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

Roger Williams: Justice Seeker & Defender of Religious Liberty

Roger Williams (c. 1603-1684) is best known for founding Rhode Island and for defending religious liberty and what came to be known as church-state separation. Some know that he founded the first Baptist congregation in North America (Providence, R.I.) in 1638, even though he, personally, remained a Baptist only briefly–becoming a Seeker awaiting a new apostalate since all churches of the current era were incorrigibly corrupt. Although a strongly orthodox Calvinist in his personal theology, Williams was a strong defender of individual conscience, including the consciences of Native Americans, Jews, and Quakers. Rhode Island became a haven for persecuted sects and oddballs.

What many people do not realize is the extent to which Williams was a defender of justice for the marginalized. When Roger and Mary (Bernard) Williams were banished from Massachussetts Bay Colony in 1635, the first charge against Williams was that he claimed that the Native Americans owned the land in North America and colonists should purchase it from them instead of appropriating it with approval of the English crown. (Later, Williams did purchase the land for Providence Plantations from the Narragansett Indians, but he also worked to secure a royal charter for Rhode Island.) Further, Williams’ first book, A Key to the Languages of America, was to enable better communication with the Native Peoples so that there would be fewer conflicts. When Roger and Mary were cast out into the Wilderness in the middle of winter, the Narragansetts helped them and made friends. Williams protected them making laws against enslaving Native Americans.

Williams’ defense of religious liberty and church/state separation was, in part, a peacemaking move. He noted how often “persecution for the cause of conscience” led to wars. The state could demand obedience only to the laws for the public good, but God alone was Lord of the conscience and people were answerable to God, not other humans, for their worship (or lack thereof). Govt., Williams’ argued, had no business in religion to support or hinder it, no matter how wrongheaded a religious view might appear. “It matters not whether it be the most papist [Catholic], pagan [Native American], Turkish [Muslim], Quakerish, or heretical opinions whatsoever, it appertaineth not to the earthly power” to attempt regulation. Notice that Williams defended views that he disliked: “papist,” “pagan,” “Turkish,” are terms to put down Catholics, non-Christians, and Muslims–but Williams defended their religious liberty anyway, precisely out of his deep respect for the sovereignty of God.

Contrast this with the Puritans who, proclaiming New England to be a “new Israel,” justified genocidal wars against the Native Americans as “Canaanites” who had to be driven from the land. Williams, though not a pacifist, replied with an approach to biblical interpretation that is vital for Christian peacemaking: namely, that since the coming of Christ, there are no “chosen peoples,” no nations that are God’s. The New Testament analogue to the Israelites is the church, scattered among all nations. Therefore, any attempt to apply biblical “holy war” passages about Israel directly to any moder nation, would be a distortion of Scripture. In the NT era, all peoples are potentially chosen, but only as individuals come to Christ. Coercion or violence in the name of promoting Christian faith is a blasphemy.

For more on Williams, see :

Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Classics of Religious Liberty 2 by Roger Williams (1603-1683), ed. Richard Groves. With a historical introduction by Edwin S. Gaustad (Mercer University Press, 2002).

Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Eerdmans, 1991.)

James P. Byrd, Jr., The Challenges of Roger Williams: Religious Liberty, Violent Persecution, and the Bible (Mercer University Press, 2002).

August 16, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, church history, human rights., religious liberty | 12 Comments

Bibliography on Revelation

Here’s the promised bibliography to help our churches reject the fantasy of the “Left Behind” series and see the real nonviolent message of Revelation.

Helps for Understanding the Revolutionary Meaning of John’s Apocalypse

Apocalyptic writing like the book of Revelation is born out of settings of oppression. Often its best interpreters either come from such settings themselves or are made sensitive to issues of oppression along the way. I have chosen the following works with this perspective in mind.

Aune, David E. Revelation. 3 vols. Word Biblical Commentary. Word Books, 1997- 1998. Currently the most exhaustively detailed critical commentary in English.

Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. New Testament Theology Series. Cambridge University Press, 1993. Excellent work from a British scholar who is very sensitive to the political agenda of the New Testament.

Beasley-Murray, George R. The Book of Revelation. New Century Bible. Greenwood Press, 1974. Now dated, but still helpful. Beasley-Murray takes a “classic premillenialist” approach, but rejects dispensationalism and the Christian Zionism which builds on the dispensationalist heresy.

Blevins, James L. Revelation as Drama. Broadman Press, 1984. Though I was never entirely convinced of Blevins’ thesis that Revelation was written as an ancient Greek drama and meant to be seen in a Greek theatre, this is nevertheless a powerful work that gives far more insight into the book than much of what is commonly read in the churches.

Blount, Brian K. Can I Get a Witness? Reading Revelation Through African-American Culture. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005. An excellent work of cultural criticism.

Boesak, Allan A. Comfort and Protest: Reflections on the Apocalypse of John of Patmos. Westminster Press, 1987. An excellent work from the perspective of a Black South African theologian writing during the era of apartheid.Caird, G. B. A Commentary on the Revelation to St. John the Divine. Harper’s New Testament Commentaries. Harper & Row, 1966. Nearly a lifetime after it was written, I still find this to be one of the most helpful of commentaries. Written by an Anglican pacifist who was a brilliant biblical scholar very sensitive to the way that verbal imagery functions in Scripture.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse. Westminster Press, 1984.

Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schuessler. Revelation: Justice and Judgement. Fortress Press, 1985.

___________. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Proclamation Commentaries. Fortress Press, 1991. Two excellent works by one of the great pioneers of feminist biblical criticism.

Gonzalez, Catherine Gunsalas and Justo L. Gonzalez. Revelation. Westminster Bible Companion. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Three Months with Revelation. Abingdon Press, 2004.

__________. For the Healing of the Nations: The Book of Revelation in an Age of Cultural Conflict. Orbis Books, 1999. Three excellent works from a U.S. Latino perspective.

Harrington, Wilfred. Revelation. Sacra Pagina. Michael Glazier Books, 1993.

Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyer. Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. Orbis Books, 1999. Howard-Brook consistently reads Scripture from the viewpoint of the marginalized and oppressed, with a commitment to nonviolent discipleship. Further, he writes in a very engaging way, unlike many biblical scholars. Both traits are on full display in this work.

Reddish, G. Mitchell. Revelation. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Smyth & Helwys Press, 2001. An excellent work that does note the way that Revelation is to function as a call to nonviolent discipleship although the focus of Reddish’s work is elsewhere.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995. An excellent work from the perspective of Latin American liberation theology.

Talbert, Charles H. The Apocalypse: A Reading of the Revelation of John. Westminster/John Knox, 1994. Talbert was one of the first Baptist biblical scholars to fully embrace a post-modern, literary-critical approach to Scripture and his works are very powerful in that regard. This is no exception.

Yeats, John R. Revelation. The Believers’ Church Bible Commentary. Herald Press, 2003. This series is completely written from the perspective of the “historic peace churches.”

I hope you find these helpful.

August 16, 2006 Posted by | Bible, books | 1 Comment

Progressive National Baptists Continue Stand Against Iraq War

I meant to post this yesterday. For those who don’t know, the Progressive National Baptist Convention is a 2.5 million member denomination of African-American Baptist Churches–many of whom are also connected to either the American Baptist Churches, USA or to one of the other National Baptist (African-American) groups. The PNBC began in 1961 as a split in the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. over tactics in the Civil Rights movement and over how long the convention president should serve. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gardner Taylor, and other then-younger Baptist ministers led in splitting from the more conservative parent body. The motto of the PNBC is “Fellowship, Progress, Service, Peace.” Consistent with that motto, the PNBC has denounced the war in Iraq since its inception in 2003.

At its most recent convention (annual meeting for you non-Baptist readers), 10-12 August in Cincinnatti, OH, the PNBC reiterated its denunciation of the Iraq war, called for the troops to come home, now, and noted that the $1 billion per week spent on this war and occupation are not available for much-needed domestic spending such as the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. See the full press coverage at EthicsDaily.com .
It’s nice to know that at least one U.S. Baptist denomination has some moral clarity here.

On a related, but sadder, note: Readers of this blog (all 3 of you) may remember my reporting from the annual Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Our preacher for the week was Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Senior Minister of Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, CA. Allen Temple, a BPFNA partner congregation, is dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches and the PNBC. Dr. Smith, together with his wife, Joanne Smith, were attending the PNB Convention in Cincinnatti when Mrs. Smith, who had not been well, died in her sleep in the early hours of Saturday 13 Aug. 2006. Her funeral, traditionally referred to in Black Church circles as a “going home service,” will be this Sat. 18 August 2006 @ 11 a.m. at Allen Temple. The BPFNA board and staff have sent a card and flowers. Condolences may be sent to: Allen Temple Baptist Church8501 International BlvdOakland, Ca. 94621
(510) 544-8910 (Phone)(510) 544-8918 (Fax).

I did not know Sister Smith and only met Dr. Smith once prior to this July’s peace camp. But I am saddened by the loss of yet another of God’s faithful servants for wholistic ministry, bearing witness in both word and deed to the in-breaking Rule of God. May God raise up more such servants. Amen.

August 16, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, Iraq, just peacemaking | Comments Off on Progressive National Baptists Continue Stand Against Iraq War