“This Little Light of Mine”

{Here are my notes for the “Conversation with Children” I led at Rainbow Mennonite Church this past Sunday.}

Conversation with Children (Sept. 1, 2019)

  • Did any of you have a birthday last month? – Well, I did. Do you want to guess how old I am now? – I am now 81 years old. Do you know what year it will be in 81 more years? In one more year what will it be? Can you add 80 to 20? Yes, it will be the year 2100—and some of you may live to see that year. The years go by fast.
  • This morning the Bible reading, which you will hear Abigail read next, is from Matthew, chapter 5. Two important statements: “You are the salt of the earth.” You are the light of the world.” Pastor Ruth will be talking about the first statement, but let me talk with you about the second.
  • Probably about 70 years ago I first heard a gospel song that you probably know. “This Little Light of Mine.” Written almost 100 years ago, and sung by church children ever since. The Bible verse talks about lighting a lamp—but I have a candle instead. If it is dark the lamp or candle is placed where it will give the most light. You wouldn’t cover it with a “basket.” It wouldn’t do any good that way, would it. Another verse of the song says, “Hide it under a bushel, no! I’m going to let it shine.”
  • What would it mean to let your light shine? One of many things is to make it possible for people to see the love of Jesus. – Are there ever people at your school or pre-school that are bullied or teased? Some maybe for looking different, or talking different, or being bigger than others, or being smaller than others. You might not believe it, but that’s the way I was when I was in elementary school. [Show 5th-grade picture.]
  • Well, when you see someone who is being bullied or teased, what will you do. You could just sit and watch—but that would be hiding your light under a basket, wouldn’t it. Or you could let your light shine and be their friend. Go sit with them if they are alone and looking sad. Go stand by them if people are saying bad things to them. That is one thing it means to let your light shine.
  • So, please remember, “You are the light of the world” and when you let your light shine, you help others. I pray that you will do that until you are 81 years old as I am now—or for the next 81 years until the year 2100.
  • Here’s a picture for you to take home to color. As you do think about what I have said this morning, and think about Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world.”



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Review of “A Resurrection-Shaped Life”

[This is a review of Jake Owensby, A Resurrection-Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth (Abingdon Press, 2018), 111 pp. — My regular blog article partly based upon this book can be found here.]

Author of three previous books, including Gospel Memories: How Future Can Rewrite Our Past (2016), Dr. Jake Owensby (b. 1957), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, has written this new book about resurrection not as a theological treatise but as a practical guide for seeing the significance of resurrection for our daily lives now in this world.

The author’s central assertion is stated clearly in the Prelude: Jesus’ “resurrection is shaping our everyday, ordinary lives” (p. xiv). This work of grace is illustrated by the Japanese use of kintsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery using lacquer mixed with gold dust. That sort of mending becomes an ongoing image of a resurrection-shaped life.

Much of the first part of Owensby’s slim book is based on the story of his remarkable mother, who was 20 years old when she emigrated by herself from Europe to the U.S. He ends the first chapter by stating that just as his mother was inspired to set sail for a new world, Jesus invited us all “to leave an old world, an old life, behind and to set sail for a resurrection-shaped life” (p. 14).

Trudy, author Owensby’s mother, was not a Jew, but she was sentenced to a Nazi death camp for being “an antisocial element.” After being freed, she embraced “two related marks of a resurrection-shaped life. First, she embraced life with an inextinguishable sense of hope.” The second mark was “a compassion that made her frightfully vulnerable to the suffering and the sorrows of others” (pp. 20-21). Indeed, hopefulness and compassion are key characteristics of a resurrection-shaped life.

“Recovering from Shame and Blame” is the title of Owensby’s perceptive third chapter. Sharing his own boyhood experience of shame, which he describes as “a strong and painful feeling of deep unworthiness” (p. 34), he asserts that overcoming shame “involves changing our minds about ourselves”–and the good news is that “Jesus came in part to help us do precisely that” (p. 36). Moreover, “Jesus shows us that God is a healer, not a blamer” (p. 39), and this helps us move from blaming others to having compassion, that core characteristic of a resurrection-shaped life.

In the following chapter, Owensby asserts that “it’s in the depths of loss and sorrow that hope brings us to new life” (p. 51). Jesus had said to his disciples, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). Even though they did not understand this as they mourned Jesus’ crucifixion, they experienced that blessedness when Jesus was resurrected. So, “the resurrection of Christ gives new meaning to our experience of grief” (p. 52). Those who live a resurrection-shaped life embrace, and are embraced by, the blessing of hope in the midst of grief.

The last two chapters relate the resurrection-shaped life to justice. “Our compassion,” he writes, “expands into a passion for justice” (p. 70). That is because “the resurrection refines and deepens our perception of other people.” Thus, “From the perspective of the resurrection, there is just us. There is no longer an us opposed to a them. We are one” (p. 80).

In his Postlude, Owensby states, “The resurrection-shaped life we lead in our ordinary coming and goings foreshadows life beyond this life” (p. 97). This leads to his important assertion that “resurrection is not the same thing as what philosophers call the immortality of the soul. And that’s a crucial distinction for understanding the idea of a resurrection-shaped life” (p. 98).

A Resurrection-Shaped Life is a book that I found it insightful and inspiring. I recommend it to all who are interested in thinking deeply about what it means not just to “believe” in the resurrection but actually to live a life shaped by that belief.


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The Case for Annihilationism

[This is the manuscript of my article published in the April 2019 issue of Word&Way, the publication “informing & inspiring Midwest Baptists since 1896.” It would best be read as attractively presented in the magazine, but I am making it available here for those who do not have access to Word&Way.]

Hell has been a hot topic for a long time—and it still is, especially among traditional and conservative Christians. That is evident from the theological tensions that surfaced at Southwest Baptist University in December.

Rodney Reeves, dean of the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry, was accused of theological errors, including the charge that he affirmed annihilationism. In response, Reeves wrote a post on his blog, “A Genuine Faith,” on Dec. 21 on “Why I’m not an annihilationist.” But maybe he should be one, in spite of the conservative/traditional Christian opposition to that viewpoint.

Annihilationism, basically, is the theological position that understands death to be the end of existence for those who have not received the gift of eternal life. That is, in contradistinction to the traditional view, it holds that there is no conscious eternal punishment for non-believers.

This position is also known as conditional immortality, the belief that humans are not by nature immortal. The idea of “immortal souls” was a common idea among the ancient Greek philosophers, a position that later increasingly became a part of Christian theology and popular religiosity, but it does not seem to be a clear teaching of the Bible. According to the New Testament, God alone is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16), but God bestows eternal life, or immortality, upon all those who receive that gracious gift. In other words, since all humans are mortal, death is the end of personal existence. Those who receive the gift of eternal life, however, will be with God after death by being resurrected. As we read in 1 Corinthians 15, that great chapter explaining resurrection, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (v. 54, NRSV).

This belief in annihilationism/conditional immortality is not just the idea of some progressive Christians. There have also been conservative evangelicals in recent decades who have jettisoned the traditional doctrine of hell as a place of conscious eternal punishment of individual unbelievers. One such person was Church of Christ pastor Edward Fudge. Another such opponent of the “orthodox” view of hell is Assembly of God pastor Charles Gillihan. A third and more recent example is that of Chris Kratzer, an ordained Lutheran who was for many years an evangelical pastor.

Fudge, who died in 2017, was one of the most vocal evangelicals to affirm annihilationism. His 420-page book, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, was first published in 1982 and the third, definitive edition was issued in 2011. In addition, “Hell and Mr. Fudge” (2012) is a worth-watching movie about him and his movement to an affirmation of annihilationism.

Gillihan is the author of Hell No! A Fundamentalist Preacher Rejects Eternal Torment (2011). Despite what he had been taught and what was asserted in his denomination’s doctrinal statement, he ended up concluding that annihilation “is clearly what the Bible teaches.”

Last year, Kratzer published a hard-hitting book titled Leatherbound Terrorism. No longer the avid conservative evangelical pastor he once was, he emphatically rejects the idea that hell is a place of never-ending torture (calling chapter 10 “To Hell With Your Hell”).

A lucid delineation of the annihilationist position has been written by Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock, who grew up in a liberal Baptist church. He authored “The Conditional View,” the fourth part of Four Views on Hell (1992). In that 30-page exposition, Pinnock contends that “God does not grant immortality to the wicked to inflict endless pain upon them but will allow them finally to perish.”

Pinnock bases his position partly on his understanding of God as revealed through Jesus Christ. Accordingly, he writes, “There is a powerful moral revulsion against the traditional doctrine of the nature of hell. Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die.” Strong words!

In this connection, Pinnock cites the noted English scholar Antony Flew, author of God and Philosophy, first published in 1966. Pinnock contends that “Flew was right to object that if Christians really believe that God created people with the full intention of torturing some of them in hell forever, they might as well give up the effort to defend Christianity.” Flew was an adamant atheist for most of his life but drastically changed his position in 2004 and became the author of the book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (2007).

Evangelicals have long thought, it seems, that emphasis on the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell is necessary for the sake of evangelism—and “hell and brimstone” preaching has been legendary in evangelical circles. On the other hand, there are many who reject Christianity partly, or largely, because of the traditional teaching on hell. Although he doesn’t mention it in his 2007 book, Flew, the “notorious atheist,” seemingly changed his mind about God partly because of the changing emphasis on hell in the Anglican Church in his native England. In 1996, a Church of England commission, as an Associated Press report at the time put it, “rejected the idea of hell as a place of fire, pitchforks and screams of unending agony, describing it instead as annihilation for all who reject the love of God.”

In his advocacy for annihilationism, Pinnock stresses that “the traditional view of the nature of hell has been a stumbling block for believers and an effective weapon in the hands of skeptics for use against the faith.” In the Preface of his book, Gillihan goes so far as to say that “the orthodox view of everlasting burning torture in hell . . . is the primary reason people give for rejecting the gospel.”

Long before reading any of the authors mentioned above, I first heard about, and largely accepted, the idea of annihilationism/conditional immortality from Dale Moody, my professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When I was still a graduate student there, Moody published his book The Hope of Glory (1964). He explained: “Conditional immortality contends that [human beings are] by nature mortal and that those who do not . . . receive immortality as God’s gift are extinguished either at death or at some point beyond the final judgment” (pp. 105-6).

Annihilation is not some vengeful action on the part of God. It is simply God allowing people to perish. But the good news is, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Why can’t we accept the common meaning for “perish,” a word that usually means to die or to cease to exist? And why, why do some Christian pastors, teachers, and church leaders get so upset with the idea that there may be no everlasting conscious punishment.

So once again, perhaps Reeves should be an annihilationist, in spite of the objection of his conservative accusers.

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Review of “Jesus and Kukai”

[The following is a review I wrote in the fall of 2018 for the journal Missiology: An International Review.]

Review of Jesus and Kukai: A World of Non-Duality (2018) by Peter Baekelmans

During my many years of living in Fukuoka City, Japan, I visited Nanzoin, the Shingon (Esoteric) Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the city, many times and had a number of personal contacts with the head priest there. How I wish Baekelmans’s helpful book had been available then! While it has its shortcomings, and what book doesn’t, Jesus and Kukai presents a world of information about the form of Buddhism that Kukai (774-835) established in Japan and suggests many ways it is both similar to and different from Christianity.

Actually, there is very little about Jesus himself, but considerable about Catholic Christianity and just a bit about other forms of the Christian faith. The book is mostly about Kukai’s ideas that are expounded and followed in Esoteric or Vajrayana Buddhism, which the author presents as a third form of Buddhism following Hinayana (Theravada) and Mahayana.

Baekelmans (b. 1960) is a Belgian Roman Catholic missionary and an initiated practitioner of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. He also holds an MA in Comparative Religion, an MA in Buddhist Studies, and a Doctorate in Theology of Religions. Obviously, he is well qualified to author this book—and he clearly has an impressive command of English, European languages, and Japanese, as well as familiarity with Sanskrit terms.

This book is primarily for scholars interested in Buddhist/Christian dialogue and for English-reading people in Japan who are involved in such dialogue—and especially for those who are also able to read kanji, which appear, helpfully, throughout the book. It will likely resonate more with Catholic Christians, or scholars of Catholic Christianity, than with Protestants.

The meticulous outline, with three subdivisions of each of the seven chapters, was helpful, although there was considerable repetition of some of the key ideas and explanations of Buddhist terms. The comparsion/contrast between the religions rooted in Jesus and Kukai was quite instructive, although sometimes it was perhaps a bit misleading when the different nuances or meanings of terms used in the two religions, such as the words “save” and “salvific,” were not noted.

The emphasis on “non-duality,” referred to throughout the book and linked to mysticism as found both in Buddhism and Christianity, is a significant aspect of this instructive work.

In spite of its minor faults, I highly recommend this book to its intended audience, and I express my appreciation to author Baekelmans for writing such an informative book.

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Passionately Pursuing Peace

[The following article was published in the August 2018 issue of Word&Way, the historic news journal for Missouri Baptists. It is shared here for those who have not had, or will not have, the opportunity to read the published version.]

The first half of August is a difficult time for many Japanese people, especially for those middle-aged or above. There are so many painful memories, from direct experience or first-hand accounts, of August 1945: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 and of Nagasaki on August 9 and then on August 15 the Emperor’s announcement on radio to the startled and grieving Japanese public that Japan had lost the war. (The actual surrender papers were signed on September 2 aboard the USS Missouri.)

The great suffering caused by Japan’s warring activities from 1931 to 1945, in what the Japanese refer to as the Fifteen-Year War, has since the end of that war motivated many Japanese people to be strong advocates of world peace. That is especially true for Japanese churches and individual Christians, for there was oppression of churches and persecution of some Christians during that terrible time. Because of that painful past, the first half of August is a time when many, perhaps most, Baptist churches in Japan strongly emphasize peace.

In this country, by contrast, there has often been considerable glorification of war, or at least of what is seen to be the fruits of war. Southern Baptists have often been among the most ardent supporters of the war efforts of the U.S. government, including the Iraq War of 2003-11. While there was considerable opposition to that “preemptive” war by various Christian organizations and many individual Christians in the U.S., as well as some of us Baptist missionaries in Japan, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention were among the most vocal supporters of the Iraq War from the beginning. And at the 2003 meeting of the SBC in Phoenix, the messengers approved a resolution titled “On the Liberation of Iraq,” which lauded the war efforts of the U.S.

Still, through the years there have been Baptists who have worked diligently for peace—and some who are passionately pursuing peace at the present time.

One of the first Baptist peace groups was the Baptist Pacifist Fellowship, formed in November 1939. After two other name changes, in 1974 that organization became known as the American Baptist Peace Fellowship. It was active under that name for the next ten years.

In December 1980, some Baptists in Louisville, Ky., began publishing Baptist Peacemaker. By October 1989 it was being sent free of charge to some 13,500 individuals with another 4,000 being sent to local churches, seminaries, and Baptist Student Unions.

The American Baptist Peace Fellowship and others joined in forming the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (BPFNA) in March 1984. Its original purpose statement began, “The purpose of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America is to unite and enable Baptist Christians to make peace in our warring world.” Ken Sehested, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, was elected as Executive Director. During the first year, more than 500 people sent in membership dues.

In October 1989 the final decision to merge the Baptist Peacemaker and BPFNA was made—and the latter continued to publish that quarterly periodical. The first three issues of Vol. 38 have already been published this year. BPFNA also sponsors a “Peace Conference” each summer. The 34th such conference was held last month in western New York state. In July 2019 the annual conference will be merged with the Sixth Global Baptist Peace Conference to be held in Cali, Colombia.

In May of this year, Central Baptist Theological Seminary marked the launch of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence. That significant new Center is named for Dan and Sharon Buttry, Global Peace Consultants for International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, USA. From August 7-16 the Buttrys will be co-facilitating a 10-day intensive Training of Conflict Transformation Trainers at Central Seminary. This will be the first major program for the new Center for Peace and Nonviolence.

In addition to the organizations mentioned above, there have been many notable individual Baptist peacemakers. An excellent source for learning about both Baptist peacemaking groups and individuals is Canadian Baptist Paul R. Dekar’s book For the Healing of the Nations: Baptist Peacemakers (1993).

Among well-known Baptists of the past whom Dekar highlights as peacemakers are Roger Williams, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Howard Thurman. Throughout his book there are also many references to Edwin Dahlberg, who is perhaps not so widely known but who was one of the leading Baptist peacemakers of the twentieth century.

Dahlberg (1893-1986) was an American Baptist pastor who was a passionate peacemaker. He was a co-founder of the Baptist Pacifist Fellowship in 1939 and was a staunch advocate of pacifism during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The Gandhi Peace Award, established in 1960, selected two peacemakers to receive the awards that inaugural year: Dahlberg and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1964 the American Baptist Churches established the Dahlberg Peace Award, and its first recipient was Martin Luther King, Jr. (That was the same year MLK also received the Nobel Peace Prize.) Other notable Baptists to be honored with the Dahlberg Peace Award include Jimmy Carter in 1979 (23 years before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Ken Sehested in 1995, Marian Wright Edelman in 1997, and Congressman John Lewis in 2003.

I was particularly happy that my friend Ken Sehested (b. 1951) was given that Award. He was deserving of that recognition because of his stalwart work as founding executive director of BPFNA.

During BPFNA’s first few years, they published PeaceWork, a bimonthly newsletter. In a 1987 issue, Sehested wrote, “We do not wish to be viewed simply as an anti-war group. . . . We understand violence to be the opposite of shalom—not just war making, but also child abuse, hunger, civil and human rights abuses.” And then added, “If Baptists had saints, then Martin Luther King Jr. would be the patron saint of the BPFNA.”

In the more than 30 years since then, BPFNA has continued to work passionately for peace and justice; it is not possible to have the former without the latter.

The initial impetus for this article came when earlier this year I saw the list of 2017 contributors to the work of BPFNA, listed by state. In contrast to the numerous donors in many other states, there were only six units (individuals or couples) in Missouri and seven in Kansas who contributed and only one Kansas church in the two states that financially supported the work of BPFNA last year.

Surely there are many other Baptists in Missouri and Kansas who can and will join in the important endeavor to work for peace—or at least to support with their financial gifts and prayers those who are passionately pursuing peace here in this country as well as in Japan and in other countries around the world.

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Remembrances Fit for a King

A TRULY TRAGIC EVENT occurred just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot while standing on the second-floor balcony near his Lorraine Motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. Rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital less than ten minutes away, King was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.

Now, a half-century later, King’s legacy lives on and his words and deeds still inspire people of all races and in countries around the world.

At the age of 25, King was called to the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He delivered his first sermon there as pastor on May 2, 1954. (In 1978 the name of that church, which was founded in 1877 in a slave trader’s pen, was changed to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.)

Since he accomplished so much, is remarkable that King’s tragic assassination was less than fourteen years later.

After the Rosa Parks incident in December 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was soon organized under King’s leadership in the basement of his church. A year later, King began expanding the nonviolent civil rights movement throughout the South, and in 1957 he became the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

That pivotal period of time in the 1950s was also a time of racial segregation in Missouri Baptist churches and institutions. I was a student at Southwest Baptist College (now University) in 1955-57, but I have no memory of any public discussion on campus of what was going on in Alabama. There were no African-American students at SWBC then. The same was true when my wife June and I were students at William Jewell College from 1957 to 1959. It was not until 1961 that the first African-Americans student, an outstanding athlete, enrolled at WJC.

By that time I was a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville—and had the privilege of being in the unforgettable April 1961 chapel service in which MLK, Jr., spoke. Unfortunately, but maybe not surprisingly, the seminary suffered financially because of its invitation to King.

Fifty-five years ago, 1963, was a most significant year for King—and the nation. As a leader of the civil rights activities in Birmingham, Alabama, he was arrested on April 12, which happened to be Good Friday, and placed in solitary confinement. Four days later his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on scraps of paper, was smuggled out and it subsequently became one of King’s best-known and most influential writings. Then just four months later, King led the March on Washington. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most powerful speeches in American history.

Because of his unswerving commitment to nonviolence, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. At that time he was the youngest person ever to receive that prestigious award.

Partly because of King’s untiring and courageous leadership in the struggle for civil rights, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The latter was largely due to the march of King and his allies from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, in March 1965. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the 2015 movie “Selma.”)

Although there was much more needing to be done to improve the lot of African-Americans, King began to speak out publicly about human rights and not just the civil rights for people of color. On April 4, 1967, he delivered a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York City. About 3,000 people gathered at that historic church for his talk sponsored by Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. In that address King spoke pointedly of “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

At the end of August that year, King delivered a speech titled “The Three Evils of Society”—and, again, he identified those triple evils as poverty, racism, and militarism. His concern for the former led him in early December to launch the Poor People’s Campaign. His trip to Memphis was related to concerns about the Memphis Sanitation Strike, which began in February in protest of racial discrimination, dangerous working conditions, and poor pay. King flew to Memphis on April 3, 1968; late that evening he delivered his seemingly prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to the thousands of people gathered at the Church of God in Christ headquarters auditorium.

King was killed early in the evening of the next day as he was preparing to go to dinner with friends and colleagues. He was only 39 years old.

In the April 5 issue of the New York Times, Murray Schumach began his lengthy obituary of King with these notable words:

To many million [sic] of American Negroes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the prophet of their crusade for racial equality. He was their voice of anguish, their eloquence in humiliation, their battle cry for human dignity. He forged for them the weapons of nonviolence that withstood and blunted the ferocity of segregation.

Those were words of remembrance fit for a king—this King!

In spite of King’s tragic death, the Poor People’s Campaign continued. On Mother’s Day, May 12, just over a month after MLK’s funeral, thousands of women led by Coretta Scott King, Martin’s grieving wife, formed the first wave of demonstrators. The following day, Resurrection City, a temporary settlement of tents and shacks, was built on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

That movement still goes on. This past November, on the anniversary of the announcement of the King-led Poor People’s Campaign, William Barber II, the dynamic North Carolina pastor, announced the launching of the new Poor People’s Campaign. Starting next month on Mother’s Day, it will begin in earnest with forty days of “direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience.” Plans and training for the upcoming events are currently taking place in many states, including Missouri and Kansas.

King’s influence has extended far beyond the borders of the United States. For example, in the fall of 1968, I began teaching Christian Studies at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka City, Japan. I soon became aware of the high regard for King among Japanese people. Many of my students were critical of the racial prejudice they knew that existed in the United States, which they thought of as a “Christian nation.” Many of them, though, were impressed with and inspired by King—especially by his “I Have a Dream” speech, which was often used by students in speech contests sponsored by the English Speaking Society. And many of them began to look upon Christianity more favorably when they learned that King was a Baptist preacher. (Some Baptist churches in Japan have sought to gain public understanding of and appreciation for their churches by referring to their indirect connection to King.)

At the 70th anniversary of Seinan Gakuin, the school system which was founded by Southern Baptist missionaries in 1916, Coretta Scott King accepted our invitation to be the guest speaker. Some 4,000 people gathered to hear her speak at the public auditorium we rented in downtown Fukuoka City for that special occasion.

So both in this country and abroad, Christians and non-Christians alike have been inspired and energized by the remarkable life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As he is being widely remembered this month because of his tragic assassination 50 years ago, let’s join together in the ongoing struggle against racism, militarism, and poverty, the still-prevalent triplet evils he fought against so valiantly.

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Remembering L.J. Farwell

Until I read the April 16, 2014, issue of my hometown newspaper, I don’t think I had ever heard of Leonard James Farwell. I knew there was a Farwell Street in my hometown of Grant City (Missouri): that is the street on which June’s and my good friend Carmetta Jackson lives.

Through the years I have known of others who lived on that street, which I assume was named for Farwell, one of the most prominent men ever to live (and die) in Grant City. (The picture below is the picture I took of a Farwell street sign in Grant City.)

Farwell St..jpg

L.J. Farwell was born in New York in 1819 and moved to Milwaukee in 1840 just prior to Wisconsin becoming a state. Later, he became a wealthy man in Madison, and in 1852 he was elected the second governor of the state.

Several years after serving as governor, he moved to Washington, D.C., taking a job offered by the Lincoln Administration at the U.S. Patent Office.

And so it happened that Farwell was in Ford’s Theater in view of Abraham Lincoln on that fateful night of April 14, 1865, when the President was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice-President, was a personal friend of Farwell. So the former governor rushed to the nearby Kirkwood House, which was Johnson’s residence and where he took the oath of office after Lincoln died.

The press declared Farwell a hero, crediting him with saving the life of the Vice-President by alerting him to the possibility of an assassination attempt on his life also. Such an attempt certainly seems to have been feasible, as on that same day George Atzerodt, a cohort of Booth, took a room almost directly above the ground-floor suite occupied by the Vice-President in the Kirkwood House, which was a four-story hotel.

(It has been reported that Atzerodt decided to get drunk rather than carry out the planned assassination of the Vice-President.)

Turning down a position offered him by the new President, Farwell left Washington in 1870 and started his own private patent office in Chicago. But the October 1871 Great Chicago Fire destroyed his business—and led (for reasons I have been unable to discover) to his moving to Grant City in March of the following year.

(Mrs. Catherine O’Leary became famous when it was alleged, probably incorrectly, that her cow kicked over a lantern, starting that 1871 Chicago fire that destroyed some 17,500 buildings and left about 100,000 people homeless.)

Having moved to Grant City, Farwell and Henry Benson Munn went into the real estate business, operating under the name Munn & Farwell. Thus, it seems quite certain that Farwell Street was named for the former governor.

Munn (1826-1910) had been a teacher, lawyer, and politician in the East and in Wisconsin. After several years in Grant City, he married Farwell’s daughter Cornelia (1861-1942) before moving back to Washington, D.C., to practice law.

The History of Gentry and Worth Counties, Missouri, published in 1882, includes a two-page write-up about “Hon. Leonard J. Farwell.” The article concludes,

The Governor is still [at age 63] an active, enterprising man, and has assiduously devoted his time, talents and money to the building up of Worth County, and through his exertions much has been done to advertise Northwest Missouri and to bring the emigrate to this section of the state (p. 730).

And so it was that a former governor and personal friend of President Andrew Johnson died in Grant City on April 10, 1889, and is buried in Grant City Cemetery.

Here is the link to a 9/10/2012 article about Farwell.

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Review of “A Palestinian Theology of Liberation”

[This is a book review I wrote for the Englewood Review of Books; it was posted online, here, in January 2018.]

Naim Stifan Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict (Orbis Books, 2017; 172 pp.)

Naim Stifan Ateek (b. 1937) is an ethnic Arab Palestinian, a citizen of Israel, and an Anglican priest. His slim but highly significant book is the fruit of decades of theological thought and praxis.

Nearly thirty years ago Ateek wrote a closely related book, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. In that same year, 1989, he founded Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. That organization has continued to grow in influence through the years with chapters in several countries. One such chapter is FOSNA (Friends of Sabeel North America).

Ateek ends the introductory chapter of his new book with a clear statement of its purpose: “The intention of this book is to provide an understanding of Palestinian liberation theology that will challenge readers to active participation in the work of justice, peace, and reconciliation” (7). Throughout his book, it is clear that Ateek wishes not merely to inform his readers about the plight of the Palestinians and their need for liberation but also to stir his readers to action.

Following the introduction there are ten chapters: the first four are largely historical, the next four biblical/theological, and the last two about taking action in the present.

The first chapter gives a very brief summary of liberation theology as first articulated by Gustavo Gutiérrez and as developed among some Latin Americans, black South Africans, and feminists. The common emphasis in all of these is that the central Christian message is one of freedom and justice. Thus, “Within this global liberation movement, Palestinian liberation theology was born when faith confronted the injustice of the conquest of Palestinian land by the government of Israel and its oppression of the Palestinian people” (11).

Since Ateek realizes that one important characteristic of liberation is “the way it takes seriously the context of liberation” (15), the second chapter sketches the historical story of Palestinian Christians. “Today,” he writes, “more Palestinian Christians live outside Palestine than inside. It is estimated that fewer than 200,000 Christians live inside historic Palestine, while over 200,000 are living in the diaspora” (23).

This is a part of the larger “Nakba,” the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” which is used to refer to what happened in 1948 when “approximately 750,000 Palestinians fled in fear or were driven out by force from their country because of the brutal onslaught of the Zionist militias” (25). Accordingly, the third chapter is “The Threefold Nakba,” the human, identity, and faith catastrophe for Palestinians in general and especially the latter for those who were Christians.

In addition to Nakba, according to the author there are three other historical events that led to the emergence of Palestinian liberation theology: the Holocaust, the War of 1967 and the rise of religious Zionism, and the first intifada (1987-91). Akeem’s fourth chapter succinctly explains the significance of those events.

The fifth chapter begins the theological/biblical section of the book. It is about Jesus and makes the highly significant point that Jesus is “the lens or principle of interpretation” by which we Christians should interpret the rest of the Bible (44).

The next chapter deals with the Old Testament and especially with some of the difficult passages found there. Based on his assertion of the previous chapter, Ateek insists that all those passages must be interpreted from the hermeneutic (method of interpretation) based on Jesus and the centrality of love. Further, he emphasizes that in the Old Testament there is a progression from a tribal and exclusive theology to a theology of inclusion. The former is seen clearly in Leviticus, the latter especially in Ezekiel and Jonah. Concerning the latter, the author writes, “With the story of Jonah, the Old Testament reaches a theological climax” (82).

The New Testament is considered in the seventh chapter, and a major emphasis is on how Jesus “rejected exclusivity and emphasized inclusivity” (90). That same emphasis is found in the writings of the Apostle Paul.

In his brief summary of key biblical themes, the next chapter begins the primary assertion of the book: “Justice is foundation for the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict” (105). In seeking justice, though, Ateek makes “a plea for a strategy of nonviolence” (117-9). This emphasis on nonviolence is seen throughout the book and stands in stark contrast to the common charge that Palestinians are terrorists.

The ninth chapter is about Sabeel, the organization the author started in 1989. The core objective of that movement and its chapters in many Western countries is stated clearly: “to see the end of the illegal occupation of Israel of the Palestinian territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, so that a just and secure peace can be achieved for all the people of Palestine and Israel” (131). To this reviewer, that sounds like a goal worth being sought by people of goodwill everywhere.

The main emphases of Palestinian liberation theology are reiterated in the final chapter. From that perspective he emphasizes “three essentials that must be realized in order for a genuine peace to be achieved: justice, peace, and reconciliation” (142). So, to the end there is stress on justice linked to love (“When there is genuine love, justice is done. When justice is done, there is love,” 148), on peace sought by nonviolent means, and on reconciliation that is linked to forgiveness. This is an outstanding vision of a man who represents a people who have been severely mistreated for decades. That vision is based upon and due to the author’s superlative Biblical interpretation and theological acumen.

The impact of this book is heightened by Walter Brueggemann’s fine foreword, which ends, “This important book will be a great learning among us to which Western Christians of every ilk should pay attention” (xix). Of course, those who should especially pay attention to this book are those who are least likely to read it: Christian Zionists and Christian conservatives or fundamentalists who are greatly pro-Israel because of their eschatological views. But this book is one that those of us on the other side of the theological spectrum can recommend to those who do not have strong opinions about—or much knowledge of—the history of the mistreatment of the Palestinians. Perhaps some who are now “neutral” will be convinced that the gross injustices being experienced by Palestinians need to be addressed along the lines suggested in Ateek’s work.

This book should be especially significant now in light of the hoopla surrounding the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. The content of this book can—and should in the opinion of this reviewer—be shared without hesitation. It is highly readable, informative throughout, and consistently irenic.

In short, I highly recommend reading this book and sharing it, or at least its ideas, with others, and the more the better.

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What Belongs to Caesar?

[Manuscript for the sermon preached by Leroy Seat at the Lawson (Mo.) United Christian and Presbyterian Church on October 22, 2017.]

Matthew 22:15-22

It is a delight to be with you here in Lawson this morning, and I am grateful for Pastor Molini asking me to supply for her this morning. I have preached for her a couple of times at her previous church and am very happy to do so today here at Lawson United Christian and Presbyterian Church.

I have been through Lawson before, but this is the first time I can remember ever being to Lawson. Do you know that the name Lawson is known all across Japan? It is the name of a konbini (convenience store) chain with more than 11,000 stores in every prefecture in Japan.

So not only is this is my first time to worship with you—it is the first time to attend a United Christian and Presbyterian church. I was impressed when I learned that the Presbyterian church here was started in 1849, many years before the town of Lawson was founded, that the Christian (Disciples) church was established in 1881, and that the two churches were united in 1969 to form your present church.

I have, however, attended, and preached in, a United Baptist-Presbyterian church. That was in Mt. Ayr, Iowa. Most of you perhaps don’t know where Mt. Ayr, Iowa, is, but Roy and Jean Rinehart do, for they are from Worth County, Mo., as I am. Worth County borders Ringgold County, Iowa, of which Mt. Ayr is the county seat. It is about 110 miles due north of here.

You may find it hard to believe, but I first met Roy Rinehart and Jean Brown, as she was then, over 70 years ago. We rode the same school bus from 1945 or 1946 until they graduated from high school in Grant City, the county seat of Worth County. I learned early on that Roy Lee, as we called him back then, was one of the smartest students in Grant City High School. He is a few years older than I, and I looked up to him in admiration when I was a boy. So I am delighted to see them again today—as well as to meet most of you for the first time.

Beginning when I was 18 years old, I preached almost every Sunday for eight years before my wife and I went to Japan as Baptist missionaries. I was a full-time university professor there for 36 years, but we started a bi-lingual church in 1980. For 24 years I was a part-time pastor there, usually preaching twice a month. In all that time, I never used the lectionary for selecting Bible passages or topics for my sermons. But since retiring in 2004 and preaching in various churches from time to time in the years since then, I have often used the lectionary for choosing the text and topic for my sermon. So, soon after Pastor Molini asked me to preach for her today, I looked up the lectionary Bible passages for today and soon decided to use the Gospel reading: Matthew 22:15-22. This is a passage most of you have heard many times, but listen to it again as I read from the new Common English Bible, the new translation completed in 2011 for use by both Protestants and Catholics:

15Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20“Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

Many of you remember well the words of verse 21 of the older translation: “Render . . . unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (KJV). My sermon title, “What Belongs to Caesar?” comes from that verse, of course.

(This same event/conversation is also recorded in Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26.)

Jesus’ statement comes at the end of a passage about taxes—which is usually a debatable subject. You have heard that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Those words were by Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in a 1789 letter, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Currently, there are highly diverse views about taxes here in the U.S. Some people lament that taxes are a form of theft, while there are some who speak about “taxpayer pride.” Just last month an article was posted on the Internet with the title “Taxation is Nothing More than Legalized Robbery.” On the other hand, Sister Simone Campbell is one such person in the latter group. (Some of you will remember her as “the nun on the bus.”)

The question that Jesus’ opponents asked him, though, was not about paying taxes in general. It was paying taxes to Caesar, and the Roman government under him. The Jewish people had long paid what was called the “Temple tax,” and there seemingly wasn’t any question about that. But Caesar was the Roman emperor whose forces had subjugated the Jews under their jurisdiction. Caesar even demanded religious-like adoration: he wanted to be called “Lord.”

Those who were seeking to trap Jesus in order to silence him and his movement posed this question to him: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Some of the Jewish people wanted to follow the Torah rather than Roman law much the same way that strict Muslims want to follow Sharīʿah rather than the law of the non-Muslim countries. Of course, there are some in our day, such as Roy Moore of Alabama, who seem to think that the Bible should be followed rather than U.S. law in some cases. (That may be all right for private citizens, but it is a question when such a person seeks election as a U.S. Senator.)

So, the question posed to Jesus was a trick question—like the proverbial “when did you stop beating your wife?” There seemed to be no good answer. His answer would ignite explosive opposition whether it was affirmative or negative. The strict Jews would have strongly disapproved of Jesus sanctioning paying the Roman taxes; the Romans would have condemned non-payment of the imposed taxes. Jesus was clearly put between a rock and a hard place.

The Romans had long sought to get taxes from the Jewish people who had come under their jurisdiction. Remember that according to Luke 2:1, shortly before the birth of Jesus, “Caesar Augustus, [the emperor] declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.” That was the reason Joseph and Mary made the long, hard trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

So now Jesus asked for a coin that was used for the taxes, noted the image (Greek: eikon) on the coin, and then made the oft-quoted statement about rendering to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God.

Jesus’ answer was a brilliant one. It got him off the hook: neither the strict Jews nor the Romans could find his answer to be one they could criticize or attack him for. Moreover, it left a statement that Christians have followed with good reason for all the years since Jesus first spoke those words in verse 21. So jump with me now from first century Palestine to these past few days in Kansas City.

Since Thursday evening a symposium titled “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today” has been held at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. (Many of you have no doubt been there.) I went to the opening activities on Thurs., attended some of the sessions on Fri. and Sat., and came here this morning straight from the 8:00 memorial service at which Rev. Ruth Harder, my pastor, spoke. (Some of you may have seen her “guest commentary” that was in last Wednesday’s Kansas City Star.)

One feature at the symposium was the premier of the traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” developed by Kauffman Museum, which is affiliated with Bethel College in Kansas. From this Tuesday through Sunday, this exhibit will be at the Pastor Ruth’s church, the Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kansas. If any of you should happen to be in the area, I hope you will stop by to see that exhibit.

Conscientious objectors, as you know, are people who refuse military service—or at least refuse to bear arms—because of their belief that killing other humans being in any way is wrong. This has been the position of the Quakers from their beginning in England in the 1740s and from the Anabaptists who are descendants of the small group of Swiss Brethren who organized in 1525.

From the beginning, the Anabaptists thought allegiance to God always took precedence to allegiance to the state—to “Caesar.” And since Jesus clearly taught that we are to love our enemies, they thought there was no justification for trying to kill them. Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you45so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5).

Although there is no stated link, we can assume that Jesus said what he did partly because he knew that all people were created in the image of God. In Genesis 1:27 we read (and I am once again reading from the Common English Bible), “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” This doesn’t mean that we humans look like God the way Caesar looked like his image on the Roman coin. Rather it means that we have a “likeness” to God that makes it possible for us to know God, to love God, and to have a personal relationship with God.” Among all of God’s creation, only humans have that possibility; only humans are made in the image of God.

“Caesar” may legitimately claim our coins—or our checks by April 15—but never our allegiance or our obedience, which belong only to God in whose image we are made. Thus, many of us in the Anabaptist tradition are reluctant to pledge allegiance to anything (or anyone) other than to God as known through Jesus Christ.

I don’t want to get into the “take the knee” protest by the pro football players—or the opposition to that protest led by the President—that has been going on. But long before that protest began last year—which was entirely about the problem of racism in our country—in 2004 two professors at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana wrote what they call “A Christian Pledge of Allegiance.” It goes like this:

I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ,

And to God’s kingdom for which he died—

One Spirit-led people the world over,

Indivisible, with love and justice for all.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying: I am not saying that you who are American citizens should not pledge allegiance to the flag. But I am saying that if you are a Christian, your first and primary allegiance ought to be to God as known through Jesus Christ. There are things you own Caesar or your country. But you belong to God.

I wonder what difference it would make in our communities—in your town of Lawson—and in the world if we Christians all started pledging our allegiance to Jesus and to God’s Kingdom. If we belong to God, shouldn’t we do that?

Do you know the hymn “I Surrender All”? It doesn’t seem to be in your hymnals, but it is one I remember well from my boyhood. It was written by a Methodist layman named Judson Van Deventer and first published in 1896.

All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His presence daily live

I surrender all
I surrender all
All to Thee my blessed Saviour
I surrender all

We don’t surrender our all to Caesar – or to anything or anyone else. We don’t belong to Caesar. We belong to God and our lives belong to God. When we surrender our all to Jesus, we come to love God will all our heart and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

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What about Penal Substitutionary Atonement?

There will be decidedly different reactions to the main topic of this article. Some readers no doubt think that the Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is of utmost importance. Others, however, think that such a doctrine is wrongheaded and should be opposed. So, which side is right?

Read this article here

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