Saturday, December 31, 2011

If You Want Peace . . .

Forty years ago, in his World Day for Peace message on January 1, 1972, Pope Paul VI declared, “If you want Peace, work for Justice.” Those were very significant words that, for good reason, have often been quoted throughout the last four decades.
Pope Paul’s peace proclamation was based partly on Isaiah 32:17 (“justice will produce lasting peace and security,” CEV). It also reflected the sentiments expressed in “Justice in the World,” a 1971 document drafted by World Synod of Catholic Bishops.
In that document the bishops pointed out how Jesus “proclaimed the fatherhood of God towards all people and the intervention of God’s justice on behalf of the needy and the oppressed.” They went on to declare, “Christian love of neighbor and justice cannot be separated. For love implies an absolute demand for justice, namely a recognition of the dignity and rights of one’s neighbor.”
Since 1968 the Catholic Church has designated the first day of every year as “World Day of Peace.” Pope Benedict XVI has chosen “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace” for the 2012 theme. In his 1/1/12 message, already made public, Pope Benedict declares, “Peace for all is the fruit of justice for all,” words resembling those of Pope Paul VI forty years before.
Not everyone likes the Church’s stress on justice, though. Back in March 2010, Glenn Beck, the well-known ultra-conservative political commentator, publicly criticized that emphasis. On his daily (at that time) TV and radio program, Beck even urged his listeners to leave churches which preach social or economic justice.
Since just before the presidential election in 2008, Barack Obama has been much criticized by some (mostly Republicans) for his supposed support for “redistribution of the wealth” in this country. Glenn Beck said that those words, as well as “economic justice,” were a part of the philosophy of both the Communists and the Nazis.
But Pope Benedict has just used those same words, “redistribution of the wealth”—and the Catholic Church has certainly never been a supporter of Communist or Nazi ideologies.
In his January 1 message the Pope stresses “the importance of seeking adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth.” Those words were in the paragraph just before the one declaring that “peace is the fruit of justice for all.”
I am not a Catholic, but I wholeheartedly agree with the words of the popes cited above. I am quite sure that there will be no lasting peace in the world as long as there is widespread injustice, such as that seen in attitudes and actions of discrimination (of any kind), oppression, or marked inequality. The latter includes economic inequality, especially when that is caused by exploitation, which is often the case.
Both domestically as well as internationally, creating a more nearly just society is the only way to peace. Thus, all of us who truly want peace in the world must be active in working for justice.
I earnestly pray that you, your loved ones, and people around the world will have a Peaceful New Year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

"The Work of Christmas"

Howard Thurman was an outstanding theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. On this day after Christmas, we would do well to read and ponder one of his poems.
Howard Thurman (1899-1981)
Thurman was listed in Ebony Magazine as one of the 50 most important figures in African-American history. Among his twenty books is Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), which greatly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. (Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, the first black person to be named tenured Dean of Chapel at a majority-white university, during the time King was a graduate student there)
Thurman’s poem “The Work of Christmas” was published in his book titled The Mood of Christmas (1985). You may have heard this poem previously, as it is very fitting in the days following the celebration of Christmas. It is a wonderful poem, and I invite you to give attention to it again:
So much of the Christmas season is shaped by commercialism, hedonism, and sentimentalism. But the true significance of Christmas is more than a sweet story of the miraculous birth of a baby who was immediately worshipped by rough shepherds and then by majestic magi.
As Thurman suggests, though, we have not properly celebrated Christmas unless we have committed ourselves afresh to feed the hungry, to do what we can to bring peace among all peoples, and to radiate the light of Christ in all our words and actions.
So now that Advent has been observed and Christmas has been celebrated, in both secular and religious ways for most of us, let’s get on with the work of Christmas. Then we will have truly celebrated the birth of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Demythologizing Santa (and Christmas?)

Naomi, my seven-year-old granddaughter, believes in Santa Claus, as do many children her age. My son Ken, wonders what to say to Naomi about Santa. Other members of the Seat family have shared ideas and insights about the Santa Claus “myth.”
Marian, my twenty-six-year-old granddaughter shared the “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” webpage from Newseum. Back in 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asked about the reality of Santa in a letter to the editor of The Sun, a New York City newspaper (published from 1833-1950). 
The response to Virginia’s letter, printed as an unsigned editorial, was written by veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church. It has become the most reprinted newspaper editorial in history.
In his response Church wrote, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.” 
We adults know that the popular belief, like Naomi’s, in Santa Claus is a type of myth. And we recognize that Church’s editorial was a type of demythologization of the Santa story. (Actually, he was somewhat misleading and not entirely truthful in what he wrote to Virginia.)
But what about it? Is the Christmas story about the birth of Jesus much the same as what children are told about Santa? To hear some scholars tell it, there is not much more truth in one story than the other. 
Many New Testament scholars agree that Jesus was not really born in Bethlehem. Nor was the visit of the Magi factual either, so, obviously, there was no actual guiding star. For a long time, “enlightened” people have also rejected the literal story of the Virgin Birth.
And now some theologians are rejecting the idea of God as an “objective” Being, so all the talk about Jesus being sent by God or being Immanuel, God with us, is not literally true either.
Further, with the growing emphasis on religious pluralism, the idea of Jesus being divine, a Savior for all the world, is being increasingly rejected also.
So, according to these “enlightened” ones, the stories that have been told about Christmas are all only mythical. The Christmas Christ “exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist,” but no more as a real person than Santa Claus.
(Of course, there really was a historical person in the fourth century who came to be known as Saint Nicholas. So, too, most will acknowledge that there was a real person named Jesus of Nazareth. But both, it is claimed, are far different from the stories told about them now.)
But what does all this say about being intellectually honest? Are people being duplicitous in telling the Christmas stories—to their children or to themselves—while knowing all along that they are only mythical and not factual?
I am currently working on a book, whose subtitle will likely be Christian Faith and Intellectual Honesty. The first emphasis is that Christians (as well as others) should be as intellectually honest as possible. Lying, duplicity, or pretending myths or outright falsehoods are factual are practices that should be opposed and rejected as much as possible.
But while acknowledging that there are, no doubt, mythical aspects to the traditional Christmas story, I believe it is really true that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world” to God and to one another.
That is why I believe Christmas can be celebrated honestly. And that is why I can also truthfully wish each of you a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Commemorating the Bill of Rights

December 15, 1791, is an important date in the history of this country. The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution were officially added on that day, exactly 220 years ago. Collectively, those ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.
Even though the Constitution, which was ratified in June 1788, is still hailed as a masterpiece, at the time of its adoption some people thought there was something lacking. Mainly, they believed that the Constitution did not contain adequate guarantees of the essential rights and liberties of individual citizens.
Last week U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was in Kansas City, and I was able to hear his enjoyable talk at the public library. (Justice Breyer was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994; I was surprised to learn that he and I were both born on 8/15/38.)
Justice Breyer was here partly to promote his new book Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View (2010). Early in his book he explains how James Madison, who later became President, “pointed out that the Bill of Rights would protect individuals from abuse by a majority” (p. 6). Similarly, he begins the thirteenth chapter with these words:
The Constitution expressly protects the liberty of individuals through the Bill of Rights.” He used the First Amendment as the first example of how that is so.
I find it rather ironic that some conservative Christians in this country complain about how their religious freedom is being stifled by the government—such as by not being able, for example, to have public displays of the Ten Commandments or Christmas creches.
Christianity is, of course, overwhelmingly the majority religion in this country. But as Madison pointed out, the Bill of Rights, beginning with the First Amendment, was put into place in order to protect the rights of minorities from abuse by the majority.
In the 1780s, Baptists were a minority group in Virginia, and some Baptist ministers were even imprisoned because of their unwillingness to abide by the religious beliefs and practices of the majority. Accordingly, John Leland, a Baptist pastor, put pressure on Madison to push for the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
There is a marker on “Constitution Highway,” five miles east of Orange, VA, commemorating the spot where in 1788, Leland and Madison, often called “the father of the American Constitution,” held a significant discussion which resulted in the ratification of the Constitution by Virginia, partly through  the support of the Baptists.
Keeping his part of the bargain, Madison, a member of Congress from Orange, presented the First Amendment to the Constitution, by which religious liberty, free speech, and the freedom of assembly are guaranteed. That is the kind of freedom, and constitutional protection, Leland and other Baptists greatly wanted.
Now the religious minorities in our country are people who believe in Buddhism, Islam, or other non-Christians religions. There is a sizable minority of atheists and non-religious people also. The Bill of Rights is important for protecting the religious freedom of those minorities.
As a Baptist, I have been proud of how Baptists in the past were advocates of religious freedom and were strong supporters of the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment. I think it is shameful how now that they are in the majority, some Baptists and other conservative Christians complain about the guarding of religious liberty for minority groups in American society today.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

In Memory of Thomas Merton

His death 43 years ago today, on December 10, 1968, was a tragic one. I am speaking of the accidental death of Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk.
Merton (b. 1915) had gone to Thailand for an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks, a meeting held in a Red Cross Conference Center in a suburb of Bangkok. While stepping out of his bath in the cottage where he was staying, Merton reached out to adjust an electric fan, apparently touching an exposed wire, and was accidentally electrocuted. A tragic loss of life!
Merton died 27 years to the day after entering the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, south of Louisville. That was just three days after, but not directly related to, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He became well known through his bestselling autobiography, which is mostly about his life before entering the Trappist monastery.
The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s story of his early life, was first published in 1948, when he was only 33 years old. By May 1949, 100,000 copies were in print, and that year it became the first religious book to make the New York Times bestseller list. The cover of the 1978 edition I just finished reading proclaims that over one million copies have been sold—and that was 33 years ago.
25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics was published earlier this year, and Merton’s autobiography was the 23rd of those 25 books. It was followed by C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (1952) and Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (1992).
In much of The Seven Storey Mountain Merton describes his rather unhappy childhood and young manhood. He narrates how he lived a rather undisciplined life, mainly seeking pleasure. But he didn’t find peace and contentment. After a year a Cambridge University he wrote, “. . . all my dreams of fantastic pleasures and delights were crazy and absurd, and . . . everything I had reached out for had turned to ashes in my hands, and that I myself . . . had turned out to be an extremely unpleasant sort of person—vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene and proud” (p. 132).
From this confession we see that Merton’s story is similar in some ways to that of Augustine. Accordingly, his autobiography is often compared to Augustine’s Confessions, the second work listed in 25 Books mentioned above.
To be honest, I enjoyed reading Daniel Berrigan’s autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, much more than Merton’s The Twelve Storey Mountain. That was mainly, I think, because Berrigan was exactly twice as old as Merton when he wrote his autobiography and included much about his many experiences as a peace activist. How I wish Merton had lived to write another autobiography in 1981, when he would have been 66 years old!
Beginning on January 1, I plan to start reading Through the Years with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Writings (1983). At some point one of those meditations will surely be Merton’s words that I have often quoted:
If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another(New Seeds of Contemplation, 1961, 2007; p. 122).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Days of Infamy

President Roosevelt called December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” He was referring, of course, to how Pearl Harbor “was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
And he was right. Now, seventy years later, Americans remember that date well and December 7 does live in infamy.
As it turned out, though, the war with the U.S. initiated on 12/7/41 was a day of infamy for Japan also. In my thirty-eight years in Japan, I never heard Japanese people speak of the attack on Pearl Harbor except in embarrassment, with shame, and, often, with resentment toward the Japanese militarists who (mis)led their nation into war.
The loss of around 3,000 American lives at Pearl Harbor on that fateful Sunday morning was tragic, indeed. And, of course, a vastly greater number of U.S. servicemen (and perhaps some servicewomen) were killed in the ensuing war. The number of Japanese, though, who died as the result of the war begun on that day of infamy was considerably larger.
In one of the biggest understatements in history, the Japanese Emperor said in his surrender speech on August 15, 1945, the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage.” That surrender came after what can legitimately be called other days of infamy earlier that year.
“All’s fair in love and war” is an expression sometimes heard. But international ethicists believe that there are legitimate rules of war, and the wanton killing of civilians is against those rules. In September 1938 the League of Nations unanimously passed a resolution for “protection of civilian populations against bombing from the air in case of war.” That resolution was clear and direct: “The intentional bombing of civilian populations is illegal.”
Thus, March 10, 1945, could also be considered a day of infamy. On that day the U.S. Air Force firebombed Tokyo. Some 100,000 people were killed, most of them civilians! Then in August the terrible war ended soon after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And again, most of the causalities were civilians. Two more days of infamy!
In this country September 11, 2001, can be considered a day of infamy worse than the attack on Pearl Harbor. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were on American soil, and almost all the causalities, about the same number as those killed on 12/7/41, were civilians.
And then there is good reason to consider March 19, 2003, a day of infamy also. That was the day the preemptive U.S. war on Iraq began. In the eight and a half years since then, more U.S. soldiers have been killed than the number of people killed by the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But even more, 3/19/03 is a day of infamy because the war initiated on that day has taken the lives of at least 100,000 civilian Iraqis, and perhaps considerably more than that.
Military and terrorists attacks, the wanton bombing of civilians, and the launching of preemptive wars are all days of infamy. And they are the very opposite of the Christmas vision of “peace on earth,” God’s dream for the world, about which I plan to write later this month.

P.S. I had not heard of others calling 3/19/03 a day of infamy, but after I posted the above TF Phil Rhoads sent me this picture: