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

Pentecost: Ending the Curse of Babel

From Rabanus Maurus (776-856), German Benedictine Monk, comes this widely used hymn:

Come, Creator Spirit!

Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
and in our souls take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heavenly aid
to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

O comforter, to Thee we cry,
O heavenly gift of God Most High,
O fount of life and fire of love,
and sweet anointing from above.

Thou in Thy sevenfold gifts are known;
Thou, finger of God’s hand we own;
Thou, promise of the Father, Thou
Who dost the tongue with power imbue.

Kindle our sense from above,
and make our hearts o’erflow with love;
with patience firm and virtue high
the weakness of our flesh supply.

Far from us drive the foe we dread,
and grant us Thy peace instead;
so shall we not, with Thee for guide,
turn from the path of life aside.

Oh, may Thy grace on us bestow
the Father and the Son to know;
and Thee, through endless times confessed,
of both the eternal Spirit blest.

Now to the Father and the Son,
Who rose from death, be glory given,
with Thou, O Holy Comforter,
henceforth by all in earth and heaven.

In Genesis 11: 1-9, we have the familiar story of the Tower of Babel.  If Babel was Babylon, then the sin in building this tower “unto the heavens” was not merely human pride (although clearly that), but domination. In Babel, as in all empires, we have a false attempt at human unity–a unity through the domination of all peoples by a single nation, a single language, a single ideology. In our day, this imperial vision is described by the social theorist Benjamin Barber as “McWorld.” (He calls tribalist revolts against McWorld globalism “jihad,” and says that both are death to democracy.  I leave experts on Islam and/or globalization to decide whether Barber has chosen the correct symbols to describe these twin destructive forces. I am here just concerned to capture the economic imperialism of “globalization from above” represented by his term “McWorld.”)  Babel is the universalism of an imperial meta-narrative that steamrolls into oblivion all suppressed particularities, local knowledges, ways of life, tongues.  God confuses the languages to end such false unity, but the result are thousands of warring groups failing to hear one another. From the ashes of all imperial dreams comes confusion, chaos.

In Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out and the Church is born as a subversion of Babel’s curse.  Acts 2:1-21  tells a story not just of a miracle of speaking, but one of hearing.  The gospel offers the world a true unity–a unity in which particularities are still preserved:  The multitudes do not hear the gospel in some miraculous Esperanto, but each in his or her own language and dialect, even though the speakers all continue to speak Aramaic with Galilean accents.

There are no “Christian nations.” God does not “save the Queen” of any particular people over others. There are no holy commonwealths or holy empires, Roman or otherwise.  God does not “bless America” without blessing all other peoples.  Biblical Israel was the Elect Nation of God, the Chosen Nation, but only in order to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all peoples. In Christ, the Elect One, the Messiah of God, we have no more chosen peoples, but God calling out a new people “from among every tribe, nation, tongue and people,” Rev. 7:9.  The answer to the confusion of tongues, of warring tribalisms, is not empire, but Pentecost.

The Church is born with the mighty wind of the Spirit and is gifted to speak in new tongues: tongues of peace, tongues of unity. But we must be gifted also to listen, to learn from all localities, all particularities.  In baptism, we put on Christ and therefore there is no more Jew or Gentile, no more slave and free, no male and female, but oneness in Christ (Gal. 3:27-28)  Our particularities are relativized, but not destroyed. In listening to the local stories of peoples steamrollered in globalisms, in hearing wisdom in unexpected places, in listening even to our enemies, then we listen to what the Spirit is telling the churches–and that fresh wind gives us tongues of fire.

May 27, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, church, Holy Spirit | Comments Off on Pentecost: Ending the Curse of Babel

Powerful Resurrection Messages from Around the World

DLW of the Anti-Manichaeist blog notes the powerful resurrection messages on Easter in the Ukraine and by Christians in Pakistan.  Ukraine, of course, is seeking to keep the democracy it won through the nonviolent Orange Revolution a few years ago. And the bishop of the Raiwind-Church of Pakistan stressed Jesus’ nonviolence and that His way is the way of peace–such a contrast to American Christians who think are enthusiastic for wars and who see invasions of Muslim-majority countries as “missionary opportunities.”

See also the Easter message of Dr. Bernard Sabella, speaking in Jerusalem for the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Palestine-Israel, “A Holy Week for All.”

April 9, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, discipleship, Easter, nonviolence, peace, sexism | 3 Comments

On Washing Feet–Liturgical Stepchild

I look forward to Maunday Thursday more than any other part of Holy Week except Easter Sunday.   Yes, Good Friday services, either as a “service of shadows” or built around meditations on “The Seven Last Words” of Jesus are deeply moving.  And I am all in favor, even as a low-church Baptist, of having such services.  Otherwise we skip straight from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of the Resurrection without experiencing the Cross. A Catholic friend, Fr. Simon Harak, S.J., tells me that the chief Protestant liturgical sin is the sin of “raising Jesus too soon.” I understand. I have seen far too much of this in Baptist life–leading to what Luther called “theologies of glory” rather than “theologies of the cross.”  Thomas Müntzer, that semi-baptist leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, was terribly wrong about many things, but he was right in saying that we need the “bitter Christ,” the rejected and despised Crucified One, and not the “sweet Christ” of so many triumphalist churches.  So, I am big on every service of Holy Week. The Cross looms on Maunday Thursday as well.

But the reason I love Maunday Thursday services so much is because this is when we wash feet as Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, washed the disciples’ feet.  Footwashing has a very mixed record among those of us who are Baptists.  I have never seen it listed as an ordinance/sacrament in any of our confessions of faith, going back to John Smyth’s first Confession in 1609.  But it was frequently practiced among early Baptists, in General (Arminian), Particular (Calvinistic), and Seventh Day Baptist circles, all three of the branches that arose in the 17th C.  In the U.S. footwashing had mostly died out among Baptists by the 19th C., except for the “Primitive” and “Old Regular” Baptists groups of the Appalachian sub-culture, who include footwashing every time they celebrate the Lord’s Supper. But, since many of these Appalachian Baptists are also into “picking up serpents” (and in very foolish ways, like the late Steve Irwin, rather than sensibly holding these venomous reptiles behind the head so that they cannot strike!), few other Baptist groups take them as liturgical role models!!

However, beginning in the late 20th C., scattered congregations in major Baptist denominations (American Baptist, Southern Baptist, Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, Progressive National Baptists) began to recover the practice of footwashing and include it in Maunday Thursday celebrations. I first encountered this in the 1980s at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, often led by professors like the church historian Bill Leonard (now Dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School), New Testament professor R. Alan Culpepper (now Dean of McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University), Old Testament professor Pamela J. Scalise (now teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Seattle extension), and theology professor, Molly T. Marshall (now President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary). I do not know if this footwashing on Maunday Thursday has continued at SBTS after Al Mohler and the fundamentalists took over.  At any rate, I soon fell in love with this practice.

I am not certain why the Church through the ages has never considered footwashing an ordinance/sacrament.  Orthodoxy and Catholicism both include other ceremonies as sacraments which have little or no roots in the New Testament.  The Reformers reduced the number of sacraments  to 2 (baptism and that meal known variously as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or Holy Eucharist), but it is hard to see why footwashing was not included. The command of the Johannine Christ (“If I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, so also you should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” John 13:13-14) is at least as strong as that given by Jesus in the Synoptics for the Lord’s Supper.  Critical scholarship has cast much doubt on the historicity of John’s Gospel (with some justification even if some critics take this much too far), but the Reformers were not historical critics in the modern sense. And if we were to use standard critical doubts about the historicity of Dominical commands as our standard for ordinances/sacraments, then it should be noted that the only command to baptize is given by the Risen Christ as part of Matthew’s Great Commission passage and in the longer ending of Mark, which all textual critics agree was a later scribal addition.

But whether or not we call the practice of footwashing a sacrament/ordinance or not (and whatever reasons we give for including or excluding it from such a list), I think recovery of this powerful practice would be good for the whole church.  There is nothing that teaches humble servanthood quite like washing another’s feet and having one’s own feet washed.  My first time, I walked into the service my first year in seminary straight from my part-time job and not knowing that footwashing was a part of the service. I had been working hard and was wearing leather boots. When I realized what was about to happen, I started to panic because I knew my feet probably stank. We were instructed as basins and towels were distributed  to wash the feet of the person on our right. I turned to my left and, to my horror, found that I was sitting next to a woman–and letting her debase herself like this was against everything in my Southern upbringing. (Yes, my mother was an early feminist, but STILL.) So, I had far more problems having my feet washed than washing another’s. Even though I did not confuse the woman in question (a figure of authority, too) with Christ, I still had new understanding of Peter’s objections.

Since that time, I have washed the feet of homeless persons, and of people in church with whom I was at odds.  How much reconciliation in church feuds could be solved with footwashing?  Here is a practice that forms us to be compassionate servants of the One Servant. I know of no other ceremonial practice in Christianity that so thoroughly teaches us that part of discipleship. Several authors have written about the connections between Holy Communion and the Church’s work for social justice, but I think this connection is even stronger in footwashing.

In our Maunday Thursday service, the footwashing usually comes before the Lord’s Supper. I find that I am in so much better frame of mind for eucharistic participation after washing feet and having my feet washed than before hand.

It is also fitting that this take place on the eve of Christ’s execution. Could there be better preparation for Christians living a cruciform life?

So, controversial though the practice is, I am glad to be a footwashing Baptist.  I look forward to that part of tonight’s Maunday Thursday service the most.

April 5, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar | 8 Comments

Happy Thanksgiving!

I have so much to be thankful for this year. As always, my greatest blessing is having received the saving grace and boundless love of God through Jesus Christ. May God help me be a faithful disciple and a faithful and effective witness.

Second only to that matchless gift, I am thankful for my family: my father, my mother of blessed memory, my new step-ma, Kay, my brother and my sisters and their families, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law of blessed memory, my brothers-in-law and their families, and, of course, my bride of nearly 17 years of wedded bliss, Kate, and our two lovely daughters, Molly & Miriam. In a world of poverty, I am thankful that I have enough to eat, a place to sleep, warm clothes, remunerative work–and I ask God to show me what more I can do to ensure that others obtain these.

In a world of war and violence, I am thankful for relative security and ask God to show me new ways to work for peace.

I am thankful to the readers of this blog, both those who share many of my commitments and those who are my critics.

I hope you are all blessed this day. Get off the computer, now, and spend some time with friends, family, or the many less fortunate than you.

November 23, 2006 Posted by | Christian calendar | Comments Off on Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy All Saints Day!

01 November of each year is “All Saints Day” in the traditional Christian calendar of the Western Church. A “saint” or “holy one” in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican/Episcopal circles refers to very special Christian heroes and heroines whose lives and witness are special examples of the Christian life. Some traditions even believe these “official saints” are able to intercede for believers with God and devotion to such saints enables special grace for common believers. (I’m summarizing without much nuance and, therefore, inevitably distorting, for which I apologize.)
Like most Protestants, I do not hold to most of these traditions, although I do believe that some Christian lives have a heroic witness to them. I admire many “official saints,” such as Francis of Assissi, Benedict of Nursia, Ignatius Loyala, Teresa of Avila, & Hildegard of Bingen.

But when I celebrate All Saints Day, I do so with the Pauline use of the term “saint,” as a reference to any Christian. Here is a picture of some of my favorite saints at Jeff Street Baptist Community during one of our Easter celebrations (The Resurrection is proclaimed with balloons, streamers, noisemakers, much dancing and music–and quite a bit of lunacy. After 40 days of focus on Christ’s Passion through Lent, Resurrection joy is a little bit giddy with us.) The ordinary, unofficial saints grace my lives daily. I celebrate them with joy. Posted by Picasa

November 1, 2006 Posted by | Christian calendar, saints | 2 Comments

Happy Reformation Day!

To the left, of course, is a picture of Martin Luther. Why? Because on All Hallows Eve (31 Oct.) of 1517, Martin Luther, then a Dominican Monk, nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. This act is usually cited as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Sing several verses today of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

But don’t stop at celebrating Luther’s legacy: Investigate and take time to appreciate the contributions of other Reformers–Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, Melancthon, Karlstadt, and, yes, Calvin, who was a great expositor of Scripture and whom I like far more than I do most of his followers (Calvinists). (But, then, I pray every day that Jesus will not be evaluated by his followers!) And go further and celebrate the Radical Reformers: Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Georg Blaurock, Balthasar Hubmaier, Michael Sattler, Menno Simons, Pilgram Marpeck, Hans Hut, Jakob Hutter, Pieter Riedemann and more.

Also, although the Protestant Reformation was necessary, it did break the unity of the Western Church and, thus, I must agree with the late Jaroslav Pelikan, Lutheran church historian, who called the Protestant Reformation a “tragic necessity.” While celebrating the Reformers’ legacy, take time to shed a tear for the fragmentation of the church universal.

And Catholics have also been graced by Reformers before the 16th C. (e.g., the monastic movements), during it (e.g., Erasmus, Savanarola, Ignatius Loyola), and later (especially Vatican II). All reform movements soon need their own reformations, too. Pray for further reform of the whole church. And read a Reformer today! Posted by Picasa

October 31, 2006 Posted by | Christian calendar, church history, Reformation | 3 Comments