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.

Goodbye, Benedict

I’m not a hater, although I wasn’t a fan.

I think it was wise and generous for him to resign.   We need not always stay in roles that we have taekn on.  Sometimes if we stay to long the office becomes the person and vice versa.  There is wisdom in avoiding that, if only to let our organizations reorganize and find ways to change.

I do believe Benedict was misinterpreted.  Sometimes his arguments, I suspect, were much more nuanced than could be articulated in the media.  Still, I share the sentiments of plenty of Episcopalians, Anglicans and Catholics that the institutional response of the church toward clerical abuse was inadequate, and it points to a larger tone-deafness of a hierarchy that seems far too distant from the concerns of the people.

I remain fascinated.  In my mind, the Roman Catholic church remains the only institution with the capabilities to challenge the onslaught of market forces internationally.  It is the main international organization that engages regularly with the most wretched of the earth.  By and large, it is controlled locally, rather than by the many aid organizations populated with prosperous Americans from Ivy League Schools participating in charity tourism.

Although many people have noted that John Paul II and Benedict have appointed all the current cardinals, I think it is too strong to assume that the individual bishops do not think independently.  Oscar Romero was a bishop who was considered conservative and meek – and he became one of the greatest proponents of liberation theology.  We do not know where the spirit will take the church.  We can still hope for openness.

Granted, in my darker moments I share the view of the reformers that the Roman church is a nest of vipers and finally beholden to the anti-Christ.  But then I remember that it is also a human body; and however imperfect it has many parts and many roles.  It has hospitals and schools all over the globe; and although it is run by men, it has schools for girls and women in places where there had been none.  It does its own work, without armies, across nations.  And I believe it has also formed plenty of faithful Episcopalians.

I still consider myself a catholic, in its reformed and humanist tradition, and wish the best for the Roman tree, and for Benedict.  I had hoped for more, but bless him in his quiet days.

On Rowan

Well, he resigned.

Unlike many of those who I admire, I was a fan to the very end.  I remained impressed by his erudition and sensitivity.  I never doubted that he worked tirelessly to fulfill his thankless responsibilities.   The trouble he caused in England was necessary.  He often had the right enemies; when the tabloids dissed him, it raised his stature in my eyes.

I admit, I wasn’t that concerned about his decisions about the Episcopal Church and sexuality.  In my neck of the woods, my side won the battle.  There are openly gay and lesbian clergy; more will become nominated and selected to lead the church; and we are slowly, in due course, writing liturgies for same-sex couples.  I see that young people lack the homophobia of previous generations.  No gay person in my own congregation, or even in my own diocese, can worry about being disenfranchised by the church.   Since my state allows for gay marriage it is only a matter of time before I perform them myself.

Rowan, however, heard voices that I do not hear.  Not everyone in the world understands sexuality the way I, nor many of us in the US, do. We tend to see these issues through the lens of individual choice and preference.   It reflects more of a sea-change in other parts of the world.  And for many in the global south, our focus on sexuality seems like a first world problem.  Rowan was aware of many religious traditions that don’t yet understand modern, liberal, secular explanations of sexuality.

We underestimate the worth of those voices.  And while they could be wrong, Rowan asked different questions about the consequences:  how do we live with one another given our different contexts?

But what did Rowan do which changed the way TEC operated?   There was no way he could force the Episcopal church to toe the line.  He tried.  He hurt our feelings.  We can pout all we like because he never gave his stamp of approval, but we should have noticed we’ve still continued ordaining the priests and bishops we like.  Our presiding bishop still got to go hang out with other presiding bishops.  And so we’re still in the councils of the church.  This isn’t Rome.

Certainly, he made mistakes.  I believe he should have let Jeffrey John become a bishop, if only to expose how the English choose their bishops.  I think he might have been a bit more plain spoken about the real stakes in the communion.  It is possible that he did not get good advice, and that he was surrounded by people who were concerned with the machinations of English politics than the fate of the spiritual lives of people in the American church.  Sometimes I wish he could have been media saavy – his nuanced, thoughtful arguments were too easily made into fodder for ridicule by the British Tabloids.

Certainly Rowan didn’t understood the dynamics of the American Church very well.   And the confusion about his role in England, as the first foreign archbishop, is probably the same on our part.  The Episcopalian Church is more congregationalist in its order than we care to admit, perhaps, and the Anglican Church is interwoven with the English establishment in a way that Americans would find hard to fathom.  And perhaps spiritually we wanted him to be like the pope who we could ignore at whim (kind of like the way Americans treat Benedict).

But I believe Rowan understood what the long view looked like.  The English church will ordain women bishops; they will reject the covenant.   These debates needed to happen in the open, over time, in a messy, public, difficult way.  There was no avoiding it.  Although most of us wanted bold declarations and clarity, the Archbishop seemed to understand the dangers of moving too quickly.  I don’t think he idealized caution in itself, but he believed that listening takes a longer time than we like to believe.

Last year an Indian priest visited New York and said to me, “I understand more how the Episcopal church sees the world.  I don’t think my context is ready.  But I feel much differently myself.  And perhaps this will open even more minds.”  He said this after the Idaba process brought people of various perspectives together.  It was a model of mutual understanding, one which Rowan adapted to keep the Anglican communion in conversation.

I think that we’ll miss Rowan.  I’m personally glad he was often misunderstood.  It was an implicit, subtle challenge to the media and even to we liberals who work in internet-oriented, market driven time.  Perhaps over the long haul, we’ll see that he laid a good foundation for the perspectives of gay Christians to be heard throughout the world, and at some personal cost.   We don’t see it yet, but that story will be told.  And for all our focus on the issue of homosexuality, he wrote some remarkable, important words and essays that have gotten lost in the din.

So God bless you, Rowan.   Thank you for your service.