Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Lying Down with the Lions

Although perhaps he is now not widely known or remembered, this article is posted as a tribute to Ron Dellums, a man whom I long admired—and who died a year ago today, on July 30, 2018.  
Ron Dellums (1997 portrait by Andre White)
Who Was Ron Dellums?
Ronald Vernie Dellums was born in West Oakland, Calif., in 1935. Following a stint in the Marine Corps from 1954~56, Ron earned the B.A. degree from San Francisco State University in 1960 and his Master of Social Work degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1962.
After working for a few years as a social worker and a community organizer, in 1967 Dellums won his first political election and became a member of the Berkeley [Calif.] City Council. Three years later he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for the next 27 years without interruption.
Dellums decided to retire from the House in 1998, although he would undoubtedly have won re-election for another term had he wished to remain in Congress. Later he did run for another political office and consequently succeeded Jerry Brown as Mayor of Oakland (Calif.), serving in that office from 2007~11.
At the age of 82, Dellums died of complications from prostate cancer.
Why Praise Ron Dellums?
You might wonder why I was such an admirer of Congressman Dellums and why I am writing about him now. In the early 1970s, I became aware of, and appreciative of, Dellums because of his thoroughgoing opposition to the war in Vietnam/Indochina.
(I probably first heard of Dellums from reading The Post-American, which began publication in 1971 largely as an anti-Vietnam War tabloid and which later became Sojourners magazine.)
All along I liked Dellums’s consistent opposition to increased military spending and support for more spending on anti-poverty programs. And then later I—and Nelson Mandela!—applauded his pivotal part in helping to end apartheid in South Africa.
Overall, I was an admirer of Dellums because of his commitment to the implementation of principles he learned from Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1967 he heard King give a speech in Berkeley. In that talk, King argued that “peace is more than merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.”
Dellums accepted the truth of what King said. He realized (as recorded in the book cited below), “By working for peace you must work for justice; by working for justice you work to bring about peace” (p. 49). His whole political career was rooted in that realization.
When he announced his retirement from Congress in 1997, he said that he knew he had “maintained faith.” He stated, “I had been comprehensive in my moral concerns; I had sought to live and work from a perspective of peace; I had sought to link the quest for peace with the quest for justice” (p. 198).
When he left his congressional seat, Dellums was succeeded by Barbara Lee, whom he mentored and whom I have also admired over the last 20 years. (Lee, b. 1946, still is serving in the House.)
Why Read Ron Dellums?
Dellums’s political memoir was published in 2000 under the title Lying Down with the Lions. It is an engrossing book that I greatly enjoyed reading.
Written with the assistance of H. Lee Halterman, a white man who was his chief aide for 28 years, Dellums’s book details the inspiration behind, the struggles in, and the accomplishments of his political career up to his departure from the House.
The title apparently comes from Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom (see Isaiah 11:6-7). It was inspiring to me and many others to have a U.S. Congressman with that kind of vision. May his tribe increase!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Still Fed Up with Fundamentalism's View of Religious Freedom

This article is based on the sixth chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (2007), which I am currently updating (and slightly revising) for re-publication by the end of the year. Matters related to religious freedom were not prominent during the first decades of fundamentalist Christianity, but such matters became a major concern in the 1980s and the following decades.  
Current Emphases
From the first years of the resurgence of fundamentalism, conservative evangelical Christians have made ongoing efforts to get prayer back into public schools, to procure sanctions for public displays of the Ten Commandments, and to protect the use of “one nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance and “in God we trust” on USAmerican currency.
Those emphases were accompanied by strong condemnation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which conservative evangelicals saw/see mainly as an anti-Christian organization. To combat the activities of the ACLU, in 1990 Pat Robertson founded a new legal action organization, naming it the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
The headquarters of ACLJ is, as they proudly state, “just steps away from the Supreme Court and Congress.” Since 1992, Jay Sekulow has been the chief counsel of ACLJ. Many of you, though, know his name in another context: in 2017 Sekulow (b. 1956) also became one of DJT’s lawyers.
The ACLJ has been a major force of the Religious Right seeking religious freedom as they understand it. But the freedom they seek is mainly the freedom for Judeo-Christian religion to have predominance in the public square.
Current Ties to the Republican Party
It is evident that the ACLJ and most other Religious Right organizations are closely aligned with the Republican Party. That link is clearly seen with Sekulow being both the chief counsel of the ACLJ and a prominent member of the President’s legal team.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is another prominent organization of the Christian Right. Incorporated in 2009, founder Ralph Reed (b. 1961) has described it as “a 21st century version of the Christian Coalition.”
Even though it is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, there is no question of it working
“hand in glove” with the Republican Party.
Since 2010, they have held conferences in Washington, D.C. My 6/5/11 blog article was about the 2011 conference, which I attended as a researcher. Nearly all the Republican 2012 presidential hopefuls spoke, as did DJT, who decided not to run for President that year.
The ties of the Faith and Freedom Coalition as a conservative evangelical Christian organization and the Republican Party could not have been more evident. This link as well as much that was said about the emphases mentioned above, also made evident a very questionable understanding of the principle of the separation of church and state.
Current Rejection of the Separation of Church and State
Although I am still very much a baptist (with a small “b”), Fed Up with Fundamentalism was written when I was still a Baptist, and the sixth chapter is clearly the most Baptistic chapter of the book.
Earlier and more consistently than any other Christian denomination, beginning with Roger Williams, who in 1638 started the first Baptist church in what is now the United States, up until about forty years ago Baptists have been outspoken proponents of the principle of the separation of church and state.
(Click here to read my 2/5/11 article titled “In Praise of Roger Williams.”)
But with the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, that historic position has been largely lost. Consequently, I am fed up with fundamentalism’s view of religious freedom, for it does not endorse that precious freedom for all people equally.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Is the Fear of Fascism Ill-Founded?

Being an alarmist has never appealed to me, and I have usually taken a rather negative view toward those who seemed to be alarmists. There are highly reputable people, though, who now assert that we in the U.S. should be alarmed about the nation’s drift toward fascism. Is such fear of fascism ill-founded?
Warnings about Fascism
Two important books published last year stressed the looming danger of fascism in the U.S. In September 2018, Random House published Yale professor Jason Stanley’s small book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
In his book Stanley (b. 1969) identifies three essential features of fascism: invoking a mythic past, sowing division, and attacking truth. Guess who he sees as blatantly doing that in the U.S. now? 
Stanley’s main points are summarized in a video you can see here. It is titled “If You’re Not Scared About Fascism in the U.S., You Should Be.” It's well worth five minutes of your time.
Earlier last year, Madeleine Albright’s book Fascism: A Warning was published. She, too, is highly critical of DJT. In the last chapter of her book she writes,
Trump is the first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. history. On too many days, beginning in the early hours, he flaunts his disdain for democratic institutions, the ideals of equality and social justice, civil discourse, civic virtues, and America itself (p. 246).
And things have only gotten worse in the year and more since Albright wrote her powerful bookjust consider DJT’s deplorable tweets about “the Squad” last week and what he said in North Carolina on Wednesday evening. 
Barmen 1934
Are there significant similarities between the U.S. as it is now and Germany as it was in 1934? Both Stanley and Albright seem to think so, although they realize there are many differences also.
In opposition to the rise of fascism in Germany under Hitler and the Nazis—and most German Christians who supported them—a group of perceptive Christians formed what was known as the Confessing Church.
Led by Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in May 1934 they and their colleagues produced what was titled (in English) The Theological Declaration of Barmen. (Barmen is the name of a city in Germany.) 
This Barmen Declaration was drawn up in opposition to the political situation in Germany under Hitler and the Nazi Party. But it was primarily a statement of opposition to the state church, which affirmed the actions and leadership of Nazi Germany in order to ensure its privileged place in society.
Certainly, one of the major failings of 20th century Christianity was the failure of most German Christians to stand against Hitler and the Nazisand to stand up for the Jewish people who were so hideously mistreated and killed.
Barmen Today
Just about a year ago, Richard Rohr as well as faculty and students of the Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, created a petition on Change.org. The petition’s title is “Barmen Today: A Contemporary Contemplative Declaration.” As of this morning, more than 19,200 people, including me, have signed it.  
After giving a brief introduction to the Barmen Declaration of 1934, the Barmen Today petition states,
In contemporary America, we face parallel threats and affirmations as prominent and privileged leaders of America’s Christian churches choose to closely and publicly support the policies and actions of our nation’s leadership – policies and actions irreconcilable with the pursuit of peace and justice. Many of these policies and actions demean people of color, support hate-filled speech from white supremacists, ostracize gender minorities, demonize refugees and immigrants, and ignore climate change realities.
One alarming similarity between the U.S. now and Germany in 1934 is the overwhelming support of the current President and his Administration by so many conservative evangelical Christians.
Will You Sign, Sign On?
Here is the link to where you can sign Barmen Today. I hope many of you will do that. Unfortunately, the fear of fascism in the U.S. certainly does not seem to be ill-founded.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Remembering Paul Simmons

When he died in March of this year, Paul Simmons was called an “outspoken Baptist ethicist” and “a lightning rod at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for advocating a woman’s right to abortion” (quotes from this article). I remember Paul as a Christian gentleman, a brilliant scholar, and a friend since 1955.
Introducing Paul
Paul D. Simmons was born in Tennessee on July 18, 1936, so this Thursday is the 83rd anniversary of his birth.
Paul matriculated at Southwest Baptist College (SWBC, now SBU) in the fall of 1954, and June and I met him a year later when we became students there. He was one of the “big men on campus,” and one of the upperclassmen at the junior college whom I admired the most.
After graduating from SWBC in 1956, Paul finished his college work at Union University in Tennessee, earned two degrees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, and then in 1969 completed his Ph.D. degree in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Kentucky.
Paul was an instructor in Christian Ethics at SBTS while a graduate student and then joined the faculty there in 1970, receiving tenure in 1975 and promotion to full professor in 1982. Ten years later the trustees of SBTS began to work on ways to remove Simmons from the faculty.
In January 1993, Paul took “early retirement” (at the age of 56!) from SBTS. After a few years teaching in Louisville as an adjunct professor, he then taught 20 years as Clinical Professor of Family & Geriatric Medicine at the University of Louisville, retiring at the age of 80. (Click here for his obituary.)  

Introducing Paul’s Book
In addition to numerous scholarly articles for various publications, Paul was the author of three major books, the first of which was Birth and Death: Bioethical Decision Making (1983).
That book was published not long after the beginning of the “conservative resurgence” (a.k.a. “the fundamentalist takeover”) in the Southern Baptist Convention. In the early 1980s, the Religious Right began a strong anti-abortion campaign, and because of the position Paul propounded in his book he increasingly came under attack.
“Abortion: The Biblical and Human Issues” is the third of six cogently written chapters. In the initial chapter, “Bioethics: Science and Human Values,” Paul clearly states the two basic assumptions underlying his research and writing. “The first is that the Bible not only is relevant but is indispensable for Christian ethical understanding.”
Then, “A second major assumption is that there is no irreconcilable tension between the Bible and modern science” (p. 21).
The second chapter is “The Bible and Bioethical Decision-Making,” and Paul asserts at the end of that chapter, “The starting point for all Christian ethical action is in the person’s relationship to Christ” (p. 63).
I certainly agree with Paul’s two assumptions as well as his key emphases in the second chapter--and one would think that most contemporary Christians would also. Nevertheless, partly because of the sixth chapter in his book, Paul was, deplorably, driven away from his tenured faculty position by the ever-increasing conservatism of SBTS.
Reconnecting with Paul
In January 2011, June and I drove to New Orleans where I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics. One of the highlights of that conference was seeing Paul again and the three of us having a meal together.
He was the same sincere, sweet-spirited person we had known 55 years earlier at SWBC, and we deeply enjoyed having conversation with him again.
So, we were greatly saddened when in March we heard of Paul’s passing, and we remember him with abiding appreciation for the fine man and good scholar he was.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Whose Land Was/Is It?

It seems quite simple: land belongs to whomever has a deed to it. That seems clear-cut here in the U.S. But things are usually not as simple as they seem on the surface: there haven’t always been deeds--and were the first deeds legitimate? This matter impinges on the issue of the treatment/mistreatment of indigenous peoples in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The Claim of the American Indians
As is widely known, for thousands of years the Jews have claimed that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was given to them by the Creator God and it rightfully belongs to them in perpetuity.
While it is not codified in a holy book such as the Jews have in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), Native Americans have also claimed that the lands of North America were given to them by the Great Spirit.
Here are words attributed to Tasunke Witko (a.k.a. Crazy Horse, Oglala Lakota, d. 1877):
We did not ask you white men to come here. The Great Spirit gave us this country as a home. You had yours. We did not interfere with you. The Great Spirit gave us plenty of land to live on, and buffalo, deer, antelope and other game. But you have come here; you are taking my land from me; you are killing off our game, so it is hard for us to live.
Land Acknowledgement
In recent years there has been a movement to begin public meetings of people in the dominant U.S. culture with a statement acknowledging that they are gathered on lands that once belonged to others—and not necessarily acquired justly.  
Last week Ruth Harder, my pastor, made a land acknowledgement at the opening of the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City. Following her example, I made a similar but much shorter acknowledgement as worship leader at Rainbow Mennonite Church (RMC) this past Sunday.
Here is what I said:
We acknowledge as we gather at this place that this is land that once was home to the Kaw/Kansa and Osage Native Americans and that it was not necessarily acquired from them in a just manner. We regret the unjust deeds done in the past and commit ourselves now to work for peace and reconciliation with all people and with the natural world in the future.
But as I wrote above, things are not usually as simple as they seem on the surface. For example, while the land on which RMC’s building stands was ceded to the U.S. by an 1825 treaty agreed to by the Kaw Nation, it seems now that it was clearly a treaty that was most disadvantageous for the Native Americans.
On the other hand, the Kaw/Kansa tribe had not been on that land stretching back for centuries. They had migrated there from east of the Mississippi River. Did they ever acknowledge that they were occupying land once claimed as homeland by others? Probably not.
George C. Sibley, an “Indian agent” assigned to Fort Osage (in west-central Missouri) in 1808, noted that the Kaw/Kansa nation was “seldom at peace with any of their neighbors, except the Osage.” The Pawnee Indians, who had been in the region earlier, were their “traditional enemies.”
Much of that tension among the Native American tribes was most likely over the question of who had claim to the land they were on.
What Can We Do?
We can’t change the past, but we can use recognition of past injustices as a spur to work for justice now. Land acknowledgement is not for the purpose of making us feel guilty for the past; rather, it is to encourage us to work for justice in the future.

Friday, July 5, 2019

What's Wrong with Gerrymandering?

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” Except for diehard Republicans, that SCOTUS ruling is widely seen as a questionable and damaging ruling for a (small “d”) democratic society. But what’s wrong with gerrymandering? 
A Long-used Partisan Practice
As you know, partisan gerrymandering is the practice of politicians manipulating voting district boundaries to favor one political party over another. As Doug Criss explains in this helpful 6/27 article,
In most states, state legislators and the governor control the once-a-decade line-drawing process. So what happens when one party controls the state House, the state Senate and the governor's mansion? The party usually does everything in its power to draw the lines in a way that favors them and puts their political opponents at a disadvantage.

This practice has a long history. In fact, it goes back to 1810 when Elbridge Gerry was governor of the great state of Massachusetts. A salamander-shaped district was drawn in the northern part of the state, and that helped Gerry’s colleagues hold on to power in the state legislature.
So, Gov. Gerry’s name and the salamander-shaped district were mashed together, and politicians have been practicing gerrymandering, by that name, ever since.
The following simple chart shows how it is possible to manipulate elections by the way the lines are drawn: 
A Recently-used Partisan Practice
Districts for electing U.S. Representatives are based upon the latest census information, and the partisan practice of gerrymandering has been used more widely and more precisely since the 2010 election.
That sordid story is told in the provocative book Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, by David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon.com.
In the Introduction, Daley writes,
This is the story of the audacious Republican plan . . . to create supermajorities for conservative policies in otherwise blue and purple states. This is the story of the actual redrawing of the American political map and of our democracy itself. It’s the story of how Republicans turned a looming demographic disaster into legislative majorities so unbreakable, so impregnable, that none of the outcomes are in doubt until after the 2020 census (pp. xii-xiii).

Daley goes on to declare, “The Democratic majority was ratfucked.” He explains: “In politics, a ‘ratfuck’ is a dirty deed done dirt cheap” (p. xiii). (It was a term used in All the President’s Men, the story of the Watergate scandal.)
After the election of Obama in 2008, the Republicans used gerrymandering to their great advantage following the 2010 census. That was masterminded by Chris Jankowski, who designed REDMAP (the Redistricting Majority Project, explained here.)
A Harmfully-used Partisan Practice
There is no question but that gerrymandering has been used by both political parties. There is also no question but that gerrymandering is not a good thing. Why? Mainly because it is “a body blow to our democracy,” as Dahlia Lithwick put it in a June 27 Slate.com article.
Even Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion admitted that gerrymandering “leads to results that reasonably seem unjust” and that it is “incompatible with democratic principles.”
Nevertheless, he and the four other conservative justices decided that the federal courts are just not able to deal with the matter.
The other four justices--the three women justices and Justice Stephen G. Breyer--strongly disagreed, and the minority opinion was forcefully stated by Justice Elena Kagan.
Justice Kagan charged, “The gerrymanders here — and others like them — violated the constitutional rights of many hundreds of thousands of American citizens.”
Exactly—and that’s one major reason why gerrymandering is wrong.