Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Problem with Being a Centrist

Does calling for a radiant center in politics mean that people of good will should be, or seek to be, centrists? Is being a centrist always a positive thing? Is there anything negative about being a centrist? These are some of the questions I began to think about after posting my Feb. 8 blog article and reading the thoughtful comments made about it.
Assuming that being in the “radiant center” as proposed in that blog article makes one a centrist, the positive things about such location must be considered.
Centrists are persons who don’t like extremism and want to live in peace and harmony with all people as much as possible. That’s good.
Centrists are persons who want to accept, and be accepted by, people who disagree with them and who promote inclusion over exclusion. That’s good.
Centrists are persons who appreciate and affirm truth, beauty, and goodness wherever it is found, no matter the label or the location. That’s good, too.
Sometimes being a centrist is not a good thing, however. That is particularly true when, or if, centrality means neutrality in the face of injustice.
In one of his oft-quoted statements, Desmond Tutu said, 

In the 1930s, what benefit was it to the Jews for many (most) Germans to be centrists rather than being on the left opposing Hitler and the Nazi fascists?
In the early 1960s, what benefit was it for many (most) white Americans to be centrists rather than being on the left opposing the Jim Crow laws supported by the segregationists on the right?  
In the 2010s, what benefit was it for many (most) “straight” people to be centrists rather than being on the left supporting the civil rights of LGBT people buffeted by prejudice and discrimination by those on the right?
And looking toward the future, if human habitation on this planet is in jeopardy because of effects of global warming, as it most probably is, what benefit is it for citizens of the world to be centrists rather than being on the left and in vocal opposition to the global warming deniers on the right?
If being a centrist means not taking a stand against injustice and against the mistreatment of people or the environment, then clearly that is not good.
Soon after posting the Feb. 8 article on the radiant center, I realized that I had mixed metaphors in talking about the center. That realization was partly due to reading Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud’s Feb. 7 blog article titled “The Left/Right Schema Must Go” (see here).
Grimsrud stressed the importance of holding to “core values.” This means that the center is the core, not the position between the right and the left on a linear spectrum. This is what Easel Roberts was suggesting, I came to realize, with the image of the merry-go-round—and what I had missed by staying with the right/left schema.
So, moving toward the center, which represents core values, is another way—and a good way—to be a centrist.
But, alas, that doesn’t seem to solve the problem of the division (“polarity”!) so prominent in contemporary society. Why? Because people disagree on core values. For example, conservatives (people on the right) see their opposition to abortion (“killing babies”) to be an immovable core value. But people on the left see women’s reproductive rights (“pro-choice”) as an important core value.
So, being this kind of centrist is also a problem.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

“On Not Leaving It to the Snake”

Thinking Friend Charles Kiker referred to Harvey Cox in commenting on a recent blog article. I responded (see here) by acknowledging my appreciation of Cox’s thinking and by mentioning his book On Not Leaving It to the Snake (1967).
Even though I have long been an admirer of his, up to this point I have not written about Cox, now professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, in any of my blog articles. I am filling that lacuna now.
Harvey Cox (b. 1929) became widely known in theological circles—and beyond—with the publication of his book The Secular City (1965). Remarkably, it has sold over a million copies, a rarity for a theological book.
Cox’s book titled God’s Revolution and Man’s Responsibility was also published in 1965. Unlike the former book, which I read soon after it came out (and again later with even more appreciation), I didn’t read this latter book until in the 1970s. I found it, too, to be a good and important book.
Through the years, Cox has written many other books—including one I have not seen yet: The Market as God (2016), introduced in a Jan. 5, 2017, article in The Nation.
It is specifically Cox’s On Not Leaving It to the Snake, though, that I am writing about in this article. More particularly, I am focusing on the part of that book most relevant to us now: “Introduction: Faith and Decision” (pp. vii-xviii).
Cox explains that in the long history of Christian theology, “original sin” has generally been interpreted in such a way that pride is seen to be “the most dangerous of all human sins.” 
In contrast, using the “sexist” language usual for the 1960s, Cox avers that “man’s most debilitating proclivity is not his pride. It is not his attempt to be more than man. Rather it is his sloth, his unwillingness to be everything man was intended to be.”
Accordingly, in the Genesis story of Eve, she was guilty of the sin of sloth, letting the snake tell her what to do.
The ongoing significance of that mythical story is simply this: “Adam and Eve are the biblical Everyman and Everywoman. Their sin is our sin.”
It might be argued that part of the political problem we have in the U.S. today is because many voters committed the sin of sloth. And here I am thinking of the (literally) millions of people who voted for Obama in 2012 but who--because of apathy, or whatever—did not vote at all in 2016.
Further, and perhaps even worse, is the fact that probably millions of voters left it up not to the snake but to the fox (Fox News) to tell them (implicitly, if not explicitly) who to vote for.
In looking ahead, the sin of sloth/apathy may well do the country in—or vigilant resistance/action may keep the country from going down the tubes.
The March 2017 issue of The Atlantic has a long and significant article titled "How to Build an Autocracy" (which you can read here). In that article, David Frum, the author, “argues that if Congress is quiescent and the public apathetic, President Trump can set the country down a path toward illiberalism, institutional subversion, and endemic graft.”

So far, there has been considerable resistance to DJT. Let’s pray that peaceful actions for justice will continue and that a large majority of the population will not succumb to the sin of apathy and will not leave it to the snake (or the fox) to tell them what to do.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Can There Be a Radiant Center in Politics?

“Republicans are moving further Right and Democrats are moving further Left. NEITHER situation makes for a unified country.” That comment on my Jan. 25 blog article was posted by Easel Roberts, a Thinking Friend (TF) with whom I used to attend the same Sunday School class here in Liberty but who now lives in South Carolina.
Easel is a P.E. (Professional Engineer) who works at GE Renewable Energy, and I value his viewpoint, partly because few of my TFs have the educational background and occupational experience that he has.
In a follow-up email, Easel wrote,
“It is, as if, some cosmic force (media, Facebook, politics, social issues) has put us all on a kid’s merry-go-round. The only answer is ‘I’m right and you are wrong’ and vice versa. There is no meaningful dialogue or debate.
“The ‘forces’ are making the merry-go-round go faster and faster. We are fighting desperately to hold on for dear life to keep from being thrown off. IF we could only get to the center, we could relax because there would be no forces throwing us toward the edge. 
“While certainly not human nature, we need to lead people to the middle OR . . . we will destroy the country by trying to WIN. If Christians, and by extension the church, cannot figure this out, then we truly have no hope.” 

In my response to Easel’s thought-provoking comments, I said, “In my book The Limits of Liberalism I wrote about the need for a ‘radiant center’ regarding theological issues. Perhaps that is one of the biggest needs politically also.”
Finding such a radiant center, however, is probably more difficult, more elusive, and more unlikely in the political world than in the theological world. Yet perhaps that is a goal, an intention, an aspiration that needs to be given the highest priority.
Over the last couple of weeks I have heard mention of a possible civil war ensuing in the near future. Finding the center is not only essential for Christians (the church) as Easel emphasized, it is essential for the United States as a whole.
The ongoing, persistent problem, though, is this: How could a radiant center ever be formed?
For example, what would a radiant center look like in a society where some people consider all abortion the same as murder and others see abortion as an essential part of “women’s reproductive rights”?
What would a radiant center look like in a society where some people consider same-sex marriage as an abomination contrary to the clear teachings of the Bible and others see it as a necessary part of some people’s civil rights?
What would a radiant center look like in a society where some people consider “illegal aliens,” visitors from Near Eastern countries, and refugees from Syria to be serious threats to the safety and wellbeing of U.S. citizens and others see the welcoming of strangers and suffering people to be an indispensable expression of Christian love or even of human decency?
Perhaps there is no center position on such issues. Perhaps it illusionary to think that there could be a center embracing both “pro-life” and “pro-choice”—although there are those now who are emphasizing that “pro-life” means far more than anti-abortion, and most on the left can agree with that emphasis.

Maybe, though, with a constant emphasis on such things as freedom with responsibility, full acceptance of those who are “different,” justice, compassion, etc., there can gradually be, even in politics, the growth and expansion of a much-needed radiant center.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

What about the National Prayer Breakfast?

You likely have heard various things about the National Prayer Breakfast that was held on Thursday morning. The first thing I saw reported was about DJT asking those in attendance to “pray for Arnold” (Schwarzenegger) and his ratings on The Apprentice.
Fair enough, I guess. Good speakers usually start off with something in a light-hearted vein—although ordinarily not quite so vain.
The POTUS had some good lines in his speech, which you can read here in its entirety. For example, even though he is a billionaire, DJT declared that “the quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success.” Quite true.
The President also emphasized that “we are all united by our faith, in our creator and our firm knowledge that we are all equal in His eyes.” No disagreement there.
While there may be some discrepancy between these words of DJT and what he has said and done in the past, most of us are able to applaud those statements.
The worst part of the talk by the POTUS was his promise to eradicate an important safeguard in the separation of church and state. "I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution," he said.
As most of you know, the Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954, states that tax-exempt entities, such as churches and charitable organizations, are unable to directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate if they wish to maintain their tax exemption.
The Christian Right has been trying to get that changed in the name of religious freedom, and it looks as if DJT is willing to seek that—perhaps partially in payment for the support he received from evangelicals in the past election.
This is a disturbing proposal that some quickly opposed. For example, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization of traditional Baptists, who have always been outspoken proponents of the separation of church and state, issued an opposing statement on the same day.
To change the law would hinder the church’s prophetic witness, threatening to turn pulpit prophets into political puppets,” they said.
The whole idea of having a National Prayer Breakfast, which was started, and continues to be supported, largely by conservative Christians, is highly questionable.
(Although it was written in February of last year, I encourage you to read this article by Thinking Friend and eminent Kansas City blogger Bill Tammeus.)
The National Prayer Breakfast, which has been held every year since 1953, was created by The Fellowship, also known as The Family, a religious and political organization founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide.
The Fellowship/Family is a very questionable organization as Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) points out well. Sharlet’s work is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but he raises many questions that ought to be taken seriously.

So as a long-time advocate of the separation of church and state, as almost all baptists (small “b” intentional) in this country have been since the time of Roger Williams in the 1630s, I think that not only were the remarks of DJT on Thursday highly questionable but also that the annual observance of a National Prayer Breakfast itself is questionable. 

I am not against praying and certainly not against breakfasts, but perhaps it is not a good idea to have a “national” prayer breakfast, especially when it focusses on prayers to God primarily as understood and worshipped by conservative evangelical Christians.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Criticism of American Christianity

A Jan. 25 article (here) titled “American ‘Christianity’ Has Failed” caught my eye. It was by Stephen Mattson, a young Christian writer whose name I had not remembered seeing before, but now he is one of my Facebook friends.
I was interested in reading Mattson’s article partly because of something I came across last week. One of my (very few) New Year resolutions is to go through and dispose of accumulated “stuff,” much of it in boxes piled in the back of our garage.
In going through a box last week I came across a brief summary of a Chapel talk I had given at Seinan Gakuin University (in Fukuoka City, Japan) in October 1972. The title of that talk was “Criticism of American Christianity.”
That English summary was probably distributed to those in attendance. (Most Japanese students can understand written English far better than they can understand spoken English.)
As I often did during my first several years in Japan, I may have used (read) a Japanese manuscript for the talk I wrote in English. If so, it would have been translated by Miss Kumiko Otsuka, who is celebrating her 83rd birthday today.
June and I (and our two children at the time) came back to the U.S. in the summer of 1971 after nearly five full years in Japan as Southern Baptist missionaries. During that year of “furlough,” as it was called then, I had the opportunity of preaching in seven or eight states, beginning with a sermon at the First Baptist Church in Anchorage, Alaska, on our way back to Missouri.
During that year we lived in southwest Missouri, but I spoke in churches in many parts of Missouri as well as in nearby states to the east. Almost all of those churches were Southern Baptist churches, and the majority of them were small town (or rural) churches rather than large city churches.
In the summer of 1972 we went back to Japan and I began teaching Christian Studies again at Seinan Gakuin University where I had joined the faculty as a full-time teacher four years before.
Here is the beginning of that Chapel talk:
Last year in America I found myself very critical of Christianity as practiced by most churches and Christians that I saw. I was critical of what appeared to be much more concern for self than others. I was critical because there seemed to be too little concern for four of the great problems of our day: war, poverty, racism, and pollution. I was critical because I felt that American Christianity is too often too much a supporter of the status quo. 
(To read the transcription of the full summary, click here.)
“In reflecting upon these criticisms, I have come to the following conclusions:
“(1) I can understand why many Japanese university students have doubts about Christianity. There is not much attractiveness in Christianity as it is demonstrated by many of its adherents.
“(2) In spite of the obvious hypocrisy of some Christians and the limited concern of most, I am still convinced that most of the best, the most genuine, the most conscientious people in America are Christian people.”
Now, nearly 45 years later, I know more about the diversity of American Christians and know that some Christians are very concerned about what are still four of the great problems of our day. But overall, I still have negative feelings toward much of American Christianity, especially of white “evangelicals.”
Sadly, I am inclined to agree with my new FB friend Stephen’s contention that to a large degree American Christianity has failed.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Praying For and Opposing the President

So, what do we who are not conservative, white “evangelical” Christians do now that DJT is President? That is not an easy question to answer.
I have found it hard to know how to pray with integrity for President Trump. Certainly I am not going to pray an imprecatory prayer, as some did for President Obama.
(If you don’t know what I am talking about, see this article in The Atlantic about David Perdue and his June 2016 prayer; he happens to be the first cousin of Sonny Perdue, Trump’s nominee for the Secretary of Agriculture.)
On the other hand, I find it hard to pray, “Bless President Trump.” Conservative USAmerican Christians make much of Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Tim. 2:2a, which says “Pray for kings and everyone who is in authority . . . .”—and I have seen references to those Bible passages in the past few days.
But what about the German Christians and the Japanese Christians in the 1930s and ’40s? They have often, and rightly, been criticized for not opposing their countries’ fascist leaders for whom they prayed.
Don’t misunderstand what I am saying: I am not comparing DJT with Hitler or Tojo, who was the Japanese prime minister from 1941 to 1944. Neither is praying for a country’s leader the same as approving everything that that leader does.
But it is difficult to know how to pray for and to oppose/resist a political leader at the same time.
Some are saying, though, that the opposition to Trump is much the same as the opposition to Obama over the past eight years—and that those who didn’t like the way Republicans treated Obama shouldn’t support Democrat’s negative treatment of Trump.
The Kansas City Star editorial on Jan. 21 said, “Having criticized GOP resistance to Obama, we can hardly encourage similar resistance to Trump.”
But are they the same? In an online response, I wrote that “there is little similarity between the reason Pres. Obama was criticized and the many reasons DJT is being criticized.
The massive anti-Trump marches last Saturday were not mainly partisan in nature. They were protests against threats to freedom, civility, inclusion, etc. 
A picture I took of a protester in Kansas City on Jan. 20.
There have been numerous calls for giving the new President a chance. On the one hand, that is probably not a bad idea. Much of the protest and negative things that have been said about DJT are based on fear of what might happen rather than on the basis of what has already happened.
On the other hand, the protest and negative statements against Trump are based on what he has said over the past year and a half. As the latest issue of The Economist says, there is “enough information . . . to take a view of what kind of person Mr Trump is.”
The historic Women’s March last Saturday was largely an attempt to protect women’s rights before the new President gives orders or the new Congress passes bills depriving them of those rights. As hard as it may be, it is still easier to keep things from happening than to change them after they are done.
In considering when to resist, consider the following prayer by Duke Divinity School Professor William H. Willimon’s prayer offered on MLK Day last Monday:
Lord, forgive the sin of our patience. Anoint us with a fresh spirit of impatience, that we might be half as angry over political injustice and human meanness as you are, and that, in our impatience, we might be given the guts to do something about it. Amen.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Further Look at “Silence”

Over the last couple of weeks I have read a number of reviews about Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence,” based, of course, on the 1966 (Eng., 1969) novel by the same name written by Endo Shusaku. Endo (1923-96) was a Catholic Christian who became widely known and read as a Japanese novelist.
One major problem with most reviews of “Silence” is their, well, silence concerning the historical background and context of the events portrayed in the movie.
Francis Xavier, one of the original seven Jesuits, was the first Christian missionary to set foot in Japan, landing at Kagoshima August 1549. Kagoshima is on the southern tip of Kyushu, the island on which Nagasaki is located in southwest Japan.
Xavier’s missionary activities were so successful that by 1587, Hideyoshi, the most powerful daimyo (feudal lord) in Japan, promulgated the Purge Directive Order to the Jesuits in July 1587. That Order included a ban on missionaries.
Hideyoshi’s primary concern was not about religious beliefs. Rather, it was about the power of the Christian feudal lords in Kyushu. The ban was Hideyoshi’s attempt to expand his political power.
Ten years later Hideyoshi took even harsher measures against Christians in Japan: he had 26 Christians (literally) crucified in Nagasaki in February 1597. Six were missionaries and 20 were Japanese believers.
Hideyoshi died in 1598, and after a decisive battle in 1600 Ieyasu became the first shogun of the Tokugawa Era, which lasted until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
In 1614, Ieyasu was so concerned about Spanish territorial ambitions that he signed a Christian Expulsion Edict, banning the practice of Christianity and expelling all foreign missionaries. This decision, made partly through discussions with Englishman Will Adams, is described in the fourth chapter of Oliver Statler’s intriguing book Japanese Inn (1961).
All of this stands behind the characters in “Silence,” beginning with Cristóvão Ferreira the Portuguese Jesuit priest who was a missionary in Japan from 1609 until he apostatized in 1633. The beginning of the movie shows Rodrigues and Garrpe, two young Jesuits priests, deciding to go to Japan in order to find Ferreira. They arrive there in 1639.
The most important thing to keep in mind from the historical background just given is the connection of the missionaries to the European countries that were involved in economic activities, and potentially imperialistic, activities in Japan.
While the movie gives the impression that there was a religious reason for the persecution of the Christians, in reality it was much more based on the fear of foreign political and economic influence in Japan. Religion, especially religious beliefs, was of a far lesser concern.
Many who see the movie think the actions of the Japanese were very cruel—and they were. But we need to remember that at the same time, the same sort of persecution of Jews, Muslims, and even Christian “heretics” was carried out by the ruling “Christians” in Europe.
Actually, the Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478 to 1834. According to Wikipedia, “Although records are incomplete, about 150,000 persons were charged with crimes by the Inquisition and about 3,000 were executed.”
Also, in 1692-93, a half century later than the main events in “Silence,” the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts resulted in the executions of twenty people.
In a different vein, it is also important to pay close attention to the end of the book, an ending that was amplified in the movie. I found two websites with quotes from “Silence,” but neither had the most important of all, words from the end of the eighth chapter of the book:
. . . the Christ in the bronze [fumie] speaks to the priest [Rodrigues]: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross (p. 183).
Those who miss the significance of those words, miss the whole point of Endo’s book. According to Japanese-American artist and author Makoto Fujimura, Endo gave this explanation of the purpose of his book: “I did not write a book about the Silence of God; I wrote a book about the Voice of God speaking through suffering and silence.”
Surprisingly, Endo’s original title of his novel was “The Aroma of Sunshine”! 
Stepping on a fumie
Makoto Fujimura, just mentioned, is the author of a book titled Silence and Beauty (2016). It is a marvelous book that gives insight into the nature of Japanese thinking, including the nature of the widespread Japanese understanding of beauty as well as silence.
Among other things, Fujimura explains that Endo’s novel is about grace. He writes,
By stepping on the fumi-e, Father Rodrigues inverts into his genuine faith, faith not dependent on his religious status or on his own merit, but a faith in grace— grace that, like the rays of sunshine after a rainy day, provides an aroma of the light (loc. 2263-65).
Then, in spite of the several times Inoue, the Japanese “inquisitor,” refers to Japan as an unproductive swamp for Christianity, Fujimura writes, “Christian faith is more than a mere rational proposition. It can take root deeply in a muddy swamp if it is designed for propagation there, like, for instance, planting rice in rice paddies” (loc. 1189-91).
Later Fujimura claims that through Endo, “we may begin to detect the aroma of the sunshine and to see the possibility of the Golden Country of Japan, a country filled with rice paddies, a muddy swamp now resplendent with golden hues of the abundant harvest” (loc. 2239-40).
That is the reason why Scorsese dedicated “Silence” to Japanese pastors. However, a review by a young Japanese pastor, while insightful and helpful in some parts, misses the point, even saying that “Silence” will drive Japanese people away from an understanding of God’s love.

I hope that that pastor, and that you who read this, will at some point read Fujimura’s book and learn from his insights. 

And while “Silence” is probably too “heavy” for the general public and even though it demands more thoughtful reflection than most people are willing to expend, I do hope there will be many who go see the movie and then spend adequate time thinking and talking with others about its deep meaning.
In this time when the “prosperity gospel” continues to grow in popularity (think about some of those who will be praying at the presidential inauguration on 1/20), this is a good time to consider the gospel of grace for those who are not, and will never be, rich and powerful.
God is not silent. God speaks through suffering–and through the hidden beauty of the gracious Christ on the cross.
(This article was first posted on my supplemental blogsite, see here, and there are some important comments made there and copied below.)