Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Tribute to F. Calvin Parker

Calvin Parker was one of my most esteemed missionary colleagues in Japan, a valuable mentor, and a dear friend. He passed away on December 22, and his memorial service is being held today in Mars Hill, North Carolina.
F. Calvin Parker (1926-2010)
I first met Calvin on September 1, 1966, the day June & I and our two children (at the time) arrived in Japan. For roughly the next two years we lived less than five minutes by car from where Calvin and his wife Harriett lived in Shibuya, Tokyo. They were our very helpful sempai (senior colleagues) during that time.
Calvin soon invited me to attend a monthly theological book discussion group with him. During the grueling time of language school, those meetings were one of the major highlights of each month for me, both because of the high quality of the discussions and because of the conversation with Calvin going and coming each time.
Calvin was a man of great integrity and humility, in the best sense of the word. And he was a scholar; he knew how to do research, how to write, and, most importantly, how to think, how to analyze and synthesize.
In the summer of 1968, June and I moved to Fukuoka in southwest Japan, but then in 1980 Calvin and Harriet moved to the same city. Calvin became my colleague in the Department of Theology at Seinan Gakuin University. His levelheaded participation in our faculty meetings was very helpful, and it was a real loss to our department when he retired in 1988.

Calvin was the author of several books. His most “academic” work was Jonathan Goble of Japan: Marine, Missionary, Maverick (1990), revised and published as Icon and Outcast: The Life of Jonathan Goble (2007). His books I appreciated the most are Christ in a Kimono (2003) and The Good Book Is Better Than It Used to Be: Eighty Years with the Bible (2009), which I had the privilege of reading in manuscript form and of writing a blurb for the back cover.

Earlier this year, even though his physical strength was waning, he read each chapter of The Limits of Liberalism, my new book, and I greatly appreciate the many helpful (mostly editorial) suggestions he made for each chapter. 

In November, Baptists Today featured Calvin and Harriett with their picture on the front of the issue and an article about them, featuring his 2009 book. I am grateful John Pierce was able to interview them back in July and to publish the results while Calvin had the opportunity to see that issue.

Sadness surrounds the death of most people, but it is truly sad with a person such as Calvin Parker passes. The world is certainly worse off without him. His insight and wisdom will continue to inspire many through his books. For those of us who had the privilege of knowing him personally, not only his memory but his considerable influence will also long remain in our minds and lives.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Re-Thinking Christmas as a Federal Holiday

Christmas Day (yesterday) this year was on Saturday, so it was not so important for it to be a federal holiday. But what about it? Should Christmas be a federal holiday? Probably not.

I am sure many who read this will disagree with me. So let me explain why I, one who has been an ordained Christian minister for more than fifty years and who served as a missionary for nearly four decades, question the legitimacy of Christmas being a federal holiday.

Last time I mentioned how Christmas is widely celebrated in Japan, especially by the merchants. But as you might expect, Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, or in most other countries where a majority of the citizens are not Christians and where Christianity has not been the primary shaper of the culture.

But that certainly does not mean that Christmas has no religious meaning in Japan. There are more people, including more non-Christians, who attend church services on the Sunday before Christmas and on Christmas Eve than any other time of the year.

Many Western Christians of the past, however, did not celebrate Christmas at all. Many Protestants, including those “illegal aliens of 1620” about whom I wrote last month, did not observe Christmas as a holiday. Those pious Pilgrims began building their first permanent houses in Plymouth Colony on December 25, 1621. And from 1659 to 1681 Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston.

During that same century, the Puritans who remained in England were also negative about celebrating Christmas. The name, after all, came from Christ’s mass, a Catholic practice which they referred to as “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” It was only after the monarchy was restored under King Charles II in 1660 that Christmas began to be celebrated again in England.

In this country now, many who would object to Christmas no longer being a federal holiday are also likely to advocate maintaining the original intent of the founding fathers of the nation. But during and after the Revolutionary War, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas which had again been popular there for a century. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution.

Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday in the U.S. until 1870. One wonders if there was something of a compromise in that action. Before the Civil War, the North and South were divided on the issue of Christmas as well as on slavery. Many Northerners opposed the celebration of Christmas, but the first three States to make Christmas a legal holiday were in the South: Alabama in 1836 and Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838.

Now in our pluralistic nation at the end of 2010, perhaps it is time to re-think Christmas as a federal holiday. The demographics of the U.S. are much different now than 140, and more, years ago, so probably we should be following the stipulation of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

In spite of its secularization and commercialization, Christmas surely still has something to do with Christianity. Thus, changing Christmas so it is no longer a federal holiday is probably something that should be done sooner rather than later.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Re-Thinking Mary’s Song

Christmas is coming, and most of us are busy getting ready for a joyous time with family and friends. For weeks now we have heard the music of Christmas, including both the sacred carols and the secular songs that have become so much a part of the season. And we have seen the Christmas advertisements urging us to buy and buy for our loved ones.
The Christmas season has surely been engulfed by consumerism, and Christmas has largely become something far different from a religious holiday. Many who have little appreciation for the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth use Christmas as an excuse for marketing their wares, publicizing their entertainment, and enhancing their income.
Even in Japan, where fewer than 2% of the population are Christians, Christmas is widely celebrated. Department stores are filled with Christmas decorations and Christmas carols are heard almost everywhere. Years ago I even saw a sign in front of some dive advertising “Christmas Nudes.”
There is another side of the Christmas message that is not emphasized so much, especially in this country. This side of Christmas is expressed by Mary’s song as recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. That song has long been called the Magnificat, which is the first word of the Latin translation.
Numerous composers have written music for Mary’s song. For example, “The Magnificat in D Major” is a major vocal work of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Mozart, Vivaldi, and others wrote shorter musical pieces titled Magnificat. It has been said that there is no single passage of Scripture more frequently set to music.
Still, the content of Mary’s song has often been overlooked, although it has been widely emphasized in recent decades by many South American Christians. In his engaging book Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984), theology professor Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) wrote about the political and economic significance of Mary’s song, which includes the words, “God has . . . brought down the rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53, NIV).
(Drawing by Dan Erlander; used with his permission.)
To those who are suffering from hunger and humiliation, those are hopeful words. And since there have been so many hurting people there, Brown wrote that in Latin America, “there are few biblical passages more widely used than Mary’s song.” He also declares that “Mary’s song is a call to revolutionary action.”
Several years earlier, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-97) wrote a book titled The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (1971). That original revolution, he states, is expressed in Mary’s song. The desired and decisive change, though, is not brought about by violence. Jesus, after all, was born as the “Prince of Peace.” Still, the central message of Mary’s song—and the central message of Christmas—is that Jesus’ birth was intended by God as good news for the poor.
How are we helping, how can we help, make Christmas what God intends for it to be?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What about the GNP (Grand “No” Party)?

In my previous posting, I referred to the Republican Party as the GNP (Grand “No” Party). The first comment received about that posting was from a Thinking Friend (now hopefully not a former friend!) who wrote, “. . . in my opinion it doesn't help any of your causes when you resort to immature comments like ‘the GNP (Grand "No" Party).’”
This blog was not intended to focus on politics: it is supposed to be about theological and ethical issues. But the latter cannot be divorced from politics, and whether “immature” or not, since it seems clear to me that in the last two years the Republican Party has consistently said “no” on significant ethical issues, it deserves the designation I used.
(During the last two years the GOP has often been called, mostly by Democrats of course, the “Party of No.” That sentiment is expressed well by the award-winning cartoonist John Sherffius. I thought maybe I was coining a new title by calling it the GNP, but after using that label I found numerous references to the “Grand No Party” on the Internet.)
The same TF went on to write, “With their super majority the DNC had plenty of time to force these issues through the legislative process starting 24 months ago but they have waited until now to jam them through when the American people voted in the recent elections for a different direction on some of these issues.
Yes, the Obama administration did use their super majority to enact health care legislation—and has been severely criticized by many for doing so. But that is when I first became aware that the GOP had become the GNP. Not a single Republican voted for the health care legislation.
Now this month, the Republicans are blocking the repeal of DADT, as I wrote about last time. They probably are going to kill the DREAM Act in the Senate. And even the very important START nuclear treaty with Russia may not get enough Republican votes to pass.
In spite of this country being a democracy, which generally means rule by a majority, on issue after issue, forty-one negative Republican Senators have repeatedly been able to defeat legislation or motions proposed by the administration. (And since it is a treaty, thirty-four negative votes can defeat START.)
My (former?) TF also wrote, “Finally the GOP is certainly not saying ‘no’ to the President’s recommendation to extend the Bush Tax Cuts.” But that is true only because, among other things, the GOP were adamant in saying ‘no’ to the extension of unemployment benefits unless the tax cuts were extended to everyone, millionaires included. In this case, being the GNP worked—but, I’m afraid, to the detriment of the country as a whole.
I long for the day when this country can be governed not by Democrats or by Republicans but by statesmen and stateswomen who truly seek to govern for the general welfare of all the people in the nation—and tilted toward those who are the neediest among us rather than the wealthiest two percent.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Today is Human Rights Day, about which I posted on December 10 last year. (I encourage you to read, or re-read, that posting.)
In this country, the human rights of most people are recognized to a fairly high degree. But there is one segment of our society which does not enjoy the dignity afforded to most people. Those are the gay/lesbian people in our midst. The latest issue of Intelligence Report, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, states, “Homosexuals are far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime” (p. 29). (You can find a link to that issue here.)
In particular, the rights of gay/lesbian people in this country are being violated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Since 1993, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) has been the official policy of the DoD, restricting the military from efforts to discover or reveal closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members or applicants, while barring those who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from military service.
It is long past time for DADT to be repealed, for it is clearly discriminatory against gay/lesbian persons. And repeal may, in fact, happen before long. On September 9, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips ruled that the DoD’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is unconstitutional.
Then on October 12, Judge Phillips issued a permanent worldwide injunction ordering the military immediately to “suspend and discontinue any investigation, or discharge, separation, or other proceeding, that may have been commenced” under “don't ask, don't tell.” But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stayed the injunction pending appeal.
It looked as if DADT would be repealed this month, but after the procedural vote in the Senate yesterday, that now looks doubtful. The GNP (Grand “No” Party) has again kept important legislation from passing.
As important as repeal of the DADT policy is, though, I am mainly interested in the DADT policy being changed in our churches. While conservative churches tend to be openly opposed to gay/lesbian persons, moderate churches, such as the one I am a member of, are more like to have an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. That is, nothing negative is said, but neither is there the openness for practicing gays/lesbians to be honest at church about their sexual orientation.
A few months ago June and I joined the Kansas City Coalition for Welcoming Ministries, and we have attended most of the monthly meetings over the last few months. Only a few people gather. Some are “straight” and some are gay/lesbian; some are clergy and some are lay Christians. Several denominations are represented: Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Community of Christ, and Baptist.
The stated purpose of the KCCoalition is “. . . anticipating (and working toward) a time when all faith communities in the metropolitan Kansas City area will respect and welcome all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” Is that too much to ask?
Surely it is better than the don’t ask, don’t tell stance of many churches now. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

When Did "Missionary" Become a Dirty Word?

When Sammy Davis, Jr., (1925-90) once heard someone complaining about discrimination, he said, “You got it easy. I’m a short, ugly, one-eyed, black Jew. What do you think it’s like for me?” It is not nearly as serious, but I can identify a little bit with Davis, for I am a retired, Southern Baptist missionary (and maybe ugly, too).
From time to time during these last several years, I have sensed some negativity because of being retired. People my age and older who are still in a full-time job are respected more highly, it seems, than those of us who are (basically) retired from similar positions.
And then if Christian has become a “dirty word,” as I wrote about on my October 20 posting, Southern Baptist is viewed even more negatively by many people. In fact, it is the fundamentalist bent of many contemporary Southern Baptist leaders that has helped tarnish the name Christian. I am no longer a Southern Baptist, partly for that reason, but that doesn’t change the past.
But perhaps the most negative of all is the designation missionary. I have felt some disdain even from fellow church members because of my having been a career missionary. And the word missionary is rarely used in church meetings any more, except for the ladies in Women on Mission.
My church is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which has a Global Missions program, but they send and support field personnel rather than missionaries. And our church has a Missions Support Committee and talks a lot about mission activities, which are usually activities in which members participate, but rarely about missionaries. For a long time now, the only positive thing I remember hearing said about missionaries was by the pastor of the First Haitian Baptist Church who preached last month and expressed appreciation for the missionaries who went to his country.
This is in the middle of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering emphasis of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I feel rather nostalgic for the time when I could go to churches at this time of the year and talk about the joy of being a missionary and to thank them for their support of missionaries across the world, men and women who were seeking to be incarnational servants of Christ in other lands—as, indeed, Lottie Moon and many others were and are.
But through the years too many missionaries have been too closely aligned with colonialism and with imperialistic policies, of both church and state. And too many missionaries have been insensitive to local customs and culture, although perhaps there are not as many missionaries like that as some think.
In addition, the growing emphasis on religious pluralism and the postmodern emphasis on relativism have resulted in widespread negativity especially toward missionaries serving in evangelistic activities. If missionary work is approved at all, it is more and more only that which is directed toward meeting the physical needs of people and primarily by those who go on short mission trips.
I am sad that missionary, even more than Christian, has, alas, seemingly become a “dirty word” to many even within the church.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guidelines for Charitable Giving

Many people, including many who regularly read this blog, have investment portfolios which they seek to optimize regularly. But what about our charitable giving portfolio? How often do we consider if we are making contributions to the most efficient and effective organizations related to the causes about which we are most concerned?

Most of us perhaps give our tithes and offerings to (or through) our local church, but then we respond to other appeals for financial help. And especially at this time of the year we are  swamped with requests for charitable gifts. Through the requests found often in our mailboxes, by the appeals we receive in our e-mail inboxes, and from personal petitions made by religious or civic organizations, we are regularly asked to be generous in helping other people.
So, how should we decide which charities or causes to support? Do we respond primarily with our emotions, giving to those groups who best stir our feelings of compassion, concern, or guilt? Or do we have a planned charitable giving “portfolio”?
Let me suggest the following guidelines when considering a charitable gift:
(1) Does this gift help eliminate the root causes of problems more than just helping victims of those problems? For example, giving to help feed the hungry is good and important; giving to help eliminate the causes of hunger is better.
(2) Does this gift help solve problems in the future rather than merely meeting current needs? In spite of the needs of many Native Americans now, this is one main reason in my previous posting for suggesting giving to the Native American College Fund.

(3) Does this gift go to (through) an organization that is highly effective and efficient? Perhaps Charity Navigator, the leading independent charity evaluator in the country, is the best way to check the strength and integrity of charities. In their words, Charity Navigator “works to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace by evaluating the financial health of over 5,500 of America’s largest charities.”

(4) Does this gift go to a group that meets the previous criteria but has relatively few supporters as opposed to those groups that have a great deal of support? Some of the charities or causes I support are not on Charity Navigator because they are too small or specialized, but partly for that reason I choose to contribute to them. For example, I recently sent a donation to Associated Baptist Press.

(5) For those of us who are Christians, the first question we should ask is: Does this gift reflect commitment to Jesus’ words, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness”? Even though I recognize that there are many “secular” groups that are consistent with seeking God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness, mainly I want the charities to which I donate to be Christian in both how they operate and in the charitable work they do.
What other guidelines or charitable giving suggestions should be added?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The “Illegal Aliens” of 1620

Thanksgiving Day means different things to different people. But in addition to school and work holidays it often involves family gatherings around big meals, watching football games by some, and maybe even thinking a little about the first English-American Thanksgiving Day.

After a perilous voyage on the Mayflower in the autumn of 1620, an extremely difficult winter, and then a fruitful harvest in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth Colony held a harvest festival and gave thanks for God’s blessings that made possible their survival.

Giving thanks for blessings received is certainly a good thing, and I hope all of us will use this Thanksgiving season to reflect upon our many blessings and to give thanks for what we have received, just as those first English immigrants did.

At the same time, it might be good to reflect on how the Pilgrims of 1620 could certainly be considered “illegal aliens.” They definitely were not invited by the Native Americans, and they clearly encroached upon land occupied by others.

True, the “Indians” had no laws prohibiting others from coming to Massachusetts, and they did not own titles to the land on which they lived. (To them the idea of owning land seemed as preposterous as owning the sky.) Still, the English “aliens” were invaders of their territory.

There have been several recent works portraying the Pilgrims’ journey to “New England” and their struggles in their new habitat. “Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower” is a TV movie produced by the History Channel in 2006. One of the commentators in that movie is Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006).

Earlier this year Nick Bunker’s lengthy book, Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, was published. While much of this book is about the background of the Pilgrims, it does, of course, tell their story from the time they first set foot in the “new world” on November 11, 1620—and, it should be noted, that was on Cape Cod, not on Plymouth Rock.

That first month was a hard one, and it was during that time that the Pilgrims stole seed corn that the “Indians” had buried for use the following year, and they also dug up a grave, confiscating some of the jewelry and other articles in it. It is no wonder, then, that the English “aliens” found those first Native Americans they encountered to be quite hostile.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let’s remember that those who first celebrated it were the same as illegal aliens in the land occupied by the American Indians. Perhaps we can use this occasion to do something for the sake of present day Native Americans, such as donating to the American Indian College Fund. (The address is 8333 Greenwood Blvd. Denver, CO 80221, and information about the AICF, rated four stars, out of four, by Charity Navigator, is easily found on the Internet). Or maybe your church, like mine, has a ministry to Native Americans to which you could contribute.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The Grapes of Wrath" Seventy Years Later

One of the best films of 1940 was The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name. The book was published in 1939, and because of it Steinbeck (1902-68) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1940.

June and I recently watched The Grapes of Wrath again, and we were deeply moved by it as we were years ago when we first saw it. It is a great movie in many ways, as attested by the fact that is was nominated for seven Oscars, and at the 13th Academy Awards in February 1941 it won two. (The Oscar for best film was given that year to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca rather than to The Grapes of Wrath.)

As most of you know, The Grapes of Wrath depicts the terrible conditions of the “Okies” who left the “Dust Bowl” in Oklahoma during the mid-1930s and sought better things in California. While writing the book, John Steinbeck visited Bakersfield, California, and based part of his book on Arvin Federal Government Camp which he portrayed as “Weedpatch Camp.” (Here is a link to an interesting website about that camp.)

Many critics of the Obama administration are saying that health care reform should not have been undertaken in the midst of the “Great Recession.” But consider this fact: Social Security was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1935 when the unemployment rate was more than twice what it has been this year. The unemployment rate was a staggering 24.9% in 1933, 21.7% in 1934, and still at 20.1% in 1935.

In addition to seeking to create more jobs, the Roosevelt administration realized how important it was right away to help people in need. Social security soon provided much needed assistance for many people, and has continued to do so through all the years since.

And now millions of people need health care insurance as well as jobs, although the latter will be the major push of the new U.S. Republican Congresspersons. The number of people without health care benefits, however, has risen alarmingly in just the past year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of uninsured rose by 4,334,000 since 2008 and in 2009 stood at more than 50,670,000, or one out of every six persons in the country!

The Associated Farmers of California were highly displeased with how The Grapes of Wrath depicted the California farmer’s attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a “pack of lies” and labeled it “communist propaganda.” Similarly, President Roosevelt was also often called a communist or a socialist. And now we are seeing that same phenomena again: President Obama is often called a socialist by his detractors and even a communist by some, most notably by Alan Keyes.

If you haven’t (recently) read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or seen John Ford’s film version of the novel, it would well be worth your time to read the book or at least to watch the movie, even though it was made seventy years ago. The situation today may not be as dire as it was then, but there are still a lot of suffering people who badly need help. And that needed help is more than families, churches, or even local communities are able to give.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Things Change

Things change, and in order to live successfully we generally have to accept even unwelcome changes and move on.
Sometimes things change because of tragic fires. The three-story school building where I was a student from 1945-55 was destroyed by fire in 1956. The farmhouse in which I lived during those same ten years was struck by lightning and burned down in the early 1960s. Last month a large portion of the west side of the square in my home town, Grant City, Missouri, completely burned down. (The picture of the latter fire is from the files of the St. Joseph News-Press.)
Things change, and we have to accept new realities and move on. A fine new school building was constructed in Grant City after fire destroyed the old one; the community moved on and was better off after the fire. My folks built a comfortable new house up the road from where the old house had been, so they, too, recovered from the shock of forced change and moved on to better things. And now those who owned the buildings and operated the businesses on the west side of the square in Grant City have to deal with unwelcome change and move on.
Things change in other ways. For example, the United States of America is much different now than it was when it was formed nearly 235 years ago. While this country was founded largely by Protestant Christians (although some of the “founding fathers” were not at all “orthodox” Protestants), gradually more and more Catholics and Jews came to this country.
There was considerable animosity toward the Catholic immigrants for decades, but fifty years ago this month, despite considerable (prejudicial) opposition by Protestants, a Catholic was elected President. Since then, for that reason and because of the impact of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there have been increasingly cordial relationships between Protestants and Catholics.
There have also been pockets of prejudice against Jews in the U.S., but as the percentage of Jews has not been nearly as large as that of Catholics there has not been as much animosity toward them for the most part. Now there are sizeable numbers of Jews in most large U.S. cities—so much so that along with Christmas and Christian holidays, Hanukkah (which begins on Dec. 1 this year) and other Jewish holidays are commemorated even by some public schools.
Things change, and now there are large numbers of American citizens who are Muslims, Buddhists, and people of other religious faiths, a larger number of such persons than could have been imagined when I was a boy. As citizens, their religious freedom must be recognized and protected.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Remembering 11/11

At 11:11 on 11/11 each year, the siren mounted on the water tower in my home town (Grant City, MO) would go off for one minute. The school I attended from 1945-55 was just a couple of blocks away, so we students could hear it well from our classroom. I’m afraid it didn’t mean as much to me then as it should have, but the blaring of the siren commemorated the end of World War I at that very time in 1918.


My father was the youngest grandchild of William and Rachel Seat, although William died long before my father was born. “Grandma” Seat’s oldest grandchild, Leslie, was born in 1890, the son of Jacob and Isabelle Williams. (The Isabelle Church in Worth County, which is long gone, and the Isabelle Cemetery, which is still used, were named for Isabelle (Seat) Williams, who died a couple of weeks after Leslie’s birth.)

Leslie Williams served as a soldier in World War I. Several times I heard my father tell the story about Leslie. On the very first morning he was deployed to the battlefield, Leslie was shot in the leg. The wound was so bad his leg had to be amputated at the knee. Later, probably more than once, when someone exclaimed at how unfortunate he was to be injured so quickly after going to battle, Leslie’s quick reply was, “No, I was lucky; those who were not wounded in the morning were killed that afternoon.”

Although I never knew my father’s cousin Leslie, I have often thought about him when reflecting on the tragedy known as World War I. Indeed, he was one of the fortunate ones, for there were at least 8,500,000 military deaths in that war, including around 120,000 from the U.S. About twice that many who were wounded, like Leslie Williams and other young men from all over the nation.

Prolific British author H. G. Wells’ book The War that Will End War was published in 1914, the beginning year of the Great War, as it was called at the time. President Woodrow Wilson emerged as a skilled wartime leader in the U.S. by molding public opinion with such optimistic phrases as “a war to make the world safe for democracy” and “a war to end all wars,” paraphrasing Wells.

But here it is, over ninety years later, and our country and many others are still entangled in war. On August 31 of this year, the President announced that the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) is over—but there are still close to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. And there are nearly twice that number deployed to the War in Afghanistan, which is now in its tenth year.

Tomorrow, on the 92nd anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, let’s join in prayer that all of the troops will soon come home, and arrive walking on two good legs.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What about Separation of Church and State?

Robin Carnahan, whom I supported in my previous blog posting, unfortunately lost her bid for the U.S. Senate. But, fortunately, so did Christine O’Donnell.

Although not unexpected, I am greatly disappointed that Roy Blunt will soon be seated as the junior Senator from Missouri. In the previous posting I said I was voting for Carnahan partly because of her position on universal health care in contrast to Blunt, who voted against it and has indicated his desire to repeal the new health care laws. While repeal probably won’t happen, I can’t support a Senator who wants to do that.

In addition, in last Sunday’s Kansas City Star, the editorial supporting Carnahan ended by warning, “Blunt would protect the wealthiest at the expense of all others.” From his record, this, sadly, is true, I’m afraid, and that is another reason I voted for Carnahan. And just yesterday I read that Blunt has said, “There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the earth” (posted by the Union of Concerned Scientists).

But what about Christine O’Donnell (b. 1969)? She was much in the news in the weeks before the election. There was a lot about her admitting that she “dabbled into witchcraft” while in high school, but I didn’t find that a matter of great concern. What bothered me and a lot of other people were her statements about the important issue of the separation of church and state.

In a debate with now Senator-elect Chris Coons on October 19, O’Donnell challenged her Democratic rival Tuesday to show where the Constitution requires separation of church and state. Of course, she is correct to the extent that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the constitution. But she is quite wrong if she thinks that the concept is not firmly there.

It is a historical fact that Baptists played a significant role in promoting the idea of separation of church and state and in securing the passage of the first amendment to the Constitution. Roger Williams (1603-84) was one of the first and most ardent proponents of religious liberty in what became the United States, and he wrote about “the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” This phrase was picked up later by Thomas Jefferson.

Writing to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Jefferson used the expression “wall of separation between church and state,” and this is usually understood as his interpretation of the establishment clause of the first amendment.

But even though O’Donnell was not elected yesterday, others with questionable views about the separation of church and state were. As Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Wednesday, “Church-state separation is going to be under sustained fire for the next two years in Congress and in many state legislatures.” For example, John Boehner, the likely new Speaker of the House, has been rated 0% by Americans United, indicating his lack of support for the separation of church and state.

Note: Last month there was a six part series on “God in America” aired on PBS. The second sixty-minute segment was titled “A New Eden,” and it was largely about Thomas Jefferson and the Baptists who were the leaders in establishing the separation of church and state. This is available for viewing online at http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/view/. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Let Me Be Blunt: I’m Voting for Carnahan

The midterm elections are on November 2, and as often happens, the party in power is in danger of losing a considerable number of congressional seats. One of the key Senate races is here in Missouri, and I’ll be blunt: I am for candidate Carnahan.

Roy Blunt (b. 1950), currently a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is seeking to win the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Senator Kit Bond, who has held that position since 1987. Blunt’s main opponent is Robin Carnahan (b. 1961), who is the current Missouri Secretary of State.
Both Blunt and Carnahan are Baptists and both are graduates of the same colleges as June and I. Blunt graduated from Southwest Baptist University (SBU) in 1970 and Carnahan from William Jewell College in 1983. Blunt was also the president of SBU from 1993-96, and he gave the commencement address at SBU in May of this year. Last year, Carnahan was one of the Achievement Day honorees at Jewell.
So, by religious affiliation and by college connection there is no reason to vote for one of these senatorial candidates over the other. But their political views are quite different, and I firmly believe that Carnahan’s are distinctly superior.
To give but one example, Carnahan is in favor of the federal health care plan that Congress passed earlier this year. But Blunt voted against it and now advocates repealing the new laws. He supported Proposition C in Missouri (which I wrote about on my August 10 posting).
Earlier this month, Blunt signed the “Tea Party Treaty,” which was drawn up last month by the St. Louis Tea Party. The first “article” of that treaty says, “I believe that the healthcare reform bill (Affordable Care Act) should be immediately repealed as an un-constitutional extension of governmental powers according to Article I of the U.S. Constitution, and thus a burden on the people’s rights as recognized by the 9th Amendment.” 
According to FactCheck.org, Misrepresenting the health care law has been perhaps the single most dominant theme of attack ads by GOP candidates, party groups and independent conservative organizations. A record estimated $4 billion is being spent on both sides in this midterm election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And from our observations, a large part of that is being spent to discredit the health care legislation and the Democrats who voted for it.”
It is not good to decide on whom to vote for because of only one issue, and the health care issue is certainly not the only one about which I disagree with Representative Blunt. But it is an important issue, and his lamentable position on it, along with a number of others, is one of the main reasons I am voting for Carnahan.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Beware of Constitutionolatry

The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document. Ratified in 1787, it is reportedly the oldest national constitution in the world still in use. Perhaps many of you, as I did in my school days, memorized the praiseworthy Preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In the past two years, some political and religious conservatives have charged the President with not following or of disregarding the Constitution. Such criticism is stronger and more persistent than it has ever been—at least during my lifetime, and I was born when FDR was President.
Those who criticize the President so strongly place great emphasis on the “original intent” of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. Last year Rush Limbaugh referred to the Constitution as “a gift of God,” and he was given the “Defender of the Constitution Award” at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009.
But it seems that the position of Limbaugh and others is close to constitutionolatry, that is, making an idol out of the Constitution. (I thought I was coining a new word, but then I found on the Internet that the term has been used before, although not often.) And those who extol the Constitution so highly are usually referring to the original, 1787 document.
Within two years, though, the original Constitution was found to be insufficient, so the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) were proposed and then ratified in 1791. Still, there were some glaring deficiencies. For example, slavery was nowhere prohibited. It was only after the Civil War that slavery was outlawed by the thirteenth amendment, and then African-American men were given the right to vote with the fifteenth amendment in 1870. But still for decades women, white or black, did not have the right to vote.
My grandmother Laura (Neiger) Seat turned 21 (the legal voting age then) in 1902, but because she was a woman she did not have the right to vote in 1904, the year Theodore Roosevelt was re-elected President. My grandmother Laura (Hamilton) Cousins turned 21 in 1914, the year my mother was born, but she wasn’t allowed to vote in 1916, the year Woodrow Wilson was re-elected President, for the same reason: women did not yet have the constitutional right to vote. That situation did not change until the nineteenth amendment was finally ratified in 1920.
So, in praising the Constitution of 1787, let’s beware of constitutionolatry. Even though it was remarkable, there were, indeed, flaws in that beloved old document. And for this and other reasons we also need to beware of the “Tea Partiers” and other “Originalists” who idolize the Constitution and say they want back the policies of the Founding Fathers. (If you would like to read more about this matter, here is a link to an interesting article posted on the Internet yesterday.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When Did "Christian" Become a Dirty Word?

It came as a bit of a shock when I read that Dr. Sallee, president of William Jewell College (WJC), said that WJC is no longer advertising itself as a Christian college. The Hilltop Monitor, the student newspaper, included that information in an article published in its September 24 edition. Dr. Sallee is quoted as saying that the expression “Christian college” has taken on a different meaning than it used to have.
He made no reference to it, but Dr. Sallee’s point is forcefully made in the title of a new book, Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites—and Other Lies You’ve been Told. The author is Bradley R. Entner Wright, a sociologist. Although Dr. Wright seeks to show that there is not sufficient evidence to indicate that the majority of Christians are, in fact, “hate-filled hypocrites,” it is nonetheless true that there are many people who do think that.
June and I transferred to WJC in August after we were married, following our graduation from Southwest Baptist College, which was then a junior college. In the years since, all four of our children graduated from WJC, each after having attended four years there. And I have taught several courses there through the years, the first in 1976 and the last in 2009.
June and I chose to attend WJC because it was a Christian college, and that was one of the main reasons that our children went there and that I have taught there from time to time. So, we naturally find it sad that WJC has concluded that it can no longer identify itself as a Christian college. When did Christian become a dirty word?
The change at WJC, and in the larger society, is largely linked to the move toward fundamentalism in this country and in the Southern Baptist Convention in particular. That was one of my main reasons for writing Fed Up with Fundamentalism (FuF). With the steady move to the right over the past thirty years, Southern Baptists and many other “evangelical” groups have come increasingly to be seen as obscurantists (as I wrote about in FuF), and, as another example, the anti-gay rhetoric of not only Fred Phelps but others who are much more "mainstream" has caused many people to think negatively about anything labeled Christian.
In his challenging new book, The Myth of a Christian Religion (2009), Gregory A. Boyd says that Jesus “was known for the scandalous way he loved.” By contrast, “instead of being known as outrageous lovers, Christians [today] are largely viewed as self-righteous judgers” (pp. 64-65).
[The last two paragraphs of the original posting have been removed.]