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.


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