Monday, September 15, 2014

World Week for Peace

Many Christians across the U.S. have little interest in, and perhaps not much knowledge of, the World Council of Churches (WCC). Some Christians are even quite critical of the WCC. 

Nevertheless, the WCC is involved in many very commendable activities. Their sponsorship of World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel (WWPPI), scheduled from Sept. 21 to 27 this year, is a good example.
WWPPI is an initiative of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum of the WCC. That group is described as “an international, inter-church advocacy initiative for peace in Israel and Palestine.” 
Israeli and Palestinian Flags with Peace (salaam/shalom) in Arabic & Hebrew
Certainly Israel and Palestine are places in the world badly in need of peace, as you know well. On July 8, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip.
A ceasefire has been in effect since the last week in August. But seven weeks of Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rocket attacks left more than 2,100 people dead and over 10,000 wounded, most of them Palestinians—and a majority of them civilians.
While conservative Christians, as well as those who are conservative politically, tend to be strong supporters of Israel, the WCC tends to be more on the side of the Palestinians—as I think they should be.
That is one reason some are critical of the WCC—and some may well be critical of my position as well.
Certainly neither the WCC nor I support the violent activities of Hamas. But it seems quite clear that the Palestinian people as a whole have long been the victims of grave injustice.
More and more of Palestinian land has been taken by Israeli force. For example, on Aug. 31 Israel’s government made its largest appropriation of occupied West Bank land in a generation, taking some 1,000 acres that legally belonged to Palestinians.
For many reasons, materials for the WWPPI declare, “It’s time for Palestine.” One piece includes the following statements:
  • It time for Palestinians and Israelis to share a just peace.
  • It’s time to end more than 60 years of conflict, oppression and fear.
  • It’s time for freedom from occupation.
  • It’s time to stop bulldozing one community’s homes and building homes for the other community on land that is not theirs.
  • It’s time for people who have been refugees for more than 60 years to regain their rights and a permanent home.
  • It’s time to be revolted by violence against civilians and for civilians on both sides to be safe.
  • It’s time to reunite the people of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
  • It’s time to seek forgiveness between communities and to repair a broken land together.
  • For Palestine, for Israel and for a troubled world, it’s time for peace.
This year the International Day of Prayer for Peace is scheduled for Sept. 21. In the week that follows, church organizations, congregations, and people of faith are being encouraged to participate in worship services, educational events, and acts of advocacy in support a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians.
I hope that, at least to some degree, this will be done in the churches across the U.S. and around the world.
At the very least, I hope that on Sunday in addition to the usual prayers for people in the congregation who have health needs there will be some fervent prayers for peace in Palestine and Israel.
It’s high time for peace and justice there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What About Common Core?

Sam Graves is the U.S. Representative from the Sixth Congressional District of Missouri where I live. His “Straight Talk with Sam” e-magazine article for Aug. 25 was titled “Putting a Stop to Common Core.”
Sam’s article got me studying about a matter that, perhaps like many of you, I had heard a lot about but didn’t know much about. Since Sam’s against it, I figured it was time for me to learn more about it and why he, along with many other (mostly Republican) politicians, is trying to stop it.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is an educational program in the U.S. that details what K-12 students should know at the end of each grade. The initiative is sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Basically, it seeks to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter college programs or to the workforce.
CCSSI establishes expectations in three academic areas: mathematics, English language arts, and literacy. The latter sets reading and writing expectations for students in social studies, science, and technology.
Implementation of Common Core started in 2010, and 45 states soon adopted it. Since then three Republican-controlled state legislatures have voted to repeal it and two others, including Missouri, have voted to review and possibly replace it.
In July, Gov. Nixon signed legislation that provides for a task force to write new education standards that could eventually replace the Common Core in Missouri.
Rep. Graves, though, wants Common Core to be replaced not only in Missouri but nationwide. But is that really necessary or desirable? Probably not.
In case Rep. Graves hasn’t noticed, the school situation in the Sixth District that he represents, and all across the nation, is much different now than it was years ago when there was considerable local control of the schools, which is what he still wants.
Many years ago, few people went to college, and those who did usually didn’t travel far to get their education. The same was for true for those who entered the workforce: most stayed fairly close to home. But things are much different now.
High school graduates now literally go to college all across the nation. Also, it is also not uncommon for people to be sent by their employers to places far away from home.
With this changed and constantly changing situation, what could be wrong with having national educational standards so a student from any part of the country would have the same math and vocabulary skills as students from any other part of the nation?
Why should it be necessary for each state to have to figure out what math and vocabulary skills they want the students in their state to acquire?
Opponents say they object to the “one size fits all” mentality. But when it comes to basic academic skills and knowledge, why does there need to be local decisions about those basics?
Regrettably, Common Core has become a political issue more than anything else. Parents across the nation were basically satisfied with it until the politicians got involved.
Now even governors who were strongly in favor of Common Core, such as Gov. Jindal of Louisiana, are opposed to it—most probably for political reasons.
Increasingly, opposition to Common Core has become a litmus test for gauging a candidate’s conservatism. Some Republicans are trying to stigmatize it by calling it Obamacore.
But sorry, Sam (and your naysaying cohorts), Common Core needs to be supported, not stopped.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Remembering Robert Capon

Although he was no household name, Robert Farrar Capon was a noted Christian clergyman and author. Born in 1925 and a lifelong New Yorker, he passed away one year ago, on Sept. 5, 2013.
Robert Farrar Capon (in 2011)
Capon authored twenty books, and back in the 1980s I became aware of him and read at least some of one or two of his books—enough that I remembered him with appreciation.
Last September when I heard that Capon had died, I decided to read one of his books in his memory. The one I chose was "Parables of Grace" (1990), and I was not disappointed.
Here is part of what I wrote in my brief Goodreads review of that book:
As the title indicates, this work deals only with those parables of Jesus which especially emphasize grace, and Capon has a remarkable understanding of the breadth and depth of God’s grace. Some readers may even be offended by the radical nature of Capon’s understanding of grace.
His far-from-usual interpretation of the parables soon became evident in reading his “take” on them. For example, “We twentieth-century Christians—with our basically nineteenth-century view of childhood as a wonderful and desirable state—miss the point of the passage” about Jesus saying his followers would have to become like children.
He explains:
In Jesus’ time, and for most of the centuries since, childhood was almost always seen as a less than human condition that was to be beaten out of children as soon as possible. Therefore when Jesus sets us a little child as an example, he is setting up not a winsome specimen of all that is simple and charming but rather one of life’s losers (p. 17).
In “The First Parable of Grace: The Coin in the Fish’s Mouth,” his third chapter, Capon says that it is very sad      when the church acts as if it is in the religion business rather than in the Gospel-proclaiming business. What a disservice, not only to itself but to a world perpetually sinking in the quagmire of religiosity, when it harps on creed, cult, and conduct as the touchstones of salvation (p. 29).
Last month I read another of Capon’s books, "The Foolishness of Preaching" (1997), which I wish I could have read 50+ years ago when I was preaching every week. In it he calls religion, spirituality, and morality “grim pills” that stand in contrast to the radical grace he praises.
To Capon’s way of thinking, not only grace but also the forgiveness produced by that grace is radical and unconditional.
In “Death, Resurrection, and Forgiveness: The Unforgiving Servant,” the fifth chapter of "Parables of Grace," he contends that “the gift of forgiveness proceeds solely out of God’s love and is therefore antecedent to any qualifying action on the part of the receiver” (p. 40).
Accordingly, at the end of that chapter, Capon says that both heaven and hell are occupied by “only forgiven sinners.” Jesus forgives all. Thus,
The sole difference, therefore, between hell and heaven is that in heaven the forgiveness is accepted and passed along, while in hell it is rejected and blocked (p. 50).
Capon’s writing is captivating because of his out-of-the-ordinary ideas and also because of his witty ways of saying things. For example, I enjoyed his reference to being “stuck with a paradoxical pig in an off-putting poke” ("Foolishness," p. 11).
And speaking of paradox, his trilogy on the parables of Jesus has been published in one volume, "Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus" (2002). I highly recommend it.
Yes, Robert Capon is a man worth remembering—and worth reading.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is IS Isolatable?

To state the obvious, the so-called Islamic State (IS) is now a colossal problem for the peace-loving people of the world.
We started hearing about that extremist group as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Then as it became evident that their goal and scope was larger, it began to be called ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.)
(The Levant is an area that includes not only Syria but also Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, and part of southern Turkey.)
On June 29, the group announced that its name is now just “Islamic State” and that they have established a caliphate. The caliph, who is the “leader for Muslims everywhere,” is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The flag of the Islamic State
Of course, the U.S. and most countries of the world do not recognize IS as a legitimate state—and most Muslims in the world do not recognize al-Baghdadi (b. 1971) as their leader.
Still, IS is a threat not only to the non-Sunni people of the Near East but also to peaceable people everywhere. It is a vicious terrorist organization bent on controlling more and more territory by force, as well as by propaganda.
To better understand IS, a “must-see” video can be viewed here. It was made by VICE News journalist and filmmaker Medyan Dairieh, who for three weeks had unprecedented and exclusive access inside IS.
This video presents an alarming account of a truly terrifying group. Something must be done to stop their relentless spread across Iraq, and elsewhere. But what?

A couple of weeks ago, 50 religious conservatives publicly stated that the U.S. must "destroy" IS. (Russell Moore, about whom I recently wrote, here, was one of those 50.) That sounded a lot like a questionable call for a holy war.

And even peace-loving Pope Francis has said with regard to IS,
. . . where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. . . . To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.
James Bretzke, a priest and professor of moral theology at Boston College, declares, “This is the most pronounced endorsement of the use of force of any pope . . . in the last 100 years.”
To be sure, doing nothing with regard to IS and its relentless spread is not a viable option. The question, of course, is what could and should be done.
The Pope went on to say that no country should act alone, and that there should be an agreement within the international community, possibly through the United Nations, before embarking on a military campaign.
He also warned against an all-out war, insisting that force could be justified only to "stop" the Islamic State.
Then on Wednesday, 53 religious leaders sent President Obama a letter encouraging him to “move beyond” war in Iraq/Syria.
That seems to be what the President is trying to do at this point.
Many conservatives are opposed to that, calling for the destruction, not just the containment, of IS. For example, Princeton University Professor Robert P. George has authored a petition calling upon the President and Congress to not stop, not contain, but destroy IS.
George’s petition can be found here, and the first signature after his is Russell Moore’s.
But seeking the containment, or isolation, of IS is far better—because it is less violent and would elicit less retaliation.
But is IS isolatable? Probably. But it certainly won’t be easy.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Who is a Christian (or a Muslim)?

Every label used to describe persons has to be defined to be accurate. For example, if we are asked whether we or others are Christians, our answer will depend on the definition of what being a Christian means.

There are at least three types of people who might be labeled as Christians.
(1) First there are those who can be called cultural Christians. These are the people born in what is generally considered a Christian country or a Christian community, so they are Christians because of where, or to whom, they were born.
Many such “Christians” were baptized as infants and were raised as part of a Christian culture. In most cases, being a cultural Christian is much like being, say, an American.
Thus, the label “Christian” is a result of birth, not choice. It has little to do with belief, although it usually involves following certain customs, traditions, and rites common in the community.
Of course, it is the same with Muslims: many people who are labeled “Muslim” are mainly cultural Muslims.
(2) Then, there are people who can be called confessional Christians. These are the ones who have made a conscious decision to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and that decision usually involves making a “profession of faith” and being baptized, or in the case of those who were baptized as infants, being confirmed after learning in a catechism class what it means to be a Christian.
Most of these people were born in Christian homes and/or in a Christian culture. But now they are more than merely Christians by birth; they are Christian believers through their choice to follow Jesus and to be identified with the church as the “body of Christ.”
Of course, there are many Muslims who are such by their deliberately choosing to follow Allah as revealed by Mohammad in the Quran (Koran).
(3) Further, there are some who can be called coerced Christians. These are the people who have been forced, usually by cultural Christians but sometimes, certainly, by confessional Christians to convert to Christianity.
Many of the “pagans” in medieval Europe were converted by the threat of the imperial sword, especially by Charlemagne. Non-Christians in Spain were forced to convert, leave the country, or face death in the Inquisition that beginning in 1492 was directed especially against the Jews and Muslims by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Those royal monarchs commissioned Columbus’s voyage. So it is no surprise that Columbus and the priests who went with him coerced “Indians” to be Christians. Later in British North America, many Protestant political and religious leaders did the same among Native Americans.
The same sort of thing has been a part of Islamic history from its beginning—and it is still occurring in Syria and Iraq, especially by those who are a part of ISIL, which is now often called the Islamic State (IS).
While many of us would like to think that the “real” Christians (or Muslims) are those who are confessional Christians (or Muslims), in reality there are far more cultural Christians (or Muslims) that those who are Christians (or Muslims) by their choice and commitment to Jesus (or Mohammad) and the Bible (or the Quran).
Accordingly, the clashes/wars between Christians and Muslims are primarily between cultural Christians and cultural Muslims, and their actions are often in serious conflict with the core teachings of their religions.
Thus, I think the President was correct when, in speaking recently of the tragic beheading of journalist Jim Foley, he stated that “ISIL speaks for no religion. . . . no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Atheist Who Believes in God

Frank Schaeffer is an interesting guy, and I’m looking forward to hearing him again tonight. He has come to Kansas City to promote his new book, “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace.”
The other time I met Frank was when he was in town promoting a previous book, one with an even more arresting title: “Sex, Mom, and God” (2011).
Frank’s “Mom” was Edith, who died last year at the age of 98. And his father, Edith’s husband, was the widely known conservative/fundamentalist theologian and author Francis Schaeffer (1912-84).
Frank is a complex man. You see that in the title of his new book. Some may even say his thinking is perhaps a bit schizophrenic.  
But rather than being schizoid, he just has a paradoxical view of reality. That is one reason I appreciate his views so much. (One chapter in my as yet unpublished book, “Thirty True Things Every Christian Needs To Know Now,” deals with the significance of paradox.)
Early in his book, Frank avers, “Embracing paradox helped me discover that religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure (p. 13). I like this, for I too often feel negative toward religion but positive about faith.
“With the acceptance of paradox,” Frank writes, “came a new and blessed uncertainty that began to heal the mental illness called certainty” (ibid.).
Later on, Frank advises his readers to “flee from exclusionary certainty.” Then he asserts,
There is only one defense against the rising, worldwide, fear-filled fundamentalist tide engulfing all religions (including the intolerant religion of the New Atheists) which once engulfed me: the embrace of paradox and uncertainty as the virtuoso expression of love (p. 90).
Frank seems to be a very honest man. He shares himself, “warts and all,” quite freely. (I do wonder, though, if the title of his new book was chosen more to sell books than to express accurately his real belief about God.)
Frank is not so much an atheist as he is an afundamentalist. That is, he is not a nonbeliever in God. Rather, he is a nonbeliever in the God of his fundamentalist past.
Actually, he is quite a good apologist for Jesus—and for Christianity as it should be: a religion of love and grace.
While his rhetoric is perhaps exaggerated at times (as was that of the One who spoke about camels going through eyes of needles), his is a vibrant spirituality that probably Jesus would have been, and is, delighted with.
“Jesus’ co-suffering love,” according to Frank, “is the best lens through which to reconsider God” (p. 127). A little later he writes, “Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is “ (p. 138).
So it is because of Jesus that Frank is “an atheist who believes in God.” Blessings on him and his highly significant writing and speaking!
Frank Schaeffer is in Kansas City this week thanks to the efforts of Thinking Friend Charlie Broomfield. Frank will be speaking at the Community Center in North Kansas City this evening from 7:30 and at the beautiful downtown Kansas City Public Library from 6:30 tomorrow (Thurs.) evening. There is no charge for attending either gathering.