Sunday, October 31, 2010

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) (Academic Freedom)

Having explained my own perspective in watching the film, it is hopefully easier to understand my reaction to it. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed does not interview fundamentalist preachers or homeschooling parents whose religious faith leads them to reject Darwinism without any scientific training to support their beliefs. That is the typical stereotype of Creationists, but the film takes a more sophisticated and more interesting approach to the subject by exploring the belief of some who have apparently studied the issue in great depth and rejected Darwinism.

The film explains that the Theory of Evolution is accepted to some degree by virtually all scientists—everyone agrees there is adaption within species. But the film describes that some scientists believe the Theory of Evolution has limits; it does not explain sufficiently how life first came into being from primordial soup. It also does not explain sufficiently how different species came into being. Per the film, this is really where the academic debate is rooted.

To develop these points, the film interviews a number of scientists who have expressed openness to the concept that there are limits to the insights we can glean from Darwin. A central theme in the film is that such scientists have had their careers ruined because of persecution for a lack of conformity to the prevailing academic consensus about Evolution. People have been denied tenure and/or lost their jobs because of voicing openness to “intelligent design” concepts.

I have no idea if this persecution really has happened or if these incidents have been contrived by the filmmakers to serve a political purpose. But I am inclined to believe that some of the scientists interviewed really were persecuted as they claim. There were a lot of them, and the testimonial evidence they offered seemed credible to me. If their claims are true, this is truly a frightening trend even if one is a devoted Darwinist. Academic freedom is so important to colleges and other institutions devoted to intellectual pursuits and the advancement of human knowledge.

As mentioned in another blog post this year, I value the marketplace of ideas concept that underpins the First Amendment. I believe that truth will make itself known eventually. Repressing the expression of a person’s ideas does not alter this fact. I believe that only those who are threatened and fearful of other ideas try to silence their opponents. As a professor, I for one value academic freedom because it helps us discern as a community the most valid ideas in our respective disciplines. It is frightening to hear from academics, like those in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, who claim to have lost their jobs and had their professional reputations ruined because of openness to or outright embrace of ideas that are not popular within their discipline.

In the so-called “culture war,” conservatives often complain that media and academic elites look down on them and try to prevent the expression of conservative beliefs. In July of this year I blogged about the film Rated R: Republican in Hollywood, which focused on the former type of elitism. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed focused on the latter type. To the extent the sort of blacklisting described in these two films does go on, it would be very tragic. In supposedly “liberal” communities, openness to new ideas and an embrace of heterogeneity are purportedly embraced. Such values are inconsistent with demands that everyone in the community share the same “liberal” beliefs.

Matthew 5: 23-24 (New Century Version)

"So when you offer your gift to God at the altar, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go and make peace with that person, and then come and offer your gift.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) (My Own Experiences with the Evolution v. Creation Debate)

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a film that purports to expose the hypocrisy and persecution of non-Darwinists in the science academy. When I first popped the film into the DVD player, I have to admit that I thought this was going to be a film with a rather paranoid, over-the-top perspective. But I try to have an open-mind and listen to different perspectives. So, I must admit that (somewhat to my surprise) I found parts of this film to be rather compelling.

To avoid misunderstandings, let me first make a few things clear about my own perspective on this debate between Creationists and Darwinists. I am no scientist. I took a couple years of biology in high school, along with a fair amount of geology and a bit of chemistry in college. But I was not particularly interested in (or adept at) science. I was a liberal arts major after all. I have studied the Theory of Evolution at a basic level, but that was many (many!) years ago and I cannot say that I ever studied it in depth or pondered its implications deeply.

In the past and the present, I have known plenty of Christians who embrace Creationism and think “Darwin” is a four letter word. Some such folks are people I love and admire very much. I must say though that I’ve never understood the Creationist perspective. When I accepted Christ and decided to be baptized, I did so in the Catholic Church, which is a denomination that does not teach a literal interpretation of the Bible and has no opposition to Darwin. (Maybe the church learned its lesson after persecuting Galileo over the flat v. spherical earth debate?)

In speaking with Christians who embrace Creationism, they have often expressed to me that their belief is rooted in the notion that the Bible is sort of a touchstone for all human knowledge—even scientific knowledge. That perspective does not jive with the faith traditions of the two churches to which I have belonged (i.e., Catholic and Episcopal). Instead, in those traditions, the Bible is viewed as the central text containing God’s spiritual truth as revealed over many hundreds of years to multiple people. Though incredibly important to discern spiritual truths, the Bible does not necessarily purport to have scientific truths to teach. As a result, I have never viewed the Bible and Darwinism as being in conflict, and I’m not alone. I remember vividly that when I was still an atheist, my first high school biology teacher (at a public school) began the school year explaining briefly that he was a Christian who accepted that the Theory of Evolution was well-proven scientifically. And as a conservative Christian homeschooling mom our family knows recently stated, “I keep my son’s Bible study and science curriculum separate!”

I’m cognizant that the Holy Bible came into being in a very different manner than the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an, for example. Those books are considered to be holy scripture by the LDS church and by Muslims, respectively. As I understand, it is believed that the Book of Mormon was given by God (through an angel) to the first LDS prophet as an intact text; Joseph Smith just had to translate and transcribe God’s word. It is my understanding that the Qur’an is believed to have been the memorialization of words spoken by God directly to Mohammed. Per my understanding, in both faith traditions, the belief is that God provided direct revelation to human beings, who wrote down those revelations for others to read and understand God’s words.

But the Christian scripture came into being in a very different way. The Old Testament was in oral form for hundreds of years before it was ever written down. While in oral form, it changed (one might say evolved!) over time and was not a static text. The New Testament had a very different “genesis.” It consists largely of correspondence from the early church fathers to fledgling church communities around the Mediterranean. St. Paul wrote the lion’s share of the text. As I’ve often heard mentioned from the pulpit, Paul didn’t know he was writing a sacred text, he was dealing with real life problems with a far flung set of believers during the infancy of the church. Other portions of the New Testament are memorialized summaries of the life and ministry of Jesus to explain to readers why he is recognized as Messiah. Those summaries—the four Gospel books—were written later in time than Paul’s letters, so they are not written by witnesses with first hand accounts of Jesus’s life. Instead, the early church believed Jesus’s second coming was imminent, so they did not initially feel the need for written accounts of his teachings. The Gospel books are memorializations by four different individuals of stories of Jesus's earthly life that were initially shared orally in the early Christian communities after Christ's resurrection and ascension. As a result of this history, many Christians would never think to rely upon the Holy Bible as a touchstone for all questions, and specifically would never look to it for scientific insights. I have tried but just do not understand the perspective of Christians who look to the Bible for scientific insights.

It is interesting because this issue of the scope of insight provided by the Bible causes a good deal of tension. I have known non-religious people who are very turned off to Christianity—though they often know very little about Jesus and his teachings—because they understand incorrectly that all Christians believe the Bible to contain literal truths such that they deny all modern scientific insights. I have also known wonderful Christ-followers, who initially had a hard time embracing Christianity and finding a church home, because they could not stomach belonging to a faith community that rejected Darwinism. It is interesting to me because the folks I have known in both groups were not scientists. Just as I don’t understand the perspective of non-scientist Christians who embrace Creationism with incredible zeal, I also don’t understand others who lack scientific training who embrace Evolution with unwavering dedication.

So, the upshot of all this is that I have never been aligned with the side of “Creationism.” I certainly believe God created the physical world we know, but I don’t believe the two creation stories from Genesis are literally true. As I have been taught in churches to which I belonged, the two creation stories reflect metaphorically truths about our omnipotent and loving Creator, but they aren't to be understood as insisting that God created the world in six 24-hour days. Personally, I don’t know the details of how God created the world, I'm not a scientist. But on some level, I also have a certain skepticism that any of us can ever know all the details, no matter how much science we use. Maybe I'm wrong.

I guess I tend to favor some form of Darwinism because I understand it to be the overwhelming majority consensus among scientists. I tend to have a lot of respect for those who have studied a subject in great depth. I recognize that until one delves deeply into a subject, one’s understanding and insights might be limited and even incorrect. In my opinion (based on my own life experiences), the opinions people form based on lengthy study of and experience with a particular topic tend to be better informed and more accurate.

Nonetheless, I never feel comfortable fully endorsing positions when I am not terribly knowledgeable about the subject matter. That is my M.O. in the area of science and pretty much every other discipline. Any other approach would require blind faith in the conclusions of other human beings, which just does not suit me.

Genesis 1:1-2:3 (English Standard Version)

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, "Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth." And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, "Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens." So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds." And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Thy Kingdom Come by Randall Balmer (Battles Over Schools, Evolution & Environmentalism; Political Expediency & Hypocrisy)

Thy Kingdom Come provides insightful history lessons on a number of hot button issues involving the Religious Right. Balmer describes the growing debate over school vouchers and inadequate financial support for public schools. He goes into great depth to explain the continuing cultural scars to fundamentalists from the humiliation of the Scopes “monkey trial,” as well as the more recent quest for legitimization via the label of “intelligent design.”

Balmer also notes that one would intuitively predict Creationists would be passionate about conserving God’s creation, but that has not been the case in recent years. He explains how the Religious Right came to align themselves with conservative, pro-business politicians that worked aggressively to fight against any legal efforts to protect the environment. He also describes how some Evangelicals are beginning to rebel against this approach based on biblical principles of stewardship.

In his “Conclusion,” Balmer reflects back on the bottom line of the various themes he has explored. He concludes that the Religious Right has distorted the teachings of Christ by ignoring clear teachings on protecting the vulnerable in society and peacemaking in favor of politically expedient themes with flimsy biblical support. He notes the hypocrisies of leaders of the Religious Right including Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, William Bennett, and Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Balmer concludes that the ultimate aim of the Religious Right is to establish a “homogenous theocracy” analogous to that in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. But historian Balmer describes the lesson of Puritan New England as being clear:

Religion...functions best outside the political order, and often as a challenge
to the political order. When it identifies too closely with the state, it
becomes complacent and ossified, and efforts to coerce piety or to proscribe
certain behavior in the interests of moral conformity are unavailing.

Moreover, Balmer describes the Religious Right as more interested in moralism than morality, and are frankly “frightened by pluralism.” Consequently, the Religious Right is waging war on the First Amendment “in the interest of imposing its own theocratic vision” despite the irony that “no group has profited more from the First Amendment and the disestablishment of religion in American than evangelicals.”

Balmer ends the book with an exhortation to fellow believers:

[t]o reclaim their birthright as evangelical Christians and examine the
scriptures for themselves—absent the funhouse mirror distortions of the
Religious Right. For those equal to the task, I suggest a form of shock therapy:
juxtapose the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), arguably the highest expression
of Christian ethics, with the platform of the Republican Party.

Luke 11:9-10 (Darby Translation)

And I say to you, Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.
For every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it will be opened.

John 9: 25, 30, 33

Then he answered, I do not know whether He is a sinner and wicked or not. But one thing I do know, that whereas I was blind before, now I see.
The man replied, Well, this is astonishing! Here a Man has opened my eyes, and yet you do not know where He comes from. [That is amazing!]
If this Man were not from God, He would not be able to do anything like this.

Luke 18:9-14 (The Message)

He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: "Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: 'Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.'
"Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, 'God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'"
Jesus commented, "This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up flat on your face, but if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thy Kingdom Come by Randall Balmer (Abortion, Homosexuality and Divorce)

Randall Balmer begins Thy Kingdom Come questioning the “odd choice” of the Religious Right to choose abortion as its defining issue to consolidate power in the 1980s because of the movement’s emphasis on biblical literalism and the paucity of biblical references to the abortion issue. Moreover, he notes those in the movement had taken inconsistent positions on the “right to life” in supporting capital punishment and “various armed conflicts.” Nonetheless, he explains that in the 1980s abortion was viewed as a political issue that had traction despite weak biblical arguments.

With similarly weak biblical arguments against homosexuality, Balmer notes that at about the same time the Religious Right pushed aside much clearer condemnation of divorce in the New Testament to focus instead on homosexuality as a rallying cry. He describes this as a politically motivated use of selective literalism to “locate sin outside of the evangelical subculture” by “designating as especially egregious” the conduct of others. Balmer asserts divorce was “too close for comfort” because many fellow believers had transgressed that prohibition (including Ronald Reagan, an early hero of the Religious Right). Balmer points out that to be consistent with their aim of making abortion illegal, the Religious Right ought to be expending equivalent effort to make divorce illegal (not just more difficult to obtain).

Balmer also notes hypocrisy on the abortion issue. Reagan and George H. W. Bush campaigned hard on antiabortion rhetoric, but never delivered on promises to outlaw abortion. Balmer also talks about the construction of an “abortion myth” that the movement began in direct response to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. He explains that in reality few Christians paid much attention to the decision when it was first issued, and those who did generally viewed it favorably. Instead, Balmer musters evidence that the inspiration for political activism was actually the 1975 IRS attempt to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University ("BJU") due to its racially discriminatory policies. Balmer asserts abortion was a much more expedient rallying cause that the tax status of BJU.

1 Timothy 4:11 (The Message)

Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament by Randall Balmer (Sep. of Church/State)

This book was a revelation to me. I read it not long after it was published in 2006. It was a time when I felt increasingly alienated from the media’s portrayal of Christianity as well as many local faith communities in Texas where I was living at the time. When I read the words of Jesus in the Bible, I was at a loss to understand how they could be used to support preemptive war and economic policies favoring the wealthy, as well as to foster hostility towards efforts to protect the most vulnerable in our society and the health of our fragile planet. However, until I found Thy Kingdom Come, I had begun to feel like one of the only folks who saw any type of a contradiction.

Dr. Balmer’s Preface begins:

I write as a jilted lover. The evangelical faith that nurtured me as a child and
sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have
distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ, defaulted on the noble legacy of
nineteenth-century evangelical activism, and failed to appreciate the genius of
the First Amendment. They appear not to have read the same New Testament that I open before me every morning at the kitchen counter.

Randall Balmer is a professor of American religious history. One of the aspects of Thy Kingdom Come that I found most compelling was the historical commentary he provided to put into perspective the relatively recent attempts in the United States to impose religion on government. Although he is a committed Christian and well-versed in the Bible, Balmer makes clear he is not a theologian. He explicitly leaves to theologians the analysis and interpretation of Scripture.

As someone with many friends and family who belong to Southern Baptist congregations, I enjoyed reading of the history of the Baptist tradition. Balmer traces its roots to reformers in sixteenth century Europe who were deeply suspicious of church-state entanglements. In the New World, the Baptist tradition took root under the leadership of people like Roger Williams and Isaac Backus, who championed the ideas of separation of church and state. Williams was concerned that state endorsement of religion would diminish the authenticity of faith. Backus shared such concerns and noted that Jesus “made no use of secular force” in establishing the first Gospel church. Later, in the nineteenth century, George Washington Truett, characterized the Roman Empire’s embrace of Christianity as disastrous because “when Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars.” Truett also championed the concept of religious liberty as the “chiefest contribution” of America to civilization; he also declared it “preeminently a Baptist achievement.”

Balmer then compares the traditional Baptist scorn for mixing religion and government with the modern trend of many Baptists to meld the two. Since the late 1970s, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was taken over by conservatives. (Ironically, this took place during the presidency of a Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter.) Since that time, the SBC has aligned itself more and more with the political movement of the Religious Right. Balmer gives examples of Baptist leaders advocating a mixing of religion and politics in the context of court rulings on school prayer, same sex marriage, reproductive choice issues, and the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property. Indeed, some leaders mentioned in the book are promoting the notion that the separation of church and state is a “myth” propagated by political opponents.

Nonetheless, historian Balmer builds a persuasive case that religion tends to flourish in societies where it is independent and not supported by the state. Indeed, I have witnessed this phenomenon first hand when I have traveled abroad. In countries where the government provides financial support to churches and/or regulates the activities of the church, I have been saddened by the way religion is marginalized in society. Certainly I witnessed this when I have traveled to the People’s Republic of China, and worshipped with local Christians. But I have also seen this happen in Europe, a traditional Christian stronghold in the two centuries since Jesus walked on this Earth.

When I lived in Europe for a school year in the 1990s, I traveled a fair amount around the continent and worshipped at a number of churches in the towns I visited. There were not as many churches as one typically encounters in the United States. Moreover, many of the church buildings are no longer even used for worship. Instead, many are vacant structures left to decay or are in decent shape physically but have been reduced to mere tourist venues. The churches that do open their doors for worship services typically have just one or two services each week, and have just a handful of worshippers at even the most popular services. When I lived in Europe, I was often one of the very few persons under the age of 60 in the churches I attended. I always wondered what would happen when those worshippers died or were physically unable to come to church any more. I was not sure if the folks who were middle aged at the time might take their place, or if there would eventually just be no worshippers.

In his book, occasionally Balmer does step aside from his role as historian and does inject a bit of theology:

But I know of no concept more radical than Jesus’ declaration of love.

This radical notion of love doesn’t comport very well with most
political agendas. Politics and politicians concern themselves with the
acquisition and the exercise of power, whereas the ethic of love, more often
than not, entails vulnerability and the abnegation of power. For the Religious
Right, the quest for power and political influence has led to both distortions
and contortions—the perpetration of the abortion myth, for instance, or the
selective literalism that targets certain sexual behaviors for condemnation,
while ignoring others. History, moreover, teaches us the dangers of allying
religion too closely with politics. It leads to intolerance in the political
arena, and it ultimately compromises the integrity of the faith.

This last line rings true to me and causes me particular concern. As a citizen and patriot, I am concerned about the intolerant attitudes displayed in our political arena these days. That is not good for our country. But perhaps more importantly, as a Christ follower, it disgusts me that the beliefs I hold so dear are betrayed by some Christians and non-believers for short-term political exploitation.

Ultimately, it is all in God’s hands. As a Christian, I believe my creator is omnipotent. He can install whomever he chooses in the White House, Congress or any other political office. Even the longest serving politicians are in office for only a finite political term. We human beings forget that God’s time line is much longer. To turn our back on his teachings in order to gain earthly power for a brief period, it astoundingly short-sighted, imprudent and tragic.

Matthew 22:21

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

John 6:15

So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.

Mark 8:36 (Amplified Bible)

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life [in the eternal kingdom of God]?

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Nobel Peace Prize is Awarded to Liu Xiaobo

This week the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced it was awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a man who has worked for decades in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to promote human rights through nonviolent means. The Committee’s announcement is available at the link below:

Members of our family were born in the PRC, so the honor bestowed on Mr. Liu is particularly noteworthy to us. The world has been awed by the PRC’s dramatic economic growth in recent years. We sometimes hear the downside to the growth is that Chinese workers are exploited in factories where they work long hours under poor conditions and are paid very little. We think of the mistreatment occurring at the hands of the private sector; the PRC government generally takes a laissez-faire approach to capitalism. There seems to be little regulation to protect human beings or the environment.

In recent years, as the country has embraced capitalism, we sometimes forget the PRC is still technically a communist country. At this point in time, however, the benefits of communism have evaporated, while all the horrors of communism remain. The state no longer guarantees a job, housing, or health care to its people. But it still limits basic freedoms we take for granted in the West like determining the size of one’s family, the freedom to speak one’s mind, the ability to criticize the government without fear of reprisal, and the ability to freely practice one’s chosen religion.

Our family has some American friends who currently live in the PRC. They moved there to work in a local start-up business. They are Christians, who have worked in their church back home in the United States, and would like to support local Christians in the PRC. However, the Chinese government does not welcome missionaries, and our friends are fearful of attracting the wrong kind of attention because it could lead to their expulsion. They realize that their e-mail can be monitored, so they have urged friends in the U.S. to be careful in the wording of religious messages in their e-mails. In keeping with their request, last Easter I sent them greetings but tried to avoid buzz words that might be a red flag to authorities. I am not adept at inventing code, but wrote to express my hope that our friends would find joy over the “son’s victory.” They understood my funky phrasing and were excited to get such greetings in an officially atheistic nation. The link below contains an article about missionaries in the PRC at the time of the Beijing Olympics.

After the announcement that Mr. Liu had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the PRC implemented a news blackout and people in the country do not even know who won this year’s Peace Prize. I heard on the news yesterday that Mr. Liu himself had not yet been told. The article below describes the news blackout.

It is amazing that the government is able to manipulate information so effectively in this day and age in a country with over a billion people. When I’ve traveled in the PRC and had an opportunity to speak with people who have lived their entire lives there, they are often not familiar with the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1961, the Tiananmen Massacre, or the huge numbers of children in orphanages (mostly abandoned girls due to the One Child Policy). Because I don’t speak any Chinese dialect, I have only been able to speak with people who are fluent in English. Thus, I tend to only talk to some of the best educated folks in society. It is interesting because the folks I’ve spoken with are not sure what to believe when told by Westerners about these events that the government has not permitted the press to report. It is understandably difficult for them to try to decide who is more trustworthy--a friendly Westerner whom they do not know well, or their own government. They often have hesitation in believing what their government says, but it is hard to take in that the level of misinformation might be as wide in scope as it is.

The PRC is a country with a staggeringly large population. Much of its vast land is uninhabitable, so the people often live in crowded cities. Poverty is still a tremendous problem despite all the economic growth. In such a context, it can be easy to overlook individuals’ stories.

The link below includes a touching, personal description of Mr. Liu. It includes a profoundly beautiful letter that he wrote to his wife when he was being sent to prison last year. The depth and strength of his love is inspiring beyond words. Mr. Liu is clearly a patriot and a humanitarian who has been working for years at great personal risk to improve human rights in his country. But he is also a man with a soul who loves his wife very much. That love is helping him to bear the horror of a long imprisonment.

Mr. Liu’s words of love for his wife, as well as his hopes for freedom of expression in his country, remind me of my own blessings. I am deeply grateful for my husband and to live in a country where I can speak my mind without fear of imprisonment. May each of us not take for granted the blessings we enjoy.

Psalm 79:11

May the groans of the prisoners come before you; by the strength of your arm preserve those condemned to die.

Matthew 14:3-4, 9-10

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, for John had been saying to him: "It is not lawful for you to have her."
The king … had John beheaded in the prison

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hispanic Heritage Month & Cesar Chavez

At my school, the Hispanic Law Students Association (HLSA) has been doing an amazing job to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. They have been sponsoring a series of events focusing on legal issues affecting Hispanic Americans. I’m awed by the series they have coordinated.

HLSA has also been providing a series of wonderful editorials to our school’s newspaper. I’m excited that HLSA has decided to continue to give voice to issues of concern to them even after Hispanic Heritage Month is over; they have established a new blog. You can access it at:

In keeping with the theme of this blog, I’d like to express my own appreciation for Hispanic Heritage Month by focusing on the life of Cesar Chavez, a man who falls within the proud heritage of progressive Christianity.

Cesar Chavez was born in Arizona in 1927, but moved to California during the Depression with his family. Indeed, he spent most of his life in California. His family were migrant agricultural workers. They were also Catholic Christians.

As he was growing up, Chavez was able to attend school only sporadically because his family moved a lot to do farm work. He had limited formal education, but Chavez was self-taught and an avid reader. He was a gifted orator and organizer.

Those who know of Cesar Chavez think of him as a civil rights leader. He was one of the founders of the forerunner of the United Farm Workers. Interestingly, Chavez initially got involved with labor organizing because of Father Donald McDonnell, a Roman Catholic priest who was active on social justice issues.

Chavez has been called the “Chicano MLK” because he promoted the use of nonviolent means to achieve progress on social justice issues. Indeed, Chavez cited both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King as influences.

The year before he died, Chávez was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award in 1993. It is a prestigious Catholic peace award which has been bestowed annually since 1964. Other recipients include Dr. King, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Bishop Tutu, and Lech Walesa.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was privileged to get to hear Mr. Chavez speak on several occasions. He was a quiet, unassuming speaker, but he nonetheless captivated his audience with a firm morality and dignity. Although in retrospect, I heard him speak in the final years of his life, he spoke each time with great passion and focus about current issues facing farm workers. He was committed to the cause of doing justice throughout his life.

Deuteronomy 16:20 (New International Version)

Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Letters to the Editor on the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy

I’ve mentioned several times in this blog my affection for community newspapers. In the West Valley View, local residents often write letters to the editor to debate current events (and blow off steam). In some ways I love the fact that my neighbors are so passionate about issues in our community. On the other hand, many of the letters are so filled with intolerance and bitterness. At times, I cannot bear to read them or can only bring myself to read a few. I have friends in my community who read the West Valley View, but deliberately skip the letters to the editor. Others have shared with me that they no longer even open that newspaper because of the ugliness of the letters to the editor.

In late August, I read two published letters to the editor in the West Valley View, which got my attention. One was a beautiful letter from a Christian pastor, who was speaking out against “anti-Muslim hysteria.” Instead he was encouraging grace and tolerance for our Muslim brothers and sisters. I was encouraged that for once the secular public was hearing the perspective of a Christian who was speaking love for--and not condemnation of--Muslims.

But next to the pastor’s letter was a letter more typical of the type published in the letters to the editor in this community newspaper. A woman wrote to denounce others who had dared to speak out against “anti-Muslim hysteria.” She claimed such attitudes were indicative of “political correctness” and demonstrated ignorance about the real issues at stake in the “ground zero mosque” controversy. Her point was essentially that if we allowed a mosque to be built near ground zero, the terrorists will view that as a victory for their side. For a number of reasons, I found the last line of her letter particularly heart-breaking: “This mosque, if allowed to be built, would not show the world American tolerance but American naivety and stupidity.”

Both of these letters were published in the August 31st edition of the West Valley View, and are available at the link below:

I had never before written a letter to the editor, but those two letters from my neighbors spurred me (for differing reasons) to compose a response. I wrote in support of the pastor’s words, and to rebuke the misguided words of the other letter. My letter was published in the September 10th edition of the newspaper, and is available at the link below:

Like many Christians, I get tired of secular representations of my faith that are inaccurate. I believe it was Pastor Rick Warren who has noted that in recent years the Christian voices that are most often heard in the secular media are simply those that are the loudest. Like it or not, the secular media is an important vehicle for non-Christians to learn about Christianity. In this day and age, the media is very influential in shaping people’s attitudes and beliefs on a number of topics. However, when the secular media only pays attention to the loudest voices in the large and diverse Christian community, the impression that is often left is inaccurate. For example, a common misimpression is that Christianity is a religion of intolerance against sexual minorities and adherents of other religions, among others in our society. But I think any fair reading of our sacred scripture indicates that Christ modeled and advocated the opposite approach. He repeatedly reached out to the shunned and the isolated. His message of unconditional love was not just for one group, but for all human kind. In essence, I wrote my letter to the editor to echo the perspective of Pastor Souers and to show the community that popular impressions of Christianity don't necessarily hit the mark. In writing my letter, I tried my best to provide a more accurate Christian witness.

Proverbs 31:9

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Ecclesiastes 4:12

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

John 13:34 (New International Version)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

1 Peter 3:8 (New International Version)

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

"Tax Profs for the Ground Zero Mosque"

Tax geek that I am, I subscribe to and follow avidly Professor Paul Caron’s "Tax Prof Blog." Last month, Professor Caron posted an item he entitled “Tax Profs for the Ground Zero Mosque.” This got my attention because frankly we tax folk aren’t exactly known for taking on the big issues facing society—unless it is a slow news day and tax cuts are getting a lot of press.

Upon closer inspection, this item wasn’t really about tax profs weighing in on the “ground zero mosque” debate, but was instead a group of non-tax law professors who were speaking out in a pragmatic way against religious intolerance and bigotry.

Specifically, a group of law professors was asking other law professors to follow the lead of the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan to donate some small amount of money to the Park 51 Islamic Center project. I was very touched at the inter-faith nature of this effort. The organizing professors stated “We suggest pledges between $18 and $360. That is a tribute to the Jewish tradition of giving in multiples of 18, the number corresponding to the Hebrew word ‘life.’”

Amidst all the vicious, intolerant things that have been said about this proposed Islamic Center and the ugly anti-Muslim tone that we’ve been hearing recently, I found this effort to be so refreshing. It made me very proud to be a member of the legal academy.

More information about this project is available at the link below.

Deuteronomy 16:17

Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the LORD your God has blessed you.

Isaiah 19:24-25 (The Message)

On that Day, Israel will take its place alongside Egypt and Assyria, sharing the blessing from the center. God-of-the-Angel-Armies, who blessed Israel, will generously bless them all: "Blessed be Egypt, my people!...Blessed be Assyria, work of my hands!...Blessed be Israel, my heritage!"

John 16:13

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what
is yet to come.