Thursday, June 30, 2011

“Blessed Are the Cynical”

Mark Ellingsen is a professor of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He is also the author of many books, including one that I will be using as a text for the first time this fall in the course I teach at Rockhurst University.
Dr. Ellingsen (b. 1949) is a Lutheran pastor, but he is also an Augustinian scholar with a Ph.D. from Yale University. Last week I finished reading his intriguing book, based partly on Augustinian ideas, Blessed Are the Cynical: How Original Sin Can Make America a Better Place (2003).
Since Ellingsen uses a lot of statistics about the current American (and world) context, the book already seems a bit dated. However, more up-to-date statistics concerning most of what he writes about would strengthen his arguments, not weaken them.
“Whatever Happened to Original Sin?” is the subtitle Ellingsen uses for the introduction to his book. Here is his conclusion:
This book will show, paradoxically, that when we realize our limits and our insidious motives, we are more likely to be tolerant of our neighbor’s agendas, and more likely to get in the trenches and work to make things better, more likely to appreciate ourselves and the direction of our nation. The more the doctrine of original sin permeates our thinking, the better (though by no means perfect) life in America is likely to be (p. 32).
Ellingsen continually makes references to the American political scene. He contends, for example, that “an Augustinian view of human nature is realistically cynical enough to appreciate that politics is ultimately about power and that you get things done by means of tradeoffs and coalitions in which you engage to get power” (p. 70).
And he ends his book with these words: “Vigilance about the low sides of human nature, a healthy cynicism, improves civic life.”
I have never been much of an enthusiast of cynicism. Just the other day I saw where someone quipped, “to the cynic it doesn’t matter whether the glass is half full (like the optimist says) or half empty (like the pessimist says), for he thinks it is probably polluted anyway.”
But Ellingsen makes an important point: it is wise not to be gullible and even to be on guard against the self-centered bias lurking in the words and deeds of other people—as well as in what we say and do. Being somewhat cynical keeps us from expecting too much from others. Further, a healthy cynicism engenders realism, freeing us from the overly-optimistic Enlightenment viewpoint prevalent today, at least in some circles.
I highly recommend Dr. Ellingsen’s engaging book Blessed are the Cynical.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Bombing of Fukuoka, 6/20/45

June 20, 1945, was a terrible, terrible day for the people who lived in Fukuoka, Japan.
Fukuoka City, with a metropolitan population much larger than Kansas City, is not well-known in the U.S. But twenty-three years after the end of WWII, Fukuoka became June’s and my home, and we enjoyed living in that beautiful city for thirty-six years.
But it was a terrible place to be on June 20, 1945.
While living in Fukuoka we sometimes heard references to the saturation bombing of the city in 1945. In fact, some friends were always frightened by thunder, for it reminded them of that horrendous June 20. (The bombing actually began less than an hour before midnight on June 19, local time.)
But for some strange reason I never did learn much about the details of the bombing of Fukuoka. Until last year, that is.
Akira Yoshimura (b. 1927) is a bestselling novelist in Japan. His book about Japan in 1945, and later, was published in 1978, and it was translated and published as One Man’s Justice in 2003. Last August I read Yoshimura’s book, and was greatly moved by it.
June 20, 1945, was also not a good day for eight captured U.S. airmen, for they were taken to a schoolyard in Fukuoka (very near where our church used to meet) and beheaded.
Takuya, the main character of Yoshimura’s novel, was a fugitive after the end of the war, for he had given direct orders for beheading two of those captured American flyers and was sought by the Allied occupying forces as a war criminal.
An American friend we knew quite well in Fukuoka has posted on the Internet considerable material about the beheading of those American servicemen. Yoshimura’s novel tells the other side of the story.
By June 20, 1945, there had already been over 20,000 bombing raids on Japan, claiming around 400,000 lives. But most of the attacks on Kyushu, the main southwestern island of Japan, had been limited to military targets—until the Fukuoka bombing.
Most of the nearly 1,000 deaths from that bombing were of defenseless civilians. (That, of course, was also true of the hundreds of thousands killed in August 1945 by the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities.)
The painful question is why were the U.S. prisoners who were directly related to the bombings that “burnt to death thousands of defenceless old men, women and children” (p. 66) not considered guilty by most Americans whereas the man who ordered the execution of two such flyers was pursued as a war criminal?
Some would say the U.S. airmen were executed without a trial. In that case, why was there such cheering in this country when Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. SEALS? (Admittedly, the scale of bin Laden’s crimes was greater, still . . . .) And won’t there be the same sort of rejoicing if, or when, Muammar Gaddafi, is killed by the NATO forces bombing Libya daily?
I do not condone people taking “justice” into their own hands. But much more strongly, I oppose the bombing of non-combatants (the elderly and children) even in war.
Thus, this is a day of sad remembrance for me for those who were living in Fukuoka in 1945. But today is also a good time to pray for peace, now and in the future.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nurturing Fathers

Father’s Day, as you know, will be celebrated this Sunday, June 19.
For maybe understandable reasons, Father’s Day is not nearly as popular as Mother’s Day, and its observance is much more recent. It was not until 1966 that President Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day. It was six years later that President Nixon signed it into law as a permanent national observance.
In this country Father’s Day was first proposed in 1910, but in the early years, even in the 1920s, there was sometimes laughter when observance of such a day was mentioned. There were several reasons for such a response, but one seems to have been that many fathers were not highly involved in the nurture of their children.
Those who raise cattle or horses are well acquainted with the importance of having a good sire for their calves or colts. For good offspring, they know there must be a good bull (or “he cow” as June’s neighbor used to say) or stallion (studhorse).
In registering animals, information about the sire is listed. But the sire is not usually referred to as the father. According to the dictionary, a father is “a man who has begotten a child.” And it is generally assumed that such a man, along with the child’s mother, has the responsibility for the physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being of the child.
Unfortunately, it seems that many men today have become sires, but not fathers in the full sense of the word.
Former Reagan Education Secretary William J. Bennett was one of the speakers I heard at the conference I wrote about on June 5. He talked about “the man problem in American society,” and he lamented, “Men are not marrying, not making the commitments in the way they used to.”
Later this year Bennett’s new 560-page book, The Book of Man: Who Are Men, What Should Men Be, What Should Men Do? will be published. In it I hope he deals helpfully with the importance of men being good fathers. (I will likely disagree with some of his conservative ideas about the relationship of men and women, though.)
The country needs men who will make commitments to help rear children, beginning with the ones they sire. The number of unwed mothers in the U.S. has risen dramatically in recent decades. Nationwide, now more than 40% of the children born have an unwed mother. Some of these, thankfully, do have a father who helps with the demanding task of rearing them. Sadly, many don’t.
You fathers who read this likely have been, and are, good, nurturing fathers, that is, fathers who nurture your children physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
But all of us, men and women alike, probably need to do more to nurture the young men around us toward becoming more responsible fathers. Unfortunately, in American society now there are too many men who are just sires, not fathers in the true sense of the word.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Gay (Same-Sex) Marriage and Polygamous Marriage

Missouri Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler, who defeated longtime (1977-2011) 4th District Representative Ike Skelton in last fall’s election, has been called, for good reason, “Missouri’s anti-gay zealot.”
Recently Rep. Hartzler (b. 1960) has compared gay (same-sex) marriage to polygamous marriage. She asked, in opposing the idea, “If you just cared about somebody, have a committed relationship, why not allow one man and two women or three women to marry?”
Listening to a local radio station earlier this week, I heard clips of Hartzler’s June 2 talk (at the Eagle Forum in D.C.), which included the above statement, and comments on her talk. The host of the program fully agreed with Hartzler on that point, although he did disagree of some of her later, more outrageous statements.
But is polygamous marriage and same-sex marriage basically the same ethically and to be equally accepted if traditional marriage is not maintained? I think not.
The difference is that of innate orientation. Surely no one can argue that people are born with a polygamous orientation. But there is ample reason to recognize that some people are born with a homosexual orientation. That is the way they are “wired” from birth.
A more serious question might be whether other people are perhaps born with, say, kleptomania or pedophilia. But even if such should be the case, which I seriously doubt, there is no doubt that such “disorders” are harmful to society, just as promiscuity often is. But the same cannot be said for homosexuality, depending on how it is expressed, of course. (There can be, and is, harmful homosexual activity just as there can be, and is, harmful heterosexual activity.)
Hartzler ran the public campaign for Missouri’s anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment, which 71 percent of voters approved. Thanks to Hartzler and the many who agreed with her, since 2004 the MO constitution has stipulated: “That to be valid and recognized in this state, a marriage shall exist only between a man and a woman.”
Now seven years later Hartzler is working hard to see that that law remains in MO and that DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act that became federal law in 1996) is defended. She has the full support of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, of course, who join with her in criticizing President Obama. Earlier this year the President concluded that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional and so the Justice Department should cease defense of that section in the Act.
(Section 3 of DOMA ends by declaring that “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”)
Certainly Representative Hartzler has the right to oppose same-sex marriage, and it is clear that a majority of voting Missourians has agreed with her position in the past, and may still agree with her.
But it is not valid for Hartzler to oppose same-sex marriage by saying that there is no basic difference between approving that and other non-traditional forms of marriage such as polygamy. The two are not the same kind of thing, and we should beware of people who try to equate them in an attempt to “protect” traditional marriage by opposing same-sex marriage.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Whose Freedom? Which Faith?

Faith and Freedom are two of my longtime commitments and present concerns. But I have serious questions about the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The past two days (June 3-4) I attended the Faith & Freedom Conference and Strategy Briefing at a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel. The conference was organized by Ralph Eugene Reed, Jr., and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which he founded in 2009.
Ralph Reed (b. 1961), as many of you remember, was the first executive director of the now-defunct Christian Coalition of America, which was founded by Pat Robertson in 1989 and which Reed headed until 1997.
The speakers at the D.C. conference were mostly conservative Christians, and some were Republican presidential candidates (or potential candidates, past and present), such as Michelle Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Donald Trump. The keynote speaker at last night’s banquet, which I did not attend, was Herman Cain.
Other top Republican leaders who spoke at the conference include House Speaker John Boehner, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and several other U.S. Senators and Representatives. It was a star-studded list of speakers.
But the speakers were all Republicans. And the Christians on the program were all conservatives or fundamentalists. The reported marriage of conservative Christians and the Republican Party appears to be true, and each partner seemed to promise fidelity to the other.
Further, the freedom emphasized was also limited in scope. So the questions arose in my mind, Whose Freedom? Which Faith?
The faith touted at the Faith & Freedom conference was not that of another prominent Christian politician: President Obama. Nor was it the faith of his former pastor, the vilified Jeremiah Wright, or of Wallace Charles Smith, the recently vilified pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in D.C. (where the Obamas attended Easter worship) and former president of Palmer (originally Eastern Baptist) Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
The latter all have faith in the same God and the same Savior. But their faith relates differently to the world, and especially to the poor and suffering people of the world and nation. Compassion and help for the needy and the discriminated against is not an apparent concern of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The faith of the Coalition seems different than that of the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, and most “mainline” Protestant denominations including sizable segments of Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists who are not Southern Baptists. 
Whose freedom was emphasized at the meeting? Not a lot more than the political freedom of U.S. citizens and, surprisingly, the freedom of the nation of Israel, which the U.S. was called upon to protect.
And, predictably, there was also strong emphasis on the freedom of the “unborn,” as nearly every speaker staunchly opposed abortion. The freedom of women to have the choice to terminate unplanned for and unwanted pregnancies was not only not recognized, it was repeatedly condemned.
Nor was there any recognition of the need for freedom by gay and lesbian persons to have equal civil rights, including marriage. Same-sex marriage was also repeatedly rejected.
At the Faith & Freedom conference, there was also a strong Tea Party emphasis (“debt = slavery”) and even talk about “Teavangelicals,” Tea Party evangelicals, but that is a subject for a future posting.