Monday, September 30, 2019

“The Family” is Frightening

The Netflix five-part miniseries titled “The Family” was released last month, but June and I just finished watching it ten days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to do so even if you have to watch it on someone else’s Netflix streaming account, as we did. 
What Is The Family?
The five episodes of “The Family” are about 50 minutes each, and they are based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (2010).
Sharlet (b. 1972) is the primary narrator of the documentary, and “Submersion,” the first episode, is largely about his stay in 2002 at Ivanwald, a house for younger men being groomed for leadership in The Family. (A young actor plays Sharlet in that episode.)
In “Chosen,” the second part of the miniseries, we are further introduced to Doug Coe, a man who in the past was called “the most powerful man in Washington you’ve never heard of.”
From the early 1960s until his death, Coe (1928~2017) was the most influential person in The Family, although he was rarely in the limelight. In 2005 Time magazine included him on their list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the U.S., referring to him as the “stealth Billy Graham.”
Coe became associated with The Family in 1958, working under Abraham Vereide (1886~1969), who founded the Fellowship Foundation in 1935. Later that organization was called International Christian Leadership and then in recent years just The Family.
Through political influence and private diplomacy, The Family has wielded enormous influence in Washington, D.C.—and in the governments of other countries—for more than a half century now. Their main public events are the National Prayer Breakfasts, which have been attended by every President beginning with Eisenhower.
(My 2/4/17 blog article was about Sharlet and the 2017 Prayer Breakfast.)
Bothered by “The Family”
In several ways I was uncomfortable watching the documentary, especially in the beginning. So much of it sounded good—and much was in keeping with what I have emphasized as a Christian pastor and missionary: total commitment to Jesus Christ.
Further, I was bothered at how some of the politicians I respected the most were friends with Doug Coe, people such as Mark Hatfield, Jimmy Carter, and Hillary Clinton. I don’t think that Coe himself or the politicians he befriended, such as the three just mentioned, harbored evil intentions by their involvement with The Family.
Unfortunately, however, even that which is good and praiseworthy can inexplicably become entangled with evil and produce malevolent results.
How Nefarious is The Family?
My friend Aaron Barnhart wrote an article last month (check it out here) titled “The Family Isn’t As Nefarious as Netflix’s ‘The Family’ Says It is.” I hadn’t known until reading his article that as a young man he was directly involved with The Family, much the same way Sharlet was in 2002.
So I can understand why Aaron, who attends the same church I do, is a bit defensive about the way the miniseries portrays The Family. But he does, correctly I think, suggest that there is something “terribly wrong” with that group.
Aaron writes that “Sharlet is right to call out The [Family’s] willingness to be used by dictators and demagogues.” He also notes that the members of The Family are guilty of “enabling rather than doing bad things.”
Still, I think they must be considered frightening because of the way they have enabled “bad things” to be done, because of their disregard for the separation of church and state, and for their implicit desire to replace democracy (in the U.S. and elsewhere) with theocracy.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Still Fed Up with Fundamentalism’s View of Women

Although my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, which currently I am (slightly) revising and updating, was published in 2007, much has changed little since then. For example, Al Mohler, whom I wrote about in the second chapter as one of four influential fundamentalist leaders from 1980 to 2005, continues to spout questionable views about women. 
The Issue of Submissive Wives
At the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in 1998, an amendment titled simply “The Family” was added to the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M). That amendment included the declaration that wives must submit to their husbands.
The report of the committee recommending the addition of the new article wrote, “A wife’s submission to her husband does not decrease her worth but rather enhances her value to her husband and to the Lord.”
The BF&M was then revised, for the first time since 1963, at the SBC’s 2000 convention. Mohler was one of the 15 members on the “Study Committee” that recommended the revisions, which included the 1998 amendment on the family.
Somewhat related is Mohler’s negativity through the years toward birth control—and his 8/27 podcast in which he declared that “to be human is to be a parent.” Perhaps there is a fairly close link between the emphasis on submissive wives and the “ideal” of women being kept “barefoot and pregnant.”
The position of submissive wives is upheld by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which was formed in 1987 and has consistently forwarded the relationship between husbands and wives known as complementarianism.
The current president of CBMW is Denny Burk, a professor at Boyce College in Louisville. Al Mohler, who is the president of Boyce College (as well as of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), is a member of CBMW’s Council.
The questionable emphasis on complementarianism has been correctly challenged by Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), a group begun early in 1988. In Women, Abuse, and the Bible (1996), an important book published by CBE, the author of one chapter stresses that the emphasis on the submission of wives can lead, and has led, to the abuse of women.
The Issue of Women Pastors
Not only do fundamentalists of the past and many conservative evangelicals of the present teach that women must be submissive in the home, they also generally hold that women must be subordinate in the church as well.
The revised BF&M 2000 (referred to above) also newly declared, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Moreover, earlier this year in a May 10 podcast, Mohler emphasized that not only can women not be pastors, “females should not preach from the pulpit on Sunday morning(see Baptist News Global’s report here).
The issue of women preachers is a personal one with me, for many years ago I preached the ordination sermon for a Japanese woman (using Acts 2:17-18 as my text) and then for several years she served as my assistant pastor and then as co-pastor of the Fukuoka International Church.
The Case for Full Equality
For decades now, I have been a “feminist,” one who advocates the full equality of women—in the church and in the wider society. I have applauded the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, whose struggles for equality were opposed by conservative Christians, including women, before fundamentalism was called by that name.
I have also been a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, which still has not been ratified by the required number of states, partly because of the vigorous opposition by conservative, traditionalistic Christians such as Phyllis Schlafly and her ilk.
But surely, surely the time has come for full equality between men and women!

Friday, September 20, 2019

Are You a Humanist?

“If you support separation of church and state, science, reason, the environment, social justice – congratulations, you’re a Humanist!” Those were the words on a slick brochure I received in the mail earlier this month. So, what about it? 
What Is a Humanist?
The small brochure addressed to me by name was from the American Humanist Association (AHA). I was impressed from the beginning with the backside of the 5.5 x 8.5-inch mailer with the words cited above—and pictures of protest signs, such as the ones that said “Humanists for Racial Justice” and “LGBTQ Rights are Human Rights.”
Among other things, the AHA explains that humanism is “a progressive philosophy of life that . . . affirms our ability to . . . aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Thus, humanists “affirm the dignity of every human being.”
Moreover, “Humanism is a philosophy of service for the greater good of humanity.”
But along with these positive statements, which I affirm, are questionable ones about being able to reach those ideals “without theism or other supernatural beliefs.” Humanity, the AHA believes has “within itself all that is needed to improve the conditions of life.”
The AHA’s main slogan is that it is possible to be, and by implication that humanists are, “good without God.”
Like so many groups, and individuals, I believe that the AHA is partially right and partially wrong. They are right in their emphasis on humanism but wrong on their insistence that humanism must be secular.
Secular Humanism and Christian Humanism
In their mailer, the AHA declares, “We are committed to building an inclusive America grounded in an embrace of reason, compassion, and egalitarianism rather than religious dogma.” But that is a false dichotomy.
We don’t have to choose between “reason, compassion, and egalitarianism” and “religious dogma.” Many of us who are Jesus-followers also gladly affirm the three ideals mentioned—and also reject much religious dogma in Christendom.
Admittedly, I am on the side of secular humanism rather than on the side of what might be termed “Christian inhumanism.” Among other things, Christian inhumanism refers to such things as
* use of force of any kind, but especially military force, to “convert” people to Christianity; this refers to all forms of “Christian” colonialism and imperialism, past and present.
* complicity with the use of slaves and/or the subjugation of people on the basis of “race,” such as is done even in the present by the “Christianity-linked” KKK and other white supremacy groups.
* support of patriarchal systems that disadvantage women, restrictive systems that denigrate LGBTQ people, and economic systems that dehumanize workers.
But Christian humanism is also possible, so I have no hesitation in saying,
Sure, I’m a Humanist.
I have no hesitancy in stating that I wholeheartedly support separation of church and state, science, reason, the environment, and social justice. So, by AHA’s definition, I am a Humanist.
As I wrote in the fourth chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, years ago in front of the Supreme Court Building I had a pleasant talk with Tony Hileman, who was then the Executive Director of the AHA. I sensed more rapport with him than with the conservative Christians gathered there.
However, unlike the AHA and the people they are apparently appealing to, I am a Humanist, by their definition, largely because of my Christian faith, not in spite of it.
If they can be “good without God,” more power to them. Most of us, though, are most likely to be better with God—and I don’t mean primarily better than other people; rather I mean being better than we would be or could be without faith in God.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Was Jesus a Socialist?

Breitbart News’s daily emails of “Latest News” often includes something labeled “Social Justice Jackass.” Under that label on Sept. 2 were these words (and this link): “Rev. William Barber: ‘Jesus Is a Socialist.” So what about it? Was Jesus a socialist, or is Rev. Barber a “jackass,” to use Breitbart’s inelegant word? 
Cartoon by Bill Day, 2009
Barber’s Assertion
Most of you know of William Barber II, the Disciples of Christ minister who has been president of the NAACP's North Carolina state chapter since 2006. (If you need to review a bit about Barber and what he has done, check out my 9/15/16 and 5/5/18 blog articles.)
The link Breitbart gave was just a short snippet of a longer interview with Barber and his friend Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove by Joy-Ann Reid on her regular Aug. 31 AM Joy program on MSNBC. (Here is the link to the whole 7.5-minute segment, including what Barber said in an Aug. 23 talk.)
Even the Brietbart website accurately states that Barber said that “if caring for the sick and poor is socialism then ‘Jesus is a socialist’”—and that is enough to label Barber (and maybe Jesus?) a “social justice jackass”??
When I printed off the article more than a week ago, over 1,000 comments had been posted there. (I didn’t print them all!) The first ones that I read were almost all negative toward Barber and what he had said.
For example, “If idiots like Barber think Christ was a socialist, why do socialists recoil at his name?” He is “a Trojan horse sent to do the bidding of evil.” And, “Rev. William Barber is a MarxistAss clown.” Also, “For sure the ‘Rev.’ does not know what he’s talking about.”
The Republicans’ Strategy
It seems quite clear that Republicans, on both the national and more local levels, are using socialism as a “scare word” for political gain. Harry Truman denounced that use of socialism back in 1952 (see this Snopes article).
Just last Tuesday in North Carolina (hear here), DJT said that a vote for any Democrat in 2020 is “a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.” Mark it down: this will be what we will repeatedly hear between now and Nov. 3, 2020.
Also last week, Missouri Governor Mike Parson kicked off his 2020 bid for re-election by warning against the “rise of socialism.” (The Kansas City Star article about this is here.)
This is all a part of the strategy to demonize or ridicule Democratic politicians and to win votes for GOP candidates. That was doubtlessly the intent of Breitbart’s calling Rev. Barber a “social justice jackass.”
The Plight of the Poor
Journalist Errol Louis (born in Harlem in 1962) recently wrote an op-ed piece titled “‘Socialism’ isn’t a boogeyman in an unequal world.” If you’ll notice, most of those who denigrate socialism in this country are white. By contrast, according to a June 2019 Pew poll, 65% of black Americans and 52% of Latinos have a “positive impression” of socialism.
The theme of the Summer 2019 edition of Plough Quarterly (published by the Bruderhof) is “Beyond Capitalism.” In the powerful opening editorial, Peter Mommsen (who is white) writes,
Socialism’s champions know how to take effective whacks at capitalism, and they get at least one thing right: the fact that we live in a society of immense affluence and desperate poverty is a public sin with which no person of good will can be at peace.

Because of great economic inequality — and the looming risk of catastrophic climate change! — something is badly needed. If Jesus wasn’t a socialist, maybe what he taught and the way his first followers lived do point to what is so badly needed today.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Becoming (More) Human

Jean Vanier, the French-Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian was born on September 10, 1928, and died in May of this year at the age of 90. He was the author of some 30 books, including Becoming Human, his bestseller.  
Vanier, the Founder of L’Arche
According to, Jean Vanier (pronounced van-YAY) was born in Switzerland but spent most of his early childhood in Canada. At the age of 14, though, he went to England where he entered the Britannia Royal Naval College and then served in the Royal Navy throughout World War II.
In 1950 Vanier resigned his naval commission and went to France, where in 1962 he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of Paris. Then after teaching briefly at the University of Toronto, he went back to France.
Influenced by a local Catholic priest, in 1964 Vanier invited two men with “profound disabilities” to live with him. That was the beginning of the first home dubbed L’Arche (French for the Ark) and the precursor of the now nearly 150 such homes on five continents.  
That first home, about 50 miles northeast of Paris, and the subsequent ones have all been, and are, communities where “people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities” live together “in faith and friendship.”
In addition to Vanier himself, the most widely known person to live in a L’Arche home was Henri Nouwen, the noted Dutch Catholic priest, professor, and theologian who lived in Daybreak L’Arche (in the suburbs of Toronto) from 1986 until his death in 1996.
Vanier, the Author
In 1998, Vanier gave the Massey Lectures, and those five lectures became the five chapters of Becoming Human, published that same year. When the 10th-anniversary edition was published in 2008 with a new introduction by Vanier (who was then 80), over 70,000 copies had been sold.
The titles of the chapters of Becoming Human are “Loneliness,” “Belonging,” “From Exclusion to Inclusion: A Path of Healing,” “The Path to Freedom,” and “Forgiveness.” (You can find my two pages of excerpts from Becoming Human here.)
In this, his best-known book, Vanier doesn’t say much about L’Arche, but he uses many of the developmentally challenged people he had known at L’Arche as illustrations of the various points he makes.
Among his nearly 30 other books are Community and Growth (1979), From Brokenness to Community (1992) and Befriending the Stranger (2005). With eminent Protestant ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, he also co-authored Living Gently in a Violent World (2008).
Vanier was highly ecumenical in the broadest sense. At the same time, he was a devout (Catholic) Christian. One of his books is I Meet Jesus (Eng. ed., 1987), a quick read with illustrations on every other page.
Vanier, the Man Who “Made Us All More Human”
Soon after Vanier’s death in May, pastor and author Bethany McKinney Fox posted a noteworthy Christianity Today article titled “Jean Vanier Made Us All More Human.” Her point is that Vanier “showed the church how disability, vulnerability, and weakness bring us closer to one another and closer to Jesus”—and how that makes us more human.
On the second page of the Introduction to his 1998 book, Vanier declared that “life together” in L’Arche “has helped me become more human.”
In “To Become Human,” a sub-section of his third chapter, Vanier asserts, “As the human heart opens up and becomes compassionate, we discover our fundamental unity, our common humanity” (p. 97). That is the key to becoming more human.
In 2015, Vanier was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize, and here is the link to a related 4-minute video where he talks informally about the question “What does it mean to be fully human?” It is well worth the time to watch.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Brave Little Ruby is Now 65!

Remember little Ruby Bridges? For some reason, I hadn’t remembered her, but I was greatly impressed when last fall I saw “Ruby Bridges,” the 1998 movie about her and what she did in 1960. This week she celebrates her 65th birthday.
What Ruby Did
Ruby Bridges was born on September 8, 1954, in southern Mississippi. In 1957 her family moved to New Orleans, and three years later it was time for her to start to elementary school.
Even though this was six years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in which the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, up until the fall of 1960 schools were still segregated in New Orleans.
That year, however, a judge ordered four black girls to go to two white elementary schools. Three went to one of those schools, but Ruby was the only one sent to the William Frantz Elementary School.
So, little Ruby started to school—and what a hectic experience that was for her! Mobs of people gathered to protest, to shout at her, to raise a ruckus. Federal marshals were pressed into service to protect her. How brave little Ruby was!
Here is Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of Ruby’s first day of school: 
When the white parents would not allow their children to study in the same room with Ruby, Mrs. Barbara Henry (b. 1932), her wonderful teacher, taught Ruby, and only Ruby, for the next several months.
Here is a picture of Ruby with Mrs. Henry in 2004, standing in front of Rockwell’s painting: 
What Robert Coles Did
 I had long known about Robert Coles, one of America’s most prominent child psychiatrists, a longtime Harvard professor, and now the author of more than sixty books. Until I saw the movie “Ruby Bridges,” however, I did not know that Coles (b. 1929) spent many hours with that exceptional child during her first hectic year of school.
Based on those conversations with her, Coles wrote “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” the slim children’s book published in 1995. (You can hear the book read and see the impressive illustrations on YouTube, here.)
“Ruby Bridges” is also the last chapter of Coles’s book Lives We Carry with Us: Profiles of Moral Courage (2010). On the first page of that chapter, Coles writes that Ruby
had to brave murderously heckling mobs, there in the morning and there in the evening, hurling threats and slurs and hysterical denunciations and accusations. . . .
Still, Ruby persisted, and so did her parents” (pp. 204-5).
Coles spent a considerable amount of time with Ruby during that tumultuous school year of 1960-61, and it is quite clear that he was greatly impressed with the brave little girl. His children’s book, re-published on the 50th anniversary of the events of 1960, has been read by tens of thousands of school children across the country and around the world.
What Can We Learn?
1) The importance of faith/prayer, clearly displayed by Ruby and her parents. Coles was basically a religious agnostic, but even he was impressed with Ruby’s faith. Here is the link to a touching 5-minute video titled “Robert Coles Speaks on Ruby Bridges.” (It is well worth watching.)
2) The insidious nature of racism, clearly seen in the animosity expressed toward Ruby. In the video mentioned above, there is actual footage from that time, and it is hard to imagine now just how strong racism was then.
3) The persistence of racism and the ongoing need to oppose it. For example, just last month the office of an African American employee of the U.S. Department of Education was vandalized and a poster depicting Ruby Bridges was damaged.