Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Happy 90th Birthday, Jimmy!

The 39th President of the United States was born on October 1, 1924, so tomorrow is Jimmy Carter’s 90th birthday.
In spite of the many difficulties and widespread criticism during his presidency, he is the best ex-President the U.S. has ever had in terms of public service and contributions to world peace and justice.
It was fitting that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. And it is fitting that we, too, celebrate his birthday.
Carter was a one-term president, embarrassingly defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980.
His defeat was due to many factors, such as rampant inflation that caused grave financial problems in the country, 53 Americans taken hostage in Iran and held for more than a year, and loss of support by the Religious Right.
Still, the Camp David Accords, a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, of September 1978 were a tremendous accomplishment.
Egyptian President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin won the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for those accords, but the agreement came about only because of the indefatigable efforts of Carter.
It can be argued, though, that the biggest mistake Carter made while in the White House was his support of the Shah of Iran.
On New Year’s Eve in 1977, President Carter toasted the Shah at a state dinner in Tehran, calling him "an island of stability" in the troubled Middle East.
Just over one year later, the Shah fled his country because of the Iranian Revolution, and in February 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini returned after 14 years in exile.
Then, in November 1979, students in the Iranian Revolution overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 53 hostages who were not released until the minute after President Reagan was inaugurated in 1981.
The Iranians didn’t forget Carter’s support of the Shah.
Since his presidency, Carter has authored numerous books. One of his most important, and most criticized, is “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” (2007).
Many strong supporters of Israel have been quite critical of that book. But in it Carter quite convincingly argues that the Palestinians have been mistreated greatly over the past 60 years.
It is a book that still needs to be widely read and seriously considered.
The documentary film “Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains” (2007) is mostly about Carter’s book tour following the publication of “Palestine” and about the controversy surrounding it.
Carter’s latest book, published earlier this year, is “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.” He writes in the introduction that “the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls.”
Carter’s commitment to human rights and justice was a highly commendable aspect of his presidency, and he has continued that emphasis in all these years since he left office more than three decades ago.
The third chapter in Carter’s new book is “The Bible and Gender Equality.” It is a strong statement about how the Bible, rightly interpreted, supports the equality of men and women.
He also explains in this chapter how that issue is one of the main reasons he left the Southern Baptist Convention.
In most ways Jimmy Carter is a rather “common” man. But he has had a remarkable life and has made great contributions to the world, both as the President of the United States and as a very active ex-president.
So regardless of your political position and your evaluation of Carter’s presidency, please join me in exclaiming, “Happy 90th Birthday, Jimmy!”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cherry Picking

Earlier this month I received an email from a Thinking Friend about cherry picking. He said that he prefers “the Greatest Common Denominator” in spiritual traditions.
Then he wrote, “Does this make a ‘cherry picker’ of me? But even when I was exclusively Christian, I exercised discernment regarding the Bible, as you do. Of course I cherry pick! I want the ripe, not the unripe and rotten.”
Good point.
But is it legitimate to cherry pick when deciding which verses in the Bible, or which parts of a religion’s doctrinal statements, to accept or reject?
Cherry picking can certainly be used illegitimately. It is listed as one type of fallacious argument—and it is sometimes. But not all cherry picking is wrong or fallacious.
Consider this example.
As most of you have heard, Adrian Peterson, the star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, was indicted earlier this month on charges of reckless or negligent injury to his four-year-old son. He is accused of beating his son repeatedly.
But Peterson’s child abuse indictment has led to some people to hold up for spanking or switching children.
Corporal punishment of children has long been considered as divinely sanctioned by many conservative, “Bible-believing” Christians. After all, the Bible says, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, / but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” (Proverbs 13:24, NIV).
The oft-quoted words “spare the rod and spoil the child,” though, don’t come directly from the Bible. They are from a 17th century poem by Samuel Butler.
Still, the admonition in Proverbs is taken quite seriously by many. But what about Deuteronomy 21:18-21?
That passage says, “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him,” they are to take him to the elders and then “all the men of his town are to stone him to death.”
Thank goodness for cherry picking!
Many other examples could be given of Bible verses that even the staunchest fundamentalists do not take seriously.
There are, however, many examples of Bible verses that fundamentalists do take literally but which “moderates” (or “liberals”) do not consider normative for contemporary Christians.
One example, of many that might be given, is 1 Corinthians 14:34, which says, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (NIV)
Is there any justification for cherry picking and downplaying that verse? And if so, what?
A person’s theological understanding is the basis for determining which Bible verses to follow and which to all but ignore.
Accordingly, as a seminary teacher I long stressed, but perhaps not strongly enough, that systematic theology is more important than biblical studies.
Sound exegesis on the basis of a thorough grasp of Hebrew and/or Greek is important—but not the most important.
Biblical study in and of itself cannot determine which verses/passages are normative. That is the job of systematic theology, formed perhaps by use of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”
That unwieldy term refers to John Wesley’s methodology that said the four sources for theological development are scripture, tradition, experience and reason.
Of those four, scripture is the most, and tradition the least, important. But together they form a good basis for constructing a view of God, humankind and the world that, in turn, helps one interpret and apply the Bible correctly.
So it’s not really cherry picking after all. Rather, it’s theological understanding that guides us in affirming some Bible verses while giving little weight to others.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Honoring Sister Simone

This year’s recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award will be Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun and social justice activist best known as the leader of “Nuns on the Bus.”
Sister Simone (b. 1945) is the executive director of NETWORK, a nonprofit Catholic social justice lobby based in Washington, D.C. Tomorrow (Sept. 21) she will receive the prestigious award on the campus of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.

NETWORK, social justice lobby that she heads, was founded in 1972. In 2004, Sister Simone became its Executive Director. She was an excellent choice, for she is a remarkable woman with great credentials.
She joined the order called Sisters of Social Service in 1964, taking her final vows in 1973. Four years later she earned a law degree from the University of California, Davis.

In the 1980s as she led the Community Law Center in Oakland, Calif., which she founded in 1978, she also began practicing Zen.
It is a bit hard to get one’s head around the idea of a Catholic nun who practices both law and Zen!

Sister Simone and her organization were relentless supporters of healthcare reform in 2009-10 despite the bishops’ warning that the bill would provide government funding for abortion.
She writes of how thrilled she was to be in the gallery when the House voted to adopt the Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially called Obamacare.

“That last one,” she writes in her book A Nun on the Bus (2014), “is a label I think the president will wear proudly, though his opponents used it as an epithet” (p. 93).
In April 2012, though, NETWORK was indirectly censured by the Vatican.

The reprimand was of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella organization under which NETWORK operates. But NETWORK seemed to be the LCWR-affiliate that caused the most concern for the Vatican.
By that time they were widely known for their Nuns on the Bus tour that occurred in June and the beginning of July in 2010. Their purpose was to appeal for economic justice and to oppose the “Romney-Ryan budget” that gutted funding for safety-net programs.
Because of Sister Simone’s support of Obamacare and her leading the 2012 bus tour, she was given six minutes to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Sept. 2012. You can see her deliver that speech here.

Last year, Rep. Nancy Pelosi wrote this about Sister Simone for Politico:
If there’s a single phrase to describe Sister Simone, it is “compassionate conviction.” With bravery, with courage, with optimism, she is focused on the common good. She is a champion for the cause of peace and justice. She has the will and the drive to do right.
Rep. Pelosi’s essay is part of a series in which dozens of women reveal what women they most admire. You can find the complete article here.

Last month June and I heard Sister Simone speak in Kansas City, and we were highly impressed with her. She has a most winsome stage presence and exhibits a good balance of self-confidence and humility.
We are also impressed that last year she led a second bus tour, appealing for immigration reform, and this month she and other Sisters started on a third bus tour, this time standing up against the Koch brothers and “big money” political donations. (Read about that here.)

In spite of all her political activities, Sister Simone remains a faithful Christian. Repeatedly, she writes, “Come, Holy Spirit,” and she refers to those words as her mantra (p. 91).
It is a joy to join with many others in honoring Sister Simone for what she has done and continues to do.

Monday, September 15, 2014

World Week for Peace

Many Christians across the U.S. have little interest in, and perhaps not much knowledge of, the World Council of Churches (WCC). Some Christians are even quite critical of the WCC. 

Nevertheless, the WCC is involved in many very commendable activities. Their sponsorship of World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel (WWPPI), scheduled from Sept. 21 to 27 this year, is a good example.
WWPPI is an initiative of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum of the WCC. That group is described as “an international, inter-church advocacy initiative for peace in Israel and Palestine.” 
Israeli and Palestinian Flags with Peace (salaam/shalom) in Arabic & Hebrew
Certainly Israel and Palestine are places in the world badly in need of peace, as you know well. On July 8, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip.
A ceasefire has been in effect since the last week in August. But seven weeks of Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rocket attacks left more than 2,100 people dead and over 10,000 wounded, most of them Palestinians—and a majority of them civilians.
While conservative Christians, as well as those who are conservative politically, tend to be strong supporters of Israel, the WCC tends to be more on the side of the Palestinians—as I think they should be.
That is one reason some are critical of the WCC—and some may well be critical of my position as well.
Certainly neither the WCC nor I support the violent activities of Hamas. But it seems quite clear that the Palestinian people as a whole have long been the victims of grave injustice.
More and more of Palestinian land has been taken by Israeli force. For example, on Aug. 31 Israel’s government made its largest appropriation of occupied West Bank land in a generation, taking some 1,000 acres that legally belonged to Palestinians.
For many reasons, materials for the WWPPI declare, “It’s time for Palestine.” One piece includes the following statements:
  • It time for Palestinians and Israelis to share a just peace.
  • It’s time to end more than 60 years of conflict, oppression and fear.
  • It’s time for freedom from occupation.
  • It’s time to stop bulldozing one community’s homes and building homes for the other community on land that is not theirs.
  • It’s time for people who have been refugees for more than 60 years to regain their rights and a permanent home.
  • It’s time to be revolted by violence against civilians and for civilians on both sides to be safe.
  • It’s time to reunite the people of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
  • It’s time to seek forgiveness between communities and to repair a broken land together.
  • For Palestine, for Israel and for a troubled world, it’s time for peace.
This year the International Day of Prayer for Peace is scheduled for Sept. 21. In the week that follows, church organizations, congregations, and people of faith are being encouraged to participate in worship services, educational events, and acts of advocacy in support a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians.
I hope that, at least to some degree, this will be done in the churches across the U.S. and around the world.
At the very least, I hope that on Sunday in addition to the usual prayers for people in the congregation who have health needs there will be some fervent prayers for peace in Palestine and Israel.
It’s high time for peace and justice there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What About Common Core?

Sam Graves is the U.S. Representative from the Sixth Congressional District of Missouri where I live. His “Straight Talk with Sam” e-magazine article for Aug. 25 was titled “Putting a Stop to Common Core.”
Sam’s article got me studying about a matter that, perhaps like many of you, I had heard a lot about but didn’t know much about. Since Sam’s against it, I figured it was time for me to learn more about it and why he, along with many other (mostly Republican) politicians, is trying to stop it.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is an educational program in the U.S. that details what K-12 students should know at the end of each grade. The initiative is sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Basically, it seeks to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter college programs or to the workforce.
CCSSI establishes expectations in three academic areas: mathematics, English language arts, and literacy. The latter sets reading and writing expectations for students in social studies, science, and technology.
Implementation of Common Core started in 2010, and 45 states soon adopted it. Since then three Republican-controlled state legislatures have voted to repeal it and two others, including Missouri, have voted to review and possibly replace it.
In July, Gov. Nixon signed legislation that provides for a task force to write new education standards that could eventually replace the Common Core in Missouri.
Rep. Graves, though, wants Common Core to be replaced not only in Missouri but nationwide. But is that really necessary or desirable? Probably not.
In case Rep. Graves hasn’t noticed, the school situation in the Sixth District that he represents, and all across the nation, is much different now than it was years ago when there was considerable local control of the schools, which is what he still wants.
Many years ago, few people went to college, and those who did usually didn’t travel far to get their education. The same was for true for those who entered the workforce: most stayed fairly close to home. But things are much different now.
High school graduates now literally go to college all across the nation. Also, it is also not uncommon for people to be sent by their employers to places far away from home.
With this changed and constantly changing situation, what could be wrong with having national educational standards so a student from any part of the country would have the same math and vocabulary skills as students from any other part of the nation?
Why should it be necessary for each state to have to figure out what math and vocabulary skills they want the students in their state to acquire?
Opponents say they object to the “one size fits all” mentality. But when it comes to basic academic skills and knowledge, why does there need to be local decisions about those basics?
Regrettably, Common Core has become a political issue more than anything else. Parents across the nation were basically satisfied with it until the politicians got involved.
Now even governors who were strongly in favor of Common Core, such as Gov. Jindal of Louisiana, are opposed to it—most probably for political reasons.
Increasingly, opposition to Common Core has become a litmus test for gauging a candidate’s conservatism. Some Republicans are trying to stigmatize it by calling it Obamacore.
But sorry, Sam (and your naysaying cohorts), Common Core needs to be supported, not stopped.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Remembering Robert Capon

Although he was no household name, Robert Farrar Capon was a noted Christian clergyman and author. Born in 1925 and a lifelong New Yorker, he passed away one year ago, on Sept. 5, 2013.
Robert Farrar Capon (in 2011)
Capon authored twenty books, and back in the 1980s I became aware of him and read at least some of one or two of his books—enough that I remembered him with appreciation.
Last September when I heard that Capon had died, I decided to read one of his books in his memory. The one I chose was "Parables of Grace" (1990), and I was not disappointed.
Here is part of what I wrote in my brief Goodreads review of that book:
As the title indicates, this work deals only with those parables of Jesus which especially emphasize grace, and Capon has a remarkable understanding of the breadth and depth of God’s grace. Some readers may even be offended by the radical nature of Capon’s understanding of grace.
His far-from-usual interpretation of the parables soon became evident in reading his “take” on them. For example, “We twentieth-century Christians—with our basically nineteenth-century view of childhood as a wonderful and desirable state—miss the point of the passage” about Jesus saying his followers would have to become like children.
He explains:
In Jesus’ time, and for most of the centuries since, childhood was almost always seen as a less than human condition that was to be beaten out of children as soon as possible. Therefore when Jesus sets us a little child as an example, he is setting up not a winsome specimen of all that is simple and charming but rather one of life’s losers (p. 17).
In “The First Parable of Grace: The Coin in the Fish’s Mouth,” his third chapter, Capon says that it is very sad      when the church acts as if it is in the religion business rather than in the Gospel-proclaiming business. What a disservice, not only to itself but to a world perpetually sinking in the quagmire of religiosity, when it harps on creed, cult, and conduct as the touchstones of salvation (p. 29).
Last month I read another of Capon’s books, "The Foolishness of Preaching" (1997), which I wish I could have read 50+ years ago when I was preaching every week. In it he calls religion, spirituality, and morality “grim pills” that stand in contrast to the radical grace he praises.
To Capon’s way of thinking, not only grace but also the forgiveness produced by that grace is radical and unconditional.
In “Death, Resurrection, and Forgiveness: The Unforgiving Servant,” the fifth chapter of "Parables of Grace," he contends that “the gift of forgiveness proceeds solely out of God’s love and is therefore antecedent to any qualifying action on the part of the receiver” (p. 40).
Accordingly, at the end of that chapter, Capon says that both heaven and hell are occupied by “only forgiven sinners.” Jesus forgives all. Thus,
The sole difference, therefore, between hell and heaven is that in heaven the forgiveness is accepted and passed along, while in hell it is rejected and blocked (p. 50).
Capon’s writing is captivating because of his out-of-the-ordinary ideas and also because of his witty ways of saying things. For example, I enjoyed his reference to being “stuck with a paradoxical pig in an off-putting poke” ("Foolishness," p. 11).
And speaking of paradox, his trilogy on the parables of Jesus has been published in one volume, "Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus" (2002). I highly recommend it.
Yes, Robert Capon is a man worth remembering—and worth reading.