Monday, June 30, 2014

Civil Rights—Then (1964) and Now

One of the most important pieces of legislation of the twentieth century was signed fifty years ago this week, on July 2, 1964. That was the day President Johnson, just a few hours after House approval, signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in businesses such as theaters, restaurants, and hotels. It banned discriminatory practices in employment and ended segregation in public places such as swimming pools, libraries, and public schools.
That 1964 piece of legislation was highly significant. An article in the Huffington Post asserted that it “affected the nation profoundly” and “changed American history.” While it did not solve all the problems of discrimination against African-Americans immediately, it did lead quickly to great improvements.
To give but one example, in Mississippi voter registration of the eligible black population increased from under 7 percent in 1965 to more than 70 percent in 1967.
Back in 1964, the term “civil rights” was used almost exclusively for the rights of African-Americans. In recent years that same term has increasingly been applied to the rights of LGBT persons.
Last semester one of my African-American students, who was considerably older that most of the other students in the class, objected to my use of “civil rights” to refer to what are also called gay/lesbian rights.
But civil rights should be enjoyed by all Americans, and gays/lesbians are the main segment of society today whose rights are often unprotected.
In recent years, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) bill proposed in the U.S. Congress would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by employers with at least 15 employees.
On November 7, 2013, such a bill passed by the Senate with bipartisan support by a vote of 64-32. President Obama supports the bill’s passage, but opposition in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives has kept the bill from becoming law.
Consequently, on June 16 it was announced that the President plans to sign an executive order banning discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees by companies that do business with the federal government.
The President’s order will implement on a limited scale what the White House would like to see Congress pass into law for the entire nation.
A June 23 article in Bloomberg Businessweek is titled, “Most Americans Think It's Illegal to Fire Someone for Being Gay. They're Wrong.” That article goes on to point out,
Most U.S. states lack explicit legislation barring discrimination against LGBT employees; current U.S. law is uneven, limited, and ambiguous. Only 21 states and the District of Columbia bar firing employees for their sexual orientation. Of those, 18 (and again, Washington) also ban firing transgender employees.
The President’s upcoming executive order is surely a step in the right direction. It’s a real shame, though, that there cannot be bipartisan support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2014 as there was for the Civil Rights Act fifty years ago.
I remain baffled that the Republican Party wants to be known as the party that is for discrimination against a sizeable segment of the U.S. population.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Going to Nineveh, Leaving Nineveh

In the early 1960s, the sermon I preached in homiletics class at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was about Jonah. While there are a lot of sermons I preached in the 1960s that I would not, or could not conscientiously, preach now, I probably could preach that one again—if I could find it. (Somehow I can’t seem to locate it on my HD!)
Although it wasn’t particularly original, my main point was that the Old Testament book of Jonah was not primarily the story of a man being swallowed by a “great fish” and then miraculously regurgitated alive three days later.
No, I said, the book of Jonah is a missionary story. It is about a reluctant missionary, Jonah, epitomizing God’s “chosen people.”
God told Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh” (1:2, CEB). And Jonah got up all right, but he “went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish” (1:3)—a distant place on the Mediterranean Sea far from Nineveh.
It was only after his “down in the mouth” experience that Jonah finally went to Nineveh, which according to the biblical text was “an enormous city, a three days’ walk across” (3:3).
Jonah proclaimed God’s message in Nineveh—and here is the real miracle: “the people of Nineveh believed God” (3:5). So God spared them, rather than destroying them as Jonah had warned them about.
But Jonah wasn’t happy with God sparing Nineveh rather than destroying that great city. He complained about God being “a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy” (4:2).
What a strange complaint!
In the seventh century B.C., Nineveh was the largest city in the world—until it was replaced by Babylon (details here). But where is Nineveh?

Ruins of the old city of Nineveh are just across the Tigris River from the modern city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq with a population of around 1,800,000—when everybody’s home. But that’s the problem: this month hordes of Mosul’s citizens have left their homes.
On June 10, Mosul was taken over by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants linked to Al Qaeda. It has been widely reported that as many as 500,000 people have fled the city.
Many of those who left their home in Mosul are Christians. Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Governorate (so called since 1976), is the region in Iraq with the most Christians. They are mostly Assyrians, descendants from the old Assyrian Empire that ended in 612 B.C.
(Information about Assyrian Christians can be found at www.AssyrianChristians.com. I found it quite interesting that this website is run by Ken Joseph, Jr., who was born in Tokyo and is a Christian pastor in Tokyo now. I met his father, a Christian missionary who was an ethnic Assyrian, several times during my years in Japan.)
Certainly the Christians in Iraq have suffered greatly ever since 2003. In an article that seems to have been written in 2007, Joseph writes, “An estimated 1 million Christians lived in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. Less than half of that number still remain.”
Of course, there are far fewer now.
But it is not just Christians who have left Nineveh, fleeing for their lives. The main targets of the Sunni Muslims of ISIS are Shiite Muslims.
Unlike Jonah, though, we who believe in God rejoice that God is “a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.” Shouldn’t those words be descriptive of believers in God also?

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Life of Brian

"Monty Python’s Life of Brian” is a 1979 British comedy film starring and written by the comedy group known as Monty Python. The film contains themes of religious satire that were controversial at the time of its release, and onward, drawing accusations of blasphemy and protests from some religious groups.
Some of you, no doubt, have seen the movie, and I don’t particularly recommend it to those of you who haven’t. But I do remember it as being quite interesting—and quite funny in places.
This article, though, is about the life of a different Brian, one much closer to (my) home than Great Britain. In fact, the man about whom I am writing lives only 15 miles from my home town in northwest Missouri.
Brian Terrell and his wife Betsy Keenan live and work at Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, Iowa. They raise most of what they need from their gardens, chickens and small herd of goats.
From this little farm, Brian travels around Iowa and across the U.S.—and even overseas—speaking and acting with various communities as a peace activist and a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.
This month Brian, who will turn 58 next month, has been on another lengthy protest march. This one was called “On the Road to Ground the Drones.”
Brian and those with him walked about 165 miles from the Boeing corporate headquarters in Chicago (where the manufacture of drones and conventional war planes is managed and designed) to the Michigan Air National Guard Facility at the Battle Creek Airport, planned site of a new drone command center. They arrived there on June 14.
My Nov. 25, 2012, blog article was about drones. It was not long after that that I heard about Brian for the first time. At that very time he was serving a six month sentence at the federal prison camp in Yankton, South Dakota.
Brian had been arrested and sentenced for protesting remote control murder by drones, specifically from Whiteman Air Force Base in Johnson Co., Mo. It was not long after his release that I met him for the first time.
Every year Brian and Betsy host a Summer Solstice and Feast of St. John the Baptist celebration, and I attended part of that festive time last year and met Brian there. People from various parts of the country, and even England, had come to Maloy to be with Brian and Betsy and the others who had gathered at their place.
With few exceptions, those who had come were peace activists. This year’s gathering, their 20th, will begin around 4 p.m. on June 21, tomorrow afternoon, and I plan to be there again.
Yes, the life of Brian Terrell is quite different from that of the Brian in the Monty Python movie—and it is quite different from the way most of us live.
Most of us are not willing or able to live the Catholic worker type of lifestyle, and even fewer are willing to involve ourselves in public protests that lead to arrest and even incarceration.
But Brian keeps walking, keeps protesting, and keeps advocating for cessation of the use of drones.
Last month he wrote, “Our civilian and military authorities, proliferating drone attacks around the globe from more and more American bases, are acting recklessly and in defiance of domestic and international law.”
The main objection, of course, is to the killing of civilians as “collateral damage” of the drones.
Yes, the life Brian Terrell is living now is worth our consideration—and appreciation.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

All of us have a lot of beliefs about a lot of different things. In this article I am writing particularly about the most basic beliefs which we hold. These might be called our presuppositions, those basic beliefs we hold before we start thinking.
Those basic beliefs are rooted in our worldview or faith commitment. But why do we believe what we believe? Where does our faith come from?
Faith/beliefs are the result of what we have learned—from other people or from our own experiences. Our basic beliefs (faith) begin to be formed first at home and then in the primary community of our formative years.
Our early community nexus creates what sociologist Peter Berger calls our “plausibility structure.” That is the framework by which, or the lens through which, we understand the world around us.
Our plausibility structure determines what seems to us to be “common sense.” It is the basis for how we interpret all we see and hear.
Like for many of you readers, my plausibility structure was shaped by regular church attendance. From the time I was about seven years old I attended church activities nearly every Sunday morning as well as on Sunday and Wednesday evenings In addition, during most of those formative years, I read some from the Bible almost every day.
My theological understanding (and please note that theology is basically “faith seeking understanding”) has changed quite a bit through the years. But my basic faith has not changed.

It is important to distinguish between faith, which is closely related to one’s basic presuppositions or worldview, and beliefs. It is possible, and usual, for beliefs to change more than faith.
There are many who have a faith journey similar to mine. But for many of us perhaps, our faith is not as strong as it used to be. That is because our plausibility structure has been gradually re-shaped by things other than a community of faith and the Bible.
For many people today, it may not be erroneous to say that their plausibility structure is now shaped far more by the media—CNN, Comedy Central (Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart), or, Heaven forbid, Fox News—than by the Bible or a faith community.
And, unfortunately, for many who are active church members, that “faith community” may be more like a religious club, or a service club, than a real community of faith.
In reflecting on my own experience, now nearly ten years after leaving my full-time work as an educational missionary and as a pastor, I sense that my faith has weakened somewhat.
I don’t spend as much time studying the Bible, preparing sermons, reading theology books. On the other hand, I spend more time reading and thinking about politics and social issues.
True, I attempt to read and think about politics and social issues from a faith-based or theological viewpoint. I claim, I think validly, that my political views are shaped by my worldview (faith) rather than my worldview being shaped by politics.
Many others, with all the emphasis in contemporary society on entertainment, seem to have fallen into a worldview, or lifestyle, that is predominantly hedonistic.
We believe what we believe because of what we think about the most and/or consider the most important. If our lives are centered on the Bible, worship, devotional and theological books, and on Christian fellowship, our religious faith will be and likely remain strong.
But if politics or entertainment becomes our main focus, our faith will weaken and gradually become inconsequential.
May it not be so.