Sunday, June 30, 2013

“Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes”

Richard Rorty was an American philosopher who is not well known outside of academic circles. I certainly have not read him extensively and do not know a lot about him. But I have recently read, and have been impressed with, his 1998 essay titled “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes.”
Rorty, who died six years ago this month (in 6/07) at the age of 75, was the grandson of the noted German-American theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, the son of the latter’s oldest child. But unlike his grandfather and mother, Rorty was a secular humanist rather than a Christian believer.

Still, Rorty had great appreciation for his grandfather. That is evident from the afterword he wrote for “Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century,” the centennial re-issue of Rauschenbusch’s classic work “Christianity and the Social Crisis” (1907).
From his secular humanist viewpoint, Rorty compares the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto in the 1998 essay. He avers that

both documents are expressions of the same hope: that some day we shall be willing and able to treat the needs of all human beings with the respect and consideration with which we treat the needs of those closest to us, those whom we love.
That glorious “hope for social justice,” says Rorty, is “the only basis for a worthwhile human life.” And, according to Rorty, the idea of social justice includes the hope that “the world might be changed so as to ensure that no one goes hungry while others have a surfeit.
Rorty realized that if social justice is to be achieved there will have to be some redistribution of wealth. Echoing the emphasis of his grandfather on the “social gospel,” non-Christian Rorty declares, “There is no way to take the New Testament seriously as a moral imperative . . . without taking the need for such redistribution equally seriously.”
Then, alluding to the Communist Manifesto, Rorty writes,
To say that history is the history of class struggle is still true, if it is interpreted to mean that in every culture, under every form of government, and in every imaginable situation . . . the people who have already got their hands on money and power will lie, cheat and steal in order to make sure that they and their descendants monopolize both for ever.
But, alas, both the New Testament and the Manifesto of Marx and Engels have to this point been “failed prophecies.” We in the United States have no trouble seeing the miserable failure of Marxism in most of the countries where it became dominant.
Cambodia is a good example. The Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Cambodia under the despotic rule of Pol Pot. It may have embraced a glorious hope for social justice in the beginning, but it is hard to imagine a more dismal failure. More than 2,000,000 Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Certainly the New Testament has not failed so miserably, especially in recent decades. And yet, from the time of Charlemagne through the era of European colonialism to rather recently, political and military rulers who have claimed to be Christians have led to the slaughter, enslavement, and oppression of people around the world.
I am not as pessimistic as Rorty was. Many Christians are still seeking social justice based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. But, sadly, there are many others who are not. Rorty’s pessimism was not completely unfounded.
Things would have been much different, though, if the ideas of Rorty’s grandfather had been implemented more widely, rather than being largely rejected by the fundamentalists of the 1920s and afterward.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Special Grandchild

Every child and grandchild is special in his or her own way. June and I have four children and seven grandchildren, and we think that each one is special.

This article is about our special grandchild Naomi Kei Seat. Naomi is special partly because she was born in 2004, the very year we returned to the States after 38 years in Japan. And her mother is Japanese.
Our youngest son Ken and Mina Takazaki were married in 1999. After living in Japan for a couple of years they moved to the U.S. and settled in Maryland. Naomi is their first child.
Natalie, another special grandchild, was born six years later, in 2010. But Naomi was our first grandchild who is half Japanese.
Being “half,” though, is not always a positive thing—especially in Japan. In fact, sometimes children of international marriages are called Halfs there. And especially in the past, Halfs have often been discriminated against in various ways.
Partly for that reason, soon after Naomi was born I wrote her a letter, trying first to express something of my great joy on hearing about her birth. In that letter I also mentioned how she might sometimes be referred to as a Half, but I challenged her (and her parents) to think of herself not as a Half but as a Double.
And much has been done in that regard. Naomi’s parents each speak to her primarily in their native tongue, so she and her little sister are completely bilingual to this point. And speaking two languages equally well is perhaps the main thing necessary for being a Double.
Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a term that also might be used for children like Naomi, although, technically, the term has mainly been used to refer to children who accompany their parents to live in another country and/or culture.
(The term third culture kid was coined in the 1950s by American sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem; we had the privilege of entertaining Dr. Useem as a houseguest back in the 1970s when she was doing research in Japan.)
Naomi’s father was a true TCK, and that is what led to the international marriage and Naomi’s being born as a Double, one who has grown up knowing two languages and understanding two countries/cultures.
Some of you have a grandchild like Naomi, one who is from an international or bicultural marriage. And most of you know one or more children like that.
I encourage you to see such children, and to encourage them to see themselves, as Doubles or as TCKs, and thus as people who can, more than most, be bridges for mutual understanding between nations and/or cultures.
I am writing about Naomi at this time partly because last week she flew out to Kansas City from Washington, D.C., and June and I appreciated her bravery in making such a trip all by herself. We greatly enjoyed her five-day visit with us.
Naomi is a special grandchild. So are all the others, each in their own way. You grandparents know what I am talking about. Grandchildren are truly a blessing from above!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Lucky Child"

Loung Ung considers herself a lucky child. That is mainly because she escaped being killed by the Khmer Rouge in her native Cambodia and then was able to emigrate to the United States when she was ten years old.
Loung was born in 1970 to a Cambodian father and a Chinese mother in Phnom Penh. She didn’t seem like a lucky child, though, in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge forced all the middle class people, like her family, out of the capital city and into rural labor camps. Over the next four years, her parents and one sister were killed by ruthless Khmer Rouge soldiers, and another sister died of food poisoning.
“First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” (2000) is Loung’s first book. It is a personal account of her experiences during the Khmer Rouge years from 1975 to 1979. The book became a national bestseller, and in 2001 it was given the “Excellence in Adult Non-fiction Literature” award by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association.
Ung’s second book is “Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind” (2005). It is one of two books I read in preparation for my visit to Cambodia earlier this month, and it is quite impressive.
“Lucky Child” tells about Loung’s going with her oldest brother and his wife to a refugee camp in Thailand and then on to the U.S. With the sponsorship of Holy Family [Catholic] Church in Essex Junction, Vermont, they were able to settle in that small town and start a new life.
For about 2/3 of the book, the odd-numbered chapters tell of Loung’s life in the U. S. from 1980 until 1993, and the even-numbered chapters tell what was happening to Chou, her sister who is two years older, back in Cambodia. Then in the 27th chapter she tells of her first visit back to Cambodia in 1995 and joyfully reuniting with Chou and other family members after fifteen years.
“Cambodia’s Curse” (2011) is the other book I have been reading over the past month. The author is Joel Brinkley, a journalist who wrote for the New York Times for more than 20 years. His book vividly describes the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979, and afterward.
I had not known (or remembered) that Cambodia was under direct control of the United Nations in 1991-92. According to Brinkley, this first and only example of the U.N. taking charge of a country was a dismal failure. But according to Loung’s memoir, the situation was considerably better after 1992, so it seems that the work of UNTAC (the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia) was effective.
After graduating from Saint Michael’s College in 1993, Loung worked for years to help rid Cambodia (and other countries) of landmines, which has been a terrible problem in that sad country. The village chief who donated the land where New Hope Church was built (as I wrote about here) stepped on a landmine years ago and now has an artificial leg.
Ung was, indeed, a lucky child in many ways—and one of those ways was being born into a middle class family. Most Cambodians did not have the opportunity to leave the country as she did. She was also “lucky” in having the talent to write so well.
And I consider myself “lucky” to have found Loung Ung’s captivating book “Lucky Child” and to have learned so much about Cambodia from it. I think you, too, would be inspired by reading this outstanding story of surviving and thriving.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Bill Clinton: Father of the Year?!

The 72nd annual Father of the Year awards were presented this past Tuesday (June 11) at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City by the National Father’s Day Committee, an entity of the Father’s Day/Mother’s Day Council. Former President Bill Clinton was one of the recipients.
I first read about Clinton’s selection as “father of the year” back in January, and I was somewhat surprised to hear of his selection. Perhaps some of you, though, tend to agree with the two senior fellows of the Family Research Council, an organization founded by James Dobson in 1981, who wrote that Clinton was “unbelievably” chosen and that it was a “misdirected award.”
Actually, Clinton is just one of this year’s recipients, and some of you Republicans may be glad to know that Dan Quayle was one of the recipients in 1989 and Ronald Reagan was an awardee in 1957.
More than politicians, though, through the years there seems to have been a disproportionate number of sports celebrities chosen—such as Shaq O’Neal, the basketball superstar, last year.
Certainly Clinton’s personal indiscretions before, during, and after (?) his years in the White House are certainly not what one would expect from someone named “father of the year.” There is no way of knowing how those indiscretions negatively impacted the life of Chelsea, now 33, Bill and Hillary’s only child.
But Chelsea made a surprise appearance at Tuesday’s event and presented the award to her father. “Every day he’s my dad, and I don’t need an award to tell me he’s the best that I could have hoped for,” she said. “But I’m grateful he’s getting the recognition that I, of course, his unapologetically biased daughter, think he’s always deserved.” 
And Clinton said he received a text message from Hillary saying, “Congratulations. I think you deserve this.”
Back in January when the Council announced Clinton’s selection, they highlighted Clinton's philanthropy through the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative—as well as his work as the U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti. Exemplary fathers, they seem to imply, do more than care for just their own children.
What Clinton has done since he left the White House is considerably more praiseworthy than what we have seen from the most recent ex-president, who has been more of an exemplary father along traditional lines of thought. (Does he really spend time painting his feet in the bathtub?!)
According to the website of the Father’s Day/Mother’s Day Council, “The objective of this 72 year-old program [to present the Father of the Year awards] is to enhance the meaning of Father’s Day—Sunday, June 16, 2013—and encourage universal observance.”
Some of us have only memories of our fathers, as they have passed on. (My father, whom I remember with great respect and appreciation, died nearly six years ago.) Most of you will be able to honor your father directly tomorrow, in person or by telephone.
And those of us who are fathers can use this time to reflect on how we can be better fathers—for our own children and for the children of the world. Perhaps “father of the year” Bill Clinton is an example for us to emulate because of not just what he has done for Chelsea but primarily what he has done for so many children (and adults) through the Clinton Foundation and the activities of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Monday, June 10, 2013

New Hope in the Killing Fields

You all have probably heard the term “killing fields” used to describe the horrendous atrocities committed in Cambodia in the 1970s. And maybe most of you have seen the heart-rending movie released in 1984 with that title.

“Killing Fields” won three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor by Haing S. Ngor, who was himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and the labor camps. Prior to the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero,” he was a medical doctor based in Phnom Penh.

But in 1975, Ngor was one of millions who were relocated from the city to forced labor camps in the countryside. He spent four years there before fleeing to Thailand.

Pol Pot (1925-98) was the diabolical leader of the Khmer Rouge, which slaughtered nearly a fourth of the Cambodian people between 1975 and 1979. He died and is buried in the Anlong Veng District of northern Cambodia. One of the many “killing fields” was in that area. 

But now there is a new church building in a small village in Anlong Veng, and it was my privilege to speak at the dedication service for that beautiful new building last Friday. 

The name of the new structure is New Hope Church. Through a strange string of connections, it was given that name because of New Hope Church in Worth County, Mo., which was my father’s home church.

A Japanese friend suggested that name, remembering it from when we took her to north Missouri in the fall of 2005. She also financed the project, and her husband drew the plans and supervised the construction of the new church building in Anlong Veng.
The dedication service was an elaborate affair, attended by well over three hundred people, with far more than half of them children. At the beginning and near the end of the service, some of the local children performed traditional Cambodian dances. 
My message was based on Romans 5:1-5, and I titled it “New Hope for Anlong Veng.” Nhao Troeun, a fine young Cambodian man who works with the Food for the Hungry organization, translated the sermon into Cambodian.

New Hope Church in Anlong Veng will be used for the ministry of Missionary Hwang Ban Suk from Korea. Through a Korean business partner, my Japanese friend became acquainted with Missionary Hwang’s sister and her husband, who is a pastor in Seoul (and where I had the joy of preaching on June 2). Through that connection she learned about the work of Missionary Hwang and ended up building the new church for his ministry.

Last Friday after “dinner on the grounds,” attended by most of the adults who were at the dedication service (the children had to go back to school), I went with my Japanese friends (seven in all) to visit the nearby area where Pol Pot died and is buried. It was about a 20-minute drive from New Hope Church and less than a mile from the Thai border.

During the years Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia, most of the people who were not killed lived in fear, great physical need, and a general state of hopelessness.

Although the political situation has improved considerably in the last 20 years, there is still widespread poverty throughout most of the rural areas. With the new church building now ready for use in his ministry Missionary Hwang will be even more effective in fostering new hope in the hearts of the people of Anlong Veng, one of the former killing fields in Cambodia.