Courage Today

My son Adam gave me the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas for my birthday.  At 542 pages, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy made  for good reading at the beach following Christmas.

As Metaxas guided me through those chilling years of Hitler’s rise and the ever-increasing persecution of Jews, I kept asking myself, “If I had been a Christian in Germany at that time, what would I have done?”

Would I, like Bonhoeffer and that small band of pastors in the Confessing Church, signed The Theological Declaration of Barmen, rejecting “Nazi Theology,” or would I, like the vast majority of “good” Christians, gone along with what was termed “German Christianity?”  Metaxas points out that many,  many Germans opposed the Third Reich, but felt it their patriotic duty  to serve in the military and not to resist the government openly.

Last Sunday Glenda Rabby gave a wonderful talk to the Inquirers’ Class at First Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee, about the role of churches and church leaders during the Tallahassee Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement.  I was too young at the time to make adult decisions, but I remember the pressure my father faced as a pastor in Texas.

When Dad stood for Civil Rights, even in a modest way, he was vilified by some church members as a Communist dupe and a disloyal American.  Members of the John Birch Society came to our church and took notes during his sermons to make their case against him.  My parents received anonymous phone calls at the manse accusing them of being “nigger lovers.”

If I had been the pastor of a church in the South in those days, would I have had the courage to speak out?  To march with Dr. King?  To insist that racial segregation was contrary to the gospel?  To drive black voters to the polls?

In hindsight, the issues facing Christians in the 50’s and 60’s seem crystal clear.  At the time, however, things seemed more complicated.  The same is true today.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho has become a voice crying in the wilderness regarding the recent restrictions on voter registration and early voting passed by the Florida Legislature  He told  a crowd on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,

We are facing a time that few of us thought would be possible.  History tells us we have been here before.  (The legislators) have another plan they want to implement, to make sure the people who voted in 2008 are not the same people who voted in 2012. (Quoted in the Tallahassee Democrat, January 17, 2012)

The argument that the new restrictions are merely a hedge against fraud by voters is an obvious sham.  It requires a willing suspension of disbelief to see the new law as anything but a means of suppressing votes by those who traditionally vote Democratic.  The effect of the law is to limit the votes of blacks and other minorities.  The law is not overtly racist, but then again, neither were the old poll tax laws.  These days you don’t have to be Bull Connor to keep non-whites from voting.

Preach on, Brother Ion!  You are a profile in courage.

Dissing the Saints

A colleague sent me an article by Tom Ehrich, dated January 5, which offers an interesting take on the changes churches will have to make to avoid fading into obscurity.  Erhrich, who I gather is an Episcopalian pastor, writes about the decline of so-called “Mainline” churches on his website MultiChannelChurch.  He offers lots of helpful suggestions, but he strikes me as a bit too enamored of the marketplace.

Ehrich begins by lamenting the demise of Eastman Kodak, using this company as metaphor for all institutions, especially the church, that fail to adjust to fast-changing realities.   He then offers these two lists:

For clergy

  1. Clergy will need to become strong, assertive entrepreneurs, even in polities that believe in constraining clergy power.
  2. Institutions built on Sunday worship will need to channel resources away from Sunday worship.
  3. Constituents will need to embrace “harvest giving.”
  4. Leaders will take a fresh look at facilities – a long and strategic view, not a “survivor” view.

 For churches:

  1.  Constituents who have seen church as a place to get their needs met will need to become servants, self-sacrificial and radically inclusive
  2. Laity will need to let beloved institutions change radically, and allow leadership to pass to risk-takers, upstarts, new and younger constituents
  3.  Judicatory heads trained to manage institutional processes will need to become advocates for a movement.
  4. Seminaries will need to stop preparing ordinands for a church that no longer exists.
  5. People will need to let their faith be more than convenient religion, a comforting engagement with affirming fellowships, and instead wade boldly into disorderly gatherings marked by diversity and neediness.

The article is helpful in many ways, but apart from the word “servants,” I note a decided lack of theological content.

I agree with much of what Erhrich says, but disagree strongly that clergy should become “entrepreneurs” while members should become “servants.”  His implies that people of faith in mainline churches possess only “convenient religion.  This strikes me as downright insulting and a form of bearing false witness against his neighbors.

The people I “serve” (and I use that word on purpose) at First Presbyterian Church are not focused entirely on “comforting engagement with affirming fellowships.”  The are true servants of the living God who are engaged in God’s mission.

While I appreciate constructive criticism, I don’t appreciate condescension.  The Apostle’s advice to the church in Rome seems appropriate  “ . . . do not claim to be wiser than you are (Rom. 12:14).

Surely the church can change without “dissing” the saints who are currently in the pews.