Sunday, April 15, 2018

Reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Today

Early this month the news media and the Internet were replete with articles about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s tragic assassination on April 4, 1968. This article is about King’s powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written five years earlier.
King Arrested
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded (with a slightly different name) in February 1957. MLK, Jr., one of the co-founders, was its first president. 
SCLC was a regional expansion of the local work, primarily the bus boycott, that King and his associates had begun earlier in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
In April 1963, SCLC joined with anti-segregation activities in Birmingham, Alabama. The ensuing “Birmingham Campaign” included mass meetings, marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and other nonviolent activities. In response/reaction, on Apil 10 the city officials obtained a state circuit court injunction against the protests.
Two days later, on Good Friday, King was arrested for violating the anti-protest injunction and was placed in solitary confinement in the Birmingham city jail.
King Writes
On the day King was arrested, eight Birmingham clergymen (and they were all men) published a statement in the local newspapers criticizing the protests led by King. In many ways, it seems to have been a good and reasonable statement. (Read it here.)
Those clergymen were the “white moderates” of the city, a cut above the abundant bigots of Birmingham. But still . . . .
In response, using the margins of the newspaper and even toilet paper, King penned what became one of his most powerful writings, his nearly 7,000-word “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
King's lengthy letter was made public on April 16, 1963, and now 55 years later it is still well worth reading—and considering thoughtfully. (Here is a link to it.)
MLK’s letter was included in his book Why We Can’t Wait, first published in 1964—and it was Birmingham's religious leaders' appeal for patience that King objected to the most. After all, the Civil War had been over for nearly a century—and most African-Americans were still by no means fully free.
Here are some of the most important statements in King’s letter:
  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
  • Lamentably,  . . . it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
  • Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
  • Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
  • We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
  • . . . nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. 
King Challenges
Now, 55 years after King first penned his letter, we who bask in the “blessing” of “majority privilege”—the advantages those of us who are white, and/or male, and/or Christian enjoy in this country—need to take MLK’s words to heart.
We need, for example, to listen to the challenge of the Black Lives Matter movement. And we must not excuse present injustices felt/suffered by people of minority by pointing out (’splaining) how things are much better than they used to be.
In many ways, certainly, things are better for people of color now than they were in 1963. But that doesn’t make the injustices of the present any less painful, and those who suffer injustices now won’t be encouraged by hearing that perhaps in another 55 years there may well be full equality, racial and otherwise.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

TTT #9 Christians Must Be Careful When They Call Jesus “Lord”

Once again I am sharing content only from the first part of a chapter in my unpublished book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT). (Readers who have the time and interest are invited to click here in order to read the entire chapter.)
Confessing Jesus as Lord
“Jesus is Lord” is the first and oldest confession of faith by Christians. To present times, that has been a common declaration of faith—and one wonders how different things would be if Christian believers had stuck with that concise confession rather than crafting more complicated creeds.
Back in 1960 when I was a seminary student, June and I became the proud owners of a 1958 Hillman Minx, a British car that looked a lot better than it started in the wintertime. At some point, we pasted a Jesus is Lord sticker on the trunk (or I guess I should say the boot) of our pretty little red and grey car.
In addition to being a seminary student, I was also pastor of the Ekron Baptist Church in Meade County, south of Louisville, and I was happy to witness to Jesus as I drove around the Ekron community.
I had no idea then, and have not realized until fairly recently, that proclaiming that Jesus is Lord can be offensive to some people. But now I understand that Christians must be careful when they call Jesus Lord.
Objecting to Calling Jesus Lord
"Tink" Tinker (b. 1944)
American Indian Liberation (2008) is a challenging book by George E. (“Tink”) Tinker, a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Colorado. Dr. Tinker specifically objects to calling Jesus Lord
While the original meaning of that term was an indication of a believer’s commitment to Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, it came to be experienced by American Indians, as well as by aboriginal people in other countries around the world, as a term of conquest and colonization.
What was meant to be a term designating, among other things, the humble submission of believers to Christ eventually came to be a term even Christian missionaries used to lord it over other people.
Proclaiming Jesus as Lord led an imperialistic church to exude triumphalism in contact with American Indians and with many ethnic groups around the world.
That triumphalistic spirit is seen in hymns such as “Jesus Shall Reign” (1719). The first verse of that hymn by Isaac Watts says, “Jesus shall reign where'er the sun / does its successive journeys run; / his kingdom spread from shore to shore, / till moons shall wax and wane no more.”
And then the third verse of Watts’s hymn, one that is not usually found in modern hymnals, proclaims, “There Persia, glorious to behold, / There India shines in eastern gold; / And barb’rous nations at His word / Submit, and bow, and own their Lord.”
The triumphalism of the hymn becomes more problematic when one considers how Persia at that time was ruled by a Shi’a Islamic dynasty.
Confessing Jesus as Lord Today
The preaching of Paul and the early missionaries was clearly about the lordship of Christ. But as Christianity then was a small movement without power or prestige, there was no way that it could lord it over other people the way some missionaries and other Christians did later when Christianity was linked to imperialistic activities of powerful Western nations.
Because of that misuse of the concept of lordship, Christians today need to be careful how they use the words “Jesus is Lord.” That confession must be only a statement of one’s faith in and personal commitment to Christ and never as suggesting or approving domination of others.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Winning a Hearing / Losing a Hearing

A couple of weeks before Easter, a friend sent a link to an Easter sermon to me and others on his mailing list. He said it was one of the best Easter sermons he had ever heard. I listened to it, and it was all right—but I was unable to appreciate the sermon fully because of the preacher’s public political stance.
Winning a Hearing
Among “progressive” Christians, there seems to be minimal desire to share the “good news” of the Christian faith with those who are not Christians. That is a real problem, I think, and I am growing increasingly weary of progressive Christians eschewing anything thought to smack of evangelism.
For much of my ministry as a pastor and then as a missionary, one of my ongoing concerns was trying to win a hearing. By that I mean the desire to engage other people in such a way that they would give some active attention to what I wanted to share about the Christian faith, which I thought of as “good news,” literally. 
Winning a hearing was a real challenge in Japan where most people were reared with a worldview that was definitely non-Christian. Some were even anti-Christian, although most didn’t have what could be called a personal religious faith.
The majority of the students I taught in a Japanese university were negative not only toward Christianity but to all religion—and quite often more negative toward Shinto and Buddhism than toward Christianity.
My constant challenge was to win a hearing, to spark people’s interest and desire to learn more about Jesus Christ and his life and teachings. Such matters were, I thought, for their personal benefit and for the benefit of the society/world in which they lived.
Losing a Hearing
Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, more than winning a hearing for the Gospel, some of my missionary colleagues in Japan lost a hearing for the “good news” of Jesus because of their support for the Vietnam War.
There were student protests against that war in Japan just as there were in the States, and missionaries who were vocal in their support of the U.S. war efforts in Vietnam mostly lost any possibility of sharing about Jesus to the many Japanese students who strongly opposed the war. Their political position destroyed their opportunity for Christian witness.
As a pacifist, it was not hard for me to agree with the students in opposing the war in Indochina. My anti-war stance was not a ruse to curry favor among the students but a position I took because of my belief in Jesus.
That position, happily, made it possible for me to win a hearing from many of the students I taught and talked with on campus.
The Case of the Preacher
The preacher of the Resurrection sermon mentioned in the beginning was one of the earliest widely-known Christian pastors publicly to endorse Donald Trump for President. 
I first thought that was probably because of his choosing the “lesser of two evils.” As a strong conservative Christian, he was/is adamantly opposed to abortion and LGBT rights, so he doubtlessly thought he had to oppose Hillary.
But this pastor has continued to be one of DJT’s most vocal supporters in spite of all the charges of political, financial, and moral charges of impropriety. Since his continuing support has given him access to the White House, perhaps an underlying motive is a desire for power and prestige.
So, sadly, while the noted pastor’s sermon on the Resurrection may have been a good one, it is not likely to be heard with appreciation by those who strongly disagree with his blatant political stance.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Interpreting the Resurrection of Jesus

Even though today is Good Friday, this article is about the Easter story and how Jesus’ resurrection can be affirmed by contemporary people.
A Novel Interpretation
The writing of this article was spurred by my reading of a novel: Martin Gardner’s The Flight of Peter Fromm (1973, 1994). After finishing it in 2012, I wrote this in my “books read” record: “One of the most challenging theological novels I ever read. A book of great profundity and erudition.”
Last month I finished reading Gardner’s book for the second time—and I was impressed and disturbed by it again.
If you haven’t read the novel, I don’t necessarily recommend it. Why? Because debunking the resurrection of Jesus is one of the main themes of the book.
At the beginning of the novel, Peter Fromm is a precocious, fundamentalist, Pentecostal Christian boy from Oklahoma who chooses to go to the University of Chicago Divinity School. There he is “slowly but surely” led by Homer Wilson, his mentor who is a part-time professor and a Unitarian minister, to question and then to reject many of his Christian beliefs, including the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
On Easter Sunday, shortly before he is scheduled to receive his doctor’s degree, to marry, and to be ordained and assume a full-time church position, Peter preaches at his mentor’s church—and has a dramatic psychological breakdown.
Questionable Interpretations
In spite of being a minister and seminary professor, early in the book Wilson acknowledges, “I do not consider myself a Christian except in the widest, most humanistic sense. I do not, for example, believe in God.”
Homer Wilson spends considerable time discussing theological ideas with Peter, who gradually begins to discard belief in the reality of the resurrection—along with ideas about the transcendence of God. So Peter comes largely to adopt what Wilson calls “secular humanism.”
Wilson tells Peter that one who preaches to modern people has “to choose between being a truthful traitor or a loyal liar.” In order to serve in a paid church position, he believes, it is necessary to choose the latter: that seems clearly to have been Homer’s choice, and Peter also apparently comes to accept that position. The duplicity of that choice, however, leads to Peter’s breakdown.
Much of the problem in accepting the reality of the Easter story centers on the interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection as being the resuscitation of his physical body. Peter assumes that that is the view of resurrection found in the New Testament.
Of course, Peter also considers, and rejects, Jesus’ resurrection as simply the spirit or idea of Jesus being “resurrected” in the minds of his disciples.
Recommended Interpretation
My interpretation of, and belief in, the resurrection is based on firm belief in the reality of God and in transcendence. Thus, my affirmation of the reality of Easter is grounded in a worldview quite different from that of secular humanism.
If one believes, as Homer Wilson and then Peter Fromm did, that the physical world, which can be fully examined by science, is the totality of reality, then resurrection cannot be affirmed in any historical sense.
My views are in general agreement with those of the eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright as summarily presented in his book Surprised by Hope (2008), which I highly recommend.
For me, and for Wright, Jesus’ resurrection can be, and must be, understood as something other than literal resuscitation and certainly as something other than a metaphorical, completely non-historical story.
Firm belief in God and transcendence, however, makes affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection possible, understandable, and a matter of great joy and hope.
Happy Easter!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

"Let's Get Drunk!"

If you know me, you surely recognize that the words of the title are not mine. Rather, they are the words in a wonderful (pun intended) movie that was unnecessarily marred by those words.
Carl’s Recommendation
June and I have two fine grandsons (as well as five fine granddaughters). Carl Joseph Seat Daoust is our younger grandson, and we greatly enjoyed being with him and his parents last month in Tucson, Arizona, where they live.
Prior to our visit, Carl and his mother (Karen) read together the children’s novel Wonder (2012) by Raquel Jaramillo, who published her book under the pen name R.J. Palacio. They then saw the 2017 movie based on that novel.
Carl, who will turn 11 in August, was very favorably impressed by the book and the movie—and he highly recommended both. He also strongly suggested that we read the book before seeing the movie.
June did, but I failed to get that done before we watched the movie earlier this month. I greatly enjoyed the movie anyway.
Auggie’s Determination
The central character of “Wonder” is August, whom everyone calls Auggie. He is a boy just Carl’s age—but he was unfortunately born with serious facial deformities, which even multiple plastic surgeries were not able to fix very well. 
Auggie, who reportedly looks better in the movie than as he was portrayed in the novel.
Auggie has a good and supporting family: very loving, understanding parents and an outstanding big sister. His mother largely gives up her own work in order to help Auggie in his early years, and then she home-schools him. When he is ready for the fifth grade, they decide it is time for Auggie to start public school.
Fortunately, Auggie’s classroom teacher and school principal are very understanding and supportive. (I wish every kid could have as good a teacher as Mr. Browne and as wise a principal as Mr. Tushman.)
Unfortunately, Auggie experiences negative attitudes from most of the other kids at school—and most hurtful of all is the betrayal of the first friend he had among his classmates. But in spite of all the snubs, hurts, and active rejection, Auggie hangs in there with remarkable determination and fortitude.
My Consternation
Near the end of Auggie’s school year, his mother, admirably played by Julia Roberts, finally is able to finish her long-neglected master’s dissertation. When she shows the finished copy to her husband, he rejoices with her. That is when she exclaims, “Let’s get drunk!”
Why was that brief scene with those words inserted, for Pete’s sake?
It seems so unnecessary to have that line in such a heart-warming children’s movie. Why did the filmmakers want to leave the impression with the kids watching the movie that that is the way adults celebrate when they are happy?
Perhaps I am not qualified to write about getting drunk, since I never did and never intend to. But have seen the antics of drunk people, and, on occasion, have tried to engage in conversation with people who were drunk.
And I have known, and especially known of, people who killed themselves or were killed by others because of driving drunk. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation reports that in 2016 there were 10,497 “alcohol-impaired crash fatalities.”
That is more than 27 a day every day of the year—and a sizeable percentage of those were school-age kids. We are upset when 17 students get shot and killed–as, certainly, we should be. But that many die every week because of drunk drivers!
So why do some people think getting drunk is a great way to celebrate? And why should “Let’s get drunk!” be included in a heart-warming, inspiring children’s movie?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

TTT #8 God Loves All of Creation

Everyone has heard much about God’s love. But do we sufficiently comprehend the extent of that love? Probably not. This article about God’s love is adapted from the first section of the eighth chapter of Thirty True Things Everyone Needs To Know Now (TTT), available in its entirety by clicking this link.
God’s Love Is Not Just for Humans
To begin with, it is important for us to realize that God’s love is not just for human beings. Perhaps Christianity through the centuries has been the most anthropocentric of all of the world’s religions.
There are, however, many references to God’s concern for nature in the Hebrew Bible that Christians call the Old Testament, and Christian environmentalists have increasingly called attention to those passages. For example, Psalm 145:9 declares, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” But have we really thought what it means for God to love all creation? Probably not sufficiently. 
Emphasis on God’s Beloved Creation
To address the lack of adequate concern for the natural world, back in 1983 at the Vancouver Assembly, the World Council of Churches (WCC) encouraged member churches to commit publicly to addressing environmental concerns as part of a common effort to promote Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation. That became known as the JPIC process. (The image below was the logo of that Assembly.) 
Then in 1990, the WCC sponsored the World Convocation on Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation in Seoul, Korea. One study unit in this program was called “Creation as Beloved of God.”
Creation, the physical universe in its entirety and not just human beings, is loved by God. That was the important emphasis of the WCC in the 1980s and 1990s.
There has been a similar emphasis in the Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II’s message for New Year’s Day 1990 was titled “Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation.” Reflecting upon that important message, Elisabeth A. Johnson, a noted Catholic theologian, wrote in 2001 about “God’s Beloved Creation.”
God’s Love and Our Love for Creation
Most people seem to have long thought that the purpose of the natural world—the purpose of all the plants, animals, and minerals in the world of nature—is primarily to supply the needs of human beings.
The creation story found in the first chapter of Genesis certainly does sound as if humans are the “crown of creation.” When the first human couple was created, “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . .” (1:28).
The English words subdue and have dominion, however, may not be the best to convey what the Biblical writer really had in mind. To grasp that maybe we need to consider more fully the implication of these words: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (1:27).
The idea of humans created in the image of God has nothing to do with how we look; it has everything to do with our capacity to be loving and caring as God is. If God loves the physical world—and certainly God does—then we humans created in the image of God must love and care for the world also.
Since God loves all of creation—which includes the physical world, the world of sticks and stones, of plants and animals, the whole world of nature—it is incumbent on us human creatures to love/care for the natural world also.
My fear is that we are failing in that sacred task.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

In Appreciation of Walter Brueggemann

The most quoted contemporary Old Testament scholar is, arguably, Walter Brueggemann, and I am happy to be writing, finally, an article about this superlative scholar and articulate author, who celebrated his 85th birthday this past Sunday.
A Bit about Brueggemann
Born in Nebraska on March 11, 1933, Walter Brueggemann (WB) graduated from Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri—as did Reinhold Niebuhr before him. Then WB earned doctorates from both Union Theological Seminary and Saint Louis University. He was ordained in the United Church of Christ.
After 25 years as a professor at Eden, in 1986 WB moved to Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia where he served as a professor until his retirement in 2003—but he has continued to write and to speak profusely.
WB has authored some 60 books, including commentaries on several Old Testament books. His slim book Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out was published in February, and his newest book A Gospel of Hope will be released the end of this month.
In addition to his steady stream of books, WB is already scheduled to be a “keynote presenter” at the American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ triennial meeting in Philadelphia this November—and he has at least nine scheduled speaking engagements between now and then, some for two or three days.
(I am looking forward to hearing him speak at Asbury UMC in Prairie Village, Kan., on April 6.)
A Bit about a Brueggemann Book
One of WB’s best-known books is The Prophetic Imagination. He wrote the preface to that book’s first edition during Lent in 1978; I recently read the second edition that was published in 2001.
In the preface of the latter, WB mentions that for him Abraham Heschel is “definingly important” (p. xv). But unlike Rabbi Heschel, the author of The Prophets whom I wrote about (here) in December, as a Christian scholar WB sees Jesus as “the fulfillment and quintessence of the prophetic tradition” (p. 102).
The purpose of WB’s The Prophetic Imagination is not just to help his readers understand the past. It is even more to help them see what prophetic ministry means in the present. Thus, he asserts,
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us (p. 3).
The first chapter is mostly about the “alternative consciousness” that was fostered by Moses. That is contrasted in the second chapter with the “royal consciousness” of King Solomon. The latter largely became the “dominant consciousness”—and the target of the Old Testament prophets.
WB contends that “Solomon was able to counter completely the counterculture of Moses.” He did this partly by countering “the economics of equality with the economics of affluence” and “the politics of justice with the politics of oppression(p. 31).
The royal consciousness—then or now—doesn’t talk about anything new, so there is no hope for the future other than as an extension of the present, which is the continuation of the past. In contrast, WB emphasizes the “hope-filled language of prophecy” (p. 67). 

A Bit about BHO and DJT
As I was reading WB’s book, it seemed quite clear to me that the “Make America Great Again” slogan is an expression of the royal consciousness (emphasis on past glory and recovery of that past), which the prophets (including Jesus) opposed.
On the other hand, Obama emphasized newness and the “audacity of hope.” Although harshly criticized by the far right (because of his talk about “fundamental transformation”), at least to some extent BHO seems to have exhibited the prophetic imagination that still is so badly needed in the world today.