The stereotypical religious conservative sees social justice, at best, as a distraction from practices of piety or, at worst, a heretical deviation from the gospel. The stereotypical religious progressive sees social justice as a biblical imperative—but seems to have no time for spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, and fasting. This seems to be changing as many religious conservatives increasingly speak favorably about social justice. My own research on the evangelical left (self-promotion alert: if you haven’t read Moral Minority yet, now is the time—it just came out in a much, much less expensive paperback edition) discussed many other Christians who sought to practice both social justice and a rigorous spirituality.
In her new book Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action, Mae Cannon, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church and a Middle East expert for World Vision, offers half a dozen fascinating profiles of such Christians. They include:
- Mother Teresa, whose practice of silence as a monastic inspired a lifetime of service. God spoke into her silence, which was a means of removing worldly distractions. Cannon writes that in these moments “she experienced God’s love, which compelled her to bring God’s love to the poorest of the poor.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose life of prayer led to an emphasis on discipleship and resistance to Nazi anti-Semitism. His daily exercises of prayer, according to Cannon, “built up such ingrained habits of virtue that he had the inner spiritual resources for appropriate action.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr., whose practices of beloved community and churchly accountability in Montgomery, Alabama, led to proclamations of justice. Surrounded by the historic black church, writes Richard Lischer in The Preacher King, “King gave names to what he saw: sin, racism, genocide, doom, cowardice, expediency, idolatry of nation, militarism, religious hypocrisy.”
- Fairuz, a devout Maronite Christian from Beirut whose Lebanese folk music has inspired freedom and community throughout the Middle East. Often seen kneeling in prayer at the recording studio, she sings for groups of any religion, ethnicity, and nation. Her song “Ya Zahrat al Madayn” (“Flower of the Cities”) mourns the suffering of the Arab community in Jerusalem in 1948.
- Desmond Tutu, an Anglican archbishop in South Africa, whose Sabbath-keeping led to reconciliation in the aftermath of apartheid. “All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.”
In these profiles—and in Cannon’s practical advice on spiritual practices such as retreats of silence, centering, the daily examen, journaling, and Sabbath-keeping—we glimpse a powerful synthesis of the material and the mystical. Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu were not progressive technocrats. They embodied pathos, joy, and sensitivity to the supernatural. Their implicit message, to use a Wesleyan formulation, centers on holiness: attention to the inner life (personal holiness) can reorient an outer life (social holiness) toward justice.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Attorney General of the United States John Ashcroft, a prominent advocate of the war in Iraq, wrote a song called “Let the Eagle Soar” (you can listen to it here). It is a deeply patriotic song, one he liked to mix with morning prayer meetings at the Department of Justice. Here are some of the words: “Like she’s never soared before, from rocky coast to golden shore, let the mighty eagle soar . . . Oh she’s far too young to die; You can see it in her eye; She’s not yet begun to fly.” Many Americans found the lyrics and tune touching, even if some Justice Department lawyers did not like his brand of religious patriotism in the workplace.
In 2006, the year after Ashcroft stepped down from the George W. Bush Administration, Sarah Palin was elected governor of Alaska. Her words often struck a martial tone. On her reality television show “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” she spoke frequently of “locking and loading.” She has used a crosshairs graphic to target politicians who voted for the Affordable Care Act. And she has been very eager to project and use American power abroad. She called the Iraq War a “task that is from God.” She has been critical of Barack Obama, no peacenik himself. She said, “President Obama actually seems reluctant to even embrace American power.” Elsewhere Palin mourned, “We have a President, perhaps for the very first time since the founding of our republic, who doesn’t appear to believe that America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known.”
What do these high-profile persons have in common besides nationalism and conservative politics? According to authors Jay Beaman and Brian Pipkin, who profiled Ashcroft and Palin in a recent book titled Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace, both are affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. Every time Ashcroft has been sworn in to political office, he is anointed with oil (in the manner of King David). Palin was a longtime member of Wasilla Assembly of God. These two prominent politicians do not exactly represent Pentecostalism or broader evangelicalism, which sometimes features a more measured just-war posture or an interest in peacebuilding. But close observers of Pentecostal churches, which often feature an American flag on stage, would recognize the God-and-country flavor of the contemporary movement.
This twenty-first-century iteration of Pentecostalism, however, would have been utterly foreign to movement progenitors. In the wake of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906 and at the founding of the denomination in 1914, the Assemblies of God were officially pacifist. As late as October 1940, the Assemblies of God still claimed that “military service is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that a Christian cannot fully follow the teachings of his Lord and Master if he engages in armed conflict.” Several scholarly works have already recovered this forgotten history. Robert Mapes Anderson’s Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (1979) and Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (2003) treated this lightly. More recently, Paul Alexander narrated a full-scale account of Pentecostal pacifism in Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God (2009).
But Beaman and Pipkin’s book Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (2013) offers something new: hundreds of fascinating primary sources showing the pacifist orientation of the Pentecostal movement. Take, for instance, this 1938 column from the Foursquare Church, founded by the colorful Aimee Semple McPherson: “Should a Christian take up arms in time of war? The question is perhaps, a little late. It already has been answered—IN THE BIBLE. Until the Ten Commandments are repealed the Christian has no alternative but to stay aloof from war and its consequent destruction of human life. Should one be drafted? Well, prayer changes things. And the God who saved Noah from the flood, and preserved Daniel in the lions’ den and his brethren in the fiery furnace, surely can ‘handle’ so inconsequential a thing as a little draft-board. Prayer, wisdom and the proof of patriotic loyalty on our part, couple with a willingness to serve our country in non-combatant service should turn the trick for any obedient child of God.” Beaman notes that the Foursquare Church grappled with the pacifist impulse until WWII, when it capitulated (or came to its senses, depending on your theological persuasion) and embraced the use of lethal force and the preservation of a “Christian America.”
By contrast, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) persisted longer. They were not only against war, but for peace. In an official denomination statement, the denomination called upon their members to attempt “exploits for Peace on Earth as risky as do men of war.” More specifically, they called in the late 1960s for the diversion of war budgets to social programs for the poor.”
Why did Pentecostal churches lose this orientation? You’ll have to read Paul Alexander’s Peace to War for the full story. Interestingly, there seems to be signs of rapprochement with the past as Anabaptists and Pentecostals in recent decades have begun meeting outside their respective enclaves. Brian Pipkin, who grew up attending Assemblies of God and Foursquare churches, learned about pacifism at a Pentecostal seminary in the Philippines, where he read The Upside-Down Kingdom by the Anabaptist scholar Donald Kraybill. Paul Alexander, who was a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God and co-founder of Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice, attended Pasadena Mennonite Church for a time. Martin Mittelstadt, a professor of New Testament at Evangel University, calls himself a “Mennocostal” who rejects nationalism and embraces counter-culturalism and a “Spirit-led, story-based hermeneutic.” To meet many others, check out the PCPJ website.
Several weeks ago I settled down to my usual Sunday afternoon reading of the New York Times. I encountered one of the more fascinating profiles I’ve read in a while. It opened like this: “One morning in late January, Jacques-André Istel woke up at his home in Felicity, Calif., did 100 push-ups and 125 squats, swam in his elegantly lit lap pool, then went back upstairs, where he took a light breakfast in bed, as has been his custom since his boyhood in Paris. After breakfast, he dressed in a blue shirt and ascot and walked to his office at 1 Center of the World Plaza. It was Istel’s birthday; he was turning 85.” Istel had built the so-called “Center of the World” in nearly thirty years ago on 2,600 acres in the middle of the desert near Yuma, Arizona. I want to draw your attention to this piece for several reasons.
First, it’s a flat-out good read about a really eccentric man. Consider these fascinating details:
- A 21-foot-tall stone-and-glass pyramid marks the center of the world. Nearby is the Museum of History in Granite. The Times says that he researches and writes all the text, sometimes moving through 50 or 60 drafts of a single panel. He began a set of eight monuments — 461 panels total, arranged in a compass rose, with a multilingual Rosetta Stone at its center. On them, he would record the “History of Humanity.” He’s now about a quarter of the way through: the story begins with an etching of the Big Bang and cuts off after a summary of Viking death rituals.
- He was born in Paris in 1929, the third of four children. His father, André Istel, was a distinguished financier — a partner in a couple of brokerage firms who served as an adviser to Charles de Gaulle and French delegate to the Bretton Woods conference, which established the I.M.F. and the World Bank. But he had to flee Paris during the Nazi advance in 1940.
- After moving to the United States, he made an impulsive solo flight across North America, from Vancouver to New York, in a single-engine airplane that he had just barely learned to fly. After a handful of perilous and comic mishaps, covered in local papers along the way, which embarrassed his parents, he finally touched down at LaGuardia with a broken radio. (He landed elsewhere first and called the tower from a pay phone to let them know he was coming.)
- After growing disillusioned as a stock-market analyst in the 1950s, he almost single-handedly popularized parachuting in the United States, founding Parachutes, Inc., which took the activity out of the exclusive domain of the military.
- Not only is Istel not religious; his mother was Jewish. And yet, he went through significant trouble to build this magnificent little chapel on a hill; in fact, he built the hill, too, hiring heavy machinery to push earth out of the flat desert and into a scrupulously engineered, seismically fit trapezoid 35 feet high. Istel, Gaebelein said, can articulate exactly why he felt obligated to build that hill for the church — “I’m a traditionalist, and I believe in protocol and courtesy; if you build a house for a higher power, for God, it should be the highest thing,” Istel would tell me — but he can’t explain why he built the church in the first place.
The second reason is that a startling name—Donn Gaebelein—appears in the profile. Gaebelein is described as a “strait-laced, retired private-school headmaster.” This was his 15th stay at the “Center of the World. He told the Times that this is how he and Norma dodge winters in New York. But there’s more than the pull of warm weather. Gaebelein also told the Times, “You have to live with this place, you have to sleep on this, to get the feel of its power,” he said.
I had never heard of Donn, but I had heard of the unusual surname of Gaebelein, which should be familiar to older evangelicals. After a little digging, I discovered that Donn had been a headmaster at Westminster School in Atlanta. And that, sure enough, he was the son of Frank Gabelein, the founder of the venerable evangelical institution Stony Brook School on Long Island. Frank was also an editor at Christianity Today and Eternity, on the translation committee for the New International Version Bible. Along with Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham, Gaebelein was one of the key leaders of the neo-evangelical movement of the 1950s. On the issue of race, Gaebelein came out looking much better than most of those leaders. In 1965 he went down to Alabama to cover the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery for Christianity Today. He was so compelled by the righteousness of the cause that he joined the march instead!
The Times doesn’t offer much on the relationship between Gaebelein and Istel. We are told that after arriving in New York uprooted from his life in France, Istel enrolled at the Stony Brook School, where “he was thrown into the eighth grade. One teacher gave him comic books instead of textbooks. Every night, he lay in bed weeping.” This must have been where the conservative evangelical Gaebelein befriended the heterodox Istel.
Does anyone know the rest of the story of Istel’s continuing relationship with Gaebelein and Stony Brook?
Jay Beaman, a sociologist at Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon, likes to do historical experiments. After extensive research he sends emails to members of Ancestry.com, telling them that he has found a relative of theirs who claimed religious objection on their World War I draft card. These relatives were members of holiness and Pentecostal denominations. Their descendants typically have no idea of the pacifist commitments of their grandparents and usually write back to Beaman saying that he surely must be mistaken. Even after seeing proof, they’re sometimes still not convinced. The historical memory of pacifism has been obliterated in holiness and Pentecostal circles.
It turns out that principled pacifism is not the sole province of Mennonites. Beaman and Brian Pipkin have uncovered a wealth of documents that testify to the peace commitments of other American religious groups. They have compiled them in a sourcebook entitled Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (2013). Consider this 1844 source from the Wesleyan Methodist Church: “[The gospel] is in every way opposed to the practice of War in all its forms; and those customs which tend to foster and perpetuate the war spirit [are] inconsistent with the benevolent designs of the Christian Religion.” The St. Lawrence Annual Conference of the Wesleyan Methodists even considered a resolution to “alter the denominational Discipline so that refusal to engage in war and military training would be come a condition of membership.” There are hundreds more such statements ranging from the Brethren in Christ, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, Church of God (Fort Scott, Kansas), Church of the Living God, Church of God (Anderson), Church of the Nazarene, Congregational: Broadway Tabernacle, Emmanuel Association, Free Methodist Church, and the Salvation Army.
The statements are diverse, representing numbers of John Howard Yoder’s twenty-nine distinct types of pacifism as described in Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism. Some documents denounced any law that supported warfare, such as paying war taxes or working for war-related industries. Others drew the line at actual killing. Still others contended for “personal nonresistance,” citing Romans 13 and saying that the state had the authority to prosecute war, but that they couldn’t personally participate. Binding each of the statements together was biblicism, defined by Christian Smith as a “theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” In a very helpful introduction to the volume, Beaman describes the biblicist case for pacifism in great depth. In short, these holiness writers made a very serious attempt to “harmonize inconsistent passages across the Bible.”
The harmony sounded very different as the twentieth century progressed (or regressed, depending on your perspective). In a 1915 statement called “Peace,” the Wesleyan Methodists backed away from their earlier full-throated denunciation of violence. It read, “Human War is undoubtedly the product of human sin, but it does not necessarily follow that all who engage in war are sinners.”
Why the shift? Beaman contends that social pressure was probably most important. Most of the new statements, including the Wesleyan one from 1915, came in the midst of war, precisely when holiness pacifists felt most beleaguered by criticisms of bad citizenship. They were a minority group—7/10 of one percent of the draft pool for WWI registered a religious objection compared to two-thirds of the pool who declined to fight to instead support their family. Remarkably, almost 90% of the 4.9 million married men in the first draft received deferments.
Other explanations include a decrease in separatism and a rise in social mobility. Beaman draws on the Weberian argument that self-denying, ascetic groups experience upward social mobility, which eventually results in a more worldly and sophisticated orientation. This appears to be how worldly wise contemporary holiness and Pentecostal adherents typically dismiss the pacifism of their hayseed ancestors. Consider this quote from a third-generation Pentecostal: “Early day Pentecostals had all kinds of rules of what you couldn’t do. You couldn’t drink a coke or wear a tie or you would get kicked out of the church. Conscientious objection was one of those rules which over time Pentecostals gave up following, just like not drinking coke or wearing a tie.”
Early holiness pacifists would have objected to this narrative that equated pacifism to a soft drink. They would have invoked a sacred text. In 1898 on the eve of the Spanish-American War, Francis Brown wrote to the denominational magazine of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). He asked “Please answer through the Gospel Trumpet: Providing there should be War in the United States, would it be right for a holy man of God to go as a soldier?” The editors responded, “We answer no. Emphatically no. There is no place in the New Testament wherein Christ gave instruction to his followers to take the life of a fellowman.”
It’s easy to love Pope Francis. In one of his first acts as pope, he stopped by the hotel where he stayed before the conclave to settle his bill himself. With no fanfare he melts into the dark streets of Rome at night to hang out with the homeless. Shunning the official Papal Apartment of the Apostolic Palace, he lives in the less extravagant digs of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the so-called “Vatican hotel.” He has said he wants his living quarters to be characterized by “simplicity and sharing.” He dines communally, usually eating a simple meal of baked skinless chicken, salad, fruit and a glass of wine. Pope Francis lives so simply that it’s causing problems in the niche market of clerical garb. They need more business!
Bergoglio’s election—in the midst of global economic recession—benefited from perfect timing. A year later followers and detractors of the Vatican alike continue to love his humility and simplicity. By all accounts, the Pope’s habits are not calculated public relations ploys. They seem to be authentic expressions of simple living and concern for the poor. For Christians who read warnings in their sacred texts about the dangers of wealth and the importance of sacrificial giving, these actions are refreshing indeed. Crowds at the Vatican have tripled since he became pontiff.
It’s this context that made the simple-living pontiff’s recent encounter with a very expensive chocolate replica of himself so intriguing. Earlier this month Mirco Della Vecchia, a master chocolatier, and twenty of his students from the Accademia of Maestri Cioccolatieri in Guatemala constructed a chocolate doppelganger of Francis. The world cheered; this masterpiece, after all, combined two of the world’s most favorite things: the pope and chocolate. How did Francis respond? He grinned one of his lopsided wry smiles and graciously accepted it. Most observers expect him to donate the gift to charity, as he did with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle last year.
The Pope’s reaction reminds me of the account in Christian Scripture of Jesus’ response to his followers Mary and Martha. Jesus, who certainly lived more like the service-oriented Martha, made a point of honoring Mary, who reveled in the presence and beauty of the Lord. She would later pour a flask of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. Jesus himself, despite constant temptations to wealth and power and comfort, would go on, after this act of veneration, to serve others by healing, teaching, and dying. By graciously accepting generous gifts while continuing to practice simple living, Francis seems to be following this example.
Simple living is often perceived as a burdensome religious practice. But the Pope–who seems to really enjoy blessing Harley-Davidson motorcycles–and others remind us that simple living can be fun. Doris Longacre, author of the Mennonite simple living manifesto More with Less Cookbook, reminds us to live joyfully and to celebrate. After all, the “four Gospels show Jesus entering wholeheartedly into times of joy and feasting.” Nearly a year ago, just before celebrating his first Easter, which for a novice pope must have been a moment of particular gravity, Pope Francis exhibited a striking sense of whimsy and humor. On Tuesday of Holy Week, he celebrated Mass at the Chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae with his “priestly family.” He preached from the Gospel of John (13:21 and 33:36–38) in which Jesus speaks of Judas’ betrayal and tells Peter that he would deny him three times. Elaborating on themes from the passage, Francis especially noted the profound darkness and loneliness of the night. But he also prayed that hearts be opened to taste the “sweetness” of Christ’s forgiveness. After this holy moment, he gave them all the papal coat of arms–imprinted on a large chocolate Easter egg.
I’m happy to announce that Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism has been released in paperback. If the $45 price tag scared you away until now, here’s your chance to secure a copy for around $20. Buy a copy and then share it with your family and friends (I don’t mind–I’m a simple-living Mennonite like Ron Sider). If you’re a professor, assign it to your class. It’s full of interesting mini-biographies, and I’d love to Skype with your class if they want to talk to the author.
As the Civil War ground to an end in early 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. It was a gracious meditation. He noted that both the North and South read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Invoking the mystery of God’s ways, he declared, “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither have been answered fully. The Almighty has its own purposes.” He cited Matthew 7:1: “But let us judge not that we not be judged.” Worried that Radical Republicans might try to humiliate the South, Lincoln declared that all Americans were guilty. He instructed the nation to reunify “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Lincoln was speaking in the context of political crisis. According to historian John Fea, he could just have well been speaking about the possibilities and hazards of studying history. It’s a familiar subject for Fea, a former writer for the Anxious Bench and now a prolific blogger at The Way of Improvement Leads Home (which I read faithfully as a matter of professional development). In Why Study History he contends that historians should emulate Lincoln. They too should withhold judgment, revel in the unknowable mysteries of the past, and empathetically study strange historical characters.
The most striking argument of the book, in my reading, is Fea’s articulation of the limits of historical knowledge. This is not a provocative assertion to the trained historian, but it is for many evangelicals, which appear to be Fea’s target audience. He views evangelicals with ambivalence. The positive spin is that evangelicals are passionate and have a strong activist streak that seeks to better the world. But he also sees certain strains of evangelicalism that practice an ugly triumphalism, an American patriotic jingoism, and a willingness to “use” or “preach” history in partisan ways (be sure to check out his evaluations of Steven Keillor and Eric Metaxas). It is to this sector of evangelicalism, which Fea has encountered to varying levels in the classroom, radio talk shows (be sure to check out the account of Fea’s run-in with Glenn Beck on pages 123-126), and outside speaking engagements, that he issues a powerful admonition.
Fea argues that the past is a foreign country. “It is easy to ignore or dismiss the parts of the past we do not like,” he writes. “Yet all historians must come to grips with its utter strangeness. Too much present-mindedness makes for bad history.” He warns against, for example, the providentialist history of Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory, which contends that God has a special destiny for America. Such a conclusion, Fea says, is impossible to prove and fails to consider the “five C’s” of historical thinking: change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity.The book works hard to instill a sense of limits, reminding evangelical biblicists of St. Paul’s imagery of seeing through a glass darkly.
It’s true that this book metes out firm correction. But don’t think that this book is a grumpy jeremiad. Why Study History is an enthusiastic declaration of the importance of studying history. Fea meditates on the virtues of historical consciousness. He argues that history has the power to transform individual lives and collective identities. History offers us opportunities to practice—and deepen—Christian virtues of love, hospitality, and compassion for our neighbor. In a chapter entitled “So What Can You Do with a History Major,” Fea offers compelling narratives of fulfilling careers and strong skills sparked by the study of history at the college level. A concluding chapter proposes the creation of a Center for American History and a Civil Society.
This accessible manuscript is peppered with stories from Fea’s teaching and speaking gigs. But it’s also learned, drawing from the best scholars in the evangelical world (Mark Noll, Robert McKenzie) and the broader academy (Sam Wineburg, Peter Novick, Carlo Ginzburg, Gordon Wood). Why Study History, written by an evangelical historian with a growing reputation as a public intellectual, is a terrific primer for undergraduates and should enjoy strong sales in historical methods and philosophy courses at religious colleges.