Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In Praise of Dorothy Day

This is my fourth “in praise of …” posting, and I am now happy to be able to pay tribute to Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a person I have long admired and recently learned a lot more about.
Last week I finished reading Love Is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day (1986) by Jim Forest. It was a very helpful book that greatly increased my understanding of Day’s life, thought, and actions. On the evening of the same day, I enjoyed seeing “Haunted by God: The Life of Dorothy Day,” a one-woman performance by Lisa Wagner-Carollo staged in the Mabee Theater at Rockhurst University.
Dorothy Day is best known as the co-founder (in 1932) of The Catholic Worker—a newspaper that from the beginning has sold for one cent a copy—and the Catholic Worker (CW) movement, which has established houses of hospitality for the poor in many American cities. When June and I visited the CW-related Holy Family House on E. 31st Street in Kansas City a couple of years ago, we were quite impressed with the loving service being rendered there.
I have long admired Dorothy Day because of her commitment to the poor and mistreated people of the world. Forest points out that she often said, “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.” And then he remarks: “She was a Christian missionary, not to heathens but rather to fellow Christians, hoping to convert them to a faith they thought was theirs already” (p. 105).
Dorothy Day was not baptized as a (Catholic) Christian until she was thirty years old, but she increasingly became a believer who tried to live out what she understood to be the teaching of Christ and the Bible. She often cited the words of St. John of the Cross, “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged,” and the title of Forest’s biography of her was from that statement.
I also have long been a “fan” of Dorothy Day because of her unswerving commitment to pacifism. Forest reports, “Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war, The Catholic Worker published a banner headline which indicated that Dorothy’s pacifist commitment was unshaken” (p. 102). The headline was,
As I was reading Day’s biography while at Windermere (see the previous posting), during the (to me) offensive general session, I was thinking not just WWJD (what would Jesus do, or say) but WWDD (what would Dorothy do, or say). Although I was not able to come up with a good answer to my questions, I am sure she (or he) would not have been silent in face of what seemed to be the glorification of war.
So, I want not only to praise Dorothy Day, I want to continue to think about WWDD as I try to try to decide what Christ wants me to do in the many situations where there is an absence of peace and social justice.
Here is a picture of Dorthy Day in her latter years.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Are They Heroes?

It was a hard twenty-four hours. I’m talking about the 22½ hours at Windermere last Friday and Saturday and the first hour and a half driving the church van back through the snow and icy roads. The good news is we made it back to Liberty safely. But the conflicted feelings remain.
I don’t get many invitations to speak about Japan anymore, so I was pleased to be asked to be one of the “faculty” members at the Girls on Mission annual meeting on March 19-20 at Windermere, the beleaguered Baptist retreat center on the Lake of the Ozarks in Camden County (MO). I enjoyed the four sessions with the girls and their leaders, totaling nearly 100 people.
Girls on Mission (GoM) is for girls in grades one through six, but some of what happened in the general sessions seemed inappropriate for a Christian conference, and especially so for elementary school girls.
I knew before going that the “mission project” was collecting and sending items for “our active military personnel.” But I didn’t expect there to be in the entrance to the assembly hall a large cutout poster of a soldier in full uniform with the words “Gifts 4 Heroes.”
I knew before going that the GoM conference theme was “Dressed for Service” (based on Luke 12:35), but I didn’t expect the young women who were the worship leaders in the opening session to be dressed in military camouflage clothing. (They seemed dressed for military service.)
And I certainly did not expect there to be a video shown at the general session on Saturday morning that seemed very much like a recruitment film for the U.S. Marines. And the only “missionary” who spoke (briefly) at that service was a young man who spent a year in Iraq as an MP.
Those who planned the program were no doubt sincere in their linking of Christianity and patriotism, and the young man just mentioned was a dedicated Christian. But that certainly doesn’t mean that the military emphasis at a meeting of Girls on Missions was appropriate or that those who serve in the military are heroes (or sheroes, as some women are now being called).
The preemptive war in Iraq was highly questionable from the beginning and continues to fail the tests for a just war. There is no proof whatsoever that the U.S. military presence there has protected American freedom and kept us safe from terrorists. To the contrary, it has likely increased animosity toward the U.S. and made us less safe.
Moreover, and most significantly, there have been around 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the onset of the Iraq War. (This figure comes from the Iraq Body Count project.) How can Christians possibly countenance such wanton destruction of human life?
While I do not wish to question people’s motives or to criticize individuals, I think there is ample reason to insist that a military emphasis at a GoM conference is not appropriate. And I want to be sensitive to the feelings of those (or those who have loved ones) in military service, but are they, especially those who serve in Iraq, really heroes?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Thoughts about the Afterlife

Tomorrow, March 21, would be my father’s 95th birthday, had he not passed away in the summer of 2007. Even though it has been more than two and a half years since his passing, I still miss him. And I am surprised at how often I dream about him, including a dream in the last week. They are always pleasant dreams of us talking and doing things together.
My father was a “common” man; he had no formal schooling beyond high school and spent most of his life working as a farmer. He lived his life in modest houses and indulged in very few luxuries. But he lived a good, fulfilling life.
Hollis Seat, my father, was an active churchman most of his life, especially in the sixty-plus years after moving back to Worth County (MO), where he was born, in the fall of 1945. While farming was his occupation, and he was a good farmer, he spent a lot of time and energy serving Christ through the church; for decades he was a deacon and Sunday School teacher. Through the years he joyfully gave a tithe of his income, and more, for the work of the church.
If anyone goes to Heaven when they die, I have no doubt whatsoever that my father did. But in the time since his passing, it has seemed somewhat strange that I have found little “comfort” in thinking about my father in Heaven.
Maybe it is because it is so hard to visualize exactly what kind of existence a person has in Heaven—there surely are not literal streets paved with gold and gates made of pearls there. Maybe it is because there is so little talk about Heaven now in the society in which we live or even at church. But for whatever reason, I have been surprised in these last two and a half years that I have not found more meaning in thinking of my father (and mother, who passed away in February 2008) in Heaven.
More than being “comforted” by thinking of my father (and mother) in Heaven, I find significance in thinking about the positive influence he had not only on the lives of his children and grandchildren, but on many people in the churches he was a part of and in the communities where he lived.
Maybe Heaven is more meaningful for the loved ones of those who die much younger than my father did or of those who have not lived as good a life as he did. At any rate, as I think of my father now, more than enjoying comforting thoughts because of belief in the afterlife, I find solace in, and am grateful for, the memories of his long life well lived in this world. 

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pro-Choice or Anti-Choice?

Susan Wicklund is a sensitive and compassionate woman. She is also an abortion doctor. Last week the Vital Conversations group of which June and I are a part discussed Dr. Wicklund’s book, This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor (2007).
Dr. Wicklund (b. 1954) closes the third chapter of her book with these striking words: “Abortion is about life: quality of life for infants, children, and adults. Everywhere and in every sense of the word. Life, not death (p. 33).
There was nothing I read in the remainder of the book that seemed to contradict that statement. Thus, I have concluded that I will never again refer to the battle over abortion rights to be a battle between “pro-life” people and those who are “pro-choice.” The conflict is between those who are pro-choice and those who are anti-choice.
For a long time I have opposed the use of the term “pro-abortion,” for no one is really for abortion. It is always seen as the lesser of two evils, not something that is in any sense good in and of itself. That, it seems, is clearly the position of Dr. Wicklund.
As many of my Thinking Friends know, a section of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism is on “The Issue of Abortion” (pp. 226-235). In those pages, I rejected the absolutist position that condemns all abortions, which tends to be the position of most Christian fundamentalists. But I don’t clearly state there that I am a pro-choice advocate. After reading and thinking about Dr. Wicklund’s book, if were I to write that section on abortion now, I would  advocate the pro-choice position more explicitly.
For me, one painful aspect of This Common Secret was that Dr. Wicklund has nothing but unfavorable things to say about Christians or Christianity. People identified as Lambs of Christ are mentioned at least four times in the book—and always in a negative way: they were among the most vociferous of the protesters who constantly harassed Dr. Wicklund. (The Lambs of Christ is an anti-choice organization, founded in 1988 by Rev. Norman Weslin, a Roman Catholic priest and retired U.S. Army officer. Some refer to them as a Christian terrorist organization.)
Whether you are pro- or anti-choice, I would recommend the reading of Dr. Wicklund’s book. It helped me greatly to understand the pathos surrounding the performing of abortions as well as the importance of having a doctor who does those procedures in a safe and supportive environment. And it caused me to feel great admiration for Dr. Susan Wicklund, a sensitive and compassionate person.

Friday, March 12, 2010

“To Know God is to Do Justice”

The always controversial Glenn Beck has stirred up quite a fuss by the outrageous remarks he made on his March 2 TV program. Fox News has removed access to the YouTube video of that show, but you can read about it here if you are not familiar with what he said.
Basically, Beck urged his listeners to leave churches that preach social justice, saying that the latter term is a code word for communism and Nazism. There has been an outpouring of outrage by many Christians because of Beck’s shocking statements. (You can read about Jim Wallis’ response here.)
Before I knew about the stir Beck created, I had already planned to write a blog piece with this title. Based largely on Jeremiah 22:15-16, the liberation theologians of South America have long emphasized that “to know God is to do justice.” Those words are in the title of a subsection in Gustavo Gutiérrez’ s book A Theology of Liberation (1988, pp. 110-2). It is also in the title of the fourth chapter of Robert McAfee Brown’s Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984).
The justice emphasized in the above works is clearly social justice, which includes such things as helping the “poor and oppressed” of society to have greater access to the necessities of life, free of exploitation by the wealthy and powerful.
In 1 John 4:7-8, we read, Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” But some might ask, What has that got to do with social justice?
I think the “third proposition” in Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics (1966) is true: “Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else.” Thus, paraphrasing the above Bible verses, we can say that everyone who does justice knows God, and whoever does not do justice does not know God.
So, thinking about what I wrote in the two previous postings about experiencing God, let me now suggest that not only have many or most people of other religious traditions not experienced God, many or most people of the Christian tradition have not experienced God either.
If loving / doing justice are the sure indicators of knowing God, as the Bible seems to suggest, then perhaps we can say there are some people in most religious traditions and some who are not “religious” who know God and there are many in all religious (and non-religious) traditions who do not know God.
And, if this be the case, we each must ask ourselves, Where does that put me? Have I truly experienced God? Do I know God? How is that shown by my love for others and by my actions for social justice?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Idols of Harajuku

A few days ago the Winter Olympics in Vancouver ended, and it was quite a spectacle. But do you remember where the Summer Olympics were held in 1964? Yes, they were in Tokyo, and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium was one of the facilities built for those Olympic Games. That striking structure (picture here) was within comfortable walking distance from where our family lived when we first went to Japan, just two years after the Olympics.
Harajuku Station is the train station closest to the National Gymnasium, and you can see a picture and read about that well-known station here. Departing from the station, it is only a minute’s walk to the huge torii (the “gate” that marks the entrance into sacred space) in front of Meiji Shrine, the most important and most popular Shinto shrine in Tokyo.
Several years ago, some missionaries and other Christians in Japan announced that there was going to be prayer-walking in front of Meiji Shrine. That was being planned, of course, because Shinto was seen as a rival to Christianity and the devotion of the Japanese people going there was thought to be idol worship.
Hearing about the planned prayer-walking, I remarked that it was my opinion that the youth culture so prominent on the other side of Harajuku Station was the real opponent to Christianity and that attention ought to be focused there rather than on Meiji Shrine.
The youth culture of Harajuku seems to be unmitigated hedonism. And in Japan the word idol is regularly used to refer to cute young women in their teens and early twenties who appear regularly in the mass media. Probably few “idols” actually go to Harajuku, but most of the young women who go there would very much like to be idols.
While I would be surprised if most or even many of the Japanese who visit Meiji Shrine actually experience God there, I would not be surprised if some of them do. By contrast, it seems to me that the hedonistic young people who frequent the streets of Harajuku are quite unlikely to experience God there—or anywhere. So, I am far more concerned about the “idolatry” of Harajuku, and the hedonism of the young people of Japan in general, than about the perceived idolatry of Meiji Shrine.

The torii (sacred gate) at Meiji Shrine near Harajuku Station in Tokyo.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ideas about God and about the Moon

Is there a man in the moon? There is a long tradition in the West that says there is. Or is it a rabbit pounding rice (mochi)? That is the old Japanese view. Look up “man in the moon” on Wikipedia (here) and you will find a great variety of ideas about who lives in the moon. It also seems that in the past some people actually thought the moon was made of green cheese.
Of course, because of modern telescopes and then actual travel to the moon, no educated person today believes there is some person or animal living on or in the moon or that it is made out of anything other than rocks and minerals of various sorts.
But what does this have to do with God? Well, people through the millennia have had different ideas about God, just as they have had about the moon. Can we assume, though, that whereas there is some basic truth about the nature of the moon, there is no essential truth about God? Should we believe that any idea about God is as good as any other?
In his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989) by Lesslie Newbigin, about whom I wrote in two previous postings (2/1 and 2/8), the British missiologist contends that religious pluralism “is the belief that the differences between the religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood, but of different perceptions of the one truth; that to speak of religious beliefs as true or false is inadmissible” (p. 14).
It seems quite clear that there are different perceptions of God or Truth, but all those perceptions are not equally correct, just as most of the varying ideas about the moon were not true. But, of course, we don’t have direct information about God like we have about the moon. Or do we?
Isn’t there experience of God? If there is, it is certainly not the same as experience of physical objects, like the moon. Experience of God is beyond the realm of science. But does that make it any less real?
The Bible is full of references to hearing God speak, sensing God leading, communicating with God through prayer, and other such experiences. Is there any validity to such experience claims? Or are those claims just subjective experiences with no real contact with an “objective” Being? I think that there are people, many people, who have experienced God to varying degrees and that those experiences are real and not just subjective feelings.
One question being considered by many today, though, is this: Is it only people who are Christians or in the Christian tradition who have experienced or can experience God? Again, I think not. But that doesn’t mean that all ideas about God are equally valid or true, just as all ideas about the moon are not equally true, and most have been clearly false, even though it is the same moon that is observed.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Founders Day at WJC

In 1821, Missouri became the twenty-fourth state in the United States, and twenty years later the University of Missouri opened as the first state university west of the Mississippi River. In 1849, with the discovery of gold in California, the Missouri towns of St. Louis, Independence, Westport, and St. Joseph became points of departure for emigrants bound for California, making Missouri the “Gateway to the West.” (The town of Kansas, which later became Kansas City, was not incorporated until the following year.) 

On February 27, 1849, the Missouri legislature granted a charter which created the first four-year men’s college west of the Mississippi. The college was begun with a significant financial contribution by Dr. William Jewell, a Columbia (Mo.) physician, legislator, and Baptist layman. Consequently, the new school named William Jewell College and located in Liberty (Mo.), at the edge of the American wilderness. 

Rev. Robert James, a nearby Baptist minister, was one of the members of the first Board of Trustees. According to the WJC website, his sons, Frank and Jesse, eventually made good on their father’s financial pledge to the college when Rev. James left the area to follow church members to the California Gold Rush. (Robert James died in California in 1850 when Frank was seven years old and before Jesse turned three.) 
Last week Dr. David Sallee, the current president William Jewell College, spoke at the first Founders Day chapel service, and it was a fine talk. He reminded the college community that “what we do now and must always do, is provide an experience that reminds us daily that our inspiration is grounded in the Christian faith of our beginning.” He also declared that the college “cannot allow its students to be intellectually lazy because of their religious beliefs.”
Dr. Sallee also emphasized that education “is supposed to open our minds, to make mirrors into windows (Sydney J. Harris), to help us see the possibilities, all influenced by one’s spirit. It is about integrating the intellectual and the spiritual to inform and guide our lives.” 
After the chapel address, those in attendance sang “God of Truth and Joy,” a hymn written by Dr. J. Gordon Kingsley, president of the college from 1980-1993. The words of the first verse are:

God of truth and joy,
Teach us how to learn.
Grant us strength of mind and will,
Thy glory to affirm.
Let us servants be,
To lead Thy world aright.
Guide us through our onward years,
Thy will our inner light.
At the close of the service, I felt a sense of pride that 110 years after its founding, I graduated from William Jewell College. And I am happy to be living now in Liberty where I can have constant contact with WJC and its intellectual and spiritual vitality.
Picture with Dr. Sallee last fall after I received the 50-year medallion from William Jewell College.