A Quiz Over Your Knowledge of Riots!

Do you remember that riot in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love?”

The one that lasted for three days, where crowds burned more than thirty buildings to the ground, including two churches? And four people died?

It was the one where the poor people in the urban areas felt they were being systematically discriminated against. So they rioted.

Over the Bible.

Yep, I’m talking about that event in American history that we all learned about in high school history class: The 1844 Philadelphia Bible Riots.

As my students might ask, “That was a thing?”

Yes. The Philadelphia Bible Riots were a “thing.”

(The riots are also known as the “Nativist Riots of 1844″ but some people called them “The Philadelphia Bible Riots.”  That’s the term I prefer, because that’s just the kind of guy I am.)

The situation? The Philadelphia school board had passed a policy allowing Catholic students in public schools to take their religious instruction from Catholic leaders. In response a mob marched into a Irish neighborhood and approached a fire station operated primarily by Irish Catholics. Somebody fired a shot and the riot was on.

So, you see, I was not giving you the whole story. They did not really riot over the Bible. They really rioted over a school board policy.

As if that makes more sense.

And this was caused by....the Bible?  Well, not exactly.

And this was caused by….the Bible? Not exactly.

Why burn down thirty buildings over a school board policy?  How can a committee meeting lead to four deaths?

Yes, we still do not have the whole story.

Here, then is my main point about riots: there is always a backstory. We may read about an event that sparks a riot, but the spark is not the cause of the riot. The causes lie in patterns, systems and actions that have been in place for years beforehand. That’s the backstory.

Let me briefly explain the backstory to the Philadelphia Bible Riots. (The whole story is more complicated, but this is a blog post, so you get a summary.  For a fee, or a good hamburger, I’ll give you more than a summary).

The backstory to the Philadelphia Bible Riots is that Irish immigrants, escaping poverty in Ireland, had been pouring into eastern cities for about a decade. They were poor. They were also more likely to commit crimes, fall into domestic abuse and abuse alcohol than the wider population.  And they faced prejudice and systematic discrimination.

You may have heard the old phrase, “No Irish Need Apply.” This was that era. Because many native-born Americans viewed the Irish as dirty, disruptive, violent, drunkards, the Irish often had a hard time getting decent jobs. Like many immigrants down through history, they took the jobs that other Americans did not want: digging canals, building sewers, cleaning streets and hauling manure.

For most non-Irish Americans, it was just fine that the Irish took these undesirable jobs. But what if the Irish immigrants started to work their way into higher level jobs? And what if they agreed to take these better jobs for less pay?

In fact, that is exactly the Iris immigrants would do. Employers knew this. Employers also knew a good thing when they saw it. If they could hire two dozen Irish immigrants for semi-skilled work for less pay than the non-Irish, they’d fire two dozen semi-skilled non-Irish workers and hire the Irish. As a result, job competition led a lot of working class non-Irish Americans to resent the influx of Irish immigrants.

Then -- as now -- community leaders called for a peaceful approach to the conflict.  This broadside came from Catholic bishop, Francis Patrick.

Then — as now — community leaders called for a peaceful approach to the conflict. This broadside came from Catholic bishop, Francis Patrick.

Remember also that this was an era before unemployment compensation, food stamps, insurance or pensions. There were no safety nets. So if you did not have a job, you faced starvation. The stakes were high. Many would be willing to turn to violence against those who threatened job opportunities.

But there is more. The Irish were also Catholic. Many Protestants at this time (who dominated the nation, numerically and culturally) thought of the U.S. as a Christian nation.  But in their minds a Christian nation meant a Protestant nation.  Catholicism was seen as anti-democratic and a barrier to progress. Many Protestants believed if a conflict arose between the pope and the Constitution, Catholics would blindly follow the pope. (Protestants never thought to ask what they themselves would do if a conflict ever arose between the Bible and the Constitution. Would they “blindly” follow the Bible?)

For their part, Irish immigrants were desperate to escape poverty in Ireland. Like your ancestors (if you are an American but are not completely Native American or African American) they came to the United States for opportunity. They were willing to take lower wages because that economic opportunity was better than what they had in Ireland. And most Irish were loyal Catholics. This meant they felt deeply the Protestant charge that they did not fit into America, despite its rhetoric of freedom. They held to the Catholic teaching that the Bible could only be properly interpreted by church authorities. Many were not happy to send their children to a school where the teachers would, in essence, teach a Protestant view of Christianity.

Neither the working-class non-Irish nor the Irish immigrants felt like those in power were really listening to their concerns.  Working class non-Irish felt threatened by immigrant Irish, who felt threatened by working-class non-Irish.  All believed their rights were threatened.

For just a glimpse of the passion and sense that immigration was a threat, check out this broadside from Protestant Philadelphians right before the riot broke out:

“The Americna Republicans of the city and county of Philadelphia, who are determined to support the NATIVE AMERICANS in the Constitutional Rights of peaceably assembling to express their opinions on any question of Public Policy and to Sustain them against the assaults of Aliens and Foreigners are requested to assemble on THIS AFTERNOON, May 6th, 1844, at 4 o’clock, at the corner of Master and Second streets, Kensington, and to take the necessary steps to prevent a repetition of it. Natives, be punctual and resolved to sustain your rights as Americans, firmly but moderately.”

Is it possible to riot “firmly but moderately?”  Probably not.

So, you put all this together — cultural prejudices, intense job competition, perceived threats to American democracy, conflicts over the role of religion in the schools — and you have mixed together dry wood, oxygen and gasoline. That’s the backstory.

All it needed was a match. That was the school board decision.

This history can help us as we think about the riots of the past year. It is easy to focus in on the specific event — a police shooting — and think that this one incident is what caused the disturbances.

No. There have been hundreds of police shootings every year for years and they do not produce riots. An event like a police shooting is simply the match. The backstory is the wood, oxygen and gasoline piled up together.

The question for us, then, is this: how well do we understand the backstory of the recent riots?


Think For Yourself When I Tell You That You Should Think For Yourself By Refusing to Consider My Advice That You Should Think for Yourself.

As I was shaving the other morning, I listened to an NPR report on a new development in genetics research and the ethical questions that it raised.

Immediately after the segment concluded, the station jumped to their spring fundraising drive, which included a testimony from a local listener who praised NPR because it gave her the facts of an issue.  This allowed her to “decide on her own,” without having anybody tell her what she ought to think about the issue.

In America, of course, the ideal of thinking for oneself is considered a Great Thing.

But let me lay out a few reasons why I think we have problems here.  When I am finished you can decide for yourself whether or not thinking for yourself is really such a great thing.

Consider the NPR segments. I have to confess that I really do not know a lot about the field of genetics and bioethics.  However, I know enough about academic life to know that very bright people spend long hours every day for decades on a rather specific set of intellectual questions.  This is true of the fields of genetics, ethics and bioethics.  Every year, academics produce hundreds of dense books in these areas. And they do not agree with one another.  Quite frankly, it is all very complicated.

So how is a five-minute news segment that I listen to while brushing my teeth going to provide me with what I need to know?  If I am “thinking for myself” here, am I going to reach a clear conclusion on these very complicated issues?

Answer:  no.

Christopher Hitchens, you see, came up with this idea all by himself, without being influenced at all by others, such as.......

Christopher Hitchens, you see, came up with this idea all by himself, without being influenced at all by others, such as…….

Yet we are pretty convinced that we have the ability to arrive at the truth — even of very complicated matters — simply by “thinking for ourselves.”  Interestingly, those of us who believe that we should “think for ourselves,” did not arrive at this conviction on our own, but largely believe it because we believe the authority of others who tell us we should “think for ourselves.”  This faith in our own thinking has been handed down to us in our culture from a peculiar mix of Enlightenment views of rationality and American democratic faith that every person can easily discern what is true.

But there are some things — many things — that are far too complicated to figure out without the help of knowledgeable, thoughtful people.  Like genetics and bioethics.

Maybe, for instance, I can figure out ethics and religious truth on my own, especially if I have the Bible in my hands.  Can’t I figure out right and wrong and the truths of Christianity without anybody telling me what to think?

Consider how the following individuals from the past approached the study of the Bible and the quest to determine what is true.

Elhanan Winchester (1751-1791).  “I shut myself up chiefly in my chamber, read the Scriptures, and prayed to God to lead me into all truth, and not suffer me to embrace any error; and I think with an upright mind, I laid myself open to believe whatsoever the Lord had revealed.”

Noah Worcester  (1758-1837) Individuals should abandon a “passive state of mind” that deferred to great names in theology.  “The scriptures were designed for the great mass of mankind and are in general adapted to their capacities.”

Lucy Mack Smith (1776-?)  “I…determined to examine my Bible, and taking Jesus and the disciples as my guide, to endeavor to obtain from God that which man could neither give nor take away…The Bible I intended should be my guide to life and salvation.”

Alexander Campbell  (1788-1866)  “The Bible alone must always decide every question involving the nature, the character or the designs of the Christian institution. Outside of the apostolic canon, there is not, as it appears to me, one solid foot of terra firma on which to raise the superstructure ecclesiastic.”

John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886)  “I had long been in the belief that the Bible was not a book of inexplicable riddles, and I determined to solve this mystery (of Christ’s second coming).  Accordingly, I read the New Testament ten times with an eye on the question as to the time of Christ’s second coming, and my heart struggling in prayer for full access to the truth.”


....the great intellectual and perfume designer Coco Chanel, who also came up with this idea all by herself and was certainly not influenced by anybody else, like......

….the great intellectual and perfume designer Coco Chanel, who also came up with this idea all by herself and was certainly not influenced by anybody else, like……

What we have here are five individuals who, in all sincerity, tried to determine the truth of what the Bible says.  All believed that the Bible alone would be their authority for religious truth.  Each one believed that they could clearly ascertain the truth of the Bible by reading it without any authority, theology, creed, system or philosophy guiding them.  They would “think for themselves” on these issues.  The truth of the Bible, in other words, would be plain to them, just as it would to anyone who read it.

And what did they conclude?

Elhanan Winchester concluded that the Bible taught that God will save everyone and that nobody would go to hell.  He became a leader in the Universalist church.

Noah Worcester concluded that the Bible showed that there was no Trinity.  Jesus was not God and there was no such thing as the Holy Spirit.  He became a Unitarian.

Lucy Mack Smith concluded that Bible showed that current churches were all corrupt.  She (somehow) convinced a minister to baptize her as a solitary Christian, without any connection to any church.  Interestingly, years later her son, Joseph Smith, also prayed that God would show him the truth clearly, and he went on to found the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or the Mormons.

Alexander Campbell became convinced that the Bible showed that Christians should not bring anything into church life that was not mentioned in the Bible.  Denominations, for instance, were not found in the Bible, so Campbell helped found the Christian Connection, which was a movement that attempted to operate without denominational organization.  This is what we know as the Church of Christ, or Disciples of Christ.  Campbell also believed the Bible showed that communion should be offered every Sunday and that no musical instruments should be used in worship, other than those specifically mentioned in the Bible.

John Humphrey Noyes became convinced that the Bible showed that Christ’s Second Coming already took place in the first century.  We therefore have the means to become perfect.  His solution to this was to found the Oneida colony, based on Christian perfection and mutual sharing.  Under Noyes’ direction, the Oneida colony shared all possessions, experimented in eugenics, created a “theocratic democracy” and instituted “complex marriage,” in which all males were married to all females.  (The Bible may be simple.  But complex marriage?  It’s complicated.)


....H.L. Mencken, who always thought for himself and never arrived at idea with the help of anyone else, like.....

….H.L. Mencken, who always thought for himself and never arrived at idea with the help of anyone else, like…..

Now, there are truths in the Bible that are simple to see and understand.  Six year-old children can understand that God loves them.  Do not expect the little ones, however, to explain how we Christians are supposed to use the Bible to work out proper political, military, social and cultural policies to address the problems of the Middle East.

We have here a particular tradition of thought in American culture.  Winchester, Worcester, Smith, Campbell and Noyes — as well as the woman who gave the testimony on NPR — all believed in the perspecuity of truth.

“Perspecuity” refers to truths that are plain and obvious to all. It is a fun word.  Try it out some time.  Amaze your friends by slipping the word in during conversations at dinner parties, the water cooler at work, chats at the fitness center, or pot-luck dinners.

We would say the equation 2+3=5 is “perspicacious” (which is a rollicking variation on the word “perspecuity,” for those of you who want to really cut loose).  In other words, the truth of this mathematical sum is obvious to everyone who can grasp the concepts of numbers and addition.  Christians, Hindus, Democrats, Republicans, Chinese, Zulus and even New York Yankee fans can all see clearly that 2 and 3 make 5.

....that Great American (?) Voltaire, who certainly thought for himself and helped to give us all this great advice that we should not simply listen to him or Mencken or Chanel or Hitchens but...

….that Great American (?) Voltaire, who certainly thought for himself and helped to give us all this great advice that we should not simply listen to him or Mencken or Chanel or Hitchens but…

American Christians have often argued (whether they realize it or not — it hasn’t always been obvious to them) that the Bible is perspicacious.  Anybody, regardless of their faith commitment, ought to be able to pick up the Bible and see everything there in a clear, simple and obvious way.

But it is important to note that for most of history, the leading Christian thinkers and theologians understood that sin distorted our thinking.  Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards — all the heavy hitters –argued that sin could affect our thinking in such a way that we would not always see truth clearly.  Of course, they were building on biblical texts — such as Jesus’ famous admonishment to take the log out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  Or read John 9 carefully, with this in mind. We often believe we are seeing the truth clearly when sin is actually distorting our perceptions.  This was an accepted part of Christian theology for centuries.

And then something switched.

American Christians largely stopped discussing how sin affected our thinking.  Sin, it was thought, was primarily the conscious disobedience of a principle.  In other words, I know and see what is right, but I don’t do it.  That’s pretty much all that sin is, it was thought.  Erroneously.

When did this happen?

October 24, 1790 at 10:37 a.m., Eastern Standard Time.

Well, no.  Even as a historian, I can’t see the past clearly enough to put an exact date on the shift.  (And time zones weren’t invented until nearly 100 years after this.  The EST comment was just one of those tricky things that historians sometimes throw at you for their own weird sense of entertainment.)

....rather create a culture where we tell children to listen carefully to us and think like we do so that they will not ever listen to anybody but themselves.  Right?

….rather create a culture where we tell children to listen carefully to us and think like we do so that they will not ever listen to us or anybody else but themselves. Right?

But there was some sort of intellectual shift that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as can be seen by the individuals described above.  It is still with us today, in different forms, as evidenced by our great desire to “think for ourselves.”

As for me, I should remember that I need the help of many others to see more clearly.  For instance, I’m thankful for a nice little book written by my colleague, Steve Moroney, that outlines these points.  It’s not easy to find, but you might look for The Noetic Effects of Sin, if you want to explore this topic further.  This post also draws upon chapters by Nathan Hatch and George Marsden in a book called The Bible in America.  Most importantly, the Holy Spirit helps convict me when I don’t want to see certain truths and would rather see a distorted view of things.  (Of course, I need to listen to the Holy Spirit in these situations, which I don’t always do.)

Think for myself?  I can’t come up with any of these points on my own.  I can’t see things clearly without listening the insight of others.  And quite frankly, I’d be an unbearable human being if I simply thought for myself.

I apologize that this post is so long.  It turns out that the idea of the perspecuity of truth is not an obvious, clear and perspicacious thing to explain.


Why We Have a Hard Time Thinking Clearly:  I Blame Psychologists and Scientists from the 1950s.  And Adam.

I was a computer science major my first year in college.  My students think this is hilarious, because of what happens when I use computers in class.   My power point crashes, regularly.   A file I saved to a drive mysteriously disappears.   The sound doesn’t come through on a video clip and I frantically check six different volume controls in the system to try to recover it.  They might think this is all incompetence on my part.  I tell them that there is an e-conspiracy against me by advanced technology.

Whatever the source of my current conflicts with computer systems, it is certainly true that I didn’t really have good judgment when I thought computer science would be my thing.  I could do the work, but I wasn’t very good at it.  Nor did I get much satisfaction or joy from it.  As it turned out, history was a much better major for me.

I didn’t see myself very clearly.  But why is that?  Of all the things we try to understand in this world, we ought to understand ourselves better than anything.  Right?

Well, no.

My problems in seeing myself clearly are connected to themes I have been blogging about lately.  That’s why I told my embarrassing grad school story.  And why I argued that we have blind spots about race, we have blind spots about religion, we think we are better at being wise than other people, and we have difficulty in thinking clearly about Islam and politics and football.

Why?  Sin affects our thinking.

We often don’t think about how sin affects our thinking because….well, sin affects out thinking.  In our pride, we don’t want to admit that we are wrong.   We don’t want to admit that we might be misguided in our convictions for what ails the health care system, our boss, the Cleveland Browns, or the stupid traffic light system up on Maple Street here in North Canton, Ohio.  (Don’t get me started).  We cherish our sense that we have it figured out.

That’s where I blame Adam (the one who hung out with Eve).

But American culture exacerbates this problem by encouraging us to believe that we really do see clearly.

Take, for instance, certain developments in psychology in the 1950s.  Carl Rogers, perhaps the most popular and influential psychologist of the era, promoted what he called “client-centered therapy.” Rogers held great optimism in the ability of humans to make choices that were good, true and in the terminology of the time, “self-actualizing.”  In other words, trust yourself.

That's right Calvin.  You see everything clearly.

That’s right Calvin. You see everything clearly.

Boy, what great news that is!  Of course I am correct about the health care system, the Cleveland Browns, my boss, and the stupid traffic light system up on Maple Street.  And while I’m at it, let me tell you what’s wrong with Islam, racist policemen, the Democratic party, Fox News, NPR and AT & T.  I can see it all, clearly.



And then I’ll blog about it.  (Why is the joke so often on me, anyway?)

This therapeutic turn towards trusting our “self” gained authority in the 1950s and 60s because Rogers and others like him argued this methodology was scientific.  As he explained, his client-centered therapy stemmed from a discipline with a “genius for operational definitions, for objective measurement, its insistence upon scientific method, and the necessity of submitting all hypotheses to a process of objective verification or disproof.”  How can you argue against that?  Rogers’ psychological analysis for why we should trust ourselves carried the authority of science.

That’s where the scientists (and those who thought they were scientists) come in.  Most intellectuals of the 1950s (including those professors who taught everyone in college) held a faith that scientific methodology would help us all see clearly.  Science had enabled humans to produce jet airplanes, television and the polio vaccine, had it not?  Scientific advances in the realm of psychology should produce “self-actualized” persons as well, should it not?

In some ways, this was not new.  Faith in this version of scientific thinking had been since the Enlightenment.  And faith in the individuals who trusted themselves had been around since the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists.  But as George Marsden points out in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, this doesn’t mean the two are actually compatible.   After all, scientific methodology is designed to determine truth by the study of objective realities while faith in the self looks inward, subjectively, for truth.

Z(By the way, Marsden’s book, which is geared for non-academics, is a very accessible, clear, and compelling read if you want to learn more about the development of intellectual ideas in America in the 1950s and how it led to the culture war of the 1980s.  You don’t have to be a professor or a pointy-headed intellectual to understand or enjoy it).

As Marsden also points out, there is one more significant difference between thinkers of the 1950s and those of the Enlightenment:  Enlightenment thinkers believed in a Creator who established moral laws, while psychologists and scientists alike in the 1950s believed that moral laws were produced by humans as they evolved over time.

In other words, psychologists and scientists alike by the 1950s believed humans created morality.  By implication, they placed a great deal of faith in the ability of humans to see clearly, apart from any reference or guidance from God.  God was irrelevant because He may or may not exist, anyway.  Instead, the scientific examination of the outward objective world and the psychological examination of the inward subjective world would help us see more clearly.  This was communicated to Americans through universities, popular magazines, TV shows and movies.

50 million copies sold.  That's a lot of kid.

50 million copies sold. That’s a lot of kids.

The best selling expert on child care, Dr. Benjamin Spock, made this point explicitly in his opening line to parents in The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care:  “Trust yourself.”  He told parents that “your baby is born to be a reasonable, friendly human being.”  The Baby Boomer generation grew up with this message.

And if we can trust ourselves, and if our babies are going to naturally be reasonable, and if we have this on the authority of scientists and psychologists, then we all must really think clearly, don’t we?

Of course, the idea of sin is long gone by this time.  Let alone the idea that sin affects our thinking.

And that makes it even harder to see, let alone admit, that our thinking may be distorted.

Christians Killed in Libya: Natural and Unnatural Reactions

You may have been aware of the news that an ISIS-affiliated group in Libya recently beheaded twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians.

It doesn’t surprise me if we react to this news with anger, dismay and anxiety about the actions of Islamic extremists.  Those would be natural reactions.

My daughter, Brenna, who is working alongside Coptic Christians in Egypt this year explains how her Coptic Christian community has reacted:  by grieving, by praying for those who persecute them, and by trying to love their enemies.

There is something unnatural about the praying and loving part.  It is unnatural because it is not normal or natural to pray for our enemies or to love them.  We need the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to do this.

Yet this is what Coptic Christians at Anafora are doing – or struggling to do.

As we all should.  And if we are unable to love our enemies –since it really is unnatural–we might start by mourning for the deaths of these Christians.

You can read Brenna’s post here.


A Christian Historian speaks about Obama, Islam and the National Prayer Breakfast. Consternation ensues.

In keeping with the themes of a few of my last few posts, I thought I should direct you to an interesting blog post by a friend of mine, John Fea, who is a professor of history at Messiah College.  John was commenting on Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.

John’s post was picked up by the Religious News Service and an edited version by the Washington Post.

John has gotten some criticism from fellow Christians for his post, which is not surprising because it involves Islam, politics and some criticism of Christians in history.  The post is primarily about humility, dependence upon God, and using history to help us think more clearly, but those sort of things can get overlooked when we get all riled up reading about, well, Islam, politics, and criticism of Christians in history.  That’s how we are, sometimes.






The Challenge of Being a Religious Minority. And Majority.

This is the wall on the back part of the property, with a mosque just beyond it.

The wall on the back part of the property, and a mosque just beyond it.

The accompanying picture is of a wall on the back portion of the property of Anafora, a retreat center in Egypt run by the Coptic Church.  If you look closely, you will notice a building beyond the wall.  That’s a mosque.  There are actually three mosques bordering the property of this facility, which is located out in a farming area south of Cairo.  Therein lies a story.  Or an observation, at least.

In early January, my wife and I returned from a week in Egypt, where we visited my daughter Brenna, who is working for a year at Anafora.  Actually, Anafora is more than a retreat center.  It is also a monastery/farm/conference center/school/commune/counseling center/biblical exhibit/oasis kind of thing.  You know.

Interior of the Coptic church at Anafora.

Interior of the Coptic church at Anafora.

Anyway, the church purchased the land about thirty years ago and began building on it about fifteen years ago.  Among the structures they built, the Coptic Christians, unsurprisingly, erected a church.  After that happened, three mosques were built at different places around the edges of the property.  A couple of Coptic Christians told me that whenever a church is built in Egypt, Muslims will build a mosque as close to it as they can.  One Coptic Christian laughed a bit in explaining this, saying, “They like to keep us company.”

As Brenna gave us a tour of the Anafora property (which I estimate to cover about 85 acres, a good size for a monastery/farm/conference center/school/commune/ counseling center/biblical exhibit/oasis kind of thing), we walked along the back edge and looked at the mosque beyond the wall.  That’s when I noticed a speaker, one speaker, up high on the tower and pointed directly at the Anafora property.

Keeping the Christians at the retreat center company.

Keeping the Christians at the retreat center company.

And the purpose of the speaker?  The Islamic call to prayer.  Five times a day, mosques in Egypt broadcast a chant in Egypt that is the call to prayer.  You hear it everywhere in Cairo.  You also hear it at the Christian retreat center of Anafora, as I did at 6 a.m. when I was turning over in my sleep.  (Many Muslims get up earlier than I do, apparently).  It is not even clear that anyone attends the call to prayer at the mosque at the back of the Anafora property, which is out in the middle of a bunch of irrigated fields.  One story, unverified but probably true, is that somebody investigated the mosque during the call to prayer.  They not only did not find any Muslims engaged in prayer, but did not even find a muezzin there singing the prayer.  The prayer floating out over Anafora seemed to be just a recording.

I’m not sure, exactly, what motivates the Egyptian Muslims to aim that speaker right into the Christian retreat center.  It might stem from a desire to harass and intimidate.  It might be a desire to constantly remind the Christians that Egypt is an Islamic nation.  It might stem from an anxiety that Christians pose a threat to an Islamic society. It might even be a pretty bad attempt at evangelism.  And it might be some sort of combination of these things.

Whatever it is, I would not call it a good thing, even though I wouldn’t put it in the category of religious persecution.  Harassment, maybe.

Here is my main observation:  it is at this point that we Christians (and other non-Muslims) are tempted to shake our heads at this behavior and file the situation away in our mind as another example of the problems with Islam.  I know I am tempted that way.

I use the word “tempted” because there is a danger here that sin would distort our thinking.  I’m not saying these particular Muslims are innocent of bad behavior.  I’m saying that the flip side of the “problem with Islam” way of thinking is that it subconsciously and conveniently assumes that a “Christian” or “secular” society (take your pick) does not have the same problem.  In other words, we are tempted, even in an unconscious way, to think, “I’m sure glad we aren’t that way.”

A colleague of mine, Steve Moroney, identifies this sort of things as a “self-serving comparison.”  Moroney published an interesting study which drew upon social psychology and theology to explain how sin affects our thinking.   Simply put, when we are considering a trait that is socially desirable, most of us report that we are better than average.

Of course, it is impossible for a majority of people to be better than average.  (Do the math).  But consider that most Americans consider themselves to be safer drivers than other Americans.  Most business executives consider themselves to be more ethical than the average business executive.  78% of Australians consider themselves to be better parents than average. When high school students were asked to rate how well they got along with others, all rated themselves as at least average, 60% considered themselves to be in the top tenth of this trait and 25% thought they were in the top 1% of those with the ability to get along with others.

Ah, those funny business executives, Australians, and high school students just can’t see themselves as clearly as, say, professors.  After all, it is our job as professors is to think clearly.  Right?  Well, 88% of all professors think their teaching is above average.  10% rate their teaching as average.  Only 2% consider themselves to be below average, which just goes to show you that just about every college class produces great teaching that is well above average.

Of course, Jesus understood all of this two thousand years ago, when he asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

A question to ask, then, is how do we treat Muslims in the United States?  Do we have our own version of speakers blaring into their retreat centers which, I should say again, is a very bad method of evangelism?  Maybe we do a better job, but we should not assume we do.  Instead of assuming that obnoxious or bad behavior is a “problem with Islam,” we should probably ask different questions, individually and as a society, as to whether we might have blind spots in this area and how we would find out if we did.  We need to get better at recognizing our own blind spots.

A friend of mine told me that he once heard a lady walking out of his church one Sunday morning saying, “I’m sure glad we Quakers don’t stereotype other people like the Baptists do.”

And I’m sure glad I’m getting better than that Quaker lady at recognizing my own blind spots.


Thinking Clearly, or not, about Football, War and Bell Towers

(Blogger note:  This blog has fallen into a period of inactivity lately.  Last semester was a particularly heavy semester for me and something had to give.  That something was the blog.  But I’m going to try to get it up and running again.)

It is hard to think clearly when one feels threatened, angry or anxious.  Some of the stupidest things I’ve said in my life have come in the midst of Notre Dame football games. Consider, also, what war does to our thinking.

During the Civil War, it was common to find sermons like that from a northern evangelical minister who proclaimed that the conflict was between “the rebellion of a proud, luxurious, lascivious, unprincipled, murderous Absalom, against his noble, unsuspecting, too affectionate and over-indulgent father, David.”  For their side, southern ministers preached messages such as, “the fall of Sumter…was a signal gun from the battlements of heaven, announcing from God to every Southern State this cause is mine.”  Yep.  Ministers were pretty clear about what God was up to, weren’t they?

Germans.  A threat to the American home since the 3rd century.

Germans. A threat to the American home since the 3rd century.

During World War I, Americans did not simply shun German culture by changing the names of “frankfurters” to “liberty sausages” or towns (like mine) from “New Berlin” to “North Canton.”  War anxiety also led Americans into darker behaviors.  A German immigrant in St. Louis was lynched.  The US government depicted the Germans (these people who had produced Beethoven, Kant, and Einstein, to name a few) as barbaric “Huns” who were out to destroy civilization. Americans also eliminated German language instruction from thousands of schools because, apparently, if kids learn to speak German they’ll develop an irresistible urge to invade Belgium.

Of course, we all know that during World War II Americans became so anxious and fearful of Japanese-Americans that they were placed in internment camps.  As a governmental official in California explained in justifying this policy, “the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”  Right.  And the fact that Ecuador has not invaded us to date is disturbing confirmation that they will.

We need to understand this about ourselves.  Anxiety, fear and anger lead us to think in muddled ways that then lead to damaging behavior.

This is just as true today, when we feel anxiety, fear and anger over the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.  Radical Islamists pose a real threat, of course.  But just as Americans made sweeping stereotypes of enemies in the Civil War, WWI and WWII that led to unjust actions, we need to remember that we can do the same.

That is why I bring up the comments of fellow evangelical, Franklin Graham.  Now, Graham does great work with Samaritan’s Purse and elsewhere, but I’m concerned about recent proclamation he has made.

They grew from a dispute at Duke University, when the institution decided to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from the campus bell tower.  There is a valid issue about whether or not it was wise or good for an occasionally Christian chapel at a formerly Christian university to do this. A healthy discussion could be given on that, but that is not what I am concerned about here.

Franklin Graham said this: “As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism.”

Here is the problem:  Graham lumped millions upon millions of Muslims into one category of “raping, butchering and beheading.”  The overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world (and in the United States) are not radical extremists.  Most Muslims believe, theologically, that these terrorists are not true Muslims and that Osama bin Laden is in hell right now.  It is true that most segments of Islam have a problem with the modern idea of religious freedom, and that is worth discussing.  But to lump all Muslims together with terrorist groups because these groups claim to speak for Allah is the same as lumping all white Christians together with the Ku Klux Klan because they claimed to be defending the Bible and burn crosses in people’s yards.

This calls for clearer thinking and a more humble approach to this difficult and complicated situation.  I understand that many Americans do not understand Islam very well, meaning it is easy to draw hasty conclusions from news bites and media stereotypes.  It’s a problem for many Americans and many Christians.  I’m saddened that Graham has fallen into this line of thinking.

Graham, I’m guessing, feels threatened from two directions.  Like many evangelicals, he probably feels threatened by those who would like to sweep the public square of any religious references or who would like to try to relativize all religions in such a way as to depict them as essentially the same.  Those are valid points.  Like many people in the US, Europe and the Middle East, he probably also feels threatened by the horrendous actions of the extremist Islamic terrorist groups.  That is a valid threat as well.

The really difficult part?  Christians are commanded, by the grace of God, to love those they disagree with and those they consider their enemies.  Prejudicial stereotyping comes from the anxious and sinful parts of our nature (a nature I share as well) not from the grace that has been given to us.

Realize also that I am not saying Islam and Christianity are the same.  I would like to see Muslims come to Christ, just as I would like to see all people in the world come to a deep, full union with Christ.  But the practice of lumping all Muslims together as terrorists is not only a really, really bad way to evangelize, it makes the work of evangelicals working with Muslims much more difficult.  Unfortunately, statements like those made by Franklin Graham work against the evangelistic goals that his father represented in his life.

So, let us start by asking God to give us the grace to love better.  The first step in loving somebody who is unfamiliar to us is to try to get to understand them better, which includes trying to see matters from their shoes.  The Muslims I know about in northeast Ohio feel threatened and besieged and misunderstood in the aftermath of every terrorist attack that hits the news.  Evangelicals ought to know what it feels like to be misrepresented in the media.  From there, we might be able to better figure out what to do about such a complicated issue as Islamic prayers in the Duke bell tower.

Ebola, the Media and Christianity

A little analysis from our favorite media giant with the Big Religious Blind Spot, The New York Times, from an article on October 10:

“The first to respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Doctors Without Borders remains the primary international medical aid group battling the disease there.  As local health systems have all but collapsed and most outside institutions, including the United States military, have yet to fulfill all their pledges of help, the charity has erected six treatment centers in West Africa, with plans for more.”

So, Doctors Without Borders was the first organization to respond the Ebola crisis.

Uh, not quite.  When Doctors Without Borders arrived in Liberia to battle Ebola they collaborated with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical missionary agency.  Samaritan’s Purse has had medical care in Liberia since 2010, so they were right there when Ebola first broke out.  They were, in fact, trying to alert the world to the Ebola problem before it became a big news item in the West.  In July, an official of Samaritan’s Purse declared:

“We need them all to help us in the fight against this dreadful disease…I call on the international community and the donor governments of the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, to step in and recognize the very limited capacities of the ministries of health in West Africa and to help them contain this disease.”

And where does one find this declaration from Samaritan’s Purse, an organization fighting Ebola in Liberia along with Doctor’s Without Borders?

A New York Times blog.

Don’t these reporters read their own paper?

A picture from the Times in July, showing Kent Brantly treating Ebola patients in Liberia.  Any further comments I would make at this point about this would be way too snarky and disrespectful.

A picture from the Times in July, showing Kent Brantly treating Ebola patients in Liberia. Any further comments I would make at this point about this would be way too snarky and disrespectful.

That article even carried a picture of Kent Brantly working on Ebola patients.  Brantly, as you may know, is the doctor from Samaritan’s Purse who later made international news as the first American to contract Ebola.

So why does The New York Times say that Doctors Without Borders (which is an excellent organization, by the way) was pretty much the only organization in West Africa working on this?  Why do they fail to mention the work of an organization like Samaritan’s Purse?

Another blind spot.  And it is a blind spot connected to the reality that missionary organizations make some secular people uncomfortable.

You don’t have to take my word for it.  Slate writer, Brian Palmer, who declares himself to be an atheist, makes the very point that missionaries are overlooked in the whole Ebola crisis.  Palmer explains how he was recently at an international conference discussing Ebola and the control of infectious diseases and somebody made the point that Doctors Without Borders were the “only group on the ground” dealing with this problem.

Palmer, however, wrote in the Slate article (he doesn’t mention whether he said anything at the conference) that missionaries have long been on the ground dealing with these issues.  He also indicated that missionary doctors and nurses actually have long-term commitments, don’t just parachute in during a crisis, and do not profit economically from their work.

Of course, this is not news to any of us who are familiar with missionaries.

But it is news – uncomfortable news – for certain kinds of secular Americans. Palmer gives reasons why secular people are uncomfortable with missionaries — and why he himself, in fact, is uncomfortable with them.  (The subtitle of his article is  “Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?”)  There’s nothing new there — those arguments he gives have been around for more than a century, as Palmer points out himself.

I give Palmer a great deal of credit, however, for bringing to light the good work done by a group with which he has serious disagreements.  That is a difficult step to take.  It is so difficult that The New York Times can’t seem to pull it off.

Now before I end up out of line in my snarky comments about the Times, (I might already have crossed that line, actually) I better point out that I am often not able to pull that off, either.  We Christians, who ought to know something about humility, respect, and loving those with whom we disagree, ought to be able to regularly point out good work done by people with whom we have serious disagreements.

Do we?


(My thanks to my friend and colleague, Scott Waalkes, who brought the Slate article to my attention and understands evangelicals and missionaries, even though he grew up amidst Calvinists in Grand Rapids.)