Category: The Nature of God

The freedom riders triumphed through non-violence

By Alan Bean

Leonard Pitts puts his finger on the key organizing principle of the freedom rider movement:

Everybody thinks they could get on that bus. It’s an easy thing to say. Then you remember the savagery, the violent attacks from people mortally outraged that these young men and women traveled in integrated groups and ignored segregation signs in bus-station restrooms and coffee shops. And you remember that the rules of engagement required pacifism: a willingness to get hit, and not hit back.

It required enormous courage to take the words of Jesus at face value:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile . . . You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

The implication is clear: if we hate our enemies, if we demand a tooth for a tooth, we cannot be children of our Father in heaven. (more…)

Have we given up on the common good?

By Alan Bean

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War reminds us that America is as deeply divided now as it has ever been.  We can’t even agree about the basic meaning of the Civil War.  Was Robert E. Lee a hero or a villain?  

In the 1860s, and again in the 1960s, the federal government, albeit with deep misgivings, moved powerfully to defend the nation’s most vulnerable members.  Too marginalized to deserve the title “citizens,” 19th century slaves and the 20th century victims of Jim Crow segregation, were protected from the tyranny of the majority.  In the 1860s, the Republican Party controlled the process; by the 1960s, the Democrats were in charge–but the principle was the same.

As we wander aimlessly into the 21st century, the political divide is largely defined by the traumatic events of the 1860s and 1960s.  Conservatives are increasingly inclined to see the 1860s and 1960s as periods in which a tyrannical federal government crushed legitimate states’ rights.  In the liberal view, the demise of slavery and Jim Crow oppression are milestones in the long march to freedom.  To liberals, “states’ rights” is shorthand for state-sanctioned bigotry.

Tragically, neither conservatives or liberals give much thought to the ties that bind us together as a nation.  We are too fixated on the failings of our ideological opposites to examine what our side has lost.  As things stand, neither conservatives nor liberals have a narrative that all Americans, or even most Americans, can rally around. (more…)

Rethinking Hell

By Alan Bean

Hell has always been a hot topic in America.  Rob Bell’s Love Wins created such a pre-publication stir that the book debuted at number 2 on the New York Times best-seller list and remains on Amazon’s top 10. 

Bell’s take on heaven and hell rests on the recent scholarship of folks like NT Wright (on the evangelical side) and Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (writing from a more liberal perspective).  (Brian McLaren offers a slightly more cerebral, and original, popularization of this new scholarship.)  The big idea is that salvation isn’t about going to heaven (or hell) when you die; eternal life (for better or worse) begins now. 

In a recent chat with Welton Gaddy, Rob Bell offered this typically folksy summary of his perspective.

I start with the first century world of Jesus. Jesus spoke very clearly and forthrightly about this world: that the scriptural story and the Jewish story that he was living in was about the reclaiming of this world, the restoration and the renewal of this world. So, Jesus comes, He teaches his disciples to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The action for Jesus was here on earth, about renewing this earth, about standing in solidarity with those who are suffering in this world. And he spoke of a kingdom of God, which is here and now: upon you, among you, around you, within you.

So in the book, I talk about this urgent, immediate invitation of Jesus to trust him, that God is good, that God is generous, that God is loving, that God is forgiving… And to enter into a new kind of quality of life with God right here, right now. So let’s bring some heaven to earth, let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now, let’s become the kind of people who love our neighbor… And that, for Him, it was immediate and urgent about this world. What happens when you die? He talks a little bit about that, but He’s mostly talking about this world. I think, for a lot of people, the Christian faith doesn’t have, for them, much to say about this world; that it seems to be all about what happens when you die. And so, the book, in some ways, flips it around and says: “I think this is actually what Jesus was doing.” (My emphasis, along with a few quick edits) (more…)

Right-winger + hard time = compassion

prisonBy Alan Bean

Why are so many right-wingers suddenly arguing the case for criminal justice reform?  In this fascinating piece in Salon, Justin Elliot of Salon directs this question to Doug Berman, author of the influential Sentencing Law and Policy blog

Here are the highlights:

1. Prison is far more brutal than most people believe it to be

2. Most of the conservatives currently leading the smart on crime crusade have been locked up: Duke Cunningham, Charles Colson, Pat Nolan, Conrad Black

3. The religious concept of redemption generally plays a large role in these conversions.

4. Historically, mass incarceration required the enthusiastic cooperation of the political left

5. When you do hard time you realize that harsh penalties are typically applied to crimes disproportionately committed by minorities

6. Busting budgets and historically low crime rates make this a good time for reform, but . . .

7. The political forces that drove mass incarceration are always lurking. (more…)

Feeding the market for American mythology

By Alan Bean

Two articles grabbed my attention this morning.  The first deals with fairy tales about the Christian origins of America; the second addresses civil war fairy tales (hint: it had nothing to do with slavery).

Every trained historian, regardless of personal ideology, knows that America was founded by Deists and high church Protestants who were desperate to save their fledgling nation from European-style religious wars.  Hence the separation of church and state.

Similarly, you would be hard pressed to find a single person who has studied American history at the graduate level who would argue that Southern slavery was irrelevant to the civil war.  Unfortunately, the sentimental attachment to Christian-America and the confederate Lost Cause is so passionate that elaborate mythologies arise unbidden to satisfy the demand. 

Over at Talk to Action, Chris Rodda begins a jaw-dropping post thusly: (more…)

Caring for the stranger

By Alan Bean

Deuteronomy 10: 12-19

“So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.  Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the LORD your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.

Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Why must we love strangers?  Because we are all strange in one way or another.  With the exception of Native Americans, there are no homegrown Americans; we all came here from somewhere else. (more…)

Campolo: Why the Christian Right will Dominate

As an evangelical Christian with a progressive social agenda, Tony Campolo has occupied and defended an uncomfortable patch of territory in the American religious world.

I’m not sure how much of the horror story Tony relates in this article is autobiographical, but we can be sure the Eastern University sociologist and American Baptist preacher knows whereof he speaks.  This frank discussion of a painful subject was written for Christian Ethics Today, a publication sponsored by moderate evangelicals seeking to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God.

Have you ever wondered why there are so few progressive religious voices in the popular media?  Dr. Campolo tells us exactly why that is, leaving little to the imagination.  As we seek to forge a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration, we need to know what we’re up against.  Alan Bean

Why The Religious Right Will Dominate

By Tony Campolo

Eastern University

There are reasons why Religious Right Evangelicals will continue to dominate religious discourse, not only in their own sector of the Christian community, but also in what transpires in mainline denominations. Moderate voices, for the most part, are being sidelined and those with liberal views will find fewer and fewer means to express their opinions or gain an audience for their convictions. (more…)

McLaren: Is God Violent?

This succinct article summarizes a chapter in Brian McLaren’s excellent book, A New Kind of Christianity.  This piece was originally published in Sojourners and has also appeared in Christian Ethics Today.  How should Christians think and feel about the criminal justice system, in general, and the death penalty, in particular?  Everything hinges on the nature of God.  Alan Bean

Is God Violent?

By Brian McLaren

I recently received a note from a pastor and missionary we’ll call Pete. It went like this: ”I have read most of what you have written, including A New Kind of Christianity…I would say I am in agreement with [much of what you write], but I do think you bring disservice to this argument in the evangelical world when you shun the ‘violence’ of God and the subsequent need for the cross’ justification, which was also quite violent.” (more…)