Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Buckley on Racism and the American Dream

For this final day of Black History Month 2012, I'll post links to some YouTube videos that I was watching a couple of days ago. Essentially, they're William F. Buckley, Jr.'s contribution to his 1965 debate with James Baldwin about racism and the American dream. See here and here for the videos. If you'd like to listen to Baldwin and the other contributors to the debate, they're also on YouTube.

Buckley is not exactly easy for me to follow, due to his intellectual verbiage, but what I got out of his presentation was the following four points:

1. Buckley argues that African-Americans are holding themselves back. He appeals to a scholar who argues that African-Americans have displayed less motivation than other minority groups to become doctors, even though there are schools that are non-discriminatory and offer scholarships. Buckley also refers to the increase in out-of-wedlock births among African-Americans. Buckley states that America is a mobile society, and that the solution should be to provide opportunities, not to resort to the iconoclasm against America that Baldwin practices.

2. Buckley states that the plight of African-Americans should be addressed with concern, and that it has been in America. James Baldwin, after all, is a well-received author, and the issue of the plight of African-Americans is prominent in the United States.

3. Buckley fears radical "solutions" to a complex problem.

4. On the issue of African-American suffrage, Buckley glibly remarks that the problem is that too many white people are voting! Buckley also echoes Booker T. Washington's sentiment that African-Americans should be educated to become informed voters.

Buckley was roundly applauded at this debate, but his position was ultimately out-voted. The proposition was that "The American dream is at the expense of the Negro", and Baldwin was arguing in favor of this, whereas Buckley and another speaker were arguing the opposite.

My greatest problem with Buckley's argument was that he under-estimated the reality of racial discrimination. Regarding Buckley's comments on suffrage, I think that any adult should be able to vote. But what if the person is not educated and does not know what's best for society (which is not to say that Buckley had a high opinion of the Ivy League, notwithstanding his Yale credentials)? First of all, I think that people with or without education (formal or informal) can, on the basis of their experiences, form a legitimate opinion about what policies help them or hurt them. Second, we usually vote for people who are educated, anyway. I think that we can listen to all sorts of policies developed by educated people and make a fairly informed decision about which we like and dislike.

John Meier on Evaluating the Gospels for What's Historical

In my write-up today on volume 1 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew, I will talk about Meier's analysis of scholarly criteria for determining what in the Gospels is historical.

1. Meier discusses what he calls "PRIMARY CRITERIA".

a. Criterion of Embarrassment

According to this criterion, what is embarrassing to Jesus was most likely historical, since the early Christians would not have made up anything that put Jesus in an embarrassing light. For instance, Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is baptized by John the Baptist. That early Christians were embarrassed by this is evident from how subsequent Gospels treated this event: Matthew explains why Jesus was baptized (to fulfill all righteousness), Luke does not say who baptized Jesus, and John omits the baptism scene altogether. Meier does not think that this criterion is fool-proof. For example, Jesus in Mark asks God why God has forsaken him. Subsequent Gospels may have been embarrassed by this, for Luke's Jesus instead commends his spirit to the Father, and John's Jesus triumphantly cries out "It is finished." Does that mean that Jesus really asked God why God forsook him? Not necessarily, for Meier can think of a reason that Mark would make this up: to show that Jesus is close enough to God to boldly confront him, and to highlight that Jesus trusts in a God who is silent.

b. The Criterion of Discontinuity

This criterion says that things that Jesus says or does that are discontinuous with his Jewish context and later Christian teaching is most likely historical. The idea may be that the original teachings that are attributed to Jesus had to come from somewhere, so why not Jesus himself? Plus, the early Christians would not attribute to Jesus something that contradicted their own teachings, so it must be authentic to Jesus. Meier has at least three problems with this criterion. First, it detaches Jesus from history, for why should we assume that Jesus did not reflect his first century Jewish context or inspire some of the teachings of early Christianity? Second, the criterion assumes that Christians after Jesus could not have come up with something original, in that it attributes original stuff to Jesus himself. And, third, scholars cannot even agree on the validity of this criterion. E.P. Sanders, for example, says that the historical Jesus most likely did not proclaim all foods clean (Mark 7:15) because that would have been too revolutionary. So, for Sanders, an excessive amount of discontinuity with first century Judaism demonstrates that something is not historical.

c. The Criterion of Multiple Attestation

This says that something appearing in multiple independent sources is historical. Meier's problem here is that "a saying invented early on by a Christian community or prophet [could have] met the needs of the Church so perfectly that it rapidly entered into a number of different strands of tradition" (page 175), meaning that the saying technically has only one attestation and that its appearance in multiple sources does not make it historical. Moreover, Meier notes that scholars have accepted the historicity of things that appear in only one source, such as Jesus calling God "Abba" in Mark 14:36.

d. The Criterion of Coherence

The idea here is that things that cohere with what we know about the historical Jesus are historical. Meier's problem here is that the early Christians could have invented things that cohered with the historical Jesus, and also that the criterion of coherence wrongly precludes paradox and tension.

e. The Criterion of Rejection and Execution

My impression is that this criterion is saying that Jesus had to have offended people (especially powerful people) in order to get killed, and so we should keep that in mind when seeking to reconstruct the historical Jesus, lest our version of Jesus be inoffensive and thus historically implausible. Meier appears to agree with this criterion.

2. Meier also discusses what he calls "SECONDARY (OR DUBIOUS) CRITERIA".

a. The Criterion of Traces of Aramaic

The idea here is that sayings in the Gospels that point to traces of Aramaic----meaning that they can be "easily retroverted from Greek into Aramaic" (page 178)----are most likely authentic to Jesus, who spoke Aramaic. One problem that Meier has with this is that many of the earliest Christians were from Palestine and spoke Aramaic, and so they could have invented sayings that point to Aramaic, meaning they're not necessarily from Jesus himself. Another problem is that a saying that does not resemble Aramaic can still be from Jesus because a translator could have translated the Aramaic saying into elegant Greek rather than being wooden in his translation. The third problem that Meier identifies is that many Greek-speaking Christians were familiar with the Greek of the Septuagint, which had a Semitic flare, and so they could have imitated that. In short, a saying resembling Aramaic does not mean that it came from Jesus, and a saying not resembling Aramaic does not preclude it from originating with Jesus.

b. The Criterion of Palestinian Environment

The idea here is that the sayings that reflect first century Palestine came from Jesus. The problem, according to Meier, is that Christians after the time of the historical Jesus also came from first century Palestine, and so they could have invented the sayings that manifest familiarity with what first century Palestine was like.

c. The Criterion of Vividness of Narration

The idea here is that narratives with "liveliness and concrete details----especially when the details are not relevant to the main point of the story----are sometimes taken to be indicators of an eyewitness report" (page 180). Meier's problem with this is that the vivid oral traditions that came to Mark could have been that way for the purpose of effective storytelling.

d. The Criterion of the Tendencies of the Developing Synoptic Tradition

Meier refers to Rudolph Bultmann, who claimed to identify laws of development in the synoptic tradition: details are made more concrete, proper names are added to the stories, indirect discourse is made into direct quotation, Aramaic words and constructions are eliminated, etc. But Meier says that these laws are far from absolute, and that a tradition could be shortened in the course of its development. (On a related note, against those who argue that the Gospel of Thomas is a first century document because its sayings lack the meaningful contexts that they have in the synoptic Gospels, showing that the Gospel of Thomas came before the synoptics and is not dependent on them, Meier argues that the Gospel of Thomas could have drawn the sayings from the synoptics while not preserving their contexts in order to be esoteric.)

e. The Criterion of Historical Presumption

I don't know to what extent this is a criterion, but essentially it's a disagreement about where the burden of proof lies. Should we treat the Gospels as guilty until proven innocent, or innocent until proven guilty? Should each saying be shown to be historical, or should we accept the saying as historical unless there is reason to believe otherwise? According to Meier, those who stress the decades between Jesus' death and the composition of the Gospels as well as the flexibility of oral tradition go with the former, whereas those who maintain that eyewitnesses guarded the tradition hold to the latter. Meier appears to lean towards the former, but he also acknowledges that there are many cases where it is not clear whether a saying is historical or not.

3. For the primary criteria, Meier supports using more than one in tandem to allow for mutual correction. Regarding the secondary criteria, Meier says that a-c can serve to reinforce what's gleaned through application of the primary criteria, and that d-e of the secondary criteria are useless. Meier then affirms that we are dealing in the realm of probabilities when attempting to reconstruct the historical Jesus, not certitude.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Disorganized Ramblings on Religion in the Public Square

As many of you know by now, Rick Santorum said that John F. Kennedy's speech on the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up". I watched Santorum on ABC This Week as he attempted to clarify his remarks (read the transcript). Essentially, Santorum maintains that people of faith should be allowed into the public square, as they contribute their two-cents about what they think is best for the country. Santorum believes that people with no faith should be part of that public square, as well. What he resents is any implication that the public square is only for people who have no religious faith, or who leave their faith at the door. (I'm inferring the latter from Santorum's comments.)

I myself wrestle with this issue. There are people of faith who have a vision about what they consider to be best for the country. This vision, in large part, is informed by their faith. Why shouldn't they be allowed to contribute their ideas?

Barack Obama said when he was running for President that there's nothing wrong with that, as long as those ideas have some secular justification. Fine. But then we're at the issue of foundationalism: what is the foundation for morality? What would the secular justification be for, say, banning slavery or racial segregation? Because they're unjust? On what basis? I'd like to think that there's a deeper reason to oppose racial segregation or discrimination than saying that racial discrimination wastes manpower, or that it's cheaper for kids of different races to go to the same schools than separate schools. Those things may be true, but racism is wrong because it's unjust. Is there a secular way to justify that moral judgment? Martin Luther King appealed to religion. I suppose that John Rawls' views could offer some secular foundation for a just society: that we should have a society that is just because how would we feel if we ourselves were part of the disadvantaged group?

Then there's the issue of freedom. Certain Catholics may feel that society would be better if sex were used solely for procreation, since society tends to cheapen sex with its liberal attitudes. But do they have the right to impose that idea on people with different points-of-view? Well, perhaps they can offer a secular argument: that liberal attitudes on sex result in the dissolution of society. Maybe if they got a majority they could craft a law banning contraception, as was done in certain periods of American history. But does majority rule make right? Part of being a constitutional society is that the minority can be protected from majority rule.

Please don't take anything I say in this post as an absolute. For example, when I ask what the foundation is for justice, I'm well aware that there are things in the Bible that appear to contradict justice. There's the exclusion of certain people-groups from the Israelite community, slavery, etc. But I question whether we can bracket religion (or some form of metaphysics) out entirely in our attempts to talk about what constitutes a just society. Maybe we can. I don't know.

Reflections on Projects for Black History Month

For the last two days of Black History Month, I was planning to blog about the chapter on civil rights in Joan Hoff's Nixon Reconsidered. But I changed my mind on that, for a variety of reasons. For one, the chapter discusses African-American civil rights and also feminism, and I didn't want to go off course more than I already have (since my blogging through Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights ended up discussing Native American and feminist issues, which are not exactly relevant to Black History Month). Second, Hoff discusses African-American issues outside of her chapter on civil rights. There is a solid chance that I will one day read Hoff's entire book and blog through it, but I won't be reading and blogging about any of it for the last two days of Black History Month.

Overall, I'm glad that I read and blogged through Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights this month. I first saw the book at a public library a few years ago, but I did not have the time to read it then, since I was trying to concentrate on preparing for my comprehensive exams, and I already had enough books on my plate. I was contemplating the possibility of reading and blogging about it during February, 2011, but I decided instead to read and blog about W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. During earlier Black History Months, I was curious about the disagreement between those two African-American leaders, especially because it was often discussed in Roots: The Next Generation, which I watched for several Black History Months. I also noticed that many African-American conservatives gravitated towards Booker T. Washington, whereas some African-American liberals preferred Du Bois (and this characterization is far from absolute). I figured that I should read what these figures themselves had to say, before I read about Richard Nixon's civil rights policies.

How did Kotlowski's book compare with my expectations? When I first saw the book in the library, I did not know if it would be enthralling or dry. It turned out to be both. I think that the book was enthralling when it discussed the complexity of Nixon----how his rhetoric and personal attitudes were regressive and conservative, and yet many of his policies were progressive. It was also enthralling when it discussed the personal reasons that Nixon had for opposing racism, as well as how Nixon boldly stood up to Southern states. But, ironically, the book was also dry because of Nixon's complexity, for it was hard to admire fully a President who waffled all over the place before he could arrive at a position, plus some of the discussion of policy was dry. But the dryness is a huge part of why the book is a valuable resource, for a mark of solid research is that it acknowledges complexity and gets into detail, while meticulously documenting the details. It's good when a piece of non-fiction can have enthralling novelistic elements, and Kotlowski's book did, to a certain extent. But, in other areas, it did not because it's ultimately not a novel, but a work of research.

I'm not sure what I'll blog about tomorrow, the last day of Black History Month (since February 2012 has 29 days). We'll see, though. Stay tuned!

John Meier on the Authenticity of Josephus and Tacitus in Their References to Jesus

I started volume 1 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew, which is about Jesus. In this post, I will talk about Meier's discussion about the authenticity of two extrabiblical references to Jesus: that of Josephus (first century C.E.), and that of the Roman historian Tacitus (first-second centuries C.E.).

1. In Josephus' Antiquities 18.3.3, we read the following:

"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." (See here.)

There are different views on this passage. Most scholars maintain that it is largely by Josephus, and that there were some Christian glosses put into it. Some believe that all of it is a Christian interpolation, and some think that it is authentic to Josephus in its entirety.

Meier goes with the majority view, that it is largely by Josephus. He has a variety of reasons for this. First, Josephus refers to the death of James the brother of Jesus in Antiquities 20.9.1, and Meier thinks it makes sense that Josephus would have told his readers earlier who this Jesus was. Otherwise, they'd wonder who Jesus was when Josephus referred to James the brother of Jesus. Second, Meier believes that, overall, the passage resembles Josephus' style and vocabulary. (But see here.)

Third, Meier states that there are differences between what Josephus says about Jesus in this passage and how the New Testament and early Christianity conceptualizes him, showing that the passage was not a Christian interpolation. The passage says that Jesus was a wise man, whereas Christianity regarded Jesus as much loftier than that. The passage says that Jesus attracted Jews and Gentiles, whereas the Gospels largely depict Jesus reaching out to Israel and gaining his following from among Jews, not Gentiles. The passage blames Pilate primarily for Jesus' death, whereas the Gospels are more anti-Jewish. Because Meier considers "for he appeared to them alive again the third day" to be a Christian gloss, he argues that Josephus does not mention Jesus' resurrection, which would be odd if all of the passage were a Christian interpolation. And Meier regards the part about the tribe of Christians remaining to this day to reflect Josephus' contempt for the Christians, as Josephus is puzzled that there are people who are following a man who was crucified. Fourth, Meier believes that Christian thinkers prior to Eusebius (third-fourth centuries C.E.) do not refer to this passage (meaning this passage minus what Meier and others have considered to be the Christian glosses) because it does not support Jesus as the Christ. Origen in the third century boldly says that Josephus was not a believer in Jesus as the Messiah (Commentary on Matthew 10.17; Contra Celsum 1.47), and Meier maintains that Origen is basing this on Antiquities 18.3.3. Why, after all, would Origen think that Josephus thought anything about Jesus, if Josephus did not even mention Jesus?

And fifth, Meier holds that the passage fits well within its context, showing that it was not inserted at a later date. On page 86, Meier states: "one wonders whether any greater link need exist for Josephus than the fact that the account of Jesus (who is crucified by Pilate) is preceded by a story about Pilate in which many Jews are killed (Ant. 18.3.2[~]60-62) and is followed by a story in which tricksters are punished by crucifixion (Ant. 18.3.4[~]65-80)."

2. Tacitus, in Annals 15.44, states (according to whatever translation Meier is using): "Therefore, to squelch the rumor, Nero created scapegoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people called 'Christians,' [a group] hated for their abominable crimes. Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for the moment, the deadly superstition broke out again, not only in Judea, the land which originated this evil, but also in the city of Rome, where all sorts of horrendous and shameful practices from every part of the world converge and are fervently cultivated."

Meier does not believe that this is a Christian interpolation because, well, it is so anti-Christian, calling Christianity a deadly superstition and an evil. Meier thinks that Tacitus got his knowledge of the Christians from somebody else, such as general knowledge or Pliny the Younger. While Meier is open to the possibility that Tacitus was consulting Roman archives, he does not think that Tacitus is citing an official record in his writing because Tacitus incorrectly calls Pilate a procurator, whereas Pilate was a prefect.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Ron Paul on Firing Line (1988)

I was watching some Firing Line videos on YouTube yesterday. Today, I'm watching William F. Buckley's 1988 interview with Ron Paul, who was the Libertarian candidate for President at the time. A professor also cross-examines Paul. The topics include Paul's view that the CIA and the income tax should be abolished, as well as Paul's issues with President Ronald Reagan's governance.

It's a good discussion. I can see Buckley's point that an institution (such as the CIA) making mistakes is no reason to abolish that institution. As the professor states, medicine does not work all of the time, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't ever be used. Buckley also asks why Paul supports other taxes, but not the tax on income. Paul addresses why he thinks that the CIA and income tax should be abolished----because government power corrupts----but most of his arguments are based on examples of the institutions' mismanagement or abuse.

What especially stood out to me was Buckley's introduction of Ron Paul, in which Buckley said that he was deluged with letters to have Ron Paul on the show. So Ron Paul supporters were passionate back then!


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Nixon's Civil Rights 27

I finished Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights. In his epilogue, Kotlowski offers his assessment of President Richard Nixon's civil rights policies. In some areas, Nixon followed others, either activist federal courts or the Democratic-controlled Congress. This was evident on such issues as school desegregation in the South, voting rights, lowering the voting age to eighteen, Title IX, and the Equal Rights Amendment. On other issues, such as tribal self-determination and assistance to African-American colleges and minority-owned businesses, Nixon was more of a leader.

In terms of the effects of Nixon's policies, Kotlowski sees positives and negatives. Affirmative action opened the door for minorities to get professional or managerial positions, and that allowed U.S. firms to gain "a cultural advantage over European and Japanese competitors in the race for global alliances and international business deals" (page 262). But affirmative action "did not touch all blacks and still left them overrepresented in low-wage, unskilled jobs" (page 261). As African-American historian John Hope Franklin argued, the African-American middle class was increasing, but so was the African-American underclass. President Nixon's lack of emphasis on integration had negative results, according to Kotlowski, for it left blacks and whites separate and unequal, and the later location of service- and information-based industries in the suburbs "added new layers onto the walls of segregation" (page 262). A positive element of Nixon's policies, according to Kotlowski, was that they acknowledged that civil rights applied to a variety of people, and Kotlowski in this epilogue discusses Nixon's revolutionary policies for the elderly.

Kotlowski argues that Nixon's civil rights policies were significant because they occurred in an important time in history and set the stage for how subsequent Presidents handled civil rights issues. But there came a point when later Presidents retreated somewhat from Nixon's policies. Kotlowski notes that Nixon's detractor, Roy Wilkins, thought that Nixon's civil rights policies looked good when compared to those of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush! Republicans in the 1990's criticized affirmative-action and supported making English the official language, whereas Nixon was more supportive of bilingualism. Bill Clinton embraced the Eisenhower Republican ideal of using government to give people a hand-up as opposed to hand-outs, but, while Nixon mostly emphasized action over talk in the area of civil rights (and often talked in a manner that appeased Southern conservatives), Clinton was the opposite, focusing on talk rather than action.

In certain respects, this book was difficult to read because reality is complex, and thus it's difficult to place it into a neat narrative. There were times when Nixon was bold----dramatically bolder than his predecessors----but then Nixon would retreat somewhat, or he would pursue a middle ground. It was hard to make firm, definitive statements on Nixon's civil rights policies because there were paradoxes and contradictions, but Kotlowski did rather well in his attempt. While I applaud Kotlowski's attention to detail and nuance throughout this book, there were a couple of times when I wished he provided more detail. For example, what were the long-term effects of Nixon's policies to help minority-owned businesses and colleges? Did they make a significant impact, and, if so, why is there still a lot of poverty among African-Americans? Was it due to any deficiency in Nixon's programs?

This is a good book to read. There was plenty of material in it that my blog posts did not cover! There are two more days of Black History Month for this year, and we'll see what I blog about. Stay tuned!


I finished Hans Dieter Betz's commentary on The Sermon on the Mount. In this post, I'll quote some statements that Betz makes about friendship.

On page 600, Betz states: "Greek ethics did understand love and friendship in terms of an exchange of favors; but the Greeks construed the granting of such favors merely as responses to favors received to be false love and friendship. True love and friendship do not wait for another to act and do not cease, even when rejected."

On page 632, Betz quotes Aristotle, who says: "...inferior people will make friends for pleasure or for use, if they are like in that respect, while good men will be friends for each other's own sake, since they are alike in being good."

I wonder to what extent this is a true characterization of friendship. I think it was last week that a thought occurred to me: Rather than being preoccupied with the question of whether other people accept me and looking back with resentment on the times when they did not, perhaps I should accept other people. When we move into the realm of friendship, however, I tend to get a bit pickier, since I'm using my time to be with somebody else. In that case, my thoughts turn to what I can gain from the encounter----encouragement, a favor for the future, the enjoyment of laughing and joking around about life with someone else? I think that others are like this as well, to an extent, even though they may not be as touchy as I am in terms of getting their feelings hurt easily, or they may stick by their friends even when those friends are going through destructive phases. I think that friendship is a combination of give-and-take but also unconditional love. I know those are contradictory things, but I still believe that friendships have both. Maybe the unconditional love comes with time.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Andrew Marin on "When Your Child 'Comes Out' to You"

In her Sunday Superlatives today, one post that Rachel Held Evans highlights is by Andrew Marin, the author of Love Is an Orientation. Andrew’s post is about what parents should do when their child “comes out” to them. This is something that many (not all, but many) Christian conservative parents seriously botch up, for I have heard and read horror stories about parents’ reactions when their gay children come out to them. Sometimes, the parents kick their child out of the house, or they treat the child in a manner that influences the child to commit suicide. Even if the parents believe that homosexuality is a sin, they can still respond to their child coming out to them with love. Andrew Marin offers tips on how parents can do this.

The Wilderness and the Closing

At church this morning, the pastor talked about being faithful in the wilderness. He appealed to the example of basketball superstar Jeremy Lin, who practiced continually even in a season of his life when he did not appear to be going anywhere, since he was sitting on the bench (both literally and figuratively). The pastor also drew from the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in Mark 1:12-13, in which Jesus is with wild beasts, and yet the angels came to minister to him. The pastor encouraged us not to listen to the discouraging wild beasts that put us down, but to allow God’s angels to minister to us in the wilderness.

I appreciated this message because it hit home for me, on so many levels. But what I especially liked was the pastor’s quotation of how Fourth Presbyterian Church pastor John Buchanan closes his services (see here):

“Go into the world in peace and courage.
“Hold to the good. Honor all of God’s children.
“Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”

I like this closing better than other closings I have heard. Why? In other closings, there is an emphasis on going out and serving others, and I wonder if I would be able to do that for the week, since I have challenges meeting other people and knowing how to serve those I do meet. I am a shy introvert, and it’s also a struggle for me to determine when and whether people even want my help.

But I feel that, on some level, I can strive for and do the things that John Buchanan talks about: to cultivate peace and to encourage myself, to hold to the positive rather than the negative, to honor and to see every human being as valuable in the sight of God, to identify in my mind the things that draw me to God, to serve God in my own way while using my own talents, and to rejoice in the Holy Spirit’s role in my life.

Does any of this preclude serving others? Absolutely not. But this list enables me to cultivate an attitude that is conducive to service, so that I’m ready when opportunities to serve do arrive.

Nixon's Civil Rights 26

My reading of Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights covered a variety of women's issues, and President Richard Nixon's stances on them.

There was federal support for child care facilities. As I talked about yesterday, Nixon was for it, before he was against it. In the end, Nixon arrived at a middle ground, for he signed a bill that gave tax deductions for child care expenses, and his Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary, Casper Weinberger, "issued day care rules with a sliding fee for low- and medium-income families" (page 250).

There was abortion, which many feminists believed provided women with a sense of self-determination. Nixon opposed abortion, but he refused to challenge Roe vs. Wade, and in 1990 he criticized the Republican Party for what he considered to be its obsession with the abortion issue.

There was Title IX. According to Kotlowski, liberal feminists wanted colleges to fund male and female sports teams equally, and to make certain teams integrated by sex. The NCAA did not approve of this, one reason being that it would reduce dramatically athletic scholarships for males. Nixon, a sports fan, ardently supported the NCAA in this. But Nixon's Administration arrived at a middle ground, which "did not mandate equality of expenditures on collegiate athletics", but rather "permitted single-sex teams so long as schools funded separate sports teams for men and women" (page 253). That resolution did not satisfy a lot of people, but Title IX under Nixon did open up sports to women, and columnist E.J. Dionne states that this encouraged "less teenage pregnancy, higher high school graduation rates, the avoidance of abusive relationships, and success in later life" (page 254, Dionne's words).

On some issues, Nixon came out rather strong, as when he supported legislation that "promoted equal access to credit, regardless of gender or marital status" (page 255).

For Kotlowski, there was a downside to Nixon's murky approach to women's rights. Kotlowski states on page 256: "The Nixon administration's skittish response to the women's movement is mirrored in the ambiguous status of American women today. Females enjoy greater opportunities in the workplace, but continue to face constraints both at the office and at home. Federal policy recognizes women as breadwinners, but it does not provide them the means to advance as quickly or as far as men."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Herodotus and Esther

Looney has a good post today on Herodotus and Esther.

There are many biblical scholars who have argued that Esther is not historically accurate because it contradicts Herodotus on certain issues. For example, in Herodotus, we read that Persian queens could only be chosen from seven royal families. Because Esther was not from one of those families, the argument runs, the Book of Esther is inaccurate to say that the Persian king chose her to be his queen.

When I wrote about this in my post here, Looney astutely responded:

"Herodotus lived a very long way from the Persian Empire and had no direct inside knowledge. For example, there is no mention of Persepolis in his writings or any other Greek writings until Alexander the Great, yet this was the main Persian capital. The claim that 'Persian queens had to come from one of the seven noble Persian families' is a story in Herodotus involving seven conspirators who decide to kill the impostor king. The footnote preceding this section by Rawlinson notes that this really looks like a Greek interpolation. In fact, Darius marries Atossa who isn't a daughter of one of the seven noble Persian families (i.e. the seven conspirators). Thus, Herodotus isn't even internally consistent on this matter."

In his post this morning, Looney looks at a story in Herodotus' work that appears to have some of the same themes as the Book of Esther: an exchange of messages, and a woman doing her duty even though it may cost her life. Looney is not suggesting that Herodotus is talking about Esther in his story, for the topic of Herodotus' story is quite different. But it's interesting to see some of the overlapping themes between Herodotus' story and the Book of Esther. I can envision more liberal biblical scholars saying that there were stock themes in certain stories back then, and the Book of Esther was drawing from those themes.

Nixon's Civil Rights 25

I have two items for my write-up today on Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights:

1. On page 246, we read: "During 1971 and 1972, the number of women in supergrade posts tripled, from 36 to 105. Nixon named the first six women to the rank of general in the armed forces, the first female rear admiral, and the first female air force general. Women became sky marshals, air traffic controllers, and narcotics agents, and in 1973, for the first time, three females chaired executive branch agencies."

These were some of President Richard Nixon's accomplishments in the area of women's advancement. But Nixon still had his Democratic critics, such as Senators Birch Bayh and George McGovern. Bayh thought that Nixon wasn't working fast enough, and McGovern pointed out that the percentage of women holding policy-making jobs was still abysmally small under Nixon. But Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, remarked that it didn't matter whether or not women had high positions, as long as people listened to their opinions and suggestions.

2. Kotlowski narrates how Nixon moved to the right on the issue of child care centers. At first, Nixon believed that federal support for child care centers was an essential part of welfare reform, since mothers needed for someone to care for their children while they were working or pursuing job training. Consequently, that was a part of his Family Assistance Plan (FAP) to elevate poor families (along with a guaranteed minimum income). But Nixon came to the point where he thought that child care centers were too costly, and he believed that women should raise their kids at home and that child care centers undermined the family unit. For such reasons, he decided that, under FAP, job training should be optional for moms who had kids under six years old.

I can see positives and negatives to both sides of this issue. On the one hand, I can sympathize with the right because federal funding for child care centers could become an entitlement that costs lots of money. On the other hand, while it may be ideal for a parent to stay home and raise the kids (and I'm not speaking in absolutes here, because in some cases a child care center might be a more secure place for a child to be), that's not feasible for everybody, such as the working poor. Right-wingers have argued that working mothers can find a friend or relative to take care of their kids while they're working. That may be true, in a number of cases, but not everybody lives near relatives who can help out.

Psalm 65

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will write about Psalm 65. I have four items:

1. There are different ideas about what Psalm 65 is about. Is it a prayer for rain? Is it thanking God for rain that has already taken place and encouraging Israelites to pay off the vows that they have made to God when they were asking God for rain? Is it about Israel's return from exile, God's subjection of Israel's enemies, and the inauguration of a time of peace and prosperity? Perhaps the Psalm is about God's restoration of order, period, in both the natural and also the human realms. That brings me to my second point.

2. In the Hebrew, Psalm 65:1 says "to you silence praise". There are different ideas about what this means. One idea that I liked was that of the medieval Jewish exegete Rashi, who said that any praise that we make towards God is inadequate, since it can never be exhausted. That resonated with me because I often find words inadequate as I attempt to express myself, and, when I try to put a powerful experience into words, that can end up lessening the power of the experience. Another idea is that God wants for us to be silent and at peace as we wait for him (Psalm 37:7). I wonder, though, if the idea in Psalm 65:1 is that God's sanctuary is a place of peace and tranquility, which is illustrated by silence (see here). And, in Psalm 65, God is working to bring that peace and tranquility to the world, as God silences the seas and the tumult of the peoples (v 7) and influences people on the edges of the earth to fear Him (v 8). Silence is not only a sign of peace and tranquility (in contrast to noise and tumult), however, but it may also indicate reverence towards God, which people will show to God when he intervenes. That brings to to my third point.

3. Is Psalm 65 exclusivistic or inclusivistic? Psalm 65:4 blesses those whom God chooses and causes to approach, which sounds rather exclusivist. But v 2 says that all flesh will come to God, and v 8 talks about people at the uttermost parts of the earth fearing God, which sounds inclusivist. Some attempt to interpret these verses in an exclusivist manner, saying that "all flesh" in v 2 refers to all Israel, and that v 8 either indicates that God is frightening Israel's enemies, or that God will restore the exiles of Israel who are at the uttermost parts of the earth. In this scenario, Psalm 65 is primarily about God's love for Israel, not his love for the nations. I do not know whether Psalm 65 is exclusivistic or inclusivistic. I will say, though, that rain and fertility (themes in Psalm 65) appear throughout the world, which may indicate that God is interested in all peoples on the earth. And yet, one reason that Christians pray "Thy Kingdom Come" and work to help the poor is that there are many areas that are not prosperous. In any case, the issue of God's blessing of the world brings me to my fourth point.

4. V 3 states (in the KJV): "Iniquities prevail against me: as for our transgressions, thou shalt purge them away." Commentators have stated that this means that people need forgiveness in order to enjoy prosperity from God (i.e., rain, defeat of enemies, etc.). In the Jewish Study Bible, Marc Brettler and Adele Berlin refer to Deuteronomy 11:13-17, in which God threatens drought on Israel if she fails to obey his commandments. This says that rain in Israel is conditional on her spiritual condition, explaining why she needs forgiveness. Does one need forgiveness from God in order to receive rain, however? Jesus says in Matthew 5:45 that God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. In Acts 14:15-17, Paul says that God witnessed to himself when he sent rain to the nations, even when they were walking in their own ways. In my opinion, it's important for me to seek God's forgiveness: for me to realize that I have erred and to ask for God to forgive me, on the basis of the blood of Christ. But does that mean that I should assume that those who are not Christians lack God's blessing? Who can set boundaries on God's love?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Does the Welfare State Reduce Morality?

Under Rachel Held Evans’ post, Ask a Christian Progressive, Arni Zachariassen makes the following thought-provoking comment:

“I live in one of the Nordic countries where the welfare state is arguably the most highly developed in the world. Our health care is universal, unemployment and disability benefits are high, most all schools are public, higher education is publicly funded too, etc. It works pretty well and people are happy (Norway actually IS the happiest country in the world, for example, and the other countries aren’t far behind).

“My question, or the thing I’d love to hear your thoughts about, is this: Something I’ve noticed is the when the state gets as big as it gets here and it does all these social services, it seems to have negative effects on the public moral imagination. If there’s a problem in society, people first of all get angry at the state for failing to take care of it. What they don’t tend to do is take personal initiative to love their neighbour who is in need. It really seems to me that the large state has more or less direct an adverse effect on the moral imagination.

“When I look to the States, I do agree with a lot of what progressives say: That all people aren’t guaranteed health care is a scandal, for example. But I do admire how charitable you guys are. And I suspect that that charitability to a significant degree comes from the state being relatively small and leaving, as it were, room for regular folk to love their neighbours. And I worry a little about the progressive agenda, if successful, eroding that neighbour love.

“(As a side note, I suspect that the size of the state has a similar effect on church attend[a]nce as it does on the public moral imagination. The public role of the church is so small because of the state’s role is so big and as a result, church makes a lot less sense to people. Which is why America is such a religious nation, as opposed to us here.)

“Does this make any sense? What are your thoughts on this? Is this something American progressives worry about or should worry about, do you think?”

That’s something to think about, and I hope that the Christian progressive wrestles with Arni’s question in his post. Personally, I’d say that things such as poverty, malnutrition, deaths due to health care being too expensive, etc. are more serious problems than people not being individually charitable enough. At the same time, I’d agree that the latter is a problem. Is there a way to have one’s cake and eat it, too?

Nixon's Civil Rights 24

In my reading of Nixon's Civil Rights, Dean Kotlowski talks about Richard Nixon's stance on the Equal Rights Amendment. Phyllis Schlafly's concern about the amendment was that it would remove gender distinctions from the law and thus invalidate legal protections that women enjoyed----in the workplace, in alimony, etc. I have read some feminists assert that Schlafly was merely attacking straw-people, but the information that Kotlowski presents demonstrates that the sort of concern that Schlafly had was shared by others, as far back as the 1950's, when an amendment was added to the ERA to safeguard the protections that women enjoyed. The concern was also shared by William Renqhuist, some liberals, some conservatives, and even Richard Nixon, a lawyer, who had a record of tepid support for the ERA. But Nixon decided to support the ERA more firmly after his daughter and his wife persuaded him to do so. My impression from Kotlowski's narrative, however, is that Nixon didn't follow through on this, and that was a contributing factor behind the Amendment's defeat.

While Kotlowski confirms that others held the sorts of concerns that Schlafly had, he also states that some of the arguments of ERA opponents were "moot" (page 236). Nixon was making the army all-volunteer, which meant that the fear that women would be drafted was unfounded. Kotlowski also states that "the Supreme Court could leave political issues such as the draft or alimony to Congress". Schlafly would probably argue, however, that, if the ERA were enacted, it would take precedence over anything that Congress would decide, and thus alimony laws favoring women would be invalidated.

On the issue of protections for women, I was surprised and not surprised by what many of them were. On page 229, Kotlowski states: "Some state laws prohibited female employment in places ranging from mines to shoeshine parlors to poolrooms, while others forbade women workers from cleaning moving machinery, serving alcohol, or lifting heavy objects." I can understand the law about lifting heavy objects. But the one against women serving alcohol? Or working in shoeshine parlors?

SM-Jesus vs. Paul

For my write-up today on Hans Dieter Betz's Sermon on the Mount, I'll use as a launch-pad Matthew 7:22-23, which states (in the KJV):

"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."

According to Betz, SM-Jesus (by which I mean the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount) is talking here about Gentile Christians who do not keep the Torah, for SM-Jesus believes that outside of the Torah there is no salvation. A few days ago, I talked about SM-Jesus' view on the fatherhood of God. Whereas Betz holds that SM-Jesus regards God as Father in the sense that God created all things, which would mean that everyone has God as their Father, Betz backtracks from that position in his comments on Matthew 7:22-23, for he says that SM-Jesus thinks that, at the judgment, only those who follow Jesus' interpretation of the Torah will be able to claim God as their Father. By contrast, the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49), which Betz argues is for Gentile Christians, does not root ethics in the Torah, but rather in virtue.

Betz does not believe that the Sermon on the Mount is making heavy-handed Christological statements about Jesus (in contrast to the rest of the Gospel of Matthew, which Betz thinks that the Sermon on the Mount predates), but rather that Jesus in Matthew 7:22-23 is interceding before God as the teacher of his disciples (not as judge or as Christ), as Jesus vouches for those who followed his interpretation of the Torah while not vouching for those who did not. Was there a belief back then that teachers would intercede for their disciples at the last judgment? Betz refers to examples in which Paul appears to think that he will do so, but I cannot find Betz's specific references at the moment. Betz appears to hold that the author of the Sermon on the Mount was aware of higher Christologies, however, for Betz asserts that the Sermon on the Mount is disagreeing with Paul's belief that Gentile Christians are saved because they proclaim that Jesus is Lord (i.e., Romans 10:9).

Although Betz regards the New Testament to be diverse, he does seem to make some attempt to find commonality among the different writings, and also to see how they can complement each other. For example, Betz notes that Paul and the Sermon on the Mount agree on prioritizing love, as well as the need for God's mercy. Betz states that Paul would have a problem with the lack of a redeemer in the Sermon on the Mount, and that Paul would argue that "it is safer in principle to have Christian existence based on Christ's merits than on the uncertain merits of faithful discipleship" (page 555). Betz says that Christ's merits are important, but that "they are inadequate for making everything dependent on them" (page 555).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Good Shepherd

Last night, my church started its six-week Bible study on Margaret Feinberg's Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey. There were ten people who showed up, and I appreciated that they offered their experience, strength, and hope about how they believe that God is working in their lives. Here are some reactions to what I heard last night:

1. I may have issues with the notion that God provides a person with a job, especially since there are so many people in the world who do not appear to be beneficiaries of God's provision, since they are jobless, or they go hungry. Where is God for them? But I still respect what people who are older than me have to say about how to get through life, and how their faith in God has helped them to do so. I also identified with something that Margaret Feinberg said in the book and also on the DVD: that she (like sheep) shuts down when she faces a crisis. I know that I need a shepherd in crisis situations----so that I can calm down and get perspective!

2. A couple of people in the group felt that God guides them through Scripture. One lady remarked that, when she has agonized over an issue, she has turned to a page in the Bible and has found exactly what she needed. I myself have a "glass-is-half-empty" view of Scripture. For example, many Christians see John 10 as a comforting passage about how Jesus is a good shepherd who cares for his sheep. When I read John 10, however, I see Jesus taking an "us vs. them" stance, as he says that those who believe in him are the ones who hear the shepherd's voice, whereas his opponents who do not believe in him have not heard from God. What I see is not exactly pleasant, is it? But there are still things that I read that give me encouragement because they promote positive thinking mixed with a degree of realism----things by such teachers as Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen.

Nixon's Civil Rights 23

The topic of my reading of Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights has now turned to women's rights. Essentially, at least so far, Kotlowski argues that President Richard Nixon and many of the male members of his staff were sexist, and Nixon had to be prodded by Republican women to do something for women's rights. But Kotlowski states on page 223 that Nixon "supplanted vigorous support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) with specific programs to help females attain professional careers." Nixon also admired certain women politicians, such as Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, and he told a group of Girls' Nation delegates that perhaps one of them will become President some day.

On page 223, Kotlowski states that Nixon opposed abortion. This stood out to me because I was wondering when exactly being pro-life on the abortion issue became a Republican cause. According to Lou Cannon's Governor Reagan, when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, prominent conservative Republicans were largely pro-choice, whereas Catholic Democrats were pro-life. Wikipedia's article on the Human Life Amendment, however, documents that Republican politicians were proposing to overturn Roe vs. Wade since 1973, the year of the decision. And Frank Schaeffer has stated that C. Everett Koop's work with Francis Schaeffer on the 1979 piece, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, brought a number of evangelicals to the pro-life cause.

Why did Nixon oppose abortion? The New York Times stated regarding Nixon's comments on abortion on a tape:

"Nixon worried that greater access to abortions would foster 'permissiveness,' and said that 'it breaks the family.' But he also saw a need for abortion in some cases — like interracial pregnancies, he said. 'There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,' he told an aide, before adding, 'Or a rape.'"

Shocking, to say the least. But, as readers of Kotlowski know, Nixon had some bigoted ideas. But he still acted to advance the cause of minorities.

Lead Us Not, a Sad God, Lest Ye Be Judged

I have three items for my write-up today on Hans Dieter Betz's The Sermon on the Mount:

1. I talked in my post here about a lady at a church that I attended who was concerned about the part of the Lord's Prayer that said "Lead us not into temptation". She wondered if that was saying that God could conceivably lead us into temptation, unless we asked him not to do so. Betz actually tackles this question. He says that it concerned some of the church fathers, who interpreted the phrase to be asking God not to allow us to be tempted, which absolves God from the charge that he himself would lead people into temptation. According to Betz, however, there was a notion that God tested people, and tests could easily become temptations unto sin. And so there is a sense in which God has to be asked not to lead us into temptation. And yet, does that not imply that God could do something wrong----that God does not have a good reason to test us, and thus should avoid it altogether?

2. On page 420, Betz states: "From the Roman point of view, the god of the Jews was a sad god...and the Sabbath was sad." Betz cites Horace, Sat. 1.5.101-3 and Suetonius' Augustus 76. I'm assuming that the first reference is to Book 1, Satire 5 of Horace's Satires. I checked here, and I did not see anything about the god of the Jews being sad. What I found was this:

"In the next place Egnatia, which [seems to have] been built on troubled waters, gave us occasion for jests and laughter; for they wanted to persuade us, that at this sacred portal the incense melted without fire. The Jew Apella may believe this, not I. For I have learned [from Epicurus], that the gods dwell in a state of tranquillity; nor, if nature effect any wonder, that the anxious gods send it from the high canopy of the heavens."

What this seems to be saying is that the Jews are superstitious to believe that a god does miracles, not that the god of the Jews is unhappy. But I could be missing something.

The Suetonius reference (see here) says the following about the Jews: ""Not even a Jew, my dear Tiberius, fasts so scrupulously on his sabbaths as I have to‑day; for it was not until after the first hour of the night that I ate two mouthfuls of bread in the bath before I began to be anointed."

This is saying that the Jews fast on the Sabbath. I don't know where Suetonius is getting that impression, however, for many Jews regarded the Sabbath as a time of celebration.

3. Matthew 7:1 says "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Betz appears to be open to the "lest ye be judged" part being about eschatological judgment, but he also proposes another interpretation: that, when we are critical and gossip about others, there is a greater likelihood that people will give us that very same treatment.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Am I Doing for Lent?

What am I doing for Lent? Zilch! I don't like giving things up for forty days. Right now, I'm in the process of getting away from a religion that tells me what to eat and not eat and on what days, when to rest, etc. I may return to that structure at a later point in my life, but, right now, I choose not to be inconvenienced by it. Although I fasted on the Day of Atonement in the past and benefited from that spiritual activity, for example, I chose not to do so this year. And, in my opinion, God does not love me less just because I choose to enjoy the pleasures of life rather than giving them up for a set period of time. My personal spirituality consists of believing in God's love for me, trying to get through each day with a fairly positive attitude, and showing love to those around me. There are days when I am fairly successful at this, and there are days (in fact, most days) when I can do better. While I don't deny the benefits of Lent to people, I don't feel that I have to observe it to be a spiritual person.

Nixon's Civil Rights 22

For my write-up today on Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights, I'll start with something that Kotlowski states on page 213, and the context is when Native American militants took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C.:

"Officials at the White House and interior sketched out three aims: (1) 'get best press possible'; (2) 'Look strong. [Will] not tolerate illegality any longer'; (3) 'Defer violence until Wed. A.M.," the day after the presidential election. On the evening of the occupation, Ehrlichman sounded impatient: 'We better get those people out of there.' But after Nixon indicated that he did not want bloodshed to mar his reelection, Justice Department officials sought a court injunction to evict the trespassers. Garment and Frank C. Carlucci, deputy director of OMB, then opened talks to entice them to leave."

That sounds rather crass on the part of Richard Nixon: don't use violence against the protesters, because that might mar my re-election! But Kotlowski is honest about the crass aspects of Tricky Dick! For example, on page 39, Kotlowski talks about how Nixon sought to hurt George Wallace's Presidential prospects, by contributing money to Wallace's opponent in the primary for Governor, and by probing "charges of graft in Alabama."

Although Nixon may look like a crass political player who was out only for himself, however, he did manage to do the right thing a number of times. For example, after the militant occupation of the BIA, Nixon was outraged at what he considered to be Native American ingratitude for his responsiveness to Native American concerns. He said that he was through with helping Native Americans, and he attempted to discourage Vice-President Spiro Agnew's interest in Native American matters, calling the issue a "loser". And yet, Kotlowski states on page 214: "Such outbursts, so typical of this quick-tempered president, cannot be taken too literally. Nixon did not reverse his Indian policy."

Do What You Can; Heavenly Father

I have two items for my write-up today on Hans Dieter Betz's The Sermon on the Mount:

1. On page 323, Betz is commenting on Matthew 5:48, in which Jesus exhorts his disciples to be perfect, as their Father in Heaven is perfect. Betz quotes Didache 6:2, which states: "For if you can bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you shall be perfect; but if you cannot, do what you can." This reminds me somewhat of the claim that the Sermon on the Mount is for especially pious Christians, not the ordinary Christian. At the same time, Didache 6:2 is not telling ordinary Christians to forsake the Sermon on the Mount altogether, but rather to do what they can. And Betz cites passages in the New Testament in which perfection is a goal for all believers, even if they have not yet attained it (I Thessalonians 3:13; 5:23; I Corinthians 1:8; II Corinthians 11:12; James 1:4).

2. When Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount refers to the "Father in Heaven", does he believe that God is the Father of believers only, or of everyone? Betz goes with the latter. On page 387, when discussing the Lord's Prayer, Betz states: "The address of God as 'Father' names him as creator, sustainer, and protector of the entire creation, the universe. But the image of the father is more than a metaphor because it suggests that God has 'fathered' his creation, his progeny." Betz refers to Philo's epithet of God as the progenitor and Greek discussion about Zeus being the father and maker of all things. Another passage that Betz could have cited was Acts 17:28, in which Paul tells his Athenian audience that we are God's offspring, within the context of talking about God creating all things. And Paul is talking here primarily to non-Christians.

But does not Jesus tell his disciples in Matthew 5:45 that they should love their enemies so that they might be children of their Father in Heaven, who sends rain on the just and the unjust alike? Doesn't that imply that not everyone is God's child and that only people who act like God are the ones who can claim him as their Father in Heaven? As far as I can see, Betz does not tackle this question head-on. He may believe that Matthew 5:45 is telling children of God (which is everyone) to act like God's children by resembling their Father. But, in my opinion, that's not literally what Matthew 5:45 is saying.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2/21/2012 Links

I have three links for today:

1. David Nilsen has a good post in which he talks about his informal plans to start a church or a community. He states: “Eventually (and again, we are are making no deadlines or inflexible plans), we would like to create a community that would be a safe place for religious outcasts to come and know acceptance and grace and love and freedom, a spiritual triage center for the ecclesiastically disillusioned, the doubters, the questioning, the cynical, the fearful, the sarcastically-defensive-but-can’t-stop-believing, the gay, the straight, the humbly fervent, the sincerely agnostic, the apologetically or unapologetically unbelieving.”

For me, that sort of community was the New York Metro Adventist Forum when I lived in New York City (see here and here).

2. Sarah Moon talks about her plan to give up reading hateful comments for Lent. I can use a vacation from reading abrasive (and abusive) comments, myself!

3. Rachel Held Evans is still blogging through Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. Smith has problems with biblicism (i.e., seeing the Bible as perspicuous, infallible, etc.) and believes in reading the Bible Christocentrically. In this post, Rachel discusses Smith’s (and, at some points, her) response to objections against that, like:

Should we discard the grammatico-historical method in order to read Christ in every passage?

We can only know Christ through the Bible, right, so is biblicism even avoidable?

Does a Christocentric reading really solve anything, since Christians have different views about Christ?

Isn’t Smith making a false dichotomy when he divorces biblicism from focusing on Christ?

For a variety of reasons, I can’t say that I’m satisfied with the responses, but they’re worth taking a look at.

Nixon's Civil Rights 21

My reading of Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights highlighted some of the negative aspects of President Richard Nixon's policy towards Native Americans. According to Kotlowski, Nixon dramatically increased funding for Native American concerns, but he did not spend a whole lot on urban Native Americans, focusing instead on those in rural areas. There were also times that Nixon did not show leadership and will, or follow through on his commitment to legislation.

My reading also discussed what may (in my opinion) have been conservative justifications for Nixon's progressive policy towards Native Americans. (Kotlowski did not say this explicitly in my latest reading, but I'm deducing this from facts that he presents.) Conservatives tended to oppose the interests of Native Americans, for they wanted to protect the grazing rights of ranchers and thus did not like Native Americans asking for land in their claims against the government. At times, Nixon's solution was to give the Native Americans cash, or at least to propose that such be done. But there were times when Nixon supported Native American rights, perhaps for conservative reasons (or so it seems to me). For example, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 made Native American territory in New Mexico into a national forest, and many saw that as egregious federal imperialism. Many were concerned about this issue, and Nixon tried to seize it.

Opposition to the federal government infringing on people's rights is a conservative trademark, at least when it comes to property rights, and that may have been a basis for Nixon's championing of Native American rights, even when other conservatives did not do so. We saw something similar when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California: Reagan opposed a federally-supported dam that would have destroyed Native American land, averring, "We've broken too many damn treaties" (see here). As I've said before, it's refreshing when conservatism can be used to advance progressive causes. I should note, though, that, according to Kotlowski, Reagan as President was not as sympathetic to Native American concerns, for he sought to limit their land claims as well as cut funding for Native American health care and education.

Examples of Jesus Interpreting the Torah in Accordance with Justice

In my latest reading of Hans Dieter Betz's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Betz talks about how Jesus (meaning the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount) was interpreting the Torah in a direction that accorded with justice. Jesus banned divorce, except in cases of fornication, because that would prevent adultery. Since Jesus did not believe that divorce nullified the marriage in the eyes of God, he regarded the divorced woman as still married, and so she was committing adultery when she slept with a man other than her husband, and she was causing the man she was sleeping with to commit adultery because he was having sex with another man's wife. Jesus nipped that in the bud by declaring that divorce was a sin. Jesus prohibited oaths because, when there is no oath, there is no violation of the oath, and so Jesus' interpretation of the law, again, was preventing infractions. And Jesus was consistent with the Torah when he prohibited retaliation against evil-doers. For Betz, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was interpreting the Torah, not devising a new law. And yet, there are all sorts of ways to interpret the Torah. And so Betz says that Jesus was not just interpreting the Torah, but he was doing so in a manner that conformed the Torah with justice, which was independent of the Torah.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Franklin Pierce

Three years ago, on President’s Day, I randomly selected a President, read the wikipedia article about him, and wrote a blog post commenting on what I read. That President was Chester A. Arthur, and you can read my blog post here.

For this year’s President’s Day, I will do the same thing for another President who is not overly well-known: Franklin Pierce.

Where was Franklin Pierce’s Presidency in history? Pierce was President from 1853-1857. Go two Presidents back from Abraham Lincoln, and you arrive at Franklin Pierce. The issues of Pierce’s day were American expansionism and slavery, and the guy who would become President of the Confederacy years later, Jefferson Davis, was Pierce’s Secretary of War.

Here are four things that stood out to me in the wikipedia article on Pierce:

1. Pierce was good friends with author Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, and First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush is a distant cousin of Franklin Pierce.

2. Pierce served in the Mexican-American war over who would have Texas. His leg was wounded when he fell from a horse, and during a battle the pain was so intense that people carried him off of the field, which later political opponents cited as an example of cowardice on his part. But Pierce returned to battle and led his brigade to capture Mexico City.

3. Pierce experienced a lot of tragedy in his life. He lost his three children before he officially served as President. He saw one of his kids become decapitated in a train accident. This event put Pierce’s wife into a state of severe depression, and she thought that God was punishing her family for her husband’s political aspirations.

4. Pierce was a Northerner in that he had strong roots in New Hampshire and served and represented that state politically. But he was considered to be a “doughface”, a Northerner who sympathized with the South. Like the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) today, “doughface” was a pejorative term in those days. Abraham Lincoln accused his political opponent, Stephen Douglas, for instance, of being a doughface. Doughfaces tended to alienate the South on some issues, too, for they were usually supporters of popular sovereignty, the notion that white males in states should vote on whether or not their states would be slave or free. When the anti-slavery movement grew, popular sovereignty looked less attractive to white Southerners, who feared that the free states would outnumber the slave states, which could give free states more representation and thereby threaten the institution of slavery.

In the 1852 general election, Pierce ran against Whig candidate Winfield Scott, who was Pierce’s superior officer in the Mexican-American war. Both were war heroes, and so being a war hero did not help either candidate. But Scott was anti-slavery, which alienated Southern voters. Pierce, by contrast, was not anti-slavery.

As President, Pierce supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which stipulated popular sovereignty for Kansas and Nebraska. That proved to be disastrous because it elevated tensions over slavery, and Pierce was not renominated by the Democratic Party for a second term. Historians Philip B. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt state that Pierce “has been criticized as timid and unable to cope with a changing America.” At the same time, people still held out hope for a political comeback on the part of Franklin Pierce. Because he was a Northerner with Southern sympathies, some thought that he would be a good Democratic candidate in 1860, one who could unite the Northern and the Southern factions of the Democratic Party. But Pierce chose not to run.

What interested me most was Pierce’s post-Presidential life. Pierce continued to live in New Hampshire, which is in the North. But Pierce was critical of President Abraham Lincoln for suspending Habeas Corpus, for Pierce did not believe that civil liberties should go out the door during wartime. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, accused Pierce of belonging to a pro-Southern group known as the Knights of the Golden Circle. Pierce responded and wanted Seward to include Pierce’s response in the State Department’s official files, but that did not happen, and so a supporter of Pierce in the U.S. Senate read the correspondence between Seward and Pierce. The wikipedia article states (whether accurately or inaccurately, I do not know) that “Nearly every Seward biographer has since considered the Pierce-Seward exchange as a blot on the Secretary’s otherwise notable career.”

When Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ plantation was captured by Union soldiers, it was learned from Davis’ papers that Pierce was a friend of Davis and was critical of Northern abolitionism and the Civil War, whose purpose Pierce said was to “to wipe out the states and destroy property” (Pierce’s words). Abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe had long disliked Pierce, and she now referred to him as an “archtraitor”.

When Lincoln was assassinated, an angry mob gathered outside of Pierce’s home, demanding to know why his house was not decked with black and with American flags in mourning of President Lincoln’s death. Pierce responded that he, too, was saddened by Lincoln’s death, and that he (Pierce) was a loyal American who fought for his country. He also appealed to the service of his father, who fought in the Revolutionary War. The mob quieted down and some even cheered Pierce as he went back into his house.

When Pierce died, President Ulysses S. Grant (who, as many of you know, was a general in the Union Army) declared a day of national mourning. Grant also defended against detractors Pierce’s record of service in the Mexican-American War (perhaps because political opponents called Pierce a coward for having to leave battle due to his hurt leg).

Pierce is considered to be a talented politician but an inept President. It was especially interesting to me to learn how he, as a Northerner, received criticism for his anti-Lincoln views and his Southern sympathies, especially during and after the Civil War. I cannot condone his views on slavery, but I can somewhat understand his opposition to the Civil War and his concern about civil liberties. The Civil War may have been a good cause on the part of the North, but so many lives were lost. That’s not to say that I’m against the Civil War, but rather that I understand why there were people who wanted to prevent it.

Nixon's Civil Rights 20

My reading of Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights has turned to the topic of President Richard Nixon's stance towards Native Americans. On page 193, Kotlowski states:

"Skeptical of integration between blacks and whites, the president saw no point in extending such a policy to Native Americans. He also equated the government's treatment of Indians with the liberals' tendency to use federal power at the expense of local or private initiative. Nixon called Native American policy 'a bitter example of what's wrong with the bankrupt, old approach to the problem of minorities. They have been treated as a colony within a nation----to be taken care of.' Fond memories of his Whittier College football coach, Wallace Newman, a Cherokee, reinforced the president's view. Newman, he told aides, had blamed the government for turning 'a once proud people' into 'wards.' Nixon did not romanticize traditional Native American lifestyles, which he deemed 'dirty, filthy, horrible.' Still, he believed that Native Americans deserved the opportunity to make their own choices and 'should no longer be treated like a colony within a nation.'"

Kotlowski talks in the above passage about Nixon's personal and ideological reasons for supporting Native Americans (and, as with African-Americans, his support was mixed with a degree of prejudice against them). On page 197, Kotlowski discusses the personal and ideological reasons that Vice-President Spiro Agnew was sympathetic towards Native American concerns: that he was "the self-made son of Greek immigrants", and thus sympathized with minorities struggling to advance. Agnew as Governor of Maryland had an impressive civil rights record, for he "named African-Americans to state offices, approved a fair employment code for the executive branch, and won passage of a mild open housing law to prohibit bias in the sale of new homes."

But there were also political and practical reasons for Nixon's concern for Native Americans. As with African-Americans, Nixon did not expect to receive a lot of Native American votes, but he did desire the ability to refute charges by liberals that he lacked compassion for minorities. Moreover, the Nixon years were a time when people became concerned about Native American issues. In 1972, Marlon Brando refused to accept an Academy Award for the Godfather because of the negative ways Native Americans were depicted in films and television (see Sasheen Littlefeather's remarks here). And a group of Native Americans briefly took control of Alcatraz, "claiming it for all tribes 'by right of discovery'" (page 198).

The Sermon on the Mount and the Law

I covered a lot of ground in my reading of Hans Dieter Betz's commentary on The Sermon on the Mount. I'll roughly summarize some of what I read in this post.

In Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus says (in the KJV): "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

This passage was emphasized when I was growing up in Armstrongism, a denomination that believes that Christians have to observe the Old Testament law. But many evangelicals have responded that this passage is not saying that believers have to observe the Torah, but rather that Jesus fulfilled the Torah, which means that we do not have to observe all of it literally (i.e., the Sabbath, the sacrifices, etc.). Moreover, when Jesus talks about keeping the least of the commandments, they argue, Jesus is speaking of his own commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, not the laws in the Torah.

Betz disagrees with that particular evangelical spiel. He agrees that "these commandments" concerns Jesus' commands, but, unlike the evangelicals, he does not maintain that Jesus is in the Sermon on the Mount coming up with a new law to replace or to fulfill the old law. Rather, Betz holds that Jesus is interpreting the Torah. And Betz does not think that Jesus is making commands as part of his Messianic authority, but rather that Jesus is simply exercising authority as an interpreter of the Torah. For Betz, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount regards the Torah as normative as long as this transient world exists. This Jesus, according to Betz, differs from Paul, who in Galatians believed that the Torah was temporary and would only last until the work of Christ. When Jesus refers to the "least in the kingdom of heaven", Betz believes that is a reference to Paul, who called himself the least of the apostles in I Corinthians 15:9. According to Matthew 5:19, Betz states, Paul would still enter the kingdom, but he would be the least within it because of his laxity regarding the Torah.

Betz does not believe that the Sermon on the Mount is by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, but he regards it as pre-Matthean. He provides reasons for this, and he'll probably offer more as I continue reading: The Sermon on the Mount lacks discussion of Christology and Jesus' suffering, the Sermon is not as apocalyptic as Matthew (though Betz acknowledges that Matthew 5:17-19's reference to the passing of the earth is rather apocalyptic), etc. But I think that the Sermon on the Mount may be from the author of Matthew, and that it overlaps with Matthean themes. For example, the Sermon on the Mount says that the Torah is still authoritative. In the Gospel of Matthew, there is an attempt to legally justify Jesus' actions on the basis of the Torah. For example, in Matthew 12, Jesus affirms that the priests profane the Sabbath when they offer sacrifices on the Sabbath, yet they are guiltless, and that he is greater than the priests, which means that he can legally profane the Sabbath, at times. Come to think of it, that does appear to nullify the Sabbath, on some level. But Jesus is trying to show that he can lawfully do so, using legal argumentation that the Pharisees employed. For Matthew's Jesus, the law is not void, and so he has to justify his actions with reference to the law.

That brings me to my next point: Betz distinguishes between the law and justice, as he draws from such thinkers as Aristotle, whose thought Betz believes had some impact on the one who wrote the Sermon on the Mount (even if he didn't know that he was drawing from Aristotle specifically). Jesus fulfills the law when he uses it to further justice, Betz claims, which means that the law can be technically observed and yet not further justice (something even some of the rabbis thought, according to Betz). I think that one implication of this is that, for Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the outward observance of the law is not sufficient, which is why Jesus says that hate is murder and lust is adultery. Whether Betz believes that Jesus is making the law all about love for neighbor and thus is nullifying rituals, I do not know. I remember that a professor told me that Betz believes this, but, if that were the case, what would be the Sermon on the Mount's beef with Paul, who also nullified ritual while saying that love for neighbor was authoritative?

Betz's discussion of Matthew 5:28, in which Jesus says that lusting after a woman is adultery, was interesting. Betz argues that Jesus was criticizing looking upon a married woman, for that could lead to adultery. Betz looks at ancient passages in which the eye is the first step on the path towards adultery. Jerome, however, translated Matthew 5:28 to mean that men looking at any adult female (not just another man's wife) is adulterous----but Betz maintains that Jerome meant any woman other than one's own wife.

On the succeeding verses, which concern cutting off one's right hand, Betz regards that as hyperbole, and he cites ancient parallels in which moral seriousness was expressed in terms of mutilating limbs.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

JL Sathre on 25 Things She Learned from Opening a Bookstore

In her Sunday Superlatives for today, Rachel Held Evans linked to a post by JL Sathre entitled 25 Things I Learned from Opening a Bookstore. It’s definitely a funny read!

I identified with Number 8:

” If you put free books outside, someone will walk in every week and ask if they’re really free, no matter how many signs you put out . Someone else will walk in and ask if everything in the store is free.”

Okay, I wouldn’t ask if everything in the store is free, but, if I find a choice book outside for a really low price, I do ask the clerk if it truly is that price.

I didn’t identify as much with Number 7:

“If you put free books outside, cookbooks will be gone in the first hour and other non-fiction books will sit there for weeks. Except in warm weather when people are having garage sales. Then someone will back their car up and take everything, including your baskets.”

I tend to go after non-fiction books when they’re outside: political books, religious books, self-help books, etc.

Check out the other items on her list!

The World Below

At church this morning, the theme was Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9). The pastor talked about how the disciples saw Jesus in a way that they had not seen him before, and he compared that to Madeleine Albright’s discovery that her parents were Jews who converted to Catholicism to escape the Holocaust. He also contrasted the mountaintop experience of Peter, James, and John with an occasion in which God appeared to be absent: Jesus’ crucifixion. And the pastor expressed hope that church services would transform us by helping us to see God and the world around us in new ways, and he encouraged us to see God in nature: the babbling stream, the sunset, the mountains, the cry of a newborn baby, etc.

I think that the pastor should have spoken more about the part of Mark 9 in which Peter, James, John, and Jesus come down from their mountaintop experience and see a demon-possessed person, whom his disciples could not exorcise. Jesus criticized that generation for its lack of faith. There’s the mountaintop experience, and then there’s the brokenness and harsh realities of the world below.

I’ll bring in my own experience, though it really doesn’t deserve to be in the same class as the harsh realities of the world, which include such things as hunger, poverty, war, devastation, natural disasters, diseases, people losing their families and loved ones, etc. There have been times when I have had awesome quiet times (prayer and Bible study), and then I had to go out into the less-than-friendly world. The result is my discouragement. Nowadays, I hope I’m coming to grips with the fact that the world is not perfect, according to my own standards.

But it would be nice if my times with God strengthened me and inspired me to go out into the harsh world with a fresh and a positive perspective. In a sense, church does that, especially the part of the service in which we share our joys and concerns and pray over them. You have people rooting for your well-being. You bring issues to God. Hopefully, God answers, but, even if things don’t turn out well, there is a sense of comfort that comes from not being alone.

Nixon's Civil Rights 19

One thing that stood out to me in my latest reading of Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights was how elements of Nixon's civil rights policy were conservative. I don't mean rigidly libertarian, in the sense that Nixon opposed government intervention, period, for Nixon's policy entailed increased federal spending in areas. Rather, I'm referring to a skepticism that Nixon had about the efficiency of the federal government, as well as Nixon's preference for local autonomy.

For example, on page 182, we read: "As in his relations with black ministers, the president hoped to use the Urban League to bypass the government's social service and job-training bureaucracy, which he deemed wasteful. Nixon promised to disburse government contracts, research grants, and manpower training subsidies to the Urban League..." Nixon had some tensions with Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League, but both had the agenda of focusing on developing job and educational opportunities in the ghetto rather than integration. Young was all for integration, but he expected for African-American ghettos to remain for years, and so he sought to promote "ghetto power" in the meantime. Nixon trusted the Urban League more than the federal bureaucracy, which reflects a conservative disdain for government bureaucracy (at least in the domestic sphere).

On page 189, Kotlowski mentions a detail about Nixon's policy towards Native Americans: "Nixon did not think it necessary for Indians to meld into Anglo society, and he recognized the need for separate Native American institution, a position in tune with his support for minority businesses. Nixon's respect for tribal autonomy was analogous to his use of local committees to desegregate southern schools. As with their support of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Nixonians pumped money into Native American programs and the BIA", the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There were right-wing Western senators who were against Indian self-government, but Nixon's conservatism led him to favor tribal autonomy.

In some cases, Nixon's conservatism had good results, as it often did in terms of Native Americans and African-American businesses. In other cases, the results were mixed. Nixon's policy of using local Southern committees to help facilitate integration was a good idea because it involved Southerners in the process, rather than imposing a policy on Southerners from the top-down. But expecting local Southerners to do the right thing on their own was not always prudent. That's probably why Nixon did not hesitate to violate conservatism and to use heavy-handed federal pressure, when he deemed it necessary.

I'm intrigued by how conservatism can support progressive ideas. Back when my Mom was in a graduate program in African-American history, I was a young man with a John Bircher ideology. I feared a one-world government, which would undermine the sovereignty of the United States. When I challenged my Mom's multicultural notions, she replied that many cultures do not want to give up their sovereignty, but prefer to remain independent. If my memory is correct, she referred to Native American tribes. That gave me something new to think about: that opposing a one-world government could actually coincide with an idea that is considered liberal, multiculturalism. Similarly, when I was a conservative, I had a great deal of sympathy for Malcom X and the Nation of Islam (albeit not for their anti-Semitism), although many conservatives I knew did not. For me, supporting African-American businesses and encouraging responsibility and family were solid conservative ideas. On these issues, I overlapped with some liberal colleagues.

I'd like to note another thing that I learned from my reading: James Brown was a Nixon supporter!

My reading over the next several days of Kotlowski's book will not focus on African-American civil rights, but rather on the rights of other groups, such as Native Americans and women. I'll still be commenting on his discussion of those issues for Black History Month, even if that's not exactly appropriate, however, because my goal is to blog through this book for Black History Month, and that is what I'll continue to do. Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Remembering Whitney Houston

I’m watching the 20/20 special on Whitney Houston, which I taped last night. Over the past week, I’ve enjoyed listening to her music, and also hearing the accounts about her faith, her kindness to people, her down-to-earth quality, and the things that made her human (i.e., her shyness). The 20/20 documentary talks about how she was the first African-American model for certain high-profile magazines, and how she blazed the trail for other African-American musicians. In terms of why I have long liked her music, a lot of the reason is that it is powerful, and sometimes even defiant.

Here’s a good article about Whitney Houston’s friendship with actor Kevin Costner.

Nixon's Civil Rights 18

In my reading of Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights right now, I am in Chapter 6, "A Cold War: Nixon and Civil Rights Leaders". The chapter is about how President Richard Nixon had a tense relationship with civil rights leaders. Part of this was because civil rights leaders disliked Nixon's focus on providing African-Americans with economic opportunity rather than integration, and they criticized Nixon for favoring a slow approach to the desegregation of Southern schools. Moreover, Nixon's continuation of the Philadelphia Plan to empower minority businesses took a bit of time to produce results, and so civil rights leaders labeled it a failure. On Nixon's side, Nixon did not care for Ralph Abernathy preaching to him. Nixon preferred to reach out to the African-American silent majority, which actually was not a majority of African-Americans at the time, but which consisted of African-American ministers and businessmen.

Something that stood out to me was what Kotlowski narrated on page 173. Nixon adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested in a memo that the "issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect'" (Moynihan's words). Kotlowski states: "Moynihan protested that the phrase 'benign neglect' was neutral, coming from a 130-year-old report on British policy toward Canada. In Nixon's opinion, reporters had given Moynihan a 'bad rap.' Neither Moynihan nor the president realized that they implicitly had compared civil rights policy to British colonialism."

This makes me wonder if the controversial things that public figures say necessarily mean what people think that they mean. When Rush Limbaugh said that the Obamas were "uppity", for example, did he really mean that they were not acting in a manner that was fitting for their race, as people claimed when they looked at the history of the use of "uppity"? Or did Rush simply mean that the Obamas think and act like they are superior to others? I'm not saying that I agree that the Obamas think they're superior, but it does seem to me as if many project onto people's words things that the people may not have meant.

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