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 Opinion: Applied Religion 101

SpiritualityBy Howard Bess

In the mid-1950s, I was a fresh college graduate and had begun my graduate seminary training. My mind was fully engaged in the exciting world of theology. It was my great opportunity to understand fully the Christian Faith and to prepare myself to be the pastor of a congregation. While I was aware that Dwight Eisenhower was my president and voted for his re-election in 1956, I was minimally engaged in the American political and economic world. I was too busy attending classes, reading books, and writing papers.

During those years, my family and I attended a thriving American Baptist church in a western suburb of Chicago. A part of my experience in First Baptist Church of LaGrange, Illinois, was participation in a class of young couples. The class was taught by a revered older gentleman member of the church. The curriculum for the class was simple. He always brought with him the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. The topic of the class was the relevance of the Christian message to the front page news of the Trib. The class loved the discussions. It was Applied Religion 101.

Yes, those were the days of Senator Joe McCarthy, the rabid anti-communist from Wisconsin. The Chicago Tribune was one of the great defenders of Joe McCarthy and his crusade.

When our American Constitution framers added the first ten amendments to the country’s Constitution, they did something no other nation had ever done. The first amendment forbad the government from meddling in the affairs of churches. CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW RESPECTING AN ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION, OR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF…. By the First Amendment, the wall of separation between church and state was put in place. ...

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One of the reasons I am a proud Baptist is that it was the Baptists who led the movement to keep church and state separate. Baptists continue to play that leadership role. Collectively we Baptists maintain a powerful Washington DC lobby to keep separation intact. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom regularly files briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court on cases that involve separation issues. BJC’s monthly publication “Report from the Capital” is must reading for people who follow separation issues. I try to read and digest every word of every edition.

The provisions of the First Amendment are misunderstood by many Americans. Keeping government out of religion is an absolute. Keeping churches out of the concerns of government is not. There are strict rules about what churches can and cannot do, but within the rules developed through a long series of court decisions, churches have a right to be involved in public issues, including issues that involve government.

The issues related to separation of church and state raise their head in every election season. 2010 is no exception.

Within Christian churches, we have long argued about modernizing Rabbi Jesus from Nazareth. On one side of the argument are those who see Jesus as the timeless savior of humankind for an eternity in a place of bliss called heaven. On the other side of the argument are those who insist that faith in Jesus as the Christ of God must be constantly modernized into the relevance of daily life, including the issues that confront voters in our elections.

Those who insist that Christian churches and believers pay more attention to justice in this world, read the Bible from a different perspective and find different imperatives.

Dr. William Herzog Jr., Professor of New Testament at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, has spent his professional years studying and investigating the parables of Jesus. His book, “Parables as Subversive Speech,” is subtitled “Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.” He argues that the parables of Jesus have been badly misunderstood. In a key passage he asks a series of questions.

“What if the parables of Jesus were neither theological nor moral stories but political and economic ones?” “What if the concern of the parables was not the reign of God but the reigning systems of oppression that dominated Palestine in the time of Jesus?” “What if the scenes they presented were not stories about how God works in the world but codifications about how exploitation worked in Palestine?” “What if the parables are exposing exploitation rather than revealing justification?” “What would all this mean for the reading of the parables?”

Herzog effectively argues that all of his “what ifs” are actually true. Herzog argues that Jesus was a political activist who was put to death on the charge of insurrection.

In 2010 Christian preachers and churches are not bringing the Jesus messages to a nation in which record numbers are falling into poverty and record numbers of millionaires are being created. The Jesus message of justice is as relevant in a modern world as it was in the ancient world. As long as we know, understand and abide by the rules, we Christians are immoral when we stay out of the public arena. It is Applied Religion 101.



The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]


[25 September 2010]

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