Distressed by the Daily News?

Boy there’s just nothing like reading the headlines, or turning on cable TV news, or listening to talk-radio, or clicking on your favorite internet news site to make you feel all warm and happy and peaceful inside.

Right.

More likely, we come away thinking, “Man, the world sure is a mess.”

It can take a toll on our soul.  What to do about that?

Avoidance seems to be a popular option.  We could go shopping, escape to a movie, or watch the NFL.  (Well, the last one doesn’t work if you are a Browns fan).

Still, some of us know it is important to be engaged.  But what to do when it all just seems so distressing?

Here is one small idea:  take a careful look at history.  Particularly the history of “news.”

For the past year or so, my local newspaper, the Canton Repository, has been reprinting “A Page from History,” showing the Repository front page from the date in a previous year.  They usually select a day that has some sort of news item that would be interesting to us.  For instance, three recent days featured Vice-President Calvin Coolidge visiting Canton in 1922, how a local sheriff raided an illegal gambling den in 1911, and how Congress was trying to find communists in Hollywood in 1947.

I have this question.  If we were reading the newspaper in 1922 or 1911 or 1947, what would we think about the shape of the world?

Here are the other front page stories from those dates:

 

October 27, 1922:

Yeah, it's hard to read the fine print, but you get the idea.

Yeah, it’s hard to read the fine print, but you get the idea.

– A minister in Newark, New Jersey is accused of murder

– Five teenagers killed when their car gets hit by a train

– Federal government rules that US ships cannot haul alcohol

– A drunk driver is sentenced to jail

– a local rabbi is sued for divorce

– US ideas are spreading to China

– County post office is robbed

– Local man accused of embezzlement tries to commit suicide

– Local man denies killing his wife

– The city will be purchasing new snow plows

 

October 28, 1911:

This page is actually not from 1911, but the news is still distressing.

This page is actually not from 1911, but the news is still distressing.

– 19-year old found guilty of murder

– a plot was uncovered to smuggle dynamite from Indiana into Ohio

– war in China

– mayor is accused of corruption

– John D. Rockefeller is sued for illegal business tactics

– Body of a drowned man is discovered

– labor leader is accused of murder

– A pastor is accused of murder

– Local man is accused of abducting a teenager girl

– President Taft, it is reported, has failed to register to vote in his home town

 

October 29, 1947:

...and this one's from 1948 instead of 1947, but we still worried that communism was going to destroy the world.

…and this one’s from 1948 instead of 1947, but we still worried that communism was going to destroy the world.

– Mayor is accused of firing policemen because they belong to the opposing party

– National hysteria over communism may threaten civil rights

– Men in two small planes are trying to circle the globe

– riots in Paris seem to be provoked by communists

– Free trade agreement signed by US and Britain

– property values and taxes are increasing

– local bus drivers in contract dispute

– Communist officials in election in Denmark lose some support

– Fund-raising is taking place for local community chest

 

Overall, most of these news stories will not make one feel all warm and happy and peaceful inside.  Maybe the new snowplows, if you are into that sort of thing.

The point, of course is that if you regularly read the newspaper from any time in the past century, it could also make one think, “Man, the world sure is a mess.”  The years above are not even known as particularly tragic years in the 20th century.

Of course, there really is something wrong with the world. These are real stories.

But the news is a funny thing.  It tends to dwell on conflicts, tragedies and evils of the world.

And it does not tend to report other kinds of things.  For instance, imagine some kinds of things the news did not report, in 1922, 1911, 1947 or 2016:

 

– Yesterday a father in Nashville, Tennessee went out to his backyard and played some ball with his two kids.  They felt loved.

– Neighbors in a village in China yesterday talked with an elderly woman whose husband just died.  She was comforted.

– Nobody in Canada rioted, attempted to take over the military, or shoot a politician yesterday when election results showed the ruling party had lost.  The country moved on in a peaceful transfer of power.

– A small church in Los Angeles reports that a dozen couples in the past year have grown stronger in their marriage and, despite instances of difficulties, have become more dedicated than ever to one another.

 

If you worked at it, you could imagine hundreds of similar events that take place in our society and in the world that don’t count as “news.”

But why does our news function the way it does?  More on that later.

My Blog is Coming Back. Maybe.

For those who, for some reason, might be interested: I’m planning to get my blog up and running again. I haven’t posted since last fall, but for various reasons, I’m going to give it another run.

I stopped posting because the demands on my time and mental energy from the regular semester got too heavy. Something had to go. It was the blog.

I cannot do this. But, hey, I know the first verse to "Like a Rolling Stone," by Bob Dylan. My friends are not impressed.

I cannot do this. But, hey, I know the first verse to “Like a Rolling Stone,” by Bob Dylan. My friends are not impressed.

Of course, maybe I still ought to be able to pull this off. After all, I have friends who can speak seven languages, run 100-mile races, nail a back-aerial on the balance beam, and (most impressively) quote obscure lyrics on the spot from any of several hundred songs Bob Dylan has written. I also have some friends who can stay on top of their professorial duties and post almost daily on their blogs.

I’m impressed and amazed by all of these achievements. I would love to be able to do any of them. Well, maybe not the 100-mile race thing.

But maybe, as a more modest achievement, I can keep a blog going with some regularity. I am on a sabbatical this fall and will be spending my days writing and researching for a book. During the “off-hours,” I hope that I can manage some posts.

And then the spring semester will arrive….and we’ll see what happens.

Church Camp, Courage, and the Nazis

In an early blog post, I confessed that I am a Big Chicken. I have this on good authority: I scored quite high in “harm avoidance” on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory that I took in 1986. It’s tough to argue with science.

Because I generally do not get angry at people, I have occasionally been told I am kind and caring. That’s nice of these people, but there is an uglier truth; I’m a social coward.   I often try to avoid making people mad or upset with me. Growing up, I avoided getting in trouble so that people would not think badly of me. It often has been not so much about compassion and doing what is right as it is about the protection and preservation of my own standing in with others.

Oddly, my desire to please others can get me into trouble. I found this out in the 5th grade church camp at Camp Lakewood.

For some reason, the boys in our tent were left unattended for a time one afternoon. To minds, this meant that we had to do some “boy” things. My friend Steve and another guy whose name I can’t remember (we’ll call him “Todd”) thought it would be a great idea if we raided a girls’ tent.

I didn’t know what “raiding” meant, but I went along because, you know, I didn’t want to make Steve and Todd upset with me.   We snuck over to the empty girls’ tent (who knows where they were?) and slipped inside. It was then that I learned that “raiding” meant dumping over their suitcases, throwing their clothes around, and tipping over their cots. I realized I was supposed to join Steve and Todd in these activities.

It was an awful moment for a Big Chicken.

On the one hand, Steve and Todd would be annoyed with me if I did not join in. On the other hand, the girls would be upset with me if I joined in. And then there were The Camp Authorities. They would be really upset with me if I joined in.

What was I to do?   I went into classic bystander mode: I stood to the side, shuffling my feet.

Afterward, Steve commented that I didn’t do anything in the raid. “I did, too,” I lied, not very convincingly.

That night at dinner in the camp dining hall, one of the camp counselors stood and announced that someone had raided a girls’ tent that afternoon. He asked that those who did it should stand up.

That was a very awful moment for a Big Chicken.

I thought that we would be in the clear if we just laid low. The moment would pass and nobody would find out. But lo, and behold, Steve stood up. (What was he thinking?!?) Then Todd stood up! And now I was in deep trouble. I quickly realized that if I didn’t stand up, Steve and Todd would be mad at me, and then they would tell the counselors, who would be mad at me, who would tell the girls, who would be mad at me. I stood up.

Church camp is a great place for the confession of sins. Particularly confessions that are provoked by peer pressure.

Our punishment was to clean out one of the bathrooms. The girls did not say anything more about the raid that week. They might have felt justice had been properly meted out. Or they might have still been mad at us but knew it wouldn’t do any good to say anything. (By the 5th grade, girls have had a lot of practice at being annoyed with boys). Meanwhile, the counselors said a few nice things about our willingness to be honest and come forward. The work in the bathroom seemed to be helping out the camp somehow. I felt a bit noble. Not deservedly so, but I felt noble anyway.

And that, oddly, brings us to what is really and truly an awful era in world history. I am intrigued by the courage of “rescuers” in World War II, perhaps because of my memories of peer pressure and my desires to avoid trouble.   When we think of courage in history, we often think of soldiers, for courage is obviously a key component of military activity. But I also find courage among civilians interesting because it emerges in ordinary life when it would be so easy to stand to the side and shuffle one’s feet. Soldiers usually do not have the choice to be bystanders; civilians usually do. In fact, millions of Europeans chose to be bystanders while the Nazis rounded up Jews and other opponents or undesirables and sent them off to concentration camps.

But there were also rescuers. We are most familiar, probably, with Oskar Schindler. Many Christians know about Corrie Ten Boom. There were thousands more. I find each individual story fascinating.

Lucas Carrer

Lucas Carrer

Two of my favorite rescuers are Metropolitan Chrysostomas and Lucas Carrer. In 1943, when the Germans occupied Greece, a contingent of Nazi officers landed on the island of Zakynthos. The German commander called in Carrer, the mayor, and asked him to hand over a list of the names of all Jews living on the island.

What to do? What would you do?

Carrer went to Metropolitan Chrysostomas, the local bishop of the Greek Orthodox church. After some discussion, the two met with the Nazi commander, gave him a piece of paper, and told him that this was the list of Jews on the island.

It had two names on it: Bishop Chrysostomas and Lucas Carrer.

That is courage.

The Nazis did not send the two to concentration camps (a real possibility) and the Nazis did not manage to locate the Jews of the island, either.   Bishop Chrysostomas and Lucas Carrer had burned the lists of the 275 Jews on the island. They also got word out to the Jews to flee into the hills. After occupying Greece for a year, the Nazis were forced to pull out. For the mayor, the bishop, and the Jews on the island, the story has a happy ending. Millions of others, of course, were not so fortunate.

Why are some rescuers and others bystanders? I would like to think that if I were under Nazi occupation, I would have been a rescuer. However, I know what it is like to want to preserve myself and avoid conflict. I understand how the bystanders thought. Would I really have been a rescuer? It is disturbing to realize I cannot answer with certainty.

Why, then, did some people become rescuers? It might be that there is an inclination toward courage that is hard-wired into some of us (OK, some of you). But even if that is true, there is more to it than that.

Metropolitan Chrysostomas

Metropolitan Chrysostomas

Christians, I think, would probably argue that there is a spiritual dimension to courage. I agree. Through their own accounts, we can see the personal dimensions of faith and the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of Nazi resistors like Corrie Ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller.   If I had more information, I would guess we would find the same sort of personal spiritual evidence from Bishop Chysostomas and probably Lucas Carrer.

But the fact remains that there were plenty of Christians who were bystanders, as well. I think, then, that it would be helpful to consider how social and cultural patterns shaped rescuers as well.

This, then, is a point I find interesting: when asked why they risked their lives to help others, most rescuers found the question puzzling. Most say that they were just doing what was right. They didn’t agonize over the decision at the time.

This would seem to indicate that there is something to the patterns of their lives before the big moment of decision arrived. There is evidence that these were people who were in the habit of doing what was right in the small things before the Big Thing came along. Over time, they had developed a strong sense that their own comfort, status and safety was less important than the welfare of others.

Those patterns have spiritual dimensions to them. Ultimately, true courage is about loving others more than our own lives. That is something that does not simply happen because of a one-time commitment. Or, in theological terms, it seems to be more about sanctification than justification.

That is one reason why spiritual practices matter. Disciplines like regular worship, prayer, fellowship, and Bible study matter. And so does church camp.

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Rioting

The disturbances in Baltimore a couple of months ago have me thinking about riots in the United States.

Do you remember that time when the Secretary of State was extremely worried about the rioting in Boston? The city, he said, was in a state of disorder, lives were in danger, local law enforcement had not effectively suppressed the riots, and troops would need to be brought in to establish order.

One to two thousand people had roamed the streets, attacking houses, beating up people and burning property.

The year was 1768 and the Secretary of State was Lord Hillsborough, speaking before Parliament in London. The disturbances in Boston had been provoked by government officials in Boston who had seized a ship, the Liberty, which belonged to John Hancock.

The Sons of Liberty do their thing.

The Sons of Liberty do their thing.

Yeah, it was one of those American Revolution things. The Sons of Liberty were out leading the way. Rebellion against the British, and that sort of stuff.

Riots of various sizes and dimensions were actually somewhat common in the American Revolutionary era. Between 1760 and 1775, there were forty-four riots in the American colonies.   Fortunately, the main grievances were gone after the British were defeated and the United States could rule itself. And so, in the 1780s…..riots still popped up. In the 1780s there were major riots in Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia and Charleston.

Rioters in New York City in 1849 do their thing.

Rioters in New York City in 1849 do their thing.

The young nation, however, made it through the turbulent period of its founding. And….there were more riots. Between 1830 and 1860 there were thirty-five major riots in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In fact, in every decade of American history, we can find at least one major riot — usually more. I discussed the Philadelphia Bible Riots in my last post. The New York City draft riots during the Civil War (which were not the only riot in during the Civil War) lasted for four days and killed 105 people. The Great Railway Strike of 1877 provoked riots in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and many other cities, leaving more than one hundred dead.  The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 (one of twenty-five in the U.S. that year) left thirty-eight dead and thousands of black families homeless. The 1960s, of course, produced many different kinds of riots. And you may remember the Rodney King riots in the 1992. These listed are just the tip of the iceberg.

But why do Americans do this? The Canadians refrain from rioting, unless hockey is involved. Riots have been pretty common throughout U.S. history, though.

Railway rioters in Pittsburgh in 1877 do their thing.

Railway rioters in Pittsburgh in 1877 do their thing.

A common response is that riots are driven by irrational people who get angry and then can’t control themselves. Some blame riots on people who just want to take advantage of an unstable situation to rob and steal. I read comments recently about the riots in Baltimore that declared that those people don’t know how to protest.

Were the riots in Baltimore simply an example of people who just did not know how to use available democratic means (petition, protest, political action) to address problems?

There is more to it than that. History (are you surprised?) can help us see more clearly. In the vast majority of cases, we find people rioting because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that a legal, political, social and/or political system is failing to address an injustice. They believe that normal political processes (petition, protest, political action) have not worked. That is why the violence of riots very often target specific properties or symbols of authority. You can find this dynamic in each of the riots I have mentioned, including the recent riots in Baltimore.

Rioters in Tulsa in 1921 do their thing...to a black Baptist church.

Rioters in Tulsa in 1921 do their thing…to a black Baptist church.

After the recent shooting at the AME church in Charleston, I read some people say that they were thankful riots did not break out. But I don’t think rioting was really likely in this situation. Partly, this is because of the rather amazing statements of forgiveness by the AME church members. But even without that, I think it was unlikely because this was not a situation in which the justice and law enforcement system failed. Dylann Roof obviously drew upon racist and hateful motives that can still be found in our society, but the law enforcement and legal system acted as it should. It apprehended him and initiated prosecution. Everybody understands that.

Rioters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago do their thing.

Rioters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago do their thing.

Conversely, rioting usually occurs when the legal system does not do what it is supposed to, at least in the eyes of the rioters. In Baltimore and Ferguson, there was a backstory (there is always a backstory) dating back decades in which blacks were treated differently than whites by law enforcement. The political or community efforts to address the issue were not effectively heeded by those with authority. The same is true of most riots through American history. The issues change, but the dynamics of the system are quite similar.

But I have been wondering about something else. The Sons of Liberty in the American Revolutionary era raise questions in my mind. Could it be that rioting in American history has often been an unfortunate but logical working out of several beliefs that are found among American ideas of democracy?

(FILE FOOTAGE) April 29, 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, when a jury acquitted three white and one hispanic LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King following a high-speed pursuit. Thousands of people rioted in LA over the six days following the verdict.

Rioters in Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King decision do their thing.

There are several historical elements here. Thomas Hobbes wrote that the most important right of nature we have is to “defend ourselves” by all means. John Locke, arguably the Enlightenment political thinker who had the greatest influence on the creation of the United States, built upon Hobbes. Locke argued we have a moral responsibility to defend ourselves against those who seek to harm us. And, of course, in his social contract theory, Locke extended this to say that if the government authority acts against the interest of the people, they have the right and the moral obligation to resist this authority. These men, of course, were read by the Founders. Ben Franklin wanted our national motto to be “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” has been used by those who see resistance to authority as a sacred duty.

Rioters in Baltimore in 2015...ah, you get the idea.

Rioters in Baltimore in 2015…ah, you get the idea.

Unfortunately, there is a fine line between peaceful resistance and violent resistance. And it is very difficult to determine, under this thinking about “rights,” just when violent resistance is justified. George Washington thought that taking up arms against the British was justified, but that the 1786 Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts (in which excessive taxes were the sticking point) was not justified. Lord Hillsborough thought the Sons of Liberty were out of line. The Sons of Liberty thought they were working for, well, liberty. Similar divided thinking about justice can be found in just about every riot since then.

Fortunately, the vast majority of our conflicts in American society are handled through peaceful means. But there is still this underlying current of violence in the name of justice and rights that comes to surface occasionally, when a legal and/or political system is perceived as failing to address injustices. And, of course, we have not effectively solved all issues of justice in our society, so I expect riots to occur again numerous times in my lifetime. Rioting, unfortunately, may be as American as apple pie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.