Thursday, April 30, 2015


Do you have a list of the best novels you have ever read?
In the late 1970s or early ’80s I first made a list of “Best Ten” novels—those that I had read and found most impressive. With little hesitation, I put John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” (1952) on that list. And it’s still there.
Back when I was a seminary student—and that is more than 50 years ago now—one of my favorite professors was Dr. Dale Moody. He was my systematic theology teacher, but in class one day he talked about the value of reading good novels.
He mentioned “East of Eden” as an example of the kind of novel he was talking about.
Because of being extremely busy as a seminary student and pastor, then as a graduate student, and then later as a Japanese language school student, it was not until the summer of 1969 that I started reading novels.
The first one I chose was “East of Eden.”
Since I enjoyed that book so much, I have averaged reading a novel a month ever since. (That is what I do to relax at bedtime.)
This month I read “East of Eden” again as it was the selection for the Great Books KC April meeting. June also read it, and then before attending the April 25 discussion we watched (also for the second time) the 1955 movie based on the book .
James Dean was the main character in the movie, which was based on only about the last fourth of the book. And while it is not a bad movie, it certainly does not have the profundity of the Steinbeck novel.
The theme of the book centers on the meaning of the Hebrew word timshel used in Genesis 4:7. (And there are allusions throughout the book to the story of Cain and Abel as found in the fourth chapter of Genesis.)
Most newer translations of the Bible translate timshel as “you must.” That is maybe about the same meaning as the translation in the KJV as well as the 1899 Douay version: “thou shalt.”
Those words are a command, which we humans may or may not be able to carry out.
However, in the novel Lee, the amazing Chinese servant and one of the most interesting characters in the book who doesn’t even appear in the movie, concludes with the help of Chinese scholars and a rabbi that timshel should be translated “thou mayest.”

Both the Complete Jewish Bible (1998) and the New American Bible (2011) translate timshel as “you can,” words with the same meaning as “thou mayest.”
Moral freedom, then, becomes the key theme in “East of Eden.” Humans have the freedom to choose a life of hope and redemption, to forget the past and even what their parents did to them. Everyone has the freedom to break free from past constraints and to forge a better future.
While working on this article, I received an email showing some of the world’s most creative statues and sculptures. (See those amazing works here.) 
One was “Freedom” (pictured below) by Zenos Frudakis and located in Center City, Philadelphia. It illustrates well the idea of timshel as interpreted in “East of Eden.”

If timshel, God’s word to Cain, means “thou mayest” (you can), which it well might, it is a wonderful word of freedom and promise.
A lingering, and troublesome, question, though, is this: if we have moral freedom, if we can choose good instead of evil, why do we humans so often choose that which is not good for ourselves and for others?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Taxation: Theft, or Support of the Public Welfare?

It has been ten days now since Tax Day 2015, but I am still thinking about taxation because of what I saw/heard in the media in the days following April 15.
While driving around town on the 17th, I listened to some of the Chris Plante Show. Since February, that program has been broadcast from 9 a.m. to noon weekdays on one of the two Kansas City talk radio stations.
Plante’s home base is WMAL in Washington, D.C., and his programs are available on their website. WMAL touts their station as the place “where Washington comes to talk.”
I had heard bits and pieces of Plante’s program before, but I didn’t really catch his name until last week. And I was very negatively impressed with what I heard.
One repeated emphasis of Plante that day was on taxation being “theft.” That’s nothing new for talk radio, it seems, for I remember first hearing that opinion expressed by Mike Huckabee a couple of years ago.
Plante likened taxation to the way the Nazis stole the wealth of Austrians in the new movie “Woman in Gold.” And he decried the way the Democrats want to “steal” wealth of people when they die rather than allowing their descendants to inherit it.
The government is there “to steal everything,” Plante warned.
Just the day before, the U.S. House voted to repeal the estate tax. That has long been the goal of Republican legislators—in spite of the fact that currently the first $5,430,000 of any estate is exempt from taxes.
The anti-estate tax rhetoric speaks about descendants having to sell their inherited farms in order to pay the taxes. But in 2013 only 0.6% (1 out of every 167) of the estates of farmers owed any estate tax at all.
And overall, only 1 in every 553 inheritances owed any estate tax. It is true that the President wants to lower the estate tax exemption to a mere (!) $3,500,000 and to increase the taxation rate from 40% to 45%. But, still, that is a far cry from trying “to steal everything.”
On that same program, Plante also criticized the President for not doing enough to fight Islamic terrorists. But months ago it was estimated that the U.S. bombing strikes against ISIS had exceeded $1,000,000,000 and is currently costing at least $10,000,000 a day.
Where is that money coming from, if not from taxes? How can a reasonable person possibly vilify taxation as theft and then criticize the administration for insufficient military activity?
In great contrast, during the week of April 15, Sister Simone Campbell, the “nun on the bus” (about whom I wrote here), was promoting a Facebook/Twitter movement dubbed #TaxPayerPride.
According to a HuffPost article, her desire is to remind people of the good work their tax money can accomplish.

Sister Simone says too many politicians focus on cutting taxes "at the expense of the good of our nation." Instead, she wants to celebrate how taxes make America a "stronger, more humane country"by helping to support health care, education, food and transportation.

As you might guess, I am in considerable agreement with Sister Simone and in complete disagreement with Chris Plante.
On April 13, June and I paid far more in federal and state income tax than our entire yearly income was back when we were first married. And though I don’t like my taxes being used for warfare  and support the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act, I am happy to pay taxes for support of the public welfare.
What about you?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Happy 95th Birthday, Justice Stevens!

Today is the 95th birthday of retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and I am writing in honor and appreciation of his long, fruitful life.
Stevens, who was born in Chicago in 1920, was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ford in 1975. He served in that position for 35 years, retiring in 2010.
(It is interesting to note that when he was appointed to the Supreme Court, he was one of eight Protestants among the nine Justices. When he retired and was replaced by Elena Kagan, a Jew, there were no longer any Protestants on the Court.)
In spite of retiring at the age of 90, Justice Stevens has continued to be active. The picture on the left was taken last April 30 as he was testifying before the Senate Rules Committee on Capitol Hill.
It was also just last year that his new book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” was published. While all six of Justice Stevens’s proposed amendments are significant, I am most interested in four of them.
Those four would do away with political gerrymandering, would make it possible for the U.S. Congress or states to limit the amount of money that could be spent in election campaigns, would do away with the death penalty, and would change the Second Amendment to read, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.
Since I wrote about the latter issue previously (here), I will not say more about that at this time.
With regard to the first issue mentioned above, gerrymandering, as you know, means manipulating boundaries of electoral districts so as to favor one party or group. Justice Stevens’s proposed amendment would address the seriously flawed boundary lines for U.S. representatives which have been drawn in many states across the nation.
The highly controversial 5-4 “Citizens United” decision of the Supreme Court in January 2010 was strongly criticized by Justice Stevens. He wrote a 90-page dissenting opinion, setting forth his unhappiness with the majority position.
It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the six amendments to the Constitution that he proposed in his 2014 book is about that decision.
In his talk to the Senate Committee last year Justice Stevens said, “While money is used to finance speech, money is not speech.” So Stevens’s proposed campaign finance amendment would essentially overturn Citizens United, allowing Congress to set “reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in elections.”
In 1976, the year following his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens voted to uphold the death penalty. When he retired 34 years later, he said that decision was the main one he regretted.
In his 2014 book, he says that retribution is the only legitimate justification for preserving capital punishment—and he doesn’t think that is a good or sufficient reason.
So Justice Stevens now advocates amending the Eighth Amendment to include the words “such as the death penalty” as an example of “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is currently prohibited.
At the time of his retirement in 2010, J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and a member of the Supreme Court Bar, wrote, “Justice Stevens has been a thoughtful, diligent jurist who has served the Court and this country admirably.”
The retired Justice has continued his meritorious public service by his book advocating significant Constitutional amendments.
Happy birthday, Justice Stevens—and thanks for all you have done!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

R U 4 15?

If you think the title of this article looks like a text message, U R right. Actually, though, since in some ways I am a Luddite and don’t even have a smartphone, I don’t send text messages—and I tweet very little.
But today has for several months been designated as a day of advocacy for raising the minimum wage for fast food workers, and others, to $15 an hour. And I assume today, April 15, was chosen as the day for the marches and other appeals because they are for $15 (4 15).
But what about you? Are you (R U) for such a decisive increase in the minimum wage?
When I first heard about today’s plans, my first reaction was that trying to more than double the current national minimum wage, which is $7.25, was asking for far too much.
I have since seen that those who are calling for $15 are envisioning that as something that would be implemented over the next four or five years, not all at one time.
Here in Kansas City, there will be a rally this afternoon at 5:00 and a march at 5:30. Those activities are being planned by a group known as Stand Up KC. Similar activities will take place in some 190 cities across the nation.

A few days ago it was reported in the local news media that city officials in Kansas City are sympathetic to the activities of civil rights and religious leaders “to improve the plight of the working poor.”
But, as might be expected, there is opposition to raising the minimum wage or even allowing a city to do so.
Bills pending in the Missouri House and Senate would prohibit cities from requiring any employer to provide either minimum pay or benefits that exceed the requirements of federal or state law. (Missouri’s current minimum wage is $7.65.)
The Mo. Chamber of Commerce is supporting those Republican-sponsored bills that would keep cities from raising the minimum wage. The argument, of course, is such a raise in wages would increase prices and cause greater unemployment.
But if truth be told, the biggest concern is most likely that business owners would make less profit. This seems to be the real struggle: raise the minimum wage to help the working poor, or keep the minimum wage low to enhance profits for business owners.
The specter of fewer jobs being available for low-wage workers is a legitimate concern. But perhaps that fear is not well-founded.
Earlier this year, two professors in the Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst published a well-researched 33-page paper titled “A $15 U.S. Minimum Wage: How the Fast-Food Industry Could Adjust Without Shedding Jobs.”
For those of us who are concerned about the plight of the poor, it is difficult to see what justification there is for not being on the side of those who need a living wage—and most of those seeking higher wages are not teenagers working for spending money.
According to an April 10 article in the Washington Post, “The typical burger-flipper is an independent adult or about 29, with a high school diploma. Nearly a third have some college experience, and many are single parents raising families.”
(That entire article, “Five myths about fast-food work,” is worth reading.)
This evening I am going to the rally of those seeking a significantly increased minimum wage and also the right to form a union. In spite of my initial misgivings about it, I am now 4 15. R U?