Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, May 27, 2005

Tom Friedman says "Shut Gitmo Down"

In today's New York Times Friedman, perhaps the most-read columnist in America and certainly no liberal, reports from England where a rising tide of revulsion against American treatment of prisoners is unmistakable. This is a just small part of what he writes:

Husain Haqqani, a thoughtful Pakistani scholar now teaching at Boston University, remarked to me: "When people like myself say American values must be emulated and America is a bastion of freedom, we get Guantánamo Bay thrown in our faces. When we talk about the America of Jefferson and Hamilton, people back home say to us: 'That is not the America we are dealing with. We are dealing with the America of imprisonment without trial.'" Guantánamo Bay is becoming the anti-Statue of Liberty.

The link to the Friedman column is

Monday, May 23, 2005

God and "man" at Yale

Required reading for me always includes the Friday Wall Street Journal "Houses of Worship" column. One does not always agree, of course, but this column is consistently interesting and provocative. This week's column, "Changes at Chapel" (May 20) gently questions (lampoons?) the recent decision at Yale to disengage from the United Church of Christ in order to "strengthen religious and spiritual life on campus." One may legitimately question whether the UCC has had anything to say for a while (except for its celebrated TV commercial casting aspersions upon the "inclusive" pretensions of the other mainline denominations) but the author of the column, Naomi Schaefer Riley (author of God on the Quad), reminds us of the great days when William Sloane Coffin kept the Yale chaplaincy in the news.

Some may have forgotten that Coffin signed the Hartford Declaration, a document which put forth some claims for traditional Christian doctrine. Riley writes,

"Doctrine, even weakly expressed, signals a seriousness of religious purpose. It honors a religious tradition--even a liberal tradition--and habits of devotion. For religious students these days, the greater alienation comes from a dilution of belief into a vague, "inoffensive" spirituality. (It is hardly surprising that the [Yale] committee used the phrase "spiritual life" in its call for changing the chapel's identity.)"

If Yale really wants to strengthen religious life, it needs another William Sloane Coffin, another Peter Gomes [Harvard], another Will Willimon [Duke]. It is being said that, after the passing of these preachers, there will be no more of these great figures in our great university pulpits. Let us look to the new chaplain at Duke, Samuel Wells, for hope.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The spirit of the Barmen Declaration must live in our own time

In 2004, Gabriel Fackre, Professor Emeritus of Christian Theology, Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, signed (and no doubt contributed to the writing of) a public letter celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration in which the Confessing Church, at the risk of its members' lives (viz Dietrich Bonhoeffer), spoke its unambiguous “No!” to the “German Christians” who were fully collaborating with the Third Reich. The letter explores the implications of the Declaration for our own time in America. It was placed [as] a Religious News Service story, and can also be found on the Confessing Christ website. The following excerpts from Gabriel Fackre’s Theology and Culture Newsletter No. 44 communicate the essence of the public statement. His website is

An Open Letter to Pastors and Teachers, May 31, 2004

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to weep, and a time to laugh;... a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:1,4,7b) In the face of events that are scalding the earth and fracturing the nations, we are thinking of each of you and asking ourselves, as you also are doing... “How can those who confess Christ hold their tongues?” We remember you in our prayers as you preach, teach, and "equip the saints" for their ministry in times like these.

And we remember our Barmen forebears on this 70th anniversary of their Declaration. Can they help us bear witness in our time, as they did in theirs:

· to “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture… the one Word of God which we have to hear, and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (Article 1)?

· to say again loud and clear: “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11)?

· and to find a way to “reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions” (Article 3)?

Confronting the “German Christians” and their fusion of blood and soil with the “one Word of God,” Barmen spoke a bold “No!” Today, we have to do with “American Christians” who cannot separate nation from gospel, counting upon God to bless their crusades and praying to “Jesus, the warrior” rather than to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” To this, we likewise speak a firm “No!” So also to any other ethnic or theocratic claim to hold hostage the sovereign God and view ourselves as a “righteous empire.”

While the divine majesty is wrongly blended with national allegiances and ethnic loyalties, we know also that Jesus Christ is Lord of our lands as well as our souls. We ought not to be silent before the present tyrannies and injustices that abound on our own soil and in other nations. We encourage you to seek places in every congregation where the wounding of Christ and the folly of nations can be faced and the issues aired. We pray that you may find ways within the life of the congregations you serve to examine, as students of Scripture and as theologians, the inflamed situations described imperfectly every day in the media, risking judgments and acting in humility rooted in the one Word of God each of us is called to proclaim.

While making our witness, however, we acknowledge our own temptation to forget that “there is no one who is righteous, not even one!” (Rom. 3:10) Again, the wisdom of another forebear, Reinhold Niebuhr is ours to learn. In the heat of the struggles of his day against the powers and principalities, he confessed to the sin that persists in the champions of justice as well as in its foes. He also prayed for forgiveness of his own self-righteous fury.

Along with the courage to speak and the contrition that must accompany it, comes the consoling Word spoken by another of our great teachers in an earlier time of tribulation. Writing to Christians in England as the bombs fell and the struggle against Hitler went forward, Karl Barth said that “the world in which we live is the place where Jesus Christ rose from the dead... although at present the glory of the Kingdom of God is held out to us only as a hope, yet the kingly rule of Christ extends over the whole of the universe… and confronts and overrules… the principalities and powers and evil spirits of this world.” Amen!

There is a time for those who confess Christ to speak and there is a time to be silent. It is when we listen for the Word of God and look for light from this Source that we are able to discern the signs of the times. And so we pray for each of you and for the Church in whose midst we all kneel as servants: “Speak to us, O Lord, the Word we need and let that Word abide in us until it has wrought in us your holy will.”

Signatories: Andrew Armstrong, Frank Baldwin, Lee Barrett, Dawn Berry, Richard Christensen, Deborah Rahn Clemens, Herbert Davis, Willis Elliott, Roger Easland, Beth Ernest, Gabriel Fackre, James Gorman, Gail Miller, F. Russell Mitman, Deborah Schueneman, Frederick Trost, Theodore Trost III, Bennie Whiten, Henry Yordon

And Gabe Fackre and his wife Dorothy (in whose voice the Fackre Newsletter speaks), add this:

What books have you discovered to be helpful in discerning the present state of affairs? Here are some recent ones that we have found challenging: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church , Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion, Philip Jenkins, The Coming of Global Christianity, David Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite , C. Braaten and R. Jenson, eds., The Ecumenical Future, Reinhard Huetter, Bound to be Free.

Your replies will feed into Gabe’s writing of Volume 5 of his Christian Story series on the doctrine of the church. (Volume 4 on the doctrine of Christ is scheduled for 2005). If you respond, write to us either by e-mail at or or to PO Box 428, West Hyannisport, MA 02672. We will summarize the results in the next Newsletter.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

An urgent recommendation

Readers are urged to go to and then to "The Bagram File" interactive video. This impeccable piece of reporting cannot be ignored just because Newsweek has faltered. America needs to know what is being held back from public knowledge. This is why we need newspapers.

Hooray for Calvin College

I spend several days last January at Calvin College, and was very impressed by the level of teaching and studying at this highly-regarded Christian Reformed institution. It is therefore a great pleasure to post this article:

Calvin protests should be source of pride for graduates
by Charles Honey for The Grand Rapids Press, Saturday, May 21, 2005

Well, at least they can't call us dull anymore.

By "they" I mean most everyone who doesn't live in Western Michigan and believes we all worship twice on Sunday, drink nothing stronger than coffee and vote Republican.

A lot of people around here do those things, and God bless them. But the dust-up over President Bush's commencement speech at Calvin College shows this is not a uniformly conservative, compliant place.

In fact, the protests of professors, students and alumni against Bush policies shouldn't surprise anyone who has spent time on the pretty East Beltline campus. Calvin's classrooms are lively incubators of inquiry based on a theology that calls for transforming souls and society. That Christian world view takes people in politically unpredictable directions, as our commander in chief has discovered.

If Bush was expecting a trouble-free photo op in the conservative heartland, he got more than he bargained for. About 150 Calvin faculty, staff and former faculty and about 800 students, alumni and supporters saw to that.

Their ads in The Press, one that ran Friday and one that was to run today,
take Bush to task over the Iraq war and his alleged neglect of the environment and the poor. They challenge his much-publicized faith on its own grounds, charging his actions do not match their faith and, by implication, his.

Are these protests inappropriate, as some have complained? This is, after all, the president. Shouldn't he be welcomed graciously? Absolutely. And should the host community exercise its democratic right to free speech? Absolutely.

As long as the protests are civil, and Bush's commencement speech this afternoon is not disrupted, this whole affair will be a win for all. For the students, it's a high honor, a chance to be part of history and a great story to tell their children. For the Calvin community, it's an opportunity to clue the wider world into the school's intellectual vigor and depth of Christian thought.

And for President Bush, it may be an eye-opener that not everyone out here in the heartland wears the same color of Christianity. He may have known that already. So says the Rev. Peter Borgdorff, who as a board member of Call to Renewal has met with the president.

"Calvin would hardly be thought of by people knowledgeable about the place as a right-wing Christian college," Borgdorff said. Maybe. But when news broke Bush was speaking at Calvin, I feared the college's reputation would suffer from the perception it was being used politically.

Instead, Calvin's reputation will enlarge as a place not easily used for politics or any other partisan purpose.

Its intellectual feistiness stems from the stubborn-mindedness of its parent Christian Reformed Church. Delegates to its annual Synod drag out debates on theology and social policy long after the likes of Pat Robertson have turned the TV off.

Calvin has bumped up against CRC conservatives on issues such as the teaching of evolution but has landed on the side of academic freedom. And it has produced some of the leading lights in academia, including Nicholas Wolterstorff, the retired Yale Divinity School philosophy professor originally scheduled to speak today.

Although conservatives aplenty teach and study there, Calvin attracts a wide swath of political and artistic talent to its doors. Two weeks ago, liberal evangelical Jim Wallis packed the college chapel.

This is a college that likes to mix it up on a firm platform of faith. The hubbub over Bush is an object lesson in the school's intellectual strength and American democracy. That's an exemplary thing for today's graduates to witness.

2005 Grand Rapids Press.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The uproar about Newsweek and its relationship to the more fundamental issues

The uproar about Newsweek and its most unfortunate publication of a story about a Koran being flushed down a toilet without adequate supporting testimony has presented the American public with yet another opportunity to take the easy road to vilification of favorite targets while ignoring larger issues. Here is Thomas Friedman's column of May 20, continuing a theme that he has been pursuing for several weeks:

“The Best P.R.: Straight Talk"—Thomas Friedman’s column, May 20, 2005

The fact that the White House spokesman Scott McClellan spent part of his briefing on Tuesday excoriating Newsweek - and telling its editors that they had a responsibility to "help repair the damage" to America's standing in the Arab-Muslim world - while not offering a single word of condemnation for those who went out and killed 16 people in Afghanistan in riots linked to a Newsweek report, pretty much explains why we're struggling to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world today. We are spending way too much time debating with ourselves, or playing defense, and way too little time actually looking Arab Muslims in the eye and telling them the truth as we see it. In part this is because we are so dependent on their oil - and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers. In part this is because the administration got so carried away by the vote in the Iraqi elections that it lost focus...

Instead of sending Mr. McClellan out to flog Newsweek, President Bush should have said: "Let me say first to all Muslims that desecrating anyone's holy book is utterly wrong. These allegations will be investigated, and any such behavior will be punished. That is how we Americans intend to look in the mirror. But we think the Arab-Muslim world must also look in the mirror when it comes to how it has been behaving toward an even worse crime than the desecration of God's words, and that is the desecration of God's creations. In reaction to an unsubstantiated Newsweek story, Muslims killed 16 other Muslims in Afghanistan in rioting, and no one has raised a peep - as if it were a totally logical reaction. That is wrong.
"In Iraq, where Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni Muslims are struggling to build a pluralistic new order, other Muslims, claiming to act in the name of Allah, are indiscriminately butchering people, without a word of condemnation coming from Muslim spiritual or political leaders. I don't understand a concept of the sacred that says a book is more sacred than a human life. A holy book, whether the Bible or the Koran, is only holy to the extent that it shapes human life and behavior.
"Look, Newsweek may have violated journalistic rules, but what jihadist terrorists are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan - blowing up innocent Muslims struggling to build an alternative society to dictatorship - surely destroys the Koran. They are the real enemies of Islam because they are depriving Muslims of a better future. From what I know of Islam, it teaches that you show reverence to God by showing reverence for his creations, not just his words. Why don't your spiritual leaders say that?..."

Fortunately, a few courageous Arab intellectuals, such as Abderrahman al-Rashed, have asked such things. Writing in Wednesday's Saudi daily Asharq Al Awsat, he said: "When thousands in Afghanistan are concerned about a report in a magazine that does not reach them, written in a language they do not speak, leading them to protest in a manner unprecedented among other Islamic nations that do speak English, the matter is worth pursuing further: it tells us more about the dangers of propaganda and its exploitation by opposition groups than it does about spontaneous popular sentiments."


Friday, May 13, 2005

The New York Times Book Review in a new light

There is so much food for thought in this week's Book Review (May 15, 2005) that I hardly know where to start (and it arrived on Friday, too, for the first time--surely a signal of greater seriousness, since it gives the reader a whole weekend to digest it). The cover review of Hilary Mantel's new novel, Beyond Black, by Terrence Rafferty, concludes this way: "This is, I think, a great comic novel. Hilary Mantel's humor, like Flannery O'Connor's, is so far beyond black it becomes a kind of light."

And the week's essay on the last page, "Church Meets State," by Mark Lilla, offers a really incisive (though necessarily brief) analysis of the breakdown of "liberal" theology in America and what that might mean for those of us who care for the church not only as a critique of government but also as a transfiguring influence on government.

Check it out for free (if you hurry) at

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The importance of the Geneva Conventions in WW2

Freeman Dyson reviews Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, by Max Hastings, in The New York Review of Books, April 28, 2005

The history of WW2 teaches us several lessons that are still valid today. First is the immense importance of the Geneva Conventions on humane treatment of prisoners in mitigating the human costs of war. [In Hastings' book] we see a stark contrast between two kinds of war, the war in the West following the Geneva rules and the war in the East fought without rules...In the Western war, soldiers who reached the prison camps were treated in a civilized fashion, with some supervision by delegates of the International Red Cross. They were neither starved nor tortured.

At the same time, on the eastern side of the war, brutality was the rule and the IRC had no voice. Civilians were routinely raped and murdered, and prisoners of war were starved...It is not possible to calculate the numbers of lives saved in the West and lost in the East by following and not following the Geneva rules...Americans who are trying today to weaken or evade the Geneva rules are acting shortsightedly as well as immorally.

Deaf Power in the Ukraine

This link leads to a story about what God did through a remarkable young Deaf woman whose "voice" was instrumental in confronting the principalities and powers.

Click here for full article