Category: spirituality

Dreaming a Christian aristocracy: The evolution and meaning of Dominionism

By Alan Bean

Our twenty-four hour news cycle doesn’t lend itself to careful analysis of complex social movements.  Rick Perry, the pugnacious presidential hopeful, raised eyebrows when he used a loose network of organizations associated with the New Apostolic Reformation to organize a big religious-political rally in Houston.  Interest quickened when the mainstream media learned that some of Perry’s friends were “Dominionists,” folks who want to bring secular politics (and everything else) under the dominion of God.

The questions couldn’t be avoided.  If elected, will Rick Perry pack his cabinet with Christian preachers?  Since that didn’t sound likely, the pundits too-easily assumed that politicians like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann are just standard-issue conservatives with close ties to the religious right.  (more…)

When the prison boom goes bust

By Alan Bean

Scott Henson’s Grits for Breakfast blog offered a couple of terrific posts over the weekend.  “Private prisons and faux privatization” was inspired by a Forbes piece in which E. D. Kain asserts that running prisons is a government responsibility even if the work is subcontracted to a private prison company.

Thus any ‘privatization’ that occurs is simply the transfer of the provision of a government service (in this case, incarceration) to a private contractor. The contractor still operates with the full force of the law. In other words, it’s still government, just government-for-hire or for-profit government.

If there is any saving to the tax payer it is only because private prisons pay their workers less than state-run prisons.  Since this translates into less capable workers nothing of value is gained and much is lost.

“Texas prison  boom going bust” argues that county commissioners in small Texas towns can no longer build lock-ups far exceeding local needs on the assumption that a steadily growing prison population will fill the excess beds.

Jail-bed supply significantly exceeds demand statewide. With the exception of immigration detention, the bubble has burst. As has, hopefully, the “jail as profit center” myth among Texas county commissioners.

Prison privatization and the proliferation of the The Texas Gulag are two of the primary symptoms of America’s failed attempt to make crime pay.  Public officials have believed for years that everybody wins when we lock up more people this year than we did last year. Small towns get jobs; private prison companies slash wages and rake in profits, politicians get campaign contributions from the private prison industry and jobs in that sector when they leave politics.  Who could ask for anything more? (more…)

How to join the conspiracy

By Alan Bean

When I tell people about Friends of Justice they sometimes ask how they can get involved.  I tell them that all donations are gratefully received, but that’s rarely what they have in mind. They want to know how they can get involved in the work of Friends of Justice.

And here’s my answer: If you want to help Friends of Justice you need to understand the spirituality that drives our work; you need to get involved with the Mustard Seed Conspiracy. If you live within reasonable driving distance of Arlington, Texas you are invited to attend our weekly study which will begin on Wednesday, September 7.  A few days prior to each gathering you will find that week’s reading assignment and a brief commentary on the Mustard Seed Conspiracy blog. (more…)

An informed conversation about the religious right, politics and dominionism

By Alan Bean

Sarah Posner and Anthea Butler understand the religious right because they attend actual religious gatherings and talk to people.  When they sit down for a conversation about dominionism, the New Apostolic Reformation and politicians like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann you get the straight goods.

Dominionists aren’t poised to take over America.  The religious right is an exceedingly complex social phenomenon.  Most of the folks in Houston’s Reliant Stadium for Rick Perry’s The Response had never heard of dominionism.  All of this is true, but that doesn’t mean something big isn’t afoot in the world of conservative evangelicalism.  Something big is afoot and it is already impacting the political process and the way social issues are debated in the public arena.

When I was attending university in the mid-1970s, my parents, Gordon and Muriel Bean, were suddenly wrapped up in the charismatic movement.  They continued to attend McLaurin Baptist Church (then a very non-demonstrative congregation), but they were much more excited about groups like the Full Gospel Business Men International and Women Aglow (of which my mother eventually became Alberta president).  Like the dutiful son I am, I attended these meetings but was never tempted to get involved.  I saw the usual “signs and wonders”:  folks speak in tongues as if it was the most natural thing in the world, worshipers healed of chronic ailments (usually having one leg longer than the other), worshippers  “slain in the spirit” (that is, lying in ecstasy on the floor as their bodies twitched with Holy Spirit electricity).

Like I say, it wasn’t my cup of tea.  But I learned that this kind of religion can be extraordinarily powerful for those on the inside.  As Posner and Butler point out below, it is the ordinary people who attend religious conferences and buy books and DVDs that drive the movement.  The names of the preachers change from generation to generation; the spiritual hunger driving the movement abides forever.

The GOP has learned to tap into that hunger; Democrats lose elections, especially in the South, because they haven’t.

This is a long piece, but I offer this little clip as an indication of the fresh insight you will discover throughout a fascinating conversation.  This is Anthea Butler:

For the last 30 years, journalists have had an easy time reporting on the religious right, because all they did was pay attention to to white male leaders of big organizations like Focus on the Family, National Association of Evangelicals, or Family Research Council. The days when a nice soundbite from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, or Ted Haggard would suffice are over. If journalists and others want to understand the last 10 years of the religious right movement, they will need to pay attention to the theological, religious, and ethnic diversity among evangelicals, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches. They will at least need to recognize the old and new leaders of the religious right, and the complex network of leaders, conferences, and teachings if they want a reductionist argument they can spin out in 800 words. As someone who has studied and written about Pentecostalism for over 15 years, their lack of basic knowledge is staggering, and although I don’t expect people to get it like I do, I do expect reporters and journalists to do their homework! (more…)

Gay at Baylor: A Christian Challenge

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post

By Mark Osler

This past October, I wrote a piece in the Huffington Post entitled “Repentance of an Anti-Gay Bigot.”  Among the dozens of responses I received were many from my former law students at Baylor University, where I taught for ten years.  They were heart-wrenching, revealing the pain of attending Baylor in fear of being found out and expelled; of isolating themselves from their classmates; and ultimately their alienation from Baylor and even Christianity.  Baylor bars gays and lesbians from the faculty, and has fought hard to keep any gay student support groups from gaining recognition.  It has done this in the name of Jesus Christ, claiming the authority of the Bible.

I don’t teach at Baylor anymore.  This week I am starting my second year as a professor of law at a Catholic school, St. Thomas, in Minneapolis.  Though smaller than Baylor, it is similar in many ways.  It is strong in its faith identity, and the majority of faculty (at least in my department) and students are more conservative than you would find at most other schools.  Yet, there are differences, and at least one may be crucial to Baylor’s future.

 After a few weeks of teaching sentencing at St. Thomas, one of my students stopped by to see me right before lunch, so I invited him to join me.  He had a genuine interest in criminal law, and in particular wanted to work for the U.S. Department of Justice, my former employer.  I love talking about the DOJ, and asked him which division he would like to work in.

 He immediately told me he wanted to work in the Civil Rights Division in Washington, an important and often controversial office.  Looking over my sandwich at this middle-aged white male, I asked “Why Civil Rights?”

Mark Osler

He immediately responded, “Well, I’m gay.”  He then began to describe some of the work he had already done in the area, but I barely knew he was talking—after ten years at Baylor, I was in a state of shock to hear a student openly admit this to a professor in a public place.  I looked behind me to see if anyone we might know was around, and felt relieved when there were only strangers.

I need not have worried.  St. Thomas has a gay and lesbian student organization, my administrative assistant is openly gay, and two of my colleagues who are full professors are also openly gay and are welcome to (and do) bring their partners to law school events.  Yet, not only does the school survive, but the fact that we are welcoming to gays and lesbians does not in the least seem to be read as any kind of statement on the part of our sponsoring body, the Archdiocese of Minnesota.  We are a community that includes gay men and lesbians as faculty, staff, and students, and stand proudly together as Christians.

Baylor can accept gays and lesbians without sacrificing anything.  Yes, the student code of conduct bars pre-marital sex, but gays and straights are equally susceptible to breaking that rule; if potential for sexual relations is a reason to bar anyone, it is a reason to bar everyone.   That rule should be enforced evenly.  All evidence now is that it is enforced in the dorms, but not elsewhere.  If that is the case, then enforcement should be consistent, gay or straight.

Former Baylor President Abner McCall once told a good friend of mine that “Baylor can’t be a Christian.  Only people can be Christian.”  As Christian people we must be both honest and loving.  Honesty tells us that there have been, are now, and will be gays and lesbians at Baylor.  If the plan has been to exclude them, Baylor has done a lousy job.   Given that gay men and lesbians are and will be students at Baylor, love instructs us to help them grow in faith and to welcome them, rather than exclude or demean them.

 The time has come for Baylor to hire gays and lesbians who meet all other requirements; to lift the veil of fear from student life; and to allow gay and lesbian groups to establish themselves on campus.  Baylor is strong, proud, and Christian, and all of those qualities make such a change possible without a loss of identity.

 To remain an engaged and relevant institution, Baylor must change.  Its message to gays and lesbians has to be something other than what is perceived on campus now:  That if you are gay, there is no love for you, on Earth or in Heaven.  Christ promises more, and so should Baylor.

Faith as an Engine of Criminal Justice Reform

By Harinder Singh

With all attention currently on the debt ceiling in the US, the faith community is calling on leadership to save money through addressing the wasteful costs of incarcerating 2.3 million Americans.

On June 16, 2011, I joined a cadre of 23 interfaith religious leaders from throughout the US in support of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act in visiting our congressional representatives and the White House.  I met with representatives from Texas and California in their offices on Capitol Hill as part of a fly-in organized by the Faith in Action Working Group of the Justice Roundtable. I participated in this critical action because correcting injustices in our prison systems needs to be a state and national priority, fueled especially by all who claim to be driven by religious convictions. An avenue for this type of reform lies in the proposed creation of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011 (S. 306) (NCJCA), which was introduced with bipartisan support in 2011 by Senator Jim Webb. Members of the Commission would be appointed by the legislative and executive branch and would be charged with undertaking comprehensive critical examination of America’s criminal justice system.

The portion of the bill I would like to focus on today– Section 5(b) — reads as follows: “The Commission shall make findings… and recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.”

This Commission represents a real chance to address a statistic that won’t go away: The US accounts for 5% of the world’s population, yet locks up 25% of the world’s prisoners. Existing practices too often incarcerate people whose rehabilitation would be best served by access to recovery programs—not imprisonment, and rob resources from addressing high-risk, violent offenders who pose the real threat to our communities.  (more…)

My Kind of Patriotic Sermon

Brent Beasley
Brent Beasley

I didn’t go to church this July 4th weekend.  I couldn’t bear the thought of singing odes to American Exceptionalism.   America is exceptional, of course, but our national history is such a mix of glory and gloom, triumph and tragedy, that flag waving triumphalism is rarely appropriate–especially in a Christian sanctuary.

Mercifully, not all patriotic sermons are created equal.  Brent Beasley, pastor of Fort Worth’s Broadway Baptist Church, loves America.  He doesn’t love everything the American people have done or everything we presently represent in the eyes of the world; but he loves our better angels; he loves our dreams.  

In this sermon, Dr. Beasley contemplates the familiar words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, and is reminded of the words of our Savior, “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

It doesn’t always get ugly when patriotic longing and religious aspiration join hands; sometimes it can be beautiful.

The political implications of this message are obvious and unstated–that too is a splendid combination. AGB (more…)

Royal visit has me longing for home

PHOTO: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge visit the Somba K'e Civic Plaza on day 6 of the Royal Couple's North American Tour, July 5 2011 in Yellowknife, Canada.By Alan Bean

I have been too busy to blog this week, but I couldn’t resist this story. You may ask what a royal tour has to do with criminal justice reform. Very little, I expect, although I am clever enough to come up with something if I had a mind to.

I am blogging about Kate and William’s royal tour because it pleases me.

For one thing, Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne a few years before I was born and, though I am 58 years old, she has been the only British monarch I have known. When you grow up singing "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen(to the tune of My Country ‘Tis of Thee) it gets into your bones (whether you like it or not).

This lovely photographic essay from the Washington Post shows the royal couple taking in a little calf roping at the Calgary Stampede and attending the Dene Games in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. I was born in Calgary in 1953 and the Bean family moved to Yellowknife three years later. I remember my dad taking my sister and I to the Calgary Stampede during a summer vacation when I was a little kid. He wouldn’t spring for cowboy boots, but I did get a cowboy hat, and I wore it to bed that night.

I remember William’s grandfather, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, creating quite a stir a generation ago when he was presented with the inevitable cowboy hat during a visit to Calgary. “Thank you very much," said the Prince. “I think I have six or seven of these now. Perhaps I’ll use this one for a planter.”

That didn’t go down well in Cow Town.

There is another story about Prince Phillip dining at Calgary’s glorious Palicer Hotel back in the mid fifties (when he was about the age William is now). According to legend, a hotel waitress, while removing Phillip’s dinner plate, whispered, “Keep your fork, Prince, we’re havin’ pie.”

I don’t get back to Canada much these days.  My parents are both long dead and my sister, Carol, spends half the year in Texas.  But everyone needs a sense of home, and places like Calgary, Edmonton and Yellowknife are about as close as I can get.  A return visit to Yellowknife after almost fifty years is high on my bucket list.

Calgary's Bow River Valley

Last year, while in Calgary for the funeral of my aunt, Iris Garner, I stopped by the old home of the now defunct Baptist Leadership Training School, an institution I attended in 1971.   It had been fully forty years since I last walked to the nearby park overlooking the gorgeous Bow River valley.  The view of the river hadn’t changed a bit, but I hardly resembled the callow youth who once looked out over the scene.  I have rarely felt more orphaned and adrift.

So I guess, in the end, these rambling thoughts do relate to this blog’s primary theme.  Everybody needs a sense of place, everybody needs to belong to a people.  Friends of Justice works in the American South, a region occupied by rooted people with a strong sense of belonging.  What happens when a proud people is made synonymous with bigotry and hate?  Issues of culpability aside, how deep does the fear, loss and resentment go?

The spirit and spirituality of mass incarceration is a plant native to the southland that has been nourished for decades by the deepest kind of alienation and outrage.  People felt as if the glorious narrative that had given them a sense of people and place had been desecrated.  The sense of loss was palpable.  This is why Ronald Reagan launched his election campaign in 1980 in Neshoba County, the place where, 16 years earlier, three civil rights leaders had been murdered.  Reagan was opposed to the civil rights movement, but he was hardly a son of the South.  His advisers knew, however, that a rich deposit of racial resentment was waiting to be mined in places like Neshoba County.  People had lost their story and they desperately wanted it back.  Reagan promised to deliver.  The promise was kept.

Sign announcing the 2011 Neshoba County Fair

I understand these emotions.  I grew up in one country and I live in another.  Calgary, Alberta and Fort Worth Texas have a lot in common, but I never really feel at home in Texas.  Nor would I feel at home if I returned to my native Canada.  Like Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.”

When Tea Partiers say they want their country back they are longing for an old, old story.  They want to feel part of an exceptional, virtuous and boot-leather-tough nation where everyone shares the same values and pursues the same goals.  That kind of America never existed in reality; but it lives in memory nonetheless.  The nation people want to regain exists in the form of narrative mythology, and this story about restoring a noble, resolute and unified America is the most potent force in contemporary politics.

There is no sense decrying or endlessly deconstructing the narrative that animates our ideological opposites.  We need a narrative of our own.  We don’t need a story about the nation we once were; we need a story about the nation the better angels of our national nature have always aspired to be.  We need to start talking about a country where there is no us and them; a nation where there are no surplus, throw-away people.
We need to start talking about a nation of broken people where broken people can be redeemed.
According to reporter Jeremy van Loon, Prince William characterized Canada as that kind of country.

Prince William praised Canada’s “extraordinary potential” and the nation’s values of “freedom and compassion” at the end of a nine-day tour of the country with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge.  “Canada is not just a great union of provinces and territories, it is a great union of peoples from many different backgrounds who have come together to make this a model — and a magnet — for those who value freedom, enterprise, tolerance and compassion,” he said today in Calgary.

 I’m not sure Canada, or any other country, deserves such high praise.  The prince was being complimentary.  But don’t we want to live in that kind of country?  When we tap into that desire, the movement to end mass incarceration will begin.

Grover Norquist’s America

By Alan Bean
In a recent post, I suggested that Carrollton, Mississippi, a town that proudly flies the Conderate flag outside its courthouse, reflects the soul of America.  Charles Kiker, my esteemed father-in-law, calls that an overstatement.  This op-ed from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick illuminates my audacious thesis.  As Patrick notes, small government fundamentalism has captured the conservative movement and, to a large extent, the conservative movement has captured American politics.
True, a Democrat is in the White House and the Senate remains blue.  But anyone who listened to President Obama trying to adopt a tough stance with Republicans the other day will realize that Grover Norquist’s intention has been realized: Democratic presidents can no longer govern as Democrats.  Obama was trying to come on strong, but he sounded scared to death.  Conservatives control the moral consensus of the nation and the President knows it. (more…)

Pastor to Black Panthers ministers to white Baptist University in North Carolina

J. Alfred Smith

I first met the Reverend Dr. J. Alfred Smith when he “preached a revival” at First Baptist Church, Kansas City, KS.  Charles Kiker, my father-in-law, was pastor at FBC in the mid-1990s and I was invited as the guest singer.  A few years later, when Friends of Justice was created in response to a big drug bust in a little Texas town, Pastor Smith and members of his congregation provided welcome support.  Dr. Smith, pastor emeritus at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, is now 80 years old, but his commitment to prophetic witness still burns white-hot.  The article below first appeared in the Religious Herald. AGB


J. Alfred Smith finds Gardner-Webb University open to diversity

By Norman Jameson

Thursday, May 12, 2011

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. (ABP) — A predominantly white Baptist college in rural North Carolina might seem an unlikely place to find an urban African-American pastor from California known for an agenda of prophetic justice, but Gardner-Webb University just said goodbye to J. Alfred Smith, pastor emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., who served as the school’s first scholar-in-residence this spring. (more…)