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

Outline: The Biblical Basis of Christian Pacifism

We have more posts to come in the Economic Justice Primer, but I think this series on Christian pacifism will start this weekend. I have written on this blog of my pacifism in terms of testimony of my conversion to that view and brief explanations of my version.I have interviewed many people in the blog ring, Christian Peace Bloggers, and some of those interviews were reprinted here.  I have also written on Just War Theory and the practices of Just Peacemaking.  But I have never laid out a full biblical defense of Christian pacifism. I started to as a debate with a Just War Theorist, but he suddenly quit blogging and the series never materialized.  So, it is long overdue. With constructive criticism from you, my Gentle Readers (there must be a dozen or so of you by now), I may turn it into a small book geared for those with no theological training, rather than for scholars, pastors, or seminarians.  Here is the outline as I now envision it–although my experience with previous series has shown that I may need to adjust in light of your comments.

  1. Prologue: The Bible and the Christian Life. 

                 a. Why Start with Jesus?

                 b. The Old Testament as Christian Scripture

       2.  Jesus’ Teachings and Example on Peacemaking and Nonviolence

              a. The Sermon on the Mount:  Matt. 5-7

               b. How the Sermon on the Mount fits the Rest of Matthew’s Gospel (5 teaching blocks; Jesus’ actions in Matthew; The Judgment of the Nations; The OT in Matthew: Moses and Isaiah; The Great Commission and Pacifism)

                c. Binding the Strong Man:  Mark’s Gospel Structured Around Two Campaigns of Nonviolent Direct Action

                 d. The Politics of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (The Nativity Stories: The Coming of the Prince of Peace; The Nazareth Sermon–Jesus Platform; The Sermon on the Plain: Luke 6; The Parable in Luke; The Passion of the Peaceful Messiah)

                 e. The Acts of the Holy Spirit:  The Peacemaking Missionaries of the Earliest Church

                  f. Becoming Children of God: Johannine Faith and Nonviolent Liberation

       3. The Pacifism of Paul the Apostle (including Deutero-Pauline Letters)

                  a.  Paul’s Peaceful Actions in Acts and His Epistles

                   b.  Paul’s Cosmic Christology and His Soteriology of Peace

          4.  Pacifism in the Book of Hebrews

           5.  The Practical Pacifism of James

           6.  Violence and Nonviolence in the Revelation to John at Patmos

Looking Back:  New Testament “Problem Texts” for Christian Pacifism:  (Roman soldiers as Christian converts; The “two swords” at the Last Supper and in Gethsemane; Jesus’ Anger in the Temple; Paul’s admiration of soldiers; Romans 13; Revelation 20)

            7.  The Old Testament Paves the Way to NT Pacifism I:  Peaceful Creation, Violent Fall, God’s Response

             8.  The Old Testament Paves the Way II: Violence and Nonviolence in the Patriarchal Narratives

             9.  The Old Testament Paves the Way III: Exodus and Torah; The Failure of  Judges and the Monarchy

             10.  The Old Testament Paves the Way IV: Breakthrough Scenes in the Former Prophets

              11.  The Old Testament Paves the Way V: The Latter Prophets (Jeremiah as War Resister; The Exile and Israel’s New Mission)

Excursis II: Remembering to Read the Old Testament as Jesus and the Early Church Did.

Excursis III:  The Problem of “Holy War” in the OT, Especially Joshua & Judges.

Excursis IV:  Christian Pacifism Was Normative for the First Four Centuries of the Church. The Challenge of Constantine and Imperial Christianity.

Summing Up and Loose Ends from Reader’s Questions.

Suggestions as to how I could better organize this at the beginning of this process?

September 29, 2009 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, empire, nonviolence, pacifism | 10 Comments

Miguel de la Torre: A New(ish) Voice in baptist Theology

migueldelatorreMiguel de la Torre (left) is a friend of mine–and a rising voice in baptist theology in the 21st C.  He is one of the leading voices of Latino-American Liberation theology today–which is funny considering that he was once a staunch Republican who sold real estate in Miami.

Born in Cuba just months before the Castro revolution, Miguel’s family escaped to the U.S. when he was 6 months old.  For awhile, the U.S. government considered him to be an “illegal immigrant” (as they did the part of my family that came from Ireland during the late 19th C. and, finding the quota on Irish filled that year, stuck across the Canadian border).  He grew up in Queens, was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church while his parents became priest and priestess in the Caribbean religion of Santeria.  He left Queens and moved to Miami in his teens. 

At 19, Miguel formed his own real estate company, earned an M.P.A. from American University (Washington, D.C.), founded the West Dade Young Republicans, and eventually became president of the Miami Board of Realtors.  In 1988, he ran for Congress but lost in the Republican primary to Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL -115), who still holds that seat. 

In his early 20s, Miguel’s life took some dramatic turns.  He became a “born again” Christian and joined University Baptist Church by believers’ baptism.  Feeling called to gospel ministry, he dissolved his highly successful real estate company to finance his theological education, beginning at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY (where we met–Miguel helped me hone my mediocre Spanish enough that I could pass Theological Spanish for grad school and study Latin American liberation theologies in the original–except for the brothers Boff, who, being Brazilian, of course, wrote in Portuguese! ).  He was ordained to the gospel ministry and served as pastor of Goshen Baptist Church in Glen Dean, KY.

Like many of us, Miguel found his seminary experience transforming. Almost against his will, he changed from a social and political conservative to a proponent of liberation theology–who thinks most Democrats are far too tame.   When he completed his M.Div. at SBTS, he entered Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, earning a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, specializing in Christian Ethics and Sociology of Religion.  Miguel has applied social scientific models to study Latino/a religion in the U.S. as well as pioneering in theological ethics from a Latino/a liberationist perspective.

From 1993-2005, Miguel taught Christian Ethics at Hope College, Holland, MI. Hope College is a Christian liberal arts college associated with the Reformed Church of America, and a Latino Baptist somewhat stood out in an institution historically related to Dutch Calvinists–but both African-American and Latino/a students were a rising percentage of enrollment.  Things went mostly fine, Miguel earned tenure, until he wrote a column in the local newspaper that satirized James Dobson’s attacks on the supposed “homosexuality” of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants. (The article was called, “When the Bible is Used for Hatred.”) Dobson and his supporters caused enough trouble for Miguel that he eventually resigned his tenure and moved to Denver, CO.  Since 2005, Miguel de la Torre has been Associate Professor of Social Ethics at Iliff School of Theology, an ecumenical and interfaith theological seminary connected to the United Methodist Church.  [Corrected slightly per comments from BDW] Formerly,  regular columnist for EthicsDaily, now more often for Associated Baptist Press, Miguel is a prolific author–so much so that I will only list below the books he has authored by himself. He also co-authored several books, edited others, and contributed articles to dictionaries, journals, chapters in books, and magazines and newspapers.  In all these ways, he is a powerful influence–a new voice and face to 21st C. Baptist (and baptist) theology in North America.

A partial bibliography of Miguel de la Torre’s works include:

Reading the Bible from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002. Personal note: This was a groundbreaking and very challenging work. I REALLY advise reading this–several times.

The Quest for the Cuban Christ:  A Historical Search. Gainesville, FL:  University Press of Florida, 2002.

La Lucha for Cuba:  Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press, 2003.

Santeria:  The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2004. Not quite as ecclesiocentric as this Anabaptist-type would desire, there is still much that is essential in this fantastic book.

A Lily Among the Thorns:  Imagining a New Christian Sexuality.  Jossey-Bass, 2007. Haven’t had time to read this one, yet, but want to do so. Miguel goes where angels fear to tread.

Liberating Jonah:  Toward a Biblical Ethics of Reconciliation.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2007.  Excellent.

Trails of Hope and Terror:  Testimonies on the Current Immigration Debate.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2009.  I have this one on order.

Social Justice from a Latina/o Perspective:  Constructing a Latina/o Ethics of Survival.  Waco, TX:  Baylor University Press, Forthcoming in 2010.

Genesis:  A Theological Commentary on the Bible.  Louisville, KY:  Westminster/John Knox Press, Forthcoming in 2011.

If I were to add all the co-authored and edited books or his chapter contributions, you’d wonder how Miguel de la Torre ever finds time to teach his class or be with his family! I envy his ability to write faster than I can read!  And I commend his works to you heartily. You will find his perspectives challenging, always.

September 27, 2009 Posted by | anabaptists, Baptists, theology | 17 Comments

Economic Justice Primer 4): Not All Debt is Equal

We know in our personal lives that debt is bad. It hurts us and our loved ones. When we fail to budget properly and we run ‘budget deficits,’ it leads to longterm debt, poor credit ratings, and can even lead to foreclosures, bankruptcies, garnished wages, possibly even homelessness.  Likewise, we are wise to be concerned about excess debt for governments, including our government.   For most of our history as a nation, we’ve had some debt, but it has usually been small and manageable.  Now, for the second time in 20 years (the first time was 1981-1993), it looms very large. When coupled with a large trade deficit (we import much more than we export), it weakens our overall economy. It leads, if unchecked, to higher interest rates and a very weak dollar–and this hurts not only the government, but the nation as a whole.

So, normally, we should be ‘fiscal conservatives’ and ‘deficit hawks,’ attempting to balance the federal budget and reduce the federal debt.  But not all debt is equal and there are times when a government must go further into debt even if it is in a weakened economic position.  Recessions and depressions need massive government spending to end–even if it means postponing reducing the problem of government debt.

Let’s explain this with an analogy from personal finances.  Excessive debt is normally very bad.  Specifically, maxing out all your credit cards on luxuries is foolish.  But, suppose a storm blows the roof off your house.  You have to fix the roof even if it means getting a loan from the bank.  If you have previously run up your credit cards and have a poor credit rating, you can’t wait until your finances are better to fix your roof. You have to get the roof fixed immediately. So, that probably means borrowing at a higher interest rate and will probably mean that it takes longer to get your credit in good shape and reduce your indebtedness. That’s bad, but you have no choice.

A recession is like having your roof blown off.  The recession that began in Nov. ’07 and led to the stockmarket crash of  August ’08 has been much bigger than most recessions: a mini-depression or “Great Recession.” It’s like having the roof blown completely off and damage to 3 of the 4 walls, too.  So, is all the government spending on recovery, infrastructure, healthcare reform, school reform, etc. risky? Yes.  It probably means that it will take longer and hurt more to get the budget balanced, end the deficits, and reduce the national debt.  We have some national pain coming.  It would have been better if the Bush administration had not run up the national credit cards and put us in this weakened position when the financial roof was blown off, but they did.  Failure to spend (wisely) now would lead to worse problems than the problem of postponing the debt reduction–just as leaving your house without a roof would be worse than the painful borrowing of money at high interest to fix it while you had a bad credit rating from previously foolish habits.

Now, WHY must government spend during a recession or depression? It seems counter-intuitive.  When times are hard, families tighten their belts and spend less. So do most businesses. They cut expenditures any way they can in lean times. Why shouldn’t government do the same? 

Remember the law of supply and demand? It’s the most basic law of economic, right?  If demand (for a certain product or service or, in really good times, for MANY goods and services) is high and supply is low, what happens? The prices on the goods and services in short supply and high demand go up, right? Right.  That can lead to the problem of inflation which, when too high, can end an economic upswing.  But when supplies are plentiful and demand is low, what happens? Prices go down–maybe even drop through the floor.  Now, a recession or depression involves HIGH supply and VERY low demand. (Remember the news photos of all those new cars last fall sitting in ports with no call to go to dealerships. High supply and low demand.) And it creates a vicious cycle:  Money is tight, so people cut back their spending.  People aren’t buying, so businesses cut back their orders. Then the businesses start laying off workers.  People without jobs spend less, which leads to more cut-backs, etc. (Unemployment is a LAGGING economic indicator. When it begins, it means a recession has already been underway for a time.  When a recession starts to end, unemployment is the last thing to get better.) So, if government cut back spending, too, it would just lead to even less money in the system, making matters worse.

In a recession/depression, the way out is for government to become the “spender of last resort.”  Government does road repair and bridge repair and new roads and bridges–and spends money. The contractors have to hire new people. The people buy things. Government spends on “cash for clunkers” and it keeps dealerships and car parts manufacturers from heading into the same death cycle the auto manufacturers were in.  Government buys new fleets of cars for the FBI, etc.  The spending–the more the better–creates jobs and, over time, reverses the recession.  We know this from history:  This is how Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal got America out of the Great Depression–which had been going for FOUR YEARS when he took office.  It was quite a hole to dig out of and it took time–especially since this kind of repair was new and experimental. But by 1936, it seemed the Depression was ending. So, Roosevelt gave into the critics and became more conservative:  Cut spending, raised taxes, and balanced the budget–and we slipped back down into Depression in 1937 since the economy was still too weak to stand on its own.

Wait! You’re saying. I learned that what finally got the U.S. out of the Depression was not the New Deal but World War II.  That’s right, but it wasn’t the war itself.  Wars are expensive and usually hard on economies even for the victors.  (That’s why G.W. Bush’s insistence on further tax cuts during two major wars was disastrous–you NEVER cut taxes during wartime. It meant borrowing the $3 trillion–and counting–for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was part of that running up of the credit cards which made us so economically vulnerable to this huge recession.) WWII helped the U.S. out of the Depression because it was a MASSIVE government spending program–far larger than anything ever envisioned by the New Deal.  We needed to replace every ship destroyed in Pearl Harbor, plus build more. We had to build a new Army Air Force from scratch. We needed new tanks, new guns. The draft itself was a massive jobs program that overnight nearly ended unemployment.  From an economic standpoint (as opposed to actually beating the Axis powers) we could have pushed all those planes and tanks and battleships into the oceans and kept building more. Factories reopened for the war effort. Thousands were hired. New money was put into the economy in a virtuous cycle. THAT’S why WWII brought us out of the Great Depression–nothing to do with war itself.

When wars end there is usually an economic slowdown–a recession or depression.  We had one at the end of almost every war the U.S. has fought, including the Civil War (unemployment doubled after the war–not counting the newly freed slaves now entering the job market–and the South, which had been the richest part of the nation, became the poorest for most of the next century), the Korean War, the Vietnam War (ended in ’75 and Jimmy Carter got stuck with the bill om Jan. ’77), and Gulf War I (led to the Bush I recession).  So, why was there no recession at the end of WWII?  Several reasons–all of which illustrate our main point that not all debt or all spending is equal.

  1. The Marshall Plan.  The U.S. spent millions of dollars to rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII.  And we cancelled war debts. That made it harder for us to balance our federal budget in the short run, but it gave us markets for U.S. goods and services:  So, that U.S. manufacturers that were no longer making many tanks or bombers could make and sell other things.
  2. The G.I. Bill.  Returning soldiers were helped by federal spending to go to college or learn a trade that led to higher wages and less unemployment–it also delayed some of their return to the job market, so that unemployment didn’t rise dramatically.
  3. The women (Rosie the Riveter and her friends) who left their homes to work in the factories while their husbands and fathers and brothers fought and died overseas, mostly chose to return to domestic life–which allowed the returning male soldiers to take their place–also preventing a huge unemployment spike at the end of WWII.
  4. VA and FHA loans for houses.  The federal government helped many American families (there was racial discrimination here so that most of the help went to white families) buy their own homes–especially returning soldiers.  This, along with the federal highway system under Eisenhower (more infrastructure spending), created the suburbs–which may or may not be a good thing in our new ecological era.  But at the time, it was a great boon to the American economy. Every house built was more money into the economy and so was every home purchased.  And none of it would have happened without federal programs.

So, yes, high deficits and debt on behalf of government is usually bad.  Frivolous spending should be avoided:  Like price supports for tobbacco and farm aid programs started during the Great Depression aimed at small family farms that are now going to subsidize millionaires who don’t live anywhere near the factory farms they own.  Or the military budget which is higher than the next 25 nations combined (and, except for a global war following a Depression, excessive military spending is usually bad).  Tax giveaways to the rich also lead to massive deficits–as they did under Reagan and Bush I as well as Bush II. We know from history that “trickle down” economics doesn’t work–not much trickles down.  Balanced budgets and a “pay as you go” system is normally much smarter.

But not all debt is equal and there are times when all governments need to engage in deficit spending–or deficit investment.  Think of it similarly to times when small businesses realize that they either have to grow or fail–and they borrow (carefully, we hope) to invest in new or better equipment, to hire new people, open a new branch. They don’t expect to see the fruits of this investment in terms of profits for a few years.  Similarly deficit spending during a recession is an investment that should pay off when the recession ends. How soon depends on factors such as how big the recession is and how big the deficit was BEFORE the recession.

September 27, 2009 Posted by | economic justice | 5 Comments

Coming Soon: A Series on the Biblical Basis of Gospel Nonviolence

This afternoon, I plan to add another installment in my “Economic Justice Primer” and another “Rising Baptist.” But I am planning to start a complete biblical defense of Gospel nonviolence–aimed at those without theological training.  When the series is finished, I hope to edit it into a publishable small book. Your CONSTRUCTIVE criticism on this blog will be very welcome.



September 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Millstones and lobbed-off limbs: Jesus on child sexual abuse (and more from Mark)

This guest blogpost is a sermon preached by my friend, Rev. Karen Thomas Smith, Chaplain to the Christian Community at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. (The University was created by the King of Morocco to be a place of interfaith dialogue in this overwhelmingly Islamic nation.) Karen is also the Protestant representative to the Moroccan Council of Churches.  This sermon is part of a series on the Gospel of Mark.  Considering how widespread child sexual abuse is throughout the world–even in many so-called “Christian homes”–I asked permission to reprint it here.  This needs widespread dissemination and discussion. MLW-W
Mark 9:38-50; Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; James 5:13-20

So I’ve got your attention by the subject of this sermon. But before we get to the millstones and lobbed-off limbs, we have to remember where we are in Mark if we’re going to grasp greater meaning in this story and address this deadly issue from within its Biblical context.

Tonight’s gospel reading is part of what scholars call a Markan sandwich; some of you have heard me mention before that in Mark’s gospel, stories are frequently inserted within other stories. We all know that this frequently happens in real life to us, we’re in the middle of doing something or talking about something when we get interrupted. And, indeed, this would undoubtedly have happened to Jesus a lot. But scholars have long noted that the parts of a Markan sandwich are not just related temporally as part of the narrative, but theologically, thematically, in some way, mutually interpreting each other –which often happens to me in real life, too: the interruption colors whatever I was already engaged in and vice-versa. For example, if Ito from Tarmilat comes to visit me while I am working on my sermon, my having been thinking about the sermon shapes my conversation with her, and my encounter with her then shapes my sermon). I say all this simply to note that these so-called literary devices are not just artificially imposed, but relate to our lives.

So, in any case, what we have here is the middle of the sandwich and the bottom slice of bread. The top of the sandwich is the text we read last week, where the disciples were discussing greatness and Jesus draws a small child into their midst and invites them to abandon dreams of greatness and welcome small children. If you skip verses 38-41, the narrative reads much more smoothly, with Jesus continuing to talk about “these little ones”. And because I am so struck with verses 42-48, I am tempted to do just that. But I’m going to resist that temptation in order to honor the whole of Mark’s sandwich; am I making you hungry, especially since we also just read the text about the Israelites longing for meat?

So then, setting aside food metaphors, we begin with the story about John’s concern over the outsider exorcist. It’s interesting that Mark identifies John as the one who asked the question, John the son of Zebedee who will later be caught arguing along with his brother James about who should get to sit in the highest places of honor when Jesus is glorified. (Makes you wonder if they were not at the heart of the discussion of greatness earlier, though they aren’t named there.) It seems, you see, that John enjoyed being one of Jesus’ closest disciple friends (part of the inner circle within the 12 that included Peter and James). John seems very aware of his privilege and position close to Jesus and the authority that brings. And it seems that John is rather possessive about this authority. It is telling, is it not, that John’s concern about the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name is that “he was not following US”? WE are the insiders, and this guy is an outsider. And John wants Jesus to support that clear distinction.

But as is so often the case, Jesus refuses to accept this distinction, this dividing line. “Do not forbid him”, Jesus responds, using the language of the conversation between Moses and Joshua son of Nun so many centuries before. The question Moses asked is also, therefore, evoked if not spoken aloud: Are you jealous, John? I imagine John’s cheeks coloring. This is all the more embarrassing given the fact that Jesus’ own disciples, Mark says, have recently proven themselves incapable of casting out a demon.

John discovers, as William Loeder notes, that “Jesus is not an egotist obsessed with protecting his reputation, but someone who cares about people.” It does not matter if healing and love come from his hand or the hand of another. What matters is that healing and love come. The insider/outsider boundary simply does not apply. Love observes no such boundaries. And to try to impose them is a mistake. Richard Jensen remarks, “Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line. Jesus is always with the outsiders.”

So Jesus words in verse 41 are a reminder to his disciples who might want insider privilege that the time will come when they will be grateful for the mercy and generosity of so-called outsiders. When “outsiders” care for them in even the smallest ways, through a cup of cold water, for example, God sees that and honors it. Would we want God to do anything less? Should we not also likewise honor such mercy and generosity which reflects the spirit of God in Christ no matter where it comes from?

Now we might be tempted to just stop here with the middle part of Mark’s sandwich and apply it to our situation here, the necessity of our being open to the spirit moving wherever it will, for example. But I really want to go on and do this in relation to the rest of the text. You note that the strength of Jesus’ exhortatory language is increasing here in verse 41: That “Amen” (Truly I tell you) adds emphasis. And the language only gets stronger in the verses that follow.

If the first part of this reading is about not obsessing over outside dangers to the community’s authority, integrity, and identity , the second part of the reading is a dire warning to look out for dangers to the community’s integrity and identity within. I think this is such an important warning to hear at so many levels. As individuals, communities, and even nations, we focus on threats coming to us from without and spend unceasing energy and resources to counter those, when what is much more likely to undo us is within – our own destructive patterns of being and doing that suck the life out of us and others.

There are so many destructive patterns of being and doing we might note: addictions of all kinds which break our bodies and destroy our relationships, our societal materialist obsession which leads us to exploit the earth and its peoples for cheap luxury, our immense personal and social capacities to ignore destructive realities until we arrive at ruin. But what Jesus speaks to here, in the strongest possible language, is what we do to children.

Yes, we are back to that little child in the middle of the circle, the child Jesus holds, the one he says we should welcome if we want to welcome him, to welcome God. All of a sudden, Jesus’s voice is trembling with emotion, with anger. It’s hard to catch the force of it in English, related to this powerful verb scandalizo, Whoever scandalizé one of these little ones – it means whoever ensares, traps, seduces one of these little ones “who trusts in me”. Can you see him now, with the children in his lap, trusting him? Whoever ensnares, entraps, seduces, one of these trusting little ones, it would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were drowned in the sea. God takes seriously what we do to trusting children.

And then you can see him looking around at these men who considered themselves spiritual insiders and warns them about their own eye, hand, foot – and you remember what foot is a euphemism for in the Biblical text right, you say foot when you mean the male sexual organ! Do you feel the progressive sexual engagement there: seeing, touching, violating. If your body parts are leading you to this, by God, cut them off. That’s what Jesus says.

You’ve got to wonder what had been going on. Had there been a situation of child sexual abuse or molestation brought to Jesus? What did he know about that was going on in Capernaum, maybe had been going on for years, maybe in the synagogue itself? And though he was undoubtedly fiercely protected by his mother and step-father as a child, what had he seen and experienced as a child himself, what had happened to his playmates and childhood friends? Who among us does not have someone we love who is deeply wounded from childhood sexual abuse? And the vast majority of the time, the abuser is an insider, family or friend, and the place of abuse is inside the home, inside the church, inside the school, all places that should be safe, but so often aren’t.

Jesus could not be more seriously about the hellish deadliness of this sin. And that’s encouraging to me. I wish all Christian institutitions would be as uncompromising as Jesus himself when dealing with child abuse and molestation. So often, the institution puts a priority on forgiving the perpetrator and addressing his needs, hushing up the offense to protect the reputation of the perpetrator and the institution. The wounded child is encouraged to forgive and forget, to not dwell on it, to get over it (at best, with counseling). And while I am all for redemption for all transgressors, all sinners, from what I can tell, the family or institutional covering up results in little redemption for anyone – the offender or the victim. That is NOT what the Bible means by love covering a multitude of sins. The most gracious, loving, redeeming thing that one can do for all parties involved is to get the offender away from children definitively. For his sake, and most importantly, for the sake of the children.

The final words of this section, while rather strange and puzzling, are very important in moving toward hopefulness and healing. All the talk of the fires of hell, lead Jesus to reflect on fire and salt. It’s clearly an allusion to the Biblical custom of offering salt with every sacrifice (which was burned you know). Salt was essential for the purification of the sacrifice. And so Jesus is holding out hope for purification. And it’s related to the community. Don’t lose your saltiness (which happens when salt is corrupted with impure additions), but have salt in yourselves, Jesus says. These are all plural yous. He doesn’t mean just take responsibility for yourself alone and get as pure as you can (that’s much more the pharisaic approach). Jesus call for his community to be salt for one another as well as the world toward the goal of real peace (shalom) with all its implications – right relationship with each other, with the world, with God.

Jesus puts responsibility for being salt not on a few chosen insider leaders, but on everybody. In this spirit, James will say pray for one another, confess your sins to one another, bring one another back from the brink of destruction, don’t just let your brother, your sister get trapped, get stuck. Keep your eyes and your hearts open and work for changes that help keep people out of traps – changes in our institutions, changes in our society, changes in our world.

This weekend, some churches around the world are responding to the gospel text by drawing attention to child trafficking and asking Christian communities to speak out against it. Here in Morocco, the most commonly accepted version of child trafficking, which often leads to molestation and sexual abuse is the practice of having child maids. Nouzha Skalli, the Moroccan minister of development, leads the official campaign against child maids (illegal, by the way, in Morocco – no child under 15 can work), a campaign called Inqad, which means rescue. Apart from simply raising awareness of the issue, she emphasizes that the campaign is pushing for greater emphasis on girls’ schooling and formation, keeping them out of the maid market.

I can’t help but think of a girl at Tarmilat I know who was sent away at the age of nine to be a child maid. She came back a couple of years ago at the age of13, which is when I met her, and had herpes. She has some serious psychological issues now. And it breaks my heart. But I’d like to think this will not happen to others now. And although we are the “outsiders” here in many ways, I’d like to think we’ve been a part of helping stop this destructive pattern in one community through our support of girls’ education in Tarmilat and continuing education programs for the older teenage girls who never had the change to go to school. I found out this week that we now have the first child from Tarmilat to ever attend university – Samira, the daughter of Aicha Rehiwi. The offering we take tonight will go toward the Tarmilat education program, paying for books for four girls in middle school and high school and for Samira’s university books. It’s a small thing, but it’s something that we can do as Christ’s community to be salt for one another and for the earth where, ultimately, we are none of us outsiders, but all in this together.

So brothers and sisters, let us open our hearts to welcome and be welcomed, to exhort and to protect, so that we might create a community of peace where we don’t have to lose our limbs or our integrity, but may find wholeness and hope. Alleluia. Alhumdullillah. Amen.

September 24, 2009 Posted by | child welfare, discipleship, faith, human rights., sin | 1 Comment

Economic Justice Primer 3): Corporations are NOT Persons

Corporations developed in the industrial revolution as a way to limit the liability (risk) of entrepeneurs in starting a new business.  They can be useful. In fact, these days most churches and other non-profits have formed “limited liability corporations,” (LLCs) so that, for instance, if someone falls and is hurt on said church’s property, they can only sue the corporation for damages–not every churchmember for every asset they own.  But corporations used to have far more limited rights than they currently do in the U.S.–and were only granted their charters if they could show that the corporation, whether for-profit or not, served the common good of society.  They certainly had far fewer rights than human persons under U.S. law–but now they have more rights than human persons.  What changed and what are the consequences?

As Thomas Hartmann documents in his book, Unequal Protection:  The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights (New York: Rodale Press, 2002), the trouble started in 1886 with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company.  It was a simple tax case (Santa Clara, CA claimed that Southern Pacific Railroad owed back taxes) that should have had nothing to do with corporate personhood, due process, or human rights.  But the lawyers for Southern Pacific Railroad used much of their time claiming that the corporation was a legal person who should be granted all the protections of the 14th Amendment.  The Supreme Court seemed to agree. (Seemed because the claim that corporations are persons was not made in the judgment of the case, but in the headnotes which are not legally binding. Nevertheless, most subsequent court decisions have acted as if this case determined corporate personhood.)

Now, the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868 to defend the rights of freed slaves and other African-Americans.  But this Supreme Court, a VERY conservative court, the SAME Supreme Court which, in Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld segregation laws as treating the races as “separate but equal,” used the 14th Amendment to apply all the protections the U.S. Constitution gives to human persons to corporations. (In fact, as Justice Hugo Black would later point out, during its first 50 years, less than 1% of the cases involving the 14th Amendment that appeared before the Supreme Court had to do with the rights of African Americans–and a full 50% had to do with the rights of corporations.)   Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, but, so far, no case has ever overturned (or, amounting to the same thing, decided that the Headnotes are not law) Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad.

What are the consequences of the legal fiction that corporations are persons?  Many.  If corporations want to elect politicians that favor them over the common good, they can donate to campaigns–just like human persons–and usually with far more money to donate.  They can use the First Amendment’s guarantee of “the right to petition government for a redress of grievances” to lobby for their interests in the halls of Congress.  They can use the 4th Amendment’s protection against search and seizure to keep authorities from surprise inspections–allowing it time to cover up health and safety violations or violations of pollution laws.  They can use the 8th Amendment’s ban on excessive fines, bail and “cruel and unusual punishment” to limit the damages in lawsuits–as when Exxon-Mobile was able to get the fines from the Alaskan oil spill by the Exxon-Valdez  greatly reduced.  How meaningful are safety and environmental laws without surprise inspections?

The fiction of corporate personhood ends up giving corporations more rights than actual persons.  A human person cannot be two places at the same time–but a corporation can.  Thus, they can open an office in the Cayman Islands and avoid paying any U.S. taxes–while benefitting from U.S. laws.  Corporations are potentially immortal, whereas human persons die–so corporations pay no inheritance tax.  Corporations can have billions of dollars available which few human persons do.  Lacking a soul or conscience, corporate persons need not heed its guidance.

I believe we need a Constitutional Amendment declaring that corporations are NOT persons and not entitled to any of the protections afforded persons under the Constitution.  This would allow surprise inspections by regulating institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), the Wage and Labor Board, the Department of Labor (inspecting to see if corporations are illegally suppressing workers’ rights to form unions and engage in collective bargaining), Immigration and Naturalization Service (inspecting for undocumented workers), etc.  We also need a Constitutional Amendment declaring that money does NOT equal speech (or there could be no free speech, since the one with more money can buy more speech), so that campaign finance laws which restrict donor amounts by persons or corporations are not, thereby, restricting free speech.  We need to require that all corporations have their charters renewed every 10 years–and that they must justify their continued existence as corporations based on whether or not they continue to show that they benefit the common good.

September 24, 2009 Posted by | economic justice | 1 Comment

Economic Justice Primer 2): On “the Invisible Hand” of Market Distribution

First, let me say that unlike some Marxist-Leninists who designed “command economies” that were centrally planned and extremely bureaucratic, I do not deny the need for markets or for private businesses.  “Command economies” failed the test of history:  They were grossly inefficient and only worked at all by suppressing individual freedoms in a totalitarian state–and even that fell under its own weight eventually.

Market economies distribute things efficiently–but not always fairly.  It is a myth that the “invisible hand” of a “free market” will always distribute goods and services in an optimum fashion for a society.  The myth is based on a misreading of Adam Smith, founder of modern capitalist economic theory.  Smith said that value and the wealth of nations was created not primarily by agriculture or trade, but by labor.  He argued (rightly) against monopolies tied to aristocratic families and to government preference for one company over another.  Rather, trusting in competition between companies, with everyone acting in his or her own interests, the good of the whole nation would be served.  That was his “invisible hand.”  We ought to be suspicious of this for it amounts to saying that if everyone is as greedy as possible, everyone will benefit.  Think of that: Every religious and moral system in the world condemns greed as a vice.  But the “invisible hand” (a secular substitute for God’s providence?) of a benevolent free market supposedly works by turning greed into a VIRTUE.  (Not Smith, but the later American philosopher Ayn Rand, made this explicit in her horrible, but widely influential, book, The Virtue of Selfishness.  Milton Friedman was a disciple of Rand and, in turn, Ronald Reagan was a disciple of Friedman.)

But the real Adam Smith was not the hyper-capitalist of later American myth. (In fact, the term “capitalism” did not exist when he wrote The Wealth of Nations.) He argued against what today would be called “globalized free trade,” for instance by arguing that tariffs that made another nation’s goods more expensive and favored one’s own nation could be especially helpful when one was developing an industrial society. He argued against policies that would “outsource” jobs to other lands.  Believing that poverty could hold down the development of a nation as a whole, Smith advocated taxing the rich to provide for the poor.  He also recognized that external factors such as pollution or war debts could undermine the “invisible hand” of the market in creating and distributing wealth.

So, while Smith advocated “free markets,” what he meant was an end to monopolies tied to aristocratic families or to fuedal guilds.  The extreme laissez-faire form of late modern capitalism owes more to Milton Friedman and his political disciple, Ronald Reagan, than to Adam Smith. As well, Smith didn’t believe that all moral values should be reduced to market values. The man who wrote The Wealth of Nations also wrote A Theory of Moral Sentiments.

For more on how Adam Smith would not fit very well in today’s capitalism, see Thom Stark’s “Quest.”

September 22, 2009 Posted by | economic justice | 1 Comment

Economic Justice Primer: 1) There are no “Free Markets.”

There are no “free markets” if by that we mean markets with absolutely no government intervention.  In any economy more complicated than a small village, a market cannot even exist without government “intervention.”  After all, just to HAVE a market takes at least the following:

  1. Standardized currency, backed by government guarantee of the worth of that legal tender.
  2. Standardized weights and measures–and a bureau of same to set those standards and enforce them.
  3. A mechanism for enforcing contracts.

Beyond that, for an efficient market, one needs some other things:

  1. Public roadways, waterways to move goods and services.  One can move everything by rail through private rail companies, but chances are the railway lines will be publicly maintained.    Bridges, public dredging of rivers and ports for commercial access, public airports even for private air shipping companies–all are government interventions in the market.
  2. Safety standards for workplaces and for products.  And a government agency to enforce the standards and review them.
  3. Pollution standards and government enforcement mechanisms.
  4. One doesn’t usually want privatized access to drinking water, so there is usually public water and sewage.

One can have purely privatized garbage pick-up and utilities, such as electricity, but these tend to be “natural monopolies” without much competition. So, usually, for the benefit of the whole community, these are either publicly owned or, at least, publicly regulated.

Public transportation systems, partially paid for by taxes, partially by user fares, help keep down congestion on roads (or keep it from getting worse), reduce pollution, and provide efficient transportation for all those without the means or desire of private transportation. 

Then, too, every society decides that not all values can be reduced to market values. Somethings are so valuable (or so dangerous to the common good) that the society judges that they should not be bought and sold. If they are to be distributed at all, they must be distributed by non-market forces.  Thus, in our society, several drugs are illegal (e.g., cannabis) and others (e.g., alcohol) are strictly regulated and not allowed to be sold to minors–this is a large interference in the marketplace.  Also, in our society, we do not permit sex to be distributed by market forces. When we forbid pornography (or certain types of it, such as “snuff” films) or regulate it who can be filmed (no minors) and to whom it can be sold (again, no minors), we interfere in the market.  When we forbid child labor or slavery, we interfere in the market.

The idea of a market that has no government interference is an illusion–and would not be desirable.   Once we see and acknowledge this basic truth, we can see the true nature of the debate: Over HOW MUCH and WHAT KIND of government interference in the marketplace.  Now that is a debate worth having. I do not think any political party or ideology has a corner on all the answers there.   But when anyone starts with the premise, “Government interference in the marketplace is always wrong,” you know they are either quite mistaken or being deceptive.

September 19, 2009 Posted by | economic justice | 1 Comment

Andrew Sullivan’s Open Letter to George W. Bush

I don’t agree with Sullivan’s just war premises, nor that the Iraq War ever met the criter of Just War Theory, not even initially. But this article, by someone who was, from 9/11/’01 to early 2004, one of Bush’s strongest supporters on foreign policy is well worth reading.  It is a devastating critique of torture policies and fairly good on the steps needed to extricate ourselves as a nation from these policies.  Take the time to read it carefully.

September 19, 2009 Posted by | torture | 1 Comment

How U.S. Americans View the World

Americans' world

September 16, 2009 Posted by | humor, U.S. politics | 13 Comments