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Brutalism Softened

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A Call for Racial Reconciliation Among Christians

 

We are living in a period of our history when it is all the more vital for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ to live out the truth that all human beings are created by God in his image, and therefore entitled to dignity and respect.  We do not have to “like” everyone we meet, but we who follow Christ must acknowledge that we are but one member of one family, one race.  God makes only one distinction between humans and that is between those who have accepted his offer of free grace through faith in Jesus Christ and those who are yet in bondage to Satan.

When it comes to the work of racial reconciliation, meaning the struggle for civil rights for all, especially between African Americans and Americans of European descent, the name of John M. Perkins comes immediately to mind.  No one individual has done more than Perkins to minister the healing balm of the Christian gospel to the centuries-old racial strife in our country, particularly in the state of Mississippi.

I first met John Perkins in the mid-1980’s, when my wife and I went with a group of college students from the Chicago area on a short-term home mission trip to Jackson, Mississippi.  The goal was to spend a couple weeks working with Voice of Calvary Ministry, founded by John Perkins.  Some worked in a secondhand store.  Others painted and worked on repairing homes in Jackson.  Like Habitat for Humanity, helping with Voice of Calvary was a way of actually getting involved in the lives of the people who needed a human touch as well as a helping hand.

In 1993, I took a teaching position at Belhaven College in Jackson.  The life of the college and John Perkins’s ministry crossed paths in many ways over the 23 years I spent in Jackson.  The college has as a vital part of its mission to be a place of racial reconciliation.  Over my 23 years in Mississippi, I got to know John Perkins and the many wonderful people who have worked with him, e. g., Dolphus Weary of Mission Mississippi.

PARTING WORDS TO THE CHURCH ON RACE AND LOVE (Chicago: Moody, 2018) is not Perkins’s first, last, or even “best” book.  He has written many on how to empower the poor by helping them to provide for their families and thus restore in them a sense of pride in who they are as children of God.  His books are a mix of common-sense theology and Bible study, how to minister to the poor, how to build trust and respect between races after centuries of distrust and exploitation, and much more.

Chapter titles reveal the book’s content.  “The Church Should Look Like That,” argues that twelve o’clock on Sunday morning should not be the most segregated hour in America.  “Tear Down This Wall” uses the example of The Berlin Wall that divided the German people from 1961 to 1989 as a symbol of the need to tear down the manmade walls that divide even believing Christians into racial ghettoes.  “Prayer, the Weapon of Our Warfare” reminds us that we must invoke the healing power of God’s grace rather than look to political power to heal our wounds.  Laws can help to control behavior, but laws cannot compel us to love one another.

Interspersed through the book are 4 short testimonies to efforts at racial reconciliation from Little Rock, Arkansas, Monrovia and Fontana, California, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Each chapter is followed by a brief prayer that the reader can participate in as he or she personalizes the book’s message.  At the back of the book is a chapter by chapter Study Guide for personal or group study.

Throughout the Bible we are given a vision of the people of God as a mixed bag of a vastly diverse humanity redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.  Perkins concludes PARTING WORDS with a few lines from a popular hymn:

“When we all get to heaven,

what a day of rejoicing that will be!

When we all see Jesus,

We’ll sing and shout the victory!”

We need not wait until we get to heaven to experience the fellowship of God’s family.  We who have experienced God’s Grace can, through prayer and works, enjoy a taste of it here on our pilgrimage back to Eden.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and live under the mercy.

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Oceanside, Oregon

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A “Must Read” Book on the Vietnam War

As one who was in high school and college during the 1960’s, I have always had an interest in the Vietnam War.  I went to two draft physicals, one in 1964 and another in 1969, but managed to avoid being drafted.  I had many friends and family members who were not so lucky.

During my forty years as a history professor, I taught courses on the Vietnam War.  I read many books on the subject and talked to many veterans who served in Vietnam.  They too were lucky, in that they survived.  I have an abiding respect for those who served and morn those who died in a senseless and wasteful episode of the Cold War.  The Vietnam War was but one of a number of proxy wars fought between the two Cold War super powers.

Of the many good books on the Vietnam War, Daniel H. Weiss’ IN THAT TIME: MICHAEL O’DONNELL AND THE TRAGIC ERA OF VIETNAM (New York: Public Affairs, 2019) is the one I would recommend for the general reader who wants some understanding of the war without all the detail included in more scholarly books.

Daniel Weiss, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was deeply moved by the story of Michael O’Donnell, just one of 58,220 Americans and millions of Vietnamese who lost their lives in a war that should never have happened. Weiss lets the reader know at the outset one reason why he chose to write and publish this book at this time:  “I wanted to understand how a democratic government, presumably with all the best intentions and led by people who considered themselves honorable, effectively decided to sacrifice the lives of its own citizens to advance an ill-considered and poorly developed political idea.  If we understand the taking of life to be the ultimate human transgression, we need to understand how such decisions are made—in this case without a substantive understanding of purpose or consequences.”  Perhaps by sharing Daniel Weiss’ journey to understanding, we may be able understand why our national leaders chose during President George W. Bush’s administration to repeat that same error, taking us into the war in Afghanistan.

Michael O’Donnell was piloting a helicopter on a mission in March 1970 to rescue American soldiers trapped inside Cambodia.  After picking up eight, O’Donnell was ascending when his helicopter was hit by enemy fire and exploded in fireball.  Because of the enemy’s strong position in the area, and the fact that “officially” American forces were not operating inside Cambodia, the remains of O’Donnell and those who died with him remained in the jungle where they died until January 1998, when they were finally recovered and returned to the United States for burial.

Weiss does an admirable job of communicating the tragedy, not only of O’Donnell’s death and those who died with him, but of that whole era in American history.  This is a book that should be read by everyone who desires some real insight into that era.  I especially recommend it to those of us who were in high school and college during the sixties and still wonder why it all happened.

After reading IN THAT TIME, I recommend for those wishing further insight two additional books on the Vietnam War:  James Wright’s ENDURING VIETNAM: AN AMERICAN GENERATION AND ITS WAR (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2017) and Christian G. Appy’s PATRIOTS: THE VIETNAM WAR REMEMBERED FROM ALL SIDES (New York: Viking, 2003).

Until next time be good to call God’s creation and always walk under the mercy.

 

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Sunset Soliloquy, Great Britain

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#jesuschristsuperstar OMG literally

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Love! Love! Love!

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Robert E. Lee and the Southern Dilemma

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The Baby Boomers’ War

There are many books about the Vietnam War. Many more will be written. The war was a national trauma that we, the generation who experienced it either as soldiers or civilians, will never really get over. It was a major event during a period when what it meant to be an American was questioned and forever changed.

Historians have written narratives of the war. They have tried to understand how we became involved in a war that others in the world understood was unnecessary and unwinnable. Few Americans could have found Vietnam on a world map; much less had any knowledge or appreciation for the history or the culture of the Vietnamese people.

The nation’s military and civilian leadership were woefully ignorant, as well. Why else would military forces designed to fight a conventional war in Europe be sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia to fight a guerrilla war. High tech weaponry proved no match for the primitive weapons of the Vietnamese guerrillas.

President Johnson in 1965 referred to Vietnam as a “damned little pissant country.” He and those around him believed that America could bomb the Vietnamese into accepting our plan for their future. If necessary, we would bomb them back to the Stone Age. In pursuit of that goal, we flew over 3.5 million sorties over Vietnam, only 8 percent over North Vietnam, and dropped more than 8 million tons of bombs on an area roughly the same size as New Mexico.

By 1969, America no longer saw victory in the war as an objective. So why did the war continue until 1975? The lives of American and Vietnamese soldiers and the lives of the Vietnamese citizens meant little in the drama of American politics. Neither President Johnson nor President Nixon wanted to go down in history as the first American president to lose a war. Eventually, both became victims of the war they could not bring themselves to end.

The real subject of James Wright’s book is not why we fought and lost the war in Vietnam. Rather it is what the war did to the so-called “baby boomer” generation, those who served in Vietnam as well as those (myself included) who by luck or design managed to avoid military service. All of us were to some extent changed by the war.

The extensive research, especially the numerous interviews undertaken by Professor Wright, together with an obvious gift for writing a historical narrative that keeps the reader turning the pages, enables the reader to experience the trauma of the war. We are able to live it, or in some cases no doubt relive it. This is not a book that will leave the reader with a “good feeling.” ENDURING VIETNAM is a book that will enlighten all who read it, but will be especially meaningful for those who came of age during the sixties, those who lived with the war day by day, and for those for whom that experience will never end.

Understanding Martin Luther

 

 

October 30, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses,” considered by historians as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther was not the first to challenge the authority of the Medieval Church.  Peter Waldo, Savonarola, and Jan Hus are but three of those numbered among the so-called precursors, or forerunners, of the Reformation.    Historians, however, like to pick a particular event to mark the beginning or ending of historical periods.  Hence, they generally agree that Martin Luther’s bold act of nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on the ever of All Saints in 1517 was one of the most significant events in Western, if not world, history.

Not surprising, the 500th anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses provides an opportunity for book publishers to release a new batch of books on Martin Luther and/or the Reformation.  It is hard to imagine how, after 500 years, anything new can be revealed.  The field of historical data on Martin Luther and the Reformation has been plowed over and harvested so often that the most today’s reader can hope for is a new interpretation.  Should the author of a new book be a master wordsmith able to write a narrative that keeps the reader turning the pages; well that is icing on the cake.

Professor Lyndal Roper’s MARTIN LUTHER:  RENEGADE AND PROPHET is all that the reader could desire of a new Luther biography.  It is a scholarly book, in that it is well-researched and documented.  Nearly one hundred pages of notes that should not be ignored but read along with the text, and an extensive bibliography testify to the book’s integrity.  Professor Roper’s credentials are impressive.  She studied at the University of Melbourne, the University of Tübingen, King’s College London, and was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford in 2011.  Having some familiarity with the Luther historiography, my expectations were heightened by reading in Roper’s introductory chapter that she studied under the noted Dutch historian, Heiko Oberman.  Oberman’s MARTIN LUTHER-MAN BETWEEN GOD AND THE DEVIL (translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwartzbart [London: Harper Collins, 1993]) is a must read for anyone seeking an in depth understanding of Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Most Luther biographies focus on Luther the bigger than life figure whose troubled spirit led him to a courageous stand against the corruption in the Medieval Church.  So troubled was Luther’s spirit by his inability to understand how he, a sinner, could be loved by God that he risked martyrdom to find the answer and then openly testify to it:  Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, alone!  That simple doctrine, so simple that even a small child could understand it, struck at the very heart of not only the Church’s authority, but the very fabric of medieval society.  Neither the Church nor the secular authorities could allow it to go unanswered.

Martin Luther was more than just a heroic figure.  He was a human being with strengths and weaknesses like any other person.  He was a person of his time.  Although well educated, his understanding of the world in which he lived was pre-modern, pre-scientific.  For example, there is a passage in LUTHER’S TABLE TALK where he appears to make reference to Copernicus’ assertion that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the sun around the earth.  Luther dismissed the Copernicus’ theory boldly affirming the geocentric theory of an earth centered universe, because he believed it is clearly taught in Holy Scripture (Joshua 10:10-15).

To understand Marti n Luther one must see him as a complete, three-dimensional person.  But more than that, one must understand the social, economic, political, and intellectual world in which he lived.  Any attempt to apply a twenty-first century worldview to Martin Luther is bound to fail.

Professor Roper’s Luther is a complex person who exhibits all the prejudices of his time.  His personality and actions were shaped in part by the fact that he did not come from the cultivated elite, and the fact that apart from a trip to Rome while still an Augustinian monk, he never ventured beyond the area where he enjoyed the protection of Elector Frederick the Wise.  With a price on his head after the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther had to allow his close followers (e.g., Philip Melanchthon) to represent him and defend his teachings at key moments, such as the Diet of Augsburg (1530).   Being sidelined by those he felt not his equal caused Luther much frustration and contributed to his chronic physical ailments.

Luther might be considered a reluctant revolutionary.  He began by seeking a debate among university colleagues concerning the abuse of the doctrine indulgences.  That simple desire for debate among a few university professors ended in the fragmentation of Christianity.  His insistence on the Bible as the final authority on matters of faith and practice left every individual able to interpret for him or herself what was true biblical teaching.  The teaching authority of the Church vanished.  Anarchy followed.  Luther’s questions began the process of the secularization of Western Civilization.

Although Luther rejected the authority of the Medieval Church, he defended the political, social, and economic structure of Medieval Europe.  He abhorred rebellion in every form, except his own religious rebellion.   When the Peasants tried to derive conclusions about social and economic justice from Luther’s teaching, Luther called upon the princes to suppress the peasants with brutal force.  They did!  The only recourse Luther offered the peasants was quiet suffering and prayer.

Professor Roper does not shy away from discussing one of the most disturbing and difficult to understand aspects of Martin Luther’s role in Western history, that is, his strident Anti-Semitism.  Luther devoted two major treatises to the topic of the Jews.  The first, “That Jesus Was Born a Jew” (1523), was sympathetic to them, even generous in its language.  The later treatise, “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543), is altogether different, and surpassed, if that is possible, the hateful, vindictive tone of “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” (1525).  By 1543, Luther had obviously given up all hope of the Jews converting to Christianity.  So, he was prepared to assign them, along with the papacy, to the eternal flames.

I hesitate to refer to MARTIN LUTHER:  RENEGADE AND PROPHET as a “psychohistory,” since Erik Erikson’s psychoanalytical study of Luther, YOUNG MAN LUTHER (1958), is one of the most misleading books on Martin Luther.  How can anyone, however informed, ever understand what motivates another person’s thoughts and actions?  But isn’t that what makes history so interesting?  What happened?  When did it happen?   Those are easy questions.  The mystery lies in the “why?”  Why did Luther pursue his cause with such passion in the face of almost certain martyrdom?  Professor Roper demonstrates that the proper application of psychological and psychoanalytical insights can help us “to understand Luther himself . . .  to know how a sixteenth-century individual perceived the world around him, and why he viewed it in this way . . .  to explore his inner landscapes so as to better understand his ideas about flesh and spirit, formed in a time before our modern separation of mind and body.”

There are numerous books on Martin Luther.  Many more will be written in the future.  The reader who desires just a brief introduction to Luther may wish to begin with my own contribution, MARTIN LUTHER:  A BRIEF INTRODUCTION OF HIS LIFE AND WORKS (2005).  It includes an “Annotated Chronology of Luther’s Reformation Writings.”  Roland Bainton’s HERE I STAND:  A LIFE OF MARTIN LUTHER first published in 1950 remains the unchallenged classic biography of this great historical figure.  That being said, I believe that given its scholarship and readability, Lyndal Roper’s MARTIN LUTHER:  RENEGADE AND PROPHET will quickly establish an enduring presence among the “must read” books on Martin Luther.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always live under the mercy.