Friday, January 29, 2010

"Blessed Unrest"

Have you heard about Blessed Unrest? That is the name of a book by Paul Hawken, whom I had never heard of before the Justice Summit at William Jewell College earlier this month. I have not read the book, but I want to share some of its content as introduced on Internet videos.
I am writing this partially in response to the question with which I ended my previous posting, “Is there any encouraging word?” (To be honest, I was hoping for more responses and more encouragement from you, my Thinking Friends.)
In Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (2007), Hawken (b. 1946) depicts the convergence of environmental and social justice movements as the largest and fastest growing social movement in history. This is encouraging.
Speaking to the Bioneers Conference back in 2006, Hawken talked about all the groups worldwide which are working on justice and sustainable activities. He said at that time there were at least 130,000 such groups. (You can see part of that talk here, and I encourage you to view it, if you haven't already. And in case you don’t know, as I didn’t until recently, Bioneers is an organization that formed in 1990 with the newly coined word as their name. Bioneer means “biological pioneer.” You can learn more about them here.)
Hawken has also been instrumental in launching (in 2007) as an online directory to help map out the work done by these justice and sustainability organizations around the world. There are now more than 110,000 such organization listed, and accessible, on that website, and that number may be only about 1/10 of the total number of such organizations in the world.
One reviewer of Blessed Unrest wrote, “Hawken claims that the reversal of self-destructive behavior is the ultimate purpose of this movement.” Thus, it seems that the unrest Hawkins writes about is the widespread dissatisfaction with how the earth and many people living on it are being mistreated. And that unrest is blessed because it is motivating so many people to be actively involved in change for the better.
Hawken ends his book with these words: “What will guide us is a living intelligence that creates miracles every second, carried forth by a movement with no name” (p. 190).
I find all of this encouraging—and a call to become more involved in working for positive changes in the world.
P.S. I also thought the President’s fine State of the Union address on Wednesday evening was encouraging. What did you think?

Monday, January 25, 2010

“I Hate Him, and You Should Too”

I am discouraged. Specifically, I am discouraged about the political situation in the United States. A wave of discouragement hit me last Wednesday morning when I heard the results of the senatorial election in Massachusetts.
I am discouraged partly because the health care bill, which I thought would surely be passed this month, is in jeopardy. It now seems likely that millions of people will continue to be without health care. This is sad. According to the February 2010 “Harper’s Index,” the estimated number of U.S. veterans under 65 who died in 2008 because they lacked health insurance is 2,266. That is five times the number of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.
I am discouraged because of the extreme polarity and partisanship in this country, largely due, I think, to the vitriolic voices of the extreme Right. I listen to those voices very little, but coming home from Rockhurst University last Thursday evening I listened to Mark Levin’s outrageous ranting about liberal Democrats wanting to deprive citizens of the freedom of speech. As I was making some rounds the next day, the radio came on again to KMBZ “Talk Radio” and I listened some to Rush Limbaugh.
I am discouraged not just about health care for the citizens of the country but about the very health of the country itself because of people like Limbaugh. He railed on and on about the President, ending with the words, “I hate him, and you should too!”
Regardless of how much one disagrees with some politicians or their political position, it is contemptible for someone on nationwide radio to not only declare their hatred for the President but to encourage others to join in that hatred. At the end-of-the-hour station break, the announcer proclaimed, as I assume he does daily, that Limbaugh is “the man who runs America.” That’s scary!
According to The Huffington Post (1/22/10), Limbaugh receives a yearly salary of $50,000,000, and he has 12,000,000 listeners daily. That is less than 6% of the people of the nation who are over 18 years of age, but still that is a lot of people. And he is just one of many radical rightwing ranters on the radio.
For those of us who believe in civility, what are we going to do, what can we do, when a Limbaugh with twelve million listeners says of the President, “I hate him, and you should too”?
Is there any encouraging word?

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Importance of Contextual Theology

This posting is a continuation of what I wrote last time about the Justice Summit at William Jewell College last weekend. One of the most impressive people I met at the Summit is Robert Francis, who lives in Bates County, MO.
I had heard of Robert; a year or two ago he had spoken in a Chapel service at Jewell that I was unable to attend. So I was happy to meet him. When visiting with Robert, I asked if he is part of a Christian community. He said that he and other Native Americans like him were followers of Jesus but were not necessarily Christians.
Robert’s name card indicates that he is a Consultant/Helper with the Mid American Indian Fellowships (MAIF), and that organizational name is followed with the words, “following Jesus in the context of our Native cultures.” In a 2006 document available on the Internet, Robert writes about how a MAIF Council meeting in Springfield, MO, decided to work toward establishment of a land-based center for indigenous cultural immersion and restoration.
In the same paper, Robert says that the “overarching purpose” of MAIF is the decolonization of colonized peoples. This is in contrast to what missionaries have done through the years, he claims. Selective reading of the Gospels allowed Christian missionaries “to neglect Creator-Son’s primary work of decolonization.”
Robert’s work is a good example of both contextual and liberation theology. From the late 1970s I began teaching about the importance of contextual theology in my Introduction to Theology course at Seinan Gakuin University’s Department of Theology.
One of the best Asian examples then was Waterbuffalo Theology (1974) by Kosuke Koyama, a Japanese missionary to Thailand. And in that connection I also began to talk about the contextual liberation theologies of James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Rosemary Radford Ruether.
And just this morning I finished reading one of the most challenging books I have read for a long time: American Indian Liberation (2008) by George E. “Tink” Tinker. A member of the Osage Nation, Dr. Tinker is an ordained Lutheran minister and has since 1985 been a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Just like the Black Theology of Cone, the Indian Theology of Tinker is highly critical of much traditional (White) theology. But both are contextual theologies that those of us who are not Black or “Red,” as well as those who are, need to take very seriously.
(Here is a picture of Dr. Tinker.)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Justice Summit

Last Friday and Saturday the Center for Justice and Sustainability (CJS) at William Jewell College sponsored their first annual Justice Summit. The leaders of the conference were Ellis Jones and Brett Johnson, two of the three authors of The Better World Handbook: Small Changes that Make a Big Difference (New Society Publishers, 2007).

Dr. Andy Pratt, the Executive Director of the Center for Justice and Sustainability (as well as Dean of the Chapel and Vice President for Religious Ministries at William Jewell College) was the primary planner and facilitator of the Justice Summit, and I think he is probably pleased with the outcome. There was a good mix of Jewell students, faculty and staff members, and people of various ages from the community, some coming from quite a distance. (I talked with one participant who lives in Branson and teaches at MSU in Springfield.)

One of the main goals of the program leaders was to get people to be more active in working for justice and sustainability. To a limited degree, they succeeded with me. Though June and I have been fairly involved in justice and sustainable activities, since the close of the Summit on Saturday, we have become a members of Peace Action, “the nation’s largest grassroots peace network,” and ordered checks from with the Peace Action logo on them.

In keeping with my previous posting about injustice, June and I also joined the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization. HRC “envisions an America where LGBT people are ensured of their basic equal rights, and can be open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community.”

We also made (small) loans through to a group of twenty-one Cambodians who needed the money to buy piglets to raise and to a man in Kabul, Afghanistan, who needed money to expand his general store in order to better support his six children. If you are interested in learning more about micro-lending, check out the Kiva website.

I have also become a follower of the CJS blog, and I encourage my readers to do the same (as long as that doesn’t interfere with your reading my blog!).

The top quote on page one of The Better World Handbook is one of the oft-cited statements made by Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” As I have written before, we each one may not be able to do much, but we can do something.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Is Progress Observable?

My previous posting was “In Praise of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” and this posting is being made on what should have been his eighty-first birthday instead of his birthday anniversary. I wonder what Dr. King would be thinking and doing if he were a healthy and active 81-year-old senior statesman, such as, say, Jimmy Carter, who is still quite productive even though he was born more than four years before King.
I can’t help but think that Dr. King would be dissatisfied with many of the problems African-Americans still face in this society but that, at the same time, he would acknowledge that significant progress has been made since 1963, the year about which he wrote in Why We Can’t Wait. It seems to me there is a world of difference between the situation all across the South (and the rest of the nation) today from what it was in “Bull Connor’s Birmingham” that King wrote about so vividly in the third chapter of that book.
Thinking back over the last 150 years in the U.S., hasn’t there been significant progress made for African-Americans (abolition of slavery, suffrage, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, etc.), for women (suffrage and significant gains in many ways since the woman’s liberation movement of the 1970s), for senior citizens (social security, Medicare), for the poor (welfare provisions at different levels through the years and now the impending health care bill), and maybe even recently for Native Americans?
I write “even recently for Native Americans” not just because they are one Thinking Friend’s primary concern but because they are a segment of society which has been most oppressed and mistreated during the last 150 years. But even though it was not a U.S. action, it is significant, I think, that in 2007 the U.N. General Assembly passed the “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” affirming, among other things, that “indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples.” Sadly, though, this U.N. Declaration has received little publicity and probably as yet has not been greatly helpful to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples of the world.
In comments made on my previous posting, another Thinking Friend wrote, “What are the areas of injustice that we should be standing for these days in our community and in the greater global community?” Or, we might ask, where are the main areas in which progress still needs to be made?
For the nation as a whole, perhaps the treatment of Native Americans remains one of the greatest areas of injustice. But to my knowledge, most of us do not live in communities where that is a local problem. So, I wonder if the primary area of injustice in the communities most of us live in is not that of gays and lesbians. Perhaps more than any other group in our communities gays and lesbians are now victims of the greatest prejudice, discrimination, and lack of civil rights. And much of that injustice, unfortunately, is due to attitudes that many Christians have and support.
This is a subject to which I will probably need to return. But I wonder what other area(s) of chronic injustice you see in contemporary society and especially in the community where you live.

Monday, January 11, 2010

In Praise of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have long been a fan of Martin Luther King, Jr. I thrill every time I hear his “I Have a Dream” speech. I am moved whenever I read his writings, and I have just finished reading his powerful little book, Why We Can’t Wait (1963). But in light of all he did in 1963, I am somewhat embarrassed at what I didn’t do then.

The only time I had the privilege of seeing Dr. King and hearing him speak in person, I was a bit disappointed. When I was a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961, he came to Louisville and spoke in a regular chapel service at SBTS. It was a fine talk with excellent content, but it was not delivered with the oratorical power of many of his other sermons and speeches that I had heard snatches of. Thanks to the Internet, last week I was able to hear that chapel talk again. [To listen, click here.] I probably enjoyed and appreciated hearing King’s talk more this time than I did back when I was a busy, and sleep-deprived, seminary student.

In Why We Can’t Wait, King tells what he was thinking about and how he was involved in “the Negro Revolution” of 1963. Much of that revolution then was centered in Birmingham, Alabama, where King was arrested and jailed on Good Friday of that year. Chapter 5 of his book is his remarkable “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on April 16.

Among the many important statements in that powerful letter, I was particularly impressed by these words: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (pp. 72-73).

In April 1963, I was a full-time graduate student, a pastor, and a husband and father of two young children I was struggling to support financially. My plate was quite full. Still, as I look back to that time I am embarrassed not because of what I did but because of what I did not do. I was not completely uninvolved in the struggle for freedom and justice, but I did little to help those were suffering from racism and racist related poverty in the U.S. (or elsewhere).

During the Martin Luther King Day celebrations this year, I want to think deeply about what to do in response to his insightful words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (p. 65).

(Note: For those of you who live in the Northland of Kansas City, the Vital Conversations discussion group will be discussing Dr. King at its monthly meeting at the Mid-Continent Public Library in Antioch from 1:00 to 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon, January 13, and visitors are always welcome. Also, William Jewell College will host its annual Martin Luther King Day celebration at 10 a.m. on Monday, January 18, in Gano Chapel, and that event is open to the public.)

Friday, January 8, 2010

For the Common Good

One Thinking Friend (Craig D.) wrote (and doesn’t he write eloquently!) in response to my previous posting about the “struggle over the definition of ‘progress.’" I think he is right. Communication is often difficult, because words and concepts are not understood by everyone in the same way. So let me say a little more about what I mean by progress.

I certainly do not think that all change is progress. But all progress involves change. That is my problem with a cyclical worldview; it understands the world in terms of repetition (like the seasons) rather than in terms of change. Sure, there is change from one season to the other, but it is the same every year; there is never a new (a fifth and then a sixth) season.

“Do we have any choice other than to look for progress?” Craig wrote. Well, not looking for progress (at least on earth during one’s lifetime) was the position of most of the people of India for centuries (or millennia). The best example of a circular worldview is that of traditional India, which was basically a view of accepting what is with little thought of or effort toward effecting societal change or progress. The only choice, it seems, was accepting the situation (caste) into which one was born.

Certainly there were some Asian Indians who sought change. Gandhi is the best example. But before he began to work for change (progress) he studied in England and was, by his own admission, greatly influenced by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy, and John Ruskin, a British artist who was an advocate of Christian socialism.

Another good question from Craig: “Can we define progress in such a way that it furthers peace and justice, life and hope, rather than just measuring acres of trees cut down?” Yes, we can and we must, I believe. As I wrote in the last paragraph of the previous posting, “Our challenge is to join with all people of good will to work for progress so that at the end of this new year the planet and those who dwell on it, especially those who are suffering the most, will be better off than they are now.”

True progress is that which enhances the common good—for the planet and all who dwell on it. Progress on this earth is seen where, and only where, shalom is expanded. Progress is seen in material things only to the extent that they better provide the necessities of life for everyone: food, clothing, shelter, and (can’t we say) health care.

Progress is seen when chronic hunger and starvation are eliminated, when the sick are increasingly cured and diseases dispelled, when those who have been enslaved, abused, oppressed, and/or exploited are freed from such treatment, and when there is, truly, liberty and (social) justice for all.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Is Progress Possible?

Progress doesn’t have as good a reputation as it used to. There was a time when it seemed evident to most people in the Western world and increasingly in many other parts of the world, perhaps particularly Japan, that progress was a goal worth striving for. But now there seem to be more and more people who question the idea of progress.

Those who spoke so enthusiastically for progress throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early years of the twentieth centuries often did so on the basis of their belief in the power of science and technology to improve the quality of human life. This enthusiasm was often accompanied by an optimism that saw everything getting better and better “every day in every way.”

But beginning way back almost one hundred years ago now, World War I shook the widespread (Western) belief that progress was inevitable and that human reason and science would conquer all the problems of the human race. And even though the idea of progress continued to be a prevalent idea through the past century, increasingly people seem to have grown skeptical about the possibility of progress. And, certainly, it has become quite evident that science can be used in destructive ways as well as in constructive ones.

But, I still believe that progress is possible and that pursuing progress is good and important. This belief is closely related to my affirmation of a linear worldview. We humans can learn from the past in order to improve the future. A quote alluded to in comments made about my previous blog posting comes from George Santayana (1863-1952). In The Life of Reason, Or,The Phases of Human Progress (Vol. 1, 1905), Santayana wrote, “Progress . . . depends on retentiveness. . . . Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In other words, we need to remember the past in order to change the future for the better.

A linear world view does not mean that progress is inevitable, nor does it mean that human history moves ever upward. As another Thinking Friend commented, a wheel can move backward as well as forward. There have been times in human history that the world has seen regression (or retrogression) rather than progress. But, still, progress is possible and striving for positive progress is imperative.

A circular worldview tends to lead those who hold such a view toward passivity, toward acceptance of what is, toward fatalism. Such a worldview also uses the image of a wheel, but the wheel is seen as spinning horizontally (on its side) rather than vertically. Progress is possible only when the “rubber hits the road.”

We humans can, and do, help create the future. Our challenge is to join with all people of good will to work for progress so that at the end of this new year the planet and those who dwell on it, especially those who are suffering the most, will be better off than they are now.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Year of the Tiger

On this first day of January 1, in true Japanese fashion I am wishing you each one a Happy New Year! 明けまして、おめでとう御座います。(If you don’t have Japanese fonts loaded on your computer, you may not be able to see the Japanese words in the previous sentence.)

According to the Oriental zodiac of East Asia, today is the beginning of the Year of the Tiger. Traditionally, the new year does not begin until late January or February; this year the “Chinese New Year” begins on February 14. But for a long time now, Japan has celebrated January 1 as New Year’s Day, while retaining many of the ancient traditions.

This is “my” year, for I was born in the Year of the Tiger. It’s common in Japan to find out how old people are by asking what their zodiac sign is. (There is a sign for each of twelve years, not for months within the year.) It is fairly easy to guess what year a person was born in if you know their sign. (I hope no one mistakenly thinks I will be 84, although I would be happy to pass for 60!)

While not hesitating to celebrate the new year, whether in the West or in the East, I do have a bit of a problem with emphasizing a circular way or thinking rather than a linear one. Years ago, a Japanese friend pointed out that from Christianity’s linear viewpoint there is no qualitative difference between January 1 and any other day of the year. The Christian (as well as the Jewish or Muslim) worldview is based on history rather than nature.

Thus, it is more significant that today is the beginning of the year 2010 than it is January 1; the year is based on historical progression, the date on the revolution of the earth around the sun. The latter is sometimes linked to “the myth of eternal return” (Eliade), which I see as being at odds with the Judeo-Christian worldview. For that reason, I have some problem with the “church year” emphasis, as to some extent it is based on the concept of circularity rather than linearity.

To remember the significant events in the life of Christ each year is good, of course. But do we really need to wait all during Advent to celebrate the coming of Christ if we know he was born over 2,000 years ago? And do we need to be sorrowful through Lent if we know that Jesus has already been resurrected and we are living in the joy of new life?

I think there is significant meaning in the old saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” That is true every day, not just on New Year’s Day. Each day we are challenged to move forward, not in a circle. So, thinking about the path that you are travelling into the future, I pray that each of you will be blessed with health and happiness in the coming year. And may you find strength for the journey and joy in the struggle for peace and justice in each of the 365 days—and the 1,000 days—that lie ahead.