Thursday, December 31, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Justice Is A Verb!
December 31, 2015

            Did you know that police tactics in the United States are being modeled after the tactics used by Israeli security operatives, the Israeli Defense Force, and Israeli police involved in the illegal occupation of Palestine and abuse of Palestinians?  Consider the following information about the Israeli National Counter-Terrorism Seminar that one can find on the website of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“Every year, American law enforcement executives travel to Israel with ADL to study first hand Israel’s tactics and strategies to combat terrorism. The National Counter-Terrorism Seminar (NCTS) is an intensive week long course led by senior commanders in the Israel National Police, experts from Israel’s intelligence and security services, and the Israel Defense Forces. More than 175 law enforcement executives have participated in 12 NCTS sessions since 2004, taking the lessons they learned in Israel back to the United States.”
            Do you remember seeing tear gas deployed against peaceful protestors in Ferguson, Missouri one night shortly after Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, Jr.?  Do you remember the way peaceful protestors with the Occupy movement were violently treated in several places around the United States?  Do you remember how the killers of Michael Brown, Jr., Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Dillon Taylor, Monroe Isadore, Eugene Ellison, and countless other victims of police homicides were exonerated, and treated by some in the media as being protectors of society? 
            I twice saw Israeli Defense Force (IDF) units deploy tear gas against Palestinian youth during my recent visit to Israel and Palestine.  I smelled the tear gas.  I felt the eye and nasal discomfort.  What were the Palestinian youth doing?  They were congregating on streets in their own neighborhoods protesting Israeli occupation of Palestine, just as neighbors of Michael Brown, Jr. protested that he was shot and killed, and just as they were attacked by armored police units, snipers, and tear gas while in their own neighborhood.
            I met and spoke with an IDF veteran and member of the Breaking the Silence veterans movement during my trip to Israel earlier this month.  The man told our group how IDF units treat Palestinians as likely terrorists even when Palestinians are minding their own business and tending their own olive groves.  IDF personnel who abuse or kill Palestinians are not punished; they are protected and held up as heroic figures. 
Our group immediately recognized that poor and communities of color in the United States are treated by the police the way Palestinians are treated by Israeli police and security forces—as if we are an occupied people.  And we recognized that police in the U.S. operate as if the laws that govern the use of force, including deadly force, for the rest of society do not apply to them.  Police in the United States behave the way I saw IDF personnel behave toward Palestinians, like an occupation force.
            Then I remembered a case from years ago, when I was a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, involving a partially disabled black man who was attacked and beaten by police while standing outside the house of relatives waiting on a taxi in a neighborhood one prosecutor termed “a high crime area.”  The attacked and beaten man was then charged with disorderly conduct and terroristic threatening because he cursed the police and accused them of harassment.  The police were not punished for attacking and beating him. 
Members of an occupation force are not punished for oppressing (and even killing) indigenous people and dissenters.  Oppression tactics, use of excessive force, deploying tear gas against people who are merely expressing opposition to mistreatment, and condoning those and other abusive practices go hand-in-hand with occupation force government, otherwise known as tyranny or fascism.
            Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Monroe Isadore, Dillon Taylor, Eugene Ellison, Sandra Bland, and numerous other victims killed by police or while in police custody were treated like suspected terrorists.  Their killers did not behave like community police in a neighborhood. They behaved like members of an occupation force in militarily occupied territory.
            We are sending law enforcement leaders from communities across the United States to learn occupation force tactics and strategies from security operatives affiliated with the illegal occupation of Palestine.  U.S. tax dollars have financed and supplied the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine since 1967.  U.S. tax dollars provide diplomatic cover for it in the United Nations.  U.S. tax dollars are spent sending state and local law enforcement leaders to Israel where they learn to unjustly treat us like suspected terrorists, the same way Israeli security personnel are trained to unjustly treat Palestinian men, women, and youth. 

            We are subsidizing tyranny and fascism by Israel against Palestinians.  We are sending U.S. state and local law enforcement leaders to Israel where they learn to use occupation force methods and tactics of tyranny and fascism against poor and communities of color in the United States. 
             Politely speaking, that is “messed up.”

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Justice Is A Verb!
December 29, 2015

            Yesterday (December 28, 2015), a grand jury in Cleveland, Ohio delivered the decision most observers expected concerning the death of Tamir Rice, a black 12 year old boy shot to death in a public park, while playing with a pellet gun, on November 22, 2014 by Officer Timothy Loehmann of the Cleveland, Ohio Police Department.  The grand jury decided, at the recommendation of Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney, Timothy J. McGinty, not to indict Loehmann for killing Tamir Rice. 

Welcome to the latest pernicious example of white privilege and racial preferences in the United States, and the one that is defended most effectively and consistently.   The killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, like that of Eric Garner in New York City, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Rekia Boyd and Laquan Robinson in Chicago, Illinois, Sandra Bland in Texas, and numerous other black and brown people at the hands of or in the custody of law enforcement personnel , proves why human rights activists argue that that black and brown lives do not appear to matter to people in law enforcement, on grand juries, to the judges and jurors who may decide the outcome of civil trials, and to the society that allows this perversion to continue under the pretense of “criminal justice.”

White privilege is vehemently denied and/or criticized by pundits, politicians, and other willfully ignorant people.  But white children who play with pellet guns in public places are not gunned down within seconds after police see them (the way Tamir Rice was killed).  I dare you to prove otherwise.

White people who traffic unlicensed cigarettes are not strangled to death by the police the way Eric Garner was choked to death on Staten Island last year.  I dare you to prove otherwise.

White people with mental illness are not shot to death like rabid dogs the way Laquan Robinson and Quintonio LeGrier were killed by Chicago police.  I dare you to prove otherwise.

White neighbors are not shot to death like collateral damage in wartime the way Bettie Jones, a neighbor of Quinonio LeGrier, was killed by Chicago police.  White people in public are not randomly shot to death by the police the way Rekia Boyd was killed by a Chicago police officer.  I dare you to prove otherwise.

White people and neighbors are protected (privileged) by whiteness from police homicide, not routinely victimized by homicidal police actors.  Protection from police homicide is one reality of white privilege even when white people are armed and engage in threatening behavior.

Cliven Bundy, a white Nevada rancher, mounted and led an angry and armed assault on federal law enforcement officers who seized cattle Bundy illegally allowed to graze on federal land.  Cliven Bundy has never been arrested or otherwise prosecuted for threatening the law enforcement officers.  Bundy, a white man who threatened law enforcement officers and incited others to do so, is alive.  Tamir Rice, a black youngster who played with a pellet gun. is dead.

Ask white privilege deniers and apologists for homicidal police actions against people of color about Eric Frien.  Why don’t you recognize that name? 

Eric Frien, a white man, is accused of first degree murder, attempted murder, terrorism, and other charges surrounding the death of one Pennsylvania State Trooper, the critical wounding of another state trooper, and other crimes.  Eric Frien is a white murder suspect who eluded capture and was the subject of a manhunt involving hundreds of law enforcement officers before being captured, alive.    

Eric Frien, a white murder suspect, is alive today.  Cliven Bundy, a white man who mounted an armed assault on federal law enforcement officers, is alive today.  Their families are not grieving their deaths.  Their neighborhoods do not wonder who will be the next victim of homicidal police action.  White men can threaten law enforcement officers and live.

Tamir Rice, Laquan Robinson, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, and Quintonio LeGrier are dead because they lacked the privilege—and racial preference—of whiteness.  Non-whiteness is the unspoken, but indisputable, reality that accounts for, but does not justify, the different way they were encountered by people in law enforcement. 

The deaths of Tamir Rice, Laquan Robinson, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Quintonio LeGrier, Freddie Gray, Monroe Isadore (a 107 year old black man shot to death by police in September 2013 as he lay in his bed in Pine Bluff, Arkansas), Eugene Ellison (a 67 year old black man shot to death in his apartment by police in December 2010 in Little Rock, Arkansas) make one thing abundantly clear.  Police kill people of color with impunity. 

Cliven Bundy and Eric Frien make something else clear.  Police exercise restraint and resist the temptation to use lethal force against white people, even when white people are armed and dangerous.  White privilege and preference for whiteness is one of our nation’s open damning secrets, despite what white pundits and other apologists for white privilege claim.

I ten times double dog dare anyone to prove otherwise.  

Thursday, December 24, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR
Christmas Eve (December 24) 2015

         We gather on this Christmas Eve, like followers of Jesus perhaps are gathering or preparing to gather across the world, to commemorate that God has lived among us in the man born to a woman named Mary in Bethlehem, Palestine, and called Jesus. 

         We gather to celebrate what the introduction to the 4th Gospel calls at John 1:5 the light that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

And as we gather, there is still darkness—in personal lives, in communities plagued with inequality and suffering, in societies afflicted by violence, fear, and hatred, and in a world obsessed with “security” and terrorism in all its forms.

Hear this message from Patriarch Emeritus Michael Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem between 1987 and 2008, that appeared in an op ed column in The Haaretz newspaper.  Patriarch Sabbah writes:

At this holy time of the year, Bethlehem, the city of the Nativity, stands at the center of attention of the whole world. What the world might overlook as it watches is that the very city where Jesus was born celebrates yet another occupied Christmas. This year, Israel, a self-proclaimed “safe haven” for Christians, has presented to Bethlehem a few unwelcome Christmas gifts.

Israel’s Christmas gifts to Bethlehem this year serve towards consolidating the separation between Bethlehem and its twin city, Jerusalem; the city where Jesus was born and the city where he was resurrected – the essence of the Christian faith. Aside from the daily violations that the besieged Bethlehem suffers as a result of the occupation, Israel issued a military order last week announcing that it has confiscated 101 dunams [a dunam is 1000 square meters] of Bethlehem’s northern lands. In the same week, the Israeli government approved the expansion of the illegal settlement of Gilo - built on privately owned lands of Bethlehem - by 891 new housing units.

Right to the west of the Gilo settlement lies the Cremisan valley in Beit Jala with its two Salesian monasteries and privately owned agricultural lands. Despite a nine-year legal battle, tremendous diplomatic lobby efforts and civil resistance, Israel continues to build the annexation wall in Cremisan, leaving 58 Palestinian Christian families robbed of their lands. Where do these families go now and to whom do they have recourse?

Despite Israel’s claim that it is the only country in the Middle East where Christians prosper, the unspoken message it sends on the ground is that it has no respect whatsoever for their rights as Palestinians and for their existence in their homeland. It is claimed that Islamic extremism is the reason behind the massive emigration of Palestinian Christians. In reality, the problems of Palestinian Christians stem essentially from the fact that they are Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation. What drives a Palestinian Christian out of his homeland to seek a better future elsewhere is the daily harassment of the occupation, and Israel’s land confiscation policies fall at the heart of the matter. 

The Israeli government is quick to cite “security” justifications for its oppressive policies - while in reality, land grab and settlement expansion motives – under the pretext of security - cannot be concealed.[1]

God came to us in Jesus to shine the light of divine love, truth, justice, peace, and hope into human darkness.  And although hate and fear led to the death of Jesus, the light still shines.  We, and others across the world, are the result of that light.  The darkness cannot overcome the light in us because the darkness is not stronger than God’s love, truth, peace, and hope.

So we will not draw back from the holy call to shine in the darkness.  We who are followers of Jesus, God’s light of love, truth, peace, and hope, will shine for Bethlehem.  

We will shine the light of God’s love, truth, justice, peace, and hope on the darkness of police brutality and state-sanctioned homicide. 

We will shine the light of God’s love, truth, justice, peace, and hope on the darkness of violence, be it physical, psychological, economic, or moral, wherever that violence takes place.

As followers of the Jesus born in Bethlehem, killed by Roman occupiers outside Jerusalem, who was resurrected in Jerusalem, and who will come again to govern the world for God in love, truth, justice, peace, and hope, we gather to declare that the light still shines in the darkness.  And now, as on that first night when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the darkness does not overcome the light. 

Because the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, darkness does not overcome the light.

Because truth crushed to earth will rise again, darkness does not overcome the light.

Because the truth will always set us free, darkness does not overcome the light.

Because God is love, darkness does not overcome the light.

Because Jesus came, because Jesus lives, and because Jesus will return again, darkness does not overcome the light!

Beloved, let us faithfully live as people of God’s light confident that darkness, whether here, elsewhere, or across the world, does not overcome the light!

Thank God for Jesus, the light of the world!  Hallelujah!


Wednesday, December 16, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015

            I recently spent eight days visiting Israel and Palestine—the place called “the Holy Land”—as part of a group that included progressive faith leaders from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, activists from the Dream Defenders human rights movement, progressive-minded religious scholars, and a journalism professor. 

Our group enjoyed sunny days, visits to sacred sites on the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Shiloh, a visit to a small community of activists struggling to preserve their religious community in Iqrit, and stops alongside the Mediterranean Sea in Haifa and Tel Aviv. 

We traveled through fertile agricultural land.  We enjoyed delicious meals in popular restaurants in Haifa, Jaffa, and elsewhere.  We shared meals and listened as Israeli citizens and Palestinians in various locations people gave us eye-witness insights about life beyond the customary religious tour group destinations. 

We watched Israeli military forces shoot tear gas at young people in Bethlehem.  Our eyes burned not only from the tear gas, but also from remembering how peaceful protestors and journalists were similarly attacked in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after Michael Brown, Jr. was killed by former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. 

We met and spoke with a young veteran of the Israeli military who told us about how Israeli military occupation of Palestine (commonly known as “the West Bank”) is producing deep emotional and moral wounds to members of the military and to Palestinians.   We listened as he talked about being ordered to protect illegal Jewish settlements and attack Palestinians who dared to even approach settlements, but was not authorized to take action against settlers who attacked and terrorized Palestinian farmers.

We took a field visit to Shiloh Valley, viewed an illegal Jewish settler outpost, and heard settlers speak of their community as a “homeland” for Jewish returnees while they stereotyped Palestinians as a group as “terrorists.”  After one settler had the audacity to declare that there has never been a Christian religious terrorist organization in the United States, I politely told him that his assertion somehow managed to ignore or trivialize the hateful and deadly history of the Ku Klux Klan.

We met with village leaders and family members who face ongoing harassment, violence, and threats of violence because of the illegal settlements condoned by the Israeli government and defended by the Israeli military.

We spoke with visionary-minded and determined physicians, entrepreneurs, educators, lawyers, mental health professionals, and community organizers and learned about their efforts to resist despair in the face of ongoing injustice from the Israeli military and civilian regime.

We spoke with parents whose children have been detained for days without being allowed to see their relatives.  We saw a military court order a young Palestinian man who had been detained for several days without being charged with any crime to continue being detained.

We met and spoke with the grieving father of an unarmed Bedouin teenager who was shot to death last year by Israeli police.  The cop who killed the man’s son is back on the job and has not been charged with committing a crime. 

We listened as women told about trying to protect their families from abusive and homicidal conduct by Jewish settlers, Israeli military personnel, and Israeli police.  We met boys who had been detained for days on suspicion that they had thrown stones at Israeli security forces.

We toured Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts & Culture and met with Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb who told us about the challenges he and his colleagues are facing and determined to overcome.  We saw how the spirit of resistance is honored, portrayed, and courageously affirmed by people from various generations, locations, and ethnic backgrounds.

           We saw Bedouin communities and met a Bedouin family affected by decades of Israeli policies aimed at displacing Bedouin people from the land they have lived on for generations and pushed into "unrecognized" villages not served by municipal services.  Meanwhile, the Israeli government funnels money, resources, and military protection to Jewish settlements in the Negev.

These and other experiences have left me with the following impressions. 

First, the Israeli government is plainly carrying out a systematic, calculated, and oppressive program that smacks of all the vestiges of the immoral regime of apartheid in South Africa and the equally wicked history of Jim Crow segregation and genocidal manifest destiny perpetrated against Africans and indigenous native people in the United States. 

Second, that program of injustice is financed by U.S. tax dollars.  It is carried out by people armed with weapons supplied by the United States.  Even as I write these words (and you read them) the candidates who aspire to become the next President of the United States are trying to out-do each other in pledging continued and greater support for this program of injustice.  Yes, that includes whoever may be your favorite (or disfavored) candidate. 

Third, a well-financed and multi-faceted Zionist propaganda program now targets black and Latino communities.  It involves recruiting students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and indoctrinating them to support Zionist claims.  It involves lobbying and financing Holy Land tours for black and Latino faith leaders and their congregants.  Zionist notions of manifest destiny are contributing to flawed theology, principles of Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), and ethics being preached from black and Latino pulpits and other evangelical positions of influence. 

Fourth, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like other tyrants of manifest destiny, segregation, apartheid, fascism, racism, and genocide before him, is leading a government that deserves to be condemned as unjust, not supported and defended. 

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, although the moral arc of the universe is wide, it always bends towards justice.  My pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine inspires me to declare that the wickedness the world witnessed surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. and the ensuing injustice in Ferguson, Missouri does not become sanctified when Arabs and others are killed and otherwise mistreated by government sanctioned actors in what is commonly called “the Holy Land.”   

I am a survivor of the U.S. version of such wicked policies and practices.  In the name of all that is just, honorable, true, noble, and hopeful—and inspired by the courageous people we encountered over the course of eight busy December days—I will use whatever strength and moral authority I can summon to join the people I met in denouncing the wickedness I saw during my trip to “the Holy Land.”  

We shall overcome.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


Mr. Milton Pitts Crenchaw, one of the primary flight instructors for the famed Tuskegee Airman of World War II and the undisputed "father of black aviation in Arkansas" died November 17 at the full age of 96.  I was privileged to deliver the eulogy yesterday during the service that celebrated his life.  The manuscript of that eulogy is reprinted, in full, below.

©Wendell Griffen, 2015
St. Mark Baptist Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
Tuesday, December 1, 2015, 10 o’clock A.M.


         I come, with you, to this place and moment aware that we have each been touched by the long and wonderful life of Brother Milton Crenchaw.  Together, we have come to comfort and strengthen Brother Crenchaw’s daughters and son, their children, their children’s children, and his other dear ones whose lives are most affected by the passing of this family patriarch, neighbor, follower of Jesus, running buddy, confidante, mentor, and friend.  Together, we have come to celebrate the gift of his fellowship.  Together, we have come to thank God for the way Brother Crenchaw lived,  taught, served God and his neighbors, and inspired us and many others who cannot be here today, in countless ways.    Together, we have come to bear witness that God blessed us, God blessed Little Rock, God blessed Arkansas, God blessed the United States, and God blessed the world through the life and faith of Brother Milton Crenchaw.

Let us acknowledge, with thanks, the children of Brother Crenchaw for allowing us to celebrate their father’s life with them.  And because every team has a captain, let us acknowledge the loving ways that Sister Dolores Crenchaw Singleton led the family effort to care for Brother Crenchaw.  Brother Crenchaw and Sister Marian Torrence were blessed to love and care for one another so well that the Crenchaw and Torrence families share an especially tender bond.  Together, we affirm that Brother Crenchaw, as patriarch, partner, soul mate, running buddy, mentor, teacher, and aviator, has been a wonderful example of what we would like to project about our capital city, our State and Nation, and about the noble and valiant people who serve in the military. 

Brother Crenchaw inspired patriots, preachers, parents, students, politicians, and everyone else who knew him.  He was truly “a man for all people,” at home wherever he went.  He worshiped God as a follower of Jesus with people from every background, creed, and tradition, and he lived an inclusive faith that welcomed others without pretense or fanfare.  Brother Milton Crenchaw was “the Good Samaritan” for any bruised, battered, and oppressed person he encountered on the roadway of life. 

A passage in the fourteenth chapter of John calls, comforts, and challenges us today.  Hear the words of Jesus, the One to whom Brother Crenchaw trusted himself, his life, faith, love, and hope, found at John 14:12.

John 14:12
12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. [New Revised Standard Version]
        I will speak with you today about The Call from Greatness to “Greater Works.”
         Gardner Calvin Taylor, who was ushered into Glory earlier this year on Resurrection Sunday also at the full age of 96 and who is considered by many to have been the greatest African American preacher of the gospel of Jesus, admitted publicly that he had “always fallen back” from these words of Jesus, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”   These words are part of the “good-bye talk” Jesus gave his closest friends.  They were, understandably, distressed by the thought of being separated from the one who had re-directed, re-defined and re-informed their lives. 

         Imagine, then, how they must have felt when Jesus told them, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Remember the people who heard these words?.  Peter, James, John, Andrew, and the other disciples (excepting Judas Iscariot who had left the fellowship by that time), heard those words.  The women who supported the ministry of Jesus heard those words.  Like you and me, these were ordinary people being told by Jesus, the most extraordinary person in history, that they would do “greater works” than he did.

         But Jesus was not engaging in hyperbole.  He was not engaging in rhetorical over-reach in an effort to comfort his distressed loved ones.  Nor was Jesus putting himself down.  Jesus was calling them to look beyond the powerful greatness of his life to the potential—no, the promise!—that they could be agents of “greater works.”

Jesus, who called people from the far country of death back to fellowship among the living, told these anxious souls they could be agents of “greater works.”

Jesus, who spoke with so much authority that raging winds became a gentle breeze and turbulent waves became a calm sea, told these anxious souls they could be agents of “greater works.”

Jesus, whose presence and prayer turned a child’s lunch into an impromptu banquet for thousands, told these anxious souls they could be agents of “greater works.”

These words are part of the “Do not let your hearts be troubled” farewell address of Jesus.  In a sense, the words “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” are part of the last Will and Testament of Jesus.   It is as if Jesus was saying, “Do not be troubled that the greatness of my presence will move from you.  “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

“I have done great work, now I am going to the Father.”  I have restored life, health, and hope, now I am going to the Father.  I have lifted people from sorrow to joy, now I am going to the Father.  I have confronted and defeated demonic forces that oppressed people, now I am going to the Father.”

“I am going to the Father, but the work must continue.  I am going to the Father, but the great work of healing wounded hearts and bodies must go onward.  I am going to the Father, but the great work of liberation from oppression must go on.  The great works that I do can, must, and will continue with you, ‘and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.’”

They did not get it at first.  It took some time for them to realize and claim their inheritance.  They knew what Jesus proclaimed and promised in this part of his Will and Testament, but they couldn’t lay hold on it then.  Their sense of grief was too acute.  They were unable to get beyond the pain of anticipated parting to claim the promises of doing the great work Jesus did, let alone “greater works.”

But this bequest of Jesus is true.  Jesus spent his short lifetime and ministry in Palestine.  His followers continued that ministry, not only in Palestine, but elsewhere.  Great works of healing, liberation, and hope nurturing became “greater works” in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and elsewhere.  Wherever else and whenever any person or people build their lives on the radical, extravagant, subversive, and unconquerable divine love and truth Jesus personified, we become agents of not only the “great work” of Jesus, but “greater works,” because Jesus has gone to the Father.

This brings us to Brother Milton Crenchaw.  Brother Crenchaw built his life of faithful service and powerful humility on the radical, extravagant, subversive, unconquerable, divine love and truth that Jesus lived and inspired.  Jesus did great works, but never flew an airplane.  Jesus did great works on earth; Milton Crenchaw continued those great works and then “greater works” by teaching aviation. 

I will share but one example, because there are too many to recount here or at any other gathering, of the “greater works” result of following Jesus that defined the life of Brother Milton Crenchaw.  His obituary reports that Brother Crenchaw “arrived at Tuskegee Institute in 1939 and enrolled in the school’s first Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) class.”  After completing CPT, Brother Crenchaw remained at Tuskegee and eventually became one of the primary instructors to prepare black pilots for aerial warfare. 

One of his colleagues at Tuskegee, and no doubt someone who Brother Crenchaw influenced, was Daniel James, Jr..  Daniel James, Jr. came to Tuskegee after completing high school in Pensacola, Florida, entered CPT, and later served as a flight instructor with Brother Crenchaw.  Daniel James, Jr. became, in time, the first black four-star General in the U.S. Air Force, and commander of North America Air Defense Command (NORAD).  Milton Crenchaw nurtured General Daniel “Chappie” James to become an example of “Greater works!”

“The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Milton Crenchaw claimed his bequest from the Last Will and Testament of Jesus to live for “greater works.”  And we who are beneficiaries of those “greater works” are, in turn, now called by the One who called Brother Crenchaw.  Jesus, who called Milton Crenchaw to do the great works Jesus did, “and greater works than these,” calls us.
Jesus and Milton Crenchaw call us to greater works of liberation.  Jesus and Milton Crenchaw call us to “greater works” of service.  Jesus and Milton Crenchaw call us to “greater works” of sacrifice.  Jesus and Milton Crenchaw call us to “greater works” of mentoring.  

Let not your hearts be troubled, beloved family.  The One who called Brother Crenchaw calls you to “greater works” with him.  Let not your hearts be troubled, veterans.  The One who called Brother Crenchaw calls us to “greater works” with him.  Let not your hearts be troubled, people of Little Rock, Arkansas, and the Nation.  The One who called Brother Crenchaw calls us to “greater works” with him.  In the face of separation, we are called beyond the sentiments of “good-bye” to the greatness of Jesus, and beyond that even, to claim our legacy as agents of “greater works,” because the One who has gone to the Father calls us. 

On November 17, the One who called us to “greater works” called our beloved patriarch, mentor, patriot, neighbor, and friend, from “greater works” to the “greatest observation tower.”  I imagine a counsel took place in the celestial realm.  I imagine that the One who called Brother Crenchaw to “greater works” looked over to Gabriel and said, “Gabriel.  Brother Milton has been grounded long enough.  Restore his wings!” And Gabriel moved!  Before quick could get ready, Brother Crenchaw was restored to flight status. Before quick could get suited up, Brother Crenchaw was promoted from aviation history into the celestial astronaut corps. 

Now, from that greatest observation tower, Brother Crenchaw joins the One who called him, in bequeathing us the potential and promise to be agents of “greater works.”  Now, Brother Crenchaw joins Jesus in calling us to “greater works.”  Greater works of faith!  Greater works of love!  Greater works of justice!  Greater works of peace!  Greater works of hope!  Greater works of healing!  Greater works of service!  Greater works of sacrifice!  Greater works of joy! 

Greater works!  Greater works!  Greater works!

I close by borrowing from a ritual cherished by our Navy brothers and sisters.  When a respected shipmate passes away, someone from among the crew recites a poem titled, “The Watch.”  I have amended it to conclude this commentary about our brother’s service. 

The Watch
For 96 years
Airman Milton Crenchaw has stood the watch
While some of us were in our beds at night
Airman Crenchaw stood the watch
While some of us were at school or work
Airman Crenchaw stood the watch
Even before some of us were born into this world
Airman Crenchaw stood the watch
When the storm clouds of war were brewing
Airman Crenchaw stood the watch
Many times Tuskegee Airman Milton Crenchaw would cast a distant eye
To see his family standing there
Needing his guidance and help,
But he still stood the watch
This Tuskegee Airman stood the watch for 40 years,
So that all Americans could sleep safely, each and every night
Secure because this Tuskegee Airman stood the watch
Today, we are here to pay our respects, as it is said, for the final time,
Relieved by those You fathered and loved, Relieved by those you trained, Relieved by those You guided, Relieved by those you led.
Sir, you stand relieved of duty, we have the watch.”


Friday, November 20, 2015


I delivered the following lecture on Friday, November 13, 2015, at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, at the gracious invitation of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

©Wendell Griffen, 2015[1]
Baptist Joint Committee Lecture Series
Fuller Theological Seminary (Travis Auditorium)
Pasadena, California
Friday, November 13, 2015, 2 PM

Jesus declared in the lesson of the Good Samaritan that the greatest commandment is to love God with one’s entire being and to love others as oneself.[2]  Today I will address theological, hermeneutical, and ethical deficiencies which contribute to our inability or refusal, as followers of Jesus,[3] to better understand religious liberty as a value that must co-exist alongside and be recognized as integral to commitment to equality because of the love mandate in the Gospel of Jesus. 

My fundamental premise is that evangelical followers of Jesus have not theologically, hermeneutically, and ethically considered religious liberty to be part of the deep and wide justice imperative that appears throughout Scripture.  This shortcoming is because the Hebrew and New Testaments are not studied, preached, or understood as valuable religious liberty source material, in much the same way evangelicals have refused to understand that those sacred writings declare salvation to be a social justice imperative. 

Consequently, most evangelical followers of Jesus affirm faith without a Biblical appreciation about the relationship between religious liberty, discipleship, and social justice.  Failure to include religious liberty as part of the way followers of Jesus understand discipleship hinders the ability of evangelical followers of Jesus to develop and live out a robust social ethic consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the social justice imperative found in the Torah. 

The Traditional Approach to Religious Freedom

The freedom of a person or community to publicly or privately manifest religious beliefs or teach, practice, worship, and otherwise observe religious traditions—including the freedom to not follow any religion—has long been considered a fundamental human right in various societies across the ages.  In a country with a state religion, religious liberty contemplates that the government permits other sects aside from the state religion, and does not persecute believers of other faiths. 

Many, if not most, evangelical followers of Jesus view religious liberty in the United States from the perspectives of Western European and U.S. history.  Protestants will trace their views on religious liberty to 1517, when Martin Luther published his famous 95 Theses in Wittenberg in an effort to reform Catholicism.  Luther was given an opportunity to recant at the Diet of Worms before Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Luther refused to recant, was declared a heretic, and was then sequestered on the Wartburg, where he translated the New Testament into German.  After Luther was excommunicated by Papal Bull in 1521, the reformation movement gained ground, spread to Switzerland, and then grew to England, France, and elsewhere in Europe. 

The French Revolution abolished state religion in France.  However, all property of the Catholic Church was confiscated, and intolerance against Catholics ensued.  Under Calvinist leadership, the Netherlands became the most religiously tolerant country in Europe by granting asylum to persecuted religious minorities (French Huguenots, English Dissenters, and Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal).[4] 

Religious freedom began in the Netherlands and New Amsterdam (now New York) during the Dutch Republic.  When New Amsterdam surrendered to the English in1664, freedom of religion was guaranteed in the Articles of Capitulation.  That freedom also benefited Jews who arrived on Manhattan Island in 1654 after fleeing Portuguese persecution in Brazil.  Other Jewish communities were eventually established during the 18th century at Newport, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia.[5] 

Efforts to escape religious intolerance are part of the national heritage of our society.  Recall that the Pilgrims first sought refuge from religious persecution in the Netherlands, and later founded Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. 

However, most of the early colonies were not generally tolerant of religious pluralism, with the notable exception of Maryland.  The colony of Maryland, founded by Lord Baltimore, a Catholic, was the first government in what eventually became the United States to formally recognize freedom of religion, in 1634.[6] 

Roger Williams was forced to establish the new colony of Rhode Island to escape religious persecution driven by the Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts.  Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans were active persecutors of Quakers, along with Puritans in Plymouth Colony and other colonies along the Connecticut River.[7] 
In 1660, an English Quaker named Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for repeatedly defying a Puritan law that banned Quakers from the colony.  Her hanging marked the beginning of the end of the Puritan theocracy and New England independence from English rule, as King Charles II in 1661 prohibited Massachusetts from executing anyone for professing Quakerism.[8] 

Students of U.S. history, and particularly religious liberty, are no doubt familiar with William Penn.  Chief Justice Earl Warren summed up Penn’s courageous commitment to religious liberty in his book, A Republic, If You Can Keep ItWilliam Penn was a Quaker leader in London.  The Quakers were not recognized by the government and were forbidden to meet in any building for worship.  In 1681 King Charles II of England gave the Pennsylvania region (Pennsylvania means “Penn’s Woods”) to William Penn, a Quaker, who established the Pennsylvania colony so Quakers and other faiths could have religious freedom.[9]  

These and other historical events, along with the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, form the foundation for what many people, including followers of Jesus, understand about religious liberty. The First Amendment to the federal Constitution, ratified in 1791, reads, in pertinent part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”[10]

That constitutional guarantee was later made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.[11]  The Fourteenth Amendment states that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”[12]  Together, the First and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee that government will not establish a religion, prefer one religion over another, become entangled in disputes involving religious doctrine, practices, and officials, nor interfere with the “free exercise” of religion.

However, the religious liberty ideal has Biblical antecedents in the Hebrew Testament, the Gospels of Jesus, and the rest of the New Testament. 

Religious Liberty Antecedents in Hebrew Testament

We read at Genesis 41 that Joseph, a great grandson of Abraham, became prominent in Egypt when his spiritual discernment was recognized because he interpreted an Egyptian pharaoh’s dreams as an omen of approaching years of agricultural prosperity followed by years of famine.[13]  The dramatic narrative about Joseph recognizing his brother Benjamin, at Genesis 43, becomes even more meaningful when we read that the Egyptians who dined with Joseph “ate with him by themselves”—apart from Joseph their prime minister and apart from Joseph’s brothers—“because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.”[14] 

Joseph rose to political prominence in Egyptian society due to his spiritual discernment.  Nevertheless, the social separation described in that dining narrative indicates that Joseph had something resembling a “separate but equal” co-existence with his fellow Egyptian political operatives.  Joseph is recognized in the final chapters of Genesis as a man whose religious values and ethnic identity set him apart in Egyptian society.

Exodus, the second book in the Hebrew canon, opens with the dramatic story about how the Hebrew people were socially, economically, and politically oppressed by the Egyptian majority.  We traditionally have understood the Exodus as the salvation narrative of the Hebrew people from Egyptian bondage. 

However, the Exodus narrative also exposes a struggle for religious, social, and physical liberty in the collision between the religious, political, social, and ethical framework of the Egyptian empire and the liberating design of God presented through the agency of Moses and his brother Aaron.  As the editors of New Oxford Annotated Bible note:

 The predictability, the timing of both beginning and ending, the intensity, the contest between Aaron and the [Egyptian] magicians, the distinction between Egyptians and Israelites, and the emphasis on Pharaoh’s knowing (acknowledging) God all point to combat on two interrelated levels:  between Israel’s God and Egypt’s gods (12.12), including the deified Pharaoh, and between their human representatives, Moses and Aaron, and Pharaoh, his officials, and his magicians.[15] 

Exodus is also a vivid illustration about the quest for religious liberty and the collision of divergent systems of religious belief.  Moses was sent to Egypt to present a divine demand to the Pharaoh that the Israelites be freed so they could worship God.[16]  During the series of plagues Pharaoh’s courtiers appealed on one occasion for their leader to allow the Israelites to go, saying:  “How long shall this fellow [Moses] be a snare to us?  Let the people go, so that they may worship the LORD their God…”[17]  

  Deuteronomy should also be understood for its relevance to our understanding of religious liberty.  The Israelites entered Canaan bent on genocide of the indigenous population based on the view that nothing short of that would allow them to be a holy people.[18] 

From Judges onward, the Hebrew canon presents numerous accounts of political, military, and social collisions between followers of the religion of Moses and neighboring societies known for different religious beliefs and practices.  And the writings concerning the Hebrew prophets from Elijah forward contain vivid accounts of competing, and often violent, religious claims, ranging from the standoff between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel,[19] to the threats and dangers suffered by Jeremiah from other, politically favored, religious figures of his time.[20]

Religious liberty is a theme dramatically presented in the post-exilic writings of the Hebrew canon.  Like Joseph in Egypt, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah preserved their ethnic and religious identity after they were taken to Babylon.[21]  The fiery furnace experience of Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abednego) we read about at Daniel 3 and the lion’s den experience of Daniel about which we read at Daniel 6 are plainly lessons about civil disobedience based on religious devotion.   Some commentators view the historical novella of Esther, and particularly the title character, as representative of “the marginal and sometimes precarious status of Diaspora Jews who were obliged to accommodate their lives to an alien environment” in a way that “differs markedly from the outlook of Diaspora Jews like Ezra and Nehemiah.[22]   

Religious Liberty Antecedents in the Gospels

The Gospels of Jesus present numerous illustrations of divergent religious systems engaged in a more or less uneasy co-existence.  The Jewish people of Palestine lived under Roman political and military control, but retained the freedom to follow their religious traditions. 

Yet, the Gospels also demonstrate the challenges that ensue when a minority religious movement (the religion of Jesus) attempts to co-exist alongside a dominant religious tradition (that of the Sanhedrin Council orthodoxy).   The contrast between how Jesus understood and applied the moral, social, and ethical imperatives of Torah and how Torah was understood and applied by established and recognized religious leaders of his time and place runs throughout the Gospels. 

The sharp difference between the religion of Jesus and the religious perspective of the scribes and Pharisees resulted in clashes between Jesus, followers of Jesus, and unnamed critics.  At Mark 9 we read that Jesus found his disciples and “some scribes” arguing in the same passage where Jesus healed a boy afflicted by what the text terms “an unclean spirit.”[23] 

Religious liberty is a recurring theme in the Gospels.  We read in Luke’s Gospel that when disciples of Jesus tried to stop an anonymous exorcist from casting out demons Jesus contradicted their intolerance, saying, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”[24]  The night-time meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus vividly demonstrates an attempt at intra-faith dialogue.[25]  When we read about the encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria at Jacob’s Well, we are learning how the social justice impetus within Jesus included a religious liberty aspect that impelled him to push aside longstanding sectarian and ethnic animosities in pursuit of redemptive fellowship.[26] 

The Johannine community to which we owe the Fourth Gospel appears to have understood the religion of Jesus as a minority movement that threatened the religious, political, cultural, and social hegemony of the Sanhedrin Council, especially after the raising of Lazarus.[27] When we read about the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin Council and his subsequent indictment by the Sanhedrin before Pontus Pilate, the Roman governor, we are reading how religious figures in a dominant religion fabricated a national security accusation to stamp out the emerging religion of Jesus. 

According to John’s Gospel, Pilate was not interested in refereeing a religious dispute between rival Palestinian Jewish factions, so Pilate tried to release Jesus.  However, when Sanhedrin leaders associated Jesus with insurrection, Pilate lost interest in achieving liberty for Jesus, and ordered him crucified.[28]  We rarely, if ever, hear the crucifixion of Jesus interpreted for its religious liberty significance alongside the traditional salvation perspective. 

Religious Liberty Challenges from Acts to Revelation

We do not proceed far in Acts before the religion of Jesus collides again with the dominant religious movement in Jerusalem.  Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin Council after they healed a lame man and proclaimed that the man was healed “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified…”[29]  As the religion of Jesus began attracting more followers, the threats Peter and John received turned into sectarian persecution, as shown by the trial and stoning of Stephen.[30] 

We read about the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch at Acts 8, and are accustomed to that passage being highlighted for its evangelism and missionary significance.  Yet, the passage is equally instructive concerning religious liberty. 

Philip fled Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen and went to the city of Samaria.  His presence was not merely tolerated.  His ministry effort there was so well received that Peter and John, dispatched from Jerusalem to investigate it, were also welcomed and well-received.  These are clear examples of religious liberty and inclusion taking root among early followers of Jesus.[31]

We do not gain a complete perspective about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus if we disregard that Saul was a leading force in the effort to root out and exterminate followers of Jesus.  Saul’s opposition to religious liberty deserves to be highlighted.

After Saul was converted, he was accepted by the Damascus community.[32]  When we read in Acts 9 that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace,” “was built up,” and “increased in numbers,”[33] we may reasonably argue that the religion of Jesus traces its early ascendance to conflicts, challenges, and victories surrounding the exercise of religious liberty.  

Beginning at Acts 10, we read how early followers of Jesus began to struggle among themselves with divergent viewpoints.  Peter’s rooftop vision and later baptism of Cornelius[34] eventually forced the young religious movement to become ethnically inclusive. 

By the time we reach Act 15, that inclusivity was being challenged by traditionalists who insisted that Gentile followers of Jesus become circumcised.  The council we read about at Antioch in Acts 15 shows how the young movement wrestled with divergent religious views among its own adherents, struggled to co-exist alongside the religious teachings and practices of the Sanhedrin Council, all while living as colonized people under Roman political and military occupation. 

When we read about Paul and Silas being jailed and later in Philippi at Acts 16, we are reading about a religious liberty struggle.[35]  When we read that Paul and Silas were accused of “turning the world upside down” during their brief ministry in Thessalonica,[36] and when we read elsewhere in Acts and other New Testament epistles about the imprisonment, trials, and other experiences of Paul during his missionary efforts, we are reading how the religion of Jesus was threatened and oppressed by the dominant religious faction.  The New Testament closes with the Revelation of John who wrote that he was exiled on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”[37]

The Cost of Ignoring Biblical Religious Liberty Antecedents

Evangelical followers of Jesus are not nurtured to recognize these and other religious liberty illustrations in our sacred writings.  This demonstrates a glaring shortcoming in the traditional ways evangelicals engage theology, hermeneutics, and ethics. 

I agree with proponents of liberation theology who argue that the Bible presents God as suffering alongside oppressed people.  When God confronts Moses for the first time in Exodus, God identified with enslaved people, not the empire that oppressed them, as shown by the following memorable passage.

Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’[38]

         Theodore Walker, Jr. has observed that black liberation theology “understands that liberating answers to questions pertaining to the circumstance of oppression and the struggle for freedom are essential to the Christian witness,” resulting in “a particular vision of God that has been summarily formulated by James Cone and others under the conception of God as ‘God of the oppressed.’”  Walker explains that vision of God and contrasts it against what he termed “the prevailing Western theological tradition” as follows.

When black theologians speak of God as God of the oppressed, we do not mean merely that God is present with, related to, worshiped by, or somehow involved with those who are oppressed.  This would be to understate the matter.  From the perspective of black theology, to speak of God as God of the oppressed is to affirm that God actually experiences the suffering of those who are oppressed.  Moreover, black theology knows, from the data of human experience, that the experience of suffering from oppression entails a desire to be liberated from such oppression.  Hence, it follows that the God who experiences the suffering of the oppressed also desires their liberation.

Black theology has its deepest rootage in the experience of enslaved and oppressed Africans, and in their appropriation of the witness of scripture, but not in the philosophical and theological traditions of the Western academy and its medieval and Greek forbears.  The essentially non-Western rootage of black theology is often concealed by the fact that most African-American communities of worship wear the labels of European-American Protestant denominations.  It must be remembered, however, that African-American denominations are not “Protestant” in the sense of having been born in protest to alleged Catholic abuses; instead, African-American denominations are protestant in the very different sense of having been born in protest against oppression by European-American Protestant denominations…

To be sure, black theology is defined in considerable measure by its protest against the prevailing Western theological tradition.  History has taught us that classical Western theism is quite capable of abiding peaceably with, and even of being very supportive of, such oppressive activities as the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans.  It is characteristic of black theology to be unforgivingly critical of any theology that fails to affirm that God favors the struggle for liberation.  If God is conceived so as not to favor this struggle, then God is thereby conceived so as not to experience fully our pain and suffering.  Such a conception of God is contrary to the Christian witness to God’s suffering as indicated by the cross, and it is contrary to the vision of God as that utterly unsurpassable Friend whose love is perfect and all-inclusive…

…Because we know that God actually experiences our oppression, we know that God favors our struggle for liberation.  This is removed as far as can be from such classical attributes of God as immutable, totally impassible, wholly other, and unmoved mover.  From the perspective of black theology, the prevailing classical Western (white) theism is logically, existentially, and religiously anathema.  Insofar as classical theism aids and abets the structures of oppression, James Cone would describe it as the theology of the Antichrist.[39]

One’s perspective on theology affects hermeneutics.  The evangelical hermeneutic is bottomed on what Theodore Walker, Jr. terms “the prevailing classical Western (white) theism,” which has traditionally resulted in emphasis on piety and personal salvation, global evangelism, and missions. 

Evangelicals frequently cite the Great Commission passage at Matthew 28:19-20 as authority for that emphasis.       Sadly, the theological and hermeneutical perspectives of evangelicals have been also allied with maintaining oppressive order, not achieving liberation from oppression. 

This tendency is, to some extent, responsible for cognitive dissonance—morally and ethically—among evangelicals concerning religious liberty and other Biblical imperatives regarding justice.  Because they have not interpreted the Bible in terms of its relevance to social justice in general and liberty, including (but by no means limited to) religious liberty, evangelicals primarily consider religious liberty an essential attribute for a well-ordered society, not a moral and ethical imperative arising from the divine passion for liberation from all forms of oppression. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected on the ethical and social consequences of Western theism to some extent in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail Ponder this excerpt from King’s letter to white Birmingham clerics who criticized him for becoming involved in nonviolent civil disobedience efforts to protest racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
…I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? … Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church…. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.[40]
More than half a century has passed since King’s April 16, 1963 letter.  However, his observations are, sadly, true today.  Last week I and others received an email message from Rev. Daniel Buford, Minister of Justice at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California, that echoed King’s assessment.  In pertinent part, it reads as follows:
This morning I had an “Aha!” moment of epiphany when I saw that the cop who pushed the Indian man to the ground down south was the beneficiary of two hung juries and will not be punished for what he did.[41] The cop saw the brown skin of the elder from India and treated him like a Black man. The Muslim boy who was kicked out of school for making a clock experienced [what] has happened to thousands of African Americans whose White teachers are threatened by the brilliance of dark skinned people who are young, gifted, and Black.[42] In my research on these human rights violations at the hands of police I have come upon the surprising cases of people treated so badly that [I] automatically assumed that they were Black until I dug a little deeper and saw a picture of the victim. Native Americans activists die in jail in 2015 under circumstances like Sandra Bland.[43] An unarmed White teenager on his first date was killed recently for not obeying police orders in a satisfactory manner just like many of the teenagers on the list I have complied.[44] A White Policewoman in Florida dumped a White man in a wheel chair onto the floor because he was not moving as fast as she thought he should without protesting her treatment of him.[45] Cops sexually molest White women as well as women of color with little outcry about the systemic molestation experienced by all women. The absence of records kept about rogue police treatment of Black People also means that no records are kept for anybody.
My “Aha!” is confirming an old trope; Black people are the canaries in the mineshafts of institutional racism; what kills us mostly and firstly will kill everyone eventually regardless of race. Our problem is compounded by the fact that we are also trapped in a labyrinth with the Minotaur of white supremacist state sponsored terrorism. Police Brutality is seen as a “Black problem” just as Sickle Cell disease is seen [as a] disease that only affects people of African descent resulting in many swarthy Mediterranean-Caucasians ending up sick, misdiagnosed, and dead. Environmental Racism kills us first because of where we live and work but everyone must eat, drink, and breathe in the same environment; wind patterns aren’t limited by zip codes.  The pollution in our areas always radiates outward. People …don’t give a damn about stopping rogue police as long as Blacks and Mexicans are mainly being hunted and the White community is secure in that knowledge. This [is] precisely where empathy with Human rights concerns comes into play. Haile Selassie said it this way when the League of Nations ignored his warnings about the implications of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice everywhere!”[46]
Although theologians and evangelical leaders profess belief in religious liberty, they somehow have consistently lacked the theological and ethical capacity to relate religious liberty to the wider struggle for freedom from oppression.  As Rev. Buford shared in his email message, this demonstrates a basic deficiency in human empathy.  I call it moral and ethical dwarfism.

I see no evidence evangelicals recognize, respect, support, and have joined the Black Lives Matter movement and struggle for freedom from the oppression of state-sanctioned abuse and homicide of black people by law enforcement officials.  Likewise, immigrants facing xenophobic rhetoric from talk show commentators and self-serving politicians see little evidence, if any, that evangelical scholars, congregational leaders, and rank-and-file evangelicals consider their plight in the face of blatant oppression to be relevant.  Workers struggling for living wages see little evidence that evangelicals who are adamant about religious liberty consider income inequality to be morally and ethically relevant to the evangelical notion of justice. 

The defect in human empathy arising from theological, hermeneutical, and ethical parochialism explains how evangelicals can be alarmed that photographers, bakers, florists, and a Kentucky county clerk must serve all persons, while U.S. evangelical pastors support oppression of LGBT persons in Uganda.[47] Moral and ethical dwarfism accounts for the incongruity between evangelical complaints about religious persecution of Christians in China,[48] contrasted by their appalling silence, if not open endorsement, of Israeli-government sanctioned persecution of and discrimination against Arabs and followers of Jesus in Israel.[49]

I attribute moral and ethical dwarfism of evangelicals about religious liberty and the deeper and wider issue of justice to the theological, hermeneutical, and ethical failure of evangelical scholars, denominational leaders, and pastors.  Evangelical scholars, denominational leaders and pastors study, preach, and teach the Hebrew Testament account of Naomi returning to Judah from Moab after the deaths of her husband and sons.[50]   Somehow, they are unable or unwilling to recognize and affirm the theological, hermeneutical, and ethical relevance of that text to demands by Palestinians to return to land from which they have been displaced.

Evangelical scholars, denominational leaders, and pastors study, preach, and teach the Hebrew Testament account of how Queen Jezebel of Samaria orchestrated a state-sponsored land grab of the vineyard of Naboth, the Jezreelite.[51]  Somehow, that scholarship, preaching, and teaching fails to illuminate and affirm the theological, moral, and ethical relevance of this Biblical passage to Israeli-government displacement of Palestinians from their homes, and destruction of Palestinian crops and farm land, to permit construction of illegal Jewish settlements.[52]  

These and numerous other examples are why people struggling against oppressive power view claims of evangelicals about religious liberty with disappointment, mounting distrust, and disgust.  People struggling against oppression have good reason for that disappointment, distrust, and disgust.  They understand that their struggle for liberation from oppression is grounded in belief that God is, to use the words of Theodore Walker, Jr., “that utterly unsurpassable Friend whose love is perfect and all-inclusive.”   

Although evangelicals are viewed as the dominant sect among followers of Jesus, evangelicals not only appear intolerant toward other religions; evangelicals appear insensitive, if not unsympathetic and disdainful, about oppression faced by others.  There is scant evidence from the course offerings I read on the websites of evangelical seminaries that many of the evangelical scholars who teach and write about religious liberty care about people suffering from mass incarceration, terrorism due to racial profiling, race-based abusive and homicidal police conduct, xenophobia, homophobia, economic oppression caused by classism and capitalism, and other kinds of oppression.  Instead, it seems that evangelical scholars, pastors, and other leaders care about religious liberty because they want to be free to proselytize their version of the religion of Jesus, not because they believe God cares about liberating all people who suffer from any oppression.    

This shortcoming matters more than one might think.  Recall that the early followers of Jesus were a minority sect. When Constantine became the first Roman emperor to claim conversion to Christianity, the religion of Jesus entered the mainstream. The Inquisition and Protestant Reformation show that followers of Jesus struggled across time to demonstrate tolerance for divergent views within our own belief system. However, the Bible shows that God is not only concerned that people are free to proselytize.  Our sacred writings illuminate God’s concern that people be free to live, work, and be accepted where they lived as persons of dignity and worth, not deviants, threats, or commodities for private and social exploitation.

Earlier this year, President Marvin McMickle of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School concluded a stirring address at the Baptist Joint Committee’s luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly with the following statement.

I believe in the First Amendment, in the separation of church and state, in religious liberty, and in the right to worship God as one chooses or not to worship God at all. However, I believe in something else just as strongly; maybe more so. I believe that American history and its economic foundation was largely written in the blood of African slaves and their descendants; a story that a great many people do not want to hear. Of course I am mindful that if time allowed we could tell a similarly chilling story about the blood and suffering of Native Americans and how the appropriation of so much of their land is the real story of how the west was won…

… I believe that our nation has not yet resolved all of the lingering effects of nearly 400 years of slavery, segregation, and second-class status for millions of its citizens. All of this was done and continues to be done by the activity of many who represent the power of the state. Sadly, it could not have lasted as long as it has if it had not been for the silence of so many of those who represent the message of the church, the synagogue, and the mosque.

Borrowing a line from the 1960s song by Simon and Garfunkel, I hope the day will come when the church in America will break the “Sound of Silence” in the face of injustice and inequality! I believe in religious liberty, and I hope that all who labor for the separation of church and state as a valid principle in American society will also labor for the civil and human rights of those whose quest for physical freedom has lasted just as long as the fight for freedom of conscience.[53] 

I join Dr. McMickle in urging evangelical followers of Jesus to break from the morally and ethically indefensible practice of supporting “soul liberty,” while actively opposing the demands from others for life, liberty, and equality.  The love of God about which we preach, study, sing, write, teach, and pray demands that followers of Jesus love God enough to protect our neighbors, including our neighbors with divergent lives, beliefs, behaviors, and struggles, as much as we cherish our own religious liberty. 


Evangelical seminaries, denominational leaders, other religious educators, and pastors have refused to embrace a theological vision that inspires a hermeneutic affirming robust respect for and advocacy of religious freedom as part of a deeper and wider reverence for God’s involvement in and support for the human struggle for liberation.  That shortcoming blinds evangelicals morally; it also hinders evangelicals ethically from recognizing and affirming that others must be protected from any persecution, mistreatment, bigotry, and other oppression, not merely religious-based persecution, mistreatment, bigotry, and oppression.
Consequently, we should not be surprised when evangelical followers of Jesus misunderstand, and misrepresent, the social justice imperative enshrined in the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the equality guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the “love of neighbor” ethic taught and lived by Jesus.  And, as Martin King pointedly observed to religious leaders considered “moderates” more than fifty years ago from a Birmingham jail, we should not be surprised by people “whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”

The people who teach theology, hermeneutics, and ethics must call followers of Jesus to participate with God in the divine struggle for human dignity and equality concerning matters beyond the freedom to proselytize, pray, preach, and erect monuments to those efforts.  Religious liberty is a fundamental social justice imperative bottomed in a deeper and wider understanding about who God is and what God is about, not merely a tool used to achieve national pluralism based on tolerance of divergent sectarian beliefs and practices. 

Hence, evangelicals must re-think theology, hermeneutics, and ethics.  If evangelical followers of Jesus are to develop and live a mature and robust faith, a faith not defined by moral and ethical dwarfism, then the people who teach theology, hermeneutics, and ethics, the people who lead religious denominations, and the people who lead congregations must hold, and affirm, a vision that God participates in the human struggle for liberation from oppression in all its forms. 

Respect for religious liberty must be understood, affirmed, and be bottomed in the deeper and wider love of God, the love that inspires one to recognize and respect the inherent dignity and equality of all persons.  Until evangelicals ground our notions of religious liberty in the deeper and wider love of God, our religious liberty advocacy and rhetoric will be correctly recognized, and ultimately dismissed, as sectarian chauvinism.  

God deserves much better than that from us. 

[1] Circuit Judge, Sixth Judicial District of Arkansas (Fifth Division), Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas.  I acknowledge, with profound gratitude, the editorial assistance of Camille Drackette and Meghan Kelleybrew, who are members of my court staff.

The statements contained in this lecture, and any comments offered by the author in response to questions or during discussions associated with this lecture, reflect the views of the author alone.  In no way do they reflect, or should they be ascribed to the views of any other person or entity, including but not limited to, members of the judiciary (whether in Arkansas or elsewhere), as well as religious bodies, (including New Millennium Church and any other entity with which the author is affiliated).

The Scripture quotations and citations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] See, Luke 10:25-37.
[3] I will throughout this lecture and its companion use the term “followers of Jesus” instead of Christians, and refer to myself as a “follower of Jesus” rather than as a “Christian.”  Many evangelical Christians consider Christianity, as a world religion, a vigorous protector of religious liberty. However, as a world religion, Christianity is also often identified with imperialism and colonialism at the expense of religious beliefs, traditions, and worship practices observed by indigenous populations. 

Writing about what has been deemed the “Christianization of the Roman Empire,” Joel Spring states:

Christianity added new impetus to the expansion of empire.  Increasing the arrogance of the imperial project, Christians insisted that the Gospels and the Church were the only valid sources of religious beliefs.  Imperialists could claim that they were both civilizing the world and spreading the true religion.  By the 5th century, Christianity was thought of as co-extensive with the Imperium romanum.  This meant that to be human, as opposed to being a natural slave (barbarian?), was to be “civilized” and Christian.  Historian Anthony Pagden argues, “just as the civitas had now become conterminous with Christianity, so to be human—to be, that is, one who was ‘civil’, and who was able to interpret correctly the law of nature—one had now also to be Christian.”  After the fifteenth century, most Western colonialists rationalized the spread of empire with the belief that they were saving a barbaric and pagan world by spreading Christian civilization. 

See, Joel H. Spring, Globalization and Educational Rights:  An Intercivilizational Analysis, (Routledge, New York, 2001), p. 92.

Similarly, Kenyan legal scholar Makau Mutua, among others, argues that Christian efforts at global proselytizing as a function of religious freedom has, ironically, resulted in the erosion of native religious traditions and denial of religious freedom to adherents of native religions.  In Mutua’s words, “Imperial religions have necessarily violated individual conscience and the communal expressions of Africans and their communities by subverting African religions.”  See, chapter titled, Proselyism and Cultural Integrity, at Chapter 28 in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Deskbook, (Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, 2004), p. 652.

These and related factors lead me to prefer the terms “follower of Jesus” and “the religion of Jesus” over “Christian” and “Christianity.” I do not associate following Jesus—and prefer to not have my religious identity associated—with support for imperialism, manifest destiny, neo-colonialism, militarism, racism, sexism, crass materialism, classism, and techno-centrism.

[4] Karl Heussi, Kompendium der Kirchengeschichte, 11.  Auflage (1956), Tubingen (Germany), pp. 396-397.
[5] Clifton E. Olmstead, History of Religion in the United States, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., p. 124 (1960).
[6] Zimmerman, Mark, Symbol of Enduring Freedom, p. 19, Columbia Magazine, March 2010. 

Although freedom of religion was first established as a principle of government in the colony of Maryland in 1634, it was not continuously respected from that time forward.  The Maryland Tolerance Act, enacted in 1649, was repealed during the Cromwellian Era, and a new law that barred Catholics from opening practicing their religion was passed.  The Tolerance Act was passed again by the colonial assembly in 1658, a year after Lord Baltimore regained control after making a deal with Maryland Protestants.  Freedom of religion was later rescinded, again, in 1692, after Maryland’s Protestant Revolution of 1689.  In 1704, the colonial assembly enacted a law “to prevent the growth of Popery in this Province,” which barred Catholics from holding political office.  Full religious liberty would not occur again in Maryland until the American Revolution, when Charles Carroll of Carrollton in Maryland signed the Declaration of Independence.   See,, fn. 35-38.

[7] Horatio Rogers, Mary Dyer of Rhode Island:  The Quaker Martyr That Was Hanged on Boston Common, 1 June 1660 (https://books.

[8] Francis J. Bremer and Tom Webster, eds., Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America:  a comprehensive encyclopedia.  Google Books.  (2006).
[9] Earl Warren, A Republic, If You Can Keep It, Quadrangle, (1972).
[10] Constitution of the United States, Amendment I (ratified in 1791).
[11] Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 60 S. Ct. 900 (1940).
[12] Constitution of the United States, Amendment XIV (ratified in 1868).
[13] Genesis 41:1-45.
[14] Genesis 43:32.
[15] See, note to Exodus 7:8-11:10, New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha), copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., p. 92.
[16] See, Exodus 10:3-4.
[17] Exodus 10:7.
[18] See, Deuteronomy 7:1-7, 16-26.
[19] See, 1 Kings 18:17-46.
[20] See, Jeremiah 38:1-13.
[21] See, Daniel 1:3-20.
[22] See, New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Hebrew Bible at p. 709.
[23] Mark 9:14-19.
[24] Luke 9:49-50.
[25] John 3:1-21.
[26] See, John 4:1-42.
[27] See, John 11:45-12:11.
[28] See, John 18:28-19:16.
[29] See, Acts 3:1 thru 4:21.
[30] See, Acts 6:7 thru 8:1.
[31] See, Acts 8:4-25.
[32] See, Acts 1-22.
[33] See, Acts 9:31.
[34]  See¸Acts 10.
[35] See, Acts 16:11-40.
[36] See, Acts 17:1-9 (especially v.6).
[37] See, Revelation 1:9.
[38] Exodus 3:7-10.
[39] See, article by Theodore Walker, Jr. titled, Theological Resources for a Black Neoclassical Social Ethics, in BLACK THEOLOGY-A Documentary History, Volume Two, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1993), pp. 37-38.
[40] Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From A Birmingham Jail, as re-printed in A TESTAMENT OF HOPE:  THE ESSENTIAL WRITINGS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., (James Melvin Washington, editor), (Harper & Row, New York; 1986), pp. 298-300.
[46] Excerpt of email message received November 5, 2015 from Reverend Daniel Buford, Minister of Justice, Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, California (footnotes added); published with permission.
[50]See, Ruth, Chapter 1.
[51] See, 1 Kings 21:1-19.
[53] Address of Marvin McMickle to Baptist Joint Committee Luncheon delivered June 19, 2015, Dallas, Texas.