Whitewashing Dr. Martin Luther King Junior

bju-observes-martin-luther-king-jr-dayThis Wasn’t My Idea.

Last week, ‘BJU Blogs‘ reported University President Steve Pettit to have announced that as of January 2017, Bob Jones University will observe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year. Plans are to close the school offices, cancel classes, and to encourage students to participate in Greenville area service opportunities and prayer sessions centered on racial harmony.

Far be it from me, to accuse Bob Jones University of doing a ‘PR’ job to ‘fix’ public perception of the University line on Dr. King. Pettit relates:

“Dr. King accomplished much in his short life here on earth,” said Pettit. “We believe his voice and leadership to nonviolently oppose the wrongs of the day while paving the way for racial equality and harmony should be respected and honored.”

We waited so long … for this?

Tame? That’s downright innocuous. To serve up this just two years shy of a half-century lacks all conviction. Whatever took BJU so long?

Much has and will be said and written about Dr. King. David Stewart [the head-case at the fundie ‘Jesus Is Savior’ website] informs us that King was a false teacher with a Communist agenda who ‘openly incited violence under the banner of “nonviolence.”’ Presenting no evidence, Stewart makes many hysterical assertions about King. But Stewart isn’t alone.

J. Carville and others cite a supposedly sane and decidedly more influential Jerry Falwell who also questions Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence.

In my thankfully brief intersection with fundamentalism, I soon learned that the communist Martin Luther King Jr. line was a recurring motif.

Meeting Daniel K. Williams

Daniel Williams, associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia, unfolds this intriguing story. His perspective helps us assess MLK related hysteria and misgivings, and explains the broader civic/religious connection in fundamentalism. In his book, God’s Own Party, he writes:

‘The contrast between Graham and Falwell’s messages signaled a fault line in conservative Protestantism that would divide mainstream evangelicals from self-identified fundamentalists for the next generation.’

How things went as they did

Williams’ steady hand shows that politics and faith together divided ‘evangelicals’ and the Falwell/Jones/Rice/etc. crowd. The divisions in political life and the faith community were replicated in each other.

Particularly telling is a section, ‘The “Christian Americanism” of Bob Jones Jr.’ In addition to illuminating differences between the Senior and Junior Jones, Williams relates a side of early BJ Jr. which may not be so well known. More than one may guess, Christian fundamentalism was the political engine that powered the US ever more reactionary tendency.

A Case in Point

‘Jones became an ardent crusader against communism and political liberalism…’ Williams wrote. He adds that in Dec. 1950, Jones hosted a convention where many free-world foreign diplomats delivered speeches. Jones gave the keynote address and castigated the Department of State for ‘inexcusable stupidity or vicious betrayal.’ He charged it for throwing China’s democracy forces to ‘the raving wolves of the Kremlin.’

The ‘A-HA’ Moment

Bob Jones Jr. is the articulate and comparatively erudite version of the David Stewarts of the world. But far from rising above Stewart’s level, the rhetoric and perspective of Bob Jones Jr. normalizes Stewart’s hysterics.

Liberals and democratic socialists recognize that the socialist tendencies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In that day, anticommunism was treated by many Christian fundamentalists as a necessary adjunct to the gospel. For many fundamentalist leaders, the mass demonstrations were not so much demands for racial equality as a political challenge to capitalist rule.

Over time, King’s socialist tendency was forgotten. To the degree that this is so, he becomes socially tolerable. So Pettit can now say of King:

“We believe his voice and leadership to nonviolently oppose the wrongs of the day while paving the way for racial equality and harmony should be respected and honored.”

I can’t help but think even that milquetoast remark is forthcoming solely because Dr. King’s socialist tendency is largely forgotten, so that he can now be portrayed as someone who should be ‘respected and honored.’

Otherwise, why did we have to wait 48 years — just for this?

Methinks a post on the ‘service opportunities’ and ‘prayer sessions’ centered on racial harmony might be in order…

Friday Challenge — Correcting Compromise:

Compromise

Compromise Revisited:

Two months ago, SFL addressed the political compromise of Liberty University and Donald Trump under the title, ‘Suspending the Rules on Compromise.’ Apparently, some people agreed with us. A number of them are students at Liberty University. Calling themselves ‘Liberty United Against Trump,’ they published a statement censoring Jerry Falwell Jr.

Worse, they’re calling others to give it an endorsement of their own!

The opening paragraph states:

‘In the months since Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed him, Donald Trump has been inexorably associated with Liberty University. We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history. Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.’

Now I would not have written those words. I agree with the words and their sentiment. But I wouldn’t have written them. I would have said:

By consummating their civil union, Jerry Falwell Jr. inexorably tied Donald Trump and Liberty University. As Liberty students, we are disgusted by Mr. Falwell’s utter lack of spiritual sensibilities. We feel outraged and violated that without our consent, we are associated with an openly fascistic narcissist who holds both Christian faith and our system of governance in unmitigated contempt. Donald Trump does not represent our values; and if he represents Mr. Falwell’s values, we want nothing to do with either one of them.’

There is much about the Liberty United statement that is good. For me, the heart of the statement was this:

‘Associating any politician with Christianity is damaging to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’

Friday Challenge — Correct Them!

Today, you get to ‘set ’em straight!’ This means that you get to rewrite some statement, paragraph or line from this, or another statement that you heard/endured in Fundystan. If you wish, you can reply to something that ought to have been addressed but never was. The use of [brackets] may help to clarify such changes as you intend to make.

Two rules apply this time:

1] Use your own discretion as regarding the use of identifiable names. You’re welcome to address those involved if you want … but you never know who may read it. So, use your own discretion.

2] Make this FUN [or therapeutic, as you wish]. Blessings!

Burning a Pinch of Incense to Caesar

pledge-flag-day-1899
Students, swearing the pledge of allegiance on Flag Day, 1899.

If the game ‘Balderdash’ used ‘Polycarp’ as a word, I suppose someone might define it as an adhesive compound used by roofers to waterproof tiles. Students of church history recognize Polycarp as a disciple of John, as the bishop of Smyrna, and as an early Christian martyr. Although a life-long believer, he was by then an aged man, perhaps in his 90s.

Rome didn’t want to do Polycarp. Burning an old man of gentle character just doesn’t give an imperial cult the victory it wants. A believer all his life, Polycarp may have made it to his 90s before he was bound and tossed on a pyre. But the flames didn’t touch him. So he was stabbed to death.

It is said that Polycarp’s martyrdom was his greatest gift to the church. Why he accepted it probably holds instructive lessons for every age.

Polycarp was supposed to burn incense to Caesar. The annual rite meant taking a pinch of incense, tossing it in a fire and saying, ‘Caesar is Lord.’

Rome had a whole pantheon of gods. It really didn’t matter what god you served, so long as your swore allegiance to Caesar that one day. It wasn’t necessary to believe/mean what you said. You just had to do it. It was a ‘do this and then live however you want the rest of the year’ thing.

Polycarp refused.

Polycarp was begged to do otherwise.

He refused.

Polycarp was asked, ‘will you at least denounce the atheists,’ meaning Christians, who were regarded as ‘atheists’ as they didn’t acknowledge Rome’s deities. Polycarp turned toward the angry mob and shouted, ‘down with the atheists.’ By that, Polycarp declared practitioners of Rome’s imperial cult to be the atheists.

Allegiance pledged to the Republic and to the flag that means the Republic is not burning incense to Caesar. No one-on-one equation of the two is possible, and the attempt to make it so is ahistorical.

Still, Rome and Washington may show more imperial commonality than we think. The imperial slogans inscribed on Roman altars, coinage, etc. are alive and well today — peace, security, victory, prosperity, freedom, and more. But empires are not built on slogans. The projection of imperial power, its conditions, the narratives which support it, and its promises to its peoples may be more at the heart of the matter. It is in those things that we may find ourselves more and more resembling imperial Rome.

The issue of allegiance — what it presumes, what it means, on what conditions it is given, what it requires, etc. — matters especially for Christian believers. This bears on identity, our assessment of the world in which we live, what is our task, and where we are going. It matters profoundly whether allegiance can be divided, or whether by definition it can belong solely to one Lord, be that an earthly or an heavenly one.

This is troubling because mere discussion of such things retains a certain discretion about things which powerful forces want left sacrosanct. Quite frankly, such subjects are ‘not supposed’ to be open for discussion. But that is precisely what Christians MUST not do.

It is ironic that where independent fundamental baptists ought to be most insistent [in retaining distinctives of faith allegiance], they are too often most compromised. IFBs too easily and without criticism align themselves with the powers of this present age. THAT is a significant part of the reason for which they MUST have a ‘Christian Nation’ narrative.

IF a wedge is driven between Christ and Caesar, THEN it is necessary to decide between them. In my experience, that is something which few IFBs or few evangelical Christians are prepared to do.

The intent here is NOT to decide the issue allegiance or whether or how one can faithfully swear fealty both to Caesar AND Christ. As I see it, we must allow each person to decide that for her or himself.

The point is that we dare not make this a ‘closed’ matter on which there can be no ongoing discussion. Discussion is needed, because we are unable to assess our faithfulness to Jesus Christ without considering it. Moreover, believers need mutual accountability in these matters, regardless of how they come down on the question of earthly allegiance.

Polycarp is extraordinary because he was prepared to look Caesar in the eye and say, ‘no.’ That’s why he died as he did. What is not clear is that evangelicals in our time and place would do the same in any dynamically comparable test of allegiance. That’s where and why discussion is needed.

Suspending the Rules on Compromise

Compromise? Compromise? Who said anything about compromise?
Donald Trump with Jerry Falwell Jr. — or is it Trump with a fundamentalist sTRUMPet?

Political Alliances, not Compromise

Strange political alliances are nothing new. Even if only a matter of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ pragmatism produces some odd relationships. This is doubly so when one party is sworn to shun foreign covenants [alliances] as the very epitome of worldly compromise.

Addressing the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Falwell Jr. made several statements which some might regard as both odd and ‘foreign.’ Consider these two:

‘We have never met such a genuine and loving family; I truly believe Mr. Trump is America’s blue caller billionaire’ [2:57].

‘…we are at a crossroads were our first priority must be saving our nation’ [4:20].

The video suggests Falwell’s support for repealing the restriction of non-partisan speech for non-profits and churches. He seems to think that this is a ‘free speech’ issue. In reality, he can go political already. But if he does, that tax exempt status is forfeited. Mr. Falwell gave no indication of whether he wanted tax exemption revoked along with the prohibition.

The July 21, ’16 NPR ‘Morning Edition’ featured Steve Inskeep’s interview with Falwell. There, he offered this insight:

‘…if you poll that group and you look for where the traditional social issues fall, they used to be near the top. And now, they’re the last ones on the list  … Many pastors tell me that what difference does it make what happens with social issues if we lose our country? We’ve got to save our country first.’

Pragmatism at all Costs

It is certainly true that abortion and marriage rights no longer command the attention they once did. But Falwell’s statement tempts us to think that in times of crisis, we can suspend the rules.

But again, a host of issues never captured the evangelical/fundamentalist imagination. Yet these also suggest a nation undergoing collapse:

  • A 7.9% increase in deaths by police in 2015 over 2014.
  • US maternal death rate up 27% since 2000.
  • Food insecurity/poverty rampant in US cities.
  • Opioid epidemic [heroin deaths triple in 4 years].
  • Prison deaths — nearly 7,000 since ’05 in Texas alone.
  • 500,000 homeless [nearly 1/4th being children].
  • Militarized police and community occupations.

It is sad that the logic some would bring to the table would be to argue that the very conditions of social misery warrant ongoing attacks on civil liberties and enhanced police/political crime.

The Steve Inskeep interview with Falwell continues…

INSKEEP: In the “60 Minutes” interview the other day, Lesley Stahl said, in passing, you’re not the most humble person. And he broke in and said, I’m very humble. I’m humble in ways you’ll never understand.
FALWELL, JR.: Yeah. I’ve never seen any arrogance. I do think he is…
INSKEEP: Do you think he’s humble?
FALWELL, JR.: I do. I do. I think he’s very outspoken, and I think he is – what’s the old saying? If it’s true, it ain’t bragging.

In addition to the nation, something else is lost–a churchly witness to Christ. It is being lost because in the face of social disintegration and the rise of fascistic extremism and unbridled militarism, such alliances Trump and Falwell force upon our minds one, very simple question:

Is that the best Christians can do?

 

Revelation as a Circular Letter

An Epistle

RB’s discussion of Revelation as a circular epistle has some important and potentially mind-blowing implications. The writing is dense; much of what RB says here can’t be condensed. So I quote him extensively in this post. It is a lengthy post, but I am passionate about this and don’t know how to do otherwise. Interested parties are encouraged to get this book!


Revelation as an Epistle

Many misreadings of Revelation occur because it is overlooked that this whole work is an epistle, a letter written to then existing churches, and not to some far-off end-time/last-day generation.

While most directly concerning the seven churches, Revelation has interest to a broader audience. 1 Corinthians is very targeted to one church; but we all benefit from that epistle [cf. Col 4:16].

Meet the Seven Churches

John uses a unique strategy in Revelation. The body of his message is for all the churches. But he has very different, very specific introductions for each church. These are the famed ‘seven letters’ to the churches.

Seven Churches OrderThe churches are named in the order a messenger delivering this letter to them from Patmos would most naturally follow.

The churches faced very different problems, and they faced some common problems very differently. Each ‘letter’ is an ‘introduction’ to the whole book, in which Jesus addresses that specific church.

God Sanctions Other ‘Interpretations?’

The Revelation as a whole is a circular letter written to seven churches. But John intended for it to be read from seven different perspectives. [This seems to be to be HUGELY liberating to fundamentalists who are bound so very slavishly to the ‘one’ reading allowed every passage!].

Churches in turn are promised future salvation ‘to him who overcomes!’ This is the call to eschatological [future] battle. But what is victory? What does it mean conquer? The letters don’t explain that; but that is explained in the central chapters of this epistle. Likewise, our eschatological destiny is described at the end of the epistle.

John’s World, Ours, or Both…

John lived under Rome’s worldwide tyranny. He wanted the churches to see how that tyranny related to the issues they faced. He wanted them to see how their struggle on the issues fit in God’s great battle against tyranny, and how it served God’s purpose to establish his kingdom.

RB observes that not all Christians were poor and oppressed by Rome’s tyrannical system. Many were affluent and compromised with it. For them, the judgments described in Revelation came not for consolation but as stern warnings of the danger they incurred. It was not only pagans, but many of John’s hearers/readers were tempted to or actually did worship the beast [as those who listened to Jezebel at Thyatira].

Comfort or warning, the application of Revelation turned on the group to which hearers belonged, and their relationship with Rome’s tyranny. Asia Minor had more churches than seven. But the wealth of perspectives John provided allows all the churches to find analogies in his representative sampling of churches.

POLITICAL CYCLONITE

Thus read, Revelation becomes a devastating critique of much Christian profession. They are not alone, but even some very ‘fundamentalist’ sects uncritically endorse US militarism, war, foreign interventionism, plus domestic repression [law-and-order] and poverty [austerity, wage cuts, medical/benefits cuts, interest rates favoring the wealthy, etc.].

The Revelation identifies that as spiritual alignment with and worship of the powers of Death. We have the means to address the enormous social, economic and political crises besetting nation and world. But we surrender this by pushing the theology of the Revelation into the future. And it is done PRECISELY to allow us to profess Christ AND sell out to the world.

“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues’ [Re 18:3-4].