Criticism of American Christianity

[This is the English summary of a Chapel talk I gave at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka City,  Japan, on October 24, 1972. My wife and I returned to the U.S. for the first time after spending nearly five full years in Japan as Southern Baptist missionaries. During our year of furlough, as it was called then, I spoke often in Missouri churches and in at least six other states–mostly Baptist churches beginning with the First Baptist Church in Anchorage, Alaska. This Chapel talk was given about three months after returning to Japan. For my regular blog article about this Chapel talk, click on this link.]

Last year in America I found myself very critical of Christian as practiced by most churches and Christians that I saw. I was critical of what appeared to be much more concern for self than others. I was critical because there seemed to be too little concern for four of the great problems of our day: war, poverty, racism, and pollution. I was critical because I felt that American Christianity is too often too much a supporter of the status quo.

In reflecting upon these criticisms, I have come to the following conclusions:

(1) I can understand why many Japanese university students have doubts about Christianity. There is not much attractiveness in Christianity as it is demonstrated by many of its adherents.

(2) In spite of the obvious hypocrisy of some Christians and the limited concern of most, I am still convinced that most of the best, the most genuine, the most conscientious people in America are Christian people.

(3) A person does not become perfect upon becoming a Christian. If we expect Christians to be perfect, we expect too much. When a person becomes a Christian, his knowledge, attitudes, and personality traits do not change immediately. Perhaps that is what we expect. Maybe that is why we are often so critical of Christians. What changes when a person becomes a Christian is his direction, his loyalties, his values. These things can and will change other areas in his life if there is Christian growth and development.

Please remember this: becoming a Christian is not like receiving a prize for winning a race. It is merely the first step in the race. Those who have become Christians have started the race, but no one on earth has yet finished the course and achieved the prize. Even the Apostle Paul, perhaps the greatest Christian of all times, realized his imperfections and knew that the goal was still out ahead. (Read Philippians 3:12-14.)

It is true that I have become critical of American Christianity. But by realizing that Christianity is the start and not the end of the race, I can be a Christian and a proclaimer of Christianity in spite of the criticism that I have. I am not about to get off the track and start looking for something else.

If you are a Christian, I encourage you to join with me in seeking to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

If you are not a Christian yet, don’t you want to get in the race too? I would be delighted to show you where the starting-line is.

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Posted in Sermons/Talks | 1 Comment

A Further Look at “Silence”

Over the last couple of weeks I have read a number of reviews about Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence,” based on the 1966 (Eng., 1969) novel by the same name written by Endo Shusaku. Endo (1923-96) was a Catholic Christian who became widely known and read as a Japanese novelist.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

One major problem with most reviews of “Silence” is their, well, silence concerning the historical background and context of the events portrayed in the movie.

Francis Xavier, one of the original seven Jesuits, was the first Christian missionary to set foot in Japan, landing at Kagoshima August 1549. Kagoshima is on the southern tip of Kyushu, the island on which Nagasaki is located in southwest Japan.

Xavier’s missionary activities were so successful that by 1587, Hideyoshi, the most powerful daimyo (feudal lord) in Japan, became so alarmed that he promulgated the Purge Directive Order to the Jesuits in July 1587. That Order included a ban on missionaries.

Hideyoshi’s primary concern was not about religious beliefs. Rather, it was about the power of the Christian feudal lords in Kyushu. The ban was Hideyoshi’s attempt to expand his political power.

Ten years later Hideyoshi took even harsher measures against Christians in Japan: he had 26 Christians (literally) crucified in Nagasaki in February 1597. Six were missionaries and 20 were Japanese believers.

Hideyoshi died in 1598, and after a decisive battle in 1600 Ieyasu became the first shogun of the Tokugawa Era, which lasted until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

In 1614, Ieyasu was so concerned about Spanish territorial ambitions that he signed a Christian Expulsion Edict, banning the practice of Christianity and expelling all foreign missionaries. This decision, made partly through discussions with Englishman Will Adams, is described in the fourth chapter of Oliver Statler’s intriguing book Japanese Inn (1961).

All of this stands behind the characters in “Silence,” beginning with Cristóvão Ferreira the Portuguese Jesuit priest who was a missionary in Japan from 1609 until he apostatized in 1633. The beginning of the movie shows Rodrigues and Garrpe, two young Jesuits priests, deciding to go to Japan in order to find Ferreira, their revered teacher. They arrive there in 1639.

THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND

The most important thing to keep in mind from the historical background just given is the connection of the missionaries to the European countries that were involved in economic activities, and potentially imperialistic, activities in Japan.

While the movie gives the impression that there was a religious reason for the persecution of the Christians, in reality it was much more based on the fear of foreign political and economic influence in Japan. Religion, especially religious beliefs, was of a far lesser concern.

Many who see the movie think the actions of the Japanese were very cruel—and they were. But we need to remember that at the same time, the same sort of persecution of Jews, Muslims, and even Christian “heretics” was carried out by the ruling “Christians” in Europe.

Actually, the Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478 to 1834. According to Wikipedia, “Although records are incomplete, about 150,000 persons were charged with crimes by the Inquisition and about 3,000 were executed.”

In a different vein, it is also important to pay close attention to the end of the book, an ending that was amplified in the movie. I found two websites with quotes from “Silence,” but neither had the most important of all, words from the end of the eighth chapter of the book:

. . . the Christ in the bronze [fumie] speaks to the priest [Rodrigues]: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross (p. 183).

Those who miss the significance of those words, miss the whole point of Endo’s book. According to Japanese-American artist and author Makoto Fujimura, Endo gave this explanation of the purpose of his book: “I did not write a book about the Silence of God; I wrote a book about the Voice of God speaking through suffering and silence.”

Surprisingly, Endo’s original title of his novel was “The Aroma of Sunshine”!

fumie

Stepping on a fumie

INSIGHTS FROM FUJIMURA

Makoto Fujimura, just mentioned, is the author of a book titled Silence and Beauty (2016). It is a marvelous book that gives insight into the nature of Japanese thinking, including the nature of the widespread Japanese understanding of beauty as well as silence.

Among other things, Fujimura explains that Endo’s novel is about grace. He writes,

By stepping on the fumi-e, Father Rodrigues inverts into his genuine faith, faith not dependent on his religious status or on his own merit, but a faith in grace— grace that, like the rays of sunshine after a rainy day, provides an aroma of the light (loc. 2263-65).

Then, in spite of the several times Inoue, the Japanese “inquisitor,” refers to Japan as an unproductive swamp for Christianity, Fujimura writes,

Christian faith is more than a mere rational proposition. It can take root deeply in a muddy swamp if it is designed for propagation there, like, for instance, planting rice in rice paddies (loc. 1189-91).

Later Fujimura claims that through Endo,

we may begin to detect the aroma of the sunshine and to see the possibility of the Golden Country of Japan, a country filled with rice paddies, a muddy swamp now resplendent with golden hues of the abundant harvest (loc. 2239-40).

That is the reason why Scorsese dedicated “Silence” to Japanese pastors. However, a review by a young Japanese pastor, while insightful and helpful in some parts, misses the point, even saying that “Silence” will drive Japanese people away from an understanding of God’s love.

I hope that that pastor, and that you who read this, will at some point read Fujimura’s book and learn from his insights.

And while “Silence” is probably too “heavy” for the general public and even though it demands more thoughtful reflection than most people are willing to expend, I do hope there will be many who go see the movie and then spend adequate time thinking and talking with others about its deep meaning.

In this time when the “prosperity gospel” continues to grow in popularity (think about some of those who will be praying at the presidential inauguration on 1/20), this is a good time to consider the gospel of grace for those who are not, and will never be, rich and powerful.

God is not silent. God speaks through suffering–and through the hidden beauty of the gracious Christ on the cross.

Posted in Book Reviews, Movie Reviews | 6 Comments

“The New Left and Christian Radicalism”

[Rather than a summary of the book as such, the following is mainly a compilation of what I found to be the most important statements made in this powerful book.]

Gish, Arthur G. The New Left and Christian Radicalism. Eerdmans, 1970. 158 pp.

Preface

“To be radical is to go to the root, to attack a problem at its base. To be radical is to present a fundamental alternative to the status quo. It means to start with what could be rather than what is.”

“Part One of this book is a comparison of the New Left and sixteenth-century Anabaptism.”

“Part Two of this study is an attempt to make a synthesis of New Left and Anabaptist thought by examining the current issues in theology, ethics, and politics from the radical perspective presented in Part One.”

“This study is written both for the humanistic radical who has never seen the relevance of theology to social change and for those Christians who have never realized the radical implications of the Christian faith” (7).

PART ONE

“Chapter One  An Analysis of the New Left”

People working in the New Left “are dedicated to ‘changing the system’” (15).

Gish cites a 1967 article by Edward E. Sampson: “Those over thirty are not to be trusted, because of their increasing investment in the system as it exists” (21).

“In the eyes of the New Left, the system is so corrupt that is must be completely changed. This is probably the fundamental difference between Liberalism and Radicalism.” “The New Left suspects that the liberals are first committed to respectability and only secondly to justice. The liberal is seen as one who wants to share in the affluence of the existing order, but is at the same time burdened [p] with guilt feelings which he tries to assuage by disavowing its wrongs” (30-31).

In his short critique at the end of this chapter, Gish says, “Whenever one decided to follow his ideals seriously, the danger is moralism, pride, and self-righteousness” (47).

“Chapter Two  Anabaptism: A Sixteenth-Century Analogy”

“When I asked my grandfather why he grew a beard his reply was that it was to show that he was different from the world. The beard of the protester is to demonstrate that he is not a part of the establishment. My own beard is a conscious attempt to bring together these two radical perspectives” (49).

“The Christian for Luther has dual citizenship and thus must live by two sets of standards. The Christian must live in both realms.

“The Anabaptists, however, separate the two realms. . . . Christian discipleship involves all of life. The whole Christian life must be lived under the New Covenant, separated from the world. He no longer lives by the standards of the fallen world” (58).

Gish says that for the Anabaptists “the important word . . . was not faith as with Luther, but discipleship (Nachfolge Christi)” (59). “Rather than focusing on personal salvation, they stressed living in the new kingdom, living by a new set of values (love, peace, forgiveness, etc.)” (60).

“The simple life was also stressed. They urged people to avoid anything that would lead to pride, and opposed living on a high economic plane” (61).

“Freedom was especially important for the Anabaptists.” They “were the first to proclaim religious liberty in the way we think of it now.” That freedom “meant that the church must be a voluntary association of believers. . . . The most radical act of the Anabaptists was baptism” (62). They “became early proclaimers of the disestablishment of the church” (63). Also, “the distinction between laity and clergy almost disappeared” (64). In addition, “They were early socialists” (66).

“Important for the Anabaptists was the conviction that the Christian must be different from the non-Christian” (68). “The main reason for excluding the Christian from public office was because the ethos of the state conflicted with redemptive love” (69). “Thus because they were convinced that the state cannot be Christian, they believed that the Christian should not take part in it. First of all the Christian must be obedient to Christ” (70). “We see then that the Anabaptists rejected the notion of bringing change from the top down. . . . Rather, change must start with communities of believers who live changed lives” (71).

“Possibly the best-known characteristic of the Anabaptists was their emphasis on nonresistance. They did not believe in the use of force or participation in war” (71).

Harold Bender in his seminal essay “The Anabaptist Vision” (1944) wrote, “There can be no question but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism, and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period” (73).

“There is one aspect of Anabaptism of which we need to be critical. . . . they did not have a strong enough impulse to witness to the social structures. . . . they failed to realize that we can change social structures even though we cannot build the kingdom. . . . Those who today would take the Anabaptist tradition seriously must find ways of combining a forceful witness to the state with the knowledge that the kingdom is not for us to establish” (75).

PART TWO

“Chapter Three  Biblical Faith, Radicalism and Hope”

“To be a Christian it to be a radical” (79).

“The Lordship of God means that no finite group can claim ultimacy for itself, for only God is Lord. Thus the Christian cannot pledge allegiance to any institution. The Christian, because of his [sic] higher allegiance, is by nature disloyal to all institutions” (87).

“The kingdom [of God] is that final revolution toward which all the faithful look. . . . It is this vision of the kingdom that is the hope of the revolutionary” (88).

“One of the weaknesses of liberalism is that it fails to take evil seriously enough.” But Gish goes on to say that “one of the common pitfalls for the radical is pride and self-righteousness” (89).

The last part of this chapter is “The Christian Hope.” “Hope frees one from becoming reconciled to the present. Because of his anticipation of the future, he need not cling to the past or defend the status quo” (91).

Chapter Four  Compromise, Expediency and Obedience to Christ”

“To be a Christian is to be an extremist” (94).

“For either individuals or institutions to remain silent in the face of injustice is to participate in that injustice and to be responsible for it” (97).

“The very premise of radicalism is that there is an ought standing over against the is. The radical is one who is not satisfied with the way things are” (104).

“Chapter Five  A Theology for Revolution”

“To be a Christian is to be a subversive, or at least that is how he will be viewed by society. . . . to be a peace with God means to be in conflict with the world (113).

“Revolution is an attempt to close the gap between the ideal and the real. It is a struggle to move from the is to the ought” (116).

“Change is inevitable. The question is whether that change will come violently or nonviolently. . . . Basically, violence comes not from those seeking change, but from those preventing change” (118).

Gish suggests “A Christian Theory of Social Change” (120-136). “There are three basic approaches to social change. First there is the individualistic approach of changing individuals. This is often identified with both political conservatism and religious fundamentalism. . . . The second approach is to focus on the power structures. This is the approach of political liberalism. . . .

“The third approach, which will occupy the remainder of this chapter, is a synthesis of Anabaptist and New Left strategy” (121). “The early church did not try to take over the Roman Empire or change it. They simply believed and acted as though it was not the center of history” (122). “The radical approach is not only to suggest alternatives, it is to be and to live those alternatives. It is to live in the new realities” (123). “We are not called to make a sick world well. We are called to act well. That is a powerful political act in itself. It means being the revolution” (124). “Only living in the light of the kingdom if truly revolutionary” (125). “. . . the church at its best should be a parabolic community, embodying those ideals it wishes to proclaim to the world” (130).

“To assert that we cannot bring in the kingdom through our own effort does not mean inactivity or resignation. Rather we accept the kingdom as a gift, as a given, and begin living in it. We participate in movements for social justice, because we already live by that new vision” (134).

Gish’s last subsection is “Toward a Revolution of Nonviolence” (136-142). “Civil disobedience is a witness against an evil itself, and also against the immorality of silence and passive cooperation with evil” (137). “Out assumption is that violent revolution is occurring because nonviolent revolution is not occurring.

“The basic problem with a violent revolution is not that it is too radical, but that it is not radical enough, not that it brings too much change, but too little” (139). “The pacifist argument is that violence has a disastrous effect upon those who use it. To fight fascism with fascism is to become a fascist. . . . To accept the standards of the opponent is to be defeated by him. Nonviolence is the real method of liberation” (140). “While we can support the aim of the revolutionary, we cannot support his violent means. We dare not forsake our vision of the new humanity. We must still witness to that reality” (142).

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Following the Plough

Although I grew up as a Worth County, Missouri, farm boy and worked many hours in the fields on most summer days during my early-teen years, I never did plow with a horse or a mule. My father and especially my grandfather’s certainly had that hard experience. For some reason I hardly ever even plowed with a tractor; my father did the plowing and I did most of the disking during my high school years. Plowing is hard—especially so with a horse- or mule-drawn plow.

Clarence Jordan, the Bible scholar and theologian who founded the Koinonia Farm near Plains, Georgia, once remarked, “Following a plow under the hot sun on a red Georgia hillside has called many a man into the ministry.” (Or something like that; I couldn’t find the exact quote.) And while I felt called into the ministry when I was a teenager, it was not because of following a plow under the hot sun on a Missouri hillside.

I have long been an admirer of the just-mentioned Clarence Jordan. After finishing his doctorate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which is also my alma mater, in 1942 he and his wife Florence established Koinonia Farm as a community seeking to follow Jesus’ teachings as thoroughly as possible. It was devised as a “demonstration plot” to show how to put the teachings of Jesus into practice.

Others previously had sought to do the same sort of thing, and the Jordans doubtlessly knew about and learned from them. For example, there is similarity between the Jordans and the Anabaptists, who broke away from the dominant church of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525. More particularly, there is considerable affinity between the Jordans and the Anabaptist group known as the Bruderhof, a Christian community founded in Germany by Eberhard and Emma Arnold in 1920. Even though they had five children and little money, the Arnolds started that “demonstration plot” 96 years ago, and it is still going in several other locations.

Eberhard Arnold, who was born 133 years ago (on July 26, 1883), died in 1935. But even before his death, some of the men of Bruderhof (literally, “place of brothers”) had to leave Germany because of their pacifism. Eventually most of the community moved to England, then to Paraguay, and finally in the 1950s to New York, about ninety miles north of New York City. Eberhard’s son, Johann Heinrich Arnold (1913–82) led the Bruderhof from 1962 through 1982, and J. Heinrich’s son Johann Christoph Arnold was their leader from 1983 through 2001.

From the beginning, the Bruderhof published books and articles, long using the name Plough Publishing House. Now simply called Plough, they recently began publishing a very attractive, and challenging, magazine called Plough Quarterly, which claims to be “breaking new ground for a renewed world.” (Outside North American plow is usually spelled plough.) The theme of the Summer 2016 issue is “Living in Community,” and I have found it very worthwhile. In addition, Plough sends an email called “Daily Dig” to anyone who asks, and I enjoy reading those words of wisdom each morning.

So while I have not had experience of following a horse-drawn plow (plough), I am now following (reading) the Plough. As Philip Yancey, the Christian author some of you know of, wrote in a letter to the editor published in the latest issue, “Plough Quarterly is the richest publication I get these days. . . . The entire magazine is beautifully conceived and professionally executed.”

For you who use the Internet, http://www.plough.com is worth checking out, and perhaps some of you would like to sign up for the “Daily Dig.”

{This was originally written for, and published in July 2016 by, The Times-Tribune, my weekly hometown newspaper in Grant City, Missouri.}

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Seek Justice

[Manuscript for the sermon preached (with PowerPoint slides) at Rosedale Congregational United Church of Christ on October 30, 2016.]

Seek Justice

It is a delight to back here at Rosedale Congregational United Church of Christ again today, and I bring you greetings from Rainbow Mennonite Church, which is less than a mile and a half from here. I am happy that in recent weeks your pastor, Pastor Ruth, and my pastor, who is also Pastor Ruth, have become friends.

I had the privilege of being with you on the Sunday after Easter, and now today is the day before what is known as Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest and university professor, posted 95 topics for debate on the cathedral church door in the German city where he lived. That is usually given as the beginning date of the Protestant Reformation. October 31 is the day before the celebration of what the Catholics call All Saints Day. Thus, the night before was called All Hallows’ Eve—and that is where the name Halloween came from.

But I am not going to talk more about the Reformation, and certainly not more about Halloween, this morning. Rather, I want you to think with me about justice, one of the key terms found in what we have read this morning from the first chapter of Isaiah. I rarely preach from the Old Testament, but this morning’s Scripture reading is one of my favorite Old Testament passages.

Here is the first thing I want to talk about this morning:

< I. God Hates Religion >

The first parts of this morning’s Bible passage are used by some people, including me, to emphasize that God hates religion.

Look again at verses 11-15 of today’s Bible reading:

11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts.
I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.

12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you,
this trampling of my temple’s courts?

13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!

14 I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.

15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.

The same sort of thing is found in the fifth chapter of Amos, another Old Testament book named after a prophet:

21 I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.

22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food— I won’t be pleased;

I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.

23 Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.

Both of these Old Testament passages make reference to common religious activities of the Israelite people of that time: offering of sacrifices, persistent prayers, singing and playing music. All of these things were done as religious activities seeking to gain God’s favor: forgiveness or financial blessing or whatever. People are religious for a lot of reasons—but it is often for the purpose of trying to get something from God.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with praying or singing—or giving offerings, although we don’t offer animals as a part of our religious activities now. The question is about why we do such things. We can, and should, include prayers, singing and music, and the giving of offerings in our worship of God. These are expression of our faith in God and our thankfulness to God for his love.

The problem comes when such activities become religious practices done mainly for the purpose of trying to get something from God. Religion, though, has often become self-centered and linked to oppression of others for one’s own benefit.

God’s hates religion when it is connected to unloving actions toward others—or when it is done without concern for those who are oppressed. This was the problem of the slave owners in the past: most were religious, but their religion generally did not lead them to deal with the oppression of the slaves. There are similar situations today: people practicing religion with little concern for those who are oppressed by racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and other evils in society. One of the best examples is how some religious people treat LGBT people because of their religious beliefs and their cry for religious freedom, which is often a call for freedom to discriminate against other.

But now let’s move to the next point:

< II. God Loves Justice >

Let’s read the next verses in the Bible passages. First, Isaiah 1:16-17.

Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil;

17 learn to do good.
Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

And then look at these two verses from the fifth chapter of Amos:

“Hate evil, love good,

and establish justice at the city gate.”

Notice two things about this verse: The second line amplifies the meaning of the first line. Also,  in ancient Israel the “city gate” was the community center and the place of the law court—thus, it was highly important to establish justice there.

Next is the well-known verse found in Amos 5:24:

“. . . let justice roll down like waters

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

After the sermon this morning we will sing, “Let justice flow like streams / Of sparkling water, pure, / Enabling growth, refreshing life, Abundant, cleansing sure.”

“Justice” is a word with a lot of different meanings, so we need to think a bit about the different kinds of justice. First, retributive justice — the theory of justice which holds that the best and most appropriate response to a crime is proportionate punishment. This kind of justice is usually associated with the way criminals are treated. This is not the kind of justice written about in the Bible.

This was how Hillary Clinton used the word in the last presidential debate. She said, “I was in the Situation Room monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice.” And you know what that means: since he was the head of the terrorists who carried the 9/11 attacks, “justice” meant his execution. So that is what is meant by retributive justice, the theory of justice which holds that the best and most appropriate response to a crime is proportionate punishment.

A second form of justice is restorative justice — a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. This is a rather new emphasis that is much better than that of retributive justice. This is still not the main way justice is written about in the Bible.

A third kind of justice is called “distributive justice.” It emphasizes the fair distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. This is also often called “social justice” and is the primary meaning of justice in the Bible. This is the kind of justice that is meant when Isaiah 1:17 commands, “Seek justice.”

Distributive justice is closely related to other forms of justice. For example, racial justice: All people treated equally and fairly – by the police and everyone else. Also economic justice: All people being able to earn a living wage and to have adequate healthcare.

The former was a theme of the new movie released this month, “The Birth of a Nation.” The very first screen of that movie projected the words of Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Those words, written in 1781, were about slavery—and his opposition to it. He thought God’s justice meant the eradication of slavery—but not by the means that Nat Turner sought: armed rebellion.

Now, 150 years after the Civil War, there still doesn’t seem to be racial justice in our country. According to a recent survey, nearly 2/3 of white Americans think police treat people of all ethnic groups the same. But only 21% of black Americans and 38% of Hispanic Americans think that. While there may be some problems with it, there is reason to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Now let’s think just a bit about the difference between equality and justice. Here is a slide showing equality: The boys all have a box to stand on, so is that equality? What is the problem? The little boy can’t see the ballgame, of course.

Now look at the slide showing justice: The tall boy had to give up his box. Is that fair? Well, he can still see the game. The question is Why did he do so? Because he wanted to, because he was asked to do so, or because he was forced to do so.

Is this related to seeking economic justice? Perhaps. Economic justice is related to the tax structure whereby the very wealthy pay much and the very poor receive support from the government. That is called theft by some, and income re-distribution by others. Economic justice is also related to raising the minimum wage to a livable wage. Further, economic justice is related to providing healthcare (including the expansion of Medicaid) to all people in the nation. – Let’s turn now to one more important consideration:

< III. Seeking Justice by Voting >

Let us look at one more Bible verse, this time from the New Testament: “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Douay-Rheims, 1582, 1899). More recently, Stephen C. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (1982), p. 104: “First of all seek the Reign and its justice.”

Here is Dr. Mott’s explanation. When reading the Bible, “A rule of thumb is that when one sees righteousness or judgment in the context of social responsibility or oppression, one can assume that justice would be a better translation” (p. 59).

So what does this have to do with voting? It is often said that people should not be one- or two-issue voters. Examples: my father wouldn’t vote for Roosevelt because of Prohibition. This year some people won’t vote for Clinton because of abortion. But many issues need to be considered. We need to take many factors into consideration when voting. It can be quite a complicated.

But I have a confession to make. I am a one issue voter. While working on this sermon, though, I decided that. That one issue is God’s Kingdom and its justice. I will vote for the candidates who are seem most likely to do justice in what they do as an elected official.

This is what I urge for all of you voters—and I hope you are all registered to vote and will vote on Nov. 8. Seek justice! The one decisive issue: God’s Kingdom and its justice. What a candidate will do is not always easy to know – but we have some indication. Pay attention to what the candidate(s) has/have said – and what they have done in the past. Don’t be misled by what others say about them.

So, here’s how you should vote as a Christian. Vote for the Party/candidate(s) who are most clearly for justice. Vote for the Party/candidate(s) who are for overcoming oppression in order for there to be justice for women, for people of color, for LGBT people, for economically poor people, and even for immigrants.

Concerning the latter, consider these words from Deuteronomy 10:18-19 (CEB): “[God] enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (These were spoken to the Israelites; does it have anything to say to Americans today? What do you think?)

So this is my message to you today: Seek justice! May God help us each one to do so in this election season and at all times.

The final word: Isaiah 1:18.

Come now, and let’s settle this, says the Lord.

Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.

If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.

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Review of Leroy Barber’s “Embrace”

This is a review I wrote for Missiology: An International Review, which will be published sometime next year.

Barber, Leroy. Embrace: God’s Radical Shalom for a Divided World. IVP Books, 2016. 140 pp. $16.00, paperback.

For many years one of my favorite images of Jesus, and of Jesus-followers, is that of him/us standing with open, welcoming arms. After reading Leroy Barber’s new book, I realized that I needed a more dynamic image. Not only does Jesus stand with open arms, he also moves to embrace all who come to him. We followers of Jesus should be willing to do the same.

Barber, an African-American man who grew up in Philadelphia but who now, after several years in Atlanta, lives in Portland, Oregon, has long served as a pastor and as a leader in several organizations ministering to people in need. He has spent his adult life of more than 30 years pursuing reconciliation and justice between diverse people and groups who have often been separated by fear and prejudice.

The tone of Barber’s book is set in the Introduction: “This is a call to create good ground for justice to take root. We must continue to call out injustice and stand unapologetically against systems that dishonor people” (12). Throughout the nine chapters of the book, and by use of key Bible passages and the sharing of his own experiences, Barber seeks to cultivate the “good ground for justice” that he calls for.

Verses from Jeremiah 29 are the biblical words Barber uses most in his book, and verses 4-7 stand at the head of the first chapter, “Embracing the Place.” In that chapter, which is also partly about Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh, Barber writes about the difficulty and the necessity of embracing God’s “call to go to hard places” (25).

Barber’s second chapter, “The Ones We Avoid,” is about the need for Jesus’ followers to develop “the perspective of embrace” and to overcome “tribal prejudice” (30, 32).

Referring to a personal experience when he was in high school, the third chapter is titled “God Likes Pumpkin Pie.” In that chapter he makes one of the main points of the book: “Christ came to earth to heal and redeem the four relationships broken at the fall—between us and God, between us and ourselves, between us and other people, and between us and the rest of creation” (52).

In the next chapter, “Looking at Change the Right Way,” Barber writes, “Honoring is usually better than analyzing. And moving toward healthier relationships will only occur as we let go of our barriers and preconceptions and are willing to let our own hearts, minds, and souls be changed to fully embrace others” ( 66).

The fifth chapter, “Going the Distance,” reiterates the theme of the book, and the repeated reference to Jeremiah 29: “Embrace your community, settle in for the long haul, and see how the Lord uses you to help your neighborhood flourish” (83).

The call to “embrace the diversity of those who God has called us to love” (99) is Barber’s main point in the sixth chapter, and in the following chapter, “Natural Justice,” he avers, “Justice means simply correcting the things that are wrong” ( 106).

Barber concludes the eighth chapter, “Loving Even Our Enemies,” with these words: “We must imagine how we would want to be treated . . . and treat our enemy in the same way—this is what it means to embrace even those that we might say we hate. This is the heart of the gospel” (120).

Perhaps the most helpful chapter in Barber’s book, and certainly the most relevant to what is going on in society today, is “Yes, Black Lives Matter.” A significant part of that final chapter is “Debunking the Myths of #BlackLivesMatter.” One of the ten myths considered is “The movement hates white people.” In response, Barber writes,

The Black Lives Matter movement demands that the country affirm the value of black life in practical and pragmatic ways, including addressing an increasing racial wealth gap, fixing public schools that are failing, combating issues of housing inequality and gentrification that continue to push people of color out of communities where they have lived in for generations, and dismantling the prison industrial complex. None of this is about hatred for white life. It is about acknowledging that the system already treats white lives as if they have more value, as if they are more worthy of protection, safety, education, and a good quality of life than black lives are. This must change (128).

Another helpful part of the final chapter is titled “For Those Who Are Not Black.” “Read books written by blacks and discuss them” (131) is one of the suggestions he makes. As a white man I am glad I was able to read this book, and I have certainly profited from it; I highly recommend it to you who read this review, whether black or white.

Embrace is not a “scholarly” book. There are a couple of website links introduced, but the only book included in the endnotes is a 1998 book which includes a quote made by Abraham Kuyper in 1880. Barber’s writes not from academic study but from his engagement in action on the front lines, seeking by what he does to spread “God’s radical shalom for a divided world.”

Barber is currently chair of the Christian Community Development Association, founded in 1989 by Dr. John Perkins. The CCDA is said to be “a network of Christians committed to engaging with people and communities in the process of transformation.” This is one of the many ways that Barber is seeking to live out his vision of embracing others.

So, yes, let’s us take the challenge of Barber seriously. Let’s not only stretch our arms to indicate that we welcome other people, but let’s close our arms around them in a warm embrace. Barber’s book helps us to understand what such embracing means, and reading it motivates us to move in that way.

Such embracing, though, depends on having the spiritual strength for such an undertaking. Thus, Barber’s closing words are, “Let’s embrace the Spirit of God that rests in us all” (136).

Amen.

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Honoring Teachers

Although it is not widely observed in the United States, today is World Teachers’ Day. Since 1994 this has been an annual October 5 observance sponsored by the United Nations to commemorate the work of teachers and their contributions to society. Please join me in honoring teachers around the world. In particularly let’s honor our own teachers and the teachers among us now.

world-teachers-day

I am grateful for the teachers I had through the years—and I was a full-time student for a very long time, from 1944 until 1966. Even though it was 65 years ago, in 1951, that I graduated from the eighth grade, I remember well all of my grade school teachers.

What teachers do you remember best and with the most admiration?

Even though it is a small rural town, I am grateful for the education I received in Grant City, Missouri. I was not disadvantaged when I got to college and in classrooms with students who had gone to larger and prominent suburban schools.

And even though I attended two small Missouri colleges, I also appreciate the teachers I had there. Again, I was no way disadvantaged when I got to seminary and in classrooms with students who had graduated from more prestigious colleges or universities.

I wish World Teachers’ Day was observed more widely, partly because three of my children are teachers—and my oldest son, Keith, has taught courses several times as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. I am also proud of my daughter Karen who is a professor at the University of Arizona.

But it is especially teachers such as my daughter Kathy, who teaches middle school students in the public schools here in Liberty, Missouri, and my son Ken, who teaches at Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, who need special recognition on this day.

Teachers in public primary and secondary schools have challenges different, and perhaps greater, than those who teach on the college and graduate school level. College education is optional, but, with a few exceptions, everyone in this country is required to go to school until they are 15 years old or older, depending on the state.

Most of my teachers have passed on by now, although I do still have regular contact with one of my seminary professors. But for those of you who are younger, let me suggest that today would be a good time to sit down and write a thank you note, or to send a nice email message, to one or more of the teachers who meant a lot to you.

Even more, perhaps you can join me in advocating for better pay for teachers—although it’s much better than it used to be. Recently, I ran across an old record of Dry School, the one-room country school southeast of Allendale, Mo., that my father attended for eight years. In the early 1880s the teachers there had from 58 to 60 pupils and were paid $30 a month.

Still, according to a fairly recently article by the National Educational Association, “Throughout the nation the average earnings of workers with at least four years of college are now over 50 percent higher than the average earnings of a teacher.”

So, in additional to thanking our own teachers of the past, let’s seek to do more to support teachers now.

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