Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

An Immoral Budget

The following is an email I received from Marian Wright Edelman, founder and Director of the Children’s Defense Fund. I have written a letter to my local paper denouncing this budget and using figures from this letter. I hope you will follow suit.

Dear Friends:


America’s children suffered a terrible blow last night. The Congress passed an unjust Budget Resolution that will force major cuts in critical investments that low-income children need to survive and thrive. As the blueprint for the FY 2006 budget, the resolution sets spending limits on discretionary programs, forces cuts to mandatory programs and establishes the size of tax cuts for Congress to pass later this year.


The vote in the House was 214-211, and the vote in the Senate was 52-47. In the House, 195 Democrats, 1 Independent, and 15 Republicans voted against the conference report on the resolution. All those in favor were Republicans. In the Senate, 43 Democrats, 1 Independent, and 3 Republicans voted against the conference report, while 52 Republicans voted in favor.[1]

We at the Children’s Defense Fund thank all of you who put your hearts, minds and souls into trying to defeat what ultimately is an irresponsible and harmful Budget Resolution that cuts programs serving our most vulnerable children and families:


Mandatory Programs: The budget requires that mandatory programs be cut by $35 billion. For example, the Senate Finance Committee must cut $10 billion from the Medicaid program. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees must cut $3 billion, leaving the food stamp program vulnerable to reductions. These committees must report their legislation by September 16, 2005, and Senate floor action will follow.

Domestic Discretionary Programs: The budget caps domestic discretionary program funding at $843 billion. These are for federal programs funded through the annual appropriations process. This cap will mean $24 billion must be removed from the budgets for Head Start, education, housing, and nutrition programs such as WIC for fiscal year 2006. The process for choosing which cuts to make will begin in May and must be completed by the end of September.


This Budget Resolution paves the way for irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy and an exploding national debt:


Tax cuts: The budget authorizes the Congress to pass $106 billion in unpaid-for tax cuts, of which $70 billion can be passed by a simple majority instead of with the possibility of extended debate. The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee are required to report their tax cut legislation by September 23, 2005.


CDF Action Council’s Campaign to Stand for Justice for Children and the Poor made our voices heard.


While we ultimately were not able to stop Congress from passing this reckless deficit-raising budget as we hoped, our voices along with those of thousands of other organizations and advocates who mobilized their members, had a significant impact:


  • The Medicaid cut was reduced by half from the original House proposal of $20 billion to $10 billion.
  • Aside from Medicaid, no mandatory programs will be cut by the Finance Committee; vital programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), foster care and adoption, TANF, Supplemental Security Income (for people with disabilities), child support, and unemployment insurance were protected.
  • Cuts in Agriculture programs, most likely to come from the food stamps program, were reduced from $5 billion to $3 billion.


These are major accomplishments, but they did not make this budget acceptable.

Millions of our children will suffer twice from this unjust action. Today they will be denied vital investments in their health, early childhood development and education. In the future they will be saddled with a crushing debt in order to lavish more tax benefits on the rich.

The budget measure approved by Congress will severely damage the framework of policies and funding levels that was crafted over many decades to protect the vulnerable through the Medicaid, Head Start and other programs. While the tax cuts primarily benefit the wealthy, they starve our nation of the resources essential for our children’s health, education, safety and community stability. This is not right or sensible.

This is not the time to retreat. From now until September, as Congress reports legislation on appropriations, mandatory spending reductions and tax cuts, our voices must be heard. Working together, we will influence Congress to shape those changes to best protect low-income children and their families.


Don’t underestimate the impact your efforts have already had on the budget process. Your continued advocacy is more important than ever, as we continue to stand for justice for the children and the poor.


[1] Fifteen House Republicans voting no on the conference report of the FY 2006 budget resolution: Bass (NH), Boehlert (NY), Castle (DE), Goode (VA), Green (WI), Gutknecht (MN), Johnson (CT), Johnson (IL), Jones (NC), Leach (IA), LoBiondo (NJ), Ramstad (MN), Saxton (NJ), Shays (CT) and Simmons (CT). Three Senate Republicans voting no on the conference report of the FY 2006 budget resolution: Chafee (RI), DeWine (OH), and Voinovich (OH)



April 30, 2005 Posted by | economic justice, U.S. politics | 3 Comments

Good Links

I’ve updated the links to this blog. Check out these sites. They connect you to organizations promoting prophetic faith, peacemaking, justice work. Plus a few blogs of kindred spirits.

April 28, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Comments Off on Good Links

Alternatives to War: Just Peacemaking Practices

“War is Not the Answer!” So What IS?

  1. Support Nonviolent Direct Action. Has toppled many dictators.
  2. Reduce Threats. In situations of conflict, both unilateral disarmament and escalation are dangerous. What is needed are unilateral, independent (often surprising) initiatives to reduce the threat to the adversary. This allows breathing space and can create new dynamics for negotiation. Because the adversary may well suspect motives, the initiatives need to come in a series of “confidence building measures” that invite reciprocation.
  3. Cooperative Conflict Resolution. Principled negotiation that speaks truth boldly, but attacks the problem rather than the adversary. Numerous cross-cultural works on this now. The Carter Center is excellent at this process.
  4. Acknowledge Responsibility/Seek Repentance & Forgiveness.
  5. Advance Democracy, Human Rights, and Religious Liberty. Because of the way the Bush administration has called its warmongering “promoting democracy,” it is necessary to add that democracy cannot be forced on people at gunpoint. One encourages indigenous movements for democracy, and democratic reforms in governments–setting examples in one’s own. Lack of voice in political decisionmaking is a major cause of war–as are human rights violations and the denial of religious liberty.
  6. Foster Just and Sustainable Economic Development. Many future wars could be “resource wars.” Lack of access to healthy food, clean water, a decent home, good education, and healthcare, are sources of conflict and internal dissent that can turn violent. Unjust and ecologically unsustainable trade patterns breed wars too.
  7. Work with Emerging Cooperative Forces in the International System.
  8. Strengthen the United Nations and International Efforts for Cooperation and Human Rights. The most dangerous longterm action of the Bush administration has been the way it has weakened the UN and the system of international law which has developed since WWII. The UN is far from perfect. It needs democratic reform itself. But the UN and its relief and human rights agencies make the world more just and safer. So does the International Criminal Court and the system of treaties which work toward arms reduction, human rights protection, environmental protection, etc. These institutions need strengthening, not undermining.
  9. Reduce Weapons and the Weapons Trade.
  10. Encourage Grassroots Peacemaking Groups and Voluntary Associations. Don’t leave it to the policy “experts.” We need networks of non-governmental organizations spanning the globe working for peace and pushing governments to do their part. A few good groups like that are found on the links to this blog.

For more on all this see Glen H. Stassen, ed., Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices to Abolish War.
Or see Stassen’s own website: Just Peacemaking Theory.

April 27, 2005 Posted by | just peacemaking | 2 Comments

Two Types of Religion

I am going to contend that religion comes in two very broad types. I will call the one type authoritarian and the other prophetic. I saw both types clearly last Sunday 25 April in Louisville. Those supporting “Justice Sunday” were prime examples of authoritarian religion while those attending the “Freedom and Faith” counter-event embodied a more prophetic, liberating faith.

Authoritarian religion is heirarchical. Power/authority (the two are equated) flows from the top of a pyramid or out from a tight bureaucracy–and doesn’t flow very far. It is very concerned with power and control.
Authoritarian religion sees Scripture as primarily a rulebook. Its ethics are very concerned with rules and with matters of purity and taboo, dividing the righteous few from the profane/polluted many. This leads sexual matters to dominate its ethics: women are relegated to inferior positions, sexuality is seen as a necessary evil, and those who differ from sharply-defined sexual norms are pariahs. Non-procreational sex is discouraged if not forbidden and artificial means of either aiding or preventing procreation are demonized. An idealized patriarchal family is defended as “the biblical norm,” despite abundant biblical evidence to many forms of family life.

By nature, this form of religion is exclusionary. Orthodoxy or right teaching is defined very narrowly and differences of opinion tolerated within a very small range. Uncertainty or ambiguity on any topic is unwelcome. Debates arise over narrow points that outsiders cannot tell apart because thinking is kept within narrow boxes.

The need for authority and control leads to love of a “strong man,” with the male gender very much intended. A strong father, a strong leader, a strong protector–a military savior figure to hold all hopes and dreams.

This is a religion dominated by fear: fear of heretics, of social change, of questions, of ambiguity, fear of outsiders, of secularism–fear, ultimately, of God. I know someone who belongs to this type of religion who is developing a line of clothing saying, “I Fear God” who cannot figure out why they won’t sell!

By contrast, prophetic faith is non-heirarchical. Power is widely shared and tends to be grassroots-initiated. The ideal here is for a discipleship of equals and for servant leadership. Leaders’ earn their authority by means of their wisdom, persuasiveness, talents, and the way their service empowers others. True leaders in prophetic forms of faith are not threatened by other initiatives, other voices, or constructive critiques of their own actions.

Prophetic faith may have a place for rules, but rules are not seen as the center of the life of faith. Ethical rules flow from broader principles which themselves are rooted in narrative convictions about the meaning of God, salvation, discipleship, etc. Scriptures are not seen primarily as rulebooks but as revealing God’s character and God’s purposes in the world–purposes of salvation and liberation in which we are invited by grace to participate. Prophetic faith redefines purity or holiness in terms of compassionate justice for the marginalized, vulnerable, or powerless. The focus is not on one’s own righteousness, but on the good of the neighbor, the enemy, the common good. Orthopraxy, right practice, plays a larger role than orthodoxy and both are defined in ways that allow for disagreements, uncertainties, explorations, and ambiguity. There is a strong sense of the major shape of the life of faith, but no felt need to have all the answers. Its major concerns are justice, compassion, peacemaking, care for creation, empowering others, the dignity of all, the common good. Sexual issues take a lesser role and then are not seen in terms of purity concerns but in terms of covenant faithfulness, nonviolence, mutual dignity, right-relatedness.

The dominant notes in prophetic faith are not control and fear, but joy. Joy–delight in God, in God’s creation, in others, in empowered service, in discipleship. This is an ethos than understands itself as different from the dominant culture, but is constantly inviting others in–breaking down barriers, not pushing others’ out.

We need far more of this prophetic faith, today. Unfortunately, those who have it, having often been victims of a bad model of evangelism from the authoritarians, are not bold enough in sharing it with others. Prophetic faith is to be lived–and proclaimed.

April 27, 2005 Posted by | progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, theology | 1 Comment

Following Jesus or Just Playing Church?

This was originally an email I sent to the listserves of Every Church a Peace Church and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. I am not indicting any particular congregation, but want all of us to ask ourselves questions this serious on a regular basis.:

In each of these broad areas (with many a sub-topic!), the solutions, it seems to me, require both direct aid and work for structural change–the change of unjust patterns requiring the direct aid. We need to be asking ourselves what we are doing as local churches in both dimensions. The following list of hard questions is not meant to be either exhaustive or exclusive. No local congregation can do everything (so cooperation across denominational and theological grounds in community organizing is a good thing!) and I want to leave room for local creativity and the way the Holy Spirit gifts and calls in particular contexts–but you will know if you or your church is dodging the claims of God in your context. I also apologize that most of my particular examples assume a U.S. perspective. Here goes:

  • What am I and what is our church doing to alleviate and eliminate hunger and poverty, locally and globally? In terms of direct aid, do we participate in community feeding programs, soup kitchens, clothing closets? If not, why not and how soon can we start? If so, how much of our budget is devoted to these efforts? More than the budget for keeping the organ in tune ? In terms of public policy advocacy, is our church a covenant congregation of Bread for the World ( https://mmm08.rapidsite.net/breado/howtohelp/church/covenant.html )? Do we participate in the work of Call to Renewal? http://www.calltorenewal.com/ If the answer to both those questions is “no,” what ARE we doing to advocate for the policies that will eliminate hunger and poverty?
  • Does my church claim to be “pro-life” concerning abortion? If so, does this just entail voting for politicians who use this language or say they will support laws restricting abortions? Is that enough? In terms of direct aid, what does this “pro-life” church do to help reduce teen pregnancy? To provide assistance for those with problem pregnancies? To ensure comprehensive sex education is available? To make adoption easier? To give the kinds of economic and emotional support single parents might need? In terms of public policy, is my “pro-life” church working to ensure that good prenatal care is offered to all, regardless of economic condition? Are we supporting economic policies that encourage full employment, livable incomes, affordable healthcare–all items that have been shown to reduce abortions?
  • Does my church claim to be “pro-choice” concerning abortion? If so, is this out of a strong desire that all women have reproductive freedom and that all children be wanted or is it just a form of “political correctness?” (This same question needs to be asked of the pro-life churches.) Is my/our “pro-choice” stance an affirmation that abortions are always tragedies, but not always immoral or do we see the issue only in terms of civil liberties? Can we ask ourselves the direct aid and public policy questions above?
  • Is my church divided on the issue of abortion? If the answer is “yes,” then do we avoid discussing it so as to avoid conflict? Have we tried to connect with the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice? http://www.sfcg.org/programmes/us/us_life.html This is something I strongly urge all churches to do. Avoiding the topic is a form of denial. One side calling the other “baby killers!” and the other yelling back “woman haters!” is not moral discourse, but is tearing our society apart while people whose real agendas are elsewhere reap the benefits. Differences, especially on public policy, may remain between and even within congregations–but we can go farther in bridging the gap and should. Connect with the Common Ground Network today and let’s get some real dialogue started.
  • Does my church care about human life after it is born? How do we care for children in need? What direct aid programs do we support financially and with volunteer time for at risk children? In terms of public policy, is our congregation connected with the Children’s Defense Fund? http://www.childrensdefense.org/religiousaction/congregations/default.aspx If not, are we involved with any child advocacy group? If not, why not? If we are not involved in child advocacy, are we simply “pro-birth?” How does that square with Jesus’ clear concern for children?
  • Does our church support the abolition of the death penalty? If not, why not? Has the issue ever been addressed in our church? If not, should we not seek to get informed discussion going as soon as possible? If we do support eliminating the death penalty (as I believe we should), what are we actually doing about it? In terms of direct aid, are we involved in jail and prison visitation? Are we working with other faith communities and public officials to (a) prevent crime, both in terms of deterrence and in terms of addressing social needs; (b) working for alternative sentences than jail or prison for most nonviolent offenders; (c) working for real prison reform so that inmates are treated humanely and recidivism reduced; (d) providing jobs for parolees and released convicts so that they can be restored to society rather than continuing a pattern that leads to prison. Are we involved in education projects in prisons, including nonviolence education? In terms of advocacy, is our congregation involved in an agency working to eliminate capital punishment? Here are a few links to such agencies and their programs for religious communities: Religious Organizing Against the Death Penalty: http://www.deathpenaltyreligious.org/ ; National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty: http://www.ncadp.org/ If your denomination is not listed, start a campaign NOW to get your denomination to endorse (a) a moratorium on executions and (b) abolition of the death penalty.) Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty: http://www.cuadp.org/index.html . Amnesty International’s Annual Weekend of Faith in Action Against the Death Penalty: http://www.amnestyusa.org/faithinaction/about.html How can my/our church participate? Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation: http://www.mvfr.org/ Could we host a speaker from MVFR to our community?
  • What other activities is my congregation doing to promote the transformation of our criminal justice system from a model of retributive justice to a (more biblical) model of restorative justice? See resources at http://www.bpfna.org/restorativejustice.html ; http://www.barjproject.org/ ; http://2ssw.che.umn.edu/rjp/ ; http://www.voma.org/ .
  • Is my church a peace church? If the answer is “no,” what am I/are we doing to move in the direction of becoming a peace church? Do we have a lay-led peacemaker small group? See http://ecapc.org/howtostart.asp If my congregation claims to believe in “just war theory,” can the members name the conditions JWT requires for going to war? The actions which are forbidden in a war? Can any of the leaders of my congregation name these? Could anyone in such a congregation tell a just war from an unjust one? By what criteria? Does this “just war” congregation provide any guidance for members who believe particular wars to be unjust? Does it provide support (legal, financial, pastoral, etc.) for members in the military who refuse to fight in an unjust war or refuse to take actions condemned by JWT? Or is our claim to be a JWT church just a smokescreen for endorsing whatever military actions our government supports? Can we name any war or battle or weapon or tactic supported by our government that our congregation opposed publicly and at some risk to ourselves?
  • I consider the Just War tradition to be inadequate for authentic Christian discipleship. The above was to say to those who claim to hold it that they have to be honest in their approach or admit that JWT is simply bankrupt, a moral smokescreen for religion in service of empire. Now, suppose we answer “yes,” our congregation is a “peace church?” What then? Have we done anything so that passersby know this commitment? (E.g., a sign on the church?) Has our congregation joined Every Church a Peace Church? http://www.ecapc . ? If not, why not? Surely a peace church has a line item in its budget for a major faith-based peacemaking organization, right? One reason why not may be that we are part of a denomination that is a “historic peace church” (Friends/Quakers, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, Hutterites, etc.). Great, but don’t you want to support a movement to reclaim gospel nonviolence for ALL Christian churches? If the HPCs won’t take the lead, who will? Do you make plans to go to denominational or ecumenical peace conferences? Are they promoted in the congregation say, as strongly as a campaign to retire the mortgage or launch a new evangelism campaign?
  • Suppose your congregation is a self-declared peace church and connected in some way with a faith-based peace organization. Is this reflected in your religious education materials? What actions do you take to support conscientious objectors and inform people about conscientious objection? (For help, see http://www.nisbco.org ). What actions does your church take to inform people about war tax resistance? (See http://www.nwtrcc.org/ ) To support those whose consciences lead them to refuse paying war taxes and redirect the money to peace purposes? Do you support the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund (or international equivalents)? (http://www.peacetaxfund.org ).Do you support the campaign for a Dept. of Peace? http://www.dopcampaign.org/ Has your congregation worked to support activities of the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence?
  • Money is far from everything, but war makers never lack for money to make war–and peace agencies usually do. What are you and your church willing to risk for peace, economically? Do you give a bare minimum? Would you challenge the people of your congregation to give $10 per week to peace groups–$560 per year per person? Would you challenge all in your congregation who make $40,000 (U.S.) or more to give a minimum of $300 per month for peace, $3,600 per year? (Naturally, knowing what a shoestring budget ECAPC works with, I’d like to see at least half of that come to ECAPC, but this should be a matter of prayer and discernment.) Consider a graduated tithe so that, as a Christian, you cannot afford all the luxuries that others in your income bracket do because you are giving too much to ministries that embody the values of the Rule of God. Have a family meeting to discuss what changes, even sacrifices your family is prepared to make to work for peace in the world.

This is already too long. That’s the only reason I am stopping.
Are we really countercultural communities of faith who follow Jesus or do we just play church? How will history judge us in our response to the crises of these times?

Thanks for listening to me rant.

April 22, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Richard Overton: A Legacy for Today

I trace my spiritual roots to 17th C. England, where the Puritan ferment had turned in radical directions. One of those directions impelled a group of Separatists from Gainsborough led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys to sojourn in Amsterdam (where there was more religious tolerance) where they came under the influence of Waterlander Mennonites. Smyth and most of the congregation merged with the Dutch Mennonites, but Helwys took a handful back to Spitalfields near London to found the first Baptist church on English soil in 1611. That part of the heritage I claim is well-known. Less well known is Richard Overton, one of my heroes whom I feel speaks as loudly today as in the 17th C.

Overton came out of the same Puritan ferment which produced Smyth, the Cambridge-trained pastor, and Helwys, the attorney and lay-pastor. We don’t know much about Overton’s early life, but his writings seem to indicate that he also attended Puritan-dominated Cambridge and studied theology. Unlike Smyth, he probably never accepted any ordained ministerial position. When Smyth & Helwys were gathering followers in Gainsborough, Overton, for reasons no longer known, was in Germany. He experience Germany’s Wars of Religion which gave him a huge distaste for violence, war, and for religious persecution as a major cause of war.

In 1615 Overton came to Amsterdam. After learning Dutch (he was a quick student of languages), he joined the Waterlander Mennonite congregation just after Smyth died. He was asked to write out a personal confession of faith as the basis for his baptism. It committed him strongly to religious liberty, equality of all persons, and nonviolence. By 1620, Overton had returned to England and joined one of the growing number of General Baptist churches that was the legacy of Thomas Helwys–now dead in the Tower of London. He retained his nonviolence.

Overton led a group of religiously-motivated political radicals known as the Levellers because they wanted everyone on the same “level.” This wasn’t an aversion to achievement, it was an attack against monarchy, aristocracy, classes, inherited wealth, and discrimination on the basis of family, race, or religion. Most of the Levellers were radical Puritans (Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and a few Presbyterians), but they defended the religious liberty and citizenship rights of Catholics and Jews–a radical position in the 17th C.

It was Overton who, in 1640, first coined the term “rights of man” or “human rights.” He argued against secret trials and for trial by jury and for having all laws in English (not Latin or French, spoken by the nobility) so that people could understand the laws. He argued for universal suffrage. Against inherited monopolies, he argued for free trade–not in the context of globalized capitalism. He worked to get the death penalty abolished for the numerous crimes it then applied to, and reserved for murder. (Overton was against all violence, but knew that social reforms come in stages.) He wanted an end to conscript labor, especially for military service. In fact, his vision for society included the abolition of standing armies and their replacement with only a light militia.

The weapon that he used most to advance his views was the printing press. His tracts, The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution, An Arrow Against All Tyrants, and others were read widely. (For an advocate of nonviolence, Overton’s speeches and tracts could use very violent images!) He was repeatedly arrested for violating censorship laws with his writings. He committed nonviolent civil disobedience in resisting these arrests, once brandishing a copy of The Magna Carta as he was hauled through the streets. Imagine today, as some goon from the Orwellian-named “Homeland Security” breaks up a peace protest and hauls off the leader–if that leader was brandishing a copy of the Bill of Rights or the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights!

Overton’s wife, whose name we’ve lost, would print his tracts while he was in prison. Once, she was also arrested. She shamed the first two set of guards into leaving since she was nursing an infant. But a third set of goons took her AND the baby to prison. Mrs. Overton went limp, forcing the guards to drag her, still carrying her infant child, off to the prison. She embarrassed them with the crowds by praying loudly for her captors while denouncing their actions! In his next tract, Overton described this scene in lurid detail, but he kept his wife’s name anonymous so that she and the baby, released before he was, could have some privacy.

Today, when the U.S. has become an empire and human rights are regularly trashed; when religion is put in service to that empire, it is time to recover the legacy of folks like Richard Overton. It is in Overton’s honor that I have taken to calling myself a Leveller.

April 21, 2005 Posted by | Baptists, church history, heroes | 1 Comment