Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Saint Teresa: The Good and the Questionable

Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was given that name at the time of her birth on August 26, 1910. Most people around the world, however, have for decades known her as Mother Teresa.
On September 4, this coming Sunday, during a canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Pope Francis will declare Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to be a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
By many people, though, Mother Teresa has been thought of as a saint for a long time. Back in 1975 the cover story of the December 29 issue of Time magazine was titled “Living Saints.” Mother Teresa’s picture was on the cover of that issue.
As a Protestant, it is not hard to understand the meaning of “saint” in the popular sense, such as that term was used in the Time article. But people being saints in the Catholic sense is a little more difficult—especially when it involves their veneration, which we Protestants sometimes incorrectly think is the worship of saints.
Recently, though, in commenting on the legacy of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson wrote, “The canonization of Kolbe makes me think that the Church’s singling out of certain saints has real value in challenging the rest of us to live our faith.
Or, as it is sometimes said, saints are special people who by their lives help us to understand God better. Accordingly, by looking at Saint Teresa’s loving service to the “poorest of the poor” in Calcutta we should be able to understand God’s love better.  

When she was 40 years old, Mother Teresa was given permission by the Pope to begin a congregation called Missionaries of Charity. From their small beginning in 1950, that group grew into a large worldwide organization.
Because of their meritorious work, starting in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and then expanding to many countries, Mother Teresa became known around the world. As one indication of how esteemed she became for what had done through the years, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
There are some questionable aspects of Mother Teresa’s life and work, however. For example, I have serious misgivings about some things she has said—such as her extreme words opposing abortion. In her Nobel Lecture she declared that “the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.”
In that speech Mother Teresa went on to assert that abortion “is a direct war, a direct killing—direct murder by the mother herself.”
Highly questionable statements!
Mother Teresa’s greatest strength was the loving service she provided for the sick and the dying who were living in poverty. Perhaps her greatest weakness was lack of action—or even talk—regarding the causes of poverty. She did a marvelous job of taking care of victims; she did little in seeking to reduce the number of victims.
To her credit, in her Nobel Lecture Mother Teresa reported that she and her co-workers were teaching “natural family planning” to “our beggars, our leprosy patients, our slum dwellers.” Elsewhere she claimed that such teaching given to three thousand families was “95 percent effective” (No Greater Love, pp. 127-8).
Still, how many more unwanted pregnancies might she have prevented if she had been willing to teach and provide the means for “artificial birth control”? She could not do that, of course, as a Catholic.
But no one, not even a saint, is perfect, and Mother Teresa did demonstrate great Christian love throughout her lifetime. So please rejoice with me this weekend as Mother Teresa is canonized, publically acknowledged as a saint.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Vilification of Hillary

At this point--and who knows what the national political situation will be by November 8--it looks quite certain that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States. In spite of her probable election, however, Hillary is the target of considerable condemnation by most conservative Republicans as well as by some liberal Democrats.
Unconscious Misogyny?
Deprecation of political opponents is nothing new in presidential elections, of course. But as a (male) psychoanalyst wrote back in May (see here), there seems to be “extreme intensity” in the vilification of Hillary.
Peter Wolson, the author of the Huffington Post article just referenced, claims that there is “deep-seated misogyny” that is “manifested in the cultural discrimination against women worldwide.” The stronger the woman, the stronger that misogynistic discrimination becomes.
That seems to be a major reason Hillary is being vilified so much, and the same would possibly be true for any other woman strong enough to be the nominee for President by one of the major political parties.
(For another article along in same vein, I recommend “The Era of ‘The Bitch’ is Coming: A Hillary Clinton presidential victory promises to usher in a new age of public misogyny”; that August 17 article in The Atlantic is well worth reading.)
Misogyny is probably real and significant; however, it doesn’t adequately explain the extent of Hillary’s vilification.
"Hillary’s America"
Earlier this month I went to a theater (which I seldom do) to see the movie titled “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party.” The vilification of Hillary is strongly evident in that full-length movie by Dinesh D’Souza, whose previous film, “2016: Obama’s America,” was the vilification of Barack Obama.
Both of D’Souza’s movies were based on books he had previously published. His book Stealing America: What My Experience with Criminal Gangs Taught Me about Obama, Hillary, and the Democratic Party was published In November 2015. It is highly acclaimed by conservative Republican: there are more than 525 “customer reviews” on Amazon.com, and 85% of those reviewers gave the book five stars, the maximum.
D’Souza’s book with the same title as his new movie was published the same week the movie debuted about a month ago. Already there are more than 400 customer reviews, and 81% of them are five-stars.
I have not read the book, but since it is basically the same as the movie, I heartily agree with the 10% who gave it only one star. I also agree with the review of the movie that appeared on RogerEbert.com. (Check that out here.) Even the conservative Christian Post has a rather negative article about D’Souza’s highly questionable film (see here). 
Guilt by Association
D’Souza’s attack on Hillary was partly through making her guilty by association. Much is made of her approval of Margaret Sanger’s activities and her being the recipient of the Sanger Award. (Early next month I plan to post a blog article about Sanger.)
There is also strong criticism of Hillary because of her association with Saul Alinsky. Just as the article “Hillary Haters’ Fixation on Saul Alinsky” says, “Forty-seven years after she graduated from Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton is still having to defend her senior thesis.”
If you think she should be criticized for her interest in and contact with Alinsky, please read the article linked above.
Hillary has been attacked on many matters that could be expected in a presidential campaign. But the persistent vilification of her seems unprecedented and extreme—and very unfair to the one who is most likely going to be the next POTUS.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What Is Your Ultimate Concern?

Several years before Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe died (was killed) in the Auschwitz concentration camp (see my previous article), Paul Tillich, a university professor in Germany, criticized the Nazis in public lectures and speeches and then left the country in the year Hitler became Chancellor.
Paul Tillich
Today (August 20) is the 130th anniversary of Tillich’s birth in a small village that is now known as Starosiedle, Poland. When he was a young teen, his family moved to Berlin. Then after completing his Ph.D., and following in his father’s footsteps, Tillich was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1912.
During World War I Tillich served as a chaplain in the German army. After the war he became a university professor. Because of his public opposition to the Nazi movement, though, he was dismissed from his position as Professor of Theology at the University of Frankfurt in 1933.
Tillich then fled to New York, where he became a professor at Union Theological Seminary. In 1940 became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Then from 1955 to 1962 he was a University Professor at Harvard Divinity School.
During his teaching and writing career of more than 30 years in the U.S. Tillich became one of the world’s most influential theologians.
Tillich Park
On the first day of our June car trip to Maryland, my wife and I stopped by New Harmony, Indiana, for a far-too-short-visit of that historic town. At the impressive visitors’ center we learned much about the town’s history.
It was started as a utopian community in 1814. Then in 1824 the whole town was sold to Robert Owen, a wealthy Welshman who similarly wanted to build a model community for social reform. 
We also visited the Paul Tillich Park in that quaint little town of New Harmony. That park was dedicated in June 1963, and after Tillich’s death in October 1965 his ashes were interred there. Along the park’s walkway there are several large stones with inscribed quotations from Tillich’s writings. 
There is also a sculpture of Tillich’s head, and this is the picture I took of it: 
Ultimate Concern 
Tillich authored many significant theology books, and as a seminary student in the early 1960s I read several of those books with great interest (although the three volumes of his Systematic Theology were not particularly easy to read and understand).
In 1963 I also had the privilege of hearing Tillich give a lecture in Lexington, Kentucky. At that time he was 77 years old and still a professor at the University of Chicago, where he had moved just the year before.
One of Tillich’s smaller, and most influential, books is The Dynamics of Faith (1957). In the very first sentence he asserts that faith is “the state of being ultimately concerned.” In other words, what we consider as more important than anything else is our “god,” and our allegiance to that god is the basic meaning of faith. 
From the standpoint of Christianity, the Creator God should be one’s ultimate concern, and if anyone’s ultimate concern is something else, that person has faith in an idol.
Thus, having ultimate concern for one’s family, for the nation (such as Hitler demanded for the Third Reich), or for recreation/entertainment (which seems highly popular at the present time) is idolatry. 
Tillich encouraged ultimate concern for “the God beyond god,” that is, the God who is beyond all tribal, national, or limited concepts of God. Such concern is faith in God who, to use his terms, is Being-Itself or the Ground of Being. 
What is your ultimate concern?

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Death and Legacy of #16670

On August 5, I posted an article mostly about Jesse Owens, who remarkably won his fourth Olympic gold medal on August 9, 1936. This article is about Maximilian Kolbe, a man who died five years and five days later, on August 14, 1941.
At the Berlin Olympics in 1936 Owens was snubbed by Hitler because of his being of African descent. Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest, was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp operated by Hitler’s Nazis.
Owens became known worldwide because of his athletic achievements before tens of thousands of people. Kolbe became known worldwide because of his sacrificial death witnessed by hardly anyone.
Maximilian Kolbe was born in January 1894 in what was then the Kingdom of Poland. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in April 1918, and the following year he began teaching in a seminary in Krakow.
Fr. Kolbe went to Japan as a missionary in 1930. The following year he founded a monastery and school in the suburbs of Nagasaki, and he also started publishing a Japanese edition of the periodical he had published in Poland.
By 1933 Seibo no Kishi (Knights of the Holy Mother) is said to have had a circulation of 50,000—and still today it is the leading Catholic monthly periodical in Japan.
On April 30 my blog article was titled “In Memory of Dr. Nagai.” Takashi Nagai was the doctor and medical school professor who suffered serious injuries in the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bomb explosion over Nagasaki.
Dr. Nagai (1908-51) had been baptized in 1934. As a new Christian he met Fr. Kolbe a few times—and even treated him as a patient.
After being seriously injured by the atomic explosion, Dr. Nagai thought about Kolbe often. When it seemed as if Nagai was going to die, someone brought him water from the Lourdes grotto the Polish Catholic priest had built—and he began to recover miraculously and lived nearly six more years.
Because of his poor health, Kolbe returned to Poland in 1936. In February of 1941, he was arrested by the Nazi Gestapo for hiding Jewish people in his Polish monastery. Kolbe was soon sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp and branded prisoner #16670.
In late July, an inmate of Auschwitz escaped. To discourage others from trying to do likewise, the Nazi guards selected ten prisoners at random to die by starvation. One of the ten chosen was Franciszek Gajowniczek, who cried out for mercy because he had a wife and children.
Upon hearing Gajowniczek’s pitiful plea, Kolbe stepped up, identified himself as a Catholic priest, and volunteered to take his place. Somewhat surprisingly, the Nazi in charge agreed.
After nearly three weeks, Kolbe and three of the other nine were still alive, barely. To clear out the cell, the four were then given an injection to kill them in a matter of minutes. This was the terrible end of the life of Maximilian Kolbe—but his story has lived on. 
Forty-one years later, in October 1982, Kolbe was canonized—and the ceremony in Rome was witnessed in person by Gajowniczek, who, amazingly, lived to be 94. When he was canonized by John Paul II, who was a Pole like Kolbe, the Pope proclaimed him as the “patron saint of the difficult 20th century.”

“Life for Life,” a 1991 movie about Maximilian Kolbe, closes with a still shot of Jesus’ words recorded in the Bible: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Do More Prayers Make a Difference—to God?

Jimmy Carter’s grandson spoke briefly at the Democratic National Convention on July 26. Among other things, he said that “thanks to the miracles of modern science and the power of prayer” his grandfather is now free of cancer.

As an admirer of Jimmy Carter, at least most of the time, I was saddened last year when I heard that he had cancer—and happy to hear fairly recently that he now claims to be cancer-free.

But was it the power of prayer that caused that happy change?

There were certainly a lot of people who prayed for President Carter after hearing about his cancer. In April of this year, a webpage of the American Baptist Home Mission Society was titled, “Calling for prayers of healing for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.”

That is just one example of numerous calls for prayer for Carter, who has been much more popular as an ex-President than he was while in the Oval Office.

This raises some interesting questions about prayer, however. Would God not have taken Carter’s cancer away if fewer people had prayed? If so, how many fewer? Was there a tipping point? Why? Does God decide whether to heal any given individual based on the number of prayers received?

Four years ago on August 15 my blog article (see here) was about intercessory prayer, and I raised some of these same questions. Because the situation hasn’t changed in these four years, allow me to repeat two paragraphs from that article.
The theological question, you see, is this: why would the all-loving God change things or do things differently, or better, because of prayer—and even be more likely to do so if there were a lot of prayers or a lot of people praying.
Jesus spoke disparagingly about those who think that they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7). Didn’t he likely think the same thing about those who believe that God will give special consideration to the words of many people?

Or, is prayer just sending of “good vibes” out into the world that, literally, change things if there are enough of such vibes for a specific purpose? Possibly, I guess—but I seriously doubt it.

I have long contended that prayer primarily changes the one who prays, not the One prayed to. Prayer has often changed me—but has it ever changed God? Probably not. 

So, was there any benefit for so many people praying for President Carter? Probably so—but not because those prayers changed God.

If praying for Carter caused some people to think about the yeoman’s work he has done through the years with Habitat for Humanity and to recognize the ongoing need for providing more and better housing for poor people across the country, those prayers were beneficial.

If praying for Carter caused others to recall his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006) and to become more concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, those prayers were beneficial.

If praying for Carter caused still other people to reflect upon the problem of racism in the country and that in Atlanta next month he will be the convener and one of the keynote speakers of the New Baptist Covenant meeting using the slogan “Baptists Working Together for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, those prayers were beneficial.

But I can’t imagine God saying to the angels (or whomever) at some point earlier this year, You know, if enough people pray for Jimmy, I will just take the old guy’s cancer away.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Race and the Olympics

The Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, opens today in Rio de Janeiro. There have been many challenges with Brazil’s hosting of these Games, but none as momentous as those surrounding the Olympics held in Berlin, Germany, 80 years ago this month. 
Many of you likely remember hearing about the 1936 Olympics, mainly because of the outstanding feats of Jesse Owens from the United States.
Last month June and I watched “Jesse Owens,” the DVD of the 2012 “American Experience” PBS documentary about the great African American athlete. The next night we watched “Race,” the 2016 movie about Owens’s life and achievements. 
In the latter, the winsome Stephan James plays Owens, and while the actor may be more handsome than Owens was, he is no more winsome. It was a joy to watch the actual movie clips of Owens in the PBS program. 
For those of you haven’t seen either film, I recommend both—and viewing them close together, if possible.
You can easily find biographical information about Owens (1913-80), so I won’t give much of that here. In addition to the Wikipedia article, for an informative, easy-to-read book I recommend Tom Streissguth’s Jesse Owens (2006).
Because of his athletic feats, Jesse was able to go to Ohio State University. Not unexpectedly, he faced much racism there as well as when going to and participating in Big Ten track meets. Still, partly due to Larry Snyder, his outstanding coach and mentor, he also excelled on the college level, setting four world records on one May day in 1935. 
It was no surprise that Jesse made the U.S. Olympic Team chosen to compete in the 1936 Olympics. Because of Hitler’s policies, however, there was a move in the U.S. to boycott those Games. Largely due to the efforts of Avery Brundage, the U.S. ended up not boycotting the Berlin Olympics.
Even then, an official of the NAACP tried to get Jesse to back out of going to Berlin. However, according to Streissguth, many black athletes “didn’t believe the United States should boycott the games. African Americans experienced racial discrimination every day. Why should the United States have the right to protest the same thing in a foreign country?” (p. 44). 
Thus, Jesse Owens went to Berlin—and sprinted and jumped magnificently. On August 9 he won his fourth gold metal—much to the consternation of Hitler and other top Nazi leaders, who were expounding the superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of all other races as well as the Jews. 
Owens was snubbed by Hitler in Berlin and then, sadly, after he returned to the U.S. even by President Roosevelt. Partly for that reason, Owens became a Republican and campaigned for Alf Landon in 1940.
Many years later, at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, U.S. sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash. On the winners’ podium, Smith and Carlos raised their fists in protest of Apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in the United States. 
In his book Blackthink (1970), Owens tells how he was very negative about what Smith and Carlos did (see pp. 75-80). Harry Edwards calling him a “bootlicking Uncle Tom” (ibid., p. 13), though, caused him to do a lot of soul-searching, which he narrates in his intriguing last book, I Have Changed (1972).
While race may not be an issue for the black U.S. athletes in Rio this month, it is sad that some still in 2016 have to insist that Black Lives Matter.