Thursday, August 31, 2006

Not a Gaffe

After Katherine Harris told the Florida Baptist Witness that the separation of church and state was a “lie,” she was rightly criticized by many. However, some critics seemed to downplay the significance of the statement by calling it a “gaffe.” For instance, this language was used in an Orlando Sentinel column, a Slate Magazine piece, and elsewhere.

However, to call the Harris comment a “gaffe” is to completely miss the seriousness of the situation. After all, a gaffe is a mistake or an error. Sometimes it is even used to describe when someone says something that is true but just socially impolite to say. Neither meaning is appropriate for the Harris comment.

This was not a mistake. That is to say, she did not say something she did not believe. There are too many Christians that that honestly believe that the historic principle of separation is really a “lie.” She likely did not want the mainstream media attention to the comment, but she did not mistakenly say something she does not believe. Additionally, the second meaning of “gaffe” is entirely wrong since there is no truth to her comment.

It is time for real and mainstream Baptists to be very clear about comments such as the recent one by Harris. Let us not water down our language and give her out. Her statement was not a “gaffe.” It was a lie!

Inerrancy and women's roles

While learning about the right-wing resurgence that occurred within my denomination, the Southern Baptists, I have found out that a few of the hallmarks of this movement include the issues of the inerrancy of Scripture and of women’s roles in the church. Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine D. Pohl, in their book Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism, and the Theological Academy, make an interesting point about the relationship between these two subjects. They quote one evangelical woman in the academy that they had interviewed: “Inerrancy is masking a deep ambivalence and hostility to women. It is an acceptable shield to take cover from the issue of women.” Inerrancy and women’s roles are, according to Creegan and Pohl, “thoroughly related.”

Creegan and Pohl refer to researchers who studied women at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The study noted that, although the heated discussions focused on inerrancy, that particular controversy came second to the matter of women’s roles in the church, since gender roles are intensely personal. The conservative resurgence within the denomination used women’s roles as a litmus test; one was not conservative enough if she or he believed that women could be pastors or other types of leaders in the church. Creegan and Pohl mention that women and men who have experienced the conservative resurgence within the SBC encounter the odd phenomenon that, if they happen to be in favor of women in leadership positions, they are suddenly considered to be on the more radical or liberal side. Tensions may arise especially for those who may be conservative when it comes to other theological matters. Michael has an illustration of this with his post about one of his mentors.

This is not to say that the inerrancy debates are less important than gender equality issues and that we should discuss inerrancy less. Rather, I had never realized the personal implications of the gender roles debate. Discussing inerrancy seems to be a more abstract, theoretical enterprise, while women’s roles may affect many people in a more personal, concrete way.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Uneven Status of Women in American Christianity, Circa 2006

The uneven status of women in American Christianity of 2006 was evidenced in the August 26 edition of the New York Times.

The lead Times story: “Clergywomen Find Hard Path to Bigger Pulpit.” The article surveyed the status of women in Protestant congregations of major denominations, both conservative and liberal, black and white. Although women now comprise 51% of all students in divinity schools, only 1-3% of large churches (roughly translated, congregations with 350 or more members) within all major denominations are led by women. The author did attribute a quote from a Southern Baptist Convention spokesperson who repeated the SBC mantra of “different roles and responsibilities for the genders.” A disclaimer noting that many Southern Baptist churches nonetheless embrace the concept of women in ministry was included. Nonetheless, the Times article backs Al Mohler’s recent assertion that despite the rhetoric, moderate Baptists (not to mention Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Pentecostals) are not making room for women to lead prominent churches.

A second religion story caught my eye on the Obituary page: “Vashti McCollum, 93, Brought Landmark Church-State Suit.” In 1948 McCollum brought a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court that set the course of late 20th century legal decisions regarding the relationship between church and state in America. The lawsuit contended that the public school in Champaign, Illinois which her fifth grade son attended infringed the separation of church and state by using taxpayer money to teach religion classes. Supreme Court Hugo L. Black wrote the majority opinion in favor of McCollum, contending that the school’s practice “beyond all question” infringed the First Amendment by using government funds “to aid religious groups to spread their faith.” Black continued, “The First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other in its respective sphere.” In the lower courts church “federations” had opposed McCollum; a Unitarian minister and a Jewish group sided with her. McCollum, an atheist, received “physical threats” from Christians, and the family cat was lynched. And where were the Baptists, the historical champions of the separation of church and state? Nowhere to be found in the Times summary of the case.

Turning to the Religion corner of the Times, a third article jumped out: “Debate Over Remarriage Gives One Conservative Denomination an Identity Crisis.” In short, the Church of God of Prophecy, a 1922 split from the larger Church of God, is in the midst of a four-year long debate over whether or not to grant church membership to remarried persons. The journalist noted that a Church of God of Prophecy pastor of 55 years bemoaned the possibility of allowing twice-married persons into church membership. The irony? The long-tenured pastor is a woman, pastoring in the Bible Belt of central Georgia. More conservative than Southern Baptists, the Church of God of Prophecy nonetheless embraces women ministers.

So here we are in 2006 in America, a year in which women ministers in Baptist life across the board have made little inroads since the mid-18th century when women deaconesses and elders were not uncommon in Baptist churches in much of the South; a year in which a pioneer of 20th century legal interpretations regarding the long-standing Baptist tradition of church and state separation passed away with little fanfare even as many Baptists have since left their historical moorings concerning separation of church and state; and a year in which a long-time woman pastor in the Bible Belt declares that there will “blood” on someone’s “hands” if remarried persons are allowed to become church members in her denomination.

Confusing? Maybe, if the American public is still paying attention to Christianity in 2006.

The Armagedonists

I took the teenagers to the movie theater to see "An Inconvenient Truth," the presentation Al Gore has been doing around the world on Global Warming. We walked the mile and a half to the theater in 110 degree Oklahoma heat to help make the experience a bit more visceral. Watching this movie fits, in a round-about way, into a series we've been doing this summer on "end-times" and the return of Christ. The Christian scriptures point to a purposeful beginning to history, and its eventual end (We all caught "The Omen" when it came out last month and will be viewing The Omen II next week to stir up our discussions on the Anti-Christ mythology).

I've stumbled across a term in my reading of late--Armageddonist. A moniker that encompasses those Christians who believe that the end of history will culminate in a battle between authentic Christians, led by a glorified Christ, against pagan and non-believers. The popular Armageddonists, like John Hagee, Jack Van Impe, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, read the signs of the times in such a way as to suggest that this final conflict is on its way soon. The horrible exchange of missiles between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah would be the kind of "sign" that would suggest this battle between Jews/Christians and Muslims/pagans is nigh upon us.

So in light of this emminent doom, why care for our environment, or the earth? Why care that ice caps are melting and large gaps in the ozone are being created? Why have concern that the earth's population has tripled in size in the last 80 years compared with its steady hold the previous 6000 years of recorded human history? Jesus is going to return and end history as we know it, claim Jews and Christians and condemn the rest of creation to eternal damnation. And since the world does find itself shrinking, and the climate is changing, and the threat of Nuclear War grows more unpredictable, doesn't it seem to be fluent with this line of reasoning? The planet is winding down (winding up?) for the return of Jesus. Right? What's the need to reform our life style? It's all part of the plan, so don't worry about it.

I have some answers to these questions, but I admit they aren't as "sexy" as the idea that we're gearing up for the final battle.

  • Stewardship
  • Self Denial
  • Concern for the poor (those most adversely effected by the imbalance of wealth).

Christ and the prophets that preceded him all cared a great deal about these things. In fact, you couldn't shut them up about it. And economic justice translates somewhat automatically into issues of clean air, water, fair trade and wages. God created us with intention, and in spite of our brokenness, still expects us to care for the whole of creation. Even if the Armageddonists have the notion of the final battle worked out correctly (and the religious establishment botched Christ's first visit up pretty good, I don't know why we think we're any better equipped to understand his second coming any better), I don't see why, in light of the prophets and the model of Jesus, unlimited hording of resources constitutes a Christian ethos, selfishly biding our time until Jesus comes and cleans things up for us. Seems to me if we aren't trying to live the Kingdom of God along the way then we aren't going to be very happy about living in it when God forces it on us.

2000 years is a long time. Jesus hasn't come back yet. The apostles thought he would return in their lifetime. Do you suppose it could be another 2000 years before he returns? Or more? Jesus said the kingdom of God is among you. Don't look for it "here" or "there." Might that be his way of saying go ahead and get started trying to shape the world in the image of the Kingdom of God? My friend Greg Horton has an aphorism that captures the Kingdom of God ethic: "This is who we shall be, so this is who we must be."

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Al Was Right

I myself am a little tired of the whole woman pastor debate, as it went on for awhile on my personal blog a few weeks ago.

I’m tired of it because debating rarely changes anybody’s mind and because I really . . . really . . . have more important things to do with my time.

But I do realize that I am one of the very few in a large group of Baptist women called by God who has somehow found her way to a pulpit. And it seems lately that I’ve been called on to speak up on this issue whether I really want to or not.

Just call me “Reluctant Activist”.

Two things circulated in my life this past week that brought the issue up again, so here I go again:

First, I chuckled about the recent reports of Southern Baptist criticism for CBF churches because they are not hiring enough women. You can’t win for losing, you know, but this time . . . this time, whether he means to be or not,
Al Mohler is right.

My, I never thought I’d say that.

Yes, while things are picking up for women pastors in Baptist life, it is still ridiculously difficult for talented, trained and called women to find pulpits. Much of this is social mores and just the fact that many folks have never seen a woman in the pulpit; this fact, however, does not excuse more moderate folks from working harder to open ministry opportunities to women, especially those who want to pastor.

Second, I have now staying in my basement a former intern whom I would consider to be an exceptionally talented young minister. She’s one of the good ones, you know, one of those who is really going to make an impact on Baptist life. She’s smart, articulate, driven, committed, faithful . . . all the things you’d want your pastor to be.

Having recently graduated from Duke Divinity School and determined to stick within Baptist life, it’s a sad but true statement that if she were a man she would have numerous opportunities to pastor. Numerous. But now she is still interviewing, hoping to relocate to the area in a ministry position that will allow her to use her considerable gifts and excellent education. (Read her funny blog entries: The Pastor Goes to Ann Taylor.)

As I watch her wait and struggle, this one who is exceptionally qualified and vastly talented, I remember the pain of wondering whether I'd ever get a chance, praying for clarity and hanging on for dear life to the conviction that God had some business with my life and would never let me rest until I started participating (I haven't yet told her that once you actually get a chance sometimes the expectations of 100%, every moment, overachieving excellence are a little bit . . . wearing. That's another entry . . .).

The women I admire, pastors to God's people, they are women who just want to be pastors, not activists. But somebody’s got to give us a chance to try our hands at the helm of ministry, carefully manicured though they may be. And just because Al Mohler said it, don’t dismiss it. Let’s show him that we practice what we preach, that we really believe God can call whomever God wants. Shall we?

As an act of faith I declare here the witness of three women I know to be exceptional pastors: Dorisanne Cooper, Julie Pennington-Russell and Amy Jacks Dean. Leave your links here in the comments as the beginning of a list we can compile together so that perhaps sooner rather than later we can declare with conviction, "Al was WRONG!"

Monday, August 28, 2006

Theocracy: Florida Style

Congresswoman Katherine Harris is in the news again. This time not for voting irregularities and bias but for a remarkable claim, made by her, to the effect that separation of church and state is "a lie" and that God and America's founding fathers did not intend the country to be "a nation of secular laws."

Really? But hang on, that's not the worst of it. She evidently also went on to say that separating religion and politics is "wrong because God is the one who chooses our rulers."

Such sentiments, sadly, are not hers alone. Lots of Baptists actually believe that very sort of thing and behave accordingly. Remarkably, the Republican Party doesn't seem interested in distancing itself from such unhistorical ideology. And worse, from my perspective, neither are enough Baptists.

Reaching the Young - Wikipedia

One of the main thrusts behind this group blog is a desire for Mainstream Baptists to reach younger generations. Any strategy to do so must include the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

For twentysomethings and younger, this website is now the first source of information whenever we research a topic. In fact, my college professors lament that far too many students use ONLY Wikipedia in their research. Also, Wikipedia is important because its links are permanent. Major newspapers only allow their content to be read freely for a few days; afterwards, the content is shuffled into archives that you can only access for a fee. Immediately after an event, such as Hurricane Katrina, old media sources dominate the search results. Google "Hurricane Katrina." See which link pops up first in the search results.

So, out of curiosity, I searched "Separation of Church and State" on Wikipedia. The entry is a disaster. The style is dry and visually unappealing. It's been tagged as problematic because (a) the author does not cite sufficient sources and (b) the author(s) use "weasel words."

Google the following: separation of church and state, Baptists, freedom of religion, etc. In every case, Wikipedia is the first or second listing in the search results. Our blogs and websites will never attain the same recognition and popularity. Wikipedia must be the center of our efforts.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Introducing Mainstream Baptist Bloggers

I have been asked to cross post this from my blog, Levellers. If I got any of your descriptions wrong, please email me @ and I will make corrections at both places.

A new group blog has been developed called Mainstream Baptists. The term "mainstream" in the title does not refer to the views of the current majority of Baptists in America (which would be far more conservative or even right-wing), but to the mainstream of the 400 year old Baptist tradition. The blog is the brainchild of Rev. Dr. Bruce Prescott from Norman, Oklahoma, who runs the "Mainstream Baptists Network." It will focus mostly on reinforcing the traditional Baptist perspective championing liberty of conscience (called by some "soul competency" or "soul freedom"), religious liberty for all, and church-state separation. But the 15 (so far) bloggers will also comment on other issues of importance to non-fundamentalist Baptists in the centrist-to-progressive theological spectrum, especially "public square" issues.

The hope is that media types who are used to hearing only from the Religious Right when Baptists are mentioned, will discover the site and learn the broader tradition.

To my continued surprise, I have been invited to participate in this blog. My surprise has to do with the fact that, as an inheritor of the Anabaptist-Social Gospel-Liberationist strand of Baptist life, I represent a distinct minority strand of the larger Baptist tradition. My tradition has always been a part of Baptist life, but we've never been "mainstream." Still, since I care strongly about the issues to which the blog is dedicated, I'm glad to be included. On these issues, there is very little difference between Leveller types like me and the mainstream of the tradition.

Let me introduce you to some of the others on the current team. In addition to Bruce Prescott and myself, there's:
  • Rev. Amy Butler, Senior Minister at Calvary Baptist Church, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation in the heart of Washington, D.C. Amy writes a great blog called "Talk with the Preacher."
  • Natalie Burris, of Tuttle, Oklahoma, a young woman conversant with contemporary theology, who is considering seminary or graduate school (or both). She writes a blog called "Panta ta Ethne." If your Greek is rusty that translates as "to all the nations," or "to all peoples." Natalie's blog is strong on the multicultural universal nature of the gospel.
  • Dr. Jim West, is pastor of Petros Baptist Church in Tennessee. A biblical scholar with a strong interest in Reformation theology (especially Zwingli), Jim is proof that the breed of pastor-theologians has not quite gone extinct. He stubbornly remains Southern Baptist in hopes of one day seeing reform and renewal when the current era of fundamentalist domination is over. His blog combines his interests in theology and biblical studies with commentary on current events.
  • Pastor Scott Stearsman, Senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church, Kirkwood, MO, connects that church to ministries throughout the world through several partnerships with various Baptist groups. From browsing his profile and online sermons, I gather that he combines his training in classical philosophy (Ph.D., U. of Oklahoma) with mission experience abroad, and a pastor's heart to give him a vision of mission, ministry, and servanthood, which is global.
  • Will Prescott, son of Bruce, and blogging as "Runbdp," is a writer, aspiring novelist and screenwriter, and a graduate student at Oklahoma University. His blog, "Future Bard," previously called "Young and Relentless," combines his interests in the arts with interests in religion and politics. Today, those political sentiments would be considered "left of center," but I am old enough to remember when they were very much mainstream and today's center the "far right," (and today's "right" was off the page of acceptability in American discourse). Seeing folk Will's age hold these convictions gives me hope that I might live long enough to see those kinds of views become "mainstream American" again.
  • Dr. Paul D. Simmons, one of my former teachers, is new to blogging--even newer than I am. Formerly Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (when it was a center of learning and not an indoctrination camp), these days Paul teaches ethics courses in the philosophy department of the University of Louisville, and biomedical ethics courses at U of L's School of Medicine. He is a well-known biomedical ethicist who has also written on sexual ethics and much on religious liberty and church-state separation. A Christian humanist, Paul has worked long for dialogue between Baptists and secular humanists, knowing that, while we have sharp differences in places, we share common commitments to liberty of conscience, free inquiry and investigation, commitment to secular government (but differing over the desirability of a secular society), free speech, and the marketplace of ideas.
  • Dr. Albert Reyes, is the President of the Baptist University of the Americas, formerly known as the Hispanic Baptist Theological School, which trains Hispanic/Latino Christian leadership through Bible institutes in Texas, Mexico, and one in Alabama. These prepare women and men for ministry in Latin American, U.S. Latino, and cross-cultural contexts, sending many on to further work in seminaries. Dr. Reyes' blog, "Pan Dulce," is for "seekers of wisdom, ministry ideas, and pathways to sanity in daily life."
  • Aaron Weaver, blogging as "Big Daddy Weave," is a 23 year old son, nephew, and grandson of ministers educated at my alma mater, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. A native of Georgia who did an internship with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) (one of my own heroes), Aaron previously worked for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. He is now a graduate student at Baylor University in Waco and a self-described theological moderate and political progressive.
  • Mark Whitten, blogging as MadisonFan, is the author of The Myth of Christian America: What You Need to Know About the Separation of Church and State (Smyth & Helwys, 1999). He teaches philosophy and religion at Tomball College, Tomball, TX & is president of the the Greater Houston chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
  • Martin Tiller, a former youth minister in Richmond, VA teaching in public schools, blogs as Matthew61. He also owns a digital video production company and some of his work is geared toward churches. He writes an interesting blog called "Thoughts of a Minister." The blog is, as it describes itself, "thoughts from a Baptist minister in Virginia who is trying to raise an alternative voice to the Religious Right." His wife is a Youth and Outreach Minister.
  • "Howie Luvzus" is the blogging pseudonymn of someone who was greatly hurt by Southern Baptists and is trying to recover and minister with grace--all in the context of New Orleans, the city America is trying to forget! Although often bittersweet, his blog is also one of the funniest Christian entries to the "blogosphere."
  • Bruce Gourley, Associate Director of Mercer University's Center for Baptist Studies, and online editor for Baptists Today, is also a Ph.D. student in history at Auburn University, writing a dissertation on Georgia Baptists during the Civil War. He is also an internet entrepeneur and the owner of, a photographer, and a Baptist minister. He has a new blog known as "A Baptist Perspective."
  • Brian Kaylor, a Ph.D. student in Communications at the University of Missouri, has pastored a rural church and now works as a communications specialist for a Christian organization. Brian works to help Christians communicate better, even when they disagree. Strangely, his blog is called, "For God's Sake, Shut Up!"
  • Tim Sean Youmans, a minister in Shawnee, Oklahoma, has a fascinating blog known by the unlikely title of "Anabaptist Monk."
  • Michael Westmoreland-White. I didn't need to introduce myself on my own blog, but I will in this cross-posted version. Married to a Baptist minister (16 1/2 years with 2 daughters), I am a once (and future?) academic theologian and ethicist now working as an organizer and educator for a few Christian peace organizations. I'm also a freelance writer for religious and political magazines and working on my second book, tentatively titled, Mapping Peace. My blog, Levellers, is named after a radical movement for democracy and human rights in the middle of the English Revolution and Commonwealth period, led by the early General Baptist leader, Richard Overton. I try to capture the spirit of the Levellers for a 21st C. American context.

It's a great group with a fascinating range of interests, backgrounds, contexts, and perspectives. We obviously need more women and persons of color (several have been invited, but turned us down due to schedule conflicts), so I hope our diversity expands as some come aboard.
I hope you'll check us out and, if you do, leave some comments so that we get feedback.

Judge White's Canticle to a Ten Commandments Monument

It only took Oklahoma Eastern District Court Judge Ronald A. White three words to signal his contempt for complaints about Ten Commandments monuments. His decision regarding what could be described as a monument to American theocracy in Stigler, Oklahoma begins, "The present kerfuffle ensued when Plaintiff James W. Green took offense at the erection of a Ten Commandments Monument on the lawn of the Haskell County courthouse."

That sentence succinctly summarizes White's conclusion. White concludes that the Plaintiff, a conscientious Protestant Christian, is at fault for taking offense at his county government's approval of the erection of a permanent monument that endorses a sectarian Reformed Protestant fundament for faith.

This decision makes it clear that at least one recent appointee to the federal bench is prepared to openly discard the weight of the opinion of James Madison, the primary author of our nation's Constitution. Madison wrote:

Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences in denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
Had James W. Green lived in New England during the revolutionary war, he would have undoubtedly been in much good company. Unfortunately for him, James W. Green is living an increasingly isolated life in the wrong place at the wrong time. He lives in Eastern Oklahoma in the twenty-first century. In a small town where the Judge says, "Everyone knows each other." Now, the barber who has cut his hair for the last decade refuses to trim his locks.

Complaining about an encroachment on the First Amendment is not mere "kerfuffle" to James W. Green. Like many others in different places and in different times, he believes defending the Constitution of the United States is his patriotic duty. He believes that the Constitution protects the rights of religious minorities and secures religious liberty for all persons equally. He believes that in the United States the government is required to be neutral in regard to religion -- neither promoting it nor discouraging it.

Mr. Green's neighbors, however, have a different idea of the Constitution and of patriotism. They assert that America is a "Christian nation." They think a monument with the Ten Commandments on one side and the Mayflower Compact on the other symbolizes a "Christian heritage" that forms a necessary legal foundation for the government of the United States. They hold rallies that question the patriotism of those who assert that the Constitution requires that church and state be separate. They loudly proclaim that "the ACLU should go to North Korea" and all who disagree with them are "free to move elsewhere."

To his credit, Mike Bush -- the Baptist lay minister who secured approval, solicited private funding and erected the monument -- did not deny his political and religious intentions for doing so. Neither did one of the County Commissioners who approved the placement of the monument on the courthouse lawn, but he died before the case came to trial. Thereafter, Judge White found it convenient to ignore that Commissioner's sworn deposition since the Judge was unable to view that Commissioner's courtroom "demeanor."

Another County Commissioner, sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, passionately told a crowd of citizens that "the bulldozer will have to run over me" if the court ordered the monument removed. Then he denied, under oath, that he made this statement publicly.

I testified that I heard this Commissioner give his "bulldozer" quip to the entire crowd at a rally from a microphone. My testimony was discounted as having an "agenda" to further the goals of Mainstream Baptists and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The same Commissioner also testified that he "does not believe in the separation of church and state." The Judge concluded that his only "agenda" was "to please the electorate."

The entire board of County Commissioners approved a policy governing the placement of monuments, plaques and markers on government property that denies equal rights to persons of minority faiths. In Haskell County Oklahoma monuments, plaques and markers can only be placed on government property by persons and groups with a fifty year history within the county. Judge White asserted that this "policy, and its adoption, play no part in the outcome of this case." Then the Judge concluded that the Commissioner's were justified in their concern that had they denied a request to erect the monument, Mike Bush might have successfully sued them for denying his free speech rights.

By now it might be clear to some that Judge White's opinion would be poorly suited as a model for sound reasoning and logical consistency. During my thirty-four years as a Baptist minister, I have often observed preachers who, sensing that logic is against them, begin diverting attention from their weak reasoning by amplifying their rhetorical flourish and by quoting poetry. Judge White may well have missed his calling in life. Not only does he quote Dante in his opinion, but he titles the headings of his decision "Cantica's" and the subheadings "Canto's." Biblical allusions and metaphors can be found on nearly every quarto of this forty-three page Canticle to American Theocracy.

At least one legal scholar was thoroughly impressed with White's ode to theocracy. Howard M. Friedman, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Toledo, wrote on his blog:

What is unusual is the literate and amusing opinion written by federal district Judge Ronald A. White. The opinion, whose subheadings are inspired by Dante's Inferno, accomplishes the nearly impossible task of keeping the reader enthralled for 43 pages.
Friedman might be excused for finding White's decision so entertaining. Reading some legal decisions could easily be prescribed as a cure for acute insomnia. There is a reason, however, why many legal opinions make such dull reading. Justice is far better served by methodical adherence to the rules of logical thought and by impartial application of sound reasoning to legal precedent than it is by the rapturous lyricism and judicial blandishments of misplaced poets.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Sovereignty of God and Church-State Separation

The great Reformer Martin Luther had a theology that could be used to promote the separation of church and state--but not in a way I consider theologically sound. Luther believed in what has come to be called the "two kingdoms" theology: Jesus Christ is Lord directly only of the church and a "spiritual" or "religious" realm. The realm of secular politics, on the other hand, is governed by a different set of rules that Luther called "the left hand of God." A Prince who is about to go to war, said Luther, did not need to consult the Sermon on the Mount as a guide to his conduct. That was for personal life. The public life of the state was to be governed differently.

Many Baptist defenders of church-state separation, perhaps in unconscious reaction to the clearly theocratic aims of pseudo-Baptist fundamentalists and others in the Religious Right, seem to adopt Luther's theology. You hear it in the popular slogan that "religion and politics do not mix," a phrase I first heard as a child: uttered by segregationists against any white minister who dared to challenge the legal and cultural apartheid of the day. It was also a means to denounce African American ministers such as Martin Luther King, Jr., James Lawson, Ralph Abernathy, C. T. Vivian, or Andrew Young for their civil rights activities. When racist ministers defended segregation, however, I never heard anyone complain that they were "mixing religion and politics."

I am a strong defender of church-state separation, but NOT of "2 kingdoms" thinking. There is no realm or area of life in which God is not sovereign! God is concerned about more than one's "inner life" and certainly expects us to bring our whole selves into the political arena.We do not have one ethic for our private lives and another ethic as citizens.

Then are the theocrats right? NO! Church and state must be separated precisely because God is sovereign and makes exclusive claims on our loyalties: No government or official is a spokesperson for God. Church-state separation limits the authority of the governing powers, not of God. God alone is Lord of the conscience. Governments are part of the Powers and Authorities which, though fallen and often rebellious, God uses to order human life. But their authority is strictly limited: over material concerns alone. God, on the other hand, is concerned with both the spiritual and the physical. By separating the institutions of church and state, the church is free to address a prophetic word to the state. It is hard to b e a true prophet when you're on the federal payroll--something that seems never to occur to those who seek federal dollars for their "faith-based ministries." (Yes, that's an unconstitutional program, but even more important, it is a fetter on the freedom of the church to be the true Church of God.)

Roger Williams had it right: He believed in God's sovereignty just as strongly as his Puritan opponents. He shared many of their Calvinist views (more than I do!) but Williams understood that they were fundamentally mistaken to consider themselves a "New Israel." Since the coming of Christ, there are no chosen nations. Christians are scattered amongst all the nations of the earth. We are in permanent diaspora. Our mission is not to rule pluralistic societies and force "Christian" behaviors on non-Christians. Rather, as Jeremiah writes to the exiles in Babylon (Jer. 25), we are to seek the shalom (peace, well-being) of the various polities to which God is sending us. In our political action, we are to seek the common good with our fellow citizens, not attempt to get privileges and marginalize those of other faiths and no faith. Instead of seeking to be a "Christian nation" in outward trappings, we ought to seek to be a just nation where all are treated equally, allowing wheat and tares to grow up together until the final harvest--and God did not designated any of us to be harvesters! ( Matt.13)

Jesus is Lord of all--Caesar is not!

Baptist Heroes...

Unfortunately, the word "Baptist" has been polluted by "neo-pharassical fundamentalists" over the past 20 years. For this reason alone, young Moderates such as myself need Baptist heroes to remind us of our true Heritage.

Many Moderates revere great Baptists such as Ralph Elliot, Will Campbell, Cecil Sherman, E.Y. Mullins, Clarence Jordan, J.M. Dawson, and Walter Rauschenbusch (to name a few). William H. Whitsitt is a favorite of my father. Many of my friends claim Tony Campolo, Molly Marshall, and Walter Shurden as heroes.

But let me introduce ya to MY Baptist Hero....Dr. James M. Dunn

James Dunn has been described by his friend, Grady Cothen, as a "church going, Christ honoring, evil bashing, separation of church and state enthusiast." Texas Congressman Chet Edwards has referred to Dunn as the "Rosa Parks of the Religious Liberty issue."

After earning degrees at Texas Wesleyan University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the London School of Economics, Dunn was tapped to replace Jimmy Allen as the Executive Director of the Christian Life Commission of Texas Baptists in 1968. As Executive Director, Dunn gave focus to issues such as race relations, drug and alcohol abuse, the threat of liberalized gambling laws, juvenile justice, prison reform, workers' compensation for farm workers and world hunger relief.

In 1981, James Dunn left Texas to become the Executive-Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. During the 80's, Dunn aggressively stood up to Ronald Reagan's attempt to rewrite the Constitution (i.e. Constitutional Prayer Amendment of 1982). In typical James Dunn fashion, he responded to Reagan's "grave and serious sin"...

“You hear it called ‘putting God in schools.’ It is as if the Divine could be dumped into a wheelbarrow and carted out. The charge that everything went wrong because they threw prayer out of schools is patent poppycock.” He further argued that “to make public prayer a political football is to deny the meaning of prayer...The God whom I worship and serve has a perfect attendance record, never absent or even tardy."
While James Dunn was kicking butt and taking names on Capitol Hill, Southern Baptist Fundamentalists had begun to wage a war against Dunn's Baptist Joint Committee. Dunn's focus on soul freedom was incompatible with these fundamentalist's focus on government favored religion and theological control expressed through creedalism. Dunn's firm affirmation of uncoerced faith is evidence that soul freedom was a threat to men such as Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler.

James Dunn fought the fundamentalists for nearly a decade. Finally, in 1991 the Southern Baptist Convention officially dissolved all financial ties with the Baptist Joint Committee and effectively ended a fifty-five year relationship. However, the SBC was unable to bring the religious liberty watchdog to her knees. In subsequent years, Dunn successfully found funding sources for the BJC. As we all know, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty continues its ministry today with the support of fourteen different Baptist groups.

James Dunn is one of the most colorful figures in recent Baptist history. He spoke (and still speaks) about important theological issues with down-home language in a way that any person could understand "in their innards." James Dunn refused to remain silent or capitulate when conscience was at stake. In 2000, upon receiving an award for his contributions to Baptist life, Dunn was still firing away...

I’ll be jiggered if a batch of neo-pharisaical, power-mad politicians, frazzling fundamentalists, trapped in a truncated theology were going to redefine religious liberty. Those limited lights were not about to destroy the witness of J. M. Dawson, take over the Baptist Joint Committee, and water down what it means to be a Baptist.

Without a doubt, James Dunn is a true Baptist Hero - MY Hero.

For a copy of my seminar paper on Dr. Dunn - please follow this LINK.

Friday, August 25, 2006

(First Two) Questions for Advocates of 'Christian America'

To make their case that the Founding Fathers intended to create
a 'Christian nation,' advocates need to answer the questions:

1) Why did members of the Constitutional Convention make a
deliberate decision not to begin their proceedings with official
public prayer?
There is no doubt that such a decision was made and that
the meetings of the Convention did not include public prayers.
Now, if these Founding Fathers were intent on creating a
'Christian America' by their efforts, how is it possible that they
would have declined to invoke God's blessings and guidance?
I have never come across an adequate answer to this question,
if one assumes the claim of the advocates of 'Christian America.'
It was this decision that Benjamin Franklin challenged during
the "dark days"of the Convention, when it was at an impasse
over the question of states' representation in the national legis-
lature. Franklin issued an eloquent and often-quoted (out of
context) motion that prayers be offered in order to "remedy"
the situation. This fact leads to the second question:

2)Why did the Convention reject Franklin's motion?
And reject it they did, despite the popular falsehood that
Franklin's motion was well received, prayers were initiated,
and this was the 'turning point' of the Convention. A debate
broke out over the motion, the motion was never voted upon
and effectively killed. Franklin later wrote: the Convention,
"except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary."
The impasse continued for many days after Franklin's motion -
no turning point here! Gouverneur Morris said in the course of
subsequent debate: "Reason tells us that we are but men, and
we are not to expect any particular interference from heaven
in our favor."
The Convention did decide to have a religious service on
July 4th, outside of the Convention's proceedings, in which
prayers were offered on behalf of the Convention - a true
expression of both"free exercise" and 'separation of church
and state!'
How do advocates of Christian America spin this situation,
when they finally realize that their old claims as to the 'prayer
meeting convention' are demonstrably false?
On D. James Kennedy's special "One Nation Under God"
(aired 7/22/06) it was asserted that a "variation" of Franklin's
motion was adopted and "prayers were offered for the
Convention." The statement is technically true, but intentionally
ambiguous and misleading, as many will conclude that the
prayers were offered within the Convention as a part of official
Convention proceedings. (Talk about NOT letting your 'yes' be
'yes' and your 'no' be 'no!')
Advocates of 'Christian America' have yet to come up with
an adequate and honest response to the incompatibiity of the
Convention's decisions regarding official pubic prayer and their
claim that the Founding Fathers intended to establish, institut-
ionally and legally, a 'Christian nation.'

An introduction and public school stuff

I feel like I should be introducing myself as a contributor to a new blog. Bruce had mentioned that he would introduce us, but since we only know each other from our blog writings I'm not exactly sure where that would lead me.

Well, my name is Martin Tiller. As a theological blogger I started in October of 2004 with Thoughts of a Minister. I post on a inconsistent basis. I just don't have the time or the muse to post four times a week, and I don't like cut and paste posting or just post a list of links. But I do post at least 3 times a month.

I start originally posting anonymously, under the name Matthew61. Matthew 61 comes from Matthew 6:1 "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them," and I always believed that the Religious Right was in clear violation of that verse. But as a blogger I wonder if I am violating that rule as well when I blog.

I also thought that I should be strong enough to clear about my beliefs, so I put my name in my blogger profile for everyone to see. That is my name and these are my beliefs, was my thinking.

As a Baptist, simply put I am one. My father is an interim Baptist Minister after being a college Baptist Student Union Director most of my life. My grandfather has a wing named after him at a church in Richmond, not a classroom, a wing. And I was very active in my own BSU at Virginia Tech during the early 90's. I graduated from Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond in 2001, and was ordained by University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. I even married another BTSR graduate in 2005 (but she grew up Methodist...)

After having been a minister to youth in a couple of places, and minister to children, even an interim pastor at a very small church, I currently make a living by teaching 5th grade at a public school (gasp!...oh the horror...!) in Henrico County, which is a suburb of the Richmond area.

Why the switch? Well to put it frankly churches don't deal well when they can't meet or know exactly where a staff member's spouse is. When I was pastoring the small church, they all knew that my wife worked on Sunday's as a Minister of Outreach. Yet they still begged and begged for her to come and meet them on a Sunday. My wife's church knew that I was pastoring a small church for a while, yet a few members wondered out loud if "we were having problems." Well, that gets old after a while, and I realized that I had made the right decision to teach school.

Now why public school? To put it bluntly they pay more than private school.

But as I am now entering my second year, I have long kept Matthew 28 in my head. Where Jesus commends those for working with the least of these.

My first year of full-time teaching I met a lot of the "least of these." One young boy in my class was in such a poor family that a lot of the time he did not have any breakfast to eat. So I would keep snacks in my desk specifically for him, because if he was hungry he would act out and disrupt my class. And of course I just felt really bad for him.

I also dealt with a child that had lice so bad that she literally missed half of the school year. The parents didn't except any responsibility for either. Yet, I had to figure out a way to educate her. I admit it didn't work as well as I would have liked, but I still tried.

You see public schools take anyone and everyone.

Private schools get to pick and choose who they take.

Not to specifically pick on them, but as an example Grove Avenue Baptist Church runs a K-12 private school. They say in order to attend at least one of the parents must be a regular attending member of a church. Nothing really wrong with that, but it does eliminate a lot of difficult family situations the school would have to deal with.

They also note that they are not equipped to deal with students who have extreme special needs. Fair enough.

But at the same time they proudly display the fact that their students do much better on national tests than other schools do.

Well duh! If I didn't have to take little Mikey who has a below-average IQ, or Josh who comes from a poor and broken family, who has a lot of things to deal with at home, then heck yeah my class would do great on standardized tests! That's no great accomplishment.

Now having said that. I do believe in private schools, my mother taught at one for 11 years, and they do offer some options that public schools can't.

But in our current climate where public schools are under attack from everyone, I take up for them here.

Everybody on staff knows that I went to seminary and that my wife is a minister, yet I am accepted as a very competent and skill teacher. Some would have you believe that I am told to be quite about that part of my life.

As a public school teacher, I take anyone and everyone into my class. And to me that sounds very Christian, and exactly what Jesus has called us to do.

In Matthew 28 Jesus asks did we feed, cloth, and visit the least in jail. I don't think I'm taking too much of theological jump to add, "did I teach the least of these?"

That's what public schools do, we teach "the least of these."

The Haystack Revival

Ethics Daily has an excellent summary of the goings on of the famous Haystack Revival way back in 1806. Diverse groups like Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ all trace their involvement in foreign missions back to an unlikely movement that started when five Williams College students gathered in a field for a twice-weekly prayer meeting on the third Saturday of August in 1806. Do read the entire essay.

These Are Not Baptists- Nor Christians

This Lamp reports today

In July the ironically named Fellowship Baptist Church in Saltillo, Mississippi, held revival services. During those revival services, 12-year-old Joe, a boy of biracial descent "accepted Jesus into his heart." On August 6, at the church's business meeting, the all-white congregation voted to exclude blacks from its services, including Joe because they did not want him to bring his family members to worship services.

Such treatment of a human being by a group of persons who name themselves Christians defies comprehension. Such behavior is neither Baptist, nor Christian.

The Gospel isn't about exclusion, it is about inclusion. The people of "Fellowship Baptist Church" should be utterly ashamed of themselves. Were I a member of that Church I would resign in protest and I would make sure that the local media knew all about what had gone on.

Such behavior annoys me beyond words. I pray God's grace will become real to those racists.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Pledge as Prayer

Wiley Drake, the current Second Vice-President of the Southern Baptist Convention, is criticizing the city council of Lake Forest, California for not opening its meetings with an invocation. Drake claims it is hypocritical for them to say the Pledge of Allegiance but not have an invocation. He argues:

You’re praying to God, really, in that Pledge -- ‘one nation under God’ -- and then you move right into the meeting without having a prayer. You want God in the Pledge, obviously -- you say it; but you don’t want God in your city council meeting.
This may be one of the oddest comments about the Pledge. There are three problems with this. First, it is inaccurate because the Pledge of Allegiance is not really a prayer. It does include the phrase “under God” but it is not addressed to God as a prayer would be. This is similar to the difference between the hymns “How Great Thou Art” and “Because He Lives.” While the former addresses God the latter is about God.

Next, his statement is problematic because it is inconsistent. He claims that not having an invocation means the council is saying they “don’t want God” in their meetings. However, if the Pledge is a prayer, then they already prayed and thus they already brought God into the meeting. Why, then, would they need another one?

Third, his statement is wrong because it presumes that the city council should pray at each meetings. This is not a church service and not everyone in Lake Forest is a Christian, nor even of the same Christian tradition. Is this really the most important project Drake could find to send his time working on? What about sharing the love of Jesus? What about spending some time in his closet praying? What about catching up on his Baptist history and principles?

Such problematic rhetoric could easily be avoided if it were not for Drake’s status as the 2nd Vice-President of the SBC. With that status and affirmation, his voiced is increased. It helps him as he works to tear down the historic wall between church and state and as he waters down the Christian faith.

Is it worth it?

Growing up as a female Southern Baptist who feels called to the ministry has given me the opportunity—or the trouble—of dialoguing with fellow SBC members who think that women should not be pastors. Through reading this blog and through conversations with fellow Christians, the issue has again been on my mind significantly these past few weeks. It has been tiring at times; I even remarked to a girlfriend (who is called to be a pastor) that I don’t think the women-as-pastors issue is one that I think worth debating anymore within my denomination. Aren’t there other, more pressing issues?

I take that back.

Perhaps it was the fatigue talking, but after more thought I think it certainly is worth discussing. I have had the opportunity to talk with some very wise people about gender roles in the church, and have learned a lot. By nature of graduating from an evangelical Christian college, I have even been able to learn from a former professor there who wrote perhaps a seminal work on gender roles in the evangelical church. In one conversation, we discussed my past experience in Southern Baptist churches. I told him that I felt awkward when I attended a non-SBC church while in college, because I wasn’t accustomed to women in leadership roles. I felt a little uncomfortable being served communion by women, since I was so used to strictly men servers all of my life.

During our conversation I wondered out loud what kind of message has been sent to me and to other young women in the church who only see men serving in those capacities. I got an answer with a sorrowful shake of the head: to restrict women from serving in the church is not only a grave offense, but to do so during communion is to commit the offense at the very foot of the cross. The work of the cross was to radically bring everyone into community with one another, not to impose more hierarchy or to uphold existing ones.

There are more reasons why we can’t just chalk it up to theological differences and call it a day. Prophetic evangelical voice Tony Campolo has insisted that the issue of the ordination of women is at the core denying women something that is crucial to their personhood, their identities. Whether to allow women in the pulpits is more than a debatable issue; rather, we run the risk of dehumanizing women and committing sexism in the name of Christ. Denying women the right to pursue a calling of preaching is being complicit in a structural evil, one that tells women young and old that they are inferior to men. As an aside, this denial diverges from Baptist history, since Baptists had more women preachers than any other Christian group, leading nearly half of churches in Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin at one time.

On a more personal note, I can attest to the denial of identity, to some degree. According to a recent revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, the pastorate is limited to men. In the context of my SBC church growing up, I have been explicitly and implicitly told that I am not allowed to be a leader or a theological thinker, based on the fact that I am a woman. If I wish to lead or teach, I have been encouraged to lead or teach women and children, but never any men. Although I am now involved in an SBC community that encourages and affirms female leadership to an extent, I can attest to the damage done to my identity as a Christian and as a person. To me, that makes the debate worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reclaiming our Witness and Heritage

"Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners," thundered the Baptist preacher in a 1965 sermon entitled "Ministers and Marches." For his text the preacher used II Corinthians 10:13: "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh." Many Baptist preachers, in fact, echoed this sentiment 40 years ago.

Yet preaching separation of church and state from today's Baptist pulpits is rather dicey. "Separation of Church and State has long been the battle cry of civil libertarians wishing to purge our glorious Christian heritage from our nation's history. Of course, the term never once appears in our Constitution and is a modern fabrication of discrimination," one fundamentalist Baptist leader has noted. As if this imagery were not vivid enough, the same preacher later declared: "Modern U.S. Supreme Courts have raped the Constitution and raped the Christian faith and raped the churches by misinterpreting what the founders had in mind in the First Amendment of the Constitution.... [W]e must fight against those radical minorities who are trying to remove God from our textbooks, Christ from our nation. We must never allow our children to forget that this is a Christian nation. We must take back what is rightfully ours."

Oddly enough, the author of the later two quotes is also the author of the first quote ... Jerry Falwell. As a young preacher in the 1960s, Falwell raged against de-segregation and condemned African American and other "liberal" and "communist" preachers for turning to secular politics for social justice. Yet by the time Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, he had reversed course in declaring that true Christians had a duty to turn America back into a Christian nation ... using secular politics. Falwell continues his angry rants against the separation of church and state. This week he spoke at MidWestern Baptist Theological Seminary and crusaded against a Missouri initiative to fund stem-cell research, declaring (in effect) that government should not be involved in such research because it is "biblically incorrect." (Apparently his Bible says something about stem-cells. For some strange reason, my Bible does not.) The same man who tried his best to keep African Americans separated from Anglo Americans by preaching against the church seeking to influence the state for social justice (he has since apologized for his racism), has since been seeking to elevate fundamentalist Christians above all other American citizens by merging church and state in the form of legislating and mandating fundamentalist religious morality upon all citizens.

Sure, Jerry Falwell is a nutcase and is easy to pick on. But this nutcase is routinely invited by Southern Baptist leaders to address their conventions and speak at key annual events in their seminaries. Yet too often traditional Baptists remain silent about the historical Baptist witness within their own churches, while the media-savvy Falwell beams into Baptist homes and is allowed to represent Baptists to the "outside" world. Believe me, I know it is not easy preaching our Baptist heritage of religious liberty and separation of church and state on Sunday mornings ... I've tried! No doubt there are folks in almost any Baptist church who would be shocked to learn that Baptists are the historical champions of separation of church and state, a testimony to the failure of us as traditional Baptists speaking out about our Baptist heritage ... and to the success of Jerry Falwell and his ilk in deceiving Baptists, and the public at large, throughout America.

To turn Falwell's own words on their head to speak to today's moderate Baptists, "We must fight against those radical minorities who are trying to remove the true Baptist witness from our history books, our churches, and our nation. We must never allow our children to forget that Baptists put their lives on the line and shed their blood to ensure full religious liberty and separation of church and state in America. We must reclaim, for the sake of our world today, our own witness and heritage."

(For those seeking Sunday messages on religious liberty and separation of church and state, the Baptist Joint Committee maintains a repository of online sermons on their site.)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Baptist Women Are Priests!

Once upon a time, Baptists, even Southern Baptists, believed in something called "the priesthood of all believers". Baptists were proud, long, long ago, to be the champions of religious liberty, soul competency, separation of Church and State, and above all, the privilege of all believers to be their own priests; to come before God on their own behalf and on behalf of those they knew and loved.

But something happened in the mid 80's of the 20th century. Baptists began to believe the lie, indeed, the great lie, that only some were priests. Oh, to be sure, they didn't utter the secrets of their hearts out loud for fear of being exposed for the hypocrites they were. But deep within the recesses of their Fundamentalist hearts they held the novel opinion that women were not worthy of being priests in the presence of God.

For these Fundamentalists, women were second class citizens who were dependent on their husbands or fathers for spiritual guidance. They were perceived to be incompetent in prayer and exposition and witnessing and evangelism and so they were quietly and silently shunted to the sidelines where they could be controlled and devalued; all in order to make place for the new rising Priesthood of the Fundamentalist elite.

The Bible was hauled in to support this devaluation. Naturally, their Fundamentalist minds couldn't comprehend the simple truth that their reading of that collection of books was skewed and inappropriate- for the one thing that Fundamentalists are very good at is self delusion. So they twisted and turned the Scripture to suit their purposes. They stormed from their pulpits, "Women must be silent in the Church" and simultaneously, in the greatest act of hypocrisy since Judas kissed Jesus, they appointed women to the mission field as church planters!

The Fundamentalists, not satisfied with shunting the women aside (because in their hearts they realized that 9 out of 10 times the women they feared so in pulpits were superior exegetes and theologians), next turned against anyone who didn't subscribe to their perverted view of inspiration. Denouncing and brutalizing became the name of the game and the Fundamentalists came to utterly abandon the concept of soul competence and the priesthood of ALL believers.

Fast forward 25 years to the present. The Southern Baptist Convention has endured the theological impoverishment of the Fundamentalists for so long that most Southern Baptists have forgotten that they are all priests. And so, the world lingers in darkness, waiting for the citizens of the Kingdom of God to act their part responsibly. And God has begun to work elsewhere. The SBC is withering on the vine and I for one have nothing but sorrow for it.

And it's all easy enough to trace back to the fact that once upon a time, even women were priests in the SBC. But now, in some quarters, they are no more. And neither are most of the men.

Catch-22 Sadducees

A couple of weeks ago, the Baptist Press ran two random and unprovoked attack stories on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Bloggers such as Big Daddy Weave and Moral Contradictions wisely pointed out that the articles suggested that the Southern Baptist Convention leadership just cannot let ago. CBF offered a response where they rightly said, “This has been ‘the modus operandi’ of the SBC in its relationship to CBF for years.”

If there was any doubt that the SBC leadership is constantly attempting to attack CBF and others, that should be quickly dispelled by the most recent round of attacks. Now, fundamentalist Baptists are attacking CBF and other Baptists for ... not hiring very many women as pastors.

Yes, you read that correctly. Albert Mohler started the attack while Russell Moore and others echoed Mohler’s charges. These men believe that women should not be pastors so why are they attacking other Baptists for not hiring women as pastors? Should they not see such low numbers as a positive sign?

If the report Mohler refers to had shown huge numbers of female pastors, he and the others would have likely launched an attack on CBF churches for hiring so many women as pastors. Apparently disappointed to not find the opportunity to attack, Mohler got creative and attacked them for not hiring very many female pastors. This is like the Sadducees questioning Jesus about marriage in the Resurrection even though they did not believe in the Resurrection. Such attacks are intellectually dishonest.

This is a classic Catch-22 where it does not matter what CBF and others do, they will be attacked by the SBC leadership. Hire female pastors and get attacked. Do not hire them and get attacked. Such attacks are unethical and un-Christ-like. It is time for such attacks to end. After Paul and Barnabas split they did not keep attacking each other. Instead, they focused on sharing the love of Jesus. It is time for Mohler and others to start following the example of Paul and Barnabas and stop attacking like the Sadducees.

Asking Why . . .

I live at a curious crossroads of faith and politics here, since Calvary is located almost exactly between the Capitol building and the White House.

The challenges of living at this juncture have not eluded me. In fact, compulsions to speak out on political issues have kept me up at night because, friends, I am a good Baptist, thoroughly enamored with ideas like priesthood of the believer, autonomy of the local church and SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE.

Lately, though, I’ve been noticing that Jesus, whom I claim to follow, was quite an outspoken critic on political issues and institutions. He spoke out vehemently and agitated forcefully against those in power.

Being in this city has made me confront it a little more concretely. It seems to me that political ideologies and institutions are just like every other human invention: they can be used for good or for evil (and often are—both). The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to speak out—vehemently, even—when any person or institution or ideology creates poverty or injustice, perpetuates the spiritual or physical hunger of any soul.

With that convicting thought steering the liturgical car at the moment, I have been planning worship for the fall. I noticed quickly that those of us following the Revised Common Lectionary have the opportunity to jump feet-first into the Epistle of James these next few weeks, framing our examination of the scripture texts with the admonition that our faith is sadly empty if it doesn’t change the institutions and ideologies around us that enslave people: “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)

So I thought this might be a great opportunity to preach some “social justice sermons”—you know, some really heart-wrenching, guilt-inducing, go out and be a good Christian for God’s sake kind of sermons. We could even go protest down on the mall after church!

The more I looked at the lectionary texts, though, the more I realized the questions raised for me were not inviting the same (though justified) outrage over starving children in Darfur. Instead, the Epistle of James and particularly the words of Jesus in the Markan passages seem to be asking pointed questions of why these injustices happen in the first place.

Perhaps, I began to think with help from my colleague and lectionary planning partner, Lia, this might be just the opportunity to examine the roots of injustice, pain, hunger, racism . . . all those things that plague our religious and political selves.

Take a look:

Why Are You Afraid?: Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23 and James 1:17-27
Wherever he went Jesus kept running into the political and social powers of the day. The Pharisees were afraid. They were afraid of losing power, of systems changing, of discomfort. And with his suggestion that we seek internal transformation rather than external position or power, Jesus was threatening them. They were afraid. Why are we afraid?

Why Are You Poor?: Mark 7:24-37; James 2:1-10;14-17
There are all kinds of poverty, as we know well. But in these passages both Jesus and the writer of James explore the disparity of our societal distinctions. Both seem to suggest that everyone should have a place at the table, but we spend an awful lot of time making sure folks don’t. The irony of all of this exclusive behavior . . . is that it makes US poor. Go figure.

Why Are You Foolish?: Mark 8:27-38; James 3:1-12
An inability to deny ourselves and put others first might just be the very thing that causes us to buy into our own grand ideas of how we might live--which generally end up being downright foolish. Instead, Jesus suggests we adopt a wise way of living that includes denying ourselves. If we do that, the way we live, the institutions we create and the ideologies we embody will reflect our true hearts, as the James passage points out.

Why are you Lazy?: Mark 9:30-37; James 3:12-4:3
Want to be first? You’re going to have to become a servant. Want to know what’s causing dissention among you? Take a look at your ongoing pursuit of pleasure. Wondering why things aren’t working as you think they should? Examine what motivates you.

Separation of church and state doesn’t mean we sit back and stay quiet. Perhaps these lectionary passages can help our congregation take a closer look at why injustice happens and where we can start to change—really change—the institutions and ideologies that enslave our world.

Surely the Gospel of Jesus Christ, political activist extraordinaire, calls us to nothing less.

Watertown Baptist Preacher Makes News

Reuters has just published a story about the pastor of First Baptist Church of Watertown, NY defending the belief that women can't teach men.

Tim LaBouf, an American Baptist Church pastor, fired Mary Lambert, a female Sunday School teacher who had been teaching in the church for fifty years.

While this may be news in New York, such practices have been common in the Texas breakaway splinter group Southern Baptists of Texas for a long time. It has been a recurring phenomenon for more than a quarter century among fundamentalist minded Southern Baptists across the country.

Mainstream Baptists would not interpret scriptures so literally and legalistically on this matter although we do affirm the congregational autonomy that preserves the right of each local church to appoint its own officers and teachers.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Podcast: Randall Balmer Interview

Dr. Bruce Prescott's 8-20-2006 "Religious Talk" radio interview with Dr. Randall Balmer. Balmer is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University and visiting professor at the Yale University Divinity School. He was also an expert witness against Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument in Alabama. We discuss our ongoing dialogue on the Faith in Public Life website and his new book Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament -- How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America.

Click here to download the podcast (29 MB mp3).

Friday, August 18, 2006

Live Dialogue With Randall Balmer

Faith in Public Life is now hosting a live dialogue between Randall Balmer, David Buckley and myself.

Dr. Randall Balmer is professor of American Religious History at Barnard College, Columbia University. He hosted the PBS Television series Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory and is the author of several books. Our dialogue begins with a discussion of Baptists that is in his new book, Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament -- How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America.

This electronic dialogue will continue for the next few days and will include an appearance by Balmer as a guest on my "Religious Talk" radio program this Sunday morning at 11:00 AM CST. Readers are invited to make comments on the Faith in Public Life website and call-in with questions or comments during the radio program.

Mainstream Baptists may remember that Randall gave the keynote address at our 2004 national Mainstream Baptist Convocation. Material from that speech and a whole lot more is in his new book.

Basic Principles of the Just War Tradition

Regular readers of my Levellers blog know that I have been asked to argue the biblical case for gospel nonviolence or "Christian pacifism." I have done this many times in other places, so one thing I am doing is going back to my files rather than attempt to recreate the wheel. However, before I get started, I find it necessary to remind many of the principles of Just War Theory. Despite the fact that this has been the semi-official ethic of Western civilization regarding war and peace for about 1600 years, and despite the fact that the majority of Western Christians since Augustine have considered themselves adherents of JWT, there seems to be a woeful ignorance about the basics of this tradition, even among the seminary trained. Further, it seems that few pastors of non-pacifist churches discuss these principles with parishioners, leaving them without the information and without forming them in the moral virtues it would take to make this a serious moral force in the world.

Baptists have never, as a people, opted for either JWT or nonviolence. The majority strands of our tradition have accepted JWT, but we have had many pacifist voices from the beginning. I've always believed that gospel nonviolence fits with central Baptist convictions (e.g., Shurden's "Four Fragile Freedoms,") better than Just War Theory, but that is a discussion for another time. Now, I'm just trying to get Baptists engaging in more critical thinking and prayerful discussions of these matters, instead of papering over them with patriotic songs and yellow ribbons.

I consider gospel nonviolence to be a calling for Christians, not necessarily for nation-states. My criticisms of particular wars or lost opportunities for peace are usually rooted in the common Just War vocabulary that forms the basis of much international law, relevant portions of the U.S. military's Uniform Code of Military Justice, etc.--in short, the moral standards claimed by the mainstream Western world. So, it looks like this pacifist will have to give some remedial Just War instruction--even if only to avoid misunderstanding.

The principles below were hammered out over time. They were forged by major influential moral thinkers (e.g., St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Hugo Grotius, etc.) with an assumption that nations will make war. This ethic attempts to tame war and have it fought more morally than otherwise--sometimes to great success, but not at other periods of history. The overarching premise is a moral presumption against war: War is a terrible evil. It should be morally very difficult to justify going to war and the conduct of the war must be fought within very tight guidelines. General Sherman famously remarked that "War is hell," but, if so, the major premise of JWT is that there must rules even in hell.As the Just War Tradition has developed, it has been distilled into seven (7) principles: five (5) that judge whether a decision to go to war is morally justifiable (ius ad bellum) and two (2) to guide just conduct in waging the war (ius in bello). There is also a corollary that we will discuss at the end of this review.

IS THIS WAR MORALLY JUSTIFIED? Ius ad bellum Principles:

  1. Legitimate Authority: According to JWT, not just anyone can decide to go to war. The decision must be made by a legally recognized authority. In ancient times, this was the emperor or king. In the U.S., the constitutional right and duty to declare war is given to Congress alone (Art. I), even though the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has the authority to negotiate peace. The purpose of the Constitutional Framers was to make it more difficult for the nation to go to war. A major legal question of the current Iraq war/occupation is whether or not this requirement was met by the Congressional resolution that authorized Pres. Bush to use all necessary force to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction (never found). Some say "yes," but others believe that a formal declaration of war must be issued by Congress, that the Constitution does not allow this "passing of the buck" to the Executive Branch. Many Just War thinkers insist on a formal Declaration of War, not just to fulfill a legal requirement for the U.S., but because this has historically served as a last opportunity to sue for peace before the battle begins. Since the creation of the United Nations and the signing of its Charter, it has also usually been contended that, unless attacked or under immediate threat of attack, member nations have surrendered the right to declare war unilaterally. The legal authority in all cases except immediate attack or threat is then the UN Security Council. Member nations may not unilaterally presume to enforce Security Counsel resolutions by force.
  2. Just Cause: A war may not be fought for national pride or to expand territory, etc., but only for a just cause, such as resistance to aggression by means of attack or threat of attack. In extreme cases, such as attempts at genocide, a war may be justifiable to prevent an incredible violation of human rights, such as when North Vietnam invaded Cambodia to stop the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Because war is so horrible, however, the bar is very high for justifications to invade a sovereign nation for any other reason than to resist aggression. This is the only principle with which most Americans and American Christians seem familiar (although they too easily think that the national cause must always be authomatically just--an idea that is anathema to this tradition). When asked whether war X or Y is just, they will point to the presence or absence of a Just Cause--and forget about the other principles.
  3. Just Intent: The aims of the war must be just and limited: to restore peace and justice, not vengeance. The classic example where this was violated was WWI. The desire of the Allies to punish and humiliate Germany was unjust and sowed the seeds for the rise of Naziism. Over the years, Just War theorists have been very conservative at this point--generally disapproving of overly grand war aims such as militarily spreading democracy throughout theMiddle Eeast. International law reflects such conservatism. (Note: This also puts severe restraints upon an occupying power--it may not profit economically by the war, but must protect and restore the health of the occupied country.)
  4. Last Resort: All other means to resolve the dispute must have been tried and shown to fail, before one may justifiably unleash the dogs of war. I will have more to say about this in a future post on the practices of the developing ethic of "just peacemaking."
  5. Reasonable Chance of Success: A war must not be initiated or continued if there is no reasonable chance of success. This is counter-intuitive to the American penchant for admiring underdogs who "go down fighting." But it is based on the concept that it is unjust to ask citizens and soldiers to go through the horrors of war--no matter how just the cause--if it appears that said war is likely to end without achieving the aims of the war or, even worse, in a crushing defeat.

All 5 of the principles of ius ad bellum must be met before JWT believes it morally justifiable to go to war. One can have a clearly just cause and just intent, but if one has not met the other requirements, especially last resort, then going to war is unjust.

ARE WE WAGING THIS WAR JUSTLY? ius in bello Principles or Just Means:

  1. The Principle of Discrimination: Those waging the war must (a) honor noncombatant or civilian immunity. Thus, noncombatants may not be directly targetted. As modern war has grown more destructive, this rule has tightened to say that those waging war must take extra care to minimize civilian deaths--even at greater risk to one's own soldiers. Any tactic or weapon that makes discrimination between combatant and noncombtant impossible or difficult, is thereby forbidden. (The classic examples here are nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, but this judgment has also been made about landmines, bombing civilian cities or infrastructure, etc.) Noncombatant immunity also means that prisoners captured in war must be treated humanely. They are like chess pieces removed from the board--they may be interrogated, but not tortured or treated inhumanely. (b) Military forces limit themselves to military targets, refraining from looting, massacres, rapes and other atrocities, and all forms of wanton violence. Most war crimes trials result from violations of these principles of discrimination--and "the other side started it" is never a justifiable excuse.
  2. The Principle of Proportionality. [This principle is also used in judging "reasonable chance of success" in the decision of whether or not to go to war.] Wars are violent. People are killed and both property and the land are destroyed. This principle says that war's violence and destruction must be restrained by the norm of proportionality: The war's harm must not exceeed the good accomplished. This applies both to the war as a whole, and to particular tactics or weapons. There can be no "destroying the village to save the village" nonsense.

Selective Conscientious Objection: The corollary of the Just War tradition is that people, including those already in the military, will refuse to serve in an unjust war--no matter the cost to themselves, even prison. Recent examples include the Israeli refuseniks who have resisted serving in the occupied territories of Palestine and several military members in the current Iraq war, such as Lt. Ehren Watada. (Thanks to "Marty on the Homefront" for posting that video of Lt. Watada's speech at the annual meeting of Veterans for Peace.)

The churches which claim to embrace JWT are failing their members by not teaching them these principles and not preparing those of their members who choose military service for the possibility of needing to become a conscientious objector to a particular war. On the battlefield, soldiers may have to refuse an order which violates discrimination or proportionality--even at risk of field court martial and summary execution. This is extraordinarily difficult. Even though the Uniform Code of Military Justice explains to recruits the difference between "lawful" and "unlawful" orders, the ethos is (in some senses must be) one in which it is extraordinarily difficult to question orders. The same is true of all other armies of other nations. So, churches that fail to form in their members the moral character that would make such integrity and bravery possible are not really preparing them to be soldiers in the Just War tradition, but to be uncritical nationalists and militarists instead.

At its best, JWT is a high and difficult moral code. But there are limits to it that even non-pacifists have noted. In future posts to Levellers, I will discuss those limits and the practices of "just peacemaking." I will also, with that out of the way, make the case for Christian pacifism/gospel nonviolence.

Cross-posted from Levellers.

Talk With the Preacher: Blog By Popular Demand

Let's pause for a moment in the important work of ministry and address the questions raised in my recent post, Mail Call.

I decided a long time ago that the call I felt on my life was not to be an activist for the rights of women but to be a pastor to God's people. This is why I prefer to answer emails like the one I got from my Pen Pal not with proof-texting arguments (though I can certainly play with the best of them since I grew up sword-drill champion, darlings) but rather with faithful efforts to seek after God and live a life that reflects genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.

My feeling is that if Pen Pal really is wondering if what goes on at Calvary is "in violation of God's will" he would be better off visiting the church, talking to congregation members or chatting with our neighbors—not asking the question of the very one doing the violating.

Thus, in my mind, it's further a questionable use of time to dialog on an issue with someone who may very well be asking a question just for the sake of asking it and not because he really wants an answer.

However, if in fact there are some out there wanting to look a little more deeply at the scriptural issues around the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit and the call of God on the life of an individual, there are many scholarly treatments of biblical texts which painstakingly explore the cultural setting of the texts, the meaning of words in the original languages, etc. (At the end of the day, remember you can use the Bible to prove anything you want. I can never get my mother-in-law to stop quoting Ruth 3:6 . . .)!

For my friend Nathan who commented on the Mail Call entry, I would suggest you read John Bristow's book: What Paul Really Said About Women. Good biblical scholarship and a sound understanding of the cultural context of a text can really help shed light on difficult passages of scripture, as they have for Christians everywhere who wear pearls, cut their hair, eat pork, and do all manner of things specifically forbidden in the Bible. In fact, if I were your pastor, Pen Pal . . . or Nathan, I would encourage you to take the time to really get into the text—grapple with it and research its origin; look critically at the biblical witness in light of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The truth and power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are never in danger when we ask questions.

I agree with a colleague of mine who recently pointed out that the calling of God on the life of an individual is a mysterious and wonderful thing. When that calling is affirmed through a life of commitment and the blessing of those on the common journey of faith, well, that's also wonderful. But at the end of the day, God's business with you and with me is God's business, and no statement of church polity or even the ancient writings of Paul will constrain the Spirit of God. Looking back on all those decades when the Bible was used to condone slavery and racism, I myself am deeply grateful for the ongoing work of God's Spirit in the church.

So, for those of you with questions, kudos for asking them. This is how we learn and grow and are stretched by the ongoing work of God's Spirit.

May I encourage you, Pen Pal and Nathan and anyone else who is wondering if a woman can be a pastor . . . come on down to Calvary and worship with us. Live in our community and be part of this ministry; grapple with questions, do the work and live the life of faith among us. Then, being led by God's Spirit, answer the question for yourself.

Now, back to work.

Talk With the Preacher: Blog By Popular Demand

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