Monday, November 20, 2017

Observing World Children’s Day

As you may know, today (November 20) is World Children’s Day. At least the World Council of Churches (WCC) has been promoting today by that name. Since 1954 the United Nations has been calling Nov. 20 Universal Children’s Day—a different name with the same basic emphasis.
The Appeal
The WCC asserts that today is “a time for world community and churches to express their dedication to children’s wellbeing” (see here). Surely this is an appeal that most of us can respond to positively.
UNICEF (The United Nations Children's Fund) also calls today World Children’s Day and encourages thought and action for the sake of the children of the world (see this link).
The Problem
A sizeable number of the world’s children are in dire straits. While the numbers have, thankfully, significantly lessened in recent decades, still according to WHO there are around 15,000 children under five who die every day. Perhaps as many as two-thirds of these deaths were/are preventable.
So perhaps at least 10,000 children under five needlessly die every single day because of hunger and because of malnutrition-related and other health issues that could be remedied by inexpensive medication.
In addition, according to a UNICEF report issued a little over a year ago, nearly 50 million children worldwide have been uprooted from their homes due to violence, poverty and other factors out of their control.
Here is a picture of Rohingya refugee children reaching out for food in a refugee camp in Bangladesh—and these are better off than many Rohingya children are now. 
This is just a partial look at the problems many of the world’s children are facing at this time.
Our Response?
What can people of goodwill do for the sake of the world’s suffering children?
1) We can become more aware of the deep need of so many of the world’s children. That is one major intention of today being designated World Children’s Day—and one of the main purposes of this article.
2) We can seek, over time, to elect politicians who are concerned about the welfare of people, especially children, worldwide rather than focusing on making America “great again”—especially by such things as enacting tax reform (or “deform”) that benefits primarily the wealthiest in the land. To a large degree, the suffering of so many children, here and abroad, is a political problem—in both the narrow and the broad senses I mentioned in my previous blog article.
3) We can examine our own lifestyles and buying habits in order to see if there are ways we can share more generously to help alleviate the serious needs of some of the world’s children.
Some charities endeavor to support needy children by seeking monthly gifts to help individuals. World Vision is one organization that does that, and years ago June and I sponsored children through that organization. I have recently learned about a similar group: Kids Alive International, which has an excellent rating by Charity Navigator.
Perhaps it is better, though, to see the “big picture” and work for societal change by supporting organizations such as UNICEF (which doesn’t have a very good Charity Navigator rating), Bread for the World, or Water.org. (The latter two organizations are not just charities for children, but children benefit greatly from their activities.)
So, on this World Children’s Day, I am asking each of us to consider what we can do to help the suffering children around the world. 
And many of us have to grapple with this difficult question, especially during the upcoming holiday season: Why do my children or grandchildren need so much when there are so many children who have so little?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Religion and Politics

Recently I have been reading and thinking about the relationship between religion and politics. Two devout Episcopalian lawyers have been helpful in this regard.
The Position of Stringfellow
William Stringfellow (b. 1928) graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956. He soon moved to a tenement in Harlem, New York City, where he worked as a tireless advocate for racial and social justice. Then in 1967 he moved to Block Island, R.I. He lived, and was an active member of the Episcopal church, there until his untimely death in 1985.
Back in September, I re-read An Ethics for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, the thought-provoking book by William Stringfellow, who was a lay theologian and a stimulating author.
Stringfellow’s book was first published in 1973 during the Nixon Administration, but it seems very relevant to the present situation in the U.S. under the current occupant of the White House.
“Biblical politics” is the title of the first section of the first chapter of Stringfellow’s book. He declares, “The biblical topic is politics.” And then he continues with this long, significant sentence:
The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgment of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics (pp. 14-15).
How’s that for a weighty sentence! 

The Position of Danforth
The year of 1963 was a very special one for John Danforth (b. 1936). That was the year he graduated from both Yale Divinity School and Yale Law School as well as the year he was ordained as an Episcopal priest and admitted to the bar.
Danforth practiced law for a while but then became a politician, serving as the Attorney General of Missouri (1969~1975) and then as a U.S. Senator from Missouri (1976~1995).
In September I also read Danforth’s 2015 book, The Relevance of Religion. In his first chapter, Danforth sets forth “four broad principles” for how religious people ought to relate to politics:
(1) We should insist that politics remain in its proper place. It is not the realm of absolute truth and it is not the battleground of good and evil. (2) We should be advocates for the common good. (3) We should be a unifying force, working to bind America together. (4) We should advocate political compromise, and make the case that the spirit of compromise is consistent with our faith.
Danforth’s emphases on compromise, on working with those with different ideas, on listening to others and not idolizing one’s own position are good, important ones—and attitudes/actions that I wish more Washington politicians would put into practice today. 

The Better Position 

For “professional” politicians, Danforth’s position is a good one, as I have just indicated. But for those of us who are not politicians, perhaps Stringfellow’s position is more helpful—and challenging.
There are those, including many Christians, who say that they don’t want to be involved in politics—and most won’t be in the way that Danforth was. But people of goodwill, perhaps especially Christians, should be involved in politics the way Stringfellow suggests.  
When I wrote last November about being a one issue voter (see here), I was writing about being involved in politics in the way promoted by Stringfellow. 

Jesus said, “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Mt. 6:33). We can’t do that without being active in politics.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Becoming/Being Bicultural

Studying and thinking about Drew Hart’s noteworthy bookTrouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (2016) stirred me to reflect on a potentially helpful mindset for minorities living in a dominant culture.
The Meaning of “Being Bicultural”
“The term bicultural describes a state of having or inheriting two or more cultures (e.g., one of an ethnic heritage and one of culture lived in) or two or more ethnic traditions.” That is the opening sentence of a helpful article about the subject in an iResearchNet piece about biculturalism (check it out here).
Massey University in New Zealand gives the following explanation of the meaning of being bicultural: 

While becoming bicultural can cause problems for some individuals, for most there are far more benefits than difficulties.
The Experience of Becoming Bicultural
Last Sunday was my dear daughter Kathy’s birthday. She celebrated her 6th birthday in Japan after she and her brother Keith, who is two years older, arrived in that fascinating country with June and me on September 1, 1966.
By that November when we celebrated Kathy’s birthday with a family overnight trip to Hakone National Park near Mt. Fuji, we were well on our way to becoming bicultural.
Being bicultural, though, doesn’t usually mean an equal balance between two cultures. Our children went to English-speaking schools and we spoke only English at home. Our dominant cultural identification continued to be as English-speaking Americans.
Still, the children played with their Japanese neighbors, we became active in Japanese-speaking churches, and we enjoyed participating in Japanese cultural activities.
In my career as a full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin University, I was elected to administrative positions of increasing importance—not because I was a gaijin (foreigner/outsider) but because in spite of being a gaijin I was an integral part of the Japanese cultural and educational milieu.
For June and me, as well as for our children, being immersed in and accepting of Japanese culture did not mean giving up our American cultural identity. But we were largely able to become bicultural and to enjoy being a part of two cultures without having to choose one over the other.
Recommending Becoming Bicultural
Drew Hart is a youngish Anabaptist pastor and college professor, and his book introduced above is a good and helpful one. Last month, several of us read his book and gathered to discuss it a few days before he preached at Rainbow Mennonite Church.
Hart is an associate professor at the predominately white Messiah College (in Penn.), his alma mater. In many ways, he is a black man who has “made it” in the predominant white culture—but he is painfully aware of the racism and the injustice that still a part of that culture.
What he says about racism must be taken seriously, and what I say next about becoming bicultural does not downplay the persistent problem of injustice or the pressing need to be aware of and to combat racism in American society today.
Still, I got the impression from reading Hart’s book that he thought he largely had to give up his African-American identity to fit in with the dominant (white) culture. That is when I realized that deliberately seeking to be bicultural could be a possible solution to his, and other African-Americans’, unease at living in the majority culture.
For those within minority cultures, becoming bicultural and being able to function well in the dominant culture need not lessen their identification with or appreciation of their primary culture. 
For people born into a minority culture, becoming/being bicultural is certainly a possibility that promises many positive benefits.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

DJT and the Heritage Foundation

A year ago this week Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. Two days after the election, an article in the Washington Examiner began, “The Heritage Foundation might be the biggest winner of 2016.”

Introducing the Heritage Foundation 
The Heritage Foundation (HF), founded in 1973, is a conservative think tank that according to one ranking organization is the third most influential of the nearly 2,000 think tanks in the U.S.
The HF was established largely due to the work of Paul Weyrich (1942-2008) who, incidentally, was also co-founder (with Jerry Falwell) of Moral Majority in 1979—and the one who coined that name.
From the beginning a major funder of the HF was Joseph Coors, Sr., (1917-2003) of the Coors Brewing Company. Coors also was a generous donor to Moral Majority and other Christian Right organizations and movements.
According to their website,
The mission of The Heritage Foundation is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
While it is no longer on their website, I noted in my 2/20/11 blog article that the Heritage Foundation was then making the following appeal for new members (and for funding):
Become a Member: Donate to Heritage – Join Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and more than 710,000 conservatives in fighting liberals and advancing conservative principles as a Heritage Foundation member.
Influence of the Heritage Foundation 
In a May 2017 article in Marketplace, Atlantic staff writer Molly Ball related that soon after Reagan was elected President in 1980, the HF presented him with 2,000 ideas in a 20 volume package. Reagan handed out those ideas to every member of his Cabinet in their first meeting. 
By the end of Reagan’s first year in office, the HF estimated that 60 percent of those ideas had in some way been put into practice by the President.
Through the years the HF has been characterized as a right-wing think tank seeking to abolish civil rights laws, minimum wage laws, environmental laws, affirmative action, rights for the handicapped, and arms control.
The strongly fiscal conservative stance of the HF was seen in its selection of sitting S.C. Senator Jim DeMint, a leading figure in the Tea Party Movement, as its new president in 2013. He served in that position from 2013 until May of this year.
Influence of the Heritage Foundation on DJT 
Without question the HF has sought to influence DJT as it did Reagan. A statement they released on March 24 announced, “Trump Administration Budget Looks a Lot Like Heritage’s Plan.” 
The HF also seems to have had considerable influence on the tax cut plan long promised by DJT. On Oct. 17 he spoke to the HF and called for them to support his tax reform efforts. That seems to have been a redundant appeal, for many of the reform proposals were the HF’s suggestions to begin with.
The House version of the tax plan released last week—and crafted only by the GOP—will likely be altered in multiple ways before the final vote is taken. And it still may not pass. But as it stands now, it definitely seems to provide “an enormous bonanza for the wealthiest” people in the country. (See “Shameful GOP Tax Plan Taxes Reality,” posted on 11/2.)
Moreover, this tax overhaul plan would also allow churches to endorse political candidates, a position favored by the HF’s DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society.
We citizens of the U.S. who don’t like the way the country is going under DJT need to be aware, and beware, of the Heritage Foundation.

Monday, October 30, 2017

"Here I Stand"

Tomorrow, 31 October 2017, is the 500th anniversary of what is regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This noteworthy anniversary has been talked about for months and even years already. But please consider with me the following matters.

The Courage of Martin Luther
Roland Bainton (1894-1984) was a prominent British-born American church historian. His book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther was published in 1950—and sold more than a million copies. It was so well-written and informative that during my years as a seminary student it was one of the few books I bought that was not a textbook. 
According to Bainton, in 1517 on the eve of All Saints' Day, the Catholic holy day celebrated on November 1, “in accord with current practice,” Luther posted “on the door of the Castle Church [in Wittenberg, Germany] a printed placard in the Latin language consisting of ninety-five theses for debate” (p. 79).
That rather unpretentious act triggered such a reaction that it is generally regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Posting those theses (topics) for debate was not an especially courageous act—but standing firm despite his censure by the Roman Catholic Church was.
In June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull demanding that Luther renounce 41 of his 95 theses. Luther not only refused to do that, he publicly burned that decree of the Pope. As a result, in January 1521 the Pope excommunicated Luther—which was a “big deal” for someone who had been a Catholic priest, as Luther was. 
Three months later, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms (a city in Germany). It was at that trial where he was famously defiant. In response to the demand that he recant, Luther declared,
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe, God help me. Amen.
Bainton then notes, “The earliest printed version added the words, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise’” (p. 185).  
For his courageous refusal to recant his writings, the emperor declared him an outlaw and a heretic.
The Compromise of Luther
Luther was saved from possible martyrdom by the intervention of Frederick the Wise, the German prince who was one of the most powerful men in the Holy Roman Empire. The religious-political union of Luther and Frederick was of great benefit for Luther, but not for the great number of “peasants” in the German principalities.
The writings of Luther and new Bible-derived notions of the basic equality of all people precipitated the tragic Peasant’s Revolt of 1524-1525. Luther was not unsympathetic to the plight of the peasants, but in the end he sanctioned the violent suppression of the peasants who had unwisely sought to gain more equality through violence.
By his union with the political rulers and his approval of the slaughter of the revolting peasants—as many as 100,000 were killed!—Luther compromised his courageous stand in asserting that “the just shall live by faith.” 
There was need for a more thoroughgoing radical reformation—one that would not only change the believers’ relationship to the church but also to the state.
The Reformation after Luther
There can be no doubt about the tremendous importance of the Reformation started by Luther 500 years ago. But also of great importance is the “radical reformation” started eight years later by a small group of Christians in Switzerland. 
I am looking forward to the 500th-anniversary celebration of that reformation in 2025. The courageous “here I stand” position for many of those reformers meant martyrdom.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Revelation: The Most Misused Book in the Bible

While I usually try not to make strong, dogmatic statements that cannot be empirically supported, I am quite certain that the book of Revelation is the most misunderstood and misused book in the Bible.
A Traditional View of Revelation 
Growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist church, it was not uncommon to hear sermons about the impending end of the world based on passages from Revelation, the last book of the Bible.
Especially when visiting evangelists preached “revivals” at my home church, Revelation was often used to emphasize that the end times were upon us for sure and we had better get ready for the rapidly approaching doomsday. I still remember hearing frightening sermons along those lines in 1950 or before.
Twenty years later, the final Battle of Armageddon still had not come, but Hal Lindsey wrote powerfully about the impending end times in The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), said to be the bestselling non-fiction book of the 1970s.
Especially over the past 200 years, the Bible has been used frequently to predict the imminent end of the world. The books of Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament have also been used for such “prophecy,” but the main basis has been the book of Revelation.
But I have long been convinced that the traditional “dispensational” view of Revelation is wrongheaded and that the widespread way Revelation has been used among conservative Christians is erroneous. 
A New View of Revelation 
In the early 1960s, my understanding of Revelation greatly changed—and greatly improved, I believe—by reading the book Worthy is the Lamb: An Interpretation of Revelation (1951) by Ray Summers, who was one of my seminary professors.
One of the main points that I realized from reading Dr. Summers’ book is that Revelation was written for Christians at the end of the first century, not for the purpose of prophesying what was going to happen in the last half of the 20th century.
During each of my two pastorates while a seminary student, I taught Revelation over the course of many Sunday evenings, using Worthy as the Lamb as the main commentary for interpreting that difficult book of the Bible. 
Repeatedly, I reminded those in attendance that every part of Revelation was written to help/encourage the persecuted Christians at the end of the first century. Thus it is important, first of all, to see what meaning each part of the book had for them. 
To say the least, it would not have been helpful for the early Christians to learn that Revelation was predicting how Russia was going to trigger the Battle of Armageddon in the 1960s or ’70s.
A Recommended View of Revelation 
This article on Revelation was prompted by Brian Zahnd, author of the previously introduced book Sinners in the Hand of a Loving God. Three of the chapters (7~9) of that engaging book are about Revelation, and last month BZ preached a sermon at Word of Life Church where he is pastor on “What About the Book of Revelation?” (That sermon, which you can hear here, is certainly worth listening to).
BZ also agrees with my opening dogmatic statement. He writes, “The book of Revelation is easily the most misunderstood and misused book in the Bible” (p. 149).
Revelation is, truly, an important part of the Bible. It must, however, be read and interpreted wisely. If properly read and interpreted, it gives us Christians hope for the future and strength to oppose political idolatry and evil in the present.
Rather than neglect Revelation because of its misuse, we need to pay attention to its abiding message, even for us today.

Friday, October 20, 2017

What Belongs to Caesar?

Since July 1, Thinking Friend Cindy Molini has been pastor of the United Christian and Presbyterian Church in Lawson, Mo., which is about 25 miles northeast of where I live in Liberty. In response to her kind invitation, I have the privilege of preaching in her absence this Sunday (Oct. 22). 
A Trick Question for Jesus 
As I never did as a pastor but have often done over the past 10-12 years, I chose my text for Sunday’s sermon from the lectionary, deciding to use Matthew 22:15-22, the Gospel reading. In response to a trick question, that passage contains Jesus’ well-known words: 
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. (CEB)
Those who were seeking to trap Jesus in order to silence him and his movement asked him: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Doesn’t this mean that the strict Jewish people wanted to follow the Torah much the same way that strict Muslims want to follow Sharīʿah?)
Answering either in the affirmative or in the negative would ignite explosive opposition. The Jews would have strongly disapproved of Jesus sanctioning the payment of the Roman taxes; the Romans would have condemned non-payment of those taxes.
So, Jesus asked for a coin that was used for paying the taxes, noted the image (Greek: eikon) on the coin, and then made the oft-quoted statement about rendering to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God. 
A Tricky Situation for Pacifists 
Last night (Oct. 19) the symposium titled “Remembering Muted Voices: A Symposium on Resistance and Conscientious Objection in WWI” opened at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. (You can learn more about that event here.)
One feature at this symposium is the premier of traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” developed by Kauffman Museum, affiliated with Bethel College in Kansas. 
(That exhibit will be at Rainbow Mennonite Church from Oct. 24-29; if you are or will be in the Kansas City area during that time, you are cordially invited to go see it.)
What do pacifists do when their country goes to war and able-bodied young men are expected to fight for their country? It is a tricky situation, one with no solution without censure. 
Some follow the expectations, or demands, of their country and become soldiers—often to the disappointment of or embarrassment to their pacifist families and/or churches. 
Others follow the teaching of their church—the historic “peace churches” are the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) that began in the 1740s and the descendants of the Swiss Anabaptists (mainly the Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren) dating back to 1525—and refuse military service.
The latter are the “conscientious objectors,” many of whom suffered greatly—some to death--during World War I, although most were treated with more civility in World War II and afterward.
So, What Belongs to Caesar? 
While they may not all articulate it in this way, most of those who are, or who support, conscientious objectors are also inclined to support the government (“Caesar”) by paying taxes, although some few are war-tax opponents. Nevertheless, most believe that human beings are created in the “image” of God and thus belong exclusively to God, not to Caesar.
Those who belong to God must follow the teachings of Jesus, which contain no sanction to kill. Since they believe that all people bear the image of God, there can be no justification for killing other people—even in war. 
Caesar may legitimately claim our coins, but never our allegiance and obedience to God in whose image we are made.