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

Baptist Historian Robert Handy Dies

Robert T. Handy (1918-2009) has died in his NJ retirement community at age 90.  An American Baptist historian, Handy taught at Union Theological Seminary in NY (an ecumenical seminary) from 1950 until retirement in 1986.  A prolific author, Handy was known for his writings on Baptist history and the history of Christianity in North America, as well defending church-state separation and debunking popular myths of a bygone era of “Christian America.”

Handy was a graduate of Brown University (B.A.), still a Baptist-related institution at the time, with a degree in European history.  He earned his Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) degree from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, was ordained and served Baptist churches in Illinois. After a stint as a chaplain in the U.S. army,  he earned a Ph.D. in Church History at the University of Chicago (also then still related to American Baptists, though already an ecumenical institution).

Handy was a primary example for how to be true to one’s own tradition while also being very ecumenical.  He was a firm champion of religious liberty, church-state separation, and liberty of conscience.  For these reasons, although his personal theology was fairly traditional, he was often a target of the theocrats and Christian nationalists. (Sometimes the best compliment is to have the right enemies.)

Rest in peace, servant of a Servant Lord.

January 15, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, church history, church-state separation, Obituaries, religious liberty | 1 Comment

Faith Leaders Call on Obama to Ban Torture on Inauguration

The National Religious Coalition Against Torture has called on the Obama administration to ban torture on Inauguration Day.  This is part of a “Countdown to End Torture: 10 Days of Prayer” campaign.  The Bush admin. has repeatedly said that the U.S. has not tortured under their watch (just outsourced torture to other countries), but they have done so by denying that practices like “waterboarding” (simulated drowning) constitute torture–although both U.S. and international law have always done so.  The Bush line took a major hit yesterday when the judge in charge of their “military commissions” (a lifelong Republican who worked for Dick Cheney back when he was Secretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration) said that  she stopped the prosecution of Qattani (the  “20th 9/11 hijacker”) because his confession had been obtained by processes “which met the legal definition of torture.” In recent interviews, both Bush and Cheney have admitted authorizing such techniques, though still denying they constitute torture.

In related news, Obama’s pick for Attorney General, Eric Holder,  told the Senate Judiciary Committee holding his confirmation hearing that “waterboarding is torture,” a straight answer that none of Bush’s attorneys general would give.  He also affirmed that no one is above the law.  Although Holder did not commit to prosecuting former Bush admin. people, neither did he rule it out–and progressives like me will keep pushing for an independent prosecutor to investigate and prosecute all who are guilty of torture or other war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Holder supported Obama’s pledge to quickly close the detention center at Guantanemo Bay and try detainees in regular courts of law, ending the failed “military commissions,” but he admitted that it will  be difficult to decide what to do with people who cannot be prosecuted but who have vowed harm against the U.S. (Democracy has risks–and the Gitmo decisions by the Bush admin. have increased those risks.  Cleaning up this mess will not be easy. But it is good to have commitments that it will be done.)

Meanwhile, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) of Rhode Island said today that he is going to push for Congressional hearings investigating past Bush abuses, regardless of what the Department of Justice or the Obama administration do.

All these are positive signs.  But I urge persons of faith to continue to be at the forefront of these issues.   Christian readers, we worship and follow a victim of torture and therefore cannot support any use of torture for whatever reason. Faith leaders can take risks that politicians may be reluctant to do–and we can make  it easier for them to follow their consciences when it is politically risky.  Regardless of any party or ideology,  we must work to abolish torture and all degrading punishment throughout the world–beginning here in the U.S.

January 15, 2009 Posted by | human rights., torture | 2 Comments