Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Greetings from the Dakotas!

Last Friday, June and I left our home in Liberty, MO, and set out on a car trip to the Dakotas. This trip is in celebration of our 55th wedding anniversary, which was last Saturday. We decided to take the trip to the Dakotas, for they were the only two of the fifty States I had never visited.
We spent Friday night in a motel in Yankton, SD, which was the original capital of the Dakota Territory. Yankton is sometimes called “River City,” due to its proximity to the Missouri River and the importance that the river played in the city’s settlement in 1859 and subsequent development. As part of the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark visited the area long before that, in 1804.
We spent part of Saturday visiting some Hutterite colonies near Freeman, SD. Norman and Darlene Hofer, new friends who live on a farm near Freeman, helped us learn about the Hutterites, a communal branch of Anabaptist Christians who trace their history back to the 1520s. They have continued faithful to the teachings of Jacob Hutter (born c.1500), who was executed for his beliefs in 1536. That was in Tyrol, now in northern Italy.
From the beginning until the present, with a few exceptions, the Hutterites have practiced living completely in community (with a common “purse” for each colony) and have been strict pacifists. They also have the reputation of being excellent farmers, although now many engage in various manufacturing projects in their various colonies, which now number more than 450 in the U.S. and Canada.
On Sunday we drove through the spectacular Badlands on the way to Rapid City where we spent the night in the historic Alex Johnson Hotel, built in 1928. Designed partly as a tribute to the Sioux Indian Nation, the hotel has played host to numerous dignitaries, celebrities, and Presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.
Next was a visit to nearby Mount Rushmore, which is the main reason we drove to southwestern South Dakota. As you probably know, Mount Rushmore features 60-foot sculptures of the heads of four U.S. Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. The sculpting on Rushmore began in October 1927, and it was not finished until the end of October 1941.
We also visited Crazy Horse Memorial, the huge mountain carving that has been under construction since 1948 and is not nearly finished. Crazy Horse (born c.1840) was the famous Native American leader of the Lakota people. He was killed at the close of the Great Sioux War (1876-77). The head of Crazy Horse in his monument is nearly 50% larger than the heads of the Presidents on Mt. Rushmore.
Yesterday we drove up into North Dakota, and now, I am happy to say, I have visited all fifty states. We enjoyed visiting the Capitol, which is quite different from most capitols.
This has been a very enjoyable trip with very impressive sights. But for me the highlight has been visiting Mike and Kathy Wipf and other Hutterites in the Oak Lane colony. Their successful persistence in maintaining a unique Christian tradition and lifestyle is impressive, indeed. Their way of life is also a challenge to the compromised lifestyle of most of us Christians in the modern world.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Battle of New Hope Church

Two separate Civil War skirmishes were called the Battle of New Hope Church. When I first read about that (just a few months ago), I was immediately interested in learning more, partly because my father’s home church was New Hope Church.
The two battles of New Hope Church, however, were not in northwest Missouri but in northwest Georgia and in northern Virginia.
The Battle of New Hope Church in Georgia was fought May 25–26, 1864, between the Union forces of General Sherman and the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Johnston during the Atlanta Campaign. The battle ended with a Confederate victory. And even though to this day it is called the battle of New Hope Church, the Union soldiers referred to it as “Hell’s Hole.”
The other Battle of New Hope Church took place several months earlier near the New Hope Baptist Church in Orange County, Virginia, a church begun in 1857 and still active. In late November 1863, close to that church there was a battle in which the Union troops fought soldiers led by General Robert E. Lee. That battle also ended in a Confederate victory.
In the latter Battle of New Hope Church, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s son Charlie was shot through the back and brought to the church for medical attention. It was while sitting at his son’s bedside following that injury that Longfellow penned the words to the well-known carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Even though both of these battles of New Hope Church ended with Confederate victories, it is evident to most of us that the Southern states, fighting to preserve slavery, were on the wrong side of history. Perhaps it is true that “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama, and others have emphasized.
(As I point out on pages 105-6 of my book The Limits of Liberalism, the words quoted in the previous paragraph can be traced back to a 1852 sermon by Theodore Parker, a famous Unitarian pastor. Those words, I suggest there, perhaps point to the “excessive optimism” of Christian liberalism. But I also say in a footnote, “Parker’s words as used by King and Obama are full of hope, but they do not reek of the syrupy optimism of the nineteenth century liberal preacher.”)
Even after the end of the Civil War, the Confederate States and some others had anti-miscegenation laws, which meant that people of different races could not legally marry. The last of those laws, including Missouri’s, were not overturned until June 1967 (!) when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them to be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Those States were again, or still, on the wrong side of history.
And now, in 2012, all the same states, and others, have constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage. Will those states at some time in the future once again be found to be on the wrong side of history? Probably.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tradition and Traditionalism

Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Those are the perceptive words of Jaroslav Pelikan.
Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006)
Pelikan taught at Yale University from 1962 to 1996 and wrote more than 30 books, including the five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971–1989). It was in the July 26, 1989, issue of U.S. News & World Report, that he made the oft-quoted statement about the difference between tradition and traditionalism.
Although it is much different now than in times past, still, most people tend to remain affiliated with the same religious tradition of their parents. This is the case not just for broad religious affiliation, such as Christian, Jewish, Muslim and the like. It is true also for denominations within the religions, such as Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, or Mennonite. The same is true for those who come from atheist homes.
All of this is by no means surprising. The home is the first and most important primary community, and everyone’s worldview is shaped primarily by the community of which they most closely identify. Moreover, even minor paradigm shifts are difficult and sometimes even painful.
And so we land in the problem of traditionalism. The family religious tradition, for example, is often maintained by those who no longer possess the living faith that initiated that tradition. Religious ideas and practices are maintained just because that is what we always believed or that is the way we always did things. It is a part of our tradition.
Tradition makes for continuity. As Tevya said, “Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as... as a fiddler on the roof!” But tradition often disintegrates into traditionalism. Those within the Christian tradition maintain the accoutrements of faith in Christ, but in reality there is little there but the “dead faith” that Pelikan referred to.
On Easter Sunday our pastor at Rainbow Mennonite Church introduced an intriguing novel: Martin Gardner’s The Flight of Peter Fromm (1973). I am currently reading that book and finding it fascinating. In my May 13 sermon at RMC, I quoted the following statement by the narrator (a seminary professor and Unitarian pastor):
“For most Protestants today their ‘religion’ is little more than a weekly ritual which they endure for reasons which have nothing to do with God. The ritual is familiar and comfortable. It reminds them of their childhood. . . . The church is a place to meet friends on Sunday morning, listen to good music, and (hopefully) to hear a sermon that arouses a warm feeling of piety without suggesting—God forbid!—that one alter a single prejudice or behavior pattern” (pp. 13-14).
This is a good description of tradition having become traditionalism. And it is no new problem. Long ago, Leslie Weatherhead, one of Britain’s finest preachers, declared, “One of the things which hold back progress in modern Church life is the presence of vast numbers of people who not only have had no real experience of God, but who do not believe there is anything to find save which they have found” (How Can I Find God? [1933], p. 32).
How can those who have been brought up in, and who have sought to maintain, exemplary traditions keep from falling into traditionalism? How can a vital living faith be maintained?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Learning from the Battle of Frankenhausen

Does an event of May 15, 1525, have any relevance for May 2012? Specifically, what lesson can we learn from the Battle of Frankenhausen led by Thomas Müntzer, a tragic figure of the Protestant Reformation in Germany?
Müntzer (born c.1489) has been highly regarded by socialists (Communists), but generally criticized by most Christian thinkers. He is also an embarrassment to contemporary Anabaptists, for he has sometimes been linked to the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.
Early on, Müntzer was a follower of Martin Luther, and in 1520 Luther recommended him for the pastorate of a church in Zwickau, about 125 miles south of Wittenberg. But Müntzer became increasingly opposed to Luther's ideas and was exiled from Zwickau the next year.
Part of Müntzer’s opposition to Luther was with regard to baptism. Müntzer began to reject infant baptism, and for that reason he is sometimes said to be one of the first Anabaptists. And Luther increasingly opposed Müntzer, not just because of his rejection of infant baptism but for his militancy.
In 1524 Müntzer became a leader in the uprising later known as the Peasants’ War. This was partly a class struggle, and it has been praised as such by Friedrich Engels, who wrote The Peasant War in Germany (1850). It was also an attempt to set up a local theocracy by military force. Establishing an apocalyptic kingdom seems to have been a primary focus of Müntzer.
The Peasants’ War in Germany ended with the Battle of Frankenhausen on May 15, 1525. Around 8,000 peasants were killed and Müntzer himself was captured, tortured, and then executed twelve days later.
The tragic Battle of Frankenhausen is depicted in the world's largest oil painting, Werner Tübke’s work housed in its own specially built panoramic museum. That painting is 400 feet long and 45 feet high. (Can you imagine a painting that is considerably longer than a football field?!) Unfortunately, the Internet link showing the painting no longer works, but here is an external link telling about the museum, and several scenes from the painting are included (one of which is pasted below).
What Can We Learn from Frankenhausen?
One obvious lesson for us is that, as Jesus said, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, ESV). The only form of Anabaptism that has survived is that which is pacifistic, and perhaps it is more influential today than at any time since the sixteenth century.
The main lesson is to beware of, and openly oppose, Christians leaders who seek to lead us to war in order to bring about the End Times—such as Rev. John Hagee is seems to be doing.
Hagee (b. 1940) is the founder, in 2006, of Christians United for Israel, the most visible organization of American Christian Zionists. He launched that organization just a month after the release of his bestselling book Jerusalem Countdown. In his book, which last year was made into a movie that is now on DVD, Hagee asserts that an American and Israeli war on Iran is not only biblically prophesied but necessary to bring about Armageddon and the Second Coming.
The scary thing about Hagee’s ideas is how some prominent politicians—even recent presidential hopefuls such as Rick Perry and Rick Santorum—seemingly agree with them.
Linking beliefs about the End Times to taking up the sword to help inaugurate God’s rule was not a wise thing for the German peasants in 1524-25, and it is even a more dangerous idea for Christians today.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Israel and Palestine: Is Peaceful Coexistence Possible?

May is a time of celebration in the modern nation of Israel. Next week on May 15, Israel will celebrate its 64th birthday, as the establishment of the State of Israel took place on that day in 1948. Less than a year later, on May 11, 1949, Israel was accepted by majority vote as a member of the United Nations. 
Previously, in October 1946, President Truman issued a statement indicating America’s support for the creation of a “viable Jewish state.” In November of the following year the United Nations voted for the Jewish people to be given a “homeland” in the territory their ancestors had inhabited nearly two thousand years, or more, before. The United States was one of 33 countries who voted for the new Jewish state.
In passing, it is worth nothing that the modern nation of Israel was established by the United Nations, an organization now much (and hypocritically?) maligned by many people in this country who tend to be staunch supporters of Israel. There was, and continues to be, a problem with the new state of Israel, however. 
Palestine, the land that was partitioned and given to the Jewish people as a homeland, was already occupied. It was inhabited largely by Arabs who were mostly Muslims (although about 10% of them were Christians). Since the ethnic Jews from other countries began moving in and occupying the land, Palestinian Arabs have been squeezed into smaller and smaller portions of the territory. 
Not surprisingly, there was immediate negative Arab reaction to the creation of Israel in May 1948. In support of the Palestinian Arabs, the surrounding Arab states attacked the independent State of Israel on the very first day of its existence. Thus began the first Arab-Israeli War. Even though there have been numerous cease-fires, negotiations, and peace talks, tensions and sporadic hostilities between Israel and Palestine have continued to the present. 
It is not difficult to be sympathetic with Israel’s desire for a homeland. The holocaust in Europe resulted in the extermination of around 6,000,000 Jews. That was an unmitigated human tragedy. And through the centuries Jewish people have been grossly mistreated by many Christians who considered all Jews to be “Christ killers.”
But it is also hard not to be sympathetic with the Palestinian Arabs. Even though about 1/3 of the population of the country was Jewish at the time of the 1947 partition, still, for many of the Arabs who made up the majority, land on which their ancestors had lived for centuries, in some cases, was taken from them and given to people with a different language, different customs, and a different religion. 
It is true that since 1948 there have been many terrorist attacks on the Israelis and other acts of violence committed by Palestinian Arabs. But if there is not provision for a peaceful, and just, settlement of disputes, injustice and oppression usually spawns violent reaction. 
So as Israel celebrates its 64th national birthday in a few days, the burning question remains: will Israel and Palestine ever be able to coexist peacefully?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Proposal for a National Day of Listening

The 61st annual National Day of Prayer was observed on May 3, as it is on the first Thursday of May every year. The same day was also the 10th annual National Day of Reason.
As an alternative to both the Day of Prayer and the Day of Reason, I am proposing a National Day of Listening.
The modern law formalizing the annual observance of the Day of Prayer was enacted in 1952 by a joint resolution of Congress and signed by President Truman.
The Day of Reason was created in 2003 by the American Humanist Association and the Washington Area Secular Humanists, partly in response to what they consider to be the unconstitutionality of the Day of Prayer.
According to U.S. Code section 119 (1998), “The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”
It is interesting that this government document says that people in the United States “may turn to God in prayer,” whereas the promoters of the Day of Prayer often say that citizens are “asked to” do so.
In spite of some email rumors again this year that the Day of Prayer was being canceled by the president, the 2012 National Day of Prayer was officially proclaimed by President Obama on May 1. (The text of that proclamation can be found here.)
The promoters of the Day of Reason say on their website that their purpose is “to celebrate reason – a concept all Americans can support – and to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship.”
The Day of Reason is gaining recognition, partially through the activity of Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif., b. 1931), who has officially recognized the day of Reason by issuing a proclamation in the U.S. House of Representatives the past two years. (The text of that proclamation can be found here.)
My proposed Day of Listening is envisioned as a day that all U.S. citizens could observe together.
Christians, Jews or Muslims, for example, could use the day as a special time to listen to or for the “voice” of God/YHWH/Allah.
Those who are atheists could focus on listening to the voice of reason, conscience, the Great Books or whatever.
And perhaps it could, importantly, be a time during which everyone would listen to each other in order to increase mutual understanding, respect and appreciation.
Many have seen the Day of Prayer as a time to emphasize national unity, but the exclusion of those who are not religious makes for disunity.
The promoters of the Day of Reason call for unity through reason, but pitting reason against prayer is also divisive. (Many of us people of faith think it is reasonable to pray.)
But gathering for the purpose of listening should be something everyone could share in and be unified by.
So, is this a proposal worth considering?
Note: StoryCorps started a much different “National Day of Listening” in 2008.