Sunday, January 15, 2017

What About Christian Radicalism?

In 1970 a young man, Arthur G. Gish (b. 1939), published a book titled The New Left and Christian Radicalism. It was a slim, but powerful, book.
A couple of years later, another young man (me, b. 1938) read and was greatly influenced by Gish’s book. I have written about it before: the “Amish beard” I have worn since 1972 was partly due to my reading it (see this 2010 blog article.)
Just this past November, I again made reference to Gish’s book (see here), saying that it was “one of the most influential books I read in the 1970s—or maybe have read in my lifetime.”
The first comment I received on the latter article was from Thinking Friend Phil Rhoads. He wrote, “I wish you could give us a synopsis of Gish's 1970 book referred to.”
Well, I can’t give a full synopsis in this brief article, but I have elsewhere posted a brief summary which you can open with this link. In this article, though, I wish to think more about the meaning and feasibility of “Christian Radicalism.”
Gish’s book has two parts: The first has two chapters: an analysis of the New Left that was active in the U.S. in the 1960s and an explanation of 16th century Anabaptism.
The second part of Gish’s book has three chapters, each of which begins with a striking statement:
                To be a Christian is to be a radical (p. 79).
                To be a Christian is to be an extremist (p. 94).
                To be a Christian is to be a subversive (p. 113).
Radicalism is closely linked to seeking revolution. Thus, Gish’s fifth and last chapter is “A Theology for Revolution”—but it is quite clear that he advocates only non-violent revolution. He is a thoroughgoing pacifist.
I have often quoted Gish’s assertion that “violent revolution is occurring because nonviolent revolution is not occurring” (p. 139). 

But is revolution along the lines Gish envisions possible in the contemporary world? It certainly didn’t happen in the 1960s or 1970s. And while it was somewhat a different kind of revolution Bernie Sanders and his followers sought last year, the result of the presidential election was just the opposite.
Here are some conclusions I have come to in reflecting upon Gish’s book about Christian radicalism:
(1) It is much easier to have a vision of radical (revolutionary) social change when 30 years old than 40 or more years later (notwithstanding Bernie). Most revolutionaries (peaceful or violent) and radicals (whether Christian or not) have been relatively young.
Jesus began his ministry when 30. Che Guevara’s revolutionary activity started when he was 28. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born 88 years ago today, first became actively involved in the civil rights movement when he was 26. And so it goes.
(2) The type of revolution brought about by radical Christians, as envisioned by Gish, will be long in coming. It is not going to be a matter of a few years; it will take decades or even centuries. Kent Annan is the author of a new book titled Slow Kingdom Coming, and he makes a valid point: God’s Kingdom is coming, but it is coming very slowly.

(3) The vision of radical Christianity that Gish set forth is an ongoing challenge for all of us who seek to be genuine Christians. It is easy to be drawn into conforming to the surrounding culture. It is easy to grow complacent, lazy, and/or tired. Serious consideration of Gish’s book helps us, still, to see visions and dream dreams (cf. Joel 2:28).

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Do You Want To Live Forever?

What if there were a new drug discovered that would make it possible for you to live forever? Would you try to procure that drug and take it?
What if that drug were widely available—but only for people who were willing to sign a declaration that they would not have children? What kind of society would that produce?
Malley’s dystopian novels about everlasting life
While working on my Dec. 31 blog article about resistance, I came across and subsequently read two thought-provoking science fiction novels: The Declaration and The Resistance (both published in 2008) by British author Gemma Malley. They are set in the 22nd century when a new drug, called Longevity, makes it possible for people to live forever.
Although written for young readers, I found Malley’s dystopian novels fascinating. They also raised some exceedingly important questions about the practical problems that might well occur with the advent of everlasting life on earth.
The current search for everlasting life
Some of you may recognize the name Peter Thiel. The German-American Thiel (b. 1967) is, among other things, an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and political activist. He is, specifically, a billionaire who founded PayPal in 1999.
As a few of you may remember, Thiel spoke at the Republican National Convention in July and then in November became a member of the PEOTUS’s transition team. 
Back in September 2006, Thiel announced that he would donate $3.5 million to foster anti-aging research through the Methuselah Mouse Prize foundation. He gave the following reasons for his pledge: 
Rapid advances in biological science foretell of a treasure trove of discoveries this century, including dramatically improved health and longevity for all. I’m backing Dr. [Aubrey] de Grey, because I believe that his revolutionary approach to aging research will accelerate this process, allowing many people alive today to enjoy radically longer and healthier lives for themselves and their loved ones. 
The SENS Research Foundation, headed by de Grey and supported by Thiel, is working to achieve the reversal of biological aging.
As far back as 2005, de Grey was saying that some people living now may have a lifespan that is “likely to exceed 1000 years.” And some journalists are suggesting he may be on the cusp of finding “the key to eternal life.” (See this 4/15 WaPo article.)
Everlasting life or eternal life?
The words “everlasting life” and “eternal life” are often used interchangeably. In the article about Peter Thiel just referred to, as well as many times in the Malley novels, unending human life on earth is referred to as eternal life.
I grew up with the King James Version of the Bible and early on learned from John 3:16 about the possibility of “everlasting life.” Later I learned that there is a difference between “eternal life,” which is found in most “modern” translations, and everlasting life.
Everlasting life is quantitative, a measurement in time. Eternal life a timeless concept that is qualitative. That significant difference is not widely recognized by many regular Bible readers nor by the general public, so, as we have seen, the words are often used interchangeably.
While I am all for eternal life, I am quite sure that everlasting life on this earth is not a good thing. (Consider the quotes from Malley’s novels I have posted here and here.)
And I am not sure having a man who is passionate about finding a way to “enable people to live forever” in the top echelon of the PEOTUS’s transition team is a good thing either.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

From "Just War" to "Just Peace"

New Year’s Day has come and gone and it's already in the fifth day of 2017. But do you know that January 1 was not only New Year’s Day but was also the Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace (WDP)? In fact, this year was the 50th anniversary of the WDP. 

The Pope promotes nonviolence 

For this year’s WDP observance, Pope Francis chose the theme “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace”.

John Dear, a Catholic priest and peace activist (whom I wrote about here in 2014), has pointed out (here) that the Pope’s message on New Year’s Day was the Catholic Church’s first statement on nonviolence ever made. 

The Pope emphasized, “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” He goes on to state, “The name of God cannot be used to justify violence.” (Click here to see the Pope’s entire message.)
In his WDP message Pope Francis said, “I plead for disarmament and for the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons.”
Those important words by the Pope were made public last month about two weeks before the PEOTUS (foolishly? dangerously?) tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
The long “just war” position

The term “just war” was introduced by Augustine of Hippo in his early fifth century book The City of God. It was later articulated in depth by 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas. At present, it is outlined by four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church. 
(See here for a brief statement of the traditional elements” in what the Catechism calls the “‘just war’ doctrine.”)
A major problem, though, is this: the leaders of every country that is at least somewhat culturally Christian thinks that all wars they engage in are just wars. When have you ever heard the political leader of a Western country admit that their country’s war activities were not just?
When will you ever hear that? My guess is, Never.
In February 1991, then-President Bush sought to assure the American public that his proposed Gulf War conformed to the historic principles of Just War theory.
(It is perhaps noteworthy, however, that Bush II did not use that same language with regard to the Iraq War; although he would never admit it, perhaps he harbored doubts about his presumptive war being just.)
Death kneel for the “just war” doctrine?
There have always been opponents of the just war doctrine. Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example, wrote (in 1508), “The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.”
Now, however, key leaders in the Catholic Church have spoken against it. “Death Knell for Just War: The Vatican’s Historic Turn toward Nonviolence” is the title of John Dear’s article in the Autumn 2016 issue of Plough. (Click here to see that important article.)
(And if you are interested, see this link for an article I wrote last summer about Plough.)
Dear’s article was about the Vatican’s Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference held in April of last year. That seminal meeting issued a document titled “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Recommit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence.” That appeal included a call for the Church to no longer use or teach “just war theory.”
The Pope seems to have followed that guideline in his World Peace Day message.

My prayer is that all Christians, and others, will heed the recent Catholic call for movement from “just war” to “just peace” and will seek to sanction only nonviolence as the style of politics for peace.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year of Resistance

Not many hours from now, the world will welcome in a new year, 2017. At midnight, when I intend to be fast asleep, people at parties and in public places will be exclaiming, Happy New Year! For people in Japan and other parts of Asia, that will already have happened by the time this is posted.
So, I join in wishing you a Happy New Year! But especially to those of you in the U.S. and of like mind, my greeting is this: Happy New Year of Resistance!

Concerns about the Trump Administration
Soon after the presidential election in November, several times I said, Things won’t be as bad as most of Trump’s strongest opponents think, but they will be a lot worse than most of his supporters think. I still believe that will prove to be the case.
But given the PEOTUS’s picks for his closest advisors and his Cabinet, many things may be pretty bad—especially for discriminated-against people and for the environment.
Concerns about Trump’s Nominees
Many people are justifiably considered these nominees/appointees, such as the following:
Rex Tillerson – Nominee for Secretary of State – CEO of ExxonMobil and with close ties to Vladimir Putin as well as with large financial interests in countries around the world.
Jeff Sessions – Nominee for Attorney General – Senator from Alabama who has a long history of opposition to civil rights and was once blocked from a judgeship because of racist statements.
Andy Puzder – Nominee for Secretary of Labor – CEO of CKE Restaurants; among other things, he is an opponent of raising the minimum wage.
Rick Perry – Nominee for Secretary of the Department of Energy – Even though he temporary forgot the name of it, in a Republican primary debate in 2011 Perry said he wanted to do away with the DoE.
Betsy DeVos – Nominee for Secretary of Education – Businesswoman who advocates private schools; her support for vouchers, including for Christian schools, is a threat to the separation of church and state.
Scott Pruitt – Nominee for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; he wrote in a May 2016 article that the global warming debate “is far from settled.” He adds, “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
Steve Bannon – Appointed as Trump’s Chief Strategist; until recently he was executive chair of Breitbart News, which he claimed was the platform of the Internet-based alt-right.
Leading the resistance
There are various groups working on resisting problems that will probably become explicit under the new Administration. The Sojourners, a group I have learned from and supported for 45 years, is one such group. I encourage you to take a look at this article: “10 Commitments of Resistance in the Trump Era.” 
Two of the best books I have read this year are by Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers, pastor of the Mayflower Congregational UCC Church in Oklahoma City. His stimulating book The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus was published in 2012.
Meyer’s book Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance was published last year. It was based on his Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School in 2013.
Those two books were written before the Nov. 2016 election, of course, but they are especially relevant now.
I also recommend careful consideration of “Joining the resistance: A 100-day counter-agenda for the Church” (see here) by Rev. Dr. Cody Sanders, pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Massachusetts.
These are but a few of the individuals/groups leading efforts of resistance to injustice and the political misuse of power. Let’s join together in this important endeavor. 
Happy New Year of Resistance!

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Folly of Christmas

Yesterday was Christmas Day. Just like five years ago it was Sunday, an especially good day for family and friends to get together and to enjoy a festive time. But, oddly, Christmas on Sunday isn’t a particularly a good day for churches.
Most churches had scaled back activities yesterday, and some even had expanded Christmas Eve programs and no services on Sunday.
A foolish claim?
This article, though, is not about the folly of Christmas Day being on Sunday. It is about the folly of Christmas itself—and I am writing this partly as an extension of my previous blog article titled “In Praise of Folly.”
When you get right down to it, isn’t the Christian claim that God Almighty chose to send the Savior of the world as a baby born in humble circumstances in a sparsely settled place in the world a rather foolish one?
Walking where Jesus walked
In the summer of 2015, I went with my daughter Karen to Israel/Palestine. Our first time there, we greatly enjoyed traveling in a rental car from Tel Aviv to Nazareth—and then to Tiberius on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee, to Capernaum on the north bank of that beautiful sea, down the east side of that sea to the Dead Sea, and then on to the fascinating city of Jerusalem.
Our time in the “Holy Land” was certainly interesting and enjoyable. For me, though, it was not a time of great religious impact—in a positive sense at least.
People who lead, and especially tourist agencies who sell, tours to Israel encourage people to join in their “inspirational journey” in order to have a “life-changing” experience by “walking where Jesus walked” (words from a travel website).
That wasn’t exactly what I experienced.
I visited the Church of the Nativity, the large, ancient building over the place in Bethlehem where Jesus supposedly was born. We also visited Nazareth Village, a reconstruction of what Jesus’ boyhood neighborhood looked like—and quite near to where he probably lived.
At Capernaum we walked on the seashore where Jesus called his first disciples. We then drove up the big hill north of that small town to where Jesus delivered what is called the Sermon on the Mount. Later that week we saw where Jesus was crucified and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where Jesus was buried and then resurrected three days later.
The foolishness of God
It was particularly in Nazareth and Capernaum that questions began to rise in my mind. Why would God choose such a remote, provincial, unsophisticated place as Nazareth to be the Savior’s hometown and an insignificant, out-of-the-way town like Capernaum to be the place for him to begin his ministry?
An even greater question is this: Why would Christ become a human being at all? 
As Erasmus expressed it in The Praise of Folly, Christ “became a fool when taking upon him the nature of man” (Wilson trans.; Kindle loc. 1256). The reference there, of course, is to Philippians 2:6-8, the basis for what biblical scholars refer to as kenotic theology, which explains the eternal Christ emptying himself to become a human.
The Apostle Paul’s answer, though, which Erasmus also quotes, is this: “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:25).
Yes, it was through the folly of the first Christmas that the Savior came into the world. On this day after Christmas, we each one are challenged to grasp the great significance of the “foolishness” of Christ’s birth—and to live our lives accordingly. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In Praise of Folly

The word “folly” doesn’t have a very good reputation. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “lack of good sense; foolishness,” or, secondly, as “a foolish act, idea, or practice.”
It is somewhat surprising, then, that a man who has been called one of Europe’s “most famous and influential scholars” of the 16th century is the author of a book titled In Praise of Folly.
Introducing Erasmus
That man, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (in South Holland), was born around 550 years ago (probably in 1466), and died 480 years ago, in July 1536.
Erasmus is not currently widely known by the general public, but Samuel W. Crompton closes his book Desiderius Erasmus (2004) with this assertion: “Arguably, Erasmus was the greatest intellectual of the sixteenth century—and perhaps of any other” (p. 76)—and Crompton states that Erasmus’ book, written in Latin and sometimes titled The Praise of Folly in English, has been “one of the most widely read books of all human history” (p. 35).
Considering Folly
Erasmus’s brilliant book is multifaceted. It begins with Folly speaking as a woman “dressed in cap and bells to signify her foolishness.” In Crompton’s words, she explains that “the world would not turn, people would not marry, and there would be no future generations of humans were it not for her gift to the world.” 

Indeed, “Who would be so rash as to marry if he knew what it might entail, and who would ever allow herself to become pregnant if she could foretell the arduous work ahead” (pp. 35-36).
I certainly can resonate with that. It, perhaps, was because of Folly that June and I married when I was still 18 years old and that our first child was born on my 20th birthday. What foolishness!
Still, I have never for a moment regretted either of those momentous events—so I join with Erasmus in praise of folly.
Much of Erasmus’s book, though, is satire and criticism of the political and religious situation of his day. In this work published in 1511, six years before Luther’s severe questioning of the Catholic Church’s use (sale) of indulgences, Folly spoke out against “the cheat of pardons and indulgences.”
The fourth and last part of the book goes on to take “a quiet, subdued, but unmistakable defense of the Christian faith” (p. 41).
Praising Folly
In that concluding part of his erudite book, Erasmus cites numerous Bible passages which seem to praise folly or foolishness. He especially focuses on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, such as “We are fools for Christ's sake” (1 Cor. 4:10; cited at loc. 1233 in the free Kindle version of The Praise of Folly, translated by John Wilson).
(For you who want to explore this theme, I recommend a careful reading of 1 Cor. 1:18-31 and 4:9-13. I also suggest that there is a way to understand the meaning of the cross that is decidedly different from the “evangelical” view that interprets it primarily as Jesus’ penal substitution for sinners.)
It is amazing that a book written over 500 years ago is still in print—and with two Kindle versions published this year! But such is the nature of classics: they continue to speak.
If Erasmus were writing today, my guess is he would castigate the folly of the PEOTUS and his Cabinet picks.
On the other hand, Erasmus would no doubt praise the folly/”foolishness” of those, including many sincere followers of Christ, who are resisting—and will continue to resist—the questionable stances of the coming new Administration in Washington.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Happy Bill of Rights Day!

Well, the title of this article is a greeting you don’t usually hear, I assume. But on December 15, 1941, President Roosevelt proclaimed that day as Bill of Rights Day, and it has been so designated ever since.
That first Bill of Rights Day, instituted just eight days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, was on the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights—and that was 225 years ago today.
The Bill of Rights Ratified
When the U.S. Constitution was approved by Congress in 1787, there were some who were not in favor of its passage. They thought the new Constitution did not adequately guarantee the freedoms or rights of individual citizens. 

James Madison subsequently drafted twelve amendments to the Constitution. They were passed by Congress in September 1789.
Ten of those amendments were ratified on Dec. 15, 1791, when Virginia ratified them, making the necessary three-fourths of the 13 states to do so. Those ten amendments, as you know, have been popularly known through the years as the Bill of Rights.
The first of the two amendments that were not ratified would have established how members of the House of Representatives would be apportioned to the states, but that matter seems to have been covered adequately in the Constitution itself (see Art. 1, Sec. 2, Para. 3).
The other amendment not approved by 1791 actually became the 27th, and most recent, Amendment, when it was ratified in 1992. It prohibits any law that increases or decreases the salary of members of Congress from taking effect until the start of the next set of terms of office for Representatives.
The Bill of Rights Disputed 
After all these years, aspects of the Bill of Rights are discussed, and disputed, almost weekly. 

Nearly everyone knows that the First Amendment guarantees freedoms of religion, speech, and the press. It also gives citizens the right to assemble peacefully and to petition the government for changes. But what, specifically, is guaranteed? 

For example, are conservative Christians guaranteed the freedom to speak out against homosexuality and gay marriage? Some of them claim their religious liberty is endangered by laws giving LGBTQ people equality and making speaking out against them “hate speech.” 

And then what about burning the American flag? On 5:55 a.m. on Nov. 29 PEOTUS Trump tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” 

The Supreme Court, however, has twice (in 1989 and in 1990) affirmed the right to desecrate the American flag as a form of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. 

The Second Amendment, of course, has over the past several years been a matter of even more contention. As I have written about that before (see especially this Jan. 2013 article), perhaps there is little reason to write much more about that here. 

The words of that Amendment—“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”—seem straightforward and rather clear (in spite of the questionable use of commas). But as you know, they have been vociferously debated in recent years. 
The Bill of Rights Affirmed
In spite of the disputes, which seem largely contrived and unnecessary, the Bill of Rights is a remarkable and praiseworthy part of the U.S. Constitution. All of us citizens of the U.S. should be grateful for the protection of personal freedoms guaranteed by those first 10 Amendments.
So once again I say to you USAmericans, “Happy Bill of Rights Day!”