Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Why Water Buffalo Theology?

One of the most intriguing books I read in the mid-1970s was Waterbuffalo Theology by Koyama Kosuke. In 1999 the 25th anniversary edition (revised & expanded) was published as Water Buffalo Theology. But what kind of theology is that?! 
First edition cover

Who was Koyama?
Koyama Kosuke was a Japanese theologian who was born 90 years ago today, on December 10, 1929. He was less than two months younger than C.S. Song, the Asian theologian I wrote about in October (see here), but unlike Song, who is still living, Koyama (and that is the family name) died in 2009 before his 80th birthday.
Koyama studied in the U.S. from 1952 until he finished his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1959. During those years he met and married Lois Rozendaal, a Dutch-American woman. 
For most of the next decade (1960~68) he served as a pastor and teacher in Thailand, being sent there as a missionary by the United Church of Christ in Japan.
Following several years (1968~74) serving in Singapore and then in New Zealand (1974~79), in 1980 Koyama became a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Upon his retirement in 1996 he became the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor Emeritus of World Christianity.
Why Did Koyama Write about Water Buffalos?
Koyama gained attention in the theological world after his seminal book Waterbuffalo Theology was published in 1974. But why did he write about water buffalos?
Because his first field of service after completing his Ph.D. was as a pastor in northern Thailand, Koyama recognized the need for communicating with the people in his congregation, many of whom were farmers who used water buffalos in their daily work. 
Thai farmer plowing with a water buffalo
In my 1/22/2010 blog article I wrote about the importance of contextual theology. Koyama’s development of contextualized theology in Thailand was one of the main examples I used in the theology courses I taught in the late 1970s, and afterward.
According to an article written soon after Koyama’s death in 2009 (see here), Donald Shriver, president emeritus of Union Seminary, said that Waterbuffalo Theology was “one of the first books truly to do theology out of the setting of Asian villages.”
In the same article, a historian for the Church of Christ in Thailand called Koyama’s book “one of the classic works of contemporary Asian theology.”
The article concludes with Shriver telling how someone at Union noticed that Waterbuffalo theology had landed on the discard pile outside the library. Apparently, a librarian had concluded that the prestigious school had no program for teaching theology to water buffalos.
But since Koyama was joining the faculty there, his book “was quickly and quietly returned to the shelves.”
What Can We Learn from Water Buffalo Theology?
After locating in New York, Koyama didn’t write about water buffalos anymore. He was in a different context, and his writing reflected that new setting.
Koyama’s second most important book is probably Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai: A Critique of Idols, which was published in 1985. His “context” then was the world threatened by nuclear war. He explained,
I have written this book with a keen awareness of the global peril of nuclear war. Wars are waged ‘in the name of God,’ that is, with ‘theological’ justification. Such justification is idolatry” (p. x).
The background “context” was the destruction of warring Japan in 1945. Koyama became a baptized Christian in 1942; three years later he saw Tokyo “become wilderness by the constant bombings.” And then, of course, there were the catastrophic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
If Koyama were still writing today, perhaps he would applaud an article that appeared last week on the Rolling Stone website: “False Idol—Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump.”
That long article, which I recommend you taking the time to read (here), helps us understand the political context that challenges theologians, and all of us, today.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Darwin, Pro and Con

Who was born on February 12, 1809? Yes, Abraham Lincoln was born on that day—and so was Charles Darwin. Lincoln is 15th on the list of “The 25 Most Influential People of All Time” (see here). Darwin is #9 on that same list, largely because of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, his revolutionary book published 160 years ago, on November 24, 1859.
Darwin’s Discoveries
Born about 175 miles northwest of London, from 1825 to 1831 Darwin studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and then went to the University of Cambridge to study for an ordinary degree, the usual preliminary for theological training.
Rather than becoming a medical doctor or a clergyman, though, Darwin became a natural scientist, and his voyage on HMS Beagle (1831~36) established him as an eminent geologist.
Based on his meticulous scientific research, by the end of that decade he had mostly constructed his theory of evolution, although his seminal book on that was not published until 20 years later.
On the Origin of Species led to a revolution in the way human beings thought about the world and themselves. As a 1999 essay in the Scientific American says, “Almost every component in modern man’s belief system is somehow affected by Darwinian principles.” 
Darwin’s Detractors
From the beginning until the present, however, Darwin has had his distractors. In the years following the publishing of his groundbreaking book, there were scientists who did not agree with his assertions.
By the 1870s, though, the scientific community and most of the educated public had accepted evolution as a fact.
The main detractors have been Christians whose belief in a literally interpreted Bible caused them to oppose evolution of the natural world, including humans. One of the contemporary evangelical Christian leaders of this opposition to Darwin was Phillip E. Johnson (b. 1940), who died last month.
Darwin on Trial (1991) was Johnson’s influential book widely read and cited by conservative Christians.
Darwin’s Defense
Since I am not a scientist, I have no way to authenticate Darwin’s scientific assertions. As a student of Christian theology and philosophy, I can (and will) offer a limited defense of Darwin.
I suppose there was a time when I did not accept Darwin’s theory of evolution as being correct—but even though I grew up in a conservative Baptist church, I don’t remember that ever being a live issue.
I also don’t know when it was that I first accepted evolution as being “true,” but by the time I had finished my seminary and graduate school courses/seminars under Dr. Eric C. Rust, my major professor, I no longer had any qualms about affirming the truth of evolution.
Because of Dr. Rust, who was a trained scientist as well as a theologian, I accepted a both/and position with regards to science and religion rather than an either/or position. That meant accepting both evolution and divine creation—and a rejecting both Darwinism and creationism.
The importance of that position became abundantly apparent when I began teaching Christian Studies to non-Christian students in Japan. Almost without exception, the students had been taught evolution in high school and believed it to be scientifically true.
Of the (literally) thousands of non-Christian students I taught, if presented the choice between science (evolution) or Christianity based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation stories, 99% or so would most likely have quickly chosen science.
I was happy to be able to emphasize that such a choice is not necessary. It was only in my last years in Japan that I was able to augment my assertions with the writings of Catholic theologian John Haught of Georgetown University.
Haught’s books God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (2000) and Deeper Than Darwin (2003) are highly significant books for theologically evaluating evolution. I highly recommend them.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Sand Creek Massacre, a National Disgrace

Earlier this month I wrote about sometimes feeling embarrassed to identify a Christian. But I am embarrassed not only because of things some Christian leaders as and do in the present but also because of what some have done in the past. The Sand Creek Massacre is one sad example.  
Established in April 2007
The Bare Facts
There are background events that I don’t have the space to elucidate here, but here are the bare facts of the Sand Creek Massacre, which occurred 155 years ago yesterday, on November 29, 1864.
The Third Colorado Cavalry commanded by Colonel John Chivington attacked a settlement of Cheyenne/Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, about 175 miles southeast of Denver. At Chivington’s insistence, they murdered around 200 Native Americans, most of them women and children.
Prior to the massacre, Chivington reportedly said, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. ... Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”
This was all done with the approval of Colorado Governor John Evans, who was also the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Colorado.
The Embarrassing Facts
John Milton Chivington was born in 1821 into an Ohio farm family. In 1844 he was ordained as a Methodist minister, serving in that capacity in Illinois, Missouri, and then assisting in a Methodist missionary expedition to the Wyandot Indians in Kansas in 1853. (The church I now attend is in Wyandotte County.)
Gov. Evans was also a Methodist. He had joined with other Methodists in 1850 to found Northwestern University in Illinois. Then two years after becoming governor of Colorado in 1862, he and Chivington founded Colorado Seminary, which later became the University of Denver.
The Sand Creek Massacre has, indeed, been an embarrassment for the United Methodist Church, and five years ago they sought repentance for that national disgrace (see here).
There were two Cavalrymen with the Third Regiment, Silas Soule and Joseph Cramer, who refused to join in the massacre and testified against Chivington—and Soule was shot in the back and killed in April 1865 because of his testimony against Chivington.
It is also embarrassing to us Christians that in contrast to Evans and Chivington, Soule was described as a “healthy skeptic” rather than a religious believer.
Repenting of the Facts
This past Sunday Sarah Neher, the Director of Faith Formation and Youth Ministries at Rainbow Mennonite Church, preached on “Deconstructing Thanksgiving.” It was a bold, fitting sermon for the Sunday before the national holiday and for the last week of National American Indian Heritage Month (here is a link to more about that).
Sarah said in her sermon,
This simple narrative [of the traditional Thanksgiving] sets the story like a fairytale. Casting Colonization as beneficial for everyone and that it was relatively peaceful. When in reality over the centuries since Europeans invaded Indigenous land, Natives have experienced genocide, the theft of their lands, and the attempted extinction of their culture.
Yes, the Sand Creek Massacre was simply the continuation of the “whites’” treatment of Native Americans from the beginning—starting with the Pequot War of 1636~38 and the Mystic Massacre of May 1637.
It was the continuation of words about “the merciless Indian Savages” included in the Declaration of Independence of 1776.
Perhaps rather than observing the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday,” those of us in the dominant culture should rather observe the days following Thanksgiving as Repentance Weekend for the way our ancestors treated the Native Americans.
That treatment has, indeed, been a national disgrace.
For Further Information
Here is the link to an article about the 21st annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk, currently in progress.
“Who is the Savage” is an excellent 14-minute video about Black Kettle, the “peace chief” head of the Sand Creek Native Americans in 1864.
And here is the link to a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary on the Sand Creek Massacre.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Transcending Fundamentalism

This is the eleventh and last blog posting this year related to my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism. I am working to get the updated and (slightly) revised edition published before the end of the year—and am hoping many of you will obtain a copy for yourself or give as a present to someone you care about (or both!).
The Necessity of Transcending Fundamentalism
Some Christians who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with fundamentalism have given up on Christianity altogether. I find that quite sad—and also unnecessary.
There are many other Christians, though, who are quite unhappy with fundamentalism, much like I am, but who have sought and found an expression of the Christian faith that seems decidedly superior to that manifested by fundamentalism and is worthy of wholehearted allegiance.
The latter is what I have been advocating in this book, and this final chapter emphasizes the necessity of transcending fundamentalism and finding a form of faith that fully honors God, is loyal to the Lord Jesus, and is invigorated by the Holy Spirit.
Rising above fundamentalism is important for Christian believers: much of the current rejection of Christianity by those raised as Christians is because of their negative reaction toward fundamentalism.  
Transcending fundamentalism is also important for Christians in their relationship with people who are not Christians. Earlier this month (see here) Pope Francis declared, “We must beware of fundamentalist groups . . . . Fundamentalism is a plague.”
Partly for creating a more peaceful society, it is necessary for Christians, as well as people in other religions, to go beyond fundamentalism.  
Help for Transcending Fundamentalism
There are numerous books, and organizations, seeking to help people who are or have been in fundamentalist churches to leave the clutches of such detrimental ways of thinking.
Through the years there have even been several different Fundamentalist(s) Anonymous groups, treating fundamentalism as a kind of addiction that people need to be freed from.
Unfortunately, many of those books and organizations were largely encouraging people to leave Christianity altogether—and certainly many have done that.
But there are also many books, such as Fed Up . . ., and new church organizations that have shown ways to reject fundamentalism and still remain in the Christian faith. Indeed, the 18th chapter of my newest book, Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT), is “One Doesn’t Have To Be A Fundamentalist To Be A Good Christian.”
That, I firmly believe, is manifestly true. And in fact, it might even be true that Christians need to transcend fundamentalism in order to be a good Christian.
The Limits of Liberalism
Speaking of (TTT), the 19th chapter of that book is “One Doesn’t Have To Be A Liberal To Reject Fundamentalism.” I reiterate that important point here.  
While many conservative evangelicals, as present-day fundamentalists are generally called now, tend to label my theological position as liberal, many true liberals likely would see me as fairly conservative from their point of view.
Indeed, soon after completing the first edition of Fed Up . . . I started working on the companion volume: The Limits of Liberalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Liberalism (2010). Beginning in January, I am planning to begin updating and slightly revising that book also to re-publish by the end of 2020.
As I say at the end of the last paragraph of Fed Up . . .,
There is a valid form of the Christian faith that steers between the dangers of fundamentalism on the right and the dangers of liberalism on the left. It is that expression of the faith that I urge my Christian readers to join me in seeking, finding, and following as we try to be true to Christ.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Thinking about Bohemians

The word Bohemian has two distinctly different meanings. The two parts of this blog posting are about the word used in those disparate ways. Originally, Bohemian referred to a resident of Bohemia, now a region of the Czech Republic. For the last two centuries, though, Bohemian has often been used to denote “a socially unconventional person, especially one who is involved in the arts.”
The Bohemians in “La Bohème
Most of you, I assume, are familiar with “Babette’s Feast,” the short story by Karen Blixen and the 1987 Danish film by the same name. Recently, I have called my daughter Karen Babette, for she, too, was lavish in her birthday gift to me.
This past weekend, Karen made a special trip to Kansas City for the main purpose of taking me to see a performance of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” at the magnificent Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. We thoroughly enjoyed it.  
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (opened 2011)

The original opera premiered in 1896 and the first American performance took place the next year. It has become one of the most popular operas of all time.
Earlier this year, a website describing the ten most popular operas said this about “La Bohème”:
Puccini’s masterpiece perfectly captures the pleasures, pains, and sheer over-the-top hugeness of love in the first flush of youth. The story is so simple, it’s almost a joke: the Parisian poet Rodolfo falls for the quiet seamstress Mimi, and then she gets ill and dies. But around that framework Puccini creates arias (solos) and duets of ravishing beauty.
The opera’s name is simply the French word for Bohemia (or Bohemian). Early in the 19th century the Romani people (called Gypsies in the past) in western Europe were thought to be from Bohemia and inaccurately given that name.
The opera begins with four “Bohemian” men (in the second sense of the word) in their shabby garret in Paris on Christmas Eve in 1830 or so—and it ends after more than two hours of beautifully sung arias in the same place with the sad death of Mimi.
Jan Hus, a Real Bohemian
In thinking about the 19th (or 20th) century “Bohemians,” I couldn’t help but think of one of my “heroes” of church history, Jan Hus (aka John Huss), the Bohemian reformer who was burnt at the stake in 1415.
Long before the Reformation led by Martin Luther in the first third of the 16th century, the “Bohemian Reformation” began in the last third of the 14th century. Hus is the best-known representative of that Reformation. 
Born around 1369, Hus became a prominent preacher and educator in Prague. He became the leader of those who deplored what they considered the current corruption of the Church and emphasized that Christ rather than the pope was the head of the Church. That led to his martyrdom.
As he was perishing in the flames, Hus, whose name means “goose,” reportedly declared to his executioners, "You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil."
It was 102 years later that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door as the start of the Protestant Reformation in Germany.
The Unitas Fratrum or Unity of the Brethren Church was founded in 1457 by Bohemian followers of Hus who were greatly disappointed by the wars that followed Hus’s martyrdom.
About two hundred fifty years later some of those followers in Moravia, which borders Bohemia, migrated to Saxony and found refuge in Nicholas von Zinzendorf’s Herrnhut, and there the Moravian Church was born in 1727.
I greatly enjoyed the “Bohemians” singing on the opera stage, but even more I remain grateful to the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus and those who carried on his legacy.

Friday, November 15, 2019

A Remarkable Man, a Remarkable Church: Howard Thurman and Fellowship Church

Howard Thurman was a remarkable man and 75 years ago he founded a remarkable church. This article is about him, the church he founded, and a remarkable co-pastor of that church today.  

The Remarkable Howard Thurman
Howard Washington Thurman was born in Florida 120 years ago this month, on November 18, 1899 (although some sources say he was born in 1900) and died in 1981. Ordained as a Baptist minister in 1925, he has been characterized as “a spiritual genius who mentored MLK, Jr., and carried Gandhi’s teaching to America.”
Thurman was a part of a Student Christian Movement-sponsored four-person “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to South Asia in 1935-36That experience, including personal conversations with Gandhi, influenced Thurman greatly—and later reverberated throughout the civil rights movement in the U.S.
In 1953, Thurman became the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University (BU), the first African American to hold such a position at a majority-white university. At that time, MLK, Jr., was a graduate student at BU.
According to BU’s alumni magazine (see here), “King not only attended sermons [at Marsh Chapel] but also turned to Thurman as his mentor and spiritual advisor. Among the lessons that inspired him most were Thurman’s accounts of a visit to Mohandas Gandhi in India years earlier.”
So much more needs to be said about Thurman, but for additional information I highly recommend the superlative February 2019 PBS documentary “Backs to the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story.”
The Remarkable “Fellowship Church”
In the fall of 1943, Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian clergyman, had the vision of starting a church that would welcome people of all races and creeds. Thurman, who had served as Dean of the Howard University Chapel since 1932, was asked to recommend a young black minister who might be interested in helping start such a church.
Thurman decided to volunteer himself and requested a year’s leave of absence from Howard beginning July 1, 1944. Thus, Thurman was the main one responsible for starting a new church in San Francisco with a remarkable name: The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. For short, it is often just called Fellowship Church.
On October 8 of that year, Fellowship Church held its first public meeting—and last month it celebrated its 75th Jubilee Anniversary.
Fellowship Church was unmistakably based on the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Along with that basic affirmation, though, the second of the three-paragraph “commitment” agreed to by Fellowship Church members says,
I desire to share in the spiritual growth and ethical awareness of men and women of varied national, cultural, racial, and credal heritage united in a religious fellowship.
In 1959, Thurman wrote a book titled Footprints of a Dream: The Story of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (reissued 2009). I finished reading it last week, and it was a fascinating read.
The Remarkable Current Co-pastor of Fellowship Church
Since 1994, Dr. Dorsey O. Blake has been co-pastor of Fellowship Church. (Currently, the other co-pastor is a white woman.) This past June, I had the opportunity of hearing/meeting Dr. Blake, for he was the speaker at the local Juneteenth banquet.   

Dr. Blake was born in 1946, and before he was a year old his father became pastor of First Baptist Church here in Liberty, a predominantly African American church from its beginning until the present. His first six years in school were at the segregated Garrison School in Liberty, established for Black students in 1877.
Fellowship Church in San Francisco, literally seeking to be a place of fellowship for all peoples, continues to thrive under the leadership of a remarkable man whose early life was spent as a Baptist PK (preacher’s kid) in the small town of Liberty, Missouri.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Embarrassed to be a Christian?

Even though 4½ years ago I posted a blog article (see here) titled “An Embarrassed Christian,” once again I am speaking to this same issue with new illustrations. Now, even more than in 2015, I must admit being embarrassed to be a Christian—at least some of the time.  
Embarrassed to be a Christian
There are many reasons why I, among many others, find myself embarrassed to be a Christian today. A bulk of that embarrassment currently comes from the widely publicized support of DJT by conservative evangelical Christians.
This matter has become an oft mentioned matter in mainstream media—and as impeachment talk intensifies, so, it seems, does the rhetoric of highly publicized Trump supporters who blatantly wear the Christian label.
On October 29, evangelical leaders met privately and prayed with DJT in the White House. Robert Jeffress, who is pastor of the historic First [Southern] Baptist Church in Dallas, was one of those leaders at that White House meeting.
Three days later on Fox Business, Jeffress said, “Evangelicals understand that the effort to impeach President Trump is really an effort to impeach our own deeply-held faith values, and we’re not going to allow that to happen.”
(For more about this, see the Nov. 1 TV interview here and also this Nov. 4 article  titled “Pro-Trump preachers on message against impeachment probe.”)
On October 31, the White House confirmed that Paula White would join the White House staff to advise President Trump's Faith and Opportunity Initiative. (So now we have White in the White House?)
White, who delivered the invocation at DJT’s inauguration in 2017, is a flamboyant, controversial, "prosperity gospel" televangelist based in Florida. She is often identified as President Trump’s “personal pastor.” White, of course, was at the Oct. 29 White House gathering, standing closest to DJT as they prayed.
(For more about White, see this NowThis video, which is a collage of disturbing things she has recently said.)
When included in the same religion as Christian leaders such as Jeffress and White, I am embarrassed to be a Christian—and they are just two of many examples that might be given.
Not Embarrassed to be a Christian
However, I am not embarrassed to be a Christian when, for example, I read Jim Wallis’s new book Christ in Crisis, based on the “Reclaiming Jesus” statement of 2018.
Wallis is critical of both the Republican and Democratic parties, and “Politically Homeless” is a subsection of the seventh chapter. Throughout his book, he is highly critical of President Trump. But it is quite clear that in his criticism of DJT, Wallis writes as he does not because he is a Democrat but because he is a Christian.
In a recent NYTimes article about Paula White, Wallis is quoted as saying that he is repeatedly asked “how can these Christians support Donald Trump when so much that he says and does is literally antithetical to the person and teachings of Jesus?”
Wallis’s response is found in his new book. The answer to “bad” Christianity is more faithful allegiance to Jesus Christ. A statement of what that allegiance means is found in the “Reclaiming Jesus” document drafted during the Lenten season of 2018, and Wallis’s book is largely based on that statement. (Here is the link to that important document.)
So, am I embarrassed to be a Christian? Yes and no.
I am embarrassed to be a Christian when lumped in with people mentioned in the first part of this article. But I am certainly not embarrassed to be a Christian when identified with people like Jim Wallis and the Christian leaders who signed—and the many Christians who agree with—the “Reclaiming Jesus” document.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Doing Things WITH Rather Than Just FOR the “Needy”

Jean Vanier (1928~2019) and his meritorious life dedicated to living in community with people who had serious mental and/or physical “disabilities” was the topic of my Sept. 10 blog posting. This article is about one of Vanier’s main emphases: doing things with rather than just for people with serious needs.

In Harmony with Vanier
In his L’Arche homes, Vanier and those who followed his example, modeled what it means to treat people who have physical needs with respect. They chose to live with people who had serious mental and/or physical “handicaps,” not just to provide homes where they could be taken care of.
Before I learned about Vanier and L’Arche, I heard about similar institutions in Japan, institutions very much in harmony with the L’Arche movement Vanier began in France in 1964.
Two years before Vanier started the first L’Arche home, Fukui Tatsu’u (福井 達雨), a 32-year-old Japanese man, founded what became Shiyo Gakuen (止揚学園) as a home for physically challenged people.
Fukui, a 1956 graduate of the Department of Theology of the renowned Doshisha University in Kyoto, remained the head of Shiyo Gakuen until 2015.
During the years I taught at Seinan Gakuin, Fukui-sensei was invited many times to be the guest speaker during the “Christian Focus Week” special chapel services at the university and the junior-senior high school. He always emphasized doing things with the “needy,” not just doing things for them.
In 1976, Hisayama Ryoikuen (久山療育), a similar facility, was established in the outskirts of Fukuoka City. Their emphasis from the beginning has been “living with” (tomo ni, pronounced toh-moh knee, in Japanese).
Doing something for others is expressed in Japanese as tame ni (pronounced tah-meh knee). These similar words express a great difference—and the former continues to be admirably modeled by Hisayama Ryoikuen, Shiyo Gakuen, and Jean Vanier’s L’Arche homes. 
From a Hisayama Ryoikuen poster emphasizing "living with"
In the Spirit of Vanier
I don’t know if he was influenced at all by Jean Vanier, but Chris Arnade is a fascinating man who spent a considerable amount of time in the 2010s living out the spirit of Vanier by constant contact with the “underclass” of American society.
Arnade (b. 1965) earned a Ph.D. in physics and then worked with a Wall Street bank for twenty years before becoming a freelance writer and photographer. In 2012 he began visiting a neighborhood in the South Bronx where he became friends with homeless people, sex workers, and addicts.
Arnade then traveled over 150,000 miles around the U.S., spending time with “back row” people in American society. Based upon his experiences, earlier this year Arnade published a book titled Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.
I first learned about Arnade’s book by reading Peter Mommsen’s excellent interview with Arnade published in the Summer 2019 issue of Plough Quarterly. That interview and the book are both very impressive.
The first chapter of Arnade’s book is titled, “If You Want to Understand the Country, Visit McDonald’s.” He spent countless hours in McDonald’s restaurants talking with the people who are frequent visitors there.
Arnade concluded that many of the people he found at McDonald’s felt “excluded, rejected, and, most of all, humiliated.” He recognized that society has “denied many their dignity” (p. 284)—thus the title, and thrust, of his book.
At the end of his interview with Mommsen, Arnade emphasized, “Take time to listen to people. Give them respect.”
While most of us can’t, or won’t, choose to live in a L’Arche home or a similar institution, we can choose to spend more time with “needy” people of various sorts, seeking to show them dignity and respect by doing things with them rather than just doing something for them.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Still Fed Up with Fundamentalism’s View of Three Other Issues

Abortion. Homosexuality. Capital punishment. These are the three highly controversial issues dealt with in the ninth chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, which is currently being (slightly) revised and updated. And, yes, I am fed up with the predominant conservative evangelical views on all three of these highly contentious issues. 
What about Abortion?
As I write in the ninth chapter of Fed Up . . ., back in 1986 I felt too intimidated to attend a political rally in Kansas City because of the protesters who had gathered outside the venue, yelling “Baby killer! Baby killer!” as the candidate who had come to speak was noted for her acceptance of abortion in some cases.
Obviously, these were anti-abortion (aka “pro-life”) people protesting the “pro-choice” (aka pro-abortion) position of Harriet Woods, the senatorial candidate and the sitting Lieutenant Governor—the first woman ever elected to statewide office in Missouri.
Following the long tradition of the Catholic Church, in recent decades most conservative evangelical Christians have adopted the view that human life begins at conception, so all abortions are the same as murder, for they kill human beings. That view was the basis for the raucous protests against Woods (1927~2007).
However, neither science nor the Bible unambiguously specifies when human life begins. Thus, most of us non-fundamentalist Christians hold that abortion, especially when done in the first trimester, should be legal, safe, and rare.
What about LBGTQ Equality?
The LGBTQ issue is the second explosive matter that partly explains the overwhelming support of DJT by conservative evangelicals from before his election in 2016 to the present. Although it is hard to know what DJT actually believes on any issue, it is clear that Clinton was/is not only “pro-choice” but also advocates LBGTQ equality.
Most conservative evangelical Christians “cherry-pick” Bible verses to strongly oppose equality for practicing homosexual persons or the right of gays/lesbians to marry.
Although the right to marry has been granted by the Supreme Court (in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015), many evangelicals continue to oppose same-sex marriage just as they still oppose abortion despite the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973.
I am fed up with the negative, judgmental, “holier-than-thou” attitude of most conservative evangelicals on this issue as well. Not only do they condemn even “monogamous” homosexual activity, they covertly support discrimination against and harassment of LGBTQ persons.
And now, legislation which seeks to protect gays/lesbians from mistreatment is seen by some evangelicals as curtailing their (the evangelicals’ own) religious freedom! Surely, though, religious freedom, which I continue to advocate strongly, can never be condoned if that “freedom” results in harming other people.
What about Capital Punishment?
It cannot be denied that the Old Testament not only condones capital punishment, it even commands it.
It is not surprising, therefore, that fundamentalists and most conservative evangelicals who view the Old and New Testaments as equally inspired and equally the inerrant Word of God, which is to be literally interpreted and followed, are also people who generally favor the use of capital punishment.
It seems disingenuous, though, to base the legitimacy, or the necessity, of capital punishment in contemporary society because of the teachings of the Bible but then completely disregard the many commands—such as for cursing parents (Ex. 21:17), profaning the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14), or committing adultery (Lev. 20:10)—for the use of capital punishment in the Old Testament.
Most of us Christians who are not, or no longer, fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals recognize the clear call for capital punishment for various crimes/”sins” in the Old Testament. However, based on the teachings of Jesus, we believe that Christians should oppose, rather than affirm, capital punishment.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Seriously Thinking about Syria

Earlier this week, June and I had the privilege of hearing Susan Rice interviewed in Kansas City. As many of you will remember, she was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation from 2009 to 2013 and then the U.S. National Security Advisor from 2013 until 2017. 
Susan Rice speaking in
Kansas City on Oct. 22
Rice’s Tough Love
Susan Rice (b. 1964) was in Kansas City largely to promote her new book Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For (which I frugally checked out of the library rather than purchasing for $30).
Although the entire book would certainly be worth reading, to this point I have only read the Prologue, the encouraging last chapter titled “Bridging the Divide,” and the parts on Syria (primarily pages 362~9). It is mainly the latter that I am referring to in this article.
DJT’s Position on Syria
Back in April 2017, a few days after the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on western Syria, I posted a blog article titled “A ‘Syrious’ Matter” (and was told by a Thinking Friend that “it's probably best not to use a pun in the title”).
I did have serious doubts about the wisdom of that missile attack. Fortunately, though, it did not lead to the dire consequences I feared it might. Then in a tweet last week (on 10/20), DJT touted his action against Syria: “I did something, 58 missiles.” (The news reports all gave the number as 59, but why quibble over a missile or two?)
In that same tweet, DJT wrote, “Pelosi is now leading a delegation of 9 . . . to Jordan to check out Syria. She should find out why Obama drew The Red Line in the Sand, & then did NOTHING, LOSING Syria & all respect. . . . One million died under Obama’s mistake!”
Two days earlier, DJT tweeted: “Susan Rice, who was a disaster to President Obama as National Security Advisor, is now telling us her opinion on what to do in Syria. Remember RED LINE IN THE SAND?” That was Obama. Millions killed! No thanks Susan, you were a disaster.”
But last December, DJT suddenly announced that he was withdrawing all U.S. military forces from Syria. The situation there is still in considerable flux, but it seems that DJT’s startling announcement is of considerable benefit to Syrian President Assad—and to Russian President Putin.
Clearly that announcement, sadly, means manifest danger to the Kurds.
Rice’s Position on Syria
When President Obama announced in August 2013 his decision not to take action against Syria—despite what he had said about a red line—his National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, disagreed, the lone dissenter among Obama’s closest advisors.
In her book, though, Rice admits, “Without the use of force, we ultimately achieved a better outcome than I had imagined” (p. 365). And then despite her initial position, she concludes, “I believe we were correct not to become more deeply involved militarily in Syria” (p. 369).
Even though Obama then, and up until now, has been repeatedly criticized for not acting on his “red line” position, I thought then and even more so now that he was correct—and I was happy to hear Rice came to that same conclusion.
But DJT’s recent tweets are ludicrous. Millions were certainly not killed because the U.S. did not use military force against Syria, force that could have led to major military conflict with Russia. There is no evidence that Obama made a mistake by his lack of action.
On the other hand, it now seems clear that DJT has made a major mistake in removing U.S. troops from northeastern Syria--and Susan Rice’s serious thinking and recent remarks about Syria are far superior to those of the current President.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

An Asian Theologian Worth Knowing

Most likely, many readers of this blog know of few, if any, Asian theologians. In this article, I am introducing one of my favorites, C.S. Song, the Taiwanese theologian who celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday. 
Introducing Song
Song Choan-Seng (宋 泉盛), generally known in the West as C.S. Song, was born on October 19, 1929, in the southwestern Taiwan city of Tainan. He earned the Ph.D. degree from Union Theological Seminary in 1965.
After years of being a theology professor and college/seminary administrator in Taiwan, Song taught for many years at the Pacific School of Religion in California and is now the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Asian Cultures of that institution.
From 1997 to 2004, Song was also the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
Back in 1990, Song came to Japan and I was able to hear his lectures in Kyoto. Not only was I impressed by what he said, I was also impressed by what a warm and genuine human being he is.
I went to hear Song’s lectures because I had read several of his books; after that, I read and published reviews of a few more of his books.
Introducing Song’s Books
C.S. Song’s first major book was Christian Mission in Reconstruction: An Asian Analysis (1975). As a relatively young missionary, I read that work with considerable interest.
It was his next two books, though, that I found to be even more engaging: Third-Eye Theology: Theology in Formation in Asian Settings (1979) and The Compassionate God: An Exercise in the Theology of Transposition (1982).
Seeking a theological perspective from an East Asian rather than a Western viewpoint, I found Song’s books to be both challenging and rewarding.
In 1983 I wrote a lengthy two-part essay about Song’s theology that was published (in Japanese) in The Seinan Theological Review, the academic journal of the Department of Theology, Seinan Gakuin University.
After the publishing of his important 1986 work Theology from the Womb of Asia, Song wrote a trilogy on the person and message of Jesus: Jesus, the Crucified People (1990), Jesus and the Reign of God (1993), and Jesus in the Power of the Spirit (1994).
These are not the only books that Song has written, but they are the ones that were most important to me as I increasingly tried to think about theology in an Asian context.
Introducing Song’s Importance
In the early 1970s, the Taiwanese theologian known in the West as Shoki Coe (1914~88) began to emphasize contextualizing theology. That approach was forwarded by Song, his younger colleague whose early books especially emphasized the Asian context.
As an American seeking to teach Christian Studies and Christian theology to Japanese students and as a worker in Japanese churches, Song’s work became quite influential to my theological outlook.
Among other things, Song questioned the “Western” concept of “salvation history” (to which I referred in my 11/25/18 blog article). The appeal of the historical meaning of the Israelites in “Old Testament” times and later of Jesus Christ and the early church is much greater, to say the least, in the Western world than in Asia.
Song’s strong emphasis on God being known through Creation is another main idea that I encountered from reading his books. In his 2019 book The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr has, in a similar vein, significantly written about creation being the first Incarnation.
Whereas Western Christians emphasize God as being knowable only, or at least mainly, through Jesus Christ, as an East Asian Christian theologian Song emphasized God as also being knowable through the creation and by means of Asian spirituality.

Although he has now come to the end of his productive life as a theologian, C.S. Song is certainly an Asian theologian worth knowing.

Bonus:  Early on the morning of March 30, 1990, when I was in Kyoto for Dr. Song's lectures, I wrote the following poem at the foot of Mt. Hiei, the “holy mountain” near Kyoto.

Monk upon the mountain, high above the city,
Do you look, bewildered, down on us with pity?
What does your holy hill have to do with Kyoto?
Can we catch its splendor in our instant photo?
From your ancient mountain, filled with moldy glories,
Can we understand your past and present stories?
What has God been saying, what are His mighty works?
Can you share the story which on your mountain lurks?
Let us bring a vessel, dip it in the fountain,
And drink from the story of the monk upon the mountain.