A monthly feature about spirituality
There seems to be one thing about which most people can agree: greed is rampant in American life. The idea that "enough is never enough" threatens our very existence.
The deadly sin of greed is defined as the inordinate love of money and material possessions, and the compulsive behavior that is driven by the need to have more and more of both. The truly greedy person is never content and is willing to sacrifice everything (and everyone) to acquire more. Also known as "avarice" and "covetousness," we see it in corporate bandits, sports idols, and legions of preachers hawking "prosperity theology."
Honesty also dictates that we confess to being guilty of this sin ourselves and that, to some degree, we are all hypocrites when it comes to condemning greed in others, while going easy on ourselves. But just when we need to bring the word back into the pulpit, we seem to have lost our nerve. We can talk about anything in church except money. It is the "last taboo."
Perhaps it would be helpful if we made a more careful distinction between greed and desire — because the truth is, we all "want" things, and this is not always a bad thing.
J. Philip Wogaman, a Christian ethicist, has offered a very helpful distinction between "intrinsic" and "instrumental" values. We want some things because they are of value in and of themselves, while we want others things because they instrumental in acquiring something else. Our society has the tendency to treat human relationships and other intrinsic values as if they were instrumental ones, measurable in purely economic terms. This is the spirit of the old aphorism: love people and use things, don’t use people and love things.
Moral philosophers do not consider the pursuit of wealth as sinful or the wealthy as inherently sinful. What matters is how that wealth was acquired, at what cost, for what purpose and to what end. More important is our failure to regard all blessings as having come from God. Biblically speaking, being rich is not a sin, but being stingy is.
We can, however, "want wisely," by always asking whether the things we desire have intrinsic or merely instrumental value. In Judaism, one is to use wealth "for the sake of heaven." For Christians, the word is stewardship. Either way, knowing what money is and what it is for is a mark of true faith. Seeing how high you can stack it is pathetic.
The Rev. Robin Meyers is senior minister of Mayflower UCC in Oklahoma City and is professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University. His latest book, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins is available at HCIbooks.com.
Istanbul's Sultanahmet (or Blue Mosque). W. Evan Golder photo | Randy Varcho graphic.
Ken and Betty Frank are Christian missionaries in Istanbul, Turkey. So is Alison Stendahl. All three serve with Global Ministries, the common world ministry of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). And they serve in a secular Muslim country.
All three serve because their presence was requested by a Global Ministries "partner," one who appreciates the Christian missionaries' influence far beyond their slim numbers.
Global Ministries sends missionaries to a particular country only if four things occur: 1) a "partner church" in that country requests missionaries for a particular task; 2) missionaries are available to meet that request; 3) the requested missionary service meets the criteria of "critical presence;" and 4) money is available to fund those missionaries.
In 1921, at the zenith of its overseas missionary activity, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), a Global Ministries' predecessor, had 728 full-time missionaries serving around the globe. By 1966, that number had slipped to 480.
Today, Global Ministries has only 81 full-time missionaries serving abroad - and that number may drop before it increases. Budget shortfalls in the UCC and Disciples mean tough choices ahead. No new missionaries have been commissioned in the last two years, and the number of missionaries has dropped due to retirements and resignations.
Turkey's missionary history
Take Turkey, for example, once ABCFM's largest mission enterprise.
In 1820, two missionaries, Pliny Fiske and Levi Parsons, set sail for Palestine. En route, they disembarked in Smyrna (later Izmir), Turkey.
Around 1914, according to Brian Johnson, the American Board's archivist today in Turkey, it employed 174 American workers. These included about 133 missionaries, who worked at 17 principal ABCFM stations, 256 sub-stations, one publishing department, nine hospitals and 426 schools with more than 25,000 students.
Today, Turkey still has more Global Ministries missionaries than most countries, but they number only three. Ken and Betty Frank serve as co-general secretaries of the Near East Mission in Istanbul and work in ecumenical and interfaith relations.
Alison Stendahl is academic dean at Üsküdar American Academy and teaches mathematics. Alison Stendahl arrived in Turkey in 1980, the Franks two years later. All three served first in Izmir, and later moved to Istanbul, Stendahl in 1982, the Franks only recently. Besides their primary responsibilities, each has special concerns: Stendahl for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, Betty Frank for education in Turkey and peace-and- justice issues, and Ken Frank for Christian- Muslim relations, about which he has co-authored a book, "Visible Islam in Modern Turkey," with Adil Ozdemir.
On a daily basis, the Franks work with a partner organization made up of secular Muslims on the running of three schools, a hospital and a publishing house. "All of these were started by our 19th century predecessors, and all continue today because of the Turkish people who run them and think that they should go on," says Betty Frank, "and most of these people identify themselves as Muslim."
Unique 'partner' relationship
This "partnership" relationship with a secular Muslim group is unique among Global Ministries' missionaries. It evolved even as the concept of partner church itself was evolving. Historically, AFCFM missionaries went out in response to Jesus' commandment (Matthew 28:19, KJV) to "go ye therefore, and teach all nations." As these new Christians began to run their own churches, the sending church body began to take its cues from the receiving churches as to what newly arriving missionaries should be doing.
The UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) formally combined their global mission work in the Common Global Ministries Board in 1996, even though joint work and cooperation dates back as far as 1967.
In Turkey, in the meantime, for various reasons the American Board's responsibility for running its schools, hospital and publishing house were gradually being taken over by the Health and Education Foundation (or SEV, its Turkish acronym). Today SEV has a $30 million annual budget.
"The foundation is far bigger than what missionaries and the American Board created," says Ken Frank. "So, if you look at it from the perspective of what the missionaries started in health and education, it's a huge success."
Although Ken Frank is legally responsible to the Turkish government for the American Board schools, he knows that all three missionaries serve at the request of SEV, acting as a "partner."
"Every so often I remind them that any time that they don't need us here, we'll leave," he says, "and they keep saying, 'We need you here.'"
"We want our tie with the American Board," says Ziya Köseoglu, SEV's general coordinator. "These schools gave Turkey a leadership edge, providing Turkey with educated leaders who could speak English. They also emphasized basic values, especially in terms of serving the community. Instead of saying, 'What's in it for me?' our students learned how to serve without expecting anything.
"In some parents' eyes, schools are successful if their students get into the university, but not here," he says. "Our students are prepared for life. Why would we want to give up our ties with this heritage?"
Interfaith relations are at the heart of what all three do, but it is not programmatic. "Even though Turkey's population is 99 percent Muslim and it is constitutionally a secular state," Ken Frank explains, "everyone - the government, the Orthodox Christian church, and the secularists - would be very suspicious of anything too explicit."
"The best interfaith relations are built on trust, good character and empathy," he says. "If you can build these things among people of different religious, ethnic and national backgrounds, then you are participating in the realm of God."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.
New standard for missionary appointments
At the April 2004 spring meeting of the Common Global Ministries Board in Indianapolis, the board amended its standing rules so that all appointments or re-appointments of its missionaries would be based on a group of criteria referred to as "critical presence."
The board defined "critical presence" as "to meet God's people and creation at the point of deepest need - spiritually, physically, emotionally, and/or economically - in a timely and appropriate manner."
The approach affects not only the appointment of missionary personnel, but also the establishment of overseas partnerships, the allocation of program grants, the configuration of home-based staff, and other components of Global Ministries.
Priority will be given to ministries of "acompañamiento (being there in various forms and modes of presence) to and with people in critical situations," with priority given to health care and capacity-building assignments. These may include:
. Pastoral ministries related to fear and hopelessness where people are desperate for meaning;
. Dangerous or life-threatening situations related to social, economical or political realities;
. Partners living in countries where in the Christian faith is a minority faith;
. Interfaith relations;
. Conflict resolution; and
. Areas where Global Ministries can offer a distinctive presence.
The whole texture of Jesus' ministry was one of inclusive welcome. One biblical and theological construct contained in the fact that the thief on the cross is the only person ever promised instant immortality by Jesus. If such unconditional inclusion was extended to this person (without any sacred or sacramental participation), then how can we do less in our ministry with others?
The Rev. Ronald A. Sparks
Community UCC of California City, Calif.
I am a baptized, communing member of a UCC church. Our church invites everyone, anyone to partake on the monthly Lord's Supper. It truly bothers me with this practice. I feel the church is lowering its standard by doing this. I definitely feel one should be baptized and also confirmed before partaking. A person should take the confirmation classes and truly understand what the feast means. Also, a practice which bothers me is the young unconfirmed youth serving the bread and wine. These sacraments should be served by the confirmed. Let's not lower the church's standards.
We should all break bread together, inviting outsiders and anyone who hesitates at God's door to come in and partake of blessings we all have to share. That is why we are here—to share God's blessings to everyone. Churches spend too much [time] today ignoring the real issues and the real people God sent here for us to comfort, act kindly toward, and invite into God's Houses. Start today. Reach out and serve with a humble spirit to all!
The commission Jesus places upon the apostolic church in Matt. 21:18-20 says nothing directly about the church consisting of the baptized, but rather specifies that the church be the baptizing. Thus one might ask, "Should non-baptizing Christians receive Holy Communion?" No way!
The goal of baptism is to become a baptizer, to be cleansed and filled with the Holy Spirit so that together we might spread the world of Jesus Christ. Hence, let anyone closed to being baptized or not willing to be confirmed in their baptism be shut off from the table! At baptism, we do not ask the non-baptized to leave the congregation, rather we invite all to join in prayer. Welcome anyone who will bless the waters to share in the loaf and cup as well!
St. Paul's Community UCC
If the communion table is truly the table of Christ, who is any minister to tell anyone he/she is not welcome? If Christ offers himself and issues the invitation, who is any minister to contradict Christ? Where in the scriptural rendering of the last supper does Jesus require proof of baptism before offering bread and wine to the disciples? Remember there is a difference between man-made church policy and the reality of God's gifts through Christ.
The Rev. David H. Lester
I was really surprised when I read that 69 percent of UCC churches were allowing anyone in attendance to take communion regardless of whether they were baptized or confirmed—also children of all ages. I seem to remember every minister of the different UCC churches I've attended inviting anyone in good standing in any Christian church to partake of the sacrament. I understand when I was confirmed that I had accepted the Lord into my life of my own free will, that he died for me and I wanted to be one of his followers. It would be a privilege to accept communion as a reminder of his love for me and an incentive to be a better follower.
There is no doubt about it—yes. It's maybe the help that someone may need. One piece of bread and a small communion cup of wine or grape juice might be the answer to a person giving their life to Jesus Christ. Christ would not refuse to inspire a person to come to God. We cannot be in judgment toward another person. That belongs to God.
St. Luke's UCC
It gave me a warm feeling last Sunday as our minister welcomed all to join in the celebration of communion. We have always practiced open communion at the Vero Beach Community UCC. I feel it is wrong for mortals to decide who is welcome at the Lord's table. Jesus certainly welcomed everyone who joined him.
Helen B. Potter
Vero Beach, Fla.
If we invite non-baptized, non-Christians, to communion we degrade it from a celebration of our redemption by Christ's death and resurrection to a fellowship snack. We also undercut the significance of the sacrament of baptism and break from historical Christianity and our ties to the rest of the body of Christ. At the very least the invitation should be limited "to all who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior."
Even then, the UCC should ask is the freedom to do our own thing greater than our belief in "one, holy, Christian, catholic church." Is it more important than our covenant with other UCC congregations or our ecumenical responsibility to other denominations. The UCC is in danger of becoming a sect as we cut our ties with the rest of Christianity in the name of the freedom to do whatever we want to do.
The Rev. Gerald Schrankler
Our Saviour's UCC, Ripon, Wis.
Sad I am that most UCC pastors have minimized and separated the theological meaning of both the table and the font for its laity. Historically, Christ's inclusivity trumped traditional Pagan, Greek and Hebrew teaching. He transcended exclusive religious teaching. The table is a present-day transforming encounter with the Risen Christ; the font is where we die and rise into the Paschal Mystery. Cannon we trust the table to flow into the font? Seemed to do that for folks 2,000 years ago when all were fed, no exceptions. Happy to see some substantial discussion about the table and font.
Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary We are the people of God—each congregation is a family. You are welcome into my home, but that doesn't necessarily make you a member of our family, nor does it entitle you to certain things that are "family only." I am in favor of keeping the Eucharist for baptized persons. Gabe Fackre is right again! But didn't [John] Calvin say the condemnation is on those who commune "unworthily"?
Mt. Zion UCC
I was brought up in a Baptist home. The first Sunday of every month, all of us kids had to go out in the "entry way" while "something special" (we thought) went on in the church. We thought we were being left out of part of the church service, which of course we were. There was no door that we could look in to see what was going on. It was a big mystery and kind of scary. The imaginations of young kids run pretty wild, even 60 or so years ago. Of course, the "something special" was communion. Once we were baptized, we could stay. I have always remembered that and wondered, "why?" Why not!
Raymond Village (Maine) Community UCC
Holy Communion proclaims the Lord's death until he comes again. The bread and wine represent a body broken and blood shed for my sin, initiating an intimate relationship with God. As the food becomes part of me, so does the gospel and mission of Christ. In baptism, I pray to die to my sin and rise so to be open to the Holy Spirit that God may be clearly be seen in me. The two sacraments are one, even as God and Christ are one. I can welcome a non-baptized person wanting holy communion, but I cannot imagine that person staying dry long.
The Rev. Sheryl Stewart
Member, Riverside-Salem UCC
Grand Island, N.Y.
A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of ChristMost of us spend many hours each week watching television or listening to the radio. In 18th-century New England, however, the most important form of public oral communication (even entertainment) was the "sermon."
People read many newspapers and tracts, but they heard hundreds of sermons. The average weekly churchgoer (most people attended, even though only a small number were church members) listened to over 7,000 sermons in a lifetime, amounting to over 15,000 hours of listening.
Unlike sermons in the Church of England, which were supposed to "please and inspire," New England Congregationalists inherited a rational tradition and argued that a good sermon was to "inform and convince." In colonial New England, the words of the preacher carried great influence.
Not only did pastors in each town preach every Sunday, but in keeping with the Calvinist belief that all human activity falls under the jurisdiction of God's Word, sermons were preached at significant public events—anniversaries, thanksgiving days, fast days and election days. Published colonial sermons show that most ministers did not mix religion and politics on Sundays. However, when they were asked to preach an "Election Day sermon," that was different.
In Massachusetts, in the mid-18th century, Election Day was a colony-wide holiday. It began with cannon firing, military exercises, and usually some form of procession of government officials from the seat of government to a nearby church. The most politically and socially important members of community listened carefully for several hours.
Election Day sermons followed a typical pattern. First, they asserted that civil government is founded on an agreement between God and citizens to establish political systems that promote the common good. Scripture states that government is necessary, but no system is perfect. Therefore, voters and rulers were told that they must do what is needed for their "peculiar circumstances."
Second, the people were encouraged to promise to follow those they had elected, and rulers were to promise to act for the good of all. As long as rulers acted "in their proper character," subjects were to obey. On the other hand, if rulers acted contrary to the terms of the agreement, people were "duty bound" to resist.
In all civic actions, voters and rulers were charged to promote virtue, suppress vice and support people of "proven wisdom, integrity, justice, and holiness." As we approach Election Day 2004, Christians might still do well to measure their actions by these criteria. In so doing, however, it is important not to bear false witness against one's neighbor, who might be using the same measure and making a different choice.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is editor of The Living Heritage of the United Church of Christ.
"As a denomination, the United Church of Christ always has occupied the progressive, liberal end of the religious spectrum," reads a reporter"s recent description of the UCC in a Las Vegas newspaper.
Similarly, the secular Religion News Service perennially uses the catch phrase, "one of the most liberal mainline Protestant bodies," to identify the UCC in its news stories. Even the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod describes the UCC—pejoratively—on its website as "one of the most liberal of all church bodies."
To be sure, many UCC members relish the denomination"s left-wing identity. A quick internet search reveals that a number of UCC churches use the words "liberal" or "progressive" to describe either their individual congregations or the denomination as a whole.But for the UCC"s more-conservative members and congregations, the L-word is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. And perhaps they have a point.
The 2001 International Congregational Life Survey, which included 21,000 UCC respondents from more than 800 congregations, found that UCC members were slightly more likely to self-identify as "conservative" rather than "liberal"—both theologically and politically. True, nearly half of respondents huddled somewhere in the middle, but, on the whole, the numbers tilted to the right.
The same study also found that UCC members—more so than other mainline Protestants—listed "traditional hymns" and "biblically-sound preaching" as being essential ingredients in a good worship service. How"s that for "most liberal"?
"I preach in 30 to 40 [UCC] congregations a year and the number of our congregations that are decisively liberal is not very many," says the Rev. David M. Greenhaw, president of UCC-related Eden Seminary in St. Louis. "Mostly, our church people are moderate. They are not very liberal, and the liberal movements are at the periphery of the church, not the center of it."
However, on the whole, one cannot deny the leftleaning legacy of the UCC and its predecessor bodies, says Greenhaw, a church historian. "We do have a history, as [UCC General Minister and President] John Thomas likes to say, of "getting there early.""
Greenhaw says there are at least four distinctive types of liberalism Ñtheological/philosophical, social, political and economic—and in at least some of these respects, the UCC could be considered liberal—especially in more-subtle, less-controversial ways.
The UCC"s theological liberalism, for example, is evident in its embrace of intellectual inquiry into matters of theology and scripture, as well as its long-held commitment to ecumenical dialogue and partnership, Greenhaw says, noting that these are liberal values shared widely in the UCC, but certainly not among all faith traditions.
Moreover, he says, "We believe in a social environment that allows people to be more free from constraints on behavior—not careless, but not overly restrained."
But while the UCC may be theologically and socially liberal, when it comes to politics, it"s "accidentally liberal," Greenhaw theorizes.
Greenhaw says the UCC, founded in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, was a much more difficult enterprise than most realize. The tenuous 30-year effort that led up to the merger grew out of a deep ecumenical spirit that pervaded a generation of church leaders—many of whom, he points out, either retired or died not long after the union occurred.
"By the time the merger actually happened," Greenhaw says, "[the succeeding generation] didn"t share their same sense of ecumenical emergency." This only made the differences between the two churches seem more prominent.
The Congregational Christian Churches believed strongly in congregational autonomy and were largely comprised of the "establishment class"—those with middle-to-upper incomes, says Greenhaw, while the Evangelical and Reformed Church had grown accustomed to a more-connectional polity and its members were less established financially because many were the first- or second-generation of immigrants.
"They began to ask, "Why is it that we merged with these people?"" Greenhaw says, "and that was being said on both sides."
The result, says Greenhaw, was a search for common commitments, and since the two differed significantly on matters of theology, worship and polity, they did share an interest in social ministry.
The Congregational Christian side offered a history of activism rooted in abolitionism, women"s suffrage and ordination, public education and civil rights. The Evangelical and Reformed side came from a tradition of the "social gospel" and was involved deeply in the establishment of hospitals, schools, orphanages and nursing homes.
Just as significant, Greenhaw says, was the fact that the UCC was coming into its own during the 1960s, an era of culture-critique when an emerging school of religious thought—known as "liberation theology"—began calling the institutional church to recognize its complicity in the systemic, social sins of racism and sexism (and later, homophobia).
Therefore, Greenhaw says, the UCC"s General Synod quickly became established as the church"s primary teaching "office" on important, complex social issues—a tradition that continues nearly 50 years later. Unfortunately, he says, as the General Synod has grown more liberal, disaffected more-conservative members increasingly have stayed away.
"In the UCC, there is no central location of teaching, but there is an accidental location called the General Synod," he says, "but the problem is that it has lacked the capacity to connect with the people in the pew. It has shallow roots of support in the life of the church É even though I have found myself in personal agreement with many of the stands we have taken."
Defined by "formality"
The Rev. Elizabeth Nordbeck, professor of ecclesiastical history at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass., says—whether we like it or not—churches are defined by their formal statements and denominational habits.
"I happen to know some Mormons who drink coffee," Nordbeck muses, to indicate how a church"s social stances—in this case, the Latter Day Saints" teaching that adherents should abstain from caffeine—may not necessarily be shared by all members. Still, she says, a church"s teaching defines its liberal/conservative, restrictive/unrestrictive posture.
"A church is described by its formality, even though there is a distinction between its formal statements and the way in which the people in the pews respond to those formalities," Nordbeck says. "Is the UCC a liberal denomination? It is and it isn"t. I would argue that the UCC"s formal statements are liberal and those are the things that people are asked to pay attention to, even if not all members respond."
However, Nordbeck says, when one examines the individual histories of each of the UCC"s merging streams, there are fascinating stories of how each tradition taught liberally that "our understanding of truth is not confined to doctrines of the past."
"We have this long history that goes all the way back to our beginnings, that we have understood that God is still speaking, that in the words of Pastor John Robinson in 1620 "that God still hath more truth and light to break forth from God"s holy word"—and that is profoundly liberal," Nordbeck says.
"It means that we are not bound to the shackles of previous generations, and while we do not set out to change the old, old story, we do intend to make it new for each succeeding generation," she says, "just as the opening words of the UCC Constitution ask of us."
As an example, Nordbeck points to frontier Christians" evangelical insistence on "no name but Christ, no creed but the Bible." It was a radically liberal stance, she says, pointing out that the Christians, like the Congregationalists, were among the first to offer women opportunities to teach with authority in the church.
"A lot of people looked at the Christians and thought they were nuts," she says.
The Rev. Paul H. Sherry, UCC president from 1989 to 1999, says, "All the traditions of the UCC have such strong histories of social transformation and each was involved in the great issues of their time. É Different forms, yes, but each has deep roots of proclaiming the gospel through social transformation."
Since 1968, the Rev. Art Cribbs, pastor of Christian Fellowship UCC in San Diego, has lived in 19 different cities, and in each one, he"s been a member of a UCC congregation.
"Within the context of each of these, there have been people on both ends and in the middle. So I would not be quick to want to label the church as a whole," Cribbs says.
So, instead of attaching labels that never quite capture the true essence of an individual, much less an entire church, Cribbs says he is more comfortable discussing the unique "dynamics" of the UCC.
"We argue points personally and theologically Ñ with passion and intelligence—and that is the wonder of the UCC," he says. "Opportunities are there for a range of ideas and experiences to be shared and appreciated, as opposed to saying, "Don"t ask the question." There is this emphasis on being fully engaged."
"We"re not afraid to find ourselves in the crucible. É We don"t believe that someone should be quiet but can have a relationship that uses the voice and ears, that engages the heart, mind and soul. We say, "Be open to the world and go into the world."" Cribbs says. "Now does that make us liberal or conservative? I"m not sure. É So leave it up to others to define us, if they must."
The church"s very nature is to be both conservative and liberal, argues the Rev. Frederick Trost, retired Wisconsin Conference Minister.
"The mothers and fathers who helped bring the UCC into being were wary of all who would soften or compromise [the] faith," Trost says, adding, "[But] our faith is neither static nor rigid. We do not live in the first century, nor do we build "booths" in the 16th century. É We have been summoned to proclaim the faith in the 21st century É to express the faith of the saints and the martyrs in simple, compelling, fresh and daring, new ways."
"There is a radical nature to this faith, certainly in terms of the biblical commitment to the lost, the empty, the oppressed and those who cry out from places of crucifixions at the margins of society," he says. "This is sometimes described as "liberal" by our friends and our critics. I leave that to the linguists and the politicians. The question for faith remains, "Is it faithful?""
A progressive polity
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ, says the UCC is perceived as a liberal or progressive denomination because "its polity allows General Synod to take actions that other denominations cannot take. It has been able to be cutting edge, not because everyone in the UCC agrees and endorses its actions, but because the General Synod on its own has been able to draw upon scripture, tradition, reason and human experience to take risks."
"Delegates are led by the Holy Spirit under the Lordship of Christ to do new things," Zikmund says. "Delegates are educated about things they never knew anything about. Delegates meet people who are different and they discover that they can all love Jesus together.
"The UCC is not really a liberal denomination, but the General Synod of the UCC has repeatedly taken radical, new, unusual, progressive, liberal positions," she says. "They sometimes surprise themselves. They regularly surprise the people back home. They surprise other denominations. They surprise the world."
Likewise, Nordbeck says the UCC"s emphasis on both autonomy and covenant—in all settings of the church—is a liberal concept in itself, because the UCC inherently trusts individual bodies to wrestle with difficult issues and arrive at faithful decisions.
"I am really convinced that congregationalism, as a church structure, is uniquely open to change in ways that more structured churches are not," Nordbeck says. "In a congregational system, if a prophet arises, there aren"t indomitable structures that have to be changed for churches to be changed."
Sherry agrees. "The polity allows for a divergence of understandings," he says. "By allowing deliberation and having discussion, we begin to see issues in ways that open us to new movement."
Even at the national level, the church is shaped by personal relationships, Sherry says, and the UCC and its predecessor bodies have known exceptionally strong, courageous leaders who have been passionate about forging a progressive direction for the UCC.
"Personalities are often very key to shaping understandings," Sherry says.
Says Nordbeck, "The passion of leaders has an enormous impact, and it"s clear that the people who promulgated the merger were passionate, prophetic pioneers."
In fact, Nordbeck points out that the UCC materialized, in part, because of personal friendships at the national settings of the two would-be partnering denominations. In ways comparable to the "all politics is local" axiom, Nordbeck says, church relationships—even on national and ecumenical levels—are conceived by real people and cemented by personal friendships.
Because of this reality, Cribbs insists that it is relationships—not labels—that matter most in the church.
"In relationships, even when we put a label on somebody, that label is secondary to who that person is. I don"t think you can overstate that fact. It"s how we come together as family," Cribbs says. "There is something deep inside of me, as an African-American man, that says that this is a safe place for me. As an adopted person into the UCC, [whenever] I pass a place that says "UCC" on its marquee, I feel connected. I feel it"s safe to go inside. That"s all relationship, and it"s understood that we do not have to agree to be family."
"I hope we never, never lose the importance of relationship," Cribbs says. "If we ever do that, the prayer of Jesus—"That they may all be one"—will never be understood or affirmed, it will just be a slogan."
In broad terms, UCC members are more likely to identify as conservative—both politically and theologically. But when asked about positions on specific issues, they sound a lot more liberal.
How would you describe your basic political outlook?
Very or somewhat conservative 35%
How would you describe your basic theological outlook?
Very or somewhat conservative 40%
I think homosexuals should have the right to marry one another.
Strongly or somewhat agree 56%
The bible cannot be understood adequately apart from the cultural and historical context in which it was written.
Strongly or somewhat agree 58%
All different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth.
Strongly or somewhat agree 67%
"It reminds me of the 1970s and 80s, when it was an almost-laughable truism that most women would say, "I"m not a feminist, but I believe in the full equality of women,"" explains the Rev. Elizabeth Nordbeck, professor of ecclesiastical history at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological Seminary. "People don"t want to identify themselves with a word [liberal] that has negative baggage associated with it, even though they may believe those things."
Source: UCC-specific results from the 2001 International Congregational Life Survey. Almost 21,000 UCC members from more than 800 congregations participated in the Lilly Endowment-funded research.
Lib-er-al—adj. 1. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views or dogmas; free from bigotry. 2. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded. 3. Tending to give freely; generous. 4. Not strict or literal; loose or approximate.
Theological/philosophical liberalism—a school of thought committed to intellectual inquiry that finds it acceptable to critique conventional wisdom and long-held beliefs. This type of liberalism might best be exemplified—historically—by the Protestant Reformation, a time when people were freed from the constraints of church authorities to read and study the bible for themselves and to adopt new approaches to church governance.
"In this regard, both the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christians [the UCC"s predecessor bodies] were historically liberal," says David Greenhaw, a church historian, who is president of UCC-related Eden Seminary in St. Louis.
Social liberalism speaks to acceptable norms and behaviors, such as those time-honored Christian arguments about the appropriateness of smoking, drinking or dancing. Today"s social liberals, for example, may not find fault with those who wear blue jeans to worship, have a beer with their pizza or engage in friendly bets on a college basketball game.
"In the UCC," Greenhaw says, "our approach to Christianity is less prohibitive."
Political liberalism—perhaps the most controversial application of the "L" word—applies to one"s stand on the public policy debates of the day. Historically speaking, both the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church staked out more liberal positions on political issues, such as the abolition of slavery, women"s suffrage and civil rights.
Today, however, "the average [UCC] person in the pew is not strongly liberal politically," Greenhaw says.
Economic liberalism, in its classical definition, is committed to a radically free market, one free from government restraint. More than a tad confusing, classic economic liberals might be more comfortable calling themselves "fiscal conservatives" today.
The UCC"s clergy employment system—commonly called "search and call"—is based on the free market, a classically liberal approach that seeks to free the pastor-hiring process from constraints of institutional bishops.
On August 24, 1920—more than 40 years after Susan B. Anthony first penned 39 straightforward words as a proposed U.S. Constitutional Amendment to grant women the legal right to vote—the weight of that historic decision all came down to one man, Harry T. Burn, Sr., who, at age 24, was the youngest-elected member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
A year earlier, on June 4, the proposed 19th Amendment had won the hard-fought two-thirds "super majority" required of both chambers of Congress and, within nine months, 35 of the 48 states had ratified it. But the proposal had stalled.
Its fate, ultimately, came down to a decision by Tennessee, the necessary number 36. It was one of only four undecided states, but the only one willing to call its legislature into special session to consider the measure before the ratification process expired. Burn arrived at the state capitol that morning intending to vote against the constitutional change, as the red carnation on his lapel so indicated. Burn and 48 other legislators wore the crimson boutonnieres as a public sign of their opposition to women's equality. On the other side, 48 representatives wore yellow carnations to indicate their support. The measure seemed destined to fall short by one, critical vote.
But when the roll call was held, Burn—wearing a "nay" red carnation—switched sides and cast the decisive "yea" vote to ratify the 19th Amendment.
More than 144 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, nearly 58 years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and 72 years after the Suffrage movement was founded in Seneca Falls, N.Y., women had finally received the vote.
By this time, the Amendment's principle architects—Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—had been dead for 14 and 18 years, respectively.
After Burn's fateful decision, legend has it that he eluded physical assault by hiding in the attic of the capitol until the coast was clear.
Explaining his flip-flop vote, Burn said that he had discovered, in his pocket, a personal note penned by his mother, Febb E. Burn.
"Vote for suffrage!" she wrote to her son. "Don't keep them in doubt. I have been watching to see how you stood."
Said the legislator Burn to his colleagues, "A good boy always does what his mother asks him to do."
This powerful, but little-known story of one man's influence on history is, at one level, a poignant illustration of how one vote matters. But, at a deeper level, it's a reminder that our influence, our leverage matters as well. Others, to be sure, are impacted by how we feel and what we think.
Public policy decisions affect the lives of real human beings, and it is through our personal stories that we best make this reality understood. Yes, it takes conviction to make the phone call, to offer the word or to pen the note. But it may be just the thing another person needs to muster the courage necessary to resist the rising tide, to reject the scapegoating and to do the right thing.
So, during this important election year, here's to fearless Harry Burn. But, even more so, here's to his gutsy mother.
And here's a shout out to all who realize that standing on principle is easier when the encouragement of others emboldens us to take a stand for justice, just as God requires.
Harry Burn died at age 81 in 1977—when Jimmy Carter was president—an acute reminder that we still live in pivotal times. Your vote and your influence do matter.
Samaritan elders lead Passover festivities on the West Bank's Mount Gerizim in early May. Closely related to the Jews, the 670 remaining Samaritans trace their lineage to ancient Israel. Religion News Service | Osher Sassoni photo.
Samaritans in the New Testament
"When the Samaritan saw the beaten man, he had compassion on him, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ÔTake care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'"
ÑJesus, to a young man, teaching about loving one's neighbor (Luke 10:33-35)
"How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."
Ña Samaritan woman at a well, speaking to Jesus (John 4:9)
"Then one of the 10, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. And he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan."
Ñfrom Luke's story of the 10 lepers cleansed by Jesus (17:15-17)
"Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans."
ÑActs of the Apostles (8:25)
"The Arabs see us as Jews and the Jews see us as Arabs, but we're not Jews and we're not Arabs. We're Samaritans."
Ñ Elezar HaCohen, Samaritan elder
By Michele Chabin
Religion News Service
MOUNT GERIZIM, WEST BANK—Dressed in flowing robes of the type their ancestors wore thousands of years ago, the 670 people in the world who call themselves "Samaritans" gathered on this lonely mountain one evening in early May and celebrated the holiday of Passover.
At sunset in the small mountaintop village they call Kiryat Luza, the male heads of the various clans prayed and then cut the throats of 30 lambs as part of the Pascal sacrifice in accordance with the Book of Exodus.
For the remainder of the week, while the world below their mountain carried on its own routine, Samaritan children stayed home from school and their parents from their jobs. They ate special foods, including home-made "matzah," or unleavened bread.
Despite the Samaritans' marking of Passover, the Sabbath and other rituals and observances similar to Judaism, Samaritans are not Jews but a distinct people. They are best known from the New Testament parable Jesus told of the Good Samaritan who came to the aid of a mugged and wounded traveler.
In contrast to Jews, who follow both the written law of the Torah as well as the oral law, the Samaritans adhere only to the five books of Moses, known as the Pentateuch. Like Orthodox Jews, the Samaritans strictly observe the laws of circumcision, family purity and kosher dietary laws. They write in ancient Hebrew script, the language of their Torah, and pray in the ancient Hebrew dialect spoken by Jews through the first millennium AD.
"Jews and Samaritans are both sons of the Israelites," says Israel Tzedaka, one of the Samaritans' much-honored elders, during the Samaritan Passover feast, which occurred a month after Jews celebrated the holiday.
Tzedaka lives in the Israeli town of Holon, as do roughly half the world's Samaritans. During holidays and family occasions, the Israel-based Samaritans travel to Kiryat Luza, where the community's other half resides on Mount Gerizim, in Palestinian territory just southwest of Nablus, the biblical Shechem.
"We trace our roots to the 12 tribes of the Kingdom of Israel," Tzedaka says. While there have been centuries of animosity between Samaritans and Jews, it was Christians and Muslims who almost succeeded in wiping out the Samaritans.
"Once we lived throughout the land of Israel and there are 1.2 million of us," Tzedaka says of the Samaritan's Golden Age, in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. "When the Christians and Muslims came they persecuted us. They killed many of us and the rest were converted by force."
By the early 1900s, the community consisted of just 146 people, according to a local census. It grew a bit during the 1930s, under British colonialism and has continued to grow, very slowly, ever since.
Today's Samaritans are an eclectic mix of ancient and modern. While the older members dress as if they had just stepped out of the Bible, the younger generation sports jeans and T-shirts. They attend college and surf the Internet, while practicing their faith to the letter.
Arguably the most challenging precept the community maintains is the one related to marriage: Under Samaritan law, single women Ñ who are outnumbered by single men by a 3-to- 1 ratio Ñ must marry another Samaritan. Usually, that's a first or second cousin. Samaritan men are permitted to find a wife outside the group, but only on the condition the bride adhere strictly to the community's laws and traditions.
The Mount Gerizim Samaritans identify with their Palestinian neighbors. They speak Arabic among themselves and attend local Palestinian schools. Yet unlike other Palestinians, the Samaritans have Israeli identity papers that enable them to travel freely to and from Israel even when other Palestinians cannot.
Israel-based Samaritan men serve in the Israeli military, "though we're posted close to home so that we can maintain our traditions," says Osher Sassoni, a 25-year-old Holon resident who served in the armed forces before becoming a computer expert. "We can't eat the meat served in the army, so we eat like vegetarians."
Zahara Yehoshua, the mother of three grown children, credits the close-knit community's education system and its day-to-day practices with instilling a love of tradition in the younger generation.
"From the time they're born we raise our children in a Torah atmosphere. By the time they're 2 or 3, they start learning our language and religion, and how to pray," Yehoshua says.
Despite living in two such different cultures, the Israeli and Palestinian community members get along well, according to Sassoni. "Of course, we're not the same. We act differently and even our jokes are different. We dress more like Israelis, who dress like Americans. The others dress like Europeans."
Since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, "the Holon people have traveled more to Mount Gerizim than vice-versa. We speak better Arabic than they speak Hebrew, but we communicate and get along," Sassoni says of his Palestinian Samaritan brethren.
Following such an unusual path, which skirts both Palestinian and Israeli society, is fraught with minefields, says Elezar HaCohen, a Samaritan elder.
"The Arabs see us as Jews and the Jews see us as Arabs, but we're not Jews and we're not Arabs. We're Samaritans. We keep the Torah like they did in the beginning," he says. "What is permitted is permitted. What is not permitted is not permitted."
HaCohen says the community's leaders go to great lengths to remain apolitical, but adds the group's biculturalism makes the transition between the two warring societies less harrowing than one would expect.
"Personally, I was born in Shechem but have lived in Holon for 35 years. When I go to Shechem and I meet people there we hug each other."
Yaffet Ben Asher Cohen, the self-appointed guardian of the community's priceless ancient texts and family trees that span 3,700 years, says, "Our hope is that we will be able to preserve our language, religion, traditions and unity of the people until Judgment Day. We also hope that the Palestinians and Israelis will learn from us.
"We Samaritans have survived countless wars," he says. "In every generation they have conquered us, killed us, imprisoned us. War brings only destruction."
Randy Varcho | United Church News graphic.
When the Rev. Kathi Martin reflects on her call to ministry, she's blunt.
"I could remember a day, sitting on my stairs, sipping out of a bottle of scotch, and it was just a turning point. Everything seemed to be wrong in my life," says Martin, who is the founding pastor of God-Self-Neighbor Ministries, a UCC church start in Atlanta. "I crumbled up my cigarettes and put down my bottle of scotch, and I said, 'OK God, I'm not running anymore.'"
"That really confused me—that feeling of being called—because I so much did not like the church, but then I had to make a separation between 'the church' and 'God.' Ministry is about loving God and spreading the gospel, and when I came back to that, I could stop running," she says.
Martin is one of eight persons who discuss their journeys into vocational ministry through video testimonies offered on a new UCC website designed especially to help those discerning God's nudge in their lives.
Askthequestion.org, an interactive, flash site sponsored by the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership (PLL) Ministry and designed by the UCC's web team, contains personal stories, study materials, prayer and meditation resources, and answers to just about any question one could ask when considering authorized ministry—ordained, commissioned or licensed—in the UCC.
"The purpose is to identify gifted men and women and help them explore vocations in ministry," says the Rev. Lynn Bujnak of PLL. "We are asking individuals to ask the question, 'Am I being called to ministry?' and to ask congregations to be bold in asking their members, 'Are you being called to ministry?'"
The Rev. Andrew Warner, associate pastor at Plymouth UCC in Milwaukee, Wis., says, when exploring one's call, the answers come best through active engagement.
"It's a question [that can't be] answered in a weekend, or in a day or in an hour, but is a question to live with, to struggle with and to pray about," Warner says. "One of the best ways to get some answers, besides just sitting in silence with our questions, is to find some ways to get some practical experience in doing ministry."
Askthequestion.org provides opportunities to explore the nuances of different ministry paths, such as chaplaincy, counseling, Christian education, youth ministry, social activism, missionary work and, of course, pastoral ministry.
Hopefully, Bujnak says, Askthequestion.org will spark new interest in ministry as a vocation worthy of consideration, especially in light of new data that reveals a steadily-decreasing and ever-aging pool of pastors. According to the 2003 Statistical Handbook, only 6.3 percent of all UCC clergy are under the age of 40.
The Pension Boards of the UCC estimates that, in the next five years, 1,800 UCC pastors will reach retirement age; however, only 600 persons will enter pastoral ministry.
Already, the numbers are impacting congregations that are searching for pastors. At present, the UCC has 435 churches looking for ministerial leadership, but only 300 pastors are actively seeking placement.
The Rev. Darryl Kistler, pastor of United Christian UCC in Miles City, Mont., recognizes that choosing ministry as a vocation is not easy. "That first step into ministry as a career, but even more so as a lifestyle and a lifechanging event, was so difficult but so rewarding, and each step since then has just been easier," he says.
Borrowing advice once offered by theologian Frederick Buechner, the Rev. Tisha Brown, associate pastor at Brookfield Congregational UCC in Wisconsin, says that the goal in life is to discover what you do the best and enjoy the most, and then apply those gifts to the world's greatest needs. "That's how you'll know that God is calling you," she says.
The Rev. Wanda Harris-Watkins, pastor of Pakachoag UCC in Auburn, Mass., says, "Ministry is when you close the books and you get your fingernails dirty and you go places that no one else wants to go. You only know ministry when you do ministry."
Nellie Rosado, a member of Las Piedras UCC in Puerto Rico who works as a local church missionary to the Dominican Republic, says ministry is an exercise in trust.
"In our life, we have the opportunity to do something, but we are scared to do it, to go forward," Rosado says. "But with the Holy Spirit, I just say, 'Here I am. Lead my way.'"
Seuss Enterprises graphic.
"Oh the things you can think up if only you try."
"Virent Ova! Viret Perna!"—that's the Latin title of Dr. Seuss' newest foreign language translation of "Green Eggs and Ham," the best-selling children's classic that has sold 7 million hardcover copies since fi rst published in 1960.
The story of Sam-I-Am's odd culinary journey now ranks as one of the best selling English-language books in history, coming in third behind the Bible's King James Version and the dictionary.
If you need proof of its astounding global popularity, just consider that the Latin rendition has sold 60,000 copies since its debut in October—a fact that can stupefy when one considers that Latin is basically a dead language. In all, Dr. Seuss' 44 titles have sold 200 million copies, making him one of the most widely read authors of all time.
Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991)—the man behind the pseudonym—would have turned 100 on March 2, making 2004 a "Seussentennial" of sorts for those who admire Geisel's imaginative spirit and poetic style.
Geisel, a doodler who said he never really learned how to draw, first began using illustrations to augment his liberal-leaning political satire, a pursuit that helped him, as a college student, become editor-in-chief of Dartmouth College's humor magazine, "Jack-OLantern."
But when Geisel and some other students got in trouble for throwing a campus party that broke school rules, he lost the job. Undaunted, Geisel continued to write for the publication under an assumed name: "Seuss."
"Ted grew to respect the academic discipline he discovered at Dartmouth—not enough to pursue it, but to appreciate those who did," Judith and Neil Morgan wrote in their 1996 biography, "Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel."
In time, Geisel parlayed his rhythmic wordsmithing and quirky illustrations into unparalleled success in the literary world.
An unwittingly religious voice
Although some attribute theological significance to his works, Geisel did not intend as much. In fact, he did not consider himself to be an overtly religious person.
"Like most works of merit, the works of Dr. Seuss have been overanalyzed; many scholars have found devices where there are truly none to be found," reads Geisel's biography at Dr. Seuss Enterprises' official website seussville.com.
Still, Geisel's parabolic creativity has inspired religious imagination and theological interpretation—perhaps for good reason.
After all, Seuss' "Sneetches" were born in1961 as commentary on the absurdity of discrimination, and Geisel's concern about the environment—individual and industrial pollution—led him to write "The Lorax," published in 1971. Geisel's "Butter Battle Book" (1984) about conflict between the "Yooks" and the "Zooks"—perhaps his most controversial work—was written in response to the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Reagan administration. For six months, his Cold War commentary was included in The New York Times' best-seller list—for adults.
Understandably, Seuss has become staple in many church-based curricula—for believers of all ages, all persuasions. "I don't know if Seuss would say he had a theological point of view, but he definitely had an editorial view on the way of life," says the Rev. Marcia Cham, pastor of Union Congregational UCC in East Bridgewater, Mass., who developed a religious education series on Seuss for use in her parish.
"I think [Geisel's] books are a teaching device similar to Jesus, because they are lessons that sneak up on you—the wiz-bangs that you go through," Cham says. "[Geisel] is saying, 'This is the reality, folks,' and I think that's what Jesus is trying to say."
"The whole world of imagination is what captivates me and that's the way Jesus' parables should captivate us. Instead of a one-time moral, we should be intrigued," she says.
"You've got to keep looking for the wisdom, not just the closed canon," Cham says, quoting her theological mentor, the late professor Harold Beck of Boston University's School of Theology.
Imagination opens the future
Heidi Hadsell, a professor of social ethics and president of UCC-related Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, says, "Religious imagination is an important way that we can open up the future and its alternatives in ways that people who are stuck in this worldly, daily life can never see."
The religious life is not only about seeing things the way they are, but focusing on how things should be, Hadsell says, "and that kind of religious endeavor requires imagination.
If we are to envision the kingdom of God or create new social relationships, that's a very hard thing to do without the religious imagination to help us make those leaps."
She notes how the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) credited religion for its "imaginative powers, for giving to humanity what could be better, to re-do things and strive for the new."
In this way, Hadsell says, Jesus "introduced to the here and now a taste of what might be and modeled different ways to act on the Sabbath, different ways to think about Sabbath law, different ways to think about outcasts."
Similarly, she says, Seuss employs words and illustrations to inspire readers to look at things differently. She's especially fond of Seuss' exuberance for life in "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"
Likewise, Cham says she enjoys looking for theological themes in Seuss' stories. For example, she says, in "Horton Hatches an Egg," she delights in the "faithful fidelity of our God." Moreover, the repetitive, sing-songy nature of Seuss' writing style—"The Whos down in Who-ville will all cry boo-hoo"—is reminiscent of the repetitious laments we find in Psalms, Cham points out.
The Rev. Doug Adams, a UCC minister and professor of Christianity and arts at UCC-related Pacific School of Religion, says Seuss' stories, just as some of Jesus' parables, employ humor to "lay low our idolatries, whatever we take too seriously."
"The humor of the parables and the humor of Dr. Seuss imagine what we find unthinkable," Adams says. Adams offers this illustration: "Horton the elephant sits on the bird's eggs until they hatch and out come little flying elephants which defy the determination of heredity just as Jesus' genealogy in Matthew has Jesus coming out of a family tree loaded with immoral people who do right."
Cham believes that by opening up our religious imaginations, we can better pursue the meaning in life.
"I don't know if he would call it religious or not, but Seuss was sensitive to the conscious and unconscious aspects of life, the rhythm of life," she says, "and I've had a wonderful time with it."
What Seuss can teach you
"Bartholomew and the Oobleck" (1949)
"Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?" (1973)
"Green Eggs and Ham" (1960)
"Horton Hears a Who" (1954)
"Horton Hatches an Egg" (1940)
"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1957)
"I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today" (1969)
"Oh, the Places You'll Go" (1990)
"The Lorax" (1971)
"The Sneetches" (1961)
Canadian filmmaker hopes to introduce contemporary audiences to Martin Luther
British actor Joseph Fiennes plays Martin Luther, the German monk who touched off the Protestant Reformation, in the new biographical film, "Luther."
RNS | Rolf van der Heyd photo
The name Martin Luther puzzles many Americans. After all, few ever have reason to think about the German monk who challenged the medieval church and laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.
Canadian filmmaker Eric Till discovered that little truth when he was preparing his biographical movie on Luther. "Everybody asked me why I was going to Europe to make a movie about Martin Luther King," the director said by phone from his home in Toronto. "There were so many people who didn't know anything about [Luther] at all."
But if contemporary audiences have lost touch with the Protestant theologian, Till has been equally determined to tell a story about the man whose convictions changed the course of Western Christianity.
"Luther" opened in 300 theaters nationwide on Sept. 26. The movie was shot on more than 20 locations throughout Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic and features British actor Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love," "Elizabeth," "Enemy at the Gates") as Martin Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince Frederick the Wise. "Luther" cost $30 million to produce—a rather large budget for a small independent film.
"Any film director will tell you they're immediately attracted to a good story and Martin Luther is one of the top 10 in the world," says Till, who's a member of the Anglican Church.
If "Luther" sounds like David vs. Goliath, that's exactly what the filmmakers intended. Individuals who hold fast to their beliefs against overwhelming odds have been the subject of many prominent and award-winning films such as "Gandhi," "Braveheart" and "Schindler's List."
Till chose a similar topic for his previous film, "Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace." The 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spoke out against Hitler and helped a group of Jews escape to Switzerland. He was hanged in a concentration camp for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
"Luther" follows the same tradition of a defiant hero battling a powerful and oppressive force—the medieval Catholic Church.
"It was a story of immense courage," Till said of Luther's life. "And to have great faith is to have great power. I think that's something that most people are uneasy about."
The Rev. Ted Peters, president of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., said Luther's life story offers other compelling messages as well. "The first one is inescapably theological, that is, a profound integration of God's presence in the soul," Peters said. "It's that liberation of grace that he felt. The other is just the sheer drama of history that overtook Luther. It just sort of caught Germany at the moment when he was lighting a fuse in a firecracker and didn't know it."
Luther's faith has always been a popular subject for Western filmmakers. Germany created several contemporary television dramas on the reformer's life and even produced "Luther," a black-and-white silent movie in 1927.
Another black-and-white film, "Martin Luther," was released by Hollywood in 1953 with Irish actor Niall MacGinnis as the Protestant reformer. In 1973, Stacey Keach played the title role in the American Film Theater's "Luther." But the most recent "Luther" might very well be the most passionate.
Till's movie opens with Luther as a young law student whose life abruptly changes when he's spared during a violent thunderstorm. He subsequently joins the Augustinian order of monks, but despite frequent visits to the church confessional (during which he really has nothing to confess), he admits, "I live in terror of judgment." He even feels unworthy in the presence of the eucharistic bread and wine and shrinks from the sacraments.
"He had thought and was taught that his soul had to be free of sin. Then he was told he had to list all of his sins," said Peters, noting that although Luther would spend hours in the confessional, he never really felt God's grace until he realized God's profound love for human beings.
"That was the big turnaround for him. Instead of guilt and terror of God's presence, [Luther realized] God provides grace and forgiveness," Peters adds.
Luther ruffled many feathers during his lifetime. He publicly criticized the church in Rome for its sale of indulgences and referred to the pope as the anti-Christ. When he refused to recant his "heretical" writings, Pope Leo X excommunicated him. Luther later married a nun and translated the Bible into German.
One of Luther's more vulnerable—or problematic—traits was his attitude toward Judaism. Although he initially preached tolerance toward the Jewish people, he later condemned Jews when they refused to convert to Christianity. Several Lutheran denominations have since apologized for and renounced Luther's anti-Semitism.
"This hostility toward Jews was not there all through Luther's career," Peters said. "It was sort of a vituperous thing toward the end of his life."
Although Till was well aware of these flaws, he does not dwell on them in the movie and the film ends earlier in Luther's career.
"Yes, [Luther] had his warts," Till said. "In his later years, he wrote three or four tracts attacking Jews. It was just decided that the film should end where it does. It was no deliberate attempt to disguise his warts."
Luther—a film review
Now playing (121 min.)
Rated PG-13 (for disturbing images of violence)
Directed by Eric Till
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Alfred Molina,
Jonathan Firth, Claire Cox, Peter Ustinov,
Bruno Ganz, Uwe Ochsenknecht
By Rick Walters
Special to United Church News
"Luther"—a passionate, thoughtful, if not overly melodramatic film—spans the decisive years of Martin Luther's life and the small rebellion he led against the Roman papacy in the early 1500s that resulted in the Protestant Reformation.
In an opening sequence, Luther presents his principal query during a dialogue with his spiritual father in the Augustinian monastery where he lives. "How can I find a [just] and merciful God?" Luther asks, offering not only the question that drove the theological debate of the time, but one that uncovers Luther's personal struggle. Chafing against a traditional interpretation of a terrifying and judgmental God that traps persons in a life of fear and shame, Luther desperately seeks an answer to quell his own torment and that of his parishioners, those whom the Church exploits.
What sets this film apart is its drive to explore Luther's question without sacrificing either dramatic visual narrative or authentic theological exploration. Many films on persons of faith tend either to appeal to an audience's lower theological denominator or become a preachy, teaching tool. This film navigates the twin thread of historical drama and thoughtful theological inquiry quite successfully.
Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love," "Enemy at the Gates") portrays Luther in a serious, passionate and driving style, sometimes too serious. Were it not for the performances around him, such as that of the brilliant Peter Ustinov who lends humor and compassion, Fiennes might have been lost in a too-stodgy and confining role. But he is surrounded throughout the film by a trinity of father figures and a host of minor ones who echo Luther's struggle to find a merciful God.
The film also explores how new thought can quickly descend into orthodoxy. While Luther is in exile to protect him from the far reaches of the Pope, his new Protestant followers begin a reign of terror against Catholics, which horrifies Luther and prompts his burning question to be restated. Why would God bring about suffering when Luther's mission is to restore the church's fidelity to truth?
Luther's dramatic appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521 is the high point of the film. When asked to recant his "95 Theses" and other writings, Luther—in a contrastingly quiet and peaceful tone to that of his earlier ranting—says that unless he can be convinced by scripture that he has been unfaithful, he will not recant. From that dramatic point, however, the film's second half descends into a less effective sequence that includes Luther's exile, return and introduction of a German translation of the Bible.
While this film is flawed by its broad brush of emotion and history, it is nevertheless important because it stirs the debate and discussion around the burning question of Luther's life and work. How can one find and worship a merciful God in the face of overwhelming personal and public challenges? No matter how that question is answered, we now know, because of the debate begun by Luther on the Wittenberg door, that mere ascent to doctrine cannot be an answer. Rather, a healthy, vigorous and thorough inquiry of faith is the only authentic response.
Rick Walters, an attorney and film enthusiast, is a former filmmaker and pastor. He is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland.