Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year of Resistance

Not many hours from now, the world will welcome in a new year, 2017. At midnight, when I intend to be fast asleep, people at parties and in public places will be exclaiming, Happy New Year! For people in Japan and other parts of Asia, that will already have happened by the time this is posted.
So, I join in wishing you a Happy New Year! But especially to those of you in the U.S. and of like mind, my greeting is this: Happy New Year of Resistance! 

Concerns about the Trump Administratio

Soon after the presidential election in November, several times I said, Things won’t be as bad as most of Trump’s strongest opponents think, but they will be a lot worse than most of his supporters think. I still believe that will prove to be the case. 

But given the PEOTUS’s picks for his closest advisors and his Cabinet, many things may be pretty bad—especially for discriminated-against people and for the environment.

Concerns about Trump’s Nominees

Many people are justifiably considered these nominees/appointees, such as the following:
Rex Tillerson – Nominee for Secretary of State – CEO of ExxonMobil and with close ties to Vladimir Putin as well as with large financial interests in countries around the world.
Jeff Sessions – Nominee for Attorney General – Senator from Alabama who has a long history of opposition to civil rights and was once blocked from a judgeship because of racist statements.
Andy Puzder – Nominee for Secretary of Labor – CEO of CKE Restaurants; among other things, he is an opponent of raising the minimum wage.
Rick Perry – Nominee for Secretary of the Department of Energy – Even though he temporary forgot the name of it, in a Republican primary debate in 2011 Perry said he wanted to do away with the DoE.
Betsy DeVos – Nominee for Secretary of Education – Businesswoman who advocates private schools; her support for vouchers, including for Christian schools, is a threat to the separation of church and state.
Scott Pruitt – Nominee for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; he wrote in a May 2016 article that the global warming debate “is far from settled.” He adds, “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
Steve Bannon – Appointed as Trump’s Chief Strategist; until recently he was executive chair of Breitbart News, which he claimed was the platform of the Internet-based alt-right.
Leading the resistance
There are various groups working on resisting problems that will probably become explicit under the new Administration. The Sojourners, a group I have learned from and supported for 45 years, is one such group. I encourage you to take a look at this article: “10 Commitments of Resistance in the Trump Era.” 
Two of the best books I have read this year are by Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers, pastor of the Mayflower Congregational UCC Church in Oklahoma City. His stimulating book The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus was published in 2012.
Meyer’s book Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance was published last year. It was based on his Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School in 2013.
Those two books were written before the Nov. 2016 election, of course, but they are especially relevant now.
I also recommend careful consideration of “Joining the resistance: A 100-day counter-agenda for the Church” (see here) by Rev. Dr. Cody Sanders, pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Massachusetts.
These are but a few of the individuals/groups leading efforts of resistance to injustice and the political misuse of power. Let’s join together in this important endeavor. 
Happy New Year of Resistance!

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Folly of Christmas

Yesterday was Christmas Day. Just like five years ago it was Sunday, an especially good day for family and friends to get together and to enjoy a festive time. But, oddly, Christmas on Sunday isn’t a particularly a good day for churches.
Most churches had scaled back activities yesterday, and some even had expanded Christmas Eve programs and no services on Sunday.
A foolish claim?
This article, though, is not about the folly of Christmas Day being on Sunday. It is about the folly of Christmas itself—and I am writing this partly as an extension of my previous blog article titled “In Praise of Folly.”
When you get right down to it, isn’t the Christian claim that God Almighty chose to send the Savior of the world as a baby born in humble circumstances in a sparsely settled place in the world a rather foolish one?
Walking where Jesus walked
In the summer of 2015, I went with my daughter Karen to Israel/Palestine. Our first time there, we greatly enjoyed traveling in a rental car from Tel Aviv to Nazareth—and then to Tiberius on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee, to Capernaum on the north bank of that beautiful sea, down the east side of that sea to the Dead Sea, and then on to the fascinating city of Jerusalem.
Our time in the “Holy Land” was certainly interesting and enjoyable. For me, though, it was not a time of great religious impact—in a positive sense at least.
People who lead, and especially tourist agencies who sell, tours to Israel encourage people to join in their “inspirational journey” in order to have a “life-changing” experience by “walking where Jesus walked” (words from a travel website).
That wasn’t exactly what I experienced.
I visited the Church of the Nativity, the large, ancient building over the place in Bethlehem where Jesus supposedly was born. We also visited Nazareth Village, a reconstruction of what Jesus’ boyhood neighborhood looked like—and quite near to where he probably lived.
At Capernaum we walked on the seashore where Jesus called his first disciples. We then drove up the big hill north of that small town to where Jesus delivered what is called the Sermon on the Mount. Later that week we saw where Jesus was crucified and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where Jesus was buried and then resurrected three days later.
The foolishness of God
It was particularly in Nazareth and Capernaum that questions began to rise in my mind. Why would God choose such a remote, provincial, unsophisticated place as Nazareth to be the Savior’s hometown and an insignificant, out-of-the-way town like Capernaum to be the place for him to begin his ministry?
An even greater question is this: Why would Christ become a human being at all? 
As Erasmus expressed it in The Praise of Folly, Christ “became a fool when taking upon him the nature of man” (Wilson trans.; Kindle loc. 1256). The reference there, of course, is to Philippians 2:6-8, the basis for what biblical scholars refer to as kenotic theology, which explains the eternal Christ emptying himself to become a human.
The Apostle Paul’s answer, though, which Erasmus also quotes, is this: “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:25).
Yes, it was through the folly of the first Christmas that the Savior came into the world. On this day after Christmas, we each one are challenged to grasp the great significance of the “foolishness” of Christ’s birth—and to live our lives accordingly. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In Praise of Folly

The word “folly” doesn’t have a very good reputation. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “lack of good sense; foolishness,” or, secondly, as “a foolish act, idea, or practice.”
It is somewhat surprising, then, that a man who has been called one of Europe’s “most famous and influential scholars” of the 16th century is the author of a book titled In Praise of Folly.
Introducing Erasmus
That man, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (in South Holland), was born around 550 years ago (probably in 1466), and died 480 years ago, in July 1536.
Erasmus is not currently widely known by the general public, but Samuel W. Crompton closes his book Desiderius Erasmus (2004) with this assertion: “Arguably, Erasmus was the greatest intellectual of the sixteenth century—and perhaps of any other” (p. 76)—and Crompton states that Erasmus’ book, written in Latin and sometimes titled The Praise of Folly in English, has been “one of the most widely read books of all human history” (p. 35).
Considering Folly
Erasmus’s brilliant book is multifaceted. It begins with Folly speaking as a woman “dressed in cap and bells to signify her foolishness.” In Crompton’s words, she explains that “the world would not turn, people would not marry, and there would be no future generations of humans were it not for her gift to the world.” 

Indeed, “Who would be so rash as to marry if he knew what it might entail, and who would ever allow herself to become pregnant if she could foretell the arduous work ahead” (pp. 35-36).
I certainly can resonate with that. It, perhaps, was because of Folly that June and I married when I was still 18 years old and that our first child was born on my 20th birthday. What foolishness!
Still, I have never for a moment regretted either of those momentous events—so I join with Erasmus in praise of folly.
Much of Erasmus’s book, though, is satire and criticism of the political and religious situation of his day. In this work published in 1511, six years before Luther’s severe questioning of the Catholic Church’s use (sale) of indulgences, Folly spoke out against “the cheat of pardons and indulgences.”
The fourth and last part of the book goes on to take “a quiet, subdued, but unmistakable defense of the Christian faith” (p. 41).
Praising Folly
In that concluding part of his erudite book, Erasmus cites numerous Bible passages which seem to praise folly or foolishness. He especially focuses on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, such as “We are fools for Christ's sake” (1 Cor. 4:10; cited at loc. 1233 in the free Kindle version of The Praise of Folly, translated by John Wilson).
(For you who want to explore this theme, I recommend a careful reading of 1 Cor. 1:18-31 and 4:9-13. I also suggest that there is a way to understand the meaning of the cross that is decidedly different from the “evangelical” view that interprets it primarily as Jesus’ penal substitution for sinners.)
It is amazing that a book written over 500 years ago is still in print—and with two Kindle versions published this year! But such is the nature of classics: they continue to speak.
If Erasmus were writing today, my guess is he would castigate the folly of the PEOTUS and his Cabinet picks.
On the other hand, Erasmus would no doubt praise the folly/”foolishness” of those, including many sincere followers of Christ, who are resisting—and will continue to resist—the questionable stances of the coming new Administration in Washington.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Happy Bill of Rights Day!

Well, the title of this article is a greeting you don’t usually hear, I assume. But on December 15, 1941, President Roosevelt proclaimed that day as Bill of Rights Day, and it has been so designated ever since.
That first Bill of Rights Day, instituted just eight days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, was on the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights—and that was 225 years ago today.
The Bill of Rights Ratified
When the U.S. Constitution was approved by Congress in 1787, there were some who were not in favor of its passage. They thought the new Constitution did not adequately guarantee the freedoms or rights of individual citizens. 

James Madison subsequently drafted twelve amendments to the Constitution. They were passed by Congress in September 1789.
Ten of those amendments were ratified on Dec. 15, 1791, when Virginia ratified them, making the necessary three-fourths of the 13 states to do so. Those ten amendments, as you know, have been popularly known through the years as the Bill of Rights.
The first of the two amendments that were not ratified would have established how members of the House of Representatives would be apportioned to the states, but that matter seems to have been covered adequately in the Constitution itself (see Art. 1, Sec. 2, Para. 3).
The other amendment not approved by 1791 actually became the 27th, and most recent, Amendment, when it was ratified in 1992. It prohibits any law that increases or decreases the salary of members of Congress from taking effect until the start of the next set of terms of office for Representatives.
The Bill of Rights Disputed 
After all these years, aspects of the Bill of Rights are discussed, and disputed, almost weekly. 

Nearly everyone knows that the First Amendment guarantees freedoms of religion, speech, and the press. It also gives citizens the right to assemble peacefully and to petition the government for changes. But what, specifically, is guaranteed? 

For example, are conservative Christians guaranteed the freedom to speak out against homosexuality and gay marriage? Some of them claim their religious liberty is endangered by laws giving LGBTQ people equality and making speaking out against them “hate speech.” 

And then what about burning the American flag? On 5:55 a.m. on Nov. 29 PEOTUS Trump tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” 

The Supreme Court, however, has twice (in 1989 and in 1990) affirmed the right to desecrate the American flag as a form of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. 

The Second Amendment, of course, has over the past several years been a matter of even more contention. As I have written about that before (see especially this Jan. 2013 article), perhaps there is little reason to write much more about that here. 

The words of that Amendment—“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”—seem straightforward and rather clear (in spite of the questionable use of commas). But as you know, they have been vociferously debated in recent years. 
The Bill of Rights Affirmed
In spite of the disputes, which seem largely contrived and unnecessary, the Bill of Rights is a remarkable and praiseworthy part of the U.S. Constitution. All of us citizens of the U.S. should be grateful for the protection of personal freedoms guaranteed by those first 10 Amendments.
So once again I say to you USAmericans, “Happy Bill of Rights Day!”

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Can We Trust the Media?

“I have about as much faith in our media as I do in the fairy godmother!”
It was with some consternation that I read those words in an email message from a boyhood friend and a devout conservative Christian with whom I have often exchanged emails in recent years.
What about the media, though? Can we trust it?
The media under attack
It is quite evident that here in the U.S the media has been under attack in recent years. The President-elect was, and continues to be, quite critical of the media—but then he won the election perhaps partly because of all the free publicity he got from the media.
Talk radio and other right-wing commentators regularly criticize the mainstream (or “lamestream”) media, claiming that there is a definite, and despicable, left-wing bias. Conversely, from the left there is frequent denigration of Fox News.
In addition there is the perplexing problem of the proliferation of media sources that promotes the polarization of the public. Consider, for example, “Modern Media Has Turned the USA Into the Divided States of America,” which was posted (here) this year on July 4. 

The media under control
Last month June and I attended (for the third or fourth time) the Bennett Forum on the Presidency, sponsored annually by the Truman Library Institute. This year’s panel featured Douglas Brinkley, Jane Mayer, and David von Drehle.
Mayer pointed out that “media” is closely related to the word/concept “mediate,” and one problem in the current political climate is that the President-elect doesn’t want there to be intermediates. Thus, he often communicates directly to the public, bypassing the media, by means of Twitter.
On Dec. 5 the President-elect tweeted, “If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to ‘tweet.’ Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!”
Then on Dec. 7 Trump said tweeting was better “than dealing with dishonest reporters.”
Back in November Robert Reich posted “Trump’s Seven Techniques to Control the Media” (here). He begins, “Democracy depends on a free and independent press, which is why all tyrants try to squelch it. They use seven techniques that, worryingly, President-elect Donald Trump already employs.
The first and last of Reich’s seven techniques are “Berate the media” and “Bypass the media and communicate with the public directly.
The media bias check
Just last week I discovered a website called Media Bias/Fact Check (find it here). It claims to be “the most comprehensive media bias resource on the internet”—and as far as I know, it is.
MBFC themselves, designates the media/new sources by one of five categories: left, left-center, least biased, right-center, and right.
As one who has argued that the major newspapers and TV networks are basically trustworthy, I was a bit nonplussed to see MBFC list almost all of them as having “a slight to moderate liberal bias.” This how ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC are all rated—as well as NPR.
The only major newspaper that was in the “least biased” listing was USA Today—although Associated Press, Reuters, and United Press International were also in that category. And I was happy to see that Snopes and Wikipedia were also similarly listed.
The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times—as well as the local (for me) Kansas City Star—are all listed as “left-center.” The only major national newspaper that was “right-center” is, according to MBFC is the Wall Street Journal

MBFC does say however, that the left-center media “are generally trustworthy for information.” That’s surely more than can be said about the fairy godmother.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Should Stone Mountain be Defaced?

Ten days ago I wrote about the rebirth of the KKK, which took place on top of Stone Mountain on Thanksgiving Day in 1915. The very next year, the owners of the mountain deeded its north face to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Soon plans were underway to carve an impressive Confederate monument into that side of the massive mountain. 
A magnificent carving
The Stone Mountain Monumental Association was formed in 1916 and soon designated Gutzon Borglum, a member of the KKK, as the carving sculptor of the envisioned memorial.
However, after years of work on Stone Mountain, in 1925 Borglum left the project because of a dispute with the Association. Two years later he began carving Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, continuing that work until his death in 1941.
Another sculptor was employed for Stone Mountain, but work was suspended in 1928. Thirty years later the state of Georgia purchased the mountain and work on the monument was once again resumed in 1964. 
The dedication ceremony for the mostly-finished Confederate Memorial Carving was held in May 1970 and the finishing touches were finally completed in 1972.
As you see in the picture, three Confederate heroes--Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson on their horses--are magnificently depicted in the sculpture.
A malevolent shooting
As is widely known and sadly remembered, about a year and a half ago Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man shot and killed nine people, including the senior pastor, at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.
After it became evident that Roof was a white supremacist and pictures of him with the Confederate flag were made public, there began to be calls for that flag to be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse.
On July 9, 2015, Gov. Nikki Haley, who may be the next U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., signed the bill to remove the Confederate flag. She then approvingly watched it being lowered the following day.
In response to the Charleston shooting, however, some anti-racists, especially the NAACP of Georgia, called for a much more dramatic counter-measure: sandblasting the Confederate Memorial off Stone Mountain. (See this news story.)
An imperative defacing? 
What is a fitting response to the proposal to deface Stone Mountain?
On the one hand, as indicated above, the carving on Stone Mountain is magnificent. It is a work of art. It honors three important men in the history of the Southern states. Destroying such a monument might be seen by some as equivalent to ISIS deliberately destroying the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria—such as is summarized here.
On the other hand, the men depicted in the monument were leaders in a war to preserve slavery. That horrendous war took the lives of more than 620,000 combatants—at least 360,000 in the Union and 260,000 in the Confederacy. An unspeakable tragedy!
It is men and women, not stone monuments and skillful sculptures, that are sacred and of inestimable worth. So why should men who were so central in causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings continue to be glorified by the preservation of one splendid work of art?
True, destroying the Confederate Memorial Carving will not restore the precious lives those whose were killed in the Civil War. 
Think, though, what defacing such a magnificent work of art would say: war and slavery are evils and the primary leaders in the vile war to preserve slavery will no longer be honored!

Here is the link to “On Cross Burnings and Stone Mountain,” a 2014 blog article (with pictures) by Civil War historian Brooks D. Simpson.