Friday, April 24, 2015

Breaking Promise, Obama Fails to Recognize Armenian Genocide

April 24 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide. The Ottoman Empire targeted the mostly Christian population of Armenians, slaughtering up to 1.5 million. When the word 'genocide' was created during the Holocaust, the man who coined the word pointed to Jews in Europe and the Armenians as the examples. The fact that the Armenian Genocide occurred is not in doubt among serious scholars. 

Yet, many U.S. political leaders refuse to use the word 'genocide' to describe the Armenian Genocide. Why? They fear the nation of Turkey (the successor country to the Ottoman Empire) will cut off relations. Turkish leaders refuse to admit the Armenian Genocide occurred. Sadly, U.S. presidents keep bowing to such demands. 

My latest Ethics Daily article, Breaking Promise, Obama Fails to Recognize Armenian Genocide, explores this dynamic. While campaigning for president, Barack Obama used the word 'genocide' to describe the Armenian Genocide. He also criticized the previous administration for not doing so and promised to name it as such once in office. He broke that campaign promise as he instead dances around the issue. 


Words matter. Obama's failure to use the word 'genocide' sends a poor ethical message. We must speak the truth about the past or our cries of "never again" ring hollow. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Brian Zahnd and Prophetic Witness

I spent half of this week in St. Joseph, Missouri, for the 2015 Faith & Culture Conference. Held at Word of Life Church, it included two speakers: Brian Zahnd and Walter Brueggemann. Both of them ended up on my top ten books of 2014 list (with Zahnd in 4th and Brueggemann snagging the top spot). So I have been thrilled at the opportunity to hear the two of them and join the dialogue. I wrote about Brueggemann's remarks in a previous post.

While I've known about Brueggemann for years, I only recently stumbled across Zahnd. I read one of his books last year, and have since followed his blog, tweets, and (sometimes) his sermon podcast. He noted at the conference that Brueggemann was a key voice who influenced his own faith journey. That impact can clearly be heard in Zahnd.

It had a cost for him, though. The church went from being one of the fasting growing churches in the U.S. to losing 1,000 members as he spent six months preaching through the 'Sermon on the Mount.' True prophets aren't usually popular. But we need them.



Zahnd offers provocative remarks, often in pithy soundbites. Yet, like the prophets of old, he's also aware of the power of poetry and storytelling. He mixes those to challenge Christians to think in fresh ways about the Bible, faith, and culture. Here are some of his comments from the conference that especially stood out:

"I preach what I can't not preach."

"I don't follow a donkey or an elephant. I follow a Lamb."

“I’m not a Republican or a Democrat; I’m a Revolutionary Christian.”

Churches shouldn't serve as "chaplains to the empire."

"Americanism is essentially a rival religion to Christianity."

In presidential election years, "people just go crazy and they lose their Christianity."

"I pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of Christ."

"Preaching against personal sin is relatively safe. Preaching against systemic sin is dangerous."

"I didn't get all intellectual; I just lost the passion for being ignorant."

"Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals God as Savior."

Churches should have weekly communion because "what is the church without the Eucharist?"

... and much more!

I appreciate Zahnd's journey and witness. He has challenged me to think more carefully and critically, and I hope he does the same for others.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Walter Brueggemann Shook My Hand ... and My Head and Spirit

Over a decade ago, I randomly walked into a bookstore in Minneapolis during a conference in the Twin Cities. A book caught my eye, especially the haunting image of a tree on the cover and its intriguing title. After looking it over, I decided to buy it. That book, The Prophetic Imagination, served as my introduction to the brilliant Walter Brueggemann. Since then I've read other Brueggemann books (though I still have a lot more to go since he's so prolific). Each one spurs me to think differently about biblical texts and themes.

So I took an opportunity to hear him speak in person this week.


The 2015 Faith & Culture Conference at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, included two speakers: Brueggemann and Brian Zahnd. Both of them ended up on my top ten books of 2014 list (with Zahnd in 4th and Brueggemann snagging the top spot). So I have been thrilled at the opportunity to hear the two of them and join the dialogue. (I'll write about Zahnd's remarks in separate post.)

Brueggemann gave three presentations at the conference: "The Prophetic Imagination," "Behold the Man," and "Out of Babylon." The first and third were lectures followed with question-and-answer times. The second was a chance to hear a Brueggemann sermon.

As in his books, Brueggemann is brilliant and dangerous. He's also hilarious! He nicely plays the old curmudgeon role to spice up his delivery.



Brueggemann's words currently rattle around in my head, creating a mix of inspirational, challenging, unsettling, and radical thoughts. I'll continue to chew on his comments for quite some time. Here are a sprinkling of some of the comments that particularly grabbed my attention and sparked my imagination.

Totalizing powers seek to "silence alternative opinions," but "silences kill." Thus, a prophetic "word from elsewhere" is needed to bring both a "word of judgment" and a "word of hope."

"Prophetic imagination is breaking the silence, saying the unsayable, thinking the unthinkable, imagining the unimaginable."

"People try to silence artists because they speak and think and draw outside the box and they're dangerous."

"The church is the meeting that hosts the words from elsewhere. If the church is not this, it's just a chaplain to the empire." Churches should be "subversive" as a place for prophetic imagination, not just "privatized gospel."

"The church can articulate a version of reality that subverts the dominant reality of power and wealth."

"The prophets are not so much angry as they are sad. They are sad because they can see where this is going."

"Baptism calls us beyond our conservatism or liberalism."

"Prophetic consciousness cannot leave politics alone. It is all about exposing truth and falsehood of political practice poetically."

"The Empire wants us to vote for the status quo."

Pharaoh's not named in Bible "because if you've seen one Pharaoh you've seen them all."

"Totalism exists in a culture of amnesia, where there is no past and no future."

"In a culture of self-indulgence, the baptismal community is under discipline."

"That's the empire's way of thinking: no free lunch for anyone; we made ours the old-fashioned way - we inherited it."

Israelites wanted to return to Egypt because "Totalism has a huge grip on our imaginations."

"The script of the dominant empire is 'make more bricks, make more bricks.' But you can never make enough bricks."

... and much, much more!



After his two lectures, Brueggemann took questions. And he hung around to chat with conference-goers. One of the things I appreciated about the conference was the dialogic approach, which fits nicely with Brueggemann's way of reading scripture.

We need less certainty in scripture reading, less authoritarian interpretation from preachers, less flattening of scripture to ignore divergent voices.

I recommend Brueggemann's books. I've not read them all, but I can't imagine him writing a bad one. I look forward to reading more of his books - both old ones I haven't gotten to yet and new ones on which he's working. He pushes me to be a better reader, writer, and Christian. 

Me with Brueggemann and my friend Beau Underwood.

Bill Clinton's Failure to Confront Rwandan Genocide as Genocide

Twenty-one years ago, genocide tore through the African nation of Rwanda. Meanwhile, world leaders - many who had previously declared 'never again' on the topic of genocide - looked away. My latest Ethics Daily article explores the rhetoric of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton on Rwanda during and after the genocide. The piece is titled Bill Clinton's Failure to Confront Rwandan Genocide as Genocide.

Although Clinton made references to the killings in Rwanda, he avoided using the word 'genocide' until near the end. Even then he used the word sparingly. Such rhetorical dancing around the wording symbolizes his administration's inaction. There are sins of commission (those killing) and sins of omission (those looking away). Both must be avoided. Silence kills.