John Calvin and the American Experiment in Democracy


United Church of Cloverdale

Sermon: The Theology of Liberation

Amos 2: 6-8

07/04/10

Greg Bentall

Before there was a Thomas Jefferson, before there was a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, before there was a John Locke, there was John Calvin.  John Calvin, the progenitor of the Reformed Tradition, of which we are a part, first propounded the modern notion of freedom and democracy that has been an ever growing force in western culture since the Sixteenth Century.  Although Calvin was a pastor and theologian, his writings did much to shape the modern world, and by the term “Modern World,” I mean everything since the year 1500.

Calvin opposed tyranny in all of its forms, whether it was the ecclesiastical tyranny of the popes and bishops, or the civil tyranny of the kings and feudal lords.  The Reformed Tradition, true to its Calvinist roots, has always been a political institution.  We are concerned with social justice, the ordering of society, the restraint upon tyranny, the recognition of divine dignity which is the birthright of every human being regardless of her or his worldly condition.

The birth of our nation was deeply and profoundly rooted in Calvinism.  Calvinism was brought to our shores by:

  • English Puritans
  • Scottish Presbyterians
  • Dutch and German Reformed
  • French Huguenots.

The Declaration of Independence was the annunciation that the thirteen united STATES OF AMERICA could no longer live under British tyranny.  This document was a bold expression of pure Calvinism, and a guiding force to shape the great American experiment is democracy for centuries to come, both at home and throughout the world.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But the democracy being created was not for all.  At least not back in the Eighteenth Century when these glorious words were written.  These “self-evident” truths applied only to land-owning, white males.  The sexism in this glorious document was quite intentional.  “All MEN are created equal.”   Women were excluded from the political process.  Also excluded were slaves and Native Americans.  These were considered to be less than human, and therefore were not considered to be endowed with “inalienable rights.”  In the counting of population, for example, a slave was counted as three-fifths of a man.

But these high and noble words have grown beyond their original meaning.  Having once articulated these lofty sentiments our nation has been propelled to extend their meaning.

  • The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment broadened the understanding of citizenship, to include freed saves, Native Americans, and people of foreign birth.  It also established the doctrine of Equal Protection Under Law, a principle that we continue to struggle to implement.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment gave the right to vote to all males, regardless of race or color.  It specifically extended the right to vote to former slaves.
  • The Nineteenth Amendment gave WOMEN the right to vote.
  • The Twenty-Fourth Amendment ended the poll taxes that had previously prevented many poor, especially minorities, from voting.
  • The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.  [Eve of Destruction:  “You are old enough to kill, but not for voting.  You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’.” 
  • The proposed Twenty-Eighth Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, has only been ratified by 35 states, and it requires ratification by 38 states to become part of the constitution.  Congress passed the ERA in 1972.  Because of the time delay the ratification process may be voided, even it this amendment were to be approved by three more states.  There are many who believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is actually unnecessary, as the issues addressed in it were already settled by the Fourteenth Amendment under the “Equal protection” clause.

One of the great realities of life is that we EVOLVE towards what we ENVISION.  Even if our view of democracy in the Eighteenth Century was less than adequate, the mere fact that we embraced democracy in PRINCIPLE has meant that we have been driven to an ever deepening understanding.  Where we focus is where we end up going.

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The forces of democratization, launched by John Calvin centuries ago, continue to impact the world and its people.  Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest has been instrumental in developing Liberation Theology.  Although Gutierrez is a Catholic, his theology includes much of Calvin’s teachings, particularly about the dignity of all people.

Liberation Theology aims to lify the poor and downtrodden out of their lives of poverty, misery and oppression.  It teaches that each person has value as a child of God, regardless of her or his worldly condition.  It teaches that all people should have access to the necessities of life, and to participation in the political process.  It tries to form community among all peoples and nations, all races and tribes, and all economic strata of every society.  It speaks to the yearnings of the poor and oppressed wherever they might find themselves.

Living in this country makes it hard to understand the poverty that passes for normal in much of the world.  I had some interesting discussions with the poor of many lands during my travels.  I was once asked by some church people in Mexico if poor people in the United States had cars and owned refrigerators.  I told them that this was mostly true.  They were shocked and amazed, for to them, owning a car and a refrigerator would make them wealthy.

Once I toured the garbage dump in Mexico City.  Many families and their children, literally hundreds of people, lived in the dump, and survived by scavenging materials to be sold for recycling.  The parents and children would walk barefoot on mountains of broken glass and rusted cans to find salvageable materials for sale.  Shelters consisted of tin and cardboard shacks, or even lean-tos, erected on top of the garbage heaps.  There were no schools, no sanitation, no clean water, and no medical care available.  And the worst part of this deplorable situation was that there was a long waiting list of families who were waiting to GET IN to the dump, because it offered them the prospect of a BETTER life.

I have worshiped with members of Christian Base Communities.  Such groups often meet in people’s houses to study the scriptures and pray.  In  Christian Base Communities it is required that each meeting end in some action item that will improve the lives of the people attending.  This might be planning a community garden, or finding a way to tutor the children, or providing for one of their members who are even more destitute than the rest.

These people learn from the scriptures, and from their prayers and meditations, that they are Children of God, and worthy of respect.

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When I was in college, preparing to enroll in seminary, I studied German and Greek.  German has long been the language of choice for all budding theological students.  German has been the language of theology for the past five hundred years.  Or, perhaps a better way to say this is that German has been the language of EUROCENTRIC theology for the past five hundred years.  But the Eurocentric model has become old and stale.  New voices from the Third World are now changing the axis and focus of Christianity.  If I were preparing for the ministry today I would study SPANISH instead of German.  This would be to read the emerging works of people like Gutierrez, who have brought freshness and urgency to theological studies that has been lacking in the old Eurocentric model.

The old, Eurocentric establishment, and especially the Catholic Church, is deeply fearful of the new liberation.  In 1984 and 1986 the Vatican issued edicts condemning the Liberation Theology movement as being Marxist in orientation, and therefore dangerous to the established order.  We need to remember that the previous pope, John Paul II, was a person who fought communism in his homeland of Poland.

But the Liberation Theology movement is anything but Marxist.  It is religious and not atheistic.  It stands for human dignity and freedom, and not political subjugation.  And when the movement advocates for such economic necessities as land reform and workers rights, it is grounded in prophetic Christianity and not Marxist ideology.

The irony for the Roman Catholic Church is that there are vastly more Catholics in Latin America as there are in Europe.  The three largest Catholic nations on Earth are:

  • Brazil
  • Mexico
  • Philippines

But is will be a long time before we find a Latin American pope, or any significant Catholic leadership from Latin America.  The old order will be slow to change, and resistant to the end of Eurocentrism.

But the winds of freedom and democracy are still blowing.  And this spirit cannot be held back.  In Christian Base Communities I found people who had discovered their worth as Children of God, and who had come to understand that they were worthy of full participation in the human community.  And once this message got loose, there was no way to stop its spread.

Greg

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