Saturday, October 28, 2017

In Palestine, "Everyone Needs a Home" says Mennonite Central Committee

“Everyone needs a home—where families are safe and secure, where their basic needs are met, where they can come and go freely, and where they can imagine a future.”

That’s the way a new campaign from Mennonite Central Committee on Palestine and Israel begins.

“But that is not the reality for Palestinians,” it goes on to say.

Living “under Israeli occupation, Palestinians regularly experience demolition of their homes, confiscation of their land, restrictions to their movement because of checkpoints, walls, and permit systems,” MCC states.

Thinking about MCC’s new campaign, some may wonder: With all the huge needs in the world today, why focus on this issue?

On the MCC Ottawa Office blog, Esther Epp-Tiessen, the agency’s public engagement coordinator, offered the following reasons.

We are responding because of the urgent plea of our partners,” she wrote, “especially Palestinian Christian partners.”

These partners, she added, have for years been urging MCC to take “a bolder stance in calling for an end to occupation, oppression and injustice.”

Another reason is “because of the increasingly desperate situation of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.”

According to Epp-Tiessen, “the theft of land and the building of illegal settlements for Israeli Jews in the occupied West Bank continues apace,” and the “demolition of Palestinian homes, schools and orchards goes on with impunity.”

Palestinians who resist “are increasingly bullied, silenced, imprisoned.”

They are also launching the campaign “because we care also about Israeli Jews,” who are also “harmed by the words, walls, and weapons that divide them from Palestinians.

MCC’s 68-year history in the region is also important, she said. 

“Our history and continuous presence . . . has given us insights into the ongoing conflict, as well as a special burden to help in supporting a resolution to the conflict.”

Another reason is “because of our faith.”

“Our commitment to Jesus compels us to stand with the oppressed, lovingly speak truth to power, and actively seek a just peace in the land where Jesus walked,” she shared.

Through the campaign, MCC is asking people to sign a petition that urges the Canadian government to “prioritize the human rights of Palestinian children and hold Israeli authorities accountable for widespread and systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian child detainees.”

MCC’s campaign does not ask Canadians to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which calls for boycotts of products made in Israel; for organizations to pull investments out of Israeli companies; and for government sanctions against Israel.

After reading Epp-Tiessen’s post, I called Rick Cober Baumann, MCC Canada’s new Executive Director. I had a different question for him.

Considering recent flare-ups of anti-Semitism in the U.S., and even here in Winnipeg, was he worried that the campaign might add to the anxiety of Canadian Jews?

He acknowledges this is a concern. “We want to make it absolutely clear that we don’t want to promote antagonism against Jews, in Canada or Israel,” he says.

That’s why the campaign affirms the fears of Israelis, who also “live with ongoing fear and trauma . . . they too long for safety and security.”

MCC “clearly recognizes the insecurity and lack of safety felt by Israelis,” he says, noting that in the past MCC had not fully taken this into account.

“This time we are making more of an intentional effort.”

MCC also wants to be “more responsive to the Jewish community,” in Canada, he says. This includes looking for ways to dialogue with Canadian Jews about this issue. They also want to dialogue with members of that community who also want to find a “non-violent and just peace in Palestine.”

Thinking about the campaign, Cober-Baumann recognizes that “not everyone will be happy” with it. Yet he still believes it’s important.

“Our advocacy effort is based on our experience,” he said. “It shows us there is an occupation, and that a deep price is being paid for that occupation by the Palestinians. It grows out of the reality on the ground.”

Through a Cry for Home, he hopes that MCC’s supporters, and other Canadians, will come “to a deeper understanding of the situation.”

What do Winnipeg Jews think about MCC’s campaign? That will be the subject of a future column.

From the Oct. 28 Winnipeg Free Press.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Religious Roots of the American Flag Flap

Americans are debating whether it is disrespectful for professional football players to kneel during the national anthem before games.

While many points of view have been proffered, one thing that hasn’t been mentioned very much is the religious angle behind the flag flap.

This includes one of the football players behind the controversy: San Francisco 49ers strong safety Eric Reid.

It was Reid who started the whole kneeling thing, together with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“My faith moved me to take action,” he wrote last month about his decision in the New York Times.

Citing James 2:17, which states that faith without works is dead, he said he knew he needed to do “what is right” about the deaths of so many black men in the U.S.

Kaepernick himself has been open about his Christian faith.

He has been quoted as saying “my faith is the basis from where my game comes from . . . I think God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps and has helped me to get to where I’m at.”

But before Reid and Kaepernick kicked off the national controversy, two small American Mennonite schools took their own anthem actions.

In 2011, Goshen College, a small liberal arts Mennonite school in Indiana, decided not to play the anthem before sporting events on campus.

Citing their traditional Mennonite pacifist convictions, the school at first decided to just play an instrumental version of the anthem—no more mentions of warlike rockets and their red glare.

But later they decided to drop the anthem altogether, replacing it with America the Beautiful, followed by a prayer.

For Goshen alumnus Mark Schloneger, the decision was the right one.

Mennonites, he wrote on the CNN website, “recognize only one Christian nation, the church, the holy nation that is bound together by a living faith in Jesus rather than by man-made, blood-soaked borders.”

“Following Jesus and the martyrs before us, we testify with our lives that freedom is not a right that is granted or defended with rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air . . . I love my country, but I sing my loyalty and pledge my allegiance to Jesus alone.”

Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia also doesn’t play the anthem before sports events, or fly the U.S. flag on campus.

On its website, the university states that the practice is “rooted in deeply-held historical beliefs that God is ruler of all nations, not just ours, and that our allegiance to God as such transcends all nationalities, even our own.”

But all of this anthem protest was made possible long before Mennonites and football players, thanks to another religious group—the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

For members of that church, standing for the U.S. anthem—or any country’s, including Canada—or saluting a flag, is against their beliefs. It is seen as compromising their primary loyalty to God.

The court ruled it was unconstitutional for a local school board in West Virginia to expel Jehovah’s Witnesses children from school because they wouldn’t stand for the anthem or pledge allegiance to the flag.

In making the ruling, the court stated that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t the only groups who have concerns about anthems and flags. The Amish and Quakers also feel that way.

For Canadians, this seems a bit strange—we respect our flag and anthem, but most don’t revere them the way many Americans do theirs.

But the point being made by people acting out of their faith in the U.S. is still worth considering: No matter what religion you belong to, where is your ultimate allegiance?

At the end of the day, that may be one of the more important questions being raised by America’s flag flap.

From the Oct. 21 Winnipeg Free Press.   

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On the Benefits of "Thoughts and Prayers"

After major tragedies, the same thing happens: People say they are sending “thoughts and prayers.”

In the last few months, thoughts and prayers have been sent about hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Houston and Florida; to Edmonton following that city’s terrorist attack; and, of course, to Las Vegas following the deadly shooting.

Today, most people seem to send their thoughts and prayers by social media. But they also are shared by politicians.

Research by Ben Rowen in Atlantic shows that since 1995 there were 4,139 instances in which a congressperson expressed thoughts and prayers in the Senate or House.

As Rowen points out, “given that the House has averaged 138 days in session a year and the Senate 162 since 2001, this equates to close to one ‘thoughts and prayers’ entered into the record per workday on the Hill.”

In Canada, a search of Hansard going back to 1994 shows that “thoughts and prayers” were shared only 540 times in Parliament, mostly by Conservatives.

The practice has also produced a backlash—don’t just pray, do something! That’s how Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy saw it after the Las Vegas shootings.

To his colleagues who sent thoughts and prayers, but who refuse to try to check the proliferation of guns in that country, he tweeted: “Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.”

Most would agree that prayer without action is meaningless. But does that mean that sending thoughts and prayers, in themselves, is a bad thing?

I don’t know what it means to send thoughts. There are some who believe that energy can travel across space to positively impact other people. But this seems to be a minority view.

As for prayer, lots of people say they do that—an Angus Reid survey from a year ago found that 86 percent of Canadians pray at least once a month or more.

Fifty-nine percent of the time they pray to ask God for help; 35 percent of the time they pray for God to help others.

And what about the effect of those prayers? The same study found that 44 percent of Canadians said their prayers are answered “sometimes.” Twenty-four percent said they were answered “often,’ and 11 percent said “always.”

But not all the effects of prayer are for others. It turns out praying also benefits the one who is doing it. Eighty-sex percent of Canadians said praying added something to their own lives.

In his book The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, Kevin Ladd, a former pastor and associate professor of psychology at Indiana University, confirms this. For him, a major function of prayer “is the key role it plays in helping people cope with the problems encountered in social living.”

Prayer, he says, is significant for helping people deal with things like relationships, illness and death. Pausing to pray also has a calming effect, generates a sense of peace, and reduces stress.

“That prayer helps one better cope and adjust to life’s challenges has become increasingly evident over time,” he states.

Today we seem to be awash in tragedy and misery—natural disasters, refugee flight, famine, mass shootings. It is easy to be overwhelmed and feel powerless to do anything to help. We want to help, but what can we do?

At times like that, prayer might be the only thing, for those who are suffering and also for our own peace of mind.

Of course, we shouldn’t only send thoughts and prayers—we should also donate money, give blood, volunteer, make a casserole for a neighbour in distress or do anything else that might make a practical difference in the lives of those who are suffering.

A final word from Ladd about why people pray.

Prayer, he writes, “is a paradoxical spiritual practice that does not guarantee predictably discernible efficacy at every turn. It’s not a cosmic vending machine. So why do people pray? Because they have faith that it is the right thing for them to do.”

And to that I can only say: “Amen.”

From the Oct. 14 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

When it Comes to Religion, Nones Might Not Always Be Nones—They Might be Maybes

Growing up in southern Ontario, my NFL team was the Buffalo Bills. When I moved to Manitoba, I cheered for the Minnesota Vikings. When I lived in Dallas, Texas, I rooted for the Cowboys.

It was the same for the CFL. Living close to Toronto as a kid, I cheered for the Argos. After moving to Winnipeg, I became a Bombers fan. In the NHL, it was first the Leafs, followed by the Jets.

My sports allegiances, in other words, weren’t fixed—they were fluid. Who I cheered for depended on when I was asked and where I lived.

What’s true for sports might also be true for religious affiliation, according to Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University.

In an article published in March titled Religious Ambivalence, Liminality, and the Increase of No Religious Preference in theUnited States, 2006-2014, in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Hout suggests that religious preferences are also not as fixed as some might think.

This is especially true for the growing number of people who identify as nones, people who, when asked in surveys if they identify with a religious group, check the box that says “none.”

With about 20 percent of Americans saying they have no religious affiliation, and about 24 percent of people in Canada saying the same thing, their growing numbers suggest that religion in both countries is in serious trouble.

But Hout says we may be drawing the wrong conclusions from the data.  

Most surveys that ask about religious affiliation, he says, are binary in nature—people are asked if they are in or out at one particular moment in time.

But after checking longitudinal results from the U.S. General Social Survey, which checked religious affiliation three times over a period of six years, Hout discovered that religious affiliation is not an immutable thing.

While some of the respondents were consistently in the nones camp at each point, others changed their minds and identified with a faith group.

Hout’s conclusion? Although it’s true that Americans are identifying less and less with organizated religion, these results show that nones are “not consistently nonreligious.”

Based on his research, Hout concludes that 70 percent of Americans are consistently religious, ten percent are consistently non-religious, and 20 percent are in-between.

He calls these people “liminals,” taken from the Latin word limin, which means threshold. They are literally on the fence between affiliating or not affiliating with religious groups—they could go either way.

The story of the past 25 years is that of a move away from organized religion, he acknowledges, “but focusing on the net change misses substantial flux that moves both toward and away from organized religion.”

What about Canada? Studies in this country also show that many of the non-affiliated continue to be open to religious belief—they believe in God and pray.

They are what University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby calls the “ambivalent middle,” people who could go either way when it comes to identifying with religious groups.

Like in the U.S., many of these people “haven’t slammed the door on possible religious involvement,” Bibby told me a few years ago.  

While not everyone who is a none is interested in being part of a faith group, “it does mean significant numbers of Canadians haven’t said a final goodbye to religion,” he stated.

A question that might come to mind, then, is: If some liminal people might be willing to identify with religious groups, what might attract them—and what might keep them away?

According to an Angus Reid study, 42 percent of Canadians who are ambivalent about religion say they would be open to greater involvement with religious groups if it met their personal needs.

As for what pushes them away, a study in the U.S. found that about half of nones mentioned the gulf between science and what their faith groups teach as a reason for leaving.

Other reasons included a dislike for the hierarchical nature of some religious groups, and the way some groups view LGBTQ people. The latter was especially true for younger liminals.

If that’s the case, maybe nones aren’t the only ones on the fence; religious groups may have some decisions to make, too.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The End of Sola Scriptura?

On October 31, Protestants around the world will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. That was when, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther’s actions resulted in what has been called the five great solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (Bible alone); Sola Fide (faith alone); Sola Gratia (grace alone); Solus Christus (Christ alone): and Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone).

Of the five, Sola Scriptura is the one causing the most problems today says Dave Schmelzer, director of the Blue Ocean Faith, a network of 11 evangelical churches in the U.S.

Schmelzer, who lives in California, was once a self-described atheist before becoming a Christian, getting a seminary degree and planting a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For Schmelzer, Sola Scriptura was a powerful way to address the problems in the church of Luther’s day.

“The problem he was trying to solve was who had the authority to say what God’s will was,” he says.  

Luther solved one problem, but created a new one. Since his action coincided with the invention of the printing press, many people could now read the Bible and interpret it for themselves; no need to rely on a Pope.

But all those new readers ended up interpreting it differently—what was the clear meaning of a passage to one wasn’t so clear to others.This led to division and discord, and to over 9,000 Protestant denominations today.

It also led to heated battles in some churches over the centuries about issues such as slavery, divorce, inter-racial marriage, dancing, music, use of alcohol, whether women can be leaders and others.

In all these cases, people could easily find verses that supported their views, whether that was to keep slaves, excommunicate people who got divorced, not use musical instruments in worship, or keep women out of positions of leadership.

But, as we know with these issues, new insight and revelations came along and suddenly what was certain in the Bible wasn't so certain anymore.

Or, as Schmelzer says, “the Bible clearly supported slavery, until it didn’t.”

Changes like these is why Sola Scriptura is “showing cracks,” he says.

But it’s not just how some Christians have tended to view the Bible as an instruction manual, a verse-by-verse prescription for how to live, believe and behave—and who to accept or reject—that concerns him.

The bigger issue for him is that seeing the Bible this way is “a poor substitute for actually knowing God.”

The Bible, he notes, “can’t actually give life . . . for all its amazingness, [it] is just a book, after all, not God.”

Schmelzer notes that Jesus viewed the religious leaders of the day—those who quoted the scriptures against him—among his opponents.

But if Schmelzer is right, what will replace the Bible as the final authority for those who hold the Sola Scriptura view?

His answer is another of the Reformation’s great solas: Solus Jesus, or Christ alone.

And why does he think that’s a better way?

He offers a few reasons: It proclaims that Jesus is alive and eager to speak to believers today; it accepts there are other ways Jesus can speak to his followers; and it takes the pressure off Christians from having to figure out who to include and who to exclude from the church, based on this verse or that.

Schmelzer doesn’t want to throw out the Bible. It’s still important. But for him it’s just one of the ways God speaks—and it isn’t the bottom line.

“Combined with hearing from Jesus by way of the Holy Spirit, and with the rich transparent relationships with other people following Jesus, it sounds like we’ll be on a good road” with this approach, he says.

I asked Schmelzer if he is getting any pushback for his views.

“Some call me a heretic, and see this as a very threatening thing,” he says. But others, he says, find it liberating.

Today the big battle in many churches is whether LGBTQ Christians can be welcomed into the community of the faithful. I asked Schmelzer if letting go ofSola Scriptura would be a help in dealing with this issue.

For him, the answer is yes; if Sola Scriptura is no longer holds, then Christians don’t have to worry about verses that exclude people, like those that oppose homosexuality. They can listen to a new voice from God about being open and inclusive.

Or, as Schmelzer says, “treating LBGTQ persons differently from anyone else” is “not something Jesus would do.”

Dave Schmelzer articulates his approach to this, and other questions about faith and society, in his new book Blue Ocean Faith: The Vibrant Connection to Jesus that Opens up Insanely Great Possibilities in a Secularizing World.