Monday, July 30, 2012

In Praise of Clarence Jordan

Who are the top Christians of all time (after the New Testament and the period of the early church)? I presented my list of “top ten Christians” on this blog in September 2010 (check it out here). Although I modified it some after the original posting, Clarence Jordan continues to be on that list.
Jordan was born 100 years ago yesterday, on July 29, 1912. Born in west central Georgia, he completed a degree in agriculture at the University of Georgia in 1933. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Four years later, in 1942, he and Florence, who had married in 1936, and another couple created an interracial, Christian farming community near Americus, Georgia. They named their experiment Koinonia Farm, using the New Testament Greek word meaning fellowship as used in Acts 2:42 (and elsewhere). The Koinonia partners committed themselves to the ideals of equality of all persons, rejection of violence, ecological stewardship, and common ownership of possessions.
Jordan and the others were pacifists and in the years following World War II were advocates of racial integration and equality when such ideas were not popular—especially in the South.
The story of Jordan and the Koinonia Farm is told well in Dallas Lee’s The Cotton Patch Evidence: The Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experience (1971, republished in 2011). It is a book I remember reading with fascination in the 1970s, and writing this makes me want to read it again.
Cotton is one of the crops grown on farms in Georgia, and the Koinonia farm was founded to be a demonstration plot of how the Kingdom of God looks if people take seriously, and live by, the teachings of Jesus. Thus, Lee’s book presents the “cotton patch evidence” of that noble experiment.
Jordon’s experience of seeking to communicate the ideals of Jesus in rural Georgia motivated him to use his considerable knowledge of the Greek language to translate large parts of the New Testament into what came to be known as the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible.
The first book of Jordan’s “cotton patch” paraphrase, the letters of Paul, was published in 1968, just the year before he died in October 1969. It was a sudden and unexpected death of a man who was only 57 years old.
I first heard about Clarence Jordan when I was in seminary in the early 1960s, and his life and work was highly admired by some of my professors. It was not until a number of years after his death, however, that June and I were able to visit Koinonia Farm for the first time. We were happy to meet Florence, who didn’t pass away until 1987, on that visit.
I am sorry that I never got to meet Jordan or hear him speak in person. But I did buy several LP records of his sermons and greatly enjoyed listening to them. Not only was he a great Christian, he was a gifted preacher as well.
Clarence Jordan proclaimed, and demonstrated, that faith is life lived “in scorn of the consequences” (Lee, p. 143). That is one reason he made my list of the top ten Christians: he lived faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as he understood them in spite of the persecution and opposition that faith elicited.
If a saint is an extraordinary person who helps us know God better, Clarence Jordan was a saint. And I am happy to write this in praise of Jordan, the saint from the cotton patch who was born 100 years ago yesterday.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Heil Obama?

In “Jesus for President,” the previous posting on this blog, I mentioned that in 2008 some people saw Barack Obama as a type of messiah. However, there now seems to be far more on the Internet, and in the mass media, that demonizes the President.
Recently, I have seen numerous comparisons of the President to Hitler, and there are websites, and bumper stickers, that say Heil Obama! (Just Google “Heil Obama” and see all the websites that come up, or search for images with the same name and see the great variety that appear.)
In July 2010 the North Iowa branch of the Tea Party erected a billboard comparing Obama to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin. (That billboard was shown on one of the objectionable e-mails I wrote about on my blog posting for July 15.) The billboard in question was removed in a week because of the strong protests it, deservedly, elicited.
Now the End Begins is the name of a website, created in 2010, and of a Facebook account, which has nearly 31,000 “likes.” (I referred to that apocalyptic website on June 25; the collage picture on their homepage refers to the upcoming election as one with “the Muslim vs. the Mormon.”) A fairly recent posting on that website is titled “Similarities Between Obama And Hitler: A Factual Comparison.” (That webpage claims that it has been shared over 5,000 times.)
In April of this year Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky (b. 1947) of Peoria, IL, compared the President’s policies to those of Hitler and Stalin. In spite of a petition signed by more than 23,000 people calling for an apology, none seems to have been made to this point.
Earlier this month, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (b. 1948), in criticizing President Obama’s health care overhaul, described the Internal Revenue Service as the “new Gestapo”. He later issued a formal apology.
Much of the President’s most criticized activity, however, is quite the opposite of Hitler’s policies. Hitler, as is widely known, sought to purify Germany by getting rid of non-Aryans. President Obama has forwarded an inclusivist position, reaching out to embrace people not a part of the “mainstream.”
Last month the President eased enforcement of US immigration laws so young illegal immigrants can remain in the country to work and study without fear of deportation. That directive by the President was vociferously criticized by the political Right. Glenn Beck, for example, said Obama’s decision simply shows that the President is in true violation of the constitution. But be that as it may, it was certainly not an act seeking to keep the dominant ethnic group pure.
Hitler sought to keep the Aryan race pure by means of euthanasia. He issued such an order (T4) in 1939, and around 200,000 people who were mentally defective, severely handicapped, and incurably insane or sick were subsequently put to death. By contrast, “Obamacare,” so much maligned by the Right, seeks to provide insurance coverage to the tens of millions with no insurance coverage and to keep insurance companies for exempting people with pre-existing conditions.
Moreover, while there was persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany under Hitler, Obama is strongly criticized by some of the same people who compare him to Hitler for advocating repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” his lack of enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act, and his support of same-sex marriage.
It is legitimate for people to disagree with and oppose the President, if they are so inclined. It is not at all legitimate to compare him with Hitler in doing so.

Friday, July 20, 2012

“Jesus for President”

The Sunday School class I attend each week has spent the last six weeks discussing Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals (2008) by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. Claiborne (b. 1975) is also the author of the fairly widely read The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (2006).
During the previous quarter we studied John Howard Yoder’s classic work, The Politics of Jesus (1972, 1994). The content of the two books is quite similar in many ways, and the authors of Jesus quote Yoder repeatedly. But the style of the two books couldn’t be more different. While Yoder’s book is presented in a very scholarly, and somewhat pedantic, manner, Jesus is written in a very jazzy, and somewhat gaudy, style.
As one reviewer has remarked, the design of Jesus for President is “a wonder to behold.” Quite so. I have never seen a book as elaborate (or outlandish?) in its visual presentation. The design is so extreme it is off-putting to some people. But no doubt it is quite appealing to others. (It was most probably designed to appeal to people the age of my older grandchildren much more than to people my age.)
But the content of Jesus for President needs to be taken seriously by Christians of any age. One main point seems to be that the followers of Jesus are not primarily seeking to gain and wield political power in the secular world. Rather, they are seeking to embody a political and social alternative to the dominant society (see p. 228).
The authors conclude that “rocking the vote” may mean “going to the booths and writing in our Candidate, because he doesn’t seem to be on the ballot” (p. 335). But I am not quite sure what the authors are suggesting here. Surely they are not seriously suggesting that that be done literally. But others are.
Bill Keller, an American television evangelist and the host of “Live Prayer,” recommends voting for Jesus literally. On he exclaims,It is time for Christians, true followers of Jesus Christ, to rise up and say NO to satan [sic] this November!” He goes on to say that if God allows the upcoming election for President to be between Obama and Romney, “it would truly be satan flipping a two-headed coin with his head on both sides!
This morning Keller’s website indicates that more than 225,723 people have “committed” to vote for Jesus in November. But what good is that going to do?
True, we need to beware of thinking that any politician is going to be a “messiah.” That is perhaps one of the mistakes the some Left supporters of Obama made in 2008—and that may be a central point Claiborne and Haw are trying to make in their book published that year.
In October 2008 I said more than once that I thought Obama was promising too much (as perhaps most politicians do). And some of his supporters expected much too much. Some seem to have seen Obama as a type of messiah—and his opponents have charged that he had (or has) a messiah complex. Certainly the President has not lived up to the expectations of those who thought he was an American savior.
Our true hope for the kind of change most needed in this country, and in the world, will not come from any politician. That is a major point well made in Jesus for President.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

An Appeal for Accurateness, Fairness, and Kindness

Like most of you, I often get forwarded e-mail messages that contain inaccurate, unfair, and unkind information. And also like you, I hear things being said on the radio or on TV that are of a similar nature.
Recently, I have received several forwarded e-mail messages from a friend and former colleague. A few days ago I responded by saying that I was disappointed in him. Since he is a minister, I wrote that I expect him not to forward e-mails that are inaccurate, unfair, and unkind.
I realize that from time to time I may express opinions on this blog that some of you do not agree with. But I have never knowingly or intentionally written anything that is inaccurate, unfair, or unkind. If any of you ever think that I have done that, please let me know. It is natural for people to have different opinions, but they ought to be able to agree on the facts.
Bernard Baruch (1870-1965) was an American financier and presidential advisor. You have probably heard his oft-quoted words, spoken in 1950, but here they are again: “Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.” (I am sure he thought that the same was true for women.)
Rotary International has an excellent “four-way test” that is often repeated at their meetings. This is the first of the four tests: “Is it the truth?” That is what Rotarians seek to ask themselves about everything they think, say, or do. What a difference it would make in society if we all asked ourselves that question and sought to say only that which is truthful (accurate).
Is it fair to all concerned?” is the second part of Rotary’s four-way test: Fairness is an attitude marked by impartiality and honesty; it is free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism. Fairness sees all people as being of equal value, so it doesn’t treat some people better than others just because they are friends.
And then there is the important matter of kindness. Someone has said, “Kindness is loving people more than they deserve.” That is probably true. Thus, unkindness is treating people worse than they deserve.
During this election season, I wish that our politicians, and their supporters, would only say things that are accurate, fair, and kind. But I guess there is little chance of that happening. Still, we all need to decide on whom to vote for on the basis of a rational evaluation of the positions the candidates take on the important issues of the day. Certainly our votes should never be swayed by inaccurate, unfair, or unkind remarks. And we shouldn’t seek to sway other peoples’ votes by that means either.
Good citizens and people of integrity will try never to be guilty of saying (or passing on) information (or campaign propaganda) that is inaccurate, unfair, or unkind. So let’s pledge that we will seek, as much as possible, to be accurate, fair, and kind in all that we say and do. And let’s encourage our politicians (as well as our friends) to do the same.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why are Evangelicals against “Obamacare”?

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a very important, and controversial, decision late last month, on June 28. To the great relief of most Democrats and the dismay of most Republicans—and to the surprise of many on both sides of the political aisle—the Court ruled that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, popularly called, especially by its opponents, “Obamacare”) is constitutional.
The Court’s ruling was a relief to the Democrats, for PPACA, which Congress passed in May 2010, is generally considered the most significant piece of legislation of President Obama’s first term. That same ruling was dismaying to the Republicans, who have been strongly opposed to “Obamacare” from the beginning.
There were many religious groups who rejoiced at the news of June 28. An ecumenical organization called Faithful Reform in Health Care applauded the Supreme Court decision. That group includes Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists as well as numerous Christian denominational groups, including Lutherans, Mennonites, Methodists, and Presbyterians, among others.
In 2010 that organization adopted the following vision statement and sent it to the U.S. Congress: “As people of faith, we envision a society where each person is afforded health, wholeness, and human dignity. That vision embraces a system of health care that is inclusive... accessible... affordable... and accountable.”
But for the most part, Catholics and white Evangelical Protestants lamented the Supreme Court decision and continue to oppose “Obamacare.” Since I am not a Catholic, and neither are most of the readers of this column, I am focusing here only on the Evangelical opposition.
The strong opposition of conservative Protestants is due one or more of the following reasons: fear that PPACA does (or will) fund abortions (or contraception), fear of more intrusive government control over individuals (so loss of freedom), and fear that it would increase taxes and/or the national debt.
I can’t help but think, though, that many Evangelicals are opposed to PPACA mainly because they are Republicans and opposed to President Obama. Above all else, want to make him a one-term President. It is hard to see how opposition to extending health care coverage to the millions in the country who do not have it can be based solely on Christian considerations.
Those Christian groups supporting the PPACA list the following reasons (among others) for their support:
 **Children with pre-existing conditions can no longer be excluded from coverage on their parents’ health insurance.
**Young adults [up to age 26] now have coverage on their parents’ policies.
**Women can no longer be charged higher premiums because of their gender and can now receive mammograms and pap smears with no out of pocket expenses.
Further, beginning in 2014, low-income working families living on up to 133% of the federal poverty level will have access to health care through the expansions of Medicaid.
I can’t help but think that the expansion of health insurance to nearly every U.S. citizen has to be a good thing. True, in the future some of us might, possibly, not have quite as good coverage as now. But think of the tens of millions who have no health coverage now but who will be covered when PPACA goes into effect fully. How can that possibly be a bad thing?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Opposing the Marriage of Church and State

Since this is July 5, most of the Fourth of July celebration is over for another year. But consider now an exemplary Independence Day oration given 210 years ago today. It is a speech that has considerable relevance to us in this election year of 2012.
That oration given on July 5, 1802, was by John Leland, who was born in Massachusetts and died there in 1841 at the age of 86. As a young man in 1775, Leland became a Baptist. Two years later he moved to Virginia and served for fourteen years as a minister in that state where Baptists were a minority group.
Some Baptist ministers in Virginia were even imprisoned because of their unwillingness to abide by the religious beliefs and practices of the majority. Partly for that reason, Leland put pressure on James Madison to amend the Constitution with a bill of rights, including an amendment guaranteeing religious freedom for all.
Madison, who had been one of the leading members of the Constitutional Convention and later became known as “the father of the American Constitution,” was working hard at that time trying to get the U.S. Constitution ratified by the state of Virginia.
Five miles east of Orange, Virginia, there is a marker beside “Constitution Highway” commemorating the spot where Leland and Madison held a significant discussion in 1788. (A picture of that marker is at this link.) Partly because of that meeting, Leland mustered Baptist support and Virginia did ratify the Constitution. Then, keeping his part of the bargain, Madison was instrumental in getting the Bill of Rights passed in 1791. (I also wrote about that here.)
In “The Virginia Chronicle,” published in 1790, Leland wrote about his idea of religious freedom: The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever,” he declares. Then later in the same document he proclaims, “Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians” (The Writings of John Leland, 1845, pp. 107, 118).
In 1792, Leland moved back to Massachusetts and ten years later, on July 5, 1802, he delivered the speech that is known and quoted to this day. (It can be found in an Internet collection of famous Independence Day orations.)
In that speech Leland said, “Heaven forbids the . . . marriage between church and state; their embraces therefore, must be unlawful. Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it, proves that they are void of it” (The Writings, p. 267).
In the next four months, we will be engulfed by vigorous and contentious political campaigning. Some candidates, and their avid supporters, will use, or misuse, religious arguments in seeking their election or the defeat of their opponents.
For the sake of the American people, especially for those citizens who belong to minority ethnic or religious groups, as well as for the sake of the “pure religion” that Rev. Leland referred to, let’s consider well his momentous words spoken 210 years ago today in commemoration of Independence Day.