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

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