Monday, February 29, 2016

Clobbered by "Truth"

Those of you who have had some theological training will likely recognize the Greek word aletheia. It is the word used many times in the New Testament and translated into English as truth. According to John 14:6, Jesus claims to be the truth (ἡ ἀλήθεια).
Well, last week I was trolled by someone who gave his (surely it wasn’t a her!) name as Alethia 21and I assume that name means the same as aletheia. That person, about whom I was unable to find any other information, left very negative comments on four different blog articles of mine.
All along I have encouraged people who disagree with my views/ideas to speak up. I have welcomed dialogue—and there has to be some disagreement for there to be any real dialogue. But I have also expected civility, and I have always tried to be civil toward those with whom I have disagreed.
Alethia 21, though, didn’t mince words—and didn’t seem to pay much attention to civility. In the comment he posted on my Feb. 19 blog article, he said, “But now I realized your [sic] a sanctimonious sarcastic liberal. Quite ignorant of what really goes on in life I might add!”
(Well, I may be somewhat ignorant of what really goes on in life, but at least I know the difference between your and you’re! And you should read some of the harsh things he said!)
At the beginning of another comment—and true to his Internet name—Alethia 21 declared, “The issue is always TRUTH! We can say the truth but we can do so in a Christian manner!” Then, just before referring to “Lucifer Obama,” he wrote, “If truth insults then so be it!”
(Actually, these latter comments were later removed by Alethia 21.)
Several times I have seen conservative Christians insisting that it is more important to be biblically correct than to be politically correct—although I have not been able to see why it has to be one or the other.
The insistence on being biblically correct is almost always tied in with a literalistic reading of the Bible considered to be inerrant. Among other things, but at or near the top of the list of what it means to be biblically correct, is the gay/lesbian issue.
Much of Alethia 21’s emphasis on truth, and much of his anger toward me, was directly related, it seems, to his vociferous opposition to gay/lesbian rights. What looks to us “liberals” as political incorrectness (as well as ignorance and bigotry), seems to people like Alethia 21 to be adherence to the truth of God’s word.
That kind of polarity in society, and among people who claim to be Christians, seems to be insurmountable in this present time. How can people be so greatly divided about the truth? And why do some professing Christians think it is all right to clobber others with the truth (as they see it)?
Perhaps the over-confident and overbearing use of truth fueled development of the post-modern view that denies there is any “absolute truth.” Everything becomes relativized: you have your truth, I have mine.
Back in 1995 a helpful book dealing with the challenge of post-modernism to Christianity was published under the title Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be. That title expresses the present reality.
Certainly, the post-modern view of truth is much kinder than old views such as that the one held by Alethia 21. But is it the truth? Probably not.
But, admirably, this view at least rejects the legitimacy of clobbering people with “truth.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Amazing Grimké Sisters

February each year is designated as Black History Month here in the U.S. For my contribution to this year’s emphasis on Black history, this article is mainly about two white women who were significantly involved in the struggle for the abolition of slavery in the United States.
In spite of long knowing about and being appreciative of other women abolitionists, such as Lucinda Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for some reason I had never known about Sarah and Angelina Grimké until fairly recently.
Last November I read The Invention of Wings (2014), Sue Monk Kidd’s wonderful historical novel about the Grimké sisters. I was both greatly informed and impressed.
Sarah Grimké was born in 1792 in Charleston, South Carolina, and her little sister Angelina was born in 1805. In the 1830s they became the first female antislavery pioneers and activists in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.
Charleston, S.C., was founded in 1670 as Charles Town in honor of England’s King Charles II. By 1690 it was the fifth-largest city in North America. Charleston, as it was called after 1783, became the nation’s slave trade capital, the place where 40% of slaves brought from Africa first landed. The city was built on slave labor and thrived under a slave economy for nearly 200 years.
Soon after Lincoln was elected President, in December 1860 South Carolina was the first state to secede. The Civil War, then, began on April 12, 1861, when troops in Charleston fired on Fort Sumter, which was on an island at the entrance of Charleston Harbor.
Growing up in Charleston, the Grimké sisters certainly knew about slavery firsthand. Their father, a lawyer, politician, and judge, was also a wealthy planter who owned hundreds of slaves.
Kidd’s book begins with a chapter about Handful, the slave girl who is given as a personal slave to Sarah on her eleventh birthday—and the book is as much the story of the fictional Handful and her mother as it is about the historical Grimké sisters.
In a significant subplot of the novel, the life of Handful’s mother becomes entangled with that of a black man with the improbable name of Denmark Vesey—a historical figure I was also glad to learn about.
Vesey won a lottery in 1799 when he was 32. He used some of that money to purchase his freedombut he also wanted to help slaves in Charleston, and elsewhere, obtain their freedom. To that end he began to draw up plans for a slave revolt.
Vesey’s plot, though, was thwarted, the revolt crushed, and he was executed in July 1822. (Remarkably, in 2014 a monument to Vesey, which you see part of in the picture, was placed in a Charleston city park.) 
Having seen the evils of slavery even in their own home, Sarah and then Angelina a few years later moved north to escape it. The Grimké sisters became Quakers and increasingly became involved in the fight against slavery in Philadelphia and surrounding areas.
Other abolitionists could give stirring speeches about the need to abolish slavery, but the Grimké sisters from personal knowledge could testify to slavery’s evil impact on human lives. Through most of the 1830s they spoke in many public meetings, pleading for the abolition of slavery as well as for women’s rights—the first single women in the nation to do so widely.
The amazing Grimké sisters took very seriously the words a Quaker man spoke to Sarah when they first met: “To remain silent in the face of evil is itself a form of evil.”  

Friday, February 19, 2016

What about Political Correctness?

In his first inaugural address in March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Nevertheless, responding to the widespread fear expressed by people across the nation, on February 19, 1942, FDR took harsh measures toward people of Japanese descent who lived in the U.S.
As a result of his Executive Order 9066, approximately 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry, almost all of whom were law-abiding citizens, were evicted from their homes on the West Coast of the U.S. and forced to live in internment camps across the country.
That was grossly unfair to the vast majority of a whole group of people who were peaceable residents in our nation.
During World War I, German-Americans were sometimes accused of being sympathetic to Germany. The U.S. Justice Department attempted to prepare a list of all German aliens, counting approximately 480,000 of them—and more than 4,000 of them were imprisoned in 1917-18.
I don’t know if my great-great-grandfather Hellmann made the Justice Department’s list or not, but he was born in Germany in 1844 and was living in St. Joseph, Mo., during WWI.
Even though his birth name was probably Johann Friedrich, in this country he went by John Frederick. The census records have my grandmother Laura Cousins’ grandfather’s name as just Fred Hellmann, so he probably didn’t suffer much anti-German discrimination.
But many German-Americans did suffer unjustly because of their name and/or their ethnicity.
The term “political correctness” has been used for many years now, often in a derogatory sense. There are, certainly, some excesses related to what is said, or not said, because of what is said to be political correctness.
On the other hand, when used positively political correctness describes the attempt not to use discriminatory or demeaning language about other people, especially about those who are “different” from the one speaking.
Thus, those who want to be fair emphasize politically correctness for the sake of women, who are often denigrated by men; for the sake of people of color, who are often discriminated against by whites; for the sake of gays/lesbians, who are often demeaned by straights; and for the sake of Jews and Muslims and others adherents of other minority religions in this country, who are often looked down on by many, including some Christians.
Tom Toles is the eminent editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post. Even though I do not have his permission to do so, perhaps since I make absolutely no money from this blog he will not object to my using this perceptive cartoon of his:
As I wrote recently, the President has often been criticized for not using the term “Islamic extremists.” His critics say that this is a grave mistake rooted in the idea of political correctness. During the Dec. 15 presidential debate Ted Cruz declared, “Political correctness is killing people.” Earlier last year, Donald Trump emoted, “I’m so tired of this politically correct crap.”
And about a year ago Ben Carson declared, “There is no such thing as a politically correct war.”
But even in times of war, or especially then, people who are not combatants and especially those who are American citizens, need to be protected from hatred and prejudice.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

What Does “Jesus Is Lord” Mean?

Earlier this month I wrote about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his highly influential book The Cost of Discipleship, published in a new translation in 2001 as just Discipleship. Bonhoeffer’s emphasis was upon following Jesus as Lord. But what does that mean?
For most of my life I have generally agreed with those who said that the most basic, and most important, “creedal” statement for Christianity is simply “Jesus is Lord.” All people who could sincerely make that profession, and only those who make that profession, should be considered Christians.
In my Jan. 30 blog article I mentioned that I had started reading Frederic Rich’s book Christian Nation (2013). I have now finished it, and I can’t remember when I have read a novel that has been as disturbing, and thought-provoking, as it.
In Rich’s novel, John McCain and Sarah Palin are elected in 2008, and within a year or so McCain dies (of natural causes). Soon under President Palin there is a move to make the United States into a Christian nation as envisioned by her and those of the Christian Right who agree with her.
The movement toward the Right’s concerted attempt to establish a theocracy is greatly aided by terrorist attacks on 7/22/2012, which are much worse than the attacks of 9/11/2001. Those attacks also facilitate Palin’s reelection in 2012.
Four years later Palin’s successor is her principal advisor, the fictional Steve Jordan. He starts his inaugural speech in 2017 by declaring, “I submit America to Christ.” He then establishes a commission to draw up plans for a specific legislative program to implement his vision of a Christian nation.
Michael Farris, who is a real person (see this link to the Wikipedia article about him), was appointed chair of that commission, which included people whose names you know: John Ashcroft, Rick Perry, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, and David Barton, among others.
The third section of the completed Farris Report is titled, “This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of our Lord Jesus Christ.” One provision of that section states, “Only persons who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their savior shall serve as federal judges.”
Maybe you can see why this caused me to think deeply about what it means to confess “Jesus is Lord.” Those seeking to establish a Christian theocracy in the U.S. use their belief in Jesus as Lord to lord it over people who are not Christians or who do not agree with their interpretation of Christianity, which I don’t.
Here is why I strongly disagree with them: proclaiming Jesus as Lord never means coercing other people. According to the biblical records, Jesus never coerced anyone to follow him. Accordingly, those who are disciples of Jesus should never seek to coerce anyone to follow him—or to follow explicit “Christian” laws enacted by those who think they are following Jesus.
In Christian Nation, though, blasphemy, all abortion, homosexual activity, adultery, extra-marital sexual activity, and even labor unions are made illegal. Moreover, all American citizens are forced to live under the government’s interpretation of Biblical law—a kind of Christian Sharia.
All of this may seem so fictitious as to be completely implausible. But I think we have to consider the fact that, in the words on the dust jacket of Christian Nation, it could happen here.
The best chance of it beginning to happen here soon is for Ted Cruz to be elected the next President. If he wins the nomination, which is still quite possible, I’ll write then about why I think that.  

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"Dung of the Devil"

Tomorrow (Feb. 10) is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. For Christians around the world this is the important 46-day period (40 days plus Sundays) of preparation for the celebration of Easter.

Although Ash Wednesday and Lent are now widely observed in Protestant churches, they started, of course, in the Catholic Church—and the main reason the Baptist church I grew up in, and most Baptist churches back then, didn’t observe Ash Wednesday or Lent is probably because they were thought to be Catholic practices.

While I have some reservations about the whole cyclical church calendar thing, I now acknowledge that there are good and important emphases in the observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent. I will be attending my church’s Ash Wednesday service tomorrow and observing some limited Lenten practices until Easter.

Pope Francis’ annual Lenten exhortation for this year was released on January 26. In a Religion News Service article posted the same day, journalist David Gibson wrote that in this year’s “message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics,” the Pope uses “some of his most powerful language yet” in talking about “the corrupting influence of money and power.”

In his article Gibson also pointed out that the Pope has called the “unfettered pursuit of money” the “dung of the devil,” and he links to an address that the Pope gave in Bolivia in July 2015. Here is a bit from that powerful speech by Pope Francis:

Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreversible harm, is being done to the ecosystem. The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea – one of the first theologians of the Church – called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. This is the “dung of the devil”.

Some newspapers, such as The Guardian, the British national daily founded in 1821, reported on the Pope’s 7/15 speech under this headline: “Unbridled capitalism is the ‘dung of the devil’, says Pope Francis.”

Others pointed out, correctly, that that sensationalized headline wasn’t exactly true. The Pope went on to say (after the words cited above), Once capital becomes an idol and guides people's decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women . . .”

So even though it is often difficult to separate capitalism from greed, it is the latter that can be, and has been, called the dung of the devil.”

Just recently I learned about a Catholic group whose name is Malteser International Americas (MIA). According to this article, this year is their second annual “Make Lent Count” campaign. They emphasize that Lent is a time for giving and not just giving up.
________________February 10, 2016________

Parenthetically, this same group has recently taken action in South America to protect women and their unborn babies from the Zika virus. (See this article.)

In January of last year I wrote about Super Bowl Idolatry, which seems to have gone unabated this year. But the Pope’s warning is about the idolatry of greed, which is not unrelated to activities surrounding the Super Bowl but is of much greater importance—because it is worldwide and year-round.

The practice of giving up something for Lent—or of extra giving during Lent as the MIA and other Christians emphasize—is important as an antidote to the ever-present tendency to step into the dung of the devil.

500th Post
      The first post I made in this blog was in July 2009, and it was very short and tentative. Counting that as the first, though, this is now my 500th blog posting. At this point I don’t know how many more there will be—probably I won’t make it to 1,000—but I plan to keep on at the same pace in the foreseeable future.

I am grateful to all of you who have read many, of even some, of my articles. My special thanks goes to those of you who have taken time to respond with posted comments and by email.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Honoring the Memory of Bonhoeffer

In spite of the fact that I have long admired him greatly, quoted him in sermons and chapel talks, and included him in university/seminary lectures, up until now I have not written about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in any of my previous blog articles (and this is my 499th one).

Today, though, on the 110th anniversary of his birth on February 4, 1906, I am happy to post this article in honor of Bonhoeffer’s memory.

As most of you probably know, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis in a German prison in April 1945, just weeks before the end of WWII in Europe. He was 39 years old, the same age as Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated on an April evening 23 years later.

Bonhoeffer was born into an upper middle class family and could easily have become a medical doctor or a lawyer. Instead, he chose to become a pastor and a theologian. And then he chose to become one of the leaders among the small percentage of Christians in Germany who stood up in opposition to Hitler and the Nazis.

Before Hitler’s rise to power, though, Bonhoeffer spent the academic year of 1930-31 as a student and teaching fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. For six months during that year he regularly attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church and sat under the preaching of Pastor Adam Clayton Powell (1865-1953).

Bonhoeffer, who turned 25 during the year he was in New York, was significantly influenced by his experience of attending that predominantly African-American church in Harlem.

In January 1933 Adolf Hitler, Führer (leader) of the National Socialist German Workers Party (or Nazi Party), was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Bonhoeffer, who was still just 26 at that time, soon began to oppose the fascism of Hitler and joined with Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth, and others to form what came to be known as the Confessing Church.

These anti-Nazi Christians in Germany drafted the Barmen Confession in 1934. They sought to make it clear that Jesus Christ was the Führer, their leader and the head of the Church, not Hitler.

Later that year, Bonhoeffer went to London to become pastor of a German-speaking church there. In 1935, though, he returned to Germany to become the head of the Confessing Church’s seminary.

In September 1937 that seminary in Finkenwalde was closed by the Gestapo and by November, 27 pastors and former students of Bonhoeffer were arrested.

That same November, Bonhoeffer published his most widely read book, Nachfolge (“following after”), which in 1949 was published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it Bonhoeffer sought to elucidate what following Jesus really means.
The first chapter of the book is titled “Costly Grace,” and there Bonhoeffer rejects what he terms “cheap grace.” That term was one he had heard in New York. Before Bonhoeffer was born, Rev. Powell had used the phrase “cheap grace” to refer to the dominant forms of religion that tolerated racism, sexism, and lynching in one form or another.

For Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace” was what he saw among the “German Christians” who accepted Hitler’s fascism. But he came to see that for him discipleship meant to stand up for the Jews and to oppose Hitler—and he even joined in plotting to kill Hitler in order to save Jewish lives.

Because of his anti-Nazi activities, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in April 1943. Two years later he was executed.

Bonhoeffer wrote in Nachfolge, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That, indeed, was the cost of discipleship for him.