Where the Rubber Hits the Road

Essay by Rev. Roger Wolsey on 7 September 2017 4 Comments

Progressive Christianity intentionally seeks to evolve and adapt with the times so that the faith can continue to be sensible, relevant, and meaningful in the lives of people. As part of this, we tend to believe that Christianity isn’t the “best,” “only,” “right,” and/or “true,” religion or way that God is at work in the world. We honor that the Divine is fully at work in all of the major world religions – and beyond.

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If you were the moderator of the United Church of Canada with no restrictions... what would the church look like? What do you see as the perfect/ideal United Church of Canada?


Dear Reader,

Thanks for engaging. My response is, necessarily, tied to my own denomination but I feel that it has something to say to many mainline denominations today.

I don't actually speculate about what I would do were I the moderator! And it is important to note that the moderator doesn't really have the power to shape the United Church. More and more, it seems, as the responsibilities of the church become more complex and centralized, the role relies on the direction set by the General Council and, even more heavily, I believe, on the direction established by General Council Staff in response to the General Council's work. This isn't, of course, the way the work of the church was structurally set up but it is the way it manages to function given the massive scale of responsibility and the dwindling local and regional human resources that support the church's work across the country.

The United Church I knew and loved began its deepening relationship with fear in the few years after the 1988 decision to ordain LGBTQ leaders when it first realized the cold reality of decline. Having lost membership and experienced the serious financial impact of that, it stopped making the bold, sometimes irrational, decisions of its youth and began hedging its bets. That has been at great cost to it, to Canada, and to Christianity the world over.

Were I to find myself in the position of Moderator, I would challenge the church to give up fear and invite it to invert the terrifying charts of decline and find its "mission field", if you will. If you invert the charts of decline, you see a growing group of people - the secular world - who are those the UCC spent its first sixty-three years preparing to serve. Lloyd Geering argues that the secular world is the evolution of Christianity; it's where we were headed all along. If the church had continued to unflinchingly choose love, it would have continued moving in that direction and could have served the needs of those who inhabit that great growing curve.

I have no illusions about where the church is headed; like all Christian denominations, it will either wear itself out or veer back, dramatically, to the right and become, as religion always does, a sedative in the coming trauma of human existence. That sounds bleak. It is. If I were the Moderator, I wouldn't be able to change that but I might be able to find a way to encourage those to whom we have failed to model courage by challenging ourselves to do so. There is much more work needing to be done in the world than shoring up a fearful denomination. If I could encourage the church, those within and those outside of it, to focus fearlessly on that work, then I think we'd lose ourselves in it and forget our fears about denominational preservation. That would be worth it.

~ Rev. Gretta Vosper


A New Message from Bishop John Shelby Spong

Dear Friends:

It has been almost a year since I had a stroke and I would like to reflect on this experience and my future plans.

The date was September 10, 2016. We were in Marquette, MI, a town on Lake Superior on the Upper Peninsula. We arrived on Friday evening because getting to Marquette on the day of the lecture was almost impossible. All that was planned for the evening was dinner with good friends at one of Marquette’s best restaurants. We got to bed at 10 p.m.

The next day, Saturday, was a late-starting day with a lecture at the University of Northern Michigan set for 11 a.m. I got up early and went down to the fitness center in the hotel to get in my normal 4-mile run and then returned to my room. Christine was ready for breakfast so we went immediately. Breakfast was delicious and on our return to our room I showered, shaved and dressed. Then it happened without any warning. I fell to the floor and seemed to be unconscious. Yet, I remained aware in a weird kind of way. I saw my body on the floor. From a spot above the room I had some awareness. I watched the rescue team. They decided to cut off my clerical shirt rather than unbutton it – I protested, but no one heard me! – and the shirt was cut into large pieces and handed to my wife. It was the last clerical shirt that I owned. When it was complete I gave into unconsciousness and remember nothing until I regained consciousness the next day.

I awoke with my right arm and a right leg that would not move. Yet from somewhere I knew that I would be o.k. Chris told that they had cut off my shirt and that she had the pieces. I told her that I knew that. It was a strange feeling.

Two people arrived – I do not know exactly when – but as soon as they could get there. One was my oldest daughter Ellen from Richmond and the other was my step-daughter Rachel, who is a doctor. Their presence gave me great comfort and great joy. I could not walk but with their arms as support I was ready to try. We stayed in Marquette about a week, then taking a medivac plane we flew back to Morristown, N.J. It was a very small plane. There were only four passengers. I was strapped down on a stretcher in the plane with a nurse at my side. Chris rode in the co-pilot’s seat as the fourth passenger. At the Morristown Airport we were greeted with an ambulance that took us to the Rehabilitation Center of Morristown Memorial Hospital on Mt. Kemble Avenue in Morristown. I spent four weeks at this facility where I would learn to walk again. It was followed by six weeks therapy in my home.

Today, almost a year later, I still use my running track and do an hour a day, but now I only walk. I cannot write well, so my column is no longer a possibility. I appreciate that they use my old columns as “a voice from the past” to go with the new voices of those they have raised up. I did complete the book I was writing which was almost ninety percent finished, but it was very difficult and, once again, Christine made it possible. It will come out from HarperCollins on or about January 1st under the title UNBELIEVABLE – Why neither ancient creeds nor the Reformation can give us a living faith today.

I have received permission to write two columns on my old site to launch the book. Next spring I will begin to do lectures in “safe places.” They are places that are very important to me. One is my parish church, St. Peter’s in Morristown, N.J., where Janet Broderick is the rector, and where I will give lectures at the adult forum on four Sunday mornings on the “Meaning of Miracles in the Bible.” The second one is noonday preaching for a week during Lent at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, where Wallace Adams-Riley is the rector. I will examine “Prayer in the Modern World.” Both are topics from the book.

I have two other tentative commitments – a weekend at a retreat center and a five-day lecture series at another location. They will both be on the book.

I expect to accomplish these events, which will be my last public engagements. I thank you for your support, your letters, your messages and your prayers. It has been a rewarding and satisfying career.

~ John Shelby Spong

Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

Unmasking the Sources of Christian Anti-Semitism - Part 1

Spong"His blood be upon us and upon our children (Mt.27: 25)."

The darkest, most disillusioning side of Christianity is revealed in the way that Christians have treated Jews throughout history. Anti-Semitism has been a terrifying prejudice for the Jews to endure. It has also distorted the very essence of the Christian message.

Christianity was born in the womb of Judaism. Jesus was a Jew. The tradition tells us he was circumcised on the eighth day and presented in the temple on the 40th day of his life. The story of his journey to Jerusalem at age 12 has the marks of a bar mitzvah-type ceremony. The gospels refer to Jesus going to the synagogue "as was his custom." The picture drawn of Jesus was that of a devout Jew, deeply engaged in the worship tradition of his people.

The earliest disciples, beginning with the twelve, and expanding rapidly after the Easter experience, were all Jews. They were members of the synagogue, known as 'the Followers of the Way' until expelled around the year C.E.88, when they began to be called Christians. Their faith story was validated time after time with appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures.

Yet something happened that poisoned the relationship between the womb of Judaism in which Christianity was born and the later Christian movement that became dreadfully hate-filled and deeply destructive to the Jews. Through the centuries the primary gifts that Christians have given the Jews have been pain, death, ghettoization and religious persecution that defies imagination. To justify this behavior, Christians quoted the New Testament. The favorite text was from Matthew where the Jewish crowd at the foot of the cross was portrayed as responding to Pilate's plea of innocence by saying, "His blood be upon us and upon our children." No other verse in Holy Scripture has been as responsible for violence and bloodshed as this one.

Biblical anti-Semitism, however, is not limited to this single text. Jews are denigrated time after time in the New Testament. Paul, quoting Isaiah (29:10), referred to the Jews as "those to whom God has given a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear down to this very day (Rom. 11:8)." John's Gospel quotes Jesus as saying that the Jews are "from your father, the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires (8:44)." Whenever the phrase, 'the Jews,' is used in John's Gospel, there is a pejorative undertone. When John tells about the first Easter appearance of the risen Christ, he depicts the disciples hiding behind locked doors, "for fear of the Jews (20:19)." The reason the tomb of Jesus had a detachment of Temple guards placed around it, according to Matthew, was because the Jewish Chief Priests, together with the Pharisees, told Pilate that "this imposter" had predicted that "after three days, I will arise again (27:63)." The list could go on and on. The clear message in the New Testament is that Jews are the dark, sinister characters responsible for the death of Jesus. That definition, emerging from the Bible, has infiltrated 2100 years of Christian history.

Even in this present century, synagogues and Jewish gravesites are still defaced periodically with swastikas or hostile words. A noted American politician in the last decades of the 20th century referred to New York City in a derogatory way as "Hymie Town." A national leader of a Southeastern Asian nation, speaking in the 21st century, referred to the Jews as the source of all the ills in the world. It has not been an easy journey through history for those who have defined themselves as "God's Chosen People."

Midway into the 20th century in Nazi Germany, something Adolph Hitler designated as "the final solution of the Jewish problem" occurred. Beginning with 'Crystal Night' in 1938 and ending only when the Allied Armies overran the concentration camps in 1945, six million Jews perished. This occurred in a modern, well-educated, western, ostensibly Christian nation with little protest from the Church. Indeed Pope Pius XII has been deeply implicated in these crimes, being referred to in one book title as Hitler's Pope. He either actively supported these atrocities, in the worst-case scenario, or simply acquiesced without opposition, as the best possible explanation holds. Either way, Christian anti-Semitism played a huge role in the Holocaust. Protestant Christian leaders inside Germany did not cover themselves with glory either. The Protestant Church accommodated itself to the Nazi agenda far more than anyone would now like to believe. Those who spoke out, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller, were so few that their names are still remembered. Revisionist historians like to suggest that this murderous prejudice was limited just to Germany, but the facts do not support this self-serving conclusion. The governments of Great Britain, Canada and the United States knew what was going on in Nazi Germany but none of them made efforts diplomatically or politically to bring pressure on the German nation to halt this violence. Anti-Semitism was strong enough in each of these nations that politicians were not willing to be perceived as pro-Jewish. Each of these nations also refused to allow persecuted German or Polish Jews to enter their countries as political refugees. These negative responses were manifestations of the underlying hostilities that had marked the relationship between Christians and Jews for two thousand years.

Part of what created Hitler was none other than Martin Luther in the 16th century. The great Church reformer helped to establish both the German nation and its language, yet he had a destructive blind spot about Jews. Jews for Luther were evil by nature, without redeeming value or saving grace. He railed against them, publicly and privately, and his followers acted on the permission their leader had given them to engage in their own deeds of anti-Semitism.

The story does not get brighter as we journey backward into the 14th century. That was the century in which the devastating bubonic plague swept across Europe killing at least one in five adults on the continent. The population of Western Europe was decimated and people even thought the human race might die out. This plague struck 500 years before science discovered that things like germs caused diseases. Mysterious illnesses were explained by the Church as expressions of divine wrath. Something human beings were doing had infuriated God so deeply that God sent the Black Death as the divine scourge. Whatever this evil was it had to be something in which the entire human population shared, for the punishment fell indiscriminately on faithful God-fearing worshipers as well as godless renegades. Given this way of thinking, the religious leaders sought to understand the mind of God so that repentance, prayer and resolve could root out this evil. That was why they asked such questions as: "Why did this happen? What have we done to incur this unprecedented expression of God's anger?"

It was in answer to those questions that two movements developed in Europe. One was called "the Flagellants." These were devout people who, not knowing what they had done to incur the drastic punishment of the plague, decided that if they punished themselves sufficiently and severely enough, God would stop punishing them. They walked through the cities of Europe lashing their bare backs with whips in public acts of contrition. It was self-inflicted violence and obviously masochistic, but the Church Fathers looked upon the Flagellants with favor.

The second response, however, moved beyond self-inflicted pain and became more destructive. Since the plague was area wide, it had to be caused by systemic behavior. At last, as with the flash of insight, the cause was identified and it fitted. Christian Europe had tolerated "infidels" in its midst. If Christians would only begin to purge the infidels from their world, the argument went, then the wrath of God would be withdrawn. It was an emotionally satisfying solution. Latent prejudices could be revived. The anger that is present in every tragedy and death experience could be focused. The enemy could be identified and hatreds could flow freely. Who were these infidels? Why they were the Jews, of course! They must have poisoned the wells, infesting the drinking water. That is why the plague was so rampant and so indiscriminate. It was an interesting shift from blaming God to blaming the Jews. It was also a shift from seeing the plague as God's punishment for tolerating infidels to seeing the cause as Jewish poisoning. However, rationality is frequently a casualty when fear and prejudice are running rampant. So the result of the bubonic plague was the worst outbreak of anti-Semitic horror to embrace the Christian world up until Adolph Hitler. Jews were murdered, beaten, kidnapped, forcibly baptized, robbed of their assets, expelled from their homes and ghettoized. Even those Jews, who had converted to Christianity, were investigated and charged with continuing to observe Jewish rites in the privacy of their homes. They were among the most prominent victims who faced the fires at the stake during the period of history we call the Inquisition. It was one more dark chapter in the continuing saga of anti-Semitism in the Christian Church. The bloodstream of Christian history has been so deeply contaminated by this sickness that periodic epidemics were guaranteed. Why did Christians feel justified in this behavior? It was in obedience to the literal Word of God, they said. The Jews themselves had accepted blame for the death of Jesus and had invited this evil upon their own children.

Next week we will continue to press this analysis backward in time until we arrive at the birth of anti-Semitism. Tragically, we will discover that it is present in the Jesus story from the very moment these stories came to be written. So stay tuned.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published April 28, 2004




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