Plowshares on Monday night

If you’re in Central Kentucky tomorrow night, come over to our home for the next Plowshares gathering. The topic: how an ethic of inefficiency can aid peacemaking.


Beyond Playboy: The Inner Life of Jimmy Carter

In 1976 Playboy magazine conducted its infamous interview of Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. The interview nearly cost Carter the election. Secular pundits mocked his confession of “adultery in my heart.” Conservative Christians not only disagreed with his use of the word screw but objected that Carter would grant the salacious magazine an interview in the first place.

The distinguished historian Randall Balmer goes beyond this notable episode to explore the evangelical spirituality that underlay the controversy in the first place. This biography of Carter is the latest in an abundance of research on non-rightist sectors of American evangelicalism. My own Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (2012) has been followed by Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice (2014) and now Balmer’s Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Carter, contends Balmer, was a quintessential “progressive evangelical.” His spiritually minded mother pushed racial boundaries in the rural South and identified as a feminist before Betty Friedan. Carter, as a child and then as a young man who left the navy to become a peanut farmer in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, assumed similar stances on spirituality and justice. A hard-working populist who refused to join the White Citizens Council, he entered politics because he felt that he could help “establish justice in a sinful world.” Niebuhrian in his realism, he nurtured a warm evangelical piety, a strong conversionism, and a pronounced Baptist belief in the separation of church and state. These religious convictions drove Carter’s career as a state senator and governor.

They also animated his political agenda in the White House. Arguing against Carter’s reputation as an ineffective micromanager, Balmer describes impressive advocacy for human rights, the Panama Canal, the Camp David Accords, nuclear weapons limits, and the Equal Rights Amendment. In each of these efforts, Carter embodied a small, but energetic evangelical left that was rallying around the 1973 “Chicago Declaration.” This vibrant progressive movement labored against both evangelical political conservatism and evangelical apoliticism. On the ground, these evangelicals built Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action and campaigned for Oregon Republican Mark Hatfield, Iowa Democrat Harold Hughes, and President Jimmy Carter.

The book isn’t perfect. As I note in a review that appears in an upcoming issue of the American Historical Review, Balmer’s depiction of Carter’s broader evangelical context is not quite as convincing. Despite the work of Darren Dochuk, Bethany Moreton, and others on the long rise of evangelical conservatism since the 1940s, Balmer portrays Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as abrupt hijackers of an apolitical, benevolent evangelicalism. At the same time, he constructs an overly romanticized account of a nineteenth-century evangelicalism that pushed for abolitionism and women’s rights. To be sure, evangelicals pioneered many social justice initiatives, but they also reinforced Jim Crow, robber barons, and jingoistic imperialism.

Nevertheless, this is a terrific book. It demonstrates the significance of progressive strains of evangelicalism, showing that such strains reached the highest political office in the nation. It is based in extensive oral interviews, archival sources, and a multitude of newspaper and magazine accounts. It is compact, readable, and clearly argued. And it is a beautifully written spiritual biography that recovers the moral gravitas of an oft-maligned politician. Whatever the limits of progressive evangelicalism, whatever his political liabilities, Carter was clearly a man trying to articulate and practice Christian theological principles of temptation, sin, redemption, and salvation by grace.

Plowshares meeting tonight!


The Entrepreneurial Evangelicals

The title refers not to Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame or to George Pepperdine, who started Western Auto Supply and used the money to found Pepperdine University. The new entrepreneurial evangelicals are from the Majority World. Esteemed Anxious Bench contributor Philip Jenkins has a great line in The Next Christendom: “If we want to visualize a ‘typical’ contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria, or in a Brazilian favela.” The centers of Christianity now, in other words, are not Geneva, Rome, or Los Angeles, but instead Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila.

Oya-Hazel Gumede fits the profile of a rising class of global entrepreneurs. She grew up in the midst of South African apartheid. Her mother died of AIDS. Her father was not around much during her childhood. Her brothers were victims of violence. She was raised in a township called Gezinsila, which means “wash your filthy feet,” by her grandmother, who used to slaughter a chicken to celebrate a good report card from school.

Along with her grandmother’s care, several things sparked Gumede’s upward mobility. As a teenager she converted to Pentecostal Christianity. Just as important, she came of age at the dawn of new, exciting possibilities in a democratic South Africa. Gumede harnessed her native intelligence and charisma to become a leader in her local church community. In addition to serving as dean of a small Bible institute, she rapidly rose in professional ranks. She eventually worked in the office of First Lady Zanele Mbeki, advised various government agencies, represented South Africa at the United Nations, and travels throughout Africa on business. She is the co-owner of Ashira and Shelton law firm. Gumede, along with other evangelicals, are moving comfortably in elite, so-called “black diamond” circles that are beginning to emerge in a white-dominated South Africa.

Gumede, according to sociologist Steve Offutt’s important new book New Centers of Global Evangelicalism in Latin America and Africa, represents a new kind of entrepreneurial global evangelical. Gumede and other local actors are globally connected, drawing on newly available transnational religious resources to build organizations and institutions. They are not overwhelmed by these global resources in their environments; rather, they use them to achieve their own ends and to mold their own religious communities.

Offutt makes many striking observations about these new centers of global evangelicalism, among them the role of huge megachurches, widening social stratification, and sophisticated levels of political and social engagement. Perhaps the most fascinating development is that global entrepreneurs are exporting religion, not just importing it. They are sending out their own missionaries, radio programs, and literature along a South-South axis: Salvadoran churches working with Chinese churches and South African religious networks extending to Argentina. In my own Mennonite circles, I’ve observed groups of Nicaraguans moving to Bangkok to attend university and to join churches in Thailand. Offutt’s book shows that these are not isolated cases. Religious communities in the Global South are increasingly ambitious in their social engagement and growth of big organizations. And significantly, while still influenced by the West, the West does not control them. Contra Brouwer, Gifford, and Rose in Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism, they are “culturally savvy, technically capable, and religiously inspired.” They use Western resources toward their own ends.

The research that undergirds these conclusions is impressive. For his two case studies of El Salvador and South Africa, Offutt conducted 118 interviews with leading evangelicals, including the heads of evangelical alliances, senior pastors of megachurches, entrepreneurs working in the private sectors, and nonprofit and political actors. He went to church with them and sometimes even lived in their homes. Attuned to the many textures of a rapidly changing Global South and suggestive of broader trends, New Centers of Global Evangelicalism represents the best of a growing literature on transnational religion.

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Before reading this book, I had never heard of netsuke, which are intricate miniature ornaments, usually carved from wood or ivory and representing people, animals, the professions, mythical creatures, and sexual acts. Worn to hang items from a kimono (which have no pockets), they reflect the rich culture of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japan.

In 2005 Edmund DeWaal, a potter from London, inherited a collection of 264 netsuke from his uncle Iggie. The netsuke, it turns out, had traveled a long, winding journey to London. Iggie had possessed them for decades in Tokyo. Before that the collection survived in a mattress, undiscovered during the aryanization of Jewish properties in Vienna during World War II. Before that, the collection was assembled by Charles Ephrussi in Paris during the Japonisme obsession in Western Europe in the late nineteenth century. In total, the netsuke had a history that spanned five generations of Ephrussis from 1871 to 2009.

But DeWaal didn’t know any of this when the netsuke came into his possession. The Hare with Amber Eyes is DeWaal’s sobering and delightful project of historical recovery. What he finds in his family history reveals a sweeping, panoramic view of nineteenth-century European history. It’s a primer on the migration of Jews from the shtetls of Ukraine to the glistening cities of Western Europe, on the devastation of the Holocaust, on the fascination of Western elites for Eastern culture. The sources from this literate, wealthy, and connected dynasty give the book amazing texture.

The original Hare with Amber Eyes–courtesy of

Most profoundly, The Hare with Amber Eyes is a search for identity. DeWaal travels to London, New York City, Toyko, Odessa, Vienna, and Paris. In Odessa, for example, he is taken by the city’s exquisite texture. But then he realizes “that in all my enthusiasm about tactile responses to Odessa I have mislaid its reputation as a city of pogroms, a city you might wish to leave behind.” DeWaal wonders if he really wants to recover this emerging narrative of extravagant living, extramarital affairs, and genocide. “Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live. I don’t miss Vienna, Elisabeth would say, with a lightness in her voice. It was claustrophobic. It was very dark.” Later he writes, “I think of all those careful burnings by others, the systematic erasing of stories, the separations between people and their possessions, and then of people from their families and families from their neighborhoods. And then from their country.”

It’s also a narrative about place and belonging. Is it ok to bring the netsuke to his home in a Edwardian house on a pleasant London street far, far away from their history in Vienna, Paris, and Japan? In the end, DeWaal decides it is permissible. After all, “objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters.”

Which is what De Waal has done so compellingly. “I put some of the netsuke out on display—the wolf, the medlar, the hare with amber eyes, a dozen more—and when I next look they have been moved around. A rat, curled up asleep, has been pushed to the front. I open the glass door and pick it up. I slip it into my pocket, put the dog on the lead and leave for work. I have pots to make. The netsuke begin again.”

And so this story about netsuke is really a story about a family, which is really a story about leaving and movement and about preservation and destruction. What does it mean that the netsuke survive the Holocaust, but their owners do not? The richness of description makes the destruction all the more stark and sinister.

The book—beautifully composed, compellingly conceived, narratively tight—is unsettling too. It is an upbeat horror story with lots of emptiness, loneliness—seemingly redeemed because the stunning netsuke have survived to another generation. This narrative about ultimate things that features a dearth of religion and a striking abundance of good taste left me wondering: Is aesthetics all there is?

The Gospel Next Door

Marty Troyer, The Gospel Next Door: Following Jesus Right Where You Are (Herald Press 2016).

This epistle challenges conservative American Christian sensibilities. In an era of retrenchment when many want to build walls and militarize borders, Marty Troyer links the gospel to shalom. More than an absence of violence, he seeks wholeness and human flourishing.

This is not an abstract notion. Troyer, who writes out of his experience as a Mennonite pastor, does not seek an ethereal gospel. This is a particular gospel that plays out in real life. It takes concrete shape across the world, in our cities, even next door. It also plays out in time: ancient Palestine and Egypt, the Karankawa peoples that once inhabited modern-day Southeast Texas, and now in the land of a global superpower.

These were—and are—places of extreme depravity. Houston, the place the author knows best, is home to human trafficking, astounding corporate greed, stifling pollution, wounded soldiers afflicted with PTSD, and the excesses of a market economy. How, Troyer asks, are we living out the gospel amidst these troubles?

But Houston is also home to a gospel that heals both people and cities. In Project Curate, Habitat for Humanity, the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation, Troyer sees glimpses of a coming kingdom. In artist Robert Hodge; Julie Waters, founder of Free the Captives Houston; and Betty and Jim Herrington, who invite the homeless into their home, he sees modern-day saints. If we have eyes to see, the gospel is almost certainly at work next door.

The genius of The Gospel Next Door is that it brings together things perceived as fundamentally different: evangelism and peace, social justice and salvation, Black Lives Matter and theology. To a church and society riven by culture wars, this book is a profound gift of public theology.

Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Rand Paul Edition

This post on politician Rand Paul, the latest in a series that has included Pentecostals, holiness groups, and Charles Spurgeon, will probably perturb everyone. Conservatives will object because they won’t want to be linked to the “liberal” position of pacifism. Libertarians will object because theirs is not a principled pacifism, but a fiscal one. Pacifists will object because theirs is a not a fiscal one, but a principled one. Progressives will object because they, though perhaps admiring Paul’s rhetoric of peace, don’t want to be linked to the right wing. But Rand Paul is a person, not a platonic ideal, and he, even more than most people, defies easy categorization.

Back in May 2013, Paul, a Kentucky senator and likely presidential candidate in 2016, gave an extended interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network. (You can watch the entire 28-minute feature here.) It didn’t get much press at the time, but Paul, as he is prone to do, pushed back against established narratives. Concerned about the Republican enthusiasm for international conflict, he contended that Jesus “wasn’t really involved in the wars of his days.” He continued, “Part of Republicans’ problems and, frankly, to tell you the truth, some in the evangelical Christian movement I think have appeared too eager for war. . . . I think you need to remember that [Jesus] was the ‘Prince of Peace.’”

Paul has persisted in this anti-violence refrain. In June at the Freedom and Faith Conference, he articulated a strong pro-life message on abortion (pro-life groups say he has a 100% pro-life voting record on 8 votes in the Senate). He also declared, “Jesus reminds us what our goal should be when he proclaims, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God,’ . . . It’s unacceptable to have, and appoint, leaders who really show no reluctance for war.”

Fellow conservatives were apoplectic. David Limbaugh, younger brother of shock jock Rush Limbaugh, tweeted, “I pray there’s some explanation.” Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution despaired of Paul’s “disastrous judgments” and naiveté. In an article entitled “Rand Paul’s Fatal Pacifism,” he wrote, “It is hardly wise to wait until ISIS is strong enough to mount a direct attack on the United States, when its operatives, acting out of safe havens, can commit serious acts of aggression against ourselves and our allies. It is far better to intervene too soon than to wait too long.” Epstein concluded, “Senator Paul’s position is inexcusable. It renders him unfit to serve as President of the United States should he be eyeing the 2016 candidacy.”

Paul was quick to point out that, despite using Jesus as an argument against war, he is not actually a pacifist. “I’m a Christian,” he clarified. “I’m not always a good one because I struggle still. I struggle with my faith and I struggle with my doubts. I’m not naive enough to say that ‘oh we’re gonna end war.’ I’m not a pacifist.” He then advocated for limited strikes with no ground forces. An article from the National Interest helpfully positions the senator, saying that Paul “thinks the establishments of both major parties are too quick to resort to military force, but he wants to reassure voters that he is not so dogmatic that he would not do what’s necessary to keep the country safe.” In short, he seems to hold a classic just-war position. What makes him unusual is that he seems more willing to actually practice that position’s criteria of restraint and last resort. Paul’s explicit endorsement of peace only seems like pacifism in the context of evangelical superpatriots.

It also may be that Paul’s anti-interventionism is animated more by libertarian principles than Christian ones (although a few, like the “Bleeding Heart Libertarians,” try to explicitly link libertarian and Christian principles). Libertarians, who want to reduce government spending, have historically spoken out against expensive wars. Rooted in the critiques of Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and David Boaz, the U.S. Libertarian Party has criticized hawkish neo-conservatives for supporting a “trillion-dollar foreign war” in Iraq. “It’s interesting that conservatives only notice “big government” when it’s something their political enemies want,” said Libertarian Party Executive Director Wes Benedict said. “When conservatives want it, apparently it doesn’t count.”

Making a Home Fit for Humans: Localism Beyond FoodThis is a fascinating critique in a historical moment when many American conservatives pursue an unrestrained interventionism. They preach a gospel of unlimited economic growth and aspire to actively shape the global order. But these are very different impulses compared to conservatives’ historic esteem of restraint and limits. Back in the 1790s Edmund Burke, citing the radical nature of the French Revolution, urged slow political and cultural change. In the 1961 Dwight Eisenhower urged a contraction of the “military industrial complex.” And there are some traditional conservatives still around. Writers at the Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative—and just-war theorists at Calvin College and Catholic universities—plead for caution, emphasizing the role that U.S. interventions in the past have played in provoking jihadists.

They just don’t seem to be reaching big chunks of the electorate. Perhaps Rand Paul more than eggheads can get a hearing from Christian crusaders who wrap the cross in a flag.

*** Originally posted at The Anxious Bench ***