Review: The Crooked Path to Abolition

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, James Oakes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021.

Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not advocate immediate emancipation in the slave states. He did not advocate active resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but only for due process rights. He did not rail in his rhetoric against the vile evils of slavery. But Abraham Lincoln hated slavery and believed there were resources within the Constitution properly leveraged that would lead to its eventual end. How could this be so when the Constitution protected slavery in the states? Only states could abolish slavery, not the Federal government. Both Constitution and legislation allowed slave owners or their proxes to capture and return runaway slaves even where slavery was not legal. And there was that language of slaves being three-fifths of a person.

Actually those who believe in an antislavery Constitution might start there. Slaves are written of as “persons,” undermining the contention of slaves as being property. Beyond this, those who developed the idea of an antislavery Constitution drew on both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble affirming the equality of persons. They focused on the due process rights protected under the Fifth Amendment to make it as hard as possible for slave owners to retrieve runaways, while not breaking the fugitive slave laws. They used the Federal power to regulate the territories to make these free rather than slave. The Constitution said Congress had no authority “to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” They antislavery people were committed to no more compromises that would admit new slave states into the country.

Lincoln believed that slavery would eventually wither away of its own. Some proposed that slaves brought into free territory could sue for their freedom. The dynamic economy of the north would outstrip the south, particularly because it could not expand its economy, fenced about by free territories becoming states. Eventually Southern states would abolish slavery on their own, which only they could do, Lincoln believed, since the Constitution did not give this power to the Federal government.

James Oakes traces the development of this antislavery doctrine, particularly within the Republican party. With enough votes in the growing North, Lincoln was elected. While he assured the South that slavery would be upheld, the implementation of other aspects of the antislavery doctrine triggered secession. Oakes shows how this offered new avenues to antislavery effort: ending slavery in the District of Columbia, ending the slave trade and blocking slave shipping to southern ports, and most significantly, voiding Fugitive Slave laws for slave owners in rebel states, since they no longer were under the laws of the Union. Slaves who fled into Union lines would be considered “contraband” and emancipated. While this was not so for border states who remained in the Union, the Army was directed not to assist in the retrieval of any fugitive slaves, since they did not have the legal powers to properly adjudicate such matters. The owners were on their own, further contributing to abolition.

Oakes doesn’t portray Lincoln as an antiracist. He favored colonization of Blacks, believing Blacks and Whites could not live together. But he hated slavery with a singular focus. One senses a Lincoln both shrewd and resolute in availing himself of all the resources available in the Constitution to move the needle toward abolition and emancipation, even maneuvering conquered states to constitute themselves as free and to join in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment.

What I continue to wonder about is whether Lincoln realized his approach would send the South over the edge, precipitating the Civil War? Or did the South adequately take on board Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the Union once attacked? I wonder, given the case Oakes make, whether there is an argument to suggest that the South played into Lincoln’s hand, accelerating the demise of slavery that may otherwise have taken another fifty to one hundred years. Did Lincoln fully understand the cards he was holding and play them to full advantage?

I’ve often commented about the writing of slavery into our Constitution. I don’t think we can dodge that terrible compromise. But Oakes offers another perspective, showing the side of the Constitution that assumes freedom and equality the norm and slavery an exception. He also shows the lawyerly genius of Lincoln to recognize and exploit that side to its full extreme. The great sadness of all this was the lives it cost, including in the end, Lincoln’s own.

Review: Thunder in the Soul

Thunder in the Soul (Plough Spiritual Guides), Abraham Joshua Heschel. (Edited by Robert Erlwine). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concerning the life of knowing and being known by God.

The Plough Spiritual Guides are a great little series collecting the thoughts of some of the great spiritual thinkers of the last century. This latest is no exception. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was truly one of the great spiritual figures of the twentieth century. He escaped to London from Poland trying to get family members visas before the coming Holocaust. Before he could succeed, they died. He went on as a Conservative Jewish leader whose life and works transcended his own faith community. I was in a seminar just the other day where his book The Sabbath was extensively referenced. He wrote towering works bringing spiritual insight to Jew and Christian, believer and skeptic alike: Man is Not Alone, Man’s Quest for God, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets. After the assault on Blacks at Selma in March 1965, he joined Dr. King in the march to Montgomery, earning himself a place on an FBI watchlist. He was close friends with Reinhold Niebuhr and delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1971, following him in death a year later.

This little book collects excerpts of his writing that read as a seamless whole, a tribute to Robert Erlwine’s editing. These come under twelve headings:

  1. Every Moment Touches Eternity
  2. The Only Life Worth Living
  3. In the Presence of Mystery
  4. The Prophets Show us God Cares
  5. God Demands Justice
  6. Modernity Has Forfeited the Spirit
  7. Prayer is Being Known by God
  8. A Pattern for Living
  9. The Deed is Wiser than the Heart
  10. Something is Asked of Us
  11. Faith is an Act of the Spirit
  12. Not Our Vision of God but God’s Vision of Us

Reading the headings alone offers material for extended reflection. Often I like to select a quote or two from a book. This was a book where nearly every sentence could be a quote pull, and occasion to stop and think before one moves on. One of the big ideas that run through this selection is that we search for God only to discover that God seeks us. Heschel writes:

“When self-assertion is no more; when realizing that wonder is not our own achievement; that it is not by our own power alone that we are shuddered with radical amazement, it is not with our power anymore to assume the role of an examiner of a subject in search of an object, such as we are in search of a cause when perceiving thunder. Ultimate wonder is not the same as curiosity. Curiosity is the state of a mind in search of knowledge, while ultimate wonder is the state of knowledge in search of a mind; it is the thought of God in search of a soul.

This search of God for us is the source of our worth. Heschel observes:

“We must continue to ask: What is man that God should care for him? And we must continue to remember that it is precisely God’s care for man that constitutes the greatness of man.”

Another key idea is that of faith as faithfulness, a response in every moment in how we live our life to the reality of God. Faith is not centered around the doctrine or dogmas of prior generations, which he considers “spiritual plagiarism.” Faith moves beyond our own reason and wisdom. “In faith, we do not seek to decipher, to articulate in our own terms, but to rise above our own wisdom, to think of the world in terms of God, to live in accord with what is relevant to God.” The life of faith is shaped by the law and the prophets. “The good is not an abstract idea but a commandment, and the ultimate meaning of its fulfillment is in its being an answer to God.”

Finally, Heschel talks about the paradigm shift of knowing God. We do not so much think about God as think within God. He explains:

“His is the call, ours the paraphrase; His is the creation, ours a reflection. He is not an object to be comprehended, a thesis to be endorsed, neither the sum of all that is (facts) nor a digest of all that ought to be (ideals). He is the ultimate subject.”

Some speak of God as Ultimate Reality. Often this sounds like an abstraction, but what I think Heschel would say is that God is the most Real, the really Real, by whom all else is understood.

This is a taste of what you will find here. Strong stuff. J. B. Phillips wrote a book titled Your God is too Small. I think Heschel would agree and this little book is a gateway to his thought. What is troubling to me is how rarely I encounter writing like this coming out of Christian publishing houses or in Christian media. This deceptively little book is, as the Wardrobe in C.S. Lewis, much bigger on the inside than the outside. Read slowly and be filled.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Rebels and Exiles

Rebels and Exiles (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology), Matthew S. Harmon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of the theme of exile throughout the Bible, from the garden, to the warnings and reality of Israel’s exile, the return from exile accomplished by Christ, realized in part even while his people remain exiles awaiting the new creation.

I have to admit, I have really liked the volumes of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology that I have read. Each surveys a key theme that may be traced through scripture, both its significance in historical context and for believers in the present. Each volume is biblically grounded, reflects current scholarship, and readable for the non-specialist. This volume is no exception as Matthew S. Harmon traces the theme of exile through scripture.

He begins with Adam and Eve in Genesis, yielding to the temptations of rebellion and idolatry. Harmon draws this conclusion explaining the significance of the exile from Eden:

The message could not be clearer: rebellion and idolatry result in exile–separation from the presence of God. As pure holiness, God cannot allow sinful humanity access to his garden sanctuary, so he drives the couple out. To ensure that they can never reenter the garden, God places cherubim at the entrance as angelic guardians in conjunction with a flaming sword that turned in every direction. God ensures that humanity can never again access the Tree of Life at the center of his garden sanctuary. Yes, they are still divine image bearers. But now they must live out this reality in exile, away from the presence of their Maker.

Matthew S. Harmon, p. 15.

Harmon then traces God’s plan to work through Abraham to bring an end to exile. But first his grandson Jacob and his twelve sons must spend 400 years away from the land in Egypt. God makes them a people and brings them into the land under Moses and Joshua, with warnings that if they forsake the law of the covenant, they will be forsaken in exile. They rebel and God keeps his promise, as first the northern kingdom is defeated by Assyria, and later the south goes into exile in Babylon. Repentance brings return in 538 BC, and yet exile continues as they live under foreign rulers. Full restoration occurs only when Jesus dies for their sins, rises to life and ascends to rule.

One of the highlights of this book for me was the study of the various letters that speak of God’s people as redeemed and yet exiles in the world, called to live as imitators of Christ and citizens of heaven while still in exile, a unique way to cast our already/not yet condition. The study concludes with the final end of exile in the new creation.

The concluding chapter draws seven implications of the biblical material on exile. We are enabled to understand:

  1. Who God is and his plan for this world.
  2. Who we are as human beings.
  3. What is wrong with this world.
  4. What God has done to fix this broken world through Jesus.
  5. That this world is not our true home.
  6. How to live as God’s people in this world.
  7. Where our true hope lies.

Particularly compelling is this idea of understanding why we have this sense of longing for we know not what or where. Carson McCullers writes, “We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” C.S. Lewis describes “desire for our own far off country . . . for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.” Longing is the proper response for exiles who are still far from home.

Harmon helps us read the narrative of scripture through the lens of exile, making sense of our condition and God’s big story. It is a story that addresses our deepest longings and the source where we find hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Road

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Summary: A dystopian story of a father and son helping each other survive in a post-nuclear America, scavenging for food and avoiding murderous mobs.

The man. The boy. The road. One’s life in backpacks and a grocery cart.

Using an old map to walk back roads to the South and warmth when there is no heat.

Evading murderous gangs who kill and eat their victims.

Searching every dwelling for any scrap of food. A fallout shelter unused stocked richly. Can’t stay long for the risk of being discovered.

A lone boy. He has someone, he can’t go with us. He’ll be OK. Really? Really.

Ash everywhere. Rains smell of ash. Snow is gray. A gray, sullen landscape under gray skies. Nothing alive.

Nights under tarps, shivering in each other’s grasp, trying to stay warm, yet hidden.

A cough. Worsening. Spitting up blood. Must protect the boy.

We carry the fire.

This is The Road. Not a happy story. One to give anyone who thinks a nuclear holocaust survivable. This strikes me a good rendition of what “survival” would be like.

It reveals the heart of darkness that emerges when the structures of civilization fail. Yet it also reveals the bond of a father and son, the eternal flame of hope, or will against all despair to live captured in the words, “we carry the fire.” It recognizes a goodness that will not die (“we are the good guys”) even if this means that you will only kill and not eat the enemy who threatens you. Yet it is a world where you are wary of any human beings, the few who remain. Are there any other “good guys?”

It makes one think of what we have seen during the pandemic, when a virus and a polarizing president have threatened the social fabric–violent mobs in the streets, and roving the Capitol. Plots to seize and kill health officials and governors and even vice presidents. Elevated gun violence. Car jackings. Neighbor fighting neighbor over the refusal to don a mask. What do we need to see that the fabric of society is more fragile than we imagined? The Road may not be so far off as we think.

Review: The State of the Evangelical Mind

The State of the Evangelical Mind, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays surveying the state of evangelical thought twenty five years after Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

In 1994, Mark Noll ignited something of a firestorm of conversation, particularly among evangelicals working in academic circles, when his book Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published. It didn’t take much past the opening line to get the conversation started: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” It was around this time that I joined what was then Graduate Student Ministry (later Graduate and Faculty Ministry) of InterVarsity, and we saw ourselves on the vanguard of trying to change this situation in our work with those preparing for academic careers. Mark Noll even spoke for a couple of our conferences, encouraging our efforts.

This book came out nearly twenty-five years later and serves as kind of a survey of the landscape, assessing where we’ve come–or not.

Mark Noll contributes an essay to this collection recounting both the fascinating history of the Reformed Journal and noting a number of more recent developments that give him cause for encouragement, noting evangelicals in many fields publishing at academic presses, the growth of Baylor as a Christian research university, Christian study centers on many campuses, and Christian professional organizations. Sadly, though, we’ve witnessed the passing both of the Reformed Journal and Books & Culture. Noll sees silver linings in these losses.

That’s less the case with Jo Anne Lyon’s essay. Lyon, who has an exemplary career in leadership of evangelical social action and justice organizations. She traces the history of evangelical social action from Wesley to the present, citing the historic Chicago Declaration of 1973 (on which I recently wrote). She remains hopeful but believes evangelicals need to recover their narrative of being on the forefront of efforts of justice, mercy, and love, a narrative co-opted by political alliances and nationalism.

David Mahan and Don Smedley’s two part essay contend for the place of campus ministries in the recovery of an evangelical mind, and, for Smedley, a sharp critique of Noll’s approach that criticizes Scottish Common Sense philosophy and apologetic approaches to evangelical intellectual engagement. Smedley prefers the apologetic approach of J. P. Moreland that affirms the very things Noll critiques as vital for evangelical engagement.

It is hard to discuss the Christian presence in higher education without reference to John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. Timothy Larsen contributes the requisite paper discussing Newman’s relevance to the present day university, addressing the formation of persons and not just minds, Newman’s apologetic for a liberal education when career training is a focus, and the vital role theology plays within the university.

If theology is important, what then is the role of seminaries? Lauren Winner addresses these questions focusing on the cross-shaped formation of both pastors, and of those in the pew. Winner makes the proposal that in our activist-oriented churches, it sometimes may be a win if someone thinks differently about something after worship.

James. K. A. Smith is perhaps the most explicit of the contributors to address the parlous state of evangelical churches. He contends that the independence and unconnectedness of so many of these churches ought be addressed by an embrace of the catholic character of the church, a rediscovery of cardinal doctrines offering a far more bracing vision of life than our political illusions.

Mark Galli concludes this collection with the observation of the uniquely “Jesusy” character of evangelicalism. He argues that this is what drives the uniquely evangelical presence in places like the garbage dumps of Cairo, and contends for the need to re-embrace this quality. He also recounted his own formative years in InterVarsity inductive Bible studies, and how they taught him how to read, not only scripture but other works as well.

This was my own experience at an urban university. Similar training taught me to read carefully, to pay attention to the text, to question the text. As much as any other discipline, this taught me to think Christianly, not only about scripture but about anything I read, or heard. It raises questions for me as I think about this survey of the state of the evangelical mind. Mark Galli suggests we need to be more “Jesusy” and I would agree. The embrace of the one, holy, catholic church and her historic beliefs (catholic in the sense of universal, not specifically the Roman Church) is important. But the Bible is another aspects of Bebbington’s quadrilateral. There are naive and destructive readings of the Bible, to be sure. But the careful reading of scripture, tested by the faith once received, seems foundational to me for an evangelical mind, and it concerns me that both traditional and new forms of media have increasingly been substituted for lives saturated by careful reading and thought, first about scripture and then all things.

What both this collection and my own reflections suggest is that while there are bright spots and resources, there is much work to be done. While I remain a person of hope because I believe in a God who redeems and revives, I am saddened by what seem large swaths of Christians in America who are politically captive and convictionally compromised. This may be the work of a remnant, and yet one that must never fall into an enclaved remnant mentality. It may be that such work is not one of awakening a church that may be in large parts apostate but engaging a culture in search of it knows not what, and an academy struggling with the fragmentation of increasingly specialized knowledge and the multiplication of identities. This was the work of Christians in the Middle Ages that led to the rise of the universities. It may be our work in this time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — St James Meeting House

Nyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was a joyous day. My friend from college had found love again after having lost his first wife to cancer. They decided to marry at the St. James Meeting House in Boardman Park. We had driven by many times but had never before set foot in this historic building. By modern standards, it is a spartan building with limited restroom facilities downstairs as well as a dressing area for bride and groom. Upstairs, the sanctuary has vintage hardwood floors, a two-level raised chancel with dark red boards, and white walls, white narrow pews, and woodwork. Above the chancel is a gorgeous stain glass window with a central section and two side sections. One of my memories of the wedding was of the afternoon sun shining through the glass onto my friends. As I said, it was a glorious day in a building that looked like it came from a New England town.

In a way it did.

In 1807, a few years after the initial settling of Boardman, the Parish of St. James was established. Henry Boardman, son of Elijah Boardman of Connecticut, after whom the township was named, donated land, money, and some of the materials for the building. St. James Episcopal Church was built in 1827 and 1828 and consecrated in 1829 by the first Episcopal bishop of the diocese of Ohio, Philander Chase. It was the first Episcopal parish and church in the Western Reserve. The belfry and steeple, which add so much to the building, were added in 1882. The stained glass windows were also added during this renovation.

The building was sited just south of the Boardman town center on the east side of Market Street. A moment’s thought will remind you that this is where Southern Park Mall (or what is left of it) is located along with various outbuildings (Chili’s Restaurant and Bar now occupies the site of the church). In 1970, the Edward J. DeBartolo Company developed the land behind the church into the mall. With the area around it being commercialized, the congregation built a new facility on Glenwood Avenue into which it moved in 1971. It looked like this venerable old building, then 144 years old was slated for demolition. The diocese deconsecrated the building. Briefly, there was talk of moving it to the Pioneer Village at the Canfield Fairgrounds, but that was too costly.

Then the Boardman Historical Society, under the leadership of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Masters and Mr. and Mrs. George Marks, started a drive to move the building to Boardman Park, just down the road. They overcame legal difficulties with the deed and raised $45,000 to move the building down Route 224 to the park. Now it is the central structure in a collection of historic buildings that include the Beardsley-Walter-Diehm House (circa 1828), the Oswald Detchon House (circa 1840), and the Schiller-Chuey Summer Kitchen. In 1979 the building was added to National Register of Historic Places. Supported by the Ohio Bicentennial Commission, The Longaberger Company, The Boardman Historical Society, and The Ohio Historical Society, an Ohio Historical Society marker was erected for the building in 2001.

These days, weddings are the primary events at what is now the St. James Meeting House. It is a popular wedding site, normally averaging 300 weddings a year. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, listed at the time of writing at $170 for Boardman residents and $254 for non-residents. The building can seat 125. This includes a two hour wedding and an hour rehearsal. Groups interested in touring this historic landmark may schedule a tour by calling the Park District office at 330-726-8107, Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (subject to COVID restrictions).

The building costs about $9,000 a year to maintain, $7,000 of which is defrayed by wedding fees. In September of 2020, the building received a fresh coat of paint. This year, the building, considered the oldest existing church building on the Western Reserve will turn 193 years old. The year 2022 will mark 50 years on the Boardman Park site and 2028 its bicentennial. Obviously, Henry Boardman and the people of St. Mark’s built well and it is to the credit of the people of Boardman, Boardman Park and the Boardman Historical Society, that this piece of Youngstown area history has been preserved so well. One hopes it always will be.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Ida M. Tarbell

Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business — And Won!, Emily Arnold McCully. New York: Clarion Books, 2014.

Summary: A biography for young adults highlighting Tarbell’s journalistic career including her series of articles and books taking on Standard Oil, her relationship with Sam McClure, her views on women’s suffrage, and her lifelong labor to support her family.

Probably no one was better fitted to take on Standard Oil, the empire Rockefeller built. She grew up near or in Titusville, where the oil boom began. Her father’s and brother were in the oil business, and directly affected by Rockefeller’s monopolistic practices. At an early age, she determined not to marry, believing wedlock was bondage. But she had not thought of becoming a journalist. She loved science. She pursued her ambitions at nearby Allegheny College, being given the run of Professor Jeremiah Tingley’s laboratory. At that time though, the only careers open for women were teaching and missionary work. Having her doubts about God, she chose teaching and accepted an offer to teach at Poland Union Seminary in Poland, Ohio. Teaching only lasted two years until she returned home to Titusville, set up her microscope in the tower room, and tried to figure out what to do with her life.

A visit by Reverend Theodore Flood led to a chance to work on science articles for women in The Chatauquan. She quickly mastered every aspect of the business, making herself indispensable. She became interested in the fate of laboring people and the growth of trusts. Her capacity to quickly master a subject, and write with clarity led to an endless stream of writing assignments until she felt she was no longer developing. She decided to risk all, move to Paris, research Madame Roland, and try to support herself with articles from Paris. She sold a short story and some articles, one of which was on the paving of Paris streets, and lived a more or less hand to mouth existence. Then Sam McClure came along and changed her life forever. He’d read Ida’s article on paving streets, and told his partner, John Phillips, “This girl can write.” First she freelanced and eventually joined the staff of the fledgling McClure’s which became the home of a brand of investigative journalism dubbed by its enemies, “muckraking.”

Emily Arnold McCully chronicles her rise at McClure’s. Much was due to her own writing talent. But there was a synergy between that talent, including her dogged research skills, and McClure’s dynamic (and sometimes erratic) character. McClure inspired pathbreaking journalism, while lacking real business sense. She wrote articles on Lincoln and on Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. McCully’s narrative describes the talented group around her and both the stress and fun of putting out the magazine. Perhaps at the publication’s peak, Tarbell was assigned the task to research and write on Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller, the work for which she was most famous and would eventually be published as a book, leading to the breakup of Rockefeller’s monopolies.

By 1906, the magazine began to unravel as McClure struggled with debt. While Tarbell easily found work throughout the remainder of her life, it was never quite the same and her writing never after achieved the same greatness. Her continuing challenge from then on was her family, supporting her mother and brother. McCully also explores what many consider the black mark on her career, her resistance to women’s suffrage and legal equality of women with men. Her views were complicated because she supported opportunities for women in education and work and championed the cause of women had no choice but to work, often in harsh conditions. But she didn’t think women needed laws to be equal, and worried about the effect politics would have on women.

Ida M. Tarbell lived until 1944. She wrote several more business biographies and a book on life after eighty, even as she struggled with the onset of Parkinson’s disease. McCully gives us a highly readable account of this life in full, written for a young adult audience. The book includes a number of photos of Ida and the people and places with which she was associated. While not a feminist, she demonstrated the possibility that a woman could equal men by the sheer excellence of her work. She was striking in not trying to have it all. Perhaps the closest thing to a partner for her was Sam McClure. He pushed her, even as she helped hold McClure’s together. McCully gives a well-nuanced account of this brilliant and complicated woman.

My Generation’s Failure

The YMCA where the signers of the Chicago Declaration of 1973 met.

It was a wet, cold day at the end of November in 1973. We were in the middle of Watergate. It was during this month that Richard Nixon said, “…people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” The Vietnam war was winding down. Arab cartels were limiting oil production. To conserve speed limits, the U.S. lowered speed limits to 55 mph. A group of evangelical Christians met in the basement of the YMCA in Chicago and hammered out a statement declaring the incompatibility of racism, economic materialism and inequality, nationalism, sexism, and unholy political alliances with biblical teaching. Here was the statement they came up with, titled The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. This is the statement in full, reproduced from the Center for Public Justice site:

As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world.

We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claim of God on our lives.

We acknowledge that God requires love. But we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.

We acknowledge that God requires justice. But we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust American society. Although the Lord calls us to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed, we have mostly remained silent. We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines. Further, we have failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic system.

We affirm that God abounds in mercy and that he forgives all who repent and turn from their sins. So we call our fellow evangelical Christians to demonstrate repentance in a Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation.

We must attack the materialism of our culture and the maldistribution of the nation’s wealth and services. We recognize that as a nation we play a crucial role in the imbalance and injustice of international trade and development. Before God and a billion hungry neighbors, we must rethink our values regarding our present standard of living and promote a more just acquisition and distribution of the world’s resources.

We acknowledge our Christian responsibilities of citizenship. Therefore, we must challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might–a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence which victimizes our neighbors at home and abroad. We must resist the temptation to make the nation and its institutions objects of near-religious loyalty.

We acknowledge that we have encouraged men to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity. So we call both men and women to mutual submission and active discipleship.

We proclaim no new gospel, but the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, frees people from sin so that they might praise God through works of righteousness.

By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation.

We make this declaration in the biblical hope that Christ is coming to consummate the Kingdom and we accept his claim on our total discipleship until he comes.

November 25, 1973

I came across this statement recently in something I was reading, and it was the saddest page I’ve read in a long time. It was an indictment of the failures of my generation.

I was a college sophomore in November of 1973. I learned of this statement, and a similar one at Lausanne 74 the following summer during the summer of 1974. This statement expressed the rallying cry of my generation of young evangelicals, written by a group barely a few years older than I was.

Here I am 47 plus years later. I’m dismayed by the continued complicity of white evangelicalism in the racist divisions in our country. I’m dismayed by the unholy alliance of at least three-quarters of white evangelicalism with one political party. I’m dismayed at the rise of Christian nationalism. I’m dismayed by story after story of abuse of women in Christian circles. I’m dismayed by the indulgence in and defense of economic materialism and inequity–more pronounced than 47 years ago. I’m dismayed by the trillions of dollars spent on endless wars. I’m dismayed by the climate change-induced dislocation and hunger faced by millions of the world’s poorest.

I’m dismayed because we knew better, and aspired to better. I’m dismayed because we used power to perpetuate and enlarge all these things we knew were incompatible with biblical teaching. I’m dismayed because instead of not proclaiming a new gospel, we are not interested in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ at all, preferring endless partisan political harangues, whether on the left or the right. I’m dismayed that about the only things that carry over and are as true in 1973 and 2021 are these:

We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claim of God on our lives.

We acknowledge that God requires love. But we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.

Perhaps most of all, I am dismayed at our unrepentance, at our hardness of heart. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a near coup attempt upon our government, natural catastrophes, and deepening social divisions that should drive us to our knees, but seem to only drive us to endless tweeting and posting, and trying to act as if life is “normal” in a most abnormal time.

I write this on Ash Wednesday evening. When ashes are applied to the forehead it is customary for the officiant to say either “Repent and believe in the Gospel, or more customarily, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday begins a season of self-examination and repentance as we look toward Eastertide. It is a time to renounce all earthly powers, all our idolatries of money and power and earthly kingdoms, and to acknowledge the gospel of Jesus, his death and resurrection for us as our only hope as we approach our own inevitable death.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that the white evangelical church will use the Chicago Declaration of 1973 as a statement against which to examine ourselves and as a call to repentance. And yet I do, because this is my “tribe,” those with whom my life and work has been most closely identified. But whether or not this happens for others, it will for me, along with prayer that the generation rising will not go our way.

Review: Sweet Land of Liberty

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, Thomas J. Sugrue. New York: Random House, 2009.

Summary: A history of the fight for civil rights in the North from 1920 to roughly 2000, focusing on movements, leaders, issues, and their expression in northern cities.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Birmingham, John Lewis, sit-ins, James Farmer, the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When we thing of the history of the Civil Rights movement, we often are thinking of the movement in the South. But racism and the efforts of Blacks to assert their rights in the North was just as real, even if the racism was not so out in the open. Thomas J. Sugrue traces this history beginning in the 1920’s, at the time of the great northward migration of Blacks, in a dizzying array of detail that I can only begin to summarize.

We are introduced to leaders: Henry Lee Moon, A Philip Randolph, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Attorney Cecil B. Moore, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, Constance Baker Motley, Reverend Albert Cleage, and so many others. Sugrue covers their contributions. Perhaps one of the most striking profiles was Roxanne Jones, who rose from poverty to street activism to the state senate of Pennsylvania.

We learn about the movements: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Urban League, CORE, the NAACP, with their attorney and litigation strategies, Nation of Islam, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and Mothers for Adequate Welfare.

Then there are the issues. Workplace rights. Equal access to facilities, a reality in the north, but often implicit rather than explicit. Open housing is one running through this narrative from redlining to exclusion from the Leavittown suburbs and restrictive covenants to real estate “steering” practices that preserved segregation in housing. There is the struggle for equal resources in schools, the struggle to desegregate, whether through redrawing school boundaries or busing, and all the pushback that occurred. He covers government employment programs and the ongoing income inequities.

Finally, because this happened in the North, this is a narrative that takes place in cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, and Chicago. This last I found intriguing because the issues, the patterns, and struggles were ones I see as I study the history of my own home town of Youngstown. Sugrue’s history parallels the history both in time and struggle what I’ve observed. In the struggle for history, local history is national history.

Sugrue’s history demonstrates how so much of northern racism is woven into the fabric of our cities: government, residential patterns, workplace policies, school systems, economic policies. It explains the necessity of the movements because these systemic issues would not be changed out of the goodness of people’s hearts. They needed to be protested, resisted, litigated, boycotted, and legislated. Gradualism and patience was not adequate to bring about change. Yet often the targets were subtler and tougher to call out, and invidious actions could be justified by what seemed common sense or even noble reasons, always aiming to preserve the status quo.

We must face what is broken before we can repair and heal it. It seemed so much of this history was one of efforts to call out what was broken, and the stubborn refusal, or if that was not possible, the superficial steps to heal deep grievances and brokenness. We should not be surprised by the protests we saw in our streets in 2020. Within the frame of this book, they were simply one more expression of a hundred year history going back to the great Black northward migration in the first decades of the last century, one more cry to be heard, one more plea that we embark on the hard work of justice it takes to truly become the sweet land of liberty of which we sing.

Review: Ecology and the Bible

Ecology and the Bible, Frédéric Baudin. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A study of the biblical material on ecology, and how it bears on our current crises.

Imagine an art patron leaving a priceless Cezanne in your care. You fail to dust it, leave it in the sun, allow your children to play underneath it leading to inevitable damage. It is irreparably damaged and you turn the painting toward the wall. Then the owner returns. The author of this book suggests this as an analogy for our care of the creation God has entrusted to us.

The aim of this work is to consider our present ecological crisis in the light of scripture, particularly in light of God’s mandate for human beings. Baudin begins with considering Genesis 1:28 and our stewardship mandate. He looks at the words used that underline our role to properly manage God’s creation, an earthly temple we guard and serve, language used for those who do this later on in Israel’s temple. Instead of exercising proper dominion, they submit to the serpent, and begin, as fallen creatures, to misuse the creation. In various ways, we exceed the laws and boundaries God sets for his world, including sabbath.

In the gospel, we are reconciled to the creation we had been alienated from, which is not an invitation to exploitation but care and restoration. The continuities and discontinuities between the creation and the new creation challenge us to not put all our hope in our work in this world while living in the hope that our work in caring for creation will matter in the new creation. Baudin discusses this eschatology in light of competing ideologies and various conceptions of the millenium.

Having considered the biblical narrative from creation to new creation, Baudin then turns to a discussion that moves “from theory to practice.” He explores the relation of economy and ecology, not merely in the etymology of the words, but how these interact in modern life, particularly in consumerism and advancing technology. He discusses politics on the global scale in which ecological decisions must be made. He turns to the efforts of Christians. and emphasizes the unique contribution our trust in the providence of God, shaping the tenor of our care of creation, putting God first, then people, and finally the welfare of the whole creation.

This work combines solid treatment of the scriptures, particularly apparent in the discussion of continuity and discontinuity in the New Testament. Given the work was originally in French, it reflects a European perspective. I would also note that whether it was an issue in the original text or the translation, the writing is characterized by the passive voice making reading more difficult. However the combination of solid treatment of scripture and the global perspective makes this a valuable work for Christians who would root their ecological thinking in scripture.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.