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

Outreach to Military

My post on the “military Bibles” has led to a few misunderstandings I need to clear up.  I do not object to the distribution of Bibles to members of the U.S. military or any other military.  I support every effort to distribute Bibles as widely as possible, including the sale of Bibles along with free distributions.  My only objection to a free giveaway event is if there is sponsorship or co-sponsorship by government or a government agency in violation of the First Amendment’s ban on either hindering or promoting religion.  I support evangelistic outreach to members of our military or any other military.

Even during the early centuries of the church when it was nearly universally pacifist, there was strong outreach to Roman soldiers. Many Roman soldiers converted to Christianity, often after seeing how calmly Christians were martyred.  Some of these soldier-converts quickly became martyrs themselves when they refused to fight and kill after becoming Christians.   Today’s pacifist Christians too seldom establish the kinds of relationships with military personnel and their families that would allow for conversions.  As a former soldier, I am glad that I was welcomed by the Baptist congregation in Heidelberg (uniform and all), even though the pastor was pacifist.  How else would I have converted to gospel nonviolence?  Standing up for gospel nonviolence and being convinced that God does not want Christians to serve in militaries has nothing to do with condemning those who, for now, believe differently, nor anything to do with disrespecting the courage and self-sacrifice of military personnel.

My objection is not to the Bibles, but to their “packaging” with covers that seem to support war and violence and with “extra” features described in my last post which promote violence, nationalism, militarism–the reduction of the God of the universe to a tribal god of one nation. That is idolatry, even blasphemy.

One commenter said that this was no worse than other “niche marketing” Bibles–the Serendipity Bibles, Women’s Bibles (usually anti-feminist in tone), teen adventure Bibles, etc.  To this I have two responses:  1) I oppose these kinds of “study” Bibles, too.  Now, there is nothing wrong with real study Bibles–equipped with scholarly notes that help the reader with background information, etc.  There is nothing wrong as long as these study Bibles make clear the difference between the text of Holy Scripture and the notes of human scholars.  Unfortunately, I have found that laity, especially laity with less education, often find it difficult not to treat the notes as just as inspired as the text. This is even more the case with children and teens.

 The non-scholarly theme notes of “niche market” Bibles have further problems:  They encourage an individualistic and spiritualistic reading of Scripture that fundamentally distorts the gospel. They undermine the Bible as the church’s book, to be read in community. Instead, they encourage not just personal Bible study in one’s own private life, but privatized Bible study (“Me and Jesus got our own thing going”) that remakes Christian faith into something one does with one’s spare time.  They promote passivity in the face of the gods of consumerism, materialism, and other “isms” of contemporary global imperialism.  I do not say this is the intention of the editors of these niche market Bibles, but merely that these detrimental effects undermine the health of the Church and churches, especially undercutting any sense of the People of God as a distinct community, a contrast society to the mainstream culture (what the Johannine writings call “the world”).  So, I find these niche market Bibles highly problematic.

2)  Despite my comments above, I do believe that the “military Bibles” are WORSE than other “niche market” Bibles.  Those other Bibles can create bad habits in Bible reading that have detrimental effects, but I have not seen any that are heretical in and of themselves.  That is not the case with the military Bibles.  They promote the idolatry of nationalism.  They do not simply reach out to soldiers (sailors, marines, etc.), but justify war (at least when the U.S. wages it). That is not just heresy when viewed from a pacifist viewpoint, but even from a “just war” standpoint.  Traditional just war theology says that some evils must be resisted even by violent force as a “lesser of evils,” but does NOT glorify killing or militarism. The “extra features” of these Bibles do just that–turning Jesus from the Prince of Peace to a war god. That is blasphemy–pure and simple.  It must be denounced by all Christians.

June 1, 2007 Posted by | evangelism, love of enemies, nonviolence, peacemaking | 7 Comments

Peace Quote

“Twelve men went out from Jerusalem into the world, and they were unlearned men, unable to speak [i.e., unable to speak eloquently because not trained in Greek rhetoric]; but by the power of God they told every race of humanity that they were sent by Christ to teach all people the word of God.  And we who formerly slew one another not only now refuse to make war against our enemies, but for the sake of not telling lies or deceiving those who examine us [i.e., investigators charged with getting them to confess to the crime of being Christian], gladly die confessing Christ.”–Justin Martyr (c. 100-165).

In a description of the early Christian movement to the Roman Emperor about the year 150.

April 22, 2007 Posted by | evangelism, heroes, love of enemies, nonviolence, Obituaries, peace, sexism | 1 Comment

Christian/Muslim Interfaith Dialogue

I consider interfaith dialogue to be both a genuine way of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ (a way of conversation that listens and expects to learn and doesn’t just drown out the other), and a necessary part of peacemaking. In our current context the most urgent need is for greater Christian/Muslim dialogue and understanding. This needs to go on at the grassroots level with groups from local mosques and churches gathering to inform each other about beliefs, customs, rituals, etc. Only by truly knowing our Muslim sisters and brothers can we keep from bearing false witness against them.

When I have made such statements on other blogs, I have been accused of either believing in universal salvation (that is for God to decide, not me), in believing that “all religions are equal,” whatever that would mean, or in denying the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is not true. I am a Christian. I would be overjoyed if every Muslim became Christian–just as every Muslim I know would be overjoyed if we Christians (whom they consider to have some truth, but to be imperfectly worshipping and serving God) would convert to the “Straight Path.” As far as I can understand, Islam and Christianity, though holding to several common beliefs, also hold mutually incompatible ones. We disagree over some very important things: Although Muslims believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, they deny that he was God incarnate and deny his Sonship (“God has no sons.”). They deny both the crucifixion and the resurrection. They deny the Trinity and, like our Jewish sisters and brothers, suspect that the Trinity either means that Christians cannot do math or that we aren’t really monotheists.

These are significant areas of disagreement. I don’t want to minimize them. Nor do I wish to avoid discussing them–although sometimes it helps to build relationships of trust before tackling really strong differences.

My concern is to defend the religious liberty of Muslims, to avoid bearing false witness against Islamic neighbors by sweeping generalizations that compare the best of Christianity against the worst exemplars of Islam, and to work together with Muslims for justice and peace in the world.

Currently, I see a debate going on WITHIN the major world religions over whether the pursuit of justice (as each sees it) or the advance of their faith can use violent means. The question of whether Islam is or can be nonviolent is something only Muslims can decide. I know which side of that debate to cheer for; I’m pulling for my friends in the Muslim Peace Fellowship and similar organizations and for the heritage of Khan Abdul Gaffer Khan, “the Frontier Gandhi” who led a nonviolent army of Pathans along the Indian Afghanistan border (in the area now between Afghanistan and Pakistan) that was the most disciplined part of Gandhi’s nonviolent movement. But I cannot, as a Christian, say which group is heretical according to Islamic teachings. I can say that, from the inside, about Christianity. The nonviolence of Jesus and the early church was RIGHT and the abandonment of this nonviolence and embrace of “just war theory” by the later church constitutes a massive heresy. Yes, for 16 centuries now, the MAJORITY of Christians have been heretics. I work to call the church universal to repent and re-embrace the nonviolence that Jesus taught and practiced.

We Christians have an advantage in seeking to reform our faith: Throughout much of the Christian world, there is widespread literacy. People can read the New Testament and see that they violent false preachers like John Hagee are blowhards who don’t have a clue. By contrast, illiteracy is widespread in the Islamic world, making the average Muslim even more vulnerable to manipulation by fanatics posing as scholars. Considering how widely Christians confuse militaristic nationalism with the gospel, I believe we should spend less time criticizing Muslim violence and more time criticizing our own compromises with violence–and praying for the success of reform movements like the Muslim Peace Fellowship.

Meanwhile, we need to continue to seek better understanding among all faiths, especially the three monotheistic faiths.

September 21, 2006 Posted by | evangelism, interfaith, Islam, religious liberty | 6 Comments