Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Scare Tactics

Examples can probably be found in both the left and right wings of American politics. Examples of scare tactics, that is. Or maybe we could call it the politics of fear.
Recently I have found, without really looking, several examples of scare tactics used by political conservatives, vocal right-wingers. Marybeth Hicks is an example. She is an attractive, young (she looks young to me, anyway) author and weekly columnist for the Washington Times.
Ms. Hicks’ new book was published last year. The full title is Don’t Let the Kids Drink the Kool-Aid: Confronting the Left’s Assault on our Families, Faith, and Freedom. She declares that the political Left’s goal is to topple “the three-legged stool on which our nation rests: religion, the traditional family, and free market capitalism” (p. xi).
While there are perhaps some legitimate concerns expressed by Ms. Hicks, overall she seems to be mainly an alarmist, using scare tactics for political purposes. And it is not hard to figure out that her main political purpose is persuading voters this year to elect conservative candidates rather than liberal ones.
No telling how many other authors/books are similar to Don’t Let the Kids . . . One other such book is Crimes Against Liberty: An Indictment of President Barack Obama (2010), a 500+ page tome by David Limbaugh (b. 1952), the younger brother of Rush Limbaugh. In that book the President is charged with crimes of various and sundry sorts, such as crimes against “the people,” the constitution, and national security.
One of the most vocal journalists/authors who uses scare tactics and highly controversial language to oppose non-conservative politicians and political positions is Ann Coulter (b. 1961). Her newest book is titled Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America (2011).
The books by Hicks and Limbaugh present a very strong polemic against “liberals” in American society, but they not as outrageous as Coulter. And while politicians and their supporters often demonize their opponents, few are as blatant as Coulter.
The title of her first chapter is “The Liberal Mob,” and she begins with these words: “The demon is a mob, and the mob is demonic.” Then halfway down the same page she asserts, “The Democratic Party is the party of the mob.”
There are, of course, those who oppose and criticize the Right, and the Republican Party. But I have been unable to find any example of people on the Left who have blatantly used the same sort of scare tactics through recently published books. (There may well be some, but I have tried, and failed, to find any good examples. I would be happy to consider suggestions from readers.)
Everyone has a right to their own political opinion, and they should, of course, vote according to their convictions. But those opinions and convictions should be based on a rational consideration of opposing views, a fair appraisal of the facts at hand, and a concerted effort to find the truth of the matters about with the political candidates and their supporters speak.
Allowing one’s opinion to be formed by people using scare tactics and then voting because of succumbing to such tactics is an affront to true democracy and a threat to the well-being of a nation.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Baptist with a Small ”b”

For nearly 65 years now I have been a member of a Baptist church. When I was baptized in April 1947 at the age of eight, on the basis of a profession of faith that remains foundational for my life, I became a Baptist church member and have been a member of a local Baptist church from that day to the present.
My Baptist roots run deep: my parents and grandparents were all Baptists. In addition, I have four academic degrees for three Baptist schools and was supported financially by Southern Baptists for 38 years.
Nevertheless, since last fall June and I have been attending a Mennonite church, and although we have not yet formally become members there we are moving in that direction. There are several facets to this change of denominational affiliation that I won’t try to explain here.
In another sense, though, becoming a Mennonite does not mean completely separating from our roots, for as theologian James McClendon has emphasized, there is a strong tradition that can be labeled baptist (with a lower case “b”).
James William McClendon Jr. (1924–2000) was an ordained Southern Baptist minister who taught in a number of schools, the last being Fuller Theological Seminary. His magnum opus was the three-part Systematic Theology: Ethics (1986), Doctrine (1994), and Witness (2000). It is in the first chapter of the former that McClendon writes about the meaning of baptist with a small b.
When in the preface of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (2007) I criticized the Southern Baptist Convention from which I felt estranged, I stated that “I certainly have no intention of jettisoning my identity as a baptist, with a small b” (p. v; McClendon is cited in a footnote at that point.) And that is still true.
The baptist tradition is traced back, specifically, to January 1525, more than 80 years before the formation of the first Baptist church in 1609. Its fundamental (and distinctive) beliefs were expressed in the Schleitheim Confession adopted 485 years ago yesterday, on February 24, 1527.*
The first article of that 1527 Confession is common to Baptists and baptists; it is about believers’ baptism and the rejection of infant baptism. My impression is that for most churches in the Anabaptist (baptist) tradition, except for the very strict groups such as the Amish, there is little emphasis now on the second article, which is about the ban (shunning deviant members). 

It is the sixth article, though, that has been a major impetus in moving me from a Baptist church to a baptist church. That article is about rejection of the sword, which through the years has meant commitment to pacifism and rejection of violence. The latter includes, among other things, renouncing capital punishment as well as war.

In spite of there being a North America Baptist Peace Fellowship, which in many ways is more baptist than Baptist, through the years pacifism has not been the position of most Baptists. But I decided while still in high school that pacifism is the position I should espouse because of being a follower of Christ.

It is a good feeling now, after all these years, to be going to a church where pacifism is the norm instead of something considered suspect, if not outright wrongheaded. 
*The main author of the Schleitheim Confession was Michael Sattler, whom I mention in my 3/20/11 blog posting.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Does the Environment Need Protected?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970 under President Nixon. According to its website, “The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.” Thanks to the EPA, we are all able to enjoy cleaner air, purer water, and fewer toxic chemicals in our environment than would be the case if there were no such agency.
And yet there are those among us, including some leading politicians, who say that the EPA is not needed. Last year presidential contenders Michelle Bachmann declared that the EPA should be eliminated and Rick Perry said it should be “dismantled.” Herman Cain held a similar position.
Now Ron Paul says on his website that he will “eliminate the ineffective EPA.” Newt Gingrich says that if he is elected president he would abolish the EPA and replace it with something he calls the Environmental Solutions Agency. Campaigning in Colorado earlier this month, Rick Santorum dismissed climate change as “a hoax.” He, too, wants to get rid of the EPA.
Mitt Romney’s position is the only one among Republican presidential hopefuls that doesn’t seem to be strongly against the EPA. In fact, last summer right-wing talk radio host Mark Levin castigated Romney for being a RINO (Republican in name only) who acknowledges that global warming is a fact and holds up for the EPA.
No doubt there are some reforms needed in the EPA. There probably is some money wasted, as is most likely true in all government agencies. There are more than 17,000 employees in the EPA and its budget for 2010 was about 10.5 billion dollars. That’s a lot of money. But to put it into some perspective, in 2008 the U.S. spent 12 billion dollars a month in Iraq.
Six years ago this month, on February 16, 2006, the Kyoto Protocol went into effect for the nations who had signed and ratified that agreement, which was aimed at fighting global warming. That gathering held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and sponsored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, sought ways to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic [human-caused] interference with the climate system.”
To the present, 192 countries have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol. There are only four countries that have not done so. One is the United States. The others are Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Taiwan. Even with the current Environmental Protection Agency in place, this country doesn’t seem to be doing all it should to protect the environment. And now most Republican presidential contenders even want to do away with the EPA!
Humans can harm, and have harmed, the environment and human health in many ways. Remember DDT? The EPA concluded that it “posed unacceptable risks to the environment and potential harm to human health,” so it was banned at the end of 1972. That, doubtlessly, was a positive thing for people’s health.
The environment definitely does need protected from what we humans can do to it, and to healthy human life, by pollutants discharged into the air or the water cycle—and by excessive emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere.

[Note: if you need more information about global warming, check out this article posted on the Internet yesterday: A brief guide to the scientific consensus on climate change.]

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Remember the Maine

“Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!” That was a war cry widely heard in the Unites States after the sinking of the USS Maine 114 years ago today, on February 15, 1898. Even though to this day the cause of that sinking is unclear, popular opinion in the U.S. in the weeks following that tragedy blamed Spain.
That popular opinion was formed partly by the use of the slogan Remember the Maine! by William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. (Three days after the 2/15 explosion the Journal became the first newspaper in history to sell over one million copies.) That slogan, and Hearst’s use of it, thus helped spur the U.S. into the Spanish-American War, which started on April 25 and lasted less than four months (although it didn’t formally end until April 1899).
Hostilities with Spain developed over U.S. concern for how the Cubans were being treated by Spain, which claimed Cuba after Columbus first landed there in 1492 and considered Cuba its possession for the next four centuries.
In 1895 the Cubans began a war of independence from Spain, a struggle which was favored by the U.S. even though they did not become directly involved until three years later. As a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898, Cuba became an independent nation in 1902, although in 1903 Guantanamo Bay was leased in perpetuity to the United States.
The United States profited from the 1898 war in additional ways: at the close of that war Spain ceded the Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam for the sum of $20 million. In spite of considerable efforts of the Anti-Imperialist League, there was a considerable expansion of U.S. territorial possessions.
But why write about all this now? I am writing about this issue because I am gravely concerned that some incident in the very near future, real or imagined, will trigger a U.S. attack on Iran. There seems to be a growing likelihood that there will be some sort of military strike by Israel, perhaps jointly with the U.S., in an attempt to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Some “incident” could easily light the fuse for such a strike.
In addition to “Remember the Maine!” helping to spur the Spanish-American War, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, which escalated the War in Vietnam, was based on claims of attacks on American warships that didn’t actually happen. (Actually, there were two separate confrontations with the North Vietnamese, one actual and one now recognized as non-existent.)
“Let there be no doubt,” President Obama declared in his 2012 State of the Union address, “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”
There are some politicians who are quite vocal about the possible need to engage in preemptive military action against Iran. If there were to be some incident in which American, or Israeli, civilian or military forces were attacked, or even thought to be attacked, by Iranians, that could easily become an excuse for beginning military activities against Iran. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I am fearful it might.
In the same January 24 State of the Union address, the President declared that “a peaceful resolution of this issue [Iran getting a nuclear weapon] is still possible.” Let us pray that he and Congress will make every possible effort to find such a resolution of the problem.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Does the End Justify the Means?

A simple question: is it right or wrong, ethical or unethical, to slit open someone’s abdomen?
Some might quickly say, No, of course not! But those who are more discerning are likely to say, Well, it depends on why such a thing is done. Precisely!
Consider three scenarios: (1) In a squabble with a person you don’t like, you become angry, grab a knife, lunge at him and slit open his abdomen. Can such a violent act be justified? Probably not.
(2) A crazed killer/rapist has entered your house intent on doing harm to your wife/family. In an attempt to protect them, you grab a knife and in the ensuing struggle you manage to stop his evil intentions by slitting open his abdomen. Can such a violent act be justified? Perhaps. Or, maybe, probably.
(3) You are an obstetric surgeon, and a woman in hard labor but unable to give birth vaginally is brought to you. It is right/ethical for you to slice open her abdomen in order to perform a Cesarean operation. Certainly.
So here is the next question: does the end justify the means? The answer, of course, depends on what end you are talking about. In the three scenarios given above, the same “means” was used. But the ends were much different.
Thus, as Saul Alinsky wrote in his much maligned (by conservatives) book Rules for Radicals, “Means and ends are so qualitatively interrelated that the true question has never been the proverbial one, ‘Does the End justify the Means?’ but always has been ‘Does this particular end justify this particular means?” (p. 47; this is the final paragraph of the chapter titled “Of Means and Ends”).
(If you want to read a good article about Saul Alinsky, in addition to my January 30th posting[!], check out “Saul Alinsky, Who?” by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship at this link.)
So what about violence? Does Alinsky advocate using violent means in order to attain desirable ends? Maybe in some situations. But don’t most people? As he correctly points out, “in war the end justifies almost any means” (p. 29). How else has this nation, or any nation, justified participation in war?
But what about violence done by the poor and oppressed people of any country? Criticism of the “end justifies the means” argument is most often used by those who oppose those who use violent means against those in power and/or with wealth. This is one of the perennial criticisms of liberation theology in Latin America.
It is quite revealing to consider how so often those with wealth and/or power complain about (and seek to counteract, often by violent means) violence done by the “radicals” seeking social justice but how so seldom the same people show much concern for the great violence being done to the poor and underprivileged people in society.
Alinsky also contends that “means-and-ends moralists” are “non-doers” who “always wind up on their ends without any means” (p. 25).
And make no mistake about it: there is, in our country and in countries around the world, a great deal of structural violence embedded in society and many people have suffered greatly because of that violence.
I advocate seeking to find and to use non-violent means to combat that structural violence. But I find it difficult to be too critical of those who are so desperate that they resort to violent means to attain ends that are necessary to their, or their children’s, very survival.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

In Memory of the 26 Martyrs

It was 415 years ago today, on February 5, 1597, that 26 Christians in Japan were crucified on Nishizaki Hill in Nagasaki. This column is written in memory of those men (and boys) who suffered such cruel deaths.
Christianity was first introduced in Japan by Francis Xavier and two fellow Jesuits, who landed on the southernmost island of Kyushu in 1549. Over the next few decades Christianity spread rapidly in southwestern Japan—so much so that it came to be considered a threat by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, better known as Taikosama, the absolute ruler of Japan from 1585 until his death in 1598.
By the 1580s there were some 250,000 Christians in Japan. That was still fewer than 2% of the population, but perhaps a fear of the “foreign” nature of Christianity and its possible link to Western imperialism motivated Hideyoshi to issue a decree that banned Christianity and expelled all missionaries in 1587. Because that decree proved to be ineffective, the crucifixions of 1597 were a sign that government opposition to Christianity was going to become more severe, which it did.
The 26 martyrs included six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits, and seventeen Japanese laymen including three boys (ages 12, 13, and 14). Twenty-four of them were arrested in Kyoto. Beginning on January 9 they were forced to walk, sometimes barefoot through the snow, to Nagasaki, arriving there on the day they were crucified.

The 26 martyrs were canonized (made saints of the Roman Catholic Church) in 1862, and on the 100th anniversary of that occasion the Twenty-Six Martyrs Monument was constructed in 1962 on Nishizaki Hill. (The picture below shows that monument, which I have visited several times.) Shortly thereafter, a museum was built adjacent to the monument and both remain popular tourist attractions in Nagasaki City. 
There is little indication that Hideyoshi acted as he did for religious reasons. It was almost completely for political reasons and out of the fear that his rule might be threatened. 
Religious persecution is carried out far more often for political purposes than because of religious belief. And the same is true for violence done in the name of religion.
Religion is often denounced because of its link to violence—the Crusades are a perennial example. But violence done primarily because of religious belief is small, indeed, compared to that done because of political power and the desire to maintain or extend that power.
In the 1930s the militarists in Japan increasingly used Shinto, the traditional religion in Japan, in order to stir up feelings of Japanese exceptionalism. Greater emphasis was placed on February 11 as the anniversary of the “founding” of Japan in 660 B.C. by the first Emperor, a direct descendant of the sun goddess. On February 11, 1940, showy ceremonies throughout Japan celebrated the 2600th anniversary of the nation’s mythical beginning.
Soon after the end of WWII, the 2/11 holiday was abolished. But then in 1966 it was re-established as National Foundation Day, in spite of considerable opposition that has continued until the present. Many Christians throughout Japan protest that holiday and in its place celebrate February 11 as “Protecting Religious Freedom Day.” So on this coming Saturday, gatherings emphasizing that theme will be held in many cities across Japan.
Protecting religious freedom continues to be important in this country, too. And, like in Japan, it is primarily the freedom of the minority religions (or the minority who do not embrace a religion) that needs to be protected most actively.