Monday, November 30, 2009

What About the First Thanksgiving Day?

Much of what most of us learned as children about the first Thanksgiving Day in what became the United States was wrong. And it seems that some of what some children are being taught today is also wrong.

It was true, of course, that a day of thanksgiving was held in November 1621 by the surviving band of "Pilgrims" and others who had come to the "New World" the previous year. But some argue that the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565. And others say that the First Nations (I like the Canadian term better than Indians or even Native Americans) observed harvest festivals and times of thanksgiving long before Europeans came to this part of the world.

Then, many seem to think that most of the people who came across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower did so because of their desire for religious freedom. Actually, fewer than half of those on the Mayflower were religious "pilgrims," as William Bradford called them; the others came for economic or other reasons. And even the Pilgrims had religious freedom in the Netherlands before they left there, so it seems that their main reason for making the dangerous voyage was not for religious freedom as such.

And then there are the Native Americans. The assistance and generosity of the Indians to the Plymouth settlers have generally been recognized, and those like Squanto, a Patuxet, have been highly regarded. But what has not usually been taught is that Squanto, along with many others, had been captured as slaves. Squanto was able to help the Plymouth colony partly because he learned English in the Old World where he had been taken as a slave.

Further, little recognition has been given to the fact that a large percentage of the Native Americans in "New England" had already died before 1621 from diseases (mostly smallpox) brought by the Europeans who had come in the previous decade. When the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, all the Patuxet living in the area had already died from such illnesses.

To counter the numerous Thanksgiving Day myths, errors, and half-truths that have usually been taught in the schools, some have developed alternative curriculum materials. But, unfortunately, the ones I found on the Internet also seem, unfortunately, to contain errors and misleading statements. Combating errors with errors is not helpful. In this case, as in all others, we need to seek to learn and to live by the truth. And that is hard to do.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Universal and the Particular

Last week I finished the first draft of the second five-page chapter for my next book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things Every Christian Needs to Know Now. (In spite of suggestions that the title, and even the content, be changed, I am sticking with the original plan, at least for the time being.)

The second chapter is "The Better We Know God, the Broader and Deeper will be Our Understanding of the Universe and Everything in It," and it follows "#1 God is Greater Than We Think, or Even Can Think." At this point I am calling the third chapter "God is Fully Revealed in Jesus, but the Christ is not Limited to Jesus." This topic is related to the difficult subject of the relationship of the particular to the universal.

Christianity has long had to wrestle with what is called "the scandal of particularity," and many have spurned Christianity because of what was considered an unacceptable particularity. Part of the appeal of some New Age religion, which in many ways is a recycling of "old age" religious beliefs of India, is its universality or all-inclusiveness. Although they total less than ten pages, the first two chapters of my new book is about the greatness of God, which is another way of speaking about the universality or all-inclusiveness of God.

But how is God to be known? The first chapter of John deals with that matter. As you know, John 1 begins by talking about the Word, expressed in Greek as logos. That term has the same basic meaning as the tao (or dao) in the religious tradition of China and dharma in the religious tradition of India. And Philo, the Jewish philosopher who was a contemporary of Jesus, linked the Torah with logos.

Thus logos, the Word, is a fundamental concept of the ancient religious traditions of the world. But in a way not seen in China or India and in a way rejected by most of the Jewish people of Jesus' day, the Gospel of John goes on to declare that "the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). That is the stupendous claim of Christianity that sets it apart from other religious faiths. The universal was revealed in the particular, in a single Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth.

But along with this particularity--but not in place of it--there also needs to be a recognition of the universality of God's revelation. It is for that reason I am writing that God is fully revealed in Jesus, but the Christ is not limited to Jesus. I will need to explain more what I am thinking about that in a future posting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Let's Learn instead of Being Defensive

It is hard not to be defensive. When one's ideas or, even more, when one's personhood is being attacked or criticized it is hard not to be defensive. But being defensive rarely produces positive results, and it often keeps us from learning valuable lessons.

June and I have been married for more than fifty-two years, and like most married couples we have had our disagreements from time to time. Because of those tensions, we have read and discussed several books about marital relationships. One of the most helpful books we have read is Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You? (1983; second edition, 2002) by a married couple, Dr. Jordan Paul and Dr. Margaret Paul.

One of the most helpful suggestions in the Pauls' book, and one of the hardest to put into practice, is that of substituting exploration for defensiveness. Whether between marriage partners or between other persons with whom we engage in serious interaction, they suggest that when criticisms are made, the person being criticized should seek to use that as a means of exploring what lay behind the criticism and what could be learned from it rather than seeking to defend himself or herself from the criticism being leveled.

Let's relate this matter to my posting on November 13. I have heard considerable defensiveness with regard to what Dr. Cone has written in the past and to what he said publicly at William Jewell College last week. No doubt some, or perhaps even much, of what the "defenders," of whom to some degree I have to include myself, have said is correct.

But rather than being defensive, our most natural reaction to harsh criticism, is it possible for us to use Dr. Cone's sharp words to explore more about the pain that he and generations of African-Americans have experienced? And is it possible to examine ourselves to see whether we are not still doing less than we might to help relieve some of that pain?

Whenever I hear criticism, as a spouse, as a white person, or in some other role, I want more and more to use such criticism as a springboard for exploration and learning instead of reacting defensively. Do you need to make the same resolve?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is Jesus Lord?

Chris Thompson raised a very significant issue in his comments about my posting on Nov. 6. Even though those comments were based on a misunderstanding of what I intended to say, they are of great importance, nonetheless. When I wrote that Jesus must be lord of all if he is to be Lord at all, I was thinking about the Lordship of Jesus for one who professes faith in Jesus. Chris took it as a reference to the universal Lordship of Christ, a different topic, but one which is also quite important.

In thinking about the Lordship of Jesus, we need to realize that for the early Christians the choice they had to make was whether to acknowledge Caesar as lord or to confess Jesus as Lord. That was a serious political decision. Thus, confessing Jesus as Lord is never just a personal matter. But it is an significant personal decision, too.

Citing "Tink" Tinker, the Native American theologian whose book American Indian Liberation I have just purchased and started to read, Chris questions whether "lordship" is an appropriate concept for contemporary Christians and asserts that any attempt to seek to force that lordship on others is certainly not appropriate. I wholeheartedly agree with the latter point, but is lordship a completely outmoded concept? (It is interesting that Dr. Cone didn't seem to think so when he wrote God of the Oppressed.)

Paul Tillich, the noted twentieth century theologian, referred to faith as one's "ultimate concern." If that be true, as I think it probably is, we can go on to say that our ultimate concern is that to which we give our primary allegiance. Thus, the object of our ultimate concern is our "lord," even though we might want to use some other term.

Today it is rarely an earthly Caesar that calls for people's allegiance, at least in most of the so-called industrialized nations. Today's "Caesars" are mostly "isms" -- such as hedonism, materialism, nationalism, or even rationalism. These sorts of things are the object of many people's ultimate concerns. Thus, they are the powers that lord it over people's daily lives.

So we are faced with the choice: whether to confess Jesus as Lord and to live by his teachings and values or whether to live in allegiance to some other lord, such as one or more of the prevailing isms of our society. To confess Jesus as Lord has political, economic, familial, recreational, and other ramifications. And it is in this regard that I affirm again, if Jesus is to be Lord at all, he must be Lord of all.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why Listen to Dr. Cone?

James Cone is an extremist. But that is probably OK. As has often been said, some people have to go too far [to an extreme] to get other people to go far enough. And most of us middle-class white people in America have not gone far enough toward working for a just and equitable society for all people.

Dr. James Cone (b. 1938), professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York since 1970, gave two public talks at William Jewell College last week, and I was happy to be among those who heard those talks--although they were not particularly easy to listen to. He continues to be harsh in his criticism of American whites. One to one, though, he was very friendly and cordial, and you get some indication of his warmth in the picture.


In preparation for Dr. Cone's coming, I read much of his book "God of the Oppressed," first published in 1975 and re-issued in 1997 with an important preface but with few changes in the original book. In Milton Horne's "Bible study" class at Second Baptist Church we discussed Dr. Cone's book for five weeks before his coming. It is a tough book. In spite of considerable talk now about the importance of building bridges rather than driving wedges, bridge building was not was what Dr. Cone was about, especially in 1975.

Since Dr. Cone's voice is so strident, we comfortable, middle-class white people naturally ask, "Why listen to Dr. Cone?" There are some good reasons: (1) Most African-Americans in this country are descendants of people who were grossly oppressed through the insidious institution of slavery. While that doesn't excuse aberrant behavior in the present, the woeful effects of past oppression must be recognized. Listening to Dr. Cone helps us grasp some of how that oppression continues to maim many in that tradition.

(2) Many of us white people, in spite of our attitudes toward African Americans now, are descendants of those who were slaveholders. Littleon Seat was my first grandfather to live in Missouri. His father, Hartwell, was a slaveholder. Two years before Littleton was born in Virginia in 1788, two of his older brothers were killed by a young slave. (I have always wished there was some way to get more information about that incident.) When the Hartwell Seat family moved to Tennessee, they brought slaves with them. (Years ago I saw Seats Chapel, a black church building in central Tennessee that was probably formed by former slaves of Hartwell, my grandfather.) Thus, listening to Dr. Cone helps me to come to the painful realization that I have come from a family of oppressors. I, and others like me, should use that realization not as a cause for feeling guilt, but as a spur to greater efforts in working for racial justice.

(3) As I wrote before, by necessity we all are either on the side of the oppressor or on the side of the oppressed. Listening to Dr. Cone helps to clarify the chasm between the two racial groups and challenges us all to choose to be in solidarity with the oppressed.

P.S. After posting this, I received an e-mail from a Korean friend who shared the following picture taken of Dr. Cone in Tokyo in 1978 or 1979.

Monday, November 9, 2009

In Praise of Eboo

Dr. Eboo Patel is an impressive young man. (I say young, for he was born in 1975 and that makes him seem quite young to me.)

Eboo is the Founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). He is also a member of the President's White House Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and last month he was named by U.S. News and World Report as one of the twenty-three "Best Leaders" in the United States.

Tomorrow, November 10, Eboo will be the speaker at the Festival of Faiths gathering in Kansas City. I very much would like to attend that meeting and hear him speak. Unfortunately, that is the same night Dr. James Cone speaks in Gano Chapel on the campus of William Jewell College, and I feel a greater need to attend that lecture. (Dr. Cone's talks at 7:30 Tuesday evening and 10:15 on Wednesday morning are open to the public, and I would encourage those in the area to attend, if possible.)

I am especially appreciative of Eboo's work because of what I read in his book, Acts of Faith (2007), the book we will be discussing at the Vital Conversations meeting this week: Wednesday, Nov. 11, at Antioch Library. (Those living in the North Kansas City area are heartily invited to attend this meeting.)

In his book, Eboo tells about April Kunze, an evangelical Christian, becoming IFYC's first full-time staff member. In the hiring process, he said to her, "We can both believe our religions are true, we can even privately hope the other converts, and we can work together in this organization to serve others. In that way, we, an Evangelical Christian and a devoted Muslim, can model what we say this organization is about: people from very different faith backgrounds finding common purpose in helping others" (p. 163).

That is the kind of pluralism Eboo propounds, and that is the kind of "pluralism" I applaud. Even though he calls his position pluralism, I think it is more an attitude of accepting and respecting plurality. As I have written before, I am generally opposed to any ism, so I am wary of talk about pluralism. But I think that understanding, respecting, and working with people of other religious traditions or expressions of faith is very important.

Thus, I praise Eboo for the significant interfaith work he is doing. He is an excellent example how one can be a dedicated believer of a particular faith tradition and also respectful of other traditions. And his call for working with people of other religious beliefs for the betterment of society is one I pray will be heard and heeded by more and more people.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Radical Discipleship

One of the most significant books I have read in the last forty years is Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship (1968) by Church of the Brethren scholar Vernard Eller. There is bad news and good news about that book: the bad news is that it has long been out of print. The good news is that it is available online, available at this link.

Eller (1927-2007) was a prolific writer, and many of his works are available online (clicking on his name produces a list of those writings). He was a faithful minister in the Church of the Brethren, and he was also a big fan of Kierkegaard. He even named his second son Enten Eller, which as I indicated in my previous posting was the name of Kierkegaard's Danish book known in English as Either/Or.

It is not the second on my list, but one of the "thirty true things" that I plan to write about--in spite of the naysayers--is, "Jesus must be Lord of all, or he is not Lord at all." That is, to be sure, an assertion that has been around for a long time, but I don’t get the impression many Christians think in those terms much any more.

In fact, I get the impression that some Christians now think that we need a much broader view of the world than is possible through Christianity or through Christ. Talk about the lordship of Jesus is for them, it seems, an outmoded idea that we need to move beyond. But I strongly disagree that commitment to the lordship of Jesus is an "ensmalling" act; rightly understood, it is an enlarging one.

For example, in my previous posting I wrote about my intention to be on the side of the oppressed rather than on the side of the oppressor. That has strong implications for how I treat and what I do for and/or with African Americans, Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians, etc. My desire to be on the side of the oppressed, though, is not in spite of my being a follower of Jesus Christ; it is precisely because I have confessed Jesus as Lord that I must seek to be on the side of the oppressed.

Further, as I have written previously, I firmly believe we should treat all people with justice and respect. And also in this regard, that is not a position I hold resolutely in spite of being a Christian but one I hold because I have committed my life to the lordship of Jesus.

The radical discipleship that Kierkegaard espoused and that Eller wrote about so well doesn’t narrow our interests or restrict our actions. On the contrary, being a radical disciple of Jesus expands our interests and challenges us to act boldly, especially for the benefit of all who in any way fit in the catch-all category of “the poor and oppressed.”

Monday, November 2, 2009

Either/Or

In his comments on my October 26 posting, DHJ (whom I still do not know who is for sure) made reference to Kierkegaard and either/or thinking. I immediately took notice of that comment both because of my interest in Kierkegaard stretching back nearly fifty years and also because of my generally being an advocate of both/and thinking.

Kierkegaard's first book was titled (in Danish) Enten -- Eller (1843), translated into English as Either/Or. But that book is not about either/or thinking; rather, it is about living either the aesthetic/ethical life or the religious life. The choice one is forced to make in that regard is related to Jesus' words, "‘No one can serve two masters; . . . You cannot serve God and wealth" (NRSV). Jesus was stating the necessity of an either/or choice, and that, I think, was the same sort of thing Kierkegaard was doing.

It is interesting that Kierkegaard, who wrote Either/Or, is the philosopher/theologian who most widely used the concept, and the word, paradox in his serious writings. I know he used that word a lot, for my doctoral dissertation was "The Meaning of Paradox: A Study of the Use of the Word 'Paradox' in Contemporary Theological and Philosophical Writings with Special Reference to Søren Kierkegaard." Paradox is very much about both/and thinking, and in general I heartily espouse that kind of thinking over either/or thinking, as was DHJ in his comments.

There are situations, though, in which both/and is not a possibility. We must choose either/or. Where we stand on issues of aggression, oppression, discrimination, and the like are of the latter type. It has been said that one is either on the side of the oppressor or the side of the oppressed. That is most probably true. Some fences can't be straddled.

By what he wrote in his comments on my blog postings and said in our discussion at lunch last week, Chris Thompson seemed to think I was "aiding and abetting" (not his words) the oppressors in my second and third postings about Columbus. That was not my intention. If that seemed to be what I was saying, I apologize. I want always to be on the side of the oppressed and not on the side of the oppressor. In many ways I probably am on the side of the oppressor just by being a white American male. But that is the way I was born, not a choice I made.

I did choose, though, to be a follower of Jesus, and as such I want to live, and I try to live as much as possible, in solidarity with those who are oppressed, including the Native Americans who have been grossly mistreated in multifarious ways since the time of Columbus.