Reform Hinged on Bible Interpretations


IN one sense, there's nothing very new about Japan's new leadership. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa came up through the ranks of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); he's a veteran of its factional politics and knows exactly what the various power centers within the party will demand of him.For example, Mr. Miyazawa may be inclined to smooth over the trade disputes that led the agenda during talks with US Secretary of State James Baker this week. Washington would like Japan to lift its barriers against rice imports. But Miyazawa has powerful LDP colleagues who remain bound to the rice farmers' lobby; they'll resist any attempt to yield on that emotional issue. Such inflexibility, however, runs counter to today's global political currents. The end of the cold war is reshaping policy in Tokyo as elsewhere in the world. For 40 years, Japan has concentrated on developing itself economically while US forces maintained a protective presence both on its shores and in the region. The US military umbrella is likely to fold, at least partially. This needn't imply that Japan will have to bolster its military - and thus alarm its neighbors. The country's adherence to peace for the last four decades, while economically convenient, has been genuine. It learned from the militaristic past. The fundamental issue now is what role an activist Japan, freed from subordination to the US, should play in building a more peaceful world. That task begins close to home, in a region that still remembers the horrors of World War II. Tokyo dispenses more foreign aid than any other capital, much of it within Asia. Commercial and industrial development has been a primary aim. A greater commitment to humanitarian aid could help dispel doubts about Japanese benevolence. More direct Japanese involvement in resolving regional conflicts like Cambodia would be helpful too. Japan was criticized during the Gulf war for standing on the sidelines and offering cash. But international activism can take forms other than jumping into battle. Miyazawa is known as an internationalist. In the past, he has had useful ideas on how to reduce third-world debt, for instance. He's also thought to be interested in taking a prominent part in next year's world environmental summit in Brazil. Contrary to US wishes, Japan may push for a vigorous response to the threat of global warming. Japan faces a world still concerned about its past militarism and suspicious that its motives are solely commercial. The new prime minister has an opportunity to prove those worries wrong.

SIX out of 10 Americans call themselves Protestant. In doing so they identify with a movement which sundered Western European Christendom almost five centuries ago, before it spread throughout the world.Despite their great varieties, Protestants united and unite in one negation and at least one affirmation. Negatively, they reject the authority of the pope. Positively, they claim the Bible as their chief textual authority. These Protestants argue about almost every detail of biblical interpretation, but they share a respect for the Bible, the perennial American bestseller. They come by this respect quite naturally, for those who started the movement the great reformers" of the 16th century - had an awe for the text and took delight from its pages. Most of the divisions within Protestantism, in fact, derive from differences over the reformers' understandings of its text and the competing kinds of delight they took from it. They liked to range their interpretations against those of the Roman Catholic Church of their day, a church which also had its reformers - one thinks of the great scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam - who also made much of the Bible. Still, reformers would have nothing to say or do if they felt there was no need for reform. Most of them argued that one of the great flaws of the Catholic Church was its neglect of the Bible. Their spiritual descendants like to point out that the Scriptures were inaccessible to most people. In Protestant mythology, there remain vivid images of the Bible chained to the monastery wall. The minority of Catholic laymen who were literate had access to the Bible. Christopher Columbus, for instance, left behind scrapbooks full of excerpts from the Bible, many of which he embarrassingly used to identify its Word of God with his vision and mission. Still, the people we are calling "the great reformers" made distinctive use of the book. All of them were immersed in the Bible: from Martin Luther in Germany, Huldreich Zwingli in Switzerland, John Calvin there and in France, John Knox in Scotland, to more moderate reformers in England and more radical reformers in the Netherlands. While they regarded its canon as being "closed they were not looking for new books to add to its figurative library, and rejected the Apocrypha and other collections that Cat holics included - they tended to see themselves and their movements as part of the Bible's own plot. The best way to come to see this is to picture the way African-Americans have characteristically done such identifying. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in a long tradition of those who saw their movements as extensions of the Exodus of Israel, who connected their sufferings with those of the martyrs in the time of Jesus. So it was that Martin Luther could read Revelation and connect its prophesied Antichrist with the Roman pope. Thus also, the Mennonites and Brethren and other radicals - who were hunted down by Catholics and official Protestants alike - read the Scriptures to find their wounds honored, their endurance recognized. Because the Bible was such a live document to them, the reformers learned Hebrew and Greek so they could catch its nuances. Luther's translation, for instance, did for the German language something like what Shakespeare's writings did for the English. The King James Version of the Bible in 1611 provided cadences for common people, poets, and politicians: Witness the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. When a stormy movement gets started, people scramble for position and fight over definitions. Since the Protestants had no pope to settle things for them, they had to do their defining along the lines of what they read in the Bible. Most Protestants brought "catholic" eyes to its pages, and kept baptizing infants. But people called Anabaptists or Baptists brought different eyes, and took from the Bible the command to baptize only adults who could reason about what was going on; and who, by an act of (God -inspired) grace, could exercise their will and intelligence about the decision to be baptized. The splits between the owners of those different kinds of eyes continue to the present. Reformers could be ambiguous and self-contradictory, as leaders of dynamic movements often are. Thus, Martin Luther could break with the Swiss reformers over two words, "this is." He believed that the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper are, and do not merely represent, the body and blood of Christ. Every word counted. Then he could turn around and say that the Book of James got in the way of the good news of grace in Jesus Christ and did not belong in the Bible. He could point to errors in Matthew and b ad analogies in Paul. Such an open approach is too messy, too hazardous, for second-generation leaders. In most of the Protestant movements, therefore, the heirs of the great reformers began to try to nail everything down, to set everything in order. They used methods which Catholics had patented and some first-generation reformers rejected, methods often called "scholastic." With these, they claimed to prove that the Bible was inspired, infallible, inerrant; it could not even contain "mistakes" about geography, history, or n ature. Today's fundamentalists perpetuate this contention. Whether loose or nailed down, agreed upon or fought over, however, the Bible was always more than a book to be argued about and its truths proven. The reformers saw it to be the story by which they lived, the poetry which inspired their souls' searches, the commands they must follow, the announcement of good news that would save them. They converted its written texts into bases for contemporary applications, through teaching and especially through preaching. Luther liked to say that the church was a "mouth-house" and not a "featherpen-house." He punned that the Word of God, which he found in the Bible, was to be geschrieen, shouted out, and not merely geschrieben, written out. His colleagues and Protestant rivals agreed, and they memorized huge chunks of the Bible so as to preach it better. One might say that the Bible provided a kind of "mental furnished apartment," which the reformers kept redecorating and rearranging. They invited their children in, through elaborate instruction. Some of them - John Calvin was typical - liked to use it as a background for the laws they wanted the civil state to enact. They tbecame frustrated or furious when the people to whom they provided portions of Scriptures would use the printing press and book market instead to read worldly and distracting pamphlet s. One will never understand the great reformers, however, without realizing that their Great Books Club, as it were, was built around one text above all others, the Bible, as the "only source and norm" for their teachings. They hoped that the Holy Spirit would give them the light to understand it and believe it. But they cherished the book because in its testimony they found a portrayal of the acts of a God who was kind to them. In fact, they read the book as itself an act of a God who cared enough to let them know what this God had in mind for them: good news.

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