An Electronic Baptist Journal Bridging Yesterday and Today
[Vol. 11, No. 11]
Editor: Bruce T. Gourley, executive director, Baptist History & Heritage Society
The Baptist Studies Bulletin (BSB) is a free online journal produced by the Baptist History & Heritage Society (BH&HS) and offering scholarly analysis, informed editorials, book reviews, and special features for subscribers. You may access previous issues to or subscribe or unsubscribe from the BSB. Republishing of articles is allowed, but please provide credit and a link back to the Baptist Studies Bulletin.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Journeying Through Darkness into Christmas
by Bruce T. Gourley
“Reflections on Baptists and Culture”
Politics in the Pulpit
by Aaron Weaver
“Advent People are Preparing People”
by Michael Ruffin
“Notes and Quotes”
Responses to Current Happenings
Journeying Through Darkness into Christmas
by Bruce T. Gourley
As Christmas approached in the sixth year of your precious life, the world was reminded yet again that America, envisioned by some as the greatest and most advanced nation in history, remained a deeply troubled nation.
I am speaking of the mass murder of children that were your age–and many of their teachers–at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Your mom and I made certain not to mention this awful thing in your presence, because we didn’t want you to be fearful at your school. And although you heard about it in a sermon at our church the Sunday following, I don’t think (thankfully) that you were paying enough attention to understand what was being said.
As I write this, to you life is, for a short while longer, a thing of innocence and wonder to be explored and enjoyed from within the safe confines of your family’s careful watchcare. I cherish these days: Our early morning snuggles on the living room couch as we watch the new day dawn over the Bridger Mountains; your outstretched hands waiting for me to pick you up and hold you in my arms; your running back to me to grab my hand when, in your excitement, you find yourself too far ahead and suddenly lose your confidence; your running to me and throwing yourself around me in a hug as I walk in the door in the evening; tucking you in bed at night and then you clinging to me in one last, drawn-out snuggle-hug for the day. You are a child so lovely, and so loving. Each day I try to store these memories in my head and heart where, hopefully, I will be able to retrieve and relive them for the rest of my life.
For your daddy, remembering these days is so very important because soon enough your coming of age will transform you in ways you cannot imagine right now. The play-filled days of the present, replete with both loving moments and childish tantrums, will be left behind as you venture into the wider world of human experience, a journey that challenges and perplexes the wisest and most learned of persons.
By the time you read this you will likely be a teenager busily navigating evolving feelings and relationships. I’m already steeling myself for those years, a time in your life that you will one day, as an older adult, look back upon with a mixture of amusement and embarrassment, but, hopefully, not too much sorrow and regret. Yet graduation from the teenage years will merely usher you into an even more complex world in which you will be caught up in emotions and circumstances that will be riddled with confusing tensions. Your world–that within you and around you–will be one in which love and selfishness are in a constant tug-of-war; in which joy is present one moment, and pain or grief the next; and one in which hope can give way to despair in a moment’s notice. The challenges awaiting you in your adult years are all too real, but I pray that love, joy and hope will triumph in all that you are about.
As I look at you this bitter-tinged Christmas season and think of your future, I am immensely saddened that the young victims of the Newtown massacre no longer have a future in this world. Reading the stories of these children is not easy in another, very personal, respect: its stirs up mostly-dormant memories from my own childhood. When I was six, as you are now and so many of the children who lost their lives in Newtown were, my best friend–also six years of age–died in a tragic car accident. I was too young to fully understand, but the horror, the sorrow, the sense of loss, the heart-wrenching story of why the accident happened, the photos in the newspaper, the images of my friend Ben’s forever-frozen face–it all remains with me to this day, a scar-covered wound mostly healed in the four-decades since, yet subject to sudden inflammation. For all this, though, it is Ben’s parents, whom I do not remember and do not know, who are the ones who truly suffer, if they yet live.
In Newtown this month, love was cut short, joy ended in a hail of bullets, and hopes evaporated in their formative stages. Young lives ended before they blossomed. Parents may one day distant discover that the gaping holes in their lives have become smoothed over with the scars of time, and yet the healing will not erase the wounds. December 14, 2012 has become the great divide in their lives, after which their remaining sojourn on earth will be ever haunted by the evil actions of one man.
Yes, evil. It is an unpleasant subject, not something that you think much about at age six, nor should it be. In time, however, your quest to learn will lead you to ponder the problem and reality of evil.
The problem of evil takes the form of a simple question: Why does evil exist? Theologians for nearly two thousand years have answered this question in a variety of ways that range from pointing to an omnipotent and sovereign God who is the creator or cause of evil, to the positing of evil as the necessary corollary of human free will that God has gifted to humanity, to framing evil as the absence of good, to thinking of evil as something from which good can redemptively emerge, to a host of other nuanced explanations that collectively strive to pinpoint the relationship between God and evil.
Meanwhile, neuroscientists are seeking answers within the human brain. Fortunately for you and your future world, we humans are slowly coming to a better understanding of how our brains control our feelings, emotions and actions. Scientists are uncovering in ever-greater detail the complex ways in which the regions, chemicals and vast neural networks within the human brain function in relation to one another and external stimuli. We are gaining a stronger grasp on how biology, environment, substances (drugs, food, and otherwise), learning processes and experience interact with our brains and shape our personalities and sense of being–whether for the good or for the bad. In your future world, scientific and medical advances will allow humanity to better keep in check, although not entirely subdue, certain illnesses, tendencies and impulses that snuff out love, joy and hope.
Regardless, while both theological and scientific inquiries offer helpful insights into the quest to understand the “why” of evil, definitive answers are not yet within our grasp.
The reality of evil, on the other hand, is quite plain (even if one chooses to use some other word than “evil”). The Newtown massacre is but one example. One day you will read about some of the worst atrocities that evil people committed prior to your birth into this world. Your mind will reel with repulsion upon learning of the horrors of the Holocaust, in which one man’s racial hatred led to the death of six million Jews. And, since you are being raised in a family of faith, you will encounter the dark side of the Old Testament. You will be puzzled that while Jesus in the New Testament condemned and renounced violence and evil, the God of the Old Testament at times commanded the mass slaughter of men, women and children–terrible Bible stories I’ve purposefully kept hidden from you thus far. Later, should you some day read certain of your daddy’s writings, you will discover that in the not-too-distant past, many people who are of the same faith as your family–Baptist–committed great evil against persons of a different skin color than theirs, while insisting that God and the Bible told them to do so. Then when you turn your gaze upon the current world outside of America, you will be mystified and horrorfied to learn that millions of people around the world are still being killed and slaughtered in the name of religion.
If this all sounds confusing, well, it is confusing. While religion seemingly had nothing to do with the motives of the Newtown mass murderer, religion and evil too often go hand-in-hand, a fact people of faith struggle to reconcile. Even now, you know that killing someone is wrong. One day, you’re going to ask me to explain the difference between someone with a mental illness gunning down school children, Islamic extremists blowing up persons in the name of Allah, and the Old Testament God slaughtering thousands of men, women and children. And I will tell you that there is no difference: all of these are evil acts.
So, why did the God of the Old Testament do evil things? Or did God? The ancient Hebrews’ primitive understandings of themselves and their world led to the envisioning of God as a being who at times does evil things to achieve supposedly good ends. These people of old sometimes made God evil by projecting their own self-serving interests upon God. So when you read the Old Testament, be careful not to interpret it all literally (no one does this anyway). Read it as the story of an ancient people possessing limited knowledge while striving to understand themselves, their world and the divine, sometimes projecting upon God their own primitive understandings, tribal fears, short-sighted prejudices and frequent self-serving agendas. The narrative of the Old Testament, you may be surprised to learn, is a story not unbeknownst in your own day: a jagged journey toward understanding, and a God who (although sometimes seized by humans and cruelly fashioned to serve their own self-interests) patiently allows human beings to struggle with complex issues and concepts far beyond their ability to fully grasp, while nudging humanity toward an understanding of faith, love, justice and mercy that offers redemption from evil.
And yet in some very real ways the theological narrative shifted radically following the closing of the Old Testament some twenty-five hundred years ago. While major religious faiths around the world, in the best of their teachings, hold up themes of faith, love, justice, mercy, hope and forgiveness as the path for overcoming evil, these themes are especially central to the New Testament of our Christian Bible. Written hundreds of years after the Old Testament and the basis of the Christian faith, the New Testament moves beyond a wrathful, Hebrew God who sometimes acts in evil ways, by re-imaging God as the Incarnate Christ who lives in humility, eschews violence, offers unconditional love and the forgiveness of sins, and preaches the “good news” of redemption available to all persons. In the gospels, Christ summarizes the key to abundant life this way: “love God with all your heart, and others as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31) The New Testament also declares that by loving others, we live within the reality of God as love. (1 John 4:7-8)
What, then, might the world look like if Jesus’ words were taken to heart in our nation and society? Could the mass murders in Newtown, Connecticut have been prevented?
Adam Lanza, 20 years of age, was a loner unconnected and unloved apart from his immediate family: his neighbors walked and drove by his house, but did not know him; he had no friends in school; he never uttered a word to the person who cut his hair every six weeks. Tormented within for reasons not clearly understood–possibly caused by a mental illness that went untreated–he seized upon readily-available weapons of mass murder and coldly snuffed out the lives of 26 innocent victims. Would this evil act have been prevented if someone had befriended Lanza during his teenage years? If someone had cared enough about him to see to it that he received treatment for his mental illness? If we as Americans valued life enough to adequately fund public mental health facilities?
In the broader picture of the world in which you live and will come to know better, there are many forces at work that contribute to the capacity of individuals to do evil. Mental illness in the form of chemical imbalances in the brain or other causations, is sometimes complicit; medical treatments and/or counseling can often provide relief for mental illness. Yet sane people are also quite capable of doing evil on a large scale. Among persons who otherwise seem rather normal, selfishness, so often expressed in greed, is a primitive human impulse with an enormous capacity for death and destruction. Greed alienates persons from one another and from the God of love. It entices persons of all socio-economic status. It leads persons, nations and societies to place profit before human life, assuming many forms: a petty robbery in a back alley; Wall Street tycoons who enrich themselves by stealing from their clients or the government; a gun industry that rakes in billions of dollars by selling military weapons to anyone with enough money; a healthcare industry that nets hundreds of billions of dollars by pricing physical and mental wellness and even life-saving procedures beyond the reach of ordinary Americans; a government that takes from the masses of the poor in order to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on corporate welfare for the benefit of very few; a dictator of an impoverished nation who hoards national resources while his people starve; a world that allows 30,000 children a day to die from hunger and simple, curable diseases; or a world that yet turns to warfare in order to resolve regional, national and international differences. And the list goes on.
You are too young to yet realize that you live in a world whose systems are fueled by selfishness and greed, systems that do not value human life, but instead nurture–intentionally or not–the evil side of human nature in otherwise “normal” persons. We are all vulnerable to the powerful influence and reach of these systems. Successfully navigating this unredeemed world will take great courage that is grounded in love. Your mom and I will love you unconditionally for as long as we live, but our love alone will not be enough to sustain you through all the trials of life. Surround yourself with friends who understand the unselfish, giving nature of genuine love. When relationships bring hardship, learn to forgive, and to be forgiven. Strive to maintain your mental health, but do not be afraid to turn to professional help should you ever feel the onslaught of despair. And above all else, you will need the transcendent hope and love found in Christ. You are God’s creation; love yourself as God loves you. And to do that, you will need to love others: Love enough to be a redeeming force to those around you; love enough to challenge, in the capacity that is within you and in the places where your journeys take you, the inherent evilness of our world’s systems; love enough to show your world the reality of God’s love in your own life.
The real message of this Christmas season is that while evil has the power to hurt and destroy, it will never triumph over love Incarnate. Your life is of infinite value, expressed in being loved and loving others. I will walk alongside you–whether from near or far, in person or in spirit–all the days of my life, even as God’s love transcends all, providing us always with hope, helping us in troubled times, and healing the wounds of our journeys.
Aaron Weaver is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Politics & Society at Baylor University. Weaver blogs at The Big Daddy Weave and is the author of James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom (Smyth & Helwys, 2011).
The re-election of President Barack Obama was certainly a bitter defeat for culture-warring Christian conservatives. But from Governor Mitt Romney’s stinging loss has emerged a church-state issue of crucial consequence that might result in what would be a huge victory for the Religious Right. This issue concerns churches that defiantly break the law and engage in electoral politics. Will the Internal Revenue Service turn a blind eye and allow these partisan churches to keep their tax-exempt status? More broadly, what is the future of pulpit politics?
On October 7, nearly 1600 pastors around the country participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” sponsored by the Alliance Defending Freedom. These mostly conservative evangelical pastors—98 percent according to NBC News—stood in their church’s pulpit and offered an explicit endorsement for a political candidate. They did so in violation of a six-decades old law prohibiting non-profit organizations, including churches, from partisan politicking and electioneering. While pastors are not barred from speaking to political issues and addressing ballot propositions and initiatives, ministers are not legally allowed to endorsed candidates. The United States tax code states that all 501(c)(3) organizations are forbidden from making any remarks “in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”
Reformed theologian Wayne Grudem called on “all citizens” to cast their ballot for Mitt Romney and “Republicans in general” during a guest sermon at Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, California. The Rev. Mark Harris of First Baptist Church of Charlotte endorsed a Republican candidate running for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. These pastors are hopeful that their acts of “civil disobedience” will spark a legal challenge that overturns the 58-year prohibition.
Pulpit endorsements were not the only way that pastors and other faith leaders engaged in partisan politicking. Personal endorsements were popular too as Christianity Today detailed in a report titled “The Year of the Personal Endorsement.” For example, Southern Baptist leader Richard Land endorsed Mitt Romney in his capacity as a “private citizen.” Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, endorsed Romney too. Like Land, Teetsel was careful to characterize his endorsement as “personal” and not an endorsement from his organization.
Not all are jumping on the endorsement bandwagon. At least one pastor his jumping off. Following the election, Rev. Chuck Currie, a progressive United Church of Christ minister in Oregon, vowed to make no more candidate endorsements. Currie wrote on his popular blog:
Over the course of the last few years, I have felt increasingly concerned that my endorsements of political candidates, particularly at the local level, have negatively impacted my ability to speak as a minister on the issues most important to the church….I’ve preached before that when we align the church with one candidate of one party, we risk becoming an agent of that cause instead of an agent of God….Still, it concerns me that many people link me these days with politicians instead of the causes I believe should be the focus of my ministry.
Lifeway Research recently surveyed 1,000 Protestant pastors regarding their views on the relationship between the pulpit and politics. Nearly 90 percent responded that pastors should not endorse candidate for public office from the pulpit. Lifeway found that the strongest support for pulpit politicking came from evangelical pastors, Republican pastors and pastors from the South.
Unfortunately, perhaps for all sides of the endorsement debate, the IRS is not currently investigating complaints of partisan political activity by churches. In 2009, a federal court ruled that the IRS must clarify which high-ranking official could authorize church electioneering audits. Three years later, the IRS has yet to offer such a clarification. As a result, audits have been suspended since the court ruling. Church-state expert Melissa Rogers of Wake Forest University noted to The Huffington Post that “the impression created is that no one is minding the store.”
What then are the repercussions of no one minding the store? Will more churches thumb their noses at the law? Will the attitudes of pastors and churches begin to change if pulpit endorsements become more commonplace? Over the last four years, we have witnessed the rise of an increasingly hyper-partisan political arena. Surely we can all agree that this has not been a positive development. With a loud, well-financed movement of conservative evangelical pastors promoting pulpit politics and an absentee IRS, a less-partisan evangelicalism is unlikely to emerge anytime in the foreseeable future.
Editor’s Note: Michael Ruffin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia, and author of Living on the Edge: Preaching Advent in Year C, an Advent sermon series. The volume is also available as an e-book. The following article is an abbreviated version of one of the sermons in his book.
During Advent we prepare for the coming of Jesus in all of its aspects—his coming in his birth, in the future, and here and now. What should we do to prepare ourselves and our churches for the arrival of Jesus?
John the Baptist went around “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and his message was, Luke says, a fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah 40 which said that there would be one “crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (3:4b-6).
So I say to you what John said to his listeners: “Get ready because Jesus is coming.” “How do we get ready?” you may well ask. John’s answer is today’s answer: “Repent!”
To repent means to turn around and go the other way. While such turning is finally made possible only by the work of God in our lives, it is nonetheless the case that we must exercise our wills to do those things that make room for Jesus in our lives.
“What things?” you might ask. John’s listeners asked him the same thing and his answer to them is the answer for us: “’Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:11-14).
To get ready for Jesus means to turn from our unthinking self-centeredness to an intentional other-centeredness, to turn from our unthinking use and misuse of others to an intentional commitment to do no harm and to do much good, and to love others like we love ourselves.
Jesus’ coming is the remedy for such things, of course—the problem is with us, and we have the ability to turn our hearts and lives in the right direction and then, with his arrival, we will experience the full turning that will make all the difference to those and to those around us.
The hard truth is that all those people who are out there who need so desperately for Jesus to come to them too often cannot see around the curve that we allow—and even cause—to remain in the road rather than straightening it out; we don’t straighten our selfishness into selflessness, our greed into generosity, and our cynicism into grace. Once we straighten the way, the prophet said, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (v. 6).
John C. Morris tell of
a highway in southern Vermont where many serious accidents happen because cars and trucks build up their speed descending a mountain, only to come upon a sharp curve in the road. The people living in the house near that curve keep a pile of blankets on their porch because they know there will be accidents regularly, and the victims will need to be covered while waiting for the rescue squad. Residents of the area have been petitioning the state for years to straighten the road out in order to prevent accidents and save lives. John the Baptist seems to be saying something similar — the curves of injustice, immorality and inhumanity need to be changed into smooth paths so that everyone will see God’s salvation (“Smoothing the Path,” Christian Century, November 22-29, 2000).
I know, I know—we do a lot to provide blankets to those who need them.
But I wonder: how many people can’t see Jesus around the curves in the road—around the crooked ways of our hearts, around the distorted ways of our relating, around the graceless ways of our actions—that we refuse to straighten out?
“I’m a conservative and a Republican, and I believe in the Constitution and all of the amendments. But the reality is, there are restrictions on lots of our freedoms…. I have trouble defending a position that says there should be no restrictions on any guns or ammunition, and this slippery slope argument that if you allow the slightest bit of [gun] control, then that’s the start of taking away all our freedoms.” Evangelical executive and Republican political advisor Mark DeMoss, voicing his change of heart on the issue of gun control following the mass murders last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (link)
“If you fight science, you are going to lose your children, and I believe in telling them the way it was.” Pat Robertson, challenging young-earth creationism (link)
“America’s greatest gift to civilization.” Baptist minister and lawyer Oliver Thomas, describing the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (link)
February 25-27, 2013 — Churchworks, Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas. Join Princeton University professor and author Kenda Creasey Dean to discuss the church, culture and our response to the times in which we find ourselves. ChurchWorks combines worship and small group time in a setting where ministers deepen their understanding of ministry, discover new ideas and meet others who are also in vocational ministry. More information.
March 10-13, 2013 — Advocacy in Action, Washington, D.C. Join the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on a three day journey to become a voice for the world’s poor and marginalized, to advocate for religious liberty, and to witness a local missional congregation in action. More information.
April 5-7, 2013 — Alliance of Baptist Annual Gathering: “Little Altars Everywhere: Creating, Learning, Forming.” First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina. More information.
May 20-22, 2013 – BH&HS Annual Conference, “Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation” (University of Richmond). More information.
November 14-16, 2013 – Judson Conference 2013, a joint conference sponsored by the American Baptist Historical Society and McAfee School of Theology. More information.