Religion Today

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Let’s Reschedule Thanksgiving!

With more than five feet of snow in Buffalo, N.Y., and temperatures having fallen into negative territory across most of the northern states, winter has arrived, no matter what date the calendar labels as the season’s official start. Forgotten are August’s grain harvest and September’s apple picking. We are bundled up against the winter wind, shoveling our walks and winterizing our vehicles.

So, why are we only now celebrating Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is supposed to be a harvest festival. If it commemorates the first harvest of the Pilgrims after they landed in Massachusetts Bay in 1622, then the last Thursday in November is the wrong date. While the exact date of the Pilgrims’ feast is unknown, the two contemporary records of the event make clear it took place in thanks for the harvest gathering just completed.
Since Massachusetts is quite far north in the United States, then the harvest would have been completed by early September. If we include the pumpkin harvest, which ripens latest, the date could have been late September, perhaps the first week of October. None of these possibilities gets close to the start of November, let alone the end.
The real problem with Thanksgiving is that the date was set before our modern, school-based calendar and it really ruins the fall schedule. Coming three months into the four-month fall semester, it places a three-day holiday just one month before an even larger Christmas break. And because it is so long, it prevents a decent fall break halfway through the fall semester, when it would do the students some good.
At the time the date for Thanksgiving was established, school was the last thing on anyone’s mind. There was no national requirement for universal education, even at the primary level. By 1900, only two-thirds of the states required or funded public education. Now that the school calendar shapes the year’s rhythm, we should align Thanksgiving with it.
As a teacher, I find that Thanksgiving prevents a strong push with a solid final unit. If I start before Thanksgiving, then the big break occurs and students forget half of what they learned. If I start afterward, then there is not enough time.
And pity the poor music teachers trying to get the kids ready for the Christmas concerts. Just a week or two from the big event, they disappear from rehearsals for half a week.
And there is no real reason Thanksgiving has to take place in late November. It does not commemorate any specific religious event, like Christmas or Easter. One can “give thanks” anytime. To the extent that one gives thanks for a harvest (the Pilgrims’ or our own), it is appropriate any time from late August to October.
Why is Thanksgiving celebrated when it is? For the early decades of our nation’s history, Thanksgiving was a state celebration, with different states celebrating at different times. In the 1820s, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the influential “Godbey’s Lady’s Book,” began an annual campaign to establish a national holiday.
Her promotion gradually gained a following until, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln decreed a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Lincoln saw this as a way of celebrating the importance of national unity during the Civil War.
Yet, Lincoln established the holiday for only one year. He and his presidential successors inaugurated a tradition of proclaiming the holiday each year afterward. It was not until Congress voted during 1941 to establish a permanent holiday, at the instigation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that we have Thanksgiving as we now celebrate it.
So, the presidential link to Thanksgiving lies in the emphasis on national unity during war. Thanksgiving is important, but their emphasis is not thanksgiving for the harvest, but for the nation and for the sacrifice soldiers were making for it. Again, this is an important reason to be thankful, but not one that requires any specific date.
So, let’s move Thanksgiving to the middle of October. That way, harvest will be over and the crops stored away. It will be late enough to eat pumpkin pie, but not so late that winter will be upon us. The festival will take place in the middle of the fall, so it will fit nicely into the school calendar and provide students with a much needed break, helping them concentrate better the rest of the semester.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Climate Change Prediction and Biblical Prophecy

The world’s two largest energy-producing countries and greenhouse gas emitters signed a deal this week to reduce carbon emissions. President Barack Obama agreed to cut U.S. carbon emissions about a quarter by 2025 and China’s President Xi Jinping agreed to increase to 20 percent the share of his country’s production of power without the use of fossil fuels by 2030.
This is significant, especially given recent climate reports. This month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that the worldwide mean temperature will increase by more than 3 degrees by 2100. The Pentagon recently issued its “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” laying out changes to military strategy needed to address effects of climate change. These include rising global temperatures and sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and increasing frequency or intensity of extreme weather.
Despite the high-level science and the policy changes, a survey taken by Yale University in 2013 indicated only two-thirds of Americans think climate change is happening and only a half think it will affect them.
And American political culture contains a large segment of climate-change deniers, a belief promoted by the media and politicians. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s negative response to the American-Chinese agreement is case-in-point.
Why is this? Because climate change is about predicting the future, and that is always an uncertain process. Since the future has not happened, it is imaginary and cannot be proven. While scientists and policy makers can talk about past and present trends, the extension of those trends into the future is a tricky and inexact process.
But, perhaps more importantly, climate change just happens to be the wrong kind of process for effective predictive warnings.
A look at Old Testament prophecy in its historical context indicates the problem: prophets talk about current circumstances. They ask for near-term action. Haggai and Zechariah reveal that God wants the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt, and within 5 years, the governor and high priest build it. Jonah goes to Nineveh, after he escapes from the whale, and prophesies that God will destroy the city unless its inhabitants repent. They do and God relents.
In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah prophesies to the allied kings of Israel and Judah they will lose the impending battle if they fight. They ignore him, charge into battle, and are defeated.
So, effective biblical prophecy speaks about the short-term and seeks to bring about a particular action. Climate change prediction does neither of those things.
On the one hand, climate change predictions look too far into the future. Citing temperature rise in 2100, three generations away, does not inspire an immediate response. It is too far away to get worried about it. Even 2025 and 2030 are beyond many people’s “worry horizon.”
On the other hand, when climate change discusses the short-term, it is too late to do anything about it. The Pentagon’s report focuses on how to handle the effects of climate change already taking place. Its tone is “this is happening, deal with it.”
When NASA tells us that nine of the 10 warmest years on record have been since 2000, it has already happened. And will reducing carbon emissions now do anything to prevent temperature rise in the next four or five years? No, the carbon that will cause that rise already is in the air.
So, climate change predictions are either too far into the future to inspire action or they are too near-term to affect the outcome. The processes by which human emissions are transformed into climate change simply take too long.
Does this mean that we should do nothing? Of course not. The Chinese-American agreement is important and will set the stage for further agreements at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.
This column simply aims to lay out the PR problem facing policy makers who wish to lessen the coming impact of climate change. Perhaps they should take a page from the biblical prophets’ playbook. They should promote actions people can take now that will have an impact within the next few years, rather than in the next few decades or centuries.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Gay Marriage, the Evangelical Response and Freedom of Religion

This month Wyoming became one of the 32 states that now permit gay marriage. Since the decision, Wyoming’s mood has been upbeat. Newspapers have featured smiling pictures of couples about to tie the knot, while family, friends and neighbors have been happily congratulating them. These scenes are being repeated across the many states where gay marriage has recently been accepted.
The nation’s churches have had a variety of responses. The Episcopal Church reaffirmed its approval for priests to celebrate the unions of gay couples. The Presbyterians and Methodists, despite years of debate, are still fence-sitting; they have made some gay-friendly decisions, but have not been completely welcoming. The Catholic hierarchy remains opposed, even though polls consistently show Catholic parishioners as the most welcoming of gay couples.
The most strident voices against gay marriage continue to come from evangelicals and Baptists, especially those over the age of 30.  Gay marriage is a “rejection of God’s law,” said the Rev. Albert Mohler, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president. He was speaking to 1,000 evangelical pastors who gathered this week at the conference titled, “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage” in Nashville to reinforce the message that homosexual relationships are sinful.
Yet, even there, the focus is changing. Most of the ministers attending live in states where gay marriage is now legal. While the meeting helped them reaffirm their beliefs, many of the sessions were focused on helping them negotiate the new social and legal landscape.
More important, there was increasing recognition that the fight against gay marriage had been lost. Ministers and evangelical Christians in general must turn to living and working with the gays and gay couples around them. Rosaria Butterfield emphasized that Christians needed to “repent of anti-gay rhetoric” and include gays among their friends.
This will be easier said than done, since the rejectionist character of evangelical positions in recent years has prevented many of these pastors from getting to know the gay people around them. Indeed, several dozen members of Christian gay advocacy groups attended the conference, working one on one to help these pastors rethink their approach toward their homosexual acquaintances. Given that Christianity teaches its members should love their neighbors as themselves, this is rather sad. Evangelicals have failed to follow the most basic of Christian tenets.
The changes being encouraged are surprisingly elementary. Not only are the conference organizers handing out pamphlets with titles like “Loving my (LGBT) Neighbor,” but other speakers are teaching that parents should not reject their gay children. (Christians have to be told to treat their children with love?)
In a recent op-ed piece in the Christian Post, Rob Schwarzwalder argues that evangelicals should treat their gay neighbors like their straight neighbors in all the little ways. They should help with yard work, visit them in the hospital, let their children play together, and so on. Even so, he says, evangelicals should be clear there is no middle ground. Gay marriages are not biblically approved.
And that very position shows the way forward for evangelicals in America’s new social and legal reality. Only Christians can enter into biblically approved marriages. No marriage of non-Christians receives gospel sanction. So, by definition, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews lack biblically correct marriages. Marriages performed by the justice of the peace at the courthouse lack biblical sanction.
Yet, evangelicals and other Christians accept the validity of such partnerships. When viewed from this perspective, gay marriages are just another non-biblical union. Yes, they are new. Yes, there has been a difficult social and legal struggle over them. But in the end, gay marriages simply stem from one of the many different types of religious beliefs, or non-religious beliefs, that the USA has welcomed from the beginning.
Americans are rightfully proud of our nation’s emphasis on religious liberty. The accessibility of gay marriage is simply one more example of the government not interfering in the religious practices of its citizens.

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