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

Christian Peace Quote #6

One can only live if one’s life serves to change this situation [of violence]; to diminish all that is contrary to the life of humanity. If I continue to live, I must give my life so that violence may be conquered.

Hildegard Goss-Mayr, German Christian and Ambassador of Peace for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). Together with her husband, Jean Goss, she was a major trainer in nonviolence in the Philippines–preparing the way for the nonviolent revolution of 1986.

December 23, 2006 Posted by | peace | Comments Off on Christian Peace Quote #6

Hey Jesus! Happy Birthday!

Kim Fabricius, writing over at Connexions, has this great Christmas reflection written as a dialogue between Jesus and Simon Peter. Check it out!

December 22, 2006 Posted by | Christmas, incarnation, scandal | 2 Comments

Christian Peace Quote #5

For we no longer take up sword against nations, nor do we learn war anymore, having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.

Origen, Against Celsus

December 22, 2006 Posted by | peace | Comments Off on Christian Peace Quote #5

GLBT Persons in Church: A Biblical/Theological Case for Full Inclusion, 1

I have repeatedly postponed blogging on this topic. I would prefer to write on much else. But Christians who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered are under attack: From politicians who would make them second class citizens at best; from hate-mongers who encourage physical attacks and intimidation (e.g., a certain foul excuse for a “church” in Kansas); from “ex-gay ministries” which work with discredited science to convince GLBT folks that they are neurotic or psychotic and need to be “cured;” from fundamentalists from many different religions; and from some non-fundamentalists who would split denominations (e.g., the Anglican communion and especially the Episcopal Church, USA; the American Baptist Churches, USA, etc. ) or seek to purge seminaries (despite vows of celibacy) (Pope Benedict’s command to Catholic seminaries).

I cannot stand back and be silent without being complicit in this assault on people, some of whom are personal friends and better Christians than I will ever hope to be. I tremble at starting this series because it could prevent me from future academic or church-related posts. It will certainly lead to many nasty comments and could undermine my attempts on this blog to get evangelicals to take more seriously the biblical injunctions to social and economic justice and to peacemaking. Nevertheless, I am compelled by conscience to start this series.

The case I want to make for the church universal revising its moral theology will take time to lay out fully. I will not rush. I will try to make careful biblical and theological arguments, and, when appropriate, examine the relevant scientific evidence.

This first post will clarify terms and some presuppositions.

  1. Homosexuality is a modern term first coined (in German) in the 1860s and given an English equivalent a few years later. This is the first time in the Western world that the idea of people intrinsically attracted to their own sex develops. Thus, modern translations of the Bible which use the term “homosexual,” are anachronistic. There was no ancient or biblical concept for what we call “homosexuality.” The Bible does address certain sexual behaviors, as we shall see, but the biblical writers all presupposed that everyone was born attracted to members of the opposite sex.
  2. Homosexuality is a term used to describe many different phenomena that are not all related: polyamorous exploration by youths just discovering their sexualities; political or ideological stances (e.g., some extreme feminists deliberately choose exclusive lesbian partners out of the belief that sex with men is inevitably patriarchal and must involve the submission or bondage of the female partner); pederasty (exploitive relations between adults and children, usually by persons who are heterosexual in adult relationships); prison rapes (again, usually by people who are exclusively heterosexual outside of prison); the ancient practice of men in a conquering army raping the men of the conquered territory in order to humiliate them by “treating them as women;” same-sex monogamous relations of love. My argument for inclusion is only an argument about the latter case. Given the divergent nature of these phenomena, many now prefer to use the term “homosexualities,” or to drop the term altogether.
  3. Transgendered persons are not gay or lesbian. Most lesbians self-identify as female and most gay men self-identify as male. By contrast, transgendered persons feel, often from a very early age, that they have been born into the wrong bodies–a physical male who always “feels” like a woman or vice versa. There may even be a genetic basis or a difference in brain chemistry which accounts for this. A very tiny percentage of babies are born with ambiguous sex organs (or even both male and female genitalia) which must be corrected by surgery. Some transgendered people have sex-reassignment operations and physically transform to the opposite sex. (I know one couple where this happened after a long marriage, with children. They are still married, but live in separate bedrooms and both are celibate.) Not all cross-dressing is related to this phenomenon, but some is. Because the issues surrounding transgendered people are different than with gays and lesbians, I will save further discussion until the end of this series.
  4. Bi-sexuals are those persons who are equally attracted to members of the opposite sex or to their own sex. Ever since the pioneering research of Kinsey, we have known that very few people are 100% attracted to the opposite sex or to the same sex. We fall on a spectrum and those of us who are “heterosexual” are actually dominantly heterosexual:–i.e., whatever attractions we have to our own sex are minor, usually suppressed either consciously or through social expectations, and outweighed by the much greater attractions we have to the other sex. “Homosexuals” have the opposite pattern. Bi-sexuals are those people whose natural attractions to either sex are balanced or nearly balanced. The “successes” of “ex-gay ministries,” are probably with people who are nearly balanced along the spectrum. Some people argue from the phenomenon of bisexuality against monogamy. I do not. I believe strongly in monogamy. True bisexuals (rather than gays or lesbians who are trying to “cure” themselves by heterosexual marriage), if they are Christian, should, in my view, commit to a monogamous relationship of one form or another.
  5. We must distinguish between sexual orientation and sex acts. The former is not addressed at all by Scripture. It is a modern concept.
  6. We must also distinguish between moral guidelines for churches, and civil rights in the wider society. Even before I held my current view that the churches needed one sexual ethic for everyone (either celibacy or monogamy–rather than insisting that gays and lesbians either be celibate or “cured”), I defended the civil and human rights of GLBT folk. We consider heterosexual adultery a sin, but we don’t argue that adulterers should be fired from their jobs or denied housing, etc. The debate over civil marriage or civil unions or domestic partnerships, is a debate about secular justice–it is not identical to debates over the moral commitments of churches. Some churches will have same-sex weddings now that have no legal protections. Others will not recognize even heterosexual marriages that have not been performed in church. It is quite possible to believe, as do some conservative friends of mine, that all same-sex activity is immoral, and still to support same-sex civil marriages or civil unions, etc. (Just as I, a Christian pacifist, support the right of gays and lesbians to serve freely and openly in the military–despite my belief that all military service is immoral for Christians–and despite the weirdness of helping anyone get INTO the military.) We must recognize that civil laws cannot be identical to church requirements.

That’s enough for one post. My next posting on this topic will attempt to sketch some presuppositions for reading Scripture on this issue.

December 21, 2006 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, GLBT issues, homosexuality, theology | 18 Comments

Daily Christian Peace Quote #4

But, as a matter of fact, there is no trace of the existence of any Christian soldiers between these cases mentioned in Acts and, say, 170 A.D.

C. J. Cadoux [French Reformed theologian], The Early Christian Attitude Toward War.

December 21, 2006 Posted by | peace | Comments Off on Daily Christian Peace Quote #4

Democrats and the Youth Vote

Paul Rogat Loeb, author of such excellent political studies as Soul of a Citizen, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While, has an excellent article on how Democrats can keep the youth vote. It’s worth a read.

December 19, 2006 Posted by | politics | 2 Comments

Daily Christian Peace Quote # 3

For the first three centuries, no Christian writing which has survived to our time condoned Christian participation in war.
Kenneth Scott Latourette(1884-1968), Famous Professor of Missions and Oriental History at Yale University and Divinity School.

December 19, 2006 Posted by | peace | Comments Off on Daily Christian Peace Quote # 3

Would Jesus Shop at Walmart?

The Baptist Center for Ethics and other faith groups have been participating in the Wake-Up Wal-mart Campaign to convince the world’s largest retail company to reform its business practices: to start paying workers here and overseas living wages, quit working against labor unions, quit exploiting workers in the developing world, and to work in more ecology-friendly fashion. At the center of the faith-based part of this campaign has been my friend, Rev. Dr. Joe Phelps, Pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky. See his video, here. To support the campaign, click here.

The following op-ed by Joe appeared in The Louisville Courier-Journal.:

Would Jesus Shop at Wal-Mart?
By The Rev. Joe Phelps
Special to The Courier-Journal
I accepted a unique invitation to appear in a 30-second “Wake Up Wal-Mart” commercial. It will appear across the nation on major television networks this Thursday and Friday.
“Wake Up Wal-Mart” (wakeupwalmart.com) is a national campaign that challenges the country’s largest retailer to clean up its act on multiple fronts, particularly in matters that adversely affect its 1.4 million employees.

Why would a minister appear in such an ad campaign?

I accepted the chance to speak to millions of Americans because of my pastoral role of evangelist — one who announces the message of God’s agenda as seen in the life of our Savior, Jesus.
The Bible is full of God’s passion about the livelihood and welfare of workers, their families, and their communities. At the same time, God also expresses grave concern for employers who exploit their workers. For the God of the Bible, words like peace and truth aren’t abstract ideals; they are to be lived out in how we interact with God and each other, not just on Sunday, but every day.

And so my long-standing concerns about Wal-Mart as an employer, a community leader, and a global force prompted me to join those trying to “Wake Up” (the campaign’s name) the retail giant to do the right thing. I want Wal-Mart to honestly review if their profit-making has deteriorated into greed and exploitation.

I also want to “wake up” the American consumer, especially those with Bible values, to the reality that our buying power has real power to effect a lot of people around the world. Everyone wants lower prices, but not at the expense of neighbors who work for Wal-Mart, or people around the world who make their products. Our purchasing choices are the crucial link in granting companies like Wal-Mart our tacit permission and our financial support to continue practices that exploit the young, the vulnerable, and the working poor.

There are two sides to the Wal-Mart debate, of course. Google “Wal-Mart defense” and you’ll find plenty of opinions about how Wal-Mart is good for workers and for our country. Wal-Mart has a major marketing initiative, backed by millions of dollars and a staff of 70, to convince consumers that it is a benevolent corporation. Their arguments remind me of the lawyer reacting to Jesus’ instruction to love your neighbor, “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, `And who is my neighbor?'”

On the other side is a vast collection of data from workers, consumer watch organizations, and investigations that reveals a pattern of exploiting workers in order to cut costs and hike profits.
Those who care will weigh the arguments on both sides, pray, discern and act.

In the ad I ask, “Would Jesus shop at Wal-Mart?” It’s admittedly a haughty- sounding question, but one that must be asked. I don’t claim to know the answer for everyone. I do, however, think it is a question worth posing.

Some will be offended by the question, or at least by its implication, especially if they draw different conclusions from the evidence. Or if they are staunch supporters of unfettered capitalism. Or if, like me, they’ve shopped at Wal-Mart in the past with no guilt about finding a desired product at a low price — especially if its the only store in town, as is often the case in small towns across America.

Others will be annoyed at the idea that there are connections between the store’s low prices, the effect of their employment practices in America, and the effect on the overtime worker in China who earns $3.45 a day making Wal-Mart products.

Still others will wonder why a minister would worry about Wal-Mart’s business practices instead of sticking to the task of saving souls.

A century old Baptist in my church’s stained glass windows faced a similar challenge. Walter Rauschenbusch concluded that it was hypocritical for the church to try to save the souls of factory workers if it didn’t also support living wages for the workers’ families. For him, the two were intrinsically connected.

For me, the answer to “Would Jesus shop at Wal-Mart?” is: Probably not at the present, not with its current business practices. I believe it is an insult to God to say we believe the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and then purposely ignore the implications of our shopping choices. What we buy matters to others and to God.
And so in the ad I ask viewers to “search your own heart.” For me, once I know, I have to say no — especially at Christmas, when we recall Mary’s song at the news that she would bear the Savior.

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.

Your heart may be at peace with shopping at Wal-Mart. Each of us must follow the Spirit’s leading. I’m not qualified to tell you what the Spirit says to you. I can only bear witness, wherever I can, to what the Spirit says to me.

Joe Phelps is Pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

This campaign is not just about Wal-mart. The giant Arkansas-based company has become so successful financially that other retailers are copying its “business model” of caring nothing for economic and ecological justice as long as prices are low. The questions about whether communities and the planet itself pay huge costs for these low prices are not getting asked by enough people. If we can change Wal-mart, perhaps we can change the entire business model.
Baptist clergy who want to sign onto the pastoral letter asking for Walmart to become a “Golden Rule” company should click here.

December 18, 2006 Posted by | economic justice, labor | Comments Off on Would Jesus Shop at Walmart?

Christian Peace Quote # 2

They who defend war must defend the dispositions [i.e., practices, habits, character traits] which lead to war, and these dispositions are absolutely forbidden by the gospel.

Desiderius Erasmus (c.1460-1535), Catholic humanist scholar whose Greek New Testament and other writings helped launch the Reformation.

December 18, 2006 Posted by | peace | Comments Off on Christian Peace Quote # 2

Daily Christian Peace Quote

We can’t become nonviolent on the basis of intellectual conviction. Commitment to nonviolence demands a very profound conversion of mind and heart. If we take the time to pray with Jesus, we too will be converted in mind and heart. It won?t work if we try to reason it out. The only way is through a change of heart, a coming into a way of being that is the way of Jesus.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton (U.S. Catholic and a leader of Pax Christi )

I am going to begin posting one such quote per day, from all denominations and traditions and all periods of church history. I will restrict myself to Christian quotations not because I think nothing can be learned from Buddha or the Dalai Lama or Gandhi or Martin Buber, etc. Far from it. But there is a widespread illusion in U.S. Christianity that peacemaking is a non-Christian interest (!!) and/or that only liberals or secularists, etc. care about peace. (I call this the “Jesus was only kidding” heresy of modern U.S. Evangelicalism.) Quoting the Bible doesn’t help since the TV preachers teach ways to spiritualize or cross proof text. So, this feature will attempt to show how central peacemaking is to Christianity (despite the Constaninian heresy which introduced “just war thinking” into the church). Hopefully, with new eyes, Scripture can be approached again.

December 16, 2006 Posted by | peace | Comments Off on Daily Christian Peace Quote