Monday, April 30, 2012

Are You a Disciple of Christ?

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a denomination I have known about since I was a boy in Worth County, MO. One of the three churches in my home town back then was the Christian Church. My parents and I from time to time would talk with our neighbors, the Gates family, about the Christian Church, of which they were active members.
Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching in a Disciples of Christ church for the first time. Pastor Rob Carr of North Oak Christian Church (NOCC) in north Kansas City kindly invited me to speak in his absence, and I enjoyed worshiping with his warm and friendly congregation.
The primary founders of what became the denomination known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were Thomas Campbell (1763-1854) and his son Alexander (1788-1866). Both were born in Ireland and were Scottish Presbyterians. Thomas had become a minister before he immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1807.
Two years later Thomas launched a new movement for what he hoped would result in greater Christian unity, and the group he gathered became the Brush Creek Church in 1811. Alexander, who had come to the U.S. with his mother in 1809, was ordained by that church in 1812. But later that year the Campbells came to believe in believers’ baptism, so they were baptized by immersion.
With this latter emphasis, there was a clear similarity with Baptists, with whom the Campbells were associated for several years. With their re-baptism, there was also a clear similarity with the Anabaptists, now mostly represented by the Mennonites. Of course, there was a great difference between being re-baptized in 16th century Switzerland and in 19th century Pennsylvania. In the former there was no separation between church and state, and many Anabaptists were persecuted and even killed because of their re-baptism. But the Campbells did not have to suffer because of their rejection of infant baptism.
The title of my sermon yesterday was “Are You a Disciple of Christ?” I assumed most of the people I spoke to were Disciples of Christ church members. But the point of the sermon was about being a disciple of Christ with a lower-case d. The message was based on the first Lectionary reading for the day, Acts 4:5-12. I also used verses 13 and 20 from the same chapter as well as Acts 5:29, where Peter and the other apostles exclaimed, “We must obey God rather than humans!”
Being a disciple of Christ means to put allegiance to God above the claims of all human institutions and “isms,” above politics or recreation, and even above family or religion if, or when, any of those claim allegiance over commitment to God. Further, being a disciple of Christ means to love others as Christ loved us, accepting and nurturing others just as Christ did (see Matthew 11:28-29).
So, are you a disciple of Christ? I pray that God will help us all this week and in the years ahead to become better disciples of Christ with a small d. What do each of us need to do differently this week to make that come to pass?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Who is Jim Kim (and Why Should We Care)?

Jim Yong Kim may not be a household name, but he is a man worth knowing about. On April 16 he was elected to a five-year term as president of the World Bank, a position of considerable significance.
Born in Seoul (South Korea) in 1959, Jim moved with his family to the U.S. at the age of five and grew up in Iowa. He graduated magna cum laude from Brown University in 1982, and then earned an M.D. degree from Harvard Medical School in 1991 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Department of Anthropology, two years later.
I first learned of Dr. Kim several years ago when I read Tracy Kidder’s engaging book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World (2003). Kim worked with Farmer and others in Haiti, and in 1987 they co-founded Partners in Health (PiH), a very effective non-profit health care organization. Kim became the executive director of PiH and served in that capacity until 2003.
Kim left PiH to join the World Health Organization (WHO) as an adviser to the director-general. Since he had success creating programs to fight HIV/AIDS at PiH, in March 2004 he was appointed as director of WHO’s HIV/AIDS department and served in that position until 2006.
In addition to the above, in 1993 Dr. Kim began serving as a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and eventually held professorships in medicine, social medicine, and human rights. At the time of his departure from Harvard in 2009, Kim was Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine.
Kim was named the president of Dartmouth College in March 2009, becoming the first Asian-American to assume the post of president at an Ivy League school. He will leave that position to assume the headship of the World Bank on July 1.
Kim’s nomination to the World Bank by President Obama was somewhat of a surprise, for Kim’s background is quite different from that of most World Bank presidents, who are usually experienced in finance and politics.
The World Bank, which was formed in 1944, expresses its mission in these words: “Our work is challenging, but our mission is simple: Help reduce poverty.”
In its early years in Haiti, the leaders of Partners in Health had direct contact with, and were in considerable agreement with, liberation theology. Even now the slogan of PiH is “providing a preferential option for the poor in health care.” As he assumes his new job, I hope Kim will be able to lead the World Bank to provide a preferential option for the poor in the world of finance as he seeks to reduce poverty around the world.
(Unfortunately, in the U.S. there seems to be a preferential option for the rich, and the Republican Senators would not even allow the “Buffet rule” to be discussed on the Senate floor last week.)
“I can think of no one better able than Jim to help families, communities, and entire nations break out of poverty, which is the mandate of the World Bank,” said fellow PiH co-founder (and Harvard University Professor) Dr. Paul Farmer.
Let us wish Dr. Jim Yong Kim well in his new, important, and very difficult job.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Unemployment Problem is Solved!

Hilary Rosen (b. 1958)
Last week’s “Mommy Wars” was the latest of the political skirmishes in the U.S. They were ignited by responses to the comments of Democratic strategist and pundit Hilary Rosen, who said on CNN that it didn’t make much sense for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney to look to Ann (Mrs. Romney) for advice on women’s issues because she was out of touch with the problems faced by most women in America.
“His wife has actually never worked a day in her life,” Ms. Rosen said. “She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of women in this country are facing.”
Within minutes of Ms. Rosen’s comments, Ann Romney joined Twitter, and as of late Wednesday night last week had tweeted out only one post: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.”
A number of conservative women, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), soon took the Obama administration to task for Ms. Rosen’s comments. (As you may have heard, Rep. Rodgers is one of the people being talked about as a possible vice-presidential candidate on the Romney ticket.)
Other Republicans jumped at the chance to criticize the Democrats because of Ms. Rosen’s remarks. For example, they started marketing a coffee mug that boldly proclaims “Moms Do Work! Vote GOP.”
So if we recognize that moms are, in fact, working, no mother (or stay-at-home father) who is doing such work should be considered unemployed. Presto! The problem of high unemployment is solved!
Mr. Romney claims that “92.3 percent of all the jobs lost during the Obama years have been lost by women.” But since all of those women who have children at home are actually working, how can they be classified as unemployed?
Obviously, that is not what the Republicans meant when they criticized Ms. Rosen and stood up so staunchly for Ann Romney.
But it is just as obvious that Ms. Rosen was talking about gainful employment and was not at all belittling or demeaning the hard work of being a homemaker and mother.
I am writing about this matter mainly to emphasize how politicians should deal with the real issues, the clear differences in political positions, and the proposed solutions to the principle problems of the day rather than disseminating statements taken out of context, half-truths, innuendos, and all sorts of uncivil pronouncements. 
In his important new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), psychology professor Jonathan Haidt titled the last chapter, “Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?” That is a good and important question.
One way to disagree more constructively is to use language that is not incendiary, that is, avoiding pejorative, emotionally-laden words, name-calling, labeling, assigning guilt by association, and the like.
As we move through the next 6½ months of intense political campaigning, I earnestly hope there will be a profusion of civility with focus on solutions to the real unemployment problem, along with the myriad of other issues facing the nation. 

Sadly, I’m afraid that will not be the case.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic: Precursor to the 20th Century

April 15, 1912: if you have been paying attention to the media at all, you recognize that as the date that Titanic, the majestic ocean liner, sank.
Most of you probably know more about the Titanic than I do. For some reason I have not been greatly interested in it, in the past or even now at the time of the centennial of its tragic sinking. I may be one of the few people in the U.S. who has not seen “Titanic,” the popular 1997 movie that is currently being shown in 3-D in theaters across the country.
Further, I am not likely to plunk down the $19.12 necessary to see the Titanic display now (and until September 3) at Union Station in Kansas City. (Actually, there is a 300 year, I mean a $3.00, discount for seniors, but still . . . .) I don’t know why I need to see any more than is readily available for viewing on the Internet.
This blog posting is about the Titanic because of how its sinking seems to have been a precursor to the 20th century. Yes, I know, the century technically began twelve years before the untimely demise of the luxury liner. But some historians and others have claimed that the 20th century really began in 1914.
According to that viewpoint, there was no significant change in the ethos of the 19th century until 1914. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm (b. 1917), for example, writes about the “short twentieth century” in his book The Age of Extremes (1994). So he claims that the 20th century really began in 1914 and ended in 1991.
It was the onset of World War I, of course, that marked the beginning of the 20th century according to Hobsbawm, and others. And the fall of the Soviet Union marked the end to that “short” century.
So, if we accept the idea of the 20th century beginning in 1914, which I think is a plausible idea, then it is certainly possible to interpret the sinking of the Titanic as a precursor to that century.
One characteristic of the 19th century, which carried over into the early 1900s, was a sense of overweening optimism and inevitable progress. Such ideas are seen in many places, including in the liberal theology of the 19th century. That sense of optimism and progress, chief characteristics of the Age of Rationalism, was embodied in the Titanic.
It has been widely reported, perhaps inaccurately, that one crew member of that ill-fated ship exclaimed, “God himself couldn't sink this ship!” Whether those words were expressed or not, it seems clear that many people saw the largest, most luxurious, and most “unsinkable” ship ever built to be a symbol of human greatness.
But the tragic sinking of the Titanic was the beginning of the end of the age of optimism and faith in the certain ability of humanity to create a better, brighter future.
If all of the current hoopla about the Titanic can help people see afresh the problem of human hubris, it will have served a useful purpose.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reflecting on the Resurrection

Another Easter Sunday has come and gone, but the debate about the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection continues to be pondered and debated, affirmed and denied.
One way to evade the issue is to generalize the resurrection, much as the President did last Saturday in his weekly radio address.
“Christ’s triumph over death holds special meaning for Christians,” the President said. “But all of us,” he continued, “no matter how or whether we believe, can identify with elements of His story. The triumph of hope over despair. Of faith over doubt.”
There is value in this approach, and I have often talked about “the Resurrection principle,” including on this blog (here). But that doesn’t really solve the problem about the factuality or actuality of Jesus’ resurrection.
Christians, past and present, have made two serious mistakes in explaining the Resurrection. On the one hand, many conservative/fundamentalist Christians have tended to interpret the resurrection too literally. That is, they have asserted the physical resurrection of Jesus.
But the resurrection of Jesus is quite certainly something different than—and far more important than—the resuscitation of a corpse.
On the other hand, many progressive/liberal Christians have tended to interpret the resurrection in a completely non-historical manner. That is, they assert that the resurrection of Jesus was an inner psychological, existential, or spiritual experience of the early Christian believers that had nothing to do with the crucified body of Jesus.
This is a matter I dealt with in my book The Limits of Liberalism. Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, for example, contends that the resurrection of Jesus occurred in Galilee, rather than in Jerusalem. That is because there was nothing “objective” that happened in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and buried. The “resurrection” was only something subjective that happened in the hearts and minds of the apostles who had fled to Galilee.
Spong and other liberals talk about resurrection, to be sure, but it is a watered-down resurrection, one devoid of any factuality or any “taint” of the miraculous—except in the sense that the Apostles “miraculously” experienced the spiritual presence and ongoing influence of the crucified Christ in their hearts as they were imbued with new faith and courage to carry on the teachings of the Jesus movement (see The Limits, p. 137).
I find the ideas of the British scholar N. T. Wright in his new book How God Became King (March 2012) to be much more satisfactory. An excellent, and succinct, summary of that book can be found here.
Wright, whom I also mentioned in a post about the Resurrection last April (here), rejects what he calls the “reductionist project” of liberal scholars. And I think Wright is right. In order to affirm the liberal position, all that one has to do is accept the Enlightenment paradigm—and deny/reject the New Testament witness, the primary creeds of the Church, and the central affirmation of the Church from the beginning until the present (except for the liberal minority).
As someone wrote in an e-mail last week, there is “a whole lot of mystery involved” in the story of the Resurrection. I fully agree. Let’s not miss the power of that story by trying to explain the Resurrection as either a physical occurrence or as just an inner, psychological experience.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Play Ball!

It is time for a change of pace, to use an apt baseball expression. Most of my blog postings are on matters that are serious, important, and sometimes controversial. But today I am writing about baseball, which is not so important, not a serious matter, and shouldn’t be controversial (unless there is argument over which team is best).
The first games of the new Major League Baseball season began last week (on March 28-29) in the Tokyo Dome, of all places. The Oakland A’s and the Seattle Mariners traveled to Japan and split a two-game series that inaugurated the new major league baseball year.
Here in the States, the MLB season opened last night (April 4) with the St. Louis Cardinals playing the Miami Marlins—the new name of the former Florida Marlins. And the game was played in Marlins Park, their new baseball stadium. I enjoyed watching the first inning (on ESPNHD) and the rest of the game on the old TV in my study.
The Cardinals, a team I have rooted for over the last 60+ years, have a new manager and also a new first baseman, as Albert Pujols, their best player from 2001 to 2011, now plays for the Los Angeles Angels. It will be interesting to see how last year’s World Series champions will do without Tony La Russa (b. 1944), their outstanding manager from 1996 to 2011, and Pujols, one of the all-time great baseball players.
At least the Cardinals got off to a good start last night, winning 4-1.
The Kansas City Royals, the other MLB team I have rooted for since their birth in 1969, has its first game of the new season tomorrow night (April 6) out in Los Angeles against the Angels. (So the Royals’ pitcher(s) will have to face Pujols.) It will be interesting to see if the Royals can finally come up with a winning season after so many losing ones. (They have had only one winning season, 2003, since 1994!)
As for Japan, the new baseball season began the day after the second MLB game there. I have been a fan of the professional team in Fukuoka City, where I lived for 36 years, since that team moved there in 1988. Since 2005 the team has been called the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, the name coming from the IT corporation that bought the team that year. They won the Japan Series last year and have already won four of their first six games of the new season.
Professional baseball in Japan may not be quite as good as major league baseball in the States, but it is pretty good. And there are some excellent players. Many of them have come to the States and have done quite well. The Seattle Mariners’ right fielder Ichiro Suzuki is the premier example.
This year a new pitcher from Japan has come to the U.S. to play for the Texas Rangers. He has the unusual name of Yu Darvish (b. 1986); he was born in Japan to a Japanese mother, but his father is Iranian. In recent years he has been one of the very best pitchers in Japan, and it will be interesting to see how he does here. Quite well, I would guess.
Since I have enjoyed baseball so much through the years, I feel a bit sorry for those who don’t feel some thrill or excitement when hearing those magical words, Play ball!