Saturday, May 30, 2015

Was Jesus Insane?

What a preposterous question: was Jesus insane?! Those who are pious Christians may even be offended that such a question is raised. On the other hand, those who are highly anti-Christian may think the answer is obvious: in most likelihood he was.
This is no new question, though. Early in the Gospels we read, “When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, ‘He’s out of his mind!’” (Mark 3:21, CEB).
And repeatedly Jesus was accused by his religious opponents of being possessed by demons. As you know, demon possession was at that time the explanation of what we would call mental illness.
The question of Jesus’ sanity was raised anew in the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century. In 1913 Albert Schweitzer wrote his thesis for an M.D. degree. It was titled (in English translation) “The Psychiatric Study of Jesus.”
According to Schweitzer, the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74) was the first in modern times to conjecture that Jesus was “psychopathic.” Schweitzer, however, mainly analyzed the works of three contemporary medical writers—a German, a Frenchman, and an American—who between 1905 and 1912 sought to explicate Jesus’ insanity.
Schweitzer’s conclusion, though, was that the efforts of those who claimed Jesus was insane fell “far short of proving the existence of mental illness.”
I started thinking about this topic when reading a book with the unlikely title The Ethiopian Tattoo Shop (1983), a collection of 22 “parables” written by Edward Hays, a Catholic priest in Kansas. (The book was recently mentioned by a friend who knows Hays, and I have heard others also speak highly of him.)
One of Hays’s stories is “The Hired Hand,” a man that was wonderfully good and kind to his employer and his family. But he said his name was Jesus Christ, and before long he was arrested as an escapee from the “State Insane Asylum.”
What would happen, Hays wonders, if Jesus were to reappear among us today? Quite possibly, he would be considered insane or “demon possessed” just as he was when he lived on earth 2,000 years ago.
Then I began reading The Underground Church (2013), an engaging book by UCC Pastor Robin Meyers. The first chapter is titled “Sweet Jesus: Talking His Melancholy Madness.” That thought-provoking chapter is based in part on the poem “Maybe” by Mary Oliver (which is also attractively presented on Vimeo here).
Meyers also refers to Thomas Merton’s reflections on Adolf Eichmann in Raids on the Unspeakable (1964). At Eichmann’s trial, he was found to be “perfectly sane,” and Merton found that disturbing. So he concluded that “in a society like ours the worst insanity is to be . . . totally ‘sane’” (p. 49).
Similarly, in Don Quixote Cervantes wrote, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness—and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
This same sentiment is expressed by the preeminent Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (1910-98): “In a mad world, only the mad are sane.”
According to a former employee of the CIA whom I heard speak earlier this month, the U.S., which during the Cold War implemented the military strategy known as Mutual Assured Destruction (appropriately known as MAD), still supports the same policy increasingly applied to the tense relationship between Israel and Iran.
In this light, perhaps the “madness” of Jesus is sanity, after all.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Doing the Truth

Yesterday, May 24, was celebrated in many Christian churches as Pentecost Sunday. The first Christian celebration of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, is often, for good reason, called “the birthday of the church.”
Two years ago, on May 19, 2013, I had the privilege of preaching on Pentecost Sunday at the Hirao Baptist Church in Fukuoka, Japan. My blog article posted the following day was about that day and that sermon.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach on Pentecost Sunday once again. That was at the Dearborn Christian Church (DCC), in a little town about 40 minutes northwest of where I live. It was a good experience worshipping there again in their well-taken-care-of 19th century sanctuary.
The title of my sermon was “The Spirit of Truth,” based on the Bible reading that morning, which included John 16:13. There Jesus stated that “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (NIV).
I went from that verse to emphasize that truth is something that is done. That assertion is based on John 3:21, which I read from the new Common English Bible (rather than from the NIV, the pew Bible at DCC): “Whoever does the truth comes to the light.”
Doing the truth: what an important concept!
It may not have been the first time I was impressed with the meaning of those words, but long ago I read “Doing the Truth,” one of Paul Tillich’s sermons included in his 1948 book “The Shaking of the Foundations.”
Tillich began his sermon by referring to the words “does the truth” in John 3:21 as being “a very surprising combination of words.” Consequently, many English versions of the Bible do not translate them that way. The NIV says, “whoever lives by the truth.”
Finally, I talked about “the fruit of the Spirit” as listed in Galatians 5:22-23a, suggesting that those nine products of the Spirit of truth are indicative of what we do, or should do, rather than just feelings or attitudes.
As needs to be recognized always, Christian love is not just a warm feeling toward people we like. Rather, it is seeking to do things that will be most helpful to our neighbors in need, even those we do not like. That was part of MLKing’s point in his powerful book “Strength to Love.”
It is harder to link joy to action, but the third fruit, peace, is easier. The fruit produced by the Spirit of truth is not just an inner feeling of tranquility, although that might be a part of it. Since Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, the peace that is a fruit of the Spirit is peace made between individuals, families, “tribes,” and nations.
That brings us to think about Memorial Day, which USAmericans celebrate today.
What started soon after the Civil War as Decoration Day, that is, a time to decorate with flowers the graves of those who died in that terrible conflict, and gradually came to known as Memorial Day has now been a federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday of May since 1971.
It is hard to remember the war dead without glorifying war to a certain extent—which is something I do not want to do. So let’s focus on the need to work for peace in order that there will be fewer war dead in the future—in our country and all countries.

I hope you Americans will have a Happy Memorial Day—and that we all will increasingly do the truth, which importantly includes striving to make peace.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Culture of Poverty

The term "culture of poverty" was introduced by Oscar Lewis in his seminal 1959 book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. (If you don’t know about Lewis, 1914-1970, as I didn’t until very recently, he was the son of a Jewish rabbi, the husband of Abraham Maslow’s sister, and a noted anthropologist and university professor.)
Michael Harrington used that same term in "Our Fifty Million Poor," a piece he wrote for the July 1959 issue of Commentary, the monthly magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945. (Some of you will recall that I mentioned Harrington in my previous, as well as my March 5, blog article.)
In his article, Harrington argued that American poverty constituted “a separate culture, another nation, with its own way of life.” Consequently, he argued, a “comprehensive assault on poverty” on the part of the federal government is needed if the problem of poverty is to be solved.

Harrington’s analysis of the problem of poverty in USAmerican society was further developed in his highly-influential book “The Other America” (1962), which is credited with being one of the main works that stimulated President Johnson to declare the war on poverty in 1964.
The Food Stamp Act and the Economic Opportunity Act, both enacted that year, were major parts of the “assault” on national poverty. But that attack weakened during the presidency of Richard Nixon and declined even further after the election of President Reagan in 1980.
Moreover, according to Maurice Isserman, “neo-conservatives took [Harrington’s] notion of the ‘culture of poverty’ and, turning it on its head, used it as an argument against pursuing a federal war on poverty” (“The Other American,” p. 305).
In the early 1970s Harvard University professors such as Edward Banfield (1916-99) and Nathan Glazer (b. 1923) wrote disparagingly of those who were a part of the culture of poverty and of government programs designed to help such people. These ideas affirmed by the neo-conservatives were endorsed by Nixon and have largely been the position of the Republican Party ever since.
Quoting Isserman again,
The trouble with the poor, as the neo-conservatives saw it, was that they had adjusted to a condition of permanent dependency. . . . Those who professed to be interested in aiding the poor by means of expanding the welfare state were, in effect, the poor’s worst enemies . . . (p. 306).
In her book “My Invented Country,” which I recently read, Chilean author Isabel Allende tells about visiting the squatters’ settlements around Santiago when as a young woman she had a job as a journalist.
Allende comments, “That’s when I discovered that social climbing was a middle-class phenomenon, the poor never gave it a thought, they were too busy trying to survive” (p. 127).
To the conservatives of the past and maybe even more in the present--and especially to the strident voices I hear on “talk radio”—the victims of poverty are to blame for their own plight. They could do better if they tried.
But maybe they are just trying to survive.
There has been much talk about the culture war(s) in American society, but little regard for the “war” against those who live in a culture of poverty—although in 1995 Herbert Gans wrote a significant book titled “The War Against the Poor.” (The first chapter is here.)

Surely we need to be understanding of and sympathetic with those living in a culture of poverty--seeing them as neighbors who need to be loved rather than slackers, or enemies, who should be condemned.

Friday, May 15, 2015

God's Funeral

It was reading part of Michael Harrington’s book “The Politics at God’s Funeral: The Crisis of Western Civilization” (1983) that got me thinking about the provocative words used as the title of this article. (I am still reading, and increasingly impressed with, Harrington’s book.)
Come to find out, “God’s funeral” has been used several times in the past 100+ years. Between 1908 and 1910 the English poet Thomas Hardy wrote a 17-stanza poem with that title.
Hardy’s poem is introduced, and printed in full, in A. N. Wilson’s 1999 book titled “God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization.”
In contrast to Hardy and Wilson, who were agnostics/atheists, David Tyler, a Baptist pastor and “biblical counselor,” has more recently written “God’s Funeral” (2009), a book which deals with psychology and “trading the sacred for the secular.”
Although I don’t know that he said anything about a funeral, perhaps the best known statement about God’s demise was made by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared “God is dead” in his 1882 book “The Gay Science” (with “gay” being the translation of the German fröhliche=cheerful, happy).
Actually, though, according to Harrington, “God’s death has been announced in every generation for about three hundred years (p. 11).
Many of us remember that in 1966 Christian theologian Thomas Altizer penned a book titled “The Gospel of Christian Atheism.” And in April of that year Time magazine published a provocative issue with the cover having only the words “Is God Dead?” in bold red letters on a black background.
In my previous article I referred to a book by Harry Emerson Fosdick. Most of you know the story of Fosdick’s talk with a young man who came to confess that he could no longer believe in God.
The young man was a student at prestigious Columbia University, a short walk from Riverside Church, where Fosdick was the legendary pastor from 1925 to 1946.
Fosdick said, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.” After hearing the young man’s explanation, Fosdick remarked, “Well, son, I don’t believe in that God either!”
So perhaps God needs to be buried—at least some understandings of God, such as the God of imperial Christendom, the God of “manifest destiny,” the God of exploitative capitalism, and the God who supposedly sanctions male supremacy and who condemns all homoerotic activity (even between consenting adults).
But there are other, truer, concepts of God. And there are many who remain thoroughly convinced that there is a God who is certainly alive and well today.
For example, think about the current Pope, who reportedly has some fairly close ties to God. He seems to be in tune with a living God who is quite different from the dead God that Harrington wrote about.
Pope Francis appears to have considerable concern for God’s “preferential option for the poor,” a phrase that Harrington did not use, to my knowledge, but one he would have fully affirmed.
And now Pope Francis is also calling on the world to take action against global warming. And that pro-active position is based, of course, on his unwavering belief in the Creator God.
Even though it came out before this week’s Pew report on the serious decline of religion in America, an earlier article this week advised, “Don’t plan any funerals for religion just yet.” (The Baylor conference covered in that article referred to the worldwide situation, not just the 5% of the world’s population in the U.S.)
And it is also still far too early, and far too presumptuous, to be talking about God’s funeral.