Levellers

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

Index of Posts on Theological Mentors

Since I have now been blogging long enough that more than 100,000 people have visited this site (something I still find amazing), I am going to create some indices of popular series I have done for the benefit of new readers. This will enable me to refocus for new efforts, such as continuing my case for GLBT inclusion in churches (with a single-standard sexual ethic), etc. This is stock-taking.

Realizing that we all stand in particular traditions, I have written a fairly popular series on my theological mentors–one that I may soon resume.

  1. The late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-1997).
  2. Baptist ethicist and peacemaker, Glen H. Stassen (1936-).
  3. My eldest daughter’s namesake, Baptist theologian and seminary president, Molly T. Marshall.
  4. Baptist historian and mystic, E. Glenn Hinson.
  5. The late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000).
  6. The late philosopher and French Reformed Christian Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005).
  7. Baptist philosophical theologian Dan R. Stiver.

Well, this is obviously incomplete and I clearly haven’t added to it recently. I need to write posts on my college NT. prof., Craig Blomberg, on George R. Beasley-Murray, Clarence Jordan, Henlee Barnette, Dorothy Day, Letty Russell, Paul Fiddes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Deotis Roberts, Muriel Lester, Walter Brueggemann, Daniel Berrigan, S.J., & William Stringfellow. At least.  (I have written on some of these, but not as personal mentors.) I hope people continue to enjoy this series.

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July 14, 2008 Posted by | heroes, mentors, theology, tradition | 7 Comments

Childhood Heroes?

Since today is my 46th birthday, I am returning to blogging by reposting this earlier post on childhood heroes (and heroines), originally published on 22 Sept. ’07.  I will add some additional childhood heroes at the end–and invite others, again, to list and explain their own role models.

Who Were Your Childhood Heroes?

I’ve been thinking about this question much lately.  Early role models (heroes) shape us more than I think we realize–no matter how we change later.  Parents (or their absence) are, of course, major shaping influences for good or ill (or both). But, other than parents, what other heroes have shaped us?  Some kids in strong faith-filled families are primarily shaped by biblical figures (Jewish and Christian)–or Qu’ranic ones in the case of Muslims.  But not only was my family-relationship to church life intermittant, I never saw the biblical figures as heroic.  The way I read Scripture, GOD is the only “hero” and the human protagonists (Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, the prophets, the apostles, etc.) are usually portrayed as deeply flawed, very human figures. The emphasis is that God can use anyone in divine service, because God has already used people with incredible shortcomings in major ways–a message I find reassuring. 

Many kids have sports figures or celebrities as childhood heroes.  I never did, although I played sports a little.  I had 3 major childhood heroes:

Neil Armstrong, astronaut and first man to step foot on the moon.  I was 7 when Apollo 11 landed and since we lived only a few miles from Cape Canaveral (Cape Kennedy, as it was then called in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination), we used to watch the Saturn V rockets take off from our backyard.  My imagination was captured by the exploration of space–the final frontier as we learned to say from Star Trek episodes. I also liked stories of exploration: Leif Erikson, Captain Cook, Admiral Perry’s artic race, Thor Heyerdahl’s Ton Kiki expedition. I became convinced that, even though horrible wars and exploitation had often followed human exploration, that humans were explorers and that humanity needed to keep seeking the next horizon, in science, etc. in order rise above itself.  Exploration had been the alternative to wars, too: When the Vikings became explorers they gave up raiding the coasts of Europe.  Despite the expense (much less than wars), I believe something in our society died when we stopped human space explloration.  Early on, I wanted to be an astronaut.

Jacques Cousteau, was my hero for much longer than Neil Armstrong.  Again, he was an explorer and, living in Florida, I well knew the lure of the oceans.  But Cousteau also made me an environmentalist.  As a teen, I became a licensed scuba diver and dreamed of becoming an oceanographer or marine biologist.  (Unfortunately, I couldn’t cut the chemistry.) I joined the Cousteau Society at 09 and am still a member, doing my part to save the planet, especially the oceans.

My final childhood hero was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This one stuck. In fact, as an adult I came to know far more about King (a very human person with faults–from chain smoking off camera to marital infidelities): his theological and philosophical influences, his theory of nonviolent direct action.  Dr. King’s life and work became part of my doctoral dissertation.  I have not uncritically adopted his views as my own, but they have formed one major influence.  But as a kid, I only knew the image–the eloquent speech moving folks to struggle for justice and peace; the personal courage and willingness to suffer.  In my semi-secular childhood home, I didn’t immediately appreciate King’s faith–that took introduction to people of faith, especially by African-American friends.  And I didn’t become a pacifist until after joining the U.S. Army at 17–but it is quite possible that Dr. King had sown an early seed even here.

Additions:

Fannie Lou Hamer was the only female leader of the Civil Rights Movement whom I knew of as a child. I remember watching her testimony before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Committee in ’64 (not first hand since I was only 2, but replayed in a documentary when she died in ’77) about all that she went through to register to vote. This sharecropper without an education had such faith in God, democracy, nonviolence, and love (even for the whites who beat her) that it moved me to tears–and still does.  My belief that ordinary people can change the world is rooted in the work of people like Mrs. Hamer.

Martin Luther  was a hero in my teens (after my new birth and serious attention to faith), not so much because of his theology (which I would explore more deeply in college and seminary and come to both appreciate/agree with much and criticize/disagree in other places), but because of his willingness to suffer and die for his beliefs. I don’t know whether Luther actually said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” at the Diet of Worms, but that unwillingness to recant (unless persuaded by Scripture and sound reason) captivated my teen-aged self as a new Christian.  It was shaken when I found out how Luther encouraged persecution of Jews and the violent repression of peasants. (I have never been a Lutheran and moved to an Anabaptist faith.)

In my late teens, becoming serious about my faith, but not yet realizing a “call to ministry,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer became one of my heroes. He still is. Bonhoeffer’s theology has greatly influenced mine–though I criticize his contextual ethics for its Barthian rejection of principles.  My pacifism differs from his (he called himself a pacifist) in that I could not participate in a plan to assassinate Hitler–even in his limited role. And, although he started the Church re-thinking its relation to Judaism, I find his theology still too supercessionist.  But I constantly reread Bonhoeffer and constantly learn more from him.  Again, as a teen, my view was less developed. I was blown away by The Cost of Discipleship (which I now realize suffered from a terrible translation from German to English) and my Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom by the Nazis, but didn’t have the tools to evaluate his overall views.

 So, who were your childhood heroes? Did they make any lasting impression or influence even if they later took a different place in your worldview or values?  Did you have heroes whom you later had to reject or reevaluate? Were your major heroes fictional or historical or contemporary? 

I’m curious–and this discussion will keep me from direct political commentary long enough to refocus again–I can get too caught up as a political junkie! 🙂

April 18, 2008 Posted by | heroes | 13 Comments

MLK, Jr.: Nonviolent Radical for Our Time

mlk_gandhi.jpgToday is the official U.S. holiday for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (15 January 1929-04 April 1968) who was assassinated 40 years ago this coming April. In the generation which has passed in the meantime, King has been tamed: turned into “the Dreamer.”  Though more biographies and studies of his life and work have been written than with any other African-American leader (itself a disservice to the hundreds of leaders and thousands of forgotten participants in the so-called “Civil Rights” movement), few Americans know anything about King other than the first 4 words of his most famous speech, “I have a dream,” delivered as the climax of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Almost no one could summarize much of the contents of that dream–beyond vagaries like “racial harmony.”  So, although its rhetoric is among the most stirring political speeches in the English language, count me among those who call for a moratorium on the Dream Speech–and, more importantly, a moratorium on the icon of “King the Dreamer.”  A part of my Ph.D. dissertation was on King and I have written one slim book on the civil rights movement, so I know what I am talking about when I say: The Real Martin Luther King, Jr. was far more radical than the icon–and it is the radical King whom we need to recover today.

King’s vision for U.S. society was always more than simply racial “integration.” He knew the system as it was then and is now was/is unjust and that Black assimilation into such a system would just make things worse.  He ALWAYS wanted to change the system beyond just ending the legal segregation–as important as that was.  But in the years following the Dream Speech, the radical dimensions of King’s vision became more pronounced:

  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a class warrior against an unjust economic system. Although he rejected many of the answers of Marxism, he found much of Marx’s critique of capitalism valid. Increasingly, he called himself a democratic socialist–of the kind he had found in Scandinavia when he journeyed to Oslo, Norway in 1964 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. (King’s Nobel Acceptance Speech should be required reading in all U.S. high schools.) He wanted American to turn from materialism (what he called a “thing oriented society”) to a person-centered society–a move that he called a “revolution of values.” During his last year of life, King was planning a different kind of March on Washington, as part of a massive “Poor People’s Campaign” that would unite African-Americans, Latino/as, Native Americans, and poor whites (especially from Appalachia and Mississippi–America’s 3rd World, then and now) and demand the kinds of changes that would abolish poverty–though he knew it would cost a huge amount of money. King himself took only $1 per year as salary for leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a modest salary as a pastor. He donated most of his speaking fees to the SCLC.  He divided up his Nobel Prize money between the 4 largest civil rights organizations–and his wife, Corretta, had to demand that he set aside a small amount in a fund for his kids’ education.  He constantly linked the fortunes of African-Americans with the strength of the Labor movement. When he was assassinated in Memphis on 04 April 1968, he was helping out a campaign for the rights of city garbage workers. 
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was committed to peacemaking. As his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” essay makes clear (you can find it reprinted as a chapter in Why We Can’t Wait (1964) and in his book of sermons, Strength to Love (1965) ), he was not always a pacifist–not in his youth and early education.  And he began working with Gandhian nonviolence as a mere tactic in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but was prepared to use violent self-defense in his personal life. But this soon changed, under the influence of reading Gandhi and from pacifist interpretations of Jesus mediated to King by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (especially the white Methodist preacher Glenn Smiley and the African American Quaker Bayard Rustin). Most people never understood this: They expected that King, as a good American and as one who wanted the alliance of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in passing civil rights legislation, would support the U.S. war effort in Vietnam–or, at least remain silent. He tried the latter. In the early days, Corretta spoke out far more against Vietnam than Martin did. (She was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom since her days at Antioch College, long before meeting Martin.) When he did speak out, many other civil rights leaders told him to be quiet and he tried to obey–until he could silence his conscience no longer and on 04 April 1967 (one year before his death) gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech at the founding of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam at Riverside Church in NY. In that speech King said that he could never again tell young men in gangs to stop their violence if he didn’t confront the greatest purveyor of violence in the world–“my own government.” This lost him Johnson’s friendship and support and led J. Edgar Hoover to call King “the most dangerous Negro in America.”
  • The real King, unlike one of his daughters, was not homophobic. He did not speak out on gay rights–no one did in those days–but he knew that one of his closest advisors, Bayard Rustin, was gay.  After his death and the rise of the modern gay rights movement, Corretta Scott King championed it bravely.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a complete contrast to Malcolm X or the later Black Power movement. Yes, King criticized the Black Power movement, but his criticism was not total and he sought to remain in dialogue with its leaders like Stokely Carmichael.  His chapter on black empowerment in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? criticizes the violent rhetoric and the separatism of the Black Power movement, but praises its emphasis on black self-sufficiency and Black Pride.

But the real Martin Luther King, Jr. was also no plastic saint. The icon is dangerous not only because it is tamed, but also because it makes King seem perfect–and thus an impossible standard for movement leaders. But the real King, despite his many sterling qualities, was human and flawed, as are we all.:

  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a chain smoker, though he kept it mostly off camera. He tried often to quit and failed. (This is somewhat more tolerated by Black Baptists in their pastors than by white Baptists, but it was still considered a major failing in many parts of Baptist life.)
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a faithful husband, but had several extramarital affairs–short and longterm.  We know of these mostly because the FBI bugged his hotel rooms and tried to use the tapes of him having sex to extort or scare both him and Corretta. But, sadly, friends and associates mostly tried to cover this up or apologize for it, rather than confront King as friends who were concerned about his marriage.  He needed a community of accountability and didn’t have one.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a sexist who was always trying to keep Corretta from being an equal partner in both their marriage and in the movement. This was typical of most men of this pre-feminist era–indeed, the modern women’s movement can be traced to the dissents by the women, black and white, who were demeaned in the struggle for racial equality.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was subject to depression and to doubts about himself, about God and his faith, and about the movement and his role in it. The confident face he showed to the world did not always reflect his doubts and struggles and wrestlings with himself and God.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. could be high-handed, even dictatorial, in the way he ran the SCLC.  Other organizations, especially the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC, pronounced “SNICK”) and their advisor, Ella Baker, dissented from this personality-driven approach to mass movements. The SNCC students often mocked King as “De Lawd,” and Baker’s slogan was “Strong People Don’t Need Strong Leaders.”

I think we need Martin Luther King, Jr. today as much or more than when he was taken from us 40 years ago. (He would have turned 79 last Tuesday.) But we don’t need King the tamed and perfect icon, King the Dreamer. We need the real, radical Martin King–both because our society needs this radical critique and much bolder vision, and because we need to develop new leaders without expecting that they will be either without flaws or always popular.  And we need to recover King in context: in the context of many others working for freedom and justice and peace–and some losing their lives for it.

We honor King’s memory not by taming it, but by letting it challenge us in all its radical fullness–and by taking up where King left off. We honor King best by rolling up our sleeves and getting into the risky work of justice and peacemaking.

January 21, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, heroes, liberation, love of enemies, MLK, nonviolence, pacifism, progressive faith, race | 5 Comments

Al Gore: Baptist of the Year

algore.pngThe Baptist Center for Ethics has chosen fmr. U.S. Vice President R. Albert Gore, Jr. (Al Gore) as “Baptist of the Year.”  I try to take a global view of my Baptist family and so I wondered whether or not this was a U.S.-centered choice. [Update: This is the first year BCE has chosen a Baptist from North America. They began this award in 2004, selecting several people from around the globe. In 2005, they chose Paul Montacute, a British Baptist and head of Baptist World Aid, for his quick humanitarian responses to the tsunami and to the earthquake in Pakistan. In 2006, BCE chose collectively the Baptists in Lebanon for their grace and courage during the war which put them literally in the line of fire between Hezbollah and Israel. So, this wasn’t as U.S.-centered as I wondered.]  But in a year in which the former Vice President (who, at the most charitable reading of the Supreme Court’s 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, at least won the popular vote for U.S. President in 2000), won an Academy Award for the film version of An Inconvenient Truth and, together with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to end the carbon-based war on the planet, this decision by BCE seems perfectly justified.  I am not sure that we have enough time or the political will, even now, to take effective action against global warming before major and irreversible damage is done all across the globe. It may well be too late to do more than limit the damage and save what we can and whom we can.  But if we do have enough time and political will, even here in the United States, then Al Gore will deserve much of the credit as a modern day Paul Revere warning “The HEAT is Coming!”

Congratulations, Mr. Gore. I only hope your efforts have paid off in time.  Keep up the good work.

Update: I have not always been impressed with Mr. Gore’s skills in political oratory. But a major exception is his Nobel Prize Lecture.  It is well worth reading.  Unless you are in delusional denial about climate change (like Fred Thompson or Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) ), you should find it very inspiring.  I know I did.

December 28, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, ecology, global warming, heroes | 36 Comments

A Desmond M. Tutu Bibliography

To supplement yesterday’s profile of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, I am offering today a bibliography of his major writings and a few excellent secondary sources on this major prophet and theologian.

I. Primary

1982     Desmond M. Tutu, Crying in the Wilderness: The Struggle for Justice in South Africa. (Eerdmans, 1982). This collection of Tutu’s sermons from the late 1970s and early 1980s was my first introduction to the man–and my first in-depth introduction to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.  It was reissued in 1990 in a new edition edited by the contemporary Barthian theologian John Webster.

1984     Desmond M. Tutu, Hope and Suffering: Sermons and Speeches (Eerdmans, 1984).  Published just before Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

1984      Desmond M. Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture.  Reprinted in Tutu’s later book, The Rainbow People of God (below) as “Apartheid’s ‘Final Solution.'”

1994      Desmond M. Tutu, The Rainbow People of God: The Making of a Powerful Revolution (Doubleday).

1995      Desmond M. Tutu, An African Prayer Book (Doubleday).

1999a    Desmond M. Tutu, et. al., Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Final Report.

1999     Desmond M. Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (Eerdmans). This is Tutu’s reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he chaired in the aftermath of apartheid.

2004    Desmond M. Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (Doubleday).

II. Edited works:

Tutu has edited a series of brief collections of the words and ideals of major global faith leaders for peace and justice. The series is put out in the U.S. , the Philippines, and Canada by Blue Mountain Arts, Inc. and in South Africa, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand by Blackwell, Ltd. (I do not know if the series is complete or if other volumes are planned.)

Believe: The Words and Inspiration of Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu. 2007.

Dream: The Words and Inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr. 2007.

Love: The Words and Inspiration of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. 2007.

Peace: The Words and Inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi. 2007.

Naomi Tutu, one of the Archbishop’s daughters, has edited a Tutu reader:

The Words of Desmond Tutu, selected and introduced by Naomi Tutu (Newmarket, 2007).

Battle, Michael, ed. The Wisdom of Desmond Tutu (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000).

III. Secondary Works:

Allen, John. Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu (The Free Press,          2006).

Battle, Michael. Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1997).  Written by an African-American Episcopal priest who traveled to South Africa to study with Tutu. Tutu ordained him to the priesthood and officiated at his wedding.  This intimate and in-depth study now needs balance by someone with more critical distance.

Gish, Steven. Desmond Tutu: A Biography. Greenwood Biography Series (Greenwood Press, 2004). Written for young adult readers.

December 24, 2007 Posted by | books, heroes | Comments Off on A Desmond M. Tutu Bibliography

Advent Week IV: Joy

160px-archbishop-tutu-medium.jpg

First of all, gentle readers, I apologize for apparently getting my advent weeks out of order. There are at least 2 historic Advent calendars, but I apparently conflated them and put Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love in an order no one uses. This is what happens when a Baptist (not a tradition known for liturgical correctness) tries to reflect on the ecumenical Christian calendar. I’ll work at doing better next year. 🙂

But I am very happy to have Desmond Mpilo Tutu, retired Archbishop of Capetown in the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa, as my witness to the Incarnation who represents Joy–even if I put Joy in the wrong week. 🙂 From the time I first became aware of Tutu (c. 1982), I noticed in him the great joy of Christian faith–even in the midst of nonviolent struggle against great oppression; even as the recipient of so much hate.  When the late (and, by me, unlamented) Jerry Falwell, acting at the prompting of the Reagan admin., denounced Tutu as a Communist and phony Christian, I was so horrified that I dared something I had never done: I wrote to both of them.  At the time, I was an unknown student at an unknown, small, conservative, Christian college–recently out of the U.S. Army with a conscientious objector discharge and trying to follow my calling to serve God wherever that might lead.  I didn’t know, then, that there were Baptists in South Africa and that Tutu, with his broad ecumenical experience, would know enough about Baptist polity to realize that Falwell was not–could not–speak for other Baptists. I knew that, often enough, Christians in other, more heirarchical traditions, did think that famous (or infamous) Baptist preachers could speak for other Baptists and give official pronouncements of doctrine, ethics, public policy, etc.  I could not let this brave Christian leader think that Falwell’s horrific and bigoted pronouncement represented some general feeling of Baptists. I wrote Rev. Falwell and was polite as I knew how to be, but basically called on him to repent for his obvious racism. I never received a reply.  I also wrote Tutu, then the Bishop of Johannesburg, in care of the South African Council of Churches. To my surprise, I received a personal reply–which remains one of my fondest possessions. As he thanked me for my prayers and support, joy and Christian love leaped off the handwritten pages of stationary.  That was May, 1985 and my involvement in the U.S. “Free South Africa” movement dates from that moment. I have since read most of Tutu’s writings and a few secondary sources, although I cannot be counted a Tutu scholar.  What follows is a bare bones account of his life and work–with an emphasis on how he witnesses to the joy of Incarnation.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klersksdorp in the Republic of South Africa in 1931–a time when South Africa was ruled by whites for whites, but prior to the Nazi-like racism of the Afrikaaner policy of “apartheid.” When he was 12, the Tutu family moved to Johannesburg where he was educated in segregated schools (Bantu schools). The young Tutu wanted to become a physician, but the family could not afford the education and so he decided to follow his father in becoming a schoolteacher. He underwent teacher training at Pretoria Bantu Normal College (1951-1953) and then taught at the Johannesburg Bantu High School and then Muncieville High School (where he met his wife, Leah) until 1957 when he resigned in protest of the Bantu Education Act–an act which would consign poor South Africans (especially non-whites) to inferior education.  In 1958, he followed a vocational leading into the Anglican priesthood, studying as a candidate for ordination at St. Peter’s Theological College, Rosettenville, receiving his Licentiate in Theology in 1960 (the year of the Sharpeville Massacre–when white South African police fired live ammunition on black schoolchildren who were unarmed and nonviolently protesting the conditions of their schools!) and becoming an ordained Anglican priest in 1961.  He was chaplain at the University of Fort Hare (one of the places where Africans could get quality education in Southern Africa) which was a hotbed of dissent and anti-apartheid resistance at the time.  Tutu’s superiors thought that he was becoming “too political” in his involvement with those committed to the struggle.  They suggested he resign as chaplain and sent him to London to pursue further studies while things cooled off.

 Tutu matriculated at King’s College, University of London from 1962-1966, earning a Bachelor of Divinity degree (with highest honors) and Master of Theology degree while serving as a part-time curate or pastor. In 1967, Tutu returned to South Africa and became once more the Chaplain a the University of Fort Hare and a member of the faculty of the Federal Theological Seminary in Alice–and used his lectures to highlight the circumstances of the African population. In 1970, Tutu became Lecturer in the Department of Theology of the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland, continuing his policy of relating his theological lectures to the circumstances of the South African struggle.  He wrote a letter to the Prime Minister (Voerster) and described the situation in South Africa as “a powder barrel which can explode at any time.” He was not answered.

In 1972, Tutu returned to Britain as Director of the World Council of Churches’ Education Fund, based in Bromley, Kent.  He used his position to highlight the sufferings and injustices of his homeland. (This was not an easy time to be associated with the WCC for many.  In the U.S., South Africa, and elsewhere conservative Christians denounced the WCC as “subversive” and made wild accusations that its Programme for Overcoming Racism was using money from churches to finance armed revolutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  Although the WCC showed solidarity with struggles against oppression, it is a conservative myth that it ever used money to buy weapons or otherwise support armed guerillas. I can’t speak for other places in the world, but I think one can trace the decline in prestige of both the National and World Councils of Churches in the U.S. to this myth–and the corresponding campaign to defund the councils.)

Tutu returned to South Africa in 1975 and was appointed the Anglican Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral,  Johannesburg–the first African to hold such a post.  The very next year, 1976, was the year of the Soweto Uprising.  Students and others in Soweto (a segregated non-white “township” next to Johannesburg) protested the government’s rule that Afrikaans be the only language in education. The government responded with deadly force and the nonviolent protest became a riot. As a result of this,Tutu called for a worldwide boycott of South African products.  It took years and was full of holes, but international sanctions and citizen boycotts of South African goods, entertainment and sports boycotts of South African venues did slowly put increasing pressure on the white government to end apartheid. (Ronald Reagan reversed the sanctions of the Carter years, themselves incomplete, and preferred a policy of “constructive engagement” which amounted to turning a blind eye to South African injustices because South Africa claimed that all the movements for non-racial democracy in Africa were fronts for Communism! It was in this context that Falwell’s “phony” remark was made.)  In 1976, Tutu was consecrated Bishop of Lesotho.

As the South African government kept banning the political parties and organizations of protest and struggle, including the African National Congress, many unions, etc., the struggle against apartheid became more and more a struggle led by the black and “colored” or mixed-race churches (with a few valiant white Christians, too). The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) suspended two Afrikaaner Reformed denominations for the heresy of theologically justifying racial apartheid.  Other global pressures were increased, too.  Meanwhile, the vehicle for the church struggle against apartheid in South Africa was the South African Council of Churches, to which Desmond Tutu was elected General Secretary in 1978.

Tutu led nonviolent marches, gave speeches and sermons (which were collected and republished here in the U.S., where I began to read them) that related faith to the struggle against apartheid. But he also was highly critical of those who would use violence or preach hatred against whites. He was repeatedly arrested. The government blamed him for everything–such as when he risked his life to stop the “necklacing” of an informant (this was a horrible practice wherein a mob would surround someone who cooperated with the apartheid regime, stick a rubber tire filled with gasoline/petrol around said collaborator’s neck, and set it on fire) and then was blamed for the attempted murder!

In 1984, in recognition for his leadership in the nonviolent struggle (and in honor of all the thousands who participated in it), Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (He was the 2nd leader of the anti-apartheid struggle to receive the Nobel: the first was Chief Albert Luthuli in 1960–the Zulu Chieftain who founded the African National Congress and set it on its early path of Gandhian nonviolence.  The 3rd Nobel for the anti-apartheid struggle would go to Nelson Mandela, sharing it with F.W. de Klerk, the white president, for their mutual work to end apartheid and introduce multi-racial democracy without further violence.) He has received numerous other awards and honors for his work for peace and justice.

In 1985, Tutu was elected the Bishop of Johannesburg and in 1986 became Archbishop of Capetown–each time becoming the first black African to hold the post. 

After the fall of apartheid and the institution of multi-racial democracy in 1989, Tutu began a new role–now, not as one of the leaders of nonviolent struggle for justice, but as a healer of a strife-torn nation. In 1995, Tutu was asked to head South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which, in place of war crimes trials or cycles of revenge, asked oppressors and victims to tell publicly the crimes they had committed and receive pardons. The cycle of violence had to be broken, not by hiding but by telling the truth and allowing people to begin anew.  This has now become a model for similar truth and reconciliation commissions in other war torn or strife torn situations. (I often wonder if the history of my nation would have been different if we had held such commissions after the Civil War or, again, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the fall of legal segregation.) For this work, Tutu received the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999.

Since retiring as Archbishop, Tutu has worked with the PeaceJam movement to inspire youth around the world to work for peace and justice. He has also worked to end the plague of AIDS (and its stigma), championed the ordination of women, and called for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in church and society, called for Middle East Peace (and worked to get Nobel Peace Laureates to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis) and much else.

Joy has permeated his entire life and work–the joy of a witness to the Word Made Flesh.

December 23, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, heroes, love of enemies, peacemaking | Comments Off on Advent Week IV: Joy

Advent Week III: Peace

muriel-lester.jpgFor week 3 of Advent, I have chosen that radical Baptist peacemaker, Muriel Lester as my witness to the Word Made Flesh.  Because I said as well as I can before, I am reprinting an article I wrote on Ms. Lester in 2003 below:

Muriel Lester (1883 – 1968): Ambassador of Reconciliation
A Random Chapter in the History of Nonviolence
by Michael L. Westmoreland-White
Monday, 21 April 2003 Muriel Lester, once one of the world’s most famous Christian pacifists, is today little known. This deserves correction since Lester has been positively compared to both Dorothy Day and Jane Addams in her work for the poor and for peace. As far as I can determine, she never participated in a campaign of active nonviolence personally, but she was a key link in the convergence of several movements: the mystical Christian pacifism of Tolstoy, the pragmatic peacebuilding of the early 20th C. labor and feminist movements, the “liberal” pacifism of mainstream non-sectarian Protestantism between the 2 World Wars, and Gandhian satyagraha or active nonviolent direct action. Since Lester, like Day, was a witness to Christian pacifism through the very difficult days of World War II, her story deserves recovery for us, today.

Born in Essex, England in December 1883, Muriel Lester grew up in relative wealth and security. In fact, the sheltered nature of her early life makes her journey into solidarity with the poor and radical Christian peacemaking all the more remarkable. Her father and paternal grandfather were successful in the shipbuilding business, the source of the family money. Her father was also a Justice of the Peace. The latter was somewhat unusual since the Lesters were Baptists and it was still rare, in those days, for “Nonconformists” (people who belonged to one of the Protestant denominations other than the Church of England) to hold a governmental office. The Lester family was prominent in English Baptist life, Henry Lester, Jr. (Muriel’s father) was for years president of the Essex Baptist Union. (Before the 1970s, it was not unusual anywhere in the world for laypeople, especially laymen, to hold major leadership positions in Baptist denominations. Outside the U.S., this is still more common than inside where the “cult of pastoral leadership” — sometimes amounting to pastoral dictatorship! — has marginalized the previous Baptist tradition of strong lay-leadership. As part of their historic views of “liberty of conscience” and the “priesthood of believers,” previous generations of Baptists saw pastors and ordained ministers as “firsts among equals” in the life of the congregation the authority of theologians, ministers, and denominational officials came from their ability to persuade and teach laypeople who reserved the right to interpret Scripture for themselves and to challenge direction and teaching that was less than persuasive to them. Messy as this approach is, I prefer it to hierarchical systems and, speaking as a Baptist, would like to see its revival in our circles in the U.S.)

Along with her brother, Kingsley, and her sister, Doris, Muriel grew strong roots in the spirituality of English Baptist life. Her father taught them to think for themselves, being himself a strong iconoclast against “the old legalisms” of 19th C. Baptist tradition. Muriel was baptized in 1898, at 15, a typical “age of decision” for faith among those who grow up in Baptist circles. She and Doris reorganized and updated the children’s Sunday School programs. Many Baptist leaders in England, including her father, opposed the Anglo-Boer War as a war of imperialist aggression (although pure pacifists were fairly rare among English Baptists by this time). Muriel heard these arguments, but they didn’t take quick root since she was at a militaristic phase of her life, then. Later, discovering the writings of the Russian novelist, Count Leo Tolstoy, Muriel had a “second conversion” to Christian pacifism.

Muriel’s childhood provided a good education and ample opportunities to travel. She contemplated enrolling at Cambridge University, only recently open to “Nonconformists” and it still being fairly rare for English women to seek university degrees. With her fine mind and disciplined lifestyle, Lester would probably have done well in university life and could have become an accomplished scholar in a chosen area of interest. Yet, by this time, her heart had been captured by the call to work for social justice, especially for the poor. She declined to seek university education. Instead, along with her sister, Doris, and with money from the estate of her brother, Kingsley, who died young, she founded Kingsley Hall in the poverty-stricken Bow district of East London in 1914. Kingsley Hall was part settlement house, part “tee-totaling public house” (similar to the later coffee house movement in the U.S), and part non-denominational church with Muriel the de-facto pastor and director. What had brought this upper-Middle Class young woman to such a pass?

Two experiences were crucial in this transformation out of her sheltered life and into radical solidarity with and champion of the poor. The first was a train-ride during her early teen years that took her slowly through the London slums on her way home. Lester observed the sight and smell of poverty close-up for the first time. She asked aloud whether people lived “down there” and received this patronizing and dismissive answer from another passenger, “Oh yes, plenty of people live down there, but you needn’t worry about them, they don’t mind it, they’re not like you, they don’t mind any of these smells. Besides, if they did, they only have themselves to blame. They get drunk. That’s why they’re poor.” Muriel, a lifelong teetotaler, knew that alcoholism could contribute to poverty, but she also knew wealthy people who drank, so she wasn’t ready to accept this answer at face value. Then, in 1902, she visited with her father a “factory girls’ club” in Bow that was having a party. Whatever she saw and experienced there began a profound change in her. Muriel began to go to Bow regularly as a volunteer social worker. In 1912, she and her sister, Doris, rented rooms in a Victorian working class cottage for a base, and then, as they spent more time there, as a residence. This began an experiential education in social radicalism that was to culminate in the production of Kingsley Hall.

While Muriel and Doris were becoming familiar with life in Bow and its problems, Muriel was becoming more skeptical about mainline churches. The churches were not managing to change society in radical ways. She wanted to see the revolutionary dimensions of Christianity make an impact personally in the structures of society. During this time, Lester deepened her study of Tolstoy’s teachings about pacifism and taught these to her Sunday School students. Together, they came to the conclusion that they had to do “Jesus Christ the honour of taking him seriously, of thinking out His teaching in terms of daily life, and then acting on it even if ordered by police, prelates, and princes to do the opposite.”

It was with this radical faith that Muriel and Doris began to ask the residents of Bow to dream with them of a place where they could begin to work on their own problems, not abandoning political or union struggles, but not waiting for such successes before working to improve their lives together. With money from Kingsley’s estate, the sisters purchased an abandoned church building, Zion Chapel, previously used by a Strict and Particular Baptist congregation on Botolph Road in Bow. (Particular Baptists were more Calvinistic than General Baptists. After the two main groups in England merged in the mid-19th Century to become the Baptist Union of Great Britain, those very Calvinistic Baptists that refused to join with the Arminian or General Baptists became known as “Strict and Particular” Baptists.) They worked to transform this former church into a “teetotal pub,” and settlement house — Kingsley Hall. For 18 years, this community center was the base of Muriel Lester’s work among the poor and working classes. It was, in many ways, as radical a center as any socialist could imagine, but it was never a secular enterprise: Muriel, Doris, and many of the residents practiced silent, listening prayer similar to Quaker practices. Once a week, they gathered for Bible study, especially the teachings of Jesus, asking if and how His teachings answered the questions and problems of the poor. The center of their focus was the Sermon on the Mount.

As World War I broke out, Lester resisted the militaristic patriotism of most of England and solidified her nascent pacifism by joining the fledgling Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1914. She later recalled the launching of the F.O.R. in these words:

In December 1914, a hundred or so Christians of all sects met in Cambridge, drawn together by the immovable conviction that a nation cannot wage war to the glory of God. The doctrine of the Cross, self-giving, self-suffering, forgiveness, is the exact opposite of the doctrine of armies and navies. One must choose between the sword and the Cross. Thus the Fellowship of Reconciliation was formed, providing us with anchorage as well as with a chart for all adventuring. (From It Occurred to Me by Muriel Lester, pp. 61-62.)

Not all other English Christians agreed. Along with others in the F.O.R., Lester received condemnation from many churches for refusing to pray for British victory. Lester claimed that a “victor’s peace” would sow the seeds for future wars. Considering that most historians agree that many of the roots of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and of World War II grew out of the vengeful terms of the Treaty of Versailles which ended WWI (and sought to punish Germany and make it solely responsible for the war), Lester insight shows great wisdom. When the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) was founded four years later in 1919, Lester quickly joined it as well, shortly after its first meeting in Holland.

Meanwhile, in 1921, Lester was elected for a term on the city council of the Poplar borough of London. Bow constituted roughly a third of the borough and Muriel was elected on a Fabian socialist platform. In her city council post, Lester was able to address many of the political dimensions of the social ills of the inner city, but she did not stop engaging in direct aid and community organizing. In 1923, Muriel and Doris Lester co-founded a “Children’s House” in Bow as an alternative to the grim orphanages of the day. In 1927, she used an inheritance to construct a new Kingsley Hall and to expand to Dagenham, another poor district of East London.

The residents of Bow did not consider Muriel to be just another social worker or even a politician who was “on their side.” Despite her wealthy background, she was claimed as “one of them” and they adopted her as their “parson” since few of them found themselves at home in any church other than Kingsley Hall. Muriel described herself as needing to perform the “priestly functions” for the “little company of the believers of Christ.” She led Sunday worship, re-wrote hymns, led prayers, provided pastoral care, officiated at communion services (Holy Eucharist; most often called “the Lord’s Supper” in the Baptist circles that Lester knew best) and (adult) baptisms and marriage services, blessed babies, organized a nursery school, initiated a men’s adult school, and started other programs. Although her theology broadened from the conservative evangelicalism of her childhood, Lester never lost a sense of the need to bear witness to the gospel in personal as well as social terms. Throughout her life, she invited people to follow Christ and become part of this radical fellowship of believers. Although she never sought formal ordination from any established denomination for herself, Lester championed the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, eventually writing a book-long defense called Why Forbid Us? (Shanghai: Christian Literature Society, 1935). Lester eventually developed a following as a writer on Christian topics, including matters of personal and social ethics, prayer and spirituality, and autobiographical devotional books. Although never formally trained in academic theology, Muriel Lester should probably count as the first woman to be a writing theologian among Baptists and one of the earliest among most Believers’ Church bodies.

After WWI, Lester, along with much of the world, began hearing reports about Gandhi’s leadership in a nonviolent struggle for India’s independence from Great Britain. From childhood, Lester had been a strong anti-imperialist (as were many Nonconformists of that era). Now, Gandhi’s active nonviolent struggle connected Lester’s pacifism and anti-imperialism in a new way. In 1926, accompanied by her nephew, Daniel Hogg, Lester made the first of many trips to India, making many lifelong friends, but most notably Gandhi. She wrote about this first trip in her book, My Host the Hindu (London: Williams and Norgate, 1931). Lester returned to India in 1934, 1935, 1938, 1946, and 1949 when she helped to form the Indian chapter of the F.O.R. When Gandhi came to Britain in 1931 for the Round Table Conference on Indian independence, he stayed in Kingsley Hall for three months. (This was shown in one brief scene in the movie Gandhi with no mention of Muriel Lester nor explanation about what Kingsley Hall was or why Gandhi felt more at home there than in the rich ambassadorial suites prepared for him.)

In 1933, Muriel turned over the leadership of Kingsley Hall to her sister, Doris, and became the “traveling secretary” for IFOR, an “ambassador of reconciliation” as Richard Deats’ collection of her works calls her. In this capacity, she began new chapters of the F.O.R., strengthened others, and was a traveling “evangelist for nonviolence and pacifism.” She made nine (9) complete world trips in this capacity, in an era before jet travel made global travel easy. She conducted prayer schools and reached out to adherents of all religions — especially Hindus, Jews, and Muslims — without manifesting the normal prejudices of Protestants of her era. When IFOR broadened its membership basis from an explicitly Christian to an interfaith pacifist organization, Lester was in full agreement with the move.

As traveling secretary for IFOR, Lester still connected peacemaking with work for social justice. She investigated injustices in India under British rule, the effects of Japanese colonization on China and Korea. She would collect documentation concerning various issues and make that part of her speaking and writing. In 1934, during her second visit to India, she traveled around the country with Gandhi to speak out against untouchableness and the caste system. In 1938, after visiting China, she spent two weeks in imperial Japan courageously telling people the atrocities done to the Chinese people by their government and army.

As the Second World War broke out, Muriel Lester continued her world speaking tour. In August 1941, she was returning to Great Britain after having spoken and helped organize F.O.R. chapters all through Latin America. When her ocean liner docked in Trinidad (then British territory), the authorities seized her and detained her for ten weeks. While confined, she attempted to raise the spirits of other prisoners while dealing with her own depression and isolation. Public outcry helped secure her release, but upon setting foot in England, again, she was detained several more days and her passport was confiscated for the duration of the War. This did not deter her from traveling throughout the United Kingdom campaigning against the war. She resumed work at Kingsley Hall and organized food and medical aid for Europeans on both sides of the war, bypassing a blockade to do so. After WWII ended, Lester resumed her international campaigning. Her first trip was to Europe, where she warned that the atomic bomb and the beginnings of the Cold War were threatening the newly won peace. She visited areas devastated by the war and ministered to resistance leaders (nonviolent resistance movements and armed struggles) and to Germans taken as prisoners of war. She organized humanitarian relief efforts.

Lester was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Price but was never awarded it. She believed that women, who had been throughout history the victims of war, could play a special role in working for peace and abolishing war. Her Christian faith led her to live in the power of the resurrection, but it did not lead her to close herself off from the nonviolence of those from other faiths, like her friend, Gandhi. In our post-Cold War days with one remaining superpower rapidly becoming a de facto empire with just the trappings of democracy, with the spread of global terrorism and a merciless global capitalism, with renewed religious and ethnic hatreds and the deliberate weakening of international forces for cooperation and human rights, we face dark times. But the times we face are no darker than the two World Wars Muriel Lester endured and active nonviolence is far more well known now than in Lester’s day. We can take strength from the way she faced her challenges as we face ours.

Richard Deats’ essay on Muriel Lester, “No Moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount” can be found here. 

War is as outmoded as cannibalism, chattel slavery, blood-feuds and dueling – an insult to God and man – a daily crucifixion of Christ.  Muriel Lester

December 16, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, heroes, peace | 1 Comment

Advent, Week II: Love

day.jpgThe Second Week of Advent emphasizes Love. Therefore, this week I will profile Dorothy Day as my example of Christian peacemakers whose lives bear witness to the Word Made Flesh.  In my view, few Christians incarnated love as did Dorothy Day.  Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was the co-founder and guiding spirit behind the Catholic Worker movement.  Raised in a secular home, but early drawn to the Jesus of the gospels, as a young woman Day became an anarchistic socialist with Communist leanings out of her deep concern for the poor.  She worked as a journalist for several Leftist newspapers, hung around the New York intellectual scene (the playwrite Eugene O’Neill tried to make her one of his sexual conquests, but failedat least that’s the impression given by some of her biographers), marched against poverty and for women’s rights–including participating in a hunger strike of suffragists. (This despite the fact that Day distrusted electoral politics and never even registered to vote. She still wanted women to have the opportunity to do so.)

  In this early “bohemian” phase, Day became involved in a destructive love relationship in which she became pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion in order to keep her paramour–who left her anyway.  The secular Day was ashamed of this act because she was horrified that would do such a thing for a man. Later, after her conversion to Catholicism, Day had even more guilt over this abortion–so much so that she only ever spoke of it in an autobiographical pre-conversion novel (The Eleventh Virgin) and tried to seek out and destroy all copies of the book.  She became convinced that she was barren as punishment for her sin.  But she fell in love again, much more healthily, and entered into a common law marriage with another anarchist. Unfortunately, he was an atheist and Dorothy was on her way to becoming a Christian and he hated and feared the institution of marriage.  So, after the birth of her daughter Tamar, Dorothy had her baptized and herself underwent catechism and baptism–and left her commonlaw husband.  She felt forced to choose between “natural happiness” and the “harsh and dreadful” love of the Gospels.

The newly Catholic Day scandalized her secular, Communist friends. To become Christian was bad enough, but they could think of no more regressive and oppressive institution than the Catholic Church (pre-Vatican II). But to Dorothy, although the Church’s sins were easy enough to see, it was the Church of the poor and the immigrant. She searched for a way to serve Christ, the Church, and the poor.

She found it when a French lay-brother and wandering prophet of sorts named Peter Maurin arrived on her doorstep to preach a form of Catholic anarchism which he called personalism.  Together they formed the Catholic Worker movement: opening “Houses of Charity” in which they would serve the poor unconditionally, and eventually forming similar rural houses or communal farms. To this was added a newspaper which Dorothy edited and wrote for, The Catholic Worker, which advocated pacifism and promoted a faith that was so radical that Communism looked tame next to it.

Day remained with the Worker houses her whole life, living in voluntary poverty, challenging the church and the world, and working for peace and justice. She remained a pacifist during WWII (which cost the movement many members) and led protests against the nuclear arms race after it.  She made connections with other Christian radicals like Clarence Jordan, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.[or, at least, went south to interview him for The Catholic Worker], and with Cesar Chavez and the California grape farmworkers.  Day’s grassroots Catholic personalism probably had an influence on Vatican II–at least at the point in which the Church recognized pacifism and conscientious objection as legitimate options for Catholics.  She certainly transformed the American Catholic Church from a mostly conservative social institution to a major force for peace and social justice.

But Day was conservative in her theological views: devoted to the saints, not liking the changes in liturgy after Vatican II, disapproving of priests and nuns who were laicized to marry (perhaps because she had given up such “natural” love herself?), and disapproving of the move by some Catholics to allow women to become priests.  She could be a tyrant in the Catholic Worker houses and when faced with younger folks who dissented from some Church teachings would remark, (according folks like Jim Forest)”This is the Catholic Worker; if you want to be part of a Quaker Worker movement–there’s the door.” But she washed the tired feet of the poor, clothed them, defended them and denounced their exploitation by either church or state.

Love, Dorothy Day teaches us, is not an easy thing in real life as in dreams. In real life, love can be “harsh and dreadful,” but also wonderful, challenging, gripping, powerful. It is that kind of love she discovered in Jesus.  To discover more about Day or the Catholic Worker movement, click here.  I am not Catholic. I am an (ana)Baptist, a Believers’ Church Protestant. But Dorothy Day is a personal “saint” of mine.  Reading her life and her works connects me back to Jesus and to gospel love.

“If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Dorothy Day.

December 9, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, discipleship, heroes, liturgy | 5 Comments

Advent, Week I: Hope

213px-oscararias.jpgWhile juggling the GLBT inclusion series and the evolution series, I have decided that for Advent reflections each Sunday, I will profile a Christian peacemaker:  One whose life bears witness to the Word Made Flesh–to the in-breaking Rule of God and thus, to the hope of Second Advent while we celebrate the First Advent of said Word Made Flesh.

The first week of Advent is traditionally celebrated by the lighting of the Hope candle. We wait in hope for the Coming One.  Ecumenical lectionaries (as my pastor reminded us this a.m.) usually highlight passages about John the Baptizer asking us to prepare the way, to repent, to flee from the wrath to come, and warning that the axe is already laid to trees not bearing fruit, etc. 

Many peacemakers’ lives symbolize hope, but I thought I would profile someone not well known to U.S. Americans–The Honorable Oscar Arias Sanchez (a.k.a., Oscar Arias), 1940-.  Born to wealth in Costa Rica, Arias’ family assumed that Oscar would grow up to inherit the family coffee plantation, but the serious child wanted to be president of his country.  When Oscar was 8, the president at the time declined to leave office.  As would become all too frequent in the 2nd half of the 20th C., in Central and South America, this plunged the nation into civil war.   Jose’ Figueres Ferrer, a democratic socialist, led the army that deposed the ruling junta, but then did something few victorious generals have ever done–dissolved the army that brought him victory.  Costa Rica became one of the few countries of any size without a standing military–and the government used the money saved to invest in universal education and healthcare. 

Arias studied in the U.S., studied economics at the University of Costa Rica, and earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Essex, in the U.K.  He returned home and ran for parliament as a member of the moderately socialist National Liberation Party, and became Minister of Planning for the Ferrer government in 1972.  In 1986, he successfully ran for President of Costa Rica, campaigning as the “peace candidate” against an opposition that wanted to re-institute the army. He served from 1986 to 1990.  When Arias won, the U.S. pulled out it’s economic investment, saying that a country without an army was not viable.

As president, Arias worked to reduce Costa Rican indebtedness to foreign countries and alleviate poverty, but his main focus was to work for peace in war-torn Central America.  During the 1980s, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua were all undergoing civil wars–with the U.S. supporting different factions in each country.  The Contra terrorists of Nicaragua would attack from bases in Costa Rica, along an undefended border.  Arias was critical of the ruling Sandanistas of Nicaragua, but he nevertheless stopped the Contras from attacking from Costa Rican soil. He worked to create peace throughout the region, eventually hammering out the successful Arias Plan for peace in 1987. It was signed  by all parties and led to Arias receiving the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, but U.S. opposition to parts of the plan prevented full implementation.  Arias used the Nobel Peace Prize money to create the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in 1988 and he helped establish a United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica.

Arias has also been active in various international Non-Governmental Organizations promoting economic justice, human rights, and peacemaking, including the Carter Center in the U.S., and service on the Board of Directors for the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims.  He is a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security and is a recipient of numerous honorary doctorates and the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism.

After Costa Rica’s Supreme Court ruled that presidents may serve more than one term, Arias ran again for president in the 2006 general elections, and won again.  In his current term in office, Arias has forbidden any citizens of Costa Rica to train in the U.S. School of the Americas (re-named the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation) at Ft. Benning, GA–which has been notorious for training many state-sponsored terrorists and human rights abusers and is working to get countries throughout Latin America to refuse enrollment in SOA/WHINSEC. 

Arias is a committed Christian, a rather traditional Catholic (though criticized by conservative Catholics for continuing the legalization of artificial birth control in his nation and, for cases of rape, incest, and threat to a mother’s life, the legalization of abortion).  He has talked in interviews about how his passion for peace and economic justice is fueled by his faith, but he talks less about this than many U.S. politicians because religious differences (especially between Catholics and Protestants and between Christians and indigenous religions) have often been used in Central and South America to divide people or to gain power. Arias’ works to promote religious tolerance and respect in his nation while honoring the historic role of Catholicism in the nation’s history and heritage.

Compared to Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or the U.S., Costa Rica is still a poor country.  Yet, unlike most of Latin America, it has a 90% literacy rate, free health care that focuses on prevention and rural clinics, and a mixed-economy that promotes eco-tourism rather than traditional cash crops.  Arias’ leadership in Costa Rica gives hope that it can be a model, an alternative to prevailing trends in either Latin America or in the so-called “developed Western world.”

“Because our country is a country of teachers, we closed the army camps, and our children go with books and not rifles under their arms. We reject violence.” Dr. Oscar Arias Sanchez, President of Costa Rica and 1988 Nobel Peace Laureate.

December 2, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, heroes, peacemaking | 1 Comment

R.I.P. Letty M. Russell (1929-2007): Pioneer Feminist Theologian

070713_letty_russell.jpgI didn’t find out until today that the great feminist theologian Letty Russell died on 12 July 2007.  There is an excellent obituary here.  I met Russell a few times at conferences, but I mostly encountered her through her many books.  She was the first feminist theologian I read who seemed to take Scripture and the historic Christian faith seriously, as opposed to the “post-Christian” Mary Daly or the highly revisionist Rosemary Radford Reuther. (I knew of evangelical feminist theologians, of course, but they seemed mostly concerned with repeated defenses of the biblical basis for the ordination of women.  My teachers, Molly T. Marshall and Pamela J. Scalise, had not yet published much. So, Russell was the first mainstream feminist theologian I encountered positively through her writings.)  She was a critic and reformer, but clearly a believer who did NOT want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  She was an incredible encouragement to younger women entering ministry, too.  I found her major work on ecclesiology, Church in the Round, to be very close to the Anabaptist-Free Church vision, though she was an ordained Presbyterian.

Another obituary can be found here.

Well done, good and faithful servant of the One Servant. May God raise up more like you.

September 14, 2007 Posted by | heroes, Obituaries | 2 Comments