Friday, December 15, 2017

A Disastrous Rebellion

December 17, 1637, was the beginning of a terrible time for Christianity in Japan. Even though it was 380 years ago, a rebellion of some Christians that started then had repercussions that lasted for centuries—and there’s some similarity of erroneous beliefs then to those of some Christians now.
The Christian Century in Japan
The introduction of Christianity into Japan began with the arrival of Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier on the shores of southern Kyushu (the southernmost major island) in August 1549. As a result of his remarkable influence, and that of other missionaries who came later, a sizeable number of Japanese people in southern Japan became Christians.
The number and influence of Japanese Christians in the decades following 1549 led to the designation of that period as “the Christian century in Japan.” (The British historian C.R. Boxer published a book with that title in 1951.)
By the 1630s, some estimates say that there were as many as 750,000 Christians in Japan—or about half as many as now and, of course, a much larger percentage than now.
The growth in the number of Christian believers did not last for a century, though. The disastrous rebellion of 1637-38 reduced the number of openly professed Christians to almost zero—and it also resulted in Japan being completely closed to Christianity, and to most of the Western world, for some 220 years.
The Shimabara Rebellion
A British historian's 2016 book
Shimabara is the name of a peninsula in Nagasaki Prefecture, and the historical events that began there on Dec. 17, 1637, and lasted until April 15, 1638, are usually called the Shimabara Rebellion. 
That disastrous rebellion was primarily by Christians. It was largely due not to religious motives as much as to widespread dissatisfaction with overtaxation and the suffering caused by famine conditions in the area.
Amakusa Shirō, a charismatic 16-year-old youth was chosen as the rebellion’s leader. He was considered by local Christians as “heaven’s messenger,” and miraculous powers were attributed to him.
As the shogunate troops began to gather in Shimabara in a concerted effort to put down the rebellion, the rebels holed up in Hara Castle—and the troop’s siege of the castle lasted until April, when the resistance was finally broken and destroyed.
(The ruins of Hara Castle are about 40 miles east of Nagasaki City.)
It is said that some 37,000 rebels (men, women, and children) were beheaded at the end of that disastrous rebellion.
This was in spite of the hope/belief of Amakusa and some of his followers that this was going to be a Japanese “battle of Armageddon”—the time for the intervention of God and the beginning of God’s heavenly kingdom.
Apocalyptic Fervor Then and Now
The German Peasants’ War of 1524-25 and the Münster Rebellion (also in Germany) of 1534-35 were earlier “Christian” rebellions that shared similar characteristics to the Shimabara Rebellion. There were apocalyptic overtones, or underpinnings, to each of those rebellions also.
The leaders of both of those earlier rebellions believed that violence was sanctioned by God and was necessary to establish God’s new world order. But the rebels in both Germany and Japan learned by sad experience that those who take the sword die by the sword.
Now, there are those who see DJT’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in apocalyptic terms. For example, consider this Dec. 11 article: “Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem excites apocalyptic fervor.”
DJT’s “spiritual adviser” Paula White says that “evangelicals are ecstatic” at the decision to move Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, for that means Jesus’ Second Coming is nearer.
But might this be the beginning of another disaster similar to but far, far worse than the Shimabara Rebellion?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Relevance of Jonah

Strange as it may seem, I was moved to write this article while reading a book on Palestinian liberation theology. Please think with me about the ongoing relevance, even to Palestinian Christians, of the Old Testament book of Jonah.
Preaching on Jonah
From way back, I have long been interested in the theological and missiological meaning of Jonah. The sermon I preached in my seminary homiletics class was on Jonah. I can’t remember if the sermon on Jonah was the only one I preached before the class. But I do remember it—and wish I still had the manuscript for that sermon. (Why can’t I find it on my hard drive?)
At that time (1961), June and I were pursuing a career as overseas missionaries, and I was convinced that there was a strong missionary message in Jonah. That conviction has not changed, although it has been refined some.
Thus, it was with great interest that I read about Jonah in a new book on Palestinian liberation theology.
Ateek’s Emphasis on Jonah
Naim Stifan Ateek is a Palestinian Christian and an Arab who is a citizen of the nation of Israel. Ateek (b. 1937) is the retired Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. His book A Palestinian Theology of Liberation was published earlier this year. 
Since I have written about the plight of the Palestinians previously (see especially here and here), this article is only about the main point that Ateek makes about Jonah in his book.
“The Theology of Jonah” is a brief section (pp. 76~80) in Ateek’s book. He asserts: “Through the story of Jonah, the Old Testament reaches its theological climax.”
Jonah is the apex of OT theology because there we find emphasis on God as the God of the whole world, an inclusive God. Secondly, Jonah teaches us that “God’s people include all people.”
Ateek’s main point is the third thing we need to learn from Jonah: “The story of Jonah emphasizes that there is no one particular land that belongs to God. God is the God of the whole world. . . . God is concerned about all lands.”
From the NIV Quickview Bible
Thus, “Authentic understanding of land rejects the exclusionary monopoly of one people that brings about the negation, expulsion, and ethnic cleansing of the people of the land” (such as the Palestinians).
Ateek goes on to stress, “The challenge of authentic faith is to overcome and defeat whatever is exclusionary regarding our theology of God, neighbor, and land, and to embrace whatever is inclusive.”
Bell’s “Take” on Jonah
Pastor Rob Bell made a splash in the theological world with his book Love Wins (2011)—about which I wrote in my blog article titled “Bell on Hell.”
Bell’s latest book is titled, What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything (2017). “Fish,” the 13th of his 43 short chapters, is about Jonah.
Bell cautions against Christians placing importance on “defend-the-fish” arguments in interpreting Jonah while missing “the point of the story, the point about allowing God’s redeeming love to flow through us with such power and grace that we are able to love and bless even our worst enemies” (p. 104).
Harking back to my most recent article (here), Jonah teaches the importance of loving those whom we have othered.

At this time when the U.S. Administration—and evangelical Christians who are some of its strongest supporters—tends to other (“illegal”) immigrants, Muslims, the poor, they—and we all—need to pay close attention to the relevance of the theology of Jonah. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Othering and "One Anothering"

This article is partly the lament of an old white guy. It was sparked by a Thinking Friend telling me in an email that she had been advised to "give up on old white guys."
The Problem: Othering
My thinking on this subject was also stirred by Cierra Lockett writing about how some African-Americans have a problem feeling bicultural because “though they're American citizens, it's hard to feel American because of how the country historically and currently oppresses and ‘others’ them.”
That, without a doubt, is far, far worse than the othering I have experienced. But it is a difference of degree, not of kind. While in the U.S. it is much worst for African-Americans and American Indians, every group—or individual—who suffers from prejudice is a victim of being “othered.”
It is not hard to see why old white guys are the target of criticism—and of being othered. Perhaps most of the problems of the world are the results of the “sins” of old white guys.
But prejudice is thinking that all the people of a group partake of the characteristics of the problematic people of that group. Thus, I am saddened when “written off” because of the mistakes of so many old white guys, past and present.
For example, I have been disappointed that few youngish people read and comment on my blog articles. I have tried to get people below 30 or even 40 to read and comment. Few have—for a variety of reasons, no doubt. Perhaps one main reason, though, is because most think that an old guy doesn’t have anything of value to say to them.
Last month I was criticized for suggesting that becoming/being bicultural might be something beneficial for African-Americans to consider. I was told by several people that whites shouldn’t make any suggestions to blacks.
There is also the problem of us guys saying anything substantial about matters relating to women: the charge of “mansplaining” has become rather common.
So, whether intended or not, “old white guys” are sometimes (often?) othered by those who are young, by people of color, and by women. Perhaps such othering serves us right—but, still, it is a cause of sadness. 
The Solution: One Anothering
Is there no way we all can relate to one another simply as human beings?
The Bible says “Love one another.” That surely doesn’t mean we are to love only people like us—for the old to love the elderly, whites to love whites, and males to love males. (And, of course, I am talking about agape-love here, not erotic love.)
To love one another surely means to accept/respect everyone without prejudice regardless of age, ethnic, or gender differences. Is that kind of mutual love/acceptance/respect too much to expect?
Back in 1990 Richard C. Meyer, a Presbyterian pastor in Florida, wrote a book titled One Anothering. The book was mainly written for small groups, but the title has an important broader meaning.  
Those of us in a position of privilege, though, have the main responsibility to take the initiative and to reach out in love to those who have been othered most severely.
South American liberation theology has often spoken about the “preferential option for the poor.” It is perhaps time for most of us, especially us old white guys, to promote a preferential option for those individuals/groups who are suffering most because of being othered.
That kind of one anothering means actively loving whether we are reciprocally loved or not. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Is Wright Right?

N.T. Wright is an eminent British New Testament scholar whom I have respected for many years. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (2012) is one his many books. It is mainly about the central message of the four gospels in the New Testament.
What Are the Gospels About?
As Wright (b. 12/1/1948) explains in the Preface, “the story that the four evangelists tell is the story, as in my title, of ‘how God became king’.”
Early in the book, he notes that Protestant Christianity has assumed atonement and justification “to be at the heart of ‘the gospel.’ But,” he insists, the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—“appear to have almost nothing to say about those subjects” (p. 6).
Further, the classic Christian creeds say little about the bulk of the four gospels: They “were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God” (p. 20).
So, again, Wright clearly asserts that “the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven” (p. 34).
I think that basically Wright is right in what he writes here. 
Where is the Kingdom of God?
Conservative/evangelical Christians have long emphasized that the Kingdom of God (KoG) will come into fruition at the end of the present world. It is seen primarily as being in Heaven following the end times.
Partly because the KoG is always called “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s gospel (beginning with Mt. 3:2), it has commonly been viewed as “other-worldly” and primarily about the future rather than the present.
However, there has been a growing recognition among liberal, moderate, and even left-wing evangelical Christians that the KoG is about the here and now as well as about “the sweet by and by.” This new understanding is based partly on the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
As I wrote in my Feb. 28 blog article, through the years I have come to understand that the KoG is as much about, or even more about, God’s reign on earth now than after the “end of the world.”
Indeed, if God became King in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection, as Wright writes, then the KoG is here and the KoG is now.
This basic understanding is also found in the recent writings of popular Christian authors such as Brian McLaren as well as in the books of Brian Zahnd, such as Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (2017), which I wrote about on Sept. 5 (see here). (Both McLaren and Zahnd hold Wright in high regard.)
Why Doesn’t It Look Like God is King?
The perplexing question, of course, is why, if God is King, doesn’t the world look more like what we would expect God’s Kingdom to look like? Please consider these brief suggestions:
1) There was no promise that the full realization of the KoG would come quickly—and considering the age of the universe or the history of Homo sapiens, what is a mere 2,000 years?
2) The KoG is being established, slowly, only by peaceful means and without coercion. Every use of coercion by Christians, and there have been a multitude of attempts to expand the KoG by force—has caused a setback.
3) There has been progress—although the struggle continues. As Wright acknowledges, “the story of Jesus” is seen in the New Testament “as the clash between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world” (p. 138).
So we continue to pray, “Your Kingdom come”—while both working and waiting for that to happen.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Carnegie and the "Death Tax"

Andrew Carnegie, the industrial giant and philanthropist, was born on this day (Nov. 25) in 1835. His life and legacy is somewhat of a conundrum: he was both a hard task-master and cruel industrialist as well a warm-hearted, benevolent man who greatly wanted world peace—and who favored an inheritance tax.
The Coming (?) Change is the “Death Tax”
As of this writing, the both highly touted and highly criticized tax reform bill currently being considered by the U.S. Congress is still in flux. But the present estate tax provision will most likely be unchanged in the final version of the bill, which possibly will be signed into law. DJT is promising this will be done before Christmas.
The opponents of the current estate tax provision, which seem to include most Republican legislators, are wont to call it a “death tax.” Further, they emphasize how unfair it is to the families of hard-working people who wish to pass their accumulated wealth on to their descendants.
So, changing this provision is one of many changes in the tax reform bill, which has already passed by the House. The Senate version, yet to be voted on, currently has the same projected estate tax change as the House bill.
Misleading Claims about the “Death Tax”
Sam Graves is the U.S. Representative from the district where I live. In his Nov. 15 email newsletter to people in his district, Rep. Graves decried the estate tax, writing that “a tax that kicks in when you die is absurd.” His main point: “Farmers are hit especially hard by the death tax.”
What Rep. Graves failed to mention is that currently $5,490,000 is exempted from the tax that he thinks is so despicable. (I wonder how many farmers in north Missouri have an estate worth more than that.)
According to the Center on the Budget and Policy Priorities (see here), in 2017 only two out of every 1,000 estates will owe federal estate tax—5,500 out of the nation’s 2,700,000 estates (about 0.02%); only 80 of those (0.003%) are small farms and businesses.
The tax bill already passed by the House doubles that exemption immediately and eliminates it completely after six years—and this in the name of tax reform for the benefit of the working middle class.   
But guess who benefits from this change in the estate tax? The wealthiest people in the land, of course—including the Trump children who will potentially gain as much as $1.4 billion if the tax reform bill is signed into law by the President.
Carnegie’s Surprising Support of Estate Tax
Many of you perhaps read my article about the questionable philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie and two other wealthy people. (You can read/review that article here.) In reading about Carnegie before writing that article, I was surprised at what he said about the need for an estate tax.
In a June 1889 article titled “Wealth,” Carnegie wrote,
Of all forms of taxation, this [the estate tax] seems the wisest. Men who continue hoarding great sums all their lives, the proper use of which for public ends would work good to the community, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the state, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share. By taxing estates heavily at death the state marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life.
Near the end of that article, Carnegie asserted that the person who dies rich “dies disgraced."
When Carnegie died in 1919, he had already given away over $350,000,000 (over $5 trillion in 2017 dollars) of his wealth. After his death, his last $30,000,000 was given to foundations, charities, and to pensioners. 
Kudos to Carnegie!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Observing World Children’s Day

As you may know, today (November 20) is World Children’s Day. At least the World Council of Churches (WCC) has been promoting today by that name. Since 1954 the United Nations has been calling Nov. 20 Universal Children’s Day—a different name with the same basic emphasis.
The Appeal
The WCC asserts that today is “a time for world community and churches to express their dedication to children’s wellbeing” (see here). Surely this is an appeal that most of us can respond to positively.
UNICEF (The United Nations Children's Fund) also calls today World Children’s Day and encourages thought and action for the sake of the children of the world (see this link).
The Problem
A sizeable number of the world’s children are in dire straits. While the numbers have, thankfully, significantly lessened in recent decades, still according to WHO there are around 15,000 children under five who die every day. Perhaps as many as two-thirds of these deaths were/are preventable.
So perhaps at least 10,000 children under five needlessly die every single day because of hunger and because of malnutrition-related and other health issues that could be remedied by inexpensive medication.
In addition, according to a UNICEF report issued a little over a year ago, nearly 50 million children worldwide have been uprooted from their homes due to violence, poverty and other factors out of their control.
Here is a picture of Rohingya refugee children reaching out for food in a refugee camp in Bangladesh—and these are better off than many Rohingya children are now. 
This is just a partial look at the problems many of the world’s children are facing at this time.
Our Response?
What can people of goodwill do for the sake of the world’s suffering children?
1) We can become more aware of the deep need of so many of the world’s children. That is one major intention of today being designated World Children’s Day—and one of the main purposes of this article.
2) We can seek, over time, to elect politicians who are concerned about the welfare of people, especially children, worldwide rather than focusing on making America “great again”—especially by such things as enacting tax reform (or “deform”) that benefits primarily the wealthiest in the land. To a large degree, the suffering of so many children, here and abroad, is a political problem—in both the narrow and the broad senses I mentioned in my previous blog article.
3) We can examine our own lifestyles and buying habits in order to see if there are ways we can share more generously to help alleviate the serious needs of some of the world’s children.
Some charities endeavor to support needy children by seeking monthly gifts to help individuals. World Vision is one organization that does that, and years ago June and I sponsored children through that organization. I have recently learned about a similar group: Kids Alive International, which has an excellent rating by Charity Navigator.
Perhaps it is better, though, to see the “big picture” and work for societal change by supporting organizations such as UNICEF (which doesn’t have a very good Charity Navigator rating), Bread for the World, or Water.org. (The latter two organizations are not just charities for children, but children benefit greatly from their activities.)
So, on this World Children’s Day, I am asking each of us to consider what we can do to help the suffering children around the world. 
And many of us have to grapple with this difficult question, especially during the upcoming holiday season: Why do my children or grandchildren need so much when there are so many children who have so little?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Religion and Politics

Recently I have been reading and thinking about the relationship between religion and politics. Two devout Episcopalian lawyers have been helpful in this regard.
The Position of Stringfellow
William Stringfellow (b. 1928) graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956. He soon moved to a tenement in Harlem, New York City, where he worked as a tireless advocate for racial and social justice. Then in 1967 he moved to Block Island, R.I. He lived, and was an active member of the Episcopal church, there until his untimely death in 1985.
Back in September, I re-read An Ethics for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, the thought-provoking book by William Stringfellow, who was a lay theologian and a stimulating author.
Stringfellow’s book was first published in 1973 during the Nixon Administration, but it seems very relevant to the present situation in the U.S. under the current occupant of the White House.
“Biblical politics” is the title of the first section of the first chapter of Stringfellow’s book. He declares, “The biblical topic is politics.” And then he continues with this long, significant sentence:
The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgment of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics (pp. 14-15).
How’s that for a weighty sentence! 

The Position of Danforth
The year of 1963 was a very special one for John Danforth (b. 1936). That was the year he graduated from both Yale Divinity School and Yale Law School as well as the year he was ordained as an Episcopal priest and admitted to the bar.
Danforth practiced law for a while but then became a politician, serving as the Attorney General of Missouri (1969~1975) and then as a U.S. Senator from Missouri (1976~1995).
In September I also read Danforth’s 2015 book, The Relevance of Religion. In his first chapter, Danforth sets forth “four broad principles” for how religious people ought to relate to politics:
(1) We should insist that politics remain in its proper place. It is not the realm of absolute truth and it is not the battleground of good and evil. (2) We should be advocates for the common good. (3) We should be a unifying force, working to bind America together. (4) We should advocate political compromise, and make the case that the spirit of compromise is consistent with our faith.
Danforth’s emphases on compromise, on working with those with different ideas, on listening to others and not idolizing one’s own position are good, important ones—and attitudes/actions that I wish more Washington politicians would put into practice today. 

The Better Position 

For “professional” politicians, Danforth’s position is a good one, as I have just indicated. But for those of us who are not politicians, perhaps Stringfellow’s position is more helpful—and challenging.
There are those, including many Christians, who say that they don’t want to be involved in politics—and most won’t be in the way that Danforth was. But people of goodwill, perhaps especially Christians, should be involved in politics the way Stringfellow suggests.  
When I wrote last November about being a one issue voter (see here), I was writing about being involved in politics in the way promoted by Stringfellow. 

Jesus said, “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Mt. 6:33). We can’t do that without being active in politics.