Thursday, November 30, 2017

Is Wright Right?

N.T. Wright is an eminent British New Testament scholar whom I have respected for many years. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (2012) is one his many books. It is mainly about the central message of the four gospels in the New Testament.
What Are the Gospels About?
As Wright (b. 12/1/1948) explains in the Preface, “the story that the four evangelists tell is the story, as in my title, of ‘how God became king’.”
Early in the book, he notes that Protestant Christianity has assumed atonement and justification “to be at the heart of ‘the gospel.’ But,” he insists, the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—“appear to have almost nothing to say about those subjects” (p. 6).
Further, the classic Christian creeds say little about the bulk of the four gospels: They “were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God” (p. 20).
So, again, Wright clearly asserts that “the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven” (p. 34).
I think that basically Wright is right in what he writes here. 
Where is the Kingdom of God?
Conservative/evangelical Christians have long emphasized that the Kingdom of God (KoG) will come into fruition at the end of the present world. It is seen primarily as being in Heaven following the end times.
Partly because the KoG is always called “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s gospel (beginning with Mt. 3:2), it has commonly been viewed as “other-worldly” and primarily about the future rather than the present.
However, there has been a growing recognition among liberal, moderate, and even left-wing evangelical Christians that the KoG is about the here and now as well as about “the sweet by and by.” This new understanding is based partly on the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
As I wrote in my Feb. 28 blog article, through the years I have come to understand that the KoG is as much about, or even more about, God’s reign on earth now than after the “end of the world.”
Indeed, if God became King in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection, as Wright writes, then the KoG is here and the KoG is now.
This basic understanding is also found in the recent writings of popular Christian authors such as Brian McLaren as well as in the books of Brian Zahnd, such as Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (2017), which I wrote about on Sept. 5 (see here). (Both McLaren and Zahnd hold Wright in high regard.)
Why Doesn’t It Look Like God is King?
The perplexing question, of course, is why, if God is King, doesn’t the world look more like what we would expect God’s Kingdom to look like? Please consider these brief suggestions:
1) There was no promise that the full realization of the KoG would come quickly—and considering the age of the universe or the history of Homo sapiens, what is a mere 2,000 years?
2) The KoG is being established, slowly, only by peaceful means and without coercion. Every use of coercion by Christians, and there have been a multitude of attempts to expand the KoG by force—has caused a setback.
3) There has been progress—although the struggle continues. As Wright acknowledges, “the story of Jesus” is seen in the New Testament “as the clash between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world” (p. 138).
So we continue to pray, “Your Kingdom come”—while both working and waiting for that to happen.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Carnegie and the "Death Tax"

Andrew Carnegie, the industrial giant and philanthropist, was born on this day (Nov. 25) in 1835. His life and legacy is somewhat of a conundrum: he was both a hard task-master and cruel industrialist as well a warm-hearted, benevolent man who greatly wanted world peace—and who favored an inheritance tax.
The Coming (?) Change is the “Death Tax”
As of this writing, the both highly touted and highly criticized tax reform bill currently being considered by the U.S. Congress is still in flux. But the present estate tax provision will most likely be unchanged in the final version of the bill, which possibly will be signed into law. DJT is promising this will be done before Christmas.
The opponents of the current estate tax provision, which seem to include most Republican legislators, are wont to call it a “death tax.” Further, they emphasize how unfair it is to the families of hard-working people who wish to pass their accumulated wealth on to their descendants.
So, changing this provision is one of many changes in the tax reform bill, which has already passed by the House. The Senate version, yet to be voted on, currently has the same projected estate tax change as the House bill.
Misleading Claims about the “Death Tax”
Sam Graves is the U.S. Representative from the district where I live. In his Nov. 15 email newsletter to people in his district, Rep. Graves decried the estate tax, writing that “a tax that kicks in when you die is absurd.” His main point: “Farmers are hit especially hard by the death tax.”
What Rep. Graves failed to mention is that currently $5,490,000 is exempted from the tax that he thinks is so despicable. (I wonder how many farmers in north Missouri have an estate worth more than that.)
According to the Center on the Budget and Policy Priorities (see here), in 2017 only two out of every 1,000 estates will owe federal estate tax—5,500 out of the nation’s 2,700,000 estates (about 0.02%); only 80 of those (0.003%) are small farms and businesses.
The tax bill already passed by the House doubles that exemption immediately and eliminates it completely after six years—and this in the name of tax reform for the benefit of the working middle class.   
But guess who benefits from this change in the estate tax? The wealthiest people in the land, of course—including the Trump children who will potentially gain as much as $1.4 billion if the tax reform bill is signed into law by the President.
Carnegie’s Surprising Support of Estate Tax
Many of you perhaps read my article about the questionable philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie and two other wealthy people. (You can read/review that article here.) In reading about Carnegie before writing that article, I was surprised at what he said about the need for an estate tax.
In a June 1889 article titled “Wealth,” Carnegie wrote,
Of all forms of taxation, this [the estate tax] seems the wisest. Men who continue hoarding great sums all their lives, the proper use of which for public ends would work good to the community, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the state, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share. By taxing estates heavily at death the state marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life.
Near the end of that article, Carnegie asserted that the person who dies rich “dies disgraced."
When Carnegie died in 1919, he had already given away over $350,000,000 (over $5 trillion in 2017 dollars) of his wealth. After his death, his last $30,000,000 was given to foundations, charities, and to pensioners. 
Kudos to Carnegie!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Observing World Children’s Day

As you may know, today (November 20) is World Children’s Day. At least the World Council of Churches (WCC) has been promoting today by that name. Since 1954 the United Nations has been calling Nov. 20 Universal Children’s Day—a different name with the same basic emphasis.
The Appeal
The WCC asserts that today is “a time for world community and churches to express their dedication to children’s wellbeing” (see here). Surely this is an appeal that most of us can respond to positively.
UNICEF (The United Nations Children's Fund) also calls today World Children’s Day and encourages thought and action for the sake of the children of the world (see this link).
The Problem
A sizeable number of the world’s children are in dire straits. While the numbers have, thankfully, significantly lessened in recent decades, still according to WHO there are around 15,000 children under five who die every day. Perhaps as many as two-thirds of these deaths were/are preventable.
So perhaps at least 10,000 children under five needlessly die every single day because of hunger and because of malnutrition-related and other health issues that could be remedied by inexpensive medication.
In addition, according to a UNICEF report issued a little over a year ago, nearly 50 million children worldwide have been uprooted from their homes due to violence, poverty and other factors out of their control.
Here is a picture of Rohingya refugee children reaching out for food in a refugee camp in Bangladesh—and these are better off than many Rohingya children are now. 
This is just a partial look at the problems many of the world’s children are facing at this time.
Our Response?
What can people of goodwill do for the sake of the world’s suffering children?
1) We can become more aware of the deep need of so many of the world’s children. That is one major intention of today being designated World Children’s Day—and one of the main purposes of this article.
2) We can seek, over time, to elect politicians who are concerned about the welfare of people, especially children, worldwide rather than focusing on making America “great again”—especially by such things as enacting tax reform (or “deform”) that benefits primarily the wealthiest in the land. To a large degree, the suffering of so many children, here and abroad, is a political problem—in both the narrow and the broad senses I mentioned in my previous blog article.
3) We can examine our own lifestyles and buying habits in order to see if there are ways we can share more generously to help alleviate the serious needs of some of the world’s children.
Some charities endeavor to support needy children by seeking monthly gifts to help individuals. World Vision is one organization that does that, and years ago June and I sponsored children through that organization. I have recently learned about a similar group: Kids Alive International, which has an excellent rating by Charity Navigator.
Perhaps it is better, though, to see the “big picture” and work for societal change by supporting organizations such as UNICEF (which doesn’t have a very good Charity Navigator rating), Bread for the World, or Water.org. (The latter two organizations are not just charities for children, but children benefit greatly from their activities.)
So, on this World Children’s Day, I am asking each of us to consider what we can do to help the suffering children around the world. 
And many of us have to grapple with this difficult question, especially during the upcoming holiday season: Why do my children or grandchildren need so much when there are so many children who have so little?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Religion and Politics

Recently I have been reading and thinking about the relationship between religion and politics. Two devout Episcopalian lawyers have been helpful in this regard.
The Position of Stringfellow
William Stringfellow (b. 1928) graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956. He soon moved to a tenement in Harlem, New York City, where he worked as a tireless advocate for racial and social justice. Then in 1967 he moved to Block Island, R.I. He lived, and was an active member of the Episcopal church, there until his untimely death in 1985.
Back in September, I re-read An Ethics for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, the thought-provoking book by William Stringfellow, who was a lay theologian and a stimulating author.
Stringfellow’s book was first published in 1973 during the Nixon Administration, but it seems very relevant to the present situation in the U.S. under the current occupant of the White House.
“Biblical politics” is the title of the first section of the first chapter of Stringfellow’s book. He declares, “The biblical topic is politics.” And then he continues with this long, significant sentence:
The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgment of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics (pp. 14-15).
How’s that for a weighty sentence! 

The Position of Danforth
The year of 1963 was a very special one for John Danforth (b. 1936). That was the year he graduated from both Yale Divinity School and Yale Law School as well as the year he was ordained as an Episcopal priest and admitted to the bar.
Danforth practiced law for a while but then became a politician, serving as the Attorney General of Missouri (1969~1975) and then as a U.S. Senator from Missouri (1976~1995).
In September I also read Danforth’s 2015 book, The Relevance of Religion. In his first chapter, Danforth sets forth “four broad principles” for how religious people ought to relate to politics:
(1) We should insist that politics remain in its proper place. It is not the realm of absolute truth and it is not the battleground of good and evil. (2) We should be advocates for the common good. (3) We should be a unifying force, working to bind America together. (4) We should advocate political compromise, and make the case that the spirit of compromise is consistent with our faith.
Danforth’s emphases on compromise, on working with those with different ideas, on listening to others and not idolizing one’s own position are good, important ones—and attitudes/actions that I wish more Washington politicians would put into practice today. 

The Better Position 

For “professional” politicians, Danforth’s position is a good one, as I have just indicated. But for those of us who are not politicians, perhaps Stringfellow’s position is more helpful—and challenging.
There are those, including many Christians, who say that they don’t want to be involved in politics—and most won’t be in the way that Danforth was. But people of goodwill, perhaps especially Christians, should be involved in politics the way Stringfellow suggests.  
When I wrote last November about being a one issue voter (see here), I was writing about being involved in politics in the way promoted by Stringfellow. 

Jesus said, “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Mt. 6:33). We can’t do that without being active in politics.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Becoming/Being Bicultural

Studying and thinking about Drew Hart’s noteworthy bookTrouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (2016) stirred me to reflect on a potentially helpful mindset for minorities living in a dominant culture.
The Meaning of “Being Bicultural”
“The term bicultural describes a state of having or inheriting two or more cultures (e.g., one of an ethnic heritage and one of culture lived in) or two or more ethnic traditions.” That is the opening sentence of a helpful article about the subject in an iResearchNet piece about biculturalism (check it out here).
Massey University in New Zealand gives the following explanation of the meaning of being bicultural: 

While becoming bicultural can cause problems for some individuals, for most there are far more benefits than difficulties.
The Experience of Becoming Bicultural
Last Sunday was my dear daughter Kathy’s birthday. She celebrated her 6th birthday in Japan after she and her brother Keith, who is two years older, arrived in that fascinating country with June and me on September 1, 1966.
By that November when we celebrated Kathy’s birthday with a family overnight trip to Hakone National Park near Mt. Fuji, we were well on our way to becoming bicultural.
Being bicultural, though, doesn’t usually mean an equal balance between two cultures. Our children went to English-speaking schools and we spoke only English at home. Our dominant cultural identification continued to be as English-speaking Americans.
Still, the children played with their Japanese neighbors, we became active in Japanese-speaking churches, and we enjoyed participating in Japanese cultural activities.
In my career as a full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin University, I was elected to administrative positions of increasing importance—not because I was a gaijin (foreigner/outsider) but because in spite of being a gaijin I was an integral part of the Japanese cultural and educational milieu.
For June and me, as well as for our children, being immersed in and accepting of Japanese culture did not mean giving up our American cultural identity. But we were largely able to become bicultural and to enjoy being a part of two cultures without having to choose one over the other.
Recommending Becoming Bicultural
Drew Hart is a youngish Anabaptist pastor and college professor, and his book introduced above is a good and helpful one. Last month, several of us read his book and gathered to discuss it a few days before he preached at Rainbow Mennonite Church.
Hart is an associate professor at the predominately white Messiah College (in Penn.), his alma mater. In many ways, he is a black man who has “made it” in the predominant white culture—but he is painfully aware of the racism and the injustice that still a part of that culture.
What he says about racism must be taken seriously, and what I say next about becoming bicultural does not downplay the persistent problem of injustice or the pressing need to be aware of and to combat racism in American society today.
Still, I got the impression from reading Hart’s book that he thought he largely had to give up his African-American identity to fit in with the dominant (white) culture. That is when I realized that deliberately seeking to be bicultural could be a possible solution to his, and other African-Americans’, unease at living in the majority culture.
For those within minority cultures, becoming bicultural and being able to function well in the dominant culture need not lessen their identification with or appreciation of their primary culture. 
For people born into a minority culture, becoming/being bicultural is certainly a possibility that promises many positive benefits.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

DJT and the Heritage Foundation

A year ago this week Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. Two days after the election, an article in the Washington Examiner began, “The Heritage Foundation might be the biggest winner of 2016.”

Introducing the Heritage Foundation 
The Heritage Foundation (HF), founded in 1973, is a conservative think tank that according to one ranking organization is the third most influential of the nearly 2,000 think tanks in the U.S.
The HF was established largely due to the work of Paul Weyrich (1942-2008) who, incidentally, was also co-founder (with Jerry Falwell) of Moral Majority in 1979—and the one who coined that name.
From the beginning a major funder of the HF was Joseph Coors, Sr., (1917-2003) of the Coors Brewing Company. Coors also was a generous donor to Moral Majority and other Christian Right organizations and movements.
According to their website,
The mission of The Heritage Foundation is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
While it is no longer on their website, I noted in my 2/20/11 blog article that the Heritage Foundation was then making the following appeal for new members (and for funding):
Become a Member: Donate to Heritage – Join Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and more than 710,000 conservatives in fighting liberals and advancing conservative principles as a Heritage Foundation member.
Influence of the Heritage Foundation 
In a May 2017 article in Marketplace, Atlantic staff writer Molly Ball related that soon after Reagan was elected President in 1980, the HF presented him with 2,000 ideas in a 20 volume package. Reagan handed out those ideas to every member of his Cabinet in their first meeting. 
By the end of Reagan’s first year in office, the HF estimated that 60 percent of those ideas had in some way been put into practice by the President.
Through the years the HF has been characterized as a right-wing think tank seeking to abolish civil rights laws, minimum wage laws, environmental laws, affirmative action, rights for the handicapped, and arms control.
The strongly fiscal conservative stance of the HF was seen in its selection of sitting S.C. Senator Jim DeMint, a leading figure in the Tea Party Movement, as its new president in 2013. He served in that position from 2013 until May of this year.
Influence of the Heritage Foundation on DJT 
Without question the HF has sought to influence DJT as it did Reagan. A statement they released on March 24 announced, “Trump Administration Budget Looks a Lot Like Heritage’s Plan.” 
The HF also seems to have had considerable influence on the tax cut plan long promised by DJT. On Oct. 17 he spoke to the HF and called for them to support his tax reform efforts. That seems to have been a redundant appeal, for many of the reform proposals were the HF’s suggestions to begin with.
The House version of the tax plan released last week—and crafted only by the GOP—will likely be altered in multiple ways before the final vote is taken. And it still may not pass. But as it stands now, it definitely seems to provide “an enormous bonanza for the wealthiest” people in the country. (See “Shameful GOP Tax Plan Taxes Reality,” posted on 11/2.)
Moreover, this tax overhaul plan would also allow churches to endorse political candidates, a position favored by the HF’s DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society.
We citizens of the U.S. who don’t like the way the country is going under DJT need to be aware, and beware, of the Heritage Foundation.