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A Time for Heresy

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This is the prepared text of Bill Moyer's remarks delivered on March 14 upon the establishment by Marilyn and James Dunn, of the Wake Forest Divinity School, of a scholarship in religious freedom in the name of Judith and Bill Moyers.
When Dean Bill Leonard asked James Dunn to join him here at Wake Forest's new Divinity School, my soul shouted "Yes!" These two men personify the honesty and courage we need to meet the challenge of faith in the fundamentalist dispensation of the 21st century as radical interpretations of both Islam and Christianity seek, in the words of C.Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, "to take over the government and use cause structures to advance the ideology, hierarchy, and laws" of their movement.

James Dunn and Bill Leonard are Baptists. What kind of Baptist matters. At last count there were more than two dozen varieties of Baptists in America. Bill Clinton is a Baptist. So is Pat Robertson. Jesse Jackson is a Baptist. So is Jesse Helms. Al Gore is a Baptist. So is Jerry Falwell. No wonder Baptists have been compared to jalapeno peppers: one or two make for a tasty dish, but a whole bunch together will bring tears to your eyes.

Many Baptists are fundamentalists; they believe in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible and the divine right of preachers to tell you what it means. They also believe in the separation of church and state only if they cannot control both. The only way to cooperate with fundamentalists, it has been said, is to obey them. James Dunn and Bill Leonard are not that kind of Baptist. They trace their spiritual heritage to forbearers who were considered heretics for standing up to ecclesiastical and state power on matters of conscience. One of them was Thomas Helwys, who, when Roman Catholics were being persecuted by the British crown, dared to defend the Catholics. Helwys went to jail, and died there, for telling the king of England, King James - yes, of the King James Bible - that "Our Lord the King has no more power over their [Catholic] conscience than ours, and that is none at all."

Baptists helped to turn that conviction into America's great contribution to political science and practical politics - the independence of church and state. Baptists in colonial America flocked to Washington's army to fight in the Revolutionary War because they wanted to be free from sanctioned religion. When the war was won they refused to support a new Constitution unless it contained a Bill of Rights that guaranteed freedom of religion and freedom from religion. No religion was to become the official religion; you couldn't be taxed to pay for my exercise of faith. This was heresy because, while many of the first settlers in America had fled Europe to escape religious persecution at the hands of the majority, once here they made their faith the established religion that denied freedom to others. Early Baptists considered this to be tyranny. Said John Leland: "All people ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that each can best reconcile to their own consciences."

It was all about a free conscience in a free state, and James Dunn has spent his life as a champion of both. No one in my time has been a greater defender of "soul freedom" - the competence of each man and woman to interpret their own experience of God in the light of faith and reason. When James stood up against fundamentalists who would have the state recognize their literal reading of the Bible as the foundation for public policy, they smeared him. They demonized him. They tried to fire him from his denominational position. But they couldn't silence him. He stood against them when they set out to turn the Southern Baptist Convention into a monolith of dogma run from the top down by a cabal of credalists demanding doctrinal conformity. He riled them when they sought to turn the pews of their churches into precincts of partisan politics. He infuriated them when he opposed their plotting with the White House to draft a Constitutional amendment that would trivialize prayer by reducing it to a perfunctory ritual approved by the state. Said James Dunn: "The Supreme Court can't ban prayer in school. Real prayer is always free." When the fundamentalists and their obliging politicians claimed that God had been expelled from the classroom, Dunn answered: "The god whom I worship and serve has a perfect attendance record and has never been tardy."

I think of people like Dunn as primal Baptists. Traces of their mindset go all the way back to the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in the book of Genesis. I relish the interpretation of this ancient story of Davidson Loehr, a former carpenter, combat photographer, and scholar who is now a minister in Austin, Texas. He reminds us that technically Jacob's adversary was not an angel; it was the local deity who stood guard at the boundary beyond which Jacob was not supposed to venture. Local gods were everywhere in those days, protecting parochial fiefdoms. This one told Jacob he couldn't leave, to turn around and go back. But Jacob wouldn't turn back; he had miles to go and promises to keep. He was called to discover his destiny, move out to the great world awaiting him. If he turned back he would spend the rest of his life in a place too narrow, with a god too small. So Jacob had to go to the mat with this presumptuous authority figure and they wrestled all night. It must have been a terrible struggle because when morning came and Jacob had pinned the god for the last time, his leg was on fire with pain. He crossed the river and on the other side he got a new name - now he would be known as Israel - but for the rest of his life Jacob walked with a limp. Pain comes with freedom - it's just the deal. The little gods don't want you to grow, learn, think for yourself. But you have to test their truth claims against your own life's experience - against your own faith and reason. To cross over to freedom you have to show the bogus gods at the border that you have a mind of your own.

It's fascinating what is revealed to you. Joseph Campbell told me a story (also recently recounted by Davidson Loehr) about the Australian tribe that used the bullroarer to keep people in awe of the gods. The bullroarer is a long flat board with notches, or slits, at one end, and a rope at the other. When you swing it around your head, the action produces a musical humming. The sound struck the primitive tribes as other-worldly, causing them to tremble in fear that the gods were angry. So the elders would go into the forest and come back with word of what it would take to placate the gods. And the people would oblige.

Now when a young boy in the tribe was ready to become a man, a ritual took place. Wearing masks, the elders would kidnap him and take him into the woods, tie him down, and with a flint knife slice the underside of his penis. It was painful, but the medicine man said this is how you became a man.
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It meant shedding one's innocence. At the end of the ritual one of the masked men dipped the bullroarer in the boy's blood and thrust it in his face, simultaneously removing his mask so the boy could see it's not a god at all - it's just one of the old guys. And the medicine man would whisper, "We make the noises."

Ah, yes - it's not the gods after all. It's just the old guys - Uncle George, Uncle Dick, Uncle Don. The "noise" in the woods is the work of the old guys playing gods, wanting you to live in fear and trembling so that you will look to them to protect you against the wrath to come. It takes courage to put their truth-claims to the test of reality, to call their bluff.

We need such courage today. This is a time for heresy. American democracy is threatened by perversions of money, power, and religion. Money has bought our elections right out from under us. Power has turned government "of, by, and for the people" into the patron of privilege. And Christianity and Islam have been hijacked by fundamentalists who have made religion the language of power, the excuse for violence, and the alibi for empire. We must answer the principalities and powers that would force on America a stifling conformity. Either we make the heretical choices that will inspire us to renew our commitment to America's deepest values and ideals, or the day will come when we will no longer recognize the country we love.

Here's what I mean.

Two years ago, the American Political Science Association produced a study entitled Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality . The report said people with wealth - privileged Americans - are "roaring with a clarity and consistency that public officials readily hear and routinely follow" while citizens "with lower or moderate incomes are speaking with a whisper." The study concluded that "progress toward realizing American ideals of democracy may have stalled, and even, in some places, reversed."
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The following year - 2005 - the editors of The Economist, one of the world's most pro-capitalist publications, produced their own sobering analysis of what is happening in America. They found great and growing income disparities. Thirty years ago the average annual compensation of the top 100 chief executives was 30 times the pay of the average worker; today it is 1000 times the pay of the average worker.

They found an education system "increasingly stratified by social class" in which poor children "attend schools with fewer resources than those of their richer contemporaries." They found our celebrated universities increasingly "reinforcing rather that reducing" these educational inequalities.

They found American corporations no longer successful agents of upward mobility. It is now harder for people to start at the bottom and rise up the company hierarchy by dint of hard work and self-improvement.

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Bill Moyers is President of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.

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