Archive for May, 2008

Day of Prayer for Permanent Peace

Monday, May 26th, 2008

In respect for their devotion to America, the Congress, by a joint resolution approved on May 11, 1950, as amended (64 Stat. 158), has requested the President to issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace and designating a period on that day when the people of the United States might unite in prayer. [From the President's 2008 Memorial Day Proclamation]

Memorial Day (today) is a major holiday in the United States. But listening to the news on radio and television, and perusing the daily newspaper, one rarely finds any reference to the official purpose of the holiday “as a day of prayer for permanent peace.” Instead, it is often twisted into a day for glorifying war.

The idea of Memorial Day originated during the Civil War when a group of women buried the dead from both sides of the war and planted flowers on the graves both of the fallen who had fought on their side and those who had fought on the other side. These women who had lost sons, husbands, brothers and others dear to them were moved to make this gesture of reconciliation and of recognition of the horror war imposes on both sides.

Sadly, we continue to live in a world of war. The United States is engaged in two hot (albeit undeclared) wars, and has garrisons in hundreds of countries across the globe. More than half of the discretionary budget of the United States is devoted to military-related purposes, and all three Senators running for President of the United States are calling for even greater spending for the machinery of death.

Meanwhile, across the globe, there are armed conflicts within a number of nations, some of them involving forces from outside the country of conflict. The tragedy of war not only directly causes many deaths and injuries, of civilians as well as combatants, but also results in hunger, homelessness, disease, environmental degradation, and enormous waste of resources that could have been used for good.

Many war veterans have recognized that they need to respond to their own experience of the horrors of war with a commitment to work to end war. See, for example, Vietnam veteran Mac Bica’s On This Memorial Day commentary.

I urge everyone to use this Memorial Day for its stated purpose, and pray for permanent peace. And may your prayers move you to action to end the madness of war.

Personally, I pledge this election year Memorial Day not to vote for any Presidential or Congressional candidate who does not stand for major reductions in the military budget and a change in America’s aggressive posture towards the rest of the world.

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Why I am evangelical but not an Evangelical

Friday, May 16th, 2008

The catalyst for this post was An Evangelical Manifesto, which I reflected upon in my last post. And my perspective on the subject is deeply informed by two traditions/movements within the Christian church with which I have been heavily involved. One is Quakerism in which I spent much of my life. Another is what is often referred to as the Emerging Church conversation or movement. While I have only formally been a member of an Emerging Church for three years, I was part of a group which had much of the same perspective long before the term Emerging Church had been dreamed of. That little spiritual community which became known as Friends in Christ melded Quaker and what now would be called Emerging Church perspectives in a way that could be called an early precursor of the loose Convergent Friends movement of today. Here I will note that in the long list of Manifesto signatories I could not identify any Quakers or any of the prominent public faces in the Emerging Church conversation.

As I indicated in my earlier post, I fully identify with the definition in An Evangelical Manifesto: “Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.” Playing off that document’s insistence on capitalizing Evangelical, I am saying I am evangelical in terms of the root meaning of that word expressed in that Manifesto definition, but I’m not comfortable with some other aspects of the description of Evangelical, in which the Manifesto is faithful to the tradition of that part of the Christian church. That leads me to seeing myself as fitting the term if left lower case, but not really accurately defined when it is upper case.

The Bible and Authority

The Manifesto, and here it is indeed representative of Evangelicalism, refers to sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), the “supreme authority of the Bible,” and “the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice.” It claims this is shown by “Jesus’ own teaching and his attitude.” This is a Manifesto, not an apology, and it doesn’t do references, so I’m not sure what they rely on for that.

I find Jesus saying in scripture that I am the way and the truth and the life. (John 14:6, NIV) This is a radical statement, and one hard for us humans to accept because we want to be able to package up truth in a neat, rational box. Jesus tells us this impulse is wrong. The people that he had such conflict with are precisely the religious leaders of his day who wanted to tie up faith in a neat little box. Relying on purely the written word of the Bible as the Truth doesn’t really quite succeed in achieving the goal of the neat little box, but the urge to make the book supreme is an attempt to move in that direction. Evangelicals also proclaim Christ is Lord, but their emphasis on the written word as the sole determiner of Truth tends to contradict that. I am not an Evangelical because, in the end, I’m not sure that Evangelicalism is really centered on Jesus Christ.

I believe the premier Quaker apologist, Robert Barclay, put this question of authority well in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity. He states that the scriptures do contain revelations of God to the saints, but notes that, “because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners.” Barclay notes “that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth” and goes on to make this key argument:

If by the Spirit we can only come to the true knowledge of God; if by the Spirit we are to be led into all Truth, and so be taught of all things; then the Spirit, and not the Scriptures, is the foundation and ground of all Truth and knowledge, and the primary rule of faith and manners

I find Barclay’s arguments convincing. (See also Friends (Quakers) and the Bible.)

My immersion into the Emerging Church conversation has provided me with further insights into understanding the scriptures. I have learned about narrative theology. To me, this provides a way to better explore the richness of the scriptures than a doctrinally centered theology. I can observe that Jesus taught largely by telling stories, and by the story of what he did. Looking at the whole Bible, I can see that it is predominantly stories. By taking the narrative approach rather than a literalist approach, we are better able to explore the many facets of the stories in the scripture and to translate them into lessons for how we can live more faithfully.

The narrative approach sees the narrative as continuing, not stopped at some point in time with what’s in the canon, which is consistent with the early Quaker reluctance to embrace the idea of a fixed canon. When I participated in the Journey Seminar, the membership class for Cedar Ridge Community Church, I appreciated the approach of a journey which included what was recorded in scripture, the history of the Christian church in its many variations, and the life of this particular local faith community. It gave me both a sense of the “cloud of witnesses” and of the importance of the continuing spiritual journey in which I can participate. At the end, to become a member, I signed a sheet of paper that was committing myself to principles of living out the journey with Christ within the context of this particular community, but did not contain doctrinal propositions. This felt right to me.

Protestant?

While what I have just written about is the primary reason for my reluctance to consider myself an Evangelical, there is another (albeit related) concern. Evangelicals hold strongly to being Protestant, in contrast with the alternatives of being Catholic or Orthodox. I feel a reluctance to limit my Christian understanding to just one of the main divisions of the Christian church. This view, too, has been heavily impacted by my involvement in both Quakerism and the Emerging Church conversation.

There has been a debate about whether or not Quakers are Protestants. (See Are Quakers Protestant?) Early Quakers contrasted themselves with both Catholics and Protestants (Orthodox were simply not a part of the religious conversation in 17th century Britain where the Quaker movement started, but I’m sure Quakers would also have contrasted themselves with the Orthodox if they had been), essentially regarding both streams as apostate. In some areas, they saw Protestants as having moved from part of the errors of Catholicism, but not all the way. As regards the scriptures, their argument was in fact primarily with Protestantism.

While identifying with the Quaker reluctance to put themselves in one of the big boxes of Christianity, I became increasingly reluctant to see that solely as rejecting those major streams. My participation (1993-94) in the Spiritual Nurturer Program of the School of the Spirit greatly contributed to that. While the Program was Quaker, the majority of the readings were from the monastic tradition, which has been writing in depth about spiritual nurture for many centuries. I found that I really identified with most of what I read from the monastic tradition. That did not make me want to convert to Catholicism, but it did result in a great appreciation for the spiritual richness within that tradition.

At Cedar Ridge, the teachings and practices draw from all three major divisions of the Christian church. All are seen as part of the story in which we see ourselves. While in the Emerging Church conversation we recognize many ways in which all three traditions have gone astray at various points in history, we don’t have the unrelenting negativism towards them that marked the early Quakers. We also see a lot of spiritual vitality in all of these streams of Christianity. I identify with this perspective.

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This post may be too long, but I hope it gave you some food for thought. I would welcome comments on it.

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An Evangelical Manifesto

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

On May 7, a group of prominent evangelical leaders issued An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment. It was developed by a Steering Committee of 9, including the President of Fuller Theological Seminary and the Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today, as well as one of my favorite writers and a leader in the Renovaré movement, Dallas Willard. In addition, there were 75 Charter Signatories, including many very prominent names in evangelical circles - conservative, moderate and liberal. Hundreds more have also signed. So this is a very important document.

The document is the latest development in a growing movement in recent years to rescue Evangelicalism (the Manifesto insists on this capitalization, and I am following their lead in this commentary) from the narrow stereotype of a bunch of fundamentalist conservative Republicans whose concerns are mostly limited to a couple of very controversial issues. Another prominent landmark in this movement was the 2004 statement by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility. Much credit for these promising developments should be given to evangelicals who have been actively laboring for many years for a broad agenda of social issues such as Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action and Jim Wallis of Sojourners (both Charter Signatories of the Manifesto).

The Manifesto asserts three major mandates for Evangelicals:

  1. We Must Reaffirm Our Identity
  2. We Must Reform Our Own Behavior
  3. We Must Rethink Our Place in Public Life

The wording of these mandates sounds like a call by the signatories to the Evangelical movement; an internal document for those who identify themselves as Evangelical. And it is that, and very rightly so. But it also serves an important function of speaking to those outside the Evangelical community to rectify misimpressions of what Evangelicalism is about. I feel it does a good job of speaking to both of these audiences.

I want to highlight some key elements of this landmark Manifesto (I can only here identify a few; the Manifesto is 20 pages and I encourage you to read the entire document for yourself), and offer some comments on them:

  • In reaffirming Evangelical identity, the Manifesto provides a useful definition: Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth. Personally, I can wholeheartedly identify with that definition.
  • It notes that Evangelicalism should be distinguished from two opposite tendencies to which Protestantism has been prone: liberal revisionism and conservative fundamentalism. This is in fact its historical place, but developments in the last half century came to blur the lines between Evangelicalism and fundamentalism, and I think this point is important. [Side Note: While insisting that Evangelical and its derivatives be capitalized, they don't extend the same courtesy to fundamentalists.] Again, personally I have sought to distinguish my own faith understanding from either of these tendencies, although I have done it outside of mainstream Evangelicalism.
  • It reiterates the concept of sola scriptura and the “supreme authority of the Bible.” This is well in keeping with Evangelical tradition. Personally, I believe this contradicts the centrality of Jesus Christ and is in conflict with their own definition of Evangelicals. This is a major reason why I consider myself evangelical but not an Evangelical. This is not the place to go into depth on this issue, and I plan a separate post addressing it.
  • The second mandate the Manifesto identifies really constitutes confession and repentance. This is very healthy. It does an excellent job of identifying major areas where Evangelicals have often gone in the wrong direction.
  • In the third mandate of the Manifesto, it does a good job of identifying “two equal and opposite errors” of privatizing faith and of politicizing faith. It correctly calls for engagement with politics, but avoiding identification with party or partisan ideology. I appreciate its call to a civil public square — a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths too. This sets the proper balance.
  • It addresses a key historical issue for the Church in stating, We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth. I think the truth is more mixed, and the Manifesto itself is somewhat weak in its argument in this section. It follows that statement by noting While some of us are pacifists and others are advocates of just war . . . This is a factual observation (and putting the two on an equal plane is a step forward, as pacifists often don’t get much respect), but it is somewhat ironic as the Just War Theory is itself a Constantinian development. In this respect, the Manifesto may represent an important step forward, but also illustrates that there is some distance still to go.
  • Importantly, it shares with the earlier landmark NAE Call a call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics.

While I am not 100% in unity with the Manifesto, I heartily welcome it as an important and positive contribution to the Church finding its way to more truly be the Body of Jesus Christ.

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Monday, May 12th, 2008

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Everything Must Change

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

Everything Must Change CoverLast year I was provided a pre-publication copy of Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope by Brian D. McLaren (Thomas Nelson, 2007, 327 pages). The goal was to read it and publish a review of it on my blog before the publication date. I knew that was ambitious, and in fact I didn’t finish it before then. All I got on my blog was a post on the amahoro story in the second chapter. I did finish the book months ago, but only now am I getting around to publishing a review of it.

This book follows on Brian’s previous book, The Secret Message of Jesus, which will give you a leg up in reading this book, but Everything Must Change can certainly be understood without having read The Secret Message first. The key point, reiterated in Chapter 1, is that Jesus’ message is not actually about escaping this troubled world for heaven’s blissful shores, as is popularly assumed, but instead is about God’s will being done on this troubled earth as it is in heaven. (p. 4) The things that churches often spend their energy talking and disputing about actually serve as weapons of mass distraction (p. 21), keeping Christians from focusing on the really important matters.

Brian seeks to answer two basic questions:

  1. What are the biggest problems in the world?
  2. What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?

Brian did extensive research to determine what the most important issues are. He found that the experts have different ways of categorizing the world’s problems, but mostly come up with similar lists. Brian grouped the issues into three deep dysfunctions that would be agreed upon by many secular experts, plus a fourth which he feels is the leverage point through which we can reverse the first three. He names them each as a crisis:

  1. Prosperity Crisis - our unsustainable global economy that fails to respect environmental limits;
  2. Equity Crisis - the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the extremely poor;
  3. Security Crisis - the danger of cataclysmic war; and
  4. Spirituality Crisis - the failure of the world’s religions to provide a framing story capable of healing or reducing the first three crises.

Brian maintains that our global systems have become a suicide machine reprogramming the systems to destroy those they should serve. He’s not maintaining that this is some sort of secret conspiracy, but rather the consequences of attitudes and decisions over the centuries.

Brian doesn’t just expect you to take his analysis on faith. He outlines the crises, and provides sources you can use to explore the issues in greater depth.

This may sound like all doom and gloom, but as a follower of Jesus, Brian is a man of hope. He is confident that Jesus has provided the pattern for a way forward, and that Christians can make a real difference if they understand the framing story Jesus tried to show us and seek to live in accordance with it. The last part of the book he calls The Revolution of Hope, and it provides starting points for a way forward.

Brian is a great writer, and the book is much easier to read than one might expect for a tome on the world’s greatest problems. He weaves in a lot of personal stories that are very illuminating. I’m not saying there aren’t parts that are heavy going, but it is written so that it can be understood by people without a lot of degrees or specialized knowledge.

As harsh as Brian’s analysis sounds, actually he deliberately tries to be gentle with people who may be exploring some of these ideas for the first time. One consequence is that he doesn’t always carry things through to their logical conclusion, because he thinks many folks aren’t quite ready for that. For those in the Peace Church tradition, this happens notably when he makes a good case for the peace position of Jesus, but then fails to follow through, and allows for both the pacifist and just war positions.

But any quibbles I have with the book are minor. I believe that Brian has correctly diagnosed the major global issues, correctly described how Jesus’ life and message speaks to them, and helpfully provided some steps on moving forward to addressing the issues. I wholeheartedly recommend that every Christian - and every other person with a deep concern for the global situation - read this book. I also encourage the formation of small groups to discuss the book together, as I feel this sort of engagement with one another is very helpful. Brian helpfully provides discussion questions after each chapter, which can be used as the basis for small group discussion.

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Welcome to my new blog

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

I have had a Bravenet blog for several years, to which I have posted sporadically. At the time I started it, I kept my personal Web files in space provided by my Web service provider.

Last year, I needed to upgrade my hosting account at HostNexus (outstanding customer service, excellent reliability, reasonable prices) because my sites had outgrown my old plan. With the new plan came a free domain. Thus began BillSamuel.net, the new place to put my personal Web files. I realized then that it might be best to have a blog directly on this domain, but I didn’t get around to actually doing it until now.

HostNexus offers WordPress, one of the most popular blog formats, in its programs repository with simple one-button installation. So I installed it. Then I realized it was an old version. So I upgraded to the current version, which is very easy with the simple 3-step guide provided on the WordPress site.

So I now have this spiffy new blog. I hope you will visit it frequently, and feel free to add your comments to my posts. I can’t promise to post any more regularly than in the past My old blog will remain available, so if there are any nuggets of wisdom there, they are still available.

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