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.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Problem of Payday Loans

It’s tough to be poor. (I know, for my wife and I were quite poor for the first several years of our marriage.) And some of the poor in this country are even poorer because in times of great need they have gotten a loan (or loans) from a payday lender. 
A Short Introduction
Payday loans are typically small loans ($500 or less) that people can easily get by walking into a business establishment with a valid ID, proof of income, and a bank account. Such loans are generally due for complete repayment two weeks later, or on the borrower’s next payday.
Payday lenders are plentiful in most states across the country. According to this helpful Aug. 2018 online article, there are approximately 23,000 payday lenders in the U.S., almost twice the number of McDonald’s restaurants. In addition, now there are also many online lenders. 
While payday loans might be considered “life-savers” for some people, the problem is the exorbitant interest/fees charged. While the loans provide quick much-needed cash, the national average annual percentage rate (APR) for such loans is almost 400%. (In contrast, last week the average credit card APR was only 17.39%.)
An online investigation of three payday lenders closest to my home here in suburban Kansas City revealed that the interest rates for 14-day loans of up to $500 are from 443.21% to 651.79% APR.
These establishments are often rightly called “predatory lenders,” for many people can’t make their re-payment on time and have to roll over their loans—and Missouri allows up to six rollovers. Consequently, some people end up paying far more in interest than the amount of money borrowed.
An Immediate Goal
The Northland Justice Coalition is a small group here in Liberty (Mo.) where I live. (Northland refers to Kansas City and its suburbs north of the Missouri River.) For the last several months, some of us in that organization have been working on ways to limit payday lenders in our small city.
Because of our work in preparing a petition and obtaining 1,270 signatures, there will be a special election on Nov. 5 giving voters the chance to limit the number of payday lenders in our city and to increase their licensing fees considerably.
On behalf of the group I have written an op/ed piece about this matter for the Clay County Courier-Tribune, our local weekly newspaper, and I am expecting that to be in the Oct. 24 issue.
A Long-term Struggle
Missouri Faith Voices (MFV) is a multi-faith, multi-racial, statewide, nonpartisan organization committed to empowering and transforming the lives of ordinary citizens who have been targeted by unfair policies and practices and oppressed by racial and economic injustice. 
In Missouri, only the state legislature can cap the interest rates that lenders can charge. In 2017 MFV made a concerted effort to get the state legislature to place a ceiling on the exorbitant rates now allowed. But they were unsuccessful in their valiant attempt to get approval for a bill that would do that.
Those directly involved in that effort told me that the payday lenders’ lobbying activities—and their generous contributions to state legislators—make it difficult for any substantial changes to be made.
There are twelve states (and D.C.), including Missouri’s neighbor Arkansas, that prohibit payday loans. But in most states payday lending is legal and in some states the interest rate is completely unregulated. There is a limit in Missouri—1,970%!
For us in Missouri and in many other states, seeking new and just legislation limiting the interest rates payday lenders can charge is of great importance.
In 2006 the federal Military Lending Act capped the interest that could be charged military personnel and veterans at 36%. Surely, that needs to become the law for all.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Did Jimmy Carter Lose His Religion?

As was widely reported in the news media, on October 1 Jimmy Carter celebrated his 95th birthday, becoming the first U.S. President to reach that age. But has Jimmy lost his religion? In the last few months, I have repeatedly seen Facebook friends post the link to Carter’s article titled “Losing My Religion for Equality.” 
Jimmy’s Article
The linked-to piece with that title was, in fact, published on July 15, 2009, under Carter’s name by The Age, a daily newspaper that had been published in Melbourne, Australia, since 1854—and that article is still available online.
In April 2015, The Age reported that Jimmy’s article has been the highest rating story ever published on, having been viewed more than 1.9 million times—and it has been viewed many more times since then.
The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation even published Carter’s article on their website in April 2017, erroneously indicating that it was a newly published piece.
Carter’s article has been viewed so many times on the Internet this year that in July reported on its veracity. Snopes correctly explained that even though “the letter is often shared along with the claim that Carter renounced his faith,” that “isn’t the case.”
Snopes continues, “While Carter rejected the notion that women were subservient and severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC], he never turned his back on his own religion.” And he certainly didn’t lose his faith in God.
Accordingly, I think that surely the title of Jimmy’s article was written by the newspaper, not by him.
Jimmy’s Point
Back in 2000 Carter severed ties with the SBC—a matter that was widely reported (such as in the Oct. 21, 2000, article in the WaPo.) Nine years later in his article published in The Age, he said that severing those ties “was painful and difficult.”
In January 2008, I talked briefly with Jimmy at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta—and I gave him a copy of my recently published book Fed Up with Fundamentalism. As introduced in my 9/25 blog posting, the eighth chapter dealt with the issue that he wrote about in his 2009 article.
(I would like to think that that chapter in my book was of help to him.)
Thus, I fully agree with him and the main point he made in The Age article: “Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.”
Carter later wrote a whole book about this matter: A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power (2014). The third chapter of that important book is “The Bible and Gender Equality,” and he explains his disagreement with the SBC—as well as his ongoing Christian faith.
Jimmy’s Reputation
Among most of us moderate/progressive Christians, Jimmy Carter is held in high regard. And even if some of us may think that he was not a great President, almost everyone agrees that he is the best ex-President the country has ever had.
I have been somewhat amazed, though, at how he is still criticized by conservative evangelical Christians (among others on the right, I assume). I sometimes see “friends” of my Facebook friends saying very negative things about Jimmy.
The two most cited reasons for criticism of Carter are his position on LGBTQ rights and his position on Israel. For those reasons, and perhaps others, his reputation among the Religious Right is not good—but for most of the rest of us, it is stellar.
Five years ago I posted a blog article wishing Jimmy a happy 90th birthday, and I am very glad that I can wish him a (belated) Happy Birthday again now. 

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Is the Pope a “Social Justice Jackass”?

Last month I wrote about Breitbart News referring to Rev. William Barber II as a “social justice jackass.” I thought that was pretty bad. But now Breitbart has even used that inelegant label for Pope Francis!  
The Pope’s Position
Breitbart’s complaint (on 9/19) against the Pope was because of his call for the abolition of life imprisonment. According to a 9/16 National Catholic Report article (here), two days earlier Pope Francis told an audience in St. Peter’s Square that “sentencing someone to life in prison without the possibility of parole is ‘not the solution to problems, but a problem to solve.’”
(Here is the link to that full address to penitentiary police and others.)
Actually, this has been Pope Francis’s position for quite some time. Five years ago, on 10/23/14, he called for abolition of both the death penalty and life imprisonment. According to this Catholic News Service article, on that date he told representatives of the International Association of Penal Law, “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”
The Right’s Position
It seems quite clear that the political Right and the so-called Christian Right strongly support both capital punishment and life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for heinous crimes.
In the blog article planned for later this month, I will be writing about being fed up with Christian fundamentalism partly because of their view of capital punishment and two other issues. However, I don’t deal with the matter of life imprisonment in my book on fundamentalism, to which the upcoming blog article will be linked.
The position on both capital punishment and life imprisonment, though, seems to be the same: encouraging harsh retributive justice.
It has been said (here, for example) that there are four purposes of prison: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. The author of this linked-to article explains: “Retribution means punishment for crimes against society. Depriving criminals of their freedom is a way of making them pay a debt to society for their crimes.”
According to Breitbart—and most likely most of those who read/support that far-right syndicated news, opinion and commentary website—opposition to strong retributive punishment invites one, even the Pope, to be labeled a “social justice jackass.”  
The Correct Position?
As many of you may not know, my college major was sociology. (I waited until seminary to study the Bible and Christian theology academically.) Criminology was one of the valuable courses I took in pursuit of that major, and it was in that course that I became convinced of the validity, and desirability, of indeterminant sentences.
Among other things, that means that there should never be such a thing as life sentences without possibility of parole. And, certainly, capital punishment should never be condoned.
While there is some reason for sensible retribution, and more reason for prison used for incapacitation and deterrence, surely the most important purpose of prison is rehabilitation.
Admittedly, rehabilitation—and the proper evaluation of rehabilitation—is not at all easy. And incapacitation, the removal of criminals from society so that they can no longer harm innocent people, is of clear importance for the wellbeing of society in general.
Still, for example, aren’t there many young men (and maybe some women) who committed heinous crimes in the passion of their youthful impetuousness but who learn in ten, or twenty, years the shamefulness and senselessness of those crimes and who would never think of committing such crimes again?
Given the obstinacy of some few, lifetime imprisonment might be required for them. But for most, surely with proper attention given to rehabilitation there can be an optimal time for release from prison.
So, no, Breitbart, I definitely do not think that Pope Francis is a “social justice jackass”—on this or many other social justice issues.