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

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