Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

A Tribute to Walter Wink (1935-2012): New Testament Theologian of Nonviolence and Power

On 10 May 2012, Rev. Dr. Walter Wink, passed away less than a week before what would have been his 77th birthday (23 May).  He had, apparently, been suffering some form of dementia for several years.  Dr. Wink was a huge influence on me through his writings, but I met him only once–in Washington, D.C. in 1989 when we were both arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience outside the White House–protesting the continued support of the Bush I administration for the apartheid-era government of South Africa.  (The protests, called “Stand for Truth,” had been planned for months and were huge that Mother’s Day weekend in ’89, but the news was somewhat overshadowed because less than a week earlier, the Chinese government had massacred protesting students and other pro-democracy groups in Tienenmen Square.  I met an amazing array of Christian peace and justice folk that weekend including Wink’s wife, June Keener-Wink, a young Jesuit priest named Fr. John Dear, S.J., who would soon make major contributions to peace and nonviolence theory, to theology, and to peace activism, but, who, that weekend before his fame was very quiet because his handcuffs were too tight and he was in great pain; Sister Joan Chittister, OSB; Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners; Joyce Hollyday; Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American Pentecostal whose work with the Boston 10 Point Coalition was greatly reducing violence in street gangs; many more. It was a life-changing weekend for me.)

Dr. Wink lived an amazing life of witness. He was born in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression. He was born and raised in Texas in the midst of Texas Methodism–coming to a very different form of Christian nonviolence than fellow Texas Methodist Stanley Hauerwas.  He earned his B.A., magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University (Major: History; Double minor: Philosophy; English), but rather than pursue his theological education at SMU’s own Perkins School of Theology, Wink earned his Master of Divinity (1959) and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies (1963) from New York’s famed Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical seminary of great influence. There is some irony here:  Union Theological Seminary is known as a center of non-pacifist liberal Christianity.  True, there are a few pacifist voices associated with UTS: Harry Emerson Fosdick and James Forbes, both Senior Ministers at nearby Riverside Church, were pacifists who taught preaching at UTS. But “Union” has become almost synonymous with names like Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), proponent of “Christian Realism,” Paul Tillich (1889-1965), German-American proponent of Christian socialism and a neo-liberal theology,  James H. Cone (b. 1938-), one of the founders of Black Liberation Theology, and Beverly Wildung Harrison (b. 1932–), foremother of Christian feminist ethics–and all of these voices represent strands of liberal Christianity that, while not militarist or “pro-violence,” are decidedly non-pacifist and endorse nonviolence only tactically and not out of principled conviction.

Wink was an ordained United Methodist Minister who spent time as a youth worker and a parish pastor before teaching at his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. From 1976 onward, he was Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NYC, a sister-institution to UTS in covenant with the Presbyterian Church, USA (and found on UTS’ campus).  During his time as a youth worker at East Harlem Protestant Parish, Wink came under the influence of the lawyer and Episcopal lay-theologian, William Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s interpretation of the “Principalities and Powers” in the New Testament would profoundly influence Wink’s own work.

In 1973, Wink published a small book called, The Bible in Human Transformation that declared “the historical-critical method is bankrupt.” I have to confess that I was unable to follow Wink’s point when I first encountered it.  I had come from a tradition of conservative evangelical Christianity and had found the historical-critical method to be liberating from biblicist literalism.  But Wink was not wanting to repudiate the gains of the historical-critical method, but to add to them–using insights from psychology (and later from sociology).

He is best known for his 3 volume work on “The Powers,” i.e., on the biblical terminology for power, especially in the Pauline corpus, that uses terms like “Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, Angels, ” etc. For centuries, these terms were simply dismissed as speaking of demons–and demythologized by the likes of Bultmann and fetishized by some Pentecostals and some Fundamentalists.  Hendrikus Berkhof, John Howard Yoder, and William Stringfellow began to see the importance of this language as pointing at once to political realities and to spiritual realities “behind” political institutions.  Wink, with insights from process theology and depth psychology, gave a metaphysic for the Powers that attempted to be non-reductionistic while acknowledging that none of us on this side of the Enlightenment can simply adopt the pre-modern worldview of the New Testament.  Wink also derived a theological ethic from his study of the Powers, especially in his third volume, Engaging the Powers.  The Powers form a world-system Wink called “The Domination System,” and the inbreaking Kingdom of God is “God’s New Domination-Free Order.” The Powers are not simply evil for they were created by God to bring order out of chaos. But they are “fallen,” twisted from their created purpose and used to enslave and dominate humanity.  They must be engaged–resisted and redeemed–by the followers of Jesus.

Wink also helped many reinterpret the Sermon on the Mount so that Matt. 5:9 is understood not as a call to nonresistance or passivity in the face of evil, but to a “Third Way” of Nonviolent Confrontation of Evil.  In a lexical study of the verb αντισθηναι (“antisthenai”), usually translated “resist,” Wink finds that it actually means “stand against” as in armed rebellion or murder, so that Matt. 5:9 should be translated, “Do not violently resist evildoers.” Wink demonstrates that turning the other cheek when backhanded by a social superior , removng both garments in court when sued for one’s outer garment (thus stripping naked in protest), and going a second mile when a soldier of the occupying army compels you to carry his gear the required one mile are all nonviolent direct actions against acts of domination and oppression.  He first published this is in a small book published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation for black churches in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle–churches that were seeking a way to be true to the gospel but resist the apartheid evil.  (See Wink, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa:  Jesus Third Way [Fellowship, 1984]).  He expanded and deepened his defense of this approach in several academic articles and book chapters aimed at changing the way New Testament scholars, especially translators and writers of commentaries on Matthew, understood the Sermon on the Mount.  Finally, he reworked his original popular study for a larger audience–beyond the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. See Walter Wink, Jesus and Violence:  A Third Way.  Because of this “active nonviolence” interpretation, Wink did not like the term “pacifism,” (too easy to confuse with “passivity,” and refused to be called a pacifist even though his dedication to nonviolence was strong–and he was a critic of the way that Christian admiration for the life and testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer translated into justifications of violence. (The liberationist left often uses Bonhoeffer to justify violent insurrection against conservative governments and the rightwing uses it to justify bombings of abortion clinics.)

Wink was an early defender of full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons in the church.  Eventually, he edited a collection of writings on the topic that did not simply include the “usual suspects,” but also the voices of pro-gay evangelicals like Peggy Campolo, Lewis Smedes,  and Ken L. Sehested.  See Wink, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches.

Wink also edited one of the best collections of writings on nonviolence by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation over a 50 year period.  See Wink, Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It’s truly a remarkable collection.

Walter Wink seamlessly combined the roles of pastor, teacher, scholar, and nonviolent Christian activist.  I give thanks for his life and witness hope that God continues to raise up prophetic voices like his.

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May 25, 2012 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, biographical entries, biographies, church history, Fellowship of Reconciliation, heroes, Methodists, nonviolence, obituary, peace, peacemakers, theologians | Leave a 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

Rest in Peace: John Norman Jonsson (1925-2011)

On Saturday, I received the news that my former teacher, Dr. John N. Jonsson, died at his home in South Africa. I’ve been waiting for more details and obituary since.  Here’s one from Associated Baptist Press:

SOUTH AFRICAN BAPTIST SCHOLAR DIES

by Lori Fogelman Wed. 01 June 2011

Waco, TX (ABP)

John Jonsson, an emeritus professor of religion and former director of the African Studies program at Baylor University, died May 26 at his home in South Africa after an extended illness. A native South African, Baptist pastor and scholar, Jonsson openly protested the South African system of apartheid from the pulpit, the classroom and in other public forums, including a run as an anti-apartheid candidate for the South African parliament.

Funeral services are scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Friday, June 3, at Rosebank Union Church in Johannesburg. Baylor’s department of religion and Seventh and James Baptist Church, where Jonsson and wife, Gladys, were members when they lived in Waco, will hold a memorial service for Jonsson at 5 p.m. Monday, June 13, at Miller Chapel.

Jonsson grew up in South Africa, where his parents were Scandinavian missionaries among the Zulu peoples.  He was actively involved in protesting apartheid, and in 1977 ran as an anti-apartheid candidate for the South African parliament. He lost by less than 1,000 votes.

In 1985, he was the only Baptist minister to sign the Kairos Document, which called on all churches to demand that the government give equal rights to all South Africans. As a result, the government took away his passport, and from 1985 to 1989 he was not allowed to enter South Africa. In 1989, he was one of the few white citizens of South Africa to be invited to attend the first Conference for a Democratic Future in South Africa, resulting in the release from prison of Nelson Mandela.

For more than two decades, Jonsson served in the Baptist World Alliance as a member of the Human Rights Commission.

Jonsson joined the Baylor faculty in 1992 as professor of religion and director of African Studies and held those positions until his retirement in 2002. Before that he taught missions and world religions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1982 to 1991, occupying the W.O. Carver chair.

In honor of Jonsson’s retirement, Baylor named a lecture series after him, prompting a letter of congratulations from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Jonsson earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Natal and his B.D. from Spurgeon’s College in London. He was principal at Baptist Theological College, lecturer in history of religions at the University of Witwatersrand, senior lecturer at the University of Natal and acting head in 1981, when Professor Gunther Wittenberg incorporated the Lutheran Theological Institute into the University of Natal. He also co-founded Treverton College, a private interracial institution in South Africa.

Jonsson was preceded in death by his son, David. He is survived by his wife; three children, Lois, Sylvia and Sven; and seven grandchildren.

Lori Fogleman is director of media communications for Baylor University.

June 1, 2011 Posted by | Baptists, heroes, obituary | Leave a comment

R. I. P.: Marie Deans–Victims’ Advocate and Death Penalty Foe

I have just learned the sad news of the passing of Marie Deans on 15 April 2011.  Marie Deans, whose mother-in-law was slain by an ex-convict, hated the way that pro-death penalty zealots used the pain of victims’ survivors to justify the death penalty.  As other rationales for the death penalty (deterrance of violent crime; retribution) became more publicly suspect, prosecutors came more and more to beg juries to execute prisoners in order for victims’ families to “gain closure.” New studies have shown that victims’ family members do NOT gain “closure” through the death penalty system and resent being used this way.  Marie Deans knew that years ago from personal experience and she founded Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation in 1976 as a safe space for victims’ families to speak out against the death penalty.  (Today, there is also the related group, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.)

Although today the tide seems turning against the death penalty in America, Marie Deans struggled against it during the decades when support gained every year and opponents were often lonely and frustrated.  She was a self-taught mitigation expert who testified repeatedly in sentencing hearings against the death penalty.  As a result of her efforts, only 2 of the 200 people she represented at sentencing hearings were ultimately executed.  Her greatest triumph was the exoneration of Earl Washington, Jr., a Virginia death row inmate with mental disabilities whose false confession was the result of police coercion and intimidation.  Washington was awarded more than $2 million in damages in a lawsuit against the police. 

Marie Deans showed that one can seek compassionate justice for victims–without creating new victims.  Rest in peace, faithful witness.

April 20, 2011 Posted by | capital punishment, ethics, heroes, human rights, nonviolence, obituary | Leave a comment

R. I. P. Peter J. Gomes (1942-2011)

  Sorry for the absence, Gentle Readers.  I have been deeply involved in trying to stop Republican governors from union-busting in WI, OH, IN, NJ, & FL.  I’ve also been ill and am preparing for out of town company.  The series on 100 Baptist pacifists will return shortly.

Yesterday, I heard the sad news that Rev. Peter J. Gomes (22 May 1942-28 Feb. 2011) had passed away Sunday from complications arising from a stroke.  He was relatively young at 68.  I had met him twice at conferences involving churches and peacemaking, but mostly knew him through his writing. Sadly, I never heard him preach–and Gomes had a reputation globally as one of the great preachers of the gospel.

I like people who do not easily fit stereotypes and Gomes was no cookie-cutter African-American preacher.  An American Baptist minister, Gomes was an accomplished pianist with a deep love for classical music.  He was also an amateur historian focused on the Pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay Colony, serving as past president and trustee of The Pilgrim Society.  The stereotype of an African-American Baptist minister is that he is a staunch activist in the Democratic Party, but Gomes was a prominent (if atypical) Republican–participating in the inaugurations of both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. (However, he avoided the inauguration of George W. Bush and was deeply critical of that administration.)

Gomes’ entire ministerial career cut his own unique path and broke all molds.  Born in Boston to Peter L. and Orissa White Gomes, Rev. Gomes was proud of his identity as a New England Yankee.  A very bright student in the Plymouth, MA  public schools, he earned his A.B. at Bates College (Lewiston, ME), a prestigious New England liberal arts college that had been founded by a group of Free Will Baptists who were ardent abolitionists. Bates had long ago relinquished it’s Christian heritage, but not its radical voice for social justice, nor its deep concern for classical education.  From there, Gomes went to Harvard Divinity School (S.T.B., 1968) and was ordained an American Baptist pastor in 1968 by First Baptist Church, Plymouth, MA. 

Gomes began his career as Instructor of History and Director of the Freshman Experimental Program at the Tuskee Institute in Alabama (now Tuskeegee University), where he also served as organist and choirmaster.  In 1970, he began his long association with the chaplaincy program at Harvard, becoming an Assistant Minister at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. In 1972, he was made Acting Minister and eventually became Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church and chaplain of the university.  In 1974, he was appointed Plummer Professor of Morals teaching in both Harvard College (the undergraduate program) and Harvard Divinity School. From 1989 to 1991, Gomes also served as Acting Director of the W.E. B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research.

20 years later, it is hard to remember the courage that it took in 1991 for this self-described cultural conservative and prominent Republican to “come out” as openly gay.  He disliked being “exhibit a,” but the culture war attacks on LGBT persons led him to break his privacy and stand up for LGBT rights in both church and society.  There had been gay-bashing incidents at Harvard and Gomes could not be silent. He began to perform “holy unions” in The Memorial Church for lesbian and gay couples–long before anyone was talking about legally recognized same-sex marriages.  Not without some squirming, Harvard University backed him, but Gomes was no longer welcome in the prominent Republican circles in which he had once been a favorite invited speaker. 

This self-described cultural conservative who enjoyed ministry to soldiers, veterans, and ROTC students also reluctantly spoke out against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the torture and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists by the Bush administration and erosions of civil liberties. He was also critical of the Obama administration for keeping too many of these erosions of civil liberties, for not keeping the promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and for the 2009 escalation of war in Afghanistan.  Gomes spoke out strongly against the rising Islamaphobia in the U. S. and the resurgence of “nativist” demonization of immigrants.  The role of prophetic social critic from the left did not come easy for him and he often chafed at it, but Gomes’ loyalty to the gospel compelled him to continue speaking out–though it strained and broke friendships he’d long held in conservative and Republican circles.

Considered one of America’s great preachers and a prominent author, Gomes was honored in numerous ways over the years. He was made an Honorary Fellow of Emannuel College (University of Cambridge) which established the Gomes Lectureship in his honor.  In 1998, Gomes delivered the prestigious Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School.  In 2000, he delivered the University Sermon at the University of Cambridge and the Millennial Sermon at Canterbury Cathedral.  In 2003, Gomes delivered the Lyttleton Addresses at Eton College, England’s prestigious 600 year old preparatory school for boys that has educated kings and prime ministers, scientists, and poets laureate. In 2004, he gave the convocation address at Harvard Divinity School, challenging HDS to become anew the place of excitement that Gomes had known as a student, challenging it to connect more with the life of American churches (including Evangelical churches!), without losing its character as a place of academic rigor and both ecumenical and interfaith breadth.  In 2005, Gomes gave a series of sermons at St. Edmundsbury Chapel (named in honor of St. Edmund, British king and martyr) .  In 2007, he was named to the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, the original “Hospitaler Knights” and the oldest order of Chivalry in the United Kingdom.  In 2009, he gave the Lowell Lectures of Massachusetts, and in 2010 he gave the Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church and Culture and Harvard University named him Honorary President of the Alpha-Iota chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. (Phi Beta Kappa, founded at The College of William and Mary in 1776, is the oldest honors society for academic scholarship in the United States.)  He had also received numerous honorary doctorates over the years.

In addition to 11 volumes of published sermons, Gomes was also the author of several excellent books in theology that were aimed at a lay or non-academic audience, including the best-selling, The Good Book:  Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (HarperOne, 1996) which takes on the abuse of the Bible in the U.S. to justify racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, and anti-semitism, before giving several chapters showing a more fruitful approach to biblical interpretation in the areas such as the good life, suffering, joy, understanding evil, temptation, wealth, the relation of faith to science, and to ultimate mystery.  The Good Life:  Truths That Last in Times of Need (HarperOne, 2002). The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? (HarperOne, 20007).

I like people who break molds, not easily fitting into preconcieved patterns, and Peter J. Gomes was one such person.  Our society needs more such persons. Not just Harvard, nor American Baptists, nor the dwindling ranks of moderate-to-liberal Republicans, but the church universal is poorer without Peter Gomes.  So are all those who care about a more humane and just society, about education, cultural enrichment, and even good preaching. We are all poorer for Gomes’ passing.

Rest from you labors, now, good and faithful servant of our Servant-Lord.

March 2, 2011 Posted by | Baptists, obituary | 1 Comment

R. I. P. Rev. Lucius Walker

Rev. Lucius Walker, African-American Baptist pastor and founder of Pastors for Peace has died of a heart attack at 80.  Every year, Rev. Walker and the good folks at Pastors for Peace collected aid (computers, food, medicine, etc.) for the people of Cuba and defied the U.S. laws and blockade by taking that aid to Cuba, committing civil disobedience for divine obedience to Christ’s command to love our neighbors, especially those neighbors designated as “enemy.”  Here is a link to an obituary in the Washington Post.

I met Rev. Walker several times through the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  I admired the way he was committed to Christian peacemaking rather than obedience to the forces of imperial nationalism.

September 12, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, obituary | Leave a comment

R. I. P. Tim Maddox, Baptist Philosopher

 The peace of my Labor Day was broken moments ago when I heard of the sudden death of a friend from my Ph.D. days, Tim Maddox, who collapsed suddenly today of a heart attack and died a few hours later–no further details, yet.

My prayers go out to Tim’s wife, Alana, and his sons, Seth and Luke.

Timothy F. Maddox collapsed and died on the campus of Hardin-Simmons University, a Baptist university in Abilene, TX where he was the only member of their philosophy department (only a minor in philosophy was offered).  Tim was a ’77 B.A. (Bible & Religion) graduate of Hardin-Simmons and earned 3 more degrees (M.Div., 1982, Th.M., 1992, Ph.D., 1997) at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before returning to teach at his alma mater . He had been a pastor and was deeply concerned about the state of churches in the U.S.  He had been significantly influenced by the Reformed philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, and the Baptist theologian E. Y. Mullins–attempting a postmodern and more communal reappropriation of Mullins. He had also studied at Regent’s Park College, Oxford with Paul Fiddes, one of the most creative theologians Baptists have produced in recent decades and Fiddes made a deep impression on Tim.

Tim and I were not extremely close friends, and we’d only communicated infrequently since our doctoral days.  But his sudden death is still a personal loss and a loss to the church and to the HSU community.

UPDATE:  The local Abilene newspaper finally has more information here.

September 7, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, obituary, philosophers | 13 Comments

In Memorium: Donald G. Bloesch (1928-2010)

This August has been a hard month on evangelical theologians–or, rather, on those left in this exile as they pass to homecoming.  As I noted earlier, Canadian Baptist theologian Clark Pinnock (1927-2010) died of advanced Alzheimer’s disease on 15 August.  Well, this past Tues., 24 August, Donald G. Bloesch, evangelical theologian of renewal in the United Church of Christ, died as well.

I have read some nasty tributes that have praised Bloesch by running down his denomination, portrayed as a sinkhole of “rank liberalism.”  That is not the way that Bloesch saw his part of the Body of Christ and that has not been my experience of the UCC. Sure, the UCC contains process theologians (Daniel Day Williams, a process theologian first at the University of Chicago and then at Union Theological Seminary of New York, was one of the pioneers of those who used the process metaphysics pioneered by philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charlese Hartshorne in the service of Christian theology) and many other classic liberal or neo-liberal thinkers.  But the UCC is congregational in polity and each congregation varies greatly in theology.  The UCC’s theological giants also contain the Niebuhr brothers, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, the 19th C. historical theologians Philip Schaff (who founded the American Society of Church History) and John Williamson Nevin (founder of the American Theologica Society), minister and civil rights leader Andrew Young (later mayor of Atlanta, GA and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter), public theologian Max Stackhouse, Gabriel Fackre, Enoch Oglesby, and many others who could not be classified as “blindly liberal” in theology.  So I don’t see the need for evangelical theologians in other traditions to try to build the late Dr. Bloesch up by running down his denomination.

Bloesch was raised in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a German immigrant denomination strongest in the Midwest that was one of the small denominations which merged in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ. (The E & R was itself a merger of two German-speaking immigrant denominations in the 19th C., one more Lutheran (Evangelische) and the other more Calvinist or Reformed, but both using the Heidelberg Catechism–which had tried to bridge the gap between the Lutherans and the Calvinists. ) He went to the major E & R college, Elmhurst College in Illinois (B.A.) and one of its seminaries, Chicago Theological Seminary (B.D.) before earning his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago Divinity School, an ecumenical (usually liberal) divinity school historically connected to the Northern/American Baptists. 

I encountered Bloesch as a young college student trying to find a middle ground between fundamentalism (either in its rationalist/empiricist form espoused by Carl F. H. Henry, or its rigid Calvinist presuppositionalist form championed by the likes of Cornelius van Till) and the liberal modernisms that seemed like watered-down faith.  Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology included the entire evangelical tradition, including Wesleyanism, Pentecostalism, Anabaptism, and Pietism– all branches that Calvinist, Lutheran, and Calvinistic-Baptist evangelicals regularly ignored, disparaged, or gave second-rate status as “evangelical stepchildren.”  Bloesch himself was a blend of Reformed and Pietist thought.  He also firmly placed Karl Barth in the evangelical tradition (unlike van Till, or Henry, or, more recently Al Mohler) and saw Emil Brunner and the Niebuhr brothers as having at least one foot in the evangelical tradition.  Thus, his work was firmly evangelical, but also ecumenical and in dialogue with wider figures than most evangelicals in the U.S.  (He later expanded his dialogue to include Catholic and Orthodox voices.) My developing Anabaptist influence found Bloesch too stubbornly Reformed, but I loved the tone and spirit of his writing and his non-separatist ecclesiology.

He spent his life teaching at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa, which is formally connected to the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., but also has historic ties to the UCC and to several small evangelical denominations.  That lifelong commitment to one institution is also rare in this era of careerism. 

In 1985, Bloesch wrote The Battle for the Trinity (ironically, just before a major wave of renewal in trinitarian theology from widely divergent sectors of the Church universal).  Here, Bloesch, a supporter or the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, saw the primary danger as being feminist theology and especially feminist critiques of the use of only masculine imagery for God.  Then and now I saw Bloesch as having the right battle (as opposed to the endless “battles for the Bible” that mostly involved people talking past one another and confused real threats–and some exist–with mere shadows), but the wrong battle lines.  There are feminine images for God in Scripture and in the early Christian tradition! And, the exclusive use of masculine imagery, even by theologians who are well aware that God is NOT male and that men and women BOTH bear the image and likeness of God, does seem to make men more directly in God’s image and to make women only indirectly or less clearly bear the divine image.  So, while we want to avoid goddess language and be careful to let Scripture the way we speak of God, we cannot repudiate all feminine imagery for God–even in worship.  This was one of my major disagreements with Bloesch and with those influenced by his work–work which now includes a seven volume systematic, Christian Foundations.

I also disagreed with his approach to political theology.  Bloesch clearly repudiated the Religious Right, standing up for church-state separation, and a pluralistic democracy with a strong welfare state.  He also was far more outspoken about racial justice than most evangelicals.  But his political thought was controlled by his early doctoral work on Reinhold Niebuhr.  He never learned from either the pacifist witness of Anabaptist theologians such as John Howard Yoder or any form of liberation theology–in which he saw only the threat of Marxism (which he read through the Cold War lenses of Stalin and Mao). In this, he was quite at odds with many in his denomination.

But Bloesch’s approach to the arts and to Christian witness in a secular culture was refreshingly open in an era dominated by the likes of Francis A. Schaeffer.  His push to reclaim prayer and worship at the center of theological life and his openess to the charismatic movement were all major challenges from an evangelical Reformed theologian.  So was his insistence that if the church were to retain a term like “inerrancy” to describe Scripture, it must be only in the sacramental sense of the Word conveying the Spirit and not in rationalist-empiricist forms.

He helped introduce me to the work of Karl Barth (and, to a lesser extent, that of Emil Brunner).  So, though my Anabaptist-Liberationist influences moved my theology into a different orbit, I remain grateful for early helpf from Donald Bloesch. More, I appreciate his humble and pietist tone–which is all too lacking in theologians from many traditions.  The church is poorer without his witness.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | obituary, theologians | Leave a comment

R.I.P. Clark H. Pinnock (03 Feb. 1937 to 15 Aug. 2010)

Canadian Baptist theologian Clark H. Pinnock, who began his career as a neo-fundamentalist and Carl Henry-style rationalist but moved to a progressive evangelicalism, pioneering an “open theism” theology that occupied a middle ground between classical Arminianism and Process Theology, passed away yesterday.  He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.  A first obituary from a colleague is found here.

UPDATE: I have been searching for obituaries with more detail since Sunday. Strangely, there has been nothing. Nothing in the Toronto papers or on Religion News Service and nothing even on the websites of any of the seminaries where Pinnock had taught (in reverse order: McMaster Divinity College; Regent College; Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary).  I hope this is remedied soon. I find the lack of notice of Dr. Pinnock’s passing to be disturbing.  So, as I have been trying to sort out my mixed emotions at his passing, I’ll try to be a partial remedy.

Clark Pinnock was neither a huge positive influence on my theology and ministry, nor one of my theological adversaries, but he did influence the environment in which I studied and worked, in both negative and positive ways.  I met him only 3 times: twice at my alma mater (the pre-Mohler SBTS) and once at the Evangelical Theology section of the American Academy of Religion.  He was always gracious, kind, and humble in personal contact–something that cannot be said of all theologians. (I’ve noticed no correlation between type of theology and Christian character.  As a doctoral student, I once had the occasion to meet two famous theologians for about a week–names withheld out of courtesy.  One was very far from my own thought and the other quite close, but I quickly decided that I would rather be on the same faculty with the one I considered heretical. I couldn’t imagine trying to serve on committees or even get lunch regularly with the person I mostly agreed with theologically–because this person was a total ass, whereas the heretic showed Christlike qualities constantly.)

Pinnock grew up in a liberal Baptist Canadian household, but it was a separatist fundamentalist Baptist congregation which presented him the gospel. He was converted and came of age in this scholastic Calvinistic fundamentalism. An early mentor was Francis A. Schaefer, one of the creators of the Religious Right in North America–and Schaefer made Pinnock an apologist.  He departed enough from this background, however, not to attend a Bible school or even a conservative Christian college, but to earn his B.A. at the University of Toronto (1960). He did so well at University that he was awarded two fellowships for graduate work:  A Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Harvard and a British Commonwealth Scholarship to study at any UK university.  He chose the Commonwealth Scholarship and earned a Ph.D. in New Testament at Manchester University under the supervision of the great Prof. F. F. Bruce with a dissertation on the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writings.  Some have viewed Pinnock’s pilgrimage, at least in part, to the gradual decline of Schaefer’s influence and the rise in influence of the spirit of Bruce’s open and engaged (world affirming) evangelicalism.

Pinnock’s career might have been very different if he had continued in biblical studies, but in 1965, as a fresh Ph.D., he was hired by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to teach, not New Testament, but Systematic Theology–for which he had to prepare quickly.  It is here that Pinnock’s story first intersects my own (though I was only 3 in 1965!), because this appointment first brought Pinnock into the orbit of the Southern Baptist Convention.  The context was volatile:  The Civil Rights Movement, the beginnings of opposition to Vietnam War, the failure of the Great Society’s “War on Poverty,” and the seeds of culture change in American evangelicalism–including in the largest (and, at the time, most insular) Protestant denomination in the U.S., the SBC.  Pinnock came into this and began to conclude that far too many Southern Baptist scholars were theological liberals.  His early apologetics writings defended a strict inerrancy of Scripture–and led to many fights with other faculty at NOBTS (usually considered one of the most conservative SBC seminaries, even in the ’60s) and throughout the SBC.  Pinnock also became a hero to some fundamentalist students at NOBTS, including one Paige Patterson, who would later lead the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC–after Pinnock had left. 

Pinnock was soon from New Orleans to Deerfield, IL and the campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), a seminary sponsored by the Evangelical Free Church, but actually a major interdenominational center of U. S. evangelicalism–from the right to center of the U.S. evangelical spectrum.  Here, Pinnock began to change.  Still a mild Calvinistic Baptist with a Carl Henry-style rationalist bent, he became less combative and more open to wider theological trends. He helped to push the Theological Students Fellowship, a graduate effort of InterVarsity Fellowship, into greater prominence, serving on the editorial board of TSF Bulletin.  This effort was especially geared to support evangelical graduate students at non-evangelical institutions–encouraging them to do Ph.D. work at Harvard, Yale, at major universities in the UK and in Europe and to take this greater educational breadth back to the colleges and seminaries of their evangelical institutions–while being evangelical witnesses at “godless” Harvard & Yale (and Union/Columbia, Chicago, Princeton U. and Princeton Sem., etc.), too.  As a young man in the Army struggling with my burgeoning conscientious objection, I was also wrestling with a call to ministry–and copies of TSF Bulletin, including many articles by Pinnock, were very helpful to me.

During his TEDS days, Pinnock also became a faculty mentor to a group of socially radical students led by a young Plymouth Brethren student namd Jim Wallis–the original “Post-American” community that was to become the Sojourners community and Sojourners magazine when it moved to Washington, D.C.  Here, Pinnock played a very different mentoring role than he had with Paige Patterson–with very different results for American Christianity.  Pinnock began to talk about the need for “an evangelical liberation theology” and to combine conservative theology with radical social ethics–and the “Evangelical Left” of the 1970s was born.  I participated in that “Evangelical Left” as a subscriber to Sojourners and The Other Side, meeting Wallis and others from the Sojourners community, and Gordon and Mary Cosby of The Church of the Savior, working with Habitat for Humanity, visiting Koinonia Community in Americus, GA, The Open Door in Atlanta, GA (with its ministry to both the homeless and to death row inmates), visiting John Perkins and Voice of Calvary Ministries in Missippi, Reba Place Fellowship (Mennonite) of Chicago, and more.  Pinnock wasn’t the primary influence, but his was an encouraging voice into the early ’80s when I came of age.

By 1980, while the U.S. lurched to the right culturally and politically, Pinnock had returned to his native Canada to teach, first at the ecumenical Regent College, and then at the Baptist, McMaster Divinity School.  His return to Canada led him him to further steps (in different directions) in his pilgrimage.  After some disappointing experiences voting for some avowed socialist politicians in Canada, Pinnock moved in a more conservative direction politically. He began to raise more questions about liberation theologies (especially the Marxist influences) and, by the mid-’80s, he quit the board at Sojourners and served for awhile on the board of the conservative think-tank known as the Institute for Religion and Democracy (the IRD worked with the CIA to undermine Christian and peasant movements throughout Latin America in the ’80s), founded by the then-Lutheran-minister-now-Catholic-priest, Richard John Neuhaus.  I and others of the Evangelical Left were less than pleased by this movement on Pinnock’s part.

But theologically, Pinnock moved left instead of right.  Under the influence of British Methodist N.T. scholar, I. Howard Marshall’s book, Kept by the Power of God, Pinnock broke with the Calvinist view of “eternal security” and embraced evangelical Arminian views, writing a foreward to a second edition of the book. (Pinnock could have learned this perspective earlier from the Southern Baptist giant, Dale Moody, but he had been too busy denouncing the influence of Barth and Brunner on Moody, in those days! Later, he did reconcile with Moody and the two recommended each other’s books.) He also nuanced greatly his view of biblical inspiration in his bestselling, The Scripture Principle, though choosing to keep the term “inerrancy,” which Pinnock believed would “stretch” further than I do. (He also wanted to end the controversy over inerrancy in evangelical circles by this method, which didn’t work.)

Noticing by the mid-1980s that North American evangelicals in general, and the Southern Baptist Convention especially, were in full-fledged civil war over many things, but symbolically centering around the debate over the inerrancy of Scripture, Pinnock realized that many of the conservative leaders, especially Paige Patterson, were his former students. So, when the SBC seminary presidents tried to quell the feud by holding major conferences on the authority and interpretation of Scripture, bringing in “outside evangelical scholars,” Pinnock was one of those who came. And he said to the conservatives, “You listened to me in the 1960s, so please listen to me, now.  End the feud. If there were liberals in the SBC then, they have all been vanquished. There is room for broad agreement on the authority of Scripture and diversity on the details.”  Patterson and others felt betrayed and Pinnock was unable to stop the rightward lurch of the SBC.  That was when I first met him. I am 6’3″ and he towered over me by nearly a foot.  He was deeply saddened at the way the SBC was tearing itself apart and he  had little of the combative Schaeferrite influence left.

Soon after this, Pinnock became a leader in the “Open Theism” movement–a halfway ground between classical Arminian/Freewill theology and Process Theology.  He rejected hell as eternal suffering for annihilationism and, while retaining Christ’s uniqueness and supremacy, began to move to an inclusive view of salvation (rather  like my teacher, Molly Marshall)–arguing that God’s work in general revelation meant that some truth could be found elsewhere–and may even be salfivic, though one would continue to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ as the only sure way of salvation.

The Evangelical Theological Society tried Pinnock for heresy–but he survived by a narrow vote.

When he was hired by McMaster Divinity College, Pinnock was the first openly evangelical faculty member in some time–easily the most conservative member there.  It could have led to a repeat of his experience at New Orleans BTS.  Instead, Pinnock moved to a progressive evangelical theology at the edges between the evangelical spectrum and mainstream liberal Protestantism.  Meanwhile, MacDiv became more conservative. By the time of his retirement in 2003, Pinnock was one of the more liberal faculty members there and today MacDiv openly advertises itself as Canada’s premier evangelical seminary in a secular university setting (downplaying it’s denominational identity as Baptist–once far more important to it than the “evangelical” label).

The mature Pinnock’s social and political commitments remained too conservative for me and I do not think the term “inerrancy” stretches as far he did. I think “inerrancy” is a bad way to characterize biblical authority.  But I share his Arminian commitments and SOME of the perspectives in the Open Theism camp seem to be to be biblical and helpful while I still wrestle with other issues. But I encountered these perspectives and issues primarily from others–seeing Pinnock’s input only later.  He has been a background figure and never a primary influence on me.

Still, this Pilgrim theologian who was NEVER afraid to say, “I was wrong and my last book is quite mistaken,” was a huge force in English-speaking Baptist and evangelical circles–and a controversial one–throughout my entire life.  His passing leaves us all poorer and I hope that the near silence since Saturday will be soon broken.  There should be tributes and reflections throughout many theological circles.  I predict many a dissertation on his work, from various perspectives, in the future.

August 16, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, obituary, theologians | 16 Comments