In order that we can proceed this weekend to the next post on the biblical basis of Christian pacifism, I am briefly going to respond to a challenge that pacifists must either be inconsistent, incoherent, or they must advocate a purely voluntary system of taxation by governments. The argument is that taxation is backed up by the threat of violence and therefore, to be consistent, pacifists must oppose it.
But, remember, we have distinguished violence, from force, and coercion. Governments have many tools of coercion available for enforcement apart from violence. To use the U.S. as an example, the Internal Revenue Service need not hold guns to the heads of taxpayers to get them to pay their taxes. They can, for instance, garnish wages until back taxes are paid. Alternatively, the IRS could put a lien against someone’s home or other property until the taxes are paid. These are coercive actions, but they aren’t violent.
Now, it may be true, that governments reserve violence as a final coercive measure to enforce taxation (and every other law), but that does not mean that it must do so. Pacifist need not be anarchists to be consistent. A pacifist who believes in government and the necessity of taxation need not be inconsistent or to argue for purely voluntary taxation. All such pacifists need do to be consistent is argue that governments use less-than-violent forms of coercion. Whether or not governments listen is another story.
Later this weekend, I’ll give the next installment in my biblical case for Christian pacifism. I’d appreciate if the comments and challenges to my view stick with the biblical arguments until the end. If we keep getting sidetracked to deal with such questions in the midst of the biblical case, we’ll never get anywhere. I will try to answer some such questions at the end.
Update: A commenter says that I have several details in this post wrong. I just used the Wikipedia article and the foreword to my copy of On Civil Disobedience. I am happy to defer to real Thoreau scholars. Soon I will make the corrections indicated–although I do not think they distorted the main emphases of this small birthday tribute.
Happy Birthday, Thoreau. Born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, MA, Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s truly great philosophers–and someone whose influence should be recovered today. Born to privilege Born, at least, to what would be considered “middle classe” today and educated at Harvard, Thoreau chafed against the conformity of his age and class. He decided to live the simple life and his notes on this experience, published as Walden , helped to create the American tradition of simple living.
Walden is also one of the founding documents of the American environmentalist movement and Thoreau attempts to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquering it.
Another major area of influence is in nonviolence theory. It is not clear that Thoreau was a pacifist or had any theory of nonviolence, but he refused to pay the war tax levied to support the Mexican War because he opposed that war. [A commmenter, Richard, claims that this was only a local tax having no bearing on national affairs, but both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy support my original statement. This poll tax was levied by the American government to help finance the war with Mexico.] He was thrown in jail for his war tax resistance until a friend an aunt (against Thoreau’s wishes) paid the fine. Out of this experience, Thoreau wrote an essay which he titled, “Resistance to Civil Government,” but which has almost always been published under the title, On Civil Disobedience. In this essay, Thoreau articulates the principle that one should resist obeying laws that one knows to be unjust (such as a war tax or the Fugitive Slave Act), but to be willing to pay the legal consequences of this disobedience. By so doing, one does not support lawlessness, but nor does one cooperate with legalized evil. One can also help in such a way to change unjust laws. Thoreau called this voting with one’s entire life, rather than just voting at a poll on election day.
Thoreau influenced the tactics of the Abolitionist movement and many other subsequent movements for social change. [Again, commenter Paul claims this was not so, that it was Thoreau who was influenced by the Garrisonian abolitionists. Once again, I checked with standard biographical sources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It seems the influence went both ways. Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, repeatedly published Thoreau’s essay, “Resistance to Government” and may have been the first to change the title to On Civil Disobedience. So, at least, it would be fair to say that Garrison found Thoreau’s articulation and defense of these tactics of what was then called “nonresistance” and today would be labelled “nonviolent resistance” to be powerfully compelling and worthy of dissemination.] These movements transformed Thoreau’s single act of conscience in resisting an imperialistic war (a war to expand slavery in the U.S., as he perceived the major motivation of the Mexican War to be) into a strategy to be implemented on a mass scale. He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this way. Thus, Thoreau, a thoroughgoing indidualist, laid important groundwork for mass movements of nonviolent social change.
We live in an era of mass conformity–and Thoreau reminds us that nonconformity has deep roots in American culture. We live in an age of such consumerism that consumer activity accounts for 70% of the economy and economists from left to right eagerly await the American consumer to “regain confidence”” and return to patterns of debt-financed personal spending to jump-start economic recovery–and Thoreau reminds us that accumulating THINGS is not the way to happiness. We live in an era when close to 50% of our tax money goes for military purposes (when interest on current and past wars is added in and veterans benefits are included in the military budget)–and Thoreau reminds us that we do not have to choose to simply shake our heads and pay anyway–if we are willing to pay the price for moral resistance.
We live in an age of citizen apathy, when barely 50% of eligible voters show up at the polls and an increase of voter turnout is cause for great excitement–and Thoreau reminds us that this is the minimum of responsible citizenship, not its maximum. He challenges us, instead, to vote with our whole lives.
Henry David Thoreau speaks as strongly to our era as to his own and it would be good to recover this major American philosopher before American culture completely dissolves into militarism, consumerism, and absolute conformity.
UPDATE: It’s ironic that Thoreau and his legacy are so neglected in American life today, considering that he was a major influence on such wide-ranging figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, John Muir, and even Ernest Hemingway. Thoreau is such an iconic American figure that he once had his own U.S. postage stamp, yet today he is mostly forgotten and would be denounced by the “mainstream media” throughout the land as an anarchist and heathen. (Can you imagine what a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity would do to any public figure who admitted being influenced by Thoreau?) [Again, my commenter, Richard, claims that Thoreau is NOT mostly forgotten. Maybe less than it appears to me, but I think he is far more neglected in the public schools and in public discourse than during the 1960s–despite the over 1 million visitors to Walden every year.]
Since I am critical of the Republican Party on most issues, and of the conservative base of the GOP even more, I have made it a policy on this blog to note and praise every time I see something done by a Republican politician of which I approve. I have been accused of “knee jerk GOP hatred” which is not true.
Today, Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) signed legislation increasing FL’s tobacco taxes by $1 per package of cigarettes. Excellent! It will help curb teen smoking and addiction and it will add $900 million per year to FL state revenues–which will offset the state’s Medicare costs and will help fund research into cancer cures! Well done, Gov. Crist!
I especially highlight Crist’s actions here because they take some political courage (a virtue always in short supply in either major party). You see, Gov. Crist is running for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and this action is bound to be used against him–not by his Democratic opponent in the general election (which increasingly looks to be Rep. Kendrick Meeks (D-FL) ), but by his Republican primary challenger, Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is more conservative than Crist. The rightwing of the GOP hates any and all taxes. Crist is very popular in FL and will probably win the primary, but he is not all that popular with the conservative GOP base. Rubio has been endorsed by national conservative Republican Mike Huckabee (formerly Gov. of Arkansas and former presidential candidate who is now a Fox News pundit) and by Jeb Bush, Jr., son of the former FL Gov. and nephew of George W. Bush. There is no doubt that the GOP right will use today’s signing to brand Crist as a terrible tax hiker! He had to know it, too.
So, here’s my hat tip to Gov. Crist for doing the right thing REGARDLESS of the risk. Politicians of all parties take notice: This is what a spine looks like!
Update: Of course, Crist had to follow this good deed with a kick in the teeth to injured workers! Nice, Governor Suntan. I sure hope that your Democratic opponent for the U.S. Senate (probably Rep. Kendrick Meeks) highlights this nastiness in the general election!
American religious historian Diana Butler Bass on A Christian Argument for Progressive Taxation. I agree so much that I’ll simply let Dr. Bass speak for me.
Tea Parties on tax day to the contrary (attendance was poor at most and the largest responsible estimate I’ve seen nationwide was 300,000 people–hardly a mass insurgence), recent polling shows that for the first time in decades, the majority of Americans either think their taxes are “about right” or “too low.” And when you ask specific policy questions like, “Would you be willing to pay more in taxes for universal single payer healthcare?” the majority answer “yes.”
But, in the face of anti-tax propaganda non-stop since 1980, it has been far too long since churches have made the kinds of arguments Dr. Butler Bass does in her brief article. We should make these kinds of arguments from the pulpit more often.
No one likes paying taxes. Especially in a country like the U.S. which began with tax protests. Of course, unlike the rightwing fringe “teabaggers” (Honestly, don’t these people know how to google contemporary slang terms? Since this is a family-friendly blog, I’ll let you discover for yourselves why Michelle might object to the signs saying, “Teabag Obama!” Really. From the family values crowd, too.) the colonists were not protesting the very idea of taxes. They were protesting “taxation without representation.” i.e., having no elected say as colonists in Parliament’s decisions as to what to tax, how much, and how those would be spent.
Taxes are the price of civilization. With taxes, we pay our police, firefighters, teachers, and other public servants. If we want good roads, bridges that don’t fall down, levees that don’t break, an electric grid that works, we must pay taxes. If we want our elderly cared for, we pay taxes. (Poverty in old age used to be a chronic problem. Since the advent of Social Security taxes and Medicare, poverty in old age is relatively rare in the U.S. Children’s poverty, however, is a huge problem in the U.S.) If we want our veterans cared for, we pay taxes. If we want good government, we pay taxes.
It is true that taxes can be high and oppressive. The Bible has plenty of examples of such. But, in the U.S., we have some of the lowest tax rates–and, because of that, some of the worst public services. When anti-tax sentiments run wild in state and local legislatures, these governments must enact “hidden taxes” to get needed revenue: higher fines and court fees (and speeding quotas); higher rates for public parking; higher driver’s license fees, etc.
I have been involved in tax protests–over the amount of tax money used for military purposes and for the right for Conscientious Objectors to have a peace tax fund that allows all of our taxes to be used for non-military purposes. (There is a bill for this in Congress that is introduced every year and never gets out of committee.) But the fringe element at today’s “tea parties” seem to be protesting “high taxes,” although these are the Bush tax rates that they have praised for 8 years–and next year most of their taxes will decrease while the taxes on the rich slightly increase. There is no logic here.
Meanwhile, offshore tax havens for wealthy corporations cost the U.S. an estimated $100 billion per year which honest taxpayers must make up. Wealthy people cheat on their taxes far more often than poor and working people.
You cannot get something for nothing. If we want safe toys, we need inspectors and regulations, paid for by taxes. If we want safe water and air and working conditions, it takes taxes. If we want a Federal Emergency Management Agency that WORKS after a disaster (as it did during the Clinton years, but not during the Bush years), then we must be willing to pay our taxes. The current highest tax rate (upper 1%) is only 36% and will only rise to 39% next year. During the Eisenhower era, when America had a strong economy and the largest middle class in our history, the top 1% tax rate was 90%.
I have a different name for the tea partiers: freeloaders and parasites.
O.K., I know that the context was his criticism of Republican-backed tax cuts during time of war–the only time in our history as a nation when we have financed a war by borrowing instead of taxation. But I still could hardly believe my ears yesterday when former U.S. President Bill Clinton (D-AR), campaigning on behalf of his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), a leading Democratic candidate for U.S. President, stated boldly that he “opposed [the invasion of] Iraq from the beginning!” Really, Bill? Then why didn’t you advise Hillary not to vote to authorize the war? I don’t recall Bill Clinton speaking out against the war in ’02 or early ’03 when it might have made a difference. In fact, having just “Googled” this topic, I am pretty sure he did no such thing.
I can’t stand these attempts by politicians to re-write history in their favor–whether Republicans or Democrats do it. I am very angry about this remark by Bill Clinton–angrier than I have been at him since he bombed Kosovo to distract the public from the Lewinsky scandal or when he caved to GOP pressure and signed into law a “welfare reform” law that did nothing to solve the problem of poverty, but was, instead, draconian in its effects on the poor–especially poor children!! Why am I so angry? Because opposing a war takes more than thinking privately that it is a bad idea–it requires speaking out and that takes courage and usually involves consequences:
- Col. Scott Ritter, the highly decorated former U.S. Marine, who was the Chief UN weapons inspector for Iraq during the 1990s, had that kind of courage. He spoke out against the invasion of Iraq, arguing that Iraq was no longer a military threat and had little if any WMDs left. Ritter paid a price: having his name smeared on every news show in the U.S., with blowhards like Sean Hannity claiming that he had been paid off by Saddam Hussein and others claiming that Ritter should have his medals revoked!
- Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to the first Pres. Bush (George H. W. Bush), wrote an article in the 15 Aug. edition of the Wall Street Journal called “Don’t Attack Saddam!” which argued that containment was working and the invasion would distract from fighting terrorism and from the need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the real key to a stable Middle East.
- Some retired military officers and some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued against the invasion, including, most prominently, Gen. Wesley Clark and Gen. Anthony Zinni.
- Several career diplomats with years of experience in Middle East Affairs resigned in protest over the coming invasion of Iraq–including many who supported Gulf War I.
- Ray McGovern, retired CIA analyst who now works for the publishing arm of the Church of the Savior, spoke out, forming VIPS: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, and exposing the holes in the Bush admin.’s case for war. In 2004, McGovern had a public run-in with Donald Rumsfeld, charging him with war crimes.
- Former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had once faced down Saddam Hussein face-to-face, and was decorated by the first Pres. Bush (George H. W. Bush) for his role in getting all Americans out of Iraq before Gulf War I, opposed this war and exposed part of the lies on which it was based–and the Bush admin. retaliated by “outing” his wife, Valerie Plame, as a deep cover CIA agent, ruining her career and putting lives at risk.
- Social justice advocate Medea Benjamin, put her business at Equal Exchange on hold to found CODE PINK: Women for Peace. She opposed the war and has been repeatedly jailed for it.
- Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) was almost alone in the Senate in 2002 in calling for a real debate and careful hearings before rushing any kind of authorization for war. He was joined by a few including Sen. Russ Feingold and Sen. Edward Kennedy. Byrd’s call for vigorous hearings and debate and defense of the Constitutional role of Congress in declaring war (or not) was ignored or ridiculed.
- Both the present Pope (Benedict XVI) and the previous Pope (John Paul II), spoke out against the Iraq invasion, with the ailing John Paul even sending the Vatican papal nuncio to meet with Bush in an attempt to stop the invasion.
- Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners led a major ecumenical Christian effort to find ways to deal with any possible threat that Saddam might pose without war–and when he could get no audience for his plan in the White House, met with British PM Tony Blair to plead the case.
- Other religious leaders such as Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun and Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Centre, spoke out against the war. I drafted the open letter against the war by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Members from Christian Peacemaker Teams and other faith-based groups tried to be human shields against the invasion–and several were kidnapped by insurgents and one lost his life because of this.
- In Feb. 2003, 10 million worldwide, 1 million in New York City alone, marched in the streets to stop the war. I was in New York. Bill Clinton was not. Any peace rally would gladly have let him speak–he could have made a difference. But he remained silent.
- Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks made one remark against the impending war in a London concert and the band went overnight from the hottest country band in the world to having their CDs publicly burned and radio stations refusing to play their music–and being burned in effigy. I don’t recall Bill Clinton, supposedly a longtime fan, speaking out in their defense. Even G.W. Bush defended their right to free speech, but Bill Clinton was silent!
- Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) spoke out, as did former Pres. Jimmy Carter and former VP Al Gore. So did Howard Dean, Barack Obama (then a state senator in Illinois), and Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM). Bill Clinton was silent.
- The list might be expanded, but it is so easy to name those in public life who spoke out BECAUSE THEY WERE SO FEW! Soon we had the stupidity of renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries” because French Pres. Chirac opposed the invasion! In that kind of atmosphere, most prominent Democrats, including Bill Clinton, kept quiet and showed zero moral leadership. To say otherwise now is a lie of incredible proportions–like all those white guys who claim to have “marched with Dr. King” now when they actually were silent. (An African-American friend of mine says he has yet to find a white Southerner of the proper age who admits to having been a segregationist at the time. Surely they didn’t all die already? Surely many changed their minds–and simply are too afraid to admit it, now.) This Clintonian lie is as large as “I did not have sex with that woman”–and, as far as the public good is concerned (rather than just the consequences to Clinton’s marriage or soul), this lie is far worse.
People paid various prices for opposing the invasion of Iraq “from the beginning,” Mr. Clinton! My family received anonymous death threats for our letters to the editor opposing the war. My wife was stalked and had to remove an anti-war bumper sticker for 6 months because of physical danger for opposing this war. My daughters were ostracized in school. The majority of the public did not turn against this war until late 2004 or early 2005. Before that it was lonely and hard to oppose this war. It took courage–courage that was sadly lacking in Bill Clinton if he truly was against it “from the beginning.”
This is Bill Clinton’s pattern. He “opposed” the Vietnam War as a college student. But did he resist the draft and risk jail or exile as did so many? No, he used political connections (much like George W. Bush did!) to be passed over and then waited until he was safe at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship before speaking out against the war. He did this, he told us back in the ’90s, in order to preserve his future political viability. So, his convictions have never cost him anything. Real opponents of war–whether all wars or particular ones–risk something. Bill Clinton, instead, plays it safe. So, did Hillary vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq because she believed the case for war, or to strengthen Bush’s negotiating hand at the UN (as she claims)–or because she, like so many spineless Dems, believed the GOP when it said the war would be short and didn’t want to be seen as “soft on defense?” Did Bill Clinton say to her “Honey, this invasion is the wrong way to promote regime change in Iraq or Middle East Democracy, but if you ever plan on being president you better vote for it?” Was Bill rewriting history yesterday in order to shore up Hillary’s support with peace folk and progressives among Democrats? If so, I hope it backfires.
I am so angry and disgusted I could spit. How many lives of U.S. soldiers could have been saved if someone of Bill Clinton’s stature had really “opposed the war from the beginning?” How many lives of Iraqis? Would we have been spared Abu Ghraib, the Gitmo gulag, and much else? True, Bill Clinton did not create these evils–Bush and cronies did. But Bill Clinton’s silence is a guilty silence–a silence much like that of the “good Germans” who let the Holocaust take place (if not–yet–on that scale). Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that for evil to triumph all that was required was for good people to do nothing.
I am not angry at those people who were truly taken in by the Bush phoney case and who later repented–like former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), for instance. As a friend of mine who moved from Republican to Democrat over these issues said, “It is truly hard to believe that your government could lie to you so thoroughly.” But Clinton did not say that he was taken in by Bush’s phoney case. He said he opposed the invasion of Iraq “from the beginning.” To have opposed but said nothing is an act of moral cowardice of tremendous proportions. If his wife is equally guilty, then she is nearly as unworthy of the office of president as the current occupant.
Let’s demand some basic honesty and moral courage in our leaders–or get new ones.
I’m not going to give a full philosophy of taxation here (that would be a long post), but some comments in previous posts (e.g., by roger and mom2) show that I need to say why I find government tax money for religious purposes so evil. I suspect part of our difference is that many consider this to be a Christian nation and therefore see no reason why the government should not show Christians some favoritism. To me, as an (ana)Baptist and Leveller, the very idea of a “Christian nation” is heresy if not blasphemy. The U.S. is not a modern analogue to ancient Israel. The Israel of the New Covenant is no nation or government, but the church universal. The church is in the world in the same way that Israel was in exile–scattered among the nations. In Matt. 28, the Great Commission, the Risen Christ tells the apostles to make disciples from among all nations and in Rev. we are told that the redeemed include those “from every tribe and tongue and nation.” But NO nation-state is saved–the kings of the earth attempt to make war on the Rider on the White Horse (Christ)–without exception.
Since the people of God are scattered among the nations, we seek the shalom (peace and wellbeing) of the cities or nations where God has sent us in exile, as Jeremiah told the Judean exiles to Babylon (Jer. 25). But we don’t expect the nations where we live to “become Christian” anymore than the Judean exiles expected Babylon to accept Torah and the Babylonian males to ask for circumcision! The task of secular government is not to spread the gospel–that’s the church’s job. Secular government is only to work for basic justice, fairness, and the common good for all citizens, equally. It should raise taxes only for promoting the common good.
So, taxes for roads, bridges, levees, etc. are just–whether we like paying them or not. We pay taxes to support the police even if we can also afford a private security force–we get no tax refund for this. So also, we pay taxes for the education of the young–even if we are childless or our children are sent to private schools or home schooled. This is NOT, some Christians to the contrary, double taxation. Therefore, no parochaid tax credits are owed. Further, any vouchers for religious schools are unjust because they rob people to pay for the promotion of religious views they do not hold. EVERYONE has to support the common schools (public schools). This is just. Society as a whole has a vested interest in educating the young. But the religious education of the young is up to parents and religious organizations–not the state. In the 19th C., the U.S. government decided to wipe out Native American culture (after having already confined Native Americans to reservations). So, the government paid Christian missionaries to open schools for Native Americans where English only was allowed, boys had to cut their hair, Western dress was required, and the curriculum included specific instruction in Christianity. This was wrong. It was not wrong for the missionaries to build such schools–just wrong for them to accept government funds. It was not wrong for the government to wish to educate Native Americans (although the desire to abolish their culture was evil), but it was wrong for them to pay missionaries for that purpose.
The same goes for prison ministries and the like. I am all in favor of such ministries and have been involved in them. But government funding for such is both illegal (a violation of the no-establishment clause of the 1st Amendment) and heretical. Any religious group or ministry which cannot survive by the donations of its members and supporters does not really have God’s blessing and deserves to whither and die. I write this as one who this year had to leave a job I loved with a Christian non-profit organization because they were not competent in fundraising and ran out of money for my position. Would federal tax money have helped me stay employed ? Probably, but I would not touch it. It would be wrong.
That’s my view and I make no apologies for it. I don’t think it is secular. My view of government is secular, not my desires for society. I think those who think churches need tax welfare have an incredible lack of faith in the ministries they supposedly support.
I haven’t finished excited comments on the BPFNA summer conference/peace camp, but I know that some people (especially Roger and D.R.) are waiting for me to return to my posts on religious liberty/liberty of conscience and answer some specific questions they asked. I am hugely disappointed that their’s is the only voices and that no one seems interested in my posts on peace camp, etc., so maybe I’ll shut this blog down soon–but not before keeping my word.
Roger challenged Americans United’s support for the ruling that struck down federal funding for InnerChange Faith Initiative, a program of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship that helped rehabilitate prisoners in Iowa through evangelical conversion. I agree with this ruling. InnerChange and programs like it do good work. No one, me included, thinks such programs should be ruled out. Of course churches should be involved in prison ministries. The question is whether the government should be funding them and here my answer is the same as with all such federal funding of “faith based initiatives.” No. These are clear violations of the no-establishment clause. It is NOT the business of government to fund evangelistic efforts or to advance or harm any religion in any way. The millions that Prison Fellowship has to repay the government should serve as a warning to other groups. Yes, by all means, minister to prisoners–but be prepared to do so out of your own funds, donated by your believers who support the ministry. Tax money should have nothing to do with it–just as I don’t want my tax money to support a Mormon school or a Jehovah’s Witness program for alcoholics, etc. Also, no prison ministry can give prisoners extra privileges for attending any faith-based rehabilitation program–we do not bribe folks to come to Jesus.
The case that D. R. brought up, of a high school valedictorian having her microphone cut off during her commencement address is harder. I am a huge champion of free speech and free exercise of religion. I don’t think I would have supported this and, at least on the surface, it looks as if AU took the wrong position. (There are no perfect organizations, not even the ones I support.) I would have to read the contents of the young woman’s speech to know for sure. However, although I am likely to support the legal right of a valedictorian to say whatever she wants at commencement, that doesn’t mean I, as a parent, would have been happy if she used her time to evangelize or, especially, to tear down others who do not share her faith. At a public high school commencement there may be people of many different faiths–and this pluralism will surely continue to increase in the future. The commencement’s purpose is to celebrate graduation. If the valedictorian wants to give thanks to Jesus (or Allah or Buddha, etc.) for helping her make her achievement, that is completely appropriate. If she wants to make a brief witness, something like saying, “Neither high school nor college nor the world of work is the central purpose in life. I believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the purpose for which we all were created and, if you wish to ask me more about that, I will gladly tell you.” This is something that will make some folks squirm, but I cannot fault any Christian who would want to use such an auspicious occasion for such a low-key, non-coercive, witness. Now, if her testimony dominated the event, that would be rude, and if she began to put down students who were Muslims, Jews, etc., then parents would rightly be very upset. Schools should have clear guidelines. Private baccalaureates held at churches, synagogues, etc. (as were common in my youth) are, of course, a different matter and can well be completely religious events. The young woman in question’s speech may have been completely legal (and probably was, though I can’t tell for sure without seeing the speech) and still unwise: Think, Christians. If we evangelize in such a way that we get the reputation for rudeness (like people trying to witness in busy checkout lines at supermarkets) or bigotry and intolerance, we drive people AWAY from Christ. How smart is that?
This brings me to the recent case in New Jersey where a girl on a basketball team was intimidated by her coach for not wanting to pray before games and the good “Christian” principal and neighbors tried to make the family move! This is harrassment, pure and simple, and these folks should prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. The proper Christian thing to do would be to rush to these folks aid against the false Christians who would use their positions of power to try to coerce faith–or at least hypocritical conformity.
I’ll end here and take comments and questions. I commend the following defenders of liberty of conscience linked to this blog: Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (formerly called the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs)–the BJC is supported by many Baptist bodies for the sole purpose of defending both the free exercise and no-establishment clauses of the 1st Amendment. The represent the traditional (non-fundamentalist) Baptist view. Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), while sometimes overzealous on the no-establishment clause and not as strong on free exercise, is an excellent grassroots organization, as is Americans for Religious Liberty–the latter of which has ties to Seventh Day Adventists. Saturday Sabbath keepers have strong reasons to know that “Christian” majorities can discriminate through laws which privilege Sunday, etc. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a secular organization, now, but was founded by religious pacifists during WWI to defend the rights of conscientious objectors to war. Soon, it took as its mandate the defense of all rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. The ACLU is far from perfect, but they have been a very important voice over the years–supplying most of the lawyers, for instance, during the Civil Rights movement that dared to take on the segregation laws or to defend civil rights protesters. As the Bushies try to return us to the age of McCarthy in the name of “fighting terrorism,” I am very proud to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU which is taking the lead in challenging these repressive moves.