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

Action Suggestions for Local Churches and Local Peacemaker Groups

Longtime readers of this blog know that I used to be the Outreach Coordinator for Every Church a Peace Church.  ECAPC was and is dedicated to the simple, but radical, convictiont that the Church could turn the world toward peace if every church lived and taught as Jesus lived and taught.  Part of what I did for ECAPC was to help form local peacemaker groups in local churches.  If the church was a “just war tradition” church, the peacemaker group could be a seed of transformation.  If the church belonged to a peace church tradition, or was a self-declared peace church, the peacemaker group can keep it challenged to live up to its convictions.  It is also an outreach ministry, since many people who have been, for various reasons, skittish of attending traditional church services, will gladly come to peacemaker group meetings.

It is important that peacemaker groups always be studying something together and it is important that peacemaker groups always be doing something.  As an educator, I hold to an action/reflection model of learning and teaching. (Obviously,  this is easier in some fields of learning than in others. Topic for another time.) In 2005, I wrote a pamphlet for ECAPC giving suggested actions for local peacemaker groups and churches.  Below is an adaptation of that pamphlet, updated to fit the current context.  International readers will please excuse the U.S. perspective–I think most suggestions are adaptable.  Non-Christians may find many of the suggestions adaptable, too, though I speak out of my perspective as a Christian pacifist, one committed to gospel  nonviolence.

  • Host a “Discipleship and Citizenship” Forum Open to the Public.  Announce the day, time, and topic in local media.  Make it a regular time each month to meet and discuss the intersection of discipleship and citizenship.  Make it a place of honest dialogue, attentive listening, and careful speaking.  Choose themes of deep spiritual and political concern for your local context (time and place) , e.g., “God and country,” “church and state,” “violence in schools,” etc.  An ecumenical or interfaith setting is helpful–and if you rotate locations, you can involve more local churches.
  • Engage in Counter-Recruitment Activities.  Local peace groups can act in their local churches and communities to provide youth support for their God-given conscience against homicide; that is, for conscientious objection to organized homicide in the military.  In the U.S. there is currently no “draft,” no forced induction into the military, but economic injustice often creates a “poverty draft,” an effect that is increased in recessions. Plus, some politician is always trying to revive the draft and, since we are fighting two wars (one in drawdown, but one with no end in sight), such bills could always gain traction. 1) Youth under 18 years of age who will be required to REGISTER for the military when turning 18 should be given an opportunity to register their conscientious objection convictions with the church.  A wide range of materials relating to conscientious objection is available at The Center on Conscience and War among other places. Many denominations have resources, too, as do denominational peace fellowships.  2) In the U.S., children in public schools are subject to intense military propaganda from Jr. Reserve Officer Training Groups, military recruiters, etc.  Countering that propaganda is both necessary and difficult.  Again, many groups have programs and resources, but I have found the best resources for countering the militarization of youth  in public schools to come from the Youth and Militarism project of the American Friends Service Committee.  3)Children and youth should be taught about gospel nonviolence.  It is amazing how many churches have Sunday School programs which never mention the peacemaking and nonviolence themes of Scripture!!  The best resources to counter this come from the “historic peace churches.”  See the resources at the Mennonite Central Committee, the peace education resources from On Earth Peace, a program of the Church of the Brethren, and resources recommended by denominational peace fellowships. (A good list of denominational peace fellowships can be found on the website of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.)
  • Sponsor Nonviolent Action Travel Opportunities.  Sure, recessions cut into the amount of travel that even middle class families do for vacation.  But we can still work to put moral purpose into travel.  The Travel and Encounter program of Holy Land Trust gives you an alternative to the normal tourist trap approaches to visiting Israel-Palestine.  Consider sponsoring a small delegation from your congregation (including someone with a camera to report back), and try to include at least one young person.  Raise the money for someone who could not afford to go on her or his own.  If your particular focus is not on the Middle East, but Central America, try Witness for PeaceChristian Peacemaker Teams focuses on peacemaking by “getting in the way” of conflict through 3rd party nonviolent direct action.  Similar opportunities can be found through the Fellowship of Reconciliation and/or denominational peace fellowships. (For instance, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America sponsors “Friendship Tours” to nations which are current or historic adversaries of the U.S. or are portrayed only negatively in our media.  This began during the Cold War with trips to the U.S.S.R.) 
  • Conduct a Peace Vigil at a War Site.  Contrary to popular myth, peace vigils did not begin with opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s.  The pioneers of nonviolent vigils and other public symbolic actions were the prophets of ancient Israel.  Peace vigils at war sites continue this prophetic tradition.  Every November, thousands gather outside Ft. Benning, GA to try to close the School of the Americas (renamed WHINSEC) which has trained many Latin American military officers in “counter-insurgency” techniques. These have been used by dictators to form state sponsored terrorism against civilian populations.  You can be part of SOA Watch, an interfaith peace effort started by Fr.  Roy Bourgeous, a courageous Catholic priest.  There is also a longstanding vigil outside the U.S. Army War College entrance in Carlisle, PA. One sign regularly held at this vigil is “We Need a Peace College.” Out of this effort has grown the internet based “Carlisle Peace College.”
  • Show a Film Series.  Numerous free or cheap films exist that can serve as basis for discussion.  Some may find Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 somewhat too inflammatory (know your audience).  But Arlington West is a 56 minute documentary about the crosses on the beach in CA planted by members of Veterans for Peace that includes interviews with members, families, and passersby.  Bringing Down a Dictator, narrated by Martin Sheen, is the documentary about how Slobadon Milosevic, the brutal dictator of Serbia, who survived both  civil war and the Nato operations of the ’90s, was overthrown by the nonviolent Otpor movement in October 2000.  The choices are too numerous to mention.
  • Hold a Peace-Focused Weekly Bible Study.  A good resource for getting started is Walter Wink’s brief, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.  I suggest many other resources here.
  • Support Nonviolent Direct Action.
  • Plan a Sunday School lesson or preach a sermon (or series) on peace.  Chuck Fager has a Friends/Quaker approach to Bible  study here.  Ted Grimsrud gives an Anabaptist-Mennonite approach in a 9-part online Bible study of peace here. I give help for Revelation here and here.  See also my article on Jeremiah as War Resister.

These actions are not meant to be exhaustive.  I hope they spur your groups to creativity.  Feel free to share ideas in the comments.

May 5, 2009 Posted by | church, education, peacemaking | 8 Comments

Attending Church in Washington, D.C.: Choices for the Obamas

Ever since then-Senator (now President-Elect) Barack Obama was forced painfully to quit Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago  the “where now?” question has blossomed.   Trinity Ucc was the congregation where he found Christ’s salvation and was baptized, where he and Michelle were wed and the girls baptized.   He was forced to quit his membership because of the controversy surrounding remarks by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Since then, there has been much speculation about where the Obamas will attend church when the move to Washington, D.C. (I still think that Wright’s remarks, while inflammatory and unwise, were taken out of context. I have heard him preach and this was a manufactured controversy designed to make Obama seem “radical” and unpatriotic. Any of us who have preached on an even irregular basis can think of ways that snippets of sermons could be used against us.  Rightwing white preachers have said things at least as harsh as “God damn America!,” and the Republican politicians who follow them have paid very little price. The late Francis A. Schaeffer, for instance, one of the architects of the Religious Right, wrote books saying that if America continued to keep abortion legal and other policies with which he disapproved, it might be time for a second American revolution!  Jerry Falwell initially seemed to give his blessings to those who bombed abortion clinics, though later he revoked that blessing, and defended apartheid era South Africa, calling Archbishop Desmond Tutu a Communist. Hundreds of Republican politicians attended Falwell’s funeral services.  There is a double-standard because whites do not usually understand the Black Church.)

Several print publications and the PBS show, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, have given virtual tours of D.C. churches for the Obamas.  I’ll play the same game because I need something upbeat to discuss, not just the gloomy economy (including the class warfare) or corrupt politicians.  And I find myself with little in the way of new Advent meditations this year, and I don’t just want to repeat last year’s.  What would be the criteria for the Obama family in finding a D.C. church home?  I don’t know, but here are some of my guesses:

1) I think they will want a congregation that is at least multi-racial/multi-cultural if not predominantly African-American.  A mostly white congregation would probably be alien to them.

2) They may want to stick with the United Church of Christ denomination, although denominational loyalty is waning, especially among those who are adult converts to Christianity, like the President-Elect.  There are 18 UCC congregations in the area.  Like the denomination at large, most of these are predominantly white, but I will highlight some which are not.  I expect that the Obamas will remain Protestants, even if they sometimes visit a Catholic or Orthodox parish.

3) They will want a pastor who is less controversial than Rev. Wright. I fear this will turn into a search for a pastor who “tames” the gospel from its prophetic dimensions, especially when these intersect politics. This is unfortunate since no one in this country needs the prophetic confrontation of an Amos or a Micah, etc. more than the U.S. president.  Yet, because of the controversy around Rev. Wright, it is inevitable that the press and the U.S. rightwing will heavily scrutinize the sermons and activities of whatever congregation the Obamas visit.   I would pick a church without televised services, but this would not stop people with cell-phone cameras.4) Like all parents, the Obamas will want to choose a congregation with strong programs for their children–and not just in Sunday School.  The Obamas have also shown a marked preference for lively church music that might not be found in some “high liturgical” traditions.

5) They have expressed a desire to be involved in a congregation that is making an active difference in its surrounding neighborhood as well as beyond. So, they will look at outreach, social ministry, and mission programs.

6) Security is a concern. Whatever church is chosen must prepare to deal with Secret Service, possible searches,  and the President may have to leave abruptly if an emergency arises.

With these criteria in mind, here is my unscientific survey of available options, with pros and cons–not that they are likely to need my advice.

I. Starting with the United Church of Christ options:

  • First Congregational United Church of Christ, 309 E Street NW, Washington, D.C.  Founded in 1865 by abolitionists just as the Civil War drew near, this is an interracial, multicultural congregation.  It was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  It is a very progressive church that has declared itself to be part of the Just Peace congregation program of the UCC and an Open and Affirming congregation (i.e., it fully welcomes GLBT persons).  One “minus” is that the congregation is currently building a new multi-purpose facility in place of its old, run-down facility and, until that is finished in 2010, meets at First Trinity Lutheran Church (corner of 4th and E streets), which may be awkward–2 congregations under one roof may be crowded enough without a presidential entourage, too.  On the plus side, the congregation has a long history with Howard University and its Divinity School.  More of the congregation is white than any other ethnic group, but the Rev. Doug Clark, pastor, professes the kind of progressive faith that Obama has articulated (he may even be more theologically liberal than Obama) but preaches in a much less confrontational or inflammatory style than Rev. Wright.
  • Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ , 1701 11th Street NW, is the oldest African-American church in the Congregational tradition in the District of Columbia, founded by freedmen and freedwomen after the Civil War.  It is theologically progressive and socially active for justice. It is a Just Peace congregation, Open and Affirming, and part of the “God is Still Speaking” movement in the UCC.   The pastor, Rev. Nathan A. Harris, has a much different style of preaching than Rev. Wright–but Wright did preach his installation service and some would try to use that against the congregation or the Obamas.  The congregation is smaller than the Obamas are used to, but it is growing under Rev. Harris’  leadership. It wants to celebrate African-American heritage, but reach out in multicultural directions.  The pew Bibles have been changed from the old KJV to NRSV (which uses inclusive language for human beings) and they now use the African American Heritage Hymnal. On the plus side, Rev. Harris would have much to discuss with the Obamas–his undergraduate work was in business and public administration and, in addition to a Master of Divinity from Duke University Divinity School, Harris has a law degree, the Doctor of Jurisprudence, from Howard University School of Law.  Both the Obamas are lawyers and Michelle has been heavily involved with administrative work at the University of Chicago. I think having a spiritual leader who has background and experience in more than just theology would prove very helpful to them.  I cannot find anything especially about its children or youth programs.
  • The United Church, 1920 G Street NW (the “Foggy Bottom” area of the State Department) is dually affiliated with the UCC and the United Methodist Church, a merger of 2 congregations that, in one form or another, have ministered in this area for 170 years.  The UCC part of the tradition is from the German Reformed heritage rather than the Congregational heritage. (The UCC is a merger of many Protestant traditions.) Once this area was the center of ethnic Germans, but nothing remains much of that earlier period of this neighborhood.  Still, there remains a German-language ministry in the congregation.  The educational activities of the church include a “science and religion forum” that the Obamas would probably appreciate.  It’s State Department location makes it easy to meet security concerns.  The major drawback is that this is a mostly white congregation with a very “high church” worship pattern. I know the “German Reformed” type of UCC congregation since my wife, a Baptist minister with ministerial recognition by the UCC, was once an interim pastor in one. The worship style is EXTREMELY formal and cerebral and the Obama children would probably be especially bored and restless.  On the other hand, the pastor, Rev. Peter DeGroote, also has a varied educational background (an M.Div. from Wesley Theological Seminary in D.C., an M.A. in government from American University and a certificate in advanced study in social studies from Syracuse) and experience in business, the U.S. Army, public school teaching, and lecturing at American University.  Again, I think the Obamas would appreciate a pastor who has a wide range of educational and work/life experiences, rather than only theological training.
  • Cleveland Park Congregational United Church of Christ, 3400 Lowell Street NW, is mostly white. However, it has 2 pastors, Rev. Ken Fuller and Rev. Laura Jean Thompson, and the progressive Obamas may want strongly for their daughters to see an ordained woman often.  This is an Open and Affirming congregation and part of the God is Still Speaking movement, but not a Just Peace congregation.  The Sunday School program for children and for high school students is strong and the confirmation program, too.  The music is more lively than what one would likely encounter at The United Church (above), but would lack the rich gospel music of the African-American heritage.  The social programs are good for a church of this small size.
  • People’s Congregational United Church of Christ, 4704 13th Street NW, is a multi-cultural church of predominantly (but far from exclusively) African-American membership.  It is Open and Affirming.  The programs for children and youth are very strong, including Brownies and Girl Scouts.  The music is very good.  Rev. Rubin Tendai is a certified Intentional Interim Minister–which means that the Obamas cannot know if the tone will change significantly when a new pastor is called.  It would be hard on them to “settle in” and then find a new pastor draws the kind of controversy of a Rev. Wright and be faced with either weathering that storm or uprooting the family to a new spiritual home, again. (Many of Obama’s critics for his sticking with Trinity UCC–the sincere ones and not just those manufacturing trouble–seem to think it easy to change church homes. It is not–especially if one has children. It’s not like joining a social club!) Rev. Leslie Dowdell-Cannon, the Senior Associate Minister, is another ordained woman–and one with ties to Chicago.  The community outreach programs include operating a Federal Credit Union for Neighborhood development through micro-credit.
  • Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, 5301 North Capitol Street, NW, is a mostly African-American congregation. I know this church and its Pastor, Rev. Graylan Haglar, some from my days as Outreach Coordinator of Every Church a Peace Church.  Rev. Haglar has been heavily involved in church-based work for racial and economic justice and was one of the strongest voices against the Iraq War.  With his long, grey beard and fiery sermons, however, it would be easy for Obama enemies to paint him with the same brush as they did Rev. Wright. Plymouth is a small congregation in a very poor neighborhood.  There is a female Associate Minister (Rev. Rebecca West, herself a powerful voice for Christ-based justice and peace work). I do not have any information about the programs for youth and children.  Security could be a problem as I can easily visualize a presidential vehicle in the parking lot attracting trouble. On the other hand, seeing the U.S. President (who looks like them) attend church in their neighborhood, could be a very important influence on neighborhood children and youth!

The other United Church of Christ congregations in the D.C. area are in Arlington and Bethesda and are mostly upscale and white.

II.  Other Possibilities Among Protestant Churches in the D.C. area:

  • Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1518 M Street NW.  The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) is a branch of Methodism–and the first denomination founded by African Americans in America.  It was founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in 1787 because of unequal treatment by the (white) Methodists of that day.  The AME has been a strong force for racial justice throughout the history of the United States:  Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Bishop Henry McNeil Turner were all 19th C. stalwarts of the AME Church.  In the 20th C., the AME’s members have included Rosa Parks, the Black Liberation theologians James Cone and Cecil Cone and the Womanist theologian, Jacqueline Grant.  Theologically and structurally, one can see that the AME is a branch of Methodism–and may even be more traditionally Wesleyan than some parts of the current United Methodist Church.  Metropolitan is considered the “national cathedral” of the AME.  I have met there many times when my social activism has brought me to D.C. because it often lends its facilities to groups promoting peace and justice–especially those that are faith based.  Metropolitan was a stop on the Underground Railroad and the great African American Frederick Douglass (featured in a stained glass window) would sometimes preach from its pulpit.  It’s current pastor is Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, about whom I know little.  Though Metropolitan is still a center of progressive causes, it would be harder for the Right to criticize it than they did Trinity–simply because all of Black America would likely react the way Catholics would at criticism of the Vatican!  There are 10 other AME congregations in the D.C. area, but they don’t have websites that I could find and I don’t know enough about any of them to comment further, except to say that a few of them have female senior pastors.
  • It’s possible that the Obamas would want to go in a completely different direction than what they knew at Trinity.  They could opt for something “established” (read “safe”), no matter how alien to African-American Christian traditions.  I hope not and I am afraid that I would probably interpret this as an unfortunate political trumping of faith, but there are many options if they go this route.  The most obvious is St. John’s Church (Episcopal), 1528 H Street, NW:  founded in 1815 specifically to give presidents a place to worship. Every president since James Madison (4th U.S. President) has worshipped here at least once.  However, St. John’s Church today is considerably more multicultural than historically and the current Rector, Rev. Luis Leon is Latino and offers a 2nd service in Spanish. (The Obamas have expressed a hope that their daughters become bilingual, fluent in Spanish as well as English. Nothing helps fluency like trying to follow a service in the second language, trust me.)   Positives: It is located just across Lafayette Park–walking distance from the White House. It has strong programs for children and youth.  It has a long history of dealing with the special needs (e.g., abrupt leaving, Secret Service details, etc.) of presidential parishioners.  People from all walks of D.C. life, from the powerful to the homeless, attend St. John’s Church, which keeps from the “out of touch bubble” that is a problem for presidents.
  • Another establishment congregation is National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Ave., NW, regularly attended by Congressfolk, cabinet members (current Secretary of State, Condaleeza Rice, a cradle Presbyterian, worships here regularly) and Supreme Court justices.  The children’s program has over 400 kids.  However, let’s face it, National Pres. is pretty upscale and white (with a few exceptions like Condi Rice).
  • National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 5 Thomas Circle, NW, was the congregational home of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D), and even has a stained glass window dedicated to Johnson highlighting the creation of Medicare and the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. It was also the congregational home of Pres. James A. Garfield (R), a DoC minister and the only ordained minister ever to be elected to the U.S. presidency.  The Disciples of Christ are a partner denomination to the United Church of Christ.  The Obamas would probably find much in a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation that was familiar, with the exceptions of weekly communion (eucharist, Lord’s Supper) and the practice of believers’  baptism. But the congregational structure, focus on covenantal discipleship rather than creeds, and generally liberal theology (varying from congregation to congregation) would all be conducive.  National City Christian Church (DoC), is the oldest DoC congregation in the District, dating to 1843.  It has a Spanish language congregation and is multi-racial and multi-cultural. It is also very close to the White House.  The current Senior Pastor is Rev. Dr. Stephen Gentle, once a faculty member at a multi-denominational seminary in South Florida.  The Minister to the Hispanic Community (Rev. Neomi Mena) and the Assistant Minister (Rev. Beverly Goines) are both women and Rev. Goines is African-American.  The congregation has numerous outreach ministries that work with progressive causes (and more of a budget for such than some smaller churches–pluses and minuses), but the style is not so confrontational as to attract the kind of “heat” that Obama faced with Rev. Wright (one hopes–I believe the Rightwing will stop at nothing to smear Obama and try to make him ineffective).
  • Another Disciples of Christ possibility for the Obamas would be Michigan Park Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 1600 Taylor Street, NE.  This is a predominantly African-American congregation near Howard University (a historic black university, founded when segregation ruled U.S. higher education) and the pastor, Rev. Dr. Delores C. Carpenter, teaches at Howard’s Divinity School as Professor of Religious Education.  More conservative theologically than many Disciples’ congregations, it is still very progressive in its social justice work and works of compassion.  There is also a strong note at Michigan Park about developing deep habits of spiritual discipline–something any president could use, faced with the trials and tribulations that are sure to beset him and his family.
  • One commenter asks about D. C.’s famous Church of the Savior, a non-denominational church founded by former-Baptist Gordon Cosby.  C of the S is famous for it’s small group formation, it’s intense discipleship programs (one has to be deeply involved and committed before one is accepted, over time, for membership), and for keeping the connections between spirituality and social action strong.  I have ties to many C of the S folk from my days with Every Church a Peace Church, but it presents numerous difficulties for a presidential family:  Foremost is that the C of the S is organized into several small covenantal congregations scattered in storefronts across the District.  None of these congregations could easily accomodate a presidential motorcade, Secret Service, etc.  The informal nature of worship at most of these congregations, which makes them inviting to the poor, would be disrupted by a presidential presence.  I think many of the Gordon Cosby approaches of C of the S would be good for the Obamas–but I am not sure they would be good for the Church of the Savior–not while in office, at any rate.
  • Despite a primary campaign in which he repeatedly said that returning to the Clinton ’90s wasn’t good enough for the challenges of our day, Obama has incorporated not only Hillary Clinton, but numerous Clintonistas in his new cabinet and advisors.  Michelle followed her advice about schools and the girls have enrolled in Sidwell Friends School (a Quaker institution), like Chelsea Clinton before them.  So, maybe the Obamas would consider worshipping where the Clintons worshipped when in the White House–Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th Street NW.  This is one of the most famous of  UMC churches from the progressive wing of the UMC.  The Clintons’ former pastor (and one of my friends from the Society of Christian Ethics), Rev. Dr. Philip J. Wogaman, is no longer there. The current pastor, Rev. Dr. Dean Snyder, is a bridgebuilder between liberal and evangelical Christians–something Obama himself has attempted.  It’s a mile north of the White House, has large childrens and youth programs and lots of social outreach–and the music incorporates both “Euro-American” Latino, and African-American styles.  The congregation is very diverse and it was one of the first UMC congregations to become a “Reconciling Congregation” (the United Methodist term for full inclusion of LGBT persons, similar to the UCC or Disciples’ “Open and Affirming” or the Baptist “Welcoming and Affirming”).
  • Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School weekly at First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C.  Baptists are notoriously divided into numerous denominations (as I should know). FBC, Washington has attempted, among other things, to bridge these divides. It is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. (the smallest of the historically Black Baptist groups), and the Alliance of Baptists.  The Interim Senior Pastor is Rev. Deborah Cochran, who has been a Southern Baptist missionary.  FBC also houses the Spanish-speaking, Church of the Good News of Salvation.
  • The Obamas are not unfamiliar with Baptists (he correctly has noted that Baptists used to be the champions of church/state separation while his own tradition, the Congregationalist, supported state-supported denominations. Now those traditions have largely reversed themselves.), but have most experience with African-American Baptists.  If they consider a Baptist experience, they might do best with Calvary Baptist Church, 755 8th Street, NW.  Calvary is affiliated with the American Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the Alliance of Baptists.  It is an ecumenical, multi-racial, multicultural Christian body.  Its pastor, Rev. Amy Butler, has written to the Obamas and invited them to attend and see if they would be a good spiritual home.  The congregation has a Hispanic and a Burmese ministry.  They are a Welcoming and Affirming congregation (indeed, have specifically advertised in the D.C. area Washington Blade, a publication of the LGBTQ community) and a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (Rev. Edgar Palacios and his late spouse Amara have been especially strong peacemakers–not only with BPFNA, but with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and with Every Church a Peace Church–as I have reason to know).  Since Obama is the most tech-savvy president we’ve ever had, he’d probably appreciate Rev. Amy Butler’s blog.

Those are just a few of the many church opportunities in the Metro D.C. area.  I hope the Obamas find a good church home (and that the press leaves them alone there) during their 8 or possibly 4 years in the District of Columbia.

December 15, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, church | 7 Comments

Search Committee Unanimously Nominates Braxton to Succeed Forbes at Riverside Church

I am not very fond of mega-churches as a phenomenon.  I belong to a small church on purpose: It is better able to be community for the members, better able to resist the heresy of hyper-individualized notions of salvation, etc.  And, most mega-churches are very rightwing in theology and politics. (Even if not, they have to have small groups that become the de facto church-within-the-church for members, which is less than ideal from my view.)

Nevertheless, one mega-church that I have long admired for its strong stands for peace and justice in its 75 year history is Riverside Church in the City of New York.  An ecumenical congregation which grew out of Park Avenue Baptist Church, NYC, Riverside was the ecumenical and liberal dream of Baptist pastor, Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), who was Senior Minister from 1925 to 1946.  Riverside was a center of the Social Gospel and the struggle for Civil Rights as well as opposition to the Vietnam War. (Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others helped launch Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam at Riverside Church on 04 April 1967 when King gave his, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech–one year to the day before he was assassinated.) Riverside has also led in opposing both wars with Iraq and has been strong on immigrants rights, women’s rights, changing U.S. policy in Central and South America and much else.  There has long been a very strong connection between Riverside and the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary, just across the street.

Riverside Church is  a church where membership is open to Christians of all denominations and the ministerial staff comes from many theological traditions.  The congregation is officially affiliated with two denominations, the American Baptist Churches, USA and the United Church of Christ.  Last year, at 71, Dr. James Forbes, Jr. retired as Senior Minister of Riverside Church. He had also served as Fosdick Professor of Homiletics at Union Seminary. Dr. Forbes, an American Baptist minister with a black Pentecostal background, had been the first African-American Senior Minister.  Some members had accused him of not concentrating enough on the church’s peace and justice heritage. Others had accused him of attracting more African-Americans and Latino/as at the expense of white members–and it is true that when I last visited Riverside it had moved from a white church with a black pastor to a more thoroughly multi-ethnic congregation. No doubt, such changes involved adjustments that were culturally painful.

Now the search committee has unanimously recommended Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton as the next Senior Pastor. The congregation has yet to confirm the selection. Braxton currently teaches New Testament and Homiletics at Vanderbilt University Divinity School (and Vanderbilt’s Graduate Department of Religion) and previously taught at Wake Forest University Divinity School. The son of a Baptist minister and an ordained National Baptist minister, Braxton had been Senior Pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, MD while finishing his Ph.D. in NT at Emory University. He had also studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.  He is the author of three books and is on the editorial board of The African American Pulpit.

Married to the former Lazetta Rainey, the Braxtons are the proud parents of Karis, a 2 year old daughter.

If elected by the congregation, Braxton, who is 39, is young enough to follow in the tradition of long-serving Senior Ministers at Riverside. (There have only been 5 Senior Ministers to date in Riverside’s history: Harry Emerson Fosdick, Robert McCracken (a Scottish Baptist who had taught theology in Canada), Ernest T. Campbell, William Sloan Coffin, Jr. (a United Church of Christ minister and former chaplain of Yale University), and James Forbes, Jr.) He would be the 2nd African-American Senior Minister in a row and would complement Forbes’ excellence in preaching with a more exegetical style as a biblical scholar.  His experience in ecumenical ministry and his Baptist roots would keep Riverside connected to both parts of its history.

Thanks to Melissa Rogers for this news. (Note: Melissa is an attorney specializing in church-state matters. Previously she worked for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty and now is Visiting Professor of Religion and Public Policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School–she is a former colleague of Dr. Braxton’s.  At WFU, Melissa founded and heads the Center for Religion and Public Affairs. She runs the best blog on church-state issues in the U.S. context available.)

I would never give advice to another congregation on whom to call for any ministry position. I trust they will follow the leading of God’s Spirit. But, if the congregation follows the recommendation of the Search Committee, I join others in offering my congratulations to Riverside and to Dr. Braxton. I think they will be a good match. Alas, I cannot think this can be anything other than bad news for Vanderbilt, which, like WFU beforehand, will lose the talents and gifts that Braxton brought to the school.

UPDATE: Riverside’s website confirms the Search Committee’s unanimous selection.  Dr. Braxton is now scheduled to deliver a guest sermon at Riverside on 10 September and the congregation will vote on his call on 14 September.

August 4, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church, liberal theology | 5 Comments

Index of Posts on Theology as a Craft or Practice

  1. What is Theology?
  2. The Practice of Theology, 1
  3. The Practice of Theology, 2 (on convictions)
  4. Branches of Theology

This was a series of brief posts on the nature of theology.  Drawing especially from McClendon (and Avery Dulles and others), I see theology as a craft or one of the practices of the church. It is therefore, by definition, practical.  Every Christian engages in primary theology (whenever they/we sing hymns, pray, preach or listen to sermons, participate in Bible study, recite confessions or creeds, etc.). Academic or formal theology is a secondary practice–reflecting on the primary theology of the church and has both descriptive and normative dimensions.

The trick of this series was to keep the posts brief while still conveying the general direction.  If I were to take up this series again, I would need to include posts showing how Christian ethics is not “derived” from theology, but is already theological–seeking to answer the question, How should/must the church live in order faithfully to be the church of Jesus Christ in this time and place?  Doctrinal theology, then, asks, What must the church teach in order so to live?

July 14, 2008 Posted by | church, convictions, theology | Comments Off on Index of Posts on Theology as a Craft or Practice

Baptist Peace Churches #2

Continuing my series of profiles on Baptist congregations working strong for peace with justice. (This is NOT a post on some other topic, like policing or my politics, etc. Commenters are urged to stay on topic. If you want to discuss something else, invite me to be a part of that conversation on YOUR blog or make such comments whenever I do post on your topic. Continued attempts to hijack threads for personal agendas will result in certain commenters being banned from this site and all their comments removed.)

Since last time, I profiled a 200 year old congregation in U.S. North, this time I am shifting geographically and culturally to a much younger congregation, Covenant Church in HOUSTON, TEXAS. 

Describing itself as “an ecumenical, liberal Baptist congregation,” Covenant Church was founded in 1965, growing out of the ferment of two then-current movements: the civil rights movement and the movement for church renewal (the latter led to such phenomena across North America as the coffee house movement, emphasis on small groups in discipleship formation, team ministries, liturgical renewal–including the discovery of traditional liturgies of the church by “low church” traditions and newer forms of worship, more lay leadership, the house church phenomenon, etc.  Many of these emphases are finding renewed emphasis again in the “emergent church” movement, although descriptions and definitions of “emerging” remain too vague for me to tell whether or not I support or identify with this phenomenon.)

Covenant Church began as a Southern Baptist congregation, although it no longer has any ties to the SBC.  When a progressive Southern Baptist congregation in the Houston area retreated from its commitment to progressive theology and social action in 1965 by hiring a very conservative minister, 60 members withdrew and formed Covenant Church from an informal Bible study group.  Soon the Bible study group decided to form a congregation based on certain principles:

  • Individual freedom and responsibility to read and interpret scripture (priesthood of the believer)
  • Congregational autonomy
  • Integrity of church membership (a spiritual commitment, not a social obligation)
  • Intentionality in the modes of worship, education and mission
  • An appreciation of the rituals and liturgy of many traditions
  • An understanding that the Word can come from our sacred stories as well as literature and art and personal experience
  • A reunion of the sacred and the secular
  • A separation of church and state
  • A respect for all people, without regard for labels and categories used to divide

As the Southern Baptist Convention became ever more fundamentalist in theology, renounced historic commitments to core Baptist principles in the 1980s and ’90s (during “the Controversy” in the SBC), became every more patriarchal and sexist, Covenant Church first added an affiliation with the Alliance of Baptists and then dropped all ties with the SBC.  Today, they remain affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and also with the American Baptist Churches, USA

Worship at Covenant Church is formal and the “work of the people.” Laity are involved in every aspect of planning, leading, and participation in the worship of the church and every other aspect of church life.

For 35 years, out of a desire to use space and resources responsibly, Covenant Church had no buildings or “campus” of its own, but shared the facilities of others: St. John the Divine, Bethany Christian, St. Stephen Episcopal, and Bellaire Christian.  In 2000, after considerable debate, Covenant’s members decided that their mission could best be served with a permanent address and a worship and meeting space designed to their needs, with an emphasis on the arts and available for others to share.  So, now Covenant Church is located at 4949 Caroline, Houston, TX 77004.  They are on a summer schedule of worship at 10:30 a.m.

Covenant further describes itself in this way:

“Covenant Church affirms the sanctity, dignity, and equality of human beings and the value of all life in the universe. We welcome persons of all racial and ethnic heritages, all sexual orientations, and all faith perspectives to our Christian community. We stand for each individual’s right to worship God and to respond to God’s call to ministry in his or her own understanding of God’s all-encompassing love.

We value a holistic approach to faith and seek to worship in ways that are intellectually credible, emotionally stimulating, spiritually engaging and contemporarily relevant.

We value music, art, and ritual to express what we cannot ever fully say.

We value participation so that we might hear many approaches to our shared faith. ”

Since it is fully inclusive of GLBT Christians, Covenant is a member congregation of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), the network that strives for equality in Baptist life for those persons with same-sex sexual orientation or whose gender identity does not conform with their biological makeup (transgendered persons feel “trapped in the wrong body” unless they have had sex reassignment surgery).  Consistent with this commitment, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has a chapter that meets at Covenant Church and Covenant Church regularly participates in the Houston area Gay Pride parade, as it did most recently on 28 June 2008.

Among the hands on missions that Covenant Church participates in locally in Houston are:

  • Building houses with and for the poor with Habitat for Humanity.
  • A prisoner correspondence program.
  • Omega House (A ministry to AIDS victims)
  • The back-to-school effort of the Christian Community Service Center to equip poor children with the school materials they will need (since government budgets for education no longer include such).
  • CCSC Jingle Bell Express to help the poor celebrate Christmas
  • Hospitality Apartments for the homeless
  • Thomas Street Health Center (meal assistance program)

Covenant’s broader mission budget is designed not just to meet the immediate needs of poor people, but to transform the social structures designed to keep them poor. To quote the people of Covenant Church again:

In one of the richest states in the richest country on earth, we believe that having hundreds of thousands of people who are hungry, poorly educated and unable to get adequate medical care is, not to put too fine a point on it, sinful.

Accordingly, their mission budget includes support for the Alliance of Baptists Bridges of Hope mission offering, American Baptists’ International Ministries and the ABCUSA Refugee Program.  It includes support for Africorps–helping students at the University of Texas travel to Ghana for hands on work in Public Health, support for the Americare program in Sudan, Health Volunteers Overseas’ project in Vietnam, Heifer Project International (a project in subsistence farming which began after World War II by the Church of the Brethren, a historic peace denomination), the visual clinic project in Tampico, Mexico, and support for Oxfam International.

Other missions priorities for Covenant Church include the Houston Area Women’s Shelter, the peer-to-peer education project of the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI), Developments in Literacy in Pakistan, and a project for the education of indigenous (“Indian”) children in Belize.  To support human rights around the world and here at home, Covenant Church gives money and time to the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, the American Friends Service Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State,   the Houston Public Defender’s Office, the Center for Healing Racism, and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Covenant Church is a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and I sometimes meet Covenant Church members at the BPFNA’s annual summer “peace camp.”

As befits a congregation dedicated to lay leadership and every member ministry, I have stressed the history and work of the whole congregation before mentioning its ministerial leadership.

Since 2002, Covenant Church has been led by their pastor, Rev. Jeremy Rutledge. And, since I promote non-fundamentalist Baptist bloggers (no one needs to promote the fundamentalist Baptist bloggers–when I began blogging in 2005, they dominated Baptist presence on the web), I will link to Jeremy’s blog, here. Called “Houston Kahu,” it represents his liberal religious outlook, his location in Houston, and his roots in Hawai’i. He is a graduate of Baylor University (the largest Baptist university in the world, though far from the oldest) in Waco, TX and earned his Master of Divinity from the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Richmond, VA. (This seminary was founded by the Alliance of Baptists in 1986 as an alternative to the increasing fundamentalist-dominated Southern Baptist seminaries. Today, BTSR is primarily funded and related to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.) He has Clinical Pastoral Education certification from Houston and has done additional study at Wadham College (Oxford University), the Vancouver School of Theology, with the community of engaged Buddhists in France led by the exiled Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (whom Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967). Jeremy is a Doctorate of Ministry (D.Min.) student at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago, IL. 

In 2006, Covenant Church welcomed its first Associate Minister, Laura Mayo. Laura is a graduate of Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, TN (a historic Baptist liberal arts college with a liberal tradition) and earned her M.Div. at Wake Forest University Divinity School, an ecumenical, university-based, divinity school in the historic Baptist tradition. She completed her Clinical Pastoral Education at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, has done additional study at Regent’s Park College (Oxford University–this is a Permanent Private Hall at Oxford that both offers a liberal arts education and is a theological seminary for the Baptist Union of Great Britain) and has been awarded an Advanced Bereavement Facilitator Certification from the American Academy of Bereavement.

Fran Avera has been Minister of Music at Covenant Church since October 1969. She served as Minister of Music at University Baptist Church, Austin for 10 years.  She is a graduate of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ (now part of Rider University), with Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees.  Covenant Church ordained her to the gospel ministry in 1980. 

Covenant Church has a labyrinth on the grounds that can be used for contemplation and prayer.  Those who consider membership are called Inquirers (but a spirit of inquiry pervades all) and asked to complete a 6-8 week orientation class. Membership is open to all persons who affirm the loving presence of God, the life and teachings of Jesus, and the revealed Spirit through the ages.  Covenant is part of that Baptist tradition (a minority in North America, but larger in Britain and dating at least to John Bunyan) which, while Baptizing only believers (adults and those old enough to profess informed faith personally and make personal commitments to be disciples of Jesus), not infants, does not insist on “rebaptism” for those who come from pedobaptist traditions and find their infant christenings sufficient.  The Table of the Lord at Covenant is open to all.

July 3, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church, liberal theology, peacemaking | 11 Comments

Baptist Peace Churches #1

I have been writing a book profiling Baptist congregations that do not fit the stereotype. You know the stereotype I mean: fundamentalist in doctrine, triumphalist in denominational pride (often acting as if Baptists, or even their particular Baptist denomination, were the only true Christians), demeaning to women, having a membership that is almost completely WASP, believing that “bigger is better” in all things, neglectful of any work for peace and social justice, etc. 

I have been profiling Baptist congregations that embody Kingdom values of work for peace with justice.  I thought that I might share a few of these profiles on this blog.  There are great congregations like this in many theological traditions within Christianity. I focus on Baptists here because this is my tradition and because the popular view of Baptists is so very different.

I begin with The Second Baptist Church of Suffield, Suffield, CT.  Founded in 1805, Second BC describes itself as “A Beloved Community of Jesus Christ Engaging Faith, Worship, Fellowship, and Loving Action.”

The roots of Second BC, as with almost all Baptist congregations in CT, dates to the “Great Awakening” in the 18th C. led by Congregationalist minister/theologian Jonothan Edwards and the transatlantic evangelist, George Whitefield.  To the consternation of the Congregationalist establishment (“Standing Order”) in New England, Baptists and Methodists (and others) benefitted more by the “New Light” revival than did the Congregationalists among whom it started.  This led to the formation of The First Baptist Church of Suffield in 1790.  This was soon such a large and influential congregation that it needed to form a mission congregation, leading to the peaceful formation of Second BC in 1805. (This was NOT the result of a church split. Second BC had the enthusiastic support of the mother congregation.)

Second BC of Suffield is part of the American Baptist Churches, USA, the oldest Baptist “denomination” in the U.S.–a successor to the old “Trienniel Baptist Convention” prior to the separation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 (which separated in order to defend the right of missionaries to own slaves!). It upholds the American Baptist emphases on the centrality of Christ and the principles of liberty of conscience, the freedom and responsibility of every Christian and local congregation to interpret and obey Scripture, local congregational freedom, religious liberty and church-state separation, Believers’ baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the priesthood of all believers, the principle of association of local churches (balancing congregational liberty), missions and evangelism, racial diversity (the American Baptist Churches is the most racially diverse denomination in the USA), social justice, and ecumenical cooperation.

Out of the conviction that “believing and doing are one,” Second BC of Suffield adopted the following mission statement:

“The grace of Jesus Christ calls us into
a community of faith
embracing God’s Justice and love for all.
We draw upon the stories of the past for insight,
the experiences of the present for instruction,
and the hope of the future for inspiration.
We welcome all who join us in this endeavor
through worship, education, mission, and service
in the name of Christ. “
Second BC of Suffield is heavily involved with Habitat for Humanity building homes with and for the poor.  They also work with Loaves and Fishes food pantries and soup kitchens in Enfield and Springfield, CT.  They work with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.  They work to defend religious liberty and church-state separation in cooperation with the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, a people’s lobby in Washington, D.C. which is related to 9 different Baptist denominations. 
Second BC of Suffield is a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America
Since 2005, Second BC of Suffield has been led by their pastor, Rev. David Reed-Brown, an M.Div. graduate of Andover-Newton Theological School, the oldest free-standing seminary in North America. Andover-Newton is an ecumenical seminary related to American Baptists and the United Church of Christ. It grew out of the merger of Andover Seminary (founded in 1807 by Congregationalists), which trained the great American Baptist missionary to Burma, Adonirom Judson) and Newton Theological Institute (founded in 1825 by Baptists).  Rev. Reed-Brown also spent half a year in education at United Theological College, Bangalore, India, which has given him a global, transcultural perspective on church ministry and Christian faith.
If you are ever in Suffield, CT, look up Second Baptist Church–one of many Baptist peace churches.

June 29, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church | 7 Comments

Union Church: Peace Camp Host Congregation

union-church.jpgThe BPFNA Summer Conference (see previous post) in 2007 was hosted by 2 institutions, Berea College and the Church of Christ, Union, Berea, Kentucky, commonly known as “Union Church.” Both institutions were founded by the same man, John G. Fee (1816-1901), a missionary and church-planter with the abolition-minded American Missionary Association (AMA).  Though antebellum Kentucky was a slaveholding state, Fee planted abolitionist churches.  The mildly emancipationist Kentucky politician Cassius Clay(1810-1903), after whom the boxer Muhammed Ali was originally named, arranged for Fee to obtain a tract of land  to be used for abolitionist purposes.  Thus, the town of Berea, Kentucky and the college of the same name were founded to be abolitionist and integrationist seeds in the midst of slaveholding Kentucky.  The town was planned with a balanced number of whites and free blacks and, as often as possible, their houses were intermixed instead of segregated into separated neighborhoods.

Berea College was founded in 1855 (10 years before the Civil War) as the first integrated college in the South, and the first to admit women on an equal basis with men.  Growing out of the same evangelical, revivalist, and abolitionist spirit of Charles G. Finney and Timothy Dwight Weld that produced Lane College and Seminary in Cincinnatti, Antioch women’s college in Yellow Springs, OH, Wilberforce University and Seminary, and, especially, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, many of Berea’s early faculty members came from Oberlin to form a school that would be, in John Fee’s words, “anti-slavery, anti-war, anti-wealth, anti-rum, and anti-sin.”  More on the amazing history of Berea College in a future post.

Two years before founding Berea College, John G. Fee founded Union Church (1853). Because abolitionists were so few in Kentucky, the church could not afford to be denominational–they needed every abolitionist Christian they could get as members! So, from the beginning, Union Church was ecumenical, although liberally evangelical and Protestant in spirit.  It has largely functioned as the college church, especially after the town and surrounding county grew enough to support Baptist churches, Disciples of Christ, a Catholic parish, an Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches.  Union Church’s ministers, after the dissolution of the American Missionary Association have mostly come from pedo-baptist denominations, especially Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, with the occasional Baptist or Disciples pastor.  The current pastor, Kent Gilbert, is ordained in the United Church of Christ (successor to the Congregationalists).

After John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in 1859, Fee and all his followers were driven from the Commonwealth of Kentucky–no slave revolts were wanted here!  In 1865, after the Civil War, the scattered community of radical abolitionists reassembled, the church and college were reconstituted, and for decades the population of school, church, and town approximated 50% white and 50% black.  For about 45 years, it was one of the most successful of the many utopian communities that American revivalist Christianity routinely produced from the 18th through the early 20th centuries.

Most of the worship services of the BPFNA peace camp this past week were held in Union Church, while Berea College housed us in its dorms, fed us in its cafeteria, and gave us rooms for workshops and projects.  I have to say that the acoustics at Union Church were great for all the music and singing of our morning and evening worship services. 

The spirit of Union Church is best expressed in it’s stated principles:

Union Church welcomes all followers of Christ, and works with all who work with Him; respecting each man’s [changed in the 1970s to “person’s”] conscience; working by love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

We BPFNA peace campers felt warmly welcomed by Union Church, especially by the Office Manager, and by Pastor Kent Gilbert, who, along with some other members, joined us for many of our sessions. (I was glad to see that a few members from 2 nearby Baptist congregations also ventured to see what we were all about.)  I will post a picture of Rev. Gilbert later.  The BPFNA youth created a “peace pole” this week (see later post) and, in gratitude for our host congregation, donated it to Union Church. We solemnly warned Rev. Gilbert that a peace pole can be a lightning rod–attracting not only bad weather, but also negative social attention, perhaps even evangelism.  But this church is used to such costly witness.

July 29, 2007 Posted by | church, church history | Comments Off on Union Church: Peace Camp Host Congregation

Brief Reflections on the Church

Another blogger and somewhat kindred spirit said he was having trouble understanding my ecclesiology.  Since I hold a rather standard Believers Church/Baptist ecclesiology (no bishops; local church “autonomy”–however awkward the phrase, allowing each congregation to be led by Spirit to enflesh its ministry concretely in its own context; free association with others of “like faith and order” for purposes of mission and grassroots ecumenism; every member a minister “ordained” in baptism; leadership by called out gifts recognized by the community; the pastor (or pastoral team) as servant-leader and not dictator; baptism of repenters/believers/disciples–a church of “visible saints” entered only by faith; any member able to administer baptism or preside at the Table of the Lord; footwashing as a sign and seal of mutual servanthood; the church called out from “the world” to be a “contrast society,” but sent back into the world as salt and light; the priesthood and prophethood of all believers), I am not quite certain why my position was so hard to discern. In terms of the models outlined in Avery Dulles’ classic Models of the Church, expanded ed. (Doubleday, 1987), I hold to the “church as community of disciples” model, pp. 210-211.

Since I have other writing projects taking my time, and other blogging priorities for the near future, I won’t write any extended reflections at this time.  But since I have learned to count the mission of the church in the world as a “critical variable” in differences in Christian social ethics, I am not dismissing the importance of the question–not at all. So, for now, I will give a brief annotated bibliography of books on the church I have found very helpful–and one or two popular ones that I have decidedly NOT found helpful by contrast.

Barnes, Elizabeth B., An Affront to the Gospel? The Radical Barth and the Southern Baptist Convention (Scholars’ Press, 1987).  This is a revision of Barnes’ Ph.D. dissertation at Duke University in which she uses insights from the early Barth, especially his method prior to his work on Anselm and his thoughts on the church, to correct for hyper-individualism that has sometimes arisen in Baptist thought–especially since the late 19th C.

Boff, Leonardo, The Church: Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church (Crossroads, 1986).  This was the book that brought the wrath of then-Cardinal Ratzinger down on Boff.  Together with Boff’s Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Re-invent the Church, this book rethinks Catholic ecclesiology in light of liberation theology–and comes to views that are very similar to the ones Anabaptists arrived at in the 16th C.

Dawn, Marva, Truly the Community:  Romans 12 and How to Be the Church (Eerdmans, 1992). Also published as The Hilarity of Community, this is one of Dawn’s best works.

Durnbaugh, Donald F., The Believers’ Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism rev. ed. (Herald Press, 1985; Original edition, Macmillan, 1968).

Eller, David B., ed., Servants of the Word:  Ministry in the Believers’ Church (Brethren Press, 1990). Papers from the 8th Believers Church Conference.  Most are responses to Yoder’s Body Politics (see below).

Friesen, Duane K., Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers:  Seeking the Peace of the City–An Anabaptist Theology of Culture (Herald Press, 2000).  A brilliant answer both to the false choices of HRN’s Christ and Culture and to the quietist apolitical withdrawal of Hauerwas & Willimon’s horribly destructive Resident Aliens.

Furr, Gary A. and Curtis W. Freeman, eds., Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision (Smyth & Helwys Press, 1994), especially the chapters by Jim McClendon, E. Glenn Hinson, Wm. Loyd Allen, Philip LeMasters, and Samuel Proctor.

Hanson, Paul D., The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (Harper & Row, 1987).  A massive biblical theology that should inform any contemporary ecclesiology. 

Herzog, Frederick, Justice Church(Orbis Books, 1980).

Moltmann, Jürgen, The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit ((Harper & Row, 1975). It is hard to believe that this book is written by a theologian in the German Reformed tradition since it is a very Believers’ Church perspective. His arguments for open communion are very strong and his view of baptism endorse Believers’ Baptism as the norm, although trying to keep from “rebaptizing” all those baptized as infants.

Russell, Letty, Church in the RoundFeminist Interpretation of the Church (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). I don’t agree with everything here (Russell is Presbyterian), but view captures nicely the understanding I hold of authority in the church.

Scriven, Charles, The Transformation of Culture: Christian Social Ethics After H. Richard Niebuhr (Herald Press, 1988).  Argues for HRN’s “Christ Transforming Culture” stance, but argues that the Anabaptist/Believers’ Church tradition transforms culture more often and more faithfully than the Reformed-mainstream church Niebuhr endorses–and argues against the appropriateness of referring to Believers’ Church groups as “against culture.” This is a published revision of a Ph.D. dissertation at the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA) that was supervised by James Wm. McClendon, Jr.)

Stassen, Glen H., Diane M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Abingdon Press, 1996). Published as 50 year reflections on H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, far too many people read this only for Yoder’s powerful critique of HRN’s book.  But Yeager’s defense of Niebuhr is also important and Stassen’s 2 chapters point the way forward. It is worth remembering that Yoder “signed off” on Glen’s final chapter–something the Hauerwasians who value the book only for finally putting Yoder’s long privately circulated article into print don’t tell you. Yoder takes up many of the Stassen themes in his final publication before he died, For the Nations.

Strege, Merle D., ed., Baptism and Church: A Believers’ Church Vision (Eerdmans, 1986). Papers from the 7th Believers’ Church Conference.

Stoffer, Dale R., ed., The Lord’s Supper:  Believers’ Church Perspectives (Herald Press, 1997). Papers from the 11th Believers’ Church conference.

Volf, Miroslav, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Eerdmans, 1998). This is the published revision of Volf’s Habilitationsschrift (2nd German dissertation) and articulates a Free Church ecclesiology in dialogue with a Catholic ecclesiology (using Ratzinger’s work) and an Orthodox ecclesiology (interacting strongly with Zizioulis). The representative chosen to represent the Free Church/Believers’ Church tradition is John Smyth (1554-1612), radical Puritan Separatist who, under the influence of Waterlander Mennonites in Amsterdam, began the Baptist movement–although Smyth and most of his congregation eventually merged with the Mennonites and Smyth is still listed on the wall of the Mennonite congregation in Amsterdam as an Elder of the Church.  Considering that Volf himself has recently become Anglican, I do not know how much of this work he would still affirm, but I still hold to much of his constructive case.

Yoder, John Howard, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Herald Press, 1992).

Well, this list is longer than I expected to go, but I hope it is helpful.  When I have more time available, I will try to give more concrete ecclesiological reflections.

July 7, 2007 Posted by | church | 8 Comments

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