Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2020 Vision

Similar to what I did at this time last year, I am basing some of this last blog posting of 2019 on a special issue of The Economist, the highly respected British news magazine that has been published since 1843. Fairly early in December, I received that issue titled “The World in 2020” and found much of considerable interest in it. First, though . . .

Happy New Year of the Rat!
As I have often done, I am beginning this end-of-the-year/New Year’s posting by referring to the Japanese (and Chinese) zodiac. Following the ancient 12-year cycle, 2020 is the year of the nezumi in Japan.
In English, the East Asian New Year is usually called the Year of the Rat, but the same Japanese word is used for rat and mouse, so New Year’s greetings, etc., are often portrayed by images that look more like cute little mice than repulsive rats. For example, look at this picture of a Japanese New Year’s card: 
Despite the prevalent negative feelings about rats in this country, June and I have a somewhat different sentiment, for two of our children were born in the year of the Rat. In Japan that is not considered a bad thing at all; people who are nezumi-doshi (born in the year of the Rat) are said to be “charming, honest, ambitious, and have a tremendous capacity for pursuing a course to its end” (from “The Twelve Signs of the Japanese Zodiac”).
U.S. Politics in 2020
In my 2018 end-of-the-year blog posting, I wrote that there seemed to be “a strong possibility” that the President would be impeached” in 2019. Well, I called that one right.
I also wrote that the President probably would not be removed from office by the Republican-majority Senate. That decision is now part of the political agenda for the beginning of 2020, but the likelihood of the Senate not convicting the President is probably stronger now than it was a year ago.
The biggest political question for the U.S. in 2020, of course, revolves around the November 3 election. Who the Democratic Party will choose to go up against DJT is anybody’s guess at this point. And even though there is a strong appeal to Democrats and Independents to “vote Blue no matter who,” the populist support for DJT is amazingly strong and resilient.
Daniel Franklin, the editor of “The World in 2020” issue of The Economist writes that there will be “a febrile [= “having or showing a great deal of nervous excitement or energy”] election in November.” He adds. “It will be ugly.” That prediction will almost certainly prove to be true.
Editor Franklin goes on to say that the artificial intelligence he consulted “reckons Mr Trump will lose.” (Can we trust that prediction, or is there “fake AI”?)
The U.S. Economy in 2020
Last year The Economist repeatedly mentioned the possibility of a financial recession in 2019. That, fortunately, did not come to pass. In fact, since Christmas the U.S. stock market has hit all-time highs.
However, for 2020 the editor-in-chief of The Economist not only predicted “febrile politics” but also a “faltering economy.” He writes, “Unfortunately for Mr Trump, a noticeable cooling of the American economy will challenge his claim to have made America great again.”
Will that prediction be more accurate than the similar one was for 2019? Who knows? Certainly, no one has 20/20 vision of what will happen in 2020.
Personally . . .
Although it will not mean a major shift of emphasis, I decided on Christmas Day to start spending more time, especially at the beginning of each day, thinking about “eternal” / “spiritual” matters rather than temporal/political concerns—not that those two spheres are unrelated.
Throughout the coming year, I hope to keep firmly in mind the following words recorded in 2 Corinthians 4:18.
We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal (CEB).
It remains to be seen how much this will affect the blog articles I will be writing and sending to you, my dear Thinking Friends, throughout 2020.
Happy New Year to each of you!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Unimpeachable Grounds for Impeachment?

Yes, the President has been impeached. On December 18, 2019, President Donald John Trump was impeached for the abuse of power and for the obstruction of Congress. But were there unimpeachable grounds for that historic action by the United States House of Representatives?
Two Different Worlds
Here is an online dictionary definition: 
­ Were the grounds for the impeachment of DJT of such a nature?
According to the congressional Democrats, they were. On December 13, all 23 of the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend impeachment. In the historic house vote on Dec. 18, over 98% of the Democrats voted Yes and the impeachment of the President became a reality.
In his opening statement, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) said,
The President of the United States endangered our national security. The President undermined our democracy. And the President . . .  betrayed his oath to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States. These aren't opinions. These are uncontested facts.
Even The Economist, the British-based news magazine, stated in its lead story for the Dec. 14-20 issue, “The main facts are not in dispute.”
But there are two different worlds existing simultaneously in the U.S., the Democratic world and the Republican world—or, we might say, the world of Trump opponents and the world of Trump supporters.
As was aptly stated in an online 12/18 WaPo article on impeachment night, “The intensity and polarization of the debate on the House floor vividly illustrated the extent to which leaders of the two parties now believe entirely different accounts of what occurred and are motivated by different concerns. At times they sounded almost as if they were representing different countries.”
The votes, though, did not represent just two different opinions. They represented two different parties—or two different worlds. Of the votes on the two articles of impeachment, all the Yes votes were by Democrats and one Independent; all the No votes were by Republicans.
Almost unanimously the Democrats thought there were impeccable grounds for impeachment. But after about eight hours of debate in the closing argument for the Republicans, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Minority Leader, declared, “There are no grounds for impeachment.”
For the Republicans, not only were the grounds for impeachment not unimpeachable, they were non-existent.
DJT’s supporters and his opponents seem, indeed, to live in two different worlds.
Where Do We Go from Here?
It is within the realm of possibility that DJT will be the first President to be impeached and then win re-election to another four years in the White House.
Don’t think that DJT’s re-election is inconceivable. I was one of a multitude who thought it was inconceivable that he would be nominated for the presidency by the Republicans. But he was.
An even larger multitude thought it inconceivable that he would be elected President. But he was.
After his impeachment in 1998/99, President Clinton’s approval greatly increased—to a whopping 73%. Yes, I think it is inconceivable that DJT’s rate will climb that high—but it might climb high enough for him to be reelected.
But now one of the biggest worries is that DJT’s almost certain acquittal in the Senate will allow other abuses of power and election tampering with no feasible way to counter those abuses.
As Dana Milbank wrote in a 12/19 op-ed for the WaPo:
It was all a triumph for alternative facts, for Russian dezinformatsiya, for Fox News and for social media toxicity. The losers aren’t the Democrats . . .  but democracy. Just as after the Mueller report, Trump will only grow more emboldened in breaking the legal constraints on his presidency.
So then, inconceivably, DJT might also become the first President to be impeached twice. If there is unimpeachable evidence that he profited from foreign influence in the 2020 election, as he most likely did in 2016, a second impeachment would again loom as a distinct possibility.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Subverting the Culture of Contempt

The President has been impeached. But more about that next time. This article is about seeking to subvert the “culture of contempt” that was so evident in the impeachment hearings. The message of Advent (and Christmas) is hope, peace, love, and joy. How we need this message in the U.S. where the culture of contempt is so prevalent—and yes, so contemptible!
Help from Arthur Brooks
Arthur C. Brooks, the Washington Post columnist and professor of public leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is the author of a book published in March of this year. You have previously heard the words of the title of that book: Love Your Enemies.
That is certainly not an original title—but the subtitle is: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.
Brooks (b. 1964) is a political conservative, and I disagree with many of his political positions. But I fully agree with what he writes in his new book—and with Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who is quoted on the back cover of the book:
If you are satisfied with our toxic ideological climate, then don’t bother reading this book. But if you’d like to rebel against the present nonsense, Arthur Brooks can show you how to do it with joy and confidence—regardless of your political preferences. If we follow the lessons in Love Your Enemies, better times lie ahead for America. 

Help from These Five Rules
In the Conclusion, Brooks advocates “Five Rules to Subvert the Culture of Contempt.” Rather than repeating his five rules, I am sharing a helpful statement about each one.
1) “Stand up to people on your own side who trash people on the other side.” Since contempt is destructive, whenever we read or hear words of contempt, to subvert the culture of contempt we need to speak up, kindly, in opposition to those words.
2) “Seeking out what those on the other side have to say will help you understand others better.” Whenever we read or hear words with which we strongly disagree, we first need to seek to understand why the writer/speaker wrote or spoke such words.
3) Here is a point that Brooks makes repeatedly: “never treat others with contempt, even if you believe they deserve it.” Contempt never causes others to change for the better and is “always harmful for the contemptor.”
4) Brooks also encourages his readers to “disagree better” and to “be part of a healthy competition of ideas.” He writes, “The single biggest way a subversive can change America is not by disagreeing less, but by disagreeing better—engaging in earnest debate while still treating everyone with love and respect.”  
5) Finally, Brooks advocates tuning out, disconnecting more from unproductive debates. “Unfollow public figures [and social media ‘friends’] who foment contempt, even if you agree with them.”
Trying It Out
Partly because of Brooks’s book, I have been reading, and trying to understand without contempt, two books with which I have strong disagreements.
Dark Agenda: The Way to Destroy Christian America (2018) was written by David Horowitz, the son of Jewish parents who in 2015 identified as an agnostic. Even though Jewish, Horowitz (b. 1939) dedicated his book to his wife and to three “Christian buddies.”
And on the back cover, Horowitz’s book receives praise from the ultra-conservative Christian politician Mike Huckabee.
Reading some of that book with the desire to subvert the culture of contempt helped me understand why Horowitz, and many religious and political conservatives, think the way they do.
Although the book contains much I strongly disagree with, reading it with the goal of gaining deeper insight into why conservatives think the way they do was beneficial. And I realize afresh that I can view Horowitz as a good and honorable man—even though wrong in many of his ideas!—without having contempt for him.
The same goes for Star Parker, author of Necessary Noise: How Donald Trump Inflames the Culture War and Why This is Good News for America (2019). Parker (b. 1956) is an active Christian as well as an African American woman who has been a strong supporter of President Trump.
During the Christmas season—and throughout the new year—let’s work together to subvert the culture of contempt, for the good of the country and the world.
Merry Christmas to all!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Man Who Fed the World

Most of you have heard of the Green Revolution. Perhaps fewer of you remember the man who was behind that revolutionary attempt to combat the world food crisis. That man was Norman Borlaug, who died ten years ago, in September 2009, at the age of 95. 
Norman, the Farm Boy
Norman Borlaug was born in 1914 and reared in rural Howard County in northeast Iowa. His first eight years of school were at a one-teacher, one-room school. He then went to high school in the county seat town of Cresco.
In addition to his schooling, from age seven to nineteen Norman worked on the 106-acre family farm and acquired the work ethic common to farm boys.
Partly because of his skills as a wrestler—and with the encouragement of his grandfather Nels Borlaug, who once told him, “you're wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on"—Norman was able to attend the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1937 and then earning his Ph.D. degree there in 1942.    
Norman, the farm boy who became Dr. Borlaug, went on to do far more than fill his own belly. He became known as the man who fed the world.
Borlaug, the Life Saver
In 1944 Borlaug went to Mexico as a research scientist in charge of wheat improvement, working there for sixteen years. Beginning in the 1950s, he began to successfully innovate new, disease-resistant, high-yield crops using genetic modification.
Borlaug’s work transformed agriculture production, first in Mexico and later in Asia and Latin America. His successes produced the “Green Revolution,” which saved millions of people from hunger, starvation, and death.
In 1970 Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his outstanding work in averting world hunger and famine. His authorized biography, written by Leon Hesser, is titled The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger (2006).
According to David Grigg’s 1985 book The World Food Problem 1950~1980, the percentage of the world’s population suffering from acute hunger/malnutrition dropped from 34% in 1950 to 17% in 1980. That dramatic decrease was largely due to the meritorious work of Borlaug.
Some claim that Borlaug “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.” The fifth chapter of the 2009 book Scientists Greater than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the Twentieth Century is about Borlaug. There he is credited with saving 245,000,000 lives.
Some estimate that he saved even far more lives than that.
The Ongoing Challenge
Despite the dramatic decrease in world hunger since 1950, it was estimated that in 2014 eleven percent of the world’s population were still suffering from undernourishment.
And last year a feature article in The Washington Post was titled “For decades, global hunger was on the decline. Now it’s getting worse again—and climate change is to blame.”
While the innovations of scientists such as Norman Borlaug are still badly needed to continue working on the problem, there is also need for people of goodwill to provide the financial means for saving lives right now.
I was impressed by a December 5 article about the Princeton University bioethicist and committed atheist Peter Singer. The 10th-anniversary edition of his book The Life You Can Save was just published on Dec. 1.
In his book Singer (b. 1946) pleads with people of means to give generously in order to save the lives of those suffering from starvation and disease and suggests many charities to which money can be sent with confidence.
In the article mentioned, even though an atheist, Singer declared, “The gospel accounts of Jesus portray him as giving more emphasis to helping the poor than to any other ethical concern, so this should be a top priority for all Christians.”
In this Christmas season, how much will you give to save a life, or several lives?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Why Water Buffalo Theology?

One of the most intriguing books I read in the mid-1970s was Waterbuffalo Theology by Koyama Kosuke. In 1999 the 25th anniversary edition (revised & expanded) was published as Water Buffalo Theology. But what kind of theology is that?! 
First edition cover
Who was Koyama?
Koyama Kosuke was a Japanese theologian who was born 90 years ago today, on December 10, 1929. He was less than two months younger than C.S. Song, the Asian theologian I wrote about in October (see here), but unlike Song, who is still living, Koyama (and that is the family name) died in 2009 before his 80th birthday.
Koyama studied in the U.S. from 1952 until he finished his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1959. During those years he met and married Lois Rozendaal, a Dutch-American woman. 
For most of the next decade (1960~68) he served as a pastor and teacher in Thailand, being sent there as a missionary by the United Church of Christ in Japan.
Following several years (1968~74) serving in Singapore and then in New Zealand (1974~79), in 1980 Koyama became a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Upon his retirement in 1996 he became the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor Emeritus of World Christianity.
Why Did Koyama Write about Water Buffalos?
Koyama gained attention in the theological world after his seminal book Waterbuffalo Theology was published in 1974. But why did he write about water buffalos?
Because his first field of service after completing his Ph.D. was as a pastor in northern Thailand, Koyama recognized the need for communicating with the people in his congregation, many of whom were farmers who used water buffalos in their daily work. 
Thai farmer plowing with a water buffalo
In my 1/22/2010 blog article I wrote about the importance of contextual theology. Koyama’s development of contextualized theology in Thailand was one of the main examples I used in the theology courses I taught in the late 1970s, and afterward.
According to an article written soon after Koyama’s death in 2009 (see here), Donald Shriver, president emeritus of Union Seminary, said that Waterbuffalo Theology was “one of the first books truly to do theology out of the setting of Asian villages.”
In the same article, a historian for the Church of Christ in Thailand called Koyama’s book “one of the classic works of contemporary Asian theology.”
The article concludes with Shriver telling how someone at Union noticed that Waterbuffalo theology had landed on the discard pile outside the library. Apparently, a librarian had concluded that the prestigious school had no program for teaching theology to water buffalos.
But since Koyama was joining the faculty there, his book “was quickly and quietly returned to the shelves.”
What Can We Learn from Water Buffalo Theology?
After locating in New York, Koyama didn’t write about water buffalos anymore. He was in a different context, and his writing reflected that new setting.
Koyama’s second most important book is probably Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai: A Critique of Idols, which was published in 1985. His “context” then was the world threatened by nuclear war. He explained,
I have written this book with a keen awareness of the global peril of nuclear war. Wars are waged ‘in the name of God,’ that is, with ‘theological’ justification. Such justification is idolatry” (p. x).
The background “context” was the destruction of warring Japan in 1945. Koyama became a baptized Christian in 1942; three years later he saw Tokyo “become wilderness by the constant bombings.” And then, of course, there were the catastrophic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
If Koyama were still writing today, perhaps he would applaud an article that appeared last week on the Rolling Stone website: “False Idol—Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump.”
That long article, which I recommend you taking the time to read (here), helps us understand the political context that challenges theologians, and all of us, today.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Darwin, Pro and Con

Who was born on February 12, 1809? Yes, Abraham Lincoln was born on that day—and so was Charles Darwin. Lincoln is 15th on the list of “The 25 Most Influential People of All Time” (see here). Darwin is #9 on that same list, largely because of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, his revolutionary book published 160 years ago, on November 24, 1859.
Darwin’s Discoveries
Born about 175 miles northwest of London, from 1825 to 1831 Darwin studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and then went to the University of Cambridge to study for an ordinary degree, the usual preliminary for theological training.
Rather than becoming a medical doctor or a clergyman, though, Darwin became a natural scientist, and his voyage on HMS Beagle (1831~36) established him as an eminent geologist.
Based on his meticulous scientific research, by the end of that decade he had mostly constructed his theory of evolution, although his seminal book on that was not published until 20 years later.
On the Origin of Species led to a revolution in the way human beings thought about the world and themselves. As a 1999 essay in the Scientific American says, “Almost every component in modern man’s belief system is somehow affected by Darwinian principles.” 
Darwin’s Detractors
From the beginning until the present, however, Darwin has had his distractors. In the years following the publishing of his groundbreaking book, there were scientists who did not agree with his assertions.
By the 1870s, though, the scientific community and most of the educated public had accepted evolution as a fact.
The main detractors have been Christians whose belief in a literally interpreted Bible caused them to oppose evolution of the natural world, including humans. One of the contemporary evangelical Christian leaders of this opposition to Darwin was Phillip E. Johnson (b. 1940), who died last month.
Darwin on Trial (1991) was Johnson’s influential book widely read and cited by conservative Christians.
Darwin’s Defense
Since I am not a scientist, I have no way to authenticate Darwin’s scientific assertions. As a student of Christian theology and philosophy, I can (and will) offer a limited defense of Darwin.
I suppose there was a time when I did not accept Darwin’s theory of evolution as being correct—but even though I grew up in a conservative Baptist church, I don’t remember that ever being a live issue.
I also don’t know when it was that I first accepted evolution as being “true,” but by the time I had finished my seminary and graduate school courses/seminars under Dr. Eric C. Rust, my major professor, I no longer had any qualms about affirming the truth of evolution.
Because of Dr. Rust, who was a trained scientist as well as a theologian, I accepted a both/and position with regards to science and religion rather than an either/or position. That meant accepting both evolution and divine creation—and a rejecting both Darwinism and creationism.
The importance of that position became abundantly apparent when I began teaching Christian Studies to non-Christian students in Japan. Almost without exception, the students had been taught evolution in high school and believed it to be scientifically true.
Of the (literally) thousands of non-Christian students I taught, if presented the choice between science (evolution) or Christianity based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation stories, 99% or so would most likely have quickly chosen science.
I was happy to be able to emphasize that such a choice is not necessary. It was only in my last years in Japan that I was able to augment my assertions with the writings of Catholic theologian John Haught of Georgetown University.
Haught’s books God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (2000) and Deeper Than Darwin (2003) are highly significant books for theologically evaluating evolution. I highly recommend them.