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

Two Types of Christian Pacifism

“Pacifism” can  be defined at minimum as the view that war, even defensive war, is always wrong–or that participation in war is wrong.  Another minimal definition is that deliberately taking human life is always morally wrong. 

Minimal definitions only get one so far, of course.  Pacifists come in many different varieties.  Faith-based pacifists may be minimally defined as those who believe their religious faith forbids them to kill human beings, especially in war.  Christian pacifists are minimally those who believe that their Christian faith forbids them to kill in any war.  From there on, the differences abound:  many Christian pacifists would also be against abortion (minimally believing that Christians themselves should never obtain or facilitate abortions; maximally, attempting to outlaw all abortions), but some Christians, while always considering abortion a moral tragedy, would sometimes see them as morally permissable. (I have been on both sides of that debate and am currently “reluctantly pro-choice” for reasons I need a different blog post to delineate.) Many Christian pacifists are also against the death penalty, but some would only see Christian participation in that as sinful.  Some Christian pacifists are vegetarians, but most are not (whereas Buddhist or Hindu pacifists ARE vegetarians).  Many Christian pacifists are against the use of physical punishment in child rearing, but others are not.

Likewise,  the type of theology and spirituality which undergirds Christian pacifism come in great variety:  Franciscan pacifism is different from Benedictine or Catholic Worker pacifism, but they all bear far more resemblance to each  other than either would to Amish or Mennonite pacifism.  Anabaptist style pacifism undergirds Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, the Amish and others (and,  itself, has variations within it), but this is different from Quaker pacifism.  And so it goes.

In Nevertheless, John Howard Yoder outlined the strengths and weaknesses of about 20 different types of religious pacifism without claiming that his taxonomy was exhaustive.  But while sometimes it is useful to multiply categories in order to see the great variety, sometimes it is helpful to boil things down to a couple of choices so that one can see broad similarities.  This is one thing that Catholic theological ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill does in her book, Love Your Enemies:  Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. (By the way,  this is a must read.)

Cahill notes that not only do  Christian just war theorists read the New Testament differently than do Christian pacifists,  but that Christian pacifists fall broadly into two types which also read the New Testament differently.  One kind of Christian pacifism Cahill calls the pacifism of obedience and the other as the pacifism of compassion. 

Cahill’s “obedience pacifists” include people like Tertullian, Menno Simons, John Howard Yoder.  They are nonviolent out of obedience to the commands of Jesus as they see them.  Their discipleship is one of following.  Their defenses of nonviolence focus on the authority of Jesus (or the Risen Christ) and they read the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ platform for his followers.  By contrast, Cahill’s “compassion pacifists” include people like St. Francis of Assissi, Dorothy Day, and (in his pacifist phase) H. Richard Niebuhr.  Their focus of discipleship is on “works of compassion and mercy” to the poor and outcasts.  They reject war and violence out of a prior spirituality that is about serving and vocation, rather than by rules about when, if ever, to use violence.

One must be clear that these are broad tendencies, not pure types. After all, Dorothy Day, for all her mercy and compassion thought  in terms of authority and obedience (and could be a tyrant in running the Worker Houses of Hospitality).  Nor would anyone who knew John Yoder want to suggest that he lacked compassion and mercy or that his view of the NT was in any way legalistic.  Still, these different orientations are helpful to note.

Some other “obedience pacifists” include Alexander Campbell, a majority of first generation Pentecostals, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, Culbert Rutenber, Richard Overton, Conrad Grebel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in his “pacifist days),etc.  Some other “compassion pacifists” would include Muriel Lester, Walter Rauschenbusch, George Fox,  Mother Teresa of Calcultta, Jean Vanier.

But where would one put Stanley Hauerwas?  He eschews rules for virtues, but clearly has an obedience-style structure.  So, the typology has its  limits even if it is helpful in broad terms.

March 31, 2009 Posted by | discipleship, love of enemies, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount | 8 Comments

The Folly of the Cross

One of the nice things about the community of theology blogs is that one doesn’t have to do everything oneself.  I have written often on Christian nonviolence, but I have not, on this blog, ever tried to lay out a consistent case for the position.  Fortunately, an excellent case is made by D.C. Cramer on his blog, Cramer Comments.

Here is a link to most of his series, “The Folly of the Cross: On  Christian Pacifism.”  Note that he covers topics that often come up as objections, including the question of policing and that of (violent) defense of family against attackers.  He promises more to come, including chapters on the question of pacifism and the Old Testament, family members in the military, the Nazis and more.  I hope he includes a chapter on nonviolent responses to terrorism. (If not, I will have to do  so myself, I guess.  Fortunately, far more has been written on this recently than when I became a pacifist in the ’80s.)  Given his conservative evangelical background, I suspect that Cramer and I disagree  on several things (Christian pacifism comes in many varieties), but I like what he has written here and recommend it to you,  Gentle Readers,  whether you share my pacifist convictions or are one of my critics on this matter.

March 30, 2009 Posted by | blogs, discipleship, nonviolence, pacifism | 4 Comments

Random Chapters in the History of Nonviolence#1 “Mrs. Overton”

This is a new series that will eventually become a booklet.  I began writing these essays in 2004 when working for Every Church a Peace Church.  Women have been the backbone of most movements for peace, justice, and human rights–but usually they have not been as visible to historians.  As one example of this notice that out of over 100 years of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize (since 1901) only 12 women have been awarded the Nobel–despite the huge leadership of women in creating the modern peace movement that led Alfred  Nobel to create the prize!  So, I will lead off these “random chapters” by profiling several women peacemakers before profiling any male leaders. 

This blog is dedicated to Richard Overton, General Baptist leader of the 17th C. Levellers. So I begin with the story of his life partner. Ironically, Mrs. Overton’s name is lost to us!  But her story is not –even though it needs to be more widely known.


We know little about “Mrs. Overton.” We do not know when or where she was born or to whom.  We do not know when she met and married Richard Overton.  Was she with him in his youth when he travelled from England to Germany and witnessed the beginnings of the Thirty Years’ War? (Was this the origin of the Overtons’ deep conviction that wars over religion were evil incarnate?  Was it the origin of Richard’s defense of liberty of conscience?  Of conscientious objection to war? Of his convictions about nonviolence?) Was she with Richard when he left Germany and moved to Amsterdam in 1615 to join John Smyth’s “se-Baptist” congregation just after it merged with  the Amsterdam Waterlander Mennonites? Or did Richard only meet his life partner after he returned to England (sometime between 1615 and 1642) ? Was she already a member of the General Baptist congregation that Richard joined? (For the first 50 years of their existence the English General Baptists were in frequent communication with the Amsterdam Mennonites. The two groups considered themselves “of like faith and order” and exchanged members without either group requiring rebaptism of the other.  Mennonite-style pacifism was widespread, though not universal, among General Baptists at this time.)   We simply do not know.

What we do know is this:  Mrs. Overton apparently shared her husband’s faith convictions, including his commitments to liberty of conscience and pacifism.  In 1647, Overton, as leader of the Levellers (a Christian-motivated political movement for political and economic equality at the time of the English Civil War), was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London for printing pamphlets without submitting them to the censor for approval.  He was dragged to jail clutching a copy of the Magna Carta to his breast. (Remember that the 13th C. Magna Carta was the first English document that limited the rights of monarchs in English common law.  It began the tradition of limited government with checks and balances–though initially limited to the aristocracy–a tradition that would lead inevitably to democratic rule.) On 10 February 1647,  in The Commoner’s Complaint, which he wrote from prison, Overton described not only his arrest, but the even more dramatic arrest of his wife that followed.

Mrs. Overton demonstrated her own commitment to human rights (a term coined by Richard), rooted, like his, in her deep Christian faith, by continuing to print and publish his pamphlets after his arrest when  it would have been safer to lay low.  So, the authorities came to arrest her as well. Mrs. Overton’s conscience would not allow her to cooperate with the arresting authorities.  So, she practiced nonviolent resistance, going limp, and refusing to walk to jail.  The arresting marshall threatened to drag her by the axle of a cart.  She replied that he must “do as it seemed good to him for she was resolved on her course.” (Overton, The Commoner’s Complaint.) Her husband, Richard, describes the scene with great sarcasm and ridicule of the arresting authorities.  Contemporary feminists might complain that he reinforces the view of women as “the weaker sex,” but he uses these prejudices subversively to undermine the authority of the arresting marshall and all governments that would so treat their citizens. 

The marshall, says Richard, “strutted in fury, as if he would have forthwith levied whole armies and droves of porters and cartmen to advance this poor little innocent woman and her tender babe” to Bridewell prison.  The marshall orders his deputies to drag her from the room, but they refuse.  When the marshall is defeated, the authorities have to draft soldiers from the wars from the frontlines to come and arrest Mrs. Overton.  She goes limp and they drag her “babe at the breast” according to Overton, down the road while she denounces them to the crowd and they jeer the soldiers and throw rotten fruit at them!

In prison, the Overtons have to be smuggled food by friends. They began by being concerned with the rights of conscience for religious minorities and political rights–but in prison they meet the poor and their concept of human rights broadens to include economic rights.

Neither Mrs. Overton nor the Levellers were successful in the short run.  But her witness lives on.  Whenever any nonviolent witness for truth practices nonviolent resistance, they expose the injustice of the Powers and Authorities.  And the Thrones and Kingdoms tremble.  The walls begin to shake.

For all the Mrs. Overtons, named and unnamed, I pray, O Lord, knowing that Your Spirit works through them to topple injustice and sow the seeds of your justice,  your peace, your Rule.  Amen.

February 8, 2009 Posted by | anabaptists, Baptists, church history, discipleship, heroes, human rights., nonviolence | Comments Off on Random Chapters in the History of Nonviolence#1 “Mrs. Overton”

20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Muriel Lester

muriel1The 2nd substantive chapter in Twentieth Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics, ed. Larry W. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen (Mercer University Press, 2008) is also the only chapter that is NOT an original composition for this work.  Paul R. Dekar’s chapter on Muriel Lester is a slightly updated version of a chapter in his excellent book, For the Healing of the Nation:  Baptist Peacemakers (Smyth & Helwys, 1993).

Paul R. DeKar has had an unusual academic career, having been employed to teach church history and evangelism and missiology.  A dual-citizen of Canada and the United States, DeKar was educated at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary before earning a Ph.D. in history at Yale University.  He taught both church history and missiology for over 20 years at Ontario’s McMaster University and McMaster Divinity School while founding the university’s peace studies center.  DeKar, an ordained minister in the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, became a convinced pacifist and conscientious objector during the Vietnam War era and joined the interfaith pacifist group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  He has also been an active participant (and unofficial historian for) in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America since its foundation.  In 1995, he became Niswonger Professor of Evanngelism and Missions at Memphis Theological Seminary (the one seminary of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church). An author of books on church history,  evangelism, missions, and peacemaking, DeKar is also a participant-chronicler of the current rediscovery by Protestants of the virtues of monasticism, becoming a Benedictine Oblate and a member of the only official Baptist monastery in the world (in Australia).  DeKar is convinced that only such deep spiritual roots will enable Christians to be authentic and bold peacemakers and witnesses for the gospel.

I know Paul DeKar from our mutual participation in both the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  He approaches this chapter on Muriel Lester with a historian’s eye for detail and context and with the passion of one who admires his subject and shares many of her convictions and perspectives. 

Muriel Lester (1883-1968) , though now forgotten by many, was a pioneer for Baptists and others and once one of the most influential of Christian voices in the world.  She was born to wealth, but spent most of her life as a social worker with the urban poor–and even became a socialist politician in order to be a better advocate for the poor.  Given more educational advantages than most women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, at a time when the ancient British universities of Oxford and Cambridge were just opening their doors to women and “Nonconformists” (i.e., non-Anglicans such as Baptists), she considered pursuing a degree in literature at Cambridge, but turned her back on higher education in order to dedicate her life to helping the oppressed and downtrodden.  By “accident,” she became an unordained pastor and an advocate for women’s ministry (See her 1935 b0ok Why Forbid Us?).  A bestselling author on faith and spirituality and an apologist for Christianity, she was nevertheless a pioneer in interfaith dialogue–and a famous friend of Gandhi’s. A pacifist and global peacemaker, she was arrested by her own British government during WWII and, after being released, he passport was conviscated until after the war because, though NO ONE believed her to be a Nazi sympathizer, her peace efforts were deemed to undermine morale during wartime.

British Baptists began in the 17th C. as a persecuted sect that drew almost exclusively from the lower classes. But by the time of Lester’s birth in 1883, their lot had improved–though the Anglican Church’s establishment as the state religion still put considerable restrictions on the freedom of Baptists and other Nonconformists.  Lester was raised in a wealthy shipbuilding family. Her father was also a Baptist laypreacher and a local magistrate.

As a teenager, this child of privilege,  was exposed to the poverty and hardship of working classes in “Bow,” a London slum.  This, along with reading the writings of Tolstoy, convinced her that Christians must work on the side of the poor.  She took a “legacy” (Americans would  say “inheritance”) and used it to transform an abandoned church in Bow ( a “Strict and Particular” hyper-Calvinist congregation) into a multi-purpose community center and settlement house which she called Kingsley Hall, after a beloved older brother who died young.  Along with her sister, Doris, Muriel Lester moved into Kingsley Hall to share the lives of the poor and work to make them better.

The  Hall became a settlement house for the homeless, an employment center for those out of work, a center for community organizing and much more.  The Hall, led by the Lester sisters, held adult education classes, including of parenting and job skills.  Eventually,  it opened a Children’s Hall (alternative to the horrors of most contemporary orphanages) and a second settlement house in a different slum.

Kingsley Hall also became a de facto church congregation for many residents and neighbors.  Most churches of the time looked down on the poor and would judge harshly those who came to worship without “Sunday best.” So, many residents who wanted to attend church had nowhere else to go.  While the Lester sisters never forced residents to come to worship or made any aid dependent on such (as many Christian missions to the poor did), they did conduct services for those that wanted them. Since they could not attract any willing clergy,  Muriel became the unordained, de facto pastor of the congregation that met at Kingsley Hall, even re-writing hymns and preaching and serving the Lord’s Supper. (She did not, however, baptize or perform weddings.)

When WWI broke out,  Muriel Lester, a convinced pacifist, joined  with other Christians in 1914 in forming the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation.  She announced that these Christians, including herself, would not pronounce a “moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount” for the duration of the war! When the International FOR formed iin 1917, Muriel joined that, too.  Later, after she turned the work of Kingsley Hall over to Doris, Muriel became the FOR’s first “Traveling Secretary,” sort of an “Ambassador for Peace” planting FOR chapters on all continents and risking much for the sake of peace. (For instance,  after the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, Lester saw the Chinese suffering first hand and then confronted the Japanese government with their atrocities face-to-face! )  She became a guest of Gandhi’s in India and hosted him at Kingsley Hall when Gandhi came to  Britain to negotiate Indian independence.

DeKar’s account shows how much Lester drew from her Baptist faith in her work as a social worker, pastor, socialist politician, and ambassador for peace.  But he fails to  ask critical questions of Lester as a guide for Baptist social  ethics:  What was the role of Scripture (other than the Sermon on the Mount) in her approach to moral and social issues? I find no account of this in the collections of Lester’s writings that survive,  nor in DeKar’s account.  Why is baptism of so little value to her as a pastor? What is her understanding of the nature of the church?  What legislative accomplishments did Lester achieve during her time as a socialist politician? How did her faith concerns intersect these matters and how did she view religious liberty and the  relation of church and state?

As a Christian pacifist, I am glad that this chapter joins the mini-revival of interest in Lester and her work.  What a fantastic Christian peacemaker and justice-seeker!  But in a book dedicated to shapers of Baptist social ethics, I wanted more critical  analysis  than DeKar offered.  Of course, Muriel Lester was neither an academic theologian nor Christian ethicist–nor even a theologically trained pastor. She was a widely read practical mystic, but while it is clear that her Christian faith was a driving factor,  it is not clear that she retained much specifically BAPTIST influence in her adult life. (If I am wrong about this, DeKar’s chapter does not show me where.) 

I suspect that this chapter’s minimal  analysis stems from its being lifted nearly unchanged from an earlier volume  with a different purpose.  Editors McSwain and Allen should have required more rewriting from DeKar for  this volume’s purposes.

December 29, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church history, discipleship, ethics, heroes, pacifism | 1 Comment

GLBT Persons in the Church: A Positive Word from Jesus?

It is commonly said by those on all sides of this debate that Jesus said nothing whatsoever pertaining to “homosexuality.”  Traditionalists conclude that Jesus simply accepted the Levitical prohibitions (and the negative view of 1st C. Judaism) without question.  Revisionists conclude that Jesus was unconcerned about same-sex issues and that contemporary Christians are free to take Jesus’ overall liberating views on the dignity and equality of all persons as our guide.

But there is one ambiguous passage in the Gospels in which Jesus MAY have indicated an openess to same-sex covenantal love.  I want to be very cautious here.  I have been told about a Norwegian woman (a Baptist pastor, actually) who completed a Ph.D. in New Testament at the University of Manchester in the U.K.  She investigated this pericope rather thoroughly. But the dissertation has not yet been published and so I have not seen the evidence for her conclusions. So, what follows, is a possibility that bears further investigation–but without that further investigation would be (in Lee’s words about how Richard Hays treats Rom. 1 on the other side of this debate) “too thin a reed on which to build a case one way or the other.”

In Matthew 19, Jesus condemns divorce (except for porneia, indicating some kind of sexual sin, usually thought to be adultery), using God’s created intentions to overturn Mosaic law (which allowed men to seek divorce). The disciples, blown away by the idea that they may have learn conflict resolution with their wives, mutter that it may be better not to marry at all.

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.  For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; others have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The one who can accept this word, should do so.” Matt. 19:11-12.

Now, traditionally, this passage has been interpreted to mean that Jesus was advocating celibacy, but that is not clear.

  • The word “eunuchs” is not really an English translation of the Greek ενουκοι. Rather, it is simply a transliteration. 
  • Because of the influence of the KJV, modern English uses the term “eunuch” to mean a castrated male. But did the term have that meaning in the ancient world?
  • In the dissertation to which I have referred (but I have seen only a summary, not the evidence),  a broad range of materials is consulted and it seems that “eunuch” had a much wider meaning in the 1st C. Mediterranean world–referring to any male who deviated from the cultural norm of marrying and begetting children. It was even used to refer to men who married and did not beget children. It was also used, I am given to understand, to refer to men who had longterm male lovers–NOT to pederasts or to temple prostitutes, etc.
  • Now, traditionally, this passage has been used to endorse celibacy, but the topic under discussion is marriage.
  • Jesus says that some are eunuchs (that is, men who do not marry and beget children) because they were made that way by men. These are probably castrated males such as many cultures used for herem guards.
  • Jesus says that some make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the early church, Origen took this to mean that some should castrate themselves and he did so.  Fortunately, most of the church did not follow this pattern.  Those who would be “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom” have been voluntarily celibate–as apparently Jesus and Paul were. (In light of his belief that Jesus would return any minute, Paul wished all Christians were “as I am”–apparently meaning celibate, but recognized that it took a special gift of the Spirit. 1 Cor. 7:7–a chapter in which Paul also indicates that an acceptable basis for Christian (heterosexual) marriage is to control one’s otherwise uncontrollable lust! Nice.)
  • Jesus says some eunuchs “were born that way.” Is he talking only of males born with some genital defect? Or is referring also to men who do not marry and have children because they were born with desires for their own sex?

Caution: Even if Jesus has people we would call “gay” or “lesbian,” those with homosexual orientation, in mind as part of the category of “born eunuchs,” the passage does not indicate what Jesus would have them do–except that it is clear that, contrary to his own Jewish culture, he does not order them to marry or condemn them for not marrying.  “Family” takes on broader than biological meaning in Christianity.  But Jesus does not say, “all born eunuchs must remain celibate,” either.

Is this a veiled positive word for gay and lesbian Christians?  I don’t think it is clear, but I do think it is a possibility worth further investigation.

Let those accept this who can.

Next, I will wind up this series by moving beyond reading of the few texts in Scripture relating to this topic to giving a theological rationale for welcoming and affirming GLBT Christians fully into the life of the church, including blessing same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage.

July 19, 2008 Posted by | discipleship, ethics, GLBT issues, homosexuality | 8 Comments

GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (B)

Okay, when Hays gets to Romans 1, he argues on the exegetical level for a very similar reading of the text that I give: Paul is describing first the state of fallen Gentile humanity and then the state of fallen Jewish humanity in order to get to his conclusion that “there is no excuse,” all have sinned, Christ’s redemption is the only remedy, and there is no cause for boasting for either Jews or Gentiles.

Hays, “The unrighteous behavior catalogued in Romans 1:26-31 is a list of symptoms [italics in original]: the underlying sickness of humanity as a whole, Jews and Greeks alike, is that they have turned away from God and fallen under the power of sin (cf. Rom. 3:9).”  From here he goes on to make what he calls several important observations about Romans 1 and “homosexuality.”:

  • Paul is not describing the individual life histories of pagan sinners; not every pagan has first known the true God of Israel and then chosen to turn away into idolatry. When Paul writes, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” he is giving a global account of the universal fally of humanity.  This fall  is manifested continually in the various ungodly behaviors listed in vv. 24-31.  [But what if, I ask, a different understanding of sexual orientation means that some same-sex behavior, namely that in covenant relationship between two people for whom this is their natural expression of sexuality, is NOT an “ungodly behavior”–even if it bears surface resemblance to the same–but a variation in God’s creation like left handedness?]
  • Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God’s created order.  God the Creator made man and woman for each other, to cleave together, to be fruitful and multiply. When human beings “exchange” these created roles for homosexual intercourse, they embody the spiritual condition of those who have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”  [I agree that this is how Paul sees things. It assumes that all sex is for procreation.]
  • Homosexual acts are not, however, specially reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness listed in this passage (vv. 29-31)–no worse in principle than covetousness or gossip or disrespect for parents.
  • Homosexual activity will not incur [emphasis in original] God’s punishment: it is its own punishment, an “antireward.” Paul here simply echoes a traditional Jewish idea. The Wisdom of Solomon, an intertestamental writing that has surely informed Paul’s thinking in Romans 1, puts it like this, “Therefore those who lived unrighteously in a life of folly, [God] tormented through their own abominations” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:23). [Here I agree completely with this exegetical reading. Paul understands gay sex as a result of human fallenness and idolatry.

Hays concludes that the contemporary church should welcome GLBT persons the way it welcomes all sinners, but should continue to teach that all same-sex acts are always sinful signs of human idolatry/fallenness. He concludes that the church should not bless same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage and should ordain gay and lesbian ministers only if they are celibate (as it would single heterosexual ministers).

He reaches this conclusion for several reasons–and it is here at the hermeneutical level that I think Hays’ argument fails.:

  1. The Bible speaks sparingly about homosexual acts (contrary to the impression from many preachers), but it speaks with one voice. The canon is unanimous in condemnation.  (I think there is a possible text he has overlooked–subject of my next post in this series–but it is ambiguous. Hays could be right. But, his conclusion need not follow. The Bible is also unanimous in never explicitly condemning slavery, but Hays would not conclude that slavery that followed biblical patterns, was not race-based, etc. could be legitimate.  In the case of slavery, the general direction of biblical message as a whole undermines the commands/permissions of specific texts.  The relevant question for our discussion is whether or not this is also true for same-sex covenantal love.  This is the metaphor making act of interpretation that Hays has emphasized–the embodiment of the Word in churches as communities of moral discernment.
  2. Hays points out that the Christian tradition is even more condemnatory than the Scripture. He’s right. But the tradition is also almost entirely supercessionist in its treatment of Judaism–and Hays conclusion on that issue is that the tradition gets it completely wrong.
  3. Hays is worried that revisionists like myself are simply substituting personal experience for the authority of Scripture.  There is always that danger. I share Hays’ concern here–he and I are equally critical of the way that, since Constantine, the churches have blessed war and militarism in direct opposition to the witness of Jesus and the New Testament writers.  He and I share a loyalty to biblical faithfulness against faddish trends.  But Hays’ misses the way that his own experience is shaping his interpretation, especially at the hermeneutical level: He begins the chapter on “homosexuality,” with a story about a friend of his, a gay Christian named Gary, who died of AIDS. Hays has personal loyalty to this friend–a friend who saw his inability to remain celibate as an addiction and who rejected as “cheap,” the revisionist welcoming and affirming line that I am taking.  (It is even more obvious in the original article in Sojourners from which this chapter comes that Gary’s story, including his interpretation that God had cured him of same-sex desires before his death, drives Hays’ interpretation throughout.) Likewise, it is Hays’ experience with Jews in a post-Holocaust world that directs his re-reading of the NT and rejection supercessionist readings–as he admitted personally at a meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics under questioning from a former student. Thus, without the Holocaust, Hays would probably have drawn different conclusions–more in line with the supercessionism of the church through the centuries–on Israel and the Church.  So, experience and contemporary new insights affect ALL our readings of Scripture–Hays’ included.
  4. Hays’ normative conclusions turns Romans 1 into a set of rules: Do not ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians; do not sanction same-sex marriages or “Holy Unions.”  But Hays has said that we should not transform Scripture from one mode of ethical discourse to another (see previous post).

I think it makes a difference in our normative Christian ethics not only how we read Scripture, but with whom.  If black and white North American Christians had read the Bible together in the same church buildings, could white Christians have continued to justify slavery or segregation?  Likewise, the catalyst for many of us in re-reading Scripture on “homosexuality” was our experience of reading these texts in the company of gay and lesbian Christians–and the testimony of their lives of holiness.

The full theological argument for my revisionist position awaits.  But for Hays’ counterargument(s) to work, he has to modify several of his guidelines for using Scripture in moral discernment–or come to different conclusions on his treatment of the supercessionist texts. As it stands now, his conclusions on “homosexuality” show a use of Scripture that is in tension with the use he gives in Jewish/Christian relations.

Hays is codifying Paul’s presuppositions about the causes of homosexuality–and allowing no new information to challenge those presuppositions. I think that not only fundamentally distorts Paul’s argument in the structure of Romans (Paul could have used another illustration than same-sex acts for Rom. 1), but it turns an illustration in a moral argument into a rule. On every other issue in the book, Richard Hays is a better theologian.

We all have our blind spots and I conclude that this is one of his.

July 18, 2008 Posted by | discipleship, ethics, GLBT issues | 18 Comments

GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (A)

Romans 1 Continued:  The Argument of NT Scholar Richard B. Hays

I have repeatedly hesitated to write this post.  It involves publicly disagreeing with a scholar whom I respect enormously and that is never pleasant.  But, here goes anyway.

Richard B. Hays is a United Methodist minister and the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament  at Duke University Divinity School–who previously taught at Yale Divinity School.  His book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament:  Community, Cross, New Creation:  A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), is widely agreed to be the best volume of its kind in decades. Christianity Today selected it as one of the 100 most important Christian books of the 20th C., and, for once, I agree with the editors of CT.  It is truly a remarkable book and I have used it my own teaching.  Most NT scholars, if and when they write works on New Testament ethics, confine themselves solely to the descriptive task, surveying the ethical contents of the biblical passages.  A few go on to make contemporary application.  Hays, instead, understakes a 4-fold task, and does it remarkably well:  First, descriptive:  surveying every major strand (and writer) of the New Testament and outlining the major themes in some detail.  Second, the synthetic task, searching for the canonical unity of these disparate moral teachings.  Hays rejects placing all the NT under one overarching theme (e.g., “love,” or “liberation,” etc.) and instead uses three concepts or focal images as guides: community, cross, new creation.  Third, the hermeneutical task, bridging the chasm between the meaning of the texts for their original audience and what they should normatively mean for the contemporary church.  In accomplishing this task, Hays does something few other biblical scholars bother to do: He reads widely in the writings of theologians and Christian ethicists, asking how they actually use Scripture in their work.  From this he develops a series of diagnostic questions about the adequacy of a given theologian/ethicist’s approach–illustrating this for the reader by surveying the use of Scripture in the ethics of Reinhold NiebuhrKarl Barth, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  Hays finds appreciative points about each of these significant voices and things to criticize about each, as well, but he finds Barth, Yoder, and Hauerwas to be more helpful than Niebuhr or Schüssler Fiorenza. (It is significant that none of these figures is a racial or ethnic minority, nor comes from the Two-Thirds World. Still, this is more examination of theological ethics than done by MOST biblical scholars–who usually interact ONLY with specialists in their own field.)  From here, Hays proposes a series of guidelines for using Scripture in contemporary moral reflection in the churches.  Finally, he engages the pragmatic task  (“Living Under the Word”) of presenting case-studies for his proposals: seeking normative guidance from the New Testament on the issues of Violence in the Defense of Justice (Hays argues for Christian pacifism); Divorce and Remarriage (forbidden except in rare cases); Homosexuality (His view is what I have called, following the late Stanley Grenz, “welcoming, but NOT affirming”); Anti-Judaism and Ethnic Conflict; and Abortion (a subject never mentioned directly in Scripture–and so a good test case for using Scripture for other forms of moral discernment).

Now, in Hays’ section on “Homosexuality,” he first examines the biblical texts, as most of my posts have done to this point. I have very little quarrel with his exegesis, including his exegesis of Romans 1. As with many others, Hays’ rejection of the “full inclusion” or “welcoming and affirming” position (i.e., that would have the church bless same-sex unions analagous to marriage as I argue it should) rests most thoroughly on Romans 1.  But what I argue is that, unintentionally, Hays’ conclusion shows him violating his own guidelines for using Scripture in moral discernment–and stands in some tension to the way he handles some of the other test cases.

To argue this carefully, I must conclude this post (which would otherwise be too long) by listing Hays’ hermeneutical guidelines.  Then, in the next post, I shall (a) examine closely Hays’ conclusions about Romans 1, (b)point out where extra-biblical influences are apparent in his conclusions, and (c) contrast this to how Hays handles the texts in two other test-cases.

Here are Hays’ normative proposals for using Scripture in Christian ethics:

  • Serious exegesis is a basic requirement.  Texts used in ethical arguments should be understood as fully as possible in their historical and literary context. [This is in contrast to “proof-texting” which, surprisingly, is done by theologians and ethicists as often as by laypeople or fundamentalist preachers.]

            a. New Testament texts must be read with careful attention to their Old Testament subtexts.

  • We must seek to listen to the full range of canonical witnesses.
  • Substantive tensions within the canon should be openly acknowledged.
  • Our synthetic reading of the New Testament texts must be kept in balance by the sustained use of three focal images: community, cross, and new creation. [Presenting Hays’ argument for these 3 images, which I largely find persuasive, is beyond the scope of these posts.  Read the book.]
  • New Testament texts must be granted authority (or not) in the mode in which they speak (i.e., rule, principle, paradigm, symbolic world). [This is very important for my argument. Hays argues against taking a paradigmatic narrative, say, and transforming it into a rule.]

               a. All four modes are valid and necessary.

               b. We should not override the witness of the New Testament in one mode by appealing to another mode.

  • The New Testament is fundamentally the story of God’s redemptive action. Thus, the paradigmatic mode [of NT moral discourse] has theological primacy, and narrative texts are fundamental resources for normative ethics.
  • Extrabiblical sources [of moral discernment] stand in a hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority. [Here, Hays is reacting primarily to the more liberal wing of his own United Methodist Church which cites a “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Hays will, with some nuancing, also refer to this fourfold process, but wants to subordinate Tradition, Reason, and Experience, to the final authority of Scripture.  He believes that those, like myself, who argue for revising the Church’s teaching to allow for same-sex marriages have violated this guideline. He believes we/I use reason (i.e., recent scientific study on “homosexuality”) and experience (e.g., meeting gay or lesbian Christians whose lives are more holy than our own) to “trump” or counterbalance the Scriptural testimony, instead of merely using such sources hermeneutically, to illuminate the meaning of the biblical texts.  In reply, I will argue three things: A. It is much harder to make sure that Scripture is the final norm in all ethical matters than appears at first glance as the second post in this series argued. B. Hays himself finds it difficult to hold to this principle in the way he handles the test-case of anti-Judaism in the New Testament.  C. Hays’ conclusion on “homosexuality” is far more influenced by his own experience and by his reading of church tradition than he admits.]
  • It is impossible to distinguish “timeless truths” from “culturally conditioned elements” in the New Testament. [I find this the most problematic of his guidelines. While difficult, it is not impossible–and Hays himself does it in at least one test case.]
  • The use of the New Testament in normative ethics requires an integrative act of the imagination; thus, whenever we appeal to the authority of the New Testament, we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making.  [THIS is one of his best insights and I will return to it in the next post.]
  • Right reading of the New Testament occurs only where the Word is embodied.

July 18, 2008 Posted by | discipleship, ethics, GLBT issues | Comments Off on GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (A)

Video/DVD: For the Bible Tells Me So

I promised to write the next installment on my GLBT series, tonight.  I will, but it won’t be the post I hoped to get to, my second on Romans 1.  That’s because I just saw the film, For The Bible Tells Me So and my reactions are too personal to simply engage in exegesis at this time–maybe tomorrow.

To recap: I am arguing that the traditional teaching of the church(es) that ALL same-sex relationships are sinful has been mistaken–a misuse of a handful of biblical passages taken out of literary and historical context. I hope to argue for a single standard of sexual morality for all people–either voluntary celibacy (which Scripture specifically describes as a spiritual gift not given to all people) or monogamy. This would replace the double-standard currently held by most churches which allows celibacy or monogamy for heterosexuals, but demands that gay people either be celibate (whether or not they have the gift necessary) or to be “changed” into heterosexuals and hide themselves in heterosexual marriages–with devastating effects on their spouses, children, and themselves.  I have wanted to argue for this in a careful, step-by-step fashion.

As always, I urge new readers to this discussion to read the previous installments before commenting on the latest installment.  To date, there have been seven (7) major posts and an addendum. See: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, addendum on pro-GLBT “over reading,” 6, & 7.  This is addenum 2: Reaction to For the Bible Tells Me So.

For the Bible Tells Me So is a 2007 documentary about Christian families, raised with the traditional teaching that all same-sex genital intimacy is sinful (in many cases being taught that it is the MOST sinful act possible), dealing with family members who are gay or lesbian and their struggles with their children “coming out.” It is directed from a pro-inclusion viewpoint, but not all of the families come to a fully accepting perspective–some are stuck in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” viewpoint.  The biblical passages which are used to justify the traditional perspective are examined by a number of biblical scholars and theologians, most, but not all, of whom have come to a perspective of full inclusion. Those who disagree with full inclusion are mostly treated with respect. (For instance, I thought the section interviewing Dr. Richard Mouw, Christian philosopher and President of Fuller Theological Seminary [and, thus, briefly, a former boss of mine when I was Visiting Professor at Fuller in 1999 and 2000], who adopts a “welcoming but NOT affirming position” based on his reading of Romans 1, was done very well. I do not think Mouw would consider himself distorted or parodied at all.)

The only ministers who are treated more negatively in the film are those who actively promote hate and/or legal discrimination against GLBT persons. For instance, televangelist Jimmy Swaggert (who has frequented prostitutes!), does not come across well.  Nor does Focus on the Family founder, James Dobson, Ph.D., a child psychologist and leader of the Religious Right–and one of the major leaders of both conservative Christian activism for anti-gay legislation and a leader in so-called “ex-gay” ministries of “reparative therapy.” Yet, Dobson was treated with more respect in the film than I could have managed. Even Dr. Mel White, a former member of the Religious Right (ghost writing books and films for the likes of the late Jerry Falwell) and, since coming out of the closet, an ordained minister in the pro-gay Metropolitan Community Churches and founder of the pro-GLBT activist group, Soulforce, gives Dobson more credit than I think I could. Because White and others basically claim that when Dobson stuck to his roots of giving Christian families advice on parenting, he was a positive force for good. I disagree. I think much of his parenting advice is very harmful, and was even before he became obsessed with the supposed evils of “the gay agenda.”

The film synopsis gives this description of For the Bible Tells Me So:

Can the love between two people ever be an abomination? Is the chasm separating gays and lesbians and Christianity too wide to cross? Is the Bible an excuse to hate?

Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival, Dan Karslake’s provocative, entertaining documentary brilliantly reconciles homosexuality and Biblical scripture, and in the process reveals that Church-sanctioned anti-gay bias is based almost solely upon a significant (and often malicious) misinterpretation of the Bible. As the film notes, most Christians live their lives today without feeling obliged to kill anyone who works on the Sabbath or eats shrimp (as a literal reading of scripture dictates).

Through the experiences of five very normal, very Christian, very American families — including those of former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson — we discover how insightful people of faith handle the realization of having a gay child. Informed by such respected voices as Bishop Desmond Tutu, Harvard’s Peter Gomes, Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Reverend Jimmy Creech, FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO offers healing, clarity and understanding to anyone caught in the crosshairs of scripture and sexual identity.

I think this is a powerful film for introducing this topic into churches or contexts where either the subject is never discussed (the “don’t ask, don’t tell” de facto policy that rules so many congregations, silently ignoring the barely-closeted individuals and couples in their midst) or where ONLY the traditional teaching has been heard and no serious airing of other perspectives has been given.  The film, by itself, will probably change few minds. But it could begin some true dialogue.

The most powerful piece of the film for me was the testimony of one elderly woman who, when her daughter came out as lesbian in college (by writing a letter home), reacted very negatively.  She eventually came to an inclusive viewpoint–but only after her daughter committed suicide. (Because of family, church, and social rejection, GLBT persons attempt suicide at much higher rates than the national average–especially LGBT teens).  All I could think was, “Thank God, I went through her journey BEFORE any child of mine came out and contemplated suicide. Thank God, it did not take such a horror to begin my journey to full inclusion.”

This is not an area where I feel proud of myself. On no other matter of controversy have I hesitated to wade into things. But here I was a moral coward. I waited until I was married (not until 28!) before I even went into a library and checked out materials on the subject–other than the standard, pre-approved evangelical books with the standard, pre-packaged answers. (I flashed my wedding ring around at the check out desk so that anyone noticing the books I was checking out did not think I was gay!) And I have said and written so little about this because I know that championing an inclusive position could prevent my ever getting another church-related position or a teaching position in a church-related institution. As Peggy Campolo says, there is more than one closet in the church and more of us than gays and lesbians need to decide to come out of our closets.

But I am glad that people like Rich Mouw were treated so well in this film. Because I know that not all traditionalists in this matter are ignorant or filled with hatred or biblically or theologically illiterate, etc. I know that from the inside, too. I am sure that part of the reason it took me so long to come to a welcoming and affirming position of LGBT folk is residual homophobia from church and society (not family–my parents were inclusive before I was and wondered what took me so long!), but those weren’t the ONLY reasons. 

I am a Christian social activist. But I have a deep loyalty to Scripture as the Word of God in and through human words, the living witness to the Word Made Flesh in Jesus Christ.  My usual complaint about American fundamentalism is how unbiblical it is.  So, I know I came to this “issue” (and GLBT persons hate being an “issue” as one might well imagine) not wanting to jump on some politically correct bandwagon.  I think that is a strong feature of such welcoming-but-not-affirming Christian leaders as Rich Mouw, Tony Campolo, the late Stanley Grenz (taken from us all too soon), N.T. scholar, Dr. Richard B. Hays, theologian Marva Dawn, the evangelical feminist Catherine Clark Kroeger, my friend and former colleague, Dr. David P. Gushee, and others. I think it is a strong component in the way some of my readers who reject my conclusions do so. I understand because I was once where you are–and my having changed my mind does NOT make you wrong or me right. After all, I have met many who were pacifists but changed their minds after 9/11–and I think they were right before and are now wrong.  Being willing to change one’s mind is a sign of maturity–but no particular change of mind is guaranteed to be a change for the better. That applies to me as well.

So, seeing this film should open discussion, not close it.  It does not “make the case” for full inclusion of GLBT persons–but only exposes folk to that viewpoint in a powerful way.

I would hope that everyone viewing this film would come away agreeing that gay bashing is wrong, that holding up signs saying “God hates fags” is wrong, that people who give death threats to gay people or inclusive churches (as they have to Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson) are sick and need treatment, and that civil laws which discriminate should be ended. Beyond that, the film itself only raises the issues about full inclusion in the church–it does not and cannot answer them definitively.

But the “issues” are placed in the right context–in the midst of discussions in families and churches about how best to love children, aunts, uncles, parents, etc. who are gay. If, in viewing the film, the option of hate is ruled out and the only remaining debate is over whether love is best expressed in welcoming but NOT affirming, or in welcoming AND affirming (as my church teaches and I have concluded), then it will have accomplished a great good. I hope many of my Gentle Readers will order For the Bible Tells Me So at the link and watch it in churches and homes with friends and begin open and honest–even painful and tearful–discussions.

July 6, 2008 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, discipleship, family, GLBT issues, homosexuality | 16 Comments

Dying for One’s Country?

With the U.S. celebration of Independence Day (4 July 1776) just around the corner, I note that Australian Ben Myers has posted the following quote by Alasdair MacIntyre:

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, “A Partial Response to My Critics,” in After MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 303.

I have some sypathy for this view, but I find KILLING for one’s country far more problematic for Christians. And, usually, in America, when we urge someone to be willing to die for his or her country, we actually mean “be willing to KILL and/or BE KILLED for your country” (as long as that country is the U.S.A. or an “ally of the moment.”).

I said this in the comments on Ben’s site:

For Christians, “dying for one’s country” is, indeed, problematic–though my reasons for saying so are far more anabaptist than MacIntyre’s. However, FAR more problematic is the ideology of being willing to KILL for one’s country.

People who die for their country in nonviolent revolution or nonviolent defense against invasion or nonviolent defense of a nation-state’s stated values (e.g., democracy, human rights, the rule of law, etc.) against erosions and usurpations of the same are all morally admirable. Depending on the context, there may even be good, gospel-based, reasons for Christians to be willing to die in these kind of contexts–in some senses to die for their country.

However, there is zero justification for Christians to be willing to kill other human beings (persons made in God’s image; persons for whom Christ died) “in defense of their country” or anything else. To kill is to betray the gospel.


June 22, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, church-state separation, discipleship, nonviolence, pacifism, theology | 28 Comments

Lent: One Baptist’s Perspective

[Reprint from last year]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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