Friday, August 30, 2019

Lewis & Clark Expedition: The Good and the Bad

For several weeks I have wanted to think with you about the impressive feats of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It was 215 years ago in June that they first passed through what is now Kansas City, not far from where I live. Most of their long, dangerous journey was still ahead, though, and what a remarkable journey it was! 
Lewis & Clark Statue at Kaw Point, Kan. (one of my favorite places in Kansas City)
The Corps of Discovery
I had long mistakenly thought that Lewis & Clark’s expedition, which began in May 1804, was a direct result of the huge Louisiana Purchase realized when the U.S. signed a purchase treaty with France in April 1803.
(The Louisiana territory purchased was about 827,000 square miles. Some wonder if part of DJT’s recently reported desire to buy Greenland, which is more than 836,000 sq. mi., isn’t partly due to his desire to claim to have made the largest land purchase in U.S. history.)
Soon after Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he employed Meriwether Lewis as his personal secretary. By the next year, Jefferson was talking with Lewis about the possibility of him leading an expedition from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis (1774~1809) was making definite plans and assembling equipment necessary for such an expedition prior to the Louisiana Purchase, although the latter gave great impetus to implementing that treacherous journey.
In July 1803, William Clark (1770~1838) accepted Lewis’s invitation to become co-captain of the expedition, which came to be called the Corps of Discovery.
The next year on May 14, the Corps started up the Missouri River from the St. Louis area, beginning their long, dangerous trek to the Pacific Ocean. There were about 30 men who started this journey, including York, Clark’s personal black slave.
Positive Results
There were certainly many positive results of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—especially for white men like the expedition’s leaders and the President who dispatched them.
To cite “Lewis and Clark’s Historical Impact,” an online article, the expedition produced an accurately mapped route to the Pacific Ocean, introduced Americans and Europeans to hundreds of varieties of plants and animals, and opened up new territory for the fur and lumber trade.
Overall, it “allowed a young country to blossom into greatness.” Thus, there “is no doubt that the expedition of Lewis and Clark forever changed the course of the country’s history.”
Negative Results
The Introduction of a website titled “Origins of the Ideology of Manifest Destiny” begins, “The most influential ideology in our nation’s history is manifest destiny.”
It seems quite evident that the Lewis & Clark Expedition furthered that ideology. Although the term manifest destiny was not coined until 1845, the core belief that USAmericans were destined by God to reign over the entire continent seems to have been in the minds of the founders of the U.S.—and in the mind of President Jefferson.
Although Lewis and Clark did not seem to have any harsh or oppressive views of the American Indians they encountered, nevertheless, their expedition resulted in harsh and oppressive treatment of the Native Peoples for most of the 19th century.
A bicentennial article in Teaching Tolerance emphasizes that while “American history tends to eulogize what Lewis and Clark ‘found’ on their 7,400-mile journey,” for Native Americans “the story instead is about what was lost—lives, land, languages and freedom.”
In the same article, a Native American named BlueHorse lamented, “Within 100 years of Lewis and Clark passing through here, every Native nation they encountered”—and there were about 50 of them—“was displaced from their traditional lands and put on reservations.”
What, I wonder, can be done now to mitigate the highly negative results still remaining from Lewis and Clarks’ nation-changing expedition that began 215 years ago?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Still Fed Up with Fundamentalism’s View of War

For all of my life since high school days until the present, I have considered myself a pacifist. Thus, I have always been at odds with the predominant “just war” tradition in most Christian denominations—but never more so than for the support for war by conservative evangelical Christians in the U.S. after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. 
The Support of War by the Christian Right
Until the fourth century, almost all Christians eschewed war, but things changed dramatically after Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity for political and military reasons in 312 A.D.
Augustine (354~430) was one of the first great Christian theologians, and he developed a position that came to be known as the “just war” tradition. That position became predominant in the Roman Catholic Church—and then later in most Protestant denominations.
In this century, however, Christians who are now generally called conservative evangelicals have been the main supporters of the USAmerican “war on terror,” and they were especially prominent in giving President Bush almost unqualified support in launching the attack on Iraq in 2003.
Moreover, the mass of conservative evangelicals who are Trump supporters are highly favorable, it seems, to the military build-up by the U.S. government since 2017.
Nationalism and the Christian Right
As I explain in the seventh chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, to which this article is linked, there was a proclivity toward patriotism in the first decades of fundamentalism in this country.
There is nothing wrong with patriotism, unless it is carried to an extreme. But patriotism becomes a problem when it morphs into nationalism, as it often does.
In the first volume of his three-volume Systematic Theology (1951), the eminent theologian Paul Tillich wrote about idolatry and averred that the best example of such is the “contemporary idolatry of religious nationalism” (p. 13).
If Tillich (1886~1965) were still alive and writing today, he would most likely say the same sort of thing even more emphatically.
Near the end of last month, a group of Christians issued a statement titled “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” and asked those who agreed with their statement to sign it. I did, and I encourage you Christians to access that here and to consider doing the same.
The Position of the “Christian Left”
In contrast to the Christian Right, which is the political/social stance of most conservative evangelical Christians of the present or fundamentalists of the past, there are those who hold a much different position. For convenience, I am calling them the Christian Left.
In the seventh chapter of my book, I refer to them as “Christians for Peace and Justice.” They are the ones who advocate taking a consistent “sanctity of life” position. In that connection, I quote Jürgen Moltmann, the renowned German theologian, who wrote in The Spirit of Life (1992; German ed., 1991):
. . . anyone who really says “yes” to life says “no” to war. Anyone who really loves life says “no” to poverty. So the people who truly affirm and love life take up the struggle against the violence of war and the injustice of poverty.
But, sadly, conservative evangelicals in the U.S. have often been supporters of war and the strengthening of military armaments at tremendous cost—and the latter being done by cutting back on funds that might be used for helping those caught in the web of poverty.
Above all else, followers of Jesus are expected to seek God’s Kingdom, a realm characterized by righteousness (=justice) and shalom (see Matt. 6:33). That expectation, though, clashes with the longing of many conservative evangelical Christians to “make America great again,” a stance that could even, God forbid, lead to another major war.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

. . . But What about Antifa?

There are many, of whom I am one, who see a menacing movement toward fascism in this country. (See my 7/20 article “Is the Fear of Fascism Ill-Founded?”) Any vocal opposition to fascism, however, is often met with the rejoinder, “. . . but what about Antifa?” 
The Antifa logo
Descriptive Words about Antifa
There is much online and in the mass media about Antifa. Some of that material is good and helpful; some is certainly not so good or helpful. I am particularly negative toward what is being said/shown on Fox News and by people such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.
There is, though, a good and helpful book about Antifa written by a scholar and college professor. That book is Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (2017) by Mark Bray, who earned his Ph.D. in 2016 at Rutgers University and currently teaches at Dartmouth College.
Early in his Introduction, Bray explains that “anti-fascism is a reasonable, historically informed response to the fascist threat that persisted after 1945 and that has become especially menacing in recent years.
In particular, Antifa in the U.S. see a real danger in the current presence and support of white supremacists, a movement that seems to be increasing in numbers and influence.
Ten Assumptions about Antifa
In reading/thinking about Antifa, I have come up with the following ten assumptions.
1) Fascism is bad/harmful for any nation and for the world.
2) Opposition to fascism is good/potentially helpful for any nation and for the world.
3) The people most actively opposed to fascism are referred to as Antifa.
4) As in any group/movement, there are “good” and “bad” people in Antifa.
5) Antifa members who use violence and physically harm persons should be denounced.
6) Antifa members who adamantly and peacefully oppose fascism should be applauded.
7) In the 1920s and ’30s Antifa in Italy and Germany were too few and too late.
8) Increasing fascism in the U.S. is a real threat that must be taken seriously.
9) Current criticism of Antifa is often misleading and ill-founded.
10) It is better to err on the side of supporting Antifa than to condone fascism.
What about it, readers? Are any of these assumptions questionable and/or indications of muddled thinking?
Despite Misgivings about Antifa
The proclivity of some Antifa members to use violence is troubling to me. I am more in favor of what they try to do than in how they sometimes do it.
But I think DJT is entirely wrong in suggesting that perhaps Antifa should be branded as a terrorist organization. Just last Saturday he tweeted, “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.’”
That was just before an expected confrontation between Antifa and Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon. Police intervened and there were no serious clashes, but the leader of the Proud Boys declared their Portland rally a success, saying, "Go Look at President Trump's Twitter." 
Suggestions that Antifa is the (im)moral equivalent of white supremacist groups such as the KKK, neo-Nazis, etc. are entirely wrong. The latter are against Blacks, Jews, Latinx immigrants, and other non-whites. The Antifa are against the racism and xenophobia of the groups that have characteristics of fascism.
I agree with what historian Dave Renton says in his book Fascism (1999) and cited by Mark Bray: “. . . one cannot be balanced when writing about fascism, there is nothing positive to be said of it.”
Bray further states, “We should be warier of those who are truly neutral toward fascism than those who honestly espouse their opposition to racism, genocide, and tyranny.”
So, despite some misgivings about Antifa, I fully agree with their opposition to the far-right neo-fascist organizations they actively oppose.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

What about the National Cathedral?

One of my favorite places to visit in Washington, D.C., is the National Cathedral, and I have been there several times. Although I have some conflicted feelings about it, I am in total agreement with a public statement the clergy there made last month. 

Liking the National Cathedral
The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington is the official name of what is generally called the Washington National Cathedral. It contains a cathedra (Latin for seat) for both Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
The cornerstone for the Cathedral was laid in September 1907, and “only” 83 years later the building was pronounced finished in 1990. But just 21 years later it suffered $20,000,000 in damage from a rare earthquake, and repairs are still being made to the magnificent building.
And certainly, the National Cathedral is a magnificent building with a magnificent organ that, unfortunately, was also badly damaged in the 2011 earthquake. The “Great Organ” was installed in 1938 and last upgraded in 1975. It has more than 10,600 pipes!
Many years ago, I stood in the center aisle listening to the organ postlude, and I was so overcome by the beauty of the Cathedral and the power of the organ music that tears began to trickle down my cheeks.
Questioning the National Cathedral
Despite my fondness for the National Cathedral, I have questions about it because of the separation of church and state issue that I wrote about briefly in my July 25 blog article.
In 1791, Pierre L'Enfant drew up plans for a “federal city” and presented them to President Washington. Those plans for the city that became Washington, D.C., included the idea of “a great church for national purposes.”
The idea was to have a church in the U.S. that plays a role similar to England’s Westminster Abbey. That Abbey was re-established in 1560 as an Anglican church responsible directly to the English monarch.
There is no question about the lack of separation of church and state in England. To the extent that the National Cathedral is similar to Westminster Abbey—and who could deny that in many ways it is—how can it not also border on the infringement of the principle of church and state?
Applauding the National Cathedral’s Statement
In my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, I suggest that the phrase “a free church in a free state” is perhaps better than “separation of church and state.”
That being the case, it seems clear that the National Cathedral, despite hosting prayer services for the last five presidential inaugurations, including that for DJT in 2017, the clergy of the Cathedral evidently feel completely free to criticize the President.
Bishop Mariann Budde (b. 1959)
On July 30, Bishop Budde, as well as the dean and the canon theologian of Washington Cathedral, made public a 670-word statement titled, “Have We No Decency? A Response to President Trump” (If you haven’t read it yet, click here to see the full statement.) 
That was a powerful response to DJT’s highly objectionable tweets about Rep. Elijah Cummins and the city of Baltimore on July 27. Among other things, the leaders of the National Cathedral declared, “Make no mistake about it, words matter. And, Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous.”
They closed, then, with this noteworthy statement:
On January 21, 2017, Washington National Cathedral hosted an interfaith national prayer service, a sacred tradition to honor the peaceful transfer of political power. We prayed for the President and his young Administration to have “wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties that they may serve all people of this nation, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.”
That remains our prayer today for us all.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Honoring Katie Cannon, Womanist Pioneer

The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon died a year ago, on August 8, 2018. This article honors the life and legacy of this outstanding black woman. 
Katie Geneva Cannon (1950~2018)
Who Was Katie Cannon?
Katie Cannon was born in 1950 in Kannapolis, North Carolina, the town that grew up around Cannon Manufacturing, the textile mill that began production in 1908 and soon became the world’s largest producer of sheets and towels.
That company, which in 1928 became Cannon Mills, was founded by J.W. Cannon (1852~1921), and Katie was a descendant of slaves who were owned by his family at the time of his birth.
In 1974, Katie Cannon was the first African American woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA. She also was the first black woman to earn both the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Through the years, Cannon taught in several universities and seminaries/divinity schools. From 1993~2001 she was a professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University.
June’s and my daughter Karen, who is now a professor at the University of Arizona and head of the Department of Religious Studies and Classics, did her graduate work at Temple. During her Ph.D. studies there, Cannon was one of her main professors and her dissertation advisor.
(I was happy to have had the privilege of meeting and talking with Katie during that time.)
Cannon finished her career as Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond (Va.), where she taught from 2001 until her death last year.
The Womanist Ethics of Katie Cannon
Alice Walker, best known for her award-winning book The Color Purple, coined the term womanist in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose. Katie Cannon soon began popularizing that term in theological circles.
Cannon’s first major book was Black Womanist Ethics (1988), and she became the first theologian to use the term womanist widely. (She accepted Walker’s definition of womanist as a black feminist or feminist of color.)
Early in her book, Cannon states:
Black women are the most vulnerable and the most exploited members of the American society. The structure of the capitalist political economy in which Black people are commodities combined with patriarchal contempt for women has caused the Black woman to experience oppression that knows no ethical or physical bounds (p. 4).
That is a compelling statement of the challenge Katie Cannon spent her lifetime combatting—and her efforts helped to make American society better than it was thirty years ago, although there is still much that needs to be done.
Tributes to Katie Cannon
In April of last year, the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership was inaugurated at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Alice Walker (b. 1944) was the guest speaker at the inaugural ceremonies. 
Katie Cannon and Alice Walker (4/18)
In January 2020, the first issue of the new Wabash Center Journal on Teaching (formerly Teaching Theology and Religion) will include a special section on Katie Cannon's contributions to the development of womanist pedagogy.
Our daughter Karen was one of Cannon’s former students asked to write a brief article for that special edition. Here is how she began her tribute to her graduate school professor:
Katie Geneva Cannon’s life and legacy stand as a call to grapple with the injustices of the past and present while creatively constructing previously unimaginable futures.
With Karen and many others, I am still sad because of Cannon’s passing last year at the age of 68. Still, there is much to celebrate because of Katie’s active efforts to combat racism and sexism.
American society has been made better because of how Katie Cannon creatively confronted those challenges—and taught her students to do the same. 

Monday, August 5, 2019

My Favorite Farmer

Wendell Berry, the inimitable farmer, who is also a novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, and cultural critic, is celebrating his 85th birthday today. Please join me in wishing Mr. Berry a Happy Birthday. 
Photo of Berry by Steve Hebert of the NY Times
Favorite Farmers?
I now refer to Berry as “my favorite farmer.” Why would I do that? (And who would even have a list of favorite farmers?!)
Well, I am the son of a farmer, and I would have to say that my father (1915~2007) was my favorite farmer—even though my appreciation for him, of course, was for far more than his being a farmer.
Another of my favorite farmers was Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farm in Georgia. I have long had great admiration for Jordan, and in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, in July 2012 I posted a blog article titled “In Praise of Clarence Jordan.”
My appreciation for Jordan (d. 1969), though, was primarily because of his public words and actions rather than because of how he farmed.
Wendell Berry is now my favorite living farmer—but just as for my father and Clarence Jordan, it is for far more than his being a farmer that I admire him and seek to honor him today on his birthday. Still, his being a farmer is also of significance.
Becoming a Farmer
In the summer of 1964, Berry moved back to Kentucky, to a small acreage on the Kentucky River near where he was born in 1934. In the 1964-65 academic year, I lived in east Kentucky, serving as pastor of the Clay City Baptist Church and making numerous trips to Louisville where I was a graduate student.
As I regularly crossed the Kentucky River south of Frankfort on I-64, I didn’t know the man whom I would later call my favorite farmer lived downstream, not far from where that river flows into the Ohio River. In fact, it would be several years before I would even hear the name Wendell Berry.
Through the years, however, I began to hear more and more about Berry and became increasingly impressed with him as a farmer, as a writer/poet, and as an environmentalist. His is truly a prophetic voice that needs to be heard and heeded today.
Small Farmer, Large Influence
Since from back in the 1970s, many of us have used what we thought was a good slogan: “Think globally, act locally.” It was with some consternation, then, that I recently discovered that Berry did not particularly like that slogan.
Berry emphasizes the importance of thinking locally as well as acting locally. One of his essays is titled “Think Little.” In that 1970 essay he writes, “For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little.”
Thinking little, in part, means seeking to change one’s own lifestyle and consumption habits for the sake of the environment rather than trying to change the world.
Berry writes in that essay, now republished in The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry (2017),  
If you are concerned about air pollution, help push for government controls, but drive your car less, use less fuel in your home. . . . if you are fearful of the destruction of the environment, then learn to quit being an environmental parasite. . . . To have a healthy environment we will all have to give up things we like; we may even have to give up things we have come to think of as necessities (p. 55).
Through the decades Berry has lived out his ideals on his small Kentucky acreage. He has farmed with horses rather than with tractors. And one of his well-known essays is “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” (1987).
In this modern world, there probably can’t be many people who think like and especially who live like Wendell Berry. Nevertheless, the world is certainly better off because of the way he thinks and lives—and because of the way he has been able to share his wisdom so widely, despite not using a computer.
Berry’s is not the final word on the issues he addresses. But his is, indeed, a good and important word that needs to be considered with utmost seriousness.