Rosh Hashanah: 18 Words

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, celebrated this year from sunset on October 2nd to the evening of October 4th.  The term literally means, “head of the year,” but is celebrated over the first two days of Tishri, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar.  Why the seventh month?  It marks the completion of Yahweh’s creation and considered by many Jews as a new year for people, animals, and contracts.  

According to The Huffington Post, “The American Jewish World Service, a faith-based human rights organization, is welcoming in the New Year with a campaign to inspire hope.”  They are asking Jewish world leaders, and even those outside their community, to offer 18 words or less that will foster positive and productive change over the new year."

The Huffington Post explains why the number 18, “Each wish was limited to 18 words. Eighteen has long been a sacred and cherished number in the Jewish tradition. Through gematria, a system that assigns a numerical value to letters in Hebrew, the number 18 is linked to the Hebrew word “chai,” which means life. As a result, the number is associated with blessings and celebration. Some people give monetary gifts in multiples of 18, with the intention of blessing the recipient with a good life.”

Here are some examples…

“At a time of great divisiveness in our country, we need moral courage.” 

-Rabbi David Ellenson

“I hope that we rededicate ourselves to helping the less fortunate, and shine light on darkness.” 

-Rep. Eliot Engel, NY

“The battle to end inequality and injustice is timeless.” 

-Sir Michael Mortiz, Sequoia Capital 

“Remember: Native, African, Mexican, European, Asian, LGBTQ, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, Refugee, Americans.  Remember: vote, vote, vote.” 

-Mandy Patinkin

After reading these, and others like them, I was inspired to come up with my own 18 words of hope for the upcoming Jewish year. 

“World, breath deeply the peace of God – offering grace, love and hope to those oppressed, marginalized, and ostracized.” 

-Dr. R. Mitch Randall

What will your 18 words be for this year?


Black…lives…matter.  Hang on, simmer down, let’s think about this for a moment before you hit “send” on that email or click “reply” to this post with another hashtag to retort my claim.  Have you ever stopped to actually think about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and what it truly means?  If not, humor me for a moment as we really examine what this movement is communicating and combating.

According to their founders and leaders (Patrisse Cullers and Opal Tometi), #BlackLivesMatter does not mean that other lives do not matter.  In fact, they have been very clear about this notion.  The #BlackLivesMatter movement is simply asking the culture to remember that young black men in particular are flesh and blood, part of this great global community and beautiful diverse ecosystem.  

It has been asked, “Why do they even need to say #BlackLivesMatter?”  Critics of the movement like to respond to the saying with #AllLivesMatter or another specific hashtag that they think somehow lessens the statement.  FYI: It does not.  The reason the #BlackLivesMatter movement is so important is that America has never truly sought genuine reconciliation for its original sin of slavery, plus we simply ignore the current blatant institutional racism that persist in the country.

If you honestly think about this for a moment, you will begin to understand how this problem is overarching and demeaning.  According to U.S. News and World Report, institutional racism is a way of the life in America, “It’s probably time to dust off some of the profound, disturbing statistics on institutional racism in America that have been painstakingly chronicled by groups like the Sentencing Project, the ACLU, American Psychological Association, the Education Department’s Civil Rights office and many others” (Institutional Racism Is Our Way of Life, Jeff Nesbit, May 6, 2015).

In his article, Nesbit cites numerous statutes to back this claim…

Black children make up 18 percent of the pre-school population, but represent almost half of the out-of-school suspicions.

During K through 12th, black children are three times more likely to be suspended than white children.

If black children find themselves before a judge, they are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children, and make up nearly 60 percent of children in prisons.

After college, the jobless rate for blacks has been double that of whites for decades. A study even found that people with “black-sounding names” had to send out 50 percent more job applications than people with “white-sounding names” just to get a call back.

If black graduates get a job, for every $10,000 increase in pay, blacks’ percentages of holding that job falls by 7 percent compared to whites.

Institutional racism exist in neighborhoods and communities as well. About 73 percent of whites own homes, compared to just 43 percent of blacks. The gap between median household income for whites (about $91,000) compared to blacks (about $7,000) is staggering, and that gap has tripled in just the past 25 years. The median net worth of white families is about $265,000, while it was just $28,500 for blacks.

On the roads, a black man is three times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop, and six times more likely to go to jail than a white person. Blacks make up nearly 40 percent of arrests for violent crimes.

If a black person kills a white person, they are twice as likely to receive the death sentence as a white person who kills a black person. Local prosecutors are much more likely to upgrade a case to felony murder if you’re black than if you’re white.

Racial bias in jury selection is ridiculous – qualified black jurors are illegally turned away as much as 80 percent of the time in the jury selection process.

The result? About a quarter of juries in death penalty cases have no black jurors, and more than two-thirds have two or less. When a black person is accused of killing a white person – and the jury consists of five or more white males – the odds go way up for a death penalty verdict. Defense lawyers, and prosecutors, know that having just a single black man on the jury substantially changes the odds.

Black people stay in prison longer than white people – up to 20 percent longer than white people serving time for essentially similar crimes. They get much harsher sentences – black people are 38 percent more likely to be sentenced to death than white people for the same crimes.

And the color of the skin of the victims matters greatly in the punishment for capital crimes. Whites and blacks represent about half of murder victims from year to year, but 77 percent of people who are executed killed a white person, while only 13 percent of death row executions represent those who killed a black person.

Finally, if there is one glaring statistic that demonstrates our country’s overarching institutional racism, it is our prison system.  Accord to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people of color make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.  More specifically, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.  I know we don’t want to face this America, but that is blatant institutional racism right before our eyes.

Now, I understand this is a lot of information to absorb, but it demonstrates the reality we face.  When I’m faced with such a problem, I always like to go to the Scriptures to find a response.  In the Gospels, we find Jesus standing up for minorities and outcasts.  We witness him embracing people different than himself,  Samaritans and Romans.  We see him engaging sinners and bringing hope to those who had none.  We see him fighting an oppressive system that was leaving the poor and vulnerable behind.

In the end, Jesus lived out those words he cited before beginning his ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV).  If Jesus were standing in our pulpits today, I truly believe he would declare to his church, “Black…Lives…Matter!”

Homes: Open Doors and Broken Windows

Over the last year, I have been traveling more than usual.  From family get-togethers, through work related trips, to sending my son to college, my rapid rewards points have piled up quite nicely.  Here is the list of places I have been over the last nine months: Ghana (1), Boston (5x), Washington DC (3x), Austin (1), Orlando (1), Greensboro (1), Joplin (1), and Atlanta (2).  Each of these trips were meaningful and important in their own way, but the one thing that remained consistent through them all was the great relief I felt when I returned to my family and friends.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”  There is something magical about returning home after a long trip.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Missy and the boys have never rolled out the red carpet, waved palm leaves, or sang praises honoring my return.  However, the smell of pork tenderloin in the oven and the sounds of homework being completed by rap music fill my heart and soul.  

Sadly, however, not everyone has a home like mine.  According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, violence by family members or close friends is on the rise.  One in three women and one and four men have been victims of violence by an intimate partner, while one in five women and one in seven men have been victims of severe physical violence.   For children, one in fifteen children are exposed to violence each year, while 90% of these children have been eye witnesses to violent attacks (  

My heart breaks when I think about families suffering in silence, as anger and violence begins to take over their homes.  At NorthHaven, we have started a monthly gathering called, Family Matters.  During the meeting, we leave the topics open for discussion which has led to a variety of conversations.  Most have been pretty docile, but there are times when you catch a glimpse or hear a story that breaks your heart.  As the church, we are called to pray for these families, but we are also called to take them into our fold and let them experience the love of home.

In a world that often feels dark and where people feel alone, the church can be a home for them to discover love, acceptance, and hope for a better tomorrow.  The Gospel can still be the Gospel if the church chooses to enact it in our ministries and relationships.   In other words, we need to offer more open doors and help fix broken windows  

A Mother’s Letter to Her Son: My. Heart. Hurts.

Guest blogger, J'Nell Lane, NorthHaven Day School Teacher….

My heart hurts. I am a Caucasian-American woman. I am a wife, to a wonderful African-American man. I am a mother, to two beautiful bi-racial children, one who happens to be a little 3 year old boy. You may ask, why does my heart hurt? When actually, the question of the day is, why would my heart not heart?

My heart hurts deeply as I watch the many stories pouring from our media outlets. Each day, there is a new hash tag. Each day, a new family and a new city are plastered over the media. This is not about #blacklivesmatter, #bluelivesmatter, #alllivesmatter, or any other hash tag that has been put out there. For me, this is about #HumanRaceMatters.

My Dearest Son,

From the moment I first held you, your beautiful caramel skin and your big brown eyes captured my heart. Your black curly hair was so soft and I loved smelling it and feeling your soft curls. Your dad and I have raised you from day one, to have love in your heart and to always be true to yourself, no matter what crosses your path. When I look into your sweet face, I see: a son, a brother, a grandson, a nephew, a friend, a loving child of God.

You have been taught to love all those around you; to love Jesus; to always pray; to forgive others always; to never hold grudges; to have manners; to respect yourself, as well as others; to be a good citizen; to obey the rules; to respect the laws around you; but most important to never give up or settle in life.

Your dad and I have strived for you to know love and peace; to be the man that we know in our hearts that you can be. To stand up for what is right, no matter how un-cool you may think you look. But soon, things will change for you. Soon, you will no longer be walking the streets beside your parents. Soon, you will no longer be eating dinner with your grandparents. Soon, you will no longer be riding in the passenger seat of the minivan. 

Soon, your life will be different.

Soon you will have to be more self-conscience of what you wear; how you talk; the way you walk. Soon you will have to make a decision of whether or not to keep your insurance card in the visor or in the glove compartment, for fear of being mistaken for reaching for a “weapon” or whether or not to simply ask someone else to get it for you out of its location. Soon you will have to make a choice of how late to be out at night for fear of being targeted. Soon you will be judged on whether you have more black or white friends or whether you have a black or white girlfriend. Soon you will subconsciously determine whether or not to wear a hooded sweatshirt or a zip up jacket when it is cold outside.

Sooner than later, you will be out on your own, alone and being judged by all those around you. You will be faced with decisions and situations that I have never been faced with. You will be in a world that I never had to face in your shoes. But as your mom, I can only pray that you may never lose sight of the value your life has. May you always show respect to those in and out of uniform. May you always be true to yourself, as a man and as a human. May you always be the one to remain peaceful, calm, and to show love to all those around you.

Tonight, as you read this, you may be fearful but the Lord says in Isaiah 41:10 “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous hand.”

Tonight, and every night, from here to eternity, this will be our prayer for you: “Dear God, please protect my son from those who are judge-mental, from those who are racist, from those who look to cause harm. Please guide my son in his decision making. Remain steadfast in his heart, so that he will always turn to you Father. Lead him with your light, from the shadows of his darkest hours. Lord, just place your loving hands upon him each and every day. In your name, Amen.”

Love Eternally,
Mom & Dad

You see, I have had to think about and write a preview of what my life will look like with a bi-racial teenage son, who will be out in our world where you are viewed by the color of your skin. I have had to theorize about a conversation that will not take place for several years, simply because my son will be a bi-racial man, where there is a good chance that he will be profiled, due to his race.

Unfortunately, there will be moments in his life, where he will be judged simply by that. But I pray that his foundation in our home will prepare him to conquer it with no hesitation, because you see….God created the amazing human race. A beautiful mixture of colors, shapes, and sizes. A race where we were taught to love one another, and with love will come peace. So it isn’t just about one specific race or ones choice of career path mattering more than the other…to me it’s all about. . .


J’Nell Lane


Keeping Church and State Separate

Essays in Response to Oklahoma State Question 790

Stating the Problem

Oklahoma State Question 790 is asking citizens to remove Article 2, Section 5, of the Oklahoma Constitution.  Article 2, Section 5, reads, “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”  This set of essays will provide a clear understanding of the issues and an argument why eliminating Article 2, Section 5, would be unbiblical, historically demeaning, legally indefensible, and impractical to implement.   

Essay #4

“Practical Response”


For the sake of argument, let’s say State Question 790 passes by a majority of the voters and is upheld by the courts.  Afterwards, a logical question will arise.  How will this new relationship between church and state be administrated by state legislators?  Will Oklahoma need to establish a new department of government to oversee these new funding programs?  Who will determine which faiths will get funding and which faiths will be left in the cold?  Where will this revenue come from to fund these new faith based initiatives? 

Oklahoma Department of Faith Based Initiatives

Welcome to the Oklahoma Department of Faith Based Initiatives.  This new department of state government will need a budget, staff, headquarters, and policies to function.  With a dwindling state budget, Oklahoma will need to raise additional revenue in order to fund this new department.  Even more importantly, there will need to be a new set of policies that guide the implementation of this new church/state entanglement.

There will be a set of questions that will need immediate attention.  What will be the qualifications for churches or faith based organizations to receive funds?  Will there be certain faith groups excluded from funding?  If all faiths are welcomed, will there need to be an officer of compliance?  Will the churches and denominations of state legislators be excluded from receiving funds, because there seems to be a direct conflict of interest?  Will funding requests come with state mandates, especially nondiscrimination employment laws that churches have enjoyed for so long?  Will churches need to start paying state taxes as contributors to the system?  All of these questions, and many more, will need to be decided before the coffers of the state will be opened to churches and faith based organizations.

Open Door for School Vouchers

School vouchers for sectarian schools is the true reason behind the latest effort to strike Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution.  There is no question that certain churches and faith based programs would like to have state coffers opened, but the real goal of SQ 790 proponents rest on their hope that taxes can be utilized to pay for private Christian education through a voucher program.

With the elimination of Article 2, Section 5, state legislators will immediately begin crafting a school voucher bill.  Proponents like to think this idea is new to the country, but as history recalls this debate occurred in 18th Century Virginia between Patrick Henry and James Madison.  Henry argued that the state should subsidized private Christian education while Madison (and Thomas Jefferson to some degree) claiming that Henry’s proposal would be an establishment of religion.  Madison wrote his now famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments to defeat Henry’s effort.

School vouchers for sectarian schools continue to violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, so there would be a strong possibility that the voucher program would be ruled unconstitutional based upon the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  In addition, if the voucher program were to be upheld, can Oklahomans imagine how much more revenue would be cyphered from public education?  Funding for public education would be reduced yet again.

Welcome to the Oklahoma State Capitol’s Outdoor Monument Museum

At the heart of SQ 790 lies the desire for Christians to use the Capital grounds to plant a monument of the Ten Commandments.  This issue is what spurred the creation of this current state question, but there are certain applicable issues that need to be addressed if the state begins to permit religious groups to plant monuments upon the capital grounds.  

First, let’s address the religious component of the argument.  Proponents of erecting the Ten Commandment Monument argue that the monument is not religious, but demonstrates a legal history back to Moses.  Not religious?  Really?  Have proponents even read the Commandments?  Exodus 20:2-12 records the first five commandments that deal specifically with expressions of faith, 

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.  

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:2-12, NRSV).

Second, if the state permits one religious group to plant a religious monument on the grounds of the capital then they must allow all religious groups to follow suit.  Just imagine all the monuments that could possibly be standing on the capital lawn: The Ten Commandments Monument, Statue of Budah, The Hindu God Vishnu, A Mormon Bible Monument, The Satanist Statue, etc.).  It is beyond belief that Oklahoma legislators would permit these others statues, which in turn would produce more lawsuits leading to more loss of state revenues.

Religion Looses It’s Prophetic Voice

When the wall separating church and state begins to crumble, then a path towards prophetic silence follows.  As history reveals, when church and state are entangled the church ends of being a pawn of the state.  No longer do prophets rise up to right the wrongs of their culture (slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, etc.), but the state is now able to muzzle prophets through forced taxation and legal manipulation.  

No longer can Nathan raise his finger to David to declare, “You, O’ King are the sinner!” (2 Samuel 12:7).  When the wall of separation is demolished, the king/state has all the power.  Religious leaders turn into mere pawns of government, using their influence to manipulate their congregations to follow the whims of the state.  With money flowing into church and faith based programs, it becomes quite difficult for prophetic voices to bite the hand that feeds them.


In conclusion, the inability of the state to implement this new reality – absent Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution – is truly perplexing.  Government oversight and influence will begin to rise over churches and faith based organizations, the size of government will increase with a new department or agency, other state programs will be reduced as tax dollars are diverted, and the church will suffer as they become more dependent upon the state for funding religious programing.


Therefore, the logical conclusion to these essays is that any attempt to dismantle the wall that separates church and state is a bad idea for both!


Keeping Church and State Separate

Essays in Response to Oklahoma State Question 790

Stating the Problem

Oklahoma State Question 790 is asking citizens to remove Article 2, Section 5, of the Oklahoma Constitution.  Article 2, Section 5, reads, “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”  This set of essays will provide a clear understanding of the issues and an argument why eliminating Article 2, Section 5, would be unbiblical, historically demeaning, legally indefensible, and impractical to implement.   

Essay #2

“Historical Response”

Historical Foundation

Religious liberty is the great gift that Baptists have given to the world, while its protector, the separation of church and state, is the American contribution to world history.  Christians, and Baptists in particular, have been supporters of both principles.  The historical evidence presented gives indication to this statement, as religious liberty and separation between church and state evolve to become a foundation for both Baptist denominations and civil institutions.

In 1640, Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist church in America and author of The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience wrote, “An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ has come into the flesh” (Groves).  Williams has been credited with beginning the American movement to embrace genuine religious liberty.  His stance regarding personal conscience gave rise to the religious and civic principle of liberty for all to worship, or not to worship, the deity of their tradition.

George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas picked up on this notion and stood on the capital steps in Washington D.C. on Sunday, May 16, 1920, declaring, “There is a vast difference between toleration and liberty.  Toleration is a concession; liberty is a right; toleration is a matter of expediency; liberty is a matter of principle; toleration is a grant of man; liberty is a gift of God” (Hobbs, 128).  Herein lies the foundation for the principle of religious liberty.  Truett is correct in his comparison between liberty and toleration.  Liberty is not merely toleration.  Liberty is a God granted right that cannot be thwarted by civil or religious authority.  Liberty cannot be fully practiced with the watchful eye of ruling authorities ready to pounce upon anything deemed heretical or contrary to popular thought.  Liberty is part of the essence of the created being.  Therefore, humanity draws from this valuable component of God’s image.  Without it, humans become nothing more than drones of the state or ruling magistrates.  Religious liberty, in other words, is a gift from the Creator, an unalienable right for all citizens, and the foundational freedom for a healthy democracy.

This precious principle is a Baptist distinctive that has been vocalized and championed over the years.   It is biblically rooted in scripture, thus giving it a divine foundation for its purpose and implementation.  First, humanity was created by a free God to exist within a free society.  Second, no other individual, institution, or authority has the right to coerce religious belief and worship.  Third, radical liberty allows the citizenry the right to neglect religion without harm from civil authorities.  Individual freedom of conscience is at the core of religious liberty, thus permitting any individual the ability to come under conviction through the Holy Spirit and practice their faith without being required to submit to the dictates of civil magistrates or ruling governments.

Seeds of Religious Liberty in England

Roger Williams and George W. Truett were working from the foundation laid by English Baptists in the 16th and 17th centuries.  John Smyth has been described by historians as the first to establish an “identifiable” Baptist church of modern times (McBeth, 32).  He did so in 1609, in Holland, after facing sanctions and persecution from the English crown.  One of his main reasons for founding the Baptist church was to separate it from the Church of England, which was under the direct authority of the king and magistrates.  Smyth and his partner, Thomas Helwys, were staunch supporters of religious freedom and decried the stranglehold the magistrates in England had upon religious practices.  

After a parting of ways in 1611, Helwys returned to England and established a church in Spitalfield.  He was convinced that no person should have to flee their homeland due to religious persecution (McBeth, 38).  Shortly after returning to England, Helwys authored a work entitled, A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity (1612).  In his work, Helwys outlines a position for religious liberty.  Baptist historian Bill Leonard suggests, “He (Helwys) maintained that religious liberty was an absolute right not only for Christian dissenters and nonconformists, but also for believer and unbeliever, for heretic and atheist alike” (Leanord, 26).  King James the First did not share Helwys’ conviction.  Helwys’ bluntness on the matter landed him in Newgate Prison, where he eventually died in 1616.  

Colonial Struggles for Liberty

In Colonial America, Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 because of his stance regarding religious liberty.  He left Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island.  Leonard remarks, “Williams maintained that God alone was judge of conscience, and the state could not assume religious authority by persecuting either the heretic or the atheist.  He (Williams) repudiated the idea of a national church allied with the secular state” (Leonard, 73).  Williams’ Rhode Island became the first establishment for religious liberty in Colonial America.  

Religious liberty in Rhode Island attracted the likes of Ann Hutchinson and Dr. John Clarke.  Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts in 1638 for her assertion that she had “direct inspiration” from the Holy Spirit (Leonard, 74).  Her views on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit led to her expulsion from Boston.  Historians also contend the Massachusetts’ civil and religious authorities did not like the idea of a woman having any sort of authority over a man.  Hutchinson’s ability to exegete and explain the Scripture baffled many citizens in Massachusetts.  Therefore, the male leadership of the area decided if they could not outwit Hutchinson, they would banish her.  For the leaders, exhibiting control and power was more important than exploring the Scriptures for a better understanding.

Dr. John Clarke was another supporter of religious liberty who came to Rhode Island searching for freedom.  Dr. Clarke contributed to the formation of Rhode Island and traveled to London to request a charter.  His appeal would last twelve years, until finally it was granted on July 8, 1663.  Historians have claimed that the charter granted to the citizens of Rhode Island established the first purely “secular state” in modern times (Leonard, 76).  Religious liberty finally had a place to dwell.  Maintaining this sacred right would necessitate some kind of separation between civil and religious leaders.  

While religious liberty existed in Rhode Island, in other parts of the colony religious persecution was continuing.  Obadiah Holmes, John Clarke, and John Crandall were arrested in Massachusetts for preaching about believer’s baptism.  Eventually Holmes was publicly whipped for his part.  Mary Dyer was the first woman executed in New England on June 1, 1660 for preaching her Quaker convictions (Leonard, 83).  Under the governance of ruling authorities in the Bay Colonies, individuals fleeing persecution from the throne of England landed in America only to discover another oppressor.  Baptist and other dissenters’ stories served as essential evidence for the birth of a national policy on religious liberty.

Religious Liberty and the Revolution

More than any other denomination or religious group, Baptists in America were instrumental in lobbying for the inclusion of religious liberty in the American Constitution.  Driven by their passion for individual liberty and liberty of conscience, Baptists rallied together to express their position.  Isaac Backus and John Leland were leaders in the movement.  Each man brought his own convictions and fervor to the debate.

Backus was a New England Congregationalist turned Baptist (Leonard, 123).  Born in Norwich, Connecticut, Backus became a Baptist after the death of his father in 1741.  Bill Leonard points out that Backus’ life mirrored many other lives in pre-revolutionary America.  First, he experienced the First Great Awakening, a spiritual renewal which began in England and crossed over to the Colonies in the early 1700’s.  Second, he broke away from his home church, becoming a dissenter to the Puritanism of his youth.  Third, he participated in the difficult struggle for religious liberty.  Leon McBeth regards Backus as one of the most influential proponents for religious liberty during this era (McBeth, 259).  Backus served as a minister for fifty-eight years, writing thirty-seven tracts on theology and was commissioned by the Warren Association to publish a historical work on Baptists (Leonard, 123 and McBeth, 259).  

Working on the behalf of the Warren Association’s Grievance Committee, Backus promoted religious liberty in both the General Court of Massachusetts and the first Continental Congress in 1774 (Leonard, 124).  Some of the members in that first Continental Congress were so moved by Backus’ stand that they passed a resolution declaring congress’ desire for “civil and religious liberty” granted to every denomination within the land (Leonard, 124).  McBeth describes Backus’ efforts for religious liberty as a fight on two fronts; “against the British troops for civil liberty and against establishment legislators for religious liberty” (McBeth, 260).  

Through the work of the Grievance Committee led by Isaac Backus, Baptists were well organized to lobby for religious liberty.  They preached on the topic of religious liberty and practiced it through their public worship.  In addition, they “monitored government legislation to protect the interests of Baptists and others” (McBeth, 262). Led by Backus and the Grievance Committee in 1773, Baptist churches ceased paying church taxes and applying for exemption certificates.  Baptists argued that taxes were being used to support local congregations and ministers friendly to the magistrates.  Baptists felt this process was unjust and forced citizens to contradict their own religious convictions.  

John Leland led the charge for religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the state of Virginia.  Leland agreed with Roger Williams that freedom of conscience meant more than mere “toleration” from the magistrates (Leonard, 130).  His radical beliefs about freedom were not limited to Christians.  He believed people had a freedom to worship God and the right not to worship God.  Leland was not a wild-eyed maverick, opposing the state at every turn.  He proclaimed individual responsibility by being a good supporter of the state.  In his opinion, however, when the state governed from a religious viewpoint or meddled in religious perspective, the state crossed a line and fused with the church.  When this happened ideologically or practically, either the state or the church would suffer.

As the Revolution continued to sweep across America, two statesmen took notice that Baptist preachers and congregations were spreading the sacred messages of free conscience and religious liberty.  Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison combined their efforts to secure religious liberty for their home state and newly formed American government.  Jefferson wrote extensively on his personal philosophy that religious liberty should prevail and that both church and state should be separated. 

The metaphor that Thomas Jefferson chose to use in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association on New Year’s Day, 1802, has been an object of considerable debate (Dreisbach, 24).  Ever the master wordsmith and conscious of the rising criticism regarding his refusal to order days of thanksgiving and fasting for the union, President Jefferson thoughtfully constructed an appropriate response to the Connecticut Baptists who championed the president’s stance on religious liberty (Dreisbach, 27).  

After seeking input from Attorney General Levi Lincoln and Postmaster General Gideon Ganger, Jefferson composed his final draft to the Danbury Baptists (Dreisbach, 42-47).  The correspondence between him and his cabinet members reveals that the president’s main objective for the Danbury letter was to “sow useful truths and principles” among the people.  The president’s correspondence and choice of language in the final draft made his intention apparent.  President Jefferson clearly expressed his disdain that civil authorities would dictate the conscience of man and wanted the idea of religious liberty to germinate throughout the land.

The President’s use of the metaphor “wall of separation” has caused great difficulty in interpreting the First Amendment.  Prior to the Constitution, Jefferson’s adherence to calendaring days of thanksgiving and prayer while Governor of Virginia muddies the waters as to what Jefferson really meant when speaking about the “wall of separation” (Dreisbach, 56).  Dreisbach writes that the “wall of separation” between church and state is an eloquent yet misunderstood metaphor.  Detractors of separation between church and state argue his “separation” metaphor was specifically meant for Congress and a national church, therefore opening the door for state sponsored endorsements of religion.   In addition, those same detractors raise the notion that Jefferson was not even in the country when the Constitution was debated and ratified, as he was an ambassador to France during that time.  Finally, some people argue that Jefferson had no intention of creating a civil authority without any religious influence.  The wall, in other words, was to keep the state out of the church, not the church out of the state.

The arguments posed by detractors of separation between church and state are worth addressing.  When Justice Hugo Black brought Jefferson’s metaphor to the forefront in his opinion regarding Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the adjectives “high and impregnable” were an addendum to Jefferson’s use of the metaphor.  Dreisbach argues that Black’s interpretation of the metaphor has grown into Constitutional status (Dreisbach, 125).  It clearly is used as a marker for jurisprudence.  Yet, the wall to which Jefferson may have been referring is not a wall erected in the style of the Cold War, but that of a retaining wall around a property where neighbors can meet face to face.  While there is communication and contact between those on opposite sides of the wall, the wall is never breeched as detractors would like to conclude.  

In regard to Jefferson’s appeal for national separation and not state separation, conclusions made by detractors of separation are incorrect.  Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptists mirrors his progress for religious liberty within Virginia.  Jefferson was the author of the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Liberty, which became state law in 1786 (Ragosta, 223-224).  In the statute, Jefferson made clear his disdain for civil coerciveness regarding the human conscience.  His arguments are applicable for both national and state levels.  

The idea that the Jeffersonian wall of separation was meant only to keep the state out of the affairs of the church falls short.  The concept that the church is somehow the perfect warden of the state is far from reality.  The church has a difficult enough job of policing itself.  The church does have the benefit of being the conscience of the state – preaching from one side of the wall to the other. Yet, both church and state are well served when the wall is not breeched on an institutional basis.   When the institutional church and civil authorities step over the wall, both institutions are in peril.

History details the difficulty society faces when church and state merge.  When the authority of the church mingles with the authority of the civil government, the results are disastrous.  An extreme example can be seen in the Crusades against Turks and Jihads against the Christian West.  Another example can be seen when public school children of other faiths are left excluded as a majority of students offer prayers that are created by the majority faith groups.  Church and state suffer when the two are mingled, but ordinary citizens are the true victims of mingling church and state.

Jon Meacham contends that the American Gospel or America’s Good News is truly about the liberation of church and state (Meacham, 5).  Religion is able to be the conscience of the state without “strangling” it.  Acting as two independent agents, both are allowed to flourish.  The state is free from coercive religious dictates, enabling the state’s responsibility to preserve and protect every citizen’s liberty.  The church is given liberal freedom to convert humanity through the persuasion of preaching not restricted by civil statute.  Without the wall of separation intact, there might be a tendency for one to rule over the other.  Religious liberty protects the state from religious dogmatism and enables religion to act freely within society.

In a contemporary setting, many Christian Reconstructionists attempt to “Christianize” the American Revolution of 1776.  America was not created to be a Christian nation.  The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the “Bey” and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, passed on June 7, 1776, indicates as much.  It clearly states, “the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” (Meacham, 262).

This information does not mean there is no place for religion within the public arena or public expression.  America – championing all its citizens, religious or not – is a nation with a tremendous religious background.  At almost every meaningful moment within the country’s existence, its leaders have called for prayer.  During war and depression, Americans have turned to their creator.  The American people have a spiritual characteristic to them that seeks comfort when needed, but without the constraints of civil authorities dictating the conscience.  Individual citizens can call for prayer without making government officials high priests for the cause.

The American experiment centers on the message of freedom of conscience and religious liberty.  Neither a secular society run amok nor religious fundamentalists’ attempts to force or prescribe strenuous religious dogmas upon the consciences of other citizens must thwart America’s ideals in theory or practice.  The biblical principles of religious liberty and the separation of church and state must prevail for the secular state to maintain its objectivity for every citizen and for the church to maintain its influence in a world it seeks to reach with the Gospel. 

Church and state issues have recently been heightened in this country.  With the rise of the Religious Right and influential gains from strident secularists in American politics, a struggle has emerged over the wall of separation between church and state.  Whether to tear it down as the “Right” would like to do, or totally annihilate faith discourse like some secularists would like to achieve, the struggle is growing with each pressing issue.  Americans must decide the place of religion within this country.  Religion should continue to have a place and the opportunity to thrive, but not at the expense of civil liberties within public life.  

Religious institutions must remain free to practice their faith, but faith cannot be allowed to cause harm to innocent citizens.  The state should not be allowed to dictate the religious conscience of the church, but must also act for the best interest of the overall citizenship.  Religious institutions must maintain the right to believe as their consciences dictate, even if they are deemed wrong by a majority of citizens.  The religious institution does not have the right to force belief upon the overall citizenship.  For example, many Christians believe in the Holy Trinity.  A citizen does not have to believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to run for president, receive social services, or apply for employment in other words, to participate in any civic duty or opportunity.  On the contrary, the state does not reserve the right to require churches to set aside convictions.  Churches must be allowed to make belief in the Trinity, if they wish, a requirement for employment.

The tension between freedom and religion will always be present.  As Thomas Jefferson encouraged, as long as there remains a wall of separation between the two institutions both will thrive.  Church and state are two great institutions of this country, but for their greatness to continue they must remain free and separate from one another.  Liberty strengthens both church and state.  Religious liberty is the great gift of Baptists to the world, while the separation of church and state is the great contribution of America to history.  Christians, and Baptists in particular, must remain faithful to both principles.


The historical evidence pertaining to religious liberty and church/state separation clearly suggests that early Baptists and the Founding Fathers felt strongly about this issue.  Early English and American Baptists suffered at the hands of the state that was being controlled by the established church.  The established church was being funded through public monies, while Baptists and others were being fined, jailed, whipped, and killed for practicing a faith contrary to the established state church.

Therefore, the Founding Fathers, encouraged by Northern and Southern Baptists, adopted a strong stance for religious liberty.  However, they knew religious liberty could not truly be protected unless church and state were separated.  This wall of separation protected unlawful entanglements between church and state.  In the end, the Jeffersonian and Madisonian view of church/state separation in Virginia won the day over Patrick Henry’s establishment arguments.  

Now, Oklahoma faces the same question posed in early stages of American’s founding.  Will voters’s decide to protect religious liberty by keeping the wall of separation in tact?  Or, will the state wade into the murky waters of entanglements, placing religious liberty in danger as the wall of separation comes crumbling down?  If history has taught Americans anything, the wall of separation is essential if religious liberty for all citizens is to be law of the land.


Dreisbach, Daniel, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (Law and American History Series, (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2002).

Groves, Richard, editor, Roger Williams, author, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, For Cause of Conscience Discussed in a Conference Between Truth and Peace, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001).

Hobbs, Herschel H., and E.Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1978).

Leonard, Bill, Baptist Way: A History, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003).

McBeth, H. Leon, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987).

Meacham, Jon, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, (New York, NY: Random House, 2006).

Ragosta, John, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy America’s Creed, (Charlottesville, VA: Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2013).

Keeping Church and State Separate: Theological Response

Keeping Church and State Separate

Essays in Response to Oklahoma State Question 790

Stating the Problem

Oklahoma State Question 790 is asking citizens to remove Article 2, Section 5, of the Oklahoma Constitution.  Article 2, Section 5, reads, “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”  This set of essays will provide a clear understanding of the issues and an argument why eliminating Article 2, Section 5, would be unbiblical, historically demeaning, legally indefensible, and impractical to implement.   

Essay #1

“Theological Response”

Biblical Authority

Christians claim that the Bible is authoritative for their faith and practice.  The author of Psalms  19:7-8 writes, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.  The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (NASB).  In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul encourages, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Therefore, this essay focuses on biblical references supporting the concepts of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.   References are offered to build a foundation for each of these principles with the understanding that the biblical texts must remain faithful to their historical and literary contexts.  In addition, the texts must be applicable to the issues we face in a modern era.

Religious Liberty

When God created the world, the idea of liberty was breathed into it.  To live means to be free.  From creatures to humanity, God instilled in each the freedom to exist and roam.  However, when he kneels down in Genesis 2:7 to breath life into humanity, we are told the Creator breathes the neshamah (breath) of chayyim (life) into humanity’s lungs, implanting the life force of the Creator into the created.  Once humanity takes their first breath, they are free to live.  Even when placed into the garden, the Creator never restrains their freedom.  As a matter of fact, he even goes out of his way to warn humanity that an unrestrained freedom can lead to the temptation of dominionism, the practice of exerting power over God and others (Genesis 2:16-17).  

Herein lies the great paradox of creation.  Why did God breath freedom into humanity, only to warn them about freedom’s temptation of dominionism?  Why didn’t God remove all temptation enabling humanity to worship him without barriers?  Why didn’t he conform humanity into beings that could only worship him and no other?  Why?  Because God is love and love cannot be forced upon individuals or coerced into practice (1 John 4:8).  For humanity to be able to love, they must also be able to not love.  Thus, religious freedom is at the heart of humanity’s creative existence.

This notion of freedom-to-love persists throughout the entirety of the Old Testament.  From Abraham to the Prophets, readers of Old Testament Scriptures are witness to a fallible and sinful people falling away from God, only to return to him through love, grace, and repentance.  In one of the most poignant Old Testament passages, Moses warns the Egyptian Pharaoh, “Israel is my firstborn son, let my son go that he may worship me” (Exodus 4:22-23).  Yet, even when the Hebrews are free, God never stifles their freedom.  Again, humanity falls away by worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32), but God never interferes in their freedom.  For God, freedom and love go hand in hand.  

In the New Testament, John’s Gospel details the struggle between Jesus and the religious rulers, as they discussed freedom and conformity (John 8:31-59).  The Jewish leaders exerted power and control over others by their positions of leadership and a religious system that set uniformity and nationalism over personal faith and a diverse community.  They sought uniformity through coercion and conformity, because they possessed both religious and political power. Jesus claimed that true power came from God’s relationship with humanity, a humanity that was unique and diverse.  Jesus proclaimed God’s love for all people, freeing humanity to love him through relationship, void of coercion and conformity to a narrow religious system.  

Paul picks up on this notion declaring the importance of standing firm in freedom, without submitting again to the yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1, 13).   For the Christian, individual freedom was bought by Jesus Christ.  Paul argues against submitting oneself to the yolk of religious conformity.  Strict religious conformity uses coercion to mold believers into the likeness of others’ ideals.  Authentic freedom, on the other hand, allows the Holy Spirit to work in one’s life so true transformation can take place.  The end result should be for an individual to conform to Christ, not some human ideal.  Freedom stresses responsibility and faithfulness, while coercion emphasizes submission and adherence.  

For this freedom to remain a protected sacred right of humanity, then there must be a provisional ideal for this to remain a vital part of our society.  Jesus, more than anyone else, understood the dangers of religious and political entanglements.  Christians should never forget that the crucifixion of Jesus was at the hands of religious and political powers uniting to stifle a voice of love and liberation.  Thus, the separation of church and state should be foundational for all Christians that celebrate and champion the ideals of freedom.

Separation of Church and State

The principle of separation of church and state can be derived from the examination of the biblical narratives and teachings.  While no one text clearly expresses or defines the principle, there are many that allude to the importance of its practice.  A careful analysis of Old Testament history offers evidence of the dangers regarding the mingling of church and state.  In the New Testament, Jesus speaks directly to the matter while Paul embraces the proper role of government in the life of the believer.  With the scriptural foundation, separation between church state can be built as the principle that protects religious liberty.

Many Old Testament texts after the appointment of King Saul appear to regard church and state as inseparable, but Samuel initially resisted that movement. God’s prophet laments the notion that the people would choose a king to rule over them rather than God.   Walter Brueggemann states that their decision to understand their lives through a “theological reading” of life set them on a course that concluded many times in “a monopoly that (was) authoritarian, coercive, and occasionally totalitarian” (Brueggemann, 5).  This course of action by the elders of Israel led to many of the Old Testament characters’ misunderstandings about God and the coming Messiah.  Fusing faith and government set the stage for the context in which Jesus was born and carried out his ministry.

Throughout the exilic periods, Jewish people believed their national behavior dictated their current predicaments.  Thus, prior to Jesus’ arrival in Canaan there were wars and rumors of wars circulating.  The Jewish people were looking for a political, militant, and religious Messiah.  They believed salvation would come through the political efforts of restoring the earthly kingdom of Israel (Bright, 416-427).  Their focus was so centered on the restoration of Israel that they failed to seek redemption for their own sins.  They concentrated primarily upon the socio-political efforts they believed were important and de-emphasized the spiritual realities.  The Pharisees took advantage of this milieu and melded spirituality with a strict adherence to the law.

It was within this setting Jesus came into the world.  David Barnett notes the importance of Galilee in the cultural background of Jesus.  Herod Antipas ruled the Galilee-Paracea region as tetrarch from 4 B.C.E. to 39 C.E (Barnett, 112).    The corrupt taxation upon the people was oppressive.  Jews on the lower end of the socio-economical ladder were struggling under the heavy tax burden, while the Roman magistrates lived lavishly protecting the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome).  These situations led to the cultural tension of the region.  Jesus taught and ministered within this setting.

Jesus makes an interesting conclusion in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Associating wealth with Roman influences upon the region, Jesus seems to be addressing how power and wealth can consume an individual, leaving the worship of God as a side note.  Building upon this logic and combining it with the cultural setting, Jesus’ message could be directed to those Jews looking to overthrow the Roman government and restore the Kingdom of Israel.  Worshippers of God must make a decision.  Who is their true God?  Is their God the Creator of the Universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses?  Or, is their true god the enticement of power and rule?  

With the premise of revolt and revolution in the background, another text displays and offers a solution to the tension between religious zealots and the Roman government.  Jesus challenges his listeners in Matthew 22.  Two groups formed together to entrap him.  The Pharisees were a very nationalistic and theocratic group, longing for the return of Jewish rule to the land of Israel.  They despised the Roman invasion and occupation.  They clearly wanted Rome out of their lands.  On the other hand, the Herodians sought to establish Jewish governance under the House of Herod.  They felt Rome could offer them this possibility.  They too despised Roman rule but knew Rome had the power to influence the region for years to come.  The two groups were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they united to challenge and destroy Jesus’ reputation.

Their question is direct and pertinent to this argument, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  David Garland describes this question as being “fraught with danger” (Garland, 227).  A very loose answer could have doomed the efforts of Jesus and his ministry.  The trap was twofold.  If Jesus answered affirmatively towards Roman taxation, he would be seen as a traitor to the Jewish people (Worthington III, 411).  The high Roman taxes were a sore spot with any good standing Jew.  Yet, if he spoke against Roman taxation he would have been seen as a traitor to Rome.  That answer meant prison and possible death.  Either answer would spell certain doom.

Aware of the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ deceit, Jesus challenges their question and refers to them as hypocrites.  He asks for a coin.  They quickly produced a denarius. Their very actions demonstrate their hypocrisy.  Carrying and using a Roman coin displayed their submission to Roman authority.  Jesus builds upon this situation by asking them whose face decorates the coin.  They quickly answer, “The emperor’s.”  Yet, there is more to the image on the coin than just an outline of the emperor.  Above the image was an inscription.  According to New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, it read, “Divus et Pontifex Maximus.”  Translated to English, this means “God and High Priest” (Blomberg, 321).  

The passage in Matthew clearly states the dangers of combining faith and worship with the self-serving ambitions of the political process.  Jesus’ words give foundation to a separation principle.  He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.  This response exposes two dangers that were present in the question, as Jesus provides safety mechanisms for both.  First, giving the emperor his due certainly meant that taxation was unavoidable.  The government has the responsibility of governing the people, offering structure to society, and providing safety from injustice.  The means by which they fund these functions is through taxation.  Jesus clearly understands government’s place in the world and does not conclude that it is some evil looking to destroy God’s children.  The apostle Paul concurs with this thought in his letter to the Romans (13:1-7).  He writes, 

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.  For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.  Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Paul also understood government as a necessity for a social people.  For believers to maliciously thwart government in the name of God goes against the created order.  The government was created to provide order and structure, so being a citizen of this earthly kingdom suggests that Christians should submit themselves to its authority.

A question immediately arises though, “What is a Christian to do if the government creates and implements policy directly in contradiction with the Christian conscience?”  Historical evidence leads to the notion that non-violent disobedience is the course to follow.  An individual’s actions, however, are not separate from the authority of the government.  First century Christians refused to call Caesar, “lord.”  Yet their actions had consequences and they paid with their lives.  This path of resistance has even deeper roots in the book of Daniel (Chapter 13).  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship King Nebuchadnezzar, but understand their actions will lead them into the fiery furnace.  In the end, only an act of God brings about their salvation from the flames.  Through their peaceful resistance, the king and his subjects give recognition to God.  

The second danger Jesus alludes to in the Matthew 22 text is the danger of worshiping something or someone else rather than God.  Jesus’ doctrine of God is evident in his response to the Pharisees and Herodians.  His adherence to the Mosaic Laws is clear (Exodus 20:3-6), 

You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,  but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

For Jesus, there is no other God than his Father.  Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s helps create a barrier distinguishing one from the other.  Government has authority over civil existence, while the authority of God extends along the lines of faith practice.  When government and faith are mingled together for the purpose of either, both suffer.  Jesus had already made this claim in his teaching about wealth, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).     

Separation of church and state stands solidly upon the Matthew 22 passage and other biblical teachings.  Government has been created by God to govern the affairs of humanity, but it should never take the place of God, the worship of God, or the practice of faith in God.  Believers can be enticed to believe that faith and politics are a good match but, as Jesus wisely asserted, believers cannot have two masters.  The wall of separation between church and state provides a necessary barrier between the state and the church, so that one does not ever rule over the other.  


The Bible is clear when it comes to the importance of religious liberty and church/state separation.  Religious liberty is a gift of God, empowering humanity with the ability to love and to be loved.  In addition, we are free to worship God and practice our faith as our conscience dictates.  We need no other mediator than that of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, this sacred gift is protected when church and state are separated.  Jesus is clear on the matter, reminding us that we are citizens of two kingdoms.  Both kingdoms should be respected, but they operate at their best when they are kept separate from entanglements.


Barnett, Paul, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

Blomberg, Craig, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Matthew, Vol. 22, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992).

Bright, John, A History of Israel, Third Edition, (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1981).

Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. First and Second Samuel, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1973).

Garland, David E., Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2001).

Worthington III, Ben, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, Matthew, (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2006).

New Baptist Covenant

Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans, Dean of Morehouse School of Religion, asked the crowd gathered at the New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta, GA, "Are you children of Atticus Finch?"  The question hung in the room for a moment as Dr. Evans eloquently detailed the history behind Harper Lee's masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird.  Dr. Evans' question has been rattling in my mind ever since he asked it.  It's a question not only for each of us to ponder, but a question that should be posed to the church.

The brilliance behind Lee's novel was her ability to contrast the Old South with an emerging New South through the eyes of Atticus' children.  Jim and Scout witnessed and experienced the deep wounds of the Old South, both racial injustice and economic inequality.  Through eyes of innocence and purity, Atticus' children struggled with racist attitudes and unjust actions towards the black community.  In addition, and ever so subtly, Lee also points to how poverty mixed with a claim of superiority can lead to hatred and resentment.  In a literary stroke of genius, Lee demonstrated America's deep division through the untainted eyes of Southern children.  

The New Baptist Covenant is a challenge by former President, and current Baptist layman, Jimmy Carter.  Carter's plan is to offer opportunities for people of faith from different cultures to practice reconciliation.  By committing to what is being called a "Covenant Action," pastors, churches, and laypeople are partnering to bring together the Beloved Community.  The New Baptist Covenant is moving into a new phase of rolling up their sleeves and working alongside one another to address racial, social, and economic issues in their communities.

Just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed long ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, there remains the dream that white children, black children, brown children, and all children can worship and serve the Lord together as one body.  America has a deep, dark past, where the need for reconciliation is more than just an apology.  Reconciliation is a process of repentance, forgives, and justice.  So as we now begin to work together for this divine purpose of Christian unity, let the children of Atticus Finch rise up to repent of our cultural sins, seek forgiveness for those we have harmed, and implement justice so that all can live the dream.

Walk by Faith, Not by Sight

One of my favorite activities as a youth was watching horror movies.  Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Chucky, and Jason all had a special place in my heart.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to make a confession.  The movies and I had a love-hate relationship.  I loved the way the movies made be feel when I watched them, as though I were alive.  However, I hated the way they made me feel because I thought I was about to die.  Every time something terrifying would happen on the screen, my heart would start to race, my breathing would become labored, and I would close my eyes hiding my head under a blanket.  


The darkness served two purposes: (1) protect me from the bad guys and (2) create a safe place for me to breath.  The ridiculous irony of this scene was that the movies – and all the scary stuff associated with them – still played on my television screen.  The sounds of someone running down a streets or through a forest.  The terrifying screams of victims.  The suspenseful music with lots of violin.  All of it still played in my ears, as I kept my eyes shut and found solace in the safety of darkness.


The Apostle Paul once told the Christians at Corinth to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).  Strange, don’t you think?  Closing our eyes places us in darkness.  How are we to avoid obstacles?  How are we to retreat from weird and strange people coming our way?  How are we to veer away from difficult hazards?  How are we going to jump over potholes?   How are we going to stay clear of the bad guys?  Maybe that was just the point.  Walking by faith and not by sight means we cannot avoid such deterrents.  In fact, walking without sight almost guarantees we will walk right into them.


The Corinthians Christians were struggling.  They were a church divided.  They were being persecuted by outsiders.  Everywhere they turned, they saw scary stuff staring back.  Some of them were even asking, “Is following this Jesus worth it?”  So Paul tells them to close their eyes and take another step.  The scary stuff of this world will really never go away, but our eyes often deceive us.  Our eyes convince us that we are in danger, when the reality is life is not much more than a script playing out on a screen.  


Now, don’t get me wrong, present reality can be scary, but closing our eyes and walking by faith can remove the edge from that scary.  Closing our eyes can protect us from life’s slight of hand.  Closing our eyes actually helps us to take another step forward towards a better tomorrow, a tomorrow that God has been planning since the beginning of time.  We walk by faith and not my sight, because we have learned not to trust this world but to trust God.  


So, close your eyes, all you Jesus-followers.  Let the scary of this world come at us: Freddy, Michael, Chucky, and Jason.  Come one, come all!  Cancer, come on, we are not afraid.  Loneliness, we are not alone any longer.  Rejection, you cannot hurt us anymore.  Doubt, you are now only an asset to make our faith stronger.  Hate, we release you, for love has always been more powerful.  Debt, your stranglehold on us is no more, we will overcome.  Jesus-followers, we are walkers of the way, thus we close our eyes not to avoid the scary things of this world, but to see them for what they truly are against the magnificence of our faith in God.


Close your eyes and take the next step!


Under the Hood

Next month, my youngest son turns sixteen.  He will be receiving the family car, a 2005 Honda Accord.   This particular car has been handed down from me to my oldest son.  Now, it’s being handed down from my oldest son to my youngest son.  At first, my youngest was not too keen on the idea of getting a third hand car, but once we started talking it over his enthusiasm began to increase as we discussed a new paint job and new tint for the windows (not to mention the new stereo system with subwoofers his older brother installed a year before he left for Boston).


Over the weekend, I began the process of getting estimates on how much it was going cost to get this old, but reliable, car ready for its new driver.  I began with the new paint job.  Wow!  Then, I talked to a tinting company.  Who knew dark stickers cost so much?  Finally, I went to the mechanic.  Thankfully, everything that needed to be addressed was routine maintenance, but it was still going to cost a pretty penny or two.  After I spoke with my son about the costs, we formulated a plan.  We would start with the work on the engine, brakes, and tires, because as he rightly concluded, “It does’t matter what the outside of the car looks like, if nothing works right under the hood.”


“It does’t matter what the outside of the car looks like, if nothing works right under the hood.”  


In this one sentence, my youngest son captured a deep personal truth for all of us to ponder.  For what good does it do to polish the outside of our lives, if our hearts, minds, and souls are decaying?  How many of us neglect regular maintenance under our spiritual hoods, concentrating more on the worldly exterior for others to see?  Sure, we use new paint and shiny objects to hide what is truly under our hoods; all the while, more and more rust continues to mount as the years go by.   Our faith, our hope, our joy, our peace, and our love begin to falter because we have focused all of our attention on outward priorities, neglecting what’s inside.


When the inside begins to fail, it gets harder and harder to start our engines in the morning.  We get so busy and get going so fast on life’s highway that at times our brakes fail to work, sending us crashing off the road.  We roll down the streets like nothing is wrong, when all of sudden a blow out sends us swerving out of control.  And here is the sad fact of it all, many us are even aware of these internal problems. Our personal dashboards look like a Christmas tree displaying warnings: “Low Tire Pressure, find some room to breath; Service Maintenance Soon, find a friend or community quickly; Headlight Out, let God direct your path; Low Oil, let the Holy Spirit provide you peace.”


Jesus once said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? (Matthew 16:26a).  My fifteen year old son might say it this way, “For what does it profit us if we paint the outside of our cars, if our engines don’t work under our hoods?”  For the purpose of journeying through life, what’s under the hood is so much more important than what color paint covers the surface of our cars. May we all take time today to look under our hoods and offer the maintenance we need to move forward and live in faith.