The Resignation of Bruce Shipman

Last week, The Rev. Bruce Shipman resigned as the Episcopal Chaplain at Yale. He had written a letter to the New York Times about the connection between Israeli actions and the recent anti-Semitic violence in Europe, and quickly received the approbation of numerous pundits. Since then, he has been vilified as an anti-Semite, with mainly a single letter as evidence, his background and previous views exposed and critiqued before the press. Others even accused him of raising the specter of the holocaust and describing him and his words as vile and sickening. Even more, he hates Jews.

Really? This is dialogue? Did I read the same letter?

The argument is that Fr. Shipman was blaming the victim. Perhaps. This accusation implies that victims cannot also be perpetrators. In the context of war, the argument is a good way of justifying that the Palestinians caused their own problems (blaming the victim, indeed). In this way, Israel abdicates its own responsibility for conducting a war, offering the comfort to her supporters that the obliteration of Gaza was necessary and unavoidable. They just had to do it.

This view, however, ignores the possibility that in any conflict, the dynamic includes multiple partners. Might it be that no individual or single institution is singularly responsible; we all have dirty hands? This alternate perspective, of course, disappears when we’re talking about good vs evil, and because our side – by nature – is always on the side of good.

When did we all become such Manicheans?

The argument that Israel is responsible for increased occurrences anti-Semitism requires some excavation. Perviously, Norman Finklestein argued such in his book The Holocaust Industry, where he posited that the “shakedown” of Swiss banks and the institutional diminishment of other genocides might have increased European resentment towards those organizations seeking reparations. I’m not sure how to evaluate such claims, but what’s plausible that is that money, opportunism and moral righteousness make an appealing, and appalling trifecta.

For some, this is construed as reaffirming anti-Semitic stereotypes; but for some of us, opportunism is universal behavior. To claim that such accusations are anti-Semitic becomes a slight-of-hand, a get out of jail free card that directs away from  crime itself. The power to accuse someone of anti-Semitism ensures an impenetrable armor of righteousness. It makes it harder for some to gather justice when the accusation doesn’t actually fit the behavior.

Let us be clear: anti-Semitism, like all hatred of minority communities, should be swiftly condemned. In Shipman’s case, contra the headline of the American Interest, he was referring to institutional actors (the patrons, like the United States of America itself) who do influence policy, not all the Jews themselves. I’d be a little more precise: Israel should not be blamed for anti-Semitism, but be unsurprised by blowback. Both Hamas and Israel might want to consider the long term consequences of their violence. Israel’s previous support of Hamas and ambivalence toward Fatah, and their success in occupying the West Bank have had repercussions. And I’m not the sort who compares Israel to the Reich, nor do I think that Israel is creating an apartheid state. But it’s evident that living in Palestine isn’t kittens and rainbows, and Israel bears a greater responsibility for the conditions on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza.

The other question is practical: Do American Jewish Institutions do have an impact on Israel, or on our own relationship with Israel?  It seems to me that if Israel has an impact on the decisions of the United States, a realist position identifies those institutions that have credibility in Israel. My own institutions do not; but I know of plenty of Jewish institutions that have stronger relationships. I work with some them in a variety of ways to keep our dialogue going and identify ways to create peace. I would say, even, they DO feel responsible already.

Unfortunately, there is an unintended consequence of his resignation. It implies the anti-Semitic belief in a Jewish conspiracy to overwhelm honest public conversations about Israel. It makes Shipman’s critics look like powerful, abusive, easily frightened bullies. Who’s really scared of an academic Episcopal cleric? No person who knows Fr. Shipman would accuse him of having a single anti-Semitic bone in his body. And yet, the opposition has gone on to gang up on him (crucify?) for his imprecision and error. What is unfortunate is that these are the sorts of critics who seem motivated by the view that peace between Israel and Palestine is a zero sum game. One side’s victims can be known and acknowledged; the others deserve their fate.

Shipman never advocated violence against Israel, or its elimination. He is not a militant supporter of Hamas. He has toured the holy land with Jews and Arabs. After he wrote the letter, he met with Professor Maurice Samuels, director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism.  Is that the action of someone who is a vile Jew hater? No. Because he isn’t, in spite of the claims of his critics. Misinformed? Possibly. Tone deaf? Surely. Wrong? Who knows?

Shipman should have stayed, if only to illustrate that honest, hard conversations in the academy are necessary. Let him be called names; let him be engaged; let his error be corrected.

But let the conversation continue.

Race, Miley, etc

Today is the fifty year anniversary of MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech.  When I was a child, my dentist had a big poster of that speech on his wall, the words floating as a silk-screen print.  As I would get my teeth cleaned, I’d reread the selection over and over if only to distract myself from the invasiveness of the procedure.

And here we are.  I’m not sure how I would assess our culture’s current level of racism.  Certainly we have a lot to do in our institutional life:  we’ve decided that jail is how we will house people of color, especially black men.   The drug war has become the way live “institutional racism.”

It is true that people are less likely to have conscious views about racial inferiority, and the instinctive discomfort of difference has changed.   But plainly, we see our racism in our economic choices as a nation:  instead of investing in schools or jobs we buy prisons and soldiers.   Mass incarceration creates and ensures a class of people, mainly black men, will always struggle to have wider choices in their lives.  The drug war is the vehicle. I’m not interested in changing hearts.  That’s for the Lord.  But we can, as citizens, change our institutional priorities.  To be an anti-racist means opposing the war on drugs and struggling with the institutions that economically benefit from the prison industrial complex.

And Miley.  I admit, I am old enough I have no experience with her previous incarnations.  The song?  Meh.  But it wasn’t the spectacle of transgressive sexuality that was bothersome (how I miss subtlety and innuendo), but the strange way she harnessed race in her act.

I was startled – I find large cute stuffed animals disconcerting, the way others experience clowns or mimes.  I had questions:  is this a commentary on fetishes?  What does the protruding tongue mean?  Hunger?  Sensuality?  Or is it simply a weird face?  Is Miley wearing a costume or a bikini?  It looks hot.  Not sexy hot, just uncomfortable.  Yes, she should take it off.  Why was she wearing it in the first place?

Can someone sit her down and feed her a big plate of Fettucini Alfredo?

Is this a minstrel show I’m watching now?

She is singing some words and she says she can’t stop.

Am I supposed to be aroused?  Who is Robert Thicke?  Is that a lap dance?  Why is he wearing a suit?   God, that song is so overrated.

Miley Cyrus can’t stop.  But I could.  So I did.

The Repeal of DOMA

Yesterday I broke open a bottle of champagne with a couple friends, a demi-sec Lanson, in celebration of the Supreme Court decision.

While pleased, I still find it startling when people think of it as a religious issue.  For me it’s a simple matter of fairness about benefits.  Someone else’s choice of partner does not change how I practice or what I believe.  I am not offended if someone calls a partnership a “marriage,” and I find it perplexing when we think that God is worried about these sorts of definitions.   And ff God does have a specific idea about marriage, I’ll make my case before the judgment seat and explain why I have erred on the side of charity and magnanimity for gay people.   I’m not worried – the scriptures say that God is merciful.

There remain ways gay people live outside of marriage that can inform the culture about what a joyful sexuality might look like.  And so I wonder if the conversation on marriage distracts us from some opportunities to understand how we might negotiate our rapidly changing culture.  Although I think marriage is a crucial, imperfect sacramental institution, perhaps we can learn from gay people rather than insist they fit into a less threatening box.

And while all of this is happening, we’re seeing politicians actively attack reproductive health; the economy remains owned by a small class of powerful people; and our decision-making bodies have stalled on climate change.  I find it disturbing that some who are most transforming (damaging?) our economy are the same people who fund marriage equality.  So while I take joy that this symbol – and the benefits – are extended fairly, I hope that this enthusiasm can extend to other important movements upon which the fate of our country, and perhaps the world, depends.

Emory and the politics of compromise

The president of Emory has gotten quite the ass-kicking for calling the 3/5s rule an example of a good compromise.  I admit, I’m perplexed by the push back in part because I’m skeptical of the counterfactual histories his critics presume.

Certainly the best thing was for all people at all times to recognize the immediate humanity of all people.  It would have been desirable and magnificent if such could have been an option.

But we are far from that time.  Can we know how those founders thought?  Certainly counting blacks completely would have given them some humanity; but it would have mainly strengthened southern power:  they wouldn’t have been able to vote.

The most moral option would have been for Southern States to admit they were wrong and the voting rights of their slaves.  But, however luscious and joyful such an image is, it was probably not an option anyone considered.  Unpropertied white men couldn’t vote either.

Perhaps not counting slaves at all would have been the just option, given they had no real representation.  But in that case, we would not have had a country.  And it also signifies that slaves were not actually people.

I do not think that this compromise was the best world.  In my world, if I were God, all people have always been equal, brilliant, understand evolution, the big bang, and math.  We would all love everyone.  But in a different world, one I do not understand, perhaps the 3/5’s rule was a compromise that was worthy.  One does not need to believe that slavery or the dehumanization of blacks was moral to also acknowledge that we make compromises that are imperfect, frail and open to change.  As this one was.  The better option for blacks at this time – counting as nothing – may have been worse in the long run.  We do not know.

But I do think the president of Emory has been misunderstood by well-meaning people.

On the Killing of Chris Stevens

Yesterday Chris Stevens, Ambassador to Libya, was killed by armed men, fundamentalists offended by a video produced here in the United States.  It was a horrible act, one that deserves condemnation.

The Ambassador, by all accounts, represented the best of our foreign service.  He did not get his job because of his contributions to the administration.  He was a career diplomat, someone who served the country through the challenging work of diplomacy.  It’s not an easy job, but it is crucial.  We do not appreciate these sorts of men and women enough.   A good diplomat often earns the respect of the country they serve.  Chris Stevens did.

Good diplomats are truly the first line of defense against aggression.

The initiating cause was a hate-video written for the incendiary purposes of terrifying non-Muslims and insulting the faithful.    They’re excuse:  to inform.  It’s like crying “fire” in a crowded movie theater in order to see if the exit signs work.  The authors are now in hiding – as they should be.  They are cowards.

We are fortunate to live in a country with free speech.  But in an interconnected world what we say gets heard in the rest of the world.    We should be prepared when what we say takes a knife into the hearts of others.

But we need not lose heart.  Plenty of Muslims in the world understand that this is not the American Government.  They also, however, have opportunists who benefit from harnessing violence.  And so the cycle of hate continues.

We need not agree with glib statements that religion causes violence.  In many places throughout the world in history religions have existed together.  But when people in power are themselves fearful and society is anxious, it’s easy to light a match under the feet of the worried and watch the world burn to distract attention upon themselves.

We are one of the few countries where religious tolerance, with some exceptions, is part of our DNA.  Yes, although the Mormons, Amish, Catholics, Atheists and Jews have all experienced hardships, by and large they were each able to carve out places in our public life.  That we have been able to do this is in part because of our beginnings.  John Locke, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson showed no intellectual favoritism; and this was shared by many of their countrymen.

So what we do matters.  It matters that we have protestants and Roman Catholics living side by side.  It matters that Hindus go to Indian restaurants owned by Muslims.  It matters that Jewish institutions finance interfaith works here in Westchester.  Because it reminds the world that different religions can live in peace.

But opportunists know how to fan the flames.  And that’s who we’re talking about.  Opportunists made the video.  Opportunists stormed the embassy.  Most Americans would find the video, itself, scandalous; and few Libyans would support the murder of innocents.  Even now, they are protesting the murders.

The world watches.  If we permit interfaith hatred, it illustrates to other countries that diversity of faith is a threat to social order.  But when we visit and trust our neighbors, we show a better way.  When anyone in our country encourages Islamophobia, we should be clear:  those are not our values.   It was appropriate for the president to say that America does not seek to insult people of different faiths – because it’s true.  Even George Bush called Islam a “noble religion.” “Nobility” aside, insulting others won’t bring peace.  Showing how we live together might.

We can demonstrate a different way.

On Liberalism and Church decline: A response to Douthat

It’s true.  The church is losing numbers.  And yes, it has changed.

But I’m skeptical that the church’s decline has really been due to its liberality.  The liberal tradition is older.  Some trace it to Calvin, Luther or Erasmus; others Schleiermacher or Rahner; or the late 19th century pastors who dared to read Darwin.   Reading the bible was once a “liberal” act because it placed moral authority upon the reader rather than the clergy.  A few dare to trace liberalism to Jesus and the prophets.

The specific Religious Liberals, the modernists who conservatives critique have been around for more than 100 years.  Their authority and status built social security; promoted contraception and suffrage; they developed the framework that would build the UN, implement the Marshall Plan, justify decolonization and support civil rights.  They were church people who were comfortable in the halls of power, and had something to say.  For the most part, they were victorious.  Then in the 1960’s, in the midst of their success, that world changed.

This kerfuffle is not just about liberalism.  What changed is that the church became forced to compete.  And the pill.

As the economist Albert Hirschmann noted in Exit, Voice and Loyalty in the 1970s, Churches became less like families and more like franchises.   Previous generations did not leave a family.  In franchises, however, if the institution didn’t satisfy the congregants, who by this time had become consumers, they went elsewhere.  The beliefs of churches became products;  the doctrine of the church – or its practical mores – became another part of the free market.  And so, some left the church for other traditions, sports, or the church of rock and roll.   Some just decided to sleep in and didn’t care what the neighbors thought.  This liberalism freed us from some degree of oppression; it also liberated us from the burdens of obligation.  Thus attendance declined.

The other shifts were the cultural changes that gave women more power; and in particular changed the way the culture thought about sex.  Granted, the changes have, when coupled with capital, not been easy; but the liberal church accommodated those changes in practice, if not in doctrine.  That’s the particular liberalism at stake now, and why monosexual and patriarchal institutions are flummoxed by the Episcopal church’s movement.  In the Episcopal church, gay people and women have power.  It is not equal to the power of straight, white men with hair, perhaps; and it still reflects the culture; but the voices are not mute.  And this change is what threatens business as usual.

The church, the liberal church, hadn’t prepared for these changes institutionally. As the culture changed, progressive Priests were trained in the pastoral – professional model, assuming the reign of Christendom, that the culture would naturally return to their roots.  We didn’t think the world would become a mission field as people joined other tribes.

And so I will agree with one element our conservative commentators imply:  our church’s liberalism, our personal branding, our identification with niche of the Christian progressives, will not substitute for strong and powerful leadership.  In a highly balkanized environment, where communities are self-selecting and religious labels are like brands, our work is cut out for us.

Putting a sign on our office door saying we are inviting persons isn’t going to convince anyone they should spend time in a Christian community.  As one atheist said to me, “I’ll never enter to church, but if I did, I’d go to an Episcopal one.  Especially if it had Gospel music and lap dancers.”  It felt great to get his approval; perhaps he needs not join a Christian community.  But our numbers, if they matter (and perhaps they don’t), aren’t going to suddenly change because we’ve got the right progressive credential or passed a resolution to illustrate how awesomely liberal we are.

Conservatives often say, “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow.” I understand the sentiment.  For if our actions derive solely from cultural approval they will undoubtedly fail.  The qualities of leadership have much more to do with confidence, responsibility and an interest in other people than a particular political faith.  Certainly our rejoinder that the incarnation commands an openness is an appropriate one.  But its another task, and a very different one, to live that out.

The liberal church at this point could behave like Esau – it has inherited a church that once had power; but overwhelmed by the responsibility with the power and wealth that remains.  It could be too willing  to sell our inheritance for a moment of sustenance and temporary survival.  Or we complain:  “This expense could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”   Our shame about the misdeeds of the past may disable us from claiming a power and authority we could proclaim.  It seems righteous to diminish our ambiguous inheritance, but perhaps we would merely abdicate it to the market, and it would be sold for a pittance, and we’d continue to diminish our own voice.

Let’s admit that inclusivity is not necessarily inviting.   Shouting to the world “you’re invited” can be a meaningless act of theo-political theater.  What matters is our ability, person to person, to make connections within our communities – even if they do not directly benefit the church.  Our choices may signal to others that Episcopalians can fit in to educated society; that we can have coffee with religion’s cultured despisers, but our liberality will not substitute for the hard work of building relationships.  And this takes not merely resolutions, but another sort of resolve.  For it doesn’t matter if we’re liberals in the office.  It matters if we’re followers of our savior in the world.

The consequence is that clergy cannot merely be pleasant pastoral directors of its sheep-like congregations (who in Episcopal Churches behave nothing like sheep, by the way), but persons who seek to share in building a liberated humanity, one where the values of empire have been turned on its head.    That is not merely proclamation; nor is it pastoral care; it is the slow and steady work of reconstructing a certain sort of world.

And what of the snark, Church growth?  Nobody really knows how that happens:  it could be demographic luck; a handsome clergy family; strong laity; priests who’ve just stuck it out a long time.  One journalist suggested to me that the Episcopal church could grow if we just were more aggressive:  “You know your natural market, right?  Disenchanted Catholics.”

Of course, 50% of my church is exactly that.  Every priest knows the joke that church growth for Episcopalians means divorced Catholics and drinking protestants.  There are certainly some technical church growth habits parishes could practice more conscientously; but we still don’t know how to evaluate their success, and success isn’t guaranteed.  I will say that most of the people who’ve entered are those who want to be connected, and want a spiritual practice that sustains them in their life.

However, there is also evidence, all over the country,  of thriving liberal churches.  Not all are megachurches, but they are healthy, self sustaining and making a difference.  I can name a few immediately.   They have strong, uncompromising, inviting leadership.  They communicate to the needs of the people; they organize; they are social entrepreneurs.  The congregants are excited about their congregations.  Powerful and connected leadership builds churches.  It’s built conservative churches.  It can build liberal ones.

Liberalism was never the reason the church declined; but I suggest neither shall it be our savior.   It is enough that we will remember our risen Lord; and because he is risen, we are fearless; to risk loving the unloved.

Is this the Church’s Moment?

Christopher Hedges recently gave a speech challenging churches, in particular Trinity Church, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.  When Christopher Hedges boldly proclaims this is the church’s moment, my ears perk up.    Christopher Hedges knows religion, he knows church, and he’s philosophically sophisticated.  And I’m sympathetic, but as someone in the religion business, here are some instructions about how to reach out to church leaders and congregations.

Most pastors are an open-minded, well-read, sympathetic bunch.  And like everyone else they have their anxieties.

But of you want to engage or make demands upon churches, learn who they are.

It’s not hard.  Call the church and make an appointment.  Don’t make demands or ask for a favor.  Just to learn about the priest and the challenges of running a modern church.

In a busy church you may instead talk to a curate or a priest for community formation.  Get to know them also, though they might not be in charge.

Meet the sexton, the person who cares for the building.  Also meet the lay leader who has some authority in the church.

Why? Those people get work done.  Church people are hard workers.  They gather in order to solve problems.  They want to help.   They’re doing a lot of the unsexy serving that happens on a regular basis.   Over the last 40 years, they’ve done lots of work that has been ignored by the media.

In bigger churches, it will be easier if you are an “institutional representative.”  If you’re not intending on joining the parish, it’s easier to get some time if you have connections with other people.  That’s what “institutional representation” is:  a way of verifying you’re not just some random person who wants time, but someone who has relationships and represents what others believe.   Clergy sometimes are very available, but in busy parishes, like corporations, they allocate their time and have gatekeepers.

Our culture has become so radically balkanized between church people (who feel besieged) and the non-religious (who are perplexed).   Churches have been burned by social justice groups.  And social justice groups seem to find most churches ideologically suspect.

I can affirm that when I visited Occupy Wall Street, I was met with unexpecedly friendly and supportive faces.  I’mused to people fleeing when I’m in my collar, as the world puts me in an unsavory category.   Here, instead, they sought my blessing.     And I, instead, felt myself blessed.

However, our institutions have resisted, by and large, commodification.  Although we are imperfect, we’ve been negotiating the public-private debate for decades.   We’re private organizations who exist for the public.   This makes us responsible in a way that our government is not.

And we may get things wrong.  But I’m sure, in the case of Trinity Wall Street, that Dr. Cooper has a lot on his plate.   He has many voices he needs to consider, and his sympathies are most likely pulled in multiple directions.  I would argue that it is not his role to take sides, but to maintain connections.    And for this reason, it is crucial that an institutional representative of Occupy Wall Street sit down with any clergy for the sole reason to help every priest discern what is actually going on.

Because occupying property owned by Trinity Church isn’t actually occupying Wall Street.  That would mean trying to enter the buildings that house the institutions of power.  Trinity might actually be able to help the occupiers, but offering space might be the least effective way it can help.  But we don’t know.

Any movement, whether Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, that does not lay a foundation by getting to know the players in other institutions such as the church, may find itself disappointed in the church’s reaction.  This is not because we aren’t sympathetic:  but we seek to fulfill our obligations also to all sorts of conditions, including those who are not part of whatever movement is around us.  Our reticence is not disapproval.  And our hesitation should not be interpreted as cowardice.

When I was asked in my class about how I felt about Occupy Wall Street, I hemmed and hawed.  I said I was sympathetic:  the social contract had been undermined over the last forty years; those who’d been most responsible had not been brought to justice; and our system seemed devoid of character and virtue.

But over the last few weeks, it has simply been: I don’t always know what is going on.   I’m sometimes skeptical of authority, while appreciative of its effectiveness.  I think it is an emerging movement rather than a focused one.  I’m baffled by those taking it to the university (why there?) or the ports.  But I’m attracted to its energy.  It’s intriguing how social media has transformed the national dialogue about wealth.   I hope it will invite a better discussion of how our nation builds wealth, and the complexities of class.  But as a priest, I still exist in the world of face-to-face relationships and am instinctively wary of ideological posturing or movement politics.

Chris Hedges is surely right to ask churches where they stand.  We must be more open about talking about our economic condition, the roots of our current malaise, and clear about the system’s shortcomings.

But churches do not properly engage movements.  They engage individuals.  When there is danger, of course the church must offer shelter.  But sustained engagement, one that offers the hospitality of the church, requires first that people in the movement and in the church do the necessary work of listening and learning about one another.  It is through these relationships we can build the bonds that can sustain us as we critique our disastrous system.  Occupy Wall Street will only strengthen if it builds relationships with other institutions, or else the movement will fizzle.

This is hard work.   We are in a culture that values immediacy and quick answers.  To ask OWS and churches to sit down first and learn about each other seems like a waste of time.  I suggest that this view of “time” suggests that capital itself controls the game, commodifying the work it takes to strengthen the bonds of trust that can build alternative organizations.  It is when we first sit down, without demands, to listen to each other that we can understand what is actually going on; and from there, what work needs to be done.

And that work is the challenge.