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Christian Thinking in a Time of High Emotion

November 30, 2016
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Do you think Christians, from progressive to conservative, should actively fight hate/fear with love/peace? Do they (or we) have an important role in discernment and preparedness to do so, at the least?

Christians certainly are not the only people who can and should actively counter hate and fear.  But I think most would agree that Christians have spiritual, ethical and other reasons to do so particularly.

More specifically, I’d like to suggest we (I’m a progressive Christian myself) use our venues and time spent on classes, Bible studies, etc., to include one particular kind of study and preparation, among others, for action right now.

That would be a look at and discussion of Christians’ discernment (or lack of it) and resistance to the lead-up to Nazism and Hitler’s chancellor appointment in 1933 and the subsequent years to 1945, but especially the 5 years from ’33 to ’38/’39 when his designs became crystal clear and his mechanisms were set in place.

In such discussion Bonhoeffer is prominent, of course. His life and work do present fertile story-lines and theological issues, etc. And he tends to be admired and even somewhat read across most of the denominational spectrum and range of theologies. But I’d hope it goes broader than just him, to especially include some of the following:

  1. Karl Barth (Swiss/German-connected) and his role in the important…
  2. Barmen Declaration, and other…
  3. Early warnings about the danger of what discerning people (chief among them, Barth) were seeing –
  4. The ways in which Hitler manipulated the German Lutheran church as a necessary part of his plans and how he also…
  5. Manipulated Catholics to keep them out of his way  

(The above just as a starting sample.)

Granted, this will be a stretching exercise!   To plunge into people like Barth, Bonhoeffer, Heidegger (philosopher well known to these theological contemporaries and who did not resist the Nazi regime), Pastor Niemöller and others in a theological as well as social/political way requires some thinking … Evangelicals used to pursue this some, particularly with Barth, along with some studying Bonhoeffer.  Many of the open, exploring types among them have departed.

Some years ago, Barth was hard to ignore given his broad prominence. However, he was and is not easy to pigeon-hole theologically. (He offered supportive things for traditionalists and broke from much of the liberalism under which he was educated, but operated in a different kind of “space”). To study Barth and the other Neo-orthodox folks of both Europe and America is to gain vital stimulation toward both careful/deep thought and application of that thought and spirituality to everyday concerns.

Not the least of these is civil government and advocacy for the “commonwealth” of God on all levels of life.  Many years ago, I led a class in an Asian (and fairly conservative) congregation of the United Methodist Church on Barth’s thought and the Barmen Declaration. It proved to be of real interest and provoked good discussions.  The topic is even more pertinent and of value today!

A few related thoughts to wrap up:

A famous adage attributed to Barth: “Do theology with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other” [or the Internet, now].

For what it’s worth (a lot), we no longer have any religious thought leaders of the likes of the Neo-orthodox (American version) Reinhold Niebuhr, a sort of “public theologian”. He and others used to publish commonly in newspapers and were widely read and influential. Niebuhr also published widely-read books, such as the classic “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (a highly recommended read despite its age… not nearly as “liberal” as the title may sound today).  Incidentally, hardly the flaming socialist (etc.) that his detractors have made him out to be, President Obama apparently cites Niebuhr as his favorite theologian.  I see this showing in the kinds of positions he’s taken, with the carefulness of thought and foresight (seldom recognized) that he has displayed. I do think another 2-5 years or so will begin to recast Obama, as a Christian as well as a national leader, as much more wise and accomplished [yes, as a leader] than even many liberals see him as.  And those who voted for him and then for Trump will gain some clarity on what they’ve misread in both men.

Christians, Conservative or Progressive – THINK!

November 25, 2016
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Why write an article about something as abstract as thinking? Not the stuff of grabbing attention, right?

Yes, and that’s the point!

We’ve become more and more “victims” of attention-grabbers.  Like Facebook. And Twitter. Instagram. Cable or internet TV, anyone?

So in even writing about thinking, I feel compelled (perhaps wrongly) to write in short sentences and leave lots of “white space”.  Sure, a few scholarly types might read a more pedantic-style article, but most people wouldn’t – the very people who most need to think deeper.

So I’ll try to make a few succinct points without lots of detail or references. Then you can think about them…. And hopefully will!

Issue one: Thought vs. emotion

Emotion trumps thought most of the time – as to decisions, as to opinions. It’s always been that way, I presume.  But I’m as sure (as my emotions will let me be) that thinking used to occupy more of our brain “space” than it does now.  Also that exercising and training our brains does make a positive difference.  

Issue two (related): What occupies our brain “bandwidth”? (You probably guessed it.)

Prior to radio, newspapers and town criers (or gossips) were the news media.  The better newspapers and magazines were a major stimulus for thought. If you wanted entertainment, you went to church or perhaps a live concert or living room sing-along.  Sunday or evening events.  On workdays (every day for a great many, who had farms)?… You had your thoughts.  Or conversation with co-workers, often on issues of substance. Things that took some pondering. 

Radio was still more mind-activating than the next phase: TV.  The emergence of television may mark the turning point in the demise of thinking.  Are we more informed? Perhaps.  But not more thoughtfully engaged.

Internet: generally more of the same.  Tons of information, for which I’m grateful! But it now includes “fake news”, unthoughtfully taken as real by many.  Not to mention the torrent of emotion-spewing interaction on blogs, certain news sites, Facebook, etc.

Comment threads on some blogs/websites are indeed thoughtful interactions, conducted civilly.  I know because I participate in them, and learn a lot on occasion.  But I’d guess such involvement is a nearly miniscule percentage of the populace. Not enough to help the cause of more and better observation, analysis and overall thinking.  It’s natural and not necessarily against good thinking to mostly read or listen to/watch what tends to line up with our own beliefs.  But have you tried finding such places where there opposing viewpoints and good analysis is also represented? Where respectful interaction gives some deeper point-and-counter-point to aid our thinking process? 

Issue three: Understanding our own thought processes. “Know thyself”!  An ancient and often quoted adage.  But do we pursue it? And do we apply it to an understanding of our actual style of thought, not just general personality? We now have copious information readily available about what influences our beliefs and the processes by which we form them. It matters… are we paying attention to that body of knowledge? 

Do we think about thinking? Both thinking in general and, particularly and most importantly, our own unique tendencies and patterns? We all tend to think we don’t fit the mold of “most people”… our personal thinking is superior. (This is the oft-cited “self-serving bias” we only moderate by carefully watching for it.) 

We are more “right” based on what? (Hint: it isn’t just intellectual stars who feel superior here, though they often don’t deserve to either, being unable to spot the inconsistencies in their own thinking or other “errors” of thought.) I know we can’t always explain where and how intuition kicks in and may serve us well.  But most of the time, only if we can explain in some detail how and why our position on something is better than others’, and how we arrived at it, do we have any business thinking that it is.  

Note: Has this post been in any way educational or interesting to you? If I get such feedback, I will plan to continue this subject with further points… It’s “near and dear to my heart” (and mind), and there is a lot more I’d love to get into.  Please “like” the post or leave a quick comment to help me out.  Thanks!

Interfaith Thanksgiving – More than Just a Concept

November 23, 2016

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Wow… I wish I could get across the feel of the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service I attended last night.  It was a broadly interfaith service truly focused on giving thanks.  I don’t think there is anything else even close in our community (Escondido, CA) which gathers people from widely divergent groups and beliefs – religiously and politically – and has them come together in heartfelt celebration.  (I doubt many cities have something so special and well-attended, but hope they do.)

Everyone seemed to appreciate the common ground of blessings received and their giver thanked, however differently the giver may have been perceived.

With the election so recent, you could tell that it was also on the minds of both speakers and audience.  And this is a community about equally divided on a partisan basis, and with lots of immigrants of every “status”.

But no one referred to the election directly.  No gloating. No “what should have been” or anything else.

Just gratitude in general.

Secondarily, it was a celebration that diverse people of faith in our region (and our city particularly) have worked effectively together to serve “the least among us”, particularly the homeless.  You may have heard their numbers are, if anything, increasing in Southern California.  However, North County (San Diego) has a success rate almost double that of the surrounding county and most regions to our north (Orange Co., LA, etc.).  Here, we’re re-housing a lot of homeless people, getting them back to work and overall stability, feeding and providing shelter for those still homeless, etc.  

Please bear with a little explanation, toward a point:

That success is largely because of the work of our Interfaith Community Services non-profit organization.  It covers North County with hubs in Escondido and Carlsbad/Oceanside.  The core of church support, and the community via churches, seems to come from our city.

The Escondido Faith Leaders’ Council, which organizes the community Thanksgiving services, overlaps with the key supporters of Interfaith Community Services.  I’ve recently gotten involved myself (many lay people are involved, not just ministers).  It’s been great to see how active and “cutting-edge” our local efforts are.  They increasingly train and integrate faith leaders in community efforts, along with directly serving veterans, the homeless, and otherwise needy people in broader and deeper ways than ever.  And that on top of good service steadily growing for 37 years!

This background info I’ve shared because it explains a lot of the incredibly positive dynamic in such a well-attended and celebratory service (I’d estimate at least 300-350 people, and that with almost none of the many local Evangelical church people present).  A service like last night’s is not the “real game”, anyway… what I’ve briefly covered is! 

But celebrations are important, as are joint expressions of our gratitude.  They are also part of what fuels the daily work of service and enhances cooperation further.

A final point of importance to me and perhaps others who support interfaith efforts: Here was a demonstration, as directly celebrated by at least one speaker, that working together leads to mutual understanding and respect.  It enables communities to transcend theological and political differences, at least in certain settings.  It helps create larger vision.  It helps us realize that further work together is also possible, because we do share important common ground.  

Do you have a similar story from your community? We’d love to hear and celebrate with you!

A Fundamental Thinking Error of Trump and his Supporters

November 13, 2016

Even many of Trumps’ supporters are quick to admit his serious flaws in a number of areas. But if they’d been well attuned to this one, they might not have been so ready to jump on board.

What I refer to is about competition… about his way of thinking about wealth production and prosperity. Perhaps his strongest appeal to voters who otherwise would have rejected him was promise after promise of more and better jobs… making their lives better through a more competitive America. 

Remember all the talk about winning? (We never win now because all our trade representatives are “stupid”.) How we, under him, would be winning so much we’d get bored with it? According to Trump, currently China and other nations are winning at our expense. They’re taking advantage of us.  He proposes to fix all that by tearing up current trade agreements and renegotiating them (coercively, as the more powerful party can do). With us winning this time! The man thrives on the game of competition and is not hesitant to crush opponents in almost any way possible.  His personal track record proves it… with both his competitors and people who’ve done work for him… check it out if you haven’t.

So what is the “thinking error”? (It could also be called a posture toward life, etc.) That a person or a nation can truly prosper by prevailing over and dominating both opponents and those who are partners or helpers as well.  Let’s face it, this often works in a limited way, for a limited time.  So it has for Mr. Trump in his businesses.

Some of his ventures, of course, have failed.  (Besides his bankruptcies, he has, for example, sponsored large failed housing developments that left many prospective buyers with substantial losses of down payments and such. Well known is the ongoing Trump University fraud lawsuit that he may well settle out of court, as he has others.)  I could build my point further but this is sufficient to show the limits of the use of overly-competitive, exploitive practices.  And I won’t even go into the human costs involved.

Let me come back to the seriousness of this error, this lack of fair play, let alone empathy and compassion.  I understand many of his supporters have felt overlooked and unheard as they have lost jobs and financial stability over many years now.  So a lot of them have merely placed hope in his ability to help “right their ship” along with America’s, given they see it as sinking, or at least taking on water, rapidly.  They haven’t thought through the ethical and practical side of how he may go about trying to do this.  

It appears to me that their grave error, following his logic and personal track record, is seeing and caring about only one side of the “bargaining table” (or trade exchange arrangement, etc.). They naively and unethically believe that we, already the richest nation in the world by far, should use our advantaged position to gain even further advantage and continue to support exploitive practices in other places or directly exploit our weaker trading partners.

Mexico is one example of who could well be further squeezed.  They already have paid a proportionally higher price in lost jobs through NAFTA than we have in the US, assuming we have had a net loss….  I hear differing evaluations of that.

Perhaps one of the reasons Trump is again (as of Nov. 13, when I write) talking about rapidly beefed up border enforcement (whether wall, wall/fence, or what) is this: He knows that when he is able, with congressional support, to turn the screws on Mexico and they suffer financially, the currently very low or neutral net immigration rate from there will spike unless we can effectively stop people at the border.  He exploits fears of crime, rape, and taking of Americans’ jobs by immigrants here illegally… almost all of which is blown way out of proportion or is factually just wrong.  Sure those things happen, but violent or other serious crime by non-permissioned immigrants actually happens at low, not high, rates.  They’re probably lower than that of the general population, though I’ve not heard of studies statistically confirming hard numbers on this.

To summarize the key point: Trade can only harmoniously be conducted and maintained long-term when both (or all) parties benefit to similar degrees.  Though they may not be conscious of it, Trump has many people overlooking the fact that his proposals and his own history indicate that he intends to dominate others in international trade… to care first and foremost about winning… about “making America great again”.

I’ve listened to him a fair amount and I don’t recall ever hearing him talk about concern for the welfare of our trading partners.  I imagine he has at times.  But clearly it is a minor sub-point and not a significant part of his agenda.  It’s not primarily a win-win mentality he has and promotes to the rest of us, but a “win regardless” of consequences for others involved.  And yes, it could be at least initially effective, on our end.  But it is not the way I want to have America conduct our international relations, nor treat those who’ve fled here for a variety of reasons.  They’re often here for mere survival, not for life comforts.

I don’t believe any possible increase in jobs or our gross national product (GNP) will be long maintained under his style of trade and his principles of dealing with others.  Whether or not we like “globalization”, we, as Americans, benefit if our partners and the rest of the world benefits.  Like it or not, we are all interconnected.  (I happen to celebrate it!)

 

 

Jesus-Action Following the 2016 Election

November 12, 2016
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We have calls-to-action aplenty, in just the fourth day after our stunning election. This is good in itself.  But we need well-advised action.  Planned and coordinated, though swift as well.

I’ve started my title with “Jesus-Action” because using “Christian”, whether as noun or adjective, has become too confused and confusing. Uses of the label “Christian” vary so widely only confusion can result.  And “Christian” reactions to the Trump phenomenon vary just as widely.  Thus my switch to “Jesus-Action”.  It’s not without difficulties either, but may penetrate better to a focus on “WWJD” (what would Jesus do?) in America, post-2016-election.  And what might Jesus have us do right now?

We certainly need to act in certain decisive ways. But before any major efforts, we need to see things clearly; think through implications and options; communicate extensively with our colleagues as we do all of these and set up for wise and well-coordinated action.

As Jesus-followers, churched or unchurched, we can take certain actions immediately… as I’m doing right here…making our voices and concerns heard.  We must counter local instances of hate-expression or violence that seem to be prompted by the campaign and election (whether by the “left” or the “right”).   I have also begun discussing resources and options for action with leadership teams in my church (a congregation of the United Church of Christ).  I’m there largely because it is a church focused heavily on acting as Jesus did and told us to.   

I’ve not had time to read a lot of the many articles, blog posts, etc., responding to the election and suggesting various reflections and actions. But one I have, from a favorite writer and Jesus-follower leader, Kathy Escobar (of Denver), expresses things particularly well and I encourage you to go read it here, along with my comment in response.

Please share with us what YOU are considering or planning to do!  

The New Testament as a peace book

November 3, 2016

This is about as clear and compelling an explanation of Jesus’ core message of an alternative “kingdom” based on love and forgiveness, non-retaliation, as you will find. It also lays out the basis for non-support when earthly kingdoms call on citizens to use violence to retain their dominaton systems.

Peace Theology

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the second of two lectures in the Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series at the University of Pikeville (Pikeville, Kentucky). It was presented November 12, 2013. The first lecture was “The Old Testament as a peace book” and may be found here.]

Let me start with a bold claim. The New Testament presents a political philosophy. This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism (by pacifism I mean the conviction that no cause or value can override the commitment to treat each life as precious). This commitment is based on the belief that Jesus Christ as God Incarnate reveals the character of God and of God’s intention for human social life.

Jesus’s identity in the Gospel of Luke

In talking about the New Testament as a peace book, I will look first at how the gospels present Jesus. I will focus on the Gospel of…

View original post 4,851 more words

The Common Ground of Sunday in America

November 1, 2016
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I’m using “Sunday” both as referring to the actual day and more broadly to Christian faith in America.  The main issue I’ll discuss briefly here, within that vast topic, is the common ground shared on a given Sunday morning.

First, a couple points of context:

  1. Many non-religious people in America see mainly negative things in the beliefs and practices of religion (focused mainly in Christianity here).
  2. Many Christians (myself not included) see Christian faith as under attack and religious liberties as threatened.  Additionally, they see heresy and threat in every form of religious liberalism or progressivism.  (The share of church attendees in the U.S. is strongly weighted to the more conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists and the many small denominations and independent churches.)

I’d like to reassure non-religious people, since most of their objections relate to “conservative” forms of faith, that things may not be as bad as they think.  There are some real positives nestled within the things I also object to.  I’d like to also reassure Christians sharing the concerns of #2 above that things may not be as bad as they think.  By that I mean that “progressive Christians” share many things with both groups and represent a sort of meeting ground in the middle… or “golden mean”.  

This past Sunday, during the church service (of my United Church of Christ congregation) and a class after it, I was particularly struck with the realization of how much common ground there was with our more historically orthodox brethren.  I mused, some of it out loud in class, that many of them could have participated in both hours that Sunday and felt quite at home and in almost complete if not complete agreement.  Now the UCC denomination, our church included, does have a statement of beliefs that differs on some key points from that of denominations like the Southern Baptists and many others.  Our outreach priorities are also generally different.  But in many services you wouldn’t even hear that expressed or note a big difference.

On the other hand, you also would not, in any main service, hear certain distinctives of American evangelicalism: a wrathful god, threat of eternal punishment, call for a personal “decision” of faith in Christ, or issues of “social conservatism” or the “Religious Right’s” political agenda.  My contention is that these issues are biblically and historically not a necessary or helpful part of vibrant, healthy Christian faith anyway (or Jesus-following, if one prefers the term as I sometimes do).  This is based on literally many thousands of hours of study of the Bible, Christianity and its history, plus philosophy and world religions, etc.  Oh… and being smack in the middle of Evangelical America for over half of my nearly five-decade adult life.

My major point is this: being Christian or “Christ-centered”can be fashioned and directed many ways. Though some are healthier and “truthier” than others, none are to be condemned or ridiculed.  These days there seems to be a growing body of people who seek to purposely and seriously follow Jesus, though in a “secular” way.  While I feel interconnected with everyone, I particularly appreciate the brotherhood/sisterhood of these people who are outside any church.  A wonderful, in-depth review of the book, “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower” by Tom Krattenmaker posted recently on the “Godless in Dixie” blog on Patheos.  I recommend it highly, found here.

Even from the far right to far left of Christian beliefs and expressions there tend to be some key basics in common.  Things like seeing Jesus’ life as transformative in history and often in individual lives; laying aside the ego (or “dying to the flesh”) in the process of identifying with Christ as biblically and spiritually known.  And core to any healthy congregation, no matter its specific doctrine, is a growing practice of coming to know and care for one another, being as transparent, where called for, and as trusting as we can bear.  Then taking that inner strength out to the world around so that others in need may share in our “abundant life”, our life together.