Go Set a Watchman

I just finished listening to the Audiobook of Go Set A Watchman, read very effectively by Reese Witherspoon. The manuscript was written in the 1950s but never published until it was discovered in 2014. The story is set after To Kill A Mockingbird, when Jean Louise (Scout) is a grown woman of 26. Go Set A Watchman was written before the more famous book, the main theme of which is summarized in a brief section.

Mockingbird was a gentler and more effective way of dealing with racism. Had she published the Watchman manuscript in the 50s, it would probably have been banned and its author blacklisted.

Mockingbird is probably a more perfect artistic accomplishment. Go Set a Watchman, though, has its literary moments, with some colorful characters and amusing scenes.  The scenes of the motherless child reaching puberty and the anxiety it causes should be required reading for every teacher or youth worker who deals with middle school children.

The last few chapters resemble a platonic dialog more than a dramatic story and consist of a series of intense exchanges between Jean Louise and those closest to her.  Her angry speeches against racism are countered with genteel defenses of the way things are and why it is necessary to go along and get along. It is this social commentary that we need now.

You remember back in November when everyone warned us to avoid politics and religion at the family gathering for Thanksgiving? Jean Louise’s speeches are the models for what we should have said.

Why I Am a Small ‘c’ catholic

The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase kath’ holen ten oekoumenen, “throughout the whole inhabited world.” To be a catholic Christian means you follow the faith that is accepted and practiced throughout the whole world. The word ecumenical comes from the same phrase. To be catholic and to be ecumenical mean the same thing. It means you share the faith Christians down through the ages and throughout the whole world have followed.

That faith centers in what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. God sent his son into the world to show us the way of peace and love, to bear our sins on the cross so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God and to one another, to rise again conquering death on our behalf so we can be assured of eternal life, and to give us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of love and peace, anticipating the final transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

This faith is summarized in a confession known as the Apostle’s Creed. It contains the words, in addition, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic church.”

All followers of Christ belong to that church. It is not perfectly one or holy or universal as we see it now. But because it is claimed by Christ and because he works through those people, it is one, holy, and catholic.

I say small ‘c’ without meaning any disrespect to large ‘C’ Catholics or Orthodox. In fact, I have a growing respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches who are also Catholic. I have a lot of respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, especially St. Francis. Some of his recent predecessors did not do enough to deal with a horrible problem in the church, and I don’t excuse that. But that is a problem the authorities in Rome and in America and other countries will have to deal with.

I keep a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my desk and receive a lot of benefit from it. The catechism gives better answers than some of my conservative Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters (I have to say and sisters, although women theologians are fairly new in those circles) to questions about science, sexuality, economic justice, ecology, world religions, human rights, and the modern historical study of the Bible.

Once I had a student who freaked out when he heard the term “free church catholic” at a conference. I could use that term to describe myself. I remain free to follow my own conscience and hold my own convictions. In other words, I remain free to disagree with the catechism or the teachings of the church. For example, when I say Rome gives better answers on sexuality, I still disagree with its teaching that celibacy is the only option for those who accept a religious vocation, for those who have been divorced and remarried, and for others. But the place for that conversation would be at the Boji Stone (our local coffee shop), in a friendly, respectful atmosphere.

The Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has spent his life engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, atheists–anyone who will sit down and talk to him. He says you don’t have to give up beliefs that are important to you to have a conversation. In fact, he says, if you suppress your differences, you deprive the other person of a genuine conversation partner. Today I am emphasizing what I have in common with all followers of Christ, and why I am a catholic Christian.

And so, I am free to participate in the long-established participation of Ash Wednesday and Lent. To some extent, participating in a season of fasting, self-denial, and reflection also reflects a bit of solidarity with Jews, who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and other fasts; and Muslims who fast during Ramadan and other times.

The deprivations we catholics undergo during Lent are pretty mild compared to the fasts the other children of Abraham endure. During Lent we can choose what to give up. I suggest either giving up something you don’t need anyway, or something you enjoy but that is not really essential. I visited with a lady yesterday who told of a friend who gave up smoking every year during Lent. She said he was aware of it every moment, constantly reaching for his empty shirt pocket. But that constantly reminded him of Jesus and what he suffered for us. (I wondered why he didn’t just stay quit–but that is another story).

There is one other kind of fasting, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. It’s not really giving up something ourselves, but it is thinking of others in need.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house,

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Another Bonhoeffer Biography

I don’t know if we need another one, but here is a review of a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Evidently Charles Marsh indulges in a little speculative psychoanalysis about Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Eberhard Bethge, suggesting a latent homosexual attraction.  This speculation, based on no evidence other than reading between the lines in the letters, of course could be neither proven nor refuted.

I think it does show a pretty serious failure to understand Bonhoeffer.  First of all, he had no use for psychoanalysis; he described it as a secular version of religious fanaticism.  Revivalist preachers tried to convince decent, honest people that they were miserable sinners, and psychoanalysts tried to convince happy, well-adjusted folk that they are inwardly miserable.  Bonhoeffer believed private matters should be kept private and one should not speak in public about sexuelle Dinge.  Aha, proof of repression?  I think rather it reflects his aristocratic upbringing and some honest convictions about propriety and ethics.

In his Ethics Bonhoeffer followed traditional categories of duty, vocation, family, work, government.  But He also said there is another realm where ethical behavior is realized, and that is the area of freedom.  To this area he assigned friendship.  He recognized a failure in previous attempts to define and describe ethical behavior without recognizing the importance of deep and abiding friendships not confined by categories of duty but developed in the realm of freedom.

One of the failures of a lot of our thinking today is a lack of imagination and vocabulary to appreciate the value of friendship.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge certainly did love one another.  It was a deep human and Christian friendship.

What’s Wrong with a Well-Regulated Militia?

The courts have ruled that the second-amendment upholds the right of individuals to “keep and bear arms.” Originally all adult, white male “responsible and law-abiding” citizens were members of the militia; therefore they had a right to keep and carry weapons, and use them when necessary. Individuals have a right to defend their own homes and families, the right to join together as part of the common defense, and the right to resist tyranny.

The framers of the constitution understood that all individual citizens (as defined above) were part of a well-regulated, trained, and disciplined militia.

The original drafts of the second amendment included a provision exempting persons with religious scruples from being required to own and maintain weapons. Any adult white male citizen not so exempted was expected to maintain his own supply of weapons should he be called up by his state militia.

Switzerland has a national militia. Anyone deemed “fit for service” between the age of 18 and 34 is required to purchase and keep at his home military weapons. They first go through a period of training.

A system like that would be better than what we have.

What would be wrong with a mandatory course of training, following high school graduation, say a six-week course? It could include firearms use and safety, first aid training, emergency and disaster relief training, legal matters, non-lethal self-defense strategies, anger management, and other issues. There would also be psychological testing and background checking (including juvenile offenses).

Conscientious objectors could be exempted or allowed to skip the weapons-part of the training.

This would not be a military draft; no further service would be required, but successful graduates would be allowed to own weapons and participate in the well-regulated militia as they chose.

Gun owners would be required to keep their weapons secure from use by unauthorized persons.

In effect, this would mean giving a license to possess firearms. Unlicensed possession could be prosecuted, in the same way that unauthorized possession of drugs is prosecuted.

The pro-gun lobby has been so powerful that politicians have been afraid to do anything to try to control gun violence. There are reasonable steps that can be taken to outlaw gun possession by irresponsible persons while protecting the rights of responsible citizens.

Philippians 1:1

1  Timothy joins Paul in wishing grace and peace to the Christ followers in Philippi.  Timothy is not a co-author (Paul uses the 1st person singular throughout the Epistle and will speak later of Timothy in the 3rd person), but he is a witness and vouches for Paul’s authority and the authenticity of the letter.  He is also a role model for the Philippians (2:19-24) and will be a personal delegate from Paul to them.

Paul and Timothy are servants of Christ Jesus (douloi Christou Iesou), a phrase modeled after the Old Testament expression eved YHWH, which is a position of great honor.  They willingly acknowledge owing their lives to Christ and being owned by him “in whose service is perfect freedom” and therefore though they are servants to all they can never become slaves of men.

In Galatians 3:26-4:7 Paul explains why the word “slave” is inadequate to describe our relationship with God.  Jesus also taught that we are “no longer slaves but friends.”  We are heirs and friends having a freedom and authority that slaves could never dream of–this applies to those who are slaves “according to the flesh,” in their earthly, worldly status.

The believers are saints (hagioi, holy people) because they have been claimed by God through Jesus Christ for his own purposes.  Their lives are dedicated to God and their behavior is becoming more holy and righteous day by day. To us sainthood or holiness sounds other-worldly, but to become holy really means becoming authentically human, becoming all we were meant to be, being whole and upright, and wholly motivated by love.  It is holy to embrace the joys of life with enthusiasm and zest; it is also holy to fully experience grief and pain, and to share both experiences, joy and pain with others.

The word hagioi also points to future victory: the saints will come again with Christ when he establishes his kingdom and will reign with him.

At the coming of Christ the righteous dead will be raised and given glorified bodies, and the faithful living on earth will receive glorified bodies and will be visibly “raptured” briefly, caught up in the air to meet Christ as he descends, and then get in line behind him as he returns to the earth in victory, where he will be recognized by all who have ever lived.  The imagery of the second coming of Christ “with his saints” is derived from Daniel’s vision and is expressed in the imagery of a Roman conquering hero’s victory parade.  (See Dan 7:25-27, Jude 14, 1 Thess 5:14-17.)

There is no evidence in the Bible for a “secret rapture” of the saints before a great tribulation on the earth.

Of course the saints will not just sit around in the meantime waiting to escape from the world.  They are called to be a Holy Nation, God’s people on earth who experience and demonstrate the reality of his kingdom here and now.  They live at peace with one another in the presence of God, praying for their enemies, showing compassion to the poor, the lonely, the needy, healing the sick, driving out destructive forces that keep God’s creation from flourishing as the creator intended.  (See Ex 19:5-6, 1 Pet 2:9, Eph 3:10, Matt 10:1, Luke 4:18-19.)

God’s holy people are elsewhere called by a name derived from Athenian democracy, ekklesia (usually translated church) the assembly of free citizens who have an equal right of free speech (parrhesia in Greek).  Each believer has spiritual authority and freedom, and the assembly decides local issues by discussion and consensus, voting or other democratic procedures.  The believers form an egalitarian community (Matt 23:8-12, Gal 3:28).  Paul’s letter is addressed to them, to all the saints; but the saints do have leaders and the leaders are not excluded.

Paul greets the saints with the bishops and deacons.  The English word “bishop” actually comes from the Greek word episkopos.  Drop the initial vowel and the ending, then change the initial /p/ to it’s voiced equivalent /b/, and after fifteen hundred years or so, you get bishop.  The original Greek episkopos, however, did not originally refer to a powerful office (like the chess piece) but to a function of leadership and care giving.  A bishop was one who oversaw or looked after others.

Other evidence from the New Testament indicates that the terms “elders” and “bishops” (presbyteroi and episkopoi) were either synonymous or overlapping.  Those with wisdom and experience in living godly lives were respected as elders, and the elders were appointed to the function of overseers.  In the New Testament, that is in the first century, there was always a group of elders in each church.

By the early second century a distinction was made between the bishop (singular) and the council of elders (still plural), in each church, with the bishop serving in a role identical to that of “pastor” in a local church today.  By the third and fourth centuries, the bishop was the leader of the largest church in a city, then in a region, and exercised authority over all the churches in his region.  By the sixth century the bishop of Rome had claimed to be the “first among equals” over the bishops of the other great cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople.

But in the early church, the term episkopos did not refer to a hierarchical authoritarian office.  The overseers of the congregation provided spiritual care for individuals and families, looked after the sick and needy, taught the congregation and led worship, and helped direct the overall administration of the local church as the members sought to please God and reach out more effectively among their neighbors.

We know that the twelve apostles were men, although women played a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus and were in fact the first to preach the Gospel of the Risen Christ to the apostles.  We know that the bishops whose names were recorded in the second centuries and beyond were men.  But Gordon Fee and others have pointed out that there may have been women in the earliest church who exercised the role of providing spiritual care and direction.  Fee mentions Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2 and Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2.

Phoebe is described as a diakonos and a prostatis, the latter term having a meaning similar to that of episkopos, one who “stands before” another, giving aid, spiritual or physical care, or leadership and direction.  We know from 1 Cor 11 and 14 that women exercised the function of speaking “for the edification, encouragement, and instruction” of the church, a function described as “prophesying.”

Any group, no matter how egalitarian, needs leadership, guidance, and support.  Leadership in the early church arose in at least three forms:

1) Spiritual maturity and wisdom was recognized, and elders possessing such qualities were appointed to offices called “elder” or “bishop.”

2) Charismatic gifts gave individuals the ability to exercise various roles, including speaking, teaching, and leadership roles.  These gifts were recognized and evaluated by other believers.

3)  Persons who were prominent in the larger (civic) community had means, including houses large enough to host the church, and influence, such as connections with city leaders to provide some protection, legitimacy, and support to the church.  These persons provided a kind of natural leadership in the churches.

Over time no doubt some of these roles faded, some merged, and occasionally there was some conflict among them.

Deacons were servants in the church who took care of the poor, but also became ministers of the word of God.  The Greek word diakonos originally referred to a waiter or server, who served meals in a private home.  The original idea is one who “waits on a table.”  But then bankers also had tables, so sometimes financial managers were called diakonoi.  Those who served the congregation by feeding their souls, bringing them the bread of life, were also called diakonoi.

It seems the first deacons are those described in Acts 6, young men full of the Spirit, of wisdom, and of faith, who were chosen to deliver meals to the widows in the growing Jerusalem congregation.  They no doubt prayed with them, listened to them, encouraged them and were encouraged by them, and grew in their faith as a result.  The first deacons named went on to become ministers of the word and evangelists, including the first martyr Stephen.

The Greek word diakonos (plural diakonoi) gramatically is of common gender, the same form applies to masculine and feminine nouns.  Phoebe is called a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.

One reason the bishops and deacons are mentioned could be that they were officially in charge of collecting, managing, and sending the offering to Paul.

Are You a Slave to Jesus?

Christians have always understood the paradox: in the service of God is perfect freedom.  John MacArthur’s sermon and promo for his book Slave doesn’t seem to appreciate subtleties like paradox.  He recognizes that the δοῦλος – κύριος metaphor is a metaphor; but he doesn’t seem to recognize that it is an inadequate ultimately judged inadequate by Jesus and Paul.

A twenty-minute check in the library confirmed that MacArthurs conclusions after three years of intensive study are basically valid–on the literal level and with one important exception.

Two standard Greek reference sources, Kittle’s famous Theological Dictionary and Bauer’s lexicon as edited by Danker in the third edition.  Both agree that δοῦλος basically means “slave.”  Both of these sources also agree that in Greek culture the whole idea of slavery was degrading, whereas in the middle eastern world of great empires, the kings ministers were called “slaves” or “servants.”  In that context, it was considered an honor to be the δοῦλος of a great king.

This concept was transferred in the Hebrew Bible to the privileged servants of the Lord: Abraham, Moses and the prophets.  The Lord keeps his servants in a special relationship to himself:

Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?  (Numbers 12:6-8)

Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7).

It is in this sense that Paul applies the term δοῦλος to himself and other members of the apostolic team; other Christians he normally calls brothers and sisters.  The expression paradoxically implies humility and service on one hand, but honor and authority on the other hand.

Jesus and Paul both recognize the inadequacy of the expression δοῦλος to convey our relationship with God.  Jesus said,

I no longer call you servants . . . Instead, I have called you my friends (John 15:15).

In the epistle to the Galatians, Paul compares the relationship slaves to heirs.  The whole point of Galatians is to reject the imagery of slavery in favor of the mature and free relationship that adult children have with their father.  Galatians is the magna charta of Christian liberty and the manifesto of the Reformation.

Because you are sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts . . . so you are no longer a slave, but a son or daughter  (Galatians 4:6)

The Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother    . . . we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman (Galatians 4:26,31).

China or Not China?

I’ve been trying to keep this to myself–to paraphrase Muhammad Ali–I don’t have anything against people from China.  It’s just that I don’t like China’s oppressive government.

Yesterday the Nobel Peace Prize was given to an empty chair, the chair representing Liu Xiaobo who is in prison in China for advocating human rights and democracy.  According to The Guardian, “China is still furious” at the committee in Norway for giving the prize to someone they regard a criminal.  NPR reported yesterday that China bullied 18 other countries into boycotting the award.

I don’t have anything against anyone from China, but it does bother me that we, US consumers, are making China rich and financing the buildup of their military.

Does anyone ever look at country of origin labels?

For over twenty years I have been buying New Balance running shoes because they have the “Made in the USA” label.  My wife recently bought me two new pair.  One said, “Made in the USA with domestic and imported parts” (I thought, at least that’s more than Nike can say) and the other pair simply says, “Made in China.”

Facebook led me to an add for a cycling clothing company.  The kids in the photo above are a likable looking bunch, and there cycling apparel appears to be of high quality.  I would be willing to give it a try.  As their web page says (in typical translated Chinese):

As you know , many big companies (NIKE , Adidas , etc..) usually build some factories in China , Thailand to product the clothings for them , because the labor costs is very low.We are the one of these factories.

All the clothings which producted by our factory , once they are delivered to US , UK ,  these price will grow up , but its real price is low.

Because we sell them to you directly , so the price is lower than official price!!

There is also a company that makes high quality cycling clothing, and sells them at a reasonable price, within the US, Voler.

The above photo shows the solar panels on Voler’s factory, accompanied by a statement on their policy of being environmentally responsible.

I’m not in favor of trade wars or boycotts.  I wish the kids at MUPi cycling well.  But this year I am going to try to help out some of my neighbors who are trying to hold on to their jobs.  As far as I can, I am going to buy products made in the United States, or at least somewhere beside China.

What is Worse than Burning a Book?

Killing a human being is worse than burning a book, even a holy book.  A holy book may contain the words of God, but a human being reflects the image of God.  Killing a human being is a worse blasphemy against God than destroying the book of God’s words, because the book can be reconstructed.  Every human being is unique and irreplaceable.

James, who grew up in the same house with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph said that cursing or slandering a human being is the same as blasphemy.  He said it is hypocrisy to praise God with one’s tongue and then use the same tongue to curse a human being who is made in the image of God.

King Jehoiakim burned a scroll containing the words God had given his prophet Jeremiah.  Jehoiakim brought judgment on himself, but Jeremiah and his friends felt no need to be the agents of God’s vengeance.  They simply made a new copy of the scroll.  (See Jeremiah chapter 36.)

It is a serious offense to deface a book believed to contain God’s words.  But devout believers like Jeremiah know that God can defend and preserve his own book.

There is one case of book burning in the Bible; in Acts 19:19 we learn of those who had once practiced black magic burning their books of spells after they renounced their former superstitions.  They were not burning holy books of other people, they were burning their own books that now represented destructive practices.  It is more like people burning their collection of pornography today.

In the same chapter in Acts, Paul was falsely accused of blaspheming the local goddess.  One of the practitioners of Artimis worship defended the apostles saying, “These men have neither plundered temples nor blasphemed our goddess.”  Paul had his own beliefs and he defended them with reason and dialogue–but he did not resort to violence, ridicule, or disrespectful behavior.

The misguided pastor in Florida has been persuaded that burning the holy book of Islam would serve no good purpose.  But now the family of a former attorney plans to have its own Koran-burning ceremony.

These are the same people who rejoice and celebrate when soldiers die serving their country; so the thought that fanatics will kill people in response to their offense wouldn’t bother them.  I wish the media would ignore them, but since that’s not likely, the rest of us can speak up in defense of tolerance and respect.

What’s in Your Backpack?

Here is a preview of Sunday’s Sermon (Aug 1, 2010), Luke 12:13-21.

I’ve taken part in a lot of funerals this year.  It gives you a perspective on priorities in life.

When my daughter and I both graduated (long story), we celebrated by going backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.  I learned a lot about life from that trip.  The first lesson was, “No Turning Back.”

Mr. Jewell Church was the proprietor who agreed to take us from our destination to the drop-off point about thirty miles south of where we left our car.  We put our backpacks in the back of his pickup truck and took a scenic and winding ride through the hills of North Carolina.  After a half-hour or so or enjoying his company, he dropped us off at the bottom of a steep and long hill.  As we were strapping on our backpacks, we watched him quickly drive away.  We looked back at his disappearing tailgate and up at the steep climb ahead and realized–this is for real.  There is no turning back now.

Later I reflected on what we carried in our backpacks.  First the necessary items for survival: a three day’s supply of food, our tents and sleeping bags, a few basic survival utensils, a water purifier and bags to carry water in after we found it and filtered it.  You don’t want to drink in some nasty parasite a three days’ journey from civilization.

Next were the necessary tools for the mission, to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish on the journey.  Both of us brought cameras and journals.  What we wanted to accomplish was the experience, but we also wanted to preserve the memory.  I crafted a walking stick along the way, using my Swiss army knife, and still have it as a souvenir.

The third category was small: whatever luxuries we wanted–as long as we were willing to carry them on our backs.   Not knowing any better, we packed one of my wife’s prize quilts.  We brought it back unharmed, but realized it was heavier and bulkier than we needed.  But my daughter enjoyed it.  We also brought some canned chicken breast fillets.  Again, it was more weight than was necessary, but a pleasant relief from trail mix, granola, and beef jerky.

I have remembered that ever since.  Some possessions are necessary, and some luxuries make life more enjoyable–but we do carry them on our backs.  Life’s journey is easier when we keep it simple.

There is another fact about possessions and wealth, according to Jesus’ parable.  We will have to give account for them.

God will hold us accountable for how we acquired our wealth and possessions, what we sacrificed to get them, who we hurt, helped, or neglected along the way, and what our attachment to them shows about our priorities.

We are more than material creatures.  While we can’t avoid living in this life and dealing with material things, we need to keep an eternal perspective.

New Bonhoeffer Biography

Eric Metaxas’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is getting good reviews.  My friend David Chicaguala, who works with homeless folk in New York City knows Eric, and says he will introduce me when I get up there again.

You can see a video of Eric discussing his new book here.

I plan to read the book by the end of May–as soon as I’m done grading papers and final exams.  I’ll pass on my reactions then.

What a Strange Habit it Was

We are far enough into the 21st century now to look back at the last century.  I think we have almost seen the end of two strange habits from that dreadful century.  The first is smoking.

Maybe 2009 was the year the nation kicked the habit.  Many trends start on the east and west coasts, and Topeka, Kansas is one of the last places to catch on.  But last year Topeka instituted a smoking ban.

Two things amaze me.  The first is how easy it was to quit.  There were a few wheezing whiners who lamented the loss of their constitutional right to light up, but mostly smoking bans were accepted without a cough.  Two years ago I was in Europe and they had also accepted smoking bans with very little protest.

Who would have thought that the tobacco lobby would lose their grip on the political process–after years of funding maverick scientists who denied the link between smoking and death?  Who could have imagined that senators from Virginia and North Carolina would give up the battle for their traditional way of life?  It is almost a miracle that we as a nation kicked the butts of the tobacco industry.

The other thing that is amazing to me from my vantage point now is how ubiquitous cigarettes were.  When I was a child every TV talkshow host punctuated conversations with a cigarette.   Chivalry demanded that a gentleman offer a light to a lady.  We kids knew all the jingles of the cigarette companies.  Our parents bought us candy cigarettes–the same way parents buy toy guns for their kids today–harmless fun.  For school crafts or shop class projects, we made ashtrays for our parents.

When I was in high school we knew we would be treated like adults when we went to the local community college, because they had a smoking lounge.  Cigarettes were fashion accessories.  Never in the history of free enterprise has their been such a successful marketing campaign!

Of course the tobacco companies had a big advantage–their product was highly addictive.  Malcolm X said he was convinced tobacco was as addictive as heroin.  The same scientists who publicly denied the harmful effects of cigarettes were carefully manipulating the nicotine levels to keep their subjects hooked.

But there were other scientists who were studying the effect of nicotine on the brain–and they have found ways to break the chains of the addiction.  There is plenty of help out there for those who are ready to quit (here is one example.)  I advise young people who smoke: You will quit someday, when your doctor puts you on oxygen and tells you you will blow up if you light up.  And it won’t be any easier to quit then.  You might as well quit now and enjoy the benefits.

The photo of Dean Martin above is one of “5 Celebrities” with lung disease.  The distinction of being the youngest of the celebrities with self-inflicted emphysema is Amy Winehouse, who was diagnosed at the age of 24.

My wife hates cigarettes, always has, though she usually keeps it to herself.  She has never been judgmental about people who smoke.  She is now taking care of her mother who is dying of lung disease.  Sonja said it out loud this weekend,

You know, I really hate cigarettes.

Does Using the Interstate Highways Make Me a Socialist?

Last weekend I went on a road trip with some of my fellow faculty and students.  We enjoyed passing through parts of six states on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system.  I was about five months old when the Republican president from Abilene signed the bill that made the interstate highway system possible.

Was it socialism?  If socialism means centralized planning, massive public (i.e., taxpayer) investment, and government control–then the interstate highways were absolutely an experiment in socialism.

Think of how the private economy could have built a highway system.  Landowners could have built roads on their own property and chosen whether to retain the exclusive use or to lease or sell access.  They could have negotiated agreements with their neighbors.

Or corporations could have attempted to buy up long contiguous strips of land and build private highways.  They could then sell access for a profit.

When you think through all the ramifications, it is hard to think of any practical way that private initiative and private funding could have built the kind of highway system we have today.

A little more than fifty years ago our president and congress made the decision to provide every citizen with universal access to travel in every state. They even have interstate highways in Hawaii–think about that!

Acquiring the land did require federal seizure of private property.  Therefore, building the Interstate Highway System was promoted as a military necessity.  The main impact, however, has been economic rather than military.

The internate highway system was a massive project in social engineering, involving a massive public investment of funds–and it has been a massive financial success.  Nearly all of the growth in prosperity in the past fifty years has been directly or indirectly related to the interstate highways.

But now it is time for a new economy not based on the automobile.  Is it time for a new investment in the future?

Money that is wasted by short-sided politicians will certainly be a drain on my grandchildren.  But wise investment in the future could lead to increased prosperity for the next generations.

A year ago I visited the decaying ruins of state socialism in countries formerly dominated by the Soviet Union.  I don’t want any part of that.  But I also don’t want to label any public investment in the future as socialism.  Someone has to rebuild the infrastructure, fund education, and prepare the way for the economy of the future.

The Queen’s Charm

Royal Hugg  courtesy Huffington Post

Royal Hugg courtesy Huffington Post

Some media pundits wanted to portray it as a breach in protocol when the First Lady touched the queen of England.  But according to witnesses, the queen herself initiated the mutual exchange of affection.

I am glad the queen had the good grace to recognize an American ceremonial ritual.  The two women have a lot in common.  Neither was elected to any political office:  They both hold ceremonial and symbolic positions, and in that sense, they do represent their people.  The American First Lady is the closest thing to royalty that we have.

We call her first lady, not in the sense of “your ladyship,” but according to the quaint, almost obsolete custom of referring to any respectable woman above the age of–oh, 25 to 30 (maybe younger if she is married and has children) as a lady.

Of course, it would be unconstitutional to address Mrs. Obama as “Your Ladyship” or to use any other title of nobility.  It is unconstitutional for us to recognize or bestow such titles; so if Mrs. Obama had breached royal protocol, she would have been in compliance with the document her husband has sworn (both on-camera and off) to uphold.

But there was no constitutional crisis and no social faux pas.  Both women seemed to share genuine affection for one another.

Conscience and Nursing

Lethal injection is considered a humane and sanitary means of dispatching convicted murderers.  Inserting an IV requires skill and training.  Here is what one nurse says,

Past experiences influence my belief that the essential vein will not be accessed on the first try. Despite the diminutive size of the needle, there is still pain with it’s insertion.

Worse than blood draws is the starting of an IV for either medication or for hydration. Now, we’re talking about a much larger IV needle. I have started IV’s for 30 years and never had one myself until six years ago, where it took the nurse four tries before she called another nurse to successfully start my IV. The first nurse was frustrated which only added to her difficulty with each of her next several attempts. I was so tense, that my veins went into hiding, “determined” to not be accessed by anyone!  (More here)

So, if we are going to have lethal injections we need trained professionals, specifically nurses, to do the deed.  But what if most nurses are conscientiously opposed to killing? When the federal prison in Indiana needed an executioner for Timothy McVeigh in 2001, they had to go all the way to Missouri to find a nurse willing to inject the poison cocktail.  David Pinkley was on probation in a plea bargain after stalking and threatening another man and his family.  He was willing to use his medical skills to end the life of America’s most notorious mass murderer (more here).  Presumably, he followed procedure and used an alcohol swab before delivering the potion (see Why an Alcohol Swab).

What would happen if all nurses refused to volunteer for the work of execution?  Would there be some sort of draft?  Would it be like jury duty?

Should nurses who conscientiously object be protected–or should they be fired if they refuse a summons to execution duty?

Do we want health care professionals with a conscience, or do we want doctors like Joseph Mengele and his subordinates who mindlessly followed his orders?

(More at Amnesty International)

Pro Conscience

Whether one is pro-life or pro-choice, it is hard for me to see how any thinking person would not be pro-conscience.  President Obama is requesting comments on the proposal to rescind provisions protecting health care professionals from discrimination if their conscience will not allow them to participate in procedures such as abortion, sterilization, or research they consider unethical.

Current regulations protect health care workers who choose to follow their conscience in these matters.  The proposal to rescind these regulations would take them away.  Those who favor abolishing the protections argue that services might not be available to patients, particularly in rural areas.

It seems to me that firing conscientious doctors and nurses would take a lot of good people out of the system.  But this is democracy:  Now until April 9 is the time to speak your mind.

Comments may be submitted electronically on the Web site http://www.Regulations.gov (by entering 0991-AB49 in the search box–or click here) or via e-mail to proposedrescission@hhs.gov. Attachments may be in Microsoft Word, WordPerfect or Excel, but Microsoft Word is preferred.

By mail, one original and two copies of written comments may be sent to: Office of Public Health and Science, Department of Health and Human Services, Attention: Rescission Proposal Comments, Hubert H. Humphrey Building, 200 Independence Ave. SW, Room 716G, Washington, DC 20201.

Source: CNS

How Many White Men Does it Take . . . ?

OK, the answer is–whatever the punchline–

That’s not funny!

I was going to ask, “How many white men does it take to say a bland and boring prayer?” But it turns out that white guys are more sensitive than I realized.

Some of my brethren were offended and hurt by the Rev. Joseph Lowery’s rhyming conclusion to his inaugural benediction.

That’s right, the same people who are afraid that Hate Crime legislation might stifle their freedom of speech, the good ol’ boys who laughed at all the wrong places in Gran Tourino, the gentlemen who can sling around racist and sexist remarks and then respond to anyone who raises an eyebrow–

Oh, I forgot–it’s not politically correct (snicker) to say that!

All my rowdy buddies might not be able to enjoy Superbowl Sunday, because their feelings have been hurt, their inner child wounded.

And what were the offending words? Well, it was more what he implied than what he said . . . But when Rev. Lowery implored the Lord to help–

White embrace what is right–

why some sensitive souls took that to suggest that maybe some white folks some of the time might not always embrace what is right.

Surely he wasn’t thinking of way back in 2008 when crowds at Republican campaign rallies shouted, “Kill him!” when Obama’s name was mentioned.  That’s living in the past, man.  Why can’t he get over it?

Me? I can’t shoot a jump shot and I can’t dance, but I do have a sense of humor.  Lowery’s rhyming cadences were a light-hearted reminder that the times are a’changing, but there are still some  changes needed.  It made the prayer, colorful, even fun.  The two prayers that were broadcast, and the one that HBO censored, represented the diversity (sorry white guys, didn’t mean to offend you again) that makes up our country.

(Click here for the text of Lowery’s Inaugural Benediction.)

A Post-Racist World

Two years ago Jürgen Moltmann was interviewed on his 80th birthday.  The interviewer asked him if young people need to be given more evidence for belief in God.  Looking back over the horrors of the earlier years of the twentieth century and then the amazing changes that came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he said,

We’ve seen so many signs and wonders in our lifetime.

He referred to the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and the end of oppressive regimes throughout Eastern Europe.

Forty years ago it was just a dream that people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.  Now it is a reality.

Tomorrow we will inaugurate our first Hawaiian-born president.  The nationality of his father and the complexion of his mother did not matter.  People voted either for or against Barack Obama based on their perception of his leadership qualities and the political platform he espoused.

Of course, there were a few during the campaign who tried to appeal to the race card, those who appealed to base motives, those who promoted racist jokes and songs.  There are still a few who always include his middle name–pronounced with a sneer.  But they had no influence.  The belong with the shrinking crowd of those who still deny that cigarette smoking causes cancer.

Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor tells how his faith survived in spite of the failings of the church of his youth, an openly racist church.  The story is heart breaking.  But he also tells how he was inspired by those churches that supported the civil rights movement, those churches and Christian leaders who formed the heart of the movement.

I was asked yesterday what the Bible says about racism.  Racism, in the Nazi sense, was a twentieth-century mythology, a modern invention.  But there have always been ethnic, cultural, religious, and nationalistic divisions among people.  The Apostle Paul devoted his life to proclaiming the reconciling Gospel of Jesus Christ.  One passage that sums it up is Colossians 3:11.  Speaking of God’s intention to create a new humanity, he says,

Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.

The day after the election, my daughter, who lives in Harlem, saw an African-American boy, about ten years old, who was beaming.  “That means I can be president some day!”

It really is a miracle that I have seen the end of racism in my lifetime.

Self-Loathing Professors

Robert Alter spoke of literature professors who don’t like literature in his book The Pleasure of Reading (reviewed here).  Professor Bruce Fleming likewise lamented that literary studies are killing literature by forcing students to learn the jargon and arcane techniques of “literary studies” rather than actually reading great literature.

Hector Avalos is a professor of the Bible who hates the Bible.   In an essay on the Society of Biblical Literature forum he sites with approval a literature professor’s views that

Shakespeare’s works, for example, have no intrinsic value, but they function as cultural capital insofar as “knowing Shakespeare” helps provide entry into elite educated society. The academic study of literature, in general, functions to maintain class distinctions rather than to help humanity in any practical manner.

Avalos then applies this critique to the Bible:

Similarly, the Bible has no intrinsic value or merit. Its value is a social construct, and the SBL is the agent of an elite class that wishes to retain its own value and employment by fostering the idea that biblical studies should matter.

Avalos is not really a self-loathing professor.  He admits to loving his work, and has contributed valuable research on medical anthropology in antiquity and in early Christianity.  His thesis–that providing universal access to free health care was the key factor in the spread of early Christianity–is interesting (review of Health Care and the Rise of Christianity here).

And I’m sure he enjoys the perks of his tenured position at Iowa State.  He might as well enjoy it while he can, because if they read his book The End of Biblical Studies, his position will be abolished–along with literature professorships.

Professor Guillermo Gonzalez won’t be enjoying tenure at Iowa State, though.  Even though his academic credentials were impeccable, Gonzalez was denied tenure because of his belief that the universe displays evidence of–gasp–being designed.  An email exchange between a physics professor at ISU and Hector Avalos is part of the evidence that Gonzalez was a victim of illegal ideological discrimination.

The ideological crime Gonzalez committed was suggesting in his book (and PBS video) The Privileged Planet that the earth is not only uniquely formed and situated to sustain life, but that it is also uniquely situated to allow human intelligence to observe and investigate the physical universe (More on Gonzalez here).

If only he had suggested that physics is an elite, privileged discipline that should be abolished–he might still be enjoying those privileges along with Dr. Avalos.

A Lesson from Hanukkah

The history behind Hanukkah starts with a ruler who wanted to unify people by abolishing religious distinctions.  He was not entirely opposed to all religious observance, he just wanted to abolish religions he considered primitive and superstitious, such as Judaism.  Antiochus was convinced that Hellenism, the Greek way of life was superior to all others; and he thought it his duty to enlighten the city of Jerusalem.

Many of the leaders and people in Jerusalem went along with the program of Hellenism, to a point.  But for Antiochus, it was not enough that the youth of Jerusalem learned to speak Greek,  study philosophy, and exercise in a public gymnasium.  He wanted them to renounce and totally abandon the faith of their ancestors.

Antiochus was especially against the religious identification of children.  He banned, under penalty of death, Jewish parents from marking their children as belonging to the covenant.  He also banned the Torah and adherence to its precepts–especially the “superstitious” rules about food.

The Macabee brothers rose up against Antiochus and, against all odds, defeated his armies.  The Jews celebrated the rededication of the temple after it had been defiled by Antiochus.  They found only one small container of oil that had not been defiled by Antiochus–enough to light a lamp for one day.

It took a week to find and crush new olives to prepare new oil–but miraculously the oil from the one jar burned for a full eight days.

Eight candles are now used to celebrate the eight days of Hanukkah (Hebrew for dedication), plus a ninth candle in the center to light the other candle.

Save the Dinosaurs!

anatosau

Is the saying still true, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America”?

Now that the car companies are asking for us to bail them out, like we did the Wall Street high rollers, it could be a good opportunity to retool our transportation system.

In the 1950s president Eisenhower made a momentous decision.  In the name of national security, he used the power of imminent domain to nationalize thousands of miles of farm land and build the Interstate Highway system.  The national security interest was the transportation of troops.

This experiment in socialized transportation was a huge success.  It turned out to be a great subsidy to the automobile industry.  The auto companies thrived, suburbs sprouted, boosting the construction industry–and the middle class emerged realizing the American dream for a whole generation.  These programs of governments subsidies and centralized planning produced a level of prosperity no one could have imagined.  There was only one problem.  It relied on an unlimited supply of cheap petroleum–and fifty years ago, who could have imagined that the supply of fossil fuel was limited?

Our dependence on automobiles–and therefore on oil from unstable countries–has produced a national security nightmare.

Don’t let the temporary cheap gas prices fool you.  As soon as the world economy begins to recover, oil will resume its ascent to $200.00 per barrel.  The reason is simple.  There are ten times as many people in China and India as there are in the US; and they all want to drive cars like we do.  And who can blame them?  The problem is, that there is not enough oil in the world to supply them and us.

We could use this opportunity to retool the factories in Detroit, Ohio, Kansas City, and other places to produce mass transportation: high speed train cars, clean bio-diesel hybrid buses, trolley cars, bicycle lanes.  We could improve our health, simplify our lives, clean up our air, and revitalize our economies.

Or we could try to save the automobile–the dinosaur of our age.