A short man with a neatly trimmed beard told me at the end of the worship service that he didn't want to go against the Word of God but that he did want me to read a note he had written. He handed me a twice-folded order of worship. I thanked him and placed the note in my suit pocket. He disappeared into the parking lot. I continued to visit with congregants who were leaving the Baptist church.
BHO, Barack Obama's initials, is popular shorthand among Tea Partiers, Birthers and Muslim haters to remind them that Obama's middle name is Hussein, which in their world is a cipher for Muslim, Parham says.
At a luncheon in the fellowship hall, I slipped the note out of my pocket, glancing at it in my lap.
"Sir – BHO is a Marxist. He was raised a Marxist and his close associates are Marxist [sic]," read the note.
In case readers don't recognize the "BHO" acronym, it is code for Barack Hussein Obama. It's popular shorthand among the Tea Partiers, Birthers and Muslim haters, helping them to remind folk that Obama's middle name is Hussein, which in their world is a cipher for Muslim.
The note rambled about liberation theology before concluding, "Liberation Theology is a Marxist religion that uses the scripture as a mask to hide it's [sic] true self."
My first thought about the unsigned note was "good grief." My second thought was, "What did I say?"
I did a quick mental scan of my manuscript. Nope, I never referred to Obama. No, never mentioned liberation theology. Never referenced Marxism. Didn't quote anyone with a Latin American name who might sound like a liberation theologian.
Yep, I did quote Jesus.
Actually, I quoted him a lot. My sermon text was Luke 4:16-20 with a focal interpretation of verses 18-19, where Jesus cited the prophet Isaiah.
I quoted the text of Jesus saying, "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."
I did spend a few minutes examining the Greek word for "poor" in the passage, which is "ptochos."
"Ptochos means the destitute. Ptochos means the poor. Ptochos means the powerless. Ptochos means the marginalized," I said. "Too often when we read this word poor, we soften it. We redirect it. We make it acceptable."
As an aside, "ptochos" means the "abjectly poor or utterly destitute," although many Baptists interpret incorrectly the word to mean the spiritually lost. A host of Baptists are more comfortable talking about the spiritually lost than being truthful with the grammar and honest with the moral consequences of the grammar. So, we traditionally have gutted the passage of its punch.
I later noted in the sermon that Jesus announced the "year of the Lord's favor," the year of jubilee: the time when land was given its rest, slaves were freed and debts were forgiven.
Alluding to the Baptist World Alliance's 20th World Congress in the conclusion, I referenced the goodwill Baptists there who shared about their interfaith dialogue with Muslims, educational initiatives with the poor and efforts to empower the poorest of women.
How the man with the neatly trimmed beard went from Jesus' agenda to Obama's alleged ideology is a bridge too far for me. I can't connect those kind of dots with certainty.
The experience does deepen my belief that no text needs more attention in Baptist life than Luke 4:18-19.
Since many Baptists have watered down Jesus, severing his agenda for social justice from Christian faith, and drink from Glenn Beck's commentary on the authentic church, we need a renewal of Bible study. We need Bible study that notes the original meaning of key words to counteract the ideological gloss on the biblical witness used to justify reverence for a laissez-faire economic system.
A good antidote may be studying this text, memorizing the 51words in it and allowing it to shape our agenda.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.