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

Pentecost Sunday: Different Christian Groups Emphasize Different Aspects

Today is Pentecost Sunday in the Western version of the ancient liturgical calendar in Christianity. (In Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecost is NEXT Sunday.) The Believers’ Church/Free Church tradition which includes my own Baptist heritage is not big on liturgical calendars, but I find that if Christians do not shape themselves by theological events as we move through time and space, then we will shape ourselves by secular ones (e.g., churches which celebrate nationalist or military-related holidays in their home countries–which have the effect of reducing the God of All Nations to a tribal deity).

When the Day of Pentecost came, they [i.e., the followers of Jesus] were all together in one place.  Suddenly, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 

Now, there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.  When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment because each one heard them speaking in their own language.  Utterly amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?  Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?  Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia [probably meaning the Roman province called Asia–roughly today’s Asia Minor], Phrygia, and Pamphilia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism) ; Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”  Amazed and perplexed, they asked each other, “What does this mean?”

Some, however, made fun of them, saying, “They have had too much wine!”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd, “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem! Let me explain this to you–listen carefully to what I say.  These men are not drunk as you suppose!  It’s only nine in the morning!  No, this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams;

Even on my bond-slaves, both men and women,

I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

and they will prophesy.

I will show wonders in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood

before the coming of the great and glorious Day of the Lord.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

Men of Israel, listen to this:  Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.  This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowlege; and you, with the help of wicked men, did put him to death by nailing him to a cross.  But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.  . . . [Skipping the rest of Peter’s Semon]

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  And Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–all whom the Lord our God will call.” [Acts 2: 1-39 NIV]

Differing groups of Christians put the emphasis of this day (and Acts 2) in differing places–all with good basis in the text:

  • Evangelists and missionaries stress the global mission of Christianity that began at Pentecost.  From the approximately 3000 who were saved that day to the numbers added daily that followed.
  • Some emphasize Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church,” i.e., when the broken followers of Jesus of Nazareth became a distinct entity called the church–even though not yet called “Christians.”
  • Those who stress the rootedness of Christianity in Judaism point out that this came on Pentecost (the 50th day after Jesus’ resurrection) during the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot (“Festival of Weeks”) which celebrates the giving of the Torah from God to Moses and is commemorated 50 days after the Exodus.  (This is why Jews from throughout the Diaspora were gathered in Jerusalem.)
  • Those who put extra emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit (i.e., “Pentecostals and Charismatics”) focus on the speaking in tongues.
  • Eastern Orthodox and Holiness groups focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit as empowering to new lives of faithful discipleship.
  • Liberation theologians focus on the breakdown of barriers between various racial and ethnic groups and classes (bond and free) and even the healing of ageism and generation gaps.
  • Feminist theologians focus on the “sons and daughters” and “both men and women” –the equality in Spirit-guided service to God predicted by Joel and proclaimed by Peter as happening with this outpouring of the Spirit.
  • Trinitarians focus on the way the Spirit is given by God the Father and bears witness to the salvific work of Christ the Son.
  • Those who concentrate on small group formation for discipleship note that the empowerment of the Spirit came when the disciples were gathered all together and the continuing empowerment took place in continued daily breaking of bread together, prayer, and attention to the apostle’s teaching (today, Bible Study).

There are doubtless other emphases.  All that I have mentioned are legitimately rooted in this day.  I think any one emphasis without the others is unbalanced.

Happy Pentecost Sunday.  And, to Jewish friends, Happy Shavuot!

May 31, 2009 Posted by | Christian calendar, church, Holy Spirit, Jesus, liturgy, theology | 1 Comment

Resurrection Sunday

I have never liked the term “Easter” for the Christian celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Easter refers to the pagan goddess, “Ishtar.”  This is where we get Easter bunnies and eggs: symbols of fertility and new life in Spring. Celebrating “Easter” is celebrating “the circle of life,” of rebirth after winter. It’s the original Earth Day.

Now, I have nothing against celebrating Earth Day. I am a big environmentalist and a proponent of Western Christianity recovering its ecological roots.  Properly understood, Christianity is far more ecologically radical than Wicca or other “earth religions.”  This has been disguised because of Western Christianity’s captivity to the Powers of Empire and Consumerism.

But Resurrection Sunday isn’t about any of that.  I BARELY tolerate “Santa.” I have no tolerance for Easter Bunnie intrusions into the celebration, not of rebirth after winter, but of LIFE AFTER DEATH. Jesus was DEAD (not swooned on the cross) and God RAISED HIM UP.

I believe in the BODILY resurrection of Jesus–more than just a physical resuscitation, but not LESS THAN that–nothing ridiculous  like a “spiritual resurrection.” [On advice from a friendly critic, I am removing the judgmental language.  But Christianity grew out of Judaism and in that context “spiritual resurrection” was a contradiction in terms.  No First Century Jew would have used the term “resurrection” for anything non-somatic. “Spiritual resurrection” is a belief that grows out of Western post-Enlightenment skepticism,  building on the Greek body-soul dualism imported into early Christianity from Hellenistic philosophy.]  I don’t believe that souls exist apart from bodies (Greek rather than biblical anthropology), nor anything stupid  Gnostic like “the immortality of the soul.” ONLY GOD is immortal. The Christian hope is for resurrection. And our hope, as Paul says in I Co. 15, is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus.

Resurrection Sunday means that we worship a Risen, Living Savior.  It means that empires of death do not have the last word.  It means that God VINDICATES Jesus’ nonviolent way. Rome, the temple elites of 1st C. Judaism, and all the Powers of Death only THOUGHT they were victorious in crucifying Jesus. They failed. The cross reveals the violence of the system, of all of us, but strips it naked of any victory because of the empty tomb and the proclamation, “He is not here; He is risen!”

This is the power behind all Christian movements for justice or liberation. As Gustavo Gutierrez replied to a liberal theologian from the U.S. trying to water down his robust theology, “In Latin America, we need a God who can raise Jesus from the dead.”

I admit that it is easier to joyfully sing resurrection songs on some days than others. We live in a world where “what’d dead stays that way.” We live in a world where evil, and cynicism, and corruption, and greed triumph. Where peace efforts are shattered by those who profit from war. Where the marginalized are silenced. Where women and children are violently exploited. Where the creation itself is raped and plundered for the almighty dollar.  Where political leaders waffle, or backtrack, or weasel,–or betray.  Where loved ones betray us with a kiss.

But that is also the biblical world.  That is also the destructive, numbing, faith-destroying, virtue-corrupting world that the first Christians knew. In such a world, against all expectation, God said NO to all that. And more. God, in raising Jesus Christ the Son, said YES to life, peace, salvation, love!  God’s unarmed, nonviolent, unilateral initiative in Jesus, disarms us and liberates us from chains of sin and oppression for lives of free service to God and others.

In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu,

“Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than Darkness; Life is stronger than Death!”

The tomb is empty. He is not there. God has raised him from the dead. He goes before us to the Galilee and we disciples, we faithless deserters and betrayers, can meet him there to renew our discipleship in transformed lives for the healing of the world. Amen.

April 12, 2009 Posted by | Christian calendar, Easter, resurrection, theology | 7 Comments

Good Friday

“Good” Friday–It seems an odd name for the day Jesus was crucified by the Romans (in collusion with the temple elites of Jerusalem).  The English name is probably a corruption of “God’s Friday” the way that “Good-Bye” is a corruption of “God be with Ye.”

Baptists and other Free Church traditions often do not observe Maundy Thursday or Good Friday with services.  This, as I heard a Catholic theologian wisely observe, leads to the common Protestant sin of “raising Jesus too soon.”  Skipping from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of resurrection on Easter Sunday leads to a triumphalist theology–what Martin Luther referred to as a “theology of glory” rather than a “theology of the cross.” 

But I think the problem is worse than that.  Reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s popular The Last Week:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus Final Days in Jerusalem I have come to think that churches should have services all through Holy Week: Palm Sunday,  “Confrontation Monday” (focusing on the so-called “Cleansing” clash with the Temple System), “Teaching Tuesday” & “Teaching Wednesday,” Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.  This puts the cross and resurrection back in context.

Crucifixion was not the Romans’ normal method of execution. It was reserved for rebellious slaves and for insurrectionists against Roman rule.  (See Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross.) When Pilate places the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” above Jesus’ head, he is not confirming his belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah from the line of David, but is accusing him of attempting to usurp Rome’s rule.  Most English translations say that Jesus was crucified between two “thieves,” but the ordinary Greek  word for “thief” was kleptos.  The word the Gospels use to describe the other two crucified that day is lestes which can mean a robber, but is more often used to mean “rebel,” or “revolutionary.” Today, we would say that Jesus was crucified between two terrorists.  The released man not crucified is identified as “Barabbas,” but this is not a personal name. It is Aramaic, “Bar abbas,” “Son of the Father.” “Barabbas” was probably a zealot making a messianic claim.  Pilate’s sign over Jesus’  head is his accusation that Jesus is also a terrorist.

Of course, Pilate misunderstands the nature of Jesus’ movement. The Jesus way is nonviolent and Jesus does not intend to simply replace one ruler with another (except God).  But Pilate does understand that Jesus and his movement is a threat to Rome and to all oppressive, imperial rule.  Christianity would be a threat to America, too, if it had not “tamed” and domesticated the churches.

By skipping from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, we don’t avoid the cross for a theology of glory as with the pattern of moving from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.  But it does de-politicize the cross and make Jesus a passive victim of God. God does use the crucifixion for our salvation. (See J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement; S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice:  A Theology of the Cross. ) But there were also human motivations in Jesus’ death.  We miss that–we miss  the way that Jesus’ message enraged the political powers.  After all, at Caesarea Philippi Jesus warned his disciples that his crucifixion could lead to theirs as well. We disciples are to take up our crosses–that means to live in Jesus’ nonviolent way even knowing that this may mean our persecution and deaths by the powers.

And the resurrection? Ah, but that must await a few days.  Yet as we contemplate the cross, we should know that not just Rome or her puppets in the Jewish “leadership” of the Temple system, but all of us are to blame.  (This is where Rene’ Girard’s views on mimetic desire are so helpful.  See Rene’ Girard, The Scapegoat.  Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. ) As the old hymn asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, we were all there.

By taking on the violence of the Powers and all of us without a violent response, Jesus ends the violence and the sin described in the scapegoating system.  This voluntary sacrifice ends sacrifice–ends the myth of religiously sanctioned violence and offers us all a saving alternative.  In that way, maybe this day of darkness really can be called “Good.”

April 10, 2009 Posted by | atonement, Christian calendar, nonviolence, theology | 3 Comments

Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday, in the Christian calendar.  “Maundy” is Middle English for “mandate” or “command.” It comes to English through the French mande‘  from the Latin version of John 13:34, “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis ivicim sicut dilexi vos.”  That is, “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you.”

In our church, we celebrate Maundy Thursday with a service that includes both the Lord’s Supper and footwashing, just as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet in the Gospel of John.  I look forward to it all year.

I have never understood why few denominations consider footwashing a “sacrament” or “ordinance” alongside baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  After all, Jesus’ command is at least as strong.  And the practice of footwashing captures the essence of Christian life as one of mutual servanthood.  But whatever we call this powerful sign of discipleship, I find it to be one of the most important to my Christian life.  It helps heal church conflicts. (Who can continue a grudge while preparing to wash feet or have one’s feet washed?)

However you celebrate this day,  I hope you enter into Jesus’ passion–and it enters into you.

April 9, 2009 Posted by | Christian calendar | 4 Comments

Palm Sunday: Anti-Imperial Street Theatre

In their popular work, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about the contrast between Jesus’ entry into the East Gate of Jerusalem with Pilate’s military/imperialist entry into the West Gate of Jerusalem on the same day.  They state the simultaneous nature of these events with a little more certainty than is historically warranted, but we do know that Pilate did not normally reside in Jerusalem, but arrived with extra troops every year to keep the crowds from revolting Rome’s rule during Passover.  After all, Passover celebrates the Exodus, God’s liberating of His people from another oppressive empire long ago.  Discontent in the Jewish crowds would be strongest during Passover.

So, Pilate comes from the West with extra troops on war horses in a military display to cow the masses.  By contrast, Jesus arrives from the East in a carefully staged (getting the colt/foal of a donkey) counter-demonstration.  Drawing from Zechariah (not lost on the crowds), he presents a salvation from imperial rule that is not based on greater firepower, but on peace and meekness.

When we celebrate Palm Sunday, we don’t just remember the fickle crowds (so soon to desert Jesus, along with the 12) and their brief recognition/celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry. We also remember that Jesus presents us with a deliberate choice:  Following His Way of meekness, humility, and peace or the Way of Empire and military might.  There is no Way to follow Jesus that does NOT break from the military option.

April 5, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian calendar, Christianity | 10 Comments

Lent: One Baptist’s Perspective

[Reprint from last year]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent Week IV: Joy


First of all, gentle readers, I apologize for apparently getting my advent weeks out of order. There are at least 2 historic Advent calendars, but I apparently conflated them and put Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love in an order no one uses. This is what happens when a Baptist (not a tradition known for liturgical correctness) tries to reflect on the ecumenical Christian calendar. I’ll work at doing better next year. 🙂

But I am very happy to have Desmond Mpilo Tutu, retired Archbishop of Capetown in the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa, as my witness to the Incarnation who represents Joy–even if I put Joy in the wrong week. 🙂 From the time I first became aware of Tutu (c. 1982), I noticed in him the great joy of Christian faith–even in the midst of nonviolent struggle against great oppression; even as the recipient of so much hate.  When the late (and, by me, unlamented) Jerry Falwell, acting at the prompting of the Reagan admin., denounced Tutu as a Communist and phony Christian, I was so horrified that I dared something I had never done: I wrote to both of them.  At the time, I was an unknown student at an unknown, small, conservative, Christian college–recently out of the U.S. Army with a conscientious objector discharge and trying to follow my calling to serve God wherever that might lead.  I didn’t know, then, that there were Baptists in South Africa and that Tutu, with his broad ecumenical experience, would know enough about Baptist polity to realize that Falwell was not–could not–speak for other Baptists. I knew that, often enough, Christians in other, more heirarchical traditions, did think that famous (or infamous) Baptist preachers could speak for other Baptists and give official pronouncements of doctrine, ethics, public policy, etc.  I could not let this brave Christian leader think that Falwell’s horrific and bigoted pronouncement represented some general feeling of Baptists. I wrote Rev. Falwell and was polite as I knew how to be, but basically called on him to repent for his obvious racism. I never received a reply.  I also wrote Tutu, then the Bishop of Johannesburg, in care of the South African Council of Churches. To my surprise, I received a personal reply–which remains one of my fondest possessions. As he thanked me for my prayers and support, joy and Christian love leaped off the handwritten pages of stationary.  That was May, 1985 and my involvement in the U.S. “Free South Africa” movement dates from that moment. I have since read most of Tutu’s writings and a few secondary sources, although I cannot be counted a Tutu scholar.  What follows is a bare bones account of his life and work–with an emphasis on how he witnesses to the joy of Incarnation.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klersksdorp in the Republic of South Africa in 1931–a time when South Africa was ruled by whites for whites, but prior to the Nazi-like racism of the Afrikaaner policy of “apartheid.” When he was 12, the Tutu family moved to Johannesburg where he was educated in segregated schools (Bantu schools). The young Tutu wanted to become a physician, but the family could not afford the education and so he decided to follow his father in becoming a schoolteacher. He underwent teacher training at Pretoria Bantu Normal College (1951-1953) and then taught at the Johannesburg Bantu High School and then Muncieville High School (where he met his wife, Leah) until 1957 when he resigned in protest of the Bantu Education Act–an act which would consign poor South Africans (especially non-whites) to inferior education.  In 1958, he followed a vocational leading into the Anglican priesthood, studying as a candidate for ordination at St. Peter’s Theological College, Rosettenville, receiving his Licentiate in Theology in 1960 (the year of the Sharpeville Massacre–when white South African police fired live ammunition on black schoolchildren who were unarmed and nonviolently protesting the conditions of their schools!) and becoming an ordained Anglican priest in 1961.  He was chaplain at the University of Fort Hare (one of the places where Africans could get quality education in Southern Africa) which was a hotbed of dissent and anti-apartheid resistance at the time.  Tutu’s superiors thought that he was becoming “too political” in his involvement with those committed to the struggle.  They suggested he resign as chaplain and sent him to London to pursue further studies while things cooled off.

 Tutu matriculated at King’s College, University of London from 1962-1966, earning a Bachelor of Divinity degree (with highest honors) and Master of Theology degree while serving as a part-time curate or pastor. In 1967, Tutu returned to South Africa and became once more the Chaplain a the University of Fort Hare and a member of the faculty of the Federal Theological Seminary in Alice–and used his lectures to highlight the circumstances of the African population. In 1970, Tutu became Lecturer in the Department of Theology of the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland, continuing his policy of relating his theological lectures to the circumstances of the South African struggle.  He wrote a letter to the Prime Minister (Voerster) and described the situation in South Africa as “a powder barrel which can explode at any time.” He was not answered.

In 1972, Tutu returned to Britain as Director of the World Council of Churches’ Education Fund, based in Bromley, Kent.  He used his position to highlight the sufferings and injustices of his homeland. (This was not an easy time to be associated with the WCC for many.  In the U.S., South Africa, and elsewhere conservative Christians denounced the WCC as “subversive” and made wild accusations that its Programme for Overcoming Racism was using money from churches to finance armed revolutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  Although the WCC showed solidarity with struggles against oppression, it is a conservative myth that it ever used money to buy weapons or otherwise support armed guerillas. I can’t speak for other places in the world, but I think one can trace the decline in prestige of both the National and World Councils of Churches in the U.S. to this myth–and the corresponding campaign to defund the councils.)

Tutu returned to South Africa in 1975 and was appointed the Anglican Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral,  Johannesburg–the first African to hold such a post.  The very next year, 1976, was the year of the Soweto Uprising.  Students and others in Soweto (a segregated non-white “township” next to Johannesburg) protested the government’s rule that Afrikaans be the only language in education. The government responded with deadly force and the nonviolent protest became a riot. As a result of this,Tutu called for a worldwide boycott of South African products.  It took years and was full of holes, but international sanctions and citizen boycotts of South African goods, entertainment and sports boycotts of South African venues did slowly put increasing pressure on the white government to end apartheid. (Ronald Reagan reversed the sanctions of the Carter years, themselves incomplete, and preferred a policy of “constructive engagement” which amounted to turning a blind eye to South African injustices because South Africa claimed that all the movements for non-racial democracy in Africa were fronts for Communism! It was in this context that Falwell’s “phony” remark was made.)  In 1976, Tutu was consecrated Bishop of Lesotho.

As the South African government kept banning the political parties and organizations of protest and struggle, including the African National Congress, many unions, etc., the struggle against apartheid became more and more a struggle led by the black and “colored” or mixed-race churches (with a few valiant white Christians, too). The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) suspended two Afrikaaner Reformed denominations for the heresy of theologically justifying racial apartheid.  Other global pressures were increased, too.  Meanwhile, the vehicle for the church struggle against apartheid in South Africa was the South African Council of Churches, to which Desmond Tutu was elected General Secretary in 1978.

Tutu led nonviolent marches, gave speeches and sermons (which were collected and republished here in the U.S., where I began to read them) that related faith to the struggle against apartheid. But he also was highly critical of those who would use violence or preach hatred against whites. He was repeatedly arrested. The government blamed him for everything–such as when he risked his life to stop the “necklacing” of an informant (this was a horrible practice wherein a mob would surround someone who cooperated with the apartheid regime, stick a rubber tire filled with gasoline/petrol around said collaborator’s neck, and set it on fire) and then was blamed for the attempted murder!

In 1984, in recognition for his leadership in the nonviolent struggle (and in honor of all the thousands who participated in it), Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (He was the 2nd leader of the anti-apartheid struggle to receive the Nobel: the first was Chief Albert Luthuli in 1960–the Zulu Chieftain who founded the African National Congress and set it on its early path of Gandhian nonviolence.  The 3rd Nobel for the anti-apartheid struggle would go to Nelson Mandela, sharing it with F.W. de Klerk, the white president, for their mutual work to end apartheid and introduce multi-racial democracy without further violence.) He has received numerous other awards and honors for his work for peace and justice.

In 1985, Tutu was elected the Bishop of Johannesburg and in 1986 became Archbishop of Capetown–each time becoming the first black African to hold the post. 

After the fall of apartheid and the institution of multi-racial democracy in 1989, Tutu began a new role–now, not as one of the leaders of nonviolent struggle for justice, but as a healer of a strife-torn nation. In 1995, Tutu was asked to head South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which, in place of war crimes trials or cycles of revenge, asked oppressors and victims to tell publicly the crimes they had committed and receive pardons. The cycle of violence had to be broken, not by hiding but by telling the truth and allowing people to begin anew.  This has now become a model for similar truth and reconciliation commissions in other war torn or strife torn situations. (I often wonder if the history of my nation would have been different if we had held such commissions after the Civil War or, again, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the fall of legal segregation.) For this work, Tutu received the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999.

Since retiring as Archbishop, Tutu has worked with the PeaceJam movement to inspire youth around the world to work for peace and justice. He has also worked to end the plague of AIDS (and its stigma), championed the ordination of women, and called for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in church and society, called for Middle East Peace (and worked to get Nobel Peace Laureates to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis) and much else.

Joy has permeated his entire life and work–the joy of a witness to the Word Made Flesh.

December 23, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, heroes, love of enemies, peacemaking | Comments Off on Advent Week IV: Joy

Advent Week III: Peace

muriel-lester.jpgFor week 3 of Advent, I have chosen that radical Baptist peacemaker, Muriel Lester as my witness to the Word Made Flesh.  Because I said as well as I can before, I am reprinting an article I wrote on Ms. Lester in 2003 below:

Muriel Lester (1883 – 1968): Ambassador of Reconciliation
A Random Chapter in the History of Nonviolence
by Michael L. Westmoreland-White
Monday, 21 April 2003 Muriel Lester, once one of the world’s most famous Christian pacifists, is today little known. This deserves correction since Lester has been positively compared to both Dorothy Day and Jane Addams in her work for the poor and for peace. As far as I can determine, she never participated in a campaign of active nonviolence personally, but she was a key link in the convergence of several movements: the mystical Christian pacifism of Tolstoy, the pragmatic peacebuilding of the early 20th C. labor and feminist movements, the “liberal” pacifism of mainstream non-sectarian Protestantism between the 2 World Wars, and Gandhian satyagraha or active nonviolent direct action. Since Lester, like Day, was a witness to Christian pacifism through the very difficult days of World War II, her story deserves recovery for us, today.

Born in Essex, England in December 1883, Muriel Lester grew up in relative wealth and security. In fact, the sheltered nature of her early life makes her journey into solidarity with the poor and radical Christian peacemaking all the more remarkable. Her father and paternal grandfather were successful in the shipbuilding business, the source of the family money. Her father was also a Justice of the Peace. The latter was somewhat unusual since the Lesters were Baptists and it was still rare, in those days, for “Nonconformists” (people who belonged to one of the Protestant denominations other than the Church of England) to hold a governmental office. The Lester family was prominent in English Baptist life, Henry Lester, Jr. (Muriel’s father) was for years president of the Essex Baptist Union. (Before the 1970s, it was not unusual anywhere in the world for laypeople, especially laymen, to hold major leadership positions in Baptist denominations. Outside the U.S., this is still more common than inside where the “cult of pastoral leadership” — sometimes amounting to pastoral dictatorship! — has marginalized the previous Baptist tradition of strong lay-leadership. As part of their historic views of “liberty of conscience” and the “priesthood of believers,” previous generations of Baptists saw pastors and ordained ministers as “firsts among equals” in the life of the congregation the authority of theologians, ministers, and denominational officials came from their ability to persuade and teach laypeople who reserved the right to interpret Scripture for themselves and to challenge direction and teaching that was less than persuasive to them. Messy as this approach is, I prefer it to hierarchical systems and, speaking as a Baptist, would like to see its revival in our circles in the U.S.)

Along with her brother, Kingsley, and her sister, Doris, Muriel grew strong roots in the spirituality of English Baptist life. Her father taught them to think for themselves, being himself a strong iconoclast against “the old legalisms” of 19th C. Baptist tradition. Muriel was baptized in 1898, at 15, a typical “age of decision” for faith among those who grow up in Baptist circles. She and Doris reorganized and updated the children’s Sunday School programs. Many Baptist leaders in England, including her father, opposed the Anglo-Boer War as a war of imperialist aggression (although pure pacifists were fairly rare among English Baptists by this time). Muriel heard these arguments, but they didn’t take quick root since she was at a militaristic phase of her life, then. Later, discovering the writings of the Russian novelist, Count Leo Tolstoy, Muriel had a “second conversion” to Christian pacifism.

Muriel’s childhood provided a good education and ample opportunities to travel. She contemplated enrolling at Cambridge University, only recently open to “Nonconformists” and it still being fairly rare for English women to seek university degrees. With her fine mind and disciplined lifestyle, Lester would probably have done well in university life and could have become an accomplished scholar in a chosen area of interest. Yet, by this time, her heart had been captured by the call to work for social justice, especially for the poor. She declined to seek university education. Instead, along with her sister, Doris, and with money from the estate of her brother, Kingsley, who died young, she founded Kingsley Hall in the poverty-stricken Bow district of East London in 1914. Kingsley Hall was part settlement house, part “tee-totaling public house” (similar to the later coffee house movement in the U.S), and part non-denominational church with Muriel the de-facto pastor and director. What had brought this upper-Middle Class young woman to such a pass?

Two experiences were crucial in this transformation out of her sheltered life and into radical solidarity with and champion of the poor. The first was a train-ride during her early teen years that took her slowly through the London slums on her way home. Lester observed the sight and smell of poverty close-up for the first time. She asked aloud whether people lived “down there” and received this patronizing and dismissive answer from another passenger, “Oh yes, plenty of people live down there, but you needn’t worry about them, they don’t mind it, they’re not like you, they don’t mind any of these smells. Besides, if they did, they only have themselves to blame. They get drunk. That’s why they’re poor.” Muriel, a lifelong teetotaler, knew that alcoholism could contribute to poverty, but she also knew wealthy people who drank, so she wasn’t ready to accept this answer at face value. Then, in 1902, she visited with her father a “factory girls’ club” in Bow that was having a party. Whatever she saw and experienced there began a profound change in her. Muriel began to go to Bow regularly as a volunteer social worker. In 1912, she and her sister, Doris, rented rooms in a Victorian working class cottage for a base, and then, as they spent more time there, as a residence. This began an experiential education in social radicalism that was to culminate in the production of Kingsley Hall.

While Muriel and Doris were becoming familiar with life in Bow and its problems, Muriel was becoming more skeptical about mainline churches. The churches were not managing to change society in radical ways. She wanted to see the revolutionary dimensions of Christianity make an impact personally in the structures of society. During this time, Lester deepened her study of Tolstoy’s teachings about pacifism and taught these to her Sunday School students. Together, they came to the conclusion that they had to do “Jesus Christ the honour of taking him seriously, of thinking out His teaching in terms of daily life, and then acting on it even if ordered by police, prelates, and princes to do the opposite.”

It was with this radical faith that Muriel and Doris began to ask the residents of Bow to dream with them of a place where they could begin to work on their own problems, not abandoning political or union struggles, but not waiting for such successes before working to improve their lives together. With money from Kingsley’s estate, the sisters purchased an abandoned church building, Zion Chapel, previously used by a Strict and Particular Baptist congregation on Botolph Road in Bow. (Particular Baptists were more Calvinistic than General Baptists. After the two main groups in England merged in the mid-19th Century to become the Baptist Union of Great Britain, those very Calvinistic Baptists that refused to join with the Arminian or General Baptists became known as “Strict and Particular” Baptists.) They worked to transform this former church into a “teetotal pub,” and settlement house — Kingsley Hall. For 18 years, this community center was the base of Muriel Lester’s work among the poor and working classes. It was, in many ways, as radical a center as any socialist could imagine, but it was never a secular enterprise: Muriel, Doris, and many of the residents practiced silent, listening prayer similar to Quaker practices. Once a week, they gathered for Bible study, especially the teachings of Jesus, asking if and how His teachings answered the questions and problems of the poor. The center of their focus was the Sermon on the Mount.

As World War I broke out, Lester resisted the militaristic patriotism of most of England and solidified her nascent pacifism by joining the fledgling Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1914. She later recalled the launching of the F.O.R. in these words:

In December 1914, a hundred or so Christians of all sects met in Cambridge, drawn together by the immovable conviction that a nation cannot wage war to the glory of God. The doctrine of the Cross, self-giving, self-suffering, forgiveness, is the exact opposite of the doctrine of armies and navies. One must choose between the sword and the Cross. Thus the Fellowship of Reconciliation was formed, providing us with anchorage as well as with a chart for all adventuring. (From It Occurred to Me by Muriel Lester, pp. 61-62.)

Not all other English Christians agreed. Along with others in the F.O.R., Lester received condemnation from many churches for refusing to pray for British victory. Lester claimed that a “victor’s peace” would sow the seeds for future wars. Considering that most historians agree that many of the roots of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and of World War II grew out of the vengeful terms of the Treaty of Versailles which ended WWI (and sought to punish Germany and make it solely responsible for the war), Lester insight shows great wisdom. When the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) was founded four years later in 1919, Lester quickly joined it as well, shortly after its first meeting in Holland.

Meanwhile, in 1921, Lester was elected for a term on the city council of the Poplar borough of London. Bow constituted roughly a third of the borough and Muriel was elected on a Fabian socialist platform. In her city council post, Lester was able to address many of the political dimensions of the social ills of the inner city, but she did not stop engaging in direct aid and community organizing. In 1923, Muriel and Doris Lester co-founded a “Children’s House” in Bow as an alternative to the grim orphanages of the day. In 1927, she used an inheritance to construct a new Kingsley Hall and to expand to Dagenham, another poor district of East London.

The residents of Bow did not consider Muriel to be just another social worker or even a politician who was “on their side.” Despite her wealthy background, she was claimed as “one of them” and they adopted her as their “parson” since few of them found themselves at home in any church other than Kingsley Hall. Muriel described herself as needing to perform the “priestly functions” for the “little company of the believers of Christ.” She led Sunday worship, re-wrote hymns, led prayers, provided pastoral care, officiated at communion services (Holy Eucharist; most often called “the Lord’s Supper” in the Baptist circles that Lester knew best) and (adult) baptisms and marriage services, blessed babies, organized a nursery school, initiated a men’s adult school, and started other programs. Although her theology broadened from the conservative evangelicalism of her childhood, Lester never lost a sense of the need to bear witness to the gospel in personal as well as social terms. Throughout her life, she invited people to follow Christ and become part of this radical fellowship of believers. Although she never sought formal ordination from any established denomination for herself, Lester championed the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, eventually writing a book-long defense called Why Forbid Us? (Shanghai: Christian Literature Society, 1935). Lester eventually developed a following as a writer on Christian topics, including matters of personal and social ethics, prayer and spirituality, and autobiographical devotional books. Although never formally trained in academic theology, Muriel Lester should probably count as the first woman to be a writing theologian among Baptists and one of the earliest among most Believers’ Church bodies.

After WWI, Lester, along with much of the world, began hearing reports about Gandhi’s leadership in a nonviolent struggle for India’s independence from Great Britain. From childhood, Lester had been a strong anti-imperialist (as were many Nonconformists of that era). Now, Gandhi’s active nonviolent struggle connected Lester’s pacifism and anti-imperialism in a new way. In 1926, accompanied by her nephew, Daniel Hogg, Lester made the first of many trips to India, making many lifelong friends, but most notably Gandhi. She wrote about this first trip in her book, My Host the Hindu (London: Williams and Norgate, 1931). Lester returned to India in 1934, 1935, 1938, 1946, and 1949 when she helped to form the Indian chapter of the F.O.R. When Gandhi came to Britain in 1931 for the Round Table Conference on Indian independence, he stayed in Kingsley Hall for three months. (This was shown in one brief scene in the movie Gandhi with no mention of Muriel Lester nor explanation about what Kingsley Hall was or why Gandhi felt more at home there than in the rich ambassadorial suites prepared for him.)

In 1933, Muriel turned over the leadership of Kingsley Hall to her sister, Doris, and became the “traveling secretary” for IFOR, an “ambassador of reconciliation” as Richard Deats’ collection of her works calls her. In this capacity, she began new chapters of the F.O.R., strengthened others, and was a traveling “evangelist for nonviolence and pacifism.” She made nine (9) complete world trips in this capacity, in an era before jet travel made global travel easy. She conducted prayer schools and reached out to adherents of all religions — especially Hindus, Jews, and Muslims — without manifesting the normal prejudices of Protestants of her era. When IFOR broadened its membership basis from an explicitly Christian to an interfaith pacifist organization, Lester was in full agreement with the move.

As traveling secretary for IFOR, Lester still connected peacemaking with work for social justice. She investigated injustices in India under British rule, the effects of Japanese colonization on China and Korea. She would collect documentation concerning various issues and make that part of her speaking and writing. In 1934, during her second visit to India, she traveled around the country with Gandhi to speak out against untouchableness and the caste system. In 1938, after visiting China, she spent two weeks in imperial Japan courageously telling people the atrocities done to the Chinese people by their government and army.

As the Second World War broke out, Muriel Lester continued her world speaking tour. In August 1941, she was returning to Great Britain after having spoken and helped organize F.O.R. chapters all through Latin America. When her ocean liner docked in Trinidad (then British territory), the authorities seized her and detained her for ten weeks. While confined, she attempted to raise the spirits of other prisoners while dealing with her own depression and isolation. Public outcry helped secure her release, but upon setting foot in England, again, she was detained several more days and her passport was confiscated for the duration of the War. This did not deter her from traveling throughout the United Kingdom campaigning against the war. She resumed work at Kingsley Hall and organized food and medical aid for Europeans on both sides of the war, bypassing a blockade to do so. After WWII ended, Lester resumed her international campaigning. Her first trip was to Europe, where she warned that the atomic bomb and the beginnings of the Cold War were threatening the newly won peace. She visited areas devastated by the war and ministered to resistance leaders (nonviolent resistance movements and armed struggles) and to Germans taken as prisoners of war. She organized humanitarian relief efforts.

Lester was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Price but was never awarded it. She believed that women, who had been throughout history the victims of war, could play a special role in working for peace and abolishing war. Her Christian faith led her to live in the power of the resurrection, but it did not lead her to close herself off from the nonviolence of those from other faiths, like her friend, Gandhi. In our post-Cold War days with one remaining superpower rapidly becoming a de facto empire with just the trappings of democracy, with the spread of global terrorism and a merciless global capitalism, with renewed religious and ethnic hatreds and the deliberate weakening of international forces for cooperation and human rights, we face dark times. But the times we face are no darker than the two World Wars Muriel Lester endured and active nonviolence is far more well known now than in Lester’s day. We can take strength from the way she faced her challenges as we face ours.

Richard Deats’ essay on Muriel Lester, “No Moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount” can be found here. 

War is as outmoded as cannibalism, chattel slavery, blood-feuds and dueling – an insult to God and man – a daily crucifixion of Christ.  Muriel Lester

December 16, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, heroes, peace | 1 Comment

Advent, Week II: Love

day.jpgThe Second Week of Advent emphasizes Love. Therefore, this week I will profile Dorothy Day as my example of Christian peacemakers whose lives bear witness to the Word Made Flesh.  In my view, few Christians incarnated love as did Dorothy Day.  Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was the co-founder and guiding spirit behind the Catholic Worker movement.  Raised in a secular home, but early drawn to the Jesus of the gospels, as a young woman Day became an anarchistic socialist with Communist leanings out of her deep concern for the poor.  She worked as a journalist for several Leftist newspapers, hung around the New York intellectual scene (the playwrite Eugene O’Neill tried to make her one of his sexual conquests, but failedat least that’s the impression given by some of her biographers), marched against poverty and for women’s rights–including participating in a hunger strike of suffragists. (This despite the fact that Day distrusted electoral politics and never even registered to vote. She still wanted women to have the opportunity to do so.)

  In this early “bohemian” phase, Day became involved in a destructive love relationship in which she became pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion in order to keep her paramour–who left her anyway.  The secular Day was ashamed of this act because she was horrified that would do such a thing for a man. Later, after her conversion to Catholicism, Day had even more guilt over this abortion–so much so that she only ever spoke of it in an autobiographical pre-conversion novel (The Eleventh Virgin) and tried to seek out and destroy all copies of the book.  She became convinced that she was barren as punishment for her sin.  But she fell in love again, much more healthily, and entered into a common law marriage with another anarchist. Unfortunately, he was an atheist and Dorothy was on her way to becoming a Christian and he hated and feared the institution of marriage.  So, after the birth of her daughter Tamar, Dorothy had her baptized and herself underwent catechism and baptism–and left her commonlaw husband.  She felt forced to choose between “natural happiness” and the “harsh and dreadful” love of the Gospels.

The newly Catholic Day scandalized her secular, Communist friends. To become Christian was bad enough, but they could think of no more regressive and oppressive institution than the Catholic Church (pre-Vatican II). But to Dorothy, although the Church’s sins were easy enough to see, it was the Church of the poor and the immigrant. She searched for a way to serve Christ, the Church, and the poor.

She found it when a French lay-brother and wandering prophet of sorts named Peter Maurin arrived on her doorstep to preach a form of Catholic anarchism which he called personalism.  Together they formed the Catholic Worker movement: opening “Houses of Charity” in which they would serve the poor unconditionally, and eventually forming similar rural houses or communal farms. To this was added a newspaper which Dorothy edited and wrote for, The Catholic Worker, which advocated pacifism and promoted a faith that was so radical that Communism looked tame next to it.

Day remained with the Worker houses her whole life, living in voluntary poverty, challenging the church and the world, and working for peace and justice. She remained a pacifist during WWII (which cost the movement many members) and led protests against the nuclear arms race after it.  She made connections with other Christian radicals like Clarence Jordan, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.[or, at least, went south to interview him for The Catholic Worker], and with Cesar Chavez and the California grape farmworkers.  Day’s grassroots Catholic personalism probably had an influence on Vatican II–at least at the point in which the Church recognized pacifism and conscientious objection as legitimate options for Catholics.  She certainly transformed the American Catholic Church from a mostly conservative social institution to a major force for peace and social justice.

But Day was conservative in her theological views: devoted to the saints, not liking the changes in liturgy after Vatican II, disapproving of priests and nuns who were laicized to marry (perhaps because she had given up such “natural” love herself?), and disapproving of the move by some Catholics to allow women to become priests.  She could be a tyrant in the Catholic Worker houses and when faced with younger folks who dissented from some Church teachings would remark, (according folks like Jim Forest)”This is the Catholic Worker; if you want to be part of a Quaker Worker movement–there’s the door.” But she washed the tired feet of the poor, clothed them, defended them and denounced their exploitation by either church or state.

Love, Dorothy Day teaches us, is not an easy thing in real life as in dreams. In real life, love can be “harsh and dreadful,” but also wonderful, challenging, gripping, powerful. It is that kind of love she discovered in Jesus.  To discover more about Day or the Catholic Worker movement, click here.  I am not Catholic. I am an (ana)Baptist, a Believers’ Church Protestant. But Dorothy Day is a personal “saint” of mine.  Reading her life and her works connects me back to Jesus and to gospel love.

“If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Dorothy Day.

December 9, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, discipleship, heroes, liturgy | 5 Comments

Advent, Week I: Hope

213px-oscararias.jpgWhile juggling the GLBT inclusion series and the evolution series, I have decided that for Advent reflections each Sunday, I will profile a Christian peacemaker:  One whose life bears witness to the Word Made Flesh–to the in-breaking Rule of God and thus, to the hope of Second Advent while we celebrate the First Advent of said Word Made Flesh.

The first week of Advent is traditionally celebrated by the lighting of the Hope candle. We wait in hope for the Coming One.  Ecumenical lectionaries (as my pastor reminded us this a.m.) usually highlight passages about John the Baptizer asking us to prepare the way, to repent, to flee from the wrath to come, and warning that the axe is already laid to trees not bearing fruit, etc. 

Many peacemakers’ lives symbolize hope, but I thought I would profile someone not well known to U.S. Americans–The Honorable Oscar Arias Sanchez (a.k.a., Oscar Arias), 1940-.  Born to wealth in Costa Rica, Arias’ family assumed that Oscar would grow up to inherit the family coffee plantation, but the serious child wanted to be president of his country.  When Oscar was 8, the president at the time declined to leave office.  As would become all too frequent in the 2nd half of the 20th C., in Central and South America, this plunged the nation into civil war.   Jose’ Figueres Ferrer, a democratic socialist, led the army that deposed the ruling junta, but then did something few victorious generals have ever done–dissolved the army that brought him victory.  Costa Rica became one of the few countries of any size without a standing military–and the government used the money saved to invest in universal education and healthcare. 

Arias studied in the U.S., studied economics at the University of Costa Rica, and earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Essex, in the U.K.  He returned home and ran for parliament as a member of the moderately socialist National Liberation Party, and became Minister of Planning for the Ferrer government in 1972.  In 1986, he successfully ran for President of Costa Rica, campaigning as the “peace candidate” against an opposition that wanted to re-institute the army. He served from 1986 to 1990.  When Arias won, the U.S. pulled out it’s economic investment, saying that a country without an army was not viable.

As president, Arias worked to reduce Costa Rican indebtedness to foreign countries and alleviate poverty, but his main focus was to work for peace in war-torn Central America.  During the 1980s, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua were all undergoing civil wars–with the U.S. supporting different factions in each country.  The Contra terrorists of Nicaragua would attack from bases in Costa Rica, along an undefended border.  Arias was critical of the ruling Sandanistas of Nicaragua, but he nevertheless stopped the Contras from attacking from Costa Rican soil. He worked to create peace throughout the region, eventually hammering out the successful Arias Plan for peace in 1987. It was signed  by all parties and led to Arias receiving the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, but U.S. opposition to parts of the plan prevented full implementation.  Arias used the Nobel Peace Prize money to create the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in 1988 and he helped establish a United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica.

Arias has also been active in various international Non-Governmental Organizations promoting economic justice, human rights, and peacemaking, including the Carter Center in the U.S., and service on the Board of Directors for the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims.  He is a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security and is a recipient of numerous honorary doctorates and the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism.

After Costa Rica’s Supreme Court ruled that presidents may serve more than one term, Arias ran again for president in the 2006 general elections, and won again.  In his current term in office, Arias has forbidden any citizens of Costa Rica to train in the U.S. School of the Americas (re-named the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation) at Ft. Benning, GA–which has been notorious for training many state-sponsored terrorists and human rights abusers and is working to get countries throughout Latin America to refuse enrollment in SOA/WHINSEC. 

Arias is a committed Christian, a rather traditional Catholic (though criticized by conservative Catholics for continuing the legalization of artificial birth control in his nation and, for cases of rape, incest, and threat to a mother’s life, the legalization of abortion).  He has talked in interviews about how his passion for peace and economic justice is fueled by his faith, but he talks less about this than many U.S. politicians because religious differences (especially between Catholics and Protestants and between Christians and indigenous religions) have often been used in Central and South America to divide people or to gain power. Arias’ works to promote religious tolerance and respect in his nation while honoring the historic role of Catholicism in the nation’s history and heritage.

Compared to Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or the U.S., Costa Rica is still a poor country.  Yet, unlike most of Latin America, it has a 90% literacy rate, free health care that focuses on prevention and rural clinics, and a mixed-economy that promotes eco-tourism rather than traditional cash crops.  Arias’ leadership in Costa Rica gives hope that it can be a model, an alternative to prevailing trends in either Latin America or in the so-called “developed Western world.”

“Because our country is a country of teachers, we closed the army camps, and our children go with books and not rifles under their arms. We reject violence.” Dr. Oscar Arias Sanchez, President of Costa Rica and 1988 Nobel Peace Laureate.

December 2, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, heroes, peacemaking | 1 Comment