Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When Compromise Is Not Good

In spite of what I wrote in my previous posting, I do not like compromise. That is one reason I am glad to have spent my life as a teacher/preacher rather than as a politician—although, certainly, compromising on some things was sometimes necessary in church conferences (business meetings) and faculty meetings.

In politics, as most of us realize, compromise is often necessary. And compromise is not always bad. At times it is even necessary and, thus, good. But there are times when compromise is not good.

Compromise is good when it is choosing a lesser evil for the public good. That is the logic behind the Niebuhrian/Obaman justification for war in some cases (although I still question whether that is a good compromise in most cases), and that was the logic behind many Senators voting for a less than ideal health care reform bill last week.

Compromise is bad, though, when it means giving up one’s ideals for one’s own personal benefit. Thus, compromising in order to reap financial benefits or even to gain the praise of others is not good. We should stick to our ideals even though that may mean forfeiting personal rewards that would come with compromise.

Art Gish’s The New Left and Christian Radicalism (1970) was one of the most important books I read in the 1970s. The Christian radicalism that Gish, a Church of the Brethren minister, wrote about is the type preached and practiced by the sixteenth-century Swiss Brethren (Anabaptists) and their descendants.

Gish claims that refusal to compromise was a part of the radicality of the Anabaptists. That is why they could persist in practicing believer’s baptism even when it was illegal to do so (as it was in Zurich after 1526). And that is why they could be consistent pacifists, when all around people were arguing that war is sometimes necessary.

The Swiss Anabaptists were true to their ideals. For that reason, some became martyrs, such as Felix Manz who was executed by being drowned in the Limmat River in central Zurich in January 1527. If push came to shove, I don’t know whether I would have the intestinal fortitude to hold fast to my ideals and beliefs rather than to compromise in order to save my life, but I have nothing but admiration for those who refuse to compromise because of their ideals.

Compromise may be necessary in politics, but doesn’t a strong religious faith mean holding firmly to one’s ideals without compromise?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Realism Triumphs Again

Well, it looks as if health care reform is going to pass. As you know, the Senate version was approved early on December 24, and one way or another the Senate and House versions will likely be harmonized, maybe even in time for the President’s signature before his State of the Union address late next month.

This is not an ideal health care bill. For the Republicans, of course, every health care bill is fatally flawed and to be strenuously opposed. Many Democrats, included the President, it seems, wanted things included in the health care bill that are not there. Many compromises were made, but such compromises had to be made in order to get the necessary votes to pass the bill.

The current issue of The Economist opines, “Every time someone tells you to ‘be realistic’ they are asking you to compromise your ideals” (pp. 38, 40). That is probably true. But the President and many senators had to be realistic and compromise their ideals to some degree in order to get a health care bill passed.

We have to realize that “politics is the art of compromise.” (I have been unable to find a source for that adage.) Also, “politics is the art of the possible” (Otto von Bismarck). As I wrote earlier, in spite of his fine Nobel Lecture, President Obama’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan showed the triumph of realism over idealism. And now with the health care bill, we see realism triumphing again.

While the health care bill leaves a lot to be desired, it is not a bad bill. Although it still leaves out millions, this reform will extend coverage to more than 30,000,000 Americans who don't have it now. This is no small matter, for that number represents nearly 10% of the nation’s population.

The health care reform bill is one example of democratic socialism at work. It is democratic in that it will be enacted by Congress, the democratically elected leaders of the nation. It is socialistic in that the government guarantees health care for at least most of the citizens of the nation.

The health care reform bill is socialistic in the same way that Social Security and Medicare are socialistic. There are problems, mostly financial, with both of those programs. But would any except the wealthiest among us want to do away with Social Security and Medicare? (I challenge those of you who might be opposed to the health care bill because it is socialistic to voluntarily forfeit your Medicare coverage.)

I would like to have had an “ideal” health care reform bill. But I am glad that realism triumphed over idealism, for in this case something is far better than nothing.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Was the Song Wrong?

In this last blog posting before Christmas, I take this means to wish each of you a very Merry Christmas!

In his comments after my previous posting, Chris Thompson emphasized Jesus as the Prince of Peace. I like that emphasis, and my greatest desire is that the people of the world will come to know Jesus and to know him truly as the Prince of Peace.

The birth of Jesus was accompanied with prophecies of peace. The familiar words the angels sang proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14, NRSV). With that as my text, more than fifty years ago one of my first Christmas sermons was titled “Was the Song Wrong?”

There was no peace on earth then, and there certainly is not today. I felt then, and still feel, somewhat like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the following words during the Civil War:
And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

But Longfellow went on to write then, and I want to go on to affirm now:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

We may want to cry out like the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord, how long do we have to wait for peace?” And if we listen carefully, we may hear the Lord saying that if we want peace, we have to join with others who have the same longing and work for peace. We must recognize that peace, like war, must be waged. (According to the Baptist Peacemakers of North America at this URL address, this is one of twelve things every Christian should know about peace.)

And as we work for peace, let me share two of my favorite peace quotes:
"If you want peace, work for justice." (Pope Paul VI)
"There is no way to peace, peace is the way." (A. J. Muste)

The song was not wrong. It pointed to the way on which we should walk and the struggle in which we should engage.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is Giving Alms Enough?

This is my follow-up to the posting about “The Amazing Booths” (Dec. 8). As I indicated then, I have the highest admiration for William and Catherine Booth and for the work of the Salvation Army, which they founded. I also have deep appreciation for local organizations, such as Harvesters, Love INC, and In As Much Ministry, and for those who volunteer to work with and who support those worthwhile groups.

But the question I raise is this: is giving alms (food, clothing, and other necessary items) enough? On the one hand, at the beginning the Booths and those who worked with them thought giving physical assistance was not enough, for they also expected those who received material help to receive spiritual help as well.

“Soup, Soap, and Salvation” was a slogan long associated with the Salvation Army. But now the Salvation Army, as well as the other organizations I mentioned, seem to place little emphasis on salvation, in the sense traditionally understood by evangelical Christians.

The main question that I have about groups that conduct praiseworthy charitable activities, though, is this: should they work more on the cause of poverty and physical needs instead of just focusing on the current needs of the persons they minister to?

Certainly, people need help now, and in no way do I want to belittle the assistance given the needy by organizations like the ones listed above. But the causes of poverty need to be addressed seriously also. But how can that be done effectively? Here we face strongly opposing ideas.

Hélder Câmara (1909-99) was a Brazilian priest who became an archbishop. You probably have heard his oft-quoted words: ““When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.”

Other South American priests who espouse “liberation theology,” a theology seeking to find ways to free people from extreme poverty and oppression, are, in fact, Marxists to a degree. They, of course, do not accept Marxist ideology or atheism, but they understand history largely as class struggle. And they believe that systemic changes must be made for the sake of the poor. The liberation theology they developed stresses God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Liberation theology, both the South American version and the Africa-American version in the U.S., is sometimes criticized as fostering violence. I in no way condone violence, but I am far more opposed to the violence done against the poor of South America or against the African-Americans in this country than I am of the violence committed by desperate people. And it is unquestionable, I think, that there is systemic violence. That is why the system needs to be changed.

With regard to societal change, the extremes seem to be conservative capitalism seeking to maintain the status quo on the one hand and Marxism/Communism seeking structural change by violent revolution on the other. As usual, I want a position between the extremes, and perhaps that position is best found in some form of democratic socialism, which I probably will write more about later.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Realism Triumphs Over Idealism

About the same time I was making my last posting (on Dec. 10), President Obama was giving his Nobel Lecture in Oslo. “A Just and Lasting Peace” was the title of the President’s 36-minute speech as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, and I assume all of you have heard all or at least part of that talk.

In responding to an e-mail from one of my “thinking friends,” I said that I thought the speech “showed the triumph of realism over idealism, which is probably the necessary position for any President to take.” When I told June what I said, she disagreed; she thought the President still holds good balance between realism and idealism.

I agree that the talk itself showed idealism as well as realism, and maybe a good balance between the two. But the speech came on the heels of the President’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was because of that decision that I maintain that realism has triumphed over idealism.

The President’s “lecture” was given partly to justify his decision to deploy more troops to combat terrorism, with the goal of creating a just and lasting peace. But can war ever do that? Since the time of “the Great War” (WWI), which was to be “the war to end wars,” every war this country has been engaged in, with perhaps the exception of the war against Iraq, has been for the express purpose of creating “a just and lasting peace.”

As a pacifist, I do not believe war can or will lead to peace. As a Christian pacifist, I do not believe war is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. In this regard, I think the Swiss Anabaptists had it right. They maintained that Christians should not be magistrates, for that inevitably demands compromises. One such compromises springs from the necessity of replacing idealism with realism.

As several commentators have pointed out, President Obama’s speech seemed to reflect the influence of theologian/ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). In the late 1930s Niebuhr rejected pacifism and propounded “Christian realism.” He became one of the main Christian ethicists to urge the U.S. to become involved in the war against Hitler in Europe. Mennonite theologian/ethicist John Howard Yoder (1927-97) was a strong and vocal critic of Niebuhr. But politicians have almost unanimously agreed with Niebuhr, which perhaps they inevitably must.

When there was question about his ability to serve as Commander in Chief, Jimmy Carter made reference to his agreement with Niebuhr’s views. When he was still a candidate for President, Barack Obama referred to Niebuhr as his “favorite philosopher.” Niebuhr probably had more influence on national politicians in the twentieth century than any other theologian, and his influence continues to be seen in President Obama's talks and actions.

So, as Niebuhr was a strong advocate of realism, there is ample theological/ethical support for realism triumphing over idealism in the combination of the words and actions of President Obama. But the question still remains, will that, in fact, bring about a just and lasting peace? I hope so, but I am afraid not.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Celebrating Human Rights Day

Today is Human Rights Day, a yearly observance in commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948. The Guinness Book of Records says that the UDHR is the world’s “most translated document.”

The Baptist World Alliance (BWA) for more than twenty years now has encouraged Baptist congregations around the world to observe Human Rights Day (HRD) on the Sunday closest to Dec. 10. (I wish Second Baptist Church where I am a member would do so.) On its website the BWA makes available HRD resources, such as “A Prayer of Commitment for Human Rights Day” written by a Brazilian Baptist. That prayer ends with these words:

“As followers of Jesus Christ, we pledge to be agents of life who actively oppose the powers of death manifest in situations of urban and rural violence, war, genocide, and human trafficking, abuses against women and children, economic and sexual exploitation, racial discrimination and religious intolerance. We commit to so respond to your presence in our lives that our cowardice may be turned into boldness, our egotism into solidarity, our fear into hope, and our weakness into strength. With your help, we will courageously serve as agents of your kingdom of freedom, justice, love and peace. In this, may your grace and mercy always attend our efforts. We pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen!”

This is a fine prayer. But as with other materials on the BWA website and in most other places, it does not say anything about gay rights. But the Amnesty International USA website states clearly that it “believes that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, should be able to enjoy the full range of human rights, without exception.” They go on to say, “However, every day, across the globe, sexual orientation or gender identity leads to abuse in the form of discrimination, violence, imprisonment, torture, or even execution.”

I pray that at this time of recognizing human rights more and more people, and especially Christians, will come to realize that gay and lesbian people generally fail to enjoy “the full range of human rights” and to support efforts to extend those rights to LGBT people across the world as well as to others.

Just this week a broad range of Christian leaders in this country denounced the terribly harsh anti-gay bill now being considered by the Parliament of Uganda. I am thankful for that, but I wish they would also speak out for the human rights of gays and lesbians in this country as well. (Lee Judge in this morning’s Kansas City Star has a good cartoon about that, which you should be able to see by clicking here.) Full human rights should be available for everyone, everywhere.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Amazing Booths

William and Catherine Mumford Booth were amazing people. Three years ago I read the impressive biography William and Catherine: The Life and Legacy of the Booths: Founders of the Salvation Army (2003) by New Zealand author Trevor Yaxley, and I have been a big fan of the Booths ever since.

In my last posting I made mention of the Salvation Army. William and Catherine started what became the Salvation Army in 1865. The original name was the East London Christian Mission, and the name was changed in 1878 to what it is now.

It was largely out of appreciation for and in honor of William and Catherine Booth that I volunteered for the first time ever to ring Salvation Army bells in December 2006, and I have now done that each year since.

William and Catherine were both born in 1829, so they were children at the time Chares Dickens wrote The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-39) and teenagers when Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) was published. They knew first-hand about the squalid conditions of the many poor people in England during the aftermath of the industrial revolution as depicted by Dickens.

The Booths were also becoming adults at the time Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848), combating what they saw as the exploitation of the working class by the bourgeoisie, the social class characterized by their ownership of capital and the control of culture.

William and Catherine responded in Christian love to the poor of their day, helping meet the physical needs of many while continuing to preach the message of spiritual salvation. Although I greatly admire and appreciate all they did, there is one point of criticism: they seemingly did little to seek to change the causes of so much suffering by the poor. This is a theme which I plan to write more about soon.

But let me close this posting by praising what the amazing Booths did. They founded an organization that has for years now been the largest non-governmental provider of social services in the world. Although its activity has been secularized in many ways, their UK website still states its mission, consistent with the original vision of the Booths, in these words:

“The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church.

“Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”

That, in my opinion, is a fine mission statement. But is it broad enough?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Where God Left His Shoes

It is a tough movie. I’m speaking of Where God Left His Shoes, a 2007 indie (independent) movie directed by Italian-American Salvatore Stabile. The title comes from an old Italian saying. Stabile has told how his father often used that phrase: “When I was a kid, we moved into this apartment, and I remember him looking all around the place and saying, ‘Well, it’s not where God left his shoes, but it’ll do.’"

Friday evening, June and I watched the DVD, which was released last month, with daughter Kathy and granddaughter Katrina. We all thought it was a tough movie, for it shows well the plight of a homeless family in New York City in December. And they are homeless in spite of being “good” people wanting to work and trying hard.

This is a meaningful film to see during the Advent season. The Advent theme this week has been hope, and the poster for the movie emphasizes the words, “Hope is the Greatest Gift of All.” And as one reviewer wrote, the hope portrayed in the movie is neither sentimental nor sappy. The official website for the movie sums it up well: “Where God Left His Shoes is the story of a family that refuses to break apart during the darkest time of their lives and discovers that they will survive as long as they have each other.”

The movie makes a brief reference to help received from the Salvation Army. That was gratifying as June and I had just rung the bell by a SA red kettle an hour each yesterday. The headline for an editorial in this morning’s Kansas City Star is “Donations at red kettles add up to aid needy in KC.” This year, the editorial says, Salvation Army officials hope bell ringers will bring in $1,600,000 to help people in the Kansas City community. It goes on to state:

“Everything helps. The Salvation Army in the last year has seen a 30 percent increase in people requesting help for food, clothing, shelter and utility assistance.”

June and I were glad we could do a little to help the Salvation Army yesterday. But as I wrote in my previous blog, because we did something does not mean we have done all we should.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

So What Should We Do?

My friend Easel Roberts sent significant comments about my last posting. (If you haven't read them yet, I hope you will do so now.) He wrote, in part, ". . . the response I have to Cone's book and speech as well as this blog is 'and therefore, I should do what?' In my opinion, without an 'and therefore we should . . .' we are only irritating old wounds which does nobody any good."

I think Easel's "complaint" is a legitimate one, and one that calls for serious thought. Let me share what I am thinking at this point, and what I write below is directed not just to him but to all of us.

So, what should we do? For starters let me suggest the following:

(1) We should ask ourselves if our knowledge of past events, especially those related to the oppression or mistreatment of other people, is accurate and adequate. Most of us, I'm afraid, are lacking on both counts; that is, we have been taught and have long accepted ideas that are often only half-truths, and we have usually had a less than adequate understanding of past events (such as the extent of the suffering caused by slavery or by the conquest of Native Americans). Seeking to gain a more nearly accurate and adequate understanding of the past is an important first step.

(2) We should examine ourselves to see if we harbor any attitudes or engage in any activities that exacerbate the problem(s). Nothing is gained by feeling guilty--unless we are, indeed, guilty. And again, most of us, I'm afraid, have held and perhaps still hold attitudes and have engaged in and perhaps still engage in activities for which we need to repent. If we have honestly repented, or if, which is probably unlikely, we have not committed any sins for which we need to repent, there is no need to feel guilty and we can just brush aside whatever blame we might hear.

(3) We should consider what we can do to help alleviate the pain of those who are still suffering because of the sins of the past--if not our sins, the sins of our forefathers, in many cases. We, obviously, cannot all do the same thing, and there is no way I can say what any of you should do. In this, as in other cases, we all have to work out our own salvation "with fear and trembling" (see Philippians 2:12).

Concerning this third point, let me suggest two important things to remember: (i) We may not be able to do much, but we can do something; and (ii) because we are doing something, that does not mean we are doing all we should do.