Friday, May 30, 2014

Fascism--Then and Now

Eighty years ago was a very significant time for the faithful Christians of Germany. At this very time, on May 29-31, 1934, members of the Confessing Church were meeting in Barmen, a part of the city of Wuppertal, Germany. There they approved The Theological Declaration of Barmen.
Theologian Karl Barth was the principal author of the Barmen Declaration. In addition to Barth, the best known signers include Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller.
The Barmen Declaration was primarily drafted in opposition to the fascism of Hitler, who came to power in 1933 and who was supported by the Nazis (those who belonged to the National Socialist German Workers Party).
Hitler became the totalitarian leader (Führer) of all segments of German society—including the Church as he co-opted the support of the “German Christians.” But Pastor Niemöller declared, “Not you, Herr Hitler, but God is my Führer.”
That was the sentiment of all who signed the Barmen Declaration.
Our situation in the United States today is much different than that of Germany in the 1930s. There are those who, ludicrously, try to link the policies of the President with Hitler.
However, in this country now the movement toward fascism is not political but primarily economic.
Interestingly, in an April 29, 1938, message to Congress, President Roosevelt warned that the growth of private power could lead to fascism. He declared that
the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.
It seems evident today in the U.S. that large corporations raise and spend huge amounts of money on the political campaigns of the Presidents and congresspeople. They also spend huge amounts of money hiring former government officials to lobby Congress to pass laws that mainly benefit their interests.
These corporations are not an organized group plotting to control the country. Nevertheless, even though acting independently, the wealthiest corporations seem to have considerable control over what takes place in the halls of Congress and even the White House.
The power of the corporations has been abetted by the “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling in 2010 saying that corporations are people, having the right to funnel unlimited amounts of cash into political elections anonymously.

Back in December 2010, outgoing Congressman John Hall (D-N.Y.) warned that the massive changes to campaign finance law prompted by the “Citizens United” decision could lead to fascism. (Check it out here.)
Others are suggesting that the country is becoming a “fascist corporate state.” One such person is Ray Pensador, who until earlier this year regularly wrote for Daily Kos. On April 18 of last year he wrote,
The fascist corporate state, like the one rapidly ascending in the United States today, focuses on extracting the maximum amount of profit from the citizenry, and from the environment (natural resources) for the benefit of a tiny ruling elite.
In June of last year Ralph Nader was interviewed on Democracy Now! He is quoted as saying,
It is not too extreme to call our system of government now “American fascism.” It’s the control of government by big business, which Franklin Delano Roosevelt defined in 1938 as fascism.
Faithful Christians, and others, today need to declare much more definitely their staunch opposition to this kind of fascism: government unduly influenced by a “tiny ruling elite.”

Sunday, May 25, 2014

57 Years for a ’57 Marriage

Tomorrow, June and I will celebrate our wedding anniversary. We were married in 1957, hence the title of this article.
Many of you remember the year 1957, although there are some readers of this blog who were born after 1951-52 and so don’t remember ’57. But for those who remember that year well, you probably also recall how then 1900 seemed like a very long time in the past.
Well, now it is as many years back to 1957 as it was in 1957 back to 1900!
Do you “old timers” remember some of the following things about 1957? The top two hit songs of the year were Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” and Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand.” (I liked the latter much more than the former.)
The movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1957 was “Bridge on the River Kwai.” Many of you probably remember the touching 1957 family movie “Old Yeller.”
Although it came out toward the end of 1956, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” was popular in 1957, and June and I saw it on our wedding trip.
The New York Times bestseller list for May 26, 1957, indicated that John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” and Grace Metalious’s novel “Peyton Place” had been on that list for the most weeks in the non-fiction and fiction categories, respectively.
L & J Seat (5/26/57)
The most popular toys that year were Slinkys and Hula Hoops.
Many things were quite different in 1957 than they are now. After we married, we had only one landline, rotary dial telephone. Long distance calls were expensive—and rare.
And since we were students and didn’t have much money, we didn’t even own a television for several years.
The summer we got married, I worked at the shoe factory in Windsor, Mo., where I was also pastor of a small mission church. Most of that summer I earned only the minimum wage of $1.00 an hour—plus the $25 a week received from the church.
That fall after we enrolled in William Jewell College, I was happy to get a good-paying job in downtown Kansas City: it paid $1.17 an hour when I started, if I remember correctly.
Granted, a dollar went further back then. When we moved to Liberty at the end of the summer, we were happy to find a two-room apartment for $50 a month, including utilities. The average cost of a new house was just over $12,000 then.
Gasoline averaged about 24 cents a gallon—although I remember buying some for 17.9 cents during a “price war” in Liberty.
One of the top-selling cars in 1957 was the Chevrolet Bel Air—and the price of a new two door hardtop, like the one pictured, was $2,300. (The one in the picture is priced at $139,900 now!)
In January 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated for his second term as POTUS. In September he sent federal troops to Arkansas to provide safe passage into Central High School for the Little Rock Nine.
In October 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. That event sent a shock wave through the American public, as it seemed to indicate the technologically superiority of the USSR.
Yes, it is interesting to look back to 1957 and to remember the way things were then and how different things are now.
But for me, personally, the best thing about 1957 was getting married to a wonderful woman who has been willing to put up with me for 57 years—and counting.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Fourth Great Awakening?

Diana Butler Bass is a perceptive religious scholar and a good writer. Her newest book is “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” (2012), and it is an interesting read.
Dr. Bass (b. 1959) was a college professor for a number of years before becoming an independent scholar and author. Her earlier books include these highly regarded works: “A People's History of Christianity” (2009), “Christianity for the Rest of Us” (2006), and “Strength for the Journey” (2002).
On June 6-8, Bass will be the leader of a church-wide adult retreat at Second Baptist Church here in Liberty, and will preach there on Sunday morning. She will also be speaking (dialoguing) at Central Baptist Theological Seminary at a gathering that begins at 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 7.

I finished reading Bass’s “Christianity After Religion” in January and am looking forward to meeting her and hearing her speak next month. I will also be leading a discussion of this book at Rainbow Mennonite Church on the five Sundays in June.
There are clear indications that the Christian religion is in a state of decline in the United States—and in the Western world in general. (The situation is much different in Asia and especially in Africa.)
This decline is depicted by Bass, who is a religious historian and an astute observer of American Christianity. Happily, she is also hopeful for the future. In fact she writes about a fourth “awakening” in her new book.
“The Great Awakening” is the name historians of American Christianity generally use to describe a period in the 18th century, between 1730 and 1760. New England clergyman Jonathan Edwards (about whom I wrote last October) and Englishman George Whitfield were the main leaders of that significant movement.
A similar movement began around the turn of the nineteenth century and lasted for about 30 years. It came to be called the Second Great Awakening. Revivalist Charles G. Finney was one of the most prominent leaders of that movement.
While not as widely talked about, sometimes mention is made of a Third Great Awakening from about 1890 to 1920. William McLoughlin writes about that in his book “Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform” (1978). The Social Gospel movement, led by Walter Rauschenbusch, was prominent in that “awakening.”
Bass also cites McLoughlin: “Since 1960, Americans have been in the midst of their Fourth Great Awakening” (p. 223). The third, and last, part of her book is titled simply “Awakening,” and she makes much out of the new movement of God’s Spirit.
“The 1960s and 1970s were a spiritual hothouse, a veritable garden of awakening, as people planted seeds of new forms of Christian belief and practice,” she writes.
Although McLoughlin, writing in 1978, speculated that the Fourth Great Awakening would perhaps end around 1990, Bass sees its influence as prominently impacting the present time.
So in 2012 she avers, “I believe that the United States (and not only the United States) is caught up in the throes of a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation.”
“This transformation,” Bass goes on to say, “is what some hope will be a ‘Great Turning’ toward a global community based on shared human connection, dedicated to the care of our planet, committed to justice and equality, that seeks to raise hundreds of millions from poverty, violence, and oppression” (pp. 5-6).
If this is, indeed, the Fourth Great Awakening, it is quite different from especially the first two, for it is not particularly good news for organized religion.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What about the Keystone Pipeline?

The Keystone Pipeline, in the news for years, is currently a much debated topic in Congress and across the nation. There are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. And like in so many matters, the debate is largely between “conservatives” and “liberals.”
Keystone Pipeline is the name of the oil pipeline system in Canada and the United States. It runs from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Nebraska, Illinois and the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Three phases of the project are in operation, and the fourth is awaiting U.S. government approval. The latter, and the phase that has been so much in the news recently, is the Keystone XL Pipeline. (“XL” stands for “eXport Limited.”)

The first two phases were completed in 2010 and 2011 and the third phase in January of this year. Phase 1 included pipes laid from Nebraska across Missouri to Illinois. Many times I saw that construction in the country north of Clay County where I live, but I had no idea it was part of the Keystone Pipeline.

Phase 4 was proposed in 2008. It was approved in Canada (and South Dakota) in 2010, but later that year the Environmental Protection Agency raised serious questions, and in 2011 the Department of State postponed making a decision to approve the new construction.

The main arguments favoring construction of the fourth phase are: (1) The XL Pipeline would create jobs and stimulate the U.S. economy. (2) It would enhance energy security and support energy independence.

Although it is not usually explicitly said, one of the main reasons why many wealthy people (and people beholden to them) support the new pipeline is that it would make them wealthier.

In a related argument, a recent article in Forbes magazine declares, “Keystone XL should be built because we want the private sector to be free to do as it chooses sans government meddling” (5/4/14).

As usual, the conservatives (most Republicans) are on the side of the wealthy and opposed to government regulations and any curbs on “free enterprise.”

Similarly, there are two main reasons for opposing the plans for the fourth phase of the Keystone XL Pipeline. There are mainly environmental concerns, although not directly related:

(1) There is the threat of spills leading to massive contamination of water used for drinking, irrigation, and livestock watering. (2) It would lead to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, resulting in acceleration of global warming.

Also as usual, the liberals (most Democrats) are on the side of protecting the environment and combating global warming—even though the Forbes article referred to environmentalists as still being “caught up in a global warming delusion.”

In the short haul, building the XL Pipeline would likely be beneficial to the country. But in thinking of the future, it is most likely to be unwise. Unfortunately, most politicians feel the necessity for short-term, current-benefit thinking.

The President is caught between the long-range benefits of disapproving and the short-term benefits of approving. My guess is he wants to prohibit the XL Pipeline, which would be good for the country in the long haul, but he realizes it would be detrimental to his party this year.

That, most likely, is why he keeps kicking the can down the road, as they say.

But I sincerely hope the President will keep listening to the voices of such people as Bill McKibben and the organization. They are representative of those who are seeking the long term well-being of the planet.