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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

A few of my friends got an exchange going, in robust graduate school style, about how to talk about church and state in relation to a pluralistic vision of the good society. It took place on Bruce Prescott's blog, so if you want to know the context, here is where I posted first posted my comments. It all started on October 25.

I spent enough time writing it that I decided I ought to post it here as well. Most of what comes after the opening paragraphs could make pretty good sense on its own. But the backgroud is all available on the previous links.

Dr. Prescott and Dr. Freeman are actually both giving important insights true to the writings of Roger Williams. Williams does provide much fodder for political thought, and his political thought is especially concerned with the protection of a free church.

This particular aspect of the debate about church and state in recent decades has battled around an impasse. Part of the reason for the impasse is the broad reassessment among Baptists, the Reformed Tradition, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholics about the shortcomings of their own traditions and about the way they characterize one another's doctrine.

I find that there are still haters of the Roman Catholic Church among Baptists. Neither of these scholars is numbered among them. On the other hand, neither of them is ready to bend the knee to the supremacy of Rome or its bishop. Those are not the only two possibilities.

Nor are the only two possibilities in church-state relations (1) to accept the supremacy of pluralist visions of the good society as a necessary corollary of faithful ecclesiology and separation of church and state or (2) militaristic, theocratic absolutism. It is not either (1) nation-state as divinely appointed umpire of the limits of religion, or (2) Muenster. One can doubt the competence of the nation-state to be a fair arbiter of faith without throwing out the valuable traditions of church-state separation which Baptists rightly treasure. One can even doubt that the pluralistic telos of U.S. culture is aligned with proclaiming the Reign of God without wanting the Reign of God to be enforced through Reconstructionist or other heretical models of coercive Christianity.

What was said in only muted terms in the original remarks by Dr. Newman was that a church which affirms the Lordship of Jesus as its political order can do so faithfully only in an authentic commitment to follow Jesus' path of non-violence. To claim, "Jesus is Lord," can only have integrity if the church disavows violence. Seventeen centuries of willingness to bear arms against the enemies we love has produced enough Muensters and Auschwitzes that we ought to be able to get it through our thick skulls that separation of church and state must mean separation of church and violence. I admit that this is a minority position in Baptist theology. But it is a minority position for the very reason that most Baptists accepted the Reformed Tradition's doctrine of the Divinely Sanctioned State as holding hegemony over bodies, leaving the inward life of the mind to be ruled by the church. Yet the New Testament says to present our bodies a living sacrifice, not only our minds.

Setting aside violence does not mean that churches have to leave the social realm to governments and corporations to rule as they will. In the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, Lawndale Community Church has reshaped life by transgressing the imposed distinctions between politics and religion. Getting housing up to code, providing health care, educating children, creating jobs, can't merely be left to the powers and authorities which are dominated by the rich who seek their own self-interest. The church steps out and joins God in making a way where there is no way.

The result often is, as Yoder says, a kind of spiritual osmosis, by which the government, the corporations, the world's social structures get on the bandwagon and do their part to build a better community. This is a fully political model of ecclesiology, but not one that is built on a theocratic absolutism. It is a teleological understanding of God's Reign as already and not yet. It is the irruption of the Spirit, to transform the social existence, the political order, in which people live. It is what John and Vera Mae Perkins did in Mississippi. It is what the Latino Pastoral Action Center is doing in the Bronx, New York, and what St. Paul Community Baptist Church is doing in Brooklyn, New York, what Mission Waco is doing in Waco, Texas, and what Friendship West Baptist Church is doing in Dallas, Texas.

It is not Christian Reconstructionism. It is compatible with strict separation of church and state as an institutional arrangement by which churches do not depend on government to do their work nor does government select one or some churches or religions to be its agents. Such an ecclesiology recognizes that governments and churches both make all-encompassing claims on human lives, but can agree that the church has no intention or permission or birthright to make those claims under threat of violence. It does not judge worldly government as competent to make the expansive claims that it makes, for the kingdoms of this world are passing away.

Such a church can agree with Dr. Newman that church-state separation is a good worth protecting as well as that "Jesus is Lord" is our confession without reservation.

The high level of rhetoric in this exchange reminds me a bit of why I am a former Southern Baptist and also a former Southern Baptist Exile. I don't mean that the Baptists with whom I share regular fellowship are not equally capable of harsh exchanges.

Associating now with National Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, and Lott Carey Baptists, I also remember that my Southern Baptist upbringing led me to believe Black Baptists were a deficient form of Baptist life. I don't think anyone in this discussion believes that now. But I do believe that the differences between Black Baptists, English Baptists, American Baptists, Southern Baptists, and Moderate Baptists, among many others, are often ignored and belittled by the claim that one stream of Baptist thought represents true Baptists.

Helwys and Smyth, as two candidates for the founders of the Baptist Movement, should make plain to us that the debate over the willingness of Baptists to kill, when commanded by the ruler of their geographical location, has been and remains a lively issue among Baptists. Strong claims for non-violence remain prominent in the past half-century of Baptist life in the U.S. And on the acceptance or rejection of cooperating in state violence hinges much of how we interpret the Lordship of Jesus Christ while we observe the strict separation of church and state.

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