David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

Pope Francis started to write his third official document before Covid-19 exploded on the global stage, but it only added more urgency to his message addressed to humanity, “We are all brothers!”

If you want to know more about Pope Francis, read my thoughts on the first document, a pastoral letter calling for the renewal of the church on the basis of mission (Evangelii Gaudium, or “Joy of the Gospel”) and on the second, an encyclical calling on humanity to care for its planet (Laudate Si, “Praise be to you”). It makes sense that Pope Francis would use his first document to address the church, his second one to call for action on climate change and his third one for a kinder, more peaceful world.

 

The backdrop of Fratelli Tutti

Pope Francis signed this encyclical letter in Assisi (Italy) on the feast day of St. Francis, October 4, 2020. British Catholic theologian Christopher Lamb connects this letter’s theme to the pope’s namesake, St. Francis, who in 1219 “crossed the battle lines of the Crusades to meet the Sultan of Egypt in a bid to end the conflict.” This crossing of human borders for the sake of peace dovetails nicely with the Parable of the Good Samaritan which the pope leverages in this letter to exhort people everywhere to nurture a culture of dialogue, kindness and love, so that those suffering the most find help and comfort.

A Latina theologian teaching at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago noticed another element to this letter’s backdrop. Pope Francis’ ancestors emigrated to Argentina from northern Italy. There’s an Italian connection. First, note that the title (“All Brothers”) comes from a Latin text, the Admonitions of St. Francis to his fellow friars. Changing the Latin omnes fratres into the Italian fratelli tutti is a nod to the saint and to his country of origin. Second, Professor Nanko-Fernándes points to a nineteenth-century event which nicely ties the Parable of the Good Samaritan to the action of the women of Solferino in northern Italy:

 

“In 1859, the carnage of war devastated the northern Italian landscape and overwhelmed the town of Castiglione delle Stiviere with thousands of casualties from the battle of Solferino and San Martino. Churches literally became field hospitals, sheltering enemies who were made vulnerable neighbors because of the suffering and space they shared. Ordinary townsfolk, many of them women and girls, cared for the wounded and offered a comforting presence for the dying. A monument near the cathedral now commemorates the sacrifice of these heroic women.”

 

There is yet another layer to this story. A Swiss Calvinist, Henri Dunant, happened to be in Castiglione at the time. He witnessed the selfless and compassionate work these women did, which he later documented in a book, A Memory of Solferino. Dunant wrote of “injured, mutilated, and dying soldiers from all sides, some from across the Italian peninsula as well as troops who were French, German, Austrian, Arabs, Slavs, Bohemians, Croatians, Hungarians, and Africans from lands colonized by Europeans.” Yet these women cared for all of them, because they “recognized that regardless of uniform, race, or nation, these were ‘all brothers’.”

This in itself might have nudged the pope to keep the title in Italian, but there is more. This experience led Henri Dunant and several colleagues in Geneva to found the International Red Cross (1863) and Red Crescent (1869). Among its “fundamental principles,” we read, “The Red Cross … endeavors … to alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found … to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes human understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.” The influence of St. Francis is unmistakable (see my two-part piece on him).

 

The Good Samaritan Parable for our times

I easily picture this parable in my mind – at least the physical landscape. We used to live on the road to Jericho behind the Mount of Olives at the entrance of what was Bethany in Jesus’ day. Jerusalem is about 2,800 feet above sea level. Jericho and the Dead Sea, about 17 miles down the road, are over 1,300 feet below sea level and the road is pretty much desert a few miles from the top. In those days, it was notorious for its lawlessness and danger. Jesus’ hearers could instantly imagine someone badly beaten, almost naked, left to die by the roadside.

A Jewish priest, and then a Levite who likely was coming home after serving his Temple shift, both crossed the road to avoid the injured man. Finally, a Samaritan man came along (from a group the Jews famously despised at the time), looked at him with compassion, treated his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. He took care of him that night and the next day, then gave money to the innkeeper as he left to make sure he got better. Jesus asked his listeners, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” (Luke 10:36). The man who had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” replied Jesus.

Such a story is all the more poignant in our global village today. We are either the Samaritan or the passers-by. Yet our call is to be a neighbor, better yet, a brother or sister to the needy. Pope Francis puts it this way:

 

“The parable … speaks to us of an essential and often forgotten aspect of our common humanity: we were created for a fulfilment that can only be found in love. We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. That is the meaning of dignity” (18).

 

We know the robbers, he writes. “We have seen, descending on our world, the dark shadows of neglect and violence in the service of petty interests of power, gain and division. The real question is this: will we abandon the injured man and run to take refuge from the violence, or will we pursue the thieves? Will the wounded man end up being the justification for our irreconcilable divisions, our cruel indifference, our intestine conflicts?” (18). Here the Pope, as elsewhere, calls us to work as individuals to alleviate suffering and need, and calls on us as citizens to ensure that our governments are responsive to social justice. The divisions he talks about, we too are responsible for them. Christians are called to see Christ in the hurting, the broken, naked and hungry. His infinite love “confers infinite dignity” upon all people everywhere. We cannot be passers-by. We must roll up our sleeves and help the suffering in any way we can.

 

A political message, but beyond ideology

In essence, Pope Francis is urging us to believe that a better world is possible and that each of us can help make it that way. We need to be building societies of dialogue and friendship. Dialogue is “approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground” (50). Unfortunately, and particularly in the last decade, people have increasingly retreated to their favorite social media platforms where rather than engage in open debate they fall into “parallel monologues” that are often manipulated by powerful interest groups. This dynamic has given way to shameless aggression and the proliferation of ideologies, he laments. He adds this,

 

“Social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices. This has now given free rein to ideologies. Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures … How can this contribute to the fraternity that our common Father asks of us?” (12).

 

Notice the phrase, “even by some political figures.” Writing as he does in 2020, we might guess to whom he might be referring: “Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others.” Another Catholic commentator, Christine Allen, argues that Fratelli Tutti is “intensely political.” Yet this first encyclical to comment on our use of social media, and its emphasis on the plight of migrants and our treatment of immigrants is not ideological. Allen rather sees this document as “a radical blueprint for a post-coronavirus world.” She explains:

 

“The Pope urges us to follow the example of the Good Samaritan, to become a neighbour to those who are despised and excluded, particularly migrants and refugees. He agrees that it is challenging, not just for politicians, but for society. How can we discover the joy of a culture of encounter? Can we see the other as a gift instead of a threat? How can we love the local, our neighbourhood, our country, without closing it off to other people?"

 

Christopher Lamb best states the Pope’s distaste for ideology in the form of a prayer attributed to St. Francis:

 

“Where there is populism, Pope Francis focuses on people; where there is nationalism, he calls for reform of the United Nations; where there is individualism, he pushes for solidarity; where there is digital trolling, he asks for kindness; where there is inequality, he urges fairer distribution; when politicians hate, he recommends dialogue; when there is ideology, he calls for genuine faith.”

 

Solidarity tied to justice and love

In my last post on why Christians should support Fair Trade, I wrote that justice and love were both sides of the same coin in the currency of God’s kingdom: “Justice is when each person is treated according to his/her rights as a person created in God’s image and dearly loved by him. Love is doing everything I can to make sure everyone can flourish, especially the weak, the poor, the disabled.” In going over my notes on Fratelli Tutti, I was struck again that Pope Francis also believes this, though without using those terms exactly.

 

“Every human being has the right to live with dignity and to develop integrally; this fundamental right cannot be denied by any country” (27).

 

This has profound political implications. Some argue that an unfettered market will cause all boats to rise (everyone will benefit), in which case it makes no sense to invest in those who are slower or less talented than others, or even just disabled, because you would lose money. Wrong, he exclaims! “What we need in fact are states and civil institutions that are present and active, that look beyond the free and efficient working of certain economic, political or ideological systems, and are primarily concerned with individuals and the common good” (27). He continues,

 

“A truly human and fraternal society will be capable of ensuring in an efficient and stable way that each of its members is accompanied at every stage of life. Not only by providing for their basic needs, but by enabling them to give the best of themselves, even though their performance may be less than optimum, their pace slow or their efficiency limited” (28).

 

That said, the language of rights has to come under the umbrella of the common good. This is an important caveat: “Unless the rights of each individual are harmoniously ordered to the greater good, those rights will end up being considered limitless and consequently will become a source of conflicts and violence.” That’s another reason to pair up justice and love. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, the goal is always the “beloved community.”

 

The importance of Christian-Muslim dialogue

Since the theme of this encyclical is to build a world of “human fraternity” and a culture of dialogue and kindness, it's no surprise that he refers three times to the Abu Dhabi “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” which he co-wrote with Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb of Egypt (February 4, 2019, see Mohamed ‘Arafa’s excellent commentary on this from a Muslim perspective). The first instance has to do with people from different cultures listening to and learning from one another. Quoting from the document: “good relations between East and West are indisputably necessary for both.” And then this lengthier passage:

 

“It is important to pay attention to religious, cultural and historical differences that are a vital component in shaping the character, culture and civilization of the East. It is likewise important to reinforce the bond of fundamental human rights in order to help ensure a dignified life for all the men and women of East and West, avoiding the politics of double standards” (34).

 

The second passage highlights how people of different faiths can join to help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems, including terrorism: we must call upon “the architects of international policy and world economy to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood” (48; again on p. 71).

Finally, at the end of encyclical, he offers the “Appeal” from the joint document – eleven two or three-liner statements starting with “In the name of …” I offer here numbers one, six, seven, ten and eleven:

 

“In the name of God, who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and

who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace; . . .

In the name of human fraternity, that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal;

In the name of this fraternity torn apart by policies of extremism and division, by systems of

unrestrained profit or by hateful ideological tendencies that manipulate the actions and the future of men and women; . . .

In the name of all persons of goodwill present in every part of the world;

In the name of God and of everything stated thus far, [we] declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”

 

The terms “human fraternity” and later, “fraternity,” were in bold print in the encyclical – after all, it was in the title (“All Brothers”). Yet it’s significant that this appeal in eleven points had been jointly issued by a Christian and a Muslim leader. The leader of al-Azhar University in Cairo is de facto Egypt’s top Muslim leader. That university, arguably the oldest in the world (970), has been always been considered the most prestigious center of Islamic learning for Sunnis (about 85 percent of Muslims). Pope Francis, perhaps harkening to the groundbreaking Common Word letter of 2007, was calling attention to an important symbol. With Christians and Muslims forming over half of humanity, “[w]ithout peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.” It then adds, “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

Even the Pope’s conclusion is a nod to Christian-Muslim understanding. Leading up to it, he offers this thought, perhaps setting him off as the most ecumenical of popes: “In these pages of reflection on universal fraternity, I felt inspired particularly by Saint Francis of Assisi, but also by others of our brothers and sisters who are not Catholics: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many more.” Then this: “Yet I would like to conclude by mentioning another person of deep faith who, drawing upon his intense experience of God, made a journey of transformation towards feeling a brother to all. I am speaking of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.”

That name wistfully sends me back to my nine years in Algeria and my friendship with several Little Brothers of Jesus and Little Sisters of Jesus, two Catholic religious congregations among a dozen others inspired by Charles de Foucauld. Born in 1858 into an aristocratic family in Strasbourg, France, he became an officer in the French cavalry, then a geographer who explored Morocco and wrote an award-winning book documenting it. He then joined the Catholic Cistercian Trappist order and lived for a while in Syria but later left the order to become a hermit seeking to live his ideal of poverty and love of others, first in Palestine and then for the remainder of his life in the Algeria Sahara. His last ten years were spent living among the nomadic Tuareg people in southern Algeria. He learned their language, identified with their Muslim faith and wrote a Tuareg-French dictionary esteemed to this day. He was “martyred” in 1916 in a tribal raid.

Pope Francis lifts up Foucauld’s quest to be “a brother to every human being” as a dream we should all ask God to fulfill in us. That dream also leads us to the injured man on the side of the Jericho road: “Yet only by identifying with the least did he come at last to be the brother of all.”

May we all aspire to live out this ideal in our lives, and as we do so more and more, we will find God – I will say Jesus – in the stranger, the immigrant, the poor and suffering, and we’ll sense God’s love drawing us closer to himself.

Two nights ago I gave a very short presentation on this topic as part of an hour webinar sponsored by our Fair Trade committee in America’s First Fair Trade Town, Media, Pennsylvania.

Let me unpack that statement. Bruce Crowther, a British veterinarian and practicing Quaker, was leading a chapter of Oxfam (an anti-poverty, pro-justice NGO founded in Britain in 1942) in his small town of Garstang, Lancashire. He had begun to focus on the issue of fair trading for local farmers but also for coffee, vanilla, sugar and tea farmers worldwide. He managed to convince most of his town’s businesses to buy and sell “Fair Trade” products whenever possible, and in 2000, Garstang declared itself the world’s “first Fair Trade Town.” That was the beginning of the Fair Trade Towns Campaigns.

Meanwhile in Media, Hal Taussig had founded a travel company (Untours) centered on the idea of building relationships between people across borders and had himself travelled several times to Mexico to find ways to improve the livelihoods of coffee growers there. He and Bruce Crowthers got in touch, and in 2006, Media’s Borough Council declared Media “America’s First Fair Trade Town.” I joined the FT committee in 2008, was off of it for 6 or 7 years, but rejoined it in 2020.

By the way, Media and Garstang have become twin towns on this basis and they have adopted New Koforidua, Ghana, as a sister Fair Trade town. This is where Bruce Crowthers and others lended support to the first cooperative of cocoa farmers (many of them women) that used fair trade principles to grow their business. Founded in 1993, it wasn’t until 2008 that these several hundred farmers were able to turn a profit and use their Fair Trade premium to build a school and other amenities for their community (see this short video documenting the completion of their school; and here for a fascinating history of their Divine Chocolate brand).

Furthermore, these three sister towns intentionally form the Fair Trade Triangle, replacing the nefarious transatlantic slavery triangle from the 16th to the 19th centuries for a new model of trade built on mutual flourishing.

Back to the webinar two days ago. Our Media Fair Trade committee, among other projects, had set its sights on increasing the number of Media congregations declaring themselves “Fair Trade congregations.” So far, no one followed the Reformation Lutheran Church which did so in 2015. The other reason, of course, was to disseminate more information about Fair Trade. Our webinar theme was the title of this post and my presentation was followed by a 10-minute presentation on fair trade by another committee member, Barbara Bole, who recently got her PhD in public policy with a dissertation on Fair Trade Towns. A discussion followed.

Below is an expansion of my Powerpoint presentation for the webinar.

 

A Christian is someone who follows Jesus, the bearer of Good News

For three years, Jesus preached his Good News (or “gospel”) to all who would listen, but mostly in the hills around Lake Tiberias (of the “Sea of Galilee”). These were mostly poor rural folk, many of them poor day laborers or small farmers. The expression that comes up again and again when you read the gospels is “follow me.” For his twelve disciples, this meant literally eating, sleeping, and traveling with him on his mission. There were at least 70 others, and probably many more who were sent on a mission to heal the sick and preach the “good news of the kingdom.” But this also includes all who came under his teaching. He called everyone to follow his teaching and his example, as Jews who had finally met the Messiah (though Jesus did not fit the traditional expectation of the Messiah, but that’s another topic).

 

The Good News can be summarized like a symphony in three movements, or a story with three chapters

  • The Garden of Eden: the close and intimate relationship God has with Adam and Eve is broken by their rebellion, and they are chased from the garden, as sin, suffering, war, and death enter the world.
  • The cross and resurrection: the Apostle Paul puts it this way: “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). Christ’s work of redemption brings forgiveness, new birth (receiving this new nature as a gift we are “adopted” into God’s family); and one day, all of nature will be renewed. Again Paul: “But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay” (Romans 8:20).
  • The New Heavens and the New Earth: the Apostle John in exile near the end of his life is given a vision of what happens when Jesus returns: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared … And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband … I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory” (Revelation 21).

 

The heart of Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of God had come into the world in his person. Some of the signs of this kingdom: the lame walk, the blind see, lepers are healed and even some dead come back to life. The disciples also foreshadowed a city reconciled and healed from within: a nationalist zealot ready to kill Romans, a tax collector collaborating with the occupiers, fishermen and other working class men. But Jesus made it clear that God’s rule on earth would not come fully until he came back again and had defeated Satan, sin and death -- completely and finally.

Notice too that Act I takes place in a garden. God, humanity, and nature are all one, until sin turns all that upside down. But that’s also when God’s plan of redemption and salvation is put into motion. Notice too that it’s a holistic salvation: individuals are transformed and healed from within, but so are families, neighborhoods, and whole cities. In fact, the story that starts in a garden ends in a city (Act III), where all the nations are gathered, and not only live harmoniously, but each “king” or “nation” or ethnic group brings “their glory and honor into the city.” This means that all their cultural achievements and unique gifts are made available to all. We can only dream of such harmonious multiculturalism today!

John’s vision of this new earthly city (it came down from heaven, so it’s on the new earth!) means one simple thing:

It’s the city where all may flourish!

 

All of Jesus’ teachings can be summarized in two pairs:

  • The Law of Moses and the message of the prophets, declares Jesus, boil down to two commandments: a) love God with all your heart, soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4); and b) love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).
  • Drawing from my recent book, I can add that the two central values of the city where God dwells are justice and love – really two sides to the same coin, and it is the currency of this city to come. Justice is when each person is treated according to his/her rights as a person created in God’s image and dearly loved by him. Love is doing everything I can to make sure everyone can flourish, especially the weak, the poor, and disabled.

 

Put love and justice together and you understand that a society where God has his way is one in which all can flourish. Leaders enact laws that reduce inequality as much as possible, level the playing field for those who are disadvantaged, and foster both equality (all equal before the law) and equity (the justice system works fairly for all).

There are potentially hundreds of verses in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible for our Jewish brethren). This one summarizes nicely the idea of equity and equality, and for that purpose, God’s special concern for the poor, the vulnerable and disenfranchised (as Jesus says, “the least of these”):

 

What sorrow awaits the unjust judges
    and those who issue unfair laws.
They deprive the poor of justice
    and deny the rights of the needy among my people.
They prey on widows
    and take advantage of orphans.

(Isaiah 10:1-2)

 

I mentioned earlier the bonding of the three sister towns – in Ghana, Britain, and the US. This is the “Fair Trade Triangle,” as we put it. But 18th-century abolitionists were already working on this idea. The British parliamentarian William Wilberforce, a devout Christian mentored by ex-slave trader John Newton (author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”; see the film by that name) banked his whole career on abolishing the slave trade. With a growing coalition of civil society people he began his bid to outlaw this evil trade in 1787 and the abolition bill finally passed in 1807, but slavery itself was still practiced within the British Empire. Wilberforce retired from the House of Commons in 1825 but three days before he died in 1833 he was finally vindicated : the Slavery Abolition Act was passed!

One of the tools his friends used to chip away at the slave trade was the sugar boycott. Sugar, like coffee, cotton and tobacco was produced by slave labor. A pamphlet from 1791 (written by William Fox, not a Quaker) calling people to boycott sugar to end slavery took England by storm and became the most successful pamphlet of that century. As you see, leveraging trade to end human rights abuses and fairly compensate producers is not a new concept.

The picture you see above of a child in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) straining under the weight of a bag of cocoa pods raises the issue of children’s rights. Child labor, some forms of which might arguably rise to the level of slavery, is ubiquitous in the agricultural sector in many parts of the world. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), drawn up in 2015 and aiming for 2030, for the first time explicitly seek to end all forms of child labor by 2025.

The matter is particularly urgent for Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire which produce 60 percent of the world’s cocoa, as this Fair Trade article makes clear. Sadly, the US Supreme Court ruled this month in favor of Nestle in the case Nestle v. Doe (six men who had been trafficked as children from Mali to Côte d’Ivoire to work on chocolate farms), but it did raise awareness of this longstanding injustice. This is not my topic here, but surely as you can see from these articles, consumers of chocolate worldwide have an important role to play in this. Fair Trade can and does make a big difference, particularly as more and more people become conscious and intentional consumers.

If we want to follow Jesus, Fair Trade is something we should definitely embrace.*

 

* There is no mosque or synagogue in Media, a county seat of 5,000 people. Otherwise, I could easily have shown how compelling Fair Trade should be for a Muslim or Jew. In fact, we need to get some of those congregations in our wider area involved in the ongoing Fair Trade campaigns.

The Christian Muslim Forum in London ...

  • tackles the tough issues which divide our communities
  • challenges anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hostility
  • supports local church-mosque twinning and friendship

Established in 2006 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Christian Muslim Forum brings together Muslims and Christians from a variety of denominations and traditions to work together for the common good (see more details here).

In March 2021, I was asked to make a half-hour presentation to the CMF's core group, based on my book, Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love. Here is the second (mostly different) presentation to some of the church-mosque leaders in their twinning program on June 2, 2021. In both cases I was seeking to present the material in the book in a way that would deepen Christian Muslim engagement in today's society. This time, part of the backdrop was the 11 days of fighting between Hamas and Israel in May 2021. What struck me was the confluence of issues in the protests that followed: Palestinian rights, racism and colonialism at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the fact that those factors are also behind much of the Islamophobia that Muslims experience in the West.

This is the second review I have come across of my book, Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love. It was written by an adjunct lecturer at Coppin State University in Baltimore, MD, Sayyed Hassan Akhlaq (received his PhD in Philosophy in Iran). It was published in Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations 31:461-463 (January 2021).

14 January 2021

God and Covid-19

For over a year now, those of us living on planet Earth have not been able to escape the powerful tentacles of the coronavirus. As of this writing, about 1.9 million people have died from it, just yesterday 4,408 died of it in the US, and with at least one new strain of Covid-19 that is doubly contagious, the pandemic will be with us for a while, vaccines notwithstanding. Unsurprisingly, such a widespread “natural” disaster has caused many of us to do some soul searching.

I taught Comparative Religion to two sections of thirty undergraduates at St. Joseph’s University this last semester. One of the two textbooks I use for this course is authored by four colleagues in the Religious Studies Department of a smaller Jesuit college than ours in Syracuse, NY (Le Moyne College). Introduction to the Study of Religion (by Nancy C. Ring, et al., in its 2012 second edition) defines religion as the human attempt to find meaning in this life beyond the day-to-day preoccupations of family, work and social interactions. It is also about tapping into the power of life while battling aging, disease and death. In their words,

 

“Religious communities grapple in their teachings and practices with the paradox of life and death. Religions express the human desire to understand and to engage the powers of life. They speak of the power of life in terms of the sacred, the holy, the transcendent, the absolute, the good, the beautiful, the true, the energy to effect change. The religious imagination gives the powers of life location and character” (41).

 

They then go on to provide examples like the Aztecs “looked to the heavens whence the sun and the rain sent their warmth and moisture to the earth”; “Confucianists, Shintoists, and many indigenous communities turn to the ancestors . . . to give them wisdom and strength”; “The Plains peoples of North America imagine the powers of life to be dispersed throughout nature”; Zen Buddhism advocates “living intensely in the present.”

But what about the power of death always crouching at the door, ready to pounce? Buddhism frames suffering as the central reality of a human life subject to ceaseless change and the vicious cycle of karma and reincarnations. Nirvana can only be attained through a resolute commitment to the “Eightfold Path.” In this tradition, wisdom has everything to do with non-attachment to this world of illusion. By contrast, the three theistic religions (or Abrahamic faiths) posit a good Creator God who offers a path to some kind of blissful existence after death but stumble when it comes to the reality of evil. Any theory attempting to explain the existence of evil in a world created and managed by a god who is both all-good and all-powerful is called a theodicy. Jewish, Christian, or Muslim theologians have all offered some version of why freedom of choice is crucial to the moral and religious life, and why suffering is a necessary test of our submission and obedience to God. Still, if one factors in the unspeakable suffering visited on the human race by wars and the cruelty of dictators, terrorists and abusers of all kinds on the one hand, and of natural disasters on the other, such theories fall far short of what we know and experience. Evil, whether at the hand of people or of nature, is pervasive and perplexing, to say the least.

I do not intend to solve this riddle here. Instead, I take off my religious studies scholar’s hat and explain to you why my wife and I found so much comfort in reading a little 60-page booklet written in a week this past April entitled Where is God in a Coronavirus World? The author is John C. Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a well-known speaker defending the Christian faith on university campuses around the world. And though Muslim, Jewish, and readers of other faiths (or no faith) will disagree with some of his points, I offer this post as food for thought and a contribution to our collective soul searching in this numbing covid season. I hope this will motivate you to get your own copy, read it, and pass it on to friends.

After sharing a few facts about pandemics in historical perspective and about the dead-end of atheism when it comes to the problem of evil, I’ll summarize Lennox’s views on the Christian approach to theodicy.

 

We’ve been here before

What are some of the known pandemics of the past?

  • The Antonine Plague (or Plague of Galen, 165-180 C.E.): perhaps measles or smallpox, 5 million dead
  • The Plague of Justinian (541-542 C.E.): bubonic plague, i.e., spread from animals (rats) to humans, 25 million dead
  • The Black Death (1346-1353), bubonic plague, 70-100 million dead, or 20% of world population
  • Several cholera pandemics in the 19th and 20th centuries: over a million dead
  • The 1918-1920 flu pandemic: 20-50 million dead
  • Asian flu (1956-1958), 2 million dead; Hong Kong flu (1968-69), one million dead
  • HIV-AIDS pandemic (reaching its peak in 2005-2012), about 32 million

More localized, there have been recent epidemics, like SARS and Ebola. But think about people in the West before the early 1900s and how epidemics like typhus, tuberculosis, cholera and others, were seen “as part of normal life” (10).

Another aspect of this issue we need to keep in mind is that pain – both the physical sensation and the psychic pain resulting from loss and suffering in general – can have a beneficial side to it. Physical pain warns us of danger. If your hand is too close to the fire when roasting marshmallows, for instance, the pain caused by the heat warns your brain and you respond by pulling your hand further back. A second beneficial role pain plays in our lives, Lennox reminds us, is that “a certain amount of pain is involved in physical development” (18): athletics, gymnastics, contact sports, etc.

Finally, pain in a wider sense can be used to deepen our character and teach us valuable life lessons. It can build “resilience and fortitude” and allow people to develop “characters of great quality.” Lennox himself was rushed to the hospital with a massive heart attack. He was only saved because a very skilled surgeon caught it just in time. This experience changed him:

 

“For me, it taught me a great deal. It taught me that I was mortal and that I was vulnerable; and I now feel that my life was given back to me as a precious gift to be treasured. I brought more urgency into my sense of purpose and calling” (19).

 

Yet his joy at being saved was immediately tempered, because at about the same time his sister “lost her (just) married 22-year-old daughter to a malignant brain tumour.” As you can imagine, this brought to the fore the larger question of human suffering and its profound injustice on many levels.

 

Can atheism help?

That is the title of his third chapter. He begins by noting that in the worldviews of Hinduism and Buddhism, suffering is the result of bad karma, or of bad deeds one had committed in the past. In fact, bad behavior is the cause of a seeming endless chain of reincarnations. For Hindus, moksha is the deliverance from that vicious cycle, achieved either by a life of asceticism or by devotion to particular deities. Buddhists, for their part, see this suffering as coming from a warped understanding of life. The solution is to see rightly (the Four Noble Truths) and live rightly (the Eightfold Path).

The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, for Christians) contains the book of Job which is a protest against the common idea that one’s suffering results from sins previously committed – our own or those of our forebears. Jesus agreed. He “explicitly denied that suffering was necessarily connected with personal wrongdoing” (23). One example is in Luke’s gospel:

 

“There were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

 

To focus on the question of who is a greater sinner worthy of harsher punishment is wrong for at least two reasons, Jesus teaches here. First, from a human perspective, we cannot know why people suffer in specific instances, either as a result of moral or natural evil. Second, no one is innocent in God’s eyes. As Paul wrote, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). Therefore, Jesus calls us to repent and turn to God’s mercy and grace.

Lennox unpacks that last statement further on in his booklet. But here he is concerned with debunking the atheist’s argument. This is a task he has done very publicly, by the way. You can watch his debates on YouTube with Richard Dawkins and with the late Christopher Hitchens, both leading atheist writers and propagandists. The other popular atheist debater, Sam Harris, illustrates well how the problem of evil is their favorite (and likely most potent) argument.

Lennox quotes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1992 book, River Out of Eden:

 

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. If there ever was a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

 

Notice, first of all, that in a morally blind universe there is no room for categories such as good or evil. Things just are the way they are. Period. Lennox quotes Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky in his Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” But second, this theory should give us pause, in that “terrorists and the architects of genocide in the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda were simply carrying out their own inbuilt genetic programmes: likewise Stalin, Hitler and Mao in their horrific crimes against humanity” (28). The problem with such a statement is that it is hard to live by. Dawkins himself was far from consistent. He and other atheists, in their zeal to debunk all forms of religion, have spilled a good deal of ink denouncing “Islamic terrorism” as dangerous and yes, evil. If you want to be a full-blown rationalist, you cannot have it both ways!

It is not by chance that I chose God Is Not One as my second textbook for Comparative Religion. Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s main thesis in this book is that each major religious tradition has its own definition of the human dilemma, its own solution, its own techniques (rituals) for attaining this solution, and its own exemplars. But what does unite all these paths (which for him do NOT lead up to the same mountain summit!), is the existence of some fundamental ethical principles attached to human dignity. Hence this quote Lennox offers from one of the most influential Christian philosophers of our time, Richard Taylor:

 

“The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well . . . Educated people do need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion” (29).

 

How can there be a coronavirus if there is a loving God?

First, we have to look at human nature and reckon with how we got to a world where so much evil has corrupted the goodness with which it was created. Then Lennox talks about how the Christian message brings justice and love together in the person of the crucified and risen redeemer.

 

Human nature and the fall

I have dealt in detail with the qur’anic story of “the fall” in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. One difference has been highlighted by Muslim feminist interpreters, namely that in the Qur’an Eve bears no more responsibility for the disobedience than does Adam: “But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?’ and they both ate from it” (Q. 20:120-12, Abdel Halim). Another difference, quite similar to the Jewish reading of Genesis 3, is that there is no “original sin” in the sense of a curse placed on humankind banishing it from the presence of God forever. Put otherwise, there is no need for divine redemption.

The words of God to Satan in the Qur’an are similar to the Genesis account, at least the promise of hostility between him and the woman’s offspring. But the next phrase is not picked up by the Qur’an and becomes central in the Christian reading of this passage. Speaking of the woman’s offspring using a masculine singular, God announces: “He will strike your head, and you (the serpent) will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). For Christians this is a prophecy of the Messiah Jesus Christ who will be crucified as a result of Satan inciting the crowd against Jesus (“Crucify him! Crucify him!”). It also states that this victory of Satan is completely overshadowed by the complete and final victory achieved by Messiah’s cross and resurrection. In his obsession to destroy God’s incarnate Son, Satan unwittingly signed his own death warrant. More on that below.

 

Creation and the fall

The physical world as well was directly affected by Adam and Eve’s sin: “Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen. 3: 17-18, NIV). Paul, the rabbi who met Jesus in a dramatic vision while on the way to Damascus in a mission to persecute followers of Jesus, writes that “creation was subjected [by God] to ineffectiveness, not through its own fault, but because of him who subjected it” (Romans 8:20). The Greek word (mataiotes) translated here by “ineffectiveness,” says Lennox, means something that does not reach the goal for which it was designed.

On the one hand, we cannot deny that humanity has developed impressive ways of managing and developing the natural world for its benefit. On the other hand, “Over and over again, nature has fractured and impeded human progress with thorns and thistles, backbreaking labour, pests, disease, epidemics, droughts, famines, earthquakes, volcanoes, and so on – coupled, sadly, with the destructive forces unleashed by selfishness, greed and moral corruption” (40).

 

We are all part of the problem

None of us can pretend we have no part in the moral evil that is at the root of this broken world. Lennox offers this moving quote from the Russian writer who spent years in Stalin’s Siberian gulag camps:

 

“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being . . . But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil” (40-41).

 

What if the Good News Jesus and his followers preached is true?

Here I diverge a bit from Lennox’s book to offer some common ground between the Abrahamic faiths. All three (though not all Jewish branches subscribe to this) teach that God will preside over a final judgment in the Hereafter. This is a very relevant point to our discussion: there will be justice in the end, and our despair over the abuse, torture, and killing of so many victims over the centuries will turn to resolution and comfort. In this scenario too we will presumably find closure in witnessing untold millions of children who were killed by abortion, disease and natural disasters finding peace and a beautiful life in God’s presence.

But justice by itself doesn’t take us very far – for two reasons. First, Judgment Day isn’t just for the serial killers, or human traffickers, or brilliant white-collar criminals. It’s for you and me too. As mentioned above, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). Many Christians wrongly believe God will give them a pass based partly on their good deeds and partly on his mercy – a view shared by most Muslims in my experience (good deeds include obedience to the Five Pillars, while hoping for the Prophet’s intercession on the Last Day).

The Good News (or “gospel”), however, is that “God is love,” as John puts it in his first epistle. John records in his gospel that Jesus explained it this way: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NLT). Jesus, the only sinless human being, sacrifices himself to fulfill the justice that was coming to all of us (“You must not eat [of the tree] or even touch it; if you do, you will die,” Gen. 3:3) and demonstrate God’s boundless, infinite love for humankind.

Lennox explains that for Christianity, the solution to an unbridgeable chasm between God and humanity lies in the cross and resurrection of Jesus:

 

“These events do not simply give us a way into the problem of evil and pain, and a resolution to the problem of justice. They show us what the name ‘Jesus’ means – ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, those who repent of (which means ‘turn away from’) their own evil and their own contribution to human pain and suffering – those who trust Jesus as their Lord – receive forgiveness; peace with the personal God who created and upholds the universe; a new life with new powers; and the promise of a world where suffering will be no more” (47).

 

Parting words

Lennox’s last chapter is “The Difference God Makes.” Here we come back together as members of the Abrahamic family, but too as people of faith in general and people of no religious persuasion. We are all suffering together through a pandemic most of us never imagined was even possible anymore. In bullet form, I offer his last thoughts for your consideration:

  • Heed advice: follow the health and safety protocols issued by the authorities. So much medical research has already been done globally. Get vaccinated as soon as possible!
  • Maintain perspective: we’ve been through this and much worse before as a human family; we will get through this!
  • Love your neighbor: Lennox quotes from a March 13, 2020 Foreign Policy “argument” piece by Lutheran researcher Lyman Stone, “Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2000 years.” The church grew the fastest during the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century and the Cyprian Plague of the next century, because people saw how sacrificial Christians were in caring for the sick and in providing “a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.”Millions of people, including healthcare workers, so-called essential workers,and many others, have demonstrated selfless and sacrificial care. Unfortunately, there have been many Christians -- many American evangelicals in particular -- who have flouted wearing masks, ignored social distancing, and have bought into destructive conspiracy theories. That is NOT loving one's neighbor!
  • Remember eternity: if you believe and wholeheartedly trust in God’s gracious provision through Jesus, you can experience the peace Jesus promised his disciples in the upper room the night when he was arrested:

 

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NLT).

Katherine Bullock teaches political science and Islamics at the University of Toronto Mississauga. This is the first review I have seen of my new book, Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love (Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2020). It was published in The American Journal of Islam and Society (37:3-4, 2020). I emailed her to thank her for a review that is both "fair and encouraging." I hope that as you read this review, you will also want to read the book and make up your own opinion about it. I can certainly think of several weaknesses in my work, but I also firmly believe that it is an important and timely contribution to a very timely conversation between Muslims, Christians, and all people who want to see and help bring about a more just and peaceful world.

The author I use most in this book to frame and define the idea of justice and how it relates to love from a Christian perspective is Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. His commendation was late because of family issues and so did not appear on the book's jacket. I paste it here (it's also on the Equinox page for the book):

 

"David Johnston sets himself two important, interconnected, projects in this book, and brings them off superbly. One is to show that both love and justice are fundamental in both Christianity and Islam, contrary to the common stereotype that Christianity is all about love and Islam is all about justice. The other is to show that love and justice are not in tension with each other, as is commonly assumed, but, when rightly understood, are in harmony. I anticipate that the eyes of many readers will be opened, as were the eye of this reader, to Johnston’s demonstration of this fundamental affinity between Christianity and Islam. A valuable feature of Johnston’s presentation is that each chapter opens with a description of systemic injustice in some part of the world. The scholarship is impressive; but this is not just about scholarly texts, it’s about the real world."

—Nicholas Wolterstorff

   Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University

   Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia

In the first installment, I told the story of how St. Francis of Assisi was able to cross enemy lines in the Fifth Crusade in order to share his faith with Egypt’s ruler, Malik al-Kamil. In fact, the latter graciously received him and his fellow monk, Illuminatio, for three or four days. This sultan was in the habit of meeting with Islamic scholars, including some spiritual masters (or Sufi shaykhs, in Islam’s mystical tradition), so he invited them for an extended interfaith conversation with the two monks. From various sources, I concluded with Paul Moses (The Saint and Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace) that they separated as friends, both remaining in their respective faith traditions, yet enriched spiritually by the other.

Did Francis go with the intent to preach to Sultan al-Kamil so that he would embrace the message of Jesus and receive God’s eternal salvation? There is no doubt about that. But Paul Moses main objective is to trace the spiritual pilgrimage of St. Francis from a nobleman’s son who fights in a couple of battles, yet whose religious conversion transforms him into an indefatigable advocate of Jesus’ way of peace and nonviolent resistance to evil. Francis of Assisi very likely deplored the notion of bringing war to the “Muslim enemy.” Clearly, for him to seek a meeting with al-Kamil was a stunning act of love for enemy since he was risking his life, and, as it turned out, he too was blessed and changed by that encounter. There must be reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, Francis felt God saying, and this was indeed a mission of peace.

For obvious reasons, in an age when the vested interests of popes and European Christian kings were in pursuing crusades, this is not a message that the powers-that-be could tolerate. After his death at age 44 (1226), therefore, direct pressure was put on official biographers to delete any reference to his message of peace and reconciliation with Muslims. That is the subject of this post.

Part III of Paul Moses’ account of this historic encounter, “Uncovering the Story,” opens with this illuminating paragraph:

 

“The true story of Francis, the sultan, and their peaceful exchange was buried. It did not serve the purposes of popes who continued to drum up support for a string of ill-fated Crusades. Nor did it fit the needs of Francis’s order at the time when it had to fight off a heresy scandal. As the story was retold in the Christian world, Francis’s thirst of peace and the sultan’s noble treatment of the Crusaders at the close of the Fifth Crusade were downplayed and then forgotten; Francis was turned into a soldier who used the gospel as a weapon. The sultan became a malevolent foe” (197).

 

Specifically, there were two main phases of biographical writing that shaped the image of St. Francis until the modern period. To these we now turn. I will end with some remarks on the contemporary period.

 

Thomas of Celano’s two biographical works

Cardinal Ugolino was elected as Pope Gregory IX in 1227. A hardliner by any account, he is remembered for putting the Inquisition into overdrive. Those the Church deemed “heretics” were hunted down, summarily tried, imprisoned and/or executed. He waged another Crusade against Muslims, and, like his predecessors, he led battles against Emperor Frederick II to recover lands in Italy he considered his own. Not under his watch was any biographer going to portray St Francis (canonized in 1228) as a friar seeking peaceful relations with Muslims.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Franciscan he charged with writing the biography of his order’s founder, Thomas of Celano, dutifully excised from his text any reference to the friar’s desire to live peacefully among Muslims or even to “Francis’s vision for a life of radical poverty lived in strict adherence to the gospel” (200). Gregory from the beginning had forcefully imposed on the Friars Minor (what Franciscans were called at that time) the duty to recruit for his Crusade. As a corollary, he encouraged them to send missionaries into Muslim lands, stating in a 1338 document that “converting Muslims by preaching was akin to subduing them with weapons” (199).

Meanwhile, the order of the Friars Minor was multiplying exponentially, with members in the tens of thousands by the 1240s. Pope Gregory died in 1241, but the order’s leader at that time (“minister general”), Brother Crescentius, was very much in agreement with his perspective on St. Francis. Still, he had to deal with a vocal minority faction, known as the “Spirituals,” who from the beginning wanted the Friars Minor to return to their founder’s original vision for the movement. Yet when in 1244 the order asked Thomas of Celano to write a new biography, leaning much more this time on the treasure trove of anecdotes recalled by the brothers who had accompanied him from the beginning, Celano still had some choppy political waters to navigate.

That tome, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, completed three years later, brought to light for the first time the story of Francis’s fighting in the war between Assisi and Perugia and his subsequent imprisonment. It recounted as well the dream he had on the way to fight in southern Italy and how he subsequently returned, gave up military service, sold all his wealth to the poor, “and tried to establish Jesus Christ dwelling within himself” (201). That was the beginning of his conversion. Still, in the story of the looming great battle between the Crusaders and Sultan al-Kamil, Celano writes carefully that Francis’s prophecy about the Crusaders’ defeat and his insistence that they forgo the battle was not an indictment of the Crusade as such. This is  likely Celano bowing to his superior’s direction. We know from so many other early documents that Francis loathed the use of war to further Christ’s purposes.

 

Bonaventure’s landmark biography

The year 1247 saw two events that impacted the future direction of St. Francis’s legacy. The first was Brother Crescentius’s stepping down from his minister general role. The second was the publishing of Celano’s second biography of St. Francis. That book at least had the merit of showing Francis of Assisi turning his back on the trappings of the nobility he was born into – wealth and military service. That was particularly significant in a year when King Louis IX of France was organizing another crusade, this time targeting Damietta, where Francis had met with Malik al-Kamil. Yet Crescentius’s departure provoked a chain of events that eventually all but buried Celano’s work.

In fact, the leadership transition that ensued poured fuel on the embers of dissent within the young order, because the man chosen to replace Crescentius, John of Parma, despite being a “gentle, articulate, and pious man who was a learned theologian but lived in simplicity” (202), was also an avid follower of mystic, monk and theologian Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202). On the one hand, Joachim was seen by popes and kings of his time as “gifted with divine illumination” and the founder of a small monastic movement in Italy. On the other hand, he was branded as a heretic by many others, and in particular because of his commentary on the book of Revelation in which he prophesied that after the Age of the Father (Old Testament) and the Age of the Son (New Testament), the new Age of the Spirit was about to break forth. This view in particular was one of the factors that led to the spectacular growth of both Dominican and Franciscan orders after his death.

In the late 1240s, however, John of Parma’s ties to Joachim of Fiore’s apocalyptic teachings spelled trouble for the order. Worse than that, around this time a treatise, Super Hieremiam, was circulating under the pen name of Joachim of Fiore (though it was a forgery), roundly criticizing the popes for their crusades. The “Spirituals” faction, which was at this stage growing exponentially, were reading this treatise with great enthusiasm. As Paul Moses has it,

 

“Some friars came to believe that Saint Francis was the angelic herald of the new age of the Spirit, his arrival foretold in Revelation 7. It was thought to be the time of peace the prophet Isaiah predicted, when swords would be beaten into plowshares . . . Salimbene [a Franciscan chronicler of the time] wrote that two fellow friars who followed Joachim had predicted to him in 1247 that the Crusade of Louis IX in Egypt would end in disaster, as it did three years later when Muslim forces captured Saint Louis and much of the French nobility and massacred many soldiers” (203).

 

These issues, meanwhile, were hotly debated at the University of Paris and turning a growing number of church leaders against the Franciscans and Dominicans, and they even called on the pope to dissolve them. This is when Brother Bonaventure, a respected Franciscan friar and professor at the university, took on the task of defending his order. His colleague and friend, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, stood with him in the defense of their orders. Bonaventure (yes, the future St. Bonaventure), who had just been named minister general of the Friars Minor, succeeded in rehabilitating his order’s reputation through two spectacular moves. Now as judge of his predecessor, John of Parma, he proceeded to convict him of heresy. Fortunately for the latter, his life sentence was overturned by two cardinals who arranged for him to spend the rest of his life in a hermitage.

Bonaventure’s other action was to write a new biography of St. Francis, The Major Legend of Saint Francis. It was in fact mostly taken from previous accounts, but he added his own theological insights, spiritual meditations, and his own solutions to what he saw as his order’s political divisions. Beautifully crafted, it was nevertheless a text that “virtually wiped out Francis’s activities as a peacemaker who challenged the powers of his day to forsake violence. It did not even hint at the cheeky friar who warned ‘the rulers of all the people’ to shape up or face damnation” (206). Bonaventure’s The Major Legend in fact became the classic reference book on the life of St. Francis until the 20th century.

 

The trial by fire legend

Of the encounter between the Sultan and the friar, Celano highlighted Francis’s unadorned preaching, adding that the sultan “was deeply moved by his words and he listened to him very willingly” (144). This account, as you know, was by the first Franciscan tasked with writing their founder’s biography.

By contrast, even in the early text (a decade after the Fifth Crusade) of The Chronicle of Ernoul, the scene is fraught with tension. Francis from the beginning claims that if his arguments against the validity of Islamic law are not convincing, “then you can have our heads cut off” (132). In fact, this is exactly what the Islamic scholars declared upon discovering Francis preaching to their ruler: “We command you, in the name of God and the law, that you have their heads cut off immediately, as the law demands.”

It is likely, then, that by the 1260s when Bonaventure writes his account, multiple stories had been circulating about this encounter, all of them painting in one way or another a confrontational scene between saint and sultan. Bonaventure seized on one of them. As he tells the story, Francis asked the ruler to build a large fire and then declared, “I will go into it with your priests. That will show you which faith is more sure and more holy” (132). The sultan answered that his priests would do no such thing. Then “Francis supposedly offered to walk into the fire himself if the sultan and his people converted to Christianity, but the sultan refused that as well.”

That of course is the scene depicted in the above image, which inspired dozens of paintings and accounts in the following centuries. But it has no basis in fact. First, argues Paul Moses, Celano and the other early chroniclers would have mentioned this incident if it had actually happened. Second, we know that since his conversion Francis was deeply marked by Jesus’s command, “Love your enemies,” so much so that he quotes it five times in his writings. This legend of the trial by fire goes against everything Francis stood for in his mission of peace. Finally, Francis would have known and respected the edict of the Fourth Lateran Council that all trials by ordeal were forbidden.

 

Contemporary echoes of the saint and sultan

Charles de Foucauld (d. 1916) was a Frenchman whose life paralleled that of St. Francis. From a wealthy family in Strasbourg, he served in the French military in Algeria where he was impressed with the people’s Islamic spirituality. He later returned to North Africa as an explorer, during which time he experienced a deep spiritual conversion. He joined a Trappist monastery in the Holy Land, became a priest, and later came back to live to Algeria as a hermit among the Tuaregs in the Sahara. He learned their language and culture and engaged in religious dialog. Sadly, he was killed while witnessing a confrontation between some tribesmen and the French. Paul Moses touches just the surface of Foucauld’s profound influence on so many people, including myself during my nine-year stay in Algeria:

 

“Foucauld’s dream of brotherhood between Muslims and Christians did not die with him. Today eight spiritual associations and eleven religious orders trace back to him, including the Little Sisters of Jesus. Moreover, his legacy was kept alive by Louis Massignon, often described as the most prominent Western scholar of Islam. Foucauld was a mentor to Massignon, who was born in Nogent-sur-Marne, France, in 1883” (218-19).

 

I have so many wonderful memories of sitting in the simple apartments of the Little Brothers of Jesus having a meal or drinking tea or coffee with them, often with Algerian Muslims. I also got to know some Little Sisters of Jesus, because of activities we had in common, including some retreats sponsored by the Catholic Charismatic renewal movement. If you read my second blog post on Cardinal Duval, you will understand how deeply we, a handful of Protestant clergymen, were involved with our Catholic colleagues. I can testify that the influence of Charles de Foucauld is still pervasive in the lives and ministries of these Catholic brothers and sisters, starting with the late Cardinal Duval and the now elderly archbishop Henry Teissier.

Paul Moses draws out in great detail all the high-level, high-visibility initiatives by recent popes reaching out to Muslims in various settings (see also my friend Mohamed Arafa’s post just before this one, “The Imam and the Pope”). But I would like to end with the Franciscans, who in Damietta, Egypt in 1969 celebrated the 750th anniversary of St. Francis’s visit there by holding a joint prayer service with Muslims, first in a Catholic church, then in the city’s ancient mosque. In the next decade, Father GianMaria Polidoro founded Assisi Pax, a peace organization best known for its attempt to reconcile the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1984, they met Ronald Reagan in Washington and Mikhail Gorbachev while he was visiting Italy.

Two years later Pope John Paul II called for a World Day of Prayer for Peace to be held in Assisi, the occasion when he coined the phrase “the spirit of Assisi”:

 

“Representatives from twelve religions visited Assisi’s many sanctuaries to pray for peace, then gathered to pray side by side in the piazza outside the basilica of St. Francis. A blustery fall wind and chilling drizzle blew through the town, which was warmed with the colors borne by a multitude of religious leaders, from feather-bedecked Native American shamans to African witch doctors to saffron-robed Buddhists” (222).

 

In the online Catholic journal Crux in September 2016, the editor anticipates Pope Francis’s visit to Assisi in order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s first World Day of Prayer for Peace, which he then repeated in 1993 and 2002. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI did the same in 2011. I must also mention the Community of Sant’Egidio, founded by Andrea Riccardi in Rome in 1968 on the heels of the Vatican II council. It is now a network of 70 communities worldwide committed to interfaith dialog, care for the poor and active conflict resolution. They have organized yearly meetings “in the spirit of Assisi,” ever since the historic 1986 global prayer gathering.

It was not surprising that Pope Francis, whose devotion to St. Francis and his spiritual ideals are well known, would use this platform now organized by the Sant’Egidio community to mingle with religious leaders from around the world and join with them in praying for peace. True peace, he declared, are not the result of “negotiations, political compromises or economic bargaining, but the result of prayer.” He also emphasized that “Violence in all its forms does not represent the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.” To the contrary, religious leaders “are duty bound to be strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace.”

Paul Moses, then, rightly closes his book with these observations. It is true, he wrote, that the story of Francis and the sultan “was buried ever deeper in successive biographies of Francis and the artwork they inspired.” He goes on:

 

“The church Francis served is now cultivating the political implications in the long-buried story of his nonviolence and radical love. Francis continues to return Christians to their roots, nudging them to reject violence and to approach enemies with love. Though he is dead for close to eight centuries, the story of his encounter with the sultan is blossoming” (228).

The painting of St. Francis embracing Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil is on the first page of my website. It graces my Twitter handle. After nine years, I finally get to explain it, and this with the help of acclaimed 2009 book by journalist and professor of journalism Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace.

I’ll do this in two installments. Here, I lay out the story according to the best historical sources, mostly uncovered and critically evaluated in the 20th century. Next, I’ll take us on a short historical journey to illustrate how religious narratives are driven by people with power, and in this case, by popes who were determined to continue the Crusades against the Muslim Other and crush dissenting voices.

 

Francis of Assisi’s conversion

Francis’s father, Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy silk merchant from Assisi, Italy, was in France where he conducted much of his business (his mother was a French noble woman from Provence) when his son Giovanni was born. But Pietro called him Francesco (“Frenchy”) from the start. French troubadours’ songs and chivalry were popular in his family.

This was in 1181, when the old tug-of-war between the Holy Roman emperors and the popes over control of Italian cities was beginning to turn to the advantage of the popes. The election of the young and energetic pope Innocent III sealed that trend as he was a spiritual leader who took his temporal duties seriously. Besides organizing the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), he initiated military campaigns against the Albigensians and Cathar “heretics.” Closer to home for the young Francis, the angry merchants of Assisi saw the opportunity to storm and destroy the castle of the Duke of Spoleto, the hated general put there by Emperor Frederick. Francis as a teenager likely fought with them.

This signaled the beginning of a local civil war between Assisi’s merchants and the noblemen who finally had to take refuge in its rival city, Perugia. The latter had been grabbing more land and power and saw this as an opportunity to attack its rival, Assisi. Under “the honor-bound codes of chivalry” Assisi considered its own honor threatened and the merchants prepared to send out their troops to meet them.

We are now in 1202 and Francis is about twenty-one. As a member of one of Assisi’s wealthiest families he had no choice but to join the expedition. It’s likely too that, as a knight wearing the finest fabric over his shining new armor, he was just as eager as anyone to kill the enemy – which he likely did in the ensuing battle that, however, quickly turned into a hasty retreat for the Assisians, and a massacre. But because of his wealth, he was not hunted down and killed as were the commoner soldiers. He was ransomed and put with others in a temporary prison, probably “an underground vault in the depths of Perugia’s Etruscan ruins” (25).

Francis suffered a whole year in that dark dungeon and “left captivity a shattered man.” He had been ill, most likely from malaria, which would follow him for the rest of his short life; and the “sensory deprivation” of living in the dark for so long only added to the despair of his own survivor’s guilt: “Francis had seen the enemy cavalry rip apart other men on the ground while he was permitted to survive because of his family’s wealth” (26).

Yet it was as a man struggling with illness and depression that Francis gradually experienced his conversion. His “spiritual awakening” came about most notably in three steps:

 

    • Though he was beginning to practice generosity with the poor, he was still tempted by the process of engaging in battle and earning knighthood. Innocent III dubbed a military campaign near Apulia in southern Italy against the emperor to regain his papal lands as a “crusade” with all the attendant privileges. Moreover, it was led by Count Walter of Brienne, “the flower of French chivalry,” and so Francis set off on horseback “in the best armor and weaponry his father’s money could buy” (29). Yet two days into his journey a voice in the night asked him where he was going. He replied that he was going to meet a count who would knight him. “Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?” continued the voice. “The Master,” answered Francis. As the voice addressed him again, he knew it is Jesus: “Then why do you leave the Master for the servant, the rich Lord for the poor man?” He turned around the next morning, traveling back. Just before arriving in Assisi, he sold his military gear and horse. He left what must have been a large sum of money with the priest of a church in need of repair near his home.
    • As a leper held out his hand for alms one day, Francis “kissed the leper on the hand and the mouth and was overwhelmed with a sense of peace as he turned away from his own inner struggles and focused more on the needs of others.” From then on, he frequently visited a hospice caring for lepers. In his Testament he recalled, “What had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of body and soul” (33).
    • Now came the most famous and decisive step: “when he prayed on his knees before a painted crucifix late in 1205 in the broken-down, century-old Church of San Damiano.” He then heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him from the cross, “Francis, go, repair my house, which, as you see, is falling completely in ruin.” He then understood that God was calling him to repair not just a physical building but the entirety of the Christian church.

 

The Franciscan order is born and a new Crusade is announced

Francis came out of this awakening a radically transformed individual, immediately attracting mockery and abuse. Walking around in rags, he was pelted with mud and stones, and his father beat him mercilessly, then imprisoned him. Yet while the former was back in France on business, his mother freed him. But the father wasn't giving up. Incensed about the shame Francis was bringing on his family, Pietro brought charges against his son before the authorities. Now a “religious person,” it was Bishop Guido who judged the case: “There in a famous scene, Francis handed back to his father not only all his money but also his clothing. He stood naked before the bishop, father, and gaping townspeople. The bishop then wrapped Francis in his cloak” (36).

The young men who started to follow Francis in his life of poverty met with the same persecution. Yet, like their leader, they never fought back or even ceased from blessing people and seeking peace. In fact, in his Testament, Francis says that early on God had “revealed” the greeting the brothers were to use: “May the Lord give you peace.” Though this might seem trite today, in an age when Crusades and violence were the norm, only “the heretical Cathars embraced the pacifism of early Christianity and opposed the Crusades.” Spreading peace to everyone “struck people who encountered him and his followers as amazing, even subversive” (37).

As his movement spread quickly, Francis kept peacemaking on top of his agenda and promoted it through his own example and words. In the Third Order which he circulated in 1221, he urged his followers “to be reconciled with their neighbors and to restore what belongs to others . . . They are not to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about, against anybody.” Paul Moses comments that this in effect barred any of his followers from entering military service. The same can be said for his ban on making oaths: “lords, vassals, and their underlings all swore oaths to go to war when called, perpetuating the violence that dominated Europe in the thirteenth century” (47).

Meanwhile, Pope Innocent III sounded the alarm. The dwindling Latin Crusader Kingdom in Acre (Akko today, on the Mediterranean north of Haifa), he warned, was on the verge of being attacked by the Muslims from their new fort on Mount Tabor (where tradition places Jesus’ transfiguration). In 1215 he launched the Fifth Crusade. He died a year later and it was left to a much older pope, Honorius III, to delegate “the influential Cardinal Ugolino, the late Pope Innocent’s nephew” to lead the effort.

 

The Muslim side of the story

Now for some background on the Muslim side of the story … Sultan Malik al-Adil, upon the death of his brother, the famous Saladin who founded the Ayyubid dynasty, managed to take the throne in 1200, and he appointed his oldest son who had just turned twenty, Malik al-Kamil, as the viceroy of Egypt. Both father and son were well acquainted and generally well-disposed toward Christian leaders in the region. Yet there is likely another reason the son was inclined to respect Christians. As the Third Crusade was winding down in early 1192 – King Richard the Lion Hearted, who had won several victories and put Saladin on the defensive, was now falling ill and seeking an honorable exit from the conflict. He offered a gesture of goodwill: to knight Saladin’s eleven-year-old nephew Malik al-Kamil. Years later the latter could not have forgotten some of the religious aspects of that ceremony in addition to the honor of publicly receiving the sword and belt.

A Coptic chronicle of the time also tells of a friendship al-Kamil developed with a Christian hermit, whom he once met on a hunting trip near Alexandria. While conversing with him (remember that the Qur’an speaks respectfully of Christian monks, e.g., Q. 5:82), al-Kamil tells his of a pain in his gut. After the monk prays for him, he feels better. He later sent him a gift.

Malik al-Kamil by 1215 had ruled Egypt with a skillful hand. Besides building dams and improving the needed irrigation for its agriculture, “he created more schools for the study of Islam, and resolved internal disputes before they spun out of control” (74). He also signed treaties with Italy in order to promote greater trade. In fact, in the very year the Fifth Crusade was declared, he signed a trade pact with Venice.

 

Francis at the front line of the Fifth Crusade

The Fifth Crusade’s first troops materialized in Acre two years later and its strategy was to conquer Egypt and then attack Jerusalem from the south. At the end of May 1218, the crusaders arrived in Egypt with the goal of taking the heavily fortified city of Damietta, “gatekeeper of the Nile.” By August they were scoring some victories, and al-Kamil’s woes only increased as news of his father’s (natural) death in Syria reached him.

Yet by year’s end disease was beginning to weaken the Christian camp. Meanwhile, Francis had been able to secure the patronage of Cardinal Ugolino and around this time obtained permission to travel with eleven brothers and join crusaders headed to the Egyptian front. Arriving in the brutal heat of August, Francis could witness the increase of exhaustion and discouragement on both sides as they experienced heavy losses. He also would have heard of the plight of the besieged inhabitants of Damietta –with a number of Christians among them – dying of disease and hunger.

Sultan Malik al-Kamil had made a peace offer that the military leaders favored (giving them Jerusalem in return for leaving), but it was rebuffed by the hawkish Cardinal Pelagius, the pope’s envoy. This tension between the two sides in the Christian camp only increased over time. And then, maybe two or three weeks into the Franciscans’ stay at the front, Pelagius announced an all-out attack by land and sea planned for August 29, 1219.

Paul Moses describes Francis’ reaction: “Deeply distressed, he prayed through that hot night . . . Deep in prayer, Francis believed that Jesus spoke to him. And by morning on the day of the planned battle, his prayer experience had led him to conclude that the Crusaders would be making an enormous mistake if they attacked” (110).

After consulting with one of his brothers, he decided that, indeed, God was calling him to follow his conscience and spread the word he had received in prayer. He then began to preach with great energy and passion against the battle. The angry foot soldiers, however, would have none of it. But news of the commotion must surely have reached both military and religious leaders. What is more, they would have known that Francis and his brothers stayed behind.

The battle did in fact turn into a disaster for the Christian side. Several thousands were killed, including some prominent knights. Other knights were made prisoners and as al-Kamil continued negotiations, he would send two of them to the Christian camp to present his offers. Now Francis realized that the time for him to act had come.

 

Francis and al-Kamil’s meeting

Francis could perhaps have snuck into enemy territory with his close brother Illuminato, but according to Paul Moses, he “felt a deep loyalty to church authority and decided to seek permission for his journey from the cardinal, whose bejeweled clothing and hunger for power were the antithesis of the friar’s humble way” (122). That encounter is described in the chapter, “The Saint and the Cardinal.” I’ll only say here that Pelagius allowed him to leave on the condition that he go bearing the full responsibility of his decision. In fact, he would be carrying no official letter to al-Kamil, for Pelagius was certain that Francis would never return alive and he wanted no responsibility for his death.

As they approached the Muslim garrison town south of Damietta, the Muslim sentries, likely assuming they were messengers, took them to the sultan. Al-Malik was then thirty-nine and Francis about a year and a half younger. Once they were brought into his presence, Francis gave his usual greeting, “May the Lord give you peace!” This of course put the ruler at ease. It’s virtually the same as the common Arab greeting, “Peace be with you!” One of the earliest sources indicates that al-Kamil added, “Do you wish to become Saracens or do you have come with a message for me?” We know from other sources that he had met more than one Christian monk who wished to convert to Islam.

The first standard life of Francis (by Thomas of Celano) tells us that in his response Francis told the Sultan that “they would never want to become Muslims, but that they had come to him as messengers on behalf of the Lord God, that he might turn his soul to God” (130). From the start, Francis stated that his authority was God and not Cardinal Pelagius or Jean de Brienne, thereby implying that he had no sympathy for the violent ways of the “Christian” camp.

In the above-mentioned early source (The Chronicle of Ernoul), Francis says the following:

 

If you wish to believe us, we will hand over your soul to God, because we are telling you in all truth that if you die in the law which you now profess, you will be lost and God will not possess your soul. It is the reason that we have come. But if you will give us a hearing and try to understand us, we will demonstrate to you with convincing reasons, in the presence of the most learned teachers of your realm, if you wish to assemble them, that your law is false” (131).

 

If this is close to accurate, you would worry that al-Kamil took this as an insult (“your law is false”) and that he would now call for his soldiers to come and imprison them. Quite the opposite! Another early French source (Bishop James of Vitry) says the sultan, upon hearing this, “became sweetness itself.” But why then would this Muslim head of state hold court with two Christian monks? After all, this war was heavily weighing on him day and night. Intellectual curiosity may well have been a factor, but that is plainly insufficient here.

The truth is that al-Kamil closest and most respected advisor, Fakhr al-Farisi, was both a Sufi shaykh (a mystic who trained others under him in the spiritual disciplines) and an Islamic legal expert. In fact, al-Kamil was a fervent admirer of Ibn al-Farid, whose poetry sang the praise of divine love. Sufis in general admire Jesus and imagine him “as a wandering preacher dressed in a wool tunic, accompanied by John the Baptist” (138). [See this classic work, Jesus in the Eyes of Sufis, by Javad Nurbakhsh, for 55 years the shaykh of the Nimatullahi Sufi order].

Furthermore, he loved to learn from and debate with an entourage of scholars, often Friday nights till the morning light. For this purpose, he had some of them lodged at his residence in Cairo (the Citadel). It is not surprising, then, that he kept Francis and Illuminatio for some three or four days to dig deeper into their conversation with a number of participants. No details have transpired from those exchanges (yes, it was an interreligious dialog!), but as Paul Moses muses, “What can be said for sure is that in the worst of times, a Christian and a prominent Muslim engaged in reasoned public discussion about their religious differences” (141).

Think about how desperate this war was becoming for both sides. Yet in the midst of that horror, these two friars were treated like honored guests for several days or more, and James of Vitry even mentions that Francis was allowed “to preach to Muslim soldiers.” Five times in his collected writings, Francis mentions Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies. There is no doubt in my mind that he was doing that here – responding to the sultan’s hospitality by discussing common ground and respectfully explaining differences without in any way insulting the Prophet of Islam. Clearly, the two men had become friends. Neither converted, but both grew in their respect for the other’s faith and spirituality. It was iron sharpening iron, as we read in Proverbs (27:17).

We also know that before escorting the two men back to the Christian camp, al-Kamil offered Francis lavish gifts, which he turned down again and again, even when it was conditioned upon helping poor Christians. In Celano’s official version of the life of Francis (vetted by another crusading pope), we read: “But when he saw that Francis most vigorously despised all these things as so much dung, he was filled with admiration, and he looked upon him as a man different from all others” (143). That rings true: 1) with all the pressure on Celano to paint Muslims in the worst light possible, this was a bold statement; 2) it shows that the two men had indeed became friends.

In the second installment we will dig into some of the layers of historical distortions that explain why this story never came out as it really happened until recently.

This comes on the heels of a substantive critique of America’s Christian nationalist movement. Now I offer one possible Christian response to it, one that I believe is particularly potent and relevant.

One of the most influential Old Testament scholars and theologians of our time, Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) has written nearly fifty books, hundreds of articles, and participated in dozens of wider cultural projects as a public intellectual. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC), he has preached and published many sermons and poetic prayers.

It would be easy to pigeon-hole Brueggemann as a “liberal Protestant” – after all, the UCC is one of several “mainline Protestant” denominations (include the Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and others). These are the churches that originally came from Europe and exercised enormous cultural and political influence in the US until about the mid-1960s (see this 2018 Vox interview about these white Protestants’ voting patterns). Since then, partly because these mostly upper middle-class Protestants were having fewer children, partly because each new generation was a bit less practicing, and mostly because of the rise of more conservative evangelical churches, their numbers have declined, though not necessarily their influence in the public sphere.

Brueggemann does not identify as a “liberal Protestant.” In fact, one of the themes that excited me in reading his classic work, The Prophetic Imagination (1978, now with a special 40th Anniversary Edition), was his deep appreciation for the whole church, all historical and theological distinctions aside. In particular, writing in an American context, he consistently challenges “liberals” and “conservatives” in the same breath.

I chose this book too because it feeds directly into my book project about human flourishing as a central theme of Christian mission. Then as I read it, I realized it plays two other functions: Brueggemann provides a wonderful counterpart to the Christian nationalism I just analyzed in my two-part piece, and he conveniently opens a window into the kind of racial justice Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about and embodied in his activism. So I first summarize his book as a lead-in to my brief introduction to Kelly Brown Douglas’ article on the issue of reparations.

 

Walter Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination

I don’t claim to do justice to this classic book (even though it’s only 119 pages) in just a few paragraphs. But I do hope to whet your appetite so that you will read it for yourself.

Let me also say from the outset that Brueggemann’s focus on the Bible’s prophets and their message is a theme that nicely opens up common ground for discussion and shared activism between Muslims and Christians. But that will have to be pursued elsewhere.

Prophets speak truth to power. Moses confronted Egypt’s Pharaoh for his enslavement of the Israelites. Jeremiah spent his whole life rebuking the kings of Judah and its religious leaders for their willful neglect of God’s commands. He foretold the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, lived to see it as an old man, and was finally dragged off to Egypt (where he died) by the puppet ruler who rebelled against Babylon. Finally, Jesus in his prophetic role leveled “radical criticism” at the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, and not just for their legalistic interpretation of the Mosaic law and the Temple worship system, but because the law had become a tool to protect their own economic and political power at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised.

At bottom, prophets call their people to inhabit God’s values and practices so that they truly live as “an alternative community” to the dominant culture of their day. Moses, in conversation with the God of freedom every step of the way, deals a blistering blow to Pharaoh’s empire, to its consciousness and culture, and to its mute, unchanging, and status-quo obliging gods. Prophetic criticism is both radical criticism and the energizing of hope: “From beginning to end the narrative shows, with no rush to conclude, how the religious claims of Egyptian gods are nullified by this Lord of freedom . . . how the politics of oppression is overcome by the practice of justice and compassion” (10).

As the plagues unfold, Israel gradually disengages from the empire, because she realizes for the first time that she owes nothing to it. That is “criticism which leads to dismantling” (13). Criticism continues to build, and importantly, it includes the cries of the Hebrew slaves. “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant” (Exodus 2:23). These cries of lament, please note, are not about resignation. Rather, they cry out for freedom, for leaving behind the numbness and dullness of the oppressive regime that enslaved them.

Out of this matrix of primal cries for freedom comes the energy of hope – in three dimensions:

 

    • Brueggemann notes that “energy comes from the embrace of the inscrutable darkness” (14). Yahweh brings Pharaoh’s empire to its knees by progressively hardening his heart. Israel doesn’t understand the darkness either, but her people are beginning to trust the God of the covenant and are finding new energy in sensing that his power is much greater “than the one who ostensibly rules the light” (15).
    • Exodus 11:7 reads, “But against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, not a dog shall growl; that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel.” From then on, the Israelites were spared the plagues: “The God who will decide is not the comfortable god of the empire, so fat and well fed as to be neutral and inattentive. Rather, it is the God who is alert to the realities, who does not flinch from taking sides, who sits in the divine council on the edge of his seat and is attentive to his special interests” (15). God is for them! This reality is beginning to energize his people!
    • Pharaoh’s army is destroyed under the sea and Israel bursts into song – a song of praise, a doxology that sets bodies to dance and hearts to celebrate. Doxology is powerful, because it evokes an alternative reality in language: “The language of the empire is surely the language of managed realities, of production and schedule and market . . . Doxology is the ultimate challenge to the language of managed reality, and it alone is the universe of discourse in which energy is possible” (18).

 

Moses’ radical prophetic consciousness only lasted for about two hundred and fifty years, and much of that time was chaotic, with the Israelite tribes often the prey of their marauding neighbors and with their gods a constant temptation for them. Only a few judges were able to remind the people who there were and keep their enemies at bay. Then the prophet Samuel finally hears God say, “Anoint a king who will rule over them.” Yet it was plainly a divine concession to Israel’s hunger for stability and national pride. King Saul was certainly a mixed bag, but in David, the good seemed to prevail.

Then came Solomon, and Brueggeman’s second chapter, “Royal Consciousness: Countering the Counterculture,” is mostly about the decline that tragically starting with him:

 

    • a huge harem, to guarantee fertility;
    • a configuration of tax districts meant to dismantle the tribal ties and better control the population; a bureaucracy “which . . . served to institutionalize technical reason;
    • a standing army at the king’s beck and call;
    • a cult of wisdom, “an effort to rationalize reality”;
    • forced labor conscripted from the peasantry to carry out the king’s ambitious building projects” (24).

 

One scholar called the Jerusalem Temple complex the “‘paganization of Israel,’ that is, a return to the religious and political presuppositions of the pre-Mosaic imperial situation … a knowing embrace of pre-prophetic reality” (24-5).

With the affluence came exploitation and oppression of the majority of the population (the peasants). No more politics of justice and compassion. But too, this marks “the establishment of a controlled, static religion . . . in which the sovereignty of God is fully subordinated to the purpose of the king . . . Now God is fully accessible to the king who is his patron” (28, his emphasis). We call this "religious nationalism." Gone is the Lord of freedom who called his people out of Egypt! This is what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness” (which he today prefers to name “totalism,” using Robert Lifton’s expression).

Admittedly, it could have been otherwise, but human nature seems irresistibly drawn to the power of wealth and politics. Now God had to send prophets to remind people of the alternative community proclaimed and nurtured in the Mosaic law.

This is where the Hebrew Bible inserts the prophetic ministries of Jeremiah and Second Isaiah (who wrote Isaiah 40-66). They represent two sides of one coin – prophetic ministry as grief and prophetic ministry as amazement and hope. Jeremiah’s role is this: “The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death. It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering to death” (41). Jeremiah grieved throughout his long career on two levels: 1) he grieved the suffering of his people he saw coming so clearly (and they did not) – the mass killings and deportation, and Jerusalem’s destruction; 2) his own grief because no one listened to him for over four decades.

Royal consciousness also leads to a despair that banishes all hope. Second Isaiah emerges from the second generation of  Babylonian exiles and salutes God’s sovereign hand in Persian King Cyrus’ edict allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem. I have to admit that these chapters in Isaiah are some of my favorite in the whole Bible! Brueggemann is right: they burst at the seams in amazement at what God is doing and will do in the future. Second Isaiah penetrates the despair of the people brought low by announcing “God’s radical freedom.” The One who seemed to have been defeated and distant in the exile is now claiming his throne: “The poet brings Israel to an enthronement festival, even as Jeremiah had brought Israel to a funeral” (70). He is “reclaiming Israel’s imagination”:

 

How beautiful upon the mountains

            are the feet of him who brings good tidings . . .

            who publishes salvation,

            who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)

 

Now to Jesus . . . Just like the Second Isaiah whose joyous message “evoked a community not derived from the Babylonian reality,” “Jesus is able to articulate a future that is distinctly different from an unbearable present” (111). Those who latched on to that future could now sing and dance, and forgive those who would persecute them. Moreover, as Jesus stood in solidarity with the poor, the grieving, the oppressed (especially the indebted peasants of Galilee), they saw in him God’s power and authority as firmly exercised “for them”: “The authority of Jesus, his power to transform strangely, was found in his own poverty, hunger, and grieving over the death of his people.” In his triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week, Jesus weeps over the city, foreseeing the city's tragic destruction some forty years later at the hands of the Romans.

Less than a week later, “the slain Lamb . . . stood outside the royal domain and was punished for it” (113). As he had warned his disciples repeatedly, Jesus was crucified. But what about his resurrection?

 

“The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate energizing for the new future. The wrenching of Friday had left only the despair of Saturday (Luke 24:21), and the disciples had no reason to expect Sunday after that Friday. . . . The resurrection can only be received and affirmed and celebrated as the new action of God, whose province it is to create new futures for people and to let them be amazed in the midst of despair” (112).

 

Notice here how Brueggemann handles the resurrection. It’s “not to be understood in good liberal fashion as a spiritual development in the church [i.e., it didn’t happen literally]. Nor should it be too quickly handled as an oddity in the history of God or an isolated act of God’s power [as conservative are wont to treat it].” He goes on, “Rather, it is the ultimate act of prophetic energizing in which a new history is initiated. It is new history open to all but particularly received by the marginal victims of the old order” (113).

Let’s be clear: “The resurrection is a genuinely historical event in which the dead one rules.” In fact, the political implications are manifest: “[Jesus] is now the king who displaces the king. His resurrection is the end of the nonhistory taught in the royal school and a new history begins for those who stood outside of history. This new history gives persons new identities (Matt 28:19) and a new ethic (28:20), even as it begins on the seashore among the dead enslavers (Exodus 14:30)” (113).

As I sum up this main section, let me note that Brueggemann indicated at the very beginning that the dominant culture (Pharaoh’s oppressive empire, or America’s market-dominated, consumerist, and callous ignoring of its huge underclass culture) “is grossly uncritical,” and “wearied.” The prophetic task “is to hold together criticism and energizing” (4). But liberals and conservatives (this is about theology, not political parties) are equally inept at tackling this mission: “Liberals are good at criticism but often have no word of promise to speak; conservatives tend to future well and invite to alternative visions, but germane criticism by the prophet is often not forthcoming” (4).

In his 40th anniversary postscript (“In Retrospect – PI at 40”), Brueggemann looks back and points to what he now sees as his two best articles (out of hundreds). The first is “The Costly Loss of Lament.” Here looked at “the bourgeoisie church” immersed in “bourgeoisie political culture” [mainstream Protestantism with its still commanding political influence]. He explains:

 

“In civic culture, the loss of lament invites denial and so enhances the dominant social system as though it were beyond failure or critique. In the church, with such a loss, the gospel becomes one of unmitigated happiness where ‘never is heard a discouraging word. Many pastors, moreover, are paid to sustain exactly such a practice. But, of course, in prophetic realism (as with real life realism), such an illusion is unsustainable because there is much about which to lament, protest, and complain. The ‘costly loss’ is to sign on for the illusion of well-being, or a ‘Theology of Glory’ to the disregard of a summoning ‘Theology of the Cross’” (130).

 

Here is the other article he feels was most important: “The Liturgy of Abundance and the Myth of Scarcity.” It turns out that “scarcity” is part of a strategy to justify injustice: “A regime that operates with a claim of scarcity can legitimate hoarding, accumulation, and eventually monopoly to the disregard of others, even when such strategies evoke and legitimate the violence of the strong against the weak” (131). Psalms 104 and 145, by contrast, sing the praises of a God who packs abundance into his creation and who generously shares it with everyone. In our American context, then, “the endless frantic acquisitiveness evoked by market ideology (our specific form of totalism) serves to counter the claims of faith in a way that has real life parallels” (131).

That struggle between the prophetic imagination and totalism has never been so starkly urgent as it is now in the presidency of Donald Trump, Brueggemann declares (writing in December 2017):

 

His mantra “Make America Great Again” is a heavy-handed ideology with a validation of racists accents and an uncritical embrace of the exceptionalism of ‘the American Dream.’ President Trump, however, did not create this ideology, which is very old in the lore of Euro-American exceptionalism, operative already in the early Puritanism of Cotton Mather. The outcome of that unapologetic ideology is the monetizing of all social relationships, the commoditization of all social possibilities, and the endless production of dispensable persons who have no legitimate membership in the totalism. One may quibble about detail, but the main thrust of the market ideology among us is beyond dispute” (131, emphasis his).

 

Kelly Brown Douglas and reparations

I end this post with an example of what Brueggeman’s prophetic imagination could look like concretely. Next to me is the latest issue of Sojourners (July 2020) with on its cover a haunting artistic rendering of two young black slaves, man and woman, with excerpts from a slave’s bill of sale inscribed on their skin. Anxiety is written all over their eyes and posture. Above them is the title to the lead article, “A Christian Case for Reparations,” by Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas.

Douglas, an African American woman (see above picture), is an Episcopal priest, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, and holds an endowed chair in Theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. A recent book of hers is Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. The opening paragraph of her current Sojourners article is worth quoting in full:

 

“To the best of our historical knowledge, in August 1619 a ship named the White Lion landed at a coastal port near Point Comfort, Virginia, carrying 20 to 30 captive Africans to be sold into slavery. This landing symbolizes the construction of race as a defining and indelible feature of America’s core identity. It stamped black bodies with the ineradicable identity of subhuman chattel. As such, it signaled the white supremacist foundation upon which America’s capitalistic democracy, with all its sociopolitical systems and structures, would be built.”

 

There is no doubt that the legacy of slavery still weighs heavily over African Americans in the form of “poverty, mass incarceration, and substandard schools.” She quotes Nikole Hannah-Jones in the sweeping New York Times 1619 Project: “there has never ‘been a genuine effort to redress the wrongs of slavery and the century of racial apartheid that followed,’” although writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 article in The Atlantic (“A Case for Reparations”) eloquently brought the topic back into the national limelight.

This issue is worth pondering now more than ever from a theological perspective in the wake of massive protests calling for racial justice and the glaring disparities that have made people of color much more vulnerable to the coronavirus, argues Douglas. The fact that Princeton Theological Seminary and a few other seminaries have set up endowed funds to give scholarships to descendants of slaves and support black ministries is a good start. But, she adds, “inasmuch as faith is about partnering with God to mend an unjust earth, and thus to move us toward a more just future, then faith communities are accountable to that future.” In that light, reparations should not just seek to redress past harms but they should aim to build “a future where all human beings . . . are free to live into the fullness of their sacred creation.”

Hence, any form reparations might take should include these four elements:

 

    • Anamnestic truth-telling: faith communities should confront “the ways in which the past remains alive in the present,” and for instance, how “ecclesial and institutional systems, structures, and cultural norms reflect white supremacist narratives, ideologies and constructs – then intentionally working to dismantle them.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, it requires “an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts,” to make sure they will no longer haunt us. This paragraph in his long, 2014 article on The Case for Reparations expresses well what Douglas is after here:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling 'patriotism' while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

    • Fostering moral identity: that is to intentionally denounce white supremacy, to refuse to benefit any longer of white privilege, but following Jesus who emptied himself of all divine privileges in order to bear on the cross the sins of all and especially the suffering of all human victims of oppression. There has to be lament and repentance before energizing and hope can appear.
    • Proleptic participation, or acting as if the future is now: as Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, churches may not remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
    • To repair means first dismantling structures of injustice: journalist Adele Banks reported on a landmark study led by sociologists Michael Emerson (U. of Illinois-Chicago) and Glenn Bracey (Villanova). They found that in response to the question “Do you think our country has a race problem?” 78 percent of “practicing black Christians” answered “yes,” and only 38 percent of “practicing white Christians answered “yes.” When it comes to “systemic racism,” white evangelicals are much more likely to acknowledge personal prejudice than unjust structures:

 

“When respondents were asked whether systemic racism or individual prejudices were the bigger problem in the country today, two-thirds of African Americans pointed to systemic racism while the same proportion of whites blamed individual prejudices. Among evangelicals, 7 in 10 (72%) faulted individual prejudices, 12% said systemic racism and the rest answered ‘I don’t know.’”

 

A question on this survey nicely wraps up this post. We’ve seen how Brueggemann’s “prophetic imagination” always dismantled the dominant structures and ideologies of the day. In this question about biblical interpretation, it becomes crystal clear how a demographic that most benefits from the sociopolitical status quo naturally reads the Bible from that perspective. In Acts 6:1-7 we read that after the explosive growth of the early church after Pentecost, the Greek-speaking Jews who had come to the festival from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) began to complain that their widows had been neglected in the daily distribution of food. This prompted a discussion among church leaders and they instituted the office of deacons, or people tasked with charitable duties.

The question prompt summarized the passage “as a description of early Christians reacting to complaints of an ethnic minority group and empowering leaders of that group to address the problem.” It then offered this interpretation: “Therefore, it is good to listen to the complaints of ethnic minority groups and empower leaders within those minority groups to correct injustice.” The question finally asked, Do you agree or disagree with this interpretation? In this case and in two other passages with similar implications, “the majority of people of color strongly agreed with the interpretation. Less than one-third of whites came to the same conclusion.”

Brueggemann is right. As Christians, and in our context, European Americans in particular, we seriously need to pay attention to the prophetic imagination in our scriptures.

At the turn of the new millennium, David Kuo was rapidly climbing the ladder of influence in the Republican party. He had come ten years before at age 24 to work for the most powerful pro-life organization, the National Right to Life Committee. Yet when he graduated from college, this could not have been farther from his mind.

David’s father fought the Japanese for eleven years after they invaded Shanghai in 1937 and then emigrated to the US. He never associated with religion, but his European American wife was a church-going mainline Protestant who read the Psalms to young David before going to bed and told him Bible stories. While David was in high school, his United Methodist church just north of New York City hired an evangelical youth pastor. As a result, he and several friends had personal and life-changing encounters with Jesus. But David at that stage was just as passionate about politics as he was about his newfound faith. And like his parents, he was a staunch Democrat. In fact, he interned with his idol Bobby Kennedy for a summer in college.

Abortion turned out to be the issue that drove him into the Republican Party. He and his college girl friend had an abortion and he came to regret it. With time this became one of two burning issues for him. The other was caring for the poor, a passion he inherited from his mother, so he jumped at the opportunity to become deputy-director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the first term of President George W. Bush. Yet the initial rush of power that comes from working in the White House soon turned to frustration, as the “compassionate conservatism” of the president got whittled away almost from the start. And no, you can’t blame it on the 9/11 aftermath either. You can read about this in his New York Times Bestseller, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (watch him explain it in October 2006 as it was coming out).

A friend sent me this book over a decade ago and because of the present topic, I finally read it last week. It was hard to put down. Fourteen years later, it’s just as relevant today. Because of his reputation as a speech writer, George W. Bush had invited Kuo to his ranch in Texas when he was contemplating a presidential run. Then during his presidency, Kuo became Special Advisor to the president from 2001 to 2003. Nowhere in the book does he say or imply that the president was insincere in his promoting “compassionate conservatism,” and he plainly liked him as a person. But he became increasingly upset that the Bush administration used conservative Christians (evangelicals and Catholics) for political gain and that even money earmarked for the faith-based charities found its way into the 2004 campaign coffers.

I will come back to Kuo’s misgivings and theological lessons at the end of this piece, but in the meantime, allow me to highlight just a few of Katherine Stewart’s main themes in her 2019 book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.

 

Stewart’s qualitative and longitudinal study

Katherine Stewart, an acclaimed journalist, first started researching the Religious Right in 2009 after she discovered her children’s elementary school sponsored an after-school club meeting dubbed a “Bible study.” As the book cover to her 2012 book The Good News Club puts it, “Stewart soon discovered that its real mission is to convert children to fundamentalist Christianity.” That the Supreme court could deem such religious activity in public schools legal is what sent her to investigate the wider political implications of this.

By now, some readers might be thinking, “Here’s a flaming secular liberal on a witch hunt.” Clearly, Stewart is not sympathetic to the political agenda of the Religious Right. But nor is she on an angry campaign to smear these people. They have a right to free speech as everyone else, but she strongly believes that their goal continues to be the gradual erosion of the First Amendment which guarantees the separation of church and state in America. Her book, then, is a wake-up call to take this movement seriously because it threatens our democratic freedoms as a nation.

For those of you who want more details from her book, watch John Fea interview Katherine Stewart in an online discussion sponsored by a bookstore in Harrisburg, PA (March 25, 2020). This also conveniently pulls together the two parts of this blog post on religious nationalism.

In my subtitle I called her study “qualitative.” By this I refer to how many anthropologists and sociologists spend time embedded in their subjects’ lives and context. Stewart has been going to several Christian Right conferences a year since 2009. She not only knows the issues debated first-hand. She’s also made quite a few friends in those circles. I’m sure she’s made some leaders wince when they see her coming too. Yet several times she insists that these are good and sincere people for the most part. Furthermore, the book documents her own feelings as she went through this process, with detailed descriptions of personalities she interviewed and leaders she has observed.

I also put “longitudinal” in the subtitle. That refers to time, of course (ten years of immersing herself in this evangelical Christian milieu), and also to the breadth of the movement. At 277 pages of text, she covers a lot of ground. I will only highlight four points, since there is necessarily overlap with Fea’s book.

 

It is all about power

The first chapter introduces the main themes by describing a “Pastors’ Briefings,” not coincidently a month before the 2018 elections in a swing-state, North Carolina. Traveling to this church near Charlotte with a friend who was a Southern Baptist pastor, Stewart describes this one-day conference sponsored by “one of the most powerful and politically connected lobbying organizations of the Christian right,” Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington, D.C. More specifically, the event is organized by its affiliate, Watchmen on the Wall (referring to the book of Nehemiah when the first returnees from exile rebuild the wall of Jerusalem). Apparently, Watchmen claims nearly 25,000 pastors as members. Vice President Mike Pence declares on their website, “Keep being a ‘Watchman on the Wall.’ Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s making a difference.”

Perkins himself was speaking that morning. “Folks, we’re headed in a new direction as a nation. And that’s what this battle over the court is about.” Then he lists some of the common themes of the movement: “the Court has been used to impose a godless set of values on America”; they took the Bible out of schools and in its place called for “abortions on demand”; it “made us all complicit with the taking of innocent life”; “Folks, is this an evil day?” (15)

Then Perkins gets to the reason for the gathering: “Christians need to vote. The members of your congregation need to vote. As pastors, you need to – I’m not going to say ‘challenge them’; you need to tell them to vote.” And though the word “Republican” is never uttered, Perkins leaves no doubt what he means. On one side is the “party of life”; on the other is controlled by “the rulers of the darkness.” His parting challenge, then, is this: “My question to you this morning is: What will you do? What will you do with this moment that God has entrusted to us?”

But how do these organizations get around the ban on clergy using their pulpits to promote political candidates if their churches want to keep their tax-exempt status? The FRC created an “elaborate architecture of Culture Impact Teams” (CIT) who then set up in each participating congregation a “Cultural Impact Center” (notice the smart switching of “political” to “cultural”), whereby a congregation takes the initiative to inform itself politically. Each of these CITs is given close to 200 pages of information in a three-ring binder. Stewart notes some of its talking points:

 

      • “Scripture opposes public assistance to the poor as a matter of principle – unless the money passes through church coffers”;
      • Environmentalism is an anti-Christian movement, a “litany of the Green Dragon” and “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today”; it recommends the resources supplied by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which on its website tells us that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming”;
      • The Bible opposes gun regulations;
      • The Bible “favors privatization of schools through vouchers”;
      • It teaches that “same-sex relationships are an abomination”
      • It teaches that women should not “have access to comprehensive, twenty-first-century reproductive medical care” (17)

 

Additionally, the FRC has two red-and-blue “Values Buses” crisscrossing the country, and one of them was outside the church that day. As Stewart puts it, it obviously serves as a “mobile get-out-the-vote unit.” There were North Carolina voters guides on every seat at this event, dispersed throughout the fellowship hall, and thousands of them neatly stacked in the middle of the room for pastors to load up their trunks upon leaving.

What fuels this grassroots activism, besides its Christian veneer? Looking at some of the afternoon speakers and their extreme social conservatism, Stewart offers this hypothesis: she senses “an undercurrent of rage,” which speakers can adroitly channel into “a kind of political therapy.” She goes on:

 

“Here the anxieties over shifting gender roles and the resentments over fading economic privilege are transmuted into personal salvation – and political gold. Setting aside the big money, the key to hard-right Republican power in this state is an army of volunteer activists, people with the time and energy to canvass voters, run for minor political offices, and do whatever it takes to save the country from ‘the humanists’ and ‘the ‘homosexual agenda’ and take it back for God” (21).

 

I cannot move on from the power topic without mentioning perhaps the most dramatic speaker – retired Lieutenant General William Boykin, the famous commander of the raid in the movie Black Hawk Down. I mentioned him in one of my first posts on my human trustees website (August 2011, “Sharia Conspiracy Theories”). In the late 2000s he was one of the prominent communicators in the lucrative network of American Islamophobes. Besides his multiple speaking engagements, he contributed to a book with several other security analysts at the conservative Center for Security Policy in 2010, Sharia: The Threat to America. As I wrote in my blog, his views showed more penchant for conspiracy theories than any knowledge of Islam.

Here I invite you to connect the dots. One of President Trump’s signature immigration policies was the “Muslim Ban,” in its several iterations, forced on his by the courts. But this high-level military officer had also come “close to the heart of American military power” (24). From deputy director of special activities at the CIA, to a similar post in the Army, to deputy undersecretary for intelligence and war fighting in 2003 under President Bush, it was Boykin’s experience with the military in Iraq that colored his views of Islam.

Yet there is another layer here, one that touches me on a personal level. Stewart notes that in his work in Iraq “he worked with contractors with strong links to dominionist groups, who believe that Christians should seek to occupy all positions of power in government and society” (24-25). Though the indisputable theological father of the Christian Right is R. J. Rushdoony (1922-2001), starting in the late 1990s one influential thinker promoted the idea that Christians are called by God to influence all seven areas of civilization, “including government, business, education, the media, the arts and entertainment, family, and religion” – the seven “mountains” (25).

It turns out that this person, C. Peter Wagner, was a former missionary to Bolivia who taught mostly “church growth” at Fuller Theological Seminary when I was there working on my PhD there from 1997-2001, in Pasadena, CA. Besides taking a class with him in that area, he was the teacher of an adult Sunday School class my wife and I attended at Lake Avenue Church (6,000 members at the time). While we were there, he taught mostly from the book of Acts, since he was writing a commentary on it at the time. It was only near the end of our stay that he started to mention his new project of linking together various “apostles” worldwide to form a movement called “the New Apostolic Reformation,” based at the Wagner Institute he was founding in Colorado Springs.

From his 2008 book, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World, Stewart quotes Wagner’s teaching that apostles (influential, Holy Spirit-empowered leaders) are responsible “for taking dominion” over “whatever molder of culture or subdivision God has placed them in,” which he casts as “taking dominion over Satan.” Knowing Wagner personally as I did ((he died in October 2016), I doubt he would approve of Paula White-Cain’s role of “personal pastor” to President Donald Trump, though her neo-Pentecostal theology has some clear affinities with his (here's an amazing OpEd in Chrisitanity Today explaining the unlikely support for her by virtually the male leaders of the Christian Right). If you listen to Wagner's 2011 interview with NPR Fresh Air hostess Terry Gross, you realize that “dominion” for him is more about influence than power, more to do with spreading the love of Jesus than with political power. He’s very clear that the pluralistic, democratic nature of the US is something Christians, along with all other US citizens, of whatever religious or non-religious background, should respect. Of course, that doesn’t stop others from interpreting “dominionism” in more aggressive and authoritarian ways.

 

Add deceit to the power mix

Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst at the Massachussetts think tank Political Research Associates literally hit the jackpot in early 2018: following a tip, he “went fishing in a conservative website and reeled in a 116-page manual for a campaign called Project Blitz” (153). This discovery laid bare “the movement’s legislative strategy,” which is “to flood the zone with coordinated, simultaneous bills in the hopes that they will, eventually, become law” (read his article in Religion Dispatches here)

And all aimed to further “religious freedom.” Launched in 2015, the steering committee of four is led by a woman, Lea Carawan, who obtained a master’s in theology from Regent University (founded by Pat Robertson), cofounded and directed the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which aims to “protect religious freedom, preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer” (154). The interviewer of a Christian TV show in 2018 said to her, “Our country was founded by Christians on Judeo-Christian principles, and they intended for this to be a Christian nation.” “That’s right,” she replied. “It simply means that our laws will reflect Judeo-Christian or biblical values and concepts” (155). Apparently, this restricts “religious freedom” to Christians (and perhaps Jews).

Another steering committee member, Lindy M. “Buddy” Pilgrim, is the founder of Integrity Leadership. Stewart quips, “Pilgrim is an avid proponent of the merger between the Christian far right and the economic far right.” Quoting from an interview with him, Pilgrim stated that the “only way to make freedom work,” [is to have] “Godly men and women assuming positions of power and authority in business (and politics)” (155). Pilgrim does indeed know about business. He served as president of his uncle Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim’s firm, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, listed in the Fortune 500. He later “worked as CEO of Simmons Foods and founded start-ups in residential housing, food distribution, and agribusiness. He also established businesses in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia” (155-6).

You should also note that Buddy Pilgrim has been on President Trump’s Evangelical Leadership Council, a name often given to the circle of evangelical leaders who regularly meet with him. Let me quote Stewart on an interview Pilgrim gave in a Point of View radio interview in November 2018:

 

“Pilgrim glowingly recalled a dinner he attended at the White House for evangelical leaders, including James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Kenneth Copeland, and Franklin Graham. ‘And here’s what was so special about it,’ he said. ‘This was the first ever dinner like this, and the dinner was literally named, “A celebration of Evangelical Leadership.”’ Not ‘a celebration of faith leadership in general,’ with a mix of Buddhists and Hindus and Christians and all these other groups” (156).

 

The next person on Project Blitz’ steering committee is David Barton, whom Stewart dubs the Where’s Waldo of the Christian Right” (173). He has his hands in literally dozens of keys projects and institutions, including the Washington Museum of the Bible. His epiphany came at age 33 (1987), while a math teacher and principal of a small Christian school in Aledo, Texas. He sensed God telling him to research the connection between the Supreme Court’s decision to ban prayers in public school and the drop in SAT scores. It turns out, those scores were rising steadily until 1963, a year after the case of Engel v. Vitale, which ruled that prayers offered in public schools violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. This was followed the next year by the case of School District of Abington Township, PA v. Schempp, “in which the Court declared that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional” (130).

Stewart is right: to argue for a causal relationship between the two events while totally disregarding “the massive changes” occurring in US education in that decade and ignoring the social scientific research on the issue is irresponsible. Besides the fact that whole sections of disadvantaged and marginalized populations were integrated in the school system at that time, “the majority of the nation’s school districts had minimized or ceased the practice of school-sponsored, sectarian prayer” long before this.

Since then David Barton has made documentaries and written books about American history that have been forcefully rebutted by secularist and evangelical historians alike. For instance, in a 1990 video, he recognizes that in Jefferson’s own words the First Amendment erects “a wall of separation between Church & State.” But then he argues “that Jefferson meant only to prohibit ‘the establishing of a single denomination,’” and that the wall was only to be “a one-directional wall protecting the church from the government” (133). His definitive work on the subject (recall that he has no training as a historian) is found in his 2012 book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson. The History News Network called the book “the least credible history book in print” (134). John Fea’s 2016 revised edition of his book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, was partly a rebuttal of Barton’s shoddy, and frankly, deceitful work.

I don’t have the space to mention the fourth player in Project Blitz, Bill Dallas, a man who did prison time for embezzling money but who found God in his San Quentin prison cell and later founded a state-of-the-art “data firm that turns out the conservative Christian vote” (156, see her Ch. 8, “Converting the Flock to Data”).

What I can say is that these four highly connected individuals have crafted a tool of enormous reach and success. Only three bills found their way in 2017 in state legislatures seeking to put to use “In God We Trust” in various public forums. But then by April 2018, over 70 bills churned out by Project Blitz appeared across the country. Many were defeated, but in at least five states some were adopted. Stewart comments, “‘It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ‘em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this,’ David Barton explained on a conference call about Project Blitz with state legislators from around the country” (157).

How is this strategy deceitful? On the surface it just seems like normal politics, albeit with a lot of money and grassroots support behind it. Stewart argues that the documentation of Project Blitz that was uncovered “shows that Christian nationalists have self-consciously embraced a strategy of advancing their goals through deception and indirection.” There are three phases: 1) introduce “symbolic or ceremonial gestures that can be fairly easily passes; 2) with their foot in the door, so to speak, phase II “consists of bills that propose to inject Christian nationalist ideas more directly into schools and other government entities; 3) phase III will seek “to legalize discrimination against those whose actions (or very being) offends the sensibilities of conservative Christians” (160). Declaring “Christian Heritage Week” in public schools, for example, accompanied with the appropriate Barton-inspired teaching on American history, is a recipe for “spreading the message, among children especially, that conservative Christians are the real Americans and everybody else is here by invitation.”

 

The Libertarian gospel

I mentioned that the master thinker behind today’s Religious Right was R. J. Rushdoony, a prolific writer who had graduated from UC Berkeley fully disgusted with his study of classical literature. It was all “humanistic garbage,” “classics of depravity,” he said. Stewart summarizes his mindset from the beginning: “a resolutely binary form of thought that classified all things into one of two absolutes; a craving for order; and a loathing for the secular world and secular education in particular. He promoted the pro-slavery writings of 19th-century theologian Robert Lewis Dabney, agreeing with him “that the Union victory was ‘a defeat for Christian orthodoxy’” and emphasizing that “Dabney’s adversaries, the abolitionists, were the archetypes of the anti-Christian rebels – the liberals, the communists, the secularists, the advocates of women’s rights – who continued to wreak havoc on the modern world” (112).

One wonders how the son of Armenian refugees who had escaped the 1917 genocide could hold such racist views. In his magnum opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, you can read, “Some people are by nature slaves and will always be so” (113). Yet this racist screed also had economic policy implications. The post-Civil-War Christian South, gradually coming under the new slavery of an atheistic federal government ended up advocating a “social gospel,” that is, the view that the state is delegated by God to take care of the poor, and in this case the Blacks. Whites should never should have had to pay taxes to uplift them economically, he opined.

David Barton liberally quotes from Rushdoony in his writings and aligns himself also with James W. Fifield Jr., a Congregational minister who in 1935 cofounded an organization called Spiritual Mobilization. It was laser-focused on dismantling the New Deal. As Stewart has it, the message was simple: “business has a friend in Jesus, and government is the enemy of God and man,” and theologically, the welfare state violates God’s Ten Commandments, and especially, “Thou shalt not steal.” To have the government muzzle business and “take from the rich to give to the poor” is stealing, plain and simple. Thus, Rushdoony wrote, “capitalism is supremely a product of Christianity,” and “socialism is organized larceny; like inflation, it takes from the haves to give to the have-nots” (118).

I cannot respond to this here, but I posted a three-part Lenten series in 2012 on Muslim and Christian poverty alleviation that attempted to cut through right and left ideological lines and show that the mainstream in both faith traditions is surprisingly aligned on the issue of social justice. ["A Muslim and Christian Holistic Approach to Poverty"; "US Poverty Growing, Values Eroding?"; "US Poverty Growing, Values Eroding?; "Zakat and Poverty Alleviation"]

Nowhere is this libertarian gospel more in evidence than in the Christian nationalist view of the role of government in education. I do not believe Stewart’s characterization of the movement’s goal is exaggerated: “to convert America’s public schools into conservative Christian academies, even as they weaken or even destroy public education altogether” (186). As I write, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose marriage cemented the union of two like-minded billionaire families from Holland, MI (DeVos and Prince), has managed to handsomely further her movement’s misleading slogan, “school choice” (195, see above photo with the Texas Capito in the background).

You can catch a glimpse of what our national education would look under such policies by observing what has happened in Michigan “with the DeVos money flooding the arteries of the state’s political system” (196). It has now become “a paradise for for-profit charter operators, most of them concentrated in urban areas.” Amazingly, over “half of Detroit’s children now attend charters – second only to New Orleans (and possibly Flint, MI) – and 80 percent of these are for-profit.”

The first element in this winning strategy is to establish for-profit charter schools. The second is that this multiplication of charter schools is fueled by “lucrative tax breaks.” How so? “Charter operators who own the property that they lease to their own schools demanded – and received – a tax exemption on that property, an arrangement that has become increasingly common around the country” (197). Finally, this boom could never be possible in Michigan without state laws that “are either nonexistent or so lenient that there are often no consequences for abuses or poor academics.” “School choice,” in the end, is a race toward the bottom, especially for minority children.

 

The global conservative movement

Katherine Stewart attended the World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy in March 2019. In its thirteenth iteration, this congress gathers pro-life, “pro-family” (meaning anti LGBTQ rights) Christian Right supporters mostly from Europe and Russia. The worldwide enemy is “global liberalism,” a hydra with “multiple faces,” in the words of Ignacio Arsuaga, “founder and president of the ultraconservative Christian activist group CitizenGO” in Spain. In a familiar refrain he lists the enemies: “radical feminists, the abortion industry, and the LGBT totalitarians” (249). Migrants are the other enemy. As several speakers intoned at the congress, with these hordes breaking down our borders, “soon we will be extinct.”

As you might suspect, President Trump is revered by all in this gathering. In the words of a Georgian leader “who doubles as a private equity investor with interests in Russia,” Trump has marked “a turning point in the march against the global liberalism” (250). Then too, the interests of the religious Right and the Alt Right have converged, mostly in the person of Steve Bannon (251). As Ed Martin, one of the coauthors of the book, The Conservative Case for Donald Trump, put it in his speech, the vision can be summarized in three points: “Brexit, border, and Bible.”

Possibly the most worrisome development is the aura that Russia’s Vladimir Putin holds for this movement. The same Republican leader who in 1979 successfully urged an undecided group of religious and political leaders huddled around Jerry Falwell to form the Moral Majority to choose abortion as their central issue (62-64), Paul Weyrich was “among the first to grasp the potential for an alliance with religious conservatives in Russia and Eastern Europe” (270). But as the 2015 Republican nomination was heating up, “Russian oligarchs, having effectively deployed religious nationalism to gain control over their own populations, readily grasped that it could be used to shape events in other countries too.” They realized that these “pro-family” issues could be leveraged to mobilize religious nationalists elsewhere, “an excellent way to destabilize the Western alliance and advance Russia’s geopolitical interests.” Maria Butina’s arrest in the wake of the FBI’s scrutinizing the Trump campaign is now history, but Russia is already trying to use the current racial protests in the US to advance its own agenda and is poised to try and tip the balance in the 2020 election as well.

 

David Kuo’s important lesson

Ten years into his political activity in Washington, DC, Kuo found himself for the first time with a job at the White House – only a summer job, he had said to himself. Yet on his first day, after listening to the head of the White House Political Affairs brief the Domestic Policy staff on how they were “to understand the political world,” he had a sinking feeling. In his words,

 

“Listening to all of this I realized I had passed to the other side. I wasn’t just a Christian trying to serve God in politics. Now I was a Christian in politics looking for ways to recruit other Christians into politics so that we would have their votes . . . In my best moments I feared I wasn’t representing Jesus. Now it was different. Now I had to ask if I was a corrupting force in other people’s faith. Chuck Colson inspired me to tackle the great moral issues. Was I doing that, or was I part of an effort to get people to support a political leader? There were enormous differences between the two possibilities. One sought to serve Jesus’ concerns for people through political ends. The other sought to serve a political end by using Jesus’ concern as justification” (Tempting Faith, 168-9).

 

Kuo ended up staying three more years in the White House, doing his best to suppress this internal tug-of-war. A brain tumor in April 2003, which the doctors said would probably kill him, became the occasion for some soul-searching. Yet, miraculously, three weeks after brain surgery he returned to work, but in a different frame of mind. He was now telling himself the truth: the faith-based project was a “sad charade,” a ploy “to provide political cover to a White House that needed compassion and religion as a political tool” (242). He soon left politics, followed his dream for a while to become a professional bass fisherman (he still does this on the side). He’s now a contributing editor for beliefnet.com to the beliefnet.com website.

I kicked off this two-part post on Christian nationalism by framing it within the wider question of religion and politics. For Christians and Muslims, and by extension for people of any faith, this American Christian movement from 1979 to the present should cause all of us to take a deep breath – at least those of us who believe that democracy, human rights, human dignity, and the equality of all before the law are values worth fighting for (peacefully!). Today, Juneteenth 2020, is also the 23rd day of street protests across this nation for racial justice. Multigenerational crowds from every race and creed are marching with increasing determination to end the structural injustice that has oppressed African Americans for 400 years in America. And it looks like this time, substantial change will take place. Right now the people are voting with their feet. In November they will vote with their ballots. And that gives me hope.