Friday, September 20, 2019

Are You a Humanist?

“If you support separation of church and state, science, reason, the environment, social justice – congratulations, you’re a Humanist!” Those were the words on a slick brochure I received in the mail earlier this month. So, what about it? 
What Is a Humanist?
The small brochure addressed to me by name was from the American Humanist Association (AHA). I was impressed from the beginning with the backside of the 5.5 x 8.5-inch mailer with the words cited above—and pictures of protest signs, such as the ones that said “Humanists for Racial Justice” and “LGBTQ Rights are Human Rights.”
Among other things, the AHA explains that humanism is “a progressive philosophy of life that . . . affirms our ability to . . . aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Thus, humanists “affirm the dignity of every human being.”
Moreover, “Humanism is a philosophy of service for the greater good of humanity.”
But along with these positive statements, which I affirm, are questionable ones about being able to reach those ideals “without theism or other supernatural beliefs.” Humanity, the AHA believes has “within itself all that is needed to improve the conditions of life.”
The AHA’s main slogan is that it is possible to be, and by implication that humanists are, “good without God.”
Like so many groups, and individuals, I believe that the AHA is partially right and partially wrong. They are right in their emphasis on humanism but wrong on their insistence that humanism must be secular.
Secular Humanism and Christian Humanism
In their mailer, the AHA declares, “We are committed to building an inclusive America grounded in an embrace of reason, compassion, and egalitarianism rather than religious dogma.” But that is a false dichotomy.
We don’t have to choose between “reason, compassion, and egalitarianism” and “religious dogma.” Many of us who are Jesus-followers also gladly affirm the three ideals mentioned—and also reject much religious dogma in Christendom.
Admittedly, I am on the side of secular humanism rather than on the side of what might be termed “Christian inhumanism.” Among other things, Christian inhumanism refers to such things as
* use of force of any kind, but especially military force, to “convert” people to Christianity; this refers to all forms of “Christian” colonialism and imperialism, past and present.
* complicity with the use of slaves and/or the subjugation of people on the basis of “race,” such as is done even in the present by the “Christianity-linked” KKK and other white supremacy groups.
* support of patriarchal systems that disadvantage women, restrictive systems that denigrate LGBTQ people, and economic systems that dehumanize workers.
But Christian humanism is also possible, so I have no hesitation in saying,
Sure, I’m a Humanist.
I have no hesitancy in stating that I wholeheartedly support separation of church and state, science, reason, the environment, and social justice. So, by AHA’s definition, I am a Humanist.
As I wrote in the fourth chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, years ago in front of the Supreme Court Building I had a pleasant talk with Tony Hileman, who was then the Executive Director of the AHA. I sensed more rapport with him than with the conservative Christians gathered there.
However, unlike the AHA and the people they are apparently appealing to, I am a Humanist, by their definition, largely because of my Christian faith, not in spite of it.
If they can be “good without God,” more power to them. Most of us, though, are most likely to be better with God—and I don’t mean primarily better than other people; rather I mean being better than we would be or could be without faith in God.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Was Jesus a Socialist?

Breitbart News’s daily emails of “Latest News” often includes something labeled “Social Justice Jackass.” Under that label on Sept. 2 were these words (and this link): “Rev. William Barber: ‘Jesus Is a Socialist.” So what about it? Was Jesus a socialist, or is Rev. Barber a “jackass,” to use Breitbart’s inelegant word? 
Cartoon by Bill Day, 2009
Barber’s Assertion
Most of you know of William Barber II, the Disciples of Christ minister who has been president of the NAACP's North Carolina state chapter since 2006. (If you need to review a bit about Barber and what he has done, check out my 9/15/16 and 5/5/18 blog articles.)
The link Breitbart gave was just a short snippet of a longer interview with Barber and his friend Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove by Joy-Ann Reid on her regular Aug. 31 AM Joy program on MSNBC. (Here is the link to the whole 7.5-minute segment, including what Barber said in an Aug. 23 talk.)
Even the Brietbart website accurately states that Barber said that “if caring for the sick and poor is socialism then ‘Jesus is a socialist’”—and that is enough to label Barber (and maybe Jesus?) a “social justice jackass”??
When I printed off the article more than a week ago, over 1,000 comments had been posted there. (I didn’t print them all!) The first ones that I read were almost all negative toward Barber and what he had said.
For example, “If idiots like Barber think Christ was a socialist, why do socialists recoil at his name?” He is “a Trojan horse sent to do the bidding of evil.” And, “Rev. William Barber is a MarxistAss clown.” Also, “For sure the ‘Rev.’ does not know what he’s talking about.”
The Republicans’ Strategy
It seems quite clear that Republicans, on both the national and more local levels, are using socialism as a “scare word” for political gain. Harry Truman denounced that use of socialism back in 1952 (see this Snopes article).
Just last Tuesday in North Carolina (hear here), DJT said that a vote for any Democrat in 2020 is “a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.” Mark it down: this will be what we will repeatedly hear between now and Nov. 3, 2020.
Also last week, Missouri Governor Mike Parson kicked off his 2020 bid for re-election by warning against the “rise of socialism.” (The Kansas City Star article about this is here.)
This is all a part of the strategy to demonize or ridicule Democratic politicians and to win votes for GOP candidates. That was doubtlessly the intent of Breitbart’s calling Rev. Barber a “social justice jackass.”
The Plight of the Poor
Journalist Errol Louis (born in Harlem in 1962) recently wrote an op-ed piece titled “‘Socialism’ isn’t a boogeyman in an unequal world.” If you’ll notice, most of those who denigrate socialism in this country are white. By contrast, according to a June 2019 Pew poll, 65% of black Americans and 52% of Latinos have a “positive impression” of socialism.
The theme of the Summer 2019 edition of Plough Quarterly (published by the Bruderhof) is “Beyond Capitalism.” In the powerful opening editorial, Peter Mommsen (who is white) writes,
Socialism’s champions know how to take effective whacks at capitalism, and they get at least one thing right: the fact that we live in a society of immense affluence and desperate poverty is a public sin with which no person of good will can be at peace.

Because of great economic inequality — and the looming risk of catastrophic climate change! — something is badly needed. If Jesus wasn’t a socialist, maybe what he taught and the way his first followers lived do point to what is so badly needed today.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Becoming (More) Human

Jean Vanier, the French-Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian was born on September 10, 1928, and died in May of this year at the age of 90. He was the author of some 30 books, including Becoming Human, his bestseller.  
Vanier, the Founder of L’Arche
According to, Jean Vanier (pronounced van-YAY) was born in Switzerland but spent most of his early childhood in Canada. At the age of 14, though, he went to England where he entered the Britannia Royal Naval College and then served in the Royal Navy throughout World War II.
In 1950 Vanier resigned his naval commission and went to France, where in 1962 he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of Paris. Then after teaching briefly at the University of Toronto, he went back to France.
Influenced by a local Catholic priest, in 1964 Vanier invited two men with “profound disabilities” to live with him. That was the beginning of the first home dubbed L’Arche (French for the Ark) and the precursor of the now nearly 150 such homes on five continents.  
That first home, about 50 miles northeast of Paris, and the subsequent ones have all been, and are, communities where “people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities” live together “in faith and friendship.”
In addition to Vanier himself, the most widely known person to live in a L’Arche home was Henri Nouwen, the noted Dutch Catholic priest, professor, and theologian who lived in Daybreak L’Arche (in the suburbs of Toronto) from 1986 until his death in 1996.
Vanier, the Author
In 1998, Vanier gave the Massey Lectures, and those five lectures became the five chapters of Becoming Human, published that same year. When the 10th-anniversary edition was published in 2008 with a new introduction by Vanier (who was then 80), over 70,000 copies had been sold.
The titles of the chapters of Becoming Human are “Loneliness,” “Belonging,” “From Exclusion to Inclusion: A Path of Healing,” “The Path to Freedom,” and “Forgiveness.” (You can find my two pages of excerpts from Becoming Human here.)
In this, his best-known book, Vanier doesn’t say much about L’Arche, but he uses many of the developmentally challenged people he had known at L’Arche as illustrations of the various points he makes.
Among his nearly 30 other books are Community and Growth (1979), From Brokenness to Community (1992) and Befriending the Stranger (2005). With eminent Protestant ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, he also co-authored Living Gently in a Violent World (2008).
Vanier was highly ecumenical in the broadest sense. At the same time, he was a devout (Catholic) Christian. One of his books is I Meet Jesus (Eng. ed., 1987), a quick read with illustrations on every other page.
Vanier, the Man Who “Made Us All More Human”
Soon after Vanier’s death in May, pastor and author Bethany McKinney Fox posted a noteworthy Christianity Today article titled “Jean Vanier Made Us All More Human.” Her point is that Vanier “showed the church how disability, vulnerability, and weakness bring us closer to one another and closer to Jesus”—and how that makes us more human.
On the second page of the Introduction to his 1998 book, Vanier declared that “life together” in L’Arche “has helped me become more human.”
In “To Become Human,” a sub-section of his third chapter, Vanier asserts, “As the human heart opens up and becomes compassionate, we discover our fundamental unity, our common humanity” (p. 97). That is the key to becoming more human.
In 2015, Vanier was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize, and here is the link to a related 4-minute video where he talks informally about the question “What does it mean to be fully human?” It is well worth the time to watch.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Brave Little Ruby is Now 65!

Remember little Ruby Bridges? For some reason, I hadn’t remembered her, but I was greatly impressed when last fall I saw “Ruby Bridges,” the 1998 movie about her and what she did in 1960. This week she celebrates her 65th birthday.
What Ruby Did
Ruby Bridges was born on September 8, 1954, in southern Mississippi. In 1957 her family moved to New Orleans, and three years later it was time for her to start to elementary school.
Even though this was six years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in which the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, up until the fall of 1960 schools were still segregated in New Orleans.
That year, however, a judge ordered four black girls to go to two white elementary schools. Three went to one of those schools, but Ruby was the only one sent to the William Frantz Elementary School.
So, little Ruby started to school—and what a hectic experience that was for her! Mobs of people gathered to protest, to shout at her, to raise a ruckus. Federal marshals were pressed into service to protect her. How brave little Ruby was!
Here is Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of Ruby’s first day of school: 
When the white parents would not allow their children to study in the same room with Ruby, Mrs. Barbara Henry (b. 1932), her wonderful teacher, taught Ruby, and only Ruby, for the next several months.
Here is a picture of Ruby with Mrs. Henry in 2004, standing in front of Rockwell’s painting: 
What Robert Coles Did
 I had long known about Robert Coles, one of America’s most prominent child psychiatrists, a longtime Harvard professor, and now the author of more than sixty books. Until I saw the movie “Ruby Bridges,” however, I did not know that Coles (b. 1929) spent many hours with that exceptional child during her first hectic year of school.
Based on those conversations with her, Coles wrote “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” the slim children’s book published in 1995. (You can hear the book read and see the impressive illustrations on YouTube, here.)
“Ruby Bridges” is also the last chapter of Coles’s book Lives We Carry with Us: Profiles of Moral Courage (2010). On the first page of that chapter, Coles writes that Ruby
had to brave murderously heckling mobs, there in the morning and there in the evening, hurling threats and slurs and hysterical denunciations and accusations. . . .
Still, Ruby persisted, and so did her parents” (pp. 204-5).
Coles spent a considerable amount of time with Ruby during that tumultuous school year of 1960-61, and it is quite clear that he was greatly impressed with the brave little girl. His children’s book, re-published on the 50th anniversary of the events of 1960, has been read by tens of thousands of school children across the country and around the world.
What Can We Learn?
1) The importance of faith/prayer, clearly displayed by Ruby and her parents. Coles was basically a religious agnostic, but even he was impressed with Ruby’s faith. Here is the link to a touching 5-minute video titled “Robert Coles Speaks on Ruby Bridges.” (It is well worth watching.)
2) The insidious nature of racism, clearly seen in the animosity expressed toward Ruby. In the video mentioned above, there is actual footage from that time, and it is hard to imagine now just how strong racism was then.
3) The persistence of racism and the ongoing need to oppose it. For example, just last month the office of an African American employee of the U.S. Department of Education was vandalized and a poster depicting Ruby Bridges was damaged. 

Friday, August 30, 2019

Lewis & Clark Expedition: The Good and the Bad

For several weeks I have wanted to think with you about the impressive feats of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It was 215 years ago in June that they first passed through what is now Kansas City, not far from where I live. Most of their long, dangerous journey was still ahead, though, and what a remarkable journey it was! 
Lewis & Clark Statue at Kaw Point, Kan. (one of my favorite places in Kansas City)
The Corps of Discovery
I had long mistakenly thought that Lewis & Clark’s expedition, which began in May 1804, was a direct result of the huge Louisiana Purchase realized when the U.S. signed a purchase treaty with France in April 1803.
(The Louisiana territory purchased was about 827,000 square miles. Some wonder if part of DJT’s recently reported desire to buy Greenland, which is more than 836,000 sq. mi., isn’t partly due to his desire to claim to have made the largest land purchase in U.S. history.)
Soon after Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he employed Meriwether Lewis as his personal secretary. By the next year, Jefferson was talking with Lewis about the possibility of him leading an expedition from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis (1774~1809) was making definite plans and assembling equipment necessary for such an expedition prior to the Louisiana Purchase, although the latter gave great impetus to implementing that treacherous journey.
In July 1803, William Clark (1770~1838) accepted Lewis’s invitation to become co-captain of the expedition, which came to be called the Corps of Discovery.
The next year on May 14, the Corps started up the Missouri River from the St. Louis area, beginning their long, dangerous trek to the Pacific Ocean. There were about 30 men who started this journey, including York, Clark’s personal black slave.
Positive Results
There were certainly many positive results of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—especially for white men like the expedition’s leaders and the President who dispatched them.
To cite “Lewis and Clark’s Historical Impact,” an online article, the expedition produced an accurately mapped route to the Pacific Ocean, introduced Americans and Europeans to hundreds of varieties of plants and animals, and opened up new territory for the fur and lumber trade.
Overall, it “allowed a young country to blossom into greatness.” Thus, there “is no doubt that the expedition of Lewis and Clark forever changed the course of the country’s history.”
Negative Results
The Introduction of a website titled “Origins of the Ideology of Manifest Destiny” begins, “The most influential ideology in our nation’s history is manifest destiny.”
It seems quite evident that the Lewis & Clark Expedition furthered that ideology. Although the term manifest destiny was not coined until 1845, the core belief that USAmericans were destined by God to reign over the entire continent seems to have been in the minds of the founders of the U.S.—and in the mind of President Jefferson.
Although Lewis and Clark did not seem to have any harsh or oppressive views of the American Indians they encountered, nevertheless, their expedition resulted in harsh and oppressive treatment of the native peoples for most of the 19th century.
A bicentennial article in Teaching Tolerance emphasizes that while “American history tends to eulogize what Lewis and Clark ‘found’ on their 7,400-mile journey,” for Native Americans “the story instead is about what was lost—lives, land, languages and freedom.”
In the same article, a Native American named BlueHorse lamented, “Within 100 years of Lewis and Clark passing through here, every Native nation they encountered”—and there were about 50 of them—“was displaced from their traditional lands and put on reservations.”
What, I wonder, can be done now to mitigate the highly negative results still remaining from Lewis and Clarks’ nation-changing expedition that began 215 years ago?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Still Fed Up with Fundamentalism’s View of War

For all of my life since high school days until the present, I have considered myself a pacifist. Thus, I have always been at odds with the predominant “just war” tradition in most Christian denominations—but never more so than for the support for war by conservative evangelical Christians in the U.S. after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. 
The Support of War by the Christian Right
Until the fourth century, almost all Christians eschewed war, but things changed dramatically after Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity for political and military reasons in 312 A.D.
Augustine (354~430) was one of the first great Christian theologians, and he developed a position that came to be known as the “just war” tradition. That position became predominant in the Roman Catholic Church—and then later in most Protestant denominations.
In this century, however, Christians who are now generally called conservative evangelicals have been the main supporters of the USAmerican “war on terror,” and they were especially prominent in giving President Bush almost unqualified support in launching the attack on Iraq in 2003.
Moreover, the mass of conservative evangelicals who are Trump supporters are highly favorable, it seems, to the military build-up by the U.S. government since 2017.
Nationalism and the Christian Right
As I explain in the seventh chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, to which this article is linked, there was a proclivity toward patriotism in the first decades of fundamentalism in this country.
There is nothing wrong with patriotism, unless it is carried to an extreme. But patriotism becomes a problem when it morphs into nationalism, as it often does.
In the first volume of his three-volume Systematic Theology (1951), the eminent theologian Paul Tillich wrote about idolatry and averred that the best example of such is the “contemporary idolatry of religious nationalism” (p. 13).
If Tillich (1886~1965) were still alive and writing today, he would most likely say the same sort of thing even more emphatically.
Near the end of last month, a group of Christians issued a statement titled “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” and asked those who agreed with their statement to sign it. I did, and I encourage you Christians to access that here and to consider doing the same.
The Position of the “Christian Left”
In contrast to the Christian Right, which is the political/social stance of most conservative evangelical Christians of the present or fundamentalists of the past, there are those who hold a much different position. For convenience, I am calling them the Christian Left.
In the seventh chapter of my book, I refer to them as “Christians for Peace and Justice.” They are the ones who advocate taking a consistent “sanctity of life” position. In that connection, I quote Jürgen Moltmann, the renowned German theologian, who wrote in The Spirit of Life (1992; German ed., 1991):
. . . anyone who really says “yes” to life says “no” to war. Anyone who really loves life says “no” to poverty. So the people who truly affirm and love life take up the struggle against the violence of war and the injustice of poverty.
But, sadly, conservative evangelicals in the U.S. have often been supporters of war and the strengthening of military armaments at tremendous cost—and the latter being done by cutting back on funds that might be used for helping those caught in the web of poverty.
Above all else, followers of Jesus are expected to seek God’s Kingdom, a realm characterized by righteousness (=justice) and shalom (see Matt. 6:33). That expectation, though, clashes with the longing of many conservative evangelical Christians to “make America great again,” a stance that could even, God forbid, lead to another major war.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

. . . But What about Antifa?

There are many, of whom I am one, who see a menacing movement toward fascism in this country. (See my 7/20 article “Is the Fear of Fascism Ill-Founded?”) Any vocal opposition to fascism, however, is often met with the rejoinder, “. . . but what about Antifa?” 
The Antifa logo
Descriptive Words about Antifa
There is much online and in the mass media about Antifa. Some of that material is good and helpful; some is certainly not so good or helpful. I am particularly negative toward what is being said/shown on Fox News and by people such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.
There is, though, a good and helpful book about Antifa written by a scholar and college professor. That book is Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (2017) by Mark Bray, who earned his Ph.D. in 2016 at Rutgers University and currently teaches at Dartmouth College.
Early in his Introduction, Bray explains that “anti-fascism is a reasonable, historically informed response to the fascist threat that persisted after 1945 and that has become especially menacing in recent years.
In particular, Antifa in the U.S. see a real danger in the current presence and support of white supremacists, a movement that seems to be increasing in numbers and influence.
Ten Assumptions about Antifa
In reading/thinking about Antifa, I have come up with the following ten assumptions.
1) Fascism is bad/harmful for any nation and for the world.
2) Opposition to fascism is good/potentially helpful for any nation and for the world.
3) The people most actively opposed to fascism are referred to as Antifa.
4) As in any group/movement, there are “good” and “bad” people in Antifa.
5) Antifa members who use violence and physically harm persons should be denounced.
6) Antifa members who adamantly and peacefully oppose fascism should be applauded.
7) In the 1920s and ’30s Antifa in Italy and Germany were too few and too late.
8) Increasing fascism in the U.S. is a real threat that must be taken seriously.
9) Current criticism of Antifa is often misleading and ill-founded.
10) It is better to err on the side of supporting Antifa than to condone fascism.
What about it, readers? Are any of these assumptions questionable and/or indications of muddled thinking?
Despite Misgivings about Antifa
The proclivity of some Antifa members to use violence is troubling to me. I am more in favor of what they try to do than in how they sometimes do it.
But I think DJT is entirely wrong in suggesting that perhaps Antifa should be branded as a terrorist organization. Just last Saturday he tweeted, “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.’”
That was just before an expected confrontation between Antifa and Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon. Police intervened and there were no serious clashes, but the leader of the Proud Boys declared their Portland rally a success, saying, "Go Look at President Trump's Twitter." 
Suggestions that Antifa is the (im)moral equivalent of white supremacist groups such as the KKK, neo-Nazis, etc. are entirely wrong. The latter are against Blacks, Jews, Latinx immigrants, and other non-whites. The Antifa are against the racism and xenophobia of the groups that have characteristics of fascism.
I agree with what historian Dave Renton says in his book Fascism (1999) and cited by Mark Bray: “. . . one cannot be balanced when writing about fascism, there is nothing positive to be said of it.”
Bray further states, “We should be warier of those who are truly neutral toward fascism than those who honestly espouse their opposition to racism, genocide, and tyranny.”
So, despite some misgivings about Antifa, I fully agree with their opposition to the far-right neo-fascist organizations they actively oppose.