John Raines: Crossing Boundaries, Seeking Justice, Reaching Out for Humanity

With his carefully chosen words, deep penetrating eyes and generous smile, John Raines (Oct 27, 1933 – Nov 12, 2017) would regularly provoke his classroom by challenging students to question the unquestioned, to critically revisit the familiar and the normal by exploring different points of view, and even to think the unthinkable. “Why do you think our classroom setting is arranged the way we normally have it?” “Why would some non-white women across different cultures feel it necessary to use whitening lotion on their skin?” “Can you see identity as morally problematic? Are we supposed to simply accept our ‘thrown self’? Why?” “What does it mean to be human and to be religious in the era of aggressive global capitalism?” “How much is too much power of the State over its citizens?” “Is breaking a law always identical with committing a crime? Why?” Those were among the kinds of questions he would toss out to trigger discussion. Once the familiar had become strange through provocative intellectual conversation, together with everyone in the classroom, his smile would burst into laughter and become a kind of collective intellectual catharsis. More importantly, the jolt of “familiar becoming strange” perspective would last in the minds of many and their perceptions of reality would never be the same again.

John Raines was a very passionate scholar especially when it came to the issues of class struggle, global injustice, gender inequality, environmental problems, world religions and social ethics, race and oppression, civil rights and others. He was eloquent in converting complicated abstract theory into real, simple and clear explanation. A good number of his former graduate students, including Terry Rey, author of  Bourdieu on Religion, Imposing Faith and Legitimacy (Equinox, 2007; Routledge, 2014), which he dedicated to John Raines, and David Kruger, who wrote A Holy Mission to Minnesota: Viking Martyrs, Civil Religion and the Birthplace of America (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), admit that their readings of key thinkers such as Durkheim, Adam Smith, John Lock, Weber, Marx, Bourdieu, Foucault, Rawls and others was very much shaped in John’s classroom, where many former students even say they experienced “theoretical epiphanies.” John Raines knew how to cultivate the pleasure of learning through both sharp theoretical analysis and meaningful personal reflection. He did it with joy.

For John Raines, academic debate was like a sports game, which in its very reason for existing, should be enjoyable so that everyone present can learn and grow in the exchange of arguments. No wonder, his undergraduate and graduate courses at both Temple University in Philadelphia where he taught for more than forty years and at CRCS which he helped get started and where he taught the first generations of students, were consistently packed. Some returned from the previous years just to sit in and enjoy the discussion. With notes at hand, he made sure that certain targeted points were properly delivered in each meeting. Outside the class, he always made himself available for his students. Not infrequently some students still flocked around him and engaged in conversation long after the class was dismissed as he walked down the hallway with his worn brown leather bag. Whenever he was in his office in the Religion Department, his door was always open and students came one after the other to tap his mind. The Honors Professor-of-the-Year Award (2004) and The Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching (2005) he received from Temple University are only some proofs of his passion for teaching and his love for students.


John Raines was not just an inspiring professor. He was also a pastor and an activist. A distinct aspect of John Raines’ life was his great willingness and courage to cross boundaries. Born and raised in a privileged white family in Minnesota, as a young man, he crossed the racial boundary to seek justice for his fellow citizens. He risked his life and was thrown in jail several times because of his anti-racism protests. Newly ordained as a Methodist pastor in Long Island, NY, he was sent to jail in 1961 when he joined the “Freedom Riders”, a non-violent national protest consisting of about 400 activists black and white who traveled together on inter-state buses across the segregated Southern United States. As one of a group of three blacks and two whites, he was arrested and jailed in Little Rock, Arkansas, for “threatening breach of the peace”, i.e. challenging racial segregation in public facilities legalized under “Jim Crow” laws when they got off the bus together and tried to enter the “white” waiting room and sit there together. He was sent to jail again during 1964-1965 when he helped doing voter registration drives for African Americans in Mississippi and then in Newton, Georgia, where no one of the African American majority was  registered to vote. He also participated in the march on Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.

In John Raines’ own words, it was prison that gave him his second education, even his second birth. There he realized that, as a rich white male Christian pastor with a PhD from an elite institution, he had been part of the power all along. In jail, he was now outside power, even becoming the enemy of and being punished by power. It was the trip to the South and to jail that gave him “social-conscience epiphany” through which he first was able to see the world differently, not from the eyes of the “thrown self” each of us is born into but from the “chosen self” we each find through experience and ethical decision making. He was ready to pay the cost of the struggle for equal rights of freedom and justice for every citizen since he knew very well their value to humanity.

Breaking a law, for John Raines, was not identical with committing a crime. Why? The law that imposed segregation was a clear violation of the civil liberties guaranteed to all Americans by their Constitution. That kind of law was the crime and the only way to avoid multiple injustices imposed by that law was breaking it and exposing its criminal intent. On the contrary, not breaking that law was the criminal act! It was also this “social-conscience epiphany” experience of the early 1960s that led him to join anti-Vietnam War movement in the early 1970s. Conscious J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director for five decades, was using his unchecked power against civil rights and anti-war movement through sweeping domestic surveillance. John Raines and his wife Bonnie set out to put a stop to this abuse of power by the state against its citizens by joining a group led by William Davidon called “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” to carry out an seemingly impossible mission, namely, breaking into an FBI office, stealing important documents used by the FBI to illegally violate citizens’ rights and leaking them to the public through the press!

According to Betty Medsger, a Washington Post journalist who received the leaked documents from the unknown “commission” and published a story on her newspaper’s front page, the mission was accomplished on March 8, 1971, at an FBI regional office in Media, Pennsylvania. Soon the story was circulated widely and triggered heated national debate that eventually stripped the power of the FBI and Hoover. As the antiwar movement escalated, another break-in led to the Watergate scandal and President Nixon was forced to resign in August 1974. The Vietnam War was eventually ended in 1975. Until many years later, the FBI continued to search unsuccessfully for the unknown “commission,” unaware that its members had returned to their lives as citizens. Medsger describes their act of civil disobedience and making public government abuses as “one of the most powerful acts of resistance in the history of the country” (The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). It was stunning that John and his friends could keep their heroic act of burglary secret and only step out of the shadows 43 years later, long after the case was closed.


John Raines was not only a scholar who was busy thinking about the world. As demonstrated by his engagement in the civil rights movements, he also made efforts to change the world. This was the reason why he was so fascinated by ideas of Karl Marx. For him, “… like the Hebrew prophets, Marx actually is driven by a passion for truth and for justice… To speak of social justice, we must become socially self-critical which means becoming critical of the ruling powers. The most revealing perspective is not from the top down or from the center outward, but the view of the ‘the widow and the orphan,’ the point of view of the exploited and the marginalized” (Marx on Religion, Temple University Press, 2002: 4-5).

John Raines disagreed with his teacher at Union Theological Seminary, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who basically accused Marx of an unrealistic utopianism and declared that Marx had totally missed the point on religion (in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on Religion, Schocken Books, 1964). For John Raines, Marx’s conclusions were indeed one-sided, but parts of his critique of religion are valid. He believed that Marx was less a poorly informed critic of religion than an important friend and dialogue partner for it.  The form of religion attacked by Marx was state religion, like Lutheranism in Germany or the Church of England in Britain; but not necessarily all and every religion/s. Had Marx witnessed the practice of Christianity among African American slaves, for instance, John Raines argued, his conclusion would have been less one-sided, because their vision of the transcendent helped them subvert all the unimaginable powers trying to subvert their human dignity.

Religious people can learn from Marxism how to bring about the “Kingdom of Heaven” by seriously understanding and changing the historical and material conditions that marginalize “the widows and the orphans”, the poor and the powerless in the society. Heaven, in that case, is another way of talking, in his words, “how it will be when things are the way they should be.” Heaven is the really real and that someday it will be. In this case, religion is the voice of suffering, the cry of protest against the realities of exploitation and degradation as well as the promise of different future for all. For John Raines, Marxism is not a theodicy and religion is not an unquestionable set of dogma. Dialogue with Marxism will open up the necessary room for fundamental self-examination of every particular religion. Only when religion has undergone fundamental self-examination can it take up the task of bringing justice and liberation for humanity in this alienated and over-exploited world of aggressive capitalism. (Marx on Religion, p 13).

Listening to women’s voices and promoting gender equality are among the most fundamental forms of self-examination required of religion. For John Raines, gender was a lens to reinterpret the sacred texts. “Religions are gendered entities…. Viewing the various religions through the lens of gender opens up a hidden landscape. It reveals what is usually veiled, puts voices into officially sanctioned silences, and makes more complex what we see and hear and learn from the past. It enriches our grasp upon the heritage of the sacred,” he wrote in What Men Owe to Women (SUNY Press, 2001). As with race, and class, crossing gender boundaries is another necessary effort to seek justice. It was this great willing and courage to cross boundaries that brought John Raines to visit different parts of the globe, including Indonesia, to have meaningful encounters and build true friendships and, more importantly, to make a difference.


John Raines at the opening of a conference on religion and science in Yogyakarta in 2003. Photo: CRCS.

I first met John Raines in 2000 when I enrolled in the newly established Masters program in religious studies at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) later known as the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS). As a member of the first batch of students, together with Hilman Latief, Izak Lattu, Nyoman Kiriana, Fachrizal Halim, Suratno, Ibnu Burdah, among others, I took John Raines’ course on “Religion and Violence”, a critical examination on the complicity of religion in perpetuating violence across different traditions and historical periods. That year he came with Mahmoud Ayoub, a very prominent professor in Islamic studies at Temple University, and Ibrahim Abu-Rabi’, a Temple graduate who was teaching as Islamic studies professor at Hartford Seminary. John Raines and his Temple network, including Alwi Shihab, who was the Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs under Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency at that time, were very instrumental as the founding team of the Master program.

The Center was established just when inter-religious relations and violence in the name of religion had reached their lowest point in modern Indonesian history. Not only did John help with the establishment of this Master program, he made every effort to make sure that the program would grow as a center of excellence. Besides creating a network and financial support for the program, he even contributed a significant amount of money from his own savings as part of the endowment fund. Until 2012, he visited regularly and taught here during the short semester, under the sponsorship of Fulbright, John Templeton, Henry-Luce Foundation, or, sometimes, on his own personal budget.

Thanks to John’s hard work, a number of American and Indonesian faculty members and talented grad students had the rare opportunity to enjoy exchange program studying and conducting research in each other’s country under The Henry-Luce Foundation sponsorship which lasted from 2006 to 2015. Among them were Florian Pohl, Matt Hunter, Brian McAdams, Omer Awwas, David Kruger, Jessica and Tricia Way from Temple, as well as other students from various American universities who visited CRCS for study and research. Ferry Siregar, Imam Malik, Abdul Malik, Hasan Basri, Ira Setiawan, Amanah Nurish and several other CRCS students studied at Temple and other American universities for the same purpose. Christine Gudorf, Rebecca Alpert, Gisela Webb, Eve Mullen, Saadia Shaikh, Mark Woodward, and many other American professors have taught at CRCS. John was very instrumental behind these constant streams of people, ideas and scholarship, especially during the formative period of CRCS.

Together with five other students of the first batch of the Center, I received a Fulbright scholarship in 2003 to pursue higher education in the US. Since then many more graduates from the Center have earned their doctorates not only in the US but also in the Netherlands, Germany and other European countries, as well as in Australia, Singapore, Japan, etc. After 17 years, the Center keeps growing and expanding. It plays a significant role and enjoys a good reputation in Indonesian academia and beyond, as John Raines wanted.

For me personally, I was so fortunate to have John Raines as a truly inspiring professor, a caring mentor and a very generous friend. Since my first encounter with him in Yogyakarta, he always positioned himself outside the classroom as my friend. The first time I met him, I had just finished my undergraduate degree in English and was jobless and aimless. I applied for the Master’s program at CRCS because it offered full scholarship and I desperately needed the money to pay for the hospital and medication for my only sister who was suffering from a terminal illness. I came to class irregularly since I had to take care of my sister. The combination of being raised in a very poor uneducated family and having just witnessing the dramatic regional  financial crisis in 1997 and  political turmoil the next year that eventually toppled Suharto’s corrupt three-decade regime, influenced by superficial reading of Marx, made me a sarcastic and perhaps rather angry young man. Sometimes I showed up to class just to challenge or even to insult my professors. I did that to him too. Quite surprisingly, he listened to what I had to say and he listened attentively. When he learned about my sister, he visited her at the hospital and left some money. My sister had already passed away when John came back the next year.

One day I took John Raines to have a little tour of Kali Code, a slum area of Yogyakarta transformed by the late Father Mangunwijaya into simple and beautiful housing complex for poor families living alongside the Code River. On the way back, he talked seriously about the possibility of my studying in the US. When he returned as a senior Fulbright scholar that year, he encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship with his recommendation. I did and then was accepted. When I married in 2003 a few months before my departure to the US, John was in Yogyakarta and came to my wedding party. My friendship with him grew closer. When I was already at Temple, knowing my underfunded situation as a grad student, several times John paid to send me to the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and other academic events to help me become exposed to the wider academic community. He generously paid my transport and hotel room. Several times, he also invited me to speak in his Death and Dying class for Honors students (and he insisted on giving me a thank you check for that). He also sent me to different groups and institutions that needed someone to speak about Islam or Indonesia. Not only did my circle widen, but I also learned a lot from those encounters.

John Raines has played a very significant role in my academic career. Looking back, I can see very clearly how his support, guidance and friendship have been with me along my journey as an academic in almost every major step of the way. Thanks to his powerful letter of recommendation, among others, I received the Fulbright scholarship, the Henry Luce Foundation grant and a prestigious fellowship at Leiden University. He was the first Temple professor I met in Indonesia, he brought me to Temple as a Master student, he was a member of  my dissertation committee. John and Bonnie also invited me for a celebration dinner when I defended my dissertation. I simply can’t thank him enough for what he has given to me and that encourages me to walk his path, to do the same to others as best as I could. I believe many people touched by his works and friendship share this glowing image of John Raines.


John Raines with students and a faculty member of CRCS. Photo: CRCS.

Last April, after attending a conference in Chicago, I went to Philadelphia for a few days and visited John and Bonnie at their home. We had a long engaging conversation about various topics. I excitedly shared with him some stories about my teaching responsibilities at Gadjah Mada University, my research project and conferences that I had attended in Southeast Asian countries, Japan, Taiwan, and my academic travels to several European countries. He listened enthusiastically and looked very happy. When I defended my dissertation in 2014, John Raines had just stepped out from the shadows as one part of the “historic burglary”. His name was being celebrated as a hero for civil libertarians across the country. Betty Medsger’s aforementioned book was just launched, but the documentary movie “1971” by Johanna Hamilton about John Raines’ group was not out yet and I hadn’t had a chance to see it yet. So, when I visited the Raineses in April, he gave me a copy of “1971” that day and said he hoped we’d see each other again next year. Indeed, I am scheduled to present a paper at the ASIANetwork annual conference in Philadelphia this coming April 2018.  When I heard about his declining health condition in October, I immediately sent him an email to again express my sincere gratitude for all he had done for me and my fellow CRCS alumni. Bonnie responded that John was happy to read my message. He had just celebrated his 84th birthday. I was very saddened when the news of his death arrived two weeks ago. A great professor, a caring mentor, a very kind friend has departed.

In my eyes, John’s sincerity in reaching out people of different races, religions, genders and cultures to create a more just and better world is truly exemplary. His courage to cross all boundaries to make a difference with exceptional trust in others and his wholehearted friendship with people like myself and so many others are among the most beautiful gifts known by humanity, truly a gift from God, I have ever experienced in my life.

Thank you, “Pak” John Raines. I miss you already.

May you rest in the eternal peace of God, may your legacy grow and expand to reach out to the wider horizon of humanity.

Yogyakarta, the rainy final days of November 2017


Achmad Munjid was a student of John Raines at both CRCS (2000 batch) and the Department of Religion, Temple University (PhD 2014).

Read the Indonesian version of this piece, translated by the author himself, here: John Raines: Melintas Batas, Mencari Keadilan, Menggapai Kemanusiaan.

Header image courtesy: Department of Religion at Temple University



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