Thursday, September 30, 2010

Criteria for "Top Ten Christians"

The September 15 posting on this blog was about my list of “Top Ten Christians.” I appreciate the many comments and suggestions made about that list. Because of the response received, I have, somewhat reluctantly, replaced William Stringfellow with Thomas Merton. I am considering other changes, such as replacing Clarence Jordan with Roger Williams.
Some objected to the idea of making such a list. One of my closest Facebook friends wrote, Time magazine called Stanley Hauerwas the best theologian in the U. S.; Hauerwas replied that ‘best’ was not a theological category. I think I agree.” I responded, Hauerwas is probably right, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to identify those who serve as the best examples of what it means to follow Christ.”
Some thought the list should be more inclusive; specifically, they thought there should be more women on the list. If I were to add another woman, at this point I am most likely to choose Catherine Mumford Booth, the co-founder of the Salvation Army, or Lottie Moon, the outstanding Baptist missionary to China. But to add another woman, which man should be eliminated?
Some wondered about the criteria used in composing my list. An old TF, old not just in the sense that she is the same age I am but also because we first met fifty-five years ago, wrote, I’m not sure why I react negatively to the idea of a top ten Christian list. I’ve been pondering that since you posted it. But if it is a good thing, I would wonder why Clarence Jordan would outclass William Carey or Lottie Moon. Does social action trump quiet sacrificial living? There is something oddly ironic about the notion on which such a list rests. But I'll keep thinking.”
I like the closing words, “I’ll keep thinking.” That is largely why I write this blog, to think and to encourage others to think on topics of shared concerns. The above comment prompted me to think more deeply about the criteria for making a list of the top ten Christians. And after starting to work on those criteria, I received an e-mail from another perceptive TF who wrote, “I would be interested to learn what criteria are important or inconsequential.”
My starting point was St. Francis, who is often said to be the best historical example of a person who literally lived like Jesus. So, who else lived and acted the way Francis (and Jesus) did? Such a consideration should, I think, include criteria such as these:
·       observing a simple lifestyle (no personal luxuries)
·       living a life of love for others as much as self quite literally
·       working for social justice and peace as well as for salvation in the more traditional (evangelical) sense
·       experiencing opposition by political leaders and/or the religious “establishment”
The people on my “top ten” list meet these basic criteria; most other notable and noteworthy Christians do not to the same extent.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Saint and the Sultan

Benozzo Gozzoli, 1452
My posting on September 10 was about St. Francis’ peace prayer. One Franciscan scholar suggests that that well-known prayer was prayed aloud before Malik al-Kamil, the Muslim sultan of Egypt. The Saint and the Sultan (2009) is a fascinating book of nearly 300 pages written by Paul Moses, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College. It is mainly about that historic encounter of Francis of Assisi with Sultan al-Kamil in 1219.
Professor Moses explains that he first became interested in the story of Francis and the sultan shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. In the Introduction he writes, “The story of Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil says there is a better way than resentment, suspicion, and warfare. It opens the door to respect, trust, and peace” (p. 11).
I can understand the resentment that so many Americans have felt toward the 9·11 terrorists, who were radical Muslims, for killing so many people and for wreaking such havoc on U.S. soil. I can also understand how many Americans are also suspicious of Muslims because of those tragic attacks on the Pentagon and especially on the Twin Towers in Manhattan. I have less sympathy for those who think that prolonged warfare in Afghanistan is the proper response to that act of radical terrorists.
In spite of all the problems of the past nine years and the turmoil of the present, I fully agree with Professor Moses that we would do well to learn about respect, trust, and peace and to seek to put those attitudes into practice.
I lived in Japan from 1966 to 2004, going there just twenty-one years after the end of World War II. At that time many Americans still harbored much resentment toward and suspicion of the Japanese people. “Remember Pearl Harbor!” was frequently heard in this country.
But getting to know some Japanese people personally increased my respect for and trust of the people of Japan in general. Very seldom did we meet anyone who bore ill will toward us because of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. I found that most Japanese people were just as, or maybe even more, interested in world peace as I was.
This month one of my friends on Facebook made several references to 12/7/41 in reference to 9/11/01. His point seemed to be that this nation should take decisive action against Islam now as it did against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Both of those terrible events were great tragedies. But whole nations, or religions, should not be demonized because of the misdeeds of a radical minority within that nation or religion.
Nearly eight hundred years ago St. Francis sought to replace resentment, suspicion, and warfare with respect and trust for the sake of peace. That remains a powerful example for us all to this day.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Million Minutes for Peace

Odyssey Networks is inviting people from all over the world to stop at noon tomorrow, September 21, and pray for peace for one minute. This coincides with the U.N. International Day of Peace and the WCC-sponsored International Day of Prayer for Peace (IDPP). (Odyssey Networks is the nation’s largest multi-faith coalition dedicated to promoting tolerance, peace, and social justice through the production and distribution of media.)
In 2001, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring September 21 of each year as the International Day of Peace. The intention of the resolution is to have the entire world observe a day of peace and nonviolence.
Most of us have probably not been aware of the significance of 9/21 and have done little to observe it as a time of prayer for peace. I don’t know how much good it has done through the years—but surely it has done more good than harm. And it would, no doubt, do more good if more of us were aware of it and would do something because of the IDPP.
So, please join me and many others for a minute at noon tomorrow to pray for world peace. [A brief report on the million minutes campaign can be found here.]
There are thirteen “lead partners” in the “a million minutes for peace” campaign. One is the World Peace Prayer Society (WPPS), whose slogan is “May Peace Prevail on Earth.” That slogan, coined by Masahisa Goi, a Japanese spiritual leader, appears at the bottom of the home page on the link I gave above.
There is also a link on that webpage to the Peace Pole, which has those same words inscribed on it. The first Peace Poles outside Japan were constructed in 1983. Since then, more than 100,000 have been placed around the world in over 180 countries.
While the WPPS is a non-sectarian organization, Goi (1916-1980) was the founder not only of the World Peace Prayer Society but also of a Shinto-related “new religion” in Japan, the Byakkō Shinkō Kai (White Light Association). (You can find out more about it at this link.)
Even though we may have different religious beliefs than many who join in the million minutes for peace tomorrow, still to join others to pray for peace is surely a good thing to do. And while we may have a significantly different theological stance than Masahisa Goi, shouldn’t we join others around the world in his simple prayer, "May Peace Prevail on Earth"?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Top Ten Christians

My posting on September 5 closed with a reference to Francis of Assisi, who is called “the last Christian” by Adolf Holl. No doubt most of us “Christians” today would disagree that Francis, literally, was the last Christian. But who are the “best” Christians in history? In addition to Francis, who else could be put on a list of “top ten” Christians?
I have tried to think through this question to a degree, and I am now sharing the list I came up with. But first, a couple of qualifiers: from the beginning I excluded from consideration Christians of New Testament times or the early Christian martyrs. Also, I have weighted my list toward more recent times but haven’t included anyone still living.
Also, by “best” I certainly am not thinking in terms of greatest influence. I am focusing primarily upon those who seemed to live most consistently in the spirit of Jesus, those who followed in Jesus’ footsteps most closely and were most faithful to his teachings. And it should be recognized that these are exemplary Christians in the last part of their lives; some became “good” Christians only after a life-changing experience, such as Francis had when he was about twenty-four years old.
Here is my current list of the “top ten” Christians:
*  Francis of Assisi (1181/2–1226)
*  Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and the other 16th century “Swiss Brethren”
*  Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55)
*  Kagawa Toyohiko (1888–1960)
*  Dorothy Day (1897–1980)
*  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)
*  Mother Teresa (1910–97)
*  Clarence Jordan (1912–69)
*  William Stringfellow (1928–85)
*  Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–68)
The people on the above list deserve to be there, IMHO, but that does not mean they were perfect people. For example, MLK, Jr., was guilty of marital infidelities that I cannot excuse. Most of the others had their own foibles. Still, by how they lived, what they said (wrote), and what they did, these are the “top ten Christians” on my list at this point. (I reserve the right to change this list at any point.)
I would be very interested in having readers of this blog respond by suggesting others that they think deserve to be on this list. But for each new name added, I would like suggestions of whom to eliminate to keep the list at ten.

Friday, September 10, 2010

St. Francis' Peace Prayer

On this, the day before the ninth anniversary of the terrible, terrible terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, I encourage you to think with me about the peace prayer of Francis of Assisi. That prayer, IMHO, is one of the greatest Christian prayers of all time.
Murray Bodo, a Franciscan priest, has written many books and articles about Francis. I have just finished reading two of Fr. Bodo’s books: Francis: The Journey and the Dream (1972; rev. ed., 1988) and The Way of St. Francis: The Challenge of Franciscan Spirituality for Everyone (1995). The most impressive chapter in the former was “Francis Before the Sultan.”
The Fifth Crusade was called for by Pope Innocent III, the Pope who blessed Francis in 1209. That crusade was actually begun in 1217, the year after Innocent’s death, under the leadership of the following Pope, Honorius III, whom Francis had also met personally.
Francis participated in that crusade—but not with a sword. In 1219 he risked martyrdom by entering the court of Malik al-Kamil, who had become the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt the year before, to seek peace. Al-Kamil was the Muslim leader who led the defense during the Seige of Damietta, a major battle of the Fifth Crusade. Even before meeting Francis, he had made several offers of peace to the Crusaders, all of which were rejected.
It is a historical fact that Francis appeared before the sultan—and, somewhat miraculously, was not martyred. Yesterday I checked a new book out of the library: The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace (2009) by Paul Moses. I want to learn more about Francis’ historic encounter with the sultan.
In the imagined dialogue between the humble Francis and the powerful al-Kamil, Fr. Bodo has Francis say to the sultan that he wants to share “a prayer I learned by fighting the great battle with my self, by conquering one by one the demons in my own heart.” And the sultan responds, “Then pray it for me now, here in front of these dullards who infest my tent.”
Then Francis kneels down and begins to pray,
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
. . . . 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Who Is a Christian?

Some Thinking Friends responded to my postings of Aug. 20 and Aug. 25 by raising the question about who, really, can be legitimately designed as a Christian. Let’s think some more now about that important matter.
From a sociological, as opposed to a specifically religious, viewpoint, it seems to me that if a person (a) is a member of a Christian church, (b) self-identifies as being a Christian, and/or (c) publically makes a statement of faith in Jesus Christ, it seems to me that it is legitimate to designate that person as a Christian.
But then there is the matter of religious evaluation. Some would classify others as Christians only if they belonged to a “true” Christian church or “really” followed the teachings of Jesus. TF Craig Dempsey’s comments about the 8/25 posting expresses that position well. According to the latter test, what one does determines whether that person is a Christian or not. Thus, Craig wrote, “The person carrying the cross may well be a Christian. The person driving the nails certainly is not.
Along the same line, but much more provocatively, a (relatively) young Canadian TF writes, “Hitler and Bush were both ‘Christian’ (according to themselves), but their lying, thieving, murdering ways clearly exposes their hypocrisy. The fact that Obama had the gall to justify American . . . warmongering in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech marks him as the same. He is therefore neither Muslim nor Christian, if you ask me.”
A related comment, in another e-mail received after my previous posting, says: My cynicism would lead me to ask if any President can be a practicing Christian based on what he knows and must do in that position.” Although I had never thought of them as being cynical, that was the position of the sixteenth century Anabaptists: “it is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate” (from the Schleitheim Confession, 1527).
From the opposite side of the political spectrum, Glenn Beck claims that liberation theology is at the core of the President’s “belief structure,” and then remarks, “I don’t know what that is, other than it’s not Muslim, it’s not Christian. It’s a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it” (Washington Post, 8/30/10). Ann Coulter goes further. On September 1 she declared that the President is “obviously an atheist,” and then she went on to assert, “All liberals are atheists.”
Concerning Beck’s statement, my own view is that the President’s religious views are far closer to those of Jesus than are Glenn Beck’s. But what about the charges that those who do not faithfully follow the teachings of Jesus, as the Anabaptists sought to do or as my Canadian friend thinks we should, are not Christians?
When we get right down to it, if living like Jesus is what it means to be a Christian, perhaps the Austrian Catholic theologian Adolf Holl (b. 1930) is correct. The English title of his book about Francis of Assisi is The Last Christian (1979, 1980). If being a Christian means living completely like Jesus and putting the teaching of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount into practice literally, perhaps, indeed, Francis was the last Christian.
Note: The Vital Conversations discussion group will be talking about the life of Francis of Assisi at their regular monthly meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 8, beginning at 1:00 p.m. at the Mid-Continent Public Library in Gladstone. Visitors are cordially welcome.