Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Plight of the Palestinians

As you know from my recent article, this month I made a week’s visit to the country of Israel. My daughter Karen, who is a professor at the University of Arizona, was going to an academic conference in Tel Aviv, and she invited me to go with her. We both had a wonderful time there.
On June 24 while Karen was attending her conference, I made a trip to Bethlehem. By taxi I observed the current conditions there. Then I visited the Church of the Nativity and walked up and down the streets in the center of that recently walled city.
Since the early 2000s, the Israeli government has been building an extensive network of walls to restrict the movement of Palestinians, essentially imprisoning them within their cities/towns.  
Those imposing walls are from 20 to more than 25 feet high. Some of the sections are covered with graffiti, as you see in the picture below. That was part of the wall my Palestinian taxi driver took me by.
Bethlehem is within what is known as the West Bank, which is Palestinian territory under Israeli control since 1967. Tourists are able to enter and leave the city without much hassle, but Palestinians (which make up almost the entire population of the city) are greatly restricted and cannot leave without permits, which are difficult for most people to get. 

Seeing the people of Bethlehem virtually imprisoned in their own city was my initial introduction to the plight of the Palestinians.
Whereas Tel Aviv is a modern city with upscale department stores and restaurants, teeming with affluent people enjoying eating and drinking at sidewalk cafes as well as swimming and engaging in other fun activities on the beach of the Mediterranean Sea, Bethlehem is much more like a “third world” city.
Almost all the people in Bethlehem are Muslims but my taxi driver said he is a Christian. Like most of the Palestinians who live there, though, he bemoaned the lack of freedom and the restriction of basic human rights.
The next day, I was able to join Karen’s group for an all-day study tour of Jerusalem—and by all-day I mean we left a little after 8:30 a.m. and didn’t get back to the hotel until well after 10 p.m. Although quite tiring, it was a superb time of seeing significant sites and of learning about the history and current situation of Jerusalem, the most fascinating city I have ever visited.
Part of the tour was conducted by an NGO Ir Amim guide, who showed us how Israel is steadily building “settlements” in East Jerusalem, territory originally designated for Palestinians.
According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, by 2013 there were nearly 360,000 Israelis living in such settlements. There are far more than that now. And by settlements, I am talking about fine residential communities built to last permanently.
While these Israeli settlements are illegal according to international law, Israeli citizens continue to move freely to and from those settlements. Palestinians, though, remain trapped by the “separation walls” that have been built on their own lands.
The human rights of Palestinians have been grossly trampled on since the formation of modern Israel in 1948 and then by the nation of Israel, especially since 1967. It is high time for peace and justice advocates to stand with the Palestinian people in opposition to their demeaning and unjust treatment.
Supporting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement for freedom, justice, and equality is one concrete action we might take. You can learn more about that Movement here.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Countercultural Christianity and the SBC

The Economist recently had a review of Baptists in America: A History, a new book by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins, history professors at Baylor University. Among other things, the reviewer avers that current Baptist opposition to abortion and gay marriage is “a throwback . . . to their roots as outsiders resisting the mainstream.”
Certainly there was much countercultural activity by the early Baptists in this country. For example, they rejected the practice of infant baptism and the establishment of a state church—and some suffered because of that countercultural stance. (I wrote last year about one of June’s relatives who spent time in jail for the “crime” of preaching as a Baptist.)
But in some ways Baptists in the South were not countercultural as they became entwined in and ardent supporters of the culture of slavery. As The Economist article says, “. . . white Southern Baptists will forever labour in the shadow of having been badly wrong on civil rights.”
(Most commendably, though, at the 1995 annual meeting the SBC did “genuinely repent of racism”; while some saw that as too little much too late, surely that was better than not doing it at all.)
Last week at the 2015 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, David Platt, the (relatively) new president of the International Mission Board of the SBC, had a major part in Tuesday evening’s call to prayer “for the Next Great Awakening and to Reach the World for Christ.”
David Platt at the 2015 SBC Annual Meeting
Platt has recently written a book titled Counter Culture. I had a very mixed reaction to Platt’s new book when I read it earlier this year. The second chapter on poverty was excellent, I thought. The eighth chapter was also a strong, and good, rejection of racism.
The fourth and fifth chapters were also quite good, but I had some serious questions about most of the other chapters.
Platt had previously written Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (2010). That New York Times bestseller was my first introduction to Platt, and I found it quite impressive. He is also the author of Radical Together (2011) and Follow Me (2013).
In his first three books, there is virtually no mention of abortion or LGBT issues, but those matters dominate Platt’s new book. In fact, the implication is that being completely and absolutely opposed to all abortion and homosexual activity is necessary for being a Christian.
This, it seems, is a new fundamentalism.
According to Platt, “Abortion is an affront to God’s authority as Creator, an assault on God’s work in creation, and an attack on God’s relationship with the unborn” (p. 69). Consequently, if we believe the gospel, then we must speak out against the injustice of abortion” (p. 72).
In the chapter on the gospel and sexual morality, Platt declares that the Bible is clear that “homosexual activity is sexual immorality before God” (p. 170). He goes on to assert that “unrepentant sexual sin will ultimately lead to hell” (p. 177).
There is a quite different, and much better, view of what it means to be countercultural Christians in Robin Meyers’s book Underground Church (2012), and I plan to share and critique ideas from that book soon.
Early Baptists in the U.S. were, admirably, countercultural in their emphasis on individual freedom and freedom from the state.
But there is nothing commendable in their current “countercultural” efforts to deny freedom to others, such as to pro-choice women or to gays/lesbians who want the freedom to form a legally-recognized, permanent relationship with their partners.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Shabbat in Israel

Greetings from Israel!

Yesterday my daughter Karen and I boarded a flight at Dulles about 2:a.m. Israeli and arrived in Tel Aviv about 12½ hours later. We picked up our rental car and drove to our hotel near the Mediterranean Sea just before the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.

Karen is a professor at the University of Arizona (UA) and the director of the Religious Studies Program there. UA is one of five universities doing research on "Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging."
Tel Aviv University, one of the institutions in the project, is hosting a meeting of representatives from the five schools on June 23-25. Karen, who was being sent to the conference by UA, invited me to go along—and so here we are!
Welcome sign in Tel Aviv airport (June 19, 2015)
As we neither one of us had been to Israel before, we decided to go a few days early in order to do some sightseeing before her meetings begin. Today (Saturday) we plan to drive to Nazareth and then in the evening drive on to Tiberius where we have a hotel booked near the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Mark Levin, a retired Jewish rabbi and active civic leader in the greater Kansas City area, is a new friend/acquaintance. We sat at the same table at a community event last month and had a long telephone conversation after that.
Among other things, we talked about timshel , the key word in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which I wrote about here (Rabbi Levin confirmed Steinbeck’s interpretation), and about tikkun olam the Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world.”
I was somewhat familiar with that term tikkun because of Jim Wallis and his friendship/corroboration with Rabbi Michael Lerner in California who is the editor of a quarterly interfaith Jewish magazine by that name.
Rabbi Levin suggested I read the Wikipedia article about tikkun olam. According to that article, “Jews believe that performing of ritual mitzvot (good deeds, commandments, connections, or religious obligations) is a means of tikkun olam, helping to perfect the world, and that the performance of more mitzvot will hasten the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Age.”
This is closely related to Shabbat. The same article goes on to state,
Some explain the power of Shabbat by its effect on the other six days of the week and their role in moving society towards the Messianic Age. Shabbat helps bring about the Messianic Age because Shabbat rest energizes Jews to work harder to bring the Messianic Age nearer during the six working days of the week. Because the experience of Shabbat gives one a foretaste of the Messianic Age, observance of Shabbat also helps Jews renew their commitment to bring about a world where love and mercy will reign.
I was intrigued by what Rabbi Levin posted on Facebook late last Saturday afternoon: “As another shabbat is about to end, we Jews will pray for the messianic redemption of the world, by invoking Elijah the prophet, who, at least at this moment, did not appear this shabbat. We have to wait another week for a perfected world.”
Tikkun’s website states, “We are committed to full and complete reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinian people within the context of social justice for the Palestinians and security for Israel.”
So as Shabbat is celebrated here in Israel today, whether the messenger Elijah appears or not, I pray that this will be a part of the perfected world that Jews, and many of us who are not Jews, eagerly long for.
Sunset on Mediterranean Sea (just before Shabbat began on June 19)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Proud/Ashamed of the Southern Baptist Convention

The 2015 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is scheduled for June 16-17 in Columbus, Ohio. The business will be conducted by Ronnie Floyd, the SBC president whom I recently mentioned.

For many years it was a thrill to attend the SBC annual meetingsand can you believe that June and I even attended the 1957 annual meeting in Chicago on our honeymoon! And we were even called on stage to stand before everyone present as, not surprisingly, the most recently married couple there.
In 1963, I again attended the annual meeting. That year the convention met in Kansas City, and it was a significant one: the Baptist Faith and Message was revised for the first time since its original adoption in 1925. 
The BF&M was again changed slightly in 1998 and more at the 2000 annual meeting. The latter revision was the one that all SBC “employees” were required to sign, pledging “to work in agreement with and not contrary to” it. June and I were forced to retire as Southern Baptist missionaries because we could not in good conscience do that.
As a SB missionary on furlough (Stateside assignment), I attended four annual meetings, the last in 1992. I grew increasingly dissatisfied with them—not so much because I had changed, although I had to a certain degree (for the best, of course!), but mainly because the SBC was moving farther and farther to the religious and political right.
I gradually became ashamed of what I had previously been so proud of.
That right-wing movement and stance in the SBC has continued unabated in the last twenty years and will be clearly seen again at this week’s annual meeting in Columbus.
The “Convention sermon” this year will be given by Rev. Eddie Bumpers, pastor of Crossway Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo. Over the years that church has experienced considerable growth, but it is, apparently (and not surprisingly), a very conservative church.
In addition to summer camps and Vacation Bible School, the only event Crossway BC has listed for this summer is a two-day Answers in Genesis conference in August. As some of you know, AiG interprets Genesis literally and, consequently, affirms “young earth” creationism: on their website they clearly state that the earth is “only a few thousand years old.”
Prior to the Convention sermon on that June 17 afternoon, which is scheduled in the closing hour of the annual meeting, there will be a 25-minute report and presentation by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, given by its president, Russell D. Moore.
Immediately following, there will be a special “SBC Presidential Panel” with president Floyd interviewing Moore, Southern Seminary president Al Mohler and others. The topic: “The Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage: Preparing our Churches.”
This discussion will take place as the Supreme Court is deciding this month whether to strike down same-sex marriage bans in 14 states, including the SBC meeting’s host state of Ohio. It seems as if those who planned this special panel discussion assume that those bans will be struck down.
The position of Moore and Mohler (as well as many other SBC leaders) on the same-sex marriage issue is quite clear: complete opposition. And presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who is an ordained SB minister and was for six years president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, has recently joined many other conservative Christians threatening civil disobedience if the SCOTUS approves same-sex marriage.
Yes, I was once a proud member of the SBC and annual meeting attender. But, sadly, no more.