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

Peace Blogger Interviews #1: Chris Baker

Today, we begin a new series in which I interview the owners of the blogs in the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring.  I hope to do about one interview per week. I am beginning with Chris Baker of the blog, Sandalstraps’ Sanctuary. (Chris was second to return the initial questionaire, but first to reply to the follow-up.) I hope this series will be fun.  Full disclosure: Chris and I have found that we live in the same town, Louisville, Kentucky, USA, but we have never met–although I hope to change that soon and have some face-to-face discussions.  Welcome to the Peace Blogger Interview, Chris.

MLW-W: How would you describe yourself?

Chris: I am a father, a husband, a writer, a student (and prospective scholar) and a Christian.

MLW-W: Care to elaborate? In that order?

Chris:  In that order? I suppose so, although with some caveats. Being a father and a husband are related, and both are central to my identity. When I married my wife, Sami, I learned a great deal about myself. Cohabitating with another human in a covenental relationship, that is perhaps the greatest challenge a styrong-willed person can have. Learning to live with my wife, learning how to bring my life and my goals for life into accord with her life and her goals for life, that was and is a delightful challenge.Parenting is, for me, the same way. Both marriage and parenting teach me that it isn’t always all about me. Without my role as a father to my son and as a husband to my wife, I would probably be a very selfish, self-centered and miserable person. Of course, not everyone needs to get married and start a nuclear family (I say “nuclear” because there are many, many ways to be “family”) to fully find themselves. But I sure did.Similarly, my roles as a writer, a student, and a Christian are all related. Writing is the way in which I process all of the ideas that swirl around in my head. It is how I order my mental life. And – though I recognize this as one of the great limitations of modernity – my mental life is how I order my spiritual life. I wish that we’re so. I wish I were a mystic, who had routine transcendant experiences of the sacred. But, in my own life, reading, writing, and studying are the ways in which I experience God. They are about as close to mysticism as I can get.

MLW-W: Wow. You’ve obviously put a great deal of thought into this. Thanks. Tell us about your immediate family.

Chris: My wife, Sami, is a behavioral therapist working with autistic children, and is also the Director of Children’s Ministry at our church. My son Adam is a brilliant and exuberant two-year-old boy. Clearly the cutest and smartest person to ever live. We also share our life and our home with two cats, Madeleine and Elise, and one dog, Pepper.

MLW-W:  What do you do for a living?  When not working or blogging, what do you like to do?

Chris:I am a freelance writer, and a Master of Arts in Religion student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Once I finish my MAR program, I plan to enter a PhD program and to eventually pursue a career teaching philosophy and religious studies, as well as, perhaps, theological ethics.


MLW-W: Good luck with that. I can tell you that with the Baby Boom over, there is a real glut on the academic job market and colleges and universities (and even seminaries) are shrinking faculty numbers and using adjuncts and part-time professors on a permament basis. Not to discourage you or anything! 🙂


Since LPTS doesn’t have a Ph.D. program, do you have any ideas, yet, where you’d like to do yours and with whom?

Chris: First off, thanks for wishing me luck… I’m going to need it. The crowded academic job market is one of the reasons why I’ve been dancing around an academic career. I tried professional ministry, I considered going into law school, I looked at counseling, each as way of trying to find my vocation. But in whatever I’ve tried, there has always been a chorus of people around me saying “You really should try an academic career. It’s who you are.”

I’ve always thought that vocation isn’t a matter of profession, but rather a matter of identity. That is, I’ve always felt called to be a particular person rather than to pursue a particular career. But academic work is a huge part of who I am, and I would be a fool not to give an academic career a shot. If I can’t get work, I can always fall back on something else, I suppose. But if I never try, then I’ll have only regrets of what might have been if I’d just had a little more courage.


As for PhD programs, that’s tough. I’ve always wanted to go to Duke and study theological ethics under Stanley Hauerwas, but my wife has a great career here in Louisville, and I can’t bring myself to make her move. My seminary advisor thinks that I should give a good long look at U of L’s PhD in Humanities program. She has a few friends in it, and thinks that it would be a good fit for me.

And, the more study I do, the more I realize that at heart I am a generalist. I don’t just have a single field of study, and in fact I have philosophic disagreements in compartmentalizing study, dividing it up into artificial categories as though there we not overlap between, say, sociology, philosophy, theology, psychology, literature, and natural sciences. So, perhaps studying in a program that simply calls itself “humanities’ would be a good fit for someone who is constantly looking for inter and cross disciplinary connections.


MLW-W: Generalists and those who can do cross-disciplinary work should have greater chances of employment, at any rate, than specialists in religious studies. Vocation or no, one has to produce income. I can testify.


MLW-W:   Tell us something about your faith. How long have you been a Christian (follower of Jesus)?


Chris: I was raised by a lapsed Baptist and a Methodist Sunday School teacher, and have always had at least a nominal connection to a church. However, when I was fourteen years old I had a profound religious experience, and have seen been a professing Christian.


MLW-W: Interesting–since I was raised Methodist and became Baptist. Parallelisms and connections. But continue, please.


Chris: At fifteen I felt a call to ministry, and pursued a career in pastor ministry, serving as a Youth Minister for four years, before becoming pastor of my own church. My experience as a pastor was, for reasons not worth elaborating on here, a nightmare for me and my family. I have since reclaimed my amateur status, and reaffirmed my position as a lay minister.


The universal church, and most denominations and congregations within it, need lay members committed to the ministry of the church. While ordained ministers serve a valuable role, the laity are the life of the church, and should not leave it to the professionals to do all the work.


MLW-W: I completely agree. I served 2 students churches, but have never been ordained. My wife is ordained–though currently without a church.  I have always considered baptism to be, in part, ordination to ministry for every Christian.  I am glad many Baptists are reclaiming an older practice we lost for awhile in which, after baptism, the entire church lays hands on the new member–and the entire church, not just clergy, lay hands on those set aside for ordained ministry, too.


MLW-W: Of what local congregation/parish are you a member? If your local church is part of a denomination, what is it?   If your local congregation is non-denomination, how do you identify your church tradition (i.e., Evangelical, Pentecostal, Emergent Church, Liberal, etc.)?


Chris: I am a member of Fourth Ave United Methodist Church in Louisville, KY, and serve as the Chair of the Education Team there.


MLW-W:  No fooling! Your church is located at a great corner for peace demonstrations. So, since the invasion in 2003, I have been at several candle-light vigils on that corner with members of the local Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Louisville Peace Action Committee. But I know nothing about the church itself.


Would you mind telling us something about 4th Ave. UMC?  Is it from the more high-church (semi-Anglican) part of Methodism, or the more revivalist wing?


Chris: I’ve only been there since November of 2005, so I’m not really qualified to speak with any authority on its history. The feeling I get from it is a very high-church feeling, but I know that our pastor, Jean Hawxhurst, doesn’t see herself as very high church at all. We have a more traditional, high church structure to the worship, but we aren’t wedded to any particular liturgy. And, as we are a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church, we often incorporate into our service elements of worship that don’t fit either the high-church or the revivalist/evangelical label.


MLW-W: Were you raised in this particular tradition? Have you ever been part of a different Christian denomination or tradition?


Chris: I was raised as a United Methodist, but because my grandfather was a Baptist pastor, I have also had a great deal of exposure to the Baptist church.


MLW-W: Hmm. Not too much, I see. Baptists have local churches and associations, conventions, etc., but there is no “Baptist church.” There is the church universal (of which Baptists are a part) and Baptist churches. Not one of our many Baptist denominations calls itself a church.  But that’s a rabbit to chase another time.


At one point there were so many pacifists and conscientious objectors among American Methodists that the federal government was considering listing them as a “peace church” for conscientious objection purposes. But now, most Methodists (with a few exceptions) seem to have lost touch with this tradition. Any idea why?


Chris: I wish that I did. I suppose that it is an accomodation to culture. All religious traditions must make some accomodations to their cultural setting, and I suspect that as our culture has grown more militaristic, our church has, as well.


MLW-W: How did you get into blogging?   What do you like about it?  Are there problems you see with blogging?

Chris: I got into blogging shortly after leaving my position as the pastor of my church, and withdrawing myself from consideration for ordination. Blogging began as both a way to gain some audience for my theological writing – to replace the “built in” audience that you have in a church setting – and as a kind of therapy for me. It initially gave me a chance to tell the story of the loss of my calling, and nearly the loss of my faith. It also gave me a chance to explore my emotional response to the trauma of leaving the pastorate. 

Eventually the blogosphere has become a community of sort, in which I can explore my developing theology.That said, as community it has its limitations. The anonymity of the blogosphere allows people to create alternate worlds and personalities for themselves, giving them a safe place within which to act out. “Trolls” often leave quite hurtful comments, and discussions can devolve into the least destructive sorts of shouting matches.


MLW-W:  I can relate.  How do you relate your faith to issues of peacemaking? What sources of strength have you found?

Chris: I feel called by God to work for peace in the world. But, as Walter Wink (among many, many others) notes, there can be no peace without justice. So, in being called to make peace, I am also called to help bring justice to the world – that is, to make the world a more just place.


All of this is related to a calling that I borrow from the Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Bodhisattvas, while standing on the precipice of enlightenment, make a vow not to attain Nirvana until all sentient beings have escaped from their cycle of suffering. I think that this calling is also at the heart of Christianity. Understood in Christian terms, we are each called by God to work with God to alleviate all suffering in the world. This may seem like an impossible task, but if we all work together, and if we all work with God, we may find that the impossible happens.


MLW-W: Yes, one major Jewish tradition talks about tikkun olam, healing the world and believes that there are a certain number of “secret saints” whose work to preserve the world from self-destruction will lead to the coming of the Messiah.  Isn’t it fascinating that so many different world religions have both world-denying, escapist, strands and other world-affirming, justice-seeking, healing strands?


Chris: I find strength in the teachings of Jesus (understood both within the context of my own reading of the Gospels, and seen through the lens given to me by the likes of Walter Wink and Marcus Borg), the teachings of Gandhi, and the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Those three sources – all related to each other – provide us with a powerful and creative “third way” between the biologically conditioned “fight or flight” response.


MLW-W: You’ve mentioned Jesus, Gandhi, King, the Bhoddhisattvas, Walter Wink, Marcus Borg. Are there particularly Wesleyan or Methodist influences on your peacemaking?  Glenn Smiley, John Swomley, Joseph Lowery, James Lawson, Richard Deats–to name a few of the more prominent Methodist peacemakers? (Hauerwas before his recent switch to the Episcopal Church, too.)


Chris: I  know that Walter Wink is a Methodist, and I think that Marcus Borg[Borg, raised Lutheran, is a member of the United Church of Christ and his wife is an Episcopal priest.] is too, though I’m open to correction on that point. But no, basically within the United Methodist church I haven’t seen a great deal of peacemaking. I hope that that reflects a gaping whole in my education, rather than a failing on the part of our church.


MLW-W: I should try to get you connected to the folks at Methodists United for Peace with Justice, I guess. 


 Do you have (a) military experience? (b) experience in nonviolent struggle? (c) experience in conflict resolution/transformation practices?  Describe your experiences with any or all of these.

Chris: I have never served in the military, nor have I ever been part of an organized movement. All of my experience in peacemaking has been in the context of interpersonal relationships. However, before I went into ministry I worked as a counselor at a home for abused boys who had acting out issues. In my work with those boys I tried to help them make peace with their anger.

Later on in Youth Ministry I served as a kind of mediator between some teenagers and their families, helping each side learn how to communicate openly and listen actively to each other.

As a preacher – both as the pastor of my own church and as a guest preacher in other churches – I often preached both for peace and peacemaking and against war and other forms of violence. Now as a writer, lecturer, and especially in my role overseeing the education ministry of my church, I often teach on non-violent resistance in the teaching and ministry of Jesus, as well as in the American Civil Rights movement.


MLW-W: Do you consider yourself a pacifist? If so, say something about how you see nonviolence (or nonresistance) and its connections to the gospel.  Were you raised a Christian pacifist or did you convert to this view and, if the latter, tell us something of how that came about?


Chris:  While I am not a full-blown pacifist, I have a great deal of sympathy for pacifism, and see a connection between pacifism and Jesus’ teachings.  My main objection to pacifism – to the extent that I have one – is that it can lead to a failure to make moral distinctions between different kinds of violence. That said, the more I read Walter Wink, the more I see a kind of pacifism that I could subscribe to, and the more I think that perhaps my own clinging to Just War Theory reflects an unwillingness on my own part to fully commit to non-violence. But, for me, true non-violence must be a product of justice, and it is at least theoretically possible that some situations require a limited degree of violence to bring about the justice required for peace. I know that such a statement seems to participate in the Myth of Redemptive Violence, and I wrestle with that. But I also wrestle with Bonhoeffer’s decision to bring himself into the seat of judgment by using violence to try to stop Hitler. And, I can’t yet bring myself to say that in his circumstance Bonhoeffer was wrong. And, if Bonhoeffer wasn’t wrong, then we have at least one instance of juistified violence, which renders violence at least theoretically justified under certain circumstances

MLW-W: Do you consider yourself part of the Just War tradition?  How do you connect JWT to the gospel and to Jesus’ command to be peacemakers?

Chris: Because I cannot bring myself to state categorically that all forms of violence are morally unjustified. In this respect I do subscribe to Just War Theory. Just War Theory, however, should never be used as a way to baptize the horrors of war as a way to assuage the church’s guilt at having been party to so much injustice and oppression. A war is just only under when there can be no other way to prevent even worse violence, and that is a very, very rare condition. A war is also just only when it is limited in scope – that is, when it is waged in such a way that every violent act in it is the least restrictive force necessary to avert the danger posed by violent aggression and/or oppression.

What I like about Just War Theory is that it allows us to make relative moral judgments about violence. Not all violent acts are equal. An act of violent aggression is worse than a defensive violent act. An violent act used to throw off oppression is worse than a violent act used to hold power over a marginalized group. An act of controlled and limited violence designed to prevent an even greater harm is better than unbridled killing, whatever its motive.

At its best, Just War Theory aims to eliminate violence by using force to hold back aggressors and throw off oppressors. In this respect, it is in keeping with our Christian calling to work for the alleviation of suffering, and to stand up for and with the marginalized and oppressed. 

That said, my particular brand of Just War Theory is in most respects indistinguishable from pacifism, in that, per it, no current military conflict that I am aware of is morally justified – especially not the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

MLW-W:  What led you to join Christian Peace Bloggers?  Since joining have you blogged any posts on peacemaking?  Have they gotten any feedback from readers?


Chris:  I decided to join Christian Peace Bloggers after seeing that two bloggers that I try to keep up with, Patrik and Pam, joined up. After seeing Pam’s initial post, I wrote:

I like the project, but while I used to preach on peace when I was a pastor, I rarely ever write on it. Perhaps I should take this as a challenge.”

I meant that. I felt somewhat shamed by my apparent backsliding on the subject. The Christian Peace Bloggers project called me to be more intentional about peacemaking.

I have written a few posts on peacemaking, and they have been fairly well received. I posted an excerpt from one of my best friend’s letters home from Iraq, an exegesis of some of Jesus’ teachings on non-violent resistance (which was heavily indebted to Walter Wink and Marcus Borg), a paper I wrote on an interesting essay by Stanley Hauerwas, a most recently part of a longer paper on the relationship between language and power in the work of a black author named John Edgar Wideman.

Some of my posts have been academic, others more practical. All of them have shaped the way that I teach at church, whether in our Wednesday Evening Forum series (I’m starting a new series on non-violent resistance), in my Sunday School class (I teach the Youth Group – lately we’ve been looking at connections between Jesus’ teachings on non-violent resistance and the American Civil Rights movement, as most of my students, while black, have a poor understanding of their own heritage), or in our 8:45am chapel service, where I sometimes preach.

So far most of the feedback is positive, which may mean that I’m doing a good job, or may mean that I’m not hitting people where I really need to hit them. The danger with all of this is that we sometimes focus on non-violence to the exclusion of resistance. To quote Gandhi,

“Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advice violence.”

Such a choice, perhaps, is a false dichotomy, in the sense that there is probably always a way to resist oppression non-violently. But, if we have to choose between non-violence and resistance, as I see Gandhi saying, we must choose resistance. Perhaps my writings on non-violent resistance have been so well received because they are not challenging enough, they do not encourage resistance and justice enough. Perhaps, preaching this message, the worst thing that can happen is that your work is so well received that no one is ever convicted by it. Because each of us in some way, as best as I can tell, participate in oppression.


MLW-W: Outside of blogging, do you participate in any other peace-related activities or organizations? If so, tell us about them?


Not officially, no. That said, I think that the church is a peace-related organization, an organization called to be about the business of peace-making. And I think that my church is particularly good at such work. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the most segregated hour in
America is between 11am and noon on Sunday morning. That line still rings true today. But I am a part of an urban church that, after the white flight to the suburbs to escape desegregation, has reshaped itself, moving from a upper-class “white” mainline “status” church, to an integrated church that makes its business the reclamations of lives and our neighborhood.

We have many programs that aim to fight the social ills of addiction, prejudice, homelessness, and urban decay. And, addressing social justice issues while working with the community is one of the best ways to wage peace. After all, there can be no peace without social justice. There can be no peace when so many people in our community are victimized by power structures, are ground under by the wheels of economic exploitation and oppression.

We are currently working with an advocacy group to help expand the drug court program, a project that is vital to peacemaking. To help addicts escape their addictions – addictions which often fuel violence in the community – is vital to the work of peacemaking. To treat addicts as human beings with serious health problems that need to be addressed and that can be treated, rather than as criminals, is also vital to the work of peace. WEB DuBois taught of a “veil of consciousness” hanging over each person. That is a poetic way of saying that people tend to see themselves the way that they are seen by those around them. And when we tell addicts that they are no good, when we tell them that they are dangerous, when we tell them that they are criminals, they internalize those statements, and they become what we fear.

If we are to keep from participating in a cyclical pattern of violence, we have to change that narrative. The Drug Court program is a great way to change that narrative, because it doesn’t tell addicts that they are dangerous criminals that need to be locked up. Rather, it tells them that they are human beings worth saving. The church should be about the business of salvation – not just in terms of snatching up souls for heaven, but mostly in terms of redeeming and reclaiming lives – and the business of salvation is a great way to wage peace.

MLW-W: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Chris:  I mentioned that Christians are called to help alleviate suffering. To me this is broader than just human suffering. For me, my peacemaking (such as it is) is intimately connected to my vegetarian lifestyle. All sentient beings – even non-human animals – experience pain and so are subject to suffering. And, I suspect, their suffering matters to God.


For me, then, any concept of non-killing, or non-harming, or especially nonviolence must be broad enough to incorporate any being that can be made subject to harm, or subject to violence.

Oh, and one more thing:

Thanks so much for starting this project. I think that this is great, and I think that the whole questionnaire thing is great, too. I’m really pleased to be a part of this.


MLW-W: Chris, thanks for this interview. When your study allows, we’re gonna have to get together sometime soon.

February 27, 2007 Posted by | blog-ring, peace | 10 Comments