Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Defending Freedom: The Meritorious Work of the ACLU

So, if you are a USAmerican, do you highly value the Bill of Rights? If so, you might be, or might want to be, a supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was born 100 years ago, on January 19, 1920.  
What’s the ACLU’s Purpose?
According to Samuel Walker’s nearly 500-page book In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (1990), the “essential feature of the ACLU is its professed commitment to the non-partisan defense of the Bill of Rights” (p. 5).
From its very beginning, the ACLU has had many critics. In his Introduction, Walker recounts how in the 1988 presidential election campaign, George Bush attacked Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent, for being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.”
Twenty-five years later, Jerome R. Corsi, who (among other things) is a conspiracy theorist, published Bad Samaritans: The ACLU’s Relentless Campaign to Erase Faith from The Public Square.
On the opening page of his book, Corsi (b. 1946) cites these words from the Pledge of Allegiance, “. . . one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Because of their support for the rights of atheists also, the ACLU objects to those first four words that were added to the Pledge in 1954. But clearly, their main emphasis is, literally, “liberty and justice for all.”
And “all” means, well, all, even those who may harbor mistaken and/or wrongheaded ideas.
The ACLU has been the target of stringent criticism for defending, for example, the free speech right of Communist sympathizers in the U.S.—but also for defending the right to free speech by the KKK and Fred Phelps, the notorious pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.
In a 2010 article about Phelps (1929~2014), an ACLU spokesperson wrote, “To be clear: the ACLU strongly disagrees with the protestors' message in this case. But even truly offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment.”
She went on to say, “It is in hard cases like this where our commitment to free speech is most tested, and most important.”
Why’d the ACLU Start?
The ACLU was formed largely because the freedom of people in the late 1910s to speak out against the movement of the U.S. toward participation in World War I was being suppressed.
The primary founder of the organization was Roger Baldwin, a pacifist whose conscientious objection to “the Great War” was not recognized by the U.S. government and in 1918-19 he spent nine months in prison.
After the ACLU was formed in January 1920, Baldwin remained the executive director until 1950. Even though he retired from that position when he was 66 years old, he remained active in working for the civil liberties of all people.
In 1981, seven months before his death at the age of 97, Baldwin was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Carter.
Who’d Be Against the ACLU?
Through the years the ACLU has supported many noted people/causes, including John Scopes in the “monkey trial” of 1925, Japanese Americans after they were placed in internment camps in 1942, African Americans in the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit of 1954, the “reproductive freedom” of women since before the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, and gays/lesbians in the Obergefell v. Hodges lawsuit of 2015.
So, who would now be opposed to the ACLU? Well, among others, those who think a literal interpretation of the Bible ought to be (en)forced on all U.S. citizens in spite of the principle of the separation of church and state as well as those who think that it is acceptable to discriminate or legislate against minorities, gays and lesbians, immigrants/asylum seekers, and (desperate) women seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy.
Those who cherish the Bill of Rights, however, are deeply grateful for the meritorious work of the ACLU over the past 100 years.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Subversive Act of Baptism

“Subverting the Culture of Contempt” was the title of my 12/20 blog posting, and I am pleased that earlier this week (see here) re-posted a slightly edited version of that article. This article is about a different, even more important type of subversion. 
Common Views of Baptism
There are, of course, a wide variety of views about baptism within Christianity. The most common view is that baptism is a sacrament that seals a recently born baby into the bonds of the Church.
The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and many mainline Protestant denominations (such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and many Methodists) practice infant baptism. In such cases, baptism is a rite chosen by Christian parents and the Church, a rite that may or may not later be affirmed by the child through Confirmation.
Other Protestant churches, such as all those in the baptist (lower case “b” intentional) reject what in theological discussions is sometimes referred to as pedobaptism. The alternative form of baptism is usually called believer’s baptism, also known as credobaptism.
Even baptisms of the latter type, however, are often of elementary or middle school children who are mainly doing what is expected of them by their parents and Sunday School teachers. Such baptisms are no more subversive acts than are those who receive infant baptism.
New Testament Views of Baptism
In New Testament times, baptism was of adults who were confessing their faith in Jesus as Savior and their allegiance to him as Lord. But the main difference between then and now, especially in Europe and the Americas, is that the term Lord was problematic.
In the Roman Empire of that time, Caesar wanted/expected to be called Kurios (Lord), so to confess Jesus as Lord was, well, a subversive act.
Consequently, for many decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the persecution of Christians was not specifically for their religious beliefs but primarily because of their political stance: calling Jesus Lord instead of Caesar.
That all changed, of course, after the baptism of Emperor Constantine in 337 A.D. His baptism was not a subversive act; rather, it seems to have been based on his earlier decision to embrace Christianity for military reasons.
The non-subversive form of baptism, then, was predominant in European Christianity from the fourth century until the sixteenth century when a small group of Swiss subversives sought to re-institute believer’s baptism. They came to be called Anabaptists and began the baptist movement.
And, yes, those Anabaptists were persecuted by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Help from Brian Zahnd
Some of you may remember my 9/5/17 blog article about Brian Zahnd and his powerful book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (see here). Brian’s new 2019 book is titled Postcards from Babylon, and I highly recommend it.
From early in his first chapter, Zahnd stresses that “the only way to truly follow Jesus is to be countercultural.” Then he begins the concluding paragraph of that chapter with these powerful words:
It’s not the task of the church to "Make America Great Again." The contemporary task of the church is to make Christianity countercultural again.
That task can be fulfilled, partly, by making baptism again what it was meant to be in the beginning: commitment to Jesus Christ above all others.
Zahnd declares, “I am betrothed by faith and baptism to Christ alone and Christ can have no rivals” (p. 42).
That is the basic reason baptism is subversive: by the act of baptism the Christ-follower rejects all the isms that demand allegiance: capitalism, militarism, and primarily nationalism. And that is the reason Brian also avers that “from the moment we are baptized into the body of Christ we become expatriates in the land of our birth” (p. 51).
So, I appeal to all you Christians: let’s make baptism subversive again!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Climate Crisis: The Challenge of the Decade

Happy New Year and Happy New Decade! Yes, I know that technically a new decade starts with 1 rather than 0, but still, the 2020s began on January 1 so I am referring to this week as the beginning of a new decade. This article is about what I am calling the challenge of the decade that has just begun.
From Global Warming to Climate Crisis
I first mentioned global warming in “The World in 2100,” my 2/19/10 blog posting, and the title of my 2/5/11 posting was “What About Global Warming?” Ten more articles bear global warming as one of the labels.
In these past ten years I have often insisted that the words “global warming” are preferable to “climate change.” The latter, of course, could refer to cooling as well as to warming. But the current crisis is definitely linked to global warming.
Since, however, there could be global warming but no crisis, I have come to see “climate crisis” as the best term to use as we face “the challenge of the decade.” 
Tom Toles in The Washington Post (1/2/20)
Steps in the Wrong Direction
In the brief space of this blog article, I cannot possibly detail why the world now is facing a climate crisis. There is a wealth of information about that, and if you need to bone up some on the issues involved, I recommend the following.
“Understanding The Science Of Climate Change” is a well-done (but now a bit dated since it was made in 2015) video made in consultation with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and world-leading climate scientists. You can watch that informative video on YouTube by clicking here.
What I can do briefly is to indicate some of the steps that are being taken in the wrong direction and others that are being taken in the right direction.
DJT and his administration, unfortunately, have been taking steps in the wrong direction. His formal initiative last November to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was a major setback for dealing with the current climate crisis.
Altogether, the Trump administration and the Republican Congress have taken more than 130 actions since 2017 “to scale back or wholly eliminate federal climate mitigation and adaptation measures” (see here).
A November 5 article by Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Nation was titled “Trump’s Greatest Dereliction of Duty—His Disgraceful Denial of Climate Change.” I agree. DJT’s actions relative to the climate crisis are probably the most egregious errors of his administration.
Steps in the Right Direction
Thankfully, there are some steps in the right direction. For example, just about a year ago the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis was established and at the end of March they are scheduled to publish a set of public policy recommendations for congressional climate action.
More broadly, on December 10, the World Council of Churches Interfaith Liaison Committee presented the UN’s climate change summit (COP25 in Madrid) with a declaration of its commitment to climate justice.
These are just two of many examples that might be considered.
What Does This Have To Do with the Eternal?
In my December 31 blog article, I stated that in this new year I want to spend more time thinking about eternal/spiritual matters rather than temporal/political concerns. In reflecting on this, I have come to realize that care for the environment is not just a temporal concern.
Since I believe that the world is God’s creation and am trying to understand Richard Rohr’s idea (in The Universal Christ) that God’s first incarnation was at creation, not at the birth of Jesus, then caring for the world is a spiritual task, not just a political one.
The climate crisis, at root, is a theological issue, and I want to work to help solve the climate crisis not because I am a LWLP (left-wing liberal progressive) in Star Parker’s words (in Necessary Noise), but because of my faith in the Creator God.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2020 Vision

Similar to what I did at this time last year, I am basing some of this last blog posting of 2019 on a special issue of The Economist, the highly respected British news magazine that has been published since 1843. Fairly early in December, I received that issue titled “The World in 2020” and found much of considerable interest in it. First, though . . .

Happy New Year of the Rat!
As I have often done, I am beginning this end-of-the-year/New Year’s posting by referring to the Japanese (and Chinese) zodiac. Following the ancient 12-year cycle, 2020 is the year of the nezumi in Japan.
In English, the East Asian New Year is usually called the Year of the Rat, but the same Japanese word is used for rat and mouse, so New Year’s greetings, etc., are often portrayed by images that look more like cute little mice than repulsive rats. For example, look at this picture of a Japanese New Year’s card: 
Despite the prevalent negative feelings about rats in this country, June and I have a somewhat different sentiment, for two of our children were born in the year of the Rat. In Japan that is not considered a bad thing at all; people who are nezumi-doshi (born in the year of the Rat) are said to be “charming, honest, ambitious, and have a tremendous capacity for pursuing a course to its end” (from “The Twelve Signs of the Japanese Zodiac”).
U.S. Politics in 2020
In my 2018 end-of-the-year blog posting, I wrote that there seemed to be “a strong possibility” that the President would be impeached” in 2019. Well, I called that one right.
I also wrote that the President probably would not be removed from office by the Republican-majority Senate. That decision is now part of the political agenda for the beginning of 2020, but the likelihood of the Senate not convicting the President is probably stronger now than it was a year ago.
The biggest political question for the U.S. in 2020, of course, revolves around the November 3 election. Who the Democratic Party will choose to go up against DJT is anybody’s guess at this point. And even though there is a strong appeal to Democrats and Independents to “vote Blue no matter who,” the populist support for DJT is amazingly strong and resilient.
Daniel Franklin, the editor of “The World in 2020” issue of The Economist writes that there will be “a febrile [= “having or showing a great deal of nervous excitement or energy”] election in November.” He adds. “It will be ugly.” That prediction will almost certainly prove to be true.
Editor Franklin goes on to say that the artificial intelligence he consulted “reckons Mr Trump will lose.” (Can we trust that prediction, or is there “fake AI”?)
The U.S. Economy in 2020
Last year The Economist repeatedly mentioned the possibility of a financial recession in 2019. That, fortunately, did not come to pass. In fact, since Christmas the U.S. stock market has hit all-time highs.
However, for 2020 the editor-in-chief of The Economist not only predicted “febrile politics” but also a “faltering economy.” He writes, “Unfortunately for Mr Trump, a noticeable cooling of the American economy will challenge his claim to have made America great again.”
Will that prediction be more accurate than the similar one was for 2019? Who knows? Certainly, no one has 20/20 vision of what will happen in 2020.
Personally . . .
Although it will not mean a major shift of emphasis, I decided on Christmas Day to start spending more time, especially at the beginning of each day, thinking about “eternal” / “spiritual” matters rather than temporal/political concerns—not that those two spheres are unrelated.
Throughout the coming year, I hope to keep firmly in mind the following words recorded in 2 Corinthians 4:18.
We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal (CEB).
It remains to be seen how much this will affect the blog articles I will be writing and sending to you, my dear Thinking Friends, throughout 2020.
Happy New Year to each of you!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Unimpeachable Grounds for Impeachment?

Yes, the President has been impeached. On December 18, 2019, President Donald John Trump was impeached for the abuse of power and for the obstruction of Congress. But were there unimpeachable grounds for that historic action by the United States House of Representatives?
Two Different Worlds
Here is an online dictionary definition: 
­ Were the grounds for the impeachment of DJT of such a nature?
According to the congressional Democrats, they were. On December 13, all 23 of the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend impeachment. In the historic house vote on Dec. 18, over 98% of the Democrats voted Yes and the impeachment of the President became a reality.
In his opening statement, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) said,
The President of the United States endangered our national security. The President undermined our democracy. And the President . . .  betrayed his oath to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States. These aren't opinions. These are uncontested facts.
Even The Economist, the British-based news magazine, stated in its lead story for the Dec. 14-20 issue, “The main facts are not in dispute.”
But there are two different worlds existing simultaneously in the U.S., the Democratic world and the Republican world—or, we might say, the world of Trump opponents and the world of Trump supporters.
As was aptly stated in an online 12/18 WaPo article on impeachment night, “The intensity and polarization of the debate on the House floor vividly illustrated the extent to which leaders of the two parties now believe entirely different accounts of what occurred and are motivated by different concerns. At times they sounded almost as if they were representing different countries.”
The votes, though, did not represent just two different opinions. They represented two different parties—or two different worlds. Of the votes on the two articles of impeachment, all the Yes votes were by Democrats and one Independent; all the No votes were by Republicans.
Almost unanimously the Democrats thought there were impeccable grounds for impeachment. But after about eight hours of debate in the closing argument for the Republicans, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Minority Leader, declared, “There are no grounds for impeachment.”
For the Republicans, not only were the grounds for impeachment not unimpeachable, they were non-existent.
DJT’s supporters and his opponents seem, indeed, to live in two different worlds.
Where Do We Go from Here?
It is within the realm of possibility that DJT will be the first President to be impeached and then win re-election to another four years in the White House.
Don’t think that DJT’s re-election is inconceivable. I was one of a multitude who thought it was inconceivable that he would be nominated for the presidency by the Republicans. But he was.
An even larger multitude thought it inconceivable that he would be elected President. But he was.
After his impeachment in 1998/99, President Clinton’s approval greatly increased—to a whopping 73%. Yes, I think it is inconceivable that DJT’s rate will climb that high—but it might climb high enough for him to be reelected.
But now one of the biggest worries is that DJT’s almost certain acquittal in the Senate will allow other abuses of power and election tampering with no feasible way to counter those abuses.
As Dana Milbank wrote in a 12/19 op-ed for the WaPo:
It was all a triumph for alternative facts, for Russian dezinformatsiya, for Fox News and for social media toxicity. The losers aren’t the Democrats . . .  but democracy. Just as after the Mueller report, Trump will only grow more emboldened in breaking the legal constraints on his presidency.
So then, inconceivably, DJT might also become the first President to be impeached twice. If there is unimpeachable evidence that he profited from foreign influence in the 2020 election, as he most likely did in 2016, a second impeachment would again loom as a distinct possibility.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Subverting the Culture of Contempt

The President has been impeached. But more about that next time. This article is about seeking to subvert the “culture of contempt” that was so evident in the impeachment hearings. The message of Advent (and Christmas) is hope, peace, love, and joy. How we need this message in the U.S. where the culture of contempt is so prevalent—and yes, so contemptible!
Help from Arthur Brooks
Arthur C. Brooks, the Washington Post columnist and professor of public leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is the author of a book published in March of this year. You have previously heard the words of the title of that book: Love Your Enemies.
That is certainly not an original title—but the subtitle is: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.
Brooks (b. 1964) is a political conservative, and I disagree with many of his political positions. But I fully agree with what he writes in his new book—and with Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who is quoted on the back cover of the book:
If you are satisfied with our toxic ideological climate, then don’t bother reading this book. But if you’d like to rebel against the present nonsense, Arthur Brooks can show you how to do it with joy and confidence—regardless of your political preferences. If we follow the lessons in Love Your Enemies, better times lie ahead for America. 

Help from These Five Rules
In the Conclusion, Brooks advocates “Five Rules to Subvert the Culture of Contempt.” Rather than repeating his five rules, I am sharing a helpful statement about each one.
1) “Stand up to people on your own side who trash people on the other side.” Since contempt is destructive, whenever we read or hear words of contempt, to subvert the culture of contempt we need to speak up, kindly, in opposition to those words.
2) “Seeking out what those on the other side have to say will help you understand others better.” Whenever we read or hear words with which we strongly disagree, we first need to seek to understand why the writer/speaker wrote or spoke such words.
3) Here is a point that Brooks makes repeatedly: “never treat others with contempt, even if you believe they deserve it.” Contempt never causes others to change for the better and is “always harmful for the contemptor.”
4) Brooks also encourages his readers to “disagree better” and to “be part of a healthy competition of ideas.” He writes, “The single biggest way a subversive can change America is not by disagreeing less, but by disagreeing better—engaging in earnest debate while still treating everyone with love and respect.”  
5) Finally, Brooks advocates tuning out, disconnecting more from unproductive debates. “Unfollow public figures [and social media ‘friends’] who foment contempt, even if you agree with them.”
Trying It Out
Partly because of Brooks’s book, I have been reading, and trying to understand without contempt, two books with which I have strong disagreements.
Dark Agenda: The Way to Destroy Christian America (2018) was written by David Horowitz, the son of Jewish parents who in 2015 identified as an agnostic. Even though Jewish, Horowitz (b. 1939) dedicated his book to his wife and to three “Christian buddies.”
And on the back cover, Horowitz’s book receives praise from the ultra-conservative Christian politician Mike Huckabee.
Reading some of that book with the desire to subvert the culture of contempt helped me understand why Horowitz, and many religious and political conservatives, think the way they do.
Although the book contains much I strongly disagree with, reading it with the goal of gaining deeper insight into why conservatives think the way they do was beneficial. And I realize afresh that I can view Horowitz as a good and honorable man—even though wrong in many of his ideas!—without having contempt for him.
The same goes for Star Parker, author of Necessary Noise: How Donald Trump Inflames the Culture War and Why This is Good News for America (2019). Parker (b. 1956) is an active Christian as well as an African American woman who has been a strong supporter of President Trump.
During the Christmas season—and throughout the new year—let’s work together to subvert the culture of contempt, for the good of the country and the world.
Merry Christmas to all!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Man Who Fed the World

Most of you have heard of the Green Revolution. Perhaps fewer of you remember the man who was behind that revolutionary attempt to combat the world food crisis. That man was Norman Borlaug, who died ten years ago, in September 2009, at the age of 95. 
Norman, the Farm Boy
Norman Borlaug was born in 1914 and reared in rural Howard County in northeast Iowa. His first eight years of school were at a one-teacher, one-room school. He then went to high school in the county seat town of Cresco.
In addition to his schooling, from age seven to nineteen Norman worked on the 106-acre family farm and acquired the work ethic common to farm boys.
Partly because of his skills as a wrestler—and with the encouragement of his grandfather Nels Borlaug, who once told him, “you're wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on"—Norman was able to attend the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1937 and then earning his Ph.D. degree there in 1942.    
Norman, the farm boy who became Dr. Borlaug, went on to do far more than fill his own belly. He became known as the man who fed the world.
Borlaug, the Life Saver
In 1944 Borlaug went to Mexico as a research scientist in charge of wheat improvement, working there for sixteen years. Beginning in the 1950s, he began to successfully innovate new, disease-resistant, high-yield crops using genetic modification.
Borlaug’s work transformed agriculture production, first in Mexico and later in Asia and Latin America. His successes produced the “Green Revolution,” which saved millions of people from hunger, starvation, and death.
In 1970 Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his outstanding work in averting world hunger and famine. His authorized biography, written by Leon Hesser, is titled The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger (2006).
According to David Grigg’s 1985 book The World Food Problem 1950~1980, the percentage of the world’s population suffering from acute hunger/malnutrition dropped from 34% in 1950 to 17% in 1980. That dramatic decrease was largely due to the meritorious work of Borlaug.
Some claim that Borlaug “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.” The fifth chapter of the 2009 book Scientists Greater than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the Twentieth Century is about Borlaug. There he is credited with saving 245,000,000 lives.
Some estimate that he saved even far more lives than that.
The Ongoing Challenge
Despite the dramatic decrease in world hunger since 1950, it was estimated that in 2014 eleven percent of the world’s population were still suffering from undernourishment.
And last year a feature article in The Washington Post was titled “For decades, global hunger was on the decline. Now it’s getting worse again—and climate change is to blame.”
While the innovations of scientists such as Norman Borlaug are still badly needed to continue working on the problem, there is also need for people of goodwill to provide the financial means for saving lives right now.
I was impressed by a December 5 article about the Princeton University bioethicist and committed atheist Peter Singer. The 10th-anniversary edition of his book The Life You Can Save was just published on Dec. 1.
In his book Singer (b. 1946) pleads with people of means to give generously in order to save the lives of those suffering from starvation and disease and suggests many charities to which money can be sent with confidence.
In the article mentioned, even though an atheist, Singer declared, “The gospel accounts of Jesus portray him as giving more emphasis to helping the poor than to any other ethical concern, so this should be a top priority for all Christians.”
In this Christmas season, how much will you give to save a life, or several lives?