Rock the Desert: Evangelical Activism in Texas and Sudan

In 2001, just one month before 9/11, 32,000 evangelical youth invaded Midland, Texas. Drawn to a Christian music festival called “Rock the Desert,” they clapped and danced to the rock anthems of Newsboys and Skillet. Festival organizers also highlighted a social and diplomatic crisis in Sudan, then a war zone with one of the worst global records of religious persecution and human rights violations perpetrated by the Sudanese government and Janjaweed Arab militias. Over the next several years, as the attendance exceeded 90,000, organizers built a mock slave cell and an authentic Sudanese village and handed out promotional material on the Sudan Peace Act.

Activism surged well beyond the festival grounds. Midland itself, the site of a recent evangelical revival in a city already saturated with churches, hosted the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, which directed considerable attention to Sudan. Ex-child slave Francis Bok frequently visited local churches, speaking of his desire “to free his people in bondage.” Midland activists mobilized in support of the Bachus Amendment to the proposed Sudan Peace Act that would deny access to American stock exchanges for oil companies doing business in Sudan. They lobbied President Bush and held a series of vigils at the State Department. Bok even traveled to the White House to speak with the president. For the first time since the nineteenth century, observers noted, an American president had met with a former slave. But it was Midland, according to political scientist Allen Hertzke, that became “ground-zero in the grass roots campaign on Sudan … and a strategic player in high-level negotiations leading toward a peace treaty.” This activism, documented by Hertzke in Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights, extended the evangelical efforts that had helped pass the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

These actions on behalf of Sudanese human rights contrasted significantly with the lower levels of evangelical political activism in the mid-twentieth century. First, the human rights work indicated a significant presence in the nation’s capital. Evangelical efforts kept the issue alive at the moment when 9/11 could have swept Sudan off the agenda. “Prayer and hymns,” notes Hertzke, “were matched with strategic analysis and pivotal timing.” A receptive, just-inaugurated president, himself an evangelical from Midland, greased the political gears. As the new century dawned, it was clear that evangelical politics had matured far beyond its parochial efforts of the mid-twentieth century. Second, the issues involved a social dimension. Midland evangelicals demonstrated attention to the economic and political roots of injustice in ways that the previous generation had not in its focus on personal salvation and evangelism. Third, the activism marked a new ecumenical spirit. At mid-century Christianity Today and other significant books contrasted “Catholic power” with “American freedom.” But fifty years later, evangelicals in Midland and Washington, D.C., were collaborating with Catholics, Jews, and other religious actors. This campaign for peace and human rights in Sudan pointed to growing ecumenical, promotional, and electoral sensibilities within evangelicalism.

A final evangelical push for immigration reform

Evangelicals are set to make a final push to pass immigration reform by the end of the year. Click here for more.

The Evangelical Immigration Table’s “Pray4Reform: Gathered Together in Jesus’ Name” campaign running from Oct. 12 through Oct. 20. includes more than 300 events in 40 states where members of the faith are praying for reform. The Evangelical Immigration Table is a coalition of evangelical Christian groups including World Relief, Bread for the World, and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. . . .

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinks Evangelical backing for support for immigration reform is important. Galston reasoned that the mainly Republican group in the House — those most resistant to changes benefiting the undocumented — might also be the most responsive to the Evangelical movement. “If Evangelical leaders walked the halls of Congress and knocked on the doors of Southern Republicans, they won’t be turned away,” Galston said.

Debating Constantine

Peter Leithart’s landmark book Defending Constantine (2010) sharply rebuked Christian pacifists. Leithart clearly intended to do more than rehabilitate the reputation of Constantine, emperor of Rome in the fourth century; this project was also a polemic against Mennonite icon John Howard Yoder. In its most grave charge, Defending Constantine accuses Yoder of doing bad history. Roger Olson puts it colorfully: “[Leithart] frequently treats Yoder as some kind of Anabaptist nincompoop who ignorantly plays fast and loose with facts.” Specifically, Leithart contends that there was no “Constantinian shift” from New Testament pacifism to a Christendom willing to use violence to extend both the Church and state. Yoder’s case, Leithart contended, rested on an Anabaptist “fall of the church” historiography that mistakenly assumes that the early Church was pacifist in the first place. Among his arguments: that there was interest in Christian empire before Constantine; that his pursuit of justice helped maintain the rule of law and the protection of Christians and the poor; and that he helpfully elevated Christians to positions of political responsibility.

Other scholars have been pursuing a similar, if less pugnacious, line of argumentation. David Hunter, for example, has been championing a “new consensus” that accounts for both pacifist and non-pacifist positions. He suggests that early Christians were as repelled by the idolatry of the Roman State as much as its violence; that there is evidence that some Christians were diverging from a uniform pacifist stance by the end of the second century; and that stances on warfare varied according to geography (antimilitarism, for example, was strongest among Christians in the heart of Rome; it was weakest on the borders). Many Christian crusaders and just-war theorists have cheered on Leithart and Hunter, pleased that scholars with theological and historical chops were substantively critiquing Yoder.

The rebuttal to Leithart is on. The book immediately sparked lively conversations online here and here and here and here. The October 2011 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review offered quick and substantive responses from four critics. John Nugent argued, in a theological vein, that God calls his people away from imperial identities—whether that is Roman, German, or American—to lives ‘of vulnerability, trust, and service to all those created in God’s image.” Alan Kreider offered a historical criticism, contending that Leithart’s sources on Christian participation in the military were sparse and questionable compared to evidence against involvement in state-sponsored violence. Constantine’s reign did indeed signal a fundamental shift: “from the gestalt of early Christianity to another gestalt—Christendom.” Responding in the same MQR issue to this battery of criticism, Leithart was unrepentant. “Because Christ is king,” he wrote, “kings should be Christians and exercise their earthly dominion in a righteous manner.” Leithart raised the stakes theologically. “The rub,” he declared, is that “we do not agree on the Gospel.”

The debate continues as a small avalanche of books rolls off the press. Last year Ron Sider released The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment. Also in 2012 Wheaton professor George Kalantzis published Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service. And now Goshen College’s John Roth, author of Choosing Against War, is releasing a more direct rebuttal of Leithart entitled Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder, and the Constantinian Debate. It is an edited volume featuring an impressive lineup of Anabaptist theologians and ethicists including Stanley Hauerwas and Mark Thiessen Nation. Together, these books argue, in the words of Kalantzis, against “recent scholarship [that] accepts as axiomatic that there was ambivalence among the earliest Christians. . . . I do not believe that such a conclusion is borne by the literary evidence.” They marshal writings by Pliny the Younger, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Lactantius, and others. Jesus Christ, they say, inaugurated “a new call to non-violence, unrecognizable by the culture around them, for it took the form of civil disobedience as the mark of a transnational community bound together with the bonds of baptism. A community that honored Caesar by disobeying his commands and receiving upon their bodies the only response a state based on the power of the powerful could meet—an imitation of Christ.” The bottom line: “With remarkably univocity they speak of participation in the Christian mysteries as antithetical to killing, and the practices of the army.”

And so it goes. Scholars will continue to assess complex historical records and debate theological arguments (see Preston Sprinkle’s Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence and Jeremy Gabrielson’s Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel). The debate hasn’t resolved in the three years since Defending Constantine—and won’t anytime soon. After all it has raged since Constantine himself, if not before.

* The video below features an appearance by Leithart and Kalantzis at Wheaton on November 16, 2011.

Leithart and Kalantzis

*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench

James K. A. Smith and Richard Mouw

MouwCheck out this fascinating interview of just-retired Richard Mouw by Jamie Smith. They talk the Chicago Declaration, Kuyper, Mark Hatfield, John Howard Yoder, and Chuck Colson. Moral Minority even gets a mention!

Progressive Pentecostalism

A couple of posts ago, I discussed the rise of a moderate Pentecostalism that seeks to transcend the God-and-country nature of the contemporary movement. Here, Arlene Sanchez-Walsh highlights one such voice: Rick Waldrop.

Cizik on “It’s God’s creation. Let’s protect it.”

This Notre Dame game is too awful to watch, so I’m distracting myself with this article on creation care in the Washington Post by Rich Cizik. A few too many nods to the national narrative for me, but a good reminder nonetheless to preserve the land we live on.

Here’s an excerpt:

If my own two sons, ages 20 and 22, are any indication, they fear that powerful lobbies have the power to purchase at will the Congress and the White House. The public’s land and resources are too easily turned over to the “drill, baby, drill” gang.

Sadly, they are right. What’s happening is clear: This land, our land, the public’s land, is being seized in ever increasing measure for development. More precisely, it is being leased to oil and gas companies.

It is my worst nightmare to awake from camping, as I did this summer next to the French Broad River in North Carolina, to discover a bull-dozer clearing the public land for an oil rig. But this isn’t a bad dream, it’s commonplace around this land of ours. . . .

It’s about saving a bit of God’s gift of plentiful natural resources for future generations. Call it a campaign to “save a bit of heaven.”

Why cast it this way? The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright in his book “Simply Jesus” puts it as follows: “Within Jesus’s world, the word ‘heaven’ could be a referent way of saying ‘God,’ and in any case, part of the point of ‘heaven’ is that it wasn’t detached, wasn’t a long way off, but was always the plan from which ‘earth’ was to be run. When, in the book of Daniel, people speak about ‘the God of heaven,’ the point is that this God is in charge on earth and will eventually set up his own kingdom there.”

Soong-Chan Rah

profrahI recently had the privilege of meeting Soong-Chan Rah, who I think is one of the brightest prophetic voices in American evangelicalism. The video below is wide-ranging, but it hits many of big points of his terrific book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. I especially appreciate his point, early on in this clip, that all the reports about the decline of faith are really quite ethnocentric because they’re focused primarily on white religion, especially middle-class white evangelicalism. If you look at the Global South or immigrant communities in the U.S., you’ll find faith that is vibrant and growing.


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