Monday, May 21, 2018

President Carter, Christopher Rowland, William Barber, and Liz Theoharis: Counterparts to the Four Horsemen of Evangelical Hypocrisy (Part 2)


Chris Rowland, President Carter, Mrs. Carter, David Gowler

The above photo is of three of my heroes (the three on the left!).

This blog post may seem at first to be an amalgamation of basically unrelated thoughts and events. It is not, as I hope will become clear by the end.

Part I: Chris Rowland
I want to dedicate this post to my mentor, friend, and colleague, Christopher Rowland, Dean Ireland’s Professor in the Exegesis of Holy Scripture (emeritus) of Oxford University. 

Today (Monday, 21 May) is his birthday. Happy birthday, Chris! Wish I could be there to help you and Catherine celebrate.

I first met Chris thirty-one years ago when I studied with him for a few months at Jesus College, Cambridge University, and he has become one of my dearest friends. I have learned from his intellectual brilliance, I and many others have benefited from his kind and generous heart, and I admire how he never let anyone be on the margins; he never permitted anyone’s voice to be silenced. In his own, brilliant self-effacing way, he fostered an environment of dialogic polyphony.

Chris also is also a groundbreaking scholar in apocalypticism, reception history, liberation theology, radical Christianity, grassroots movements that encourage all voices to be heard, and many other areas.

I was honored to be the co-editor, along with ZoĆ« Bennett, of Chris’s first (of three!) Festschrift: Radical Christian Voices and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2012).

A few years ago, Chris and I co-taught a course, Portraits of Jesus, at Oxford College of Emory University. Chris lived on the Atlanta campus of Emory University--near where I live--and we would drive out to Oxford to teach the class. 

During his time in Atlanta, the first thing on Chris’s wish list was to drive to Plains, Georgia, to see President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School.

We left very, very early in the morning (hint: you really need to get there early; sometimes hundreds of people--Sunday before last it was 200 out of 700--have to be turned away), but even still we initially were seated in the overflow room, where people who don’t get into the sanctuary get to watch President Carter teach Sunday School on TV (in a room right off the sanctuary). Here is a photo Chris took when President Carter came to visit the people in the overflow room.

Photo by Chris Rowland

As it turned out, Chris and I were the last two people who got to enter the sanctuary to listen to President Carter (we had to move after Sunday School ended and when the church service started, because our seats were reserved for the Carters and the Secret Service agents). Here is a photo Chris took of President Carter in action teaching Sunday School in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church:  


Photo by Chris Rowland

After the service, President and Mrs. Carter went outside and patiently stood for photos with everyone who attended church that day; that’s when the photo at the top was taken. It was a great day.

Okay; I know you want to see it again:



Part II: The Revd. Dr. William Barber, the Revd. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and the Poor People’s Campaign

When I wrote the article for Salon, “The Four Horsemen of evangelical hypocrisy: How they whitewashed Donald Trump,” I wanted to end the article on a positive, hopeful note—but the word count limit was my enemy, and I had to cut a number of things (including reasons why I focused on white evangelicals), so that positive ending was one of the things that had to go.

In that original ending, I highlighted an example of evangelical Christians who, in my reading of Jesus’s teachings, are coming much closer to following what Jesus would want us to do: the Revd. Dr. William Barber, the Revd. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and the Poor People’s Campaign that they are currently leading.

This campaign is a renewal of the one started by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968:
Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others called for a “revolution of values” in America. They invited people who had been divided to stand together against the “triplets of evil”—militarism, racism, and economic injustice—to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. They sought to build a broad, fusion coalition that would audit America. Together, they would demand an accounting of promissory notes that had been returned marked “insufficient funds.” Today that effort is still incomplete. 
I also recommend the excellent book by Liz Theoharis, Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Eerdmans, 2017). A summary:

Jesus’s words “the poor you will always have with you” are regularly used to suggest that ending poverty is impossible, that poverty is a result of moral failures, and that the poor themselves have no role in changing their situation. In this book Liz Theoharis examines both the biblical text and the lived reality of the poor to show how that passage is taken out of context, distorted, and politicized to justify theories about the inevitability of inequality. 

As I wrote in Fortune:
In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some politicians today still cite sayings of Jesus as evidence that he would approve of their neglect of the poor. John 12:8 is the most common example: “You always have the poor with you …” Left out of that (mis)interpretation is the fact that Jesus is actually quoting a passage from Jewish Scripture that makes the opposite point: The continual existence of the poor serves as the fundamental reason for God’s command to assist them, to give “liberally and ungrudgingly”: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (See Deuteronomy 15:1-11).

Part III: President Jimmy Carter

Then, the day after the Salon article appeared, last Saturday, the world’s most famous Sunday School teacher gave the commencement address at Liberty University. It is remarkable that the invitation was extended, but, given the speaker’s record, it was not remarkable that the invitation was accepted.

Jerry Falwell, Jr, the current president of Liberty University invited former President Jimmy Carter to give the keynote address. Falwell’s father played a large role in President Carter’s “involuntary retirement” (as President Carter likes to call it) by the 1980 presidential election. 

remember how unfairly the elder Falwell attacked the fellow evangelical Christian (and fellow Baptist) Carter. The reasons were less about Roe v Wade and more about Brown v Board of Education (especially the tax status of private Christian schools that discriminated).

In his introduction of President Carter last Saturday, Jerry Falwell, Jr, indirectly lamented the role that his father and others played in attacking President Carter in the late 1970s and early 1980s (e.g., “It saddens me today to think that so many conservative Christians attacked and demeaned Jimmy Carter in the 1970s for quoting Jesus Christ to a secular magazine”). He also said, "I pray that more men and women aspire to serve in public office with such courage."

Falwell then said, “The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person and give my political support to a person. Policies are important, but candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today”

I found that statement hopeful but other aspects of Falwell's 10-11 minute introduction not as hopeful (e.g., his discussion on the Hyde Act and other concerns).

Falwell made clear in his lengthy introduction--at about the 10-minute point, President Carter asked, "Can I say a few words now?"--where he agreed and disagreed with President Carter.

Here are some quotes from Falwell that I typed out from a video of the event:
Becky and I attended the opening of the Billy Graham Library in 2007 about one month after my father’s death.  And I remember commenting to Becky then, that of the four former presidents speaking that day, Jimmy Carter sounded more like one of us than the rest.
At the same time many good Christians disagree about what the role of government should be in helping the poor. Jesus never said whether it was Caesar’s job to help those in need or not, but he made it clear that it is our job.  As president he did support government programs to help the poor, but he also spent the last few decades swinging a hammer himself, building housing and supporting the poor through his foundation. I am proud that Christians are uniting here today on issues where they agree rather than fighting over issues where they disagree. 

President Carter's Speech:

In much of his speech, President Carter sought to stress the common ground that they as evangelical Christians shared. I was expecting a little more "Daniel in the lion's den" at points, but overall people were gracious.

President Carter spoke a little about his life history, his mission trips, 36 years (and continuing) as an Emory University professor, the world of the Carter Center to promote peace and champion human rights, its work to eradicate many diseases (e.g., the Guinea worm: When they started there were 3½ million cases in 21 countries. Last month were were 3 cases in Chad).

He spoke about the many crises the world faces, such as discrimination against women, the great disparity in wealth between the richest people and the rest of us (e.g., 8 people control more wealth than 3½ billion people, half the world’s population), the rising prison population, the increasing racial, partisan and religious divisions), and the threat of nuclear war. 
  
In the face of nuclear war that could end all humankind, Carter said that promoting agape love is even more important.

Here are some quotes from the speech:
Need to learn how to do good for one another and to get along with our potential enemies instead of how we can prevail in combat. In other words, just follow the mandates of the Prince of Peace. Learn to live with even our enemies in peace. It’s what Jesus taught, and it will be our only chance for survival in the future.


I'm glad to say that our common faith in worshiping Jesus Christ is slowly bringing us back together.

One of the things we have to learn is how to get along, to do good for one another, in other words, just following the mandates of the Prince of Peace. We don't need enemies to fight, nor do we need "inferior" people whom we can dominate.  
We are one (quoting Galatians 3:28): "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male or female, there is neither slave nor master, for ye are all one, all one, in Christ Jesus.

Even now some of us are still struggling to accept the fact that all people are equals in the eyes of God.

The end of his speech implicitly challenged the "Two Kingdoms" theology of Falwell and others (e.g., whether some of the commands of Jesus pertain to governments as well as individuals). President Carter says they do (I may not have typed all of the words correctly here from the video):

There are attributes of a superpower that go beyond military strength. It’s the same as those of a person.

Our nation should be known as a champion of peace 

Our nation should be known as a champion of equality

Our nation should be known as a champion of human rights

We also should be admired for our generosity for other people in need and other moral values.

In other words, for those principles that never change. There is no reason in the world why the U.S cannot epitomize these high virtues.

As a Christian, I believe the ultimate fate of human beings will be good, with God’s love prevailing.  
 Use three gifts that God gives us: life, freedom and in effect a guarantee that every single one of us will have enough talent and enough opportunity to live a completely successful life. As judged by God. 
 We decide the kind of person we choose to be:

We decide whether we tell the truth or benefit from telling lies. We’re the ones who decide, do I hate or am I filled with love? We’re the ones who decide, do I think only about myself, or do I care for others? We ourselves make these decisions and no one else. There are no limits to our ambition as a human being and we have available to us, every one of us, constant contact with God in heaven. 

 I know this was a very long post--I should have broken it up into three parts. 

My main point is that, with people like President Carter, Rosalynn Carter, William Barber, Liz Theoharis, Chris Rowland, and countless others, there is still hope.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Four Horsemen of Evangelical Hypocrisy and Some Counterparts (Part 1)

Tony Perkins; Robert Jeffress; Franklin Graham; Jerry Falwell, Jr. (AP/Getty/Salon)

This post has limited connections to interpretations of the parables of Jesus (one reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan), but I want to write a two-part post about an article I had published on Salon on Friday: “The Four Horsemen of evangelical hypocrisy: How they whitewashed Donald Trump.” 

This first post is about the article; the second post will be about a couple examples of evangelicals who I believe are actively trying to follow Jesus's message and are coming closer, in my view, to what Jesus believed and taught. The Salon article originally had a positive postscript, but I had to cut it because of the essay's length (~1200 word limit). 

In the Salon article I connect Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” speech (June 1, 1950) against McCarthyism, the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem this week, and the hypocritical support of Donald Trump by white evangelical leaders:
This week’s opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is another reminder that Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” speech, an early denunciation of the evils of McCarthyism in the 1950s, still remains politically relevant, particularly to the Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump. Smith decried the lack of leadership that she believed could result in “national suicide” and urged her Republican colleagues to maintain their political integrity and intellectual honesty: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
Smith’s speech alludes to the “Four Horsemen” of Revelation 6:1-8. In its biblical context, these horsemen serve as apocalyptic images of God’s judgment awaiting humankind in the end times. Her four horsemen, though, are human-inspired pestilences damaging both the Republican Party and the United States.

Then I use the biblical context and Smith’s “Four Horseman” context to talk about how white evangelical leaders (and their followers) have whitewashed and enabled Trump. For the Four Horsemen enablers, I select Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr,  Robert Jeffress, and Tony Perkins:
Smith’s biblical imagery makes the speech especially applicable to a certain subset of the Republican Party — white evangelical Christians who support a president whose life exemplifies everything Jesus’ teachings oppose. But for some white evangelicals, the ends justify the means. For example, since many of them believe that the restoration of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital is one of the factors leading to the end of the world as portrayed in the Book of Revelation, it is no accident that two white evangelical pastors offered prayers at the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem.
Donald Trump rode to political victory on all four horses of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear — but his white evangelical enablers provide religious rationalizations for all of them.
After I discuss how Graham, Falwell, Jeffress, and Perkins defend Donald Trump. I look at some aspects of what all four have in common. One common thread is the "Two Kingdoms" idea, such as when Jeffress argues that individuals are called upon to act as Good Samaritans, not governments.
All four white evangelical leaders distinguish between the obligations of Christians to follow Jesus’ teachings and the political obligations of governments. As Falwell argued: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome — he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help the poor. That’s our job.” Likewise, Jeffress insisted, in defense of Trump’s 2017 “refugee ban,” that “the Bible never calls on government to act as a Good Samaritan.
Jesus was an eschatological Jewish prophet who proclaimed, in some sense, the restoration of Israel. As such, he is similar to the prophet Amos, a poor, marginalized outsider who calls for justice and righteousness and proclaims the judgment of God against an entire nation because of social injustice, judicial and economic corruption, and religious arrogance. 
Jesus, an impoverished first-century artisan — not an adviser to the emperor — also spoke prophetic words of judgment against the oppressors of his people. Even his famous “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” statement is a classic example of non-elite resistance against an extractive taxation system that transferred wealth from the majority of people in the Roman Empire to the ruling elites. Since the denarius coin that Jesus referenced would have been inscribed, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus,” Jesus is in fact suggesting, “Give that blasphemous coin back to that blasphemous emperor.”
The defenses of Trump by these white evangelicals are incredible. Falwell, for example, compares Trump not only to King David—which I debunk in the article—but he also compares Trump’s actions in Washington DC to Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (which I cut from the final version because, again, my word count was way over):
Are there any of the Ten Commandments that Donald Trump hasn’t broken? These white evangelical leaders have excused all sorts of behavior they allegedly believe is sinful, such as lying and adultery; their code of ethics has proved to be flexible, not biblical. They have turned from the ethics of the Ten Commandments to the idolatrous political allure of the Golden Calf, an idol made by the Israelites while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments.
These white evangelicals, by rendering to Caesar what is God’s, have not only lost their integrity; they have lost their credibility as religious leaders. Their hypocrisy, their worship of political power and money, damages the cause in which they claim to believe and betrays the teachings of the person they claim to worship. Whatever political advantages they gain will be short-lived. As Amanda Marcotte writes, “the Christian right may be winning elections in the short term, but it’s also driving people out of the pews, which is likely to lead to long-term defeat.”
What happens when you render unto Caesar that which is God’s? To paraphrase another saying of Jesus: You may gain the whole world, but you lose your soul. 
The nation’s nightmare of McCarthyism lasted four years after Sen. Smith’s speech, and its demise is often credited, among other things, to Joseph Welch's famous rebuke to McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
The answer to that question about white evangelicals is that — in stark contrast to Margaret Chase Smith — they do not.
 As I promised, in my next post I will write about some very positive and important things happening with some Christian evangelicals.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Eye of a Needle is NOT a Gate



In a recent commentary for Fortune, I included the following:
Jesus told a wealthy man to sell all his possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus then told his disciples how difficult it was for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (as likely as a camel going through an eye of a sewing needle).
I added the word "sewing" because I did not have the space to explain that when the Gospel texts said, "a needle," they meant a sewing needle (Hobart argued it was a physician's needle in Luke, but Cadbury put the "Lukan physician's language" theory to rest).

The editor(s) of Fortune removed my citation of the biblical texts (Matt 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) in this instance and for all the other biblical references, so in the numerous comments by readers of the essay who responded to the article, several observed that I had made a mistake or that my knowledge of the Biblical context was incorrect. For example (taken from the Yahoo! Finance page, where it was also posted online):
I agree with Mr. Gowler's assessment, except for one thing. The "eye of the needle" was a gate in the walls of Jerusalem...a little gate. For a camel to pass through, it had to be unburdened and had to stoop down a little. In other words, hold on to your possessions and your pride, and you'll never get through. As far as Mr. Ryan having a problem with the poor carpenter's son from Nazareth, I am in complete agreement.

Other commenters were more caustic about my alleged lack of knowledge of this gate in Jerusalem.

It's interesting how these misconceptions persist, and these domestications of Jesus's words--efforts to tame his radical message--all derive from interpreters' unease with this shocking, hyperbolic statement. 

There is no evidence that the saying refers to a gate, including a particular gate in Jerusalem. That arose sometime, most likely, in the middle ages (I remember the version about this mythical gate that I heard from a pulpit growing up is that the camel actually had to pass through the Jerusalem gate on its knees).

If you change one letter in the Greek word (an eta to an iota) that would change the word "needle" to "rope" or "ship's cable," and some scribes evidently made that change in a few manuscripts (e.g., S, 1010, f13), and Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, and a few others favored that view. 

Others claim that the Aramaic word "behind" the Greek word meant a thick rope or a ship's cable (e.g., Lamsa, Gospel Light, 115-116). Others suggest that the word actually means a "large wooden beam" (noted but rejected by Ibn al-Tayyib).

One of the better studies of this saying is in Kenneth Bailey's Through Peasant Eyes, 165-166, and he convincingly makes the argument that this needle is indeed a needle. He also points out that there is a later rabbinic saying in the Talmud (probably dependent) that speaks of the impossibility of "an elephant going through the eye of a needle" (an elephant being the largest animal in Babylonia; Ber. 55b; there also is a comparative text in the Qur'an: Sura 7:40). 

One can also point to the analogous saying of Jesus about straining the gnat and swallowing a camel (Matt 23:24) for a similar hyperbolic, impossible task.

The text speaks about something that is impossible for human beings; that rules out a gate where a camel's burden needed to be unloaded before it could pass through.

Many interpreters point to this passage as an example of Jesus's "peasant humor"--it is impossible for the largest animal in the area to pass through such a small aperture--but told from a deadly serious perspective, from a prophet similar to Amos, a "voice from below" who cried out against the injustices of the wealthy of his day. 




Friday, May 4, 2018

Do not misrepresent your sources (Day of Prayer edition)

Thomas Jefferson: Quote Him Correctly!

A follow-up comment in reference to my article in The Washington Post (May 3, 2018) about the National Day of Prayer (using Roger Williams's discussion of the wheat and tares parable).

In the course of my research for the essay, I carefully read through the web pages of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

To my surprise, I discovered that they quote Thomas Jefferson as apparently being in favor of the government proclaiming Days of Prayer.

Here is the quote that is displayed prominently on their website:
"Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it." —Thomas Jefferson, 1808
Based on what I know about Jefferson and his thinking about religious liberty and the separation of church and state, I was immediately suspicious. I then went to the primary source for that quote, a Jan. 23, 1808, letter Jefferson wrote to the Rev. Samuel Miller:

Here is the paragraph in which that quote is found (emphasis mine):
I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.
Since the sentence just before the quote used by the website of the National Day of Prayer Task Force used to "support" the National Day of Prayer directly states Jefferson's opposition to the practice, it seems to me that this misrepresentation is deliberate.

Jefferson clearly states his opposition to proclaiming days of prayer, and I believe the great Christian minister Roger Williams would as well (and James Madison also came to believe it was wrong).

As I tell my students, check (and recheck) your sources very carefully and do not--intentionally or unintentionally--misrepresent them.





My Article in the Washington Post on the National Day of Prayer: Re Roger Williams, Religious Liberty, and the Wheat and Tares Parable (II)

Yesterday The Washington Post published my essay on whether the government should proclaim "Days of Prayer."

Here is the photo they chose to use:




I never thought that much about the government proclaiming National Days of Prayer. I have always strongly supported the separation of Church and State—no prayer in schools, no taxpayer money for private schools, and so forth—but National Days of Prayer never came to mind. 


But when I was asked to write this essay in The Washington Post, I decided that I should also take a stand against any government—federal, state, or local—proclaiming Days of Prayer. 
The beginning point for my research and ultimate decision is found in my book, The Parables after Jesus, in the section devoted to Roger Williams and his debates about religious liberty with John Cotton. It included a lengthy discussion of the parable of the wheat and tares.
The article appears in the “Made by History” section of The Washington Post.
I will let you read the article itself, if you are interested, but I will include some excerpts.
Such days of prayer have a long history in the United States, beginning in Colonial America. Early presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln declared days of prayer, but so, too, did presidents such as Harry Truman, who, in 1952, signed into law the national day of prayer that we are observing today. Presidents and governors have proclaimed days of prayer for natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and for human-created tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The United States has celebrated a National Day of Prayer since 1952, and many other officials have declared Days of Prayer for various things as well. Most people think that the term “wall of separation between church and state” comes from Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. But there are three things most people don't know about that letter and its context.
First, Baptists, the group Jefferson was addressing in his letter, were a persecuted minority in Colonial America, as well as strong advocates for the separation of church and state. They and other nonconformist religious groups were persecuted by such things jail time for preaching, coercion to pay taxes to support the state church and punishments such as imprisonment, dunking and public whipping, (although unlike the four Quakers hanged in Boston, no Baptists appear to have been executed because of their faith). So Baptists historically were leaders in championing the separation of church and state, unlike today, when groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention seek to merge church and state—their idea of “church,” of course.
Second, the first draft of Jefferson’s letter clearly indicates that he opposed government proclamations for days of fasting, prayer or thanksgiving. In the restored draft of that letter, Jefferson argued that because of this wall of separation, he, unlike his presidential predecessors, refrained from “prescribing even occasional performances of devotion.”
Before sending the letter, however, Jefferson consulted with his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, who advised him to delete that “too combative” statement. Some supporters of state-sponsored days of prayer twist Jefferson’s words to make it appear that he supported such use of government authority. But in the very same paragraph that they use to misrepresent Jefferson’s view, Jefferson clearly stated his opposition to proclaiming days of prayer: “I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them.”
The hypocrisy of using Jefferson’s words, especially in a paragraph that directly opposes a Day of Prayer being proclaimed by the government, to support the government proclaiming them is simply incredible. It has to be a deliberate attempt to misinform people.
But the third aspect of Jefferson’s letter is something that most people do not realize. Jefferson did not coin the term “wall of separation.” That term came from Roger Williams, an important Christian minister in Colonial America. Jefferson was primarily concerned that the church would “contaminate” the state. Williams was primarily concerned that the state would “contaminate” the church.
Finally, Jefferson’s “wall of separation” language wasn’t actually Jefferson’s language at all. It was first used by Roger Williams in 1644Many early Puritans envisioned themselves as a “New Israel” and a “Christian commonwealth” in the New World. Williams, though, disagreed strongly with identifying anything but the church as “New Israel.” He proclaimed that freedom of religion and the “wall of separation” of church and state were inherent in the teachings of Jesus (for example, Matthew 13:24-30) and were also essential for an orderly, peaceful and just society. Christians should not promote or support any religious coercion, ministers should have no civil authority, and civil authorities should not be permitted to punish or coerce religious dissenters.
Some more details about this: Many early Puritans envisioned themselves as a “New Israel” and interpreted biblical texts about ancient Israel as applying typologically to their “Christian commonwealth” in the New World (e.g., John Winthrop’s famous speech, “City upon a Hill”). Williams, though, disagreed strongly with identifying anything but the church as “New Israel” and used the term “wall of separation” in his resulting debates about religious liberty with the eminent Puritan minister John Cotton.
Cotton used Jesus’s parable about the Wheat and Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) to argue that the church could enforce religious conformity and use censure, excommunication, and even the “Civil Sword” of the state as punishments for “sinners.” Williams responds that such persecution is a perversion of the teachings of Jesus because the parable instead commands Christians to advocate for religious liberty and to oppose any coercive policies of the state concerning religion. The church, Williams argues, is a beautiful garden within the “wilderness” of the sinful world, and Jesus’s parable demonstrates that the “garden” of the church must remain separate from the “field” of the world. If the “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” is breached, the church becomes corrupted, a terrible mistake in Christian history that began with Constantine, the first Roman emperor who identified as a Christian.
Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, then played a leading role in founding Rhode Island, which was chartered by King Charles II in 1663 with “full liberty in religious concernments.” Rhode Island thus became a refuge for all types of dissenters — believers and nonbelievers.
I make a number of other arguments in the Washington Post article, but you can read them there, if you wish (e.g., I argue that the Kentucky legislature should better fund its schools and work against gun violence in schools instead of proclaiming days of prayer for the victims of gun violence in schools). 
Instead, I will cite the conclusion of the article:
In many ways, the United States lives up to the idea of religious liberty as espoused by Williams and Jefferson. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”), for example, enshrines religious freedom and the separation of church and state into the U.S. Constitution.
It is also a fact, however, that a majority of Americans do not oppose their government proclaiming a national day of prayer (most Americans also support allowing daily prayers in public schools).
So why is it a problem for a president or governor to proclaim a day of prayer? Because it is one small example of the many larger breaches in the wall of separation of church and state that lead to the loss of religious liberty, especially for non-Christian citizens.
While it is true that today we do not find the same type of religious persecution in the United States as occurred in most of Colonial America, our Christian-majority nation sometimes does not live up to the religious liberty championed by Williams and Jefferson. Just ask the people who until 2015 were denied marriage licenses because of religious beliefs against marriage equality. Just ask women who might be denied health care because of religious beliefs against abortion and contraception. Just ask people who resent that their tax dollars are used to support private Christian K-12 schools that exclude students because of their religion or sexual identity (and try to prevent Muslim schools from receiving the same tax benefits), or students in public schools who might be forced to listen to prayers to a Christian God in whom they do not believe or do not worship.
It is sometimes easy to forget that although the United States is a Christian-majority nation, it is not a Christian nation. Just as some white Americans find it difficult to discern white privilege or understand why it is important to say “Black Lives Matter,” so too some Christians living in a Christian-majority nation can find it difficult to understand how religious liberty for all people means that Christianity is not favored by the government.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Another response to our Howard Thurman on the Parables book


Orbis Books recently received another review blurb that will be placed in the back cover of the book that Kipton Jensen and I introduced and edited, Sermons of the Parables, by Howard Thurman (again, it's not available until August).


The blurb was written by The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, the Dean of Marsh Chapel, Professor, New Testament and Pastoral Theology, and Chaplain to the University, Office of Religious Life, at Boston University.

Here is what Dr. Hill wrote about the book:
Professors Gowler and Jensen allow those new to Howard Thurman, and those of us already seized by Thurman’s spirit and confession of faith, to listen to him and to learn from him.  Thurman says here of the parable of the Good Samaritan, whose familiarity he acknowledges: “Now let’s work at it for a little.”  Yes, let’s do so! This fine, beautifully arranged and introduced collection give us that golden opportunity.
As you may know, Dr. Thurman was Professor of Spiritual Resources and Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1965–1981, so we are delighted that Dr. Hill endorsed this book. Kipton and I really want to make these sermons available for those who already know and admire Dr. Thurman and to help make him  more people will become aware of Dr. Thurman's significant contributions.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Let’s be Honest: Paul Ryan would fire Jesus as House Chaplain.

A Reconstruction of a first-century male from Jerusalem

I mention three parables in the following commentary on fortune.com

Although I was pleasantly surprised that Fortune was interested in and would publish a commentary so direct about Jesus of Nazareth’s view on money and power, the editors requested that I cut many of the references and documentation, so I thought I would post the essay/article/commentary here, in case some of you would be interested in the additional details. The firing of the House Chaplain took place last week, but my essay just appeared today.
Again, the final version is found here, but the following submission has a few more details. 
Hats off to Fortune publishing it:

As a scholar of the life and teachings of Jesus, it is frustrating to listen to some “Christian” politicians hijack and, in fact, mutilate Jesus’s teachings. A recent example involves the recent firing of the House Chaplain, Father Patrick Conroy, which apparently occurred, in part, because Conroy had the audacity to pray for the fair treatment of the poor during the tax debate last fall. 
Although the Speaker’s Office denied that the Chaplain—the second Catholic to serve in that position and the first Chaplain to be fired midterm—was forced to resign because of a specific prayer, Conroy reports that he received complaints from the Speaker’s Office (“We are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political”) and from the Speaker himself (“Padre, you just got to stay out of politics”). 
In fact, if Jesus himself were House Chaplain, Paul Ryan would most certainly fire him. That’s assuming, of course, Jesus would want the position (which, despite his spending time with tax collectors and other sinners, he most certainly would not, since he preferred the powerless to the powerful).
The position of House Chaplain and beginning House sessions with prayers are themselves problematic, both on religious grounds (e.g., per Roger Williams) and political grounds (e.g., per James Madison). But setting aside the question of whether taxpayer funds should support a House Chaplain, why should Christians such as Conroy express concern for the poor and concerns about the behavior of the rich? 
Because they are trying to follow the example of Jesus of Nazareth, an impoverished, first-century, peasant-artisan Jew who was a member of a politically, militarily, and economically oppressed minority. The New Testament Gospels portray Jesus as speaking against the oppressors of his peoplewith prophetic words of judgment that focus extensively on issues of money and power:
  • Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor and release of the oppressed (e.g., from debts; Luke 4:18-19; Luke 11:4; cf. Leviticus 25:10).
  • Jesus proclaimed blessings on the poor (Luke 6:20) and woes on the rich (Luke 6:24), commanded his followers to give alms to everyone who asks (Luke 6:30), and called on his disciples to leave everything behind to follow him (e.g., Mark 10:28-31).
  • Jesus’s parable of the Sheep and Goats proclaims that God will judge human beings on how they treat the “least of these,” the hungry, thirsty, stranger/immigrant, ill-clothed, and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). Likewise, the wealthy in the parables of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and the Rich Fool (Luke 12:15-21) are condemned because of their conspicuous consumption and their neglect of the poor.
  • Jesus told a wealthy man to sell all his possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus then told his disciples how difficult it was for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (as likely as a camel going through an eye of a sewing needle; Mark 10:17-27).
Jesus does offer one way for the wealthy and powerful to avoid this judgment: He told a group of wealthy men not to invite their friends or rich neighbors to dinner, but instead to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” If such elites would help the poor without expecting anything in return, God would reward them “at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14; cf. Matthew 25:31-46).
In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some politicians today still cite sayings of Jesus as evidence that he would approve of their neglect of the poor. John 12:8 is the most common example: “You always have the poor with you . . . .” Left out of that (mis)interpretation is the fact that Jesus is actually quoting a passage from Jewish Scripture that makes the opposite point: The continual existence of the poor serves as the fundamental reason for God’s command to assist them, to give “liberally and ungrudgingly”: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
Jesus was a first-century Jewish prophet who condemned the oppression and marginalization of his impoverished people by the Romans and other ruling elites that sought through their unjust system of taxation to extract as much wealth as possible from the majority of people to benefit the rich, powerful, ruling elites. In his first-century context, Jesus engaged in active, non-violent, political resistance against that oppression, and he died on a Roman cross because of it.
In reality, Paul Ryan doesn’t just have a problem with Father Conroy; Ryan has a problem with Jesus of Nazareth.

Models for Grant Wood's American Gothic

Grant Wood, American Gothic  (Art Institute of Chicago) I just finished my chapter, “The Belated Return of the ‘Son’: Thomas Hart Bento...