Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Does the U.S. (and It’s Churches) Need an Exorcism?

I was reading Willard Swartley’s wonderful book, Covenant of Peace as part of my preparation for a sermon series on “Paul the Peacemaker.” In his section on “Principalities and Powers,” Swartley emphasizes (contra Walter Wink) that the NT writers didn’t just believe in semi-personal forces in and through institutions and political structures, but actual spiritual beings. We Westerners need to resist the temptation to demythologize too much if we are to understand Paul rightly–the Powers and Authorities did refer to governments, and other institutions, but ALSO to spiritual BEINGS–however much that troubles us.  Witness to the Powers could rightly include exorcism when Paul began to plant a church in a new city or new part of the empire.

So, while I’m reading this, the news is going on in the background and it’s more about the Islamophobia sweeping the U.S.–this time politicians are opposing a mosque NOT in lower Manhattan, but in Murfreesboro, TN! So, then it hit me that I’ve been thinking of the fear and hatred rampant in this nation since 11 September 2001 (calming down some from late ’06 to Spring of ’09, but now back larger than ever) as a kind of mass psychosis or group insanity.  But maybe I should think of it more theologically as possession.  Since 9/11, a Spirit of Fear (and hate follows fear) has possessed this nation (maybe especially in our churches).  So, maybe we need an exorcism (or several)?

The Spirit of Fear has led to two wars, to torture, unlimited detention (now bipartisan), Islamophobia, anti-immigrant hatred (especially toward Latino/as), a resurgence in OPEN, BLATANT racism of a kind not seen so virulently in years, fear of the poor, fear of any attempt by the government to help anyone (SOCIALISM!), fear that any action to help the environment is some kind of Communist plot, resurgent homophobia, etc., etc.  The U.S. churches seem to be caught up in this as much as, or more than, the rest of the nation. (I don’t presume to speak for other faith groups.) Last year, the Pew folks put out a study showing that those who attend church twice a week or more are more than TWICE as likely as the national average to support torture! (This is probably the greatest catechetical failure in basic Christian ethics since the majority of U.S. churches supported SLAVERY!)

Should Christian peace groups call for days of fasting and prayer to cast out the spirit of fear (of the Other) in our churches? Should we let it build for weeks?  Should such a campaign culminate in Prayer pilgrimages to sites that represent the Spirit of Fear? To the Arizona-Mexican border? To lower Manhattan near Ground Zero (inviting Jewish and Islamic groups to travel too)? To Congress? The White House? To the offices of major media outlets–and major fear mongering pundits?  To the Pentagon? 

This has gone beyond a political problem.  I wonder if we need to respond with spiritual weapons–the only weapons the New Testament authorizes for Christians in the first place.

August 24, 2010 Posted by | exorcism, liturgy, oppression, peace, spirituality, theology | 4 Comments

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

Reclaiming Prison Literature for the Life of the Church

Prison literature–literature composed by people in prison–tends to be some of the most powerful writing in all literature.  The authors have sometimes been actual criminals whose experiences behind bars changed them (e.g. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice) in different ways.  At other times, the authors have been imprisoned for their political views (or actions of civil disobedience and political resistance) or religious views (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison; Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience; Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham City Jail; Philip Berrigan, Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary; Daniel Berrigan, They Call Us Dead Men.)  Often whether a writer is a criminal or a political prisoner is a matter of great dispute within a society (e.g., Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance; Mumia Abu-Jamal, Death Blossoms: Reflections of a Prisoner of Conscience; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead; Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks).  The perspectives vary widely, as do the genres.  But almost always the literature is powerful and moving–even if the reader continues to disagree with the writer.

I haven’t seen any scientific survey, but my experience is that U.S. Christians are less exposed to prison writings than almost anyone else.  Many have probably read John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), but they are unlikely to realize that Bunyan wrote this while in prison for “unlicensed preaching,” which was smuggled out by his wife.  But they probably haven’t read much literature written from prison.

This is unfortunate since Christians seem to have invented prison literature with the Apostle Paul’s prison epistles (Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, & Ephesians) and with the Book of Revelation written by a Christian named John imprisoned on the isle of Patmos (who may or may not have been John the Apostle).  We still read these biblical books, but I suspect that our interpretation is hindered because we no longer have a “feel” for prison literature.

I suspect our alienation is also due to the fact that few in today’s U. S. churches know anyone in prison.  Jesus commanded his followers to visit those in prison (and expected Christians to frequently be imprisoned for our witness), but this is usually neglected or relegated to specialized ministries, today.  And we expect to be on the side of the Powers who enforce “law and order” while the New Testament expects us to be a challenge to the lawmakers, to be subversive of the “order” of imperial forces.  Reclaiming prison visitation as a normative Christian practice and reclaiming the reading of prison literature (and not just of Christians).

July 27, 2010 Posted by | ecclesiology, hermeneutics, literature, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Book Review: Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation

William C. Placher, ed., Callings:  Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).

We’ve all asked it of ourselves, others, and (often) of God:  “What should I do with my life?  What do I want to be when I grow up?  How should I do God’s will and earn a living for myself (and, possibly, a family)?”  Sometimes others ask these questions of us.  Sometimes we don’t finish asking such questions in adolescence.  Sometimes we ask them again at other points in our lives–or we are still asking them at mid-life or even in retirement. (In the latter two cases, the question often becomes, “What should I do with the rest of my life?”) 

If we are Christians, the questions take a particular shape.  We don’t just ask what we’d enjoy doing, what brings us joy, what skills do we have or can obtain that are marketable and would be useful to society–although we may ask all those things too.  But as Christians, we know that we are disciples, followers of Jesus, and that “our religion”  isn’t just something to fit into our spare time. So, we want to be able to line up our lives and life work with God’s will, God’s purposes of grace, with the work of the Kingdom. (This may also be true for persons of other faiths, but, if so, I shall let them speak for themselves.)   So we ask about our calling or vocation  from God.  We seek to discern such a call and, while some find such to be blindingly obvious–a sense of purpose so overwhelming as to be like a very Voice from the Heavens or a blinding Vision to pursue–others find discernment of vocation more difficult.  In either case, we may seek advice from others, including the voice(s) of our faith tradition whether through the person of a pastor or spiritual director or mentor, of by searching the written records of  the thoughts of those who have gone before us.

William C. Placher has edited a collection of such written wisdom from the early church to contemporary Christian thinkers in Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation.  After an introduction to the theme and a prologue reviewing some of the biblical passages most consulted about vocation/calling, Placher organizes the excerpts from Christian witnesses chronologically, in four sections. The divisions correspond to major shifts in context which led to large, basic, changes in the way the Church largely understood the very concept of vocation. 

Section I. Callings to a Christian Life: Vocations in the Early Church, 100-500 begins in the Second Century, when Christianity was still very much a minority religion, often illegal within the Roman Empire, and sometimes subject to persecution.  In such a context, the call was to become a Christian–a break from the world and life one knew.  This concept, that one’s vocation was to BE A CHRISTIAN (however one earned one’s daily bread) survived the legalization of Christianity under Constantine and continued on even to the point where Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire–for a time.  In this section, we hear about calling and vocation from Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, the anonymous author of The Martyrdom of Perpetua, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Palladius, the anonymously written Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and Augustine of Hippo whose Confessions invented the autobiography and the spiritual memoir.

Monasticism in Christianity had already begun in the early centuries after Constantine, whereby one might pursue a calling to a “religious life” apart from everyday “secular” life in the world–a “religious calling” that might be pursued alone as a hermit or in a community of other “vowed religious,” i.e., of monks or nuns.  In the second period/division vocation is almost entirely understood as a call to such a separate religious life.  Thus, section II. is titled, Called to Religious Life:  Vocations in the Middle Ages, 500-1500.  Those “in the world,” whether as married laypeople or as “secular clergy” not part of a monastery or convent, were generally not thought to have any calling or vocation all.  In this section, Placher lets us hear the voices of John Cassian, Sulpicius Severas, St. Benedict, Bernard of Clairveaux, John de Joinville (one of the most detailed chroniclers of the Crusades), St. Bonaventure, the great female mystical theologian Metchild of Magdeburg, St. Thomas Aquinas, Christine de Pisan, the anonymous author of The Mission of Joan of Arc, and Thomas á Kempis.  I would have liked to hear more Eastern voices in this section and some selections from reformers cast out as heretics (whether or not we today would still consider them heretical), such as Peter Waldo or Jan Hus.  Still, I am grateful Placher included several female witnesses in this section, often left out in our mental pictures of “Medieval Christianity.”  And the selections by de Joinville (his account of St. Louis’ supposed calling to lead a military crusade) and on Joan of Arc do show exceptions to the Medieval norm that vocation was automatically a monastic vocation.

The third section takes us from the Reformation to the edge of the 19th C.  The Reformation introduced or reintroduced (or, at the least, gave new emphasis to) the concept of all honest work as a calling from God.  Thus, section III. Every Work a Calling:  Vocations After the Reformation: 1500–1800.  As expected, we hear from Luther (5 selections!), Stadler, Calvin, St.  Ignatius of Loyala, St. Teresa of Avila, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, William Perkins, George Herbert (2 selections), Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, George Fox, Gerrard Winstanley (a welcome surprise!), William Law, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley (3 selections).  The Luther’s outsized representation is easily explained:  No other representative of classic Christianity wrote as much about the nature of vocation as Martin Luther.

The final section, IV.  Christian Callings in a Post-Christian World, 1800-Present has no uniting concept, and the writings are the most varied yet.  We hear from Søren Kierkegaard, John Cardinal Henry Newman, Feodor Dostoyevsky, Horace Bushnell, Pope Leo XIII, Max Weber, Walter Rauschenbusch, Howard Thurman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Karl Barth.  At least since 1800 (if not before) Christianity has become a truly global religion. Therefore, despite Placher’s undeniable achievement in this volume, it was genuinely disappointing to see no selections at all from Asia, Africa, or Latin America.  Are we to gather that there is no Christian wisdom on vocation and calling from these quarters?  This is quite the oversight–the more glaring because Placher has gone beyond the “usual suspects” in much of the book.

Nevertheless, this book is a treasure, both because of the witnesses contained and because of Placher’s own introductory comments.  This is theological reflection rooted in and connected to the practices of the church, in this case the practice of discerning one’s calling or vocation.  Unfortunately, it is unlikely that any suggestions for revision will be undertaken in a second edition since the editor, who taught at Wabash College in Indiana, unexpectedly passed away in late 2008.  That, in itself, is a tragic loss for the contemporary life of the church and we are blessed that this project was finished and published as a final gift of Placher’s own vocation as a theological educator.

February 24, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, biographies, book reviews, church history, spirituality, testimony, theology | 1 Comment