Saturday, March 30, 2019

Biblical, but not Christian

This article is somewhat related to the one I posted on 9/20/17, which has garnered more than 1,050 pageviews, and to the fifth chapter of my Fed Up with Fundamentalism, about which I plan to post an article on 6/25/19. But because of the importance of the subject, please think with me about this matter now.
“The Bible says . . . “
As a young pastor, every sermon I preached was based on a Bible passage, and most sermons cited several other verses from various parts of the Bible. After all, back then Billy Graham, the most famous preacher in the world, repeatedly proclaimed, “the Bible says . . .“ in all of his powerful sermons.
Later, perhaps much too much later, I realized that the Bible says a lot of things—and that everything the Bible says is not Christian.
The word “Christian” as I am using it here means that which is in harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. The word “Christian” can, of course, refer to that—or those—associated with the religion known as Christianity. The better use, though, is with direct reference to the Christ from whom the religion sprang.
What Verses are Normative?
Many years ago, Kaneko Keiichi-sensei was a younger colleague of mine at Seinan Gakuin University in Japan. More than once I remember him asserting that it is not how many Bible verses one cites but which verses one cites that is of crucial importance.
At first, I didn’t grasp the import of Kaneko-sensei’s words, but I later came to appreciate the significance of his assertion. It is possible to quote a lot of Bible verses that are contrary to how Jesus lived and what he taught.
So, again, things can be biblical but not Christian.
As is often noted in this connection, “biblical” support for slavery in the 19th century and the “biblical” support for rejecting women in ministry in the 20th century are good examples for how the Bible has been (mis)used to maintain cultural norms.
Currently, the “hottest” issue is about acceptance/affirmation of LGBTQ people as equals within the church. The United Methodist Church last month approved the “biblical” position on that matter.
Unquestionably, Bible verses can be marshaled in support of slavery, against women in ministry as well as against acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transsexual persons. Those arguments can be touted as biblical. But are they Christian?
It depends on which verses one considers normative.
Reading the Bible Christianly
Last month Sojourners magazine printed “Not Everything ‘Biblical’ is Christlike,” a fine article by Stephen Mattson, one of my youngish Facebook friends. I highly recommend that relatively short piece.
In light of the recent controversy in the United Methodist Church, earlier last month a retired UM pastor in Georgia wrote an article titled “Be Careful Using the Bible.”  
And then, the first chapter of Chuck Queen’s 2013 book Being a Progressive Christian is quite good. He begins Chapter 1 with the assertion, “What the Bible says is not necessarily what God says.”
Or, it could be asserted that the Bible may be the “Word of God” but not all of the words in the Bible are the words of God. This is important to realize, for as Queen says, “The direct identification of God’s voice with what the Bible says has been used to justify all sorts of destructive biases and oppressive practices.”
I have written this article not to discourage reading the Bible. Rather, I am encouraging Christians to read the Bible “Christianly”—and to realize that many things can, indeed, be biblical but not Christian.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Resurgence of Fundamentalism

Last month I posted an article about the (slightly) updated first chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism (FuF), which I plan to re-publish at the end of the year. This article is about the updated and renamed second chapter.
Christian Fundamentalism from 1980 to 2005
The first chapter of FuF was largely a historical review of the rise and fall of fundamentalism as a major movement among Christians in the United States in the years between 1915 and 1940.
The second chapter is now primarily historical also, summarizing Christian fundamentalism in the twenty-five years from 1980 to 2005. That was a period marked by the renewal and resurgence of fundamentalist prestige and power, a period of unprecedented growth in denominational organizations and institutions.
Moreover, during those years the fundamentalist-fueled “Religious Right,” also called the “New Christian Right,” greatly increased in numbers and strength not only in ecclesiastical circles but especially in the political arena.
In fact, perhaps the major difference between the fundamentalism of 1915~1940 and the fundamentalism of 1980~2005 was its pervasive participation in politics during the latter period.
Fundamentalist Leaders from 1980 to 2005
In Chapter One I wrote about four main leaders of Christian fundamentalism from 1915 to 1940. Among many leaders that might have been considered in the second chapter, I focus on these four: Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Albert Mohler.
Two of these four have already died (Falwell in 2007 and LaHaye in 2016) and one is now quite elderly (Robertson celebrated his 89th birthday this month). Only Mohler (b. 1959) is still an active leader and spokesman.
Understanding the thought and public activities of these four men—and because of its inherent patriarchalism, the fundamentalist leaders past and present have been men—goes a long way toward understanding the growth and power of conservative evangelicalism in this recent historical period.
Moreover, their strong influence continues to the present day.
Fundamentalism in Other Religions
In the introduction of her widely-read book The Battle for God (2001), Karen Armstrong asserts: “One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as ‘fundamentalism’” (p. ix).  
Interestingly, perhaps now more people associate the word “fundamentalists” with Islamists more than with Christians. At any rate, the third part of Chapter Two gives a brief summary of Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalism. 
As I say at the end of the chapter, fundamentalists in all religions are the “true believers,” committed to what they consider to be the absolute truth. Consequently, they are not willing to accept any compromise with anything they deem as deviant from their foundational faith.
While writing this chapter back in 2005, it seemed that there was every likelihood that in the years ahead there would be escalating conflicts between Christian fundamentalists and the fundamentalists in other religions—but now it seems as if that scenario has not developed as much as considered likely then.
However, I also wrote then that there would be ongoing conflicts between fundamentalists and other Christians in this country—and that has certainly been the case from 2005 until the present, seen particularly in the support of DJT by conservative evangelicals.
When working on FuF 15 years ago, I never dreamed that the fundamentalists, by whatever name they’re called, would be the demographic most in support of a President such as the current one.
Chapter Three, which I will write about next month, deals largely with this question: why in the years between 1980 and 2005 did Christian fundamentalism grow in such numerical strength and political power?

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Worst Aspect of Racial Segregation

Vital Conversations is a monthly discussion group that meets in the Northland of Kansas City. June and I have been regular members of that group for more than twelve years now, and we have enjoyed many profitable discussions there.

Some of My Best Friends are Black

At the March 13 Vital Conversations meeting, the 25 or so who attended discussed Tanner Colby’s book Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America (2012).  

The meeting was a very helpful one, especially since there were four African-Americans present—including the venerable Alvin Brooks (b. 1932), a civil rights leader who is a former police officer and former city councilman of Kansas City.

The second part of Colby’s book is about racial segregation in housing—and in getting loans for purchasing a home. The situation in Kansas City is a prime example of segregation having been actively enforced by housing planning—and restrictions.

In particular, Colby writes about J.C. Nichols, whom Colby (no doubt rightfully) calls “the most influential real estate developer” in the U.S. during the first half of the twentieth century. Colby adds, “One could make the argument that he still holds that title today, despite being dead for sixty years.” (p. 82).

(Specifically, Nichols died in February 1950, several months before his 70th birthday.)

Nichols was the developer of Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, regarded as the nation’s first shopping center. After his death, he was memorialized with the impressive J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, just east of the Plaza, and the nearby street renamed the J.C. Nichols Parkway in 1952.

The King of Kings County

In addition to the County Club district and Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, a lasting legacy of J.C. Nichols is the development of Johnson County, Kansas, whose eastern border is just a mile west of the Plaza.

That story, which is told to some extent in Colby’s book, is the theme of the novel The King of Kings County (2005) by Whitney Terrell, a nephew by marriage to J.C. Nichols’ son Miller.

As Colby writes, the novel “tells the story of Kansas City’s blockbusting and suburbanization in a way that only a novel can: fictionalized, but brutally truthful” (p. 291).

(In the book, Nichols is called Bowen, the Plaza is Campanile, and Johnson County is Kings County, but for those who know the history of Kansas City, the identification is obvious.)

“Troost Avenue”

Adam Hamilton is the best-known Christian pastor in Johnson County, Kansas. He is pastor of the 20,000-member Church of the Resurrection, said to be the largest United Methodist Church in the U.S.

“Troost Avenue” is the title of the fifth chapter of Hamilton’s 2018 book Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times.

As also explained in the books mentioned above, Hamilton writes, “The street in Kansas City that serves as the dividing line between predominantly white and black communities is Troost Avenue” (p. 57).

As some blacks sought to move west, Nichols and Bob Wood, an unscrupulous realtor, found ways to profit greatly by the development of Johnson County. They developed “restrictive covenants” that prevented African Americans from buying homes in many of the new, and white, communities.

Black homeowners and communities were also greatly disadvantaged by redlining and other means that meant financial loss.

I used to think that racial segregation was bad because of the deprivation resulting from being separate—and certainly repressive restrictions and lack of freedom are major problems.

But I have come to see that maybe the worst aspect of segregation has been the financial inequity entwined with forced separation.
Perhaps now the major goal is not integration (or equality) but rather thoroughgoing equity.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Is It Anti-Semitic to Criticize Israel?

Anti-Semitism has a long and sordid existence in world history. As is the case with all discriminatory language and actions, anti-Semitism cannot be condoned no matter when or by whom it is expressed. But neither can charges of anti-Semitism be used as a means to stifle legitimate criticism of the nation of Israel.

The Recent Ruckus
As has been widely covered in the news media over the past few weeks, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks that have upset many Congresspeople, among others, including some Democrats.
Some, though, understand Rep. Omar's voicing criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and as not being anti-Semitic at all.
According to Merriam-Webster, “anti-Semitic” means “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.” There was nothing in Rep. Omar’s statements about the Jews. She spoke only with reference to the nation of Israel and its supporters.
(Of course, it clouds the picture that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently publicly stated that Israel “is the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people”—in spite of the fact that about 20% of the population are Arabs.)
Pro-Palestinian Pronouncements
President Jimmy Carter had considerable experience on matters directly connected to the Middle East. He made a vital contribution to implementing the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt—which resulted in Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt being awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.
More than 25 years later, Carter wrote a highly controversial book: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006). Carter and his pro-Palestine stance were castigated not only by many Jewish people but also by some Democrats (such as Nancy Pelosi) who were/are not Jews—and by many conservative Christians.
June and I read Carter’s book in 2007 and were convinced that his criticism of Israel was correct—but certainly not anti-Semitic.
A much-maligned Jewish group goes by the name Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). The JVP, founded in 1996, has, along with some other Jewish groups and many individual Jews, publicly voiced strong support for Rep. Omar.
JVP’s mission statement (see here) clearly states that JVP members “are inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law, and a U.S. foreign policy based on these ideals.” 
What about BDS?
As perhaps most of you know, a movement known as BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) is a strong opponent of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. I first heard about BDS  in 2015 when I was in Israel.
I ended my 6/30/15 blog article, “The Plight of the Palestinians,” with a positive introduction of BDS. I was disappointed, but not particularly surprised, when I was reprimanded by a local Jewish rabbi whom I considered my friend.
Rep. Omar (b. 1981) has said that her grandfather taught her about the history of racial oppression in South Africa. Consequently, she has compared Israel to an “apartheid regime”—which is what Carter did, in effect, in his 2006 book.
In a 2017 speech, Rep. Omar said she remembered her grandfather talking about apartheid in South Africa and how some people “decided that they were going to engage in boycotts of that government.”
And, as we know, by 1994 apartheid had ended in South Africa.
It seems to me that the BDS movement was organized for the same sort of purpose as the anti-apartheid activities in opposition to South Africa’s policies.
So, I am not critical of Israel and in favor of the BDS movement because I have negative, prejudicial attitudes toward Jewish people. My criticism of Israel is because of that nation’s ongoing and patently unjust treatment of Palestinians.

[Addendum: On March 17, 2019, an op-ed piece by Rep. Omar was posted on The Washington Post’s website; her clarifying earlier statements as well as emphasizing the imperative for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine are most commendable.]

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Celebrating Einstein (and Pi Day)

This Thursday will be March 14, which, since it can be written as 3.14, has also become known as Pi Day (sometimes represented by a pie). But did you know that Einstein was born on Pi Day 140 years ago? He was, and with that in mind I am posting this to celebrate his life and legacy. 
Einstein’s Brief Bio
Albert Einstein was born in the German Empire on March 14, 1879. Even though the Einstein family were non-observant Jews, young Albert attended a Catholic elementary school for three years until the age of eight.
In 1896, Einstein renounced his German citizenship to avoid military service and enrolled in a Zurich, Switzerland, university. He graduated in 1900 and the following year he acquired Swiss citizenship. In 1906 he received his doctorate from the University of Zurich.
The year before finishing his doctorate, Einstein made a series of discoveries that altered the course of modern science. Those discoveries were embodied in his theory of special relativity, best known by a simple, elegant equation: E = mc2.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity was confirmed 100 years ago, in November 1919, during a total eclipse of the sun. Three years later, Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum theory—and became world-famous.
Shortly after the Nazis seized power in 1933, Einstein emigrated from Germany to the U.S., where he became a member of Princeton University’s Institute of Advanced Study—and he remained there until his death in 1955.
Even though Einstein was involved in the development of the atomic bomb, as a lifelong pacifist he was an outspoken advocate of nuclear control and world peace. As early as 1930 he declared, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only come by understanding.”
(Einstein’s thoughts on peace can be found in Einstein on Peace, the 2017 version of which is available on Kindle for just a few dollars.)
Einstein’s God
Krista Tippett is a journalist and author. Beginning in 2003 she conducted discussions on public radio related to the theme “Speaking of Faith”—and then in 2010 the name of her program was changed to, and has remained, “On Being.”
Einstein’s God (2010) is the title of Tippett’s second book, and it is based on interviews with 13 people and those interviews are said to be “conversations about science and the human spirit.”
The first chapter of Tippett’s book, and the only one explicitly about Einstein, contains material from the author’s interviews with Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies, two noted physicists.
Davies (b. 1946) points out that while Einstein did not believe in a personal God, as he clearly stated, he was a deist and was fond of using the word “God.” Here is one of Einstein’s most-cited quotations: “God does not play dice with the universe.”
(Einstein made that statement to express his antipathy to quantum physics and its indeterminism.)
Einstein on Science and Religion
According to Davies, Einstein believed “in a rational world order, and he expressed what he sometimes called a ‘cosmic religious feeling,’ a sense of awe, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe” (Tippett, p. 34).
At a 1940 conference on science, philosophy, and religion, Einstein asserted (see here) that there were “strong reciprocal relationships between science and religion.” Further, “science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding”—and that “source of feeling . . .  springs from the sphere of religion.”
Einstein then memorably stated that the interdependency of science and religion may be expressed by the following image:

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

What about Project Blitz?

The Project Blitz I am writing about in this article is not the footwear company that goes by that name or the 2018 Tony Alderman album with that same name. Rather, this is about the Project Blitz that is being waged by a coalition of Christian Right groups.
What is Project Blitz?
The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF) was formed in 2005 with a vision statement that includes “restoring Judeo-Christian principles to their rightful place” in American society.
Now the CPCF, along with other similar groups, is seeking to do this partly by Project Blitz.
According to their website, the purpose of Project Blitz is “To protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.”
As Wikipedia adequately summarizes, Project Blitz “is best known for providing model legislation, proclamations, and talking points for state and local legislators who wish to introduce bills that support religious freedom and liberty as defined by the Project.”
Project Blitz has introduced recommended legislation in many states and such legislation has already been passed in at least five states.
One Major Activity of Project Blitz
On January 28, President Trump tweeted, “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”
DJT’s tweet was in support of the activities of Project Blitz. Already this year, six states have introduced legislation pushing for public schools to offer Bible literacy classes.
Missouri (where I live) is one of those states. On Feb. 28, House bill No. 267 was passed by a committee and is moving toward a vote of the entire House—where it will likely pass.
The Missouri bill, like those in most other states which have already passed or are currently considering similar legislation, stipulate that the Bible classes are elective and do not violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Still, there are serious doubts about such legislation and opposition by even many Christians and Christian organizations.
Opposition to Project Blitz
Recently, the Kansas City Star published an editorial declaring, “Bible classes don’t belong in Missouri’s public high schools.” The editors write, “Allowing taxpayer-funded religion classes—and teaching a course centered on the Bible amounts to a religion class—raises troubling questions about the separation of church and state.”
Accordingly, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization I have supported for many years, has publicly announced opposition to Project Blitz. Soon after DJT’s 2/28 tweet, along with 43 other prominent organizations, they urged state lawmakers across the country to oppose Project Blitz.
They see the Project problematic because of their attempt to enshrine Christian nationalism into law.  
At the end of last year, Frederick Clarkson, an author who has long opposed the Christian Right, warned that Project Blitz was going to come on strong in 2019. I recommend the reading of his article (here) posted by Religion Dispatches.
Jonathan Davis is a youngish Baptist pastor in Virginia. On Feb. 25, Baptist News Global posted his opinion piece titled “Why I spoke out against Virginia’s ‘Bible bill,’ and why you should too when it comes to your state.”
The Virginia Senate passed SB1502 by a 22-18 vote, in spite of vocal opposition of Pastor Davis and other Baptists, among others, in the state.
Separation of church and state is a long-held principle of true Baptists, such as those of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, who are also actively seeking to counter the efforts of Project Blitz. (See this link.)
I heartily applaud all such efforts.