Thursday, October 20, 2016

Four Score and Seven Years Ago: The Great Crash

As almost everyone knows, President Abraham Lincoln began his famous Gettysburg Address, “Four score and seven years ago.” Eighty-seven years before that 1863 speech, of course, was 1776, the (literal) birth of the nation.
What about four score and seven years ago from now? That was 1929—and, as is widely known, “the great crash” of the stock market in the U.S. began that year on October 24, Black Thursday, and more or less ended with Black Tuesday, October 29. 

The Great Crash
John Kenneth Galbraith, the eminent economist, authored a book titled The Great Crash: 1929. Originally published in 1955, his book became an instant bestseller. That rather brief (about 200 pages) book by Galbraith (1908-2006) is invaluable for seeking to understand American financial history.
In what is no doubt an exaggeration, Galbraith states that “1928 was the last year in which Americans were buoyant, uninhabited, and utterly happy” (p. 22). There was, admittedly, great satisfaction with the way things were going in the country—and that had implications for the election of 1928.
Roger W. Babson, a leading entrepreneur of the day, proclaimed that “if Smith should be elected with a Democratic Congress we are almost certain to have a resulting business depression in 1929” (cited on p. 15). Partly because of ideas like that, Hoover was elected in a landslide.
It is sometimes said that Al Smith was defeated because he was a Catholic, but that may have been less of a factor than the voters not wanting to jeopardize the economic boom of 1928.
So, Hoover was elected—and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Are things bad now?
It is not surprising that now one of the most common campaign themes of candidate Trump is how bad things are in this country. His appeal to “make America great again” is based on the claim that it is necessary to elect a Republican President to reverse that damage done by President Obama during the last 7½ years.
Republican politicians and their talk radio surrogates exclaim about how small the growth in the GDP is—and it has not been good in the last year or so. They also say that the country has seen the weakest financial recovery since the Great Depression.
Of course, the 2008 crash was the greatest since 1929. Ben Bernanke, the former head of the Federal Reserve, even said the 2008 financial crisis was the worst in global history, surpassing even the Great Depression.
On September 1929 the Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked at just over 380. It did not reach that level again until November 1954, more than 25 years later. The peak before the collapse in 2008 was about 14,165, in October 2007. It was back up above that record by the first week of March 2013, less than 5 ½ years later—and the highest of all time was reached in August of this year.
Maybe things are not so bad now, financially.
What about the gap?
It has rightfully been pointed out, though, that the economic growth in this recovery period after the Great Recession has primarily benefited the wealthy. It is true that the gap between the rich and the poor is greater now than at any time since 1928.

In 1928 the top 1% in the U.S. had 23.9% of all pretax income. Last year that percentage was 22%. After this election we certainly don’t want a repeat of the great crash in the year following the 1928 election. Thus, reducing the income gap between the 1% and the 90% is one of the great challenges facing the new President.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Is Utopia Possible?

Not many books on my “To Read” list are 500 years old, but Utopia was on that list until I read it recently. “Utopia” was a term coined by the author, Thomas More, for his book with that title published (in Latin) in 1516.
Introducing More
Many of you probably remember that More was a staunch Catholic who opposed King Henry VIII breaking away from Rome and declaring himself the head of the Church in England. Accordingly, in 1535 More (b. 1478) was convicted of treason and beheaded.
A few of you also may remember that “A Man for All Seasons” was the movie which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1966. That is a fine film about Thomas More, a fine man.
During the seventeen semesters I taught one of the required theology classes at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City, Thomas More was always a part of my lecture about the beginnings of the Church of England. I would always tell my students how I admire More because he was a man of great integrity.
It is hard to know what to make of his Utopia, though
More’s Utopia
“Utopia,” from the Greek words meaning no place (ou topos), is said to be a pun on the Greek words meaning good place (eu topos). The first definition of utopia in the online Miriam-Webster dictionary is “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place.” But when capitalized, it means “a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions.”
The island of Utopia in More’s rather complex book was inhabited by people who lived quite differently than people in England—or in other parts of the world, for that matter. It was a socialistic society where people lived with little interest in gold (and all that that represents) and with a high level of equality—and satisfaction. 

Attempts to create Utopia
Since the time of More’s intriguing novel, there have been several actual attempts to create a utopian community. One such example was New Harmony, which I mentioned in my Aug. 20 blog article. Started by one idealistic group in 1814, the whole town was sold to Robert Owen, a wealthy Welshman.
The Wikipedia article about Owen (1771–1858) says, “In 1824, Owen travelled to America to invest the bulk of his fortune in an experimental 1,000-member colony on the banks of Indiana’s Wabash River. . . . New Harmony was intended to be a Utopian society.”
But guess what? It didn’t work. In spite of all the grand plans and lofty ideals, they were unable to create a utopian society—and so has been the case of similar experiments throughout the last 500 years.
Pride, greed, sloth, and other inherent human weaknesses (sins) seem to have doomed most (all?) attempts to create Utopia.
The best examples I know of utopian societies that have existed for any length of time are those which did not seek to form Utopia but rather simply to follow the example of Christians in the Book of Acts.
For example, the Bruderhof, the Hutterites, and to some extent the Amish all seem to have been successful, at least to some degree, in creating utopian communities. Those groups all have roots in the Swiss Anabaptist movement that began in 1525, just a few years after More wrote Utopia—and a movement he would have opposed.
Does More’s Utopia, or especially the groups I just mentioned, have anything to teach us today? Most likely—if we just had the will to put the needs of all ahead of the privileges of the few.

Monday, October 10, 2016

“The Birth of a Nation”

The 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” was the first movie to be shown in the White House. Based on The Clansman, Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel, D. W. Griffith’s ground-breaking movie has been broadly criticized through the years because of its blatant racism and its glorification of the KKK.
This past weekend a movie with the exact same name was widely released. The new film is mostly about Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who in 1831 led the first major slave rebellion in the U.S. Nate Parker, the director, splendidly plays the adult Nat Turner in the movie.
Parker (b. 1979), in his directorial debut, made history at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: he sold the film’s distribution rights to Fox Searchlight Pictures for $17.5 million, the most ever paid for such rights. 

In preparation for seeing Parker’s new movie, June and I recently watched “12 Years as a Slave.” That graphic film of the terrible abusive treatment of Solomon Northup, an historic person, and other slaves began in 1841, ten years after Turner’s failed revolt. Perhaps the extremely harsh treatment of the slaves then was partly because of that revolt.
The 2014 Oscar for Best Picture was given to “12 Years as a Slave.” Parker, no doubt, has dreamed of his movie being equally successful. Even though not convicted, his chances greatly dimmed, though, with the report of his being charged with rape when he was a college student.
In Parker’s movie—and surely we need to evaluate it rather than the morality of the director and main actor—Nat Turner is first shown as a precocious boy eight or nine years old. Parker, then, portrays Turner as a winsome adult: gentle, soft-spoken, and very likeable.
While perhaps enhanced for its dramatic effects, true to extant historical information, the mistress of the plantation taught Nat to read, mostly by using the Bible, when he was a boy. Then when he was young man, he became a preacher. Interestingly, Turner’s Bible is the only artifact of his in the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Turner, however, was told what passages of the Bible to use in his sermons as he was taken from one plantation to another by his master—for a fee. In that way he was used as a means to keep the slaves docile and subservient.
Seeing the pitiful condition of slaves on neighboring plantations where he was taken to preach, Nat became more and more dissatisfied—so he began to read the Old Testament where God commanded killing of enemies. He began to feel that was what God was calling him to do also, with the help of the fellow-slaves around him.
Thus, the 48-hour rebellion occurred. It took the lives of around 55 whites but about four times that number of blacks. Nat himself was hanged three months later, in November 1831.
"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." Those words by Thomas Jefferson appear on the opening screen of the movie.
It is certainly obvious that Nat Turner, and other slaves at that time, were treated very unjustly—and most slaves even more unjustly than Nat. Still, it is difficult to see how Nat’s rebellion in any way helped to awaken God’s justice—at least in the 1830s.

Maybe Parker’s splendid movie of Nat Turner will help bring about greater justice for the descendants of slaves of the 1830s, though. I pray that it will. Black Lives Matter.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?

Last week as I was having coffee with friends, I mentioned that I was really enjoying Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church (2001). One of my friends didn’t know who Yancey is.
Yancey (b. 1949), I explained, is a widely read Christian author who has written often for Christianity Today. My friend then asked this rhetorical question: Isn’t that a rather conservative magazine?
In response I told him how Eric Rust, my esteemed seminary professor, referred to it as “Christianity Yesterday.” (An article in it had criticized Dr. Rust, accusing him of being a liberal.)
CT’s 60th Anniversary
The next day I opened the new issue of CT, as it is often called, and saw that it was the 60th anniversary edition. After awaking from a dream in 1953 and feeling led to found a new Christian magazine, Billy Graham was successful in getting the first issue of CT published in October 1956.
I was impressed with the cover of the new anniversary issue: the picture of a painting by Makoto Fujimura, the Japanese-American artist I recently introduced (see here). The painting’s title is “Grace Remains—Nard,” based on Mark 14:6-9. 
"Grace Remains -- Nard" by Makoto Fujimura
Through the past 60 years I have read CT off and on. For several years now have been getting an email from CT almost daily with links to articles and other information. I have mixed feelings, however. There is some good and helpful stuff, but at other times I agree with Dr. Rust: it seems like Christianity yesterday.

The “Radiant Center”
My positive feelings toward CT are because of people like Yancey, who is still one of the fourteen “editors at large.” It is hard to find fault with people like him. He is the author of the scintillating book What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997), and he, among several others, has written many superlative articles for CT.
In Soul Survivor Yancey tells about writing the cover story for a 1983 issue of CT. It was about Gandhi. Yancey remarked that he “was not prepared for the volume of hate mail the article generated” (p. 171). Many of his conservative readers thought he/they should not praise a “heathen” (non-Christian) so profusely.
In my book The Limits of Liberalism (2010), I call for seeking Christianity’s “radiant center,” between the extremes of fundamentalism and liberalism. In many ways Christianity Today, and certainly Philip Yancey, is a good example of a publication, and a person, in that center—although the magazine would definitely be on the right side of the center.
Beautiful Orthodoxy
The cover story of the new issue is “Beautiful Orthodoxy,” which is also the title of editor Mark’s Galli’s short new book, which I’ve just read. The book wasn’t bad, but I was a bit disappointed in it.
To the degree that Galli and others editors at CT thinks that “beautiful orthodoxy” and Christianity today requires blanket condemnation of any abortion by any woman and the denigration of LGBTQ people, I’m afraid it needs to considered “Christianity yesterday.”
The growing percentage of the “nones” in American society is not so much because of their rejection of “orthodox” Christian doctrines but rather because of the condemnatory, intolerant, and judgmental attitudes of purveyors of traditional Christianity.
While I take great exception with much of what Bishop John Shelby Spong writes—he is an example of the liberal extreme—I do think he makes a valid point in his 1998 book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

We need a Christianity today that focuses on meeting current challenges rather than just seeking to preserve yesterday’s ideas and practices.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Amish Grace

October 2, 2006. You doubtlessly remember the terrible tragedy that occurred ten years ago on that date in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. You may not have remembered the name of that small town, but that is where ten Amish girls were brutally shot in their one-room schoolhouse.
Such a horrendous event is unforgettable.
The Shooting
Charles Roberts, a local 32-year-old man who was not Amish, entered the school just before 10 o’clock on that Monday morning. He released all the boys but kept the ten girls hostage. The teacher escaped and ran for help—but to no avail.
Even though the police soon arrived, they were unable to do anything to stop Roberts from shooting all ten of the girls. Three died at the scene and two more died the next morning. One survived with severe brain injury. The other four recovered and were able to go back to school.
Donald Kraybill and two colleagues wrote a powerful book about that school shooting and its aftermath. They titled their book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (2007). Kraybill arrived at Nickel Mines on the morning following the shooting. The first part of the book is based largely on his observations and interviews with many Amish and “English” people who lived in the community.
Kraybill (b. 1946), the world’s leading expert on the Amish, is also the co-author of a 500-page book titled simply The Amish (2013).
I first became acquainted with Kraybill’s name when I read his 1978 book The Upside-Down Kingdom not long after it was published. I have been an admirer of him ever since, and reading Amish Grace for the first time this month increased my admiration of him.
The Movie
Perhaps many of you have seen the 2010 made-for-television movie “Amish Grace” that was in part based on the book—although the movie’s central character, and her family, was fictional. A couple of weeks ago, June and I watched the movie for the second time and were deeply moved by it again.
Thankfully, the shootings were not shown, but the grief of the parents was made very evident. What was of particular interest, and amazement for many, was the forgiving attitude of the Amish community.
To make it a more interesting movie, though, the fictional mother Ida, whose oldest daughter was one of the five who were killed, at first resented the forgiving attitude of Gideon, her husband, and the larger Amish community.
In reality, as well as in the movie, beginning on the very day of the shooting some of the local Amish people began reaching out to killer’s wife as well as to his father, expressing loving concern and forgiveness. The fictional part of the movie portrayed well the positive change in Ida’s life when her attitude changed from anger to forgiveness. 
Gideon & Ida (from the movie)
My Visit
More or less on a whim, the next day after watching the movie I drove 70-plus miles to just south of Jamesport, Mo. By chance, or providence, I met and had about an hour of delightful conversation with Melvin Yutzy, an Amish farmer with eight children, including a daughter who looked much like the schoolgirls in the movie.
He said an “English” friend drove to his place on the afternoon of October 2, 2006, and told him about the shootings. When I asked him what he thought about the forgiving attitude of the Amish in Nickel Mines, he was in complete agreement.
Just like the Amish people Kraybill interviewed soon after the shootings, my new friend Melvin emphasized that forgiveness is the only option for followers of Jesus. 
My daughter Kathy was with me and took
this picture of me by the Yutzy's buggy.
What do you make of the Chiefs sticker?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Celebrating World Communion Sunday

While some of you have no connection with, and perhaps little interest in, this topic, many Christians around the world will participate in a World Communion Sunday service on October 2. This is a yearly, and meaningful, observance of a great number of churches around the world.
Introducing WCS
World Communion Sunday (WCS) is widely observed each year on the first Sunday of October, largely for the purpose of promoting Christian unity and ecumenical cooperation.
WCS dates back to 1933 when Hugh T. Kerr, a Presbyterian pastor, began the observance. Three years later it was endorsed by Presbyterian churches across the country. Then in 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches), endorsed WCS and began to promote it worldwide.
I can’t remember when I first heard of WCS, but it has been fairly recently. I certainly don’t remember hearing of it before going to Japan 50 years ago. Few Southern Baptist churches then, and I assume few SBC churches even now, were/are inclined to participate in such an observance. 

Romero’s Legacy
Catholics, of course, do not observe WCS either. But all Christians (and others) can learn valuable lessons from the life and legacy of El Salvadorian Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while serving the Eucharist in 1980, and from people like John P. Hogan, who is the co-editor of a book about Romero’s legacy.
About a year ago I read the thought-provoking book co-edited by Hogan: Romero’s Legacy: The Call to Peace and Justice (2007). It contains the “Romero Lectures” presented in Camden, N.J., from 2001 through 2007.
Since reading “The Eucharist and Social Justice,” the 2002 Romero Lecture given by Hogan, I have planned to write this article. Today, a week before World Communion Sunday, seems to be a good time to post it.
In the lecture he gave, Hogan cited these words from St. Augustine: “We eat the body of Christ to become the body of Christ.” In the Catholic sense, as well as in the catholic sense, the body of Christ is worldwide and includes all who are followers of Jesus—including many who are poor and powerless.
Discerning the Body
Hogan went on to interpret the meaning of Paul’s warning about participating in Communion without discerning the body (see 1 Cor. 11:28-31) as not adequately seeing and understanding the needs of many within the worldwide church.
“We cannot claim to be . . . Christian, the body of Christ, and support structures and systems that keep people poor and powerless,” he said (p. 29). Communion, therefore, is not “an interior retreat,” a “spiritual” thing we do for our own edification. It is, rather, a call to solidarity with all segments of the universal Church—especially with those who are poor, marginalized, and mistreated.
So, for those of us who participate in World Communion Sunday next week—and I am happy now to be a member of a church that does observe WCS each year—let us remember with gratitude that we do so as part of a worldwide fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ.
But let’s remember not just the geographical meaning of this observance. Let’s also, and especially, remember those belonging to the body of Christ who are literally poor and lacking adequate food, those who are persecuted because of their Christian beliefs, those who are discriminated against (because of their skin color, their sexual orientation, or whatever), and all who suffer because of injustice.
May World Communion Sunday help us discern, and respond more adequately to, the needs in the worldwide body of Christ.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What about the “Deplorables”?

Eleven days ago Hillary Clinton made a remark that her political opponents, and some in the media, thought was rather deplorable. As most of you know, she referred to half of Donald Trump’s supporters as being a “basket of deplorables.” (Click here for the video and NYTimes article about that.)
To review, Hillary said, "To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobia, you name it." 
HRC on Sept. 9
Two mistakes
From the outset, let me suggest that that Hillary made at least two mistakes in what she said: nouning an adjective and labeling some people as irredeemable.
It is generally not good to turn an adjective into a noun used to label people. I remember Dr. Wayne Oates, my pastoral counseling professor in seminary, talking about this. While I don’t remember his exact words, I remember his important point.
Dr. Oates emphasized the importance of remembering that we always relate to persons. Thus, for example, pastors don’t visit/care for the sick and the bereaved. Rather, they minister to sick and bereaved people.
With this sort of thing in mind, people shouldn’t be called deplorables. There are only some people who believe/say/do deplorable things. Deplorable may be a legitimate adjective describing some people’s attitudes or actions. It is not a legitimate noun to use in place of person.
Calling people deplorables is, perhaps, an example of “hating” the sinner, not just the sin—never a good thing to do.
In her remarks, Hillary also referred to those in the “basket of deplorables” as “irredeemable.” While it may be true that the social stance of most of those in said basket may not be redeemed, still, to call any person, or group of people, irredeemable is highly questionable.
Two baskets
A few days after Hillary’s infelicitous remarks, Franklin Graham posted this on Facebook: “I’m not ‘Deplorable’ to God, even if Hillary Clinton thinks so” (see this Christian Post article). He emphasized that “all sin is deplorable” to God but that because of Jesus “our deplorable sins” can be forgiven and we can have a “right standing” [pun intended?] before God.
Fair enough. But that statement misses the point. Hillary said that only half of Trump supporters were in the basket of deplorables. She wasn’t indicating that that is where Franklin is—unless that is the bunch with whom he self-identifies.
In a similar vein, a former missionary colleague of mine posted this on his Facebook page: “DEPLORABLE. A lot of white, male, traditional value holding, peace loving Christians are in this basket. Not ‘phobic’ and not haters.”
Why, though, would my friend and the peace loving Christians he refers to not consider themselves among the other half of Trump’s supporters? Even if half are in the basket of deplorables, that does not mean the other half are the same or that they are guilty of the same injurious attitudes.
Hillary talked about two baskets—and the legitimate concerns of those in one of those two.
Two attitudes
Whether as many as half or not, there does seem to be a sizeable percentage of Trump’s supporters whose attitudes and words do appear to be incontrovertibly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and/or Islamophobic. Trump himself has also said plenty that can be properly described by those adjectives.
There are those who seem to fear/”hate”/denigrate people of color, women, LGBT persons, foreigners, or Muslims. Those attitudes often lead, unhappily, to deplorable words and actions.
Happily, though, there are “admirables” who exemplify an attitude of love, understanding, and acceptance of those who are “different.”