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

Compassionate Capitalists?

About a month ago, I profiled a banker who “got it” so that we could see they weren’t all complete arrogant idiots who gambled with other people’s money, lost it, screwed up the economy and then still expect to live like kings while the people they screwed (taxpayers) pay through the nose to save their companies (in order to ward off a complete financial collapse).  Not all bankers are such arrogant fools and I wanted to show that. 

Well, as a self-declared democratic socialist, let me be the first to highlight some other businesses which seem to “get it.”  Ford and GM (partly out of enlightened self-interest) know that many Americans are putting off buying a new car (even with tax breaks for doing so in the stimulus ) out of fear of repossession if they lose their jobs. So, Ford and GM are guaranteeing your car payments for a year: If you buy one of their cars, then lose your job, they will make up to $700 monthly payments for a year or until you find another job, whichever comes first!  You have to qualify for unemployment insurance to get this benefit.

The Obama administration is also guaranteeing new car warranties for GM and Chrysler in order to encourage buying American, too.

Oh, and Ford is also working with local dealers to try to help charities which have been hurt by the recession. (Charitable giving is WAY down and many charities, especially those which give direct aid to the poor, are nearly broke with overwhelming new cases of need and less giving.)

And Walgreen’s is offering free prescriptions and health services to the uninsured.  (I hope this isn’t used as an excuse by Congress to put off universal healthcare.)


March 31, 2009 Posted by | economic justice | 3 Comments

Two Types of Christian Pacifism

“Pacifism” can  be defined at minimum as the view that war, even defensive war, is always wrong–or that participation in war is wrong.  Another minimal definition is that deliberately taking human life is always morally wrong. 

Minimal definitions only get one so far, of course.  Pacifists come in many different varieties.  Faith-based pacifists may be minimally defined as those who believe their religious faith forbids them to kill human beings, especially in war.  Christian pacifists are minimally those who believe that their Christian faith forbids them to kill in any war.  From there on, the differences abound:  many Christian pacifists would also be against abortion (minimally believing that Christians themselves should never obtain or facilitate abortions; maximally, attempting to outlaw all abortions), but some Christians, while always considering abortion a moral tragedy, would sometimes see them as morally permissable. (I have been on both sides of that debate and am currently “reluctantly pro-choice” for reasons I need a different blog post to delineate.) Many Christian pacifists are also against the death penalty, but some would only see Christian participation in that as sinful.  Some Christian pacifists are vegetarians, but most are not (whereas Buddhist or Hindu pacifists ARE vegetarians).  Many Christian pacifists are against the use of physical punishment in child rearing, but others are not.

Likewise,  the type of theology and spirituality which undergirds Christian pacifism come in great variety:  Franciscan pacifism is different from Benedictine or Catholic Worker pacifism, but they all bear far more resemblance to each  other than either would to Amish or Mennonite pacifism.  Anabaptist style pacifism undergirds Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, the Amish and others (and,  itself, has variations within it), but this is different from Quaker pacifism.  And so it goes.

In Nevertheless, John Howard Yoder outlined the strengths and weaknesses of about 20 different types of religious pacifism without claiming that his taxonomy was exhaustive.  But while sometimes it is useful to multiply categories in order to see the great variety, sometimes it is helpful to boil things down to a couple of choices so that one can see broad similarities.  This is one thing that Catholic theological ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill does in her book, Love Your Enemies:  Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. (By the way,  this is a must read.)

Cahill notes that not only do  Christian just war theorists read the New Testament differently than do Christian pacifists,  but that Christian pacifists fall broadly into two types which also read the New Testament differently.  One kind of Christian pacifism Cahill calls the pacifism of obedience and the other as the pacifism of compassion. 

Cahill’s “obedience pacifists” include people like Tertullian, Menno Simons, John Howard Yoder.  They are nonviolent out of obedience to the commands of Jesus as they see them.  Their discipleship is one of following.  Their defenses of nonviolence focus on the authority of Jesus (or the Risen Christ) and they read the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ platform for his followers.  By contrast, Cahill’s “compassion pacifists” include people like St. Francis of Assissi, Dorothy Day, and (in his pacifist phase) H. Richard Niebuhr.  Their focus of discipleship is on “works of compassion and mercy” to the poor and outcasts.  They reject war and violence out of a prior spirituality that is about serving and vocation, rather than by rules about when, if ever, to use violence.

One must be clear that these are broad tendencies, not pure types. After all, Dorothy Day, for all her mercy and compassion thought  in terms of authority and obedience (and could be a tyrant in running the Worker Houses of Hospitality).  Nor would anyone who knew John Yoder want to suggest that he lacked compassion and mercy or that his view of the NT was in any way legalistic.  Still, these different orientations are helpful to note.

Some other “obedience pacifists” include Alexander Campbell, a majority of first generation Pentecostals, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, Culbert Rutenber, Richard Overton, Conrad Grebel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in his “pacifist days),etc.  Some other “compassion pacifists” would include Muriel Lester, Walter Rauschenbusch, George Fox,  Mother Teresa of Calcultta, Jean Vanier.

But where would one put Stanley Hauerwas?  He eschews rules for virtues, but clearly has an obedience-style structure.  So, the typology has its  limits even if it is helpful in broad terms.

March 31, 2009 Posted by | discipleship, love of enemies, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount | 8 Comments

The Folly of the Cross

One of the nice things about the community of theology blogs is that one doesn’t have to do everything oneself.  I have written often on Christian nonviolence, but I have not, on this blog, ever tried to lay out a consistent case for the position.  Fortunately, an excellent case is made by D.C. Cramer on his blog, Cramer Comments.

Here is a link to most of his series, “The Folly of the Cross: On  Christian Pacifism.”  Note that he covers topics that often come up as objections, including the question of policing and that of (violent) defense of family against attackers.  He promises more to come, including chapters on the question of pacifism and the Old Testament, family members in the military, the Nazis and more.  I hope he includes a chapter on nonviolent responses to terrorism. (If not, I will have to do  so myself, I guess.  Fortunately, far more has been written on this recently than when I became a pacifist in the ’80s.)  Given his conservative evangelical background, I suspect that Cramer and I disagree  on several things (Christian pacifism comes in many varieties), but I like what he has written here and recommend it to you,  Gentle Readers,  whether you share my pacifist convictions or are one of my critics on this matter.

March 30, 2009 Posted by | blogs, discipleship, nonviolence, pacifism | 4 Comments

Near Future Plans for this Blog

This is an odd blog, standing at the intersection of faith and politics.  Part of the reason I began blogging in 2005 was because most blogs run by Baptist theologians, ministers, seminary students, biblical  scholars, etc. to that point came from the conservative to fundamentalist side of the theological  spectrum and from conservative political viewpoints (usually of a “Christian nationalist” or even “theocratic” nature).  I wanted to be part of the effort to show that Baptists were far more diverse.  Those other strands include the left side of the evangelical spectrum; liberal and/or progressive theologies; Anabaptist, liberation, Black Church, immigrant, Global South, feminist, LGBTQ (and allies), postliberal, postmodern, and many more.  I represent several of those strands in my own story, but I have never sought to make the blog solely about me.

In recent months, this blog has concentrated on political  issues in a narrow sense.  I won’t omit those postings, but I think they need to become less prominent for awhile.  I will be returning to my series on Baptist peace churches; I will profile creative Baptist ministers; I am creating a page on famous Baptist biblical scholars (since the rise of critical scholarship) and will follow it with one on theologians.  I will also start a series on Baptist theological scholars in non-Baptist seminaries which I call “Profiles of Baptist Scholars in Diaspora.”

I will intersperse these  with posts of a more ecumenical interest including returning to my series on Christianity and Evolution.  In April, I have promised a series of posts making the moral case against the death penalty. (So far, I have just been giving news stories and cheering recent developments.) I have several book reviews pending on both religious and  political topics.  And I hope to include some things that are just for fun,  too.

I hope this outline meets with your approval, Gentle Readers.  I won’t abandon news and comments about things political, but I will try for more balance.

March 29, 2009 Posted by | blogs | Comments Off on Near Future Plans for this Blog

Join Sen. Webb’s Campaign for Criminal Justice/Prison Reform

I have been reporting on the great work of Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) to reform the U.S. Criminal Justice/Prison System. 

On 26 March 2009, Sen. Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.  The legislation would create a blue-ribbon commission to every aspect of the U.S. criminal justice system and make comprehensive recommendations about how the process can be reformed, top-to-bottom!  Why do we need such a comprehensive review?

  • With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses 25% of the world’s reported prisoners.
  • Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980.
  • Racial discrimination is especially evident in drug-related criminal sentencing:  African-Americans are only 12% of the U.S. population and only 14% of monthly drug users, but they are 37% of those ARRESTED on drug charges; 59% of those CONVICTED on drug charges, and 74% of the convicted drug offenders sentenced to prison! In other words, whites use most of the illegal drugs in this country, but if you are a white drug user, you are much less likely to be arrested for your drug use than a black drug user.  If you are a white drug user who happens to be arrested, you are far less likely to be convicted than a black user. And, if you are unlucky enough to be a white drug user who is convicted on drug charges, you are MUCH,  MUCH more likely to be given probation or sentenced to a drug rehabilitation program than to prison, but your black friend caught during the same drug raid will probably get prison time!!
  • Four times as many mentally ill people are in prison as are in mental health hospitals.
  • Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the U.S., many foreign-based; Mexican drug cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.
  • Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often non-existent, undermining public  safety, and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society.  This, in turn, leads to high rates of recidivism.

So, what can you do to help?  One, subscribe to Sen. Webb’s website on the bill.  Two, write your Congressional Representative, urging her or him to introduce this bill into the House of Representatives.   Three, write both of your U.S. Senators, regardless of party, and urge them to co-sponsor Sen. Webb’s bill.  Four, write a letter to the editor of your local paper in support of Sen. Webb’s commission and of comprehensive criminal justice/prison reform.

March 29, 2009 Posted by | criminal juste | , | Comments Off on Join Sen. Webb’s Campaign for Criminal Justice/Prison Reform

Paul M. Martin Named President of ABSW

paulmmartinRev. Dr. Paul M. Martin, has been named the next President of American Baptist Seminary of the West (Berkeley, CA) on 23 March 2009.  He has been Interim President since the retirement of Pres. Keith Russell in July 2008 and will be installed as ABSW’s first African-American president on 1 July 2009.  With this election, Dr. Martin becomes the first African-American president of a Baptist-related seminary other than a historically black seminary.  (OOPS.  Until reminded by Dan Schweissing (Haitian Ministries), American Baptist missionary who blogs at Doing Theology from the Caribbean,  I’d forgotton that Dr. James Evans, who teaches theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, was president there for about 10 years.)

Founded in 1871 as Berkeley Baptist Divinity School, American Baptist Seminary of the West is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA and is a member institution of the Graduate Theological Union(Berkeley), an ecumenical consortium of 9 theological  seminaries which offers post-graduate theological degrees (Th.D., and Ph.D.) through the University of California at Berkeley.  Dr. Martin pursued his undergraduate work at Pepperdine University, his Master of Divinity at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Divinity, a historic Black seminary attached to the historic Black Virginia Union University, an institution related to both American Baptists and National Baptists.  Dr. Martin earned his Ph.D. at The California Graduate School of Theology.

March 28, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, theological education | 3 Comments

GOP “Budget” Would Tax the Poor & Cost More Than Obama Plan

The GOP “Budget to Nowhere” infamously included no numbers (and charts that showed nothing!) and a tax giveaway to the rich that is TRIPLE that of the Bush tax giveaways.  So,  the good folks at Citizens for Tax Justice crunched the numbers of their “plan” to cut the top tax rate to 25% (for everyone making $100,000 or more) and to make everyone who makes less pay 10%.  They conclude that over 25% of Americans, mostly low-income families, would pay more in taxes under the GOP plan than under Obama’s budget.  The richest 1% of Americans, by contrast, would pay $100,000 less per year than under Obama’s plan.  The resulting lost revenue would increase the deficit $300 billion more than Obama in 2011 alone!

So, that’s the Republican idea:  Increase taxes on the poor, who can least afford them. Give tax bonuses to the rich and, in the name of “fiscal responsibility,” greatly grow the federal deficit. 

See the whole report here. WARNING:  Actual numbers involved.

March 28, 2009 Posted by | economic justice | 9 Comments

Just Peacemaking: More than Just “No War.”

I’ve been involved in actions for peace since I became a pacifist and conscientious objector in 1983.  In that time, I have discovered many different approaches to peace.  Some, like the Amish, ignore the world outside. They seek to create a culture of peace and simplicity that interacts as little as possible (fair trade of simple, but beautiful,  handcrafted goods) with others.  If they influence others, it is only by example.

Of those, like myself, however, who believe in helping to create a more peaceful world, some believe that one should only denounce politicians who aren’t as pure in their commitment to peacemaking as they are.  Anyone who is not a committed pacifist is a “warmonger.”  This type is represented by my regular critic “Kathy” and by Cindy Sheehan yelling “to hell with Obama.” I believe this is NOT HELPFUL.  It is like the Republicans showing up with an alternative “Budget to Nowhere” that had no numbers.  Absurd.

Instead, I am contacting the heads of as many peace organizations in the U.S. (especially faith-based ones, since I know them best) and seeking to create a practical alternative.  Obama was opposed to the war in Iraq from the beginning, but not because, like me, he believes that all war is wrong.  I heard him (just  as state senator from IL then), speak to an anti-war crowd in Chicago in 2004 (on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq). Seeing the many “War is Not the Answer” signs in the crowd, Obama respectfully told the crowd that he disagreed. Citing WWII, he said that sometimes war IS the answer.  Obama declared that he was not against all war, just a DUMB war–which he believed Iraq was.  I disagreed, but I understood the position.  It falls within the dominant Just War tradition of the West, mixed with American pragmatism.

The Obama I first heard on that cold March morning in ’04, is the same one who later became U.S. Senator and then President.  He has been remarkably consistent, especially on his approach to foreign policy:  War is a last resort, but not to be ruled out altogether.  He is ending the Iraq war as slowly as he is, because he believes that has the best chance of keeping Iraq from falling apart when we are gone. He worries about the stability of the region–Bush’s invasion has destabilized the entire Middle East.  Obama is fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan because he believes he has no choice. The alternative,  he believes, is to allow al Qaeda a safe haven from whence they will continue to attack  others around the world, including the U.S.  He doesn’t like it, but believes it necessary.

To get Obama to adopt a different policy regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan, peace folk have to do more than show the problems of the way he is choosing, he sees those problems. We also have to show a better alternative.  My overarching paradigm is a strategy which does not seek to DESTROY  al-Qaeda or the Taliban by force, but to make them IRRELEVANT and unnatractive to would-be recruits, to drain their power and their support.

To this end, I am proposing a comprehensive strategy for the U.S. peace movement:

  1. We hold a series of conferences with just peacemaking experts on alternative strategies for fighting terrorism and for Afghan and Pakistan stability.  If possible, we get representatives from Congress, the State Department, the United Nations, and the White House to attend at least some of these conferences–trying to get them beyond the “Washington bubble” where “Pentagon thinking” rules supreme,  regardless of person or party.
  2. We get these ideas into the media, so as to change the terms of the debate.  Because of the many other problems at home, the media is asking more questions about the war in Afghanistan than at any time since 2002.  The giant “yes machine” and “echo chamber” is less airtight than at any time since 9/11.  If we can get alternatives into the media,  we can change public opinion.
  3. We build power in the streets.  This will take time, but the latest Gallup Poll shows that 42% of Americans now believe even entering Afghanistan in response to 9/11 was a mistake. The poll did not ask if they believed we should now leave. It was a flawed poll in wording.  But it gives us a place to start.  We work to build public pressure against continued troop escalations in Afghanistan (or spreading to Pakistan) and for a concrete exit strategy and timeline for withdrawal.  I think that by the time of the Midterm elections in 2010, we will have built enough public power to be a powerful political force.
  4. We seek allies in Congress. We began to shift the debate on Iraq in 2004 with the formation of the “Out of Iraq Caucus” in Congress, led Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Rep. Lynne Woolsey (D-CA), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). It now has 73 members, one of the largest of Congressional caucuses.  We need to try to form a “Just Peacemaking in Afghanistan & Pakistan” Caucus.  I suggest we try to recruit Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), and the three women from CA above.  In the Senate, I suggest we try to recruit Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the only self-described Democratic Socialist in the U.S. Congress, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), Sen. Barbara Walters (D-CA) and maybe others. They will know whom to recruit in Congress.  The New York Times also indicates that Vice President Biden has been the voice of caution against escalation into quagmire during the WH internal debates.  So, we seek to enlist VP Biden, and to strengthen his voice over the hawkish advice of Defense Secretary Gates (and the even more hawkish advice of the Generals on the ground).  Biden and Clinton are responsible for the development and  anti-corruption parts of the plan and Biden for limiting the troop escalation and for narrowing the U.S. goals.  Obama apparently split the difference between his  civilian and military advisers.  So, we have possible allies even within the administration.  Our strategy must include ways to strengthen them and weaken the influence of the hawks and “counterinsurgency experts.”
  5. We seek a major role for the United Nations and we hope to pressure the U.S. for a course change using diplomatic pressure from our allies.
  6. We take independent initiatives for peace ourselves that do not wait on government figures of any party, including nonviolent, unarmed “guards” accompanying villagers in Afghanistan.  I have been a part of such efforts in Nicaragua in the 1980s. They are risky,  but they can change the hearts and minds of ordinary people.  These efforts MUST include the participation of Muslim Peace Activists so that they do not simply seem like a Western or Christian model imposed on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but an alternative to Islamist terrorism that faithful  Muslims can embrace.  (The participation of the Muslim Peace Fellowship will be essential.)   These initiatives should be as international as possible.

There is no guarantee that such an approach will meet with success–either in bringing a just peace to Afghanistan and Pakistan or in getting the U.S. to change course.  It will take the brains and organizational skills of many people much brighter than myself (and I am already contacting as many as I can this weekend).  But I believe this is better than simply saying “NO” to war (as important as that is).  It is much better than calling the president names. (By the way, why is it that U.S. peace activists can push for treating dictators and mass murderers with enough respect to enter into negotiations, but find that they cannot take the  same approach with our own politicians?  Maybe you consider Obama to be your enemy, but, if so, then my religion tells me that you must pray for him.) It is more useful than Cindy Sheehan yelling, “To hell with Obama!” on national TV.

This is the path I am choosing, whether or not it seems “prophetic” enough for some or not.

March 28, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, just peacemaking | 4 Comments

GOP “Budget” Details?

FiveThirtyEight.com has a flow-chart of the promised “details” of the Republican Party’s “alternative budget.”






There’s also this delightful web video from the DNC.


This ridiculous “leadership” by the GOP is why the Democrats can be divided over Obama’s budget, be waffling on the Employee Free Choice Act, can be dragging their feet on ending the Iraq War, can be getting deeper into Afghanistan, and can be farting around when they should be prosecuting the Bush-era war crimes and torture, and STILL be trusted by Americans more than the Republicans!  But if ever there were time for a progressive third party like the Greens to take off, this would be it. 

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

March 27, 2009 Posted by | U.S. politics | 2 Comments

Obama & Afghanistan: Good News & Bad News

I’ve just finished reading Obama’s new plan on Afghanistan.  It’s not all bad, but there are definitely things that peace activists must oppose and protest.  I’ll start with the good news because peace folk are likely to miss them.


  • It refrains from the Bush fantasy that Western-style democracy can be imposed at the point of a gun.  I believe in democracy.  I even believe in democracy. I also believe, as Glen Stassen and others have pointed out, that spreading democracy is a peacemaking practice. But it cannot be done at the point of a gun, nor imposed from outside a nation.  It must be grown from within–and a culture has to be prepared for it.  Obama gives up the idea that America can impose a Western democracy on Afghanistan (or Iraq, etc.).  Fantasyland is abandoned.
  • Obama knows that a purely military solution is impossible.  He has a realistic, even classicly conservative, grasp of the limits of military power.
  • The plan focuses on making the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists irrelevant in Afghanistan and Pakistan by creating an economy and civil society that does not depend on them.  The focus will be to build infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and train civil servants and create small (non-drug) businesses throughout the countryside.
  • The plan involves the region, using carrots to get Pakistan involved. It will also take constructive  involvement by Iran. 
  • The plan recognizes that “Taliban” is a broad term and seeks to negotiate with the elements which can be won over, reserving combat for the hardcore that protect al-Qaeda terrorists. Military action is limited to fighting the terrorists rather than trying to do everything.

The BAD:

  • The troop escalation is still a military escalation which is likely to be an escalation into a quagmire.  It looks far too reminiscent of the initial escalation by JFK into Vietnam or, more recently, the Soviet entrance into Afghanistan.
  • I don’t see enough involvement by NATO, the EU, or the United Nations.  I especially would want to put UN peacekeepers in blue helmuts for the mission of protecting civilians.
  • The plan, even if everything goes perfectly, will take YEARS and WAY TOO MUCH MONEY and TOO MANY LIVES.  Obama thinks the alternative is to leave America too vulnerable to terrorist attack, again, but there is neither the money nor the political will for this longterm strategy.  IF we had not invaded Iraq and IF we had taken this approach to Afghanistan back in ’02, we may now be approaching an exit these 7+ years later.  But we don’t have 7 more years and all the counterinsurgency experts say that it would take at least that long for the counterinsurgency to work.
  • Afghan Pres. Karzai likes this plan and that’s a good sign. It may also have popular support, initially, though I doubt anyone’s doing surveys of the Afghan people.  But for how long?  I think the Afghan people’s tolerance for our presence in their country, especially our MILITARY presence, will not last more than 2 more years, tops.  If we stay when they want us to leave, we will TRULY be in an unwinnable quagmire, much like Vietnam.

I urge peace folk to push for Obama to double or triple the civilian components of the plan and to internationalize (via NATO and the UN) the military presence–and to give us a timeline and an exit strategy. Congress should demand the same before releasing any funds for this plan.  We stand at a crossroads:  This can either be the beginning of an end to the Afghan war or the beginning of a deeper swamp of war.

Let me clear: We are going to need bodies in the streets protesting the military aspects of this.  Get out your “Troops Home Now!” signs.  This struggle will be difficult.  Wage PEACE!

P.S.  It’s not helpful to attack other peace folk. That’s an “epic fail” way to lose.  We need to be hard on the problem, not each other.  I also see no need AT THIS POINT in spewing anger at Obama.  That’s not a way to get him to listen.  I wrote polite (but firm) open letters to Bush against invading Iraq and proposed alternatives.  I never liked him, but tried not to personalize my opposition.  I only grew personally angry after he dismissed 1  million people (myself included) in the street in opposition to the invasion as “a focus group.” (Also, Bush lied to the people. Obama has not. He may be completely wrong, but he has not misled us.  He ALWAYS told us he would add troops to Afghanistan.)

March 27, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, just peacemaking | 8 Comments