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

Lent: One Baptist’s Perspective

[Reprint from last year]

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the start of the liturgical season of Lent on the Christian calendar. As with so many Christians, I was smudged with ashes and urged to remember that I came from dust and to dust I shall return–to remember that God is GOD and I am only human, frail, finite, sinful, in need of grace both for life and New Life.

Most Baptists do not observe Ash Wednesday or Lent, at least not in the U.S. South. The “liturgical renewal movement” among Protestants in the last 30 years has missed much of the free church segments of evangelicalism, including most Baptists. Even in my congregation some think it “too Catholic.” So, I thought I’d reflect on Lent–what it is and why I am glad to observe it.

Because the Western Medieval Church had become numb with formal ritualism (little understood) and used it to obscure the dearth of biblical literacy, the Protestant Reformation was justified, in my view, in questioning many rituals and traditions and placing new focus on Scripture and preaching. But in their zeal, they may have thrown out too much. In abandoning the church calendar (except for Christmas and Easter), as most Free Church traditions did, we allowed our lives to be shaped by the secular calendar, instead. (The worst example of this I ever encountered personally happened in a Baptist church one year when Pentecost Sunday fell on the same day as Earth Day. The pastor ignored Pentecost–had no idea it was Pentecost–and preached a good sermon on ecological stewardship. Now, I am all in favor of ecological stewardship sermons, but not at the expense of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church.)

How did the early church adopt Lent and what was its purpose? When the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal (and Theodosian made it the official religion of the Empire), suddenly there were far more Christians–with far lower levels of commitment than when Christians were persecuted. Suddenly, it was hard to tell Christians from everyone else. Lent–the 40 days prior to Easter–was instituted to help Christians remember that they were disciples of Jesus and needed to be different. The practice of fasting (later just giving up eating meat or some other food item or giving up something cherished) was to instill spiritual discipline and guide the believer’s focus on Jesus journey to the cross. Lent is to help us lead cruciform lives.

We also live in an age of empire–a new form of empire under globalized capitalism and the U.S. “empire of bases.” (The neo-cons in the Bush admin. openly admire the Roman Empire and the 19th C. British Empire and urge the U.S. to become a “benevolent empire”–something foreign to both the traditions of liberal internationalism and traditional conservatism in U.S. politics. And the Bible is an extremely anti-imperial book, of course.) To resist empire, we need to be formed in an alternative set of virtues, practices, and values. Lent is one way of helping us develop the alternative perspectives and character traits we need.

[Update:  The new Obama administration is only a month old.  It is obvious that it is not as pro-empire as the Bush-admin. and it seems to want to respect international law and human rights–at least more than its predecessor. But this is still an “empire of bases” and we Christians–especially U.S. Christians–still need Lent. We need to be reminded that our primary loyalty is to a transnational community–the original meaning of “ecumenical”–not to a particular nation-state.]

This year, I am helping my daughters with their Lenten disciplines. Molly (11) has chosen to give up chocolate until Easter morning, so I am forswearing chocolate with her (which I suspect will be easier for me since I am not a huge chocolate fan). Because the chocolate is not the sacrifice for me that it is for my eldest, I will also give up beef. Miriam (6) has decided to journal her daily prayers, so I am, too, even though I have not had much success at journaling. I will focus my Bible reading on Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Luke’s central section, 9:51-19:48) and his Passion (20:1-23:56). I will try to blog some of my reflections weekly on Fridays or Saturdays.

Update: This year I am giving up carbonated soft drinks (sodas, etc.) for Lent. I don’t yet know what my daughters are doing for Lent.

February 26, 2008 Posted by | Christian calendar, discipleship | 2 Comments

Faith Groups Must Step Up Opposition to Torture

While I have been ill (and, thus, not blogging), the Bush administration has again defended “harsh interrogation techniques” that all previous American administrations condemned as torture.  Further, despite the U.S. Constitution’s clear ban (in the 8th Amendment) on “cruel and unusual punishment,” and our obligation to uphold signed and ratified treaties (and the Constitution places ratified treaties as equal to the Constitution itself as “supreme law of the land”) banning torture and all “cruel, inhumane, and degrading punishment,” Associate Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court (THE legal hero of the U.S. Right, including the Christian Right) defended “so-called torture” before a British audience. (This has led the National Lawyers’ Guild to call for Scalia to recuse himself in all interrogation-related cases. I wonder if it is grounds for his impeachment. We have never impeached a sitting Supreme Court Justice, but this seems a clear violation of his oath to defend the Constitution.) 

Most disturbing, because most unexpected, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who was tortured (including by waterboarding) as a P.O.W. in Vietnam, recently reversed his longstanding opposition to U.S. torture and torture-lite, by voting against a new law which would classify waterboarding explicitly as torture and require the CIA and others to abide by the U.S. Army Field Manual interrogation standards (which rule out waterboarding). McCain has tried to explain away his vote and claim that he has not flip-flopped on this issue, but it is a clear departure from his previously strong opposition. I disagree with McCain on MANY things, but have given him credit for being the only GOP presidential candidate to oppose torture. Apparently, he wants to be president more than he wants to hold to his principles. This vote seems like a naked appeal to the Right. Apparently, after 9/11, one cannot be a Republican nominee for U.S. president without supporting torture.


Religious leaders and faith groups have to step up our opposition to torture. We cannot count on political leaders to do it for us.  There will be an important interfaith mini-conference on U.S. supported torture on 07 March! It will be held at the Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C. (see the link) and co-sponsored by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Pax Christi, USA (the major Catholic peace movement), Rabbis for Human Rights, Washingtion Region Religious Campaign Against Torture, and the Office of University Chaplain of Washington University.  Many people will be in D.C. that weekend for the campaign of the Interfaith Peace Witness Against the War in Iraq and the annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

Pass this information on.  We need to press all political candidates to make abolition of torture a primary concern.  We cannot end terrorism by adopting terrorist methods.  If you have not joined the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, its evangelical offshoot, Evangelicals for Human Rights, or No2Torture, I urge you to do so, now. Get your local faith leaders to speak out more. Write letters to the editorial pages of newspapers. Email presidential and other candidates and let them know that ending torture is a priority for you and that you want them to be louder in their opposition (and especially express your disappointment and displeasure with Sen. McCain).  Refuse to vote for anyone who will not end all “harsh interrogation” and other torture and “torture lite” programs.

When your children ask you if you were silent during this crisis, what will you tell them?

Update: Human Rights First has created a petition to all the presidential candidates demanding that the next president reject torture and all euphemisms for torture and prosecute all who use such cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.  Sign it here.

February 20, 2008 Posted by | human rights., torture | 10 Comments

Health Care for America Would Cover Everyone and Save Billions

The Economic Policy Institute has released a new report showing that the “Health Care for America” plan developed by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker would cover everyone, allow for doctor choices, and save about $1 trillion dollars over a decade, while costing the U.S. government only about $50 billion more than we are paying now for a system that leaves millions uninsured and far more underinsured.  Since both the Clinton and Obama healthcare plans (and, before he dropped out, John Edwards’ plan) are based on Hacker’s “Healthcare for America” proposal, this is good news for Democrats and for American hopes for real healthcare reform.  It is likely that the Democratic Congress would propose legislation based on the Hacker proposal and, if Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate are backed by a Democratic President, it is likely that such legislation would pass and we would finally get universal healthcare in this country. 

Universal healthcare was first proposed in 1911 by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt (R), after he finished taking on the monopolies. (Remember when there were liberal Republicans?) Had TR succeeded in getting such a system passed then, the U.S. would have been the first, rather than the last, industrial nation to have universal healthcare.  It was next proposed by TR’s second cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D), during the New Deal–but the GOP rallied enough votes to block it. And, as companies were recovering from the Depression and hiring new workers, they started offering healthcare benefits in place of higher wages because they were still strapped for capital.  Canada and most of Europe created universal healthcare systems in the wake of World War II (in Canada’s case, the cause was led by Tommy Douglas, Baptist minister turned politician–who has since been voted by the Canadian public as the “greatest Canadian.”).

We can do it here. Quality healthcare is a human right.

February 19, 2008 Posted by | healthcare | 5 Comments

Frank Schaeffer: “Why I Am a Pro-Life Obama Supporter”

Reprinted from The Huffington Post, the following article is by one of the founders of the pro-life movement, the son of the late Francis A. Schaeffer, Frank. BTW, although I later changed my mind about whether abortion should be illegal, I was profoundly moved as a teenager by Schaeffer’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race, and, like Frank Schaeffer, still agree about the moral conversion needed for this nation to be truly pro-life and not just anti-abortion. MLW-W


I am an Obama supporter. I am also pro-life. In fact, without my family’s involvement in the pro-life movement it would not exist as we know it. Evangelicals weren’t politicized until after my late father and evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer, Dr. Koop (Reagan’s soon-to-be Surgeon General) and I stirred them up over the issue of abortion in the mid-1970s. Our Whatever Happened to the Human Race? book, movie series and seminars brought the evangelicals into the pro-life movement.(Dad’s political influence persists. Last week one of my father’s followers — Mike Huckabee — was interviewed by Katie Couric, along with all the other presidential candidates. Couric asked the candidates if they were to be sent to a desert island and could only take one book besides the Bible, what would that that book be? Huckabee answered that he’d take my father’s book Whatever Happened To The Human Race?)

Fast forward…

In 2000, we elected a president who claimed he believed God created the earth and who, as president, put car manufacturers and oil company’s interests ahead of caring for that creation. We elected a pro-life Republican Congress that did nothing to actually care for pregnant women and babies. And they took their sincere evangelical followers for granted, and played them for suckers.

The so-called evangelical leadership — Dobson, Robertson et al. also played the pro-life community for suckers. While thousands of men and women in the crisis pregnancy movement gave of themselves to help women and babies, their evangelical “leaders” did little more than cash in on fundraising opportunities and represent themselves as power-brokers to the craven politicians willing to kowtow to them.

Fast forward…

Today when I listen to Obama speak (and to his remarkable wife, Michelle) what I hear is a world view that actually nurtures life. Obama is trying to lead this country to a place where the intrinsic worth of each individual is celebrated. A leader who believes in hope, the future, trying to save our planet and providing a just and good life for everyone is someone who is actually pro-life.

Conversely the “pro-life” ethic of George W. Bush manifested itself in a series of squandered opportunities to call us to our better natures. After 9/11, Bush told most Americans to go shopping while saddling the few who volunteered for military service with endless tours of duty (something I know a little about since my son was a Marine and deployed several times). The Bush doctrine of life was expressed by starting an unnecessary war in Iraq that has killed thousands of Americans and wounded tens of thousands more.

The society that Obama is calling us to sacrifice for is a place wherein life would be valued not just talked about. As he said in his speech delivered on February 6 in New Orleans, “Too often, we lose our sense of common destiny; that understanding that we are all tied together; that when a woman has less than nothing in this country, that makes us all poorer.” Obama was talking about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but his words also apply to our overall view of ourselves.

Regardless of the official position of the Supreme Court on abortion, a country in which all Americans are offered some sort of dignity and hopeful future would be a place conducive to the kind of optimism each of us must hold in our hearts if we are to welcome children into this world. But if our highest aspiration is to be a consumer with no thought or care for our neighbor, we will remain a culture in which abortion is not only inevitable but logical.

What we need in America is a spiritual rebirth, a turning away from the false value of consumerism and utilitarianism that have trumped every aspect of human life. To implement this vision we need leaders that inspire but to do so they have to be what they say they are. It’s not about policy it’s about character.

Obama’s rivals for the nomination — the Clintons — do not inspire. When the Clintons were in the White House they talked about humane values while Bill Clinton betrayed every single person who voted for him by carrying on an unseemly sexual dalliance in the Oval Office with a young woman barely out of her teens. Since that time the Clintons have enriched themselves through their connections to a point where they’re able to make a $5 million personal loan to their campaign.

For someone who says she has spent “the last 35 years of my life as an advocate for children” and/or “fighting for healthcare” that’s a lot of money to have collected through doing good works. Presidential Mother Teresa wannabes shouldn’t be doing deals with uranium mining outfits in Kazakhstan while schmoozing with the likes of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and wealthy mining magnates — not if they want the moral authority to lead.

Similarly the Republicans have also been hypocrites while talking big, for instance about their pro-life ethic. But what have they achieved? First, through their puritanical war on sex education they’ve hindered our country from actually preventing unwanted pregnancy. Second, through the Republican Party’s marriage to the greediest and most polluting earth-destroying corporations they’ve created a climate (both moral and physical) that has scorched the earth for-profit, with no regard to future generations whatsoever. The Republicans are to the pro-life movement what the Clintons are to selfless public service.

The real solution to abortion is to change the heart of America, not the law. We need to stop seeing ourselves as consumers. We need to stop seeing ourselves as me and begin to think of we. Our country needs someone to show us a better way, a president who is what he seems, someone with actual moral authority that our diverse population can believe in who has the qualities that make us want to follow him. Obama is that person.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of “CRAZY FOR GOD — How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back”

February 8, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Why I Am Supporting Barack Obama for President

At the rate the Democratic nomination for U.S. president is going, my vote in the KY primary (20 May) may actually count for something. So, although mostly I try to keep the political discussions on this blog (which is mostly about the intersection of faith and social justice, including politics) away from discussions about particular candidates, I think the time calls for an exception. I am neither an ordained minister (though seminary trained), nor currently employed by any faith-based organization, so I don’t think this is a violation of my objections to religious leaders personally endorsing candidates–others are free to disagree.

A year ago, the Democratic field contained several candidates whose commitments to progressive social justice policies and to peacemaking in the world were very compatible with how I see the demands of the gospel.

  • Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), now having to fend off corporate Dem. primary challengers for re-election to his own Cleveland seat, never had a chance and I knew it. The U.S. public is simply not that far to the left–except on healthcare where his universal, single-payer, plan actually has majority support.  But I supported Kucinich campaign because he continued to draw the issues sharply: he not only opposed the Iraq war/occupation from the beginning, but voted against it, consistently voted against funding it, has had since invasion a plan to replace U.S. troops quickly with UN peacekeepers while doing reconstruction (and, had this plan been done quickly, we might have avoided the insurgence), proposed a Dept. of Peace that would work for alternatives to military action abroad and nonviolent solutions in homes, neighborhoods, etc. domestically.
  • Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), who has been a hostage negotiator, a UN ambassador, and who helped solve several international crises even when governor, whose approach to the environment and energy is far reaching.
  • Fmr. Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), the most improved candidate in 4 years: who repented for his vote for the war, proposed an excellent plan for exiting Iraq and, more than any other candidate, focused on ending poverty domestically and globally.

Those fine candidates are all gone.  The only remaining progressive choice is Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), who, like most politicians, has both progressive and cautious elements.  He opposed the war from the beginning, but has sometimes voted to continue funding it because of a desire to “support the troops” in harm’s way–and only began a different voting strategy when no amount of Congressional pressure could get this admin. to bring the troops home.  His healthcare plan is not as good as I’d like it to be, frankly. But he is committed to human rights abroad, defending the Constitution at home, and ending, in his words, “not just the war, but the mindset which got us into this war”–a mindset of reckless aggression as the best way to fight terrorism.  Since John Edwards’ pushed the agenda, Obama has also become bolder in his championing of the poor.

But I have not come to support Obama just out of a process of elimination.  From the moment I first heard him speak (at the Democratic National Convention in ’04), I said to anyone who would listen, “That man will probably be our first black president. He is the future of the Democratic Party and has a great chance to heal the nation.” I was thrilled when his campaign took off and glad that Edwards kept pushing him to ignore his more cautious side and keep moving, step-by-step, in a more progressive direction.

Some readers will know that I believe strongly that no Christian can be a nationalist. Our allegiance is primarily to the Reign of God. As Revelation puts it, we come “from out of every tribe and nation.” The “politics of Jesus” is the formation of a new, trans-national people, scattered among the nations of the earth, who lare ight and salt and leaven–who bear witness to the work of God in the world to heal and transform the earth.

Loyalty to particular nation states–like other earthly loyalties and identities of race/ethnicity, gender, language group, region, culture, etc.–are strictly secondary.  It is important that I reinforce this before making my next point.

However, I have never believed that my ultimate allegiance to God in Christ and to God’s Reign, means that I have to be indifferent to my earthly homeland. Christians my love and bear allegiance to our nations–but never in any way that puts national loyalty first or thinks that God has chosen our nation to be superior to others, etc.  At my most critical of this nation, I was an internal critic–like Bonhoeffer for Germany or Oscar Romero criticizing El Salvador or Desmond Tutu crying over South Africa.  Prophetic faith criticizes the nation and hopes to reform it.  Prophetic social criticism is a work of love.

But that love for my nation took a major hit in November ’04–when the U.S. returned George W. Bush to the White House. I know conservative U.S. readers will disagree, but I saw (and I think people around the world saw) the ’04 election (in which, unlike in ’00, Bush narrowly won the popular vote, whatever happened in Ohio) as a validation of Bush’s policies and actions, including:  a strategy of preemptive war, ignoring or flaunting international law and undermining international institutions of peace and security (we used to call other nations which did this “rogue” nations), the torture at Abu Ghraib, and at Guantanemo Bay, “extraordinary rendition,” imprisonment without trial and in violation of the Geneva Conventions, spying on own citizens without warrant, etc., etc.

I have felt since November ’04 like a person who has lost his country and I seriously considered moving to Canada or New Zealand (personal finances made this impossible). I worried deeply that while I grew up in an America that was becoming better (ending segregation, etc.), my daughters were growing up in a nation that was increasingly alien to its stated values. I worried that my children were being taught that power came without responsibility, that the rich and powerful were above the law, that might makes right.

Barack Obama’s campaign, even though not as progressive as Kucinich’s or, on poverty, not even as progressive as Edwards’ (but improving all the time) helped give me my country back.  Only part of it is his policies–another part he embodies:

I want to live in an America where the son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother can be president. I want to know that 40+ years after the end of legal segregation, white folks, even in the South will vote for a black president. 

I think the nations of the world will respond differently to America, if our leader has Muslim relatives, ties to Kenya and Indonesia. No, I’m not saying that radical terrorists would cease their enmity–they would not. But ordinary people, including those terrorists try to recruit, will see an American president who doesn’t seem isolated from the rest of the world (as Americans so often are), but connected to it in visible and tangible ways.

I watch Obama break down lines of left and right, blue state and red state. I watch him stick to his liberal principles on abortion and gay rights–and yet still make connections with conservative evangelicals who disagree with him on both issues by coming and talking to them about their common faith and common ground in wanting to stop the AIDS epidemic and global warming, and justice in Darfur.  I watch Obama get past the usual divisions on issues like gun control by explaining that guns have one kind of meaning for rural hunters and a very different one for those facing urban violence–and that we have to find a way to protect the legitimate rights of hunters and rural, small town values, while also addressing the gun plague in our cities.  That’s “bi-partisanship” without simply compromise–but a re-framing of issues and a listening to the legitimate concerns of all. (I saw the same thing when he unveiled his environmental platform not before a friendly audience of environmentalists, but before Detroit automakers and workers!)

I’ve watched him engage the young, usually so politically apathetic, bringing them into the process, getting them excited–not just about the election, but about finding ways to serve their country and the world beyond military service–or just “going shopping” as Bush asked of us. (Obama talks about lowering tuition costs at universities–but in return for service–working at homeless shelters or teaching in underserved communities, or practicing rural medicine, etc.) I have watched him create the most diverse coalition around–yes, Hillary Clinton does better among women, especially white women, but only by about 6%. Yes, she does better among the working class Dems, but not by much. Yes, she does better among Latinos, but by decreasing amounts.  And Obama is winning the votes of white males, especially rural and Southern white men, who since 1980 have left the Democratic Party in droves for the GOP.

I am tired of electoral strategies that try for 50% +1 victories which end in defeat or such narrow electoral victory that there is gridlock and no mandate for change.  Clinton represents that kind of politics. On Tues. night, she won the states Democrats always win: California, New York, New Jersey, Massachussetts. Great–but that’s not going to win a general election and certainly not with enough of a mandate for change. By contrast, Obama has won (and by large margins) in red states and swing states. And across the map from the Northeast (CT, DE) to the Southwest (Colorado, Utah, possibly New Mexico) to the Midwest (Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota) to the Old South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama) and even to Alaska.

I believe that Obama can help Democrats and Independents (and moderate Republicans) create a new working majority that can get the big changes we need.  And I love the way he insists that change is not all top down, but must involve the work and social action of the people–it’s his background as a community organizers which is also how he runs his campaign.  His speeches are not about him (Clinton, “I will work hard for you,” or Edwards, “I will fight for you,”) but about US, “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.” “Together, we can heal this nation; together, we can change the world.” “Yes, we can.”

I would love to vote for a woman president, and I hope Obama might choose a woman running mate (e.g. Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-AZ) or Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS), although I would understand if his need to beef up his foreign policy creds would push him more toward a Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), or a Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), or even a retired Gen. like Anthony Zinni (who opposed the Iraq invasion).  And, although I have my criticisms of the Clintons, I do not share the irrational Hillary hatred of many–but it is out there. Nominating a candidate with as high negatives as Clinton carries makes little sense.  It would pit the one Democrat who could lose in November against the one Republican (McCain) who carries enough clout with independents to win.

The bottom line is that I believe Obama is the president we need at this time. He won’t be perfect or a savior–no politician is.  But with progressive social movements to keep pushing him–and with his visionary ability to reach beyond narrow constituencies, I think electing Obama can give us back the promise of a moral America.

I don’t want to be a Christian nationalist.  But I would like to be a Christian who is not deeply ashamed of my country.  An Obama presidency, I believe, offers that opportunity.

February 7, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 8 Comments

I’ll Be Back

Gentle Readers, I have been ill since Thursday night–too ill to come down to a cold basement and blog–or even check my email. (I did watch the NY Giants beat the Pats–as I predicted. Too bad I never gamble.) I’ll return shortly.

February 4, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments