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

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

Things I Believe

Since my theology is regularly smeared and distorted by commenters, I will soon blog through brief statements of my major theological convictions. I will probably use a Baptist confession, noting that they are not creeds and are not in any sense infallible or unrevisable.

But here are some other things I believe that get left out of such discussions:

  • I believe that ordinary people can change the world in both small and large ways–especially if they get organized. Labor unions, community organizing, community development, grassroots political change movements–these are the engines of change from below.  History is NOT all the result of the decisions of presidents, kings, generals, etc. or of vast, impersonal forces.  People movements have changed things before and can do so again–for better and worse.
  • I believe in “complex equality” when it comes to economic justice. (I owe the term to political philosopher Michael Walzer.) Simple equality in economics was the dream of Communism and it cannot work–and to even come close to working for a brief time requires brutal repression.  But “complex equality” is both practical and moral:  As long as poverty is abolished and as long as the gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else is not too large and as long as there is a large middle class and much social movement, it is okay for some to make more than others–and probably necessary for a functioning economy.  If everyone has a home, the rich can buy as many homes as they want–but they are NOT entitled to buy more democracy than others or more power than others.
  • I refuse to believe the legal fiction that corporations are people with rights.  Corporations and their needs should be subordinate to the needs of human beings and the earth.  Corporations should have to draw up charters that show how they will benefit society and their workers–and they should be reviewed every 10 years before charter renewal.
  • Markets are a necessity, but there are no such things as “free markets” and never have been.  It’s a good thing, too. Markets function best with rules and regulations–otherwise you get monopolies or consumer fraud or poor working conditions or dangerous products.
  • Yes, there can be too much regulation in the economy.  It has been decades since Americans have been in any danger of this, however.  In the U.S., the danger is too little regulation and nearly non-existent enforcement of existing regulations.
  • Yes, taxation can be burdensome–even on the wealthy. Over-taxation can hurt everyone. Again, however, and Grover Norquist to the contrary, there is nothing even close to this problem in the U.S.A. Rather, we have state, local, and national governments that cannot function properly because of lack of enough revenue and we have the working and lower middle classes paying too much in taxes while the rich and super rich pay too little.  Further, we are backwards in taxing salaries and wages more than we tax income from dividends. This should be reversed.
  • All people are entitled to the best health care a society can provide–withought regard to ability to pay.
  • We humans have a duty to care for the earth–even if it costs us profits to do so.
  • Not all people are cut out to do university work, but education should be freely available to all who can and desire to make use of it. For those without any desire or ability for scholarship, apprenticeships, job training and placement, vocational education, etc. should be readily available.  No one should be given preferential treatment in university admittance based on wealth or parentage, race, religion, etc.  Nor should anyone who is qualified for entrance be prevented based on the same.
  • Budgets are moral documents. If a family budgets luxuries at the expense of needs for the children, we should condemn them. Likewise, if a local, state, or national government balances a budget by harming children and the marginalized, it shows an extreme moral failure.
  • There is Beauty in the cosmos.  If the problem of evil and pain/suffering is one of the greatest objections to belief in a loving God (and it is), then the existence of beauty and wonder and kindness and generosity and pleasure and joy should constitute one of best evidences for such a loving God and one of the strongest arguments against atheism.
  • There is both order and chaos in the universe.  There is enough order to make it impossible for me to retain a skeptical attitude toward God for any length of time.  There is enough random chaos (not to mention outright evil) to keep me raising questions and doubts even in the midst of my faith.
  • If women, as a general rule, were not morally superior to men, as a general rule, the human species would have self-destructed long ago.
  • Human love is not the answer to everything. The Beatles to the contrary, love is NOT all you need.  But it’s damn close.
  • Sexual reproduction in mammals, especially humans, shows that God is an Artist–concerned with far more than simple functional efficiency.  Asexual reproduction would have been far easier.  It also, as every married couple knows, shows that the Almighty has a huge sense of humor.
  • Deconstructionists and radical forms of postmodernists to the contrary, there is Truth–not just personal truths or (in the words of Stephen Colbert) “truthiness.”  But human comprehension of Truth is always partial, fragmented, and limited.  Failure to remember the first leads to nihilism, perhaps even fascism.  Failure to remember the second leads repeatedly to fanaticism, hubris, every form of religious and political fundamentalism and repression.
  • Democracy is an extremely inefficient form of government and very messy.  Yet, the alternatives keep me returning to embrace democracy again.  As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us, we humans are sinful enough to make democracy absolutely necessary–and just moral enough to make it possible.
  • Bill Moyers is right: Democracy in the U.S. has been a series of “narrow escapes.”  It remains to be seen whether we have had yet another narrow escape or whether our luck has finally run out and we will lose our democratic republic to some form of national security state.
  • In the words of Stephen Donaldson’s character Thomas Covenant, “Law is not the opposite of Despite.”  Law does not save.  The rule of law is not grace, is not forgiveness, is not all we need.  But  lawlessness is far worse.  We need the rule of law not as an absolute (every society makes bad laws and persons of conscience will need to commit civil disobedience), but as a limited and flawed alternative to rule by personal fiat.  No one–no president or prime minister or king, queen, etc. should be above the law. Richard Nixon once claimed, “When the president does it, it is not a crime.” The actions of Bill Clinton sometimes seemed to endorse that same attitude–and the entire presidency of George W. Bush has been such an assertion.  They are all wrong.  I hope to see Bush stand trial for “high crimes and misdemeanors” not out of any sense of revenge, but for the sake of rescuing our society as a nation of laws.
  • Human justice is imperfect and constantly needs tempering by mercy.  This alone, without any other consideration, would lead me always to oppose the death penalty. (I have many other reasons for my opposition as well.)
  • Children are joyous–and holy terrors.  Children are holy terrors–and the joyous hope of the future. Any possibility of good parenting depends of remembering both truths.
  • My mother, may she rest in peace, taught all her children both to respect elders and to think for themselves.  Not until I became a parent myself did I find out how difficult it is to teach both of these things at the same time.  I want my daughters to question everything–and to listen to me, now, dammit! 🙂

I may include other lists like this in the future–and invite readers to add their own.

June 23, 2008 Posted by | convictions | 6 Comments

Liberty of Conscience, pt. 1

I’m going to step back from commenting on current events, for awhile, in order to try to flesh out a Leveller vision for our context. I need to break this into small posts, so it will take awhile. Also, there will be interruptions such as when I am attending the annual meeting of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, 10-15 July 2006. (See http://www.bpfna.org ) I may try my first attempt at email blogging to keep up or I may report on that event upon return.

Richard Overton, General Baptist and the most articulate pamphleteer of the 17th C. Levellers, coined the term “human rights” in 1640, over half a century before the Enlightenment. He argued for human rights using Scripture, his personal experience, and reason–whereas Enlightenment figures like Locke tended to argue using reason alone. Also, Locke and the other Enlightenment proponents of human rights tended to focus ONLY on political rights (still a tendency of political elites in the U.S.) whereas Overton’s view included three dimensions: civil liberties and political rights; economic rights addressing basic human needs; and rights of participation in community.

Now, people tend to begin discussions of human rights at the places where they feel pain, where they feel violations of their rights. In contexts of extreme poverty, hunger, and economic exploitation, basic needs and economic rights tend to come first. In contexts of isolation, alienation, and feelings of powerlessness, participation rights tend to be the first focus. Any entry point is okay, as long as the full scope of human rights comes into view and we don’t try to trade off one strand of rights for another.

Overton began with liberty of conscience because he had experienced the horrors of religious persecution. (While in jail for publishing without clearing from the censor, he encountered the many in debtors’ prison and people had to smuggle food to him and his wife–prompting Overton to begin concentrating more on economic justice for the poor. ) Overton had been in Germany during part of the Forty Years War–a war of Protestants vs. Catholics and Lutherans v. Calvinists. Religious wars and religiously inspired violence sickened ever afterword. He had later (1615) joined John Smyth’s congregation in Amsterdam just after it merged with the Waterlander Mennonites–experiencing the pain of an English exile community fled to Holland to escape religious persecution, a community that began articulating the first universal defenses of religious liberty in the English language. Back in England as a General Baptist, Overton experienced the “persecution for cause of conscience” that all the Dissenters (Baptists, Quakers, Seekers, many Congregationalists) experienced at both the hands of the Anglican establishment, and the Puritan and Presbyterian folks that wished to replace that establishment with another.

So, Overton began by arguing for liberty of conscience–that EVERYONE is entitled to their own religious and political convictions without government or other outside interference. I’ll begin there, too. In my next post, I’ll quote Overton and some other early defenders of liberty of conscience, but relate that to our contemporary context: Muslim-Christian conflicts in much of Africa and Asia as well as the Middle East; the Religious Right’s constant push for creeping theocracy in the U.S.; the demonization of Islam in the “war on terror;” the religio-phobia of the Left which drives many persons of faith toward the Religious Right. In this series of posts somewhere, I’ll try to address a good question by a conservative reader: How can one have genuine, all-consuming religious convictions (e.g., the Lordship of Christ over all of life), and still work for church-state separation and protect others’ liberty to hold to other faiths or no faith? Doesn’t this reduce Jesus (or Allah, etc.) to Lord only of one’s private, free time? The answer is “no,” but defending that answer is seldom done well anymore. I will try. This is long enough for one post.

June 29, 2006 Posted by | convictions, religious liberty | 8 Comments