Thursday, January 30, 2020

What about GMOs?

This new blog article is an important follow-up to the article I posted on December 15 about Norman Borlaug, known as “the man who fed the world.” One of my respected Thinking Friends responded with a lengthy email about the problem of GMOs, and that is an important concern that needs careful consideration.  
Facts about GMOs
Since I am not a scientist and have limited knowledge about botany (plant biology) or genetics, I can say little about the technical aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), I have, however, done some reading and thinking about ethical issues surrounding GMOs.
Beginning in 1944 in Mexico, “Borlaug developed simple techniques for cross-breeding, harvesting, and planting seeds in order to produce unusually disease-resistant strains of wheat. The result was a striking growth in wheat yields. By 1963, largely due to Borlaug's techniques, Mexico was producing six times as much wheat per year as in the year before Borlaug's arrival.” (The quote is from this website for biology teachers.)
Borlaug’s success in Mexico led to successes in other countries—and to the “Green Revolution,” for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. His successes also led to geneticists developing techniques for extending his work by altering crops at the genetic level, resulting in the proliferation of GMOs.
The controversy that has arisen about GMOs is not linked so much to what Borlaug and others did before 1970 but rather to the way GMOs have been developed and marketed by large companies. The major U.S. company to do that was Monsanto, a chemical company that was started in St. Louis in 1901 and acquired by Bayer in 2018.
Monsanto scientists were among the first to modify a plant cell genetically, publishing their results in 1983. Five years later the company conducted the first field tests of genetically modified crops. After introducing Roundup Ready soybeans and corn in 1994, Monsanto steadily became an agribusiness giant.
The strong opposition in some circles to GMOs is not so much opposition to genetic engineering (GE) as such but to the ways that GE has been used (or misused) by large corporations such as Monsanto.
Opposition to GMOs
In the last half of the 1990s, there was growing opposition toward GMOs because of the way many thought GMO produced food could be detrimental to human health.
In 2000, when Borlaug was 86, the African News Service published an article (see here) titled “Norman Borlaug Blasts GMO Doomsayers.” He stated, “There is no evidence to indicate that biotechnology is dangerous.”
Nevertheless, opposition continued to grow in the first two decades of the 21st century. Although it is several years old now, the opposition to foods containing GMOs is strongly, and attractively, presented in a film with the clever title “GMO OMG” (2013). (June and I checked the DVD out from the local library and watched it earlier this week.)   
Affirmation of GMOs
In January last year, Charlie Arnot, a thought leader in food and agriculture whose office is in the Kansas City Northland, was the guest at the Vital Conversations study group June and I regularly attend. At that meeting we discussed his slim book, Size Matters: Why We Love to Hate Big Food (2018).
(It was that meeting and Charlie’s book that rekindled my interest in Norman Borlaug and led to last month’s blog article about him.)
During the discussion, I asked Arnot directly about whether he thought GMOs were dangerous to human health. He gave an unequivocally negative response.
Just this month I have read the “Saturday essay” written by Mark Lynas and published in the June 22, 2018, edition of the Wall Street Journal. The essay’s title is, “Confession of an Anti-GMO Activist”—and here is his main point:
Genetically modified crops have been vilified and banned, but the science is clear: They’re perfectly safe. And what’s more, the world desperately needs them.
Lynas (b. 1973) is also the author of Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs” (2018). That is a work that merits careful consideration by anti-GMO people.
Attention also needs to be given to William Saletan’s’s 2015 article titled “Unhealthy Fixation,” which contends, “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.” 
I have no complaint about people who wish to avoid GMOs in the food they choose to eat. But the most important ethical problem is seeking to curb all GMO-produced crops if, indeed, they are helping to feed the many people in the world who are chronically hungry.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Still Seeing the Limits of Liberalism

The updated and slightly revised edition of Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism is finally finished and is now ready for purchase at This article is about the sequel to that book, which I have begun updating and (slightly) revising this month. 
The Search for Balance
For thirty-six years I was a full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin University (SGU) in Fukuoka City, Japan. For the last twenty-four of those years, I was a professor in SGU’s Department of Theology, which serves as the theological seminary for the Japan Baptist Convention.
During those twenty-four years I taught the required introductory theology course, and one of my constant themes was theological balance. In Japanese, seat and sheet are pronounced exactly the same, so some of the seminary students nicknamed me Balance Seat, a pun on the economic term balance sheet. 
From before the time I started writing Fed Up . . ., I planned to write a sequel as part of my quest to find, and to forward, a balanced theological position—and I was able to publish that sequel in 2010.
Largely because of having written Fed Up with Fundamentalism, a book clearly critical of the excesses of conservative evangelical theology and practices, I felt the need to balance that emphasis with a book critical of the excesses of liberal theology.
Now after ten years, there are some updates needed and some minor revisions and corrections of keyboarding errors that also need to be made.
An Important Clarification
So that there will be no confusion later, let me make it clear at this point that in this book I am writing only about Christian theological liberalism, not about economic, social, or political liberalism. The words liberal and liberalism are often used in these latter arenas, but that is outside the scope of this book.
Since in recent years so many Christians who have been conservative theologically have also been social conservatives and so many Christians who have been liberal theologically have been social liberals, it is hard to avoid confusing the categories.
Thus, calling Christians progressive or liberal now can, and perhaps most often does, refer to Christians who are social progressives or liberals rather than those who are theologically progressive or liberal.
In Fed Up with Fundamentalism, I was often critical of the stance of fundamentalists and/or conservative evangelicals on social and political issues. That was because their theological positions often led to what seemed to be unbiblical or un-Christian stances on important social justice concerns.
But I find little problem with most theological liberals’ position on social issues. Thus, this book deals almost exclusively with theological matters and not with the ethical issues that were extensively treated in Fed Up . . . .
The Intended Tone
This book, as its prequel, is not meant to be polemical as such. As a historical, theological, and personal appraisal, the intention is to be completely fair. Thus, the tone of this book is decidedly different from books harshly critical of liberal Christianity.
As in the previous book, my intention is not just to criticize. Rather than being a polemical attack on theological positions with which I disagree, I will point out the weaknesses or the limits/limitations of theological liberalism in order that a better position can be grasped, one that is truer to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible as a whole. 
There are ten chapters in Limits of Liberalism. Over the next ten months, I plan to post a blog article each month based on those ten chapters. I would be honored to have you read, think about, and respond to those upcoming postings.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Scandal of Grace: Learning from John Ruskin

John Ruskin, the highly influential British writer, art critic, and social thinker in the last half of the 19th century, died 120 years ago today (on January 20, 1900) at the age of 81. His most important literary work highlighted what has been called “the scandal of grace.”
Bumping into Ruskin
When I read the Summer 2019 issue of Plough Quarterly, I was impressed with the article titled “Comrade Ruskin: How a Victorian visionary can save communism from Marx” by Eugene McCarraher, a professor at Villanova University.
(McCarraher’s 800-page book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity was published last November, and he makes numerous references to Ruskin.)
And then late last year I was reading Gandhi’s An Autobiography: Or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (originally published in 1925~29). I was surprised when I read of his reading Ruskin’s Unto This Last, calling it a book that “was impossible to lay aside, once I had begun it.”
After he read Ruskin’s book, Gandhi decided to change his own life according to Ruskin’s teaching. Among other things, he established “a farm where everybody would get the same salary, without distinction of function, race, or nationality.”
Indeed, Ruskin's influence reached across the world. Tolstoy described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times" and quoted extensively from him.
Also, as the Plough article states, “Echoes of Ruskin’s thought reappeared in the 1960s and 1970s” in the work of economists such as E.F. Schumacher.
Learning from Ruskin
Ruskin considered Unto This Last (1862) his most important work. The title of that brief book, which can be read here on Wikisource, comes from Matthew 20:14, toward the end of Jesus’ parable about the laborers in the vineyard.
Jesus’ parable is called “the scandal of grace” by Warner D’Souza, a Catholic priest in India who in 2017 posted (here) an article on Rembrandt’s 1637 painting titled “Labourers in the Vineyard.”  
One contemporary scholar endeavoring to help people learn more about and from Ruskin is Jim Spates, an emeritus professor at a small liberal arts college in New York. He maintains a blog titled Why Ruskin? which is “dedicated to making known Ruskin’s continuing importance to the troubled world in which we live.”
Spates’s 169th posting, “Unto this Last: The Power of a Parable” was made this month on January 7. It is partly a retelling in contemporary language of Jesus’ parable recorded in Matthew 20. (Unfortunately, Spates used penny as the paraphrase for denarius, which in Jesus’ day was the wage for a day’s work by an ordinary laborer.)
Implementing Ruskin’s Teachings?
While recommended more perhaps by Gandhi (and Jesus!) than by Ruskin, there are some contemporary economists and politicians who are proposing a “universal basic income.” (Here is the link to an explanatory article about that from June 2019).
This sort of economic structure was proposed by MLK, Jr., who is being celebrated by a federal holiday today. In his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here? King wrote,
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
While the idea of a universal basic, or guaranteed, income may seem offensive to some, it is not only in keeping with the writing of John Ruskin and the example of Gandhi but also consistent with Jesus’ parable about “the scandal of grace.”
In closing, let me share these words from Ruskin’s Unto This Last:
There is no Wealth but Life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Defending Freedom: The Meritorious Work of the ACLU

So, if you are a USAmerican, do you highly value the Bill of Rights? If so, you might be, or might want to be, a supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was born 100 years ago, on January 19, 1920.  
What’s the ACLU’s Purpose?
According to Samuel Walker’s nearly 500-page book In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (1990), the “essential feature of the ACLU is its professed commitment to the non-partisan defense of the Bill of Rights” (p. 5).
From its very beginning, the ACLU has had many critics. In his Introduction, Walker recounts how in the 1988 presidential election campaign, George Bush attacked Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent, for being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.”
Twenty-five years later, Jerome R. Corsi, who (among other things) is a conspiracy theorist, published Bad Samaritans: The ACLU’s Relentless Campaign to Erase Faith from The Public Square.
On the opening page of his book, Corsi (b. 1946) cites these words from the Pledge of Allegiance, “. . . one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Because of their support for the rights of atheists also, the ACLU objects to those first four words that were added to the Pledge in 1954. But clearly, their main emphasis is, literally, “liberty and justice for all.”
And “all” means, well, all, even those who may harbor mistaken and/or wrongheaded ideas.
The ACLU has been the target of stringent criticism for defending, for example, the free speech right of Communist sympathizers in the U.S.—but also for defending the right to free speech by the KKK and Fred Phelps, the notorious pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.
In a 2010 article about Phelps (1929~2014), an ACLU spokesperson wrote, “To be clear: the ACLU strongly disagrees with the protestors' message in this case. But even truly offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment.”
She went on to say, “It is in hard cases like this where our commitment to free speech is most tested, and most important.”
Why’d the ACLU Start?
The ACLU was formed largely because the freedom of people in the late 1910s to speak out against the movement of the U.S. toward participation in World War I was being suppressed.
The primary founder of the organization was Roger Baldwin, a pacifist whose conscientious objection to “the Great War” was not recognized by the U.S. government and in 1918-19 he spent nine months in prison.
After the ACLU was formed in January 1920, Baldwin remained the executive director until 1950. Even though he retired from that position when he was 66 years old, he remained active in working for the civil liberties of all people.
In 1981, seven months before his death at the age of 97, Baldwin was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Carter.
Who’d Be Against the ACLU?
Through the years the ACLU has supported many noted people/causes, including John Scopes in the “monkey trial” of 1925, Japanese Americans after they were placed in internment camps in 1942, African Americans in the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit of 1954, the “reproductive freedom” of women since before the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, and gays/lesbians in the Obergefell v. Hodges lawsuit of 2015.
So, who would now be opposed to the ACLU? Well, among others, those who think a literal interpretation of the Bible ought to be (en)forced on all U.S. citizens in spite of the principle of the separation of church and state as well as those who think that it is acceptable to discriminate or legislate against minorities, gays and lesbians, immigrants/asylum seekers, and (desperate) women seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy.
Those who cherish the Bill of Rights, however, are deeply grateful for the meritorious work of the ACLU over the past 100 years.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Subversive Act of Baptism

“Subverting the Culture of Contempt” was the title of my 12/20 blog posting, and I am pleased that earlier this week (see here) re-posted a slightly edited version of that article. This article is about a different, even more important type of subversion. 
Common Views of Baptism
There are, of course, a wide variety of views about baptism within Christianity. The most common view is that baptism is a sacrament that seals a recently born baby into the bonds of the Church.
The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and many mainline Protestant denominations (such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and many Methodists) practice infant baptism. In such cases, baptism is a rite chosen by Christian parents and the Church, a rite that may or may not later be affirmed by the child through Confirmation.
Other Protestant churches, such as all those in the baptist (lower case “b” intentional) reject what in theological discussions is sometimes referred to as pedobaptism. The alternative form of baptism is usually called believer’s baptism, also known as credobaptism.
Even baptisms of the latter type, however, are often of elementary or middle school children who are mainly doing what is expected of them by their parents and Sunday School teachers. Such baptisms are no more subversive acts than are those who receive infant baptism.
New Testament Views of Baptism
In New Testament times, baptism was of adults who were confessing their faith in Jesus as Savior and their allegiance to him as Lord. But the main difference between then and now, especially in Europe and the Americas, is that the term Lord was problematic.
In the Roman Empire of that time, Caesar wanted/expected to be called Kurios (Lord), so to confess Jesus as Lord was, well, a subversive act.
Consequently, for many decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the persecution of Christians was not specifically for their religious beliefs but primarily because of their political stance: calling Jesus Lord instead of Caesar.
That all changed, of course, after the baptism of Emperor Constantine in 337 A.D. His baptism was not a subversive act; rather, it seems to have been based on his earlier decision to embrace Christianity for military reasons.
The non-subversive form of baptism, then, was predominant in European Christianity from the fourth century until the sixteenth century when a small group of Swiss subversives sought to re-institute believer’s baptism. They came to be called Anabaptists and began the baptist movement.
And, yes, those Anabaptists were persecuted by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Help from Brian Zahnd
Some of you may remember my 9/5/17 blog article about Brian Zahnd and his powerful book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (see here). Brian’s new 2019 book is titled Postcards from Babylon, and I highly recommend it.
From early in his first chapter, Zahnd stresses that “the only way to truly follow Jesus is to be countercultural.” Then he begins the concluding paragraph of that chapter with these powerful words:
It’s not the task of the church to "Make America Great Again." The contemporary task of the church is to make Christianity countercultural again.
That task can be fulfilled, partly, by making baptism again what it was meant to be in the beginning: commitment to Jesus Christ above all others.
Zahnd declares, “I am betrothed by faith and baptism to Christ alone and Christ can have no rivals” (p. 42).
That is the basic reason baptism is subversive: by the act of baptism the Christ-follower rejects all the isms that demand allegiance: capitalism, militarism, and primarily nationalism. And that is the reason Brian also avers that “from the moment we are baptized into the body of Christ we become expatriates in the land of our birth” (p. 51).
So, I appeal to all you Christians: let’s make baptism subversive again!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Climate Crisis: The Challenge of the Decade

Happy New Year and Happy New Decade! Yes, I know that technically a new decade starts with 1 rather than 0, but still, the 2020s began on January 1 so I am referring to this week as the beginning of a new decade. This article is about what I am calling the challenge of the decade that has just begun.
From Global Warming to Climate Crisis
I first mentioned global warming in “The World in 2100,” my 2/19/10 blog posting, and the title of my 2/5/11 posting was “What About Global Warming?” Ten more articles bear global warming as one of the labels.
In these past ten years I have often insisted that the words “global warming” are preferable to “climate change.” The latter, of course, could refer to cooling as well as to warming. But the current crisis is definitely linked to global warming.
Since, however, there could be global warming but no crisis, I have come to see “climate crisis” as the best term to use as we face “the challenge of the decade.” 
Tom Toles in The Washington Post (1/2/20)
Steps in the Wrong Direction
In the brief space of this blog article, I cannot possibly detail why the world now is facing a climate crisis. There is a wealth of information about that, and if you need to bone up some on the issues involved, I recommend the following.
“Understanding The Science Of Climate Change” is a well-done (but now a bit dated since it was made in 2015) video made in consultation with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and world-leading climate scientists. You can watch that informative video on YouTube by clicking here.
What I can do briefly is to indicate some of the steps that are being taken in the wrong direction and others that are being taken in the right direction.
DJT and his administration, unfortunately, have been taking steps in the wrong direction. His formal initiative last November to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was a major setback for dealing with the current climate crisis.
Altogether, the Trump administration and the Republican Congress have taken more than 130 actions since 2017 “to scale back or wholly eliminate federal climate mitigation and adaptation measures” (see here).
A November 5 article by Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Nation was titled “Trump’s Greatest Dereliction of Duty—His Disgraceful Denial of Climate Change.” I agree. DJT’s actions relative to the climate crisis are probably the most egregious errors of his administration.
Steps in the Right Direction
Thankfully, there are some steps in the right direction. For example, just about a year ago the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis was established and at the end of March they are scheduled to publish a set of public policy recommendations for congressional climate action.
More broadly, on December 10, the World Council of Churches Interfaith Liaison Committee presented the UN’s climate change summit (COP25 in Madrid) with a declaration of its commitment to climate justice.
These are just two of many examples that might be considered.
What Does This Have To Do with the Eternal?
In my December 31 blog article, I stated that in this new year I want to spend more time thinking about eternal/spiritual matters rather than temporal/political concerns. In reflecting on this, I have come to realize that care for the environment is not just a temporal concern.
Since I believe that the world is God’s creation and am trying to understand Richard Rohr’s idea (in The Universal Christ) that God’s first incarnation was at creation, not at the birth of Jesus, then caring for the world is a spiritual task, not just a political one.
The climate crisis, at root, is a theological issue, and I want to work to help solve the climate crisis not because I am a LWLP (left-wing liberal progressive) in Star Parker’s words (in Necessary Noise), but because of my faith in the Creator God.