Have Our Mainline Churches Failed Us?

Essay by Fred Plumer on 28 September 2017 2 Comments

I have been wondering lately, if we are really missing the conscience of our mainline churches in our country. Most of us are aware of the political, social and personal conflicts that are going on in our country right now. And most of us are aware of the sad numbers of our dying churches. I have been wondering if there is a connection.

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With the #TakeAKnee movement growing, what do you think the Church's role in racism in the US is?


Dear Annie,

What it is and what it should be, unfortunately, aren't always one in the same.

A recent analysis led by Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC College and the USC Marshall School of Business, found a positive correlation between religiosity and racial bias.

The analysis looked at data from 55 different studies on religion and racism in America dating back to the Civil Rights Act. Combined, the studies include more than 22,000 participants, mostly white and Protestant. (And that's important: Protestant. Much of the current support for our racially biased government comes from the more conservative Evangelical Christian movement, not the Protestant).

As the study reports: "A meta-analytic review of past research evaluated the link between religiosity and racism in the United States since the Civil Rights Act. Religious racism partly reflects intergroup dynamics. That is, a strong religious in-group identity was associated with derogation of racial out-groups. Other races might be treated as out-groups because religion is practiced largely within race, because training in a religious in-group identity promotes general ethnocentrism, and because different others appear to be in competition for resources. In addition, religious racism is tied to basic life values of social conformity and respect for tradition.”

Recognize here that the study did not find that religion causes racism. It's findings say that religion is fertile soil for those who have tendencies toward racism. Progressive, Christian, author Anne Lamott puts it this way, “You can safely say that you've created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”

Or as I've said, "If your religion doesn’t challenge you to care for people you might otherwise be dismissive of and, instead, reinforces your negative feeling about them, you don’t have a religion – you have a formalized structure for institutionalizing your biases."

Basically, when it isn't practiced with intelligence and compassion, religion can easily be used as an authoritative confirmation of our biases – without the humanist perspectives of critical thinking and the innate value of individuals, perverting religious outlooks to suit personal prejudices is far too easy. Add to it the dogmatic environment of most churches and it can be the perfect petri dish for growing cultures of racism.

Putting racism into the hands of God also makes life easier when you are confronted with social injustices. If you can blame a group's oppression on the retribution of an angry god or some inherent deficiency, then you really not only have no responsibility in it but you'd be foolish to go against God. Not only that, you don't have to feel bad about the privileges that are given to you when you choose not to extend those same privileges to people who've already been judged by God.

The harsh reality of race and religion in America is that religion has become a cover for racism.

The reality is that racial discrimination is now being touted as "religious freedom."

You can wrap the law around it any way you want. You can call it religious freedom, freedom of speech... whatever you want. No matter what you call it, it remains morally repugnant and devoid of any god that I ever care to worship. There is no space in a healthy spiritual community for racism, or for that matter anything that pits one group of people over another.

That kind of thinking, that kind of acting, stands over and against everything that can grow a person or a community spiritually. That kind of thinking plays to the lowest forms of human pettiness and uses religion as a weapon rather than as a balm. It is a bastardization of spirituality and must be actively resisted at every turn and cast out like the demon that it is.

It does not mean that we stop seeking to care for those who practice it. That would put us in a similar place of denying people for being different than us, but it does mean not sitting silently by as it is being practiced. It does mean actively resisting it in our churches and communities.

~ Rev. Mark Sandlin

Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Ultimate Source of Anti-Semitism - The Circumstances That Brought Judas Into the Jesus Story


I return today to a subject that I have covered before. It is essential however, to this series on the sources of anti-Semitism, so I ask my reader's indulgence while I once again bring Judas into focus. My request to you is a simple one. Suspend for a moment your critical faculties, as well as your traditional presuppositions, and assume with me that the story of Judas Iscariot was a late-developing, contrived story and not a remembered bit of objective history. If this speculation is correct, as I think it is, then I must deal with two additional questions. The first one is: where did the gospel writers get the content that they wove into the Judas story? If it has all been borrowed, as I think I can demonstrate, then is any part of that story history?

I find it fascinating that every detail that has been written into the story of Judas has been lifted almost directly out of other betrayal stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. The very words "handed over," which we somewhat loosely translated "betrayed" when Paul first used it (I Cor. 11), was lifted out of the story of Joseph and his brothers (Gen. 37). Rather than kill Joseph, the brothers agreed to hand him over for money. Of particular note is the fact that the brother who proposed that they secure this payment for their act of treachery was Judah. If written in Greek, it would be Judas!

Second, a story in the book of Zechariah has the shepherd King of Israel being betrayed for thirty pieces of silver. This money says Zechariah was thrown back into the Temple treasury, which is exactly what Matthew, who is the only gospel writer to mention 'thirty pieces of silver,' says Judas did with his money when he repented (compare Zech. 11:12-13 with Mt. 27:5). This shepherd King in the book of Zechariah was betrayed, interestingly enough, to those who bought and sold animals in the Temple (11:15)!

Third, there is a narrative in the David saga of stories in which a royal advisor named Ahithophel, who even though he ate at the table of the King, nonetheless raised his hand in betrayal against "the Lord's anointed," as King David was called. When this treachery backfired, he went out and hanged himself. It is this episode, cited by the book of Psalms (41.9), that John quotes to demonstrate that when Jesus identified Judas at the Last Supper as the traitor, the expectations of the prophets were being fulfilled.

Next we are told that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. A similar act is also found once again in the David cycle of stories. David, after putting down a rebellion led by his son Absalom, felt he could no longer trust his former military chief Joab, so he replaced him with a man named Amasa. Joab, under the guise of wanting to congratulate his successor, sought out and found Amasa. Drawing Amasa's face by the beard to his own, in order to extend to Amasa the kiss of friendship, Joab disemboweled him with a dagger (II Sam. 20:5ff). That was the content of the phrase 'the kiss of the traitor' before the story of Judas entered the tradition. Perhaps this story about Joab and Amasa also colored Luke's account in the book of Acts in which it was suggested that Judas died with all his bowels gushing out (Acts 1: 18).

My point in this first exercise is to show that every detail of the Judas story has been lifted directly out of the Hebrew Scriptures, where it was originally part of a narrative about other traitors in Jewish history. This causes me to wonder if any part of the Judas story is history.

The second question I wish to raise is: What was going on at that time in history that might have made it convenient or even necessary to create the Judas story? This leads me into an exploration of the world of the Middle East after the year 70 C.E. when the gospels were being written. One of the more obvious themes in the earliest passion narratives is the shifting of the blame for Jesus' death from the Romans to the Jews, for that is what the story of Judas seems to accomplish. Let me set that stage for you.

From the time of Jesus on (30 C.E.), Jewish guerilla fighters had roamed the hills of Galilee doing hit and run attacks on the occupying Roman army. To the Jews, these guerillas were heroic freedom fighters. To the Romans, they were terrorists and killers. These guerillas were called Zealots. The fact that one of Jesus' disciples was known as Simon the Zealot (Lk.6: 15), may indicate a closer connection between these guerillas and Jesus than Christians have yet been willing to admit.

In the year 66 C.E., this guerilla activity escalated into a full scale Galilean war between the Romans and the Jews that finally ended at Masada in 73 C.E. in total Jewish defeat. The climax of the war, however, occurred when the Romans decided they could not defeat the guerillas unless they destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish state. Led first by a general named Vespasian, and later by his son Titus, the Romans moved into siege positions around the Holy City and pounded it until Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E. The Romans moved in, smashing its walls, razing its buildings and demolishing the Temple. The Jewish state disappeared from the maps of history, and did not re-appear again until 1948 when the United Nations brought into being the State of Israel under the authority of the Balfour Declaration.

In that war against Rome, the Jews lost everything they had: their nation, their holy city, their temple, and their priesthood. Jewish identity thus came to be attached to their sacred scriptures, which was all they had left. They invested these scriptures with both an absolute authority and a literal accuracy. The whole truth is in the Torah, they asserted. Nothing more is essential, or necessary. The Jews thus became increasingly rigid, fundamentalist and doctrinaire about their Bible. That always occurs when survival is at stake.

In that same tragedy the followers of Jesus, who were still predominantly Jews, found themselves suffering the fate of all Jews at the hands of their Roman conquerors. Seeking to separate themselves from the Orthodox Party of the Jews, whom they blamed for starting that destructive war, the followers of Jesus sought to make the case that they should not be punished for the foolishness of the Jewish fanatics who constituted the Orthodox Party. It was a difficult case for them to make, however, since Jesus, the one they followed, had also been executed by the Romans.

But suppose, they said to the Roman authorities, that the Romans only crucified Jesus at the behest of the Orthodox Party of the Jews, who sought to get rid of his threatening teaching by portraying Jesus as a political revolutionary, who wanted to set up a rival Kingdom. Recall the sign that Pilate ordered to be placed over the cross: 'This is Jesus the King of the Jews.' The Orthodox Party had twisted his message, they contended to the Romans, since the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke was not of this world. The same religious fanatics, they argued, who started the Roman war had earlier been instrumental in the death of our leader. It was a skillful use of that old adage: 'we should be friends since we have a common enemy.' Your wrath, they wanted the authorities representing Rome after that war to know, should not fall indiscriminately on all Jews.

How better could they accomplish that purpose than to tell the Christ story with the chief person responsible for the death of Jesus bearing the name of the entire Jewish nation?

How better could they seek Roman favor than by whitewashing the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, in their narrative of Jesus' final days, exonerating him of any blame in his death?

So Pilate, in the developing gospel story, was portrayed as washing his hands, claiming his innocence and referring to Jesus as "this just man in whom I find no fault." The Jewish crowd was portrayed as accepting the blame, by saying: "His blood be upon us and upon our children." The shift in blame was complete. The Jews did it. Judah/Judas did it. They are the enemy. He is the enemy. Pilate and the Romans are our friends.

So the deed was done. That is the ultimate seed out of which this Christian prejudice of anti-Semitism has grown. That is the source out of which all the hostility toward the Jews has flowed. That is what allowed Christians to tolerate and even to celebrate a violent, killing anti-Jewish undercurrent that would emerge in chilling horror in the writings of the Church Fathers, in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, in the response to the Bubonic plague, in the writings of reformers like Luther and in the Holocaust. Judas is our clue. Christians took the life of one disciple who bore the name of the entire Jewish nation and made him the anti-Christ, thereby avoiding their own persecution as Jews by the conquering Romans and in that act, anti-Semitism was transformed into a virtue in Christian history.

The only purpose in raising the sources of our prejudice into consciousness is to enable us to expel them. The biblical texts that we Christians have used for centuries to justify our hostility toward the Jews need to be banished forever from the sacred writings of the Christian Church. The way to begin I believe is to return to the Christ consciousness that caused the early Christians to assert, as Luke does in the Pentecost story, that to be filled with the Spirit is to transcend all tribal boundaries and to speak the universal language of love (Acts 2). It is to recover the power in Paul's words to the Galatians, that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek but a New Creation" (Gal 3:28).

To enter that new creation may well be what is required if the human race is to survive.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published June 9, 2004




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