How do we respond to yet one more mass shooting?

I would like to make some clear statements.

  • There are ways, tested and proven, to reduce gun violence in a nation.
  • The US Congress has blocked the implementation of such measures, and has even blocked the accumulation of data that would help us know how to implement programs to reduce gun violence.
  • The blocks imposed by Congress have been made on the founding principle of Liberty and Freedom for all. The underlying premise is that small government is better; and that government ought not to impose itself on its citizens in too many ways. Citizens ought to have the right and the freedom to decide if they will own and use guns.
  • Yet, we have laws against murder and violence. Laws that are unevenly imposed upon perpetrators for various reasons. Often perpetrators go free and innocent victims suffer unnecessarily.
  • President Obama has made strong statements regarding the perpetrators of the numerous mass shootings from the past few years. He has declared that these perpetrators have some type of mental illness that has resulted in unnecessary violence being imposed upon innocent victims.
  • In order to wade our way through this complex set of views and circumstances we need a guiding ethic.
  • Frankena, in his book entitled Ethics, espouses the following ethical basis for his decision making:

In a normative theory of moral obligation justice equals:

1) Dealing with people according to their deserts or merits

2) Treating human beings as equals w/ regard to the distribution of rewards and punishment

3) Treating people according to their needs and abilities: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

** 1 is balanced by 2; 3 is the case for special needs; unequal treatment requires justification

8) Given the reality that the US citizenry is uneven with regard to access to resources, levels of education, emotional maturity, and mental health, it seems essential that we adopt an ethical framework, with regard to gun violence, that addresses the abilities and needs of each. We need an ethical framework that allows for responsible, safe ownership and use of guns and prevents misuse of guns and abuse of gun ownership.

9) As a faith leader in our nation, I adhere to, teach, and preach the sanctity of life, as well as the need for equity and justice for all. Simultaneously, I am aware that the population is not even. For example, Children and youth do not have the maturity of an adult, and we do not expect them to behave as an adult. Those with disabilities, physical and mental, do not have the same capabilities and access to the world. If we, as a nation, do not formulate laws, processes, and standards that address the unevenness in the population, with regard to gun violence, we are in essence putting guns into hands of people that are not equipped to use them in safe, ethical, and responsible ways.

10) The current policies on gun ownership and violence in our nation are irresponsible and unethical. It’s time for Congress to take down the road blocks and move forward toward the implementation of proven processes that will reduce gun violence. In essence Congress is asking all citizens to risk their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, everyday so that every person may have equal access to guns.

11) The data speaks for itself, as of July 24, 2015 there were 204 mass shootings in the US within 204 days. The math on that is pretty easy. One a day!

12) Finally, let’s be clear, mass shootings are only the tip of the iceberg, everyday gun violence in US black communities kills many more Americans; everyday! .

Is this the way we want to live and die?

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD is Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West.

SELMA as Interpreted by One Standing Behind the Elephant

I am not an expert on MLK or LBJ, but I do have some expertise in hermeneutics (i.e., the art of interpretation).  There are many who have called into question the accuracy of the depiction of LBJ in the recently released movie SELMA, claiming that the movie depicts him as far too negative and that people remember the conversations between MLK and LBJ being much more positive; and thus seeking to discredit the movie and its message.

Interpretation is a tricky thing.  Two or more of us might sit through the same meeting, conversation, etc. and each of us come away with a slightly different interpretation of the content, meaning, and significance.   It is entirely possible that both sides of the critiques about SELMA are authentic memories about conversations had, and that what we are experiencing in the blogs and reviews of the movie are the differing perspectives then and now.

My hermeneutics professor in seminary use to explain it this way:  suppose we have four blindfolded people standing around an elephant, then suppose we ask each of them to reach out their hand and explore the entity in front of them and describe what they are feeling.  While each of them is describing their experience of the same object, the elephant, we might imagine that the experience of the person in the front of the elephant will sound quite different from that of the persons on the side or in the back.  There will certainly be some similarities, e.g., the texture of the skin, but there will also be some significant differences.  The person in front will feel the trunk, the person in the back, the tail.  What a different experience each will describe.

It is no accident that I have picked an elephant for this imagery, because the elephant in the room related to our critique of SELMA is the atrocities that have been meted out to African American citizens throughout their tenure in the land we now call The USA.  In particular, the atrocities meted out during the march to the  Pettus bridge in SELMA Alabama; the violence meted out by state troopers in response to the initial very well organized, orderly, and non-violent march toward Montgomery .  To view the blatant brutality administered by the troopers against the unarmed ‘Negroes’ was very difficult for me to watch.

I was 7 years old in 1965 when the SELMA incidents took place.  I do not remember seeing any of this on television.  I suspect I did not see any of it because my parents were protecting me from the extreme violence as they were want to do.  As I watched the reenactment of the brutal beatings that took place over a march that was intended to raise the awareness that ‘Negroes’ were not allowed to vote in the South even though the law said they had every right to, I understood in a new way the anger and actions of my African American colleagues that I have served with for 20 years.

While the movie SELMA seems to present LBJ in a somewhat negative light, in the end he does the right thing and pushes through a bill, the 1965 Right to Vote Act, that would strike down voting restrictions in every location and at every level.  Were the early conversations between MLK and LBJ as negative as portrayed in the movie?  Some say no, and I believe that is their honest recollection of those conversations.  But, clearly others interpreted them as somewhat negative, or we would not have seen them portrayed as such.  From one group we are getting the description of the front of the elephant and from the other a description of the behind.  I don’t believe I need to explain that metaphor any further.

What is clear is that it took several months, several conversations, several marches, and several acts of brutality to move the nation to bring change.  At one point in the movie LBJ tells MLK “the Negroes need to wait.”  MLK responds by saying “we can’t wait.”  Seems that was the message heard over and over again.  James Cone, in his recent book entitled, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, noted a similar conversation with Niebuhr.

From the ‘Negro’ perspective they could not wait any longer, because although the law had been passed that all adults had the right to vote, maneuvers had been put in place to prevent the ‘Negro’ from being among them.  Meanwhile, all the police, judges, and the overall legal and governmental systems were being run completely by whites, who were not amiable toward the ‘Negro.’  How long would it have taken had MLK and the ‘Negro’ population agreed that they should wait?  Would they even have the right to vote today?

Throughout the movie LBJ kept shifting the focus from the ‘Negro’s’ right to vote to alternative agendas, and eventually to the ‘War on Poverty.’   The War on Poverty is an important initiative that LBJ created and one that we are trying to resurrect today; 50 years later.  However, MLK and the ‘Negro’ population were not to be detained.  Had they not stood up for themselves and demanded immediate action it might never have happened.

Let’s not minimize the fact that LBJ did the right thing in the end and went on to create many more positive initiatives, but let’s also not minimize the reality that the 1965 Right to Vote Act came upon the heels of the non-violent resistance movement led by King and many others.  Had King and everyone that participated in the marches not stood tall and firm the bill never would have been pushed through.  SELMA has provided us a glimpse into the events that took place in the South in 1965 from one perspective.  I believe it is an authentic and valid perspective from one who stood blindfolded in the back of the elephant.

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament
American Baptist Seminary of the West

Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith responds here.

“No More Racist Police!”

On Friday, December 5, 2014 nightly marches began in Berkeley, CA in response to the decision to not indict NYPD officer, Daniel Pantaleo, for the fatal choking of Eric Garner on July 17. This decision came 19 days after the decision of the grand jury to not indict police officer, Darren Wilson, for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The nation is in an uproar, and rightly so. The sleeping giant has been awakened and s/he will not be returning to his/her slumber any time soon. I have spent the past 20 years teaching at the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, CA where my office window looks out into the infamous People’s Park.

For 20 years I have heard the tales of the great marches that came to be known as the free speech movement; and for 20 years I have wondered where that spirit of resistance had gone, until now.

On Saturday, December 6, 2014 I received a text message from one of my faculty colleagues while I was working quietly in my office. Dr. Jennifer Davidson had just arrived in the seminary parking lot, and seeing my car texted me to inquire if I would be joining the community that was gathering in Sproul Plaza on Cal’s campus at 5pm to march in protest of the legal decisions mentioned above. Up till that moment I had not been aware that a group would be gathering at Cal. I immediately responded with a ‘yes, meet you there.’ I left everything as it was in my office and walked the few blocks to Sproul Plaza. I marched alongside Dr. Davidson and Dr. Sharon Fennema, a faculty member from Pacific School of Religion, for about an hour and a half, at which time I was forced to bail due to a foot injury that had not yet fully healed. As I left the crowd that had gathered I asked Dr. Davidson to keep me informed via twitter so I could live vicariously through her younger and more able feet.

That night we both became hooked on marching—she in person for hours on end for the next 3 nights; me vicariously through her twitter feed.

On Monday night, December 8, 2014 Dr. Davidson was arrested along with 214 others in Emeryville. Those marching that night numbered over 1000. There had been no reports of physical destruction or bodily harm, but the group had shut down highway 80 for 2 hours as well as the local Amtrak. As the crowd marches they chant many things, but the main idea is always clear—“no more racist police!” The majority of the 1000 cry out for peace and non-violence, and Dr. Davidson is certainly one of these voices. On Monday evening 215 non-violent protestors were arrested and taken to Santa Rita jail to spend the night. They were put into cells that were overcrowded, had no potable water, no heat, no blankets, and iron beds with no mattresses. They were charged with Obstruction of a Public Space and Public Nuisance, both infractions.

Their arrest was intended to discourage future marches.

I am reminded of the words that Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke in one of his final radio broadcasts “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the hearts of the Salvadoran people;” and that is exactly what happened. There is a tipping point and the death of Romero tipped the scales just enough to unleash a force that could not be contained. I believe we reached the tipping point in our nation on Wednesday, December 3rd , when the grand jury decided not to indict NYPD officer Pantaleo. With that decision the scales were finally tipped unleashing a holy rage that will not be quelled. Dr. Davidson is hooked. She is home tonight, as I write this blog, resting, but will be marching again by the weekend. I am hooked, I cannot stop following the twitter feed, I want to know the most recent updates. I am resting my foot so I too can march. How this will end we cannot yet say, but the marches will continue until a significant shift has been made in our social order.

We can no longer tolerate contemporary forms of lynching. Why did it take so long? I do not know. But thanks be to God the tipping point has finally been reached.

Thank you Dr. Davidson for putting feet to your strong sense of justice; thank you for representing those of us who could not march. Thank you to everyone that has participated in the recent non-violent demonstrations. Let’s keep marching and tweeting until change comes!

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD, Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West at The Graduate Theological Union Berkeley, CA. Follow her on Twitter: @lasnow52; #ABSWbible; #LABCworship

You can follow Dr. Davidson at @momentofbeing. And read her account.
Berkeley Protests: Black Lives Matter
Talking About Violence is Not A Distraction


Mentor Preaching at ABSW

Last night was Mentor preaching night at ABSW.  The class, led by Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble, invited me to come hear their sermons.  Topics ranged from “Rest” to “Emerging Church,” “Discipleship,” and “Community Organizing/building,” to “Honoring Elders,” “Living Life Well,” and “Imagining the City as the Beloved Community”.  It was a joy to hear the sermons of eight students that had entered seminary fall of 2012 at which time I had them all in the Introduction to the Old Testament course.  They each stood with tremendous poise and presence and orated the depth of their thinking on their topic of choice for their senior projects.  I was so very proud and pleased!



LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD is Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West at The Graduate Theological Union

Left Behind Elitists

I have just returned from South Korea where I did an academic lecture on premillennial dispensationalism at Hoseo University. My very basic overview of the five aspects of Premillennial Dispensationalism: tribulational views, millennial views, dispensational categories, the Darby system, and biblical interpretive perspectives created quite a stir amongst students and faculty, which only goes to prove the impact that premillennial dispensationalism has had on the Christian community world-wide. I chose this topic in honor of the recent reissuance of the Left Behind movie.

Since the movie came out on Friday, October 3, 2014, there have been numerous blog responses. I point you to two in particular that reflect my own views on the details of the biblical text and its interpretation:

Nobody Is Getting Left Behind (Because the Rapture Is Never, Ever Going to Happen)
Why ‘Left Behind’ should be… left behind

Given these interpretations of the theology found in the Left Behind series I would like to take the conversation to the next level.

LeAnn's Book
The Dean has written this book on the subject of today’s post.

What has not yet been said in any blog that I have read is that premillennial dispensationalism is an elitist theology.

It purports that a select group, referred to as the “true church” will be whisked away by Jesus in what they call the “rapture” to become the Bride of Christ. The Bride of Christ is, in fact, understood to be equal to Christ, in that the union between Jesus and his Bride is likened onto the union between a man and a woman on earth, i.e., the two shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24).

Given this theological understanding, when Jesus returns (a second time) to judge the peoples of the earth and establish his 1000 year reign, he will, of course, bring his bride with him; so that, Jesus, the Christ, and his Bride, being one flesh, will reign together over all the earth and her inhabitants, i.e., those still remaining after the great judgment. Those remaining on the earth will be of course, the Jews, as their inheritance is earthly, but only the Jews that accept Jesus as messiah, and the Gentiles that have converted to believe in Jesus as messiah since the rapture.

Premillennial Dispensationalism is an elitist doctrinal belief system that purposes to exclude any and all that are not premillennial, pre-tribulational, futuristic, Darbyites, who hold to the dualisms between Jew and Gentile, and adhere to the hierarchical rules “established by the Bible” (their language not mine).

They understand their interpretations of the Bible to be “absolute truth.” Consequently, they understand themselves to have a special revelation and status given to them by God that places them in an elite camp.

The entire doctrinal belief system necessitates a separatist perspective and lifestyle, an emphasis on individual salvation, and adherence to a homogeneous set of doctrinal beliefs. It does not in any way foster tolerance for an inter-racial, inter-cultural, and inter-faith context, and certainly has no tolerance for many of the social issues we struggle with in our nation and world today.

Their hope and belief is in the vindication they will experience on rapture day.

If you are interested in more details on this doctrinal belief system as it is portrayed in the Left Behind movie (and novels) I point you to Are We Living in the End Times?: Current Events Foretold in Scripture . . . And What they Mean by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and The Authorized Left Behind Handbook by LaHaye, Jenkins, and Sandi L. Swanson.

May our Christian faith be a living faith expressed thru acts of compassion to all of God’s creation (Mtt 25:31-45).


LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD is Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West, part of The Graduate Theological Union Berkeley, CA.