Saturday, July 01, 2006

Baptists and Religious Freedom: The Courage to Confront the Establishment

Tuesday, we celebrate the birth of our nation. The United States is a nation that stands for freedom. One of our most basic freedoms that we cherish is the freedom of religion. Within the first sentence of the first amendment to the Constitution, we find the words that spell out the doctrine of the separation of church and state. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For more than two centuries Americans have enjoyed the fact that they can exercise their faith any way they please and can even have no faith at all, all without any coercion from the government. That, in my opinion, is one of our most basic of freedoms and it has served us well. It certainly explains why religion thrives so well in America.
There is a very long tradition of Baptist attention to religious liberty and separation of church and state. In his book, The Baptist Identity, Walter Shurden indicates that frequently, Baptists have been a “Romans 13 people,” recognizing that God ordains the government and they have been supportive. Other times, Baptists have been a “Revelation 13 people,” living under political circumstances where they consider the government to be the “Beast” and having to “oppose the state with their very lives.” But, most of the time, Baptists have been a “Matthew 22 people,” able to “render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar and to God what is God’s.”[1]
One of my favorite Baptists was Thomas Helwys, a member of that very first congregation of Baptists established in Amsterdam by John Smyth. Eventually, Helwys took part of the group back to England and helped establish the first Baptist church on English soil. The little band of Baptists ran into great difficulty in England, though. King James was not accommodating to dissent from the Church of England. Baptists were not free to promote their faith. And, so Helwys wrote a wonderful little book called The Mistery of Iniquity. Listen carefully to these clear, concise, and prophetic words Helwys used to address the king:
We still pray our lord the King that we may be free from suspect, for having any
thoughts of provoking evil against them of the Romish religion in regard to
their profession, if they be true and faithful subjects to the King, for we do
freely profess that our lord the King hath no more power over their consciences
than ours, and that it is none at all; for our lord the King is but an earthly
King, and if the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all h
human laws made by the King, our lord the King can require no more. For
men’s religion is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it,
neither may the King be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics,
Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish
them in the least measure.[2]
Two important things should be noticed here. First, Helwys wrote this document and sent a personal copy to King James. He was immediately arrested and spent the rest of his life in Newgate Prison. Second, notice that Helwys was arguing not only for Baptist freedom, but also freedom of religion for Roman Catholics, Muslims, atheists, and Jews, a concept almost considered blasphemous in their day! But, we need to understand that it is the Baptist way!
My great fear today is that religion in America is so free, that we have been lulled to sleep and are not able to recognize threats to religious liberty that are all around us today. Even many Baptists are unaware of the danger of some of the things they say and advocate. There is a philosophy going around today in Religious Right circles that basically argues that the founding fathers were all Christians (in the way that we define Christian) and that the philosophical underpinning of the founding of our nation is Biblical Christianity. That is almost totally false. It cannot be denied that the Founding Fathers were “Christian” to some degree or another. But, coming from 18th Century Enlightenment ideals, they conceived of a nation and a government that would be totally “secular” and “neutral” when it came to matters of religion. But, many fail to recognize this today.
In 1984, in an interview with Bill Moyers that was televised nationally, W. A. Criswell, longtime pastor of FBC Dallas made a historical blunder of epic proportions. He made the statement that the notion of the separation of church and state is “the figment of some infidel’s imagination.” In that one statement, W. A. Criswell was casting off centuries of Baptist witness, including that of his own predecessor George W. Truett, as being full of “infidels.” Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!!!
The passage that we read a few moments ago from Amos is a story about one prophet and his refusal to go along with the establishment. It was the 8th century B.C.E. The nation of Israel had been divided between the northern kingdom, which retained the name “Israel” and the southern kingdom which was called “Judah.” Amos was a farmer, a layman, from the South who was called by God to go to the North and prophesy. Following his conscience, he did just that. And, his prophecy was pointed, harsh at times, and for the most part rejected. The northern kingdom was doing well financially and politically. The shrine at Bethel where Amaziah served as priest had good attendance. And here came this “doom and gloom” prophet, an outsider, claiming that God’s judgment was coming upon Israel for its mistreatment of the poor and its general disobedience. This was a message they did not want to hear.
This encounter between Amos and Amaziah represents the conflict between priestly religion and prophetic religion.[3] I want to suggest to you today that we do not truly have freedom of religion until there is the freedom for the “prophets” to challenge the “priests.” And, I would contend that this dynamic is at the heart of the Baptist tradition when it comes to matters of the state and our faith. Can this story teach us anything today about the freedom of religion we enjoy in our nation? Indeed I believe it can.
I. Priestly Religion: Comfort But No Freedom
In this passage of scripture we see an encounter between Amos and Amaziah. Amaziah was on the king’s payroll. He represented state religion, the establishment, the majority opinion. He was a priest at Bethel, the religious center of the Northern Kingdom. Amaziah seems to have had some type of personal acquaintance with King Jeroboam II by the fact that he reported to the king what Amos was prophesying and he seemed to speak for the king in forbidding Amos to prophesy any further. He was paid to keep the king happy. He dared not cross the king! Furthermore, one could say that a part of his job was to sponsor the state religion. He exemplifies “establishment” religion. He was a prototype of John Calvin of Geneva, John Cotton of Massachusetts Bay and Henry VIII. Amos spoke his conscience and dared speak against the establishment.
The kind of priestly religion as exemplified by Amaziah is always accountable to someone other than God. It is never truly free. It is either controlled by a governmental power, some type of social structure, or its own spokesperson. Roy Honeycutt says, “Whenever religion is institutionalized there is always a “Jeroboam” rather than God to whom it is responsible.”[4]
Priestly religion always demands that things stay as they are and is chaffed by criticism. In fact, it frequently does not allow for criticism at all. When Amaziah encountered Amos he reported to the king that Amos was “conspiring” against Israel. Then, he told Amos in verse 12, “flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” In other words, go back home and do you prophesying but leave us alone!
On July 16, 1651 John Clarke, pastor of the Newport Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island, along with Obadiah Holmes and John Randall, made a pastoral visit to the home of a man named William Witter in Lynn, Mass. Witter was elderly and near death and was probably a member of the Newport church. John Clarke apparently led a worship service and preached at the home. The established religion in Mass. was Puritanism and the Puritans forbid Baptist preaching. Clarke, Randall, and Holmes were arrested for illegal preaching. They were tried and sentenced to be fined or publicly whipped.
Clarke’s fine was paid by an anonymous donor. Randall paid his own fine. A donor offered to pay Holmes’ fine but he refused and insisted on taking the whipping. And so, after several weeks in jail, on September 5, 1651 Obadiah Holmes’ hands were tied to the post in Boston Commons. He was stripped to the waist and he received thirty lashes across his back. It was reported that throughout the whipping Holmes continued preaching to the crowd as a witness. He was so brutally injured that he was unable to leave Boston for several weeks and for much of that time he could rest only crouched on his elbows and knees. His back remained scarred for the rest of his life.[5]
What was their crime? What had Holmes done to deserve such brutal treatment? Holmes, Randall, and Clarke dared challenge the establishment. One of the hallmarks of the early Baptists is that they dared to challenge the establishment, whether in England or in the American colonies. Baptists were at the forefront of efforts to secure religious freedom, not only for themselves, but also for all. Early Baptists were opponents of established religion.
It concerns me that many modern Baptists tend to be part of the establishment rather than the challenge to the establishment. I’m not advocating here that we all go out and become gadflies. However, I do think Baptists need to remember that our tradition was born in the fires of controversy and that the earliest Baptists were courageous enough to challenge the standing order.
There is a certain religious mindset in our culture today that seems to want the government on its side to do its bidding. Priestly religion! Regardless of political party, when the church starts courting government support and vice-versa, we find ourselves in danger of becoming more and more like Amaziah. Religion in America has thrived because it has had the freedom of Amos rather than the government identity of Amaziah!
Martin Marty once said that the Southern Baptist identity was so closely identified with Southern culture that the Southern Baptist Convention could be described as the “Catholic Church of the South” because of its pervasive influence on Southern culture.[6] We all know the sins of slavery and segregation that many Southern Baptists one time were guilty of. Perhaps it took Baptists such a long time to recognize their sin because like Amaziah, our religion had become too identified with the standing order.
II. Prophetic Religion: Freedom But No Comfort
The kind of religion exemplified by Amos is free. The only authority that Amos had to respond to was God. In verse 14 Amos made it clear that he was not a member of the “prophetic guild.” He was not a professional prophet. Other places in the Old Testament indicate that there was indeed a guild of professional prophets that the kings of Israel kept on the payroll. They functioned in ways similar to Amaziah. They were hired to keep the king happy. They never challenged the king. They never critiqued the king. And, they kept the king thinking that he was within the will of God.
Amos was different. “I am no prophet nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos let it be known that he was beholden to no one except God. He was not on the king’s payroll so he could say what he believed God wanted him to say. And, this freedom allowed him to speak God’s true word to the people in the Northern Kingdom.
One of the most powerful images I have ever witnessed on television occurred in June of 1989. It was the image of that one, lone, Chinese man, unknown to this day, who stood in defiance in front of Chinese tanks and held his ground, holding up the progression of those tanks in the street near Tiananmen Square in Peking, China. There had been days of rioting and student protests. Hunger strikes had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students wanted one thing: Freedom. Ground Zero was Tiananmen Square. Finally, fearful of losing complete control, the Chinese government ordered tanks into the Square to put down the rioters. What happened to this man, no one will know. Who he was no one will know. But, that one image completely captured the essence of the Baptist tradition of dissent. There used to be a time when Baptists were symbolized by that one lone man standing in the face of insurmountable odds.
Like Amos 800 years before Christ, and this one man in Tiananmen Square, Baptists have a tradition of being prophetic when we need to be. I don’t know of a time in my life when a Baptist prophetic voice of dissent is more needed. We need to remember that God loves the entire world, not just America. And, when the temptation comes to identify God only with America, good Baptists need to stand up and say “no!”
As we celebrate our nation’s birth tomorrow, let us be reminded that in this great land we have the freedom to challenge the standing religious order. And let us also be reminded that we should never get too comfortable in our religion to the point where we become like Amaziah and are unable to listen to the Amoses of the world!
[1] Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 1993), p. 45.
[2] H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, (Nashville: Broadman Press: 1990): p. 72. (I have “Americanized” the English wording and spelling from the original quoted by McBeth).
[3] See Roy Honeycutt, Amos and His Message, Broadman, 1963, 132-144.
[4] Ibid., 133.
[5] Taken from Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, p. 140.
[6] Bill Leonard, God’s Last and Only Hope, p. 3.

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