Monday, December 30, 2013

2013—The Best Year in Human History!?



So, what do you think? Could it be that this year, which ends tomorrow, has been the best year in human history? That is what some are saying. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Earlier this month, Zack Beauchamp, a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org, posted an engaging article on its website. The title of his thought-provoking piece is “5 Reasons Why 2013 Was the Best Year in Human History.”
Some of you may have seen Beauchamp’s article, for it has been shared on Facebook more than 20,000 times and referred to in numerous other places.
(A similar article was posted on the website of “The Spectator,” the British weekly conservative magazine that was first published in 1828—in print, not online! It is titled, “Why 2013 has been the best year in human history: The world’s still getting better – here’s the proof.”)
As I write about in my book “The Limits of Liberalism,” many liberals tend to be overly optimistic, and this may be true for Beauchamp. But he also makes some good points.
Briefly, these are the five reasons he gives for contending that this year has been the best in human history:
1)   Fewer people are dying young, and more are living longer.
2)   Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, and the world is getting happier.
3)   War is becoming rarer and less deadly.
4)   Rates of murder and other violent crimes are in free-fall.
5)   There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world.
While some of Beauchamp’s assertions may seem questionable at first blush, he gives considerable supporting evidence. Some of that support is subjective, but longevity rates and murder/violent crime statistics and the like are quite objective—and quite impressive.
Dr. Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard University, is one of the scholars Beauchamp cites in his article. Canadian Pinker (b. 1954), whom I was first introduced to by an atheist friend, is the author of the captivating book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (2011).
In May of this year, Pinker delivered a speech as one of the prestigious Gifford lectures at Edinburgh University. That talk had the same title as his book, but with a different subtitle: “A History of Violence and Humanity.”
Although Pinker’s lecture is over an hour long, it is well worth listening to—in spite of some questionable assumptions and conclusions.
Of course, there are those who disagree with Beauchamp (and Pinker). Just five days after posting Beauchamp’s article, ThinkProgress.org posted “9 Reasons Why 2013 Was Not the Best Year in Human History.”
Those nine reasons are all related to problems concerning climate change and environmental destruction—but they are primarily problems looming in the future, not ones experienced so much in 2013.
If Beauchamp, Pinker and those who agree with them are right, does that mean that the words quoted by MLK, Jr., and President Obama, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” are becoming more evident? Maybe.
Or could it mean that the seeds of the Kingdom of God sown by the followers of Jesus are growing and bearing visible fruit? Perhaps.
If you disagree with the main contention of Beauchamp’s article, let me then ask you this question, If 2013 wasn’t the best year in human history, what year would you suggest as being the best year for the people of the whole world?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Saint Nicholas

On this day before Christmas it is fitting to give some thought to Saint Nicholas, better known now as Santa Claus. “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” is a traditional American Christmas song, one of many referring to St. Nick. In such songs, of course, that name always refers to Santa.
As most of you know, there really was a historical person who came to be called Saint Nicholas. He was born in 270 and died on December 6, 343. Nicholas, also spelled Nikolaos or Nicolas, became the bishop of Myra, a city in modern-day Turkey on the northeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea about half-way between Tarsus, the Apostle Paul’s hometown, and Ephesus, the important city on the southwest side of Turkey. Thus, the man behind the Santa Claus legend was often known by the name Nikolaos of Myra.
Much can be learned about the real Saint Nicholas from the wealth of information about him at www.StNicholasCenter.org. And just last year a book by a college professor named Adam C. English was published by Baylor University Press under the title “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.”
The town that formed where Columbus landed in Haiti on December 6, 1492, came to be known as Saint Nicolas, named for the fourth century saint whose feast day is Dec. 6, and there is a Church of St. Nicolas there to this day. Two Baptist churches in Liberty, where I live, have recently done relief and missionary work in St. Nicolas du Mole, also known as Môle Saint Nicolas, Haiti.
The historical Nikolaos (Nicholas/Nicolas) had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them outside their door—or perhaps in socks hung by the chimney to dry. Centuries later, his kind deeds became the model for Santa in modern times. Saint Nicholas came to be called Sinterklaas in Dutch, and then that name became Santa Claus in English.
Kenneth Woodward, longtime religion editor of Newsweek magazine, has written that a saint is “someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like” (“Making Saints,” 1996). The fourth century bishop of Myra was such a godly man, evidently, that he came to be designated a saint. By observing him, people were able to get a glimpse of what God is like.
So perhaps that is what we can say about Santa Claus. In spite of all the commercialization and clamor that clings to the contemporary conceptions of Saint Nicholas, he is still a type of saint who helps us grasp something of the true meaning of Christmas. Santa can be seen as a symbol of grace, that is, unmerited favor seeking nothing in return.

Some children may leave cookies for Santa as a token of their appreciation for the presents they expect him to bring. And some parents use Santa to encourage (manipulate?) their children to be good. (“You’d better behave, or Santa won’t bring you anything.”) And even one of the Christmas songs refers to Santa having a list of who’s “naughty and nice.” But that’s a perversion of the real meaning of the Santa Claus story.
The actual story of Saint Nicholas, and of Santa Claus, is about giving and not asking, or demanding, anything in return. Similarly, God’s Christmas gift, the baby Jesus born to be the Savior of the world, was the epitome of gracious giving. Thus, an adequate understanding of Saint Nicholas can help us get a glimpse of God’s amazing grace.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to you all!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Without Papers

Painting by John Lautermilch
On this Friday before Christmas, I am writing first about an event that took place sometime after that first Christmas when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
According to Matthew 2:14, having been warned of King Herod’s evil intentions, Joseph took the child Jesus and his mother Mary and fled to Egypt. As far as we know, the three of them entered Egypt “without papers.” That is, they were undocumented immigrants, although later—and we don’t know how much later, maybe a year or two—they went back to Palestine.
Similarly, many USAmericans who read this have ancestors who for various, but mostly economic, reasons came to this country without immigration papers. The first restrictive federal immigration law was not passed until 1875—and it was enacted to prohibit the entry of immigrants considered “undesirable.”
Specifically, that 1875 immigration law was passed to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.” But, in general, immigrants from around the world were welcomed into the U.S., no papers necessary.
In 1883 as a part of the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty, American poet Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus.” Then in 1903 the following well-known words from that poem were inscribed on a plaque that is now in the museum in the base of the Statue:
. . . . Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Later, other immigration bills were enacted to keep “undesirables” out of the country, but the first law to restrict the number of new immigrants was not passed until 1921. Mexican immigration was restricted for the first time by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
But now there is a major national problem over “undocumented immigrants” in the U.S. There are nearly 12 million of them, with about 3/4 being from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Some people think that most, if not all, of those here without papers ought to be deported. But such people are in the minority.
The majority of U.S. citizens, according to recent polls, think that there should be immigration reform that includes a road to citizenship for those now here without papers. Moreover, in June of this year the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill by a vote of 68-32.
That bill (S.744) is the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” But the House has failed to act on it. In spite of widespread support by Republicans as well as Democrats, the bill has not yet been brought up for a vote. Once again we see bad results from the “tyranny of the minority.”
In recent weeks there has been an ongoing fast on the National Mall by those seeking to get the House to pass the immigration bill. The slogan of that group is Fast for Families, and people across the country, including some members of the House as well as at least one regular reader of this blog, have gone on short fasts in solidarity with the D.C. fasters. But to no avail—so far.
Since the bipartisan budget bill was passed this week, many are now hopeful that the immigration bill will be passed in January. For the sake of the millions of people, especially the many children, who are living in this country with fear, uncertainty, and often exploitation, let’s hope and pray that those here “without papers” may soon be on the path to becoming productive citizens.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Tea Party -- Then and Now

The Boston Tea Party occurred 240 years ago, on Dec. 16, 1773. Some say it was the actual beginning of the war for American independence. At the very least, it was an important precursor of the Revolutionary War, which officially began in April 1775.
As is widely known, the issue was taxation. More specifically, it was about taxation without representation. The colonialists didn’t mind paying taxes as such. They just didn’t want to send the money raised to King George and a government in which they had no voice.
A large majority of the colonialists were from Great Britain, and they liked their tea. The British, though, levied taxes on the tea they shipped to the Colonies—three pence per pound (equivalent to about $1.15 now). That may not seem like a lot, but the colonialists were consuming well over a million pounds of tea a year.
On that December evening in 1773, some 5,000 people met in the Old South Meeting House to debate British taxation. That gathering-place was the sanctuary used by Old South Church, which was founded in 1669; the church constructed their new facility in 1729 and in the 1770s it was still the largest auditorium in Boston.
After the meeting some of the protesters, many disguised as Indians, boarded three British ships in Boston Harbor and threw 342 chests of tea into the water. (The value of that tea would be worth about $1,700,000 today.)
That happening is what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party, although that term was not used until the 1820s.
A 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier (1813-88), half of the Currier & Ives combo
In 1973, the U.S. Post Office commemorated the 200th anniversary of that act of protest against Britain by issuing a set of four first-class (8-cent) stamps, together making one scene of the Boston Tea Party.
More recently, in 2009 grassroots political protest spawned what came to be termed the Tea Party movement. That movement is credited with electing 28 U.S. Representatives in 2010, helping the Republicans take control of the House.
At the beginning of this year, there were 48 Representatives who were members of the Tea Party Caucus, chaired by Michelle Bachmann. All are Republicans, including two of the eight Representatives of Missouri (where I live).
While there are numerous economic matters that are of great concern to the Tea Party movement, one of their main concerns is not raising taxes. In fact, they want to reduce the size of government and lower taxes as much as possible.
Even though there is a similarity in name, these modern-day “patriots” are quite different from those who participated in or supported the 1773 Boston Tea Party with the slogan “no taxation without representation.”
The current Tea Party seems to want representation with no (or at least very little) taxation. Those are two widely different matters.
The efforts of the original Tea Party in 1773 meant the loss of revenue for the British government, but it didn’t mean lower taxes for the colonialists.
The contemporary Tea Party movement works so their members, and many other U.S. citizens, would pay some less in taxes. And it is mainly the poor and needy who are the losers, with cuts in “food stamps” and now soon in unemployment benefits.
So, in looking back at the Boston Tea Party that took place 240 years ago this week, let’s be careful to note that its purpose and consequences differed greatly from those of the current Tea Party movement.