Lent 6: By His Stripes, we are Healed

In his great work, Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien describes the return of Aragon, the king of Gondor. Before entering the city, he fights a great battle outside its walls against the servants of the evil Sauron. The weapons of Sauron are incredibly destructive. As the wounded and weary are brought into the city, an old woman cries out,

Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said, in old lore, the hands of the king are the hands of the healer.  And so the rightful king shall be known. [1]

And so as the rightful king, Aragon, enters the city, full of wounded and weary souls, Gandalf, the Wizard, proclaims:

Let us not stay at the door, for the time is urgent. Let us enter! For it is only in the coming of Aragon that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House. Thus spoke Iorith, the wise woman of Gondor:  The hands of the king are the hands of the healer, and so shall the rightful king be known. [2]

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of The Lord of the Rings, we are introduced to Aragon of Arathorn, a ranger—a solitary soul—a man condemned to work at the fringes of civilization, fighting the forces of Sauron from the shadows in obscurity. Bilbo Baggins is at first afraid of Arathorn. In the end, he is revealed to be a king—the true king of Gondor.

Our Unrecognizable Messiah.

The story the Bible tells is not very much different. There was once a rabbi who had incredible powers of teaching, healing, and exorcism. To those who knew him, to the crowds, he didn’t seem like the Messiah for whom they were looking. He was not from an influential family. He wasn’t a lawyer. He wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t a member of the military establishment. He wasn’t even part of the religious establishment. He was an outsider. Yet, when the people heard him preach and saw his mighty acts, they would exclaim, ‘Who is this man?’ In Mark, the crowds ask

 “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits, and they obey him (Mark 1:27).

They could not recognize this Messiah but knew Jesus of Nazareth was no ordinary person.

The Human Condition

The Jewish people believe that we human beings suffer from poor health and physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional illnesses as a result of sin—as a result of the fact that we are not in a state of peace with God, nature, others, or with ourselves. This lack of shalom infects our happiness and the stability of human society. It is a sickness of the soul.

Jesus warned his disciples,

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 1028).

Jesus’s healings were, as the New Testament reminds us, signs that he is the rightful Messiah, the Anointed One who can and will deliver us from the greater ill of our alienation from God, others, and ourselves. Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophetic voice recorded in Isaiah:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, and there was nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Yet, surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:2-5)

The message that the Messiah will be a healer is part of what scholars call the “Servant Songs.” Over and over, Isaiah refers to one who is to come and who will be a faithful servant of the Most High. Some scholars believe these prophecies were intended to refer to Israel, but the church has always believed they referred to Jesus Christ.

Why is this Jesus of Nazareth our Messiah?

This weekend, we celebrate the central act in the Divine Drama of the Bible, the conclusion of the story of the Messiah God sent not just for the Jews but for all people. It is good to remember the character of this Messiah.

First, the Messiah entered into our human condition. Isaiah says, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot like a root out of dry ground” (53:2). There was an old Jewish proverb, “Can anything could come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Galileans like Jesus, were considered to be uncultured rural hillbillies. Jesus’ father was a carpenter. He was conceived out of wedlock. This is cultural “dry ground” as far as the Jews are concerned. If Jesus had been born in Jerusalem, the son of a high priest or a wealthy family, say the family of Caiphus, the high priest, well, it might have been reasonable to consider him Messiah. But that was not the case.

Second, the Messiah entered our physical limitations. Jesus, Isaiah 53 goes on to say, “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance, that we should desire him (53:2). David, the great king of Israel, is described explicitly to us, is having been handsome. (I Samuel, 16:12). If Jesus had been extraordinarily physically beautiful, it might have been easier to accept him as a Messiah. But he wasn’t. He was just an ordinary looking person—maybe a bit like Jethro Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies.

Third, the Messia experienced all our human problems. Isaiah says, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (53:3). It was the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would go from victory to victory, but this Jesus of Nazareth did not. His life was one of rejection and pain. He was not always victorious, respected, esteemed, and put in leadership positions. He failed, was disrespected by the leaders of the people, and rejected by the nation. It didn’t make any sense to the Jews that God would send such a Messiah. This was Messiah, who identified with ordinary people, with ordinary limitations, abilities, and the ordinary suffering of human life.

Most Americans desire to live in constant health and happiness. As a result, we also don’t want a Messiah who suffers, is rejected, is in pain, and ultimately dies. We want a Messiah born of a fine family who lives a life of glowing popularity and success. If we returned today, we would be just like the Jews of Jesus. We would not want a Messiah without affluence, physical attraction, success, and nobility.

That kind of Messiah is not the Messiah who came to Israel; it is not the kind of Messiah who will come to us. Our Messiah suffers what we suffer. Our Messiah enters our human condition and shares it. Our Messiah suffers with us and with the world. Our Messiah is the one who dies in our dying and rises again in our rising. Fortunately for us, our Messiah assumes our problems, who “is pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and suffers the punishment that we so richly deserve (v. 5).

Our Healing Messiah

Isaiah 53 reveals that the wounds of the true Messiah will heal us. This is the Messiah we so often reject. There in Isaiah, we have, in miniature, written centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the gospel’s message: It is by the life and death of Jesus Christ that our healing can be accomplished. Our sins, shortcomings, and physical and emotional ills can be healed based on his life, death, and resurrection. “By his stripes, we are healed.” Our healing is accomplished based on the work of another – based on the suffering of God in Human Flesh. What we cannot do and never could do, God does.  This is the good news of the gospel.

In Lord of the Rings, Aragon heals the man he will replace as leader of the people. When Faramir awakes, he says, ‘My Lord, you called me. I come. What does the King command?’ Aragon replies, ‘You are weary. Rest a while, and take food, and be ready when I return.” The woman beside Faramir exclaims

 King? Did you hear that? What did I say? ‘The hands of the healer I said.’ And soon the word had gone out from the house that the king was indeed come among them, and after the war he brought healing; and the news ran through the City.[3]

The hands of the king are indeed the hands of a healer. Perhaps you know someone who needs healing. Be of good cheer; the hands of the Messiah are the hands of a healer. Perhaps your family needs healing. Be of good cheer; the hands of the Messiah are the hands of a healer. Perhaps your business or your country needs healing. Be of good cheer; the hands of the Messiah are the hands of the healer.

Let us enter this Easter Season welcoming the one who suffered for our salvation.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York, NY: Ballentine Books, 1965), 166.

[2] Id, at 169.

[3] Return of the King, 173.

Lent 5: Avoiding Blind Eyes and a Hard Heart

People are always intrigued by the prospect of Jesus’s Second Coming. Some groups anticipate that Jesus will return, not unexpectedly but in a way they have already imagined. He will come as the Just Conqueror, riding upon a white steed and triumphing over the enemies of God. This view is widely promoted in popular literature about the Second Coming. Years ago, a popular adult teacher in one of our congregations fervently advocated this view, dedicating many weeks to teaching Revelation and the Second Coming from this perspective. The topic arose in a class I was teaching at the time. I have always believed, and still do that we cannot predict how history will conclude or how Christ will defeat evil. However, his first coming might offer insights into attitudes we should avoid.

Missing the Messiah

The Jewish leaders of the day “missed” the coming of the Messiah because he did not meet their expectations as to what the Messiah must be like and must do. Jesus constantly taught the people and did what John calls “signs,” visible evidence of his divine nature. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and changed lives that could not be changed otherwise. However, he did not raise an army. He did not support the religious status quo. He did not preach rebellion against Rome and any other Gentile rulers. Most importantly, he did not physically attempt to create an earthly kingdom of David. All in all, the leaders of the Jews and most citizens did not think of him as the expected Messiah.

After his triumphant entry, John records an exchange between Jesus and the people’s rulers, who were already plotting to kill him. Judas had already determined that Jesus did not meet his expectations and was becoming willing to betray him (12:4). The chief priests were also plotting against him and Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead (v. 10). Then, Jesus entered the city on a donkey as had Solomon the Son of David years earlier as the crowds cheered him (v. v. 12-18). This solidified in the minds of the leaders of the people their desire to get rid of Jesus (v. 19). It was near Passover, and Jesus’ fame was such that even Greek-speaking Jews had heard of him and wanted to meet him (v. 22). Jesus responds by prophesying his death (v. 24-28). None of this endeared Jesus to the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the teachers of the law, or the Priests.

            It is in this context that John records the following:

Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

For this reason, they could not believe because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”

Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him (John 12:37-41, emphasis added).

In other words, the false expectations of the leaders of the people left them blind to who Jesus was and what Jesus was doing in their midst. Their expectations had hardened their hearts to the Good News that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

Missing the Messiah Today

When asked about the signs of the Messianic Kingdom by a class member that day in the 1980s, I disappointed their expectations that I would talk about the Anti-Christ, the European Union as the New Roman Empire, the locusts as helicopters, and the rivers of blood at Armageddon, Christ coming in Clouds of Glory and the like. I responded that we should be careful about our expectations so that we do not mess up the Second Coming, just like the Jews missed the First Coming. Given all we know about Christ, I expect the Prince of Peace to come in Peace. If he has an “Army of Angels,” I suspect there will be no violence. I suspect that the God who is love will end history just as he has promised—by a victory of love over hate, peace over violence, reason over chaos and terrorism, justice over tyranny, and goodness over evil. In other words, I suspect without knowing that God will act as God often acts: in a way we can only imagine and could easily miss or misinterpret unless we are careful.


The Philosopher Charles Peirce, whose work I have reviewed in the past in these blogs, did not like the Revelation of St. John. He thought it an angry and bloodthirsty book describing a God in complete disparity with the God of Love found in the Gospel and Letters. [1] There is a point to what Peirce, who was reasonably devout, says. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the point is based on the same misreading of Revelation that I find in other writers: A failure to take seriously the symbolic nature of the book and the likely true meaning of the symbols.

As an example, the Robe dipped in Blood has on it the blood of the cross, and the sword coming from the mouth of the victorious Messiah is most likely the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Spirit of Love, for God is Love (Revelation 19:13-15). One day, I would like to write a complete piece on Revelation and the true meaning of the symbols used in the book to show people why we should not look for a “Warrior King” at the end who will reveal a God different from the God already disclosed to us as Jesus Christ. This underscores the need for open-mindedness and respect when interpreting the book of Revelation, as it is a complex and symbolic text that requires careful study and reflection—a reflection that cannot ignore who Jesus was and how Jesus acted and encouraged us to act.

As we come to Easter 2024, we might ask God to remove our false ideas of who God is and how God should act in history. During an election year, perhaps it is even more than ordinarily crucial for Christians to think clearly about the phrase “God is love” and its meaning. No one of us (certainly not me) knows “the times and the seasons” of God. Jesus tells us that there are some things known only to the Father.  “No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. (Matthew 24:36). Our job is not to know what God will do but to live with Faith, Hope, and Love amidst what God is doing now (v. 36). Lent is the season in which we take time to contemplate just how far short we fall of the Faith, Hope, and Love Jesus embodied.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Edward C. Moore, “Evolutionary Love” in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings (New York, Harper & Row, 1972), 237.

Lent No. 4: On A Mission of Love

My devotions this Lent have centered on the Kingdom of God and the surprising nature of the Messiah when he appeared. His ministry began like this: Early on, Jesus went home to visit his native city of Nazareth, where he attended the local synagogue, as was his custom. In Jesus’s day and time, when a visiting Rabbi came to a local synagogue, it was common to ask the visitor to read from the Torah and say a few words.

Jesus was on a Mission of Love

After being asked to read, Jesus opened the books of the Torah and read from the Prophet Isaiah, where it says:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the Year of the Lord’s Favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Then, he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the person who handed it to him, and in front of everyone, said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21b). Here, in just a few words, Jesus summarized why he came and what he intended to do:

  1. He intended to proclaim the good news of God’s love; and
  2. He intended to demonstrate the Gospel by caring for the needy, freeing people from spiritual bondage, and showing people the light of God’s wisdom. And that is precisely what Jesus did. He preached and taught the good news. He proclaimed with words of power a release for those in captivity to powers and principalities. He taught and demonstrated the secret wisdom of God.

The text Jesus read that day is part of a more significant passage from Isaiah 61—a passage that happens to be the passage I was reading on the day I began this series of blogs, now four years long, on political theology and philosophy. It begins:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and open the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

Then comes the verse that began my labors of the past years:

They shall build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations (Isaiah 61:1-4).

Christians do this by building God’s Kingdom of love in their lives and the lives of others.

The Kingdom Program of Jesus

How is the Kingdom of God to come into the world? How are we to repair the ruins and devastations of our society? As Jesus said goodbye to his disciples at the end of his ministry and the end of his last meal, he shared what they were to do: “Love one another as I have loved you,” and he described for them the content of that love, “Greater love has no one than this, that he give up his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). The method (the “how”) by which we accomplish the mission and ministry of Jesus is to demonstrate sacrificial love to others. The church of Jesus Christ is on a mission—and that mission is a mission of love shared with the world. That is the simple key to reconstructing our families, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, and nations.

The key to accomplishing Jesus’ mission of love is pretty simple: We have to learn to love the way Jesus loved, and that means we need to practice loving God and others.

This brings us to the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31). The “alls” in all this scare us. How can I love God with “all my heart,” “all my soul,” and “all my mind,” and how can I love my neighbor, whom I barely know, more than I love myself? We all sense that we can’t accomplish all this under our power, no matter how hard we try. That is where Grace and the Holy Spirit come into play.

Finally, there is this Great Commission: “Go you therefore into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 26:18-19). Our first thought is, “You mean God wants you and me to go everywhere in the world, live as itinerant evangelists, and preach?” That seems too much.

A former pastor of my former church, Bob Crumpton, whose funeral was Saturday, when he preached on this text, was helpful when he reminded us that in Greek, the form is a participle and that an equally good translation is, “As you are going….” In other words, “As you are going about your day-to-day life wherever I take you, make disciples.”) [1]Being on God’s mission of love is mainly being open to God’s leading and sharing God’s love as we follow God wherever we are and wherever we are going. It is a lifestyle.

How to Love the Way Jesus Loved

In this blog, I want to share some simple, practical things we can do to sense the love of God in our lives and reach out to others as part of God’s mission of love. First, let’s look at the big picture. There are three things we need to do to be about God’s mission:

  1. The first thing is to develop a deep love relationship with God.
  2. The second is to develop deep love relationships with others.
  3. The third thing is to put the love of God to work in our day-to-day lives.

Love God; Love Others; Put that love to work in our day-to-day lives: This is the key to sharing the love of God with others as we have seen it in Jesus Christ.

Practical Ways We Can Be a Part of God’s Kingdom Mission

            Once we have the big picture in mind, the next question is, “What concrete things can we do to be about this mission?” There are a lot of things we might do, but here are just a few: [2]

First, Have a Daily Meditation Time. If you want to grow in Christ-likeness, the first thing to do each day is to set aside no less than fifteen minutes, and possibly thirty minutes or more, to study scripture personally and pray for others. If you go to any Christian bookstore, there are many devotional guides that you can use to develop the habit of a quiet time. Secular bookstores have many such devotional guides.

Over the years, many people have begun by using Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest as their first guide. [3] The best way to begin praying daily is to make a prayer list and begin praying the names of the persons and needs on the list. After a time, you will add your names, and you may begin to listen to God silently, allowing God’s love to fill your heart.

Second, Grow Closer to those Closest to You. It is really hard to have a good relationship with God if you don’t have good relationships with those closest to you. Parents, spouses, children, and family are the closest people to us. And they are worth some time and energy so that we can develop better relationships with them.

Third, Be Regular in Worship. In most churches, on an average week, just over half of Church members attend. Worship is a weekly discipline that empowers us to continue in the Christian life. I liken it to filling up my car. About once a week, I fill up my car. It won’t run forever on that one tank, but it will run for a while. We need weekly communal encouragement in the Christian life and a weekly infilling of the Holy Spirit to keep going. If you want to be filled with God’s love, come to worship and participate with all your heart.

Fourth, Participate in a Smaller Group. As I mentioned a minute ago, we all need relationships to grow. We need relationships with spouses, children, parents, and extended family. We also need small group relationships. We need relationships of Agape Love with other men and women, other young people, and people with whom we can share our Christian walk, hopes, dreams, successes, failures, temptations, and the rustling of the Spirit in our souls. In many of my churches, we had Circles of Concern, Presbyterian Women’s Circles, a Men’s Group, small group Bible Studies, DiscipleBible Study classes, Reunion Groups, Life Groups, Prayer Groups, and other small groups.

Frankly, what small group or groups you are in is not important. What is important is that you are in one where you can share God’s love with other people.

Fifth, Participate in a Ministry within the Local Church. Those who have done The Purpose Driven Life study know that one essential of Christian growth is to have some ministry with others inside the local church. [4] It is in the local church, as we share God’s love with others, that our faith takes a big step forward. When we minister to others, we reach beyond the people we are like. In small groups, in family, and in Bible studies, we choose with whom we share God’s love. But, when we move out into ministry, we enter that time when God decides, and we have to love those whom God puts in our path – even if we don’t like them.

Finally, Be a part of Some Mission Outreach. Many mission opportunities are available to Christians to share God’s love outside the local church. My former church was a part of Soup Kitchens, the Memphis Interfaith Hospitality Network, Memphis Union Mission, and a ministry to children in schools and apartments near our congregation. We were part of Living Waters for the World and had active mission programs in Honduras, Ghana, Mexico, and the Philippines. We are part of the founding group for Casa Mami, an orphanage in Mexico.

Mission is where we reach out beyond the walls of our local church and share God’s love with those in need in some way. Mission is where we share Christ beyond the walls of Advent to touch lives with the gospel of life and with the love of God in Christ. I don’t know how many of our members are engaged in a mission beyond the walls of Advent, but it is a pretty large number, indeed a couple of hundred people. But that is not enough. Mission – reaching out to others in the name of Christ – is one more step in being a part of God’s Mission of Love to the world.


There is a lot more to building the Kingdom of God than one short blog can capture, and there is also more to building the Kingdom than any one person can do. That is why the church and real, authentic Christian community are so essential. Jesus did not try to live the Christian life alone. He lived in a community with the disciples. We are not Jesus, and we need the constant challenge, love, support, and encouragement of the Body of Christ even more.

Jesus went to the Cross as an act of love. He did so to offer a way for the human race to restore its broken relationship with God, other people, and the world. His chosen vehicle is finite, limited, and sometimes selfish people, just like you and me. His structure for accomplishing this mission is the church. As we enter the final two weeks of Lent, let us ponder the concrete things we can do to be more effective and open disciples of the one who gave himself for us.

Copyright, 2007, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] In Greek, a participle, which is the form used, can be an imperative (“Go!), but it can also be temporal (“As you are going”). That is the point that Dr. Crumpton liked to make. I develop this quotation from Robert  in Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (Richmond, VA: Living Dialog Ministries, 2024).

[2] Of course, there are many important things disciples of Jesus do. This is not an exhaustive list; it is just a beginning. I dealt with this in Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (Richmond, VA: Living Dialog Ministries, 2024).

[3] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for his Highest Orig. copyright, (Westwood, N.J.: Dodd, Mead and Co/ Barbour and Company), 1935).

[4] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002)

The Danbury Letter, Freedom of Religion and Speech, and Dialogue

This week, I decided to leave Lent for just a moment and return to a prior blog on the subject of Church and State separation. The origin of the expression “separation of church and state” derives from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association. In 1802, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote a letter to Jefferson voicing concern that their state constitution lacked specific protections for religious freedom.

In the letter, they wrote, “What religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Background to the Letter

To fully understand the concern of the Danbury Baptist Association, it’s important to go back into history. The concept of freedom of religion that we Americans take for granted much of the time, did not exist in Europe of their day. Originally, all of Europe was Roman Catholic. The state and the church existed in a symbiotic relationship. Neither was inclined to allow challenges to its authority.

The Protestant Reformation shattered the religious unity of Europe, leading to the emergence of two powerful groups: the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches existing within the boundaries of the various European States. Within the Protestant movement, there were divisions, one of which was the Baptist, a minority in Europe and the United States at the time, and often persecuted. Virginia, originally a crowned colony, had the church of England as the established church.

Religious Freedom. All Protestant groups feared that the United States would emulate Europe and create an established church. The Anglican church, of which leaders like Washington were members and which was powerful in Virginia, was a prime candidate. These Protestant groups were adamant that the United States did not have an established church.

Political Involvement. Of equal importance is the fact that the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church and the various kingdoms of Europe often resulted in the suppression of opposing opinions, religious and secular. The church in the state often worked in tandem to be certain that opinions of which one of them did not agree, were suppressed. In England, where many of the colonists were from, the Church of England took the place of the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation. There were strong connections between the church of England and the king. Views that were unacceptable to either were suppressed. The Baptist had been one of those groups. In other European countries, for example, France, protestant groups were also persecuted.

In the colonies, the churches enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom. Pastors from the pulpit would criticize governments, policies, and other matters. They defended their own theological positions, often using words that were extremely critical of their opponents. In particular, many of the protestant groups, criticize the Roman Catholic Church and any established church. Naturally, they did not want to give up this freedom.

One example is the American Revolution. Pastors played an important role in the lead up to the revolution, and many served in Washington’s army. As an example, in 1774, wto full years before the Declaration of Independence, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts stated:

…we cannot but acknowledge the goodness of Heaven in constantly supplying us with preachers of the Gospel whose concern has been the temporal and spiritual happiness of this people…and do therefore recommend…that they assist us in avoiding that dreadful slavery with which we are now threatened…[1]

Jonas Clark, Pastor of the Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, was a case in point.  He actively authored many papers recording the town’s position on liberty.  Without him, there may have been no “shot heard round the world!” [2]

The point is not to argue the precise details of the causes of the American Revolution or its support. Economic, political, religious, social, cultural, and other factors at work in the American Revolution. Nevertheless, churches played a role with other institutions in the circumstances surrounding the American Revolution.

Jefferson’s Response

Jefferson, who was by no means the most religious of the Founders, himself a deist, responded to the letter defending religious liberty:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. [3]

Several things about this response are immediately evident. First, Jefferson speaks of “natural rights.” He believed that freedom of speech was an inherent natural right of people that should not be interfered with by the government. Second, as a result, the government should not suppress matters of faith and worship or the public expression of views. Third, the government retains the right to enact laws and compel compliance for the benefit of society.

The Purpose of the Phrase “Wall of Separation”

Contrary to much current opinion, the phrase “a wall of separation” was not intended to indicate that religion should not influence opinion on issues. Instead, it was used to affirm free religious practice for citizens. In our society, the phrase is too often used to deny religious people the right to speak about their views in public life. It’s a mistake. One good example has to do with the run-up to the American Civil War in the North; pastors were among those most urgent about ending slavery. Another good example is the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the 1960s. Many Civil Rights Movement leaders were pastors who voiced their religious convictions about segregation.

This week, I wrote an old friend about a personal story related to these events. Not many years ago, one of those pastors, who was quite elderly, broke down in tears during a Presbyterian meeting. He had lost his job during the 1960s supporting segregation and couldn’t understand why people would not allow him to express his views on other public matters in our day and age. It was pretty touching. This pastor was accused of being a racist on the floor of the Presbytery over a matter unrelated to race. I was present that day and saw that pastor and others of his generation bow their heads in anguish.

The Practical Purpose of the Blog

We live in times of social unrest about many issues. There are divisions between secular people and among Christians concerning many matters of public importance. Abortion, sexuality, war, capital punishment, and many other issues divide us. I’ve argued in different places that the solution to this problem does not lie within our current method of handling conflict. Currently, we fight battles in government and media, elect the majority, and they oppose their views upon society. This is only the end of a wise process of public decision-making.

Over the last four years, I have been trying to promote what I call a sophio-agapic, or “love and wisdom,” pragmaticist approach that uses dialogue as a foundation for decision-making. In an unpublished book I am writing, I make the following point:

Many commentators have written on the lack of effective dialogue in Western Society today. In Congress and State Legislatures the degree of open hostility and unwillingness to compromise and dialogue about serious problems are endemic. More concerning is the fact that dialogue has become increasingly impossible in families, neighborhood associations, churches, and other mediating institutions and organizations. Even debate is ineffective if either no one is listening or, as is increasingly the case, everyone has made up their mind before the debate begins. A lack of authentic community dialogue results in poor decision-making and gridlock. It is also responsible for the increasing alienation of many people from the values of a democratic society. [4]

I might easily be wrong, but I believe that our democracy’s health requires that we return to the process of building community, discussing issues with respect for the opinions of others, allowing minorities to express their views freely, and seeking compromise. Public debate seeks a vote to finally determine an issue. Dialogue involves a conversation to bring clarity and a complete understanding of the options to the parties to a dispute. This consists of the potential for compromise among alternatives.

I had lunch this week with a friend who has different political and religious beliefs from my own. We were able to discuss some pretty significant issues. Neither of us was convinced of the position of the others. We did, however, come to some understanding and even drew closer in our evaluation of a political situation. This is the benefit of dialogue. Dialogue cannot wholly replace the give-and-take, the push-and-shove, the policy decisions, and the reversal of policy decisions that characterize politics. It’s not even a guarantee of decision-making. It’s simply a guarantee of a better decision-making mode and a better chance of avoiding policy errors.

In our nation, such dialogue will be between secular people and religious people and among various religions and sects within religious groups. Both secular and religious people will be convinced of the truth of their ultimate opinions about reality. They will also be confident of the truth about many views on social issues. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi reminds us, the search for truth always involves a public declaration of what one believes and the willingness to defend one’s intuition.  It also comes with the desire to examine one’s position and its factual and theoretical support and be willing to modify one position based upon new information. The purpose of dialogue is to facilitate that process.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Verna M. Hall, Christian History of the American Revolution, (Chesapeake VA: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1976), 402 found at https://heritageministriesky.com/2019/01/17/pastors-inspired-the-american-revolution-3/ (downloaded March 7, 2024).

[2] Id.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists The Final Letter as Sent” (January 1, 1802), downloeaded from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html (March 7, 2024).

[4] G. Christopher Scruggs., A “Sophia-Agapic” Approach to Political Philosophy:  Essays on a Constructive Post-Ideological Politics (Unpublished Manuscript, 2024).