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

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

  1. interesting!!!

    Comment by ian_casanas | April 22, 2005

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