons” (2013), John Hagee declares that “false prophets are now teaching there will be no Rapture of the church” (p. 76).
Hagee (b. 1940) also gives this grave warning: “If you are deceived into believing there is no Rapture, prepare to stand in line to get your personal tattoo from the Antichrist” (p. 79).
And then a little later, Hagee, who is the founder and senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, asserts, “Satan hates the Rapture teaching and has his deluded disciples saying there will be no Rapture” (p. 83).

There is not space in a 600-word article to explain all the reasons why I no longer affirm a literal Rapture. But the linking of Rapture theology to current world affairs is one reason for not only denying the Rapture as taught by Hagee and many others but for also seeing it as a dangerous teaching.
Back as far as 2010 Hagee was calling for the U.S. to join with Israel in a preemptive nuclear strike against Iran. Long a fervent supporter of Israel, he currently is a strong backer of recently re-elected Prime Minister Netanyahu and opposed to the President’s stance toward Israel—and toward Iran.  
Although he didn’t say so in those exact words, back in February one website posted this headline about Hagee’s position: “God Will Destroy America Because Of How Obama Treats Netanyahu.”
So, all of the talk about the Rapture and other aspects of the “end times,” often gets entangled with current political issues. Christians who believe in the Rapture and think that the apocalypse is near are most likely to support conservative politicians who support the nation of Israel and are hawkish toward Iran.
Christians (like me) who do not believe in a literal Rapture and do not think that the end times are necessarily near are likely to sympathize with the Palestinians, considered to be unjustly treated and to think that negotiating with all countries as being superior to use of military force.
Further, although the “Left Behind” series of books have been highly popular, I am among the many Christians who see the mass holocaust portrayed in those novels highly troubling.
So, there are significant differences in the thinking of Christians who believe in the Rapture (and related doctrines) and those who don’t. But even among those who disagree, those differences can be talked about in a civil manner.
Theological discussions rarely change minds, but they help clarify one’s own position. Thus, I appreciate my sister’s question—and I am thankful that in spite of our disagreement, we still have a warm, cordial relationship.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Making of Saint Oscar

It was 35 years ago, on March 24, 1980, that Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador was assassinated, but he has been back in the news this year. After much hesitation, the Catholic Church is now moving toward making him a saint.

Even though masses of the common people of El Salvador had no question about it, Romero’s martyrdom was not officially recognized until Pope Francis did so last month. And then last week it was announced that Romero will be beatified on May 23. So before long there will most likely be a Saint Oscar.
Romero was born in 1917 in rural El Salvador. (I was interested to learn that I was born on his 21st birthday.) He studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained there in 1942. After serving as a parish priest back in his home country, he was appointed bishop of a poor, rural diocese in 1974. Then just three years later he became Archbishop of San Salvador.
His appointment as archbishop came as a disappointment to the progressive priests of El Salvador, for at that time Romero was quite conservative and traditional. But things soon began to change.
Less than three weeks after becoming archbishop, Fr. Rutilio Grande, his good friend and a progressive Jesuit priest who was working with the poor, was assassinated. Grande’s death had a profound impact on Romero, who later stated, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”
Grande’s assassination triggered what some have called Romero’s “conversion” to liberation theology. As John Dear, the Jesuit peace activist I wrote about previously, said (in an excellent 2010 article in the National Catholic Review), “Romero was transformed into one of the world's great champions for the poor and oppressed.”
My longstanding admiration increased this month as I watched the documentary “Monsigñor” with a group that gathered at the Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Kansas City and listened to comments by Fr. Michael Gillgannon, who was a missionary in Latin America for over 30 years.
And then June and I watched the 1989 movie “Romero” for the second (or maybe third) time. It is a most engaging movie that I highly recommend. Its portrayal of the last few years of the Archbishop’s life is in harmony with Scott Wright’s excellent biography “Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints” (2009).
According to Fr. Dear (I’m very sad to note),
When President Jimmy Carter announced in February 1980 that he was going to increase U.S. military aid to El Salvador by millions of dollars a day, Romero was shocked. He wrote a long public letter to Carter, asking the United States to cancel all military aid. Carter ignored Romero’s plea, and sent the aid. (Between 1980 and 1992, the U.S. spent $6 billion to kill 75,000 poor Salvadorans.)
(Romero’s letter to Pres. Carter can be found here. Dear’s statement may be somewhat inflated; a more objective statement is found in a 1993 article, “US Policy in El Salvador.”)
The very next month, Romero was shot and killed while celebrating Mass. The assassins were part of the death squad formed and directed by Roberto D'Aubuisson, who was trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
U.S. policy may not have changed so much since 1980, but the Vatican has changed during the last two years under Pope Francis. So, thankfully, Romero is now in the process of being made Saint Oscar.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Pres. Johnson’s Scintillating Selma Speech

Fifty years ago this month, the small city of Selma, Alabama, was much in the news. And now Selma is in the news again, partly because it is the 50th anniversary of what happened in 1965 but also because of the movie “Selma,” nominated for an Academy Award as the best picture of 2014.
The Oscar was not given to “Selma,” but it is a fine movie. June and I usually wait to see movies (with subtitles) when they come out on DVD. But we went to see “Selma” at the local theater—and then I went to the Plaza in Kansas City for a special showing sponsored by a group I plan to write about next month.
At the latter showing, Dr. Tex Sample, a retired professor from St. Paul School of Theology and a relatively new friend of mine, spoke, and responded to questions, about his participation in the last day of the successful march from Selma to Montgomery. It was quite interesting to hear the first-hand report of someone who was there.
As you know, there were three attempts by African-Americans and their supporters to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, approximately 55 miles away.
John Lewis leading 3/7/65 march
The first march was on March 7 with 600 people setting out for the capital. They didn’t get far: at the bridge spanning the Alabama River on the south side of the city state troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas attacked the group and drove them back into town.
That brutal event is known as “Bloody Sunday” (which I wrote about in 2013). John Lewis, a current U.S. Representative from Georgia, was among those severely beaten that day.
(Built in 1940, that bridge was named for Edmund Pettus, 1821-1907, a former Confederate brigadier general, a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and then a U.S. Senator from Alabama.)
A second march two days later was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., but suddenly he stopped on the same bridge, knelt down in prayer, and then turned around and went back to downtown Selma. Many were critical of King for not pressing on, and it is unclear why he didn’t.
That evening, James Reeb, a white minister from Boston who had come to join the Selma march, was called a “white ni**er” and severely beaten. He died two days later.

My friend Tex, who lived in Boston at the time, knew Reeb personally and was shocked by his brutal killing. So he, along with many others from across the country, went to join the third Selma march, which started on March 21. There were about 3,200 who set out that day. By the time they reached the capitol four days later, that number had swelled to about 25,000.
In between the second and third marches, President Johnson made a nationally televised speech on March 15. Consequently, the federal government provided military troops to protect those who went on that third march.
The movie “Selma” has been criticized by some for its portrayal of President Johnson. Since it was a Hollywood movie and not a documentary, it is quite likely that some of what Johnson supposedly said and did was not historically accurate. In the end, though, he is shown very favorably in that March 15 address—and listening to his scintillating speech brought tears to my eyes.
President Johnson, March 15, 1965
Two days later President Johnson sent a bill to congress and in August he signed it, the Voting Rights Act, into law—and the dream of the Selma marchers thereby became reality.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

In Memory of Marcus Borg


Marcus Borg was born on March 11, 1942—eight days after my little sister. But whereas my sister is alive and well—in celebration of her birthday June and I had a good visit (and a good meal) with her and her husband in St. Joe last week—Borg passed away on January 21 of this year.
Borg’s death was a great loss to the Christian academic world, for he was a good scholar and a prolific writer. He will be especially missed by many non-conservative Christians, for whom he was long a noteworthy spokesman.
The New York Times referred to Borg as “a leading evangelist of what is often called progressive Christianity.” His interpretation of the Christian faith convinced many people to remain a Christian.
That article related how Borg spoke at a packed church in Colorado a few years ago. Then, on the day Borg died, the pastor of that church said he received an email from a young woman in his church. She wrote “Without Marcus, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a Christian.”
Similarly, the author of an article in The Christian Century avers that many Christians “identify Borg as the person who made space for them to return to—or remain in—the Christian faith.” To the extent that that is true, Borg is certainly praiseworthy.
Borg’s contribution to contemporary Christianity was much like that of Henry Emerson Fosdick in the 1920s. In the first chapter of my book “The Limits of Liberalism” (2010) there is a brief section on “the liberalism of Fosdick.” Then in the second chapter, Borg is presented as one of the “contemporary leaders of liberalism.”
Borg, like Fosdick, was able to interpret the Bible and Christian beliefs in ways that appealed to those who were no longer able to accept or to abide in the teachings of fundamentalism or restrictive conservatism.
Borg’s picture is also one of four liberal Christian theologians on the cover of my book. Because I thought some of his theological views were too liberal, in the section about him I said that Borg “writes in such an evenhanded and convincing manner that in some ways he is the most ‘dangerous’ of the contemporary liberals.”
Borg began writing his last book when he turned seventy. He called it “Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most,” and it was published less than a year ago. It is a fine book and I enjoyed reading it—and I think it is more balanced theologically than his earlier books.

In the introduction of “Convictions,” Borg writes, “Seventy isn’t a guarantee of wisdom or a license to be dogmatic. It’s quite easy to be an opinionated old fool.” It was generous of him to say that—and yours truly needs to remember that also!
If all I had known of Borg was what he wrote in this book, he wouldn’t have been used as an example of contemporary Christian liberalism. And I find that now I am much more in agreement with Borg’s “convictions” than with the theological stance of my own sister.
During the meal at Ryan’s last week, she began asking questions about my theological beliefs. It became quite evident that my views have changed considerably from what we both believed back in the 1950s. But her beliefs seem to be much the same—and she most likely sees that as a positive thing.

But many realize that a broader theological worldview is needed. So they, and I, are grateful for the life and work of Marcus Borg.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Christians for Socialism


"Socialism” is a word with a very negative connotation for most Americans. And yet perhaps socialism, especially democratic socialism, deserves to be much more highly evaluated by the public at large and by Christians in particular.
 
Last month I read with great interest two books about past socialist leaders in the U.S. One was Irving Stone’s Adversary in the House (1947), a biographical novel based on the life of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate. Debs (1855-1926) was a pioneer union leader and five times the Socialist Party of America candidate for President of the United States.
While reading that captivating book, I remarked to June, “I hope Debs was as good a man as Stone thought he was.” Needless to say, I was highly impressed by him—and by his thoughts and actions.

The other impressive book was The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (2000), a superlative biographical work by historian Maurice Isserman. Harrington (1928-1989) was the last great socialist leader in the U.S.
Harrington was also the author of The Other America (1962), a very significant book that helped influence President Johnson to initiate the “war on poverty” in 1964.
Debs was not particularly religious, although he was friends with and a benefactor of a minister in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. And although he became an agnostic, Harrington grew up as a devout Catholic and as a young man worked for two years with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.
Isserman writes how at a party in celebration of Harrington’s 60th birthday, Ted Kennedy declared,
In our lifetime, it is Mike Harrington who has come the closest to fulfilling the vision of America that my brother Robert Kennedy had, when he said, “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and say ‘Why Not?’” . . . Some call it socialism; I call it the Sermon on the Mount (p. 359).
The other most prominent 20th century socialist leader in the U.S was Norman Thomas, a six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. Thomas (1894-1968) was also a Presbyterian minister for twenty years.
So while socialism in America was not a Christian movement as such, it was closely tied to people shaped by a Christian worldview. Looking more broadly, though, some of the most prominent 20th century Christian theologians and/or activists were advocates of socialism.
Among those who quickly come to mind are Karl Barth in Switzerland (and Germany), Paul Tillich in Germany (and the U.S. after 1933), Kagawa Toyohiko in Japan, and Reinhold Niebuhr in the U.S. In addition, in the 1970s and ’80s there was a “Christians for Socialism” movement in Latin America.
Kagawa, who as a young man began to live in solidarity with the poor in the slums of Kobe, stated his position quite clearly: “I am a socialist because I am a Christian.”
There are many different types of socialism, and it perhaps goes without saying that most Christians who have espoused socialism have been staunch opponents of the violent or coercive type of socialism.
Barth and Tillich were strong opponents of Hitler’s National Socialism. And most American socialists have been strongly opposed to oppressive socialism such as that seen in Stalinism or Maoism.
Most Christian socialists are best designated as democratic socialists, and the socialist activities of Debs, Thomas, and Harrington have morphed into what is now known as the Democratic Socialists of America.
Perhaps it is again time, especially for Christians, to take socialism more seriously and evaluate it more highly.