A Conversation with Bishop John Shelby Spong: Part 2 “On Revolutions and Relationships”

Essay by Rev. David M. Felten on 15 November 2018 2 Comments

The following is taken from an interview with Bishop John Shelby Spong on September 18th, 2018. Recorded at his home in Richmond, Virginia

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Question

I just finished "Unbelievable" and found many things in the book that I was unaware that I believed. I am curious to know how you feel about/reconcile people who are truly evil or unrepentantly evil like child abusers/pornographers. I can deal with people whose belief systems are different than mine but not with people who purposefully hurt other people, especially children. Some even believe it is their right to do so.
How can we love these people wastefully?


Answer

 
Hi Judy. Thank you for writing. Your question is one I have had to deal with many times over the years. It is one of the hardest things to practice in the entire Christian tradition, but I still find it mystifying that so many Christians in our world today do not take this issue seriously. In fact, it seems sometimes they believe being a Christian gives them the right to hate or at least dislike anyone who disagrees with them. Certainly that is not the way Jesus expected his followers to behave, nor is it the way Bishop Spong expects us to behave if we actually want to learn and experience what it means to walk the Christian path. We know that and most of us do pretty well with “most people.” However, if we take “loving everyone wastefully” there are some things we must address to make it work with others, or as you put it, people who are truly evil, or unrepentant child abusers/pornographers.
 
First, you must not think of this “love” in the same way that you love your children, a spouse, or a best friend. Marcus Borg probably explained this as well as anyone I know or have ever read. In his book, Meeting Jesus for the First Time, Again, 1995, Borg, addresses this difficult issue. He explains the word “compassion” in Hebrew (as well as in Aramaic), is usually translated in the plural form of the noun. In its singular form, however, the word means “womb.” In the Hebrew Bible, compassion is both a feeling and a way of being that flows out of one’s sense of compassion. It is frequently linked to its association with womb: a woman feels compassion for the child of her own womb; a man feels compassion for his brother, who comes from the same womb. For Borg, compassion is a spiritual shift and is a result of some pretty hard work for most of us.
 
According to Borg, there are four different types of compassion. Reflective (thinking), emotional (feeling), active (doing), and contemplative (experiencing). While our goal, according to Borg, is to integrate all four of these at some point, he admits that this is a challenge. He explains we are called as followers of Jesus to show compassion (love-as a mother loves her unborn child). I think this means you may not know your child, who she is or he is going to be, but you still “love” or feel compassion for her/him. My suggestion is that you at least can love or have compassion for the kinds of people you describe but it might be limited to a thinking type if that is the best you can do. This does not mean you must run up to one of those of these incorrigible people and tell them how much you “love” them. But you could take the time to wonder what kind of childhood they had and what kind of an early life they had to endure.
 
You might wonder what kind of early influences made them so sick. Most serious studies indicate that the significant number of these very sick people were abused, sexually and in other ways, as children. I know this is, in Borg’s words, reflective or thinking compassion but it can bring you to another place that might feel better for you. It might even help you feel some compassion for this person.
 
 
Let me close with a personal story. My wife recently retired from her job as a nurse and director in the county health department. For the first five years of her job, she was required once a month to go a prison on an island in our area that held unrepentant child molesters that have been deemed by Washington State judges as incorrigible. They will never be healed nor will they ever be let out of prison. When she first went there she was disgusted and nervous working around them. But she was in awe of how kind and “loving” most of the nurses who worked there regularly were toward these men. My wife never felt comfortable asking these nurses how they did it but she watched closely. My guess is that most of them saw something in these men through the eyes of “god” rather than the judge who put them there. This would be, I believe, something of Borg’s idea of reflective or thinking compassion. My wife learned many lessons from these nurses, as have I.
 
I hope this helps.


~ Fred Plumer

 

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