Jesus

The Hidden History of Pentecostal Pacifism

WHEN I FOUND out years ago that most early Pentecostal denominations had been committed to nonviolence—including the Assemblies of God, the denomination of my heritage—I thought it was about the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. Not kill for the United States of America (or any country)?

Then I stumbled upon the Pentecostal Evangel, a weekly magazine of the Assemblies of God (USA), which published these revealing words during World War I:

From the very beginning the [Pentecostal] movement has been characterized by Quaker principles. The laws of the Kingdom, laid down by our elder brother, Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, have been unqualifiedly adopted, consequently the movement has found itself opposed to the spilling of the blood of any man.

This was new to me. I was reared in a U.S. Pentecostalism that taught intense loyalty to the United States and deep pride in combatant military service. Where did this hidden history of Pentecostal nonviolence come from?

Reading other early accounts of Pentecostal peacemaking prompted me to further examine where it had gone and whether it could re-emerge. It would also challenge and deconstruct my understanding of Christianity.

In the 1930s, the Pacifist Handbook actually listed the Assemblies of God as the third largest church in the U.S. that “opposed war.” Although not universal, Pentecostal conscientious objection and noncombatant service in the U.S. continued into World War II and beyond.

One day when I was at my grandparents’ home in east Texas, they asked me about the subject of my dissertation. With nervous hesitation, I shared that the Assemblies of God used to be a pacifist denomination and that I was researching the history of pacifism’s emergence and eventual decline in U.S. Pentecostalism.

“Well, of course, we know that,” my grandmother responded.

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The Gospel According to George McGovern

WHEN MOST PEOPLE remember George McGovern, the longtime South Dakota senator who passed away in 2012, they probably don’t think first of his evangelical Christian background or see him as a model for evangelicals today.

But McGovern, the Democratic nominee who ran against President Richard Nixon in 1972, actually serves as a worthy exemplar of evangelically rooted social action.

The source of McGovern’s progressive and moral political views may be surprising to some. He was a son of the evangelical church. His father, Rev. Joseph McGovern, was an ordained minister of the Wesleyan Methodist Church (now the Wesleyan Church). It was founded in 1843 as a protest movement against the larger Methodist Episcopal Church. Simply put, they thought slavery sinful and left the denomination to make clear their moral opposition to the “peculiar institution.”

George McGovern enjoyed a good relationship with his father. His childhood was shaped by the rhythms of church life—three or four services on Sunday, prayer meeting on Wednesday night, and daily prayer and Bible readings. The annual family vacation was a two-week campout at nearby Mitchell Holiness Campground. Revival services were conducted nightly.

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Taking It to the Streets

AS I ATTENDED seminary in my native Chicago, I heard about one senseless death after another. A six-month-old baby shot multiple times with an assault weapon; a young black girl, with promise and a future, caught in the crossfire—all casualties of gang violence.

This violence is further evidence to me that our theology is needed on the streets. A theology that can impact the crisis facing the black community must be relevant to the black community. Theology can never be disengaged from the history of black people, the “isms” that have oppressed us, and the struggles that have birthed our progress. “Relevancy,” for theology, means moving beyond the academy and the church and into the streets, where it becomes our thinking faith in action.

Does our theology have anything to say to African-American gang girls? The formation of girl gangs is rooted in the numerous social ills affecting many urban African-American communities. By taking our theology to the streets, we can offer African-American gang girls an alternative hope and future. Four theological frameworks can aid in that task.

First, a practical theology—thinking faith in action—that models Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized can reach these girls with the message of God’s compassion, peace, and hope by offering a positive relational sisterhood that can replace gang life.

Second, a public theology that calls for common-sense gun laws and a ban on assault weapons is a Christian ethical imperative that empowers change in public policy and can save the lives of our youth.

Third, our liberation theology is now also a struggle to free the black community from the oppression of violence, and our faith leads us to the liberating task of acting as “interrupters” to the cycles of violence in our communities.

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Loving Our Neighbors on a Global Scale

“GOD CREATED the world and we created borders.”

That obvious recognition was shared at a recent consultation in Quito, Ecuador, between North American and Latin American churches on “Faith, Economy, and Migration.” Felipe Adolf, president of the Latin American Council of Churches, shared that conclusion on how issues of migration and reform are global and not just local.

It’s very easy to see the problems confronting our nation and feel as though the challenges facing the rest of the world are simply too much to bear. Continuing poverty and unemployment, discrimination of all kinds, and wars and rumors of wars fill our newsfeeds, papers, and TV screens. But it’s naïve and narrow to think this way. Many of the threats we face are global in nature and don’t know any boundaries. Through our economies and consumption habits, media, travels and migrations, and for Christians in particular our faith, we are inextricably connected with men and women around the world. It’s always been important, but now especially so, to think globally when it comes to faith and justice.

Sojourners has a long history of doing this very thing. We started as a little group of two kinds of people—those who had grown up conservative evangelicals and were deeply frustrated with the lack of attention to issues of justice and peace, and those who had just come to faith from the student movements and counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. We met at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and began to study and pray through the scriptures about injustice, war, and poverty. The Vietnam War was raging, and we were looking for a biblical understanding of the events of our time.

The first issue of Sojourners magazine, then called The Post-American, which our small group published in the fall of 1971, was meant to introduce our generation to a Jesus we thought was radical and to a biblical faith that was the foundation for changing the world.

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Marc Chagall’s Jesus Paintings Focus of Jewish Museum Exhibit

Marc Chagall with Solitude, 1933. Private collection. ©Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris. Photo:RNS courtesy The Jewish Museum

At a moment when the world is flush with new books and ever-evolving interpretations of Jesus, one of the last century’s artistic masters is providing art lovers with a striking take on the first-century religious figure.

The first U.S. exhibition exploring the “darker works” of Marc Chagall (1887-1985) shows a Jewish artist obsessed with Jesus.

Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” at The Jewish Museum in New York showcases the work of the Russian-French artist during World War II as he tried to make sense of a world gone mad.

Of particular interest are paintings depicting the crucified Jesus — depictions that are often read as metaphors not only for war but the particular expressions of Jewish suffering and persecution in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.

Flipping the Script: Mimetic Theory and the Nonviolent God

nito/Shutterstock
Jesus lived, died, and resurrected by the mercy strand in the Bible. nito/Shutterstock

(Editor's Note: This post was adapted from the author's speech at the Christianity 21 Conference in Denver.)

When I was in seminary, one of my best friends came up with a brilliant theological … pick up line:

"Hey, baby. What’s your hermeneutic?"

Despite the genius of that question, we soon discovered that anytime you start a pick up line with “Hey, baby” you’re in some trouble.

But it’s such a great question. Think of all the relationships that would have avoided painful break ups if they just defined the relationship in the beginning by answering the question “What’s your hermeneutic?"

I Hope We Never Become a 'Christian Nation' Again

Jiri Hera/Shutterstock
Jiri Hera/Shutterstock

It’s become a disturbing trend among Christians to lament the downfall of our nation’s “Christian identity” — to judge and criticize the spiritual downfall of the current generation. They boast about the glorious past and predict an apocalyptic demise for the future — brought on by the secularization and ethical demise of our society.

This attitude is based around a sense of fear, judgment, cynicism, fatalism, and hopelessness.

Many Christians today use the term “post-Christian” to describe the United States in conjunction with their assumptions that our nation is falling deeper and deeper into a moral decline, but this word presupposes that we were Christian to begin with. We weren’t. 

70 Really Is the New 50 ... If You Take Care of Yourself!

kondratya/Shutterstock
Is 70 the new 50? kondratya/Shutterstock

Can you imagine? I am now three score plus 10! According to measurements used during biblical times, a "score" was 20 years. Three score is 60 years. So three score plus ten, makes me 70. Moses put is this way in Psalms 90: "Seventy years are given to us! Some even live to eighty. But even the best years are filled with pain and trouble; soon they disappear, and we fly away." Well, I am not quite ready to fly away!

When I was a child, a 70-year-old person was truly ancient; like, really, really old. I imagined they were almost as old as dirt, salt, or the oldest Bible character, Methuselah. In my child's mind, 70 was too old to move fast, think hard, feel deeply, laugh out loud, dance gracefully, exercise intensely, and experience joy. Mostly, 70 year olds were just waiting to die. Right? Of course, they were definitely too advanced in years to think, feel, or act sexually, even though researchers say otherwise.

What is so amazing is that I feel many times better today than I felt at 60, 50, or even 40. 70 really IS the new 50!

Can Paul Be Redeemed?

“Jesus was a radical who welcomed everyone and criticized powerful leaders who oppressed the poor. Jesus was crucified because he was a political threat. But the Apostle Paul was a conservative missionary who misunderstood Jesus and was anti-woman, pro-slavery, and anti-gay.”

That seems to sum up how many progressive Christians view Paul. But are such views justified by the biblical record? Or are there other ways to understand the zealous Pharisee who became an apostle to the Gentiles?

IN THE EARLY 1970s, I came across an article on Jesus’ women disciples in the Christian social justice magazine The Other Side. I was shocked. I had attended church all my life; how come I never noticed those women disciples?

What I didn’t know then was that a renewed “search for the historical Jesus” was underway. Applying the ever-developing insights of sociology, anthropology, and archaeology, scholars were investigating the socio-economic and political aspects of life in first century Palestine. How did Jesus fit into his historical context? As a peasant healer, how did he challenge the Roman occupation and their clients, the chief priests at the temple in Jerusalem?

It takes a while for new insights from biblical research to reach lay Christians. This is further delayed if church leaders are suspicious of intellectual elitism and fearful some of their parishioners might “lose their faith.”

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Beyond Fire and Brimstone

MANY PEOPLE HAVE been given a very tame and uninteresting version of Jesus. He was a nice, quiet, gentle, perhaps somewhat fragile guy on whose lap children liked to sit. He walked around in flowing robes in pastel colors, freshly washed and pressed, holding a small sheep in one arm and raising the other as if hailing a taxi. Or he was like an “x” or “n”—an abstract part of a mathematical equation, not important primarily because of what he said or how he lived, but only because he filled a role in a cosmic calculus of damnation and forgiveness.

The real Jesus was far more complex and interesting than any of these caricatures. And nowhere was he more defiant, subversive, courageous, and creative than when he took the language of fire and brimstone from his greatest critics and used it for a very different purpose.

The idea of hell entered Jewish thought rather late. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, more traditional Jews—especially those of the Sadducee party—had little to say about the afterlife, about miracles, about angels and the like. Their focus was on this life and on how to be good, just, and successful human beings within it. More liberal Jews—especially of the Pharisee party—had welcomed ideas on the afterlife from neighboring cultures and religions, especially the Persians.

To the north and east in Mesopotamia, people believed that the souls of the dead migrated to an underworld whose geography resembled an ancient walled city. Good and evil, high-born and lowly, all descended to this shadowy, scary, dark, inescapable realm. For the Egyptians to the south, the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgment. Bad people who failed the test were then devoured by a crocodile-headed deity, and good people who passed the test settled in the land beyond the sunset.

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