Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Is “Evangelical” Still a Useful Term?

David Swartz claims that one reason the “Evangelical Left” has failed as a popular movement (unlike the Evangelical Right which dominates an entire U.S. political party) is discomfort with the term “evangelical” itself.  Is this surprising? When I was a teen in the 1970s, it was fairly easy to call myself “evangelical” and to identify with the Evangelical Left as it was then: Jim Wallis, Joyce Hollyday & the Sojourners Community; Tony Campolo; Ron Sider & Evangelicals for Social Action; Koinonia Partners in Americus, GA, founded in 1942 by Clarence & Florence Jordan & Martin & Mable England as an interracial Christian community–in the midst of segregation and racism; Jubilee Partners and The Other Side magazine (1965-2005); Virginia Ramey Mollenkott; Nancey Hardesty; Letha Dawson Scanzoni–Biblical feminism and the Evangelical Woman’s Conference (now the Evangelical and Ecumenical Woman’s Conference); the radical Black evangelism of Tom Skinner, John Perkins (and Voice of Calvary Ministries), and William E. Pannell–these and other people and organizations were the Left wing of American Evangelicalism, but clearly recognized as evangelical by their more moderate and even conservative sisters and brothers. (Scanzoni and Mollenkott, Rev. Troy Perry, & a few brave souls at The Other Side even dared–and it was VERY daring at the time–to call into questian the consensus blanket condemnation of “homosexuality.” At the time, I did not dare follow their conclusions, but I did think the conversation should be open and free from fear of knee-jerk cries of “HERESY!”)

After all, when Time magazine referred to 1976 as “Year of the Evangelical,” it focused on a Georgia governor and Sunday School teacher making an unlikely run for U.S. President–Jimmy Carter. With Carter and Billy Graham (then a much less hardline conservative figure) defining the Evangelical Center, those of us on the Evangelical Left had little difficulty with the term “Evangelical.” Even when Jerry Falwell founded The Moral Majority in 1978, he helped reinforce those of us in the Evangelical Left in identifying with the term “Evangelical” because Falwell & his ilk considered “Evangelical” to be a “mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy term,” and proudly proclaimed themselves “Fundamentalists,” intead. (The Moral Majority even published The Fundamentalist Journal which didn’t just lambast liberal Christian publications such as The Christian Century, and Christianity & Crisis–the latter now sadly defunct–or Evangelical Left publications like Sojourners, The Other Side, Radix, or Katallagete (of which, only Sojourners is still in circulation), but indicted such staid organs of the Evangelical establishment as His, Eternity, and even Christianity Today as heretical.) Thus, Falwell and other Religious Right figures helped the secular mainstream media distinguish between “Evangelicals” and “Fundamentalists.”

What changed?  The fierce doctrinal debate over whether Scriptural authority should be understood by the term “inerrancy,” a debate which began first among Missouri Synod Lutherans (leading to a schism) and then moved into para-church Evangelicalism before dominating the Southern Baptist Convention (c. 1979–c.1990–and resulting in schism and fragmentation) was one factor.  As some factions defined “inerrancy” every more strictly or insisted that one who rejected this term was no longer “evangelical,” many of us in the Evangelical Left became weary of that fight. (I wanted to spend less time debating the nature of biblical authority and more time learning to interpret Scripture carefully and to demonstrate loyalty to biblical authority by the way it shaped lives and communities of faithful disciples. )

But the success of the Religious Right as a political movement was another major factor:  As the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and others gained more and more worldly political power, they gave up the term “Fundamentalist,” and embraced “Evangelical.” But the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons (and, later, the Mohlers, Rick Warrens, etc.) didn’t just say, “Yes, we are also part of the Evangelical heritage–this terms includes us.” No, they laid claim to SOLE OWNERSHIP of the label and denied that those of us in the Evangelical Left were “true Evangelicals.”  They even began to deny that Jimmy Carter was evangelical! And the media followed suit with this. So, by the early 1990s, most people in America thought that “Evangelical” automatically meant all of the following: Conservative Republican who supports: teacher-led prayers and Bible readings in the public schools; the use of federal tax money to support private Christian schools; bannings or restrictions of pornography–and this could be defined to even include great works of art like the Venus de Milo sculpture (During the 1st term of the presidency of George W. Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft (R-MO), a member of the Religious Right, draped a cloth over the statue of Justice to hide the statue’s naked breast!); banning the teaching of biological evolution; uncritical support for a huge military budget and nationalist wars.  It also meant one opposed: The Equal Rights Amendment; all or nearly all abortions (the one part of the Religious Right’s agenda which did have some legitimacy even though I disagreed with all their conclusions–the Left’s refusal to see any moral dimensions at all to abortion was sheer blindness); opposed women’s leadership roles in churches as well as society; wanted restrictions on the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual & transgendered persons and promoted fear and hatred of them in the churches. Opposed government aid to the poor.  Opposed environmental stewardship–even when re-christened “Creation Care.” Demanded uncritical support for Latin American dictators who were “pro-American” and gave uncritical support for the apartheid government of South Africa for the same reason (and was surprised that this was called “racist.”) By the ’90s, the agenda included uncritical support for the government of Israel and opposition to ALL efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. (Jimmy Carter’s Middle East peacemaking, once heralded with pride by American evangelicals were now considered both heretical and treasonous.) By the Bush years, to be “Evangelical” in America meant to endorse a unilateral authority to declare war and invade anyone designated as even a possible future enemy and to approve torture.

I LIKE the term “evangelical.” It literally means “gospel centered” & I, like most Christians, want to be “gospel centered.” Historically, the term “Evangelical” referred to the Reformers of the 16th C. and, in much of Europe and Latin America today, “Evangelical” is simply a synonym for “Protestant.” Well, I am definitely a Protestant. Another use distinguishes “Evangelical” from “Reformed,” so that “Evangelical” means “Lutheran” rather than “Calvinist.” Well, I am neither of those, so I don’t have any investment in this definition of “Evangelical.”  In the 18th C., the “Evangelical Revival” in the United Kingdom and North America was led by George Whitfield and the brothers Wesley. Well, I was raised United Methodist and retain enough Wesleyan influence to identify with that meaning of “Evangelical.” And since the days of Charles Finney, “Evangelical” has also meant “revivalist,” and I was “born again” at a revival, so, despite my criticisms of the shortcomings of the revivalist tradition, I am “evangelical” in that sense, too.  I am NOT “evangelical” in the sense the word aquired after the Furndamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s and definitely not in the sense of the Religious Right. And my theology, while having many influences from the Evangelical tradition as described above, has other influences too: from the Anabaptist tradition and the Anabaptist strand of the Baptist faith, from the more Christocentric strands of Protestant liberalism, from some forms of Neorthodoxy and the post-WWII “Biblical Theology” movement, from Liberation theologies and theologies of Hope, etc.  If one has to avoid all such influences to be genuinely “Evangelical, then I am NOT Evangelical.  If one must be conservative politically, then I, a Green-leaning democratic socialist and registered Democrat, fail the test.

It gets tiring to have to respond to the question, “Are you an Evangelical?” with “It depends on your definition” and then sketch the history above.  Is it any wonder that many of the Evangelical Left  began to be ambivalent about identifying with the term “Evangelical?”

July 15, 2012 Posted by | testimony, theology, tradition | 3 Comments

After 10 Years: On Trying to Follow Jesus in Post-9/11 America

Since I (also) work nights, I remember that I was asleep when the first plane struck the tower on that awful day. Kate, my wife, called and told me to turn on the TV–any channel. I did. By the time I’d washed my face and could absorb the horror, we could see the 2nd plane crash into tower 2 and we knew that this was no horrible accident, but a terrorist attack using planes as weapons. Before much longer, a 3rd plane had crashed into the Pentagon and 4th crashed into a field in PA–thanks to brave passangers whose actions probably prevented that plane from crashing into the White House or Congress.  Like almost everyone else in the nation (indeed, much of the world), I was numb with shock for much of the day. Then, I drove downtown to the Red Cross and stood in line for hours to give blood.

I was grieving the victims and, like anyone else, afraid of what more attacks could mean. But I was MORE afraid of the reaction of my nation. From the beginning, I knew it would be very, very, bad.  I knew that, without wise leadership (which we lacked entirely), the country’s response would not be for justice, much less forgiveness, repentance for our part in creating such hatred, or work for reconciliation, but a thirst for REVENGE that would blind us to idiocy and immorality of our own actions.  The U.S. was traumatized on 9/11, and I am not sure we have recovered much from that trauma in the following decade. We continue to act in blind rage. We refuse to ask seriously “Why do they hate us?” and continue to give ourselves the cheap and easy non-answer of “they hate our freedoms,” even while we barter away that freedom for “homeland security” that does little to make us secure.  We have loudly retold ourselves the myths of our national innocence (even sinlessness) and refused to examine our foreign policies to see where we are sowing the seeds of hatred and fear that is reaped in terrorist attacks.  People from over 50 nations perished in the Twin Towers on 9/11, but we in the U.S. act as if we were the only victims.  And we are far too willing to victimize others in return.

The reactions of people varied, of course: Many lost faith in God.  Equating all religion with terrorist fanaticism, Hitchens, Dawkins, and others led a wave of “new atheism.” Others simply lost their faith in nonviolence and peacemaking.  I had a different response: My faith in God and in gospel nonviolence were reaffirmed and strengthened, but I lost faith in America and in most of the American churches.  Now, as an Anabaptist-influenced Christian, I didn’t have “faith in America” in the sense of many Constantinian Christians who believe in such foolishness as “Christian nations,” and who treat patriotism as part of Christian faith. I think all that is anathema to the gospel and have for decades.  And I knew too much history to think that my nation was incapable of great evil. But 9/11’s aftermath revealed to me that I did have a lingering liberal residue of faith that my nation, ON SOME LEVEL, really believed in its stated values of democracy, freedom, “liberty and justice for all,” and peace and human rights–however imperfectly it lived up to those ideals.  Since 9/11, I have become more cynical about my government and about the moral sensibility of the vast majority of the American people. I now see the U.S. as primarily a force for injustice and violence in the world and not a force for justice or peace.  In 2003-2005, I even gave a serious effort to emigrating to Canada and seeking Canadian citizenship.  (I would have been open to opportunities to relocate to the UK, Australia, or New Zealand, either–despite the fact that the UK and Australia had become “junior partners” in the “war on terror,” because I saw the resistance of citizens being more widespread there than here.)

But my biggest disillusionment was with mainstream U.S. churches–whether Catholic or Protestant, evangelical or liberal or centrist.  I saw major theologians and  pastors get swept up in the urge for revenge.  I saw prominent Christian voices demonize all Muslims–and criticize their hero, Pres. George W. Bush, for calling Islam a “religion of peace.” (Around the world, people saw most that Bush’s actions belied his words that he was not engaged in a “war on Islam,” but at home, Christians, especially Bush’s base of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants, were angry that he did not join them in demonizing Islam and VERBALLY equating Islam and terrorism.) This wasn’t universal, I know: Both the late John Paul II and the current Pope Benedict XVI condemned the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq–but most U.S. Catholics completely ignored this (if they were even aware of it) and some even dismissed John Paul II’s opposition to senility.  President Bush’s denomination, the United Methodist Church, opposed the invasion of Iraq (and raised warnings about the invasion of Afghanistan), but when Bush ignored the UMC Bishops, they did nothing in response and most UMC laity assumed their leaders were completely behind the “war on terror.” Evangelical groups were even more militant and the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm even started printing “military Bibles!” My description and comments on that idolatry can be found here and here.

To be sure, some were more faithful in resisting this militaristic distortion of Christianity and even renewed and deepened their commitment to gospel peacemaking. The “historic peace churches,” Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren, have been steadfast in their peace witness and have renewed efforts to share that witness.  Methodist pacifist theologian, Stanley Hauerwas spoke out more on the gospel commitment to nonviolence. I joined the staff of Every Church a Peace Church and worked with others to try to get congregations, parishes, synods, denominations, to declare themselves peace churches and take concrete steps to make that a reality.  When I was introduced to theological blogging in 2004, I created a “Christian Peace Bloggers” ring that worked to publicize the gospel of peace in diverse settings.  Denominational Peace Fellowships experienced growth in numbers, dedication, and creative programs with most of them adopting or strengthening already existing programs to activate the message of gospel nonviolence at the level of the local congregation/parish.  Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace with Justice was formed and is working to reclaim the radical gospel nonviolence that was at the heart of the Pentecostal movement in its earliest days.  Christian Peacemaker Teams continued their work of nonviolent interference with war in Iraq at the risk of their lives (a delegation was captured by insurgents and one member lost his life) and, along with others, stepped up work for a just peace in Palestine-Israel, which remains a major obstacle to overccoming terrorism.  Princeton theologian George Hunsinger organized the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT) in response to the revelation of the horrors of Abu- Ghraib and of Guantanemo Bay. As part of that NRCAT coalition, evangelical Christian ethicist, David Gushee, while not embracing pacifism (yet, I have hopes) gave up defending Just War Theory and put his full efforts into work for peace, including founding Evangelicals for Human Rights, and the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.  Other efforts abound. But, for the most part, these voices are drowned out in the U.S. by the voices of “militaristic Christians” who do not want to take up their crosses and follow the Lamb of God and Prince of Peace, but take up their guns and march into battle behind a bloodthirsty false god using Jesus’ name in vain.

The great Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the first Christians in Germany to realize Hitler’s threat, not just to world peace, but to the gospel, and one of the earliest resistance leaders, wrote an essay, “After Ten Years,” in which he asked whether or not the resisters were still
“of any use” to the cause of Christ.  Ten years after 9/11 and the U.S. response of total violence, it is worth asking if we U.S. Christians remain “of any use” to the cause of Christ or to the cause of peace.  Are we engaged in interfaith dialogue with Muslims and working for better interfaith understanding–not out of a commitment to liberal “tolerance,” but because without such we are bearing false witness against our Muslim neighbors?  We need to ask it of ourselves individually, of our local congregations/parishes, of our denominational and ecumenical leaders, of our theologians .

As for my local house of worship, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, I doubt that I could have survived this decade with my sanity intact, without it.  Long before 9/11, we were already a congregation with a long history of working for peace and justice. After 9/11, even before the invasion of Afghanistan, we began lighting a peace candle during each worship service. By 2003, we had declared ourselves a “peace church” and joined the network of congregations in Every Church a Peace Church and deepened our connections to the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and to the interfaith Fellowship of Reconciliation.  It is quite a contrast with others where I know people are not even free to PRAY for peace!

Tomorrow, on the 10th anniversary of that day of terror, when many congregations are stoking more fears of Muslims, or promoting more militarism in the name of the Prince of Peace(!), one of our youth, Jesse Weber-Owens, will be baptized at Deem Lake. He is dying to the violence of the world system and rising to follow the unarmed Lamb who conquers with defenseless love! He will be joining the army that sheds no blood, as Tertullian called the church of God.

My congregation is far from perfect and our following of Jesus is full of stumbling. But I rejoice in God’s gifting of it to this section of downtown Louisville. It grounds my own resistance to greed, consumerism, violence, war, and empire.  May such communities of grace and resistance abound, enabling a global dance of resurrection in the Dragon’s jaws.

September 10, 2011 Posted by | testimony | 1 Comment

Further Reflections on John N. Jonsson (1925-2011)

 I’ve been contemplating further memories of my teacher, John Jonsson.  We who studied with him in the U.S., at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or at Baylor University, were truly graced to have studied with him–and most of us didn’t realize it.  For one thing, he was a true polyglot.  His parents were missionaries to the Zulu, one from Sweden and one from Norway, so had three (3) “milk languages” Swedish, Norwegian, and Zulu.  He quickly added English and Sotha to languages in which he had conversational fluency. By the time I met him, he also had added reading competence in biblical Hebrew, New Testament Greek, and modern German and French. He was working to add Spanish so that he could read Latin American liberation theologians in the original.  South Africa itself is such a polyglot nation that I don’t think Jonsson ever quite got used to the fact that most Americans only speak English (and all the British, Canadian, South African, New Zealand, and Australian readers of this blog–if there are any now that blogging has become passé–are adding, “and you don’t speak English very well, now do you?”).  Jonsson had a profound desire to connect to people–and absolutely none of the American arrogance (that the British used to have during their imperialist days) that simply assumes that everyone else will learn OUR language if they want to communicate! I remember one student (from Alabama, no less!) who had the audacity to ask Jonsson to speak more slowly because he had a hard time understanding his accent! Jonsson simply smiled and said, “Please forgive me, English is only my 4th language and though I’ve been speaking it since I was in primary school, I may not be fluent, yet!”

Jonsson was born in Pietersburg, in the Natal Province, of South Africa.  At 18, he was baptized at Central Baptist Church, Durban, S.A.  With a B.Sc. from the University of Natal, he worked for a time as an electrical engineer for South African Railways, but he then felt God’s call into the ministry.  He traveled to London and initially studied for the ministry at Spurgeon’s College and earned a B.D. at the University of London.  A missiological theologian, he became utterly fascinated by the multiplicity of world religions and eventually earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative religions from the University of Natal.  After an associate pastorate in Johannesburg, and pastorates in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, Jonsson was tapped as Principal of the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa (1966-1971).  He was Lecturer in History of Religions at the University of Witwatersrand (1971-1975) and then at the University of Natal (1976-1981).  But Jonsson was no ivory tower academic.  He was deeply and courageously involved in the struggle against apartheid, but always nonviolently.  His strong preaching on racial justice led to confrontations first with church authorities, and then with the South African government. He had been involved in forming a non-racial college in S.A.

On a lecture tour to North America in 1980, Jonsson suddenly found himself exiled from his homeland–the South African government had suspended his passport and declared him persona non grata.   God works in mysterious ways and this is how we students in the U.S. were graced with Jonsson as a teacher. In 1982, Jonsson was appointed W. O. Carver Professor of Missiology and World Religions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, staying until the fundamentalist takeover of that once-fine school in 1991.

I had only intended to take the required one class in world religions, but Jonsson was such a mesmerizing teacher that I ended up taking 5 classes with him during my M.Div. studies: “Survey of World Religions,” “Interfaith Dialogue in Global Contexts,” “Methods and Models in Missiology,” “History of Christian Missions,” “Survey of Liberation Theologies.”  I remember kidding Jonsson, however, that he really only taught one subject–JUSTICE.  Jonsson’s passion for biblical justice, for GOD’S justice as expressed in the Exodus, the Jubilee, the prophets, in Jesus. Justice–not as an abstract penal code but as God’s MERCIFUL intervention in the world to restore right relationships among the wandering children of humanity–was the heart and soul of Jonsson’s faith.  It was his passion and his calling–and he saw it as central to the very raison d’etré of the Church as the New/Renewed People of God. It radiated from him and spilled over into his students.  I was already captivated by the Anabaptist and Liberation traditions before meeting Jonsson.  My parents had been bit players in the Civil Rights movement and I had already been on one of two trips to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace before meeting Jonsson. So, I can’t say that Jonsson’s influence was all-determining for my involvement in work for peace and justice.  I was even interested in the struggle in South Africa before meeting Jonsson, but it was probably his personal influence (along with my friendships with Henry Mugabe of Zimbabwe [whose wife, Hermina, is from South Africa] and Moses Tsambo of South Africa) that was the catalyst for my decision to become involved in the U.S. strand of the global movement against apartheid. In 1989, I gathered 15 other students from Southern Seminary and we went to Washington, D.C. to protest the U.S. government’s continued support (and refusal to sanction) the all-white government of South Africa. (Special mention needs to be made of the efforts of one of those students, Ashlee Wiest-Laird, to find us free lodging with a D.C. church!) Two of us were arrested for civil disobedience in front of the White House.  It changed all of us in numerous ways. (Rev. Wiest-Laird later traveled to post-apartheid South Africa to witness the inauguration of her first African president, Nelson Mandela, elected in the first free and fair elections in which all races and ethnic groups had the franchise.)

But one should never get the idea that Jonsson’s passion for social justice made him sober-sided. Far from it. He had infectious laughter and could be downright silly. He definitely knew the biblical secret of finding joy and laughter “though having considered all the facts” in the midst of personal and global pain.  For instance, Jonsson liked to wear outrageously multi-colored socks and sandals with his beige suits–and prominently display this when preaching on Isaiah 52:7/Rom. 10:15, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News!” I can never read those verses without thinking of Jonsson and his silly, multicolored socks!

He came to love the United States–though he knew all our faults.  I think he saw echoes of the beauty and promise of South Africa, but also the history of injustice and oppression and ugliness, in the U.S.  He loved both lands–with open eyes.  He became a naturalized citizen of the U.S.–I remember how joyously happy he was to vote in his first U.S. presidential election in 1988–despite being very underwhelmed by the choice of either the sterile technocrat in Dukakis or the continuation of the horrid policies of Reagan in the first George Bush.  But he retained his dual citizenship in South Africa and retired there–in a free South Africa that still had numerous problems (a massive wealth gap and extreme poverty, AIDS, rising violent crime and gangs, huge threats to its fragile and beautiful ecology).  Jonsson was a patriot–but not a blind one.  He was also a citizen of the world–and first and foremost a citizen of God’s In-Breaking Rule.

Deeply biblical in his faith, Jonsson had an absolute distaste for fundamentalism, “biblicist” but falsely biblical.  When SBTS was finally taken over by fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist holy war of the 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson became Professor of World Religions at Baylor University (1991-2000). I kept in touch until his retirement back to Johannesburg when I lost track. I never knew he was ill until learning of his death last Friday from our mutual friend Henry Mugabe. (Dr. Mugabe was a Ph.D. student of Jonsson’s at SBTS and is now Principal of the Baptist Theological College, Gweru, Zimbabwe.)

Jonsson was an eclectic thinker, influenced by many different theological strands–interweaving them in his own creative fashion.  Among the major influences on Jonsson theologically were the Baptists H. Wheeler Robinson (1872-1945), Frederick Cawley (1884-1978), who was a former missionary to India and Principal of Spurgeon’s College during Jonsson’s time at Spurgeon’s,E.O. James (1888-1972) and William Owens Carver (1868-1954),  as well and the British-American Baptist philosopher theologian Eric Charles Rust(1910-1991); the Swedish Lutherans Gustaf Wingren (1910-2000), Geo Widengren (1907-1996) and Bishop Nathan Søderblom (1866-1931);  the German Lutherans Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945); the Church of Scotland missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin(1909-1998)  and the Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948). He was also a scholar on the life and thought of the Hindu Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), especially of the under-studied period of Gandhi’s work in South Africa (1893-1914), tracing the seldom noticed influence of Baptists and other Free Church ministers on Gandhi’s developing philosophy of nonviolence, and also the influence of the early Gandhian movement on the later struggles in South Africa against apartheid. (Jonsson was not very tech-savvy and it cost the world a major work on Gandhi. He spent 10 years collecting materials by hand for a major book on Gandhi’s South African period and finished the (typewritten) manuscript while on sabbatical in Germany in 1990. A thief stole his luggage, including the manuscript and the original materials on which it was based, and Jonsson had no back up copies. The loss to Gandhi scholarship is incalculable.)

The key to Jonsson’s theology is incarnation, God involving God’s Self in earthly and human affairs, especially in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  I remember Jonsson becoming impatient with a debate between 2 well-known American theologians over whether theology should be primarily “from above,” a theology of the Word, or “from below,” a theology of human experience meeting the divine Spirit.  He interrupted, “We do not need theologies primarily of the Word or of the Spirit. We need theologies of the Word Made Flesh and tabernacling among us!  God is not safe in heaven without us, nor do do theology based on general human experience. God is God meeting us humans in our concrete contexts–with all our sin and pain and oppression!”

He could invent strange neologisms to convey his thought, not all of which were helpful. Instead of sticking with the terms “contextualization,” and “incarnation,” to describe his approach to theology in general and to witness and interfaith dialogue in particular, Jonsson coined the cumbersome term, “retranspositionalization,” (what a mouthful!) to describe the way God takes us out of our comfort zones and puts us on alien ground as the context in which we must bear witness to the gospel–and hear what God is saying to us through our dialogue partners, including dialogue partners who are non-Christian.  He used this wonderful concept with the cumbersome term to forge a non-imperial missiology.  He rejected both the exclusivist missiologies that thundered abstract formulas of salvation at non-Christians but were closed to learning anything of God from them, and relativist approaches (e.g., John Hick, Paul Knitter) in which all religions are equally true and disclose equally valid ways to God and approaches to dialogue which rule out conversion from the beginning. (Any true dialogue–on ANY topic–must include the possibility that one party will be converted to the other’s perspective–or that both will be converted to viewpoints beyond where either began.) I do not think he was a doctrinaire universalist, but I know that he lived in hope that God’s love would finally win past all barriers, including human freedom to reject God, and save/liberate/transform/heal ALL Creation. (Jonsson thought that both exclusivists and universalists showed too little in the way of epistemic humility.)

He was a strong proponent of a mission work from the Global South (Africa, Asia, Central and South America) to post-Constantinian Europe and North America.  Even supposedly “born again” Christians in the imperial/establishment ecclesiologies of Europe and North America needed ongoing conversion that would be aided by the witness of sisters and brothers in the Two-Thirds world.

I shall miss him and I deeply regret that I will not be at the funeral tomorrow (or later today given the time differences between Louisville and Johannesburg) where people from all over will comfort one another and pay tribute to this gentle and much beloved saint of God.  Thanks be to God for the life and witness of John Norman Jonsson. Soli Deo Gloria.

June 2, 2011 Posted by | Baptists, heroes, human rights, obituary, testimony | 3 Comments

I Dream of a Progressive U.S. South: Social Justice in Dixieland

I have many dreams and hopes:  for my family (including my wonderful daughters), for the global Church, for the health of my nation and the world.  I’m a dreamer and my first decade of life (1962-1972) was an era that both nurtured such dreams and showed me the price that achieving them would cost–and that setbacks and failures are inevitable.  Among my dreams that often seems delusional to others is a dream of a progressive U.S. South.  How long will the poison that produced the Old Confederacy still produce its deadly fruit in the Southern U.S? (Geography for those readers not from these shores:  On a map of the U.S.A., the “South” or “Old South” encompasses Virginia, West Virginia [which separated from Virginia because it refused to secede from the Union during the Civil War], North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas.)

Even liberal friends tell me this is delusional? Hasn’t the South always been a bastion of conservatism, even regression? It gave fought to keep slavery when the rest of the country moved on. It committed treason and rebelled in a bloody Civil War mostly for the right to continue keeping slaves and to expand that right Westward.  After Reconstruction, it produced an apartheid system known as “Jim Crow segregation” in which African-Americans were wage slaves and subjected to the most profound humiliations–and lynched by the hundreds every year. It pretended to “elevate” (white) women by placing them on pedestals–while depriving them of property rights, often beating them with impunity behind closed doors in marriage, “educating” them mostly for domestic life, and treating their brains as nonexistant.  The South remains the most militarized, least educated (despite many fine universities), and one of the poorest sections of the nation.  It is hostile to organized labor and, thus, wages are low and workers exploited.  How can I dream of a progressive South, of a Dixieland in which social justice flourishes?

Well, for one thing, I have seen waves of reform sweep the South even in my lifetime–and know of other such waves in history.  When I was born, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for Black Freedom and Equality against Jim Crow segregation, had already been underway for a decade. The decade that followed saw its greatest successes, some setbacks, and the end of legal apartheid in this country.  When I was born, there were still many “whites only” signs across Dixie. Before my 10th birthday, they were all gone.  The South fought the changes–but not all of it.  Many of the whites involved in the Movement were Southerners–including my parents.  The struggle to end the Vietnam War had many champions in the South–the region of the country with more military academies than any other and in which military service is practically worshipped.  The women’s rights movement had numerous Southern chapters.  The environmental movement, which flourished in the 1970s, had some of its strongest champions in the South–including Kentucky’s treasure, Wendell Berry. (Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring, sparked the environmental movement, was from Pennsylvania and lived in Maryland, states bordering the South which are often populated by ex-Southerners, including Carson’s parents, who leave Dixie for economic reasons.)

The South gave us most of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement–not just the major African American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Cotton,  Pauli Murray, and many others, but some of the strongest white leaders, too, including Myles Horton of Tennessee, Will D. Campbell of Mississippi and Tennessee, Clarence Jordan of Georgia, Ann and Carl Braden of Kentucky, Virginia Durr of Alabama, Glenn Smiley of Texas, and Bob Zellner of Alabama.

Even in electoral politics, the South’s record has not been one of unmitigated conservatism and injustice.  Consider the following few examples:

  • Ralph Yarborough (1903-1996) was a U.S. Senator from Texas (1957-1971) who was a leader in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.  He had run as an unabashed liberal for TX governor for years (1952-1956), coming close, but never quite winning that office, but won the U.S. Senate in a special election in 1957. He immediately refused to sign the “Southern Manifesto” which pledged support for segregation. In fact, Yarborough was one of the few Southerners in Congress to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  A veteran himself, he worked to strengthen and expand the G. I. Bill of Rights (one of the major pieces of legislation that expanded university education in this country beyond the monied elites).  (Incidentally, Yarborough’s opponent in 1964 was George H. W. Bush, who attacked Yarborough for his Civil Rights votes and used racebaiting ads throughout the campaign. Yarborough was a true liberal, but he was also a tough politician and replied by painting Bush as a rich Yankee carpetbagger from the Northeast who was trying to buy a Senate seat. He also accused Bush (correctly) of being to the right of that year’s Republican presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and (incorrectly) of cheering the assassination of President Kennedy! (Yarborough had been in the Dallas motorcade in 1963 and was saved from the assassination which killed Kennedy by Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood. Yarborough announced Kennedy’s death at the hospital to reporters in tears with the words, “Excalibur has sank beneath the waves.”) Yarborough was a strong champion of LBJ’s “Great Society” domestic agenda, including Medicare, Medicaid, and the many programs of the War on Poverty, but he was an early critic of the Vietnam War. In 1968, Yarborough campaigned for Bobby Kennedy until his assassination, then Eugene McCarthey until his defeat in Chicago. When Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, Yarborough urged him to come out quickly for ending the war or risk losing the youth vote, and, thus, the election, to Richard Nixon. Humphrey waited far too long. In 1969, Yarborough became Senate Chair of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare.  Yarborough lost the 1970 Democratic primary to Rep. Lloyd Bentsen (the last Democratic senator from TX) because he was looking ahead to the general election rematch with George H. W. Bush. (Bentsen beat Bush.) Bentsen, a moderate on social issues, attacked Yarborough for his opposition to the Vietnam War and for not “earmarking” or steering enough patronage projects to TX, saying “it would be nice if Sen. Yarborough voted for his state once in awhile.” Yarborough attempted to make a comeback in 1972, running for TX’s other senate seat against John Tower (R-TX), but lost in the primary. He never again sought public office, but had been a key progressive voice from the South during a crucial time.
  • Albert A. “Al” Gore, Sr.(1907-1998) was a Democratic U.S. Representative (1945-1953) and U.S. Senator (1953-1971) from Tennessee.  Gore, Sr. began his political life in the New Deal tradition–progressive on issues of economic justice and reformer against establishment “machine” politics and for reform in keeping corruption and outside influence out of politics. He began as a moderate on issues of racial justice.  He refused to sign the “Southern Manifesto” upholding segregation (despite much arm-twisting by arch-segregationist, Dixiecrat, and, later, Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina), but he did not vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964–although he did vote for “cloture,” breaking the months-long filibuster and allowing the bill to be voted through on the senate floor.  (For readers unfamiliar with the U.S. Senate, the “filibuster,” is a procedural move in the rules of the senate whereby a minority, or even a single member, can hold up legislation by refusing to yield the floor. It is probably unconstitutional, since the Constitution clearly indicates that legislation in both houses of Congress is to be decided by simple majorities, but the courts have been reluctant to intrude in the internal rules of the houses of Congress. In 1964, it took fully 2/3 of the Senate to break a filibuster and allow legislation to be voted on. The requirement was lowered in the ’70s to 60 votes, but in some ways the process is more susceptible to obstruction than ever since one no longer needs to be physically on the floor speaking, but just vote against cloture. In this way, in recent years, the Republican minority has blocked numerous pieces of legislation and uncounted presidential appointments by requiring that nearly every vote on every matter require a supermajority of 60! The modified filibuster is so overused today that the U.S. Senate is currently dysfunctional as a legislative body!) Gore, perhaps influenced by his children, did vote for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was also a loud voice against the Vietnam War.  This made him vulnerable to the Nixon “Southern strategy” in which Republicans grew in the South by winning over whites who left the Democratic Party after LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Gore, Sr. lost in 1970 to Republican Bill Brock after Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew (later indicted for tax evasion!), traveled to TN and accused Gore of being the “Southern Regional Chair of the Eastern Liberal Establishment.”
  • Claude Pepper (1900-1989), born in Alabama, worked in a steel mill before graduating from the University of Alabama and Harvard Law School. He moved to South Florida, served in the state legislature and was elected to the U. S. Senate as a Democrat in 1936 and serving until 1951. He was a left-liberal and a champion of the elderly.  He was a New Dealer and a strong Southern ally of FDR. He pushed for Lend-Lease, which allowed the U.S. to ship arms to the UK to resist the Nazis.  He was a progressive on racial issues, an early supporter of universal healthcare. He was lukewarm in his support for Harry Truman in 1948, telling Democrats they should nominate the (then-independent) Dwight D. Eisenhower, instead. (History might have been very different if Eisenhower had entered politics as a Democrat!) Pepper’s downfall in the Senate was his promotion of friendship with the USSR, which included some naive statements about Stalin. Defeated in 1950, Pepper was elected to the U.S. House of Reps. in 1962 and survived several redistrictings, serving in the House from 1963 to 1989, one of the very few modern Senators to serve in the House AFTER a senate career. In the House, Pepper was a liberal champion of international relations, human rights, and of the elderly, pushing successfully for several laws strengthening Medicare and Social Security. (Republicans joked that, along with Speaker Tip O’Neill, Pepper was one of the few Democrats who absolutely drove Ronald Reagan crazy–particularly because he often lost to them!)
  • J. William Fulbright (1905-1995), born in Missouri was a Democratic U. S. Senator from Arkansas from 1945-1975.  He was the longest serving chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Fulbright was a graduate of the University of Arkansas (1925) and a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University (Pembroke College) graduating with degree in comparative politics in 1928. He earned his law degree from George Washington University and went to work in the anti-trust division of the Justice Department, an ardent New Dealer.  He served one term in the House of Representatives (1942-1944) where he promoted internationalism including sponsoring the legislation that would create the United Nations. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, Fulbright promoted a vigorous U. S. internationalism and worked for world peace. He created the Fulbright Fellowships run by the State Department to sponsor U.S. students studying around the world and international students studying in the United States, convinced that cultural and educational exchanges helped to promote international understanding and peace–and that U.S. isolationism during the 1920s and 1930s had been a major factor leading to World War II.  Fulbright was not initially progressive on race issues. He signed the Southern Manifesto opposing the Suprme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and opposed the Civil Rights bills of 1957, 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  But the events of the Civil Rights movement changed him, especially the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Jr. He went to King’s funeral and repented of his opposition to Civil Rights and came home to Arkansas and said so–even while most white Arkansans were cheering King’s death.  Fulbright helped expand and renew the Civil Rights Act during the Nixon Administration (even gathering enough votes to override a veto) and led the successful opposition to 2 Nixon nominees for the Suprme Court (Clement Haynsworth and Harold Carswell) who openly planned on reversing Brown v. Board of Education.  According to historian Arthur Schlesinger, Fulbright was Kennedy’s first choice to be Secretary of State, but JFK became convinced he was too controversial to be confirmed. He was an early and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and helped to defuse several global crises before they became wars. He opposed the influence of the John Birch Society in the U.S. military and, although he supported the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, he was one of the few American politicians to risk the ire of the pro-Israel lobby by denouncing the huge amounts of money Israel spent influencing American politics–and he was an early champion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
  • Ruben Askew (1928-), 37th Gov. of Florida (1971-1979) was part of the “New South” of the post-Civil Rights era–and my favorite governor of my home state when I was growing up.  Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, when his parents divorced, Askew moved with his mother to Pensacola, FL where he grew up, graduating from Pensacola High School in 1946.  Because his father had been an alcoholic, Askew was a lifelong teatotaler.  He went to Florida State University and FSU’s Law School  and became involved in both houses of the state legislature. He was an early Kennedy supporter from the South and a civil rights proponent.  When elected as Gov. of Florida in 1970 (defeating incumbent Gov. Claude Kirk (R-FL), he ran on a platform saying that “segregation was dead” and a “new South” must emerge which would light the world with equality.  As governor, he supported the controversial use of bussing to achieve the integration of the public schools. Askew appointed Joseph Woodrow Hatchett as the first African-American on the Florida Supreme Court, appointed Athalie Range as Secretary of Community Affairs, the first FL Black since Reconstruction and the first woman ever appointed to head a state agency  in FL. Askew also appointed Jesse McCrary, Jr. as FL Secretary of State in 1978, the first African-American cabinet officer in FL since Reconstruction.  Askew signed numerous laws strenthening FL’s public schools and environmental protections. (Indeed, FL’s public schools rose to 12th in the nation under Askew–and have been falling in quality since the mid’80s.) Although Askew supported the death penalty in theory (he signed FL’s new capital punishment law after Gregg v. Georgia allowed the death penalty to resume), he thought it’s use should be rare and commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment in his term. No one in FL would be executed until Askew’s successor in office, Bob Graham.  Askew was the first FL governor to serve 2 full terms until John Ellis (“JEB”) Bush.  He was thought to be a potential future president and ran unsuccessfully for president in 1984 and for U.S. Senate in 1988.

Other prominent Southern politicians since the 1960s who are at least partially in the progressive tradition include:  Dale Bumpers of Arkansas (Gov. 1971-1975; U.S. Senator, 1975-1999); Jimmy Carter of Georgia (Gov. 1971-1975; 39th Pres. of U.S., 1977-1981; winner of 2002 Nobel Peace Prize); Ann Richards of Texas (1933-2006; Gov., 1991-1995); Doug Wilder of Virginia (Gov. 1990-1995; first African-American governor of VA and first African-American governor of ANY state since Reconstruction; currently Mayor of Richmond); Bill Clinton of Arkansas (Gov., 1979-1981; 1983-1992; President of U.S., 1993-2001) whose “3rd way” centrism frustrated many progressives (including me), but which managed to advance many progressive causes in a very conservative cultural atmosphere (the “culture wars” of the 1990s)–and mostly without a majority in Congress; Al Gore, Jr. of Tennessee (b. 1945; U.S. Rep., 1977-1985; U.S. Senator, 1985-1993; Vice President of U.S., 1993-2000; won the 2000 presidential election but denied office by the bought and paid for Supreme Court of the U.S; co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2007); Terry Sanford of North Carolina (Gov., 1961-1965; U.S. Senator, 1986-1993); John Edwards of North Carolina (Yes, he is a personal scumbag, but his politics were in the Sanford tradition); John Yarmuth of Kentucky (former newspaper publisher of the weekly alternative newspaper, LEO: Louisville Eccentric Observer, U.S. Rep. from KY’s 3rd District, 2007-current; donates his entire congressional yearly salary to charity).  Others could be multiplied.

The South is also the home of many progressive social change organizations including: Highlander Education Center of Monteagle, TN (formerly, Highlander Folk School), founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton in the 1930s and playing pivotal roles in training labor unions and civil rights workers in nonviolent social change; The Institute for Southern Studies; The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy; The Southern Poverty Law Center (which bankrupted the Ku Klux Klan for a decade by successful lawsuits in the 1980s and ’90s); The Southern Center for Human Rights; The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC–the organization founded and led by Martin Luther King, Jr.) and many others.

Yes, the U.S. South is the center of labor repression, voter supression, a “business friendly” legal system that promotes ultra-low corporate taxes, weak (and weakly enforced) environmental laws, union-busting “right to work” laws, racism, sexism (including a continued war on women’s reproductive choices, not only abortion, but artificial birth control restrictions, too, in defiance of federal law); heterosexism and homophobia; militarism and uncritical nationalism (and nostalgic worship of a mythical version of the Old Confederacy); denial of religious liberty and promotion of de facto establishment of (certain types of) Christianity; and low taxes eroding public schools, public health, support for persons with disabilities, etc.  But that is not the whole story. In every part of the South there is resistance to these trends, resistance that predates the U.S. Civil War. It works hard to unite across racial, religious, and gender divisions in common struggle.

Because of this, because of the continued presence in the South of those who “seek a newer world,” I continue to dream of a Progressive South characterized by Social Justice.  I hope to live long enough to see this dream come true, but, if not, my children and grandchildren will. For them, the struggle continues.

May 28, 2011 Posted by | testimony | Leave a comment

10 Republicans I Admire

I’ve tried this before and have never seen any return favors–that is, not once has any Republican replied by listing any Democrats s/he admires.  Nonetheless, as an effort on my part to get past the vitriolic divisions in this nation, I, a self-declared democratic socialist from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and a pacifist and tree-hugging environmentalist to boot, will hereby list ten (10) Republicans whom I admire.  I will not make it easy on myself by listing Republican members of my extended family or friends, but will stick to G.O.P. leaders, past and present, and mostly ones having held elected office.  I will also give brief descriptions of what I admire about them and why.  I’d love to see more people like those in this list in today’s Republican Party. 

I invite any of my many conservative friends and critics (and friends who are critics) to respond with a list of Democrats they admire. I’ll make it easy: It doesn’t have to be 10.  A list of 2-3 would be a welcome indication that the critic doesn’t think that all Democrats are soulless or demons or damned for all time, etc.  In fact, I’ll make it easier still:  The responder can list any liberal or progressive or even centrist political figure in U.S. history of the current scene that they admire–even if they belonged to some other political party such as the Greens, Socialists, or were independents without a party affiliation.  The only restriction I’m setting is that the list a responder gives in return cannot be that of a conservative listing moderate, centrist, or liberal Republicans because I want to see some evidence that my conservative critics realize that virtues exist in people outside the Grand Old Party. 

Here goes:

  1. Abraham Lincoln.  This first one is easy since almost all historians list this first Republican president as the greatest president in U.S. history.  He had his faults, including being willing to continue slavery indefinitely if it would save the Union, but save it he did. He also began the ending of slavery and by the time the Civil War was over had come to see the abolition of slavery as a moral necessity.  I also admire the way Lincoln rose from abject poverty and, by a program of self-education and hard work (he only had about 2 years of formal education), passed the Illinois Bar, became a successful lawyer and politician and, as President, led our nation through it’s darkest days and paid for it with his life.  He did this while suffering many personal tragedies and struggling through what today would be called clinical depression and in his day was known as “melancholy.” His marriage was strained, not least because of his wife’s mental illness and the death of several children.  His Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address are amazing speeches that still inspire me in every re-reading.  Unlike Republicans today, Lincoln was very wary of the power of corporations and of the banking interests, too.
  2. Theodore Roosevelt.  “Teddy” certainly had his faults:  His policies toward Native Americans were only slightly less objectionable that Andrew Jackson of “Trail of Tears” infamy; he loved a good war; he was a notorious braggert and self-promoter; he advanced U.S. imperial interests in Central and South America. I don’t admire or approve of any of those things.  But Teddy was also our first environmental president. True, he wanted animal species saved so that he could continue to hunt them, but, at least, he worked to keep them from extinction!  He created the National Park system without which there would probably be no wilderness left in America.  Teddy, despite his militarism, was also the first American (and first American president) to win the Nobel Peace Prize because of his personal diplomacy in negotiating an end to the war betrween Russian and Japan.  Roosevelt also took on the monopolies, breaking up businesses that were “too big to fail” and creating real competition and a fair marketplace.  He was also the first U.S. president to propose a system of universal healthcare–and he did so in 1911, 99 years before a watered-down, very compromised, version was signed into law by Barack Obama.  Teddy’s proposal got nowhere in 1911–but neither did anyone, Republican, Democrat or other, have the ignorance to suggest that it was somehow unconstitutional or a government takeover.  Had we enacted universal healthcare in, say, 1912, we’d have been the first nation to do so (instead of the last industrial nation to attempt even a weak form of it), and we’d have had a healthier and more secure and more prosperous nation.  Regarding healthcare, TR was ahead of his time.
  3. Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-MT).  In 1914, Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress–6 years before women could even vote in most of the U.S.  A woman of peace, she was the only woman in Congress to vote against U.S. entry into BOTH World Wars! Her vote against WWI led her to lose her congressional seat, but after the war, her district decided that they liked her on other issues and that, maybe she’d been right about the horrors of “the war to end all wars” and elected her again.  After she cast her lone dissenting vote against the declaration of war against Japan in 1941, she once more lost her seat, this time for good.  I admire her because I am a pacifist, but I also admire her because she is that rarety in politics–a person of principle. She knew very well, both times, that her vote against war was likely to lead her to lose her seat in the next election–and she voted her conscience anyway.  Usually, politicians of every party put being reelected above all other concerns and silence their consciences with rationalizations. Rankin refused to play that game.  She was a Republican who stood up for what she believed no matter how unpopular it was in the short run, but without demonizing others.  We need hundreds more like her in both parties throughout public life.  Rankin became famous for saying, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”
  4. Jacob K. Javits (R-NY) was first a U.S. Representative and later a U.S. Senator from New York.  He was a liberal Republican who championed Civil Rights for all (since he had experienced discrimination as a Jew) and most of the Great Society anti-poverty programs.  He was an ally of NY Gov. (and later U.S. VP) Nelson Rockefeller and when AZ Sen. Barry Goldwater (R), one of the earliest leaders of the moder Conservative movement, opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Javits refused to support his nomination for the presidency.  By 1967, Javits joined those who believed America should get out of the Vietnam War.  However, as a lawyer who believed people were innocent until proven guilty, he stood by Pres. Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal until nearly the very end.  He later worked with Democratic President Jimmy Carter in preparing the groundwork for the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty.  I have little doubt that were Javits still alive, he’d be pushing for us to completely exit Iraq and Afghanistan and pushing for a comprehensive Middle East Peace Treaty that included a Palestinian state alongside Israel, basically within the pre-1967 borders that are the only legally recognized borders for the State of Israel. 
  5. Charles Evans Hughes (R-NY), Governor of New York, Republican nominee for President, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Hughes, a Baptist layperson (one of only 2 Baptists to ever serve on the Supreme Court), struck down some of FDR’s New Deal measures that he felt over-reached Constitutional limits, but he never claimed that any and all government interference in the marketplace was unconstitutional, nor that Social Security and similar programs were not covered by the commerce clause.  But I admire Hughes for his vigorous defense of civil rights, especially religious liberty and church-state separation. 
  6. Dwight David Eisenhower.  When he returned from World War II as a 5 star general and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, “Ike” was a registered Independent who had little partisan political views, though he was somewhat conservative in many areas. Since his Kansas family had come from the “River Brethren” sect which split from Mennonites, Ike’s entire military career is odd and I don’t quite understand it.  But he seems to have been a reluctant warrior and something of that early upbringing seems to have stayed with him long after he joined the Presbyterian Church the week after his inauguration as President (certainly more than the peace teachings of his Vice President, Richard Nixon, stayed with him!)  He agreed to run for president as a Republican because the Democrats had controlled the White House and Congress for so long that he believed the two-party system was in danger.  Also, initially, Eisenhower saw the threat of Communism in stronger terms than most Democrats–although the Cold War soon became a bi-partisan consensus.  As president of a time of Peace and Prosperity, Ike ended the Korean War and took the first steps toward thawing out the Cold War by agreeing to university student exchanges with the USSR.  He did not do enough for Civil Rights when that movement began during the last year of his first term of office, but he did do more than any Republican president since his time.  He gave us our interstate highway system, raised high school and college standards especially in the sciences and began the space race that put the U.S. onto a technical future.  A fiscal conservative and social moderate, Ike shied away from McCartheyism despite his opposition to Communism and he defended such New Deal programs as Social Security, though resisting efforts to further expand the New Deal.  (Since Ike predicted that any party that sought to abolish Social Security would vanish without a trace, he would be shocked that his own GOP tried to do that in 1995, in 2005, and is trying again this year!) Ike also began the People to People program of high school “student ambassadors” from the U.S. to countries around the world as a way to sow seeds of peace and mutual understanding–he wanted no third World War.  In his farewell address to the nation in 1961, 50 years ago, Ike warned of the dangers of a foreign policy controlled by the Military Industrial Complex–and was not heeded.
  7. Harold E. Stassen (R-MN).  From 1939-1943, this 25th Governor of Minnesota was the youngest governor in the state’s history.  He resigned to join the U. S. Navy as an officer in WWII.  I admire Stassen because he was the major force in the drafting of the United Nations Charter–so very different from today’s anti-UN and anti-international law Republicans.  Later, as a special envoy for peace in the Eisenhower administration, Stassen came so close to negotiating a treaty with the USSR  it alarmed the Cold War hawks in the administration (such as VP Richard Nixon who was trying to talk Ike into using nuclear weapons on China to end the Korean War) that the negotiatiosn were scuttled.  Later still, Stassen, who had been a major Republican candidate for President in 1952 (before dropping out of the race and supporting Eisenhower), sacrificed his political career in trying to get Ike to drop Nixon from the re-election ticket.  Because of that, Stassen was never again taken seriously as a presidential candidate though he ran repeatedly.  Briefly president of the University of Pennsylvania, Stassen also participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Peace and met his son (my teacher), Glen in the crowd when neither had known the other was coming to this hallmark Civil Rights rally.
  8. Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR) First Governor and later Senator from Oregon, Hatfield was a major voice for civil rights and for peacemaking. He became a strong voice in the Senate against the Vietnam War, even condemning it as a national sin at the National Prayer Breakfast in which Nixon sat, embarrassed, next to Billy Graham!
  9. Ralph Bunche, Undersecretary of the United Nations, he was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to stop a Middle East war.
  10. Gerald Ford (R-MI) was a U.S. Representative from Michigan became Minority Leader and dreamed of becoming Speaker of the House. He had no dreams of becoming president, but after Spiro Agnew was forced to resign for tax evasion, he became the 40th VP of the United States under Richard Nixon. When Nixon resigned during the Watergate crisis, Ford became the 38th President of the U.S. and he played a strong role in healing the nation from that crisis. Although at times I think his pardon of Nixon set a precedent for presidents thinking they are above the law (Reagan in Iran-Contra; Clinton in violating the War Powers Act by using the military in Kosovo for an extended period without Congressional approval; Bush II in so much after 9/11, especially torture; Obama in continuing too many of these Bush violations and then claiming a right to assassinate U. S. citizens in stopping terrorist attacks!), at other times I think that without Ford’s pardon the country would have been even more damaged.  Ford also finally ended the Vietnam War in 1975, signed the Helsinki Accords in 1974 that helped end he Cold War and was the last Republican president for whom Supreme Court nominations were not a proxy for Culture War games.  I also admire the way that Ford, after losing the 1976 presidential campaign to Carter, became good friends with Carter and later served on the board of the Carter Center, doing much good for world peace.

More could be added, but these ten choices are my attempt to change the tone of political debate in this country.  I am a democratic socialist and none of these moderate to liberal Republicans held anything close to my full political views–but all of them were people of integrity and character who did good things that I admire.  I would like to see more people like them in public life and I would hope that the GOP could still produce people like them.

I wait with baited breath for Republican readers to tell me of the Democrats they admire.

January 18, 2011 Posted by | biographies, testimony | 2 Comments

Under-Credited Theological & Spiritual Influences

We all have people who have been theological influences or influences on our spiritual lives whose names don’t show up much in our footnotes (if we are writers). They don’t get quoted much in our sermons.  We may acknowledge them, but strangers examining our work wouldn’t quickly detect their influence–either because their influence is subtle, because it came at an earlier stage, because it is overshadowed by the large presence of other influences, or even because we’ve mentioned disagreements in print or sermon and this has masked the areas of agreement.  For whatever reason, these “under-credited” influences can be unacknowledged, too–and that can be mistaken for ingratitude.  Lest I be guilty of ingratitude–of failing to be thankful to God for the gift of these influences–I want to acknowledge as many as possible today in one blog post.  The tributes are brief–maybe too brief–but the “thank-yous” are very large, I assure you.  There is no conscious ordering of the names that follow.

  • Lynsey Ray White & Jean Marie (neé Coddington) White.  My adopted father and my late mother nurtured my rebellious self in a Christian home–at least from my early teens onward.  My biological father was not Christian (his religion was alcohol and chasing other men’s wives!) and our church attendance prior to his divorce from my mother (when I was 11) was sporadic.  But after he left, my mother took us to a United Methodist congregation and she always modeled a life of prayer and faith and caring toward others.  My adopted father taught me that being a man didn’t mean hurting women (or anyone!) and that God wasn’t just for sissies.  Papa practiced “Christian hospitality”–sharing our home with others until they could afford to move out on their own (the only rent was contributing to the grocery bill of our large family!)–long before I knew it had a biblical name.  Both my parents stood up for racial justice in the South when that was neither easy nor typical of Southern white folk. Both stood up for the poor and marginalized and taught us to put others and the common good ahead of personal gain. I owe them more than I can say.
  • Rev. O. R. Rice.  My pastor during my late teens and earliest 20s (after I had returned to the church as a convert from agnosticism), he was pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville Beach.  A native of Eastern KY, his thick accent couldn’t hide his love of God.  He first saw in me a calling to the ministry–long before I did.  He  connected me to Southern Seminary (he was an alumnus) by bringing in some of its stellar faculty to preach our revivals–Frank Stagg, Dale Moody, Penrose St. Amant.  He also first connected me to Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Partners in South Georgia.  He practiced a grassroots ecumenism in an anti-ecumenical denomination, since one of his closest friends and fishing buddies was the local Methodist minister and he attended the Jacksonville and Florida Councils of Churches when many Southern Baptists boycotted them. He promoted choir and pulpit exchanges with African American churches when this was unpopular, too.  Even my FIERCELY Methodist mother (who always had a negative view of Baptists) liked O.R., despite her views about “swimming pools in church sanctuaries!” (This was how my mother referred to baptismal pools in Baptist churches.) O. R. gave me my first preaching opportunity (I presented some warmed over version of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship which was doubtless more sincere than deep), too.
  • Dr. Craig L. Blomberg, now Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, Denver, CO.  Craig was my undergraduate advisor, Greek and NT professor.  Here is one of those cases where someone might be forgiven for failing to see Blomberg’s influence.  A casual glance could reveal our differences more than our agreements:  Though holding a very nuanced definition, Craig uses the term “inerrancy” to describe the Bible’s authority, whereas I have always found the term misleading and unhelpful. Craig restricts this to the lost “original autographs” whereas I don’t.  He defends “historic premillenialism,” while I am basically an amillenialist, but think that the main point is an inaugurated (not overly “realized” or overly futuristic) eschatology. Craig believes the NT restricts the roles of women in ministry (though not as much as many evangelicals believe it does) whereas I believe in biblical egalitarianism.  But these differences mask our greater agreements: We both hold high views of biblical authority as the final norm for faith and practice in the church combined with an openess to all useful methods of scholarly study of the same. (Craig deepened my love for the Greek NT.) We both are horrified at the Scripture-twisting of Dispensationalism and its militarist-nationalist offshoot “Christian Zionism.” Craig’s actual marriage to Fran is one of the most egalitarian in practice, I’ve ever seen, and Fran has held missions-related church staff positions and is pursuing a doctorate in missiology.  And far more: Craig was one of two college professors who introduced me to Liberation theology and he has defended some forms from evangelical caracatures. A centrist in politics, he pushes evangelicals to care more for the poor, for justice, for healthcare, and for peacemaking than is typical of U.S. evangelicals from the ’80s onward.  Blomberg doesn’t just defend biblical authority–but clearly places himself under that authority.  I have adopted his classroom method of using at least one “conservative” or traditional text and one more “liberal” or boundary-pushing text and having students wrestle with them directly.  Too many evangelicals critique liberal theology or biblical scholarship at second-hand, repeating a list of talking points. Craig is clearly a conservative evangelical, but he reads and learns from the likes of Bultmann, Marxsen, Dibelius, Conzelmann, and their more recent counterparts without defensiveness–and without reading just to look for places to play “gotcha” games.  In fact, Craig models for his students a rigorous intellectual honesty that says whenever one is expositing the views of an opponent or adversary one must bend over backwards to make sure one is correctly expositing those views before rendering any critique.  He also shares with the best of my other teachers the admirable trait of always seeking to make disciples for Jesus Christ–and not of Craig Blomberg.  Our differences never disturbed him. I never felt that I was expected to become an echo of his views.
  • Dr. James (“Jim”) Gilman, now Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, who was my college philosophy professor (obviously not at Mary Baldwin since it is a historic women’s college!). Jim introduced me to Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky and he took a group of us to hear a speech by Gustavo Gutierrez–thus beginning my encounter with Latin American Liberation Theology. (Now that I think about it, I think he also took us to hear Fr. Daniel Berrigan, too!)  In a very conservative setting, Jim introduced students to Evangelicals for Social Action and to Sojourners and The Other Side (sadly, now defunct).  Jim came from the Conservative Baptist Association, but studied with Edward LeRoy Long at Drew and is now an Episcopalian–one of the evangelicals who traveled the Canterbury Trail.  I haven’t followed that route, but I appreciate it.  Along with Craig Blomberg, Gilman had me read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger during the time of the Ethiopian famine of the early ’80s.  That was one of the few books that literally changed my life. I’d always been against greed and hoarding wealth, but my eyes were opened to the sinful opulence of most U.S. Christians in the presence of the abject poverty and starvation of so many of God’s children globally.
  • Dr. David Kling, now Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Miami (FL), teaching courses in the history of Christianity and American religious history.  Kling was one of my history and church history professors as an undergrad, introducing me to the concepts of “civil religion,” the cultural captivity of churches (especially through Rufus Spain’s At Ease in Zion which showed that Southern Baptists seldom challenged the social mores of the South), H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (despite the many flaws Yoder and others later taught me to see in this book, it focused for me the question of the relation between discipleship and citizenship with which I have wrestled ever since).  I had been interested in early Church history and Reformation history already, but Kling showed me that American religious history was also interesting–and illuminating for the problems of contemporary U.S. Christianity. (Bill Leonard would later reinforce that for me.) Kling also helped me get past the stereotypes of Jonathan Edwards and encounter the theologian of the Great Awakening. I also learned from Kling both HRN’s motto that “history is the laboratory of ideas” (a motto my Doktorvater, Glen Stassen greatly reinforced) but also the limits of historiographical methods–so that faith may have to confess things which historians cannot prove.  (This prepared me for the Barth/Bultmann debate, the debate of Barth’s followers with Pannenberg over the limits of historiography, the skepticism of Van Harvey’s The Historian and the Believer and much of the entire debate over objectivity and perspective in the “postmodernism wars” of the ’90s. Thanks to David Kling, I already had a place to stand in wading through all that!)
  • Dr. Ronald J. Sider, Professor of Theology, Wholistic Ministry, and Public Policy, Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly known as Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Director of the Sider Center for Faith and Public Policy, and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action.  My  rather large fight with a person who no longer works at Evangelicals for Social Action in the mid’90s put a real strain on my relationship with Ron Sider (as well as putting me at odds with others, which was my antagonist’s intention) and my eventual, reluctant, decision not to renew my membership in ESA because I can no longer unequivocally call myself “pro-life” on abortion, has masked how much I owe to Sider.  As mentioned above, his Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger changed my life.  I have continued to try to balance personal piety and evangelism with passionate work for social justice as Sider models.  I am glad that the 2000s allowed for Ron and myself to heal our friendship, though we continue to disagree on the meaning of religious liberty and church-state separation.
  • Dr. Anthony “Tony” Campolo, Associate Pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, West Philadelphia, PA, founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE), and Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Eastern University (formerly Eastern Baptist College), St. Davids, PA.  As my friend, Michelle Tooley, says, Tony Campolo fits political philosopher Michael Walzer’s definition of a “connected critic,” a social critic who is not “above it all” but who deeply identifies with the place/group/movement which he criticizes.  In Campolo’s case, he is deeply connected to the American Baptist Churches, USA (since childhood), yet critical of the way it, like many mainline denominations, is declining. He is deeply connected to the evangelical subculture of the USA, but a major critic of its social and political conservatism, it’s lukewarm response to Jesus and the prophets’ call for social justice and peacemaking, and its self-righteousness. (Campolo’s book, A Reasonable Faith led Campus Crusade for Christ to cancel his speaking engagements and led to an evangelical parachurch “heresy trial” conducted by conservative Anglican theologian J. I. Packer! No heresy was found.)  In addition to being a popular speaker and author, Campolo is both a traveling evangelist and a sociologist and social work professor deeply committed to America’s inner cities and crafting strategies for suburban and urban churches to partner in renewing the cities. He is deeply committed to the world’s poor and to Christian care for the environment.  I share most of his commitments, but I did not get them from Campolo.  What Campolo did give me was a roll model for effective evangelistic preaching.  I am not among the millions moved by Billy Graham–but Tony Campolo demonstrates a seamless union of evangelism and social justice that I have adapted–though doubtless not as effectively. ( I also love his humor.)

I notice that, except for my mother, no women are in this list. I hope that’s because I usually acknowledge the female influences on me.  This is illustrative, not exhaustive, and I may do a similar post at another time.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | testimony | Leave a comment

Theological Mentors # 2 Glen H. Stassen

Glen Harold Stassen (1936-) is my beloved teacher, mentor, occasional writing partner, and friend. Considering that he was the supervisor for my doctoral work in Christian ethics (my Doktorvater, as the Germans put it), some who know me well probably wondered why, if I were going to list mentors on this blog, I didn’t put Glen first. The answer is simple, if a bit embarrassing: I had to find a picture! Stassen is a Baptist ethicist and peace theologian who has lived and worked in several Baptist denominations, and taught on the faculties of Baptist, mainline Protestant, and evangelical institutions.

Born in Minnesota (the grandson of German immigrants) to Harold and Esther Stassen, Glen’s father became the youngest governor of Minnesota and the Stassens were part of the old ethnic German Baptist Convention (now called the North American Baptist Conference and using English in worship)–which had earlier produced Walter Rauschenbusch. Glen and his sister, Kathleen, grew up speaking German in the home and English outside. When WWII began, Harold Stassen resigned as governor of MN and joined the U.S. Navy. (Harold Stassen later wrote the first draft of the United Nations’ Charter, was a special envoy for peace in the Eisenhower administration, ruined his career in attempting to get Eisenhower to drop Nixon from the ticket for the second term, and repeatedly ran for president of the U.S. as a liberal Republican. His influence on Glen is enormous.) Glen, newly converted and baptized as a teen, saw the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a warning of judgment by God on a war-mad world. He went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia when his father was president of the University of Pennsylvania. There he met a teacher who had volunteered as a “human lab rat” for alternative service as a conscientious objector. This impressed Glen with the idea that military courage was not the only form courage took.

Initially educated at the University of Virginia in nuclear physics (B.A., 1957, cum laude), work for the Navy and Air Force in nuclear research soon convinced Glen that enough people were solving the mysteries of the atom–and not enough were working to keep the atom in check. He soon discerned a calling to the ministry. Up to this point, Stassen had been involved in North American Baptist and American Baptist circles, but he had met and married Dot Lively, a Southern Baptist, and, after investigating seminaries, decided to enroll at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  At SBTS, the teachers who influenced him were Henlee H. Barnette (Christian Ethics), and Eric C. Rust (Philosophical Theology).  He also met the famed Clarence Jordan who came to Barnette’s ethics class and told the students that segregation was like a mortally wounded horse:  it would kick and do much damage before it died. Unfortunately, Stassen arrived just after a clash between the faculty and seminary president had resulted in the firing of most of the professors with whom he had wanted to study. (13 professors were fired in this “Battle of Lexington Road,” and it took nearly 2 decades for the seminary to regain its former excellence and reputation. Now, since the presidency of Al Mohler began in ’94, that reputation is again in the toilet outside fundamentalist circles. ) Glen transferred to Union Theological Seminary of New York where his major influences were James Muilenberg (Old Testament), W.D. Davies (New Testament), the early Barth scholar Paul Lehmann (who, along with a young Robert McAfee Brown introduced Stassen to the thought of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), the Christocentric liberal  process theologian Daniel Day Williams (who introduced him to the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr) , and, the Union giant of that day, the Christian Realist Reinhold Niebuhr (Christian ethics). R. Niebuhr’s Christian realism was reinforced at Union by Roger L. Shinn and John C. Bennett.

While at Union (B.D., 1963), Stassen continued involvement in the civil rights movement that he had begun in Virginia and Kentucky, travelling from NYC to Washington, D.C. for the 1963 March on Washington only to meet his father in the crowd when neither knew the other was coming. 

Stassen earned his Ph.D. (Theological Ethics and History of Christian Thought) at Duke University (1967, magna cum laude), supervised by Waldo Beach, but most thoroughly influenced by theologian Frederick Herzog (a creative Barthian and one of the earliest white North Americans to interact with both Latin American and Black Liberation theologies), and Lutheran historian and Reformation scholar Hans Hillerbrand (who introduced Glen to the study of the Anabaptists).
Stassen’s dissertation, The Sovereignty of God in the Thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, has never been published.

Another strong influence was his fellow doctoral student, Lonnie Kliever. Stassen and Kliever were both Baptists who had gone to Union Seminary and now were doing doctoral work also outside Baptist circles–a rare phenomenon in those days–and both were involved in movements for social justice. (Kliever would eventually leave Baptist life and become a United Methodist.) He also continued his involvement in the civil rights movement and in the struggle against the Vietnam War. In both cases, he worked mostly as a strategist and organizer.

Other major influences include Menno Simons, Richard Overton, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Howard Yoder (they were friends and dialogue partners for decades), James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (another Baptist theologian influenced by Yoder and Anabaptists), the Jewish political philosopher Michael Walzer, Heinz-Eduard Toedt, and Juergen Moltmann (they co-authored a brief book).  His ongoing friendship with Stanley Hauerwas includes much agreement, but also much continued debate.   Recent dialogue partners include biblical scholars Ched Myers, Walter Wink, N. T. Wright, Bruce Chilton, Marcus Borg, Willard Swartley, the late Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, R. Michael Lerner, Cornel West, philosophers Nancey Murphy, and Rene Girard.

Stassen has done additional study at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Heidelberg. He has taught at Duke University, Kentucky Southern College (now part of the University of Louisville), Berea College, Harvard University (Visiting Professor) The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1976-1996), and as Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary (1996-Present).

He has worked in or helped to found several organizations for peacemaking, worked behind the scenes to negotiate the removal of the short and middle range nuclear weapons from Europe, has testified at capital punishment cases and developed a strategy for defense attorneys in captital cases, founded and worked on advocacy for the mentally retarded (his youngest son was misdiagnosed as such during a time when almost no help for the mentally retarded existed in Kentucky) and assisted nonviolent human rights and peace movements in East Germany (Stassen was present when the Wall came down), Kazakstan, Central America, South Korea, Eastern Europe, and Southern Africa. He keeps up an amazing correspondence with students in each of these areas of the world, coming to lecture for them and connecting with church groups(usually Baptist or Mennonite) in all these places.

When I was his student, I argued that the implications of his theology and ethic of “just peacemaking,” led logically to pacifism, gospel nonviolence. In 2000, Glen finally began to call himself a Christian pacifist. The influence of Martin Luther King, John Howard Yoder, and the New Testament, had finally pushed beyond the influence of his father and of Reinhold Niebuhr (though he remains grateful to both).

Aside from friendship, I have learned the following from Glen Stassen:

  1. He reinforced my dedication to biblical scholarship–staying abreast of current work, but being unafraid to tackle one’s own exegesis and to buck professional consensuses in the cause of Christian ethics.
  2. I was already committed to nonviolence when I met Glen, but he gave me an approach to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount that made concrete, pragmatic sense. Just peacemaking, like Jesus and the biblical witness, is not primarily against something (war or violence or injustice), but for the in-breaking Rule of God including taking risks in transforming initiatives for justice and peace–just as God took a transforming initiative for human salvation in sending Jesus.
  3.  Discipleship divorced from sound theology is rootless and leads to a “thin” ethics and even burnout. Doctrine divorced from concrete discipleship (nachfolge Christi) is irrelevant and leads to a docetic, disembodied Christ unrelated to the biblical Jesus.
  4. He deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer and Yoder and taught me to appreciate the Niebuhr brothers more than most pacifists ever do. Glen reinforced my historical bent by introducing me to HRN’s dictum, “History is the laboratory of ideas.” Any ethics or politics that only works in theory, under ideal conditions, is not of much use.
  5. Glen also reinforced my interest in the early history of Anabaptists and Baptists.

Throughout his early career, Glen published little, concentrating on classroom and church teaching and on social activism. But as he has neared retirement, his publishing output has increased, since his developing theology of “incarnational discipleship,” and ethic of “transforming initiatives” has been reaching a mature form.  His writings are increasing and the numbers of his doctoral students who are also playing major constructive roles in church leadership grows constantly.  He has been considered one of the Twentieth Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics and has been influential as well in mainline Protestant and evangelical circles.  His “just peacemaking” practices have also begun to influence activists and peace studies academics, though they have not yet made much influence in public policy. 

I predict that in the future there will be numerous doctoral dissertations done on Glen’s work and that his influence will continue to grow.

August 21, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, biographies, blog series, ethics, heroes, history of theology, Just Peacemaking, pacifism, peace, testimony, theologians, tradition | 2 Comments

Theological Mentors #1: John Howard Yoder

I’m reprinting and updating the “Mentors” series from my old blog, Levellers.

John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) is one of my mentors and heroes.  In fact, of people with whom I never had the pleasure of studying directly, no one has been more influential on the shape of my theology, ecclesiology, and ethics than John Howard Yoder.

 He was the most important Anabaptist theologian since Menno Simons(1496-1561). Educated at Goshen College and the University of Basel, Yoder taught at both the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and at the University of Notre Dame. Most famous for his work, The Politics of Jesus (1972), which destroyed the popular image of Jesus as an apolitical figure, and described  Jesus’ mission as creating a new people whose nonviolence, mutual servanthood, and economic sharing, constituted a political threat to the Powers and Authorities. Although trained mainly as a historical theologian, Yoder wrote in several fields in ground-breaking ways: biblical studies; church history; theology; Christian ethics. Although “mainstream” Christians often read Yoder as representative of “the Mennonite view,” Yoder was often controversial in his own denomination, challenging it to renewal.

Yoder was influenced at Goshen College by Harold Bender, the first Mennonite to be elected president of the American Society of Church History.  Bender successfully sought to renew North American Mennonite life through both ecumenical contact and renewed attention to the 16th C. “Anabaptist Vision.” Largely due to Bender’s influence, Mennonite scholarship in church history became well-known before contributions in other fields.

After college, Yoder, like so many Mennonites of his generation, volunteered for mission, relief, and development work in post-War Europe, aiding in renewal both in European Mennonite life and beyond. (Yoder met and married the French Mennonite schoolteacher, Anne Marie Guth, through this work.) During this work in Europe, Yoder simultaneously enrolled in doctoral studies at the University of Basel and engaged in the early post-War development of the ecumenical movement with the founding of the World Council of Churches, thereby presenting the Churches of the Reformation with their first sustained encounter with a representative of the Radical Reformation since the 16th C. The influence went both ways: Work for peace was placed on the WCC agenda from the beginning, and Yoder became deeply influenced by the work of both Karl Barth and, even more, by the growing “Biblical Theology Movement” of the era.

Those remained the dominant sources in Yoder’s creative synthesis: Bender and 16th C. Anabaptist sources; Karl Barth; the “Biblical Realism” of one major strand of critical biblical scholarship. Later influences included post-Vatican II Catholic thought (Yoder taught for years at the University of Notre Dame); the “Believers’ Church Conferences,” which brought representatives of many different Free Church or Believers’ Church traditions together and began a lifetime dialogue between Yoder and certain strands of Baptist thought; the nonviolent strand of the U.S. Black Freedom movement; a sustained and lengthy interaction (both approval and critique) with Latin American Liberation Theology; and post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian dialogue. A true polyglot with an incredible ear for languages, Yoder carried on these many dialogues in nine different languages.

Painfully shy but with a booming voice and glowering countenance, many believed Yoder to be aloof or arrogant, but it was rather that John had few “people skills.” As many will attest, it was difficult to be his friend. Yet, both personally and through his work, Yoder touched numerous lives. He encouraged my own work as the external reader of my dissertation and in an email a few days before his unexpected death. At his funeral, I met people from around the world, including a young white man from South Africa who, influenced by The Politics of Jesus, refused to be drafted into the apartheid-era South African army and served time in jail in response.

Suffice it to say that my intellectual and personal debts to “JHY,” as he was often called, are immense.   I first read him just after I left the U. S. Army as a conscientious objector (1983) and The Politics of Jesus gave deeper biblical grounding to my nascent pacifism. I’ve worn out 4 copies of that classic, now–3 of the first edition and one of the 1994 expanded revision. (I ordered a new copy today.)  In the last couple of years many of Yoder’s unpublished writings have been published posthumously.  New secondary studies are shedding light and giving rise to different schools of “Yoderians,” just as their are rival interpretations of Karl Barth or Dietrich Bonhoeffer–and, yes, Yoder belongs in such exalted company though his humility would never let him admit that.

For those seeking an accurate basic introduction to his work (since reading Yoder takes practice!), I recommend highly Mark Thiessen Nation’s,  John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions(Eerdmans, 2005).  I’ll try to write another post giving a good basic Yoder bibliography.  I also recommend Marko Funk’s helpful reading notes at Reading Yoder.

August 21, 2010 Posted by | biographies, blog series, ethics, heroes, history of theology, testimony, theologians, tradition | Leave a comment

Gospel Nonviolence: An (Ana)Baptist Approach

This is another reprint from Levellers. In 2007, Halden Doerge, who runs the great blog, Inhabitatio Dei (“Inhabiting God”), invited a group of theological bloggers to contribute to a guest series on his blog called “My Peace I Leave With You” –defenses of Christian pacifism (gospel nonviolence) from different Christian traditions.  He got 6 contributions–from a new convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, from a Free Church perspective, from an American Evangelical perspective, from a British Reformed perspective, from the Stone-Campbell Restorationist movement, and mine from an Anabaptist-Baptist perspective.  All the posts are indexed here.

It was a great series that illustrated my contention that while warmakers (and war cheerleaders)  sound boringly the same, peacemakers are all wonderfully different.  Witness to the peace of Jesus Christ takes many forms.  But I was disappointed that the series contributions ended with these. I’d hoped for female and non-white voices.  I’d also hoped for contributions from Quakers (maybe one from the unprogrammed Friends tradition and one from an Evangelical Friend like Richard Foster), from a Mennonite, from a Catholic, an Orthodox pacifist who had been Orthodox longer, a Methodist, a Lutheran, example. More people from outside the U.S. context.  A Pentecostal pacifism.  A feminist pacifism.  A pacifism from a distinctly liberal Christian perspective (since we had several contributors from evangelical backgrounds).  So, maybe by reprinting my contribution here–and linking to Halden’s index of all posts, others will decide to contribute–either here or at Inhabitatio Dei (preferably the latter since this was Halden’s series).


Gospel Nonviolence: An Anabaptist-Baptist Approach

A guest-post by M. L. Westmoreland-White

When Halden asked me to contribute to this series, I suddenly felt as if I was failing to heed the Petrine command to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands an accounting of the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15b).” Do I really know what “my tradition” of Christian pacifism looks like?

The problem is that I was not raised in a peace church tradition, and my denomination, the Baptists, have never been a “peace church,” though we have always had a pacifist minority. That minority has been larger or smaller, less influential or more, in various times and places–but always a minority. (For a survey of this tradition see Paul R. DeKar, For the Healing of the Nations: Baptist Peacemakers[Smyth & Helwys, 1993.]) I came to gospel nonviolence from the U.S. military, so my “pacifism” may be a reaction, a rebellion, as much as a theological tradition. I was not formed in nonviolent virtues like a Mennonite, Quaker, or member of the Church of the Brethren would have been. So, I feel unworthy to participate in this series. But here goes, anyway.

Baptists began as radical Puritans who were influenced at key points by Dutch Anabaptists. The General, or more Arminian, Baptists began earlier (1609-1611) with John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and were influenced by Waterlander Mennonites from Amsterdam. The Particular, or more Calvinist, Baptists (who were to become the dominant strand) began a generation later (1638-1644) and were influenced by Collegiant Mennonites (and a translation of Menno Simons’ Foundation-Book) from Leiden. From the Anabaptists, we took a radically Christocentric orientation and an emphasis on a visible church and active discipleship. From the Reformed/Puritan heritage, we took a strong emphasis on God’s Sovereignty and Christ’s Lordship over all of life (thus rejecting either Lutheran or Anabaptist “two-kingdoms” thinking).

Both those strands inform my pacifism. Because Christianity is “following after” Jesus Christ, I must love my enemies and be an active peacemaker. The Anabaptist heritage (mediated to me especially, but not only, via John Howard Yoder) keeps my pacifism centered in the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of Jesus’ teachings. It means that my refusal to kill is part of a larger pattern of non-conformity to “the world.” That pattern includes simplicity of living (striving against materialist consumerism), radical egalitarianism in home, church, and society (resisting the heirarchies of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation), mutual servanthood, economic sharing. The Anabaptist orientation means that I cannot separate my love of God (my “spiritual life” or piety) from my love of neighbors–and that I must continually recognize personal, communal, or national enemies as tests of the seriousness of that neighbor love.

Because God is Sovereign and Christ is Lord over ALL of life (not just Lord of the Church or of some “inner realm”), as the Reformed rightly stress, then my nonviolent witness cannot be apolitical. The Baptist defense of “separation of church and state” is not out of any Lutheran “two-kingdoms” theology in which God works through the state with a radically different ethic (the Left hand of God, as Luther put it) from the ethic of personal relations in which the Gospel is to be followed. The idea that “religion and politics have nothing to do with each other” is heresy. Rather, we Baptists (at our best) defend the institutional separation of church and state precisely so that the church is free to give prophetic witness to the state.

Baptists, at least, non-fundamentalist Baptists, are fond of self-descriptions that use a set of principles, axioms, or “identity markers,” rather than by reference to a formal “creed” of confession of faith. Though, unlike our “cousins” in the Stone-Campbell movement, we Baptists have often written confessions of faith, we have seldom treated them as creedal “tests of orthodoxy,” but as guides to biblical interpretation and witnesses to outsiders of our faith. We have often given these statements elaborate “preambles” that deny their creedal status and explicitly claim that they are not to be used as substitutes for simple faith in Christ and that they are always subordinate to biblical authority. Many Baptists have identified with the Restorationist motto of “No Creed but the Bible,” whatever other disagreements we have with those we often term “Campbellites.”

Consider one widely popular such list of “Baptist identity markers”:

  • Biblicism, understood not as preference for one or another theory of inspiration (or “inerrancy”), but as the humble acceptance of the authority of Scripture for both faith and practice and accompanied by a Christocentric hermeneutic. (This is related to the Baptist “primitivism” which desires to replicate “New Testament churches.”)
  • Liberty, understood not as the overthrow of all authority for an anarchic individualism, but as the church’s God-given freedom to respond to God without the intervention of the state or other Powers. (Related themes are intentional community, voluntarism, “soul competency,” and separation of church and state.)
  • Discipleship as normative for all Christians and so understood neither as a vocation for the few nor an esoteric discipline for adepts, but as life transformed into service by the lordship of Jesus Christ. (Signified by believers’ baptism–usually by immersion to signify the believer’s identification with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to new life; related themes are “the rule of Christ,” and “the rule of Paul.)
  • Community, understood not as some group’s privileged access to God or to sacred status, but as sharing together in a storied life of witness to Christ exercised in mutual aid and in service to others. (Signified by Communion or Holy Eucharist, most often called by Baptists the Table or Supper of the Lord; a related theme is the regenerate or believers’ church, i.e., the concern for churches of “visible saints.”)
  • Mission or evangelism, understood not as an attempt to control history for the ends we believe to be good, but as the responsibility of all Christians to bear witness to Christ–and to accept the suffering that such witness often entails. (The deep missionary impulse is connected to claim that all true faith is voluntary and uncoerced and thus leads back again to the defense of liberty of conscience for all–including for those whose views we deem wrong or even wrongheaded.)

Now, I do not claim that pacifism or gospel nonviolence is entailed or demanded by such any vision formed through such principles. That claim is too strong considering how many non-pacifist Baptists there are! Rather, my (slightly more humble) claim is simply that gospel nonviolence fits such a vision, such principles and that each of these “identity markers” are strengthened and their unity more apparent in pacifist perspective. If space permitted, I could run through each principle and spell out the pacifist implications, but I leave that to the reader’s own reflections. It is my rather audacious claim that the pacifist minority among Baptists for our 400 years have had it right: That gospel nonviolence makes us more authentically Baptist, as well, of course, as more authentically Christian.

So “my” pacifism has a deeply “Baptist” shape as well as ecumenical influences. It is informed by the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (both Baptists), as well as from the nonviolent strands of liberation theologies. I deeply adhere to a saying from Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Biblical peace, shalom, is a product of justice–of right relationships throughout society. So, “my” pacifism, must always be an activist peacemaking: Engaging in nonviolent struggle for a better world–not in a vain attempt to “bring in the Kingdom,” (God does that–although God may use us as instruments), but to bear witness of God’s character and actions for redemption–and, to prepare the way for the Ultimate realization of God’s Reign by penultimate actions for a relatively just and peaceful world. (See Bonhoeffer’s Ethics).

It has been said that Baptists are “practical idealists.” Insofar as I belong to a tradition of Christian pacifism, it is one informed by the practical idealism of the Anabaptists of the 16th C., the “democratic” impulses of early Baptists like Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, John Bunyan, and Richard Overton; the Levellers of the 17th C., 19th C. abolitionists and evangelical feminists, of Social Gospel and Civil Rights radicals, and of nonviolent struggles for justice globally. With such “practical idealism” I try to bear witness to the nonviolent Christ who is my Lord.

August 16, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, blog series, pacifism, spirituality, testimony, theology | Leave a comment

Theological Confessions

Repost from June of ’07. Originally, this was part of a “meme” started on Faith and Theology.  Original index to the contributions is found here.  It was great fun and if reposting this from Levellers to here, starts up new contributions, I won’t complain.

As started here, there is now a theological confessions meme. I confess that I hesitated to play because, just as some of the others have phrased their “confessions” in ways that might make some folk angry, so my own contribution is likely to ruffle feathers–and I do that enough anyway.  But, here goes anyway.

I confess that Dispensationalists in general, and “Christian Zionists” in particular, get on my LAST nerve! In the interests of fraternal correction and Middle East peacemaking, I should strive gently to show disciples of Hagee & Co. where they have misunderstood the Election of Israel in God’s economy. Instead,  what I want to do is throw something at them–and I have to restrain myself with great exertion! [I wrote this before the ’08 election year–not knowing that Sen. John McCain would seek and win Hagee’s endorsement for his presidential campaign, nor that they would later mutually repudiate each other.  Everything I wrote is still true.]

I confess, despite the above, that I believe the “parting of the ways” (James D. G. Dunn’s phrase) between synagogue and church was the greatest tragedy in church history, dwarfing even the Constantinian warping of the church into the chaplain of imperial power.  Any theology, and any ecclesiology, which fails to reckon thoroughly with God’s continued covenant loyalty to the Jewish people is deeply, deeply, flawed.

I confess, though I have learned many things from the late Hans Frei (1922-1988), I find him to have one of the most turgid writing styles in late modern theology. He constantly puts me to sleep.

I confess that before last year, I never heard of John Piper, Rick Warren, or Max Lucado.  Now that I have, I don’t think I was missing anything.

 I confess that if double predestination turns out to be true, and some people have been “elected to damnation” from eternity, I will be very, very angry with God.

I confess that I often prefer to read science fiction and detective novels when I should be reading biblical studies, ethics, and theology.

I confess I think my aesthetic sensitivities are underdeveloped (my eyes glaze over when someone mentions “theology and the arts”) and this is one of the reasons I find it difficult to grasp people like Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988).

I confess that, after wrestling with the issues and my own homophobia for over a decade and a half, I stand with the revisionists on the church’s sexual theology, vis-a-vis sexual minorities.  Although I am still strongly committed to an ethic of either celibacy or monogamy, I now(for several years, actually) support monogamous marriages for same-sex couples, too. Lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and I see no evidence that it is automatically granted to all gay or lesbian Christians and LESS evidence that sexual orientation can be “cured.”  If this leads to charges of “depravity” charges of defection from biblical authority, and if it leads (as I have evidence it already has) to lost job opportunities in church-related posts–so be it. My gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered sisters and brothers have to endure far more just to be given permission to live without hiding.

I confess to being extremely tired of hearing Christian theologians (usually male; often, but not always, evangelical) dismiss all feminist theology by flippantly referring to the post-Christian Mary Daly or the radical Catholic Rosemary Radford Reuther (and I have learned from the latter), without ever seriously wrestling with or even reading the likes of Letty Russell, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Sarah Coakely, Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Phyllis Trible, Mercy Amba Odoyuye, Elsa Tamez, etc.  No one of either gender is beyond critique, but the major currents of feminist (womanist, mujerista, etc.) theologies should be important dialogue partners to all serious theologians, today.

I confess that I find it very disheartening that so many theological bloggers, often with excellent theological educations, are so dismissive of, or even ignorant of, the thought of major liberation theologians–from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and from marginalized populations in Europe and North America. 

I confess that although I know that correcting heresy is an important task of theology, I fear authoritarian heretic hunters far more than I fear liberals and heretics.

I confess that I have weak electronic skills. I never owned a computer until it was time to write my Ph.D. dissertation (making do on an electric typewriter before then) and used it only as a glorified wordprocessor until the dissertation was finished. I have never owned a cell phone, blackberry, video game, etc.  I don’t know what a “podcast” is.  But the new i-phone looks so cool, it may awaken the long-buried techno-geek within.

Many of the people I love and trust the most from my church are enamored of communal living on a subsistence farm.  People I admire like Wendell Berry, Dorothy Day, and Clarence Jordan, shared this utopian dream of small farms as ideal church communities.  I confess that this sounds like hell to me. I am a confirmed urbanite.[NOTE: This is not to disrespect either farmers or my friends with dreams of communal farming. I worked my grandparents’ farm in summers. I have great respect for farmers–I just don’t want to BE one.  I do think that peak oil and global warming will spell the end of SUBURBS–and good riddance.]

I confess that despite my love for the liturgical richness of Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican worship, my abhorrence for authoritarian heirarchies would keep from ever joining those communions even if I did not feel the commitment I do toward Free Church ecclesiology.

I confess that although I agree with Barth in preferring Mozart to Bach, I love jazz, blues, and Southern rock even more.  The Kingdom of God had better have some place to get funky.

I confess that one reason I am so very adamant in insisting on a BODILY resurrection (for both Christ and believers) is that I find it quite impossible to believe in disembodied souls.  The Christian Hope is not for “spiritual afterlife” or “heaven when we die,” but for Resurrection, for the New/Renewed heavens and earth in the fullness of God’s Revolution. One reason I simply cannot get behind “spiritual resurrection” views (Bultmann’s or Willie Marxen’s, Crossan’s or Borg’s, etc.) is that I find that HARDER to believe than bodily resurrection (though the latter is also a difficult conviction to sustain in a world where “what’s dead stays that way”). If all I were offered was a spiritual resurrection, I couldn’t be a Christian at all.

I confess that I am a personalist and existentialist (but preferring Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Camus to Sartre or Heidegger or Tillich). If there is any major heresy to which I am constantly tempted, it is humanism. (I do try to resist.)

I confess I find Cornel West more helpful than John Milbank, Jeff Stout more helpful (at least at times)  than Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Ricoeur more helpful than Hans Frei or George Lindbeck, Seyla Benhabib, Iris Marion Young, and Michael Walzer, more helpful than John Rawls on the one hand or Mary Ann Glendon (who became U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican under Bush–one of his better picks) or Jean Bethke Elshtain on the other.

I confess I hope the universalists are right and eventually all are saved and all is redeemed.  (See here for the best defense by a theology blogger.) But I cannot bring myself to actually commit to such a view because my sense of impending JUDGMENT is so real. Thomas Jefferson once remarked (thinking of slavery–including his own inability to free his own slaves) that he trembled for his nation when he remembered that God is just.  I feel that way not only about my nation, but about the Church, especially the evangelical churches of the U.S.–many of whom are still cheerleading war and torture, have rejected the Sermon on the Mount, could care less about the poor, neglect God’s good Creation, foster hatred for Muslims, etc.  I think on these things and I hear God saying in the voice of Amos, “the Day of the Lord will be for you darkness and not light.”

I confess that I have heard Carl F. H. Henry preach twice and both times I was “underwhelmed.”

I confess to being clueless as to what the “Emerging Church” movement is about.  Every time I read an explanation, it seems fuzzier than before.  I fear that it is “rootless,” but I don’t want to pass judgment without understanding.  But the “Friends of Emerging” take the prize for vague descriptions.

I confess I am sometimes envious of the success of other theologians when my own “career” has only resulted in a few small publications and the loss of teaching posts.  This envy is sinful, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t exist.

I confess that I think far too many people read John Howard Yoder through the lenses provided by Stanley Hauerwas and I believe this to be a mistake.  Hauerwas is important, but he differs with Yoder on many points and, at each of those points, I think Yoder was right and Hauerwas is wrong.

I confess that, despite my commitment to pacifism, I love martial arts movies and the James Bond films–despite their thorough participation in the “myth of redemptive violence.”

Well, this could go on forever, so I’ll stop now.

August 15, 2010 Posted by | autobiographyu, blog series, testimony | Leave a comment