Monthly Archives: December 2008

Bill Kauffman. Ain’t My America

Bill Kauffman. Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism. Metropolitan Books, 2008.

This is certainly an interesting–and encouraging–book. Bill Kauffman shows us that people on the right side of the conventional right/left political spectrum have resources in their political heritage strongly to oppose American imperialism. He traces how political conservatives from colonial days have opposed “foreign entanglements” in the name of democracy and national health. He even goes so far as to present his views as fully pacifist.

In doing so he punctures the myth that opposition to imperialism has been primarily articulated by leftists. Kauffman focuses on the 20th century and makes the totally valid point that it has been the great “liberal” presidents, members of the Democratic Party all, who have led our country into war–Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. He does not deny that there have been imperialist Republicans–William McKinley and Richard Nixon come to mind.  And he is harsh and devastating in his critique of the disastrous evolution of the Republican Party culminating in the Bush/Cheney takeover.

That is, Kauffman does not give us a Democrat bad/Republican good polemic. In fact, probably his biggest political hero of the last fifty years is Democratic senator and presidential candidate George McGovern. Before McGovern, the model of an anti-imperial national politician is Robert Taft, long-time senator from Ohio.

Kauffman agrees with the sentiment attributed to Barry Goldwater that in the end the “Old Right” (such as Goldwater) and the “New Left” (such as McGovern) may have much more in common with each other–especially in their critique of imperialism–than they do with the political “centrists”, neo-conservatives, and Cold War liberals who tend to be in positions of leadership in the U.S. and who are succeeding in driving our country over the cliff.

Kauffman’s argument should not be surprising to anyone who has some sense of traditional, “main street” conservativism in the U.S.  It is good, nonetheless, to read an articulation of this view from someone on the Right. He doesn’t mention Andrew Bacevich in the book, but I think Bacevich’s books The New American Militarism and The Limits of Power complement Kauffman’s case for politically conservative anti-imperialism.

Kauffman and Bacevich help us a great deal in challenging the necessary association of political conservativism with imperialism and militarism. Conservatives should be challenged to repudiate the U.S. policies that rely on leading with military intervention and the creation of a global network of military bases and arms sales–in the name of political conservativism. Both of these writers may help us do so.

My only serious criticisms of the book relate to its style. Kauffman is witty and cutting in his critique–however he is sometimes a bit too cute and unfortunately a bit cryptic at times in his historical analyses. The book would have been strengthened had he given more background and explanation for his various examples. That is, his path is at times a bit difficult to follow because it isn’t always real clear what he’s describing unless one has a lot of historical knowledge. And a few of the issues that he raises as examples are a bit idiosyncratic (his hostility toward the income tax and day care for example).

But this is definitely a book for which to be grateful. May Kauffman’s numbers multiply greatly–and soon.

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Social Criticism in the Book of Revelation

Often, the book of Revelation is appropriated for speculative, future-oriented, otherworldly purposes, closely aligned with reactionary politics (see the Left Behind books). Here is a paper arguing that instead Revelation is best read in solidly this-worldly, socially-radical terms. This paper, “Social Criticism in the Book of Revelation,” shows that Revelation is centrally concerned with a sharp critique of the power politics of the Roman Empire–and even more with the social alternative meant to be embodied by communities committed to following Jesus.

Triumph of the Lamb: Revelation Six and Seven

The book of Revelation continues to gain a great deal of attention–for better and for worse. Back in the 1980s I paid sustained attention to this amazing piece of literature and wrote a short commentary.  Here is the commentary’s discussion of chapters six and seven, from Triumph of the Lamb (Herald Press, 1987; reprinted by Wipf and Stock).

N. T. Wright. Evil and the Justice of God

N. T. Wright. Evil And the Justice of God. InterVarsity Press, 2006.

N.T. Wright, the British New Testament theologian and Anglican bishop, has become a bit of an industry. We may note this simply in how this rather slight book (less than 170 pages of text with generous white space throughout) found release in hardback and remains unavailable in paperback. Wright has continued to crank out books of this size and scope in great numbers while presumably also readying the next massive volume in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series (supposedly on the writings of Paul).

In spite of (or is it because of?) his extraordinary productivity, Wright almost always has worthwhile things to say–he certainly does in Evil and the Justice of God. We may wonder how much more useful and insightful his contribution addressing the important issues he takes up in this book might be had he spent more time on it. But we can be thankful for what we have.

The core of this book, and Wright’s distinctive contribution to thought on the problem of evil, is his chapter on Jesus’ crucifixion and how that provides a framework for Christian understanding of evil and of God’s response. I greatly appreciate Wright’s summary of the core theme of the Bible (“the entire Old Testament…hangs like an enormous door on a small hinge, namely the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12,” p. 46)–that God’s is working in a long-suffering way consistent with God’s just love to bring healing in the face of human evil. Jesus’ life that led to his crucifixion and God’s vindication of this life by raising Jesus from the dead tells us what we need to know about God’s creative work in the face of evil and what God expects from people of faith as their role in this work.

I like Wright’s theology a great deal. I like that as a biblical scholar he is informed and bold concerning the big theological themes and perfectly willing to address them. And address them he does, doing so in a way that keeps the biblical message at the center. He expresses a strong commitment to the Bible’s message of shalom. If he’s not quite a full-blown pacifist and social and political radical, he’s generally close enough (despite some irritating brief seemingly pro forma digs at various expressions of “liberalism” in the early part of the book when he is setting out our current cultural setting for addressing the themes of the book).

I do have one significant concern, though. In reading much of what Wright has published and in listening to him speak several times, I am left with the impression that while working very hard (and largely successfully) at placing prophetic biblical concerns at the center of his theology, he still does remain a bit of a Constantinian.  That is, for Wright, the church retains a sort of ontological privilege in his schema of salvation history. I would think that someone as immersed in the recovery of the prophetic message of the Bible would recognize how far Christendom departed from the agenda of biblical prophets (from Moses to John of Patmos). The community gathered around Torah in the Old Testament and the messianic assembly in the New Testament both stand in judgment of the church.

Certainly, Christians have the calling to work within their communities to recover and embody the biblical message of shalom and to fulfill the calling of Abraham’s descendants to bless all the families of the earth. However, the church as an institution has long ago forfeited its standing as the steward of this message. Wright’s sanguine assumptions about the church as the center of God’s work in the world weaken his arguments about the tasks followers of the biblical God face in embodying God’s justice in our present time.


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Christopher D. Marshall. Crowned with Glory and Honor

Christopher D. Marshall. Crowned With Glory and Honor: Human Rights in the Biblical Tradition. Cascadia Publishing House, 2001.

This is a splendid little book. Marshall, a New Testament scholar who teaches in New Zealand, provides a concise but thorough account how the Bible and biblically-based theology may strongly affirm a commitment to human rights. In doing so, he shows conclusively that modern notions of human rights such as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are fully compatible with Christian thought.

Along the way, Marshall does critique Enlightenment-based notions of human rights, but his intent is to build bridges more than pit Christian theological language against human rights language as is lamentably done by some Christians. Marshall’s strengths include a thorough understanding of the biblical message that allows him to provide an outline for a general biblical theology (Old and New Testaments) that serves as the basis for his affirmation of human rights. He helpfully focuses on the big picture in the Bible rather than isolated proof-texts.

Marshall also does a fine job in introducing the general arena of human rights thought as it has emerged in moral philosophy and political realities. In doing so, he gives Christians an excellent primer on the intersection of their theology with the public policy world–and he gives those unfamiliar with theology a good sense of how the Bible can be seen as friendly to their human rights concerns.

Yet another strength is Marshall’s economy of expression. His main text runs slightly less than 100 pages, but he is quite thorough in his discussion (beyond the main text we have 13 pages of informative endnotes and a 9-page bibliography). Certainly he could have said much more (and we could use a large tome on this subject). But what he presents is quite adequate and persuasive–Christians have every business strongly advocating human rights and human rights advocates from outside Christianity have every business welcoming biblical thought as part of their rationale for their advocacy.


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Michael Standaert. Skipping Towards Armageddon

Michael Standaert. Skipping Towards Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of the Left Behind Novels and the LaHaye Empire. Soft Skull Press, 2006.

One major contribution this book makes is to look critically and thoroughly at the political context of the Left Behind phenomena. This examination is illuminating and alarming. Tim LaHaye has a long history of right wing political activism–fueled in part by his paranoid theology. Standaert makes an important contribution both in tracing LaHaye’s career and connections and in making clear the political impact of the content of the Left Behind books.

This is a readable book that points to many resources to help buttress Standaert’s argument. He clearly is completely negative about LaHaye’s perspective and influence.  However, while his negative perspective comes through clearly throughout, he is reasoned and careful and documents most of his critiques.

It’s not a perfect book. Standaert is not a scholar. He writes well and has done significant research, but on many issues is clearly relying on others’ research–and not always the best research (for instance, he does not refer to Paul Boyer or George Marsden, probably the two most important historians who have written on American fundamentalism and premillennial dispensationalism).

Still, I would recommend this book as an important resource for anyone who wants to understand better why the Left Behind phenomenon is problematic. Beyond most of the critiques I have read, Standaert is especially helpful for his focus on the broader political and cultural issues at play.


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A. G. Mojtabai. Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas

A. G. Mojtabai. Blessed Assurance: At Home With the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas. Syracuse University Press, 1997 [1986].

Though this book was written over twenty years ago, it remains a fascinating portrayal of the link between futuristic eschatology and American militarism (the paperback edition, published in 1997, remains unchanged from the original).  Mojtabai, a secular Jew and humanist from New York, decided to pay an extended visit to Amarillo, Texas, in order to understand the people who make nuclear weapons. After she arrived in Texas she began to learn how intertwined the acceptance of the validity of such work was with Christian fundamentalism.

The book is well-written and for the most part lets the people of Amarillo tell their own stories. Mojtabai seems to be a good listener, able to evoke a sense of trust from the people she talked with. She does ask some pointed questions and lets her perspective enter the discussion at times. However, the book’s power stems most of all from her care in keeping her agenda below the surface.

What results, though, is indeed a powerful and frightening portrayal of American Christianity and the American scandal of pouring such an incredible amount of treasure (human and material) into the creation of an unspeakably evil arsenal of death-dealing weaponry. The shocking element of Mojtabai’s story arises from the overt complicity of theology in such a blasphemous undertaking.

Mojtabai finds herself wondering what’s wrong with the sensibility of these Christians who so blithely support the creation of such weapons of mass destruction. In doing so, she actually presents Jesus and his message over against the words of the Christians–an act of wonderful irony where the agnostic understands the gospel better than professing Christians.

“Going from church to church in Amarillo, the impression is unavoidable: some of the most ardent born and born-again Christians are writing Christianity off as something that did not, could not work—at least, not in the First Coming.  The conviction that mankind is bent on its own destruction, that goodness cannot succeed in a world so evil, the constant recourse to the Old Testament (to the most bellicose sections), the turning for betterment to the dire remedies offered by the book of Revelation, the only light left to the Second Coming—all this strangely negates the ‘good news’ of the Gospels and the First Coming.”


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Triumph of the Lamb: Revelation Four and Five

The book of Revelation continues to gain a great deal of attention–for better and for worse. Back in the 1980s I paid sustained attention to this amazing piece of literature and wrote a short commentary.  Here is the commentary’s discussion of chapters four and five, from Triumph of the Lamb (Herald Press, 1987; reprinted by Wipf and Stock).

Garry Wills. What Paul Meant

Garry Wills. What Paul Meant. Viking, 2006

Garry Wills is an American treasure–a great historian, especially of American presidents, a political and religious progressive, a powerful critic of many of the failings of hierarchical Catholicism, a perceptive commentator on current events, and a prolific writer of always useful books.  As a kind of sidelight late in life, he has written a series of books on the New Testament–one on Jesus, one on Paul, and one of the gospels.

The second of the series, What Paul Meant, provides a clear, concise, and informative look at the great Apostle. One strength of the book is its accessibility combined with its reliability. Wills is not a New Testament scholar, but he is attentive to some of the best of Pauline scholarship and does a fine job summarizing some of its key insights. Another strength of the book is Wills’ clear and forceful placing of Paul firmly in first century Jewish debates. He rightly, and importantly, asserts that Paul was not a “Christian” because such a thing did not exist until after Paul’s death. Paul was a Jew arguing with other Jews about the best understanding of their tradition–from within that tradition.

Somewhat of a weakness, in my opinion, is that Wills does write as a historian–even if one seeking (successfully) to speak to a general audience.  That is, he is more descriptive than prescriptive, focusing more on what Paul “meant” then, than on what Paul means for us now.  One somewhat distracting element of this historical focus is the energy Wills spends on debunking Luke’s Acts of the Apostles as a useful source of information about the historical Paul. In such a short book (again, its brevity is a strength for Wills’ intentions with this book), it seems too bad that he would focus on this negative tangent. I don’t necessarily disagree with his judgment of Acts as history (though I think he presents the evidence as more clear and certain than it probably is) so much as think that if one wants to focus on Paul’s own writings as the basis for reconstructing the central elements of his life and thought one should simply do so and not spend much time justifying the exclusion of Acts from consideration (it would be different should this book be aimed at a more scholarly audience).

Nonetheless, while I was disappointed that Wills did not reflect more on Paul’s meaning for today (which would have seemed natural for one who pays such perceptive attention to the American political scene), I would recommend this book as a great introduction to the historical Paul.  And, in the end, Wills gets it exactly right, in my opinion, when he links Paul with Jesus, summarizing the message of both: “Both were at odds with those who impose the burdens of ‘religion’ and punish those who try to escape them. They were radical egalitarians, though in ways that delved below and soared above conventional politics. They were on the side of the poor, and saw through the rich. They saw only two basic moral duties, love of God and love of neighbor. Both were liberators, not imprisoners–so they were imprisoned. So they were killed. Paul meant what Jesus meant, that love is the only law” (175).


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Is God Nonviolent?

It is difficult to think of a more difficult and more important moral issue in our world today than the issue of violence. For Christians, one important foundation issue that directly impacts our understanding of our own use of violence in how we understand God. Is it meaningful to think of God as nonviolent? Here is an essay that examines this question and argues that we can (and, indeed, must, if we hope to overcome the scourge of violence in our world) imagine God as indeed being nonviolent.