It started with questions….and the questions continue


12 January 2018

(Photo credit: Dave Miers)

Some years ago, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, nor a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.

I agree with Frankl. The greatest task for any person is to explore the ultimate questions about the meaning of Reality, of our human experiences, and of our personal identities in a changing world.

Shortly after Christmas, a university friend asked me how I became interested in theology. In response I wrote a brief personal-experience article that will be published in a couple months. Today, as Another Voice begins a new year, I would like to share a bit of my story and also about my focus in 2018.

My story: In the late 1950s and early 1960s I was a rather conservative seminarian, studying at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. In September 1965 my bishop, to my great surprise, sent me to study theology at the famous Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. I would spend three years in Louvain (today we more properly use the Flemish name: “Leuven”). Then I left the seminary and continued studying theology at what was then known as the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. I was fascinated by the “Dutch” (he was really Belgian) theologian Edward Schillebeeckx who was a professor of theology in Nijmegen. (Interestingly, he did his early philosophical and theological studies in Louvain.)

For me, a very pious and somewhat fundamentalist young man, the journey from Detroit, Michigan to Leuven, Belgium was much more than a big geographic shift. It was personally very unsettling. My professors made me feel very uncomfortable. As I listened to them, I found myself asking theological questions about everything. Is there a God? Who or what is God? How do I know that my “religious experiences” are really experiences of Divinity? Who really was Jesus and who is he today? Was his birth truly the result of a virginal conception? Did he have brothers and sisters? Was his mother really always a virgin? Was the Resurrection a real event? How much of the New Testament is trustworthy? Is the Catholic Church the one true church? There were personal identity questions as well….a lot of them.

One day after class I confronted the professor, whose lectures were really turning my world upside down. I told him he was making me very uncomfortable, because I was now asking questions about everything from God and Jesus to ordained ministry, love, and celibacy. With a twinkle in his eyes and a warm smile he said: “then I am doing a good job as professor.” He told me he would not abandon me and we could talk any time….and he reminded me of the old saying, attributed to Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thanks to my old Louvain professor, and many others, I grew up as a person. I grew up theologically. I grew up as a thinking person. I grew out of my Catholic fundamentalism; and I became a truly contemporary believer. A quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer suddenly spoke to me powerfully in a new way: “I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.” (I became an avid reader of the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis in April 1945.)

At the Catholic University of Leuven, I consciously confronted change – on many levels – and I was changed. Most important in my world of changes was learning how to be an historical-critical believer: anchored in biblical and theological sources and asking how they resonated with my own contemporary faith and life experiences. My understanding of Christian belief and morality changed as did (necessarily) my understanding of humanity. I came to understand that change and development are essential elements in our human existence, ongoing life, and understanding. I came to understand that asking questions and searching for answers are essential elements in the human journey. I realized it is not wrong to ask questions. I realized yesterday’s answers are not always helpful responses for today’s questions. (Many years later I would (respectfully) tell a group of bishops meeting in Baltimore that they were very good at answering all the questions nobody was really asking anymore.)

This year, in Another Voice, I hope I can address the right questions and propose some thoughtful answers. When I can no longer do that, it will be time for me to unplug my computer.

Looking over the 2017 reader reactions to my blog, people have been generally positive, supportive, and appreciative. (The negative people just ignored me or unfriended me on Facebook.)

It does bother some people when, in their words, I become “less theological and more political.” With the current presidential administration I have done that periodically. I hear the criticism. I understand where it is coming from. Nevertheless, in today’s socio-cultural context I can only refer to the words of Bonhoeffer again:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

My best regards to all. I hope you will travel with me in the coming months.

-Jack

2018


A very happy New Year to my Another Voice Friends. I will return in a couple weeks. Just a reminder…..

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.”

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Many very kind regards to all. We best travel down this road of life hand in hand…

– Jack

The Journey of the Magi


25 December 2017

Once again I invite reflection on a poem written in 1927 by T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Journey of the Magi is told from the point of view of one of the magi. It is a faith journey that expresses themes of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a changing world, but the Birth changes everything….

A very sincere thank you to my readers who have been supportive in word and gesture. Every good wish for Christmas and the New Year. In 2018, may we all be strong, encouraging, and faith-filled in our human journeys.

I will be away from my computer for a few days and will return after Epiphany.

Warmest regards, Jack.

Journey Of The Magi by T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Disturbances


December 17, 2017

I was in a bit of a hurry, pushing my shopping cart down the aisle of a local grocery store, looking for a bag of pasta and some tomato sauce. Behind me, somebody yelled “professor”! I turned around and there was one of my former students, a brilliant young fellow, who completed his doctorate three years ago.

With a big, happy smile, the young man told me he was in town for a couple days, that he got married a year ago; and that now he and his wife were expecting a baby. “A little boy,” he proudly said. “We expect him to arrive on Christmas and will name him ‘Christian’.” I congratulated him.

Then my ‘student’ became a bit serious. “I have my doctorate, a great wife, and soon a little son,” he said. “Now” he continued “I have to focus on a big question.” I asked if he was looking for a job, needed a good recommendation, or was going to buy a house. “No,” he replied. “I really need to go looking for God — for that ‘taste of the Transcendent’ you often talked about in class. There is still a terrible emptiness in my life…..”

The most important part of our life journey, as I mentioned last week, is God-discovery along the way. A great many people today, like my student, whether religious or not, are hungry for a God-experience. Hungry and thirsting for spirituality. That demands a special kind of openness and a clearing away of the roadblocks that dull our sensitivities and block our vision.

In contemporary life there are two great, but related, existential disturbances: noise pollution and hyperactive busyness. They block our openness to the Sacred, yet we have become so accustomed to them that we take them as simply a normal part of life……

Visiting friends recently, the noise pollution really hit me. The radio was on and loud. The television was replaying a football game with yelling fans. One person was talking on his cellphone; and their neighbor was mowing his yard (last time before the snow) at full throttle. I laughed and said “oh for the days of peace and quiet.” No one heard me of course.

Ubiquitous noise works insidiously. It raises our blood pressure and heart rate. It contributes to anxiety, stress, and nervousness. It closes our minds to contemplative experiences.

Along with noise, hyperactive busyness characterizes much of contemporary life. Here of course cellphones are the great disrupters. People are made to feel guilty if they are not rushing from place to place, working on projects at home, multitasking, and constantly connecting via texting, Twitter, FaceTime, and Facebook. If the power goes off, life becomes suddenly strange and disconnected.

The re-discovery of spirituality — and the survival of art, music, philosophy and theology — requires long and regular moments of tranquility. Reflective contemplative moments. We need to control our noise pollution, clear our schedules for more free time, and reduce our cyber connectedness. The more receptive, contemplative, and inwardly quiet we become, the more open and attentive we become to the deeper vibrations in Reality.

Then we resonate as well with a recent reflection from Richard Rohr:

“The purifying goal of mysticism and contemplative prayer is nothing less than divine union—union with what is, with the moment, with yourself, with the divine, which means with everything…..We came from God and we will return to God. Everything in-between is a school toward conscious loving….God is your deepest desiring. But it takes a long time to allow, believe, trust, and enjoy such a wonderful possibility. We move toward union by desiring union….So just pray for the desire to desire union. Then the actions will take care of themselves.”

My favorite poet, T.S. Eliot, summed it up this way:

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

*********

Throughout the month of December, I am asking my readers to consider a donation to keep Another Voice on the Internet. Another Voice is a free service. Nevertheless, the old fellow who writes and keeps it going has computer upgrades and maintenance expenses, and website and monthly Internet provider costs.

If you would like to contribute, kindly send a US dollar check, made out to John Dick, and send to: Dr. J.A. Dick, Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium.

If you would like to contribute in euros, through international bank transfer, here is the information you need: BNP Paribas Fortis Bank NV, Warandeberg 3, 1000 Brussels Account name: John Dick Account number: 230-0392360-15

SWIFT CODE (BIC): GEBABEBB IBAN: BE83 2300 3923 6015

For my part, I promise to keep thinking, researching, and writing.

Thank you for helping me to keep Another Voice speaking!

Travel Advisory


December 10, 2017

The older we get, the more we realize that we are travelers. In our life journeys we move not just from day to day, but from place to place, and from event to event. There are grand discoveries, routine daily chores, great joys and great disappointments. Throughout the whole journey, as we hear so often these days, God travels with us.

Soon, we will again commemorate the biblical journey of Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem. Young people on the road. Their journey leading to the great revelation that would change the course of human history. Matthew’s infancy narrative also describes Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as refugees, fleeing into Egypt to escape the villainy of Herod the Great. Self-centered Herod launched colossal building projects. He ordered great buildings and walls and promised to make Judea Great. Focusing on Jerusalem, he expanded the Second Temple (“Herod’s Temple”) and even slaughtered children to eliminate any possible opposition. Every age has a Herod, determined to make things great, branding “accomplishments” with his own name.

And so for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, my travel advisory for contemporary Christians:

(1) Traveling with “them.” The fundamental reality for most travelers is that we travel with other people. It is easy then to make comparisons and to make judgments. Other travelers can make us feel uncomfortable and occasionally frightened. They do it to us; but we do it to them as well. In truth, however, we may dress strangely and speak in funny ways; but we all have human dignity, equality, and self-worth. We are not just “us” and “them.” We are brothers and sisters. If we travel with the Spirit of Christ, differences in gender, race, and nationality can never allow us to denigrate and condemn the other. Contrary to an old Catholic teaching about gays, for example, no one is innately disordered. God loves all. So should we. We need to welcome and accommodate them.

(2) Travel brings change. Life is not static. Change happens. We either make the best of things and move forward or we regress and die. Nostalgia can be fun for a short time, but do we really want to live in the past? An acquaintance, who is a US Catholic cardinal, told me some time ago how wonderful the 1950’s were and how much he misses those days. I chuckled and said he had a very selective memory. I said I remember the “good old days” as well. I remember having scarlet fever. I remember the petrifying fear of polio and learning that a couple kids in my school were in “iron lungs.” And I remember public drinking fountains marked “for whites only.”

We change and our understandings can and should change. Women are not inferior to men. Protestants do not adhere to a “false religion.” Some of our religious understandings and practices (perhaps) made sense in the Middle Ages but certainly are nonsensical today.

St. Francis Xavier was never in an airplane. He died on December 3, 1552. I read last week that a Catholic group in an effort to “revive the faith” is flying Xavier’s arm to various locations across Canada. The arm even gets a reserved seat on Air Canada. I think they should put the old bone in a box and leave it in baggage claim…..A far better way to revive people’s faith would be for Christians across Canada (and everywhere) to put their living arms around contemporary people who are fearful, depressed, or impoverished. More Christ-like than a fragile old bone.

(3) News travels fast. Yes, news travels fast. Yet not all the news is fit to print. A lot if it these days is phony and dishonest, especially when linked with regressive politics. This morning I read on Facebook that a blog called “Freedom Crossroads — America Love It Or Leave It” announced, with disdain, that former President Barack Obama’s oldest daughter was fired from an internship in Spain this summer. According to Freedom Crossroads, Malia had a “cushy internship” at the Spanish Embassy; but she was fired when she got caught smoking pot.

Another contemporary alternative fact. The truth is: Malia didn’t have an internship at a Spanish embassy this summer. She had an internship in New York City, before attending Harvard. When her internship finished very normally, she went on vacation with her family. No pot involved. Just a lot of nasty falsehood.

As we travel through time and cyberspace, we have an obligation to check facts, and to speak out about and protest those often self-righteous “Christians” who propagate falsehoods and plant seeds of destructive discord.

(4) Traveling with fear. Fear is a part of life. In our human journeys, I suspect most of us have had fearful days that threatened to destabilize or even destroy us. And, in our politically unstable times, new fears are on the horizon. We need to acknowledge our fears but continue the journey and face life with courage. We are not alone. As believers we know that, despite paralyzing problems, we are loved. Love energizes and strengthens. Over the years I have often thought about the thirty years old man from Nazareth, stumbling towards his death, with a cross-beam on his back. Freightened beyond belief…His courage, suffering, and death gives me the courage to continue my journey on difficult days. “Greater love no one has than to lay down one’s life for a friend….”

(5) On a God pilgrimage. We are traveling with God and to God. The most exciting part of our journey. There are of course threatening temptations along the way. The first is to think that God is only for US and only with US. God travels indeed with all kinds of believers and nonbelievers. God is at the heart of all life and all Reality. No group owns God. The second temptation, however, is to act as though we can indeed control God and, like some fundamentalist fanatics found in all religious, use God to condemn and destroy the people we just don’t like and want to condemn and destroy. The temptation to make God in one’s image and likeness.

Safe travels!

————-

Between now and Christmas, I am asking my readers to consider a donation to keep Another Voice on the Internet. Another Voice is a free service.

Nevertheless, the old fellow who writes and keeps it going has computer upgrades and maintenance expenses, and website and monthly Internet provider costs.

If you would like to contribute, kindly send a US dollar check, made out to John Dick, and send to: Dr. J.A. Dick, Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium.

If you would like to contribute in euros, through international bank transfer, here is the information you need: BNP Paribas Fortis Bank NV, Warandeberg 3, 1000 Brussels

Account name: John Dick Account number: 230-0392360-15

SWIFT CODE (BIC): GEBABEBB

IBAN: BE83 2300 3923 6015

For my part, I promise to keep thinking, researching, and writing.

Thank you for helping me to keep Another Voice speaking!

Advent I: PERSPECTIVE


1 December 2017

My reflection for the first Sunday of Advent is about PERSPECTIVE. Who we are, what we do, and who we become are so dependent on how we view and evaluate Reality.

Advent is traditionally about awaiting, and celebrating, the arrival of Jesus. In another perspective it is about what we believe and how we behave as followers of Jesus.

Yes. As we get into the “Holiday Season,” I am all for putting Christ back into Christmas. More importantly — when the message and spirit of Christ are absent in so much highly publicized contemporary “Christian” rhetoric and behavior — I would like to help put Christ back into Christianity. Too many religiously and politically influential people these days are re-writing the Gospel in their own image and likeness. When, for example, people like Franklin Graham and James Dobson proclaim that the current President of the United States was ordained by God. That is a very different perspective and terribly dysfunctional and deceptive.

And so this week end a poetic reflection on perspective.

The British poet, Brian Bilston, is a master at perspective.

Do we look at reality from top to bottom?

Or do we start at the bottom and go up?

Read his poem “Refugees” and please read to the end.

REFUGEES

They have no need of our help

So do not tell me

These haggard faces could belong to you or me

Should life have dealt a different hand

We need to see them for who they really are

Chancers and scroungers

Layabouts and loungers

With bombs up their sleeves

Cut-throats and thieves

They are not

Welcome here

We should make them

Go back to where they came from

They cannot

Share our food

Share our homes

Share our countries

Instead let us

Build a wall to keep them out

It is not okay to say

These are people just like us

A place should only belong to those who are born there

Do not be so stupid to think that

The world can be looked at another way

(now read from bottom to top)

+++++

Perhaps we can use Advent 2017 to check our own perspectives and our attitudes based on them……

Jack

Throughout the month of December, I am asking my readers to consider a donation to keep Another Voice on the Internet. Another Voice is a free service. Nevertheless, the old fellow who writes and keeps it going has computer upgrades and maintenance expenses, and website and monthly Internet provider costs.

If you would like to contribute, kindly send a US dollar check, made out to John Dick, and send to: Dr. J.A. Dick, Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium.

If you would like to contribute in euros, through international bank transfer, here is the information you need: BNP Paribas Fortis Bank NV, Warandeberg 3, 1000 Brussels

Account name: John Dick Account number: 230-0392360-15

SWIFT CODE (BIC): GEBABEBB

IBAN: BE83 2300 3923 6015

For my part, I promise to keep thinking, researching, and writing.

Thank you for helping me to keep Another Voice speaking!

Giving Tuesday


28 November 2017

Dear Friends of Another Voice,

We have now had Thanksgiving (US), Black Friday, and Cyber Monday.

Today is Giving Tuesday: a day when people are encouraged to donate to keep blogs and other services alive for another year.

From today until Christmas, I am asking my readers to consider a donation to keep Another Voice on the Internet. Another Voice is a free service. Nevertheless, the old fellow who writes and keeps it going has computer upgrades and maintenance expenses, and website and monthly Internet provider costs.

If you would like to contribute in dollars, kindly send a US dollars check, made out to John Dick, and send to:

Dr. J.A. Dick, Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium.

If you would like to contribute in euros, through international bank transfer, here is the information you need: BNP Paribas Fortis Bank NV, Warandeberg 3, 1000 Brussels

Account name: John Dick

Account number: 230-0392360-15

SWIFT CODE (BIC): GEBABEBB

IBAN: BE83 2300 3923 6015

For my part, I promise to keep thinking, researching, and writing.

Thank you for helping me to keep Another Voice speaking!

Jack

Giving Thanks Gives Hope


Thanksgiving — 23 November 2017

A Thanksgiving reflection by: Hiroshima survivor Takashi “Thomas” Tanemori

Turning my face to Heaven

I sense rather than see

the endless blue.

Beyond the dancing leaves and soaring hawk,

its immeasurable stillness

reflects the wonder of all Creation.

Morning dew glittering in the dawn,

like precious jewels;

and twinkling stars echoing in the silent night,

like the songs of angels,

We gather the fruits of the earth,

till the barn is overflowing with bounty.

My heart fills with countless blessings:

food, shelter, clothing and friends to be encircled.

Looking back, I see how

my stumbling steps have become a path

and how, on this lonely road,

I have never been alone.

The kindness of many has been

like a spring rain,

bringing new life to my heart,

as a “Blade of Grass” ever emerging

from the ashes of the Past,

I stand, Amazed at my blessings,

grateful for His Wonders!

On August 6th, 1945, Takashi, then eight years old, was less than one mile from ground zero when the atomic bomb exploded, ultimately claiming his parents and two siblings.

Orphaned, Takashi was rejected in his homeland, surviving as a ‘street urchin’, until immigrating to the United States. There, Takashi worked in California’s ‘salad bowl’, and later became a captive patient in the state’s psychiatric system. A nurse cared for him, became his guardian, and inspired the young man to serve others.

He set a lifetime goal of helping future generations live in peace, with harmony and equality.

In 2005, sixty years after the bombing of Hiroshima, Takashi returned to his childhood home to reflect on his life’s path in light of what history has taught us, and most importantly, to reconcile after six-decades with his older sister. He wrote this poem on Thanksgiving 2006…

Takashi Tanemori is founder of the nonprofit Silkworm Peace Institute, dedicated to international peace. He continues to promote forgiveness and peace.

Common Ground: Common Good


As Jim Wallis, from Sojourners, observed this week: “A sad reality in the past year or more has been our ongoing struggle to engage in difficult conversations — with our longtime friends, with coworkers, or even with family members across the Thanksgiving table.”

“We’ve always had differences around social and political issues — racial justice, immigration, religious identity, health care, guns, etc. — but those divisions,” Wallis stressed, “are starker than ever. Our traditional and social media have become so fragmented and polarized that we find ourselves practically inhabiting a different reality than those we disagree with; we only really hear or engage with the perspectives of those with whom we already largely agree. This is not a tenable situation for our country — or for our families. If we are to maintain meaningful relationships, we need to actively engage in difficult conversations with people we disagree with and find some common ground for the common good.”

My reflection this week is about Muslims in America: American Muslims.

Some time ago a “friend” emailed me that he really feared that Muslim terrorists were taking over the United States. I wrote back that I was more afraid of gun-slinging, radicalized white evangelical Christians. The next day I was “unfriended” on Facebook.

Muslims make up about 1 % of the total US population. Nevertheless, many Americans are suspicious (and ignorant) about Muslim beliefs and motives. President Trump has said he wanted to ban Muslims from entering America. It is impossible however to take America out of American Muslims; and 92 % of American Muslims say they’re proud to be Americans—about the same as the general public. American Muslims reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in other countries.

According to statistics published this week by the Pew Research Center, however, the number of assaults against Muslims in the United States rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, surpassing the peak reached in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Hate crimes, intimidation, and vandalism against Muslims have risen significantly. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in early 2017, found that three-quarters of Muslim American adults (75%) say there is “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims in the U.S.

There is a natural human tendency for people to fear what they really don’t know. And most Americans simply do not know Islam or Muslims. President Trump’s divisive rhetoric reflects the dark side of this unfamiliarity. In the long run, however, I remain optimistic. Once more Americans become friends and neighbors with Muslims, anti-Muslim prejudice is bound to subside. We need better information and more inter-religious dialogue and continuing education.

Christianity and Islam are the largest religions in the world. They are both monotheistic religions and share, with Judaism, the Abrahamic Tradition. We all believe in the same God.

Although there are Christian terrorists, Christianity is not per se a terrorist religion. Islam isn’t either. Terrorist groups are EXTREMIST groups. Extremists regularly ignore the actual words written in their scriptures, whether the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Qur’an.

Ever since 9/11, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, prominent Muslims, Islamic organizations, and Islamic scholars have repeatedly denounced extremism, terrorism, and terrorist attacks. Muslim Americans have been successfully integrating into U.S. society. In fact, they are more opposed to intolerance and violence than many other Americans. Nevertheless, ignorance continues to cloud the U.S. public’s perception of Islam. “Jihad,” for example, is a term that is often misunderstood and associated with violent radical militants. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, however, the word jihad means to “strive, struggle and exert effort.” It is a central and broad Muslim concept that includes the struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, the struggle to improve the quality of life in society, and the struggle by military forces in the battlefield for self-defense or fighting against tyranny or oppression.

Although there is much hysteria about it, especially among American extremists, Sharia Law, also known as Islamic Law, is primarily about protecting the innocent and upholding Islamic values. Islamic scholars in the United States see no conflict between Muslim values and the U.S. Constitution. American Muslims are proud to be Americans and proud to be Muslims. It takes a long time for prejudicial stereotypes and ignorance to subside. I remember very clearly the revival of nineteenth century Nativist fears among many Americans when the Catholic, John F. Kennedy, became President of the United States in January 1961. There were fears that U.S. Catholic bishops and the pope would soon take control of the USA.

As Americans, from all religious traditions or from no religious traditions, we all need to learn from each other and work together. Our country is going through some critical times. It does no good to promote ignorance and further polarization.

Happy Thanksgiving!

We still do indeed have much to be thankful for. – Jack

Echoes of Theocracy


November 11, 2017

The United States is a representative constitutional democracy. In our constitutional democracy the authority of the majority is limited legally and institutionally, so that the rights of individuals and minorities are respected. In this way – if it works properly — the common good can be maintained, the human dignity and equality of all can be assured, and everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be maintained.

At various times in the history of our country, however, echoes of an undemocratic theocracy have reverberated across the land. 

Nineteenth century Manifest Destiny, for example, stressed the virtues of the American people and their God-given mission to redeem and remake the world in the image and likeness of the United States.  

At the end of the Spanish-American War (12 April 1898 – 9 August 1898), as the United States was becoming an imperial power, President William McKinley felt called by God and addressed a delegation of Methodist church leaders: “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way — I don’t know how it was, but it came….that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker) and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States.” 

Like many of you, I remember the words of former President George W. Bush about invading Iraq: President Bush claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When he met with a Palestinian delegation during the Israeli-Palestinian summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, four months after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bush told the delegation: “I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.” 

In a theocracy, religious belief shapes the law of the land, the head of state is considered divinely appointed; and religious leaders control society’s values and norms. Today we find powerful Islamic theocracies in Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. There is not much room in a theocracy for development, dissent, or debate because the society’s leaders are understood to speak and act with the authority of God. Most often, however, the theocratic God is one made in the image and likeness of authoritarian men and women. 

The United States is not yet a theocracy, but we hear strong echoes of theocracy coming from the Donald Trump/Mike Pence presidential administration and their key advisors. A few days ago, ex-White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, gave a speech at a Republican Party dinner in Warren Michigan, on the anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential election. In Bannon’s words, the anniversary should be called “the first anniversary of the high holy day of MAGA.” Bannon is a strange fellow who compares himself to “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, and Satan.” In his vision of America’s future, he calls for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” He considers himself a Catholic Christian, but I see little in his value system that resonates with Catholicism or Christianity. If one can say he has a theology, it is a complex amalgam of varied and sometimes contradictory ideas drawn from far-right nationalism, alternative Christianity, pseudo-historical narratives, and Islamophobic fiction. There are no doubts about his influence on the rhetoric and early policies of the Trump administration. He was a co-author of Trump’s first inaugural address, with its refrain of “America first” and God’s chosen and “totally unstoppable” nation. Yes, Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council in April 2017; but hestill holds a key position as White House chief strategist, very close to the ear of the president. 

One of Mr. Trump’s current key religious advisors is the Southern Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress. In early August 2017, Jeffress praised President Trump’s aggressive statement about North Korea as an expression of God’s will. “When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers,” Jeffress said, “the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.” Pastor Jeffress is using the Bible to publicly advocate for President Trump’s right to rule by divine fiat: basically that Trump can do whatever he thinks best. 

Another key presidential religious advisor is Ralph Drollinger, a former NBA player, who founded Capitol Ministries (CapMin) 20 years ago, which originally focused on evangelizing politicians in Sacramento, CA. Today CapMin has greatly expanded its Washington DC influence on the Trump cabinet with a clearly theocratic focus. Drollinger dreams of an American Christian theocracy; and he wants “disciples of Christ” to take over the US Government.  

Ralph Drollinger is ardently fundamentalist. He interprets the Bible literally. He believes the world was created in six days. He rejects the notion of human-made climate change and warns against the sin of homosexuality. A 2016 letter signed by Drollinger on the CapMin website says, “In no way is God’s Word pro LGBT. Only a Scripture twister could reason otherwise.” Drollinger also believes that women with young children who work outside the house are “sinners;” and he warns that Roman Catholicism “is one of the primary false religions in the world.”  

Since March, Drollinger has been holding weekly fundamentalist Christian Bible-study sessions, in the White House, for Trump’s cabinet members. Drollinger has become the in- house spiritual advisor to Vice President Pence and Cabinet Secretaries Carson (Housing and Urban Development), DeVos (Education), Perry (Energy), Perdue (Agriculture) and Pompeo (CIA), Attorney General Sessions, and others close to the president.  

Drollinger in fact now has three weekly Bible studies sessions in Washington DC: one for the House on Mondays, one for the Senate on Tuesdays, and the one for the Trump Cabinet on Wednesdays. His version of Christianity stresses that the state must become an “avenger of wrath” and pursue its God-given responsibility to “moralize a fallen world through the use of force.” His alternative Christianity has little place for Jesus’s stress on compassion, love, and tolerance. His vision is also strongly male-dominant. Drollinger again: “The Bible says that men need to be taught by men. It doesn’t ever say that women should be teaching men.… Of course, women can teach, but only women, or males under a certain age. But female legislators can also sit in on a male Bible study. I have a lot of female legislators that sit in on my ministry.… It’s hard to get around the fact God seems to be describing male leadership here. I may not have set it up the same way, but he did, and I just want to be true to that. That’s what it means to be a servant who just wants to carry the meal out of the kitchen correctly and not alter the meal.” 

****

Nevertheless, the United States, to stress it again, is not a theocracy. It must not become a theocracy. I think the greatest problem in a theocracy is that the leaders of a theocratic nation use the fear of God to impose laws and programs that directly benefit only themselves. For a country to develop and improve, its leaders must recognize when change is necessary. Theocratic governments, however, cannot do this because they are usually grounded in an unchanging religious belief which must be obeyed as the primary truth. Finally, the punishments that are imposed on troublesome citizens in a theocracy are often primitive, inhumane, and cruel.  

What to do? The biggest protection against theocracy is a strict separation of church and state. It protects the state. In ensures that legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government can freely exercise their responsibilities. It preserves, protects, and defends the constitution. A strict separation of church and state protects and safeguards religious institutions as well. It ensures that they maintain leadership and control over their own religious institutions.  

A strict separation of church and state also protects what we call public morality. Public morality maintains the moral and ethical standards in a society that protect individual life and freedom and support and maintain the common good. For all social groups. For all religious groups. For all non-religious groups. For all racial groups. Etc.  

Yes of course, religious institutions do have a responsibility to critique social attitudes and trends, and recommend appropriate changes and adjustments to public morality’s values and norms. They do not, however, control public morality. Their responsibility is to enter into the common good dialogue that must be part of any healthy society.  

To summarize: In no way does contemporary America need a self-promoting Christian ayatollah to run the show…. 
Take care. – Jack