July 2007

British interdenominational agency Christian Aid is sponsoring the latest in what is becoming a never-ending series of gimmicky non-events to make people aware of climate change. According to Ecumenical News International:

They won’t go around the world in 80 days but walkers in the longest-ever protest march in British history are going to great lengths by criss-crossing the United Kingdom and Ireland to draw attention to climate change.

Sponsored by Christian Aid, an agency of 41 denominations in Britain and Ireland, the “Cut the Carbon” marchers began their 1000-mile (1610 kilometre) trek on 14 July in Bangor, Northern Ireland. The march will end in early October in London, where the walkers will present a petition to Prime Minister Gordon Brown that will press for urgent action to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

The British prime minister will also be offered thousands of shoelaces tied together – organizers hope for 1000 miles of them – to illustrate the backing for the event. Supporters across Britain and Ireland are invited to send their used shoelaces. They will receive in return from Christian Aid a new pair bearing the march’s logo, plus a written message to wear as a symbol of support for the march.

Behind the gimmicks and carnival atmosphere as supporters join the marchers for rallies and concerts by celebrities en route, organizers say the intention is to deliver a precise message.

The petition for Brown urges the introduction of legislation to make British companies declare their carbon dioxide emissions according to an agreed mandatory standard, and for the country to push for an international agreement to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Which just happen to be the magic number and date plucked out of the air, completely without scientific rationale or practical roadmap for achievement, and delivered to the world on stone tablets by the man whose most fervent followers call the Goracle, the former vice president of the United States.

Oh, well. At least these folks are walking, rather than flying, to show their devotion to the Prophet. Their carbon footprint will be nothing compared to that of Gore’s Live Earth concerts.

A group of evangelicals have written an open letter to President Bush to express their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Signed by such people as Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary, evangelist Leighton Ford, Chancellor Vernon Grounds of Denver Seminary, Gordon MacDonald of World Relief, David Neff of Christianity Today, the presidents of the Christian & Missionary Alliance and Evangelical Covenant Church, and Richard Stearns of World Vision, it’s a pretty unobjectionable statement of where many if not most evangelicals are. I’d associate myself with it, and so reproduce it here in its entirety:

Dear Mr. President:

We write as evangelical Christian leaders in the United States to thank you for your efforts (including the major address on July 16) to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to achieve a lasting peace in the region. We affirm your clear call for a two-state solution. We urge that your administration not grow weary in the time it has left in office to utilize the vast influence of America to demonstrate creative, consistent and determined U.S. leadership to create a new future for Israelis and Palestinians. We pray to that end, Mr. President.

We also write to correct a serious misperception among some people including some U.S. policymakers that all American evangelicals are opposed to a two-state solution and creation of a new Palestinian state that includes the vast majority of the West Bank. Nothing could be further from the truth. We, who sign this letter, represent large numbers of evangelicals throughout the U.S. who support justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. We hope this support will embolden you and your administration to proceed confidently and forthrightly in negotiations with both sides in the region.

As evangelical Christians, we embrace the biblical promise to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you.” (Genesis 12:3). And precisely as evangelical Christians committed to the full teaching of the Scriptures, we know that blessing and loving people (including Jews and the present State of Israel) does not mean withholding criticism when it is warranted. Genuine love and genuine blessing means acting in ways that promote the genuine and long-term well being of our neighbors. Perhaps the best way we can bless Israel is to encourage her to remember, as she deals with her neighbor Palestinians, the profound teaching on justice that the Hebrew prophets proclaimed so forcefully as an inestimably precious gift to the whole world.

Historical honesty compels us to recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine. Both Israelis and Palestinians have committed violence and injustice against each other. The only way to bring the tragic cycle of violence to an end is for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a just, lasting agreement that guarantees both sides viable, independent, secure states. To achieve that goal, both sides must give up some of their competing, incompatible claims. Israelis and Palestinians must both accept each other’s right to exist. And to achieve that goal, the U.S. must provide robust leadership within the Quartet to reconstitute the Middle East roadmap, whose full implementation would guarantee the security of the State of Israel and the viability of a Palestinian State. We affirm the new role of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and pray that the conference you plan for this fall will be a success.

Mr. President, we renew our prayers and support for your leadership to help bring peace to Jerusalem, and justice and peace for all the people in the Holy Land.

The difference between this approach and the extremes on right and left is striking. They don’t insist, as many on the religious left do, that Jerusalem has to be divided, or that the “right of return” must be given to the Palestinians (a move that would destroy Israel as a Jewish state), or that Hamas must be returned to power or treated as a legitimate partner for peace (which it isn’t). They don’t insist, as many on the religious right do, that Israel has a biblical claim on the West Bank (much less on all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates), or that the Palestinians should under no circumstances be granted sovereignty, or that essentially anything Israel does in the pursuit of its security is morally acceptable. There are things I might have wished they’d said–for instance, a recognition that there are still lots of Palestinians who are devoted to Israel’s destruction, or that virulent anti-Semitism continues to be endemic in Palestinian schools and media, making it next to impossible to create a climate where fruitful negotiations are really possible–and I think that they failed to do so because they were striving so hard for “balance.” But by and large, in terms of the goals that we should be supporting, I think they got it right.

UPDATE: Hmm. I have to admit that this makes me wonder what I’ve missed here:

Corinne Whitlatch, CMEP’s director, called Ron Sider this morning with appreciation for this important evidence of public support among evangelicals for a fair solution to the conflict and with suggestions for bringing their letter to the attention of members of Congress and other key people in the Administration.

CMEP’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict embodies the worst of the religious left’s stance (they have advocated all three of the items listed above, for instance). If they approve of this letter…?

The great Swedish movie director Ingmar Bergman died today at the age of 89. If you’ve never seen The Seventh Seal, I suggest you get yourself to the nearest Blockbuster as soon as you can. If Bergman had never made another movie, that one–one of the great films in the history of cinema–would have been enough to secure his place in the annals of the medium.

Immigration has been one of the hottest issues of the year, but I’ve avoided commenting on it because I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, for years I was in favor of an “open borders” policy–let anyone come here who wants to, for whatever (non-nefarious) reason. I’m the grandson of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants, and I’d like to think that the country that welcomed my grandparents during the massive wave of immigration in the first couple of decades of the 20th century still has plenty of room for those looking for freedom and opportunity. On the other hand, in an age of international terrorism, the safety of the population has to be a big factor in immigration policy, as does the rule of law–as long as there are legal requirements for entry into the United States, it’s incumbent on the government to enforce them.

Such is not the mindset, however, of a group called Interfaith Worker Justice of Arizona, which is looking for people to send a letter to the Sheriff of Maricopa County (Phoenix) opposing what it calls an “anti-immigrant hotline.” The left-wing PCUSA caucus called the Witherspoon Society has a copy of it on their web site:

As people of faith and conscience, we decry your announcement of a telephone hotline to be used by residents to report information or evidence relating to crimes involving illegal immigration or smuggling. In setting up such a hotline and publicly declaring it to be a weapon against illegal immigration, its worst use will be to incite neighbor against neighbor.

Let’s get this straight: these folks are opposed to citizens reporting “people smuggling,” an activity that is not only illegal but dangerous to those being smuggled into the country. So smugglers should be free to continue endangering people’s lives, dehumanizing them as cargo, and profiteering off of others’ desperation. Got it.

Inviting the residents of Maricopa County to report information about or evidence of crimes related to illegal immigration creates ear and tension in the community and thus achieves precisely the opposite effect: far from your role as a peace officer and in direct opposition to your stated desire to protect the residents of Maricopa County.

I think that the authors of this letter have confused law enforcement officers with social workers.

As people of faith and conscience, we believe that a measure of a government is in its protection of its most vulnerable residents.

Unless they are being smuggled into the country by others looking to make a buck, in which case the government should turn its back.

We believe that by opening such a hotline to the general public, persons of obvious ethnic identity will be “turned in” on the basis of little more than their skin color.

This has the sound of an over-active imagination. As of 2005, the population of 3,635,528 was 29% Hispanic. That means that over one million people would theoretically qualify as “persons of obvious ethnic identity.” It’s really hard to believe that one-third of the population will suddenly be the object of citizen snitches.My suspicion is that in a place like Maricopa County, the assumption will be that one is dealing with legal immigrants or citizens unless one has a reason to think otherwise.

As faith leaders and residents of Maricopa County, we suggest that citizen crime reporting is already accomplished under your other hotlines, ones that do not have the potential to target vulnerable residents.

Given what’s in the rest of this letter, I have to assume that the other hotlines to which the letter refers don’t deal with immigration-related crimes, in which case they don’t actually accomplish anything to inform law enforcement about such crimes. It also occurs to me that the tenor of this letter is that if there is a possibility for abuse or even mistakes when enforcing laws, then those laws should go unenforced.

There’s more, but that certainly gives you the basics. Those who are signing this letter–including the Rev. Trina Zelle, co-moderator of the Witherspoon Society who works for Interfaith Worker Justice and may be the author, that’s not clear–are essentially arguing for open borders without saying so. That’s a respectable position, though they should do so openly rather than implicitly (and don’t, I suspect, because they know that there is almost no support for such a position). But what’s really problematic is that, in the absence of an open borders policy by the government, they are also essentially arguing that laws should go unenforced, including those that would protect the vulnerable from those who would exploit them. Doesn’t sound like a progressive religious position to me.

I disagree with Chuck Colson about the hate crimes legislation now before Congress. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t very real efforts being made by some in government to shut down Christian speech. Colson’s latest BreakPoint column describes one of the most egregious attempts in many a year:

It doesn’t pay to take your constitutional right to free speech seriously anymore—at least, not if you live in Oakland, California. There, a handful of African-American Christian women recently found out that their free speech rights had effectively been outlawed.

The women, who are Oakland government employees, had formed an organization called the Good News Employee Association. As their flyer put it, their group was “a forum for people of Faith to express their views on the contemporary issues of the day. With Respect for the Natural Family, Marriage, and Family Values.”

As columnist George Will relates, the women posted their flyer after other employee groups, including those advocating gay rights, had advertised their activities on the city’s email system and bulletin board. When Good News asked for equal opportunity, they were told to forget it. City officials destroyed their flyer. They accused the women of Good News of being “determined to promote harassment based on sexual orientation. If the women posted any more flyers, or sent their message via email, the city warned, they would be disciplined and perhaps terminated.

In effect, as Will notes, Oakland “has proscribed any speech that even one person might say questioned the gay rights agenda and therefore created what that person felt was a “hostile environment.” While homosexual rights groups used the city’s email system to advertise “Happy Coming Out Day,” the terms “natural family” and “marriage” and “family values” are considered intolerably inflammatory, he adds.

The Good News group has gone to court over Oakland’s attack on their First Amendment rights, and the super-liberal Ninth Circuit Court, not surprisingly, has ruled against them. The group now hopes the Supreme Court will intervene.

I don’t have the slightest doubt that the Supreme Court will overturn this ruling, and I wouldn’t even be surprised by a 9-0 vote. The idea that someone can shut down someone else’s speech simply because one is personally offended by it is  poisonous–to the American constitutional order, to the free exchange of idea, and most of all to the very notion of truth. The conduct of the Oakland officials is redolent of Soviet-style repression (without the “re-education camps”–though the spreading practice of “sensitivity training” makes one wonder what’s next in some jurisdictions), and hopefully the coming SCOTUS smackdown will make that crystal-clear to the West Coast thought police and other like-minded bureaucrats across the country.

Those who would like to further pursue the Michael Behe-Richard Dawkins kerfuffle that I wrote about here are invited to take a look at the review article by philosophy professor Ric Machuga in Christianity Today. Contra Dawkins, Machuga makes clear that Behe is no creationist, in the usual sense of the word; while he is one of the chief proponents of intelligent design, Behe finds much to appreciate in evolution even as he is critical of its less than stellar track record in dealing with the findings of microbiology and biochemistry. Machuga also deals with philosophical questions that people like Dawkins prefer to avoid. It’s not necessarily an easy read, but worth the effort.

(Hat tip: Hampton.)

The Layman Online has a helpful story and chart on congregations that have left or voted to leave the PCUSA since the 2006 General Assembly. The Layman counts 25 that have left or voted to leave, a figure that reflects only churches that have informed the Layman about their situations. In addition, six others (five in Mississippi and one in Louisiana) have sought to have courts declare that they are the sole controllers of their property, perhaps in anticipation of future departure. The number of churches in each of these categories is likely to increase substantially in the months ahead. Check them out to get the latest lowdown.

As the People’s Republic of China looks to 2008 and its staging of the Summer Olympics, no one will be surprised to learn that sports committees and construction crews aren’t the only ones with lots to do. It appears that State Security is not going to allow any skunks to get in and ruin the party. According to the Christian Post:

China’s intelligence is reportedly compiling a list of potential troublemakers at next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing that includes human rights activists, non-governmental organizations, and evangelical Christians.

Government spy agencies and think tanks say that Christians threaten to mount demonstrations against China’s religious freedom violations, while activists could stage protests demanding Beijing to use its oil-buying leverage with Sudan to end the Darfur genocide, according to The Associated Press.

With the Olympic price tag at $40 billion and China’s public image on the line, the Chinese government is leaving no room for foreign protestors to spoil China’s moment in the spotlight.

They definitely don’t want to allow free speech while the whole world is watching. That would be a sure-fire reputation-killer. And heaven forbid anyone should take to the streets and suggest that China end its implicit and lucrative support of genocide in northeastern Africa–after all, what would the Sudanese government do without China’s money and Security Council veto? And Christians? Geez, you never know what they might do if you let them loose in the streets.

Meanwhile, other Christian mission groups around the world have said they plan to evangelize at the Beijing Games despite China’s ban on foreign missionaries.

Due to security concerns, some Christian organizers cannot reveal details of their plans, but some have said they plan to put on cultural and sports events – which China allows – and use them to share about their faith, according to AP.

The Southern Baptists, for example, will bring thousands of volunteers for humanitarian work, sports clinics, first aid sites and other projects.

Furthermore, Youth With A Mission (YWAM) – an international Christian ministry well-known for its Olympic outreaches – is planning a “2008 Olympics Discipleship Training School” in Brazil next year, after which it will send volunteers to the games.

“With a draw like the Olympics, we just pray our ‘forces’ will be so large that we will be able to form many relationships,” said Mark Taylor of Awaken Generation, a ministry for college-age Christians. The Fla.-based group plans to send evangelism teams of eight to 12 people around China during the competition.

I wish them well in their efforts, and hope they wear the suspicions of the Chinese intelligence services as a badge of honor.

Two more PCUSA presbyteries have drawn up plans to deal with congregations that want to leave, and appear open to  working things out with an amicable, Christian approach. First, Washington Presbytery in Pennsylvania, from the Observer-Reporter of Washington County:

A plan that would allow a Presbyterian church to leave the denomination with its property was approved by Washington Presbytery last week.

However, the adopted plan won’t pertain to Peters Creek Presbyterian Church, which sought a temporary court injunction in Washington County Court of Common Pleas, for fear the presbytery would act to seize its property.

That injunction has been modified, said Ray Peterson, spokesman for the Peters Creek church, allowing the church to meet and work with the presbytery’s administrative commission.

The separation plan adopted by members of the presbytery by a 56-18 vote at their July 10 meeting is being called “just and fair” by both sides.

“We are working with the administrative commission in a very open and sincere manner, and although the process does not appear to apply to us, we feel the process is an excellent one and are going to look to the process for guidance,” Peterson said this week.

The 600-member Peters Creek Presbyterian Church in Venetia wants to leave the Presbyterian Church USA denomination to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Under the separation process, there must be at least four months of discussion between the congregation and a pastoral team. Members of that team would be appointed by the presbytery.

The congregation also would be required to submit a mission plan to the presbytery, describing its ministry once it leaves the presbytery. It also must show how all members of the congregation will be ministered to, including those who may not want to leave the denomination.

The pastoral team would be invited to speak at a congregational meeting to vote on whether to leave the denomination. At last 75 percent of the active members voting must be in favor of dismissal for it to occur.

The presbytery also will vote on the separation. The presbytery was to vote on the separation process in September, but it was moved up to July to accommodate Peters Creek church after it requested an injunction.

The Rev. Linda Jaberg, who heads the presbytery council, said the vote is evidence that the presbytery chose conversation over civil action in the courts.

“I think it was definitely the presbytery’s voice that we move ahead and offer this process for churches who feel they have to leave the denomination,” she said. “We’re not vindictive. We don’t want to be punitive. We want to be fair and reasonable.”

And this sounds like a fair and reasonable start to the process. Kudos to Washington Presbytery for taking this approach.

The second is the Presbytery of the Cascades (CA, OR, WA), where Hope Presbyterian Church of Rogue River, Oregon has taken up the presbytery’s offer of negotiation, according to the Layman Online:

A small church in southwestern Oregon and a regional governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are in talks over the church’s request to leave the denomination.

The congregation of Hope Presbyterian Church in Rogue River voted July 8 to “realign its membership” from the PCUSA to the smaller, more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Sixty-five of the church’s 88 members took part in the vote, said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Brian Boisen. Of those, 62 voted for realignment and three voted against it, he said.

Hope Presbyterian Church’s request will be the first test of the Presbytery of the Cascades’ new process to address withdrawing churches. The process was approved at the presbytery’s stated meeting June 22-23 in Portland, Ore., said the Rev. Dr. Hugh D. Anderson, co-executive presbyter.

Boisen said his church is completing its application to join the EPC, but will consider itself part of the PCUSA until it is graciously dismissed or has to take further action. Prior to the vote, the church had legal consultations that brought up questions about the validity of the presbytery’s trust claim on the church’s property, he said.

Hope Presbyterian Church is open to discussing a settlement that would allow the congregation to be dismissed with its property, Boisen said.

“As we approach presbytery and work with them, that is going to be our stance,” he said. “‘We really would like to work this ecclesiastically with you, but we don’t recognize the validity of the trust claim.’ Of course, they’re going to disagree.”

Anderson said he is open to a settlement, but “the whole goal of the process is reconciliation” to keep the church in the PCUSA.

Though that is the goal, I’m sure Rev. Anderson recognizes that separation is probable. But I like his attitude as expressed to the Layman:

Anderson said Hope Presbyterian is the first church in Cascades Presbytery that has sought to leave the PCUSA in his 12½ years with the presbytery, which has 122 congregations and more than 26,000 members in California, Oregon and Washington. But he said the process to address withdrawing churches came about in order to be proactive in light of other congregations around the country that are seeking to leave the denomination.

The policy is “purposely general” since the situation will vary from church to church, Anderson said. “That gives our teams flexibility,” he said.

Anderson said he disagrees with those who liken a church’s leaving the PCUSA to a corporate takeover or a divorce. He sees it more in the Biblical image of someone moving away from a community because of a calling that God has placed before him or her.

I think that’s an excellent way of looking at things, and I hope and pray that more and more PCUSA leaders will take his approach.

Don’t you just love it when well-meaning but uninformed people tell you what you are supposed to be offended by? And then proceed to make decisions about your life on the basis of what they think you should be offended by? Here’s an example of it from the Daily Mail of the UK:

A Buddhist businessman who wants to call his Chinese restaurant Fat Buddha has angered council chiefs–who claim the name will upset Buddhists.

Eddie Fung’s £1.3million restaurant will open in Durham next month, creating 60 jobs.

But the restaurateur was astonished when Tracey Ingle, the city council’s head of cultural services, demanded he change the name because it was ‘provocative’.

She’s no doubt worried about possible Buddhist terrorism.

Mr Fung, 39, said: “I cannot believe that this woman should go to so much time and trouble to take issue over an inoffensive name like Fat Buddha.

“No Buddhist is going to be offended by this. The fat Buddha is a symbol of health and happiness. It is political correctness gone mad.”

And a spokesman for the Buddhist Society said: “Buddhists regard the fat Buddha as lucky. To suggest this is offensive is to misunderstand the faith.

“Buddhists don’t take offence at anything because to do so doesn’t follow Buddhist teachings.”

And how did the city council justify deciding that it knows better than Buddhists what Buddhists should be offended by? Well, they just know:

In a letter to Mr Fung, Miss Ingle wrote: “To use the name of a major religion’s deity in your restaurant brand runs contrary to this city’s reputation as a place of equality and respect for others’ views and religious beliefs.

“The generic descriptive adjective of “fat” is not in itself a derogatory term when applied generally. [T]he name implies an Eastern offer as it is associated with a religion that grew from Asian countries. It does not, however, offer vegetarian cuisine solely nor does it refer to Buddhist belief systems. The name is provocative.”

I have no idea what that second paragraph means. It appears to be written in a dialect of English with which I am not familiar.

Durham City Council defended her position, saying: “The department felt the name was inappropriate in a city founded on faith. We don’t want to offend anyone because of the different faiths that come to the city. The council operates a strict non-discriminatory equal-opportunities and diversity policy across the board.”

Political correctness is at its most irritating when it seeks to protect people from stuff that they stoutly maintain they have no need to be protected from. It’s patronizing, if not simply bigoted.

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