Monday, January 30, 2017

Criticism of American Christianity

A Jan. 25 article (here) titled “American ‘Christianity’ Has Failed” caught my eye. It was by Stephen Mattson, a young Christian writer whose name I had not remembered seeing before, but now he is one of my Facebook friends.
I was interested in reading Mattson’s article partly because of something I came across last week. One of my (very few) New Year resolutions is to go through and dispose of accumulated “stuff,” much of it in boxes piled in the back of our garage.
In going through a box last week I came across a brief summary of a Chapel talk I had given at Seinan Gakuin University (in Fukuoka City, Japan) in October 1972. The title of that talk was “Criticism of American Christianity.”
That English summary was probably distributed to those in attendance. (Most Japanese students can understand written English far better than they can understand spoken English.)
As I often did during my first several years in Japan, I may have used (read) a Japanese manuscript for the talk I wrote in English. If so, it would have been translated by Miss Kumiko Otsuka, who is celebrating her 83rd birthday today.
June and I (and our two children at the time) came back to the U.S. in the summer of 1971 after nearly five full years in Japan as Southern Baptist missionaries. During that year of “furlough,” as it was called then, I had the opportunity of preaching in seven or eight states, beginning with a sermon at the First Baptist Church in Anchorage, Alaska, on our way back to Missouri.
During that year we lived in southwest Missouri, but I spoke in churches in many parts of Missouri as well as in nearby states to the east. Almost all of those churches were Southern Baptist churches, and the majority of them were small town (or rural) churches rather than large city churches.
In the summer of 1972 we went back to Japan and I began teaching Christian Studies again at Seinan Gakuin University where I had joined the faculty as a full-time teacher four years before.
Here is the beginning of that Chapel talk:
Last year in America I found myself very critical of Christianity as practiced by most churches and Christians that I saw. I was critical of what appeared to be much more concern for self than others. I was critical because there seemed to be too little concern for four of the great problems of our day: war, poverty, racism, and pollution. I was critical because I felt that American Christianity is too often too much a supporter of the status quo. 
(To read the transcription of the full summary, click here.)
“In reflecting upon these criticisms, I have come to the following conclusions:
“(1) I can understand why many Japanese university students have doubts about Christianity. There is not much attractiveness in Christianity as it is demonstrated by many of its adherents.
“(2) In spite of the obvious hypocrisy of some Christians and the limited concern of most, I am still convinced that most of the best, the most genuine, the most conscientious people in America are Christian people.”
Now, nearly 45 years later, I know more about the diversity of American Christians and know that some Christians are very concerned about what are still four of the great problems of our day. But overall, I still have negative feelings toward much of American Christianity, especially of white “evangelicals.”
Sadly, I am inclined to agree with my new FB friend Stephen’s contention that to a large degree American Christianity has failed.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Praying For and Opposing the President

So, what do we who are not conservative, white “evangelical” Christians do now that DJT is President? That is not an easy question to answer.
I have found it hard to know how to pray with integrity for President Trump. Certainly I am not going to pray an imprecatory prayer, as some did for President Obama.
(If you don’t know what I am talking about, see this article in The Atlantic about David Perdue and his June 2016 prayer; he happens to be the first cousin of Sonny Perdue, Trump’s nominee for the Secretary of Agriculture.)
On the other hand, I find it hard to pray, “Bless President Trump.” Conservative USAmerican Christians make much of Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Tim. 2:2a, which says “Pray for kings and everyone who is in authority . . . .”—and I have seen references to those Bible passages in the past few days.
But what about the German Christians and the Japanese Christians in the 1930s and ’40s? They have often, and rightly, been criticized for not opposing their countries’ fascist leaders for whom they prayed.
Don’t misunderstand what I am saying: I am not comparing DJT with Hitler or Tojo, who was the Japanese prime minister from 1941 to 1944. Neither is praying for a country’s leader the same as approving everything that that leader does.
But it is difficult to know how to pray for and to oppose/resist a political leader at the same time.
Some are saying, though, that the opposition to Trump is much the same as the opposition to Obama over the past eight years—and that those who didn’t like the way Republicans treated Obama shouldn’t support Democrat’s negative treatment of Trump.
The Kansas City Star editorial on Jan. 21 said, “Having criticized GOP resistance to Obama, we can hardly encourage similar resistance to Trump.”
But are they the same? In an online response, I wrote that “there is little similarity between the reason Pres. Obama was criticized and the many reasons DJT is being criticized.
The massive anti-Trump marches last Saturday were not mainly partisan in nature. They were protests against threats to freedom, civility, inclusion, etc. 
A picture I took of a protester in Kansas City on Jan. 20.
There have been numerous calls for giving the new President a chance. On the one hand, that is probably not a bad idea. Much of the protest and negative things that have been said about DJT are based on fear of what might happen rather than on the basis of what has already happened.
On the other hand, the protest and negative statements against Trump are based on what he has said over the past year and a half. As the latest issue of The Economist says, there is “enough information . . . to take a view of what kind of person Mr Trump is.”
The historic Women’s March last Saturday was largely an attempt to protect women’s rights before the new President gives orders or the new Congress passes bills depriving them of those rights. As hard as it may be, it is still easier to keep things from happening than to change them after they are done.
In considering when to resist, consider the following prayer by Duke Divinity School Professor William H. Willimon’s prayer offered on MLK Day last Monday:
Lord, forgive the sin of our patience. Anoint us with a fresh spirit of impatience, that we might be half as angry over political injustice and human meanness as you are, and that, in our impatience, we might be given the guts to do something about it. Amen.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Further Look at “Silence”

Over the last couple of weeks I have read a number of reviews about Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence,” based, of course, on the 1966 (Eng., 1969) novel by the same name written by Endo Shusaku. Endo (1923-96) was a Catholic Christian who became widely known and read as a Japanese novelist.
One major problem with most reviews of “Silence” is their, well, silence concerning the historical background and context of the events portrayed in the movie.
Francis Xavier, one of the original seven Jesuits, was the first Christian missionary to set foot in Japan, landing at Kagoshima August 1549. Kagoshima is on the southern tip of Kyushu, the island on which Nagasaki is located in southwest Japan.
Xavier’s missionary activities were so successful that by 1587, Hideyoshi, the most powerful daimyo (feudal lord) in Japan, promulgated the Purge Directive Order to the Jesuits in July 1587. That Order included a ban on missionaries.
Hideyoshi’s primary concern was not about religious beliefs. Rather, it was about the power of the Christian feudal lords in Kyushu. The ban was Hideyoshi’s attempt to expand his political power.
Ten years later Hideyoshi took even harsher measures against Christians in Japan: he had 26 Christians (literally) crucified in Nagasaki in February 1597. Six were missionaries and 20 were Japanese believers.
Hideyoshi died in 1598, and after a decisive battle in 1600 Ieyasu became the first shogun of the Tokugawa Era, which lasted until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
In 1614, Ieyasu was so concerned about Spanish territorial ambitions that he signed a Christian Expulsion Edict, banning the practice of Christianity and expelling all foreign missionaries. This decision, made partly through discussions with Englishman Will Adams, is described in the fourth chapter of Oliver Statler’s intriguing book Japanese Inn (1961).
All of this stands behind the characters in “Silence,” beginning with Cristóvão Ferreira the Portuguese Jesuit priest who was a missionary in Japan from 1609 until he apostatized in 1633. The beginning of the movie shows Rodrigues and Garrpe, two young Jesuits priests, deciding to go to Japan in order to find Ferreira. They arrive there in 1639.
The most important thing to keep in mind from the historical background just given is the connection of the missionaries to the European countries that were involved in economic activities, and potentially imperialistic, activities in Japan.
While the movie gives the impression that there was a religious reason for the persecution of the Christians, in reality it was much more based on the fear of foreign political and economic influence in Japan. Religion, especially religious beliefs, was of a far lesser concern.
Many who see the movie think the actions of the Japanese were very cruel—and they were. But we need to remember that at the same time, the same sort of persecution of Jews, Muslims, and even Christian “heretics” was carried out by the ruling “Christians” in Europe.
Actually, the Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478 to 1834. According to Wikipedia, “Although records are incomplete, about 150,000 persons were charged with crimes by the Inquisition and about 3,000 were executed.”
Also, in 1692-93, a half century later than the main events in “Silence,” the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts resulted in the executions of twenty people.
In a different vein, it is also important to pay close attention to the end of the book, an ending that was amplified in the movie. I found two websites with quotes from “Silence,” but neither had the most important of all, words from the end of the eighth chapter of the book:
. . . the Christ in the bronze [fumie] speaks to the priest [Rodrigues]: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross (p. 183).
Those who miss the significance of those words, miss the whole point of Endo’s book. According to Japanese-American artist and author Makoto Fujimura, Endo gave this explanation of the purpose of his book: “I did not write a book about the Silence of God; I wrote a book about the Voice of God speaking through suffering and silence.”
Surprisingly, Endo’s original title of his novel was “The Aroma of Sunshine”! 
Stepping on a fumie
Makoto Fujimura, just mentioned, is the author of a book titled Silence and Beauty (2016). It is a marvelous book that gives insight into the nature of Japanese thinking, including the nature of the widespread Japanese understanding of beauty as well as silence.
Among other things, Fujimura explains that Endo’s novel is about grace. He writes,
By stepping on the fumi-e, Father Rodrigues inverts into his genuine faith, faith not dependent on his religious status or on his own merit, but a faith in grace— grace that, like the rays of sunshine after a rainy day, provides an aroma of the light (loc. 2263-65).
Then, in spite of the several times Inoue, the Japanese “inquisitor,” refers to Japan as an unproductive swamp for Christianity, Fujimura writes, “Christian faith is more than a mere rational proposition. It can take root deeply in a muddy swamp if it is designed for propagation there, like, for instance, planting rice in rice paddies” (loc. 1189-91).
Later Fujimura claims that through Endo, “we may begin to detect the aroma of the sunshine and to see the possibility of the Golden Country of Japan, a country filled with rice paddies, a muddy swamp now resplendent with golden hues of the abundant harvest” (loc. 2239-40).
That is the reason why Scorsese dedicated “Silence” to Japanese pastors. However, a review by a young Japanese pastor, while insightful and helpful in some parts, misses the point, even saying that “Silence” will drive Japanese people away from an understanding of God’s love.

I hope that that pastor, and that you who read this, will at some point read Fujimura’s book and learn from his insights. 

And while “Silence” is probably too “heavy” for the general public and even though it demands more thoughtful reflection than most people are willing to expend, I do hope there will be many who go see the movie and then spend adequate time thinking and talking with others about its deep meaning.

In this time when the “prosperity gospel” continues to grow in popularity (think about some of those who will be praying at the presidential inauguration on 1/20), this is a good time to consider the gospel of grace for those who are not, and will never be, rich and powerful.

God is not silent. God speaks through suffering–and through the hidden beauty of the gracious Christ on the cross.
(This article was first posted on my supplemental blogsite, see here, and there are some important comments made there and copied below.)

Friday, January 20, 2017

“The Smile of a Ragpicker”

Last April (in this article) I wrote about Dr. Takashi Nagai and made reference to The Song of Nagasaki (1988), the brilliant biography of Nagai by Paul Glynn, a former Australian Catholic missionary to Japan. Because that was such an enjoyable read, I soon read Glynn’s next book, The Smile of a Ragpicker (1992).
The latter is the inspirational story of Satoko Kitahara, an outstanding Japanese woman who was born in 1929 and died of tuberculosis on January 23, 1958, while still only 28 years old.
Kitahara Satoko-san grew up in Tokyo as a privileged child of an aristocratic family, the descendant of samurai warriors and Shinto priests. While a teenager, though, her lifestyle was seriously thrown out of kilter by Japan’s entry into World War II. She began working in an airplane factory and lived in constant fear and anxiety. To make matters worse, during that time she contracted TB.
Four years after the war, though, Satoko-san was able to graduate from college. Later in 1949 she was baptized as a Catholic Christian. The following year she met Zeno Zebrowski, a Polish Franciscan friar who had gone to Nagasaki in 1930 with Fr. Maximilian Kolbe (whom I wrote about, here, last August). Satoko-san was greatly influenced by this 59-year-old man who had little education but a huge heart of love for needy people.  

Brother Zeno worked tirelessly to help the injured and destitute people in and around Nagasaki after the explosion of the atomic bomb in August 1945. His meritorious activities became known throughout Japan, and in 1949 even Emperor Hirohito visited the orphanage Zeno operated in Nagasaki Prefecture.
Zeno then went to Tokyo and began a tireless ministry there, working on behalf of the 6,000 or more homeless and needy people who lived in Ari-no-Machi (literally, “Ants Town”). It was there that Satoko-san met him.
The slum section along the Sumida River in Tokyo was called Ants Town because of the thousands of people who lived there in such a small area and because of the constant activity in their desperate efforts to survive. Their means of survival was largely through collecting and then selling materials discarded in the trash. They were euphemistically called ragpickers.
Satoko-san sought to help the ragpickers, and spent time as a volunteer tutoring the children of Ants Town. But after hearing a man express his scorn for people like her who came condescendingly from places of privilege to “help” the poor and needy, Satoko-san examined her own life and work.
Consequently, according to Glynn, she came to this live-changing conclusion: “There was only one way to help those ragpicker children: become a ragpicker like them!” (p. 146). And that is what she did, much to the consternation and disapproval of her family.
Satoko-san spent the remainder of her much-too-brief life living in poverty as a ragpicker, and as Glynn emphasizes, she was widely known for the loving smile she had for the people she lived among.
Two years ago, fifty-seven years after her death, Satoko-san was beatified by Pope Francis on January 22, 2015. Publically recognized for the “heroic virtues” she displayed in seeking to improve the lot of the people in Ants Town, she became the first Japanese person declared Servant of God by the Catholic Church.

How is it that so many of us do so little to help the needy when Satoko-san did so much? Moreover, how can people of faith be happy that beginning today the U.S. has a billionaire President who seems largely unconcerned about the plight of the poor and marginalized?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What About Christian Radicalism?

In 1970 a young man, Arthur G. Gish (b. 1939), published a book titled The New Left and Christian Radicalism. It was a slim, but powerful, book.
A couple of years later, another young man (me, b. 1938) read and was greatly influenced by Gish’s book. I have written about it before: the “Amish beard” I have worn since 1972 was partly due to my reading it (see this 2010 blog article.)
Just this past November, I again made reference to Gish’s book (see here), saying that it was “one of the most influential books I read in the 1970s—or maybe have read in my lifetime.”
The first comment I received on the latter article was from Thinking Friend Phil Rhoads. He wrote, “I wish you could give us a synopsis of Gish's 1970 book referred to.”
Well, I can’t give a full synopsis in this brief article, but I have elsewhere posted a brief summary which you can open with this link. In this article, though, I wish to think more about the meaning and feasibility of “Christian Radicalism.”
Gish’s book has two parts: The first has two chapters: an analysis of the New Left that was active in the U.S. in the 1960s and an explanation of 16th century Anabaptism.
The second part of Gish’s book has three chapters, each of which begins with a striking statement:
                To be a Christian is to be a radical (p. 79).
                To be a Christian is to be an extremist (p. 94).
                To be a Christian is to be a subversive (p. 113).
Radicalism is closely linked to seeking revolution. Thus, Gish’s fifth and last chapter is “A Theology for Revolution”—but it is quite clear that he advocates only non-violent revolution. He is a thoroughgoing pacifist.
I have often quoted Gish’s assertion that “violent revolution is occurring because nonviolent revolution is not occurring” (p. 139). 

But is revolution along the lines Gish envisions possible in the contemporary world? It certainly didn’t happen in the 1960s or 1970s. And while it was somewhat a different kind of revolution Bernie Sanders and his followers sought last year, the result of the presidential election was just the opposite.
Here are some conclusions I have come to in reflecting upon Gish’s book about Christian radicalism:
(1) It is much easier to have a vision of radical (revolutionary) social change when 30 years old than 40 or more years later (notwithstanding Bernie). Most revolutionaries (peaceful or violent) and radicals (whether Christian or not) have been relatively young.
Jesus began his ministry when 30. Che Guevara’s revolutionary activity started when he was 28. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born 88 years ago today, first became actively involved in the civil rights movement when he was 26. And so it goes.
(2) The type of revolution brought about by radical Christians, as envisioned by Gish, will be long in coming. It is not going to be a matter of a few years; it will take decades or even centuries. Kent Annan is the author of a new book titled Slow Kingdom Coming, and he makes a valid point: God’s Kingdom is coming, but it is coming very slowly. 
(3) The vision of radical Christianity that Gish set forth is an ongoing challenge for all of us who seek to be genuine Christians. It is easy to be drawn into conforming to the surrounding culture. It is easy to grow complacent, lazy, and/or tired. Serious consideration of Gish’s book helps us, still, to see visions and dream dreams (cf. Joel 2:28).

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Do You Want To Live Forever?

What if there were a new drug discovered that would make it possible for you to live forever? Would you try to procure that drug and take it?
What if that drug were widely available—but only for people who were willing to sign a declaration that they would not have children? What kind of society would that produce?
Malley’s dystopian novels about everlasting life
While working on my Dec. 31 blog article about resistance, I came across and subsequently read two thought-provoking science fiction novels: The Declaration and The Resistance (both published in 2008) by British author Gemma Malley. They are set in the 22nd century when a new drug, called Longevity, makes it possible for people to live forever.
Although written for young readers, I found Malley’s dystopian novels fascinating. They also raised some exceedingly important questions about the practical problems that might well occur with the advent of everlasting life on earth.
The current search for everlasting life
Some of you may recognize the name Peter Thiel. The German-American Thiel (b. 1967) is, among other things, an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and political activist. He is, specifically, a billionaire who founded PayPal in 1999.
As a few of you may remember, Thiel spoke at the Republican National Convention in July and then in November became a member of the PEOTUS’s transition team. 
Back in September 2006, Thiel announced that he would donate $3.5 million to foster anti-aging research through the Methuselah Mouse Prize foundation. He gave the following reasons for his pledge: 
Rapid advances in biological science foretell of a treasure trove of discoveries this century, including dramatically improved health and longevity for all. I’m backing Dr. [Aubrey] de Grey, because I believe that his revolutionary approach to aging research will accelerate this process, allowing many people alive today to enjoy radically longer and healthier lives for themselves and their loved ones. 
The SENS Research Foundation, headed by de Grey and supported by Thiel, is working to achieve the reversal of biological aging.
As far back as 2005, de Grey was saying that some people living now may have a lifespan that is “likely to exceed 1000 years.” And some journalists are suggesting he may be on the cusp of finding “the key to eternal life.” (See this 4/15 WaPo article.)
Everlasting life or eternal life?
The words “everlasting life” and “eternal life” are often used interchangeably. In the article about Peter Thiel just referred to, as well as many times in the Malley novels, unending human life on earth is referred to as eternal life.
I grew up with the King James Version of the Bible and early on learned from John 3:16 about the possibility of “everlasting life.” Later I learned that there is a difference between “eternal life,” which is found in most “modern” translations, and everlasting life.
Everlasting life is quantitative, a measurement in time. Eternal life a timeless concept that is qualitative. That significant difference is not widely recognized by many regular Bible readers nor by the general public, so, as we have seen, the words are often used interchangeably.
While I am all for eternal life, I am quite sure that everlasting life on this earth is not a good thing. (Consider the quotes from Malley’s novels I have posted here and here.)
And I am not sure having a man who is passionate about finding a way to “enable people to live forever” in the top echelon of the PEOTUS’s transition team is a good thing either.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

From "Just War" to "Just Peace"

New Year’s Day has come and gone and it's already in the fifth day of 2017. But do you know that January 1 was not only New Year’s Day but was also the Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace (WDP)? In fact, this year was the 50th anniversary of the WDP. 

The Pope promotes nonviolence 

For this year’s WDP observance, Pope Francis chose the theme “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace”.

John Dear, a Catholic priest and peace activist (whom I wrote about here in 2014), has pointed out (here) that the Pope’s message on New Year’s Day was the Catholic Church’s first statement on nonviolence ever made. 

The Pope emphasized, “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” He goes on to state, “The name of God cannot be used to justify violence.” (Click here to see the Pope’s entire message.)
In his WDP message Pope Francis said, “I plead for disarmament and for the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons.”
Those important words by the Pope were made public last month about two weeks before the PEOTUS (foolishly? dangerously?) tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
The long “just war” position

The term “just war” was introduced by Augustine of Hippo in his early fifth century book The City of God. It was later articulated in depth by 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas. At present, it is outlined by four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church. 
(See here for a brief statement of the traditional elements” in what the Catechism calls the “‘just war’ doctrine.”)
A major problem, though, is this: the leaders of every country that is at least somewhat culturally Christian thinks that all wars they engage in are just wars. When have you ever heard the political leader of a Western country admit that their country’s war activities were not just?
When will you ever hear that? My guess is, Never.
In February 1991, then-President Bush sought to assure the American public that his proposed Gulf War conformed to the historic principles of Just War theory.
(It is perhaps noteworthy, however, that Bush II did not use that same language with regard to the Iraq War; although he would never admit it, perhaps he harbored doubts about his presumptive war being just.)
Death kneel for the “just war” doctrine?
There have always been opponents of the just war doctrine. Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example, wrote (in 1508), “The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.”
Now, however, key leaders in the Catholic Church have spoken against it. “Death Knell for Just War: The Vatican’s Historic Turn toward Nonviolence” is the title of John Dear’s article in the Autumn 2016 issue of Plough. (Click here to see that important article.)
(And if you are interested, see this link for an article I wrote last summer about Plough.)
Dear’s article was about the Vatican’s Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference held in April of last year. That seminal meeting issued a document titled “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Recommit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence.” That appeal included a call for the Church to no longer use or teach “just war theory.”
The Pope seems to have followed that guideline in his World Peace Day message.

My prayer is that all Christians, and others, will heed the recent Catholic call for movement from “just war” to “just peace” and will seek to sanction only nonviolence as the style of politics for peace.