Friday, June 15, 2018

A Tangled Mercy at Mother Emanuel Church

Three years ago on June 17, a white terrorist shot and killed nine African-Americans in the Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That tragic event is linked to the early history of that church in an engaging 2017 novel titled A Tangled Mercy.
The Early History of “Mother Emanuel”
Between 1815 and 1818, Hampstead Church was founded in Charleston, South Carolina. Later its name was changed to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it became the largest African-American church south of Baltimore. Through the years it has been affectionately called Mother Emanuel Church.
Denmark Vesey, who in 1822 was the primary leader of the thwarted slave revolt in Charleston, was one of the church’s founders. Vesey and more than 30 others were executed by hanging on July 2 that year. Soon afterward the church building was burned down.
Mother Emanuel Church was not able to rebuild until after the Civil War. The plans for the new building constructed then were drawn by architect Robert Vesey, Denmark Vesey’s son.
After an earthquake demolished that structure in 1886, the current building, which seats some 2,500 people, was completed in 1892.  
Worship at Mother Emanuel Church on June 21, 2015
The 2015 Shooting at Mother Emanuel
On the evening of June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof went to Mother Emanuel Church and joined a dozen other people in Bible study and prayer.
When the small group began to pray about 9 p.m., Roof pulled a gun from a fanny pack and began shooting those around him. He fatally wounded nine people, including Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor who was also a state senator.
Roof was soon apprehended. He confessed that he committed the atrocity at Mother Emanuel Church in the hope of igniting a race war. Before the shooting, a website showed him posing with emblems associated with white supremacy and with photos of the Confederate battle flag.
As was widely reported, not long after that tragic shooting the South Carolina General Assembly voted to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol grounds.
Early last year Roof was sentenced to death. He is now waiting on death row in a federal prison in Indiana. 
There has, for good reason, been fear of Islamist terrorists in the U.S. since 9/11/01. But between 2001 and 2015, more Americans were killed by homegrown right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists.
Even though it may be the worst act of domestic terrorism since 2001, Roof’s is just one many terrorist acts committed by white supremacists in the U.S. in recent years.
A Tangled Mercy  
Thanks to Jason Edwards, my friend and former pastor, I heard about A Tangled Mercy, a new novel by Joy Jordan-Lake, a friend of Jason’s since his seminary days at Baylor. Soon after learning about Joy’s book, I began reading it and found it to be quite intriguing. 
In alternating chapters, she told the story of events in Charleston in 1822 and in 2015, skillfully weaving the stories together.
Part of the 1822 story was about one of “the amazing Grimké sisters,” as I called them in a 2016 blog article (see here), and about Denmark Vesey (whom I also introduced in that article).
The chapters about 2015, of course, lead to the shooting in Mother Emanuel Church.
If you are looking for a good novel to read this summer, I recommend ATangled Mercy. (I chose it as the best of the 23 novels I read last year.)
One of my favorite quotes in the book is near the end: “A life worth living is one of compassion. And a life of compassion will include many tears” (p. 425).

Sunday, June 10, 2018

TTT #15 Faith and Religion are Not the Same, and Faith Is Far More Important

In recent years there has been a growing number of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Although the 15th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . “ (TTT) does not address that issue directly, it is closely related. In this article (and chapter) I contend that it is much more important for people to have faith (be “spiritual”) than to practice religion.
Religion Divides, Faith Unites
Rev. Alex McGilvey, Manitoba, Canada
In the first part of Chapter 15 of TTT, I contend that there doesn’t have to be a split between faith and religion. That is because, ideally, religion is an expression of faith and nourishes the faith of the believer and encourages faith in non-believers. 
We live, however, in a world where much is far from ideal. And, unfortunately, quite often religion is quite different from, and quite inferior to, faith. Moreover, religion tends to be divisive. Religions often have “competed” with each other for adherents.
In an effort to overcome the tension among the religions, for decades some have encouraged, and practiced, interreligious dialogue. While certainly there is still a place for such dialogue among people of the various religious traditions, a more helpful movement is that of interfaith activities.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary indicates that the term interfaith dates back to 1932. But the common use of that term is considerably more recent. Still, it has become a widely used term; there is now even a website with the URL address www.interfaith.org.
Part of the reason for the shift in terminology from interreligious to interfaith is due to the fact that religion tends to divide, but faith can, and often does, unite people.
On this basis, chapter 15 deals with the following matters in distinguishing the major differences between religion and faith.
►Religion as “Unfaith”
There is broad agreement that the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th century was Karl Barth, the Swiss scholar who died 50 years ago in 1968. (I wrote a blog article, see here, about him on the 44th anniversary of his death.)
One of Barth’s seminal emphases was that religion is fundamentally “unfaith” because, in his analysis, it is the result of the efforts humans expend in seeking their own salvation.
To Barth, and many others who share his ideas, God cannot found by humans searching for God. God can be experienced only through God’s self-manifestation, which is the main meaning of the theological term “revelation.”
Faith, then, is not striving, but responding. Faith is not searching, but receiving. Faith is simply the grateful acceptance of God’s abundant grace.
►Religion Can Be Evil
Charles Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister, authored a book published under the title When Religion Becomes Evil (2002). He doesn’t think that religion as such is bad, but he analyzes how religion in all religious traditions is susceptible to at least five basic corruptions leading to a variety of evils.
Kimball goes on to stress, and I agree, that “only authentic faith can prevent such evils” (back cover).
►Faith is Always Good

After a section in which I introduce Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s ideas about the difference between faith and religion, the closing section avers that “faith is always good.” Of course, that assertion is based on the way I have defined faith in the chapter.

To the extent that faith is response to God (by whatever name God may be known or Ultimate Reality encountered), that response will of necessity be a good thing.

If faith, in actuality, is being/living in a loving relationship with God as the result of direct encounter with God, how could that be anything but good?


[The 15th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), which amplifies what is presented in this article, can be found by clicking on this link.]

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A White Politician, a Hispanic Activist, and a Distraught Palestinian Walk into the Ambassador Hotel

For of all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
(John Greenleaf Whittier, 1856)
I couldn’t help but think of these well-known words when reflecting on the tragic events that happened in the first hour of June 5, 1968.
The White Politician
Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy won the Democratic presidential primary in California on June 4, 1968. Late that night he walked into the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to join many of his enthusiastic supporters for a vivacious victory celebration.
Just after midnight, Kennedy decided to call it a night. Hemmed in by the crowd, he followed the maître d'hôtel through the kitchen/pantry area of the hotel in order to exit by a back door.
RFK never made it out of the hotel on his own, for as he passed through the back kitchen area he was shot several times at close range. Rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital (about ten minutes away), he died less than 26 hours later.
There is good reason to think that had he not been killed, RFK would have garnered the Democratic nomination for President in 1968.
In the November election, Richard Nixon just barely won the popular vote—and there is also good reason to think that he well may have lost the election if RFK had been his opponent.
“Of all sad words of tongue and pen . . . .”   
The Hispanic Activist
Dolores Huerta had enthusiastically welcomed Kennedy to California in March 1968. Although long overshadowed by Cesar Chavez, she and Chavez were the co-founders of the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 and was/is an indefatigable civil rights activist.
In an interview posted (here) just last month, Huerta (b. 1930) vividly recalled the day RFK joined thousands of farmworkers in Central California to celebrate the end of Chavez's fast for nonviolence.
Huerta happily walked into the Ambassador Hotel after the close of the California primary, and then stood on the podium with RFK as he gave his acceptance speech on that fateful night of June 4/5.
Huerta (on left) with RFK on 6/4/68
(If you haven’t seen the recent PBS documentary on Huerta, available for viewing here, I highly recommend it.)  
The Distraught Palestinian
Sirhan Sirhan was born (in 1944) in Jerusalem into an Arab Palestinian Christian family with Jordanian citizenship. When he was 12, his family emigrated to the U.S., moving to California after a brief time in New York.
On the night of June 4, 1968, Sirhan also walked into the Ambassador Hotel—but with a far different purpose than Kennedy’s or Huerta’s.
According to a reviewer of Mel Ayton’s book The Forgotten Terrorist (2007), “Sirhan Sirhan was not just a crazed 24-year-old Jordanian immigrant. He was in fact a radicalized Palestinian refugee with a clear political motive to attack the U.S. and its political institutions.”  
As a New York Senator, Kennedy had a large Jewish constituency. With the June 1967 Six-Day War fresh in the headlines, to Sirhan and many other Palestinians, Kennedy's unfortunate pledge to arm Israel seemed to be a declaration of war against the Palestinian people.
Sirhan was soon arrested and the following year was sentenced to death for assassinating Kennedy. With the change in California laws of capital punishment, in 1972 his sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
Surprisingly, a May 26 article in the Washington Post (here) is titled “Who killed Bobby Kennedy? His son RFK Jr. doesn’t believe it was Sirhan Sirhan.”
Regardless, the assassination of RFK is said to be the first major incident of political violence in the U.S. stemming from the Arab–Israeli conflict.
Again, sad words about what could have been so very different.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

TTT #14 The Goal of Missions is the Kingdom of God

The article I posted on May 20 summarized some legitimate reasons why Christians still engage in, and support, global evangelistic missionary activity. (I encourage you to check out the comments made, here, about that article.) It is now fitting to consider what the ultimate goal of missions is.
Three Problematic Goals
In the history of Christianity there have been various goals for mission work, and while not equally problematic three such goals can be negatively stated as follows:
(1) The goal of missions is not primarily the expansion of Christianity.
It cannot be doubted that from the time of its beginning as a small Jewish “sect,” for centuries Christianity expanded greatly. Much of that expansion was clearly due to missionary activity.
That does not mean, however, that expansion was, or should have been, the primary goal of missions. Nor, certainly, does it mean that that expansion through the centuries was always done by legitimate or admirable means, even by missionaries.
Much of the expansion of Christianity in the seven hundred years between 300 and 1000, for example, was due to the military and political activities of powerful kings and emperors.
The expansion of Christianity, especially for political reasons, should in no way be considered the primary goal of missions.
(2) The goal of missions is not primarily the spreading of Western civilization.
To some Christians in the past few centuries, missionary activity was linked to the spread of “civilization” to the “benighted” lands of the world.
European civilization was considered superior to that of the indigenous cultures of the other parts of the world, so spreading that civilization, seen largely as the fruit of the Christian faith, was considered a legitimate and praiseworthy activity for many Christians, especially in Great Britain and then in the United States.
There were, of course, important contributions made by missionaries, along with others, who took “civilization” into “primitive” societies. The introduction of Western medicine, for example, was a great benefit to multitudes of people.
But local cultures, societal structures, and religions were sometimes trampled underfoot in that process, and that type of missionary activity has, justifiably, come under intense criticism.
The spreading of Western civilization cannot legitimately be recognized as the major goal of Christian missions.
(3) The goal of missions is not primarily the planting of churches.
During the last decade of my missionary career, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention began to place almost complete emphasis not only on planting new churches but on the “church planting movement,” which was said to be the rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment.
While planting churches certainly is a commendable activity, still, that should be one means of reaching the proper goal of missions, not the goal itself.
The Proper Goal

As stated in the title, the goal of missions is the Kingdom of God, and as I emphasized in the article posted on Feb. 28, the main characteristic of the God’s Kingdom is shalom (peace and justice).

This matter was well presented by E. Luther Copeland, my former missionary colleague and good friend in Japan. His 1985 book is titled World Mission, World Survival: The Challenge and Urgency of Global Missions Today.
In his last chapter, “The Kingdom and the Mission,” Copeland (1916~2011) elucidates that the goal of mission(s) is the kingdom of God (p. 139). 
That often overlooked point was made more than 100 years by Christoph Blumhardt. He wrote to his missionary son-in-law, “[T]here is no other purpose in your mission work than to proclaim God’s kingdom.”
Yes; true then, true now.
[Christoph Blumhardt (1842~1919) was a German Lutheran pastor. His letters to Richard Wilhelm are presented in the 2015 book Everyone Belongs to God, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore.]

[The 14th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), which includes much more than could be presented in this article, can be found by clicking on this link.]

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Inexplicable Case of Tetsuya-san

This past Sunday (May 20) was a very special day for Tetsuya Miyahara. He was baptized that morning at the Josei Baptist Church in Fukuoka City, Japan. What makes Tetsuya-san’s baptism especially meaningful is that he was a convicted murderer, released just six months ago after 18 years in prison.
Tetsuya-san’s Inexplicable Crime
In the wee hours of a March morning in 2000, Tetsuya-san made his way to the second-floor bedroom of an acquaintance and slit her throat as she lay sleeping on the futon next to her nine-year-old daughter.
The murdered woman was a widow who worked as an acupuncturist to support her daughter. And to make matters worse, she was blind. Tetsuya-san had often assisted the woman, shopping for her and providing transportation for her and her daughter.
Tetsuya-san had worked as an insurance salesman, and it seems he had used the woman’s ID and hanko (seal used in Japan on official papers) to borrow money from her insurance.
Apparently, the motive behind his inexplicable crime was the fear that his illegal actions were going to be exposed.
Tetsuya-san was subsequently arrested and first incarcerated in the detention center in Saga City, where the crime occurred. That is where I first met him sometime in 2001. (Saga is about 40 miles south of Fukuoka City where I lived.)
Tetsuya-san’s Inexplicable Conversion
Back on July 25, 2010, I posted (here) a blog article titled “The Amazing Story of Tetsuya-san”. As I wrote then, Mrs. M, a Japanese woman whom June and I had known for more than 20 years at the time, went to visit Tetsuya-san, mainly because she knew his parents.
Tetsuya-san asked Mrs. M. to bring him a Bible, which she did. Then she asked me to go with her to visit him, which I did. In just a few weeks he had written a confession of faith in Jesus. Part of what he wrote then, in 2001, was included in the confession of faith he read before the congregation at Josei Church last Sunday.
Through the years I visited Tetsuya-san many times—first in the Saga detention center (as mentioned), then in the detention center in Fukuoka, which was very near Seinan Gakuin University (SGU) where I taught. After his sentencing, I visited him repeatedly in the Oita Prison, just over 100 miles away.
Oita Prison
During each of the five times I have been back in Japan since retiring in 2004, I have gone to visit Tetsuya-san. The last two or three times he was in Saga Juvenile Prison, where he had been transferred to work using the barbering skills he had acquired as a prisoner in Oita.
During all of those years in prison, as was plain from my visits with him as well as from the many letters I have received from him, he was reading/studying the Bible and learning more and more about the meaning of the Christian faith.
Through the years, Tetsuya-san has especially studied the letters of the Apostle of Paul, who described himself as the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Fukuoka Josei Church
Tetsuya-san was released from prison in December; soon afterward he attended a Christian church for the first time. Since January he has attended the Josei Church every Sunday—and has sent me emails each week reporting on his experiences there. 
The baptismal service Sunday was conducted by Dr. Yoshiki Terazono, my long-time friend, former colleague in the Dept. of Theology at SGU, and my successor as chancellor of Seinan Gakuin.
It was with great joy I read the email Tetsuya-san wrote Sunday evening telling about his baptism that morning, a public testimony to his inexplicable conversion.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

TTT #13 Missionary Activity is Still Legitimate and Important

This article, based on the 13th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), is presented here with the hope that it will help Christian believers reflect on their own faith and practice and that it will help others come to a better understanding of Christianity.
The Modern Missionary Era
There have been missionaries to “foreign” places and ethnic groups from the time of the Apostle Paul to the present. The modern Protestant missionary movement, however, began with Englishman William Carey in 1792.
Building upon Carey’s ground-breaking ideas and actions, extensive time, effort, and resources have been expended on global missionary activities during the 225 years since Carey first went to India. 
According to the most recent statistics I could find (here), in 2010 there were approximately 400,000 serving as international Christian missionaries. Of those, 127,000 were U.S. missionaries; surprisingly, Brazil was the number two missionary-sending country.
As missionary activity by Europeans and Americans is much less prominent now than in previous generations, nearly half of the world's top missionary-sending countries are now located in the global South.
In this country there are now many Christians who seem to think that evangelistic missionary activities ought to be curtailed altogether.
Criticism of Missionary Activity
There were, of course, opponents and critics of the modern missionary movement from the beginning and throughout the two centuries in which it flourished. From the beginning, Carey struggled to overcome strong opposition to his ideas about missions.
In recent decades, though, much of the criticism of “foreign” missionary work has been, justifiably, because of what was so-often a tie between the work of the missionaries and the colonialistic and imperialistic activities of the Western countries from which most missionaries were sent.
Previously, that link was also the scourge of Catholic missions in the so-called “new world” from the time of Columbus, who saw himself as a missionary of sorts. And Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), who founded Vera Cruz [true cross], Mexico, reportedly said, “We have come here to win souls for Holy Mother Church, and to get much gold.”
More than three centuries later, the famous Scottish missionary David Livingstone (1813-73) declared in a 1857 speech given at Cambridge, “My desire is to open a path to this district [in Africa], that civilization, commerce, and Christianity might find their way there.”
To many critics, even more odious than the link between missionary activity and economic imperialism was what seemed to be cultural and/or religious imperialism promulgated by the missionaries. The latter was especially seen in much of the missionary work among the “Indians” of North America.
The Shifting Focus of Missionary Activity
Perhaps largely because of the criticism of much traditional missionary activity, which emphasized converting people to Christianity, the focus of much mission work in recent years has shifted primarily to benevolent work aimed at helping people live better in this present world.
“Mission trips,” which have become commonplace for many churches and Christian organizations, are almost completely concerned with helping people in physical need or deprivation.
To be sure, through the years since the beginning of the modern mission movement, responding in Christian love to the physical and psychological needs of suffering people has been a definite part of missionary activity.
For most forms of the faith, however, that activity was conducted in addition to, and usually secondarily to, the work of evangelism that endeavored to lead people to make a confession of faith in Jesus as Savior, to be baptized, and to become members of a local church.
While there is good reason to emphasize deeds and not just words, is there any reason not to have both?

[There is much more, some of a personal nature, in the 13th chapter of TTT, which you can access in its entirety by clicking here.]

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sadly Remembering Nakba Day

You may not know what “Nakba Day” means, but every adult Palestinian in the world does. “Nakba” is the Arabic word for “catastrophe," and every year Nakba Day commemorates the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people, mostly after the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.
The Facts
The geographical area known as Palestine was under the civil administration of Great Britain from 1920, soon after the end of WWI, until 70 years ago. That oversight of the Palestinian territory came to an end on May 14, 1948, and the State of Israel came into existence the next day.
Even though the creation of the modern nation of Israel had the approval of the United Nations and the support of the United States, it was strongly opposed by the Arab neighbors of the Palestinian people, whose land and houses were overtaken by the Jewish citizens of the new country.
Consequently, the First Arab-Israeli War began on that very same day 70 years ago, May 15, and lasted for almost ten months.
More than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes just before and during that war. About the same number of Jews moved into Israel during the first three years following the birth of the new nation. 
The Struggle
The tension/animosity/fighting between the Palestinian people and the Jewish citizens of Israel has continued for a full 70 years now.
Without a doubt, Palestinians have instigated much of that violence, and the violent activities of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), founded in 1964 and operating mostly in the West Bank territory, and the similarly violent activities of Hamas, founded in 1987 and operating mostly in Gaza, are widely known.
However, the reason behind that violence has not been adequately acknowledged or elucidated by the U.S. news media.
Last week June and I watched the documentary “The Occupation of the American Mind” (2016), and I highly recommend it. (It is available, here, on YouTube.) That film depicts the U.S. news media’s woeful lack of adequate/fair explanation of the plight of the Palestinian people and of the attacks on their territory (especially Gaza) through the years—in 1967, 1982, 1993, 2008, 2012, and 2014.
The 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza was the last major clash, resulting in about 2,250 Gazans killed and over 10,600 wounded. The number of Israelis killed in that armed struggle was around 1/31 of the number of Palestinians (Gazans) killed.
The struggle continues—and the ratio of Palestinian deaths continues to be highly disproportionate. With no Israeli causalities, at least 60 Gazans have been shot and killed by Israeli soldiers in recent days.
The Future
It is hard to know what the future holds for the Palestinians. The move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem just yesterday does not portend well for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian problem.
Yet, there are people of good will, including Palestinian Christians, working for a peaceful solution to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the West Bank. One such Christian leader is Naim Stifan Ateek, and I highly recommend his book A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (2017), of which I wrote a review you can read here.
Also, the CPT [Christian Peacemaker Teams] Palestine is a faith-based organization that supports Palestinian-led, nonviolent, grassroots resistance to the Israeli occupation and the unjust structures that uphold it. By collaborating with local Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers and educating people in their home communities, they seek to help create a space for justice and peace.
These are just two examples of people/organizations working in non-violent ways for peace and justice in Palestine/Israel. May their tribe increase!