Ours is a risk-taking church
Written by the Rev. John H. Thomas

Speech delivered by the Rev. John H. Thomas at Christians for Justice Action's Valerie Russell Lecture, June 29, 2009, during General Synod 27.

Last spring when the United Church of Christ found itself caught up in the drama of a Presidential Campaign and the efforts of some in the media to influence the campaign with an assault on Obama's pastor and congregation, we decided that part of our response would be a full page advertisement in The New York Times briefly articulating the values and vision of the United Church of Christ.  About the time we were crafting the statement, I received a letter from one of our pastors offering encouragement at a stressful moment and recalling a statement by Ben Herbster, the first president of the United Church of Christ, in which he described the us as “a risk-taking fellowship.”  Thus inspired, our advertisement concluded, “Ours is a risk-taking church, because ours is a risk-taking God.”

We are all familiar with the risks our forebears have taken for the Gospel, risks that at the time threatened the unity of the church but which, in retrospect, have shaped a distinctive vocation that I have tried to described as “extravagant welcome and evangelical courage.”  Ron Buford has “dubbed” some of them as “UCC Firsts,” and the litany is familiar:  Samuel Sewall's groundbreaking anti-slavery tract, The Selling of Joseph, the defense of the Amistad prisoners, the Andover Band's abolitionist stand in bloody Kansas, Antoinette Brown's ordination, the conscientious objection of some of our sainted mentors during the Second World War, the opposition to the internment of Japanese Americans in that same period, Andrew Young's secundment by the Board for Homeland Ministries to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Civil Rights leadership offered by Bob Spike, the General Synod's solidarity with farm workers in California, Avery Post's leadership in the divestment struggle in South Africa, Bill Johnson's ordination, support for the Wilmington 10, advocacy for women's right to make ethical decisions about their bodies, exposure of the disproportionate dumping of toxic waste in minority communities, solidarity with Puerto Rican political prisoners, The New Century Hymnal's treatment of language, marriage equality.  At significant moments the United Church of Christ has turned aside the counsels of caution and claimed God's gift of courage in the struggle for justice and peace.

We need to confess, of course, that the risk-taking has not always been consistent, or claimed by all.  Antoinette Brown wrote a friend shortly before her ordination, remarking, “People are beginning to stop laughing, and get mad.”  When the Executive Council endorsed a boycott of businesses in Cincinnati several years ago in response to persistent racism and police violence, our own churches erupted in protest, vilifying the national leadership for presuming to name the reality of racism in that community and, as it became increasingly apparent, in the life of our own congregations.  I have vivid memories of profoundly difficult meetings in a few associations over the years defending the General Synod's commitment to equality for all.  There was even a resolution proposed to the 2001 Synod, the first after my election, calling for the Synod to censure me for signing a statement on human sexuality.  One presenter got so angry and animated that he lost his grip on the Bible he was waving in my face, inadvertently - I think - flinging it right at me.  That moment created its own legend and lore,  Another UCC First!  Respectable religion often still does trump evangelical faith.  I remember one pastor telling me the reaction of a New England blue blood member who announced she would not return to church until they took down that tacky looking Stillspeaking banner.  One of our well beloved pastors is remembered to have said, “Better to be a divided church that stands for something, than a divided church that stands for nothing.”  If we're honest, that statement remains deeply contested in our life.

And yet.  We have been a risk-taking fellowship and often under the leadership of unassuming people one might not have expected to be in the forefront of the justice agenda.  My favorite story is of Charles Lockyear, for many years the Treasurer of the United Church of Christ.  He had just negotiated a significant line of credit with a major bank in New York prior to an Executive Council meeting.  It had been difficult, the finances of the denomination hardly reassuring to conservative bankers even then.  At the Executive Council meeting the commitment was made to defend Ben Chavis and the Wilmington 10.  So the next week, Charles was back, speaking with a group of pinstriped bankers - I suspect all of them white - persuading them that they should advance even more money to the church, this time for bail money of all things!  Good for Charles!  Ours is a risk-taking church.

But today is not about a rehearsal of our past.  Rather it is a moment to reflect on the trajectory of that legacy into the future and, in particular, how the justice agenda of the United Church of Christ in the coming years will exert its demands and its calling on our local churches. The agenda is long, but let me name these four:  1)  Addressing the enduring xenophobia and racism in this country that remains an obstacle to a just and humane immigration policy; 2)  Claiming the insights of science so as to both de-privilege and re-commission the human species in its relation to the rest of creation;  3)  Making the scandal of poverty a primary lens through which to read Scripture and by which to shape our ministry;  4)  Imagining new grounds for personal and corporate security and thus confronting the culture of violence and oppression by which we currently seek safety and peace.  Undoubtedly some of you are prepared right now to leap to your feet with an argument for why some other pressing concern needs to be named.  We are, after all, an earnest people!  Mine is not an exhaustive list, or even a privileged list; these are simply the concerns that strike me as crucial for the health of our planet and the well-being of our commonwealth.

Americans flock to visit Ellis Island and thrill to the words of Emma Lazarus:  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  But at best we have viewed the stranger with deep ambivalence.  In 1725 the English governor of the colony of Pennsylvania wrote with dismay and alarm about the “large number of Germans pouring into the back country without knowledge of our language or our laws and without certificates showing from whence they have come or where they are going.”  Imagine, undocumented immigrants who don't speak English!  Fortunately for the Reformed part of our heritage, his opinion didn't prevail.  I have a vivid memory of a cartoon published in Boston in the 19th century showing immigrants crawling up the beaches of Massachusetts portrayed as alligators, their long snouts and dangerous jaws in the form of bishops' miters, a clear message about the Irish and the Italians who were reshaping the ethnic and religious landscape of “our” holy commonwealth.  My college thesis was written on the Chinese exclusion acts of the late 19th century, aimed at the growing Asian migration to the west coast.  A newspaper editor in Butte, Montana, wrote in the 1870's, “The Chinaman's life is not our life, his religion is not our religion. . . .  He belongs not in Butte.”  Today's anti-immigrant violence has a long pedigree that we ignore to our peril.

While much of our attention is drawn to the scandal of the growing wall along our southern border, and to the desiccated bodies in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, the battle over immigration is being fought in many places closer to home and just around the corner:  Auburn, Maine, Hazelton, Pennsylvania, suburban Long Island, rural Iowa.  This past year a UCC church in Easton, Pennsylvania, where I served my last parish, was sold to an Islamic community and is being transformed into a Mosque.  Economic fears are not to be discounted.  If our new immigrants weren't often destitute and if the middle class here wasn't being so squeezed by the officially sanctioned largesse to the wealthy during the last administration, some of the anti-immigrant feeling would be lessened.  But let's be honest.  The fundamental fear driving our efforts to exclude and to punish is the dethroning of white and Christian America from its place of privilege and dominance, and we must add, the disruption of the white/black paradigm as the primary racial dynamic in America.  Few would be ranting on Fox News if Germans, Swedes, Brits, Canadians, or New Zealanders were slipping across our unprotected borders.  America is at a tipping point, demographically in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion.  It frightens us and it challenges us! 

When the grocery stores in rural Crete, Nebraska advertise in Spanish, very few of us can say that the intersection of race and immigration is not just around the corner.  We can and should work hard to support and help implement immigration reform.  We can and should be sanctuary congregations or support those that have taken that bold step.  We can and should be engaged in ministries to and with immigrant communities.  But until our sacred conversations on race become part of a national conversation on race, until we own the demonic impact of our privilege, until we can learn to accept our increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious culture as gift rather than threat, as a fulfillment of our national story rather than a denial of it, we will continue to pass on the spiritual and moral genes that made life for many of our own ancestors nearly unbearable when they arrived on these shores.

A year ago I published a pastoral letter on faith engaging science and technology.  Primarily written by a group of UCC theologians, the letter sought to debunk the notion that science and faith should be seen either as competitors or as separate dimensions of life that have no relation to each other.  A New Voice Arising was a reminder that science speaks to faith in profound ways.  One of those ways is to “de-center” the human species from a notion prompted by a literalist reading of the creation stories - humanity as the culmination or humanity as the center of creation.  Such a notion, when coupled with interpretations of “dominion” that lead to privilege and domination, have led us to the edge of the abyss, environmentally speaking.  To bear the image of God is not to be privileged with unbridled permission to consume, extract, exhaust, or manipulate creation.  We are one with the creation, part of a vast, complex, evolutionary process that situates us in creation, not apart from creation or over creation. 

If, as Christians, we see God most fully in Jesus Christ, than the image of God must, in some sense, be Christ-like in which dominion - “lordship” - is exercised primarily as servanthood.  “I am among you as one who serves,” Christ tells us.  Thus our dominion over creation is most fully and faithfully expressed as servanthood, or stewardship of creation.  Evolution calls people of faith to a deeper humility, no doubt the reason some of the faithful so earnestly resist it. 

Local churches will not, by themselves, be able to reverse global warming or rebalance the use of natural resources.  We can engage in important actions that are both real and symbolic in their impact from the greening of our buildings and our lifestyles to advocacy around critical public policy issues related to the care and protection of the earth and all that dwells therein.  And we can do this with large “coalitions of the willing,” with people of many different faiths and people of no faith.  But our distinctive vocation, as people called to do justice in relation to creation, is to nurture in the souls of our members a theology and spirituality that supports care for creation rather than control over creation, partnership with creation rather than paternalism, thoughtful use rather than rampant abuse.  And this is something we can uniquely do, on our ecclesiastical corner of the planet.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners enjoys telling the story of a group of his seminary classmates who decided to do their own version of a “red-letter Bible.”  This one, however, was not highlighting the words of Jesus, but was focused on the texts in Scripture dealing with poverty.  They took scissors and cut out every verse that related to justice for the poor and, of course, what they ended up with was a “Swiss cheese scripture” riddled with holes.  We all know this intellectually.  But we haven't yet embedded it in the life of our churches.  We remain predominantly middle class, beholden to the privileges of our middle class status.  Compassion and mercy come more easily than justice and while we recognize the way the global north's domination of the world oppresses the south, we aren't quite ready to entertain the enormous adjustments or engage in the deep repentance required of us.

During the course of the current economic crisis much attention has been directed, as it should, to Wall Street, to the dominant economic institutions that in so many ways embodied a culture of greed that left little protection against a cataclysmic collapse that spread throughout the nation and the world.  And much attention has been directed, as it should, toward Main Street, toward the broad middle class that now finds its home ownership threatened, its retirement security diminished, its health insurance in peril, and its future deeply uncertain.  But scarce attention has been paid to those who were already poor and who now face even deeper poverty and marginalization.  During last summer and fall's campaign a significant group of religious leaders called on both candidates to rebalance their attention.  Little resulted.  Now state governments everywhere are under siege and one can be certain that rather than address huge gaps through taxes, deep cuts will be made in programs and initiatives that most directly affect the poor.  In my own state of Ohio, for example, no new taxes remains the priority, meaning that an enormous budget deficit must be plugged this week.  And the governor's proposal, a Democratic governor's proposal, is to do this with new slot machine income, and massive cuts to programs deeply affecting the poor.  The public library system in Ohio alone faces a 50% cut, and the list goes on and on.  The impact on poor people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is even more profound but even more invisible to most Americans. 

The Accra Confession, adopted by the delegates to the General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Ghana in 2004, challenges us to see the issue of global poverty not merely as a social problem, but as a profoundly theological one.  The crushing of the poor, so clearly exposed by the Biblical prophets and so central to the prophetic ministry of Valerie Russell, is not just an economic and moral challenge, but a contradiction of the Gospel itself.  Thus, said the Alliance, it rises to the level of confessional status - status confessionis - in which our refusal to respond becomes a denial of our very confession of faith.  Thus, like immigration justice which presses us on each corner where we worship to delve deeply into the biblical understanding of the other and the stranger, and like environmental justice which presses us on each corner where we worship to reconceive biblical understands of dominion, poverty confronts us on every corner where we worship to consider the nature of our confession and the implications of global poverty for the very integrity of that confession.

On September 11, 2001, I was visiting church partners in Germany and immediately upon hearing the news from New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, found myself at a television station being interviewed.  Having a few minutes to compose myself, and to think about what I might say, I recall responding in this way:  “The violence that so much of the world has experienced for so long has now come to our shores.  I hope this will be a moment to discover a sense of solidarity with those who have known violence all their lives.”  Sadly, we took a different course.  Enraged and indignant at our new sense of vulnerability, at the loss of our privilege, we immediately turned that violence back on Iraq and Afghanistan, and into the prisons at Abu Grahib and Guantanamo, seeking our security at the expense of the truly vulnerable, and at deep cost to our own moral character.

The churches in the United States had a remarkable opportunity after 9/11 to reflect on the source of our true security.  Sadly, all too many Christians took their cues from the neo-cons rather than the Gospel.  Flags draped chancels and “smoke them out of their holes,” “wanted dead or alive,” and “the axis of evil” became the disgraceful level of rhetoric to which our President called us.  Far too many all too easily sank to his low bar.  And this is but one dimension of the culture of violence that surrounds us and to which we all too easily run for security.  President Obama's rhetorical device in the debates about fighting the wrong war in Iraq when we should have been fighting the war in Afghanistan played well, but it continues to mask and veil the critical questions about Afghanistan that no one seems to be asking with any urgency, at least not from the churches.  The arming of the drug cartels in Mexico by the United States, the epidemic of inner city shootings of young people that far exceeds the body counts in the Middle East, call us urgently back to the question of what it means to be a just peace church.  Friends, we live in a country where a church in Louisville a month ago could hold a “bring a gun to church” celebration in honor of the 2nd Amendment!  Have we really claimed the World Council of Churches Decade to Overcome Violence, or does the specter of the twin towers continue to haunt us toward the seduction of violence?  Churches on every corner can be engaged in anti-violence initiatives.  But deep down we must ponder the true source of security, namely, “that I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my savior Jesus Christ.” 

What I have tried to suggest is that the justice agenda around the corner - the rights of immigrants, the care of the environment, the plight of the poor, and the culture of death found in guns and missiles and weapons of mass destruction that are housed not in Iraq but here in the United States - that this justice agenda must start with a new commitment to a theological agenda.  And that agenda is all about risk:  risking our privileged place in a nation that is becoming increasingly non-white; risking our privileged place in creation that needs our care, not our consumption and our control; risking our privileged place of wealth in an impoverished world that mocks our confession; risking our privileged sense of security in a vulnerability that yearns for solidarity, not empire.  The challenge is as much spiritual as it is material.  Can we be a risk taking church?

Let me close by saying how honored I am to have this opportunity to be associated with the name of my colleague and friend, Valerie.  How diminished we are without her.  How good it would have been to have her counsel, her encouragement, and no doubt her admonition during my years as GMP.  And how grateful I am that in difficult moments, I could imagine Valerie with us, her head tossed back, her marvelous smile and infectious laugh taunting the powers and principalities, and inviting us all to come along, and be the risk-taking church! 

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