What is Justice?

August 9, 2018

I preached at my church on Sunday, offering an introduction to the minor prophets, the topic of justice, and the book of Micah. Here’s the link:



Evangelicals for Trump

July 20, 2018

I’ve repeatedly circled back to the puzzle of why white evangelical Christians are so enthusiastic about our president. Certainly his promise to appoint pro-life judges is a prominent motivator, but virtually any Republican president would have done the same. And no other Republican president could have matched his lack of moral character, a fact that has been reinforced again and again during his time in office. Despite his lies, his cruel treatment of the vulnerable, and his personal nastiness, his evangelical support has been not grudging or hedged but enthusiastic. Why?

Here’s a possible explanation drawn from the Middle East. The region has significant Christian minorities. Syria is about 6% Christian. Jordan is 2%. Egypt is almost 13%. Most of these Christians are from historic churches, Catholic or Coptic or Orthodox. Living as they do in a rough neighborhood, often targeted by Islamists, they almost invariably seek political protection from the local despot. Christians in pre-2003 Iraq strongly  supported Saddam Hussein. Christians in Syria are cheerleaders for the murderous Assad. Christians in Egypt love the dictator Sisi. They have made a deal with the devil: you protect us, and we will support your regime. It’s hard to fault them. When they look at the disastrous fate of Christians in Turkey or in Iraq, where they went unprotected, Christians are motivated to love the strong man.

Perhaps something of the same dynamic has led to evangelicals’ enthusiasm for Donald Trump. Many feel threatened by liberal forces in our society. They fear being forced to say and do things that they believe are wrong: to swallow evolution in schools, to employ LGBT activists in their schools and churches, to participate in or support gay marriages, to prescribe abortions in their hospitals and pharmacies.

Some will scoff at these fears, questioning whether Christians in America really have much to dread. But they’ve been fed a steady diet of alarmist news for at least a decade—think about the “war on Christmas.” Maybe American Christians aren’t going to be truly persecuted in the foreseeable future, but many are sincere in feeling like an endangered minority. To have a president who’s rude and abusive to your tormentors, a man of great power who will take your side in any dispute, feels secure. Trump promises the robust protection that vulnerable people seek.

There’s a cautionary lesson from the Middle East, though. I was talking to the head of a mission agency that reaches into Muslim countries. I asked him whether the historical Christian churches in those countries practice any evangelism. He said no. Part of their deal with the despots is that they won’t. “They are like submarines,” he said, with protective walls to keep out danger, but also to keep their faith safely inside. In return for safety, they only look at the surrounding world through their periscopes.

Our situation is parallel. In exchange for a president who promises protection, white evangelicals are willing to give up their witness to millennials, to immigrants, to gays, to non-whites. We’re building our own kind of submarine.



What’s Fair

July 18, 2018

I liked very much Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour. One of the characters is Sister Jeanne, a small, cheery nun in the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. Spending every day nursing poor people in 1930s New York, she’s very familiar with suffering. Here’s what she believes about its unfairness:

Sister Jeanne believed with the conviction of an eye witness that all human loss would be restored: the grieving child would have her mother again; the dead infant would find robust health; suffering, sorrow, accident, and loss would all be amended in heaven. She believed this because, because (and she only possessed the wherewithal to explain this to children—trying to say it to angry or grieving or bitter adults only left her tongue-tied), because fairness demanded it.

It was, to her mind, a simple proposition. The madness with which suffering was dispersed in the world defied logic. There was nothing else like it for unevenness. Bad luck, bad health, bad timing. Innocent children were afflicted as often as bad men. Young mothers were struck down even as old ones fretfully lingered. Good lives ended in confusion or despair or howling devastation. The fortunate went blissfully about their business until that moment when fortune vanished—a knock on the door, a cough, a knife flash, a brief bit of inattention. A much-longed-for baby slid into the world only to grow blue and limp in its mother’s arms. Another arrived lame, or ill-formed, or simply too hungry for a frail woman already overwhelmed. There was a child in the next parish with a skull so twisted his mouth couldn’t close, and every breath he took, every word he spoke, even his childish laughter, rattled through dry and swollen lips. Another with a birthmark like a purple caul. Blindness. Beatings. Broken or bring bones. Accident, decay. Cruelty of nature. Cruelty of bad men. Idiocy, madness.

There was no accounting for it.

No accounting for how general it was, how arbitrary.

Sister Jeanne believed that fairness demanded this chaos be righted. Fairness demanded that grief should find succor, that wounds should heal, insult and confusion find recompense and certainty, that every living person God had made should not, willy-nilly, be forever unmade.

”You know what’s fair and what isn’t, don’t you?” Sister Jeanne would ask the sick child, the grieving orphan, Sally herself when she was old enough to understand the question. And us.

“And how do you know?”

Sister Jeanne would put a fingertip to the child’s forehead, to the child’s beating heart. “Because God put the knowledge in you before you were born. So you’d know fairness when you see it. So you’d know He intends to be fair.”


“Who’s the dumbest boy in your class?” she once asked us. This was in the Hempstead house where we were young. “And if the teacher’s dividing up sweets and gives him only one while everyone else gets two, what will he say? He’ll say it’s not fair, won’t he? If you call him out playing ball when everyone can see he’s safe by a mile, what will he say—dumb as he is in school? He’ll say it’s not fair, see? And how does he know? Did he learn what’s fair from a book? Did he take a test? No, he did not.”



Breathe Deep and Practice Kindness

July 17, 2018

We went to see the Mr. Rogers movie this week (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”) and learned that Fred was an uncanny person—no different in real life than on TV—who remembered vividly the vulnerabilities children feel. He had been a bullied fat kid himself. Deeply dedicated to kindness, he set out to use a medium not known for kindness—television–as a national service to comfort children.

I found the movie very touching, particularly because I’ve half-forgotten that kindness is normal. If Mr. Rogers seems weird—and sometimes he does–it’s because our world has gotten so weird.

This was the message behind my niece Libby Echeverria’s “Perspective” on our local public radio station. It’s a lovely piece, worth hearing. She describes a series of encounters in her neighborhood coffee shop: an interracial gathering of young men comparing tattoos, and a homeless man who wanders in brandishing a feather. She half-expected trouble, but in fact, she was surprised to see people treating each other with dignity and thoughtfulness. The young men pulled out Bibles and launched into a study of Philippians. An older man got a chair for the homeless man. “I realized that through breathing the toxic air of our country these days, I have developed an unconscious bias that I can’t trust people to do the right thing. I am on edge….”

Mass media and politics and social media bring out the troll in us. We need to breathe deep and practice kindness. Or so Mr. Rogers would tell us.


Cheers and Amen

July 2, 2018

a year-long, 50 state adventure 

by Dean and Mindy Anderson

This may be the ultimate road trip. Dean and Mindy (friends of mine, and otherwise quite ordinary, sane, middle-aged and middle-class people) had dreamed of setting off across America in their aging van, to spend a whole year sleeping on couches, eating fast food, and visiting a church and a bar in every state in America. Cheers and Amen is the story of how they did it. It’s a cheerful, whimsical account, polite, lacking put-downs but laden with humor and healthy curiosity. In every state they asked people, “What makes a good church? What makes a good bar?” They were seeking clues to deeper questions, such as: why are so many young people disinterested in organized religion? How do we make “outsiders” feel welcome? And, what’s really going on in American churches?

Reading their book gives you ample opportunity to chew these questions over, but for me, the best part of Cheers and Amen is the chance to accompany Dean and Mindy on their journey. You get to know some unusual corners of America, such as the rescue missions in Las Vegas and New Orleans, a church that devotes its summers to feeding hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and a church that is also a gym and invites people to dance classes. Dean and Mindy didn’t go looking for the exotic in American churches (or bars) but they found some of it along the way. It’s fun to travel with them, and as you do,  you get to know two quirky, funny, unique personalities.

Religious Freedom

June 27, 2018

IMG_1146A few weeks ago I was in New Orleans for a wedding, which took place at the Old Ursuline Convent, built in 1745. The convent displayed a letter (see above) written to them by Thomas Jefferson just a year after the Louisiana Purchase.

The nuns at the convent were fearful that the barbarian Americans (mostly Protestants) who had taken power from the French would confiscate their property and put an end to their work. Jefferson answered as follows:

Washington, May 15, 1804

To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was an Enlightenment deist, and no particular friend to Roman Catholic religious life. It says something for his character that he answered the letter so civilly, reassuring the nuns on two grounds. One was the constitution, which guaranteed religious liberty. Jefferson says that the convent has the right to its physical property, and to organize its community life according to its own rules, without interference. He goes further in stating that its charitable work will ensure its support from the government, since all citizens whatever their religious point of view will appreciate it.

The sisters can rest easy because the law protects them; but they can also rest easy because their good works will be seen and appreciated by people of all persuasions. It’s a subtle response. There is perhaps some interplay between the two points: for when religious institutions are known for doing good to society, that strengthens the legal protections they enjoy. Jefferson does not say, but one can certainly think, that if the convent became so ingrown and narrow that it did no good for anybody outside the convent, the legal protections might prove to be much less robust in practice.

Today many believers (not just Christians, but Muslims too, and others) feel threatened, rather like those Ursuline sisters. Having lost the culture wars, they fear being compelled to surrender their consciences and participate fully in the reigning liberal regime. It’s no idle threat: bakers may be compelled to use their art to celebrate ceremonies they consider immoral; doctors may be compelled to oversee abortion or suicide; religious organizations may be compelled to hire staff who don’t share their beliefs. Religious people offer a strong defense, based on the American Constitution, for their right to continue their unique way of life. Some may feel that is all that needs to be said: The Constitution says it, that settles it. They would like to pursue a purely legal strategy.

But the Constitution won’t help most religious people in the world. It won’t do you a bit of good in China. And even in America, the Constitution’s protections will be far more vigorous if believers are known for contributing to the common good. I believe that we do. However, I suspect that a very strong and growing minority of Americans don’t. They don’t believe that religious institutions and religious people contribute to the common good. Therein, I suspect, lies the greatest threat to religious liberty. We should do everything in our powers to change it.




June 26, 2018

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

–Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I’ve been thinking about periods of darkness. Our day seems to be one such—a time of casual lying, proud callousness, deliberate unkindness. A very large plurality, and maybe a majority of Americans has embraced fear and cruelty against “outsiders.” I had hoped that this was just a tantrum, and that Americans would get over it. Maybe so, but I’m beginning to fear we’re in this for the long haul.

It’s horrifying to me, but I’m reminded that America has been through previous periods of darkness.

One was in the 1830s, when the Cherokee and other Indian nations were evicted from their property in the Southeast, mainly Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, and force-marched by government soldiers to Oklahoma. Thousands died on the way. During the same period, slaveholders throughout the South grew so aggressive and vociferous that anyone who opposed slavery feared for their life.

Then came the Civil War, when Americans grew so polarized that they organized themselves to kill each other, in vast, mechanized swarms of men. The heroes of the time were those who slaughtered other Americans.

Following the war, after a brief period of Reconstruction, the right to vote was violently taken away from African Americans in the South. Thousands were killed if they resisted. From about 1870 to 1960—ninety years—violence kept blacks in subservient status throughout the South, and much of the North as well. Those who resisted were likely to be murdered.

Meanwhile, in the West, Native Americans and Chinese received more or less the same treatment—with the tacit approval of almost all white citizens.

We have dark periods in our national past. In almost every case, the worst offenses were broadly accepted—hardly noted. Such offenses are only possible if the general population is anesthetized to them, becoming instinctually tribal and comfortably cruel.

Note, however, that in the darkness great lights were kindled. The abolitionist movement grew up in the 1830s, perhaps the most admirable group of (mainly) white activists we have known.

In the horror of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln found his voice.

And out of the repression of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow regime, we got Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement.

Our most wonderful citizens and movements came out of the darkness. They demonstrated amazing courage and remarkable faith. The darkness did not overcome the light. Out of the dark, the light shone at its brightest.

Persistence of Light

June 21, 2018

I just finished reading John Hoyte’s memoir, Persistence of Light. As many of you know, I have been on a bandwagon urging people to write their memoirs—I am beginning to write my own–and John’s work gives me an excellent reason to carry on the crusade. The only problem is that the events of John’s life are so extraordinarily interesting, compared to anybody else’s, they may intimidate the rest of us.

At the risk of simplification I will divide Persistence of Light into three parts of interest: Japanese prison camp, Hannibal’s elephant, and everything else. First, Japanese prison camp.

John grew up in China as the child of missionary parents. His father, a medical doctor, seems to have been of that enterprising, open-minded, omni-capable type you still run into in far-off parts of the world. With such a parent, John and his five siblings lived lives of considerable adventure—sometimes self-initiated, as when the whole family spontaneously got into a rowboat and rowed out to a British cruiser that had anchored off the coast. Some of their adventures came unbidden, since China was at war with Japan, and Communists were fighting Nationalists. China was a dangerous place, though John’s parents insulated their children from most fears.

However, in 1940 John’s parents were called to an emergency hospital assignment 1,300 miles inland. They left their six children at the coastal boarding school they were attending at Chefoo. When war with Japan erupted in 1941, the students were put into a prison camp, along with other resident aliens, adults as well as children. This was the same prison camp where Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame, was imprisoned and died of a brain tumor. John knew him well, for Liddell took a great interest in the camp’s children.

The prison camp inmates were not tormented or abused, but they suffered from hunger and cold and crowding. The worst deprivation for John was parental. He was eight years old when his mother and father left for inland China, and he was not to see them for five years. During the war, they had almost no communication. John’s older siblings were with him, but life in both boarding school and prison camp kept them mostly separated. Then, as the final blow, came news that his mother had died. It was unthinkably devastating. He would never see her again.

John’s telling of liberation at the hands of American soldiers is extraordinarily exhilarating. Then came the slow and confusing reestablishment of ordinary life—finding their father in turbulent, chaotic post-war China, returning to an England they hardly knew, and finding their way without the guiding light of their mother. John’s early years were both extraordinarily stimulating and joyful—with music and art and adventure—and horrifyingly traumatic. It is a hopeful reminder that trauma is not destiny. He emerged, somehow, as a bright, curious, open-minded and adventurous man, a leader who organized teams around his (sometimes) eccentric vision.

That brings us to Hannibal’s elephant. While at Cambridge University, John developed an interest in the controversies surrounding the route Hannibal took over the Alps with his elephants, invading Rome. Several possibilities were hotly debated. John, studying the ancient documents, got a small university grant to take a student team to climb the relevant passes and see for themselves. A few years later, when John was in the working world, he was inspired to borrow an elephant from the Turin zoo, and recreate (sort of) Hannibal’s epic journey. It was an inspired stunt that got him a seven-page feature in Life Magazine, and an appearance on the well-known TV show To Tell the Truth, where he won $500, more than doubling his life savings. He tells the whole adventure in great detail.

Such an expedition may be a lark, but it requires a lot of thoughtful organization and leadership. This is somewhat typical of John: he has quirky inspirations that require others’ participation, and the leadership skills to bring a team together.

Part three, “everything else,” centers on John’s career in Silicon Valley, where he joined Hewlett Packard in its generous early days, and later launched his own start-up. That business, though it never flew to the moon in the way that storied Silicon Valley start-ups did, survives to the present day. Leading a start-up is not altogether unlike taking an elephant over the Alps, it seems.

In the same period, John’s interest in philosophical  and religious questions, in art and literature and music, opened him up to the San Francisco cultural scene, from the Beats, to the hippies, to the Vietnam rebels. Mostly, it appears, he was inspired to listen and learn. His wife Alma had been to Francis Schaeffer’s l’Abri, a refuge for religious searchers in the Swiss Alps. Imitating that, she and John organized eclectic weekly gatherings in their home. They opened their lives to many diverse people, including, for one Christmas meal, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.

I am leaving out quite a number of interesting vignettes, including the tragic death of Alma to cancer, and John’s subsequent—and sudden!—marriage to the poet Luci Shaw. Very few people have so many interesting things to write about. That, truthfully, is what makes Persistence of Light attractive to people who don’t know John.

Given that most people have less fascinating material to work with, should they write a memoir? I believe so. I’m motivated by the fact that my maternal grandfather, William Sutherland, dictated a 20-page memoir late in life. I only wish he had left us ten times as much. My own parents wrote nothing, and I am left with questions that I now have no one to ask.

You don’t know exactly what may come out when you sit down with a blank sheet. Whatever appears, however, will have an audience. Your children and grandchildren may not immediately find your thoughts of interest, but sooner or later somebody will want to know what the old coot had to say. And what more important things are you doing, than passing on your memories, your thoughts, your values and your faith?

Persistence of Light by John Hoyte is available at Amazon.com.

Cruelty and the Law

June 19, 2018

I’ve been surprised by the controversy over separating children from their parents at the border. Not surprised by the cruelty. Surprised that evangelical leaders have spoken against it.

I thought there was nothing that evangelicals couldn’t stomach. I thought, if hush payoffs to porn stars don’t lead Christians to temper their tub-thumping enthusiasm for Trump, nothing will. But I failed to account for the appeal of children.

It remains to be seen whether the criticisms Republicans and evangelicals have levied against the policy of tearing children from their mothers’ arms will lead to any larger reevaluation. Trump supporters are very strong on the importance of obeying the law. (This doesn’t apply to sagebrush rebels who drive federal agents off public lands at gunpoint, but never mind, none of us is entirely consistent.) Jeff Sessions led the evangelical charge with his comments that Romans 13 instructs us that God has empowered government to enforce the law. In his worldview, the Law is all. It justifies anything.

As any moderately well-instructed Bible interpreter knows, Romans 13 tells us that God has ordained government for the purpose of order, and therefore its laws deserve our obedience. Except, of course, when they don’t. When the law tells us to go against our faith, we are supposed to disobey it.

David Brooks writes in Monday’s New York Times that conservatives have consistently warned that big government leads to situations like this, where the Law becomes inflexible, inhuman, and bureaucratically obsessed with observance. What Trump and Sessions are doing isn’t conservatism. It’s certainly not Christian. I’ll leave it to you to name it.








For Teachers and Other Curious People

May 18, 2018

My friend Darrel Falk (biology prof at Pt. Loma Nazarene University) has created a series of short videos offering evidence for evolutionary creation. They are even-tempered and informative, and would be good for high school or college students struggling with questions about evolution and creation. Each one is only six or seven minutes long.

Here are  the links:  Part 1.  Part 2.  Part 3.   To access more just Google YouTube and Falk, Coming to Peace with Science.