By Jim Ginn
At first I balked when Jim Segaar asked me to write a blog post about Religious Liberty for the “Practicing our Faith” series. I believe religious liberty is the least understood, most controversial, and most misinterpreted of our Baptist liberties. And that is exactly the reason I decided to accept the challenge. Besides, it’s personal.
Religious liberty is in my blood. For as long as I can remember, my Southern Baptist pastor father was an outspoken proponent of the Separation of Church and State. He frequently voiced his concern over what he believed was the concurrent Fundamentalist take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the two primary American political parties which threatened the very essence of religious liberty in America. To this day, as a person of faith and a fortunate same-sex marriage partner, I am highly aware of the religious liberty puzzle. Increasingly individuals and institutions claim a right to discriminate against LGBT people based on religious objections. That hits home.
So what exactly is meant by Religious Liberty and its corollary, the Separation of Church and State? And why are they so important? Early Baptists in England and America experienced persecution “inflicted by religious zealots armed with the coercive power of government.” Even today the boundaries between government and religion are continuously tested. Former SFBC member, Charles Cates, provided an apt description. Charles is a member of the Religious Liberty Council of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) in Washington D.C., which our church supports through our denomination, the American Baptist Churches U.S.A.. Charles said, “… as Baptists, a commitment to religious liberty is part of who we are. Religious liberty is a gift from God, and a threat to anyone's religious liberty is a threat to everyone's religious liberty. Religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced by government nor inhibited by it.” The BJC adds, “God has made us all free…to make up our own minds about our spiritual destiny.”
Many in this country falsely believe that religious liberty should only apply to a narrowly defined group of Christians. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Muslim and Sikh communities in the United States have faced a disturbing wave of bigotry and outright hostility. From religiously motivated discrimination and attacks on existing and proposed religious centers to misguided congressional hearings, minorities are being unfairly targeted simply for exercising their basic constitutional right to religious liberty.” The truth is that religious liberty protections apply to people of all faiths, including Satanist, Wicca and other non-mainstream religions.
While the principles of Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State may seem very straight forward, practicing them is far from simple. Both systemic and individual actions are required. The Baptist Joint Committee works diligently to advocate for our religious liberty by providing education, influencing legislation, and participation in church-state litigation. They assist with interpretation of key issues including: the religion clauses of the U.S. constitution, free exercise of religion, church electioneering, religious displays, public prayer, public schools, and political discourse. Each of us can be an advocate for religious liberty. The BLC website (www.bjconline.org) provides learning resources for taking action.
The Separation of Church and State does not require a segregation of religion from public life. And it does not excuse people of faith from the call to do justice, which includes influencing public policy. Our church’s mission statement articulates our aspiration to “love and care for our neighbors” and to “know no circles of exclusion.“ We must also be prepared to wrestle with the fact that sincerely held religious opinions often vary widely on what exactly constitutes justice. We claim to have “no loyalties above those which we owe to God.” So do some of the people with whom we most vehemently disagree. According to the prophet, Micah, we are also required to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Perhaps we would do well to stand firmly on the sound principle of religious liberty for all while humbly showing kindness to those with whom we may disagree. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a country that protects our religious liberty. And with each individual act of support we fan the flame of hope for a better world.
(Quotations are from the Baptist Joint Committee website unless otherwise attributed.)
By Pastor David Kile
For nearly 400 years, Baptists have baptized people by immersion, symbolizing a changed life, and a desire to walk more closely with God, who has saved and redeemed them, and who calls them to worthy service in the new kingdom on earth and in heaven.
This practice reflects a major tenet of our Baptist Liberties, Soul Liberty, which can be defined as “shaping one's own relationship with God.” Soul Liberty is the conviction that every man or woman can enter into direct relationship with God without outside mediation. Baptists resist anything that appears to oppress freedom of the soul. Our practice of believer’s baptism arises out of our insistence upon Soul Liberty. No one, not even a parent for a child, can decide another person's relationship with God. Thus we baptize only after an individual has made a personal decision of faith.
C. Brownlow Hastings, a Baptist minister, teacher and biblical scholar, had this to say about Soul Liberty: “It is easy for us to yield our integrity and responsibility to some accepted authority: beloved pastor, honored teacher, influential book - even a specific edition of the Bible, respected parents, or a dynamic church. These all have their proper influence, but the final choice of belief and practice must be made in the secret of the soul's naked presence before God alone. "
Baptist leaders over the centuries have exercised their Soul Liberty when they discerned and answered the call to articulate a vision, and created bold plans to shape the future. Adoniram Judson answered the call to establish a mission in Burma. Walter Rauschenbusch saw a link between the gospel and social change in his ministry in Hell's Kitchen in New York City. Martin Luther King, Jr., looked beyond the pew of his church, to follow a call to address the needs of a whole people.
The question this Lent is: “How do we practice our faith and be true to Soul Liberty
in shaping our own relationship with God?” How is God calling each of us to practice our faith in 2016?
When I was in junior high school, my church school teacher gave each of us a copy of Charles Sheldon's book In His Steps. The story takes place in the fictional town of Raymond, where Rev. Henry Maxwell, the pastor of First Church, has a life changing experience in the death of a homeless man. The experience causes a great change in Maxwell. He realizes that Christians should be willing to sacrifice and consecrate their lives. He invites members of his congregation to take a pledge for one year to ask the question “What Would Jesus Do?" when facing every decision in their lives. The book goes on to depict the changed lives and stories of those who accepted the challenge.
Will you accept the challenge to “Practice Your Faith” in 2016? How will you shape your own relationship with God in a deeper, richer way?
C. Brownlow Hastings quotation is from Down By the Riverside – A Brief History of Baptists by Everett Goodwin.
By Jim Segaar
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
That is the most memorable line from the song Me and Bobby McGee, which was written by Kris Kristofferson and made famous posthumously by Janis Joplin. The song was inspired by a Fellini movie in which a free-spirited man grows tired of the feeble-minded girl who is traveling with him and sneaks away from her while she is asleep beside the road. Later he learns that the incident causes her death. He goes to a bar, picks a fight, gets drunk, and ends up howling at the stars on the beach.
“To me, that was the feeling at the end of Bobby McGee,” Kristofferson said in an online interview. “The two-edged sword that freedom is. He was free when he left the girl, but it destroyed him. That’s where the line ‘Freedom’s just another name for nothing left to lose’ came from.”
Freedom. On its own it is powerful, but one-sided. At times freedom seems to connote “freedom from” rather than “freedom to.” In the context of our Baptist Liberties it is easy to focus on freedom from creeds or freedom from hierarchy, but it may be just as easy to move on to freedom from faith or freedom from spirituality.
So we pair “freedom” with “responsibility.” We have a Baptist Liberties poster devoted to Freedom and Responsibility, and it says, “Every Baptist freedom can be undermined by irresponsibility. No freedom gives one license to act without boundaries. Freedom demands individual and collective responsibility.”
I recall a quote from Nelson Mandela that we sang in choir as part of The Peacemakers by Karl Jenkins. “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
I see other examples of freedom and responsibility much closer to home, all around us in our SFBC community. I think of the three people, the family, in the picture with this blog. Russ and Bruce had the freedom to make a family with Spencer. What a wonderful freedom, and what a great responsibility! What a way to practice our faith.
How else might freedom and responsibility come together as we practice our faith? The Apostle Paul had some definite ideas. In I Corinthians 8 he writes about the issue of eating meat that has been offered to an idol, which was a common practice in the First Century. He agreed with his audience that there was no harm in eating the meat when one knows that idols have no actual existence, that there’s nothing to them. But other people might still be struggling with the issue, and seeing someone they respect eating such meat might confuse them, even damage their faith. Paul asks if it is really worth eating the meat when doing so could harm others. Freedom and responsibility.
And how about my own faith? I’ve traveled around and experienced a fair number of churches, and I deeply appreciate how special Seattle First Baptist is. I am free here to be who I really am. I don’t have to hide half of my life to be a part of this congregation. I’m comfortable here. But comfort can lead to complacence, and to a feeling that “we at SFBC have definitely arrived.”
But we know better, don't we? Like President Mandela, I know that in matters of faith there are many more hills to climb. I am deeply grateful for the freedom we have here at Seattle First Baptist, the freedom proclaimed in our Baptist Liberties. But to be truly free I must accept the awesome responsibility that comes with that freedom. I must cultivate and feed my faith, attend to it, challenge it, and keep it vital and growing.
I must pay attention to how I practice my faith, and to the effect that my practice has on those around me.
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, unless we accept the responsibility that goes with it.
By Jim Segaar
When someone says the word “practice,” my thoughts often rush back to when I was 12 years old and one of my duties was to practice the piano. This meant spending time alone behind the closed doors of our unheated living room, plunking out scales on Mom’s old upright piano between shivers. I hated piano practice, and skipped as often as I could get away with it.
But practice doesn’t have to include unpleasant activities done in cold and isolation. This Lent we will explore a different definition for the word. In her book, Practicing Our Faith, Dorothy C. Bass writes: “Practices are those shared activities that address fundamental needs of humanity and the rest of creation and that, woven together form a way of life.” Practicing our faith, then, is how we live out our beliefs. Bass continues:
“When we see some of our ordinary activities as Christian practices, we come to perceive how our daily lives are all tangled up with the things God is doing in the world. … One thing about practices is that they are very down-to-earth. When people engage in a practice they don’t just talk about it, though words often play an important part. People at practice do things. They make gestures and touch one another. They raise their voices in song and open their arms in welcome. They recruit the ordinary physical stuff of nature into the practice.”
Bass and her contributors go on to write about a dozen practices that for them are core to their Christian faith, concepts such as Hospitality, Keeping Sabbath and Forgiveness. They present these practices as unifying threads that run through the centuries of history, uniting us with our ancestors in faith.
We will explore connections such as these in Adult Learning during four Sundays in Lent in the series titled Reclaiming Christianity. Many of us at Seattle First Baptist have been sickened by words and actions delivered in the name of Christ over the centuries, and some today reject being called a Christian. But other people who walk with us on issues such as social justice and the power of love are reclaiming Christianity and redefining what it means to be a Christian. We will explore the words and work of Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans and Marcus Borg, who have spoken at Seattle First Baptist in recent years. We also will study the work of theologian Emilie M. Townes and author Kathleen Norris, their collective passion for ancient words and traditions, and the practices that they see as core to being Christian. In so doing we will ask what their ideas might mean for us, both individually and collectively.
For many, Lent is a season of introspection and reflection, a time to ask ourselves how we can do life better. This year we are trying to observe Lent from a Baptist perspective. At times it can seem that our faith is defined more by what we do not believe in rather than what we do hold dear. But while we do not collectively subscribe to specific creeds or catechisms, we do ascribe to our Baptist Liberties, which illumine our path and are an inspired gift to other traditions. Each week in this blog and in worship we will examine a Baptist Liberty and what it means to Practice Our Faith in light of it. We seek to understand how to live out liberties such as Freedom and Responsibility, Soul Liberty and Priestly Liberty. Practicing these liberties can unite us in common efforts and help us more clearly see our place in the greater scope of Christianity, to understand how we are united by faith and practice to the saints who came before us, and to see our way forward more clearly.
Join us during Lent as we consider Practicing Our Faith, both individually and communally. To quote Bass once more: “Taking part in Christian practices can cultivate qualities we did not have before and open our eyes and hearts to the activity of God’s Spirit in the wider world. This may satisfy some of the yearning with which this book began, but it also introduces yearning of a deeper sort – a yearning for divine justice and peace for all.”
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist