Theologies of Fear

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Two years ago I sat in a room crowded with 300 angry people and 700 more outside shouting, as I nervously whispered, “I’ve never been in a room where I’ve felt so much white Christian rage.” My colleague, a pastor from Pulaski, Tenn., nodded as I straightened up in my chair.

The crowd had come from surrounding states to this small community forum in Manchester, Tenn. They came to protest the forum’s concern for hate crimes against Muslims. National Islamophobic groups had bussed protestors in from hundreds of miles away, carrying messages and signs based on an ideology — some might say, theology — of bigotry. And they were truly angry, flashing their handguns and shouting down panelists. This was in the summer of 2013, but the memory still reminds me, why I moved to Tennessee to work on an interfaith public education effort to end anti-Muslim sentiment.

To be clear, these weren’t people who wanted to discuss the complexities of interfaith engagement while holding true to our particular faith claims. There are many people in this country who want to talk, for instance, about what interfaith relations mean for evangelism, or why a small number of Muslims today are turning to terrorism, without generalizing the Muslim community or wanting to see harm done to them. These were not the people at the forum, however. One thing alone had brought them to Manchester: fear.

Four Killed, One Wounded in Naval Reserve Shooting

Image via  Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

Image via  /Shutterstock

Four Marines were killed and one police officer wounded at a Naval Reserve center in Chattanooga, Tenn., on July 16, CNN reports.

The shooting occured at two sites — the first a military recruiting center — and lasted less than 30 minutes. According to CNN:

Investigators "have not determined whether it was an act of terrorism or whether it was a criminal act," Ed Reinhold, FBI special agent in charge, told reporters. "We are looking at every possible avenue, whether it was terrorism -- whether it was domestic, international -- or whether it was a simple, criminal act."

U.S. Attorney Bill Killian earlier told reporters that authorities were treating the shooting as an "act of domestic terrorism."

The suspected gunman is also dead. Read the full story here.

Gay Marriage Hits Major Bump in Federal Appeals Court

The National Organization for Marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2013. Creative Commons image by Elvert Barnes/RNS.

The same-sex marriage movement lost its first major case in a federal appeals court Thursday after a lengthy string of victories, creating a split among the nation’s circuit courts that virtually guarantees review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 2-1 ruling from the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed lower court rulings that had struck down gay marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

More important, it gives Supreme Court justices an appellate ruling that runs counter to four others from the 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th circuits. Those rulings struck down same-sex marriage bans in Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho and Nevada, leading to similar action in neighboring states.

Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton, one of the Republican Party’s most esteemed legal thinkers and writers, issued the 42-page decision precisely three months after hearing oral arguments in the cases, with fellow GOP nominee Deborah Cook concurring. He delivered a rare defeat for proponents of same-sex marriage, who had won nearly all the cases decided from Florida to Alaska since the Supreme Court ruled against the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013.

Sutton argued that appellate judges’ hands are tied by a one-sentence Supreme Court ruling from 1972, which “upheld the
right of the people of a state to define marriage as they see it.” Last year’s high court decision requiring the federal government to recognize legal same-sex marriages does not negate the earlier ruling as it applies to states where gay marriage is not legal, he said.

What Happens Next in the 20 States That Still Ban Gay Marriage?

Participants celebrate the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling in Kansas City, Mo. on June 26. Photo by Sally Morrow/RNS.

The Supreme Court’s decision to sit out the legal battle over same-sex marriage will — for now, at least — leave the future of laws prohibiting gays and lesbians from marrying in the hands of lower state and federal court judges. But it also almost certainly means the couples challenging those laws are more likely to win in the end.

The court said Oct. 6 that it would not hear appeals from five states whose same-sex marriage bans had been invalidated by lower federal courts. The decision, issued without explanation, will likely lead to recognition of gay marriages in 11 more states. It also allows an avalanche of legal challenges to the remaining bans to keep going forward in state and federal courts, where gay and lesbian couples have overwhelmingly prevailed.

The court’s decision leaves unchanged 20 state laws blocking same-sex unions. Each is already under legal attack, facing challenges in state or federal court, and sometimes both. Challenges to marriage bans already have reached a handful of state appeals courts and the federal appeals courts for the 5th, 6th, 9th and 11th circuits.

Some of those judges had been waiting to see what the Supreme Court would do. The court’s instruction Oct 6. was: Proceed.

The Biblical Case Against the Death Penalty, From a Former Supporter

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

“Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I despise labels, but I guess you can’t get away from them. For example, I am called an American (a label). I would prefer to be called a United States Citizen because the term “American” is ethnocentristicThe term should mean I am part of the American continents, but it is never used that way. “American” is almost always used to refer to a person who lives in the United States. However, Canadians and Mexicans are also Americans; and so are Hondurans and Brazilians.

I wish I could simply be called “Christian.” But that label necessitates the need for additional labels. Am I Protestant or Catholic? Am I orthodox or neo-orthodox? Am I a fundamentalist, an evangelical, or main-line? Am I emergent, traditional, liberal, progressive, or contemporary? To which denomination do I belong, or am I non-denominational? Maybe I am inter-denominational? Am I charismatic or cessastionist?

It’s maddening!

My preference would be to be called a follower of Jesus. But what does that mean?

Then there are political labels … and they are the worst!

Am I conservative or liberal? Am I a Republican or Democrat or Independent or Libertarian or something else? Am I pro-life or pro-choice? Am I a patriot or and antagonizer? Am I a capitalist, socialist, or communist? Where do I stand on gun rights? What about human rights, or same-sex marriage, or LBGT issues, or immigration, or Obamacare, etc., etc., etc … blah, blah, blah …

Why can’t I just be me?

It’s a lost cause. No matter how hard I try not to be boxed in, people label me. So, let me give you my best shot at who I am based on labels. (Of course, if your definition of the labels is not the same as my definition, then we will have a hard time communicating.) Here goes:

No Time for the Death Penalty

Anti-death penalty rally, Robert J. Daveant / Shutterstock.com

Anti-death penalty rally, Robert J. Daveant / Shutterstock.com

In 2009, I accompanied my friend Steve Henley on his journey to execution in Tennessee. As his spiritual advisor, I was able to be with him for a few hours before he was removed from his deathwatch cell and strapped to a gurney. I was there with his family as the blinds were raised and as he tried to make them smile. I was there when he spoke his last words, when the poison entered his veins, when he began to turn blue, and when he finally was declared dead. This image of my friend, who I visited for 10 of his 23 years on death row, will stay with me forever. Steve’s execution lasted about 12 minutes.

Clayton Lockett’s execution lasted 43 minutes. All of those present at his execution — correctional staff, attorneys, media, the victim’s family, clergy, and others — will now live with the image of what happened in Oklahoma on Tuesday. The horror they witnessed will be with them forever, regardless of their opinion of Clayton Lockett. Though Oklahoma officials had all sorts of reasons to suspect that there might be problems with this execution — using an untested mixture of lethal injection drugs whose source was kept secret — they proceeded for the sake of expediency, leading to the inevitable cruelty that followed.

By all accounts, Clayton Lockett did a terrible thing. He shot and killed 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman in 1999, taking away her life and all its possibilities. Some might even say that Clayton Lockett got what he deserved for his crime. But was what the state of Oklahoma did on Monday really about Clayton Lockett?

Tennessee Death Row Inmates Invite Governor to Pray With Them

Shane Claiborne and Gov. Bill Haslam. Courtesy Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne and Gov. Bill Haslam. Courtesy Shane Claiborne

Last week, the men on Tennessee’s death row, four of whom have scheduled execution dates in the near future, invited Gov. Bill Haslam, the man who signs the death warrants, to join them for prayer

The backdrop for the story is that Tennessee has more executions scheduled in a year than the state has had in the past 50 years. Last week as Christians around the world remembered Good Friday, the day Jesus was executed, legislators in the Bible Belt state passed a bill to reinstate the electric chair (which would make it the only state to require death by electrocution). The only thing that could be more troubling would be if Tennessee decided to start crucifying people again. I even heard one politician defend his position saying, “It is God’s job to judge them, but our job to get them to Him.”

84-year-old Nun Gets 35 Months for Breaking into Nuclear Facility

Transform Now Plowshares activist Sister Megan Rice. Photo: Michael Patrick, courtesy Knoxville News Sentinel/RNS

An 84-year-old nun was sentenced to nearly three years in prison on Tuesday for breaking into a Tennessee nuclear facility in July 2012.

Sister Megan Rice and two other anti-nuclear activists were convicted last May of breaking into a federal complex that stores enriched uranium.

“Please have no leniency on me. To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me,” Rice told the federal judge at her sentencing hearing, according to USA Today.

Serpent Handler-TV Star Has New Cause: Religious Liberty

Pastor Andrew Hamblin of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn. holds up two snakes. Photo: RNS/by Shelley Mays/USA Today

A Tennessee pastor’s dangerous spiritual practices made him a star of a reality TV series.

Now they may make him a religious liberty crusader.

Officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency raided the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollete last Thursday and seized 53 venomous snakes — including timber rattlesnakes, copperheads, and several exotic breeds.

They cited the Rev. Andrew Hamblin, the church’s pastor and co-star of the National Geographic series Snake Salvation, and plan to charge him with 53 count of violating a state ban on possessing venomous snakes at a court hearing on Friday. Each count carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail.

Shariah 101: What Is It and Why Do States Want to Ban It?

Photo courtesy RNS.

Anti-Shariah demonstrators rally against a proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York. Photo courtesy RNS.

North Carolina lawmakers on Wednesday approved a bill to prohibit judges from considering “foreign laws” in their decisions, but nearly everyone agrees that “foreign laws” really means Shariah, or Islamic law.

North Carolina now joins six other states — Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, South Dakota, and Tennessee — to pass a “foreign laws” bill. A similar bill passed in Missouri, but Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed it, citing threats to international adoptions.

The bills all cite “foreign laws” because two federal courts have ruled that singling out Shariah — as Oklahoma voters originally did in 2010 — is unconstitutional.