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

Back Online

Well, the move is “complete” and I am back online, and I even have most of my library set up.  But I won’t have any real time to blog for a bit. Still unpacking boxes.  Many thanks to the “Middle Aged Moving Company” from my church.  Although most of us may have had to reach for aspirin and Ben-Gay on Sat. Night, we made most of the move a “done deal” in 6 hours.  Grace and peace, friends.

October 29, 2007 Posted by | blogs | 6 Comments


I will be offline until sometime next week as we move to our new home.  Same zip code. Same email. Same phone. Better house.  But, I hope to be “wired” once more by the end of next week. Then, as I get my library out of boxes, etc., I will be able to get started on the “reader-chosen” series.  See you soon.

October 23, 2007 Posted by | blogs | 1 Comment

Interfaith Peace Summit in Naples

The pope kicked things off with an open-air mass, but, for some reason that escapes me, refused to be a formal delegate. Once more he shows less competence in interfaith peacemaking than his predecessor, John Paul II.  Read the story here.  Let’s all add our prayers for the summit. With politicians doing little or nothing for peace and justice, we need religious leaders and persons of faith and conscience to do all they can. 

 Among the heavy hitters attending the conference as delegates were: Bartholemew I, Orthodox Patriarch; Rowan Williams, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury (titular head of the global Anglican communion and a leading ecumenical theologian); R. Yona Metzger, Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Imam Ibrahim Ezzedin, senior imam of the United Arab Emirates.  I hope some major Protestant figures were there, including representatives of the historic peace churches.

October 22, 2007 Posted by | interfaith, peacemaking | Comments Off on Interfaith Peace Summit in Naples

Let Them Freeze

Having vetoed the Children’s Health Insurance Program’s expansion and renewal (against the wishes of bi-partisan majorities in Congress and 81% of the American people), allegedly because he wanted to “put poor children first” (even though the poor are covered under Medicaid), U.S. Pres. George W. Bush now is trying to cut off heating assistance to the the poor this winter.  Heating oil prices are expected to be at record highs, too.

Fiscal conservatism? Not from a man who blew record government surplusses in his first year in office and has turned the government into a bloated cash cow with no-bid contracts for businesses that have connections to him or Cheney!  Fiscal conservatives have been horrified by the Bush administration. 

Compassionate conservatism? Cutting off heating assistance to the poor is neither compassionate nor conservative; it’s a blatant attempt to make even more billions for his cronies in the oil business at the expense of the poor–including the poor children he claimed to want to “put first.”

Family values? Pro-life? Sure, because letting the poor freeze to death so promotes a “culture of life” and so helps families, right?

The casual cruelty of this administration never ceases to amaze me.  I realize that someone born into incredible wealth, who went to private schools and never had to study because his father bought him passing grades; whose family bought his way into Yale and into Harvard Business School, and out of drunk driving and cocaine charges; whose father used his connections to keep him out of Vietnam and then out of trouble for being Absent Without Leave; whose father and family friends bought him one business after another when he ran them into the ground;  I realize that someone from such a background of incredible privilege has a hard time understanding people who work 3-4 jobs to keep their kids fed and clothed and healthy.  But someone who was truly a “compassionate conservative” would TRY.

Here is a president who, more than any other in our history, has worn his Christian faith on his sleeve. (Even Jimmy Carter, whose election led Time to dub 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical,” who taught Sunday School even while in the White House and witnessed to Chinese Communist leaders, did not parade his faith in public as much as Bush.) Did his church never tell him, did he never read in the Bible, about God’s concern for the poor?  When “elected” in 2000, Bush brought together evangelical leaders who worked with the poor and asked them to help him “get it.” But obviously they failed miserably.

According to legend, France’s Marie Antoinette, when told that the peasants were starving because they had no bread, replied, “Then let them eat cake.”  Going her one better, Bush apparently says of those who cannot afford to heat their homes this winter, “Let them freeze.”  SHAME.

October 22, 2007 Posted by | economic justice | 4 Comments

How I Became a Conscientious Objector

I’ve been weeding through old (paper) files as I have been boxing things for our move this week. I came across the text of this testimony and realized that I had never told the full story on this blog. So, I’ll post it here and then I can recycle the paper copy–one less thing to move.  “Testimony,” first-person, lay-centered witness, is a central part of Baptist liturgy–whether one is speaking of the “low church” liturgies of most Baptists or the more formal services of the Charleston tradition. I gave this testimony at my current church, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, during our year long discernment process (2002-3) in becoming a self-declared “peace church.”


Some people seem to be naturally peaceful, almost born nonviolent.  I am NOT one of those people, as anyone who knows me realizes all too well.  Back during the bad-ol’-days when I was still caught up in the civil war of the Southern Baptist Convention (1979-1994), even though I was both adamantly opposed to Fundamentalism and didn’t consider myself theologically “liberal,” I still refused to be called a “Moderate” (the preferred term of those who lost the SBC battle).  I don’t think I believe ANYTHING “moderately.”  Whatever I believe, I believe passionately.  I am by nature an assertive, even aggressive, personality.   Challenge me to a debate on any subject I care about and I’ll go 12 rounds, toe-to-toe. (And notice the boxing metaphor–not exactly sweetness and light. ) I no longer play sports as much as I used to (nor as much as my middle-aged, overweight body says I NEED to), but when I play, I play to win.  I don’t mean I am a bad sport. I play by the rules and, if I lose, try to do so graciously–but first I try to wipe the floor with my opponent.  Moreover, when I was growing up, my family moved often and so I was picked on as the new kid–and got in several fights.  As a Christian, I am embarrassed to admit it, but I liked fighting.  So, how did I ever become a pacifist and conscientious objector?  It’s all the fault of the U.S. Army.  True.  The U.S. Army made me a pacifist!

Okay, maybe some more explanation is needed.  I come from a military family.  Now, I don’t mean  one of those old, rich, officer families where every male in the family goes to a military high school, straight to West Point or Annapolis (i.e., the U.S. Army Academy or the U.S. Naval Academy) then becomes a career military officer, votes the straight Republican ticket and wines and dines all the big defense contractors.  Nothing like that.  Both sides of my family have been working class for generations.  My parents started college the same year I did–and that’s the only reason I am not the first in my family to attend college.  And most of my family were “left of center” politically.  But, on the theory that, in a democracy, the only people who really had a right to criticize the nation where those who had put their lives on the line for that nation, both sides of my family encouraged a “hitch” or term of military service.  The males were almost automatically expected to serve right out of high school, but many female members of my family have military service also.  My maternal grandfather served in the Pacific during WWII and my paternal grandfather fought in Europe during WWII.  My father, opposed to the Vietnam War, joined the Navy so that he could serve his country without going to Vietnam.  Later, my mother joined the Naval Reserves.  I now have 2 brothers-in-law who are active-duty Naval NCOs and 2 sisters who are Naval reservists.  THAT’s what I mean by saying I come from a military family.  So, how did I ever become a pacifist and CO?  Again, blame the U.S. Army.

I graduated high school at 17 (1979) and decided to follow the family tradition of a term of military service without much reflection about the matter.  However, the all-volunteer military was new, so I decided to join whichever branch would give me the most money for college–and that was the Army.

I entered the U.S. Army in 1980, having become a Christian less than a year earlier.  I was fairly naive.  I thought of U.S. military folk as “reluctant warriors” who fought only when the civilian politicians screwed up and couldn’t make peace and who fought with strict rules, like modern day knights of the Round Table.  Now, for anyone who had grown up during the Vietnam War era, as I had, this was a silly idea.  But, for reasons that now escape me, I thought that we Americans had learned our lesson from the “dirty little war” in Southeast Asia and that atrocities like the Mail Lai massacre  were behind us and we would return to the strict adherence to Just War standards that I believed had been the usual U.S. military conduct.

My disillusionment began in Basic Training.  I was struck first by the institutionalized racism.  Please, don’t misunderstand me.  In some ways, the U. S. military has done more to desegregate and to promote based on skills alone than any other sector of American society.  The branches of the military put U.S. churches to shame in this area.  11 a. m. Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America–but not in the military.  Go to any U.S. Army post (or Air Force, Navy, Marine or Coast Guard base) and attend a worship service at the non-denominational base chapel.  That service will be FAR more racially integrated than anything I’ve seen in civilian life–even in my current congregation which does better than most.

In other ways, the military does better racially, too: I saw more African-Americans in position of authority (especially NCOs, but also commissioned officers) than in civilian life and, even though the sexism of the military is legendary, I saw more high ranking women in the military than in civilian corporations.  So, even though I have heard of the white supremacy groups hidden in the U.S. military, I saw little or no overt or institutional racism toward African-Americans.

But other groups were a different matter.  During Basic Training, we were forced to sing marching songs that dehumanized Asians and Arabs. The anti-Asian songs and chants seemed left over from the Vietnam War and the Korean War.  The anti-Arab songs (yes, even in 1980) clearly anticipated a future war in the Middle East.  As a Christian whose mother had drilled into me daily that ALL people were made in God’s image and ALL were people for whom Christ died, this bothered me no end. But that “targetted racism” began opening my eyes.  I knew immediately that it was a deliberate propaganda ploy, a psychological attack that wanted us to see certain groups that  the government might  consider “the enemy” as less-than-human. That way, we would have less trouble killing them if ordered to do so.  I was horrified.  I even got in a little trouble for refusing to sing the racist marching songs.

Then, still in Basic, there was our training for “ABC,”–atomic, biological, and chemical warfare.  We were being taught how to keep fighting in areas where biological or chemical weapons had been used.  This might seem reasonable, but the instructors let slip that WE still had such stockpiled weapons–even though I knew that the U.S. had signed treaties against both chemical and biological weapons.  Just having them violated treaties.  I made the mistake of mentioning this and received more punishment duty. 

Then there was the absurdity of planning ways to keep fighting after a nuclear weapons “exchange” between the U.S. and USSR.  It hit me–these people are crazy.  Some of the military brass WANT to use nukes (hence the push for smaller, “more usable” nukes now) because they hate having “toys” that they are forbidden to use.  The possession of nuclear weapons was always presented to the U.S. public as a necessary deterrent to Soviet use of the same–but I realized that many military leaders did not think of them this way.  They had plans to use nukes.  And, remember, this was 1980, when U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan began openly speaking of starting and winning “small” nuclear wars against the Soviets.  I began to lose sleep.

But there were two big catalysts that really changed me.  One came from a friend from my home church.  Even though he was not a pacifist, he believed that I had been called to the ministry (before I had a clue) and, family tradition or no, considered this interruption by military service to be an act of running away from God’s call on my life.  So, he wrote me a letter saying so and challenged me to memorize the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) during Basic Training.  Well, I took him up on it.  So, here I was every day learning to use weapons of death, hand-to-hand combat, etc. and, every night before lights out, reading the Sermon on the Mount with its commands to love enemies, forgive others, interrupt worship to make peace, etc.  I began to have doubts, but I compartmentalized them, as the psychologists say.

   After Basic Training and another school (AIT in Army jargon, “Advanced Individual Training”), I was assigned to a post in Heidelberg, Germany as a clerk.  (I loved my time in Heidelberg and used my passes to tour some of Europe by train with buddies.) In that harmless role, I managed to temporarily shelve my doubts about the compatibility of military service and my (still fairly new) Christian faith.  But this was now 1981 and Reagan was creating a HUGE new arms race and making ever more wartalk to the Soviets. (I didn’t know it, then, but he had also started a secret proxy war in Nicaragua!)  Reagan pushed NATO countries to accept new short range and medium range nuclear weapons on their soil to counter Soviet ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles).  These were incredibly dangerous and destabilizing because they could reach Moscow too fast for Moscow to check out false alarms on radar–they would have to launch immediately to be able to counterstrike.  Throughout Europe civilians protested and pushed to get these weapons removed–this grew into the huge European peace movement of the 1980s. I saw it begin in Heidelberg. 

I was attending a small Baptist congregation in Heidelberg instead of the post chapel.  I talked with German Christians about these missiles and they uniformly saw them as threatening their lives. (Reagan talked about how the U.S. could survive a nuclear war with the USSR, but we would, regrettably, wipe out human life in Europe for a thousand years.  Absolute madness.) This brought back all my doubts from basic training. Then I heard the pastor (a pacifist) preach on the duty for Christians to be peacemakers (as I sat in church in my dress uniform) and quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.

  That night, I knew that I could no longer reconcile my faith with military service. I was in the wrong occupation for a Christian.  So, I applied to become a Conscientious Objector and get discharged.  Thankfully, the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO–now called the Center for Conscience and War) sent me an attorney.  I returned to civilian life and to a family and church that neither understood nor agreed with my actions.

It was a hard time.  I was helped by reading Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, which gave my new pacifism a firm biblical and theological basis.  I have since worn out 3 copies of that book.  I also read more of Dr. King’s writings.  These were the only guides I had to gospel nonviolence before seminary. 

During college, I encountered Latin American liberation theology and went on 2 short-term trips to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace (’83 and ’84), learning an organized, nonviolent response to the U.S. support for the Contra terrorists.  On the second trip, most of my colleagues were members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, so on returning to the U.S., I joined the F.O.R.  So, by the time I started seminary in ’86, I had solidified my identity as a Christian pacifist. I argued the position in class, joined the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, and continued to be involved in movements for peace and justice as I studied theology.

I still have a temper. I’m still a very aggressive personality.  I am not by nature very peaceful and have to work on that with spiritual disciplines.  I raise my voice too often and am too impatient with others and myself.  But I am a pacifist:  I no longer believe that any killing, for any reason, is morally justified.  I refuse to own handguns or allow war toys in my home.  I have resisted the current war and I have tried to spread the practices of Just Peacemaking.

I do not, however, regret my time in the military.  It taught me discipline I would otherwise not have and showed me some of the world I might otherwise not have seen.  And, more than that, I am not sure that I would have ever been forced to think as long and hard about the issues of war and peacemaking and Christian faith as I have if I had not tried to be a soldier. (This is not a recommendation of this path for others.) So, thanks be to God for the U.S. Army:  the Holy Spirit used it to make a Christian pacifist and conscientious objector of me. Amen.

October 21, 2007 Posted by | pacifism, testimony, theology | 11 Comments

Jaywalking Citizenship Test

Okay, now this is just sad.  I saw the whole routine which is longer than that clip. Jay Leno interviewed people on the street with actual questions from the citizenship test given to immigrants applying for naturalization to the U.S.  He didn’t even use the hard questions, but the softballs. And the answers were disturbing. One woman taught high school English and couldn’t answer simple questions taught in grade school civics.

I don’t think people born here should have to pass citizenship tests (try getting THAT Amendment to the Constitution passed!), but maybe we should make passing the INS test a part of what it takes to graduate high school.  Could you do it?  To find out, go here.  The INS requires 80% to pass–and that’s more than most than most people born in the U. S. know about this country.  You get multiple choice on that sample, but in real life, immigrants get no such help and the test is delivered orally!

Oh, and just so you know: I scored 100%–although it was a guess about which INS form is used for naturalization.

Here’s another such quiz.

October 19, 2007 Posted by | citizenship | 8 Comments

The Truth About S-CHIP

Well, last week the House was 24 votes from being able to override the president’s veto.  Yesterday, they fell just 13 votes short. 44 House Republicans voted for the override.  157 Republicans and 2 Democrats supported Bush and voted against the health and welfare of children. See how your Rep. voted here and thank them if they voted for the S-CHIP expansion. If they voted against it, call them and urge them change their minds when this next comes up for a vote (which will be soon). To sustain this veto, the Republicans and the rightwing press and bloggers carried out a propaganda disinformation campaign.  They included the following false claims:

  • That the S-CHIP program was originally to help poor children and was now being expanded to families who didn’t deserve to be on it. FALSE.  The poor are covered by Medicaid.  S-CHIP, which was largely the work of Republicans during the Clinton administration, was ALWAYS designed for working families–up to 250% of the poverty line–who either could not afford private health insurance or who, because of “pre-existing medical conditions” cannot get insurance at any cost.
  • That the vetoed S-CHIP bill expanded coverage even to those with family incomes of $85 K per year.  FALSE. That figure was from New York state which attempted to get a waiver for such a family. The waiver was denied.  The S-CHIP legislation, including its expansion, insists that total family income be less that $50 K per year, no matter pre-existing conditions or cost of living, etc.
  • That the S-CHIP bill would give health care to illegal immigrants.  FALSE.  It is because this bill EXCLUDES undocumented immigrants that the usually liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) voted against it. (I disagree with Kucinich here, btw.) Kucinich was persuaded to change his vote to, “yea” this time around, I am glad to say.
  • That S-CHIP expansion is a step toward “socialized medicine.” No, socialized medicine is what the President, VP, Cabinet, every member of Congress and the Supreme Court all enjoy.  S-CHIP worked with a minimum of bureacracy, was adapted by each state locally, used private health insurance carriers (purchased by the states).  It focused on prevention and saved millions by not using emergency rooms as primary care.  It was so successful that even though George W. Bush opposed it as Gov. of Texas (and had to be overridden), he later came to praise its success.

I won’t re-hash all the lies told about S-CHIP recipient Graeme Frost and his family–all of which have been shown to be false.  But here are some other truths about S-CHIP which Republicans will have to grasp very soon:

  • According to a poll commissioned by CBS News, 81% of Americans back S-CHIP and its expansion.
  • 74% of Americans would favor it even if it meant higher taxes! If the question had mentioned that S-CHIP would be financed by tobacco taxes, that percentage would be even higher.
  • Only 22% of Americans approve of Bush’s handling of health care at all. That’s even lower than the 26% who approve of his handling of Iraq!
  • According to an ABC-Washington Post poll, only 26% of Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats to solve health care problems–lower than those who trust Republicans more on Iraq (34%), on fighting terrorism (40%), on the economy (33%), or on lowering the federal budget deficit (29%).  Those numbers suggest that Republicans up for reelection had better have evidence that they are not “typical Republicans” or not “copies of Bush” if they hope to retain their jobs. Voting against health care for children is NOT the way to produce such evidence.

With those kinds of numbers, it is certain that an S-CHIP expansion will pass.  Healthcare has now become the 2nd biggest issue of the 2008 campaign, right after Iraq. If this doesn’t pass before the end of the year, it will become an issue in every election of 2008.  The Bush veto of S-CHIP could be the nail in the political coffins of many GOP political careers.  Emergency legislation funding the program at current levels will keep the program going until mid-November. Expect another showdown over this bill before the emergency funding expires.

Unsolicited advice to Congressional Republicans:  Vote for this bill if you want to continue in your current job.  Bush doesn’t care about you. He will be out of office in January ’09 regardless.  But if you continue to uphold his position, you will be joining him in looking for new opportunities in the private sector.  And while you are breaking with the president to help children, you might want to vote to restore Habeas Corpus for everyone, end torture, and end domestic spying.  Are you sure you want to hitch your political future to the coattails of a president with lower approval ratings than Nixon had during Watergate?

October 19, 2007 Posted by | child welfare, economic justice, family | 3 Comments

The Gospel: Both Personal and Social, but Never Privatized

Paul Rauschenbusch, Baptist minister, chaplain at Princeton U., and great-grandson of the great Walter Rauschenbusch, the great prophet of the Social Gospel, has a great article on this, here.

October 17, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, progressive faith | 1 Comment

When Will “Decent Americans” Do the Right Thing?

Today, I received an email from Steven Watt, one of the attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union who is working to end “extraordinary rendition,” the practice of kidnapping SUSPECTED terrorists off the street, taking them to countries where torture is allowed, and “interrogating” them indefinitely in the hope of finding some useful scrap of intelligence.  Watt quotes Khaled el-Masri, an innocent German citizen who was a victim of this practice–kidnapped by the C.I.A. and tortured in another country until finally they admitted they had the wrong person and el-Masri was repatriated to Germany.  Germany has protested this abuse of their citizen to no avail.  Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case against the U.S. government for his treatment.  Watt says that el-Masri told him not to lose hope because “one day decent Americans will do the right thing” and end this horrible practice.

My question is when? German citizens did not stop the Holocaust. The dying went on until the Allied soldiers liberated the death camps.  Americans and Canadians did not protest the rounding up of citizens of Japanese descent and herding them into concentration camps until the war was over. (In both countries there were also attempts to ship them back to war torn Japan, too.) So, when? When will “decent Americans” close Gitmo, stop torture and rendition, and restore the rule of law? In this country where most consider themselves Christians, I get people telling me not to comment on such things here–that they are not part of Christian discipleship. If such opinions are widespread, no wonder Christians are doing so little to stop these things, now.  Instead of leading the way, we are leaving it to secular organizations like the ACLU (which many Christians despise) to “do the right thing.”

If, like me, you don’t think “doing the right thing” on these matters should wait for a new president or some more “politically expedient” time, or decades from now when conservatives tell us that the “war on terror” will be over, or until the parousia, but that we need action NOW, then click here to tell Congress, “Don’t Wait for ’08,” but stop these abuses NOW.  Then call them. Then write letters to the editorial sections of your local paper. Then find more ways to speak out. Don’t be silent.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “It is never the wrong time to correct injustice.”

October 17, 2007 Posted by | human rights. | 3 Comments

What Did Pelosi Know & When Did She Know It?

Well, now we know why Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) took Bush/Cheney impeachment “off the table” as soon as Democrats won back controll of Congress in November ’06, before she even assumed her post as Speaker in  January ’07. It appears she may have been complicit in some of the violations of the Constitution (at least regarding spying on the U.S. public) conducted by this administration.  If that’s true, it is not only Bush, Cheney and henchmen who need to be impeached, but Pelosi and any other Congressional Democrats complicit in Constitutional violations, too.

Will we be like those Germans who meekly watched while Hitler trampled their constitution and prepared to commit  atrocities? Will we surrender our democracy to an elected monarchy (in which Congress is just a “privy council” to the president) or will we, like the citizens of Ukraine, Georgia, Burma, and so many other places rise up in nonviolent defense of democracy and human rights?  History will judge us harshly if we are silent.

Call the Congressional Switchboard and ask for Speaker Pelosi’s Office, then use the same number to contact your Representative–and demand an end to warrantless wiretapping and an investigation into Pelosi’s role:  202-224-3121.

October 16, 2007 Posted by | human rights., U.S. politics | 5 Comments