A Few Thoughts on the Papal Visit to the United States

The current visit of Pope Francis has attracted a great deal of media attention this week—welcomed attention in our opinion, if for no other reason than it has taken the spotlight off of Donald Trump for a few precious moments. abc7chicagodotcomWe have enjoyed a few conversations about this profoundly decent man as we have seen his visits to Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York City.
Our conversations have been quite mixed, almost as mixed as our thoughts. Why would we say this? As a matter of our Biblical interpretation in the free-church tradition, we see little scriptural justification for an institution such as the papacy. It just doesn’t fit our view of scripture or of community life.
Historically, Baptists have been some of the most vehement anti-Catholics, to our shame. There is much of Roman Catholic doctrine that we find odious, wrong, or just downright silly, but there is also much of it that we find true. We serve the same Lord, but in radically different ways. It is a grace that the Lord has allowed different structures for different kinds of people to respond to the same Lord.
Now, back to the Bishop of Rome. His speech before congress was, homiletically speaking, brilliant. He presented himself humbly as one wanting to dialogue—not preach, not chastise, not catechize, but to dialogue about key issues through the framework of the lives of American historical figures. That provided a bridge to his audience. It is impossible to go wrong citing Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Likewise, presenting two people most Americans have never heard of created a teaching moment.
The issues he addressed, seem to us, valid. Who would want a spiritual leader that didn’t advocate for stewardship of the environment, care for the poor, openness to immigrants, defense of the family, civility in behavior, and stress the sanctity of all human life? His hermeneutics of the Golden Rule were spot on.
savetibetdotorgSome have argued that a religious figure should not be embraced in such a way as Pope Francis has been. To this we call shenanigans. People should remember that the Dalai Lama made a similar sweep through congress only last year, although he didn’t address a joint session, Benjamin Netanyahu has, and so too did Mikhail Gorbachev. Pluralism does not mean all religious discourse is unwelcomed, it simply means that all religions are part of the public discourse. For crying out loud, it says “In God We Trust” above the platform of the House!  In a free pluralistic society, there are many ways in which our people approach the Divine and that should be part of the conversation.
The bottom line is, if you’re going to have a pope, which we don’t think you should, but if you’re going to have one, Pope Francis is a fantastic one to have. We like him, so far.
While Pope Francis I (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is the Roman Catholic Church’s first from the Jesuit order, he chose the name of Francis to honor St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the Franciscans. He has clearly demonstrated a humble spirit in the way he has occupied the role of Pope by choosing more modest accommodations than usual quarters in the Apostolic Palace, wearing much less ornate vestments and jewelry than his predecessors, and his unabashed support for the poor along with his continual discussion of the structural problems which perpetuate economic inequality and poverty. As is evidenced by his reception here in the United States, with the exception of Bill Maher, even those who vehemently disagree with his traditional positions on many controversial issues very much respect his authenticity in representing Christ.
As for us, we find Pope Francis endearing because the papacy is finally occupied by one who takes Matthew 25:31-46 seriously. This is the teaching of Jesus regarding whose faith he will find credible at the final judgment. The light of Jesus’ answer should put many of us to shame when he focuses on our response to the poor, disenfranchised, sick, and imprisoned. While many in the church have become rigidly pharisaical regarding peripheral or even biblically unsupported issues, Pope Francis has demonstrated what real spiritual leadership looks like by graciously declining a lunch with the leadership of the United States Congress in favor of dining with the homeless of Washington D.C. In a spirit of humility, Pope Francis neglected to mention that he was not only eating with the homeless, but he will be working to serve them at the lunch provided at St. Patrick’s Church.  This represents the theme of ‘pastoral ministry’ which he has brought back to the Roman Catholic Church, and we agree with him on that wholeheartedly.
As Christians who have spent a lifetime in the free-church tradition, we find the institutional papacy a little off-putting. But if there is to be a pope, we are sure excited that it is a profoundly Christ-like individual like Pope Francis.

images from abc7chicago.com and savetibet.org

That Indiana Law Everyone Is Talking About

The Crossroads at a Crossroads

The Crossroads at a Crossroads

The State of Indiana recently passed a new law, called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is similar to laws in other states.  These laws are commonly abbreviated RFRA (pronounced riff-ra) and are not unusual in American life.  The difference is that Indiana’s law, as we understand it, takes the language a bit further by pushing religious freedom decisions into the sphere of the marketplace, and there is no state law that bars discrimination based on religion, race, or sexual orientation.  Most people believe the Indiana RFRA law is designed to discriminate against gay people.

Jamie’s View

If I understand the Indiana law correctly, and I may not because I am not a lawyer, it means that a person can refuse to serve someone because of the individual’s religious convictions.  This means that a Muslim greeting card owner has the right to not sell me a box of birthday cards because I eat bacon.  Likewise it means that a Pentecostal purist who owns a butcher shop can refuse to sell meat to someone who drinks wine.  It means a Baptist who owns the sandwich shop can refuse to serve the ham and cheese sandwich to the Episcopalian who practices infant baptism.

You see where this falls apart?  If we allow the person who is working in the public sphere of commerce and trade to use religious persuasion as an excuse to not serve someone, then we are de facto creating a world where anyone can refuse to serve anyone else.  It is the ultimate, perhaps, slippery slope toward social chaos.    

At face value, the Indiana RFRA law makes no sense, destroys community relationships, rejects Jesus’ call to serve the whole world, and only adds fuel to the fires of misunderstanding between Evangelicals and secular world. 

More troubling, perhaps, is the wrapping of the issue of homosexuality with religious liberty.  Religious liberty actually should move in the other direction.  Liberty means people are free to choose how to live their personal life without the public judgment and oppression of society.  The Indiana RFRA law does exactly that—it takes personal choices and opens them up to public scrutiny.  I understand that people are against gay marriage, that it is unsettling, and I’m not really a big fan of it either, but even more, I cannot support discrimination.  I have said and written many times before that the burden of freedom means people should be able to live their lives as they choose, and I have the freedom to say and teach what I think about it, but I don’t have the right to restrict others in their pursuit of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and buying a cake.  The Indiana law is discrimination and has absolutely nothing to do with religious freedom.  

Once upon a time it was Baptists who championed individual choice, liberty, and freedom. 

David’s View

As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.—Abraham Lincoln

I have been keeping my eye on this recently, primarily because Arkansas is getting ready to pass such a bill (and they will).  Essentially, Jamie and I see eye to eye on this issue, as we do with many others (after all, this is not a debate blog, but one exploring historical Baptist perspectives).  The Indiana bill suggests that a “person” can avoid engaging in behaviors or commerce with others, if that behavior or commerce would substantially violate their own religious freedom.  In short, I don’t like this trend at all, on either political or religious grounds.  Here are a few of my concerns.

1)       Unfortunately, Section 7 of Chapter 9 of the bill defines a “person” as one of the following:  “(1) An individual. (2) An organization, a religious society, a church, a body of communicants, or a group organized and operated primarily for religious purposes. (3) A partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association, or another entity that: (A) may sue and be sued; and (B) exercises practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by: (i) an individual; or (ii) the individuals; who have control and substantial ownership of the entity, regardless of whether the entity is organized and operated for profit or nonprofit purposes.”  

Thus, an organization, no matter how complex, is also considered a “person” for the purposes of this legislation.  This is not the first time this problem has come up.  The United States Supreme Court ruled recently that, regarding campaign finance reform, organizations (corporations) are equivalent to persons, and money is equivalent to free speech.  Thus, corporations giving obscene sums of money to political candidates are simply exercising their right to free speech in supporting the candidates with whom they agree.   Yet, those same corporations are giving the same obscene amount to each candidate on the ballot even when those candidates express opposing views on the issues relevant to the corporation.  This is not protecting the exercise of free speech, but protecting their ability to buy access by giving corrupting amounts of money to whomever might win the office.   This is the same issue I have with this bill.   Businesses and corporations are not individuals or private enterprises.  They are profiting from doing business in the public sphere.  Thus, they have a responsibility to the public good.  Undoubtedly, the “public” will include those whose lifestyles and practices I might find personally offensive, and in a free society, we cannot discriminate which of the public we will serve.  I thought we had already dealt with this issue when we got rid of signs such as these:


2)      While I might disagree or even take offense at someone’s lifestyle, I fail to see how selling them a product, serving them a piece of pizza, or having them as a student in my class would be a violation of religious freedom.   This level of social intercourse does not require that I adopt their lifestyle or approve of it—and this is where the problem lies.   We have equated “tolerance” and “approval.”  In a free society, people have a right to “be” who they are as long as they are not infringing on the rights of others to “be” who they are.  If I do business with someone whose lifestyle I might disagree with, this does not infringe on my right to be what I have already chosen to be—a businessman.   If we are to remain a free society, we are required to tolerate those who make difference choices (yes, even those one might believe are morally reprehensible), but we do not require that others approve of those choices.   Too many among us seem to believe that being civil and tolerant is indicative of moral approval, and those are two conceptually distinct ideas.  It’s very telling that when the Baptists were being persecuted in Virginia for preaching without a license by a religious majority who were offended by their theology and lifestyle, it was Thomas Jefferson who joined with them.  This unlikely partnership resulted in The Virginia Statutes on Religious Freedom.   Why was this an unlikely partnership?  Because Thomas Jefferson could not have disagreed more with them regarding the substance of their religious choices, yet he was willing to fight for their right to choose and discuss their beliefs in the public square.

3)      As a Christian (and a Baptist), I cannot see how associating with those whose lifestyles I might disagree would violate my religious freedom or make me any less of a faithful believer.  First, normal, social commerce with someone whose lifestyle is contrary to my Christian beliefs is not indicative of my joining that lifestyle any more than it indicates they have converted to Christianity.   I serve a Messiah who was chided for continually associating with tax-gatherers and sinners.  This same Messiah prayed on behalf of those who were unjustly executing him.  Second, if I were a Muslim waiter and afraid that serving bacon to a patron would violate my religious freedom, that is a choice that should have been made when I decided to accept a job at a restaurant that served pork products. 

As a result, not only do I find this type of legislating troubling from a political perspective, I find it morally outrageous as a follower of Jesus Christ.