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

Liberty of Conscience, pt. 3

Before I get started on this next installment, please note that I have tried to arrange the links at the right in a more logical order (Baptist links, peace links, progressive religious links, and other social justice links). I hope that makes more sense of the blog as a whole. I’m still getting the hang of this whole blogging thing.

Okay, I now want to begin working toward contemporary issues of religious pluralism, religious liberty, and church/state separation. Although there have been strains, especially in recent years, I want to argue that the U.S. arrangement codified in the First Amendment, keeping the institutions of government and religion separate while giving as wide a protection to the free exercise of religion (including public expression and political influence), has been a major encouragement to the growth of Christianity and other religions. The U.S. arrangement might be called “benevolent neutrality”–unlike state religions which have involved either national indifference (formalism) or repression of minorities, but also unlike other forms of church/state separation that are more aggressively secularist, such as in France (where they just banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves in the public schools) or Turkey (where the army works to keep religious parties out of parliament).

I want to begin to work toward contemporary issues with this post (it’ll take several to plow through them all), but I must pause first to address a claim made by many on the religious right. Many members and leaders of the Religious Right would claim to hold to liberty of conscience and religious liberty, but they argue against its corollary, the separation of church and state (that is, the separation of the institutions of religion and government, separating synagogue and state, mosque and state, etc.) Pat Robertson, for instance, repeatedly says things like, “There was never any intention [by the Constitution’s Framers] that our government be separate from God Almighty.” [“700 Club” broadcast 19 July 2005.] Or take Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the Right’s American Center for Law and Justice (based at Regent University), “The fact is the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not found in the U.S. Constitution. . .” Ministry Magazine, Fall 2004. Likewise Jerry Falwell, elder statesman of the Religious Right, claims, “Separation of Church and State has long been a battle cry of civil libertarians wishing to purge our glorious Christian heritage from our nation’s history. Of course, the term never once appears in our Constitution and is a modern fabrication of discrimination.” [Falwell Fax, 10 April 1998.] Such examples could be repeated endlessly.

I answer, it is true that the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution. That hardly means that the concept is missing. The phrases “separation of powers,” or “checks and balances” don’t appear in the Constitution either, but few legal scholars (with the exception of John Yoo and other “unitary executive” nuts whose reasoning was just rejected by our very conservative Supreme Court–and if you can’t get a rightwing idea to fly with THIS, Supreme Court, probably the most conservative since the 19th C., you might as well hang it up) would say that those concepts are not central to our Constitution’s concept of us as a democratic republic. The phrase “separation of church and state” has, indeed, been a battle cry for civil libertarians, but its origins are not recent. The first use of the phrase in U.S. history was by old Roger Williams, himself, who warned that if people worked to create a gap or hole “in the hedge or wall between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,” then God would allow the wilderness to take over the church’s garden completely. (1650). One then finds the phrase again in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, CT where Jefferson (the Deist) says that he shares with the Danbury Baptists a “sovereign reverence” for the wall of separation between church and state. Likewise, James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (including the First Amendment), wrote in 1819 in a letter to Robert Walsh, that both the number of churches, their liveliness, and the morality and devotion of their members has been “manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state.” Even the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville whose observations on the U.S. form one of the roots of the discipline of sociology, and who is often cited by conservatives AGAINST church/state separation, wrote in the mid-19th C. that everyone he met in America was agreed that the reason why the nation was so religious “was the complete separation of church and state.”

Toqueville, as a practicing Catholic, especially interviewed Catholic priests in the U.S. on the topic. Now, today, Catholics make up a plurality, if not an outright majority of the U.S. population (at least, they are the largest religious group). But this was not true in Toqueville’s day–indeed, not until after WWII. This was still “Protestant America” in terms of numbers of believers, and Catholics were seen by most in negative terms. Nevertheless, American Catholics, both priests and laity, all told Toqueville that it was America’s church-state separation which allowed faith to so influence the nation and for various religions to flourish in relative peace with each other–unlike the religious wars of Europe and the empty churches which resulted from people’s disgust with such religious wars. So, while the phrase, “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, it is very clear that the concept is there and the “battle cry of civil libertarians” was there throughout U.S. history.

Conservatives also often claim that the “no establishment” clause only ruled out a national church, in the way that the Church of England (what the rest of the world calls Anglicans or Episcopalians) is the national church of England, Presbyterians are the national Church of Scotland, or Lutherans the state church of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, etc., and Roman Catholicism, the state church of most of Latin America, much of Africa, and much of Europe. The U.S. doesn’t collect taxes to support a national church and doesn’t repress or politically punish those who are members of some other church, but we are, in this view still a Christian nation.

No, we are a nation whose majority consider themselves Christian and a nation in which Christian groups (e.g., the Puritans of New England) have played a major part in shaping our history and institutions. But, our government, has been intentionally secular from the beginning. (Whether or not our society is secular is up to the people and however much influence churches or other religious groups can bring–government as government can have no role in promoting either religion or secularism.) Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says that there will be NO religious test for public office. Our office holders have included every stripe of Christian, Jews, Muslims (though I don’t think any Muslims have yet been elected to Congress), 2 Unitarians have been U.S. President (John Adams and John Quincy Adams), some who joined no church (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, who beat the popular Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright for the office of President), and doubtless much else. The only thing stopping an atheist from a successful run for U.S. President would be public opinion, but there is no LEGAL bar to the office. The oath of office for the presidency does not have to be sworn on a Bible, nor are the words “so help me God” part of the official oath–both were innovations thought up on the spur of the moment by George Washington at his inauguration. In the 1796-97 Treaty of Tripoli, by which the U.S. made peace with Muslims in Libya at the end of George Washington’s presidency (and the treaty was ratified under John Adams’ presidency), Art. XI assures the citizens of Tripoli and the Barbary Coast that they need not fear a religious war with the U.S. since “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” (The Treaty was read aloud on the Senate floor and each senator got a copy and it was passed without any controversy, meaning that, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th C., the idea that ours was NOT a Christian nation, was not controversial.)

Government may not promote religion through tax credits for religious schools (parochaid), tax money for faith-based charities in which spreading the religion of the charity is a vital part of the charity’s mission (and when Bush’s “faith based initiatives” are ruled unconstitutional, as they will be either in this or a later court, those faith based charities that have begun to rely on government money will be hurting), or religious instruction in the public schools. (One can teach ABOUT religion in the public schools, even have courses in comparative religion, but not teach that any religion is true or that religious belief is preferable to lack of belief.)

If churches, synagogues, or other religious groups wish to influence public policy, they need to be able to offer reasons other than “my Bible tells me so.” In my next post, I will try to outline the religious liberty dimensions of the abortion debate (without debating the rights and wrongs of abortion itself). For now, I want to affirm the Supreme Court’s decisions in the early 1960s that banned organized, mandatory, teacher-led prayers and Bible readings in the public schools. This does not prevent students from reading Bibles in their free time, praying over their lunch or before tests (as long as they are not disturbing others) or gathering before or after class for “meet me at the pole” prayer meetings. IF schools allow non-curriculur after school clubs (e.g., The Young Republicans or Young Democrats, Key Club, etc.), then they must allow religious clubs on the same non-partisan basis (e.g., Young Life, Youth for Christ, or, for that matter, “Future Jewish Leaders” “Young Muslims,” or “Wild Wiccans” if such clubs were to form). The problem with teachers leading these activities is that they are agents of the government. But my public high school had an advanced English course which I took which spent one semester on Greek, Roman, and Norse Mythology and another semester on “The Bible as Literature.” There was also an elective on biblical history. Such courses are perfectly constitutional as long as taught in an objective manner, like any other subject matter.

The Theory of Intelligent Design could be a valid topic in a philosophy course, but, since it is not a scientific theory, putting it in science textbooks is wrong–it is promoting religious belief disguised as scientific instruction.

This post has become too long, but the preliminaries are over, now, and we can begin to get to some of the contemporary applications that many of you have asked about from the beginning.

June 30, 2006 Posted by | religious liberty | Comments Off on Liberty of Conscience, pt. 3

Liberty of Conscience, pt. 2

The word “conscience” comes from the Latin meaning “to know together,” which points to the truth that our deepest convictions (religious, political, etc.) are seldom simply a product of isolated reasoning or navel gazing. We usually come to our convictions in community–as a child of a particular family, living in a particular village, as part of a particular culture, going to a particular church (temple, mosque, synagogue, etc.). But if our convictions are truly ours, we have to be able to mentally distinguish ourselves from our context enough to reflect on our convictions and claim them. When we do this, we sometimes (often?) find ourselves modifying (slightly or more than slightly) one or more of the convictions of our family or village, etc.

Sometimes the change is so great that it amounts to a conversion (religious or otherwise) and this can either (a) draw us deeper into the community, maybe even bringing us to a position of leadership, (b) push us to the margins of the community as we are still recognized as “one of us, but a bit odd,” (c) send us to a different but related community which houses a different strand of our tradition(s) (recognized by us as spiritually or politically or philosophically related, but no longer immediate “family,”), or (d) remove us from the home community entirely–either to join another or to remain isolated and outside–a stranger in a strange land.

The principle of “liberty of conscience” recognizes that beliefs cannot be imposed from without–and should not be. Let us take religious convictions as our primary example: Any faith that is authentic, must be free. Attempts to impose faith by physical force either result in religious wars or in hypocrisy as nonbelievers in whatever is the ruling orthodoxy pretend to views they do not hold in order to avoid persecution. As Overton and other early modern defenders of liberty of conscience pointed out, Jesus did not, in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) command the making of disciples from all nations by means of coercion, but by teaching–leaving the conscience free to accept or reject the truth presented. This was a departure from the Medieval view that “error has no rights.”

One reason that religious faith has flourished so much in the U.S. compared to Europe has been the legalization of this view in the First Amendment, denying any law even respecting an establishment of religion, and protecting the free exercise of all religious views? Are there any limits to this? Only where the common good would be threatened. Thus, one can believe all one wants to that one’s god demands human sacrifice, but any attempt to put it into practice will run afoul of laws against murder and the courts will not accept the First Amendment as a defense.

That one is an easy call, but other cases it is harder to weigh the common good against religious practice: The State of Florida tried to outlaw animal sacrifices, particularly chickens, but since poultry may be killed for food or other purposes, the Supreme Court decided (rightly in my view) that the law was deliberately trying to stamp out the religion of Santeria (a Carribbean import that combines elements from African traditional religions, Native American traditions, and popular/unofficial Roman Catholicism) and thus was an unconstitutional violation of the free exercise clause. In any case where the state feels compelled to constrict the conscience of any individual or group, it must show that the public is harmed–not merely inconvenienced or, as in this case, revolted.

Another difficult example was the Mormon practice of polygamy. (This is no longer official teaching by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but many Mormons continue to practice polygamy in secret in Utah and surrounding states. The Reorganized Church of JC of LDS–recently renamed the Community of Christ–which claims to be the original church and is headquartered in Missouri, has never accepted polygamy.) Clearly the practice of multiple wives offended the majority culture (including me), but did it harm society? I find this a very tough call. There is some evidence that the 19th C. Mormons pressured young girls into these marriages at ages that would now be illegal, but no younger than many girls of the day were married off. (It is worth remembering that, for most of history, including biblical history, girls were married as soon after the onset of puberty as their menstrual cycles were regular!!) There is no reliable evidence that spouse or child abuse happened in polygamous Mormon households more often than in other households. I find polygamy offensive–it grates against my understanding of the marriage covenant, but it was practiced throughout the Bible and never condemned in any Scripture I can name. Even if I could demonstrate that Scripture condemns such marriages ( the closest text may be 1 Tim. 3:12 if “husband of one wife” is not a condemnation of allowing divorced men to be deacons but of allowing men with multiple wives to so serve), I do not think my conscience should rule others–unless harm could be proved.

If this sounds strange, I contend that it is the same strong view of liberty of conscience that was held by early Baptists, Quakers and some others. They defended the liberty of conscience of people with whom they disagreed–and sometimes disliked very strongly. Thus, Thomas Helwys, pastor of the first Baptist congregation on English soil wrote in 1615 to defend Catholics from persecution by King James I (yes, that King James). He didn’t like Catholics. Like most Protestants of his day, he considered them idol worshippers rather than true Christians and called them by the slur-word “papists.” But, he told King James I that he had no right to rule over Catholic consciences than he did over “ours,” “and that is none at all!” The King is a mortal man and not God, said Helwys, and therefore hath no authority over the conscience.

Likewise Roger Williams, briefly a Baptist and then a Seeker, defended the liberty of conscience of Catholics, Jews, Turks (a slur-word meaning Muslims), and pagans (probably referring to the Native Americans). He couldn’t stand Quakers whom he considered both irrational and very unbiblical, but he defended their religious liberty and Rhode Island was a safe haven for Quakers. Did Williams not think the gospel should be defended? Only using spiritual weapons, he replied. (This may be why the Roger who commented on part 1 thinks that spiritual warfare is germane to this topic.) So, he constantly challenged Quakers to public debate–he attempted to persuade them that they were wrong. (If polygamy were practiced in this country and I could not find a real public harm to justify seeking its outlawry, I would still work to persuade those who practiced it to give the practice up.)

The Virginian Baptist John Leland, who worked hard to get both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to push for a Bill of Rights that included religious liberty, even defended the rights of witches. Make no mistake. In the 18th C. of Leland, no one thought of “Wiccans” as weird but harmless new agers with a minority religion. They were believed to be in league with the powers of darkness and able to inflict real harm through spells on their neighbors. Leland believed that if any so-called witch could be found guilty of harm to neighbors, they should be punished for that–but not for their non-Christian beliefs.

Roger Williams argued the case by dividing the Ten Commandments into two sections or tables. Table 1 consisted of duties to God. The government was NEVER to be in charge of enforcing anyone’s idea of what duties were owed God–including belief in one God, many gods, or no god. That was between an individual and her conscience–even God would only use persuasion and not coercion. But the 2nd table of the Law, with duties owed between humans, could be enforced. (Yes, even laws against adultery could be theoretically enforceable, but the wisdom of doing so would lessen as the community or nation became even more pluralistic.)

End, pt. 2 because of length. More to come.

June 30, 2006 Posted by | religious liberty | 3 Comments

Liberty of Conscience, pt. 1

I’m going to step back from commenting on current events, for awhile, in order to try to flesh out a Leveller vision for our context. I need to break this into small posts, so it will take awhile. Also, there will be interruptions such as when I am attending the annual meeting of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, 10-15 July 2006. (See http://www.bpfna.org ) I may try my first attempt at email blogging to keep up or I may report on that event upon return.

Richard Overton, General Baptist and the most articulate pamphleteer of the 17th C. Levellers, coined the term “human rights” in 1640, over half a century before the Enlightenment. He argued for human rights using Scripture, his personal experience, and reason–whereas Enlightenment figures like Locke tended to argue using reason alone. Also, Locke and the other Enlightenment proponents of human rights tended to focus ONLY on political rights (still a tendency of political elites in the U.S.) whereas Overton’s view included three dimensions: civil liberties and political rights; economic rights addressing basic human needs; and rights of participation in community.

Now, people tend to begin discussions of human rights at the places where they feel pain, where they feel violations of their rights. In contexts of extreme poverty, hunger, and economic exploitation, basic needs and economic rights tend to come first. In contexts of isolation, alienation, and feelings of powerlessness, participation rights tend to be the first focus. Any entry point is okay, as long as the full scope of human rights comes into view and we don’t try to trade off one strand of rights for another.

Overton began with liberty of conscience because he had experienced the horrors of religious persecution. (While in jail for publishing without clearing from the censor, he encountered the many in debtors’ prison and people had to smuggle food to him and his wife–prompting Overton to begin concentrating more on economic justice for the poor. ) Overton had been in Germany during part of the Forty Years War–a war of Protestants vs. Catholics and Lutherans v. Calvinists. Religious wars and religiously inspired violence sickened ever afterword. He had later (1615) joined John Smyth’s congregation in Amsterdam just after it merged with the Waterlander Mennonites–experiencing the pain of an English exile community fled to Holland to escape religious persecution, a community that began articulating the first universal defenses of religious liberty in the English language. Back in England as a General Baptist, Overton experienced the “persecution for cause of conscience” that all the Dissenters (Baptists, Quakers, Seekers, many Congregationalists) experienced at both the hands of the Anglican establishment, and the Puritan and Presbyterian folks that wished to replace that establishment with another.

So, Overton began by arguing for liberty of conscience–that EVERYONE is entitled to their own religious and political convictions without government or other outside interference. I’ll begin there, too. In my next post, I’ll quote Overton and some other early defenders of liberty of conscience, but relate that to our contemporary context: Muslim-Christian conflicts in much of Africa and Asia as well as the Middle East; the Religious Right’s constant push for creeping theocracy in the U.S.; the demonization of Islam in the “war on terror;” the religio-phobia of the Left which drives many persons of faith toward the Religious Right. In this series of posts somewhere, I’ll try to address a good question by a conservative reader: How can one have genuine, all-consuming religious convictions (e.g., the Lordship of Christ over all of life), and still work for church-state separation and protect others’ liberty to hold to other faiths or no faith? Doesn’t this reduce Jesus (or Allah, etc.) to Lord only of one’s private, free time? The answer is “no,” but defending that answer is seldom done well anymore. I will try. This is long enough for one post.

June 29, 2006 Posted by | convictions, religious liberty | 8 Comments

Why Faith Leaders Must Lead in Abolishing Torture.

This morning I was, as usual, listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” They were beginning a series of conversations on torture. To my horror, the first guest, Alan Dershowitz, the noted Harvard Law Professor and usually a strong defender of civil liberties, argued that, while torture is always morally wrong, it is sometimes effective in interrogation and so WILL be used if officials believe they need to save hundreds of lives from terrorist attack. Dershowitz’ proposed solution is to force the president to sign a warrant for torture in such circumstances and to have a public debate over what interrogation techniques count as torture and what torture can be used and under what circumstances. This, Dershowitz believes, will end our hypocrisy about torture (claiming we never do it while obviously doing so) and reduce the amount of torture in which we engage. Read or hear the full interview here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5512634 . What was most horrifying about this was that this barbarism wasn’t being proposed by “the usual suspects” (Cheney, Bush, Atty. Gen. Gonzalez, Ann Coulter, etc.) , but by someone who can usually be counted on to defend human rights and civil liberties. Yet, Dershowitz’ reasoning was entirely pragmatic and utilitarian.

With such muddled thinking about torture, it is all the more vital for faith leaders and faith communities to take the lead in campaigning to abolish torture. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture http://www.nrcat.org/ has over 5,000 signatures so far, but it should be 500,000 by now. I urge you to sign today.

I was encouraged to find that the New York Times ad against torture included Muslim, Jewish, liberal Christian, centrist Christian, and even some conservative evangelical signatures. One signer is David P. Gushee, a Southern Baptist who is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, TN, a very conservative school. Anticipating criticism from his fellow conservatives, he wrote the following article for Religion News Service. I include it here because it does such a good job of explaining why torture is a major moral issue and why faith leaders need to step up and lead.

Saying No to Torture
David P. Gushee

This week the National Religious Campaign Against Torture released a brief statement unequivocally condemning any resort to torture (http://www.nrcat.org/). It was signed by 27 religious leaders, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (evangelical, mainline, historic black church). Among the notable names attached to the statement are Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, former president Jimmy Carter, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick, and evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren, Ted Haggard, and Brian McLaren. I feel honored to have been one of these 27 signatories.

I know that this nice feeling of honor will soon give way to weariness at the mud that will be slung my way by those who are unhappy with this statement and my signature. I am familiar with such criticisms:

Some say that this kind of statement is unnecessary, because our government does not torture.

Response: In violation of constitutional principle and American values, there are an unknown number of prisoners being held incommunicado in an unknown number of locations by an unknown assortment of government agencies all over the world. We really have no idea what is currently being done in the name of national security to these prisoners. This is itself is worthy of loud protest.

We do know that torture has occurred in multiple locations, not just Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, over the last several years. We know that the president had to be dragged into signing the McCain bill explicitly banning cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees, that he offered a signing statement freeing him to interpret the bill essentially as he wished, and that those revising the Army Field Manual have been considering including a secret set of interrogation techniques for “unlawful combatants.”

In sum, there is plenty of reason not to be confident that our government has given up torture or torture-like practices. As long as we do not know, we must remain vigilant.

Some say that this kind of statement says nothing about torture undertaken by other governments.

Response: The National Religious Campaign Against Torture opposes torture anywhere, by anyone, for any reason. But concerned American citizens can do little about what the government of, say, Uzbekistan, does with its prisoners. Moral concern begins at home, but it does not end there. Torture should be abolished everywhere. It is never right. Let the citizens of all nations work to end torture in every land.

Some say this kind of statement fails to support the troops.

Response: This is the ultimate cop-out argument. In fact, it’s no argument at all. Just play the “support the troops” card and everyone concerned about a particular government policy is supposed to cower in fear. Actually, what fails to support the troops is to be equivocal about torture, because it is our troops who eventually end up being forced or enticed to do moral evil when they move in the vicinity of torture. Either we morally destroy soldiers and intelligence officers by turning them into torturers or we begin recruiting sadists because we need them to do our dirty work for us. What really supports the troops is to free them from any temptation or responsibility to treat other human beings in a cruel, inhuman, degrading, or tortuous way.

Some say this kind of statement is naïve about the need for torture for national security.

Response: There is little if any evidence that torture actually enhances national security. It appears to be a near-consensus on the part of those who actually know anything about it that torture produces little if any valuable intelligence. People will say anything to stop being tortured. And if they survive torture, they (and their families, and friends, and countrymen) will hate us with an incandescent hatred, deeper than almost any other hatred in the world, because they have been physically violated. Producing more people who hate us that much does not enhance our national security.

Some say this kind of statement is a partisan attack on President Bush.

Response: My guess is that a mix of Republicans, independents, and Democrats are among the 27 signers of this statement. But the whole criticism is, again, a ruse. The campaign against torture is rooted in religious faith and the moral values that faith generates. It is also rooted in a deep commitment to American constitutional principles. If it becomes impossible to offer critique of a government policy from a moral point of view, then we will have lost the prophetic dimension of public life. And a country that loses that prophetic dimension can never reform itself, thus dooming it to moral deterioration and eventual moral collapse.

June 27, 2006 Posted by | human rights., progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, torture, U.S. politics | Comments Off on Why Faith Leaders Must Lead in Abolishing Torture.

National Council of Churches’ Head urges Baptists to Unite Around Teachings of Jesus

NCC Head Urges Christian Unity Around Teachings of Jesus
Bob Allen06-23-06
The head of America’s leading ecumenical group said Christians can learn to live together around values that Jesus taught: peace, poverty, respect for Planet Earth, people’s rights and commitment to pluralism.
“We are the leaders we have been waiting for,” Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, challenged more than 400 moderate Baptists Thursday at a luncheon celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

Edgar, a Methodist minister and former U.S. Congressman, said God is calling all Christians “in this moment to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.” Studying the Scripture, he said, “I find there are five directions God is calling us to walk with Jesus in:”

–Peace. “We must engage in a relentless pursuit of peace, seeking reconciliation within families, communities, nations and the world of nations, reaching across boundaries that divide, building bridges instead of walls,” he said. “Whether in Sudan or in Iraq or in a neighborhood gripped by crime or violence, Jesus would have us be peace-makers, not just peace-lovers.”

–Poverty. “We are challenged by the life of Jesus, who gave himself for the poor and outcast, the despised and rejected,” Edgar said. “We must take concrete actions that reduce poverty in our own time and place, anchored in Jesus’ passionate concern for ‘the least of these.’ This challenge must not be confined to personal generosity, but community action, and national policy–going to the root of the problem, finding solutions that work and that last.”

–Planet Earth. “The biblical Christian is also called by the Scriptures to exercise reverential stewardship of this God-given planet, rooted in the earliest age of mankind, beginning in Eden,” he said. “We must fight the efforts of many to pillage and pollute, to waste and destroy the natural environment on which life itself depends. The wise management of the finite resources of the earth is a God-given mandate that the church is accountable to fulfill.”

–People’s rights. “The person who would be Jesus’ disciple will be found standing in strong defense of people’s rights, believing that such dehumanizing acts as racial or gender discrimination, torture, invasion of privacy are an affront to the will of God for his creation,” Edgar said. “The church should be the first line of protection for the disadvantaged, the powerless, the overlooked who have no other advocate but Christ and his followers.”

–Pluralism. “We who would claim the name of Christ must express his hospitality in the face of the whirlwind of cultures, languages, races, values and dreams that our world presents us in the form of accelerating pluralism in every community where we serve,” Edgar said. “Jesus found kinship with those his own religious hierarchy condemned, those his culture rejected, those his own heritage devalued. Jesus saw only God’s priceless creative will and boundless love in the faces of the Samaritan, the stranger, the Other. A God who would find joy in populating the world with such extravagant diversity certainly must find grief in our rejection of this banquet feast.”

Edgar said at the NCC, “We’re trying to address fear, fundamentalism and Fox television.”

Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. The NCC’s member faith groups–from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches–include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.

Noting an earlier remark that Baptists sometimes have had trouble with the National Council of Churches, Edgar said, “You might be interested to know we’ve got lots of Baptists” in the NCC, such as American Baptists and National Baptists.

“You all are Cooperative Baptists,” he said. “We’ve got some uncooperative Baptists. We’ve got Jimmy Carter Baptists.”

“What we do have in common, whether we’re inside of a partnership or organization or outside, is Jesus Christ.”

Edgar, a former pastor, six-term member of the House of Representatives and president of a theological school, was keynote speaker for the luncheon honoring 15 years of work by the Baptist Center for Ethics and its executive director, Robert Parham.

Edgar recognized Parham “for all the work he does, for his clarity, his voice and the way he helps us to understand what Christ is calling us to do in this time.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

This happened at the BCE luncheon at this year’s annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), the larger and arguably more “mainstream” or centrist of the Baptist groups which broke away from the Southern Baptist Convention when it was overtaken by fundamentalism. I belong to a church that is part of the Alliance of Baptists, the smaller, and more progressive or liberal of the two breakaway groups. During the same time period that the CBF worked to secure membership in the Baptist World Alliance (the international fellowship of Baptist denominations), the Alliance of Baptists forged partnerships with the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ and became the newest member denomination of the National Council of Churches.
My congregation, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty (see link at side of this blog to the “Life at Jeff Street” blog), had tried to belong to both the Alliance and the CBF. But when the CBF decided in 2000 that no gays or lesbians could serve on CBF staff or be CBF missionaries, we withdrew since we welcome LGBT persons as equals. I have a tendency to view the CBF as good people but not prophetic enough–and not very ecumenical.
So, I find it a good sign that Bob Edgar was invited to the BCE luncheon at the CBF. It would have been even more impressive had this one-time Congressman and United Methodist minister been invited to give a keynote at the CBF. I wonder if CBF is open to receiving his message–his very Sermon on the Mount kind of message. I hope so. If a United Methodist and head of the NCC helps the CBF get in touch with the Anabaptist radicalism of Baptist roots it would show that God has a sense of humor! May it even be so. MLW-W

June 25, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, Christianity, ecumenism, Jesus | Comments Off on National Council of Churches’ Head urges Baptists to Unite Around Teachings of Jesus

Who were the Levellers?

Since I am re-launching this blog, I might as well explain its title. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, a number of movements arose that were more radical than the debate over the supremacy of Parliament or the Monarch. One of those was a religiously-inspired movement for democracy and human rights called “the Levellers.” The majority of the Levellers were Baptists and Quakers and Congregationalists, with a few Presbyterians. They produced several good leaders like John Lilburne (Congregationalist).

Their best writer, however, was a General Baptist named Richard Overton, who maintained a long correspondence with Roger Williams that may have influenced some of Williams’ writings and the shape of the Rhode Island Charter. There are gaps in what we know of Overton’s life. We do not know when he was born, but he lived in Germany during part of the Forty Year’s War. This experience gave (or reinforced) Overton a strong antipathy toward violence and war, especially religiously inspired violence and war. In 1615, Overton came to Amsterdam and joined John Smyth’s congregation of proto-Baptists just after they merged with Amsterdam’s Waterlander Mennonites. Since he was just learning Dutch (Overton was a polyglot), he wrote out his personal confession of faith in Latin–arguing for liberty of conscience, believer’s baptism, and nonviolence. Then we lose track of Overton until 1638 when we find that he is back in England and a member of a General Baptist congregation. (Even though Helwys and 10 others split from Smyth to return to England and form the first General Baptist congregation, the General Baptists kept in touch with the Dutch Mennonites for 50 years, exchanging members without further baptism–meaning that they considered each other to be “of like faith and order.”) Overton remained a General Baptist the rest of his life.

He became a pamphleteer for the Leveller cause. He wrote The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution in 1640 to put religious persecution on trial. It was in this pamphlet that Overton coined the term “human rights” half a century before John Locke or the Enlightenment. Overton was arrested for publishing without checking with the censor and went limp in classic nonviolent resistance, clutching his copy of the Magna Carta all the way to jail. Next the police arrested his wife (name unknown now) for continuing to publish his writings. She had a newborn child and the police refused to arrest her. So, the guard captain came back with new guards and they too would not touch an unarmed woman. Finally, a third set dragged her and her babe through the streets. Overton later wrote about this in terms that derided the manhood of the guard captain.

In jail, food had to be smuggled in for the Overtons and they shared with other prisoners. They discovered many thrown in prison for debt, so Overton began to argue for economic rights along with civil liberties, and the right to political participation. He argued for universal adult suffrage, for “free trade” (not as a slogan for international companies repressing unions and local peasants, but as an alternative to the inherited monopolies of the aristocracy), for a free press, for complete freedom of religion. Overton hated religious wars and one of the reasons he believed in religious liberty and liberty of conscience was as a peacemaking initiative. He argued against the death penalty, for laws to be written in the language of the people (vs. the practice of writing laws in French or Latin so that only the nobility would understand the laws), against torture.

The Leveller movement as a whole was not pacifist. They envisioned a small militia, but were against heavy arms buildups and the military adventurism of kings. Overton may have been a pacifist (he had been a member of a merged Baptist/Mennonite congregation in Holland) as all of the writings in which he is SOLE author indicate. He never argues that Christians should join the militia. Pacifism as a government policy was beyond what he could envision. But he wanted the rights of conscientious objectors protected–no more press gangs, or drafts, etc.

At any rate, I try to stand for the kind of radical democracy, defense of the poor, nonviolence and human rights in a contemporary context as Richard Overton did in the 1640s. Hence the title of this blog. This is an ongoing Leveller manifesto in the midst of an American empire. A call to return to a democratic republic and to live out justice for the poor and powerless. It is a call for radical baptistic faith in an era when most Baptists in the U.S. South have become willing pawns and mouthpieces for the voices of empire–and theocrats who must make their radical ancestors’ blood boil. Radical Leveller faith lives on–here on this blog if nowhere else.

June 24, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, church history, heroes, human rights., progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, social history | Comments Off on Who were the Levellers?

The Book is Out!

I don’t plan to use this blog much to push my own accomplishments, but I cannot deny excitement at receiving my copy today of my first book. It’s called A Guide to the U.S. Black Freedom Movement: 1945-1970 and is published by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (see link on this blog). It includes “The Struggle for Racial Justice in Canada and the United States: A Timeline. “It sells for $10 U.S. or $12. Canadian. I wrote it is a resource for school teachers, youth ministers, parents and others to counteract the 30-second soundbite treatments of the movement in popular media. You know the image: Rosa Park sat down on a bus, the next day Dr. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech and POOF!–segregation was destroyed. This is not a technical history, but has lots of references to major histories on the movement. It does try to list many of the major organizations, leaders, and events–but the actual movement included thousands of people whose names we will never know, but whose courage serves us all.

I am hoping that this will be the first of several guides to popular social movements published by the BPFNA and that the churches use them as resources for the cultural amnesia that so affects us.

To order, go to http://www.bpfna.org/ All proceeds go to the work of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

June 23, 2006 Posted by | books, race, Religious Social Criticism, social history | 3 Comments

Rabbi Waskow v. Torture

If you look to this blog’s links, you’ll see one for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. I have tried to make this a major issue on the email list of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and my church’s Yahoo group. When I mentioned the campaign to Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance for Progress, CAP signed on as an organization immediately. So, I was considering writing something about that here when I received this great email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Centre which says it all so much better. Here it is:

Dear Friends, Last night (Sunday) Phyllis and I saw the new film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” sired by Robert Altman out of Mother Minnesota, with Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep among an amazing cast. But more amazing than the cast is the (implicit) theme: the death of America. The grass-rootsy radio program, in the film (not in real life) is playing its last show, its home radio station having been swallowed by a ravenous corporation. And in it the Angel of Death, as a lovely Woman in White, taps on the shoulder of one of the show’s most beloved veterans. Death is all-pervasive, yet the film is funny. I couldn’t stop laughing to cry, I couldn’t stop crying to laugh. The America that is dying is ribald, sad, sweet, bold, decent, unruly, song-full, tough, eccentric. Yet it is killed. It dies with nary a whimper –- but it dies.”Is this a great country, or what?” — Yes, it is. How could such a wonderful country end up with such a terrible government, both the “public” one in Washington that ignores the public interest and the “private” one of corporate ledgers that exercises such power over the public? In the real America of “Prairie Home Companion,” some cops and some soldiers tortured prisoners, but that America would never have tolerated a President who made torture into official policy and openly said that laws forbidding it did not apply to him. Indeed, for violations less atrocious, that America drove a President from office just 34 years ago.

Of course, in the usual paradox of artistic and spiritual creativity, a film about our death MIGHT be a redemptive act of life. Or might not. It’s up to us. Soooooooo — Is that America dead? Some of us are trying to give it new life. For example: New energy and new people are joining in efforts to end the use of torture by the US government. Two important events: 1) In the New York Times this past Wednesday, a quarter-page ad on the Op/Ed page carried this message: “Let America abolish torture now – without exceptions.” Among the signers were two Nobel Peace laureates: President Jimmy Carter and (a totally new voice in this discussion) Elie Wiesel. The leaders of many religious organizations – evangelical, main-line Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim – also signed. You can support this statement! (More below.) 2) At the US Mission to the UN next week (May 26), there will be a street action to urge the closure of Guantanamo and an end to US use of torture. You can join in this action! (More below.) More on the NY Times statement: “Torture is a Moral Issue. “Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved -– policy-makers, perpetrators, and victims. “It contradicts our nation’s most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable. “Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? …” Another new voice among the signers was Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, who (for identification only) was listed as Executive Vice President, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He joined Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which had been working on the issue before. On being asked about the absence of other Jewish signatories, the organizers (National Religious Committee Against Torture) explained that most of its efforts had been to bring in new people, especially among evangelical Christians, and that they had therefore not focused on including The Shalom Center and Rabbis for Human Rights, both of which pioneered campaigns against torture in the Jewish and broader religious communities.

Other signers are listed at the end of this message. We urge you, our readers, to use this letter as a basis for writing your own metropolitan and communal newspapers. Why them? — There is little point in writing Congress at this point, since it recently passed overwhelmingly a law renewing and restating prohibitions on torture – only to sit silent when the President signed it and simultaneously announced he would not feel bound by it. Even Senator McCain, who had pressed for passage of the anti-torture amendment, acquiesced in this breathtaking violation of the Constitution. Congress also passed an act abolishing the writ of habeas corpus for Guantanamo prisoners – the one way for them to get legal redress for false imprisonment and torture, and the most sacred protection of freedom in American and British history, going back to the 14th century. So public opinion needs to raise its head against this moral perfidy. If you click on this address, you can send a letter to the editor that refers to the “Torture is a Moral Issue” statement and joins in it. http://www.democracyinaction.org/dia/organizationsORG/tsc/pickMedia.jsp?letter_KEY=487

THIS STRING MUST ENTER AS A SINGLE LINE. Make sure when you click on or enter this it does not have letter-salad from a split line. style=’font-family:Helvetica’>

Meanwhile, Witness Against Torture is sponsoring a NYC teach-in Sunday June 25 and a street action Monday June 26, to end torture & close Guantanamo. These are the folks (mostly Catholic Worker) who walked across Cuba to Guantanamo and who organized (with CALC-I) an anti-torture, close- Guantanamo action in NYC on May 1. I expect, God willing, to take part on June 26; I hope many others also will. Shalom, ArthurTEACH-IN: Sunday, June 25, 6pm-8pm, Judson Assembly Room (Enter at 239 Thompson Street)Moderated by *Edget Betru*, Organizer, Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative, Center for Constitutional Rights. Speakers: *Sarah Havens*, attorney with Allen & Overy, represents fourteen Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo; (invited) George Hunsinger, Director, National Religious Network Against Torture.Performances by Michael Cates, Pierce Woodward and others /ACTION: Monday, June 26, 2006- United Nations Day for Victims of Torture; Procession to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to Call on Ambassador John Bolton to Join the International Consensus to Shut Down Guantanamo *10:30 am, Gather for short opening ceremony, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza (47th street and First Avenue)Solemn Procession to Bring **Guantanamo** to the US Mission steps off at 11:00]Noon- 1pm, Demonstration at US Mission to the UN, 45th Street between 3rd Avenue and LexingtonFor more information, visit — n or email Frida.Berrigan@gmail.com *The activities are being organized by Witness Against Torture, in concert with Torture Awareness Month, http://www.tortureawareness.org *Other signers of “Torture Is a Moral Issue”: Rev. William J. Byron, SJ Research Professor, Loyola College in Maryland Archbishop Demetrios Primate, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar General Secretary, National Council of Churches Dr. David P. Gushee Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Union University in Tennessee Rev. Ted Haggard President, National Association of Evangelicals Dr. Maher Hathout Muslim Public Affairs Council Dr. Stanley Hauerwas Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics, Duke University Dr. Roberta Hestenes Minister-at-Large, World Vision Dr. George Hunsinger McCordProfessor of Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary Rev. Kermit D. Johnson Chaplain (Major General), U.S. Army (ret.) Rev. Joseph Lowery Co-Founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference Frederica Mathewes-Green Author and commentator Theodore Cardinal McCarrick Archbishop of Washington Dr. Brian McLaren Founder, Cedar Ridge Community Church, Spencerville, Maryland Dr. Richard Mouw President, Fuller Theological Seminary Prof. Mary Ellen O’Connell Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law, University of Notre Dame Rabbi David Saperstein Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Dr. Glen Stassen Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary Dr. Leonard Sweet E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism, Drew University Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed National Director, Islamic Society of North America Dr. Frank A. Thomas Editor of The African-American Pulpit; Pastor, Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, Memphis Rev. Jim Wallis Editor-in-Chief/Executive Director, Sojourners Dr. Rick Warren Founder and Pastor, Saddleback Church Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University Organizations listed for identification purposes only.

June 19, 2006 Posted by | progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, torture | 1 Comment

Tax Giveaways Help Who?

Sorry, I’ve been away for awhile. I will try once more to publish something at least once a week.

The Levellers, as most progressive movements, were concerned with economic justice. So, in honor of re-starting this blog named for the Levellers, I thought I’d begin by asking just who benefits from all the tax-giveaways that Bush has pushed for and Congress authorized. The constant claim is that these tax “breaks” (giveaways is more accurate) benefit the poor and middle class, but is this true? This is fairly easy to check, but the mainstream media is corporate controlled and doesn’t allow anything remotely like investigative journalism today.

The most recent round of tax giveaways (since we thankfully saved the estate tax) will cut $70 billion over the next five years (FY 2007-FY 20012). According to the Senate Finance Committee’s own figures (easily obtainable as public records), here’s who saves what as a result. Income below $10,000 per year is not taxed which makes sense since, at the current rate of inflation and dollar strength, a family of 4 must make a minimum of $19,157 per year to be above the U.S. poverty rate! If your family income is $10,000 to $20,000 per year, the recent tax cuts save you a huge $2.00. If you make between $20,000 and $30,000, the tax giveaways save you $9.00. From $30,000 to $40,00 per year, you save $16.00. If your family income is $40,000-$50,000, per year, you save $46. Now, we’re clearly in the middle class and moving toward the upper middle class, but still not seeing much benefit. From $50,000 to $75,000 per year, you save $110. From $75,000 to $100,000 per year, you save $403.

These are no longer “average Americans.” I have a Ph.D., but have never had any friends with incomes over $100,000 and most of my friends (educators, small business people, social workers, computer technicians, ministers, and low-to-mid-level city employees) make less than $50,000 in the city of Louisville, KY. Above $100,000 per year, one is moving into the lower ranks of the upper class. Not quite rich, but certainly well-off–doctor and lawyer level well-off.

$100,000 to $200,000 and you save $1,388. $200,000 to $500,000, and you save $4,499. From $500,000 to $1 million per year income, and these tax giveaways net you $5,562. But if you have family income of over $1 million per year, you will save $41, 977!

So, from the Senate’s own figures, the people who really benefit from this latest tax giveaway are millionaires! Now, that’s at a cost of $70 billion in lost revenue for a government already billions of dollars in debt with a trillion dollar trade deficit! How does the government compensate for the lost revenue? Not by cutting the bloated military budget, so it comes out in reduced money for education, infrastructure, and social services. That means that we all pay more in social problems resulting from increasing poverty. Further, higher government debt results in inflation and higher trade deficit results in a weaker dollar which further increases inflation and interest rates—all of which the poor and middle class pay in higher prices. This is Robin Hood in reverse–a massive transfer of wealth upward from those who can least afford to pay, to the already rich. And it spells recession around the corner.

The anti-tax folk are NOT saving your wallet from a burdensome tax system like they say. They are, instead, picking your pocket to line the pockets of themselves and their rich campaign contributors! When, however, they say that this is a class war, they are telling the truth: It is a class war of the rich and their political cronies against the poor and the middle class.

Remember and hold them accountable. Throw out those who believe the rich shouldn’t pay their fair share for the common good and put in place only those who will.

The Book of James tells us that those who dishonor the poor and favor the rich insult God. James 2:1-7.

June 18, 2006 Posted by | economic justice, social history, taxes | Comments Off on Tax Giveaways Help Who?