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

Jeremiah the War Resister, pt. 2

Originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of The Baptist Peacemaker, pp. 6-7.

Jeremiah declares that God’s covenant with Israel/Judah is broken and nullified. He looks for a new covenant that God will write on the hearts of God’s people (31:31-33). Jeremiah anticipates and informs Jesus’ own revolutionary extension of the divine covenant to the Gentiles.
Jeremiah’s call for the men of Judah to “circumcise their hearts” instead of their foreskins will inform the Apostle Paul’s judgment that Gentile Christians do not need physical circumcision to be part of God’s covenant people. (See especially the argument Paul makes to the Galatians.) Women and eunuchs cannot be physically circumcised, but they can “circumcise their hearts” through baptism. Here is a universal invitation to be included in the People of God, but also a universal challenge to faithfulness.
So what is God’s will for any people that would call themselves the People of God? According to Jeremiah, God’s people make justice and not war. In chapter 5, Jeremiah denounces the way the rich people of Judah exploit their poor neighbors. Jeremiah describes the rich of his day as “setting traps” for their fellow human beings and accuses them of having no respect for the rights of other people. He accuses the religious leaders of his day of exploiting their positions and then he declares that the majority of the people enjoy this abominable situation.
All this sounds horrifyingly contemporary and applicable to U.S. Christians. The rich steal from the poor with the help of government. Government tax giveaways to the rich hurt the poor and the common good. The rich convince the government to repeal usury laws that once limited how much interest credit card companies could charge. Then the rich convince the government to make it harder for the poor to declare bankruptcy but easier for wealthy corporations to do the same. In the name of “tort reform,” the rich convince the government to limit the amount of damages that courts can award people who have been harmed by corporations. In the ultimate insult, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that government can use “eminent domain” to take private homes and businesses NOT for highways, parks and other public use, but to sell them to big corporations to “develop.”
Meanwhile far too many church leaders support all this “reverse Robin Hood” action. Nationally famous church leaders glorify violence, promote war, call for assassination of some foreign leaders while defending other dictators with whom they are in big business, engage in the pederastic exploitation of the young and then scapegoat vulnerable populations such as minority ethnic groups, minority religions, single mothers, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups.
Yet opinion polls continue to show that U.S. Americans love their politicians and their big-name religious leaders and follow them blindly into war, dishonesty, and moral corruption. [Note: This may be changing since I wrote this in June 2005.] It is not hard to guess what Jeremiah would say to us.
Jeremiah also had much to say about exploited laborers and the unfair treatment of resident aliens. In chapters 7 and 22, Jeremiah rails against the exploitation of poor workers and resident aliens. One of King Zedekiah’s predecessors, King Jehoiakim, is denounced for exploitation of the poor by building large palaces and employing the poor at low wages to build them. No doubt Jehoiakim defended his “jobs program” by explaining that living wages would hurt competition and small businesses.
Ever since 1980, U.S. labor law has become increasingly weaker and workers’ rights ignored or undermined, along with the ability to engage in collective bargaining through labor unions. Global trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, subordinate national labor laws to these treaties, along with using these treaties to override local environmental and workplace safety rules. In the wake of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Pres. Bush used his power of Executive Order to suspend the law which requires that federal contracts in emergency reconstruction pay laborers the prevailing wage. Now, the government is free to give rich no-bid contracts for rebuilding to corporate cronies and exploit the workers they hire for this necessary work! Further, millions of resident aliens in the U.S. labor in slave-like conditions in U.S. fields and sweatshops (intimidated by the lack of “green cards” into keeping quiet about their abuse).
Through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. forces the sweatshop system and agribusiness on the rest of the world as ‘economic reform.’ Rich U.S. Americans, like the rich of ancient Judah, are building mansions at a breathtaking rate while the poor have no homes or shacks and the standard of living for the poorest people in the nation and the planet continues to decline. Now, the U.S. calls itself the “ownership society” not meaning that all will own enough to live and have a stake in the common good, but that those who own the most will have the most power, get to make all the rules, and the devil take the hindmost.
Like all true prophets, Jeremiah constantly announced that economic exploitation and war were fundamental offenses to God and no amount of “prosperity doctrine” or “health and wealth” gospel by the false prophets of his day or ours can efface that reality.
A prophetic war resister like Jeremiah will not only be unpopular with the rich and powerful, but often with the common folk as well. Throughout the Book of Jeremiah we see him hounded as a traitor and a troublemaker. He was accused of destroying the people’s morale during wartime.
Early in his career as a prophet, the people of his hometown threw Jeremiah into the stocks. Later, he was thrown in prison. Still later, he was thrown into a partially dry cistern where he sank into the mud and experienced continual physical pain.
God wasn’t easy on Jeremiah, either. God forced Jeremiah to prophesy doom and destruction on the people he loved and when Jeremiah tried to be silent, the Word of God burned in his bones like fire! God refused to let Jeremiah marry or have children—a huge curse in his culture. Jeremiah was a priest who was forbidden to serve at Temple!
Having been forced to watch most of the people of Judah taken into Exile by the Babylonians, near the end of Jeremiah’s life, he was abducted and forced to go to Egypt by a group of Judah’s “freedom fighters” who had assassinated the Babylonian governor of their region. The group which kidnapped Jeremiah pressured him into prophesying things that would favor their actions, but he steadfastly refused. He died in Egypt.
Violent, terrorist “patriots” holding war resisters captive sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it? Yet, if we too will become “circumcised of the heart” (ch. 4), Jeremiah is an excellent example for us of how to be faithful to God, resist injustice, war, and violence in our day as he did in his.

July 3, 2006 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., heroes, peacemaking, war | 1 Comment

Jeremiah the War Resister, pt. 1

I have to take a break from my series exploring liberty of conscience in order to get ready for the annual summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (www.bpfna.org), 10-15 July in Atlanta. As I said, I will try to post reports from on-scene, if I have access to wi-fi. In the meantime, here, in 2 parts, is a biblical reflection I wrote for the The Baptist Peacemaker. Feel free to comment on these or any other posts and I’ll try to interact when I return. Michael the Leveller.

By Michael L. Westmoreland-White
Originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of The Baptist Peacemaker, pp. 6-7.

Was the prophet Jeremiah a pacifist? If we mean to ask if Jeremiah was absolutely opposed to all uses of violence, then I don’t think the Scripture gives us enough information to settle the debate. Jeremiah makes no sweeping statements against all war and violence. What we can know for certain is that Jeremiah was a war resister. He resisted all the wars of his day and he inspires us to resist the wars of our day.
Consider Jeremiah’s resounding denunciation of Judah’s war plans in chapter 21. Zedekiah, God’s anointed King of Judah, wanted Jeremiah’s counsel in order to make sure that God was on the king’s side in the coming war. Did Jeremiah give such assurance? NO! In fact, Jeremiah sounded positively treasonous to Judah’s pro-war party. The prophet claimed that their proposed war was an offense to God and that, if they went to war, God would fight against them and punish them!

Behold,[God says] I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands with which you fight against the King of Babylon. . . . And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger and in fury and in great wrath! (21:3-5)

This language is all the more startling when we realize that King Zedekiah’s war aims were so much more justifiable than those of contemporary imperial USA. Zedekiah had no doctrine of “preemptive war,” nor “preventive war,” nor any ambitions for “regime change” in Babylonia. He only wanted the prophet to assure him of God’s approval of Judah’s military resistance to the Babylonian Empire’s plans to annex Judah. King Zedekiah’s war aims were purely defensive and would probably have met the criteria of the later “Just War” tradition—something the “preventive war” doctrine of U.S. Pres. Bush definitely does not.
Yet, even if Zedekiah’s war aims would have passed muster with the Just War criteria of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas (and Luther, Calvin, and most contemporary Protestant theologians), they could not pass Jeremiah’s criteria for divine approval. Using terms as harsh as those Jesus used against the disciples’ attempted defensive violence in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26), Jeremiah thundered against Zedekiah’s plans to resist Babylon with military might.
Why was Jeremiah so sure that God was against the planned violent defense of Judah (including defense of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH)? Why was Jeremiah so sure that God wanted no military resistance to the cruel invasion of the Babylonians? Jeremiah understood that foreigners and people of other religions could still be the agents of the very will of God. Like other pre-exilic prophets, Jeremiah saw the coming loss of Judean national sovereignty as the instrument of God’s corrective discipline for an unfaithful people.
Therefore, Jeremiah accepted the Babylonian king as a new overlord, under whom Judah would be safe from other would-be invaders and able to learn a better way to be God’s covenant people. Violent resistance would not succeed in saving Judah’s national sovereignty, Jeremiah knew, but it would result in a much harsher invasion, occupation, and deportation into a long exile. And thus it came to pass.
Jeremiah’s attitude was light-years away from that of contemporary nationalism or patriotism. By the standards of contemporary U.S. Christians, Jeremiah would be a traitor who shamelessly cooperates with the enemy. People of other religions justified in conquering the would-be People of God while God’s prophet consorts with those pagans? Strong stuff. Any Christian wishing to justify a current crusade against Muslims had better leave Jeremiah off the reading list.
Jeremiah insists in chapters 12 and 18 that God is free to make or unmake any nation of people as God’s own—with no exceptions for Judah—or for the U.S. or the modern state of Israel for that matter. To Jeremiah, God is universal and the moral rules of Torah are universal in application. The Way of God cannot be made the exclusive claim of any single nationality, culture, or ethnic group. A people can only demonstrate that they are God’s people by abiding in God’s will.

July 3, 2006 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., heroes, peacemaking, war | Comments Off on Jeremiah the War Resister, pt. 1

Religious Liberty Dimensions of the Abortion Debate

I am not intending to discuss the morality of abortion per se. Frankly, I have long believed that both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” advocates have way oversimplified the moral complexities involved in order to rally troops. You know the drill: extreme pro-choicers talking as if the civil liberties of pregnant women were the ONLY consideration and of medical abortions having no more moral significance than wart removal and extreme pro-lifers (having the louder megaphone for some time now) equating all abortions with murder and demonizing the motives of anyone who brings up hard cases or complexities. Deciding in the mid’80s that one side yelling “woman hater” and the other yelling “baby killer” did not count as moral discourse, I joined Common Ground which seeks its namesake between pro-choicers and pro-lifers. I spent 10 years with the organization and the experience would make good training for negotiating Middle East peace! At any rate, if someone is interested in getting past simplistic slogans to hard moral reasoning, I recommend Abortion: A Reader, ed. Lloyd Steffan, The Pilgrim Library of Ethics (Pilgrim Press, 1996) which gathers some of the best arguments, religious and secular, on all sides of the debate.

What concerns me here is the religious liberty aspects of the debate–which, sadly, were not even addressed in Roe v. Wade (1973). A brief side-note: Contrary to the constant rhetoric of the right, this decision was NOT immediately controversial. Catholic officials opposed it from the beginning, but usually in language tied in with their opposition to artificial birth control. Many later figures of the religious right either ignored the decision or made statements in the affirmative. The latter category included the notorious fundamentalist Baptist W.A. Criswell, author of Why I Preach the Bible as Literally True. Criswell noted that biblically, life begins with breath, and said that he always believed abortion should be left up to moral decision of the mother. Another similar voice was that of the right-wing theologian Norman Geisler. In the earlier editions of his book, Christian Ethics, he laid down the principle that “born life has priority over unborn life” and spelled out a limited number of cases in which he would believe that abortion is a moral option. Later, after the pro-life movement dominated the religious right, Geisler’s book came out in a new edition in which this section was removed and he argued that all Christians MUST be pro-life. Changing one’s mind is perfectly okay, but it is dishonest not to admit that you HAVE changed your mind and not to admit that an issue is complex enough for people to come to different conclusions.

When the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, THAT was controversial. White preachers accused the SC OTUS of communism, billboards went up throughout the South threatening the lives of justices, and there were widespread calls for the impeachment of Chief Justice Warren (although the decision was unanimous). NOTHING like that happened when Roe was handed down and abortion was not a hot political topic until the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan, aided by a book published in the late ’70s by Francis Schaeffer and a then-obscure doctor named C. Everett Koop (later Reagan’s Surgeon General) called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? which first made abortion and euthanasia widespread evils among the Right and the battle cries for a new “right to life” movement.

This, in itself, is not damning. Sometimes it takes awhile for something to be perceived as an evil that must be opposed. I have nothing against people changing their minds. I do protest the dishonesty which claims that the new position is the one you’ve ALWAYS held, that ALL right-thinking people (all Christians, or all Bible-believing Christians, etc.) hold and have always held, and portraying your opponents as, at best, morally obtuse, and, at worst, in league with the powers of darkness. This is wrong, but it has characterized the Religious Right’s tone in the abortion debate from 1980 onward.

To a lesser extent, this kind of dishonesty has also occurred among some pro-choicers: acting as if all feminists always were pro-choice when the historical record indicates otherwise. (Abortion opposition wasn’t even a plank in the original platform of the National Organization for Women, nor in the first edition of Betty Friedan’s manifesto, The Feminine Mystique.) And groups like Feminists for Life are right to note the opposition to abortion by such feminist foremothers as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton–although they often act as if these women had all the scientific knowledge of contemporary gynecologists. Historical context is ignored by too many on all sides of this debate.

This leads me to my first liberty of conscience principle in this debate: Respect for the consciences of all requires portraying both your views and theirs as honestly as possible, refusing distortions for partisan political gain. One has to have a respect for “information integrity” in public moral discourse, one that refuses to twist facts, statistics, etc. to favor one’s own perspective. One has to be willing to admit to data that count against one’s own position and has to admit when one has changed one’s mind, and to the complexities which allow different people to come to different conclusions. This is not because “anything goes,” but because respect for liberty of conscience is tied in with respect for truth and for the morality of HONEST debate of important moral and public policy issues.

A negative example of what I have in mind happened a couple of years ago (2004) when my former teacher, Dr. Glen Stassen, now of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, wrote a widely reprinted op-ed which argued for keeping abortion legal, but reducing the numbers of abortions by examining the causes why women seek abortions. One major reason given is the unwillingness to raise a child on one’s own, but men do not usually marry unless they can find good employment–so when unemployment is down, abortion rates drop as well. After this was published, many on the right accused Glen of “economic determinism,” of being in the pay of the Democratic Party, of not being a “real Christian,” etc. and INSISTED that Glen’s data was wrong that abortions had declined under G.W. Bush, not under Clinton. (3 independent statisticians checked Glen’s data, corrected for some data he didn’t have, but basically supported his contention that abortions declined under Clinton and grew again under G.W. Bush and correlated with unemployment and lowpaying jobs.) That is dishonest and a failure to respect information integrity, as well as engaging in unfair ad hominem attacks.

The Stassens’ youngest son was born with several birth defects because Dot Stassen contracted rubella while pregnant–and they chose to carry to term and raise David despite the hardships. Moreover, Dot, a registered nurse, went to work for a school for unwed mothers seeking to provide alternatives to abortion AND unwanted pregnancies. The personal demonization of this wonderful Christian family because their approach to the abortion debate differs is intimidation and false witness–and stems from failure to respect liberty of conscience and debate issues fairly.

A second religious liberty dimension is this: Differing religions hold different views on the morality of abortion. Respect for liberty of conscience means that one cannot simply legislate one religious position (e.g. ,the official Catholic view) as the law of the land. Most religions appear to find abortion generally morally problematic, but there are widespread disagreements: Most Buddhists are pro-life, but Japanese Buddhists are mostly pro-choice and have developed rituals for abortions; Traditional Judaism allowed for abortion if the mother’s life was threatened and some rabbis extended this to a threat to the emotional health of the mother; the early church mostly opposed abortion, but it appears that this was strongly connected with its opposition to infanticide and it is impossible to tell from the sources  (e.g., the Didache) whether or not early abortions with modern methods would be allowed under some circumstances; abortion is not addressed directly in either the Old or New Testaments, despite its widespread practice in the ancient world; in the decades preceding Roe there was a growing number of Protestants who argued for the legitimacy of abortion in limited circumstances (the SBC was on record twice to this effect prior to 1973).

Does this mean that any attempt to restrict or outlaw abortion is automatically out of bounds on religious liberty grounds? No. In an analogy widely used by the Right, Southern slaveholders defended slavery on biblical grounds, but no one today argues that the outlawing of slavery is violation of religious liberty. And, if my religion allows for human sacrifice, the law will not support me in my desire cut out my neighbor’s heart and offer it to Kali. But, in these cases, the restrictions on some liberty are justified by the common good and by appeal to moral principles established by REASON that could be understood apart from a particular religious viewpoint.

For the most part (there are exceptions), the Right has been willing to engage in this kind of reasoned debate less and less as its political influence has grown. Now its attitude has been, “WE SPEAK FOR GOD, SO OUTLAW ABORTION NOW NO MATTER WHO DISAGREES!” That is clearly wrong. I especially object to the Right’s tactic of trying to stack the Supreme Court because the justices they want on the court in order to overtun Roe also hold to many views clearly at odds with the health of the common good (e.g., Renquist’s opinion that Plessy v. Ferguson should have been upheld; Scalia and Thomas’ opposition to the Miranda decision, etc.). A far more honest approach, respectful of liberty of conscience, would be to seek a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion, but this effort was early abandoned by the Right when it realized that it would have an easier time stacking the court than to get 3/4 of state legislatures to ratify the amendment–when polls consistently show that a strong majority of Americans favor keeping abortion legally available.

The ends don’t justify the means. This route may have been the harder road, but it would have respected liberty of conscience more since, to be successful, it would have had to persuade a large majority of the public that abortion is wrong under most, if not all, circumstances.

The right demonizes those who want to keep abortion as a legal option, but who recognize widespread abortions as being, at best, morally tragic, and working to reduce the number of abortions sought. I fail to understand this except as a theocratic exertion of power. After all, several European countries, especially Belgium and the Netherlands, have very liberal abortion laws, but very low abortion rates, due to strong social safety nets and widespread sex education and easy availability of artificial contraception. This approach is defended even by someone like Jim Forest, head of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, who lives in Holland and who notes the strong opposition to abortion by Eastern Orthodoxy for centuries. Why is such an approach wrong in the U.S.? Especially since even the Right agrees that if Roe is overturned a vast underground network for illegal abortions will erupt? Wouldn’t working on the causes for which abortions are sought be a better approach–one that can potentially unite rather than divide the nation?

I’ll end this post with a personal narrative. I will admit to having changed my view on the morality of abortion at least 3 times in my adult life–on THIS, I have been a flip-flopper. From the moment I became a pacifist as a young man, I instinctively opposed abortion as a form of violence. Upon closer examination, I became convinced that the fetus is NOT a human person (it is human life) at conception, but only a potential person. As such, it has a presumptive right to life (which grows during gestation), but this can be overridden by the rights of the mother, who is already a person–but the later in the pregnancy, the more it should take to override the presumptive right to life of the person-to-be.

This became less abstract when my wife was pregnant with our second daughter. Even though Kate was in her late ’30s, we decided against an amniocentesis–the risk of this invasive procedure causing miscarriage outweighed what it was likely to tell us about birth defects–and we would have raised a Down’s Syndrome child. But we did use another technique, less invasive, whose name I forget–and we got an emergency call from the Ob-Gyn saying that our child-to-be may have Spina Bifida. In extreme cases, no real spine develops and the child is stillborn or dies right after birth. We could see no reason to carry to term in such a case, especially since fetal death could happen BEFORE birth and be a threat to my wife’s life. So, we rushed for a level 2 ultrasound and, thankfully, found that it was a false alarm–Miriam had/has a very healthy spine. Kentucky forbids abortions even in the late 2nd trimester, so we would have had very little time to make a horrible choice if the worst had proven true.

But what horrified me most was that pro-lifers lined up to condemn us for even considering an abortion, even in the extreme case. We should have been willing, we were told, to risk even Kate’s life to carry to term, even if the fetus had no chance at all, so it could leave the world surronded by love, instead of in a cold hospital procedure. The utter lack of regard for Kate’s life expressed here showed me why so many pro-choice folk think that all pro-lifers are really anti-woman and simply pro-birth. Missing from this was any conception of moral heroism going beyond moral requirements: A pregnant woman may choose to risk her life on a lost cause, such as a developing fetus with no spine, but no one can morally REQUIRE her to do so. (Considering that such a risk of life could have left me a single parent and my older daughter motherless, it is also not clear that moral heroism is only exercised in one direction.)

There are many such examples which is why abortion is a morally complex issue. Liberty of conscience requires not only seeking laws which respect different religious conceptions about life and personhood, etc., but requires that law and morality and public discourse recognize the difference between moral duty and moral heroism.

July 3, 2006 Posted by | abortion, religious liberty, Religious Social Criticism | 21 Comments