Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Loving Relationship

As many of you know, June and I married 60 years ago, in May 1957. But another young couple who were very much in love at that time couldn’t be legally married in Virginia where they lived, for they were of different races. The law against miscegenation was finally struck down 45 years ago this month.
Meet Richard and Mildred
Richard Loving (1933-75) and Mildred Jeter (1939-2008) grew up in Center Point, a small village in Caroline County on the eastern side of Virginia.
Richard was white and Mildred was of mixed race: African-American and American Indian. In Center Point the three prevalent racial/ethnic groups socialized freely, very different from the county and the state as a whole.
Their story is told in one of 2016’s top movies, the historical drama film “Loving.” Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian-born Irish actress, won an Oscar nomination for her sparkling performance as Mildred. June and I greatly enjoyed watching the movie in April, soon after it came out on DVD.
Then, earlier this year Loving vs. Virginia, a “documentary novel” by Patricia Hruby Powell, was published, primarily for high school students. I found it to be a delightful read. Powell’s story starts in the fall of 1952 and ends in the summer of 1967. Here is a picture of Richard and Mildred in 1967:
Richard and Mildred’s Marriage
Since they grew up in the same community, Richard and Mildred knew each other earlier, but their romantic relationship seems to have started in October 1955, about the same time June and I started dating. But they had to face issues we didn’t. For example, a couple of months later when they drove to a nearby town to see a movie, they had to go up to the dirty balcony, for that was the only place where “coloreds” were allowed.
By September 1956, when June and I were engaged, Mildred realizes she was pregnant—but marriage was not an option for them in Virginia. In January 1957 their baby was born—and Lola Loving, Richard’s mother, was the midwife who delivered her own grandchild. 
The next year the couple finally went to Washington, D.C., to be legally married there on June 2, 1958. (Marriage between blacks and whites had long been legal in D.C.; two years after his first wife died, Frederick Douglass legally married a white woman there in 1884.)
Richard and Mildred’s Troubles
Five weeks after their marriage, Richard and Mildred were staying with her parents. At 3 a.m. the Caroline County sheriff broke into the bedroom where they were sleeping and arrested them. This was the beginning of jail time, trials, and their “exile” to D.C.
In the summer of 1963, the summer when MLK, Jr., publically orated about his dream, Mildred Loving also had a dream. She deeply desired for her marriage to be legally recognized in Virginia, for she was tired of living in the city and dreamed of going back home to Center Point.
So, Mildred boldly wrote Bobby Kennedy, who was then the U.S. Attorney General. Kennedy’s office recommended that she contact the ACLU—which she did. Two young lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, took the Lovings’ case.
Even though they were still in their 20s, the lawyers took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings on June 12, 1967.

From the mid-1950s until his tragic death in a car accident caused by a drunken driver, Richard and Mildred seem to have had a very loving relationship (pun intended). And they paved the way for other people in love to be able to marry legally in spite of racial differences.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Burning Bernie

Last week Sen. Bernie Sanders made some strong statements about Pres. Trump’s nominee for Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Sanders has been severely criticized for those utterances, even by some who are not Republicans or conservative evangelicals.
Bernie’s Statements
Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee, appeared before the Senate Budget Committee on June 8. There he was subjected to stiff questioning by Sen. Sanders. At issue was what Vought had written last year in support of Wheaton College’s decision to fire Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor.
As you may remember, Hawkins was terminated over the controversy sparked by her donning a hijab in a gesture of solidarity with Muslims in the U.S. She also declared that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
In defending Wheaton’s action, Vought wrote that Hawkins’s views were mistaken. “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology, they do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned,” he asserted.
In response to those remarks, Sanders declared that what Vought wrote was “hateful,” “Islamaphobic,” and “an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.”
He went on to say that Vought “is not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.” Further, “This country since its inception has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms, whether it is racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and Islamaphobia.”
He added, “Over the years we have made progress to becoming a less discriminatory and more tolerant society, and we must not go backwards.”  
Burning Bernie
As might be expected, Sen. Sanders was widely attacked from the religious right. Some called him bigoted against evangelical Christians.
I was surprised that even some moderate Christians were also quite critical of Bernie. For example, Amanda Tyler, the new Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), wrote critically of Sanders on June 9 (here).
Tyler averred that “Sanders’ line of questioning imposed a religious test, which is forbidden by Article VI of the Constitution.”
Michael Gerson wrote along the same lines in a June 12 op-ed piece in the Washington Post.
Agreeing with Bernie
As you might guess, there were also some who wrote in support of Sanders’ position. Here is the link to one such well-written piece, and I basically agree with it.
While I am a strong supporter of religious liberty and usually agree with the BJC, I think their (Tyler’s) criticism of Bernie missed the point.
What Vought said about Muslims, of course, he could also have said about Jews, or Buddhists—or about the large percentage of the population who do not profess faith in any religion. As a private citizen he has every right to hold to his religious convictions.
Is it not a problem, though, when people in public office openly state that everyone who has other, or no, religious beliefs is “condemned”? While personal beliefs can perhaps be intolerant, the stance of public officials must be for tolerance of people of all faiths. That, I think, was Bernie’s point.
Moreover, what Article VI of the Constitution says is that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It doesn’t say that people can or should never be disqualified because of their religious beliefs.
Some people in the past held strong religious beliefs about the validity of slavery or of polygamy, and more recently some have held religious beliefs that condemn LGBT people. While such people have the freedom to hold such beliefs, should they be in public office?
Probably not. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

REMEMBERING REINIE

Reinhold (“Reinie”) Niebuhr was born 125 years ago, on June 21, 1892. His picture was on the cover of the March 8, 1948, issue of Time magazine, their 25th anniversary issue. His last major book was published in 1952 and he died in 1971. But in just the last week he has been prominently mentioned in an article in The New Yorker (here), and the major subject in some religious publications (such as here and here).
WHO WAS REINHOLD NIEBUHR?
I used to tell my Introduction to Theology students in Japan that Reinhold Niebuhr was the greatest theologian born in Missouri. (They knew that I was from Missouri.) That, I believe, is manifestly true still today.
Son of a German Evangelical Synod pastor, Reinie, as he was called by his friends, went to college and seminary in Missouri and Illinois and then earned B.D. and M.A. degrees at Yale Divinity School. But he became a pastor at an early age and never completed doctoral studies.
After thirteen formative years (1915-28) as pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Niebuhr was elected to the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. He taught Christian social ethics until his retirement in 1960.
Niebuhr lectured and preached widely and wrote profusely. He gained prominence in the theological world with the publishing of his Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics in 1932.
In 1939 Niebuhr delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Those lectures were the basis of his most important book, two volumes published under the title The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1943).
Reinie died three weeks before his 79th birthday (just about the same exact age that I am now). 
NIEBUHR’S INFLUENCE
Although educated in liberal schools, Niebuhr became an outspoken critic of theological liberalism. (I referred to that criticism in my book The Limits of Liberalism; see especially pages 27-28). Thus, he became one of the most important proponents of what has usually been called neo-orthodox theology.
Niebuhr’s influence, however, extended far beyond the world of theology. With his distinctive emphasis on “Christian realism,” he created waves in the secular world as well.
Reinie was criticized from various sides. As his early biographer Jane Bingham wrote in Courage to Change (1961), “. . . if his ideas were too orthodox for the liberals, they were too liberal for the orthodox; and if too secular for the religious, they were too religious for the secular” (pp. 44-45).
But Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has stated quite accurately (in this 2005 article) that Niebuhr was “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century.” And his influence was and is particularly notable in the world of politics.
Through the years Niebuhr has been highly evaluated by many in that world, including President Carter and President Obama—and James Comey.
NIEBUHR’S RELEVANCE TODAY
Two days ago (June 8) was widely designated as “Comey Day.” Former, and fired, FBI Director James Comey spent hours that day testifying before both open and closed sessions of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Recent background stories about Comey have reported that his senior graduating thesis at College of William and Mary (in 1982) contrasted Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell.
Niebuhr’s influence on Comey was/is also seen when a sleuth discovered that “Reinhold Niebuhr” was the name of Comey’s secret Twitter account.
One of Niebuhr’s central points may be particularly related to Comey’s statement about DJT being a liar. Niebuhr wrote much and convincingly about sin and emphasized, as one author succinctly stated (p. 89 in this book), “Dishonesty is sin’s final expression.”
This is a good time to remember Reinie and the relevant things he wrote.
####
NEW MOVIE/BOOK ABOUT NIEBUHR – In March of this year, “American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story,” a new documentary film was released on DVD. Jeremy L. Sabella’s book with the same name was also published in March. (June 10, 8:30 p.m. -- After posting this article early this morning, June and I were able to watch the documentary this evening, streamed from our local PBS channel. It was excellently done and I highly recommend it.)

Monday, June 5, 2017

Political Cartoons: Helpful or Harmful?

Political cartoons have had a long and venerable history in the U.S.—but are they helpful for spurring private thought and civil public debate, or are they divisive and promoters of increased polarization in society?

POLITICAL CARTOONISTS I HAVE KNOWN 
     I have long enjoyed political cartoons. During the nearly seven years we lived in Kentucky, June and I enjoyed a great many of Hugh Haynie’s cartoons that appeared regularly in Louisville’s daily newspaper.
   Haynie (1927-99) drew for The Courier-Journal from 1958 to1996. Here is one of his cartoons, showing LBJ’s opposition to the media:  
     After settling into our retirement home in Missouri in 2005, we have regularly enjoyed great cartoons by Lee Judge in the Kansas City Star. Here is one of his cartoons from 2014.  
     In recent years I have also regularly read the Washington Post online and have enjoyed the outstanding political cartoons of Tom Toles. Here is one of my favorites: 
     And here is a rather powerful cartoon that I saw just last week in the National Catholic Reporter; it is by Stuart Carlson, a cartoonist I don’t remember seeing before: 
     If a picture is worth a thousand words, as it is often said, a political cartoon (with just a few words) must be worth at least two thousand words—or more.

THE FATHER OF POLITICAL CARTOONS 
     Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was one of the first and most influential political cartoonists in the United States. Recently I have read some of two fascinating books about him: Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons (2013) by Fiona Deans Halloran and Thomas Nast: America’s Greatest Political Cartoonist (2014) by Jay G. Williams. 
      I first became aware of Nast years ago when working on a talk or article about Santa Claus. Beginning in the 1860s, Nast’s cartoons about Santa shaped the nation’s image of the “jolly old elf.” 
     Nast is also credited for being the first to use an elephant to portray the Republican Party, and he also popularized the donkey (or jackass) to symbolize the Democratic Party. 
     Through the years Nast’s cartoons appeared mostly in Harper’s Weekly, which in 1861 had a readership of 120,000 and remained above 100,000 throughout the war years. 
     It was during the Civil War that Nast’s cartoons were especially influential. On September 3, 1864, his cartoon “Compromise with the South” appeared in Harper’s Weekly
      As noted in HarpWeek.com, Nast’s message is clear: “If compromise with the Confederacy is pursued, then Union servicemen will have sacrificed their limbs and lives in vain, and black Americans will be returned to slavery.” 
     Many of Nast’s cartoons in later years were strongly against politicians he opposed. Many were so strong it some people even thought that the word nasty was derived from the name of the hard-hitting cartoonist. 
    Some of his most severe criticism targeted “Boss” Tweed of New York. Regarding Nast’s cartoons, Tweed reportedly said, “Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!” 

THE PROBLEM WITH POLITICAL CARTOONS 
     Interesting as they may be, I wonder if political cartoons may often be harmful to civil public discourse. We tend to like those cartoons with which we agree and dislike those with which we disagree. Thus, I like most of Judge’s and Toles’s cartoons, but very much dislike most of those (few) I see by Glenn McCoy, such as: 
     So, are political cartoons generally helpful as a means of spurring deeper thought and civil public debate—or are they mainly harmful, promoting greater divisiveness and polarization? 
     What do you think?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What about the Benedict Option?

Have you heard of “the Benedict Option”? It has been emphasized for years by Rod Dreher, and his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, was just published on March 14. On that very day, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that Dreher’s work was “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

THE AUTHOR OF THE BENEDICT OPTION
     Rod Dreher (b. 1967) is an interesting guy. He is a senior editor and prolific blogger at The American Conservative (TAC), a bi-monthly journal co-founded by Pat Buchanan. According to their website, Dreher is one of eight, all white men, on the TAC “team.”

Dreher was raised as a nominal Methodist, but he converted to Catholicism at age 26. In 2006 he converted again, this time to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. His views on Christianity are as conservative as his social and political views.

Although his only university degree is a BA in journalism (from LSU in his home state of Louisiana), Dreher seems to be well-read. His emphasis on the Benedict Option (BenOp) comes from Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s influential book After Virtue (1981).

To a large extent, Dreher seems to be a pessimist—or an alarmist. For example, he thinks the world now is “growing ever more hostile” toward true Christians (p. 2). “Progressives, he writes, “sneer at claims of anti-Christian discrimination or persecution.” But, he warns his readers, “Don’t you believe them” (p. 179). 
THE GIST OF THE BENEDICT OPTION
     Dreher’s main point is fairly simple: Christians who wish to maintain their faith (and that of their children) must separate from mainstream society and try to live in intentional communities—although not necessarily “in the hills.” This is not just for their own sake, but also for the future of the Christian faith.

Benedict of Nursia (480-547), for whom the BenOp is named, is known as the father of medieval monasticism, which, in turn, has been heralded as the “preserver of Western civilization.” If not completely in the same way, Dreher is calling Christians today to the same task: withdrawal from the dominant culture in order to help preserve traditional Christianity.

As a true conservative, in the primary sense of that term, Dreher sees the BenOp as a needed strategy for conserving or preserving the true faith, keeping it from not only from being swallowed up by secular society but also from being perverted by liberal “Christians.”

A BRIEF EVALUATION OF THE BENEDICT OPTION
     I first became aware of the BenOp when I read the Winter 2017 issue of Plough, the quarterly publication of the Bruderhof. (See here for what I wrote about Plough elsewhere.) I was both attracted and repelled by what I read.

As a committed Anabaptist Christian, I agree with Ted Grimsrud, a notable Mennonite theologian, who wrote a long (29 pages!) four-part blog article about the BenOp: “I believe that Christians should always think in terms of living in countercultural communities and having a countercultural sensibility.

I also agree with Dreher’s strong rejection of the consumerism and hedonism rampant in Western society.

My main disagreement, though, is with regard to what he says about gay rights. Throughout much of the book (e.g., see pp. 179ff.) Dreher seems to assert that being Christian clearly means being anti-gay.

According to Dreher’s analysis, the present discrimination against or persecution of Christians—harsh treatment most likely to grow stronger in the future—is (or will be) primarily because of their refusal to countenance the full equality of gays/lesbians in society.

This aspect of the Benedict Option, however, which denies some people’s civil rights, is certainly neither good nor necessary.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Night at the Elms

The Elms Hotel and Spa in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, is about sixteen miles from where June and I live. Many times we have driven by the Elms but have never stayed there. That will soon change: we are about to spend a night at the Elms as so many others have over the past 130 years.
TRUMAN AT THE ELMS
The presidential election of 1948 was long ago, but it is still one that is widely known. Upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Vice President Harry Truman suddenly became the 33rd POTUS. He was relatively unknown when elected as V.P. and was quite unpopular during his first term.
Even though the incumbent, he was the definite underdog in 1948. It widely thought he would lose that election to Thomas Dewey, the flashy New York Governor.
According to David McCullough in his massive book Truman (1992), on the evening of the 1948 election, Truman and two of his aides “drove to Excelsior Springs, the little resort town across the Missouri [River] in Clay County, and checked into the Elms Hotel.”
This was “the same place Truman had escaped to sixteen years earlier, crushed by disappointment the night he learned he was not to be Tom Pendergast’s choice for governor.”
McCullough goes on to say,
The sprawling three-story stone-and-timber hotel was the latest of several that had occupied the site since mineral springs were discovered there in the 1880s. Its chief attractions were seclusion, peace, and quiet. Franklin Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, and Al Capone were all known to have escaped from public view at the Elms (p. 705).
It was while at the Elms that Truman learned he had won the election. The next day he posed for the iconic picture of him smiling broadly while holding the Chicago Tribune paper boldly declaring “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
THE WATERS AT THE ELMS
In the 1870s and 1880s there was a boom of resorts built to make it possible for people to “take the waters,” drinking and bathing in mineral water that supposedly had healing powers. Such resorts were built all over Missouri as well as in many other states.
Loring Bullard’s book Healing Waters: Missouri’s Historic Mineral Springs and Spas was published in 2004. “By all standards,” Bullard writes, “Excelsior Springs must be considered the state’s premier mineral water resort.” He goes on to say that “it is the only mineral water site still operating as a resort” (p. 133). And that is because of the Elms Hotel and Spa.
Excelsior Springs, now a town of some 11,500 people, has long billed itself as “American’s Haven of Health.” It became a town in 1881, a year following the discovery of natural spring water that was thought to have healing qualities.
The first Elms Hotel opened for business in 1888. After being destroyed by fire five years later, the second Elms Hotel was opened in 1909—only to be destroyed by fire the very next year. The current Elms hotel was built of native stone and opened in 1912—and has undergone many renovations since then.   
THE SEATS AT THE ELMS
For June and me, tomorrow (May 26) is our 60th sixtieth wedding anniversary. We are going to have a bigger celebration with our children and grandchildren in July. Just the two of us, though, are going to celebrate the actual date by spending a night at the Elms.
I don’t know how much we will “take the waters” at the Elms, but perhaps we will be able to reap some benefit there as we shoot for our 75th anniversary. (Is that too much for us to hope for, an anniversary celebration in 2032?)


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Honoring COs

Although largely unknown, May 15 each year is observed by some people/groups as International Conscientious Objectors Day (CO Day). So, this past Monday was a day honoring those who have resisted and those who continue to resist war.
THE ANABAPTIST TRADITION
The oldest consistent emphasis upon pacifism, non-violence, and non-participation in war is in the Anabaptist tradition, which started with the “Swiss Brethren” of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525.
That tradition has been carried on mostly by the Mennonites, the followers of Menno Simons. He was a Dutch priest who was re-baptized and left the Catholic Church in 1536. Even a few years earlier Jakob Hutter became the leader of a smaller group that came to be known as the Hutterites.
In the late 1600s, Jakob Amman led a conservative breakaway from the main Anabaptist communities in Europe, and his followers came to be known as the Amish.
One primary commonality among these three groups was/is their pacifism and resistance to violence, based on their commitment to love of enemies as Jesus commanded. Through the years adherents in all three groups have known the story of Dirk Willems, who was imprisoned in the Netherlands for his Anabaptist beliefs.
During that winter, Willems was able to escape—but his absence was soon discovered and he was quickly chased by a guard. Willems ran across the frozen moat, but his heavier pursuer broke through the ice. Willems turned back and saved the man’s life—but then was re-captured. On May 16, 1569, he was burned at the stake. 
THE PEACE CHURCH TRADITION

Even though there was a long history of pacifism among Anabaptist Christians, there was no provision for conscientious objectors during World War I. As a result, two Hutterites who were committed to absolute pacifism became martyrs in 1918. (If you don’t know their tragic story, or would like to review it, click here to see my 11/30/14 blog article about them.)
Since 1935, three church groups have been termed historic peace churches. Those three are the Mennonites (including the Amish), the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and Church of the Brethren. During World War II, and since, members of those churches have been able to register as conscientious objectors and to be exempted from direct involvement in wartime violence.
It has not been so easy for people who were not members of a historic peace church or who objected only to a specific war—such as the war in Vietnam. (For more about this matter, see here for Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin’s lengthy and informative comments on my May 10 blog article.)
CARRYING ON THE CO TRADITION
Conscientious objectors (COs) have been active in countries other than the U.S. In fact, Peace Pledge Union (see here), a secular British group, and War Resisters International (click here) are leaders in the observance of International Conscientious Objectors Day.
This CO declaration appears on the latter’s website:
'War is a crime against humanity. I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war, and to strive for the removal of all causes of war'.
That is the sentiment behind the CO tradition—and it will continue to be emphasized this year.
On October 19-22, 2017, there will be a symposium on resistance and conscientious objection during WWI at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. The theme is “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today.” (For more information, click here.)
My church (Rainbow Mennonite Church) is supporting that symposium and will be displaying in our fellowship hall some of the materials from the symposium for a few days following its completion.