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

The Book is Out!

I don’t plan to use this blog much to push my own accomplishments, but I cannot deny excitement at receiving my copy today of my first book. It’s called A Guide to the U.S. Black Freedom Movement: 1945-1970 and is published by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (see link on this blog). It includes “The Struggle for Racial Justice in Canada and the United States: A Timeline. “It sells for $10 U.S. or $12. Canadian. I wrote it is a resource for school teachers, youth ministers, parents and others to counteract the 30-second soundbite treatments of the movement in popular media. You know the image: Rosa Park sat down on a bus, the next day Dr. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech and POOF!–segregation was destroyed. This is not a technical history, but has lots of references to major histories on the movement. It does try to list many of the major organizations, leaders, and events–but the actual movement included thousands of people whose names we will never know, but whose courage serves us all.

I am hoping that this will be the first of several guides to popular social movements published by the BPFNA and that the churches use them as resources for the cultural amnesia that so affects us.

To order, go to http://www.bpfna.org/ All proceeds go to the work of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.


June 23, 2006 Posted by | books, race, Religious Social Criticism, social history | 3 Comments

Rabbi Waskow v. Torture

If you look to this blog’s links, you’ll see one for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. I have tried to make this a major issue on the email list of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and my church’s Yahoo group. When I mentioned the campaign to Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance for Progress, CAP signed on as an organization immediately. So, I was considering writing something about that here when I received this great email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Centre which says it all so much better. Here it is:

Dear Friends, Last night (Sunday) Phyllis and I saw the new film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” sired by Robert Altman out of Mother Minnesota, with Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep among an amazing cast. But more amazing than the cast is the (implicit) theme: the death of America. The grass-rootsy radio program, in the film (not in real life) is playing its last show, its home radio station having been swallowed by a ravenous corporation. And in it the Angel of Death, as a lovely Woman in White, taps on the shoulder of one of the show’s most beloved veterans. Death is all-pervasive, yet the film is funny. I couldn’t stop laughing to cry, I couldn’t stop crying to laugh. The America that is dying is ribald, sad, sweet, bold, decent, unruly, song-full, tough, eccentric. Yet it is killed. It dies with nary a whimper –- but it dies.”Is this a great country, or what?” — Yes, it is. How could such a wonderful country end up with such a terrible government, both the “public” one in Washington that ignores the public interest and the “private” one of corporate ledgers that exercises such power over the public? In the real America of “Prairie Home Companion,” some cops and some soldiers tortured prisoners, but that America would never have tolerated a President who made torture into official policy and openly said that laws forbidding it did not apply to him. Indeed, for violations less atrocious, that America drove a President from office just 34 years ago.

Of course, in the usual paradox of artistic and spiritual creativity, a film about our death MIGHT be a redemptive act of life. Or might not. It’s up to us. Soooooooo — Is that America dead? Some of us are trying to give it new life. For example: New energy and new people are joining in efforts to end the use of torture by the US government. Two important events: 1) In the New York Times this past Wednesday, a quarter-page ad on the Op/Ed page carried this message: “Let America abolish torture now – without exceptions.” Among the signers were two Nobel Peace laureates: President Jimmy Carter and (a totally new voice in this discussion) Elie Wiesel. The leaders of many religious organizations – evangelical, main-line Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim – also signed. You can support this statement! (More below.) 2) At the US Mission to the UN next week (May 26), there will be a street action to urge the closure of Guantanamo and an end to US use of torture. You can join in this action! (More below.) More on the NY Times statement: “Torture is a Moral Issue. “Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved -– policy-makers, perpetrators, and victims. “It contradicts our nation’s most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable. “Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? …” Another new voice among the signers was Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, who (for identification only) was listed as Executive Vice President, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He joined Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which had been working on the issue before. On being asked about the absence of other Jewish signatories, the organizers (National Religious Committee Against Torture) explained that most of its efforts had been to bring in new people, especially among evangelical Christians, and that they had therefore not focused on including The Shalom Center and Rabbis for Human Rights, both of which pioneered campaigns against torture in the Jewish and broader religious communities.

Other signers are listed at the end of this message. We urge you, our readers, to use this letter as a basis for writing your own metropolitan and communal newspapers. Why them? — There is little point in writing Congress at this point, since it recently passed overwhelmingly a law renewing and restating prohibitions on torture – only to sit silent when the President signed it and simultaneously announced he would not feel bound by it. Even Senator McCain, who had pressed for passage of the anti-torture amendment, acquiesced in this breathtaking violation of the Constitution. Congress also passed an act abolishing the writ of habeas corpus for Guantanamo prisoners – the one way for them to get legal redress for false imprisonment and torture, and the most sacred protection of freedom in American and British history, going back to the 14th century. So public opinion needs to raise its head against this moral perfidy. If you click on this address, you can send a letter to the editor that refers to the “Torture is a Moral Issue” statement and joins in it. http://www.democracyinaction.org/dia/organizationsORG/tsc/pickMedia.jsp?letter_KEY=487

THIS STRING MUST ENTER AS A SINGLE LINE. Make sure when you click on or enter this it does not have letter-salad from a split line. style=’font-family:Helvetica’>

Meanwhile, Witness Against Torture is sponsoring a NYC teach-in Sunday June 25 and a street action Monday June 26, to end torture & close Guantanamo. These are the folks (mostly Catholic Worker) who walked across Cuba to Guantanamo and who organized (with CALC-I) an anti-torture, close- Guantanamo action in NYC on May 1. I expect, God willing, to take part on June 26; I hope many others also will. Shalom, ArthurTEACH-IN: Sunday, June 25, 6pm-8pm, Judson Assembly Room (Enter at 239 Thompson Street)Moderated by *Edget Betru*, Organizer, Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative, Center for Constitutional Rights. Speakers: *Sarah Havens*, attorney with Allen & Overy, represents fourteen Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo; (invited) George Hunsinger, Director, National Religious Network Against Torture.Performances by Michael Cates, Pierce Woodward and others /ACTION: Monday, June 26, 2006- United Nations Day for Victims of Torture; Procession to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to Call on Ambassador John Bolton to Join the International Consensus to Shut Down Guantanamo *10:30 am, Gather for short opening ceremony, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza (47th street and First Avenue)Solemn Procession to Bring **Guantanamo** to the US Mission steps off at 11:00]Noon- 1pm, Demonstration at US Mission to the UN, 45th Street between 3rd Avenue and LexingtonFor more information, visit — n or email Frida.Berrigan@gmail.com *The activities are being organized by Witness Against Torture, in concert with Torture Awareness Month, http://www.tortureawareness.org *Other signers of “Torture Is a Moral Issue”: Rev. William J. Byron, SJ Research Professor, Loyola College in Maryland Archbishop Demetrios Primate, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar General Secretary, National Council of Churches Dr. David P. Gushee Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Union University in Tennessee Rev. Ted Haggard President, National Association of Evangelicals Dr. Maher Hathout Muslim Public Affairs Council Dr. Stanley Hauerwas Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics, Duke University Dr. Roberta Hestenes Minister-at-Large, World Vision Dr. George Hunsinger McCordProfessor of Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary Rev. Kermit D. Johnson Chaplain (Major General), U.S. Army (ret.) Rev. Joseph Lowery Co-Founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference Frederica Mathewes-Green Author and commentator Theodore Cardinal McCarrick Archbishop of Washington Dr. Brian McLaren Founder, Cedar Ridge Community Church, Spencerville, Maryland Dr. Richard Mouw President, Fuller Theological Seminary Prof. Mary Ellen O’Connell Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law, University of Notre Dame Rabbi David Saperstein Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Dr. Glen Stassen Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary Dr. Leonard Sweet E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism, Drew University Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed National Director, Islamic Society of North America Dr. Frank A. Thomas Editor of The African-American Pulpit; Pastor, Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, Memphis Rev. Jim Wallis Editor-in-Chief/Executive Director, Sojourners Dr. Rick Warren Founder and Pastor, Saddleback Church Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University Organizations listed for identification purposes only.

June 19, 2006 Posted by | progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, torture | 1 Comment

Two Types of Religion

I am going to contend that religion comes in two very broad types. I will call the one type authoritarian and the other prophetic. I saw both types clearly last Sunday 25 April in Louisville. Those supporting “Justice Sunday” were prime examples of authoritarian religion while those attending the “Freedom and Faith” counter-event embodied a more prophetic, liberating faith.

Authoritarian religion is heirarchical. Power/authority (the two are equated) flows from the top of a pyramid or out from a tight bureaucracy–and doesn’t flow very far. It is very concerned with power and control.
Authoritarian religion sees Scripture as primarily a rulebook. Its ethics are very concerned with rules and with matters of purity and taboo, dividing the righteous few from the profane/polluted many. This leads sexual matters to dominate its ethics: women are relegated to inferior positions, sexuality is seen as a necessary evil, and those who differ from sharply-defined sexual norms are pariahs. Non-procreational sex is discouraged if not forbidden and artificial means of either aiding or preventing procreation are demonized. An idealized patriarchal family is defended as “the biblical norm,” despite abundant biblical evidence to many forms of family life.

By nature, this form of religion is exclusionary. Orthodoxy or right teaching is defined very narrowly and differences of opinion tolerated within a very small range. Uncertainty or ambiguity on any topic is unwelcome. Debates arise over narrow points that outsiders cannot tell apart because thinking is kept within narrow boxes.

The need for authority and control leads to love of a “strong man,” with the male gender very much intended. A strong father, a strong leader, a strong protector–a military savior figure to hold all hopes and dreams.

This is a religion dominated by fear: fear of heretics, of social change, of questions, of ambiguity, fear of outsiders, of secularism–fear, ultimately, of God. I know someone who belongs to this type of religion who is developing a line of clothing saying, “I Fear God” who cannot figure out why they won’t sell!

By contrast, prophetic faith is non-heirarchical. Power is widely shared and tends to be grassroots-initiated. The ideal here is for a discipleship of equals and for servant leadership. Leaders’ earn their authority by means of their wisdom, persuasiveness, talents, and the way their service empowers others. True leaders in prophetic forms of faith are not threatened by other initiatives, other voices, or constructive critiques of their own actions.

Prophetic faith may have a place for rules, but rules are not seen as the center of the life of faith. Ethical rules flow from broader principles which themselves are rooted in narrative convictions about the meaning of God, salvation, discipleship, etc. Scriptures are not seen primarily as rulebooks but as revealing God’s character and God’s purposes in the world–purposes of salvation and liberation in which we are invited by grace to participate. Prophetic faith redefines purity or holiness in terms of compassionate justice for the marginalized, vulnerable, or powerless. The focus is not on one’s own righteousness, but on the good of the neighbor, the enemy, the common good. Orthopraxy, right practice, plays a larger role than orthodoxy and both are defined in ways that allow for disagreements, uncertainties, explorations, and ambiguity. There is a strong sense of the major shape of the life of faith, but no felt need to have all the answers. Its major concerns are justice, compassion, peacemaking, care for creation, empowering others, the dignity of all, the common good. Sexual issues take a lesser role and then are not seen in terms of purity concerns but in terms of covenant faithfulness, nonviolence, mutual dignity, right-relatedness.

The dominant notes in prophetic faith are not control and fear, but joy. Joy–delight in God, in God’s creation, in others, in empowered service, in discipleship. This is an ethos than understands itself as different from the dominant culture, but is constantly inviting others in–breaking down barriers, not pushing others’ out.

We need far more of this prophetic faith, today. Unfortunately, those who have it, having often been victims of a bad model of evangelism from the authoritarians, are not bold enough in sharing it with others. Prophetic faith is to be lived–and proclaimed.

April 27, 2005 Posted by | progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, theology | 1 Comment