You are hereBishop Spong's Articles February 2011
Bishop Spong's Articles February 2011
Milton Reese LeRoy, 1922-2010
The Transition from Tribalism: The Tea Party, States’ Rights, Strict Constructionists and the Reading of the Constitution
Why I Value Valentine’s Day and How I Lost my Hat on Broadway
Should this Column Deal with Political Issues?
Milton Reese LeRoy, 1922-2010
He was competent, but gentle; successful, but not aggressive; genuine without being pretentious. His name was Milton Reese LeRoy. He graduated from Clemson University in South Carolina in 1943 as an engineer and, after a tour of duty in the armed forces during World War II, from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1950. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1951. He served as a missionary priest in Cuba; headed a training center for women church workers in California; worked on the staff of the National Episcopal Church in New York, and concluded his career as the Archdeacon of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia. It was a noteworthy career and yet it still remains a fact that few people will recognize his name outside the local circles in which he lived. For me, however, he was a friend of significance and depth, who led a life of quiet dignity and keen insight. My readers have met him and in some ways have been influenced by him, even if they do not recognize it. Let me tell you his story.
In 2006, when I was deep into my research that resulted in the publication of “Eternal Life: A New Vision,” I became aware that my friend Milton LeRoy, then residing in a retirement community in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, was living with what he believed were the final stages of a terminal disease. His wife Jean was his chief support and best friend. I had met him 40 years earlier when Jean served on my staff while I was the Rector of St. Paul’s Church in downtown Richmond, Virginia. She was the architect of the best and most effective Christian Education program that I have ever known. It embraced infants on one side and our elderly members on the other. Milton was then serving as Archdeacon of the Diocese of Virginia, headquartered in Richmond, with responsibility for Christian Education in the 180 or so Episcopal congregations across north and central Virginia. I saw Jean professionally almost every day for the seven years I was privileged to serve that church. She was, quite frankly, the best theologian on our staff and that certainly included the Rector! I would tell her a few weeks in advance that I wanted to tackle a particular subject in a forthcoming sermon and the next day on my desk would appear six or more books from the library of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, marked with page numbers to read. She would have distilled into about 50 pages of reading the most significant treatment of that subject by the best known and most highly respected theologians of our time. My study life was thus enriched week after week by this wonderfully learned woman. All during this time, Milton, as the Archdeacon, was guiding the life of the diocese in which St. Paul’s Church played a significant role. He was supportive of his wife and of me and presumably St. Paul’s was supportive of the diocese and of his work.
This mutuality was particularly illustrated in 1974 when Rabbi Jack D. Spiro of Temple Beth Ahabah and I launched a public dialogue between our two congregations, seeking to increase and enhance Jewish-Christian understanding and to strike a blow against the latent anti-Semitism that was still prevalent in Richmond’s life. This dialogue went through four Sabbaths at the Temple and four Sundays at St. Paul’s Church. It was attended by congregations that at the Temple exceeded those that gathered on Rosh Hashanah and at St. Paul’s by those that gathered on Easter. In our dialogue we sought to destroy the prevailing stereotypes that Christians have of the Jews and that Jews have of Christians. This dialogue was covered extensively in the local media from front page stories in the Richmond Times Dispatch, to broadcasts by WRVA Radio, to the local news programs on television and even by PBS. Inevitably, the dialogue turned to the person of Jesus, seen by Christians as messiah and Christ, and by the Jews as the source of severe persecution through the centuries in which they had frequently been defined as “Christ killers.” When this dialogue was conducted we were only thirty-five years beyond the Holocaust. My attempts on one Sabbath evening session to portray Jesus in understandable Jewish categories as the “Word of God” being spoken in the world and the “Will of God” being lived out, resulted in a Saturday morning newspaper headline that read “Jesus is not God, Local Rector Asserts.” Newspaper headline writers are hardly theologically sensitive. They tend to reflect the lowest common religious understanding present in the community and in Richmond fundamentalism was alive and well. By Sunday morning a community-wide debate was on. My church was picketed by placard-carrying demonstrators from the Jahnke Road Baptist Church of South Richmond that called on me to convert the Rabbi and suggested that my failure to do so was tantamount to my denial of “the divinity of Christ.” Rabbi Spiro was also buffeted by his right wing, the local Orthodox synagogue. They accused him of distorting Judaism just by entering into dialogue with a Christian. Archdeacon LeRoy from his diocesan leadership position rose to our defense and sought to educate the public through a series of letters to the editor in the daily press. The result was that he too was pilloried by the uninformed evangelicals of the area. Milton and I had become comrades in arms. That was only one of many other adventures he and I shared before I left Richmond for Newark.
Both Jean and Milton retired in the late 1980’s. I retired in 2000, but we stayed in touch and our spiritual pilgrimages continued. For Milton and Jean this meant a journey into an ever-deepening concept of God, which ultimately led them to move beyond the typical boundaries of institutional religion, ending in their very meaningful participation in a Quaker Meeting. While we remained close, our contacts were not nearly as frequent as they had been previously.
When I learned of Milton’s sickness and his probable soon-to-be death, Christine and I made it a priority to stop by to see them in the late summer of 2008 on our way home from our vacation spot in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Milton’s hope at that time was to live through Thanksgiving of that year. He was not depressed, but he was realistic. As we talked, I told him about my research on death and life after death. I had wanted to enlist the services of people who were in the process of dying to be part of my research. By this time I had already secured one person, a retired Australian Anglican bishop named Owen Dowling, who was terminally ill with cancer, but he had died that spring. Now I asked Milton to help me in this task. He agreed and began to write weekly, describing in these letters the process of dying.
It was to be a kind of internal diary of dying shared externally. What things make dying easier? What things make it harder? I wanted him to help me understand the mental process involved in embracing mortality. What are the signs that make you know when death is drawing near? Who do you want around you and why? When you are up against the final boundary, do any of the familiar images of life after death have real meaning? I wanted him to share with me and ultimately with my readers all he could about what it means to die. He did so. At our Thanksgiving visit of 2008 we found him not deceased, as he had assumed, but very much alive. His writing regularly on his death experience had given him a new purpose, which he engaged enthusiastically. We saw him again at Christmas that year and he was defying his doctor’s expectations. We saw him again at Christmas of 2009 and once again in the summer of 2010.
I had planned when the book was published to have an “In Memoriam” page dedicated to these two people who had both been so helpful in thinking about death and life, but when the book came out in September of 2009, only Owen Dowling was on the “In Memoriam” page. I described them both and their contributions in the preface and I quoted them both in the body of the book, but of Milton I could only say not “In Memoriam,” but “Live well!”
His letters were penetrating. He shared his own journey deeply. He never left the Episcopal Church officially but his spirit could not be confined to the limits that Christianity tends to manifest. He felt free to move to new places. His last letter, written in September of 2010, was never mailed. He died before that could be accomplished. He called this his “first last letter,” which represented both his realism and his hope. He thanked me for our friendship and then he referred to words in one of his previous letters that I had actually incorporated into the book; “If whatever attracts atoms and molecules to each other could also be called love, then the Source and Creator of all could be called love. Dare we be so simple?”
I was in Atlanta doing a series of lectures when I received a call from Jean that Milton had died earlier that morning. I was distressed that my commitments to Atlanta made it impossible to attend the Memorial Service held in his retirement home chapel. The service began with prayers from the Episcopal Prayer Book, but continued in the Quaker manner with silence and vocal offerings. A longtime friend sang the Quaker Song, “Simple Gifts.” Milton was 87 years old. He lived long and well. He had shared his dying with me in weekly letters over a period of almost two years. “Eternal Life: A New Vision” reflected Milton’s contributions in a number of places. I gave him a copy at Christmas of 2009. I chided him about the fact that he was supposed to have died before the book came out and that his failure to do so had caused me to have to rewrite the preface. He took that with good grace as only a close friend can do. Milton expanded my life by his life and even more by his death. His letters will be placed along with all of my papers ultimately into the archives of the Episcopal Church. They will be opened to the public ten years after my death. Perhaps someone else will then be inspired by Milton once again. Few people can do what he has done, namely be introspective about his own death. He inspired others to live fully, love wastefully and be all that each of us can be while still alive.
So I introduce you, my readers, to this competent and genuine human being so that you can join me in appreciating his life and his death. Rest in Peace, Milton and thanks for all you meant to me.
~John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.
Question & Answer
Norris Carmel, Indiana, writes:
Environmentalism, as measured by number of adherents, is the dominant religion in the United States today. Like all religions, it is based on myths masquerading as truth or fact. You are recognized as especially gifted in seeing through the fog of myth underlying Christianity. It is disappointing to note your inability, as demonstrated in the “Either Hogs or Hines” essay, to see through the mythical basis of Global Warming. There is voluminous scientific evidence refuting the claims that human activity, including carbon dioxide emissions, is causing climate variation.
“Wisdom is the ability to distinguish truth from myth”. (Origin unknown)
I find your letter so uninformed I hardly know where to begin. To suggest first that the number of people who are concerned about the damage being inflicted by human beings on our environment makes it the dominant religion in America borders on absurdity. Perhaps the number of environmentally-sensitive Americans is the result of the facts of environmental damage that confronts us every day.
Then to move on to say that since “environmentalism” is a religion that is based, like all religion, on “myths masquerading as truth or facts” as if these two sentences actually follow in some logical pattern, makes no sense, whatsoever.
Your claim that “voluminous scientific evidence” refutes the claims that human activity is the cause of climate change also needs to be exposed. That “scientific” evidence you cite is all but universally dismissed as fraudulent in scientific and academic circles the world over. There is a massive consensus on the part of the scientific community that there is an environmental crisis looming and that human beings are the major cause of it. The only people I have read that purport to offer “scientific” evidence to the contrary fall into two categories. They are either right wing politicians, who think environmental concerns are some sort of communist plot, or they are people in the employ of the oil and energy industries, whose vested interest is to keep oil profits high at the expense of our common environment.
I was pleased that California voters just this past year defeated by a 61% majority a proposition financed by Tesora Oil and Valero Oil, both of Texas, which quoted the “evidence” to which you refer, and the Republican Governor of California called them on the dishonesty of their claims.
Ignorance of fact can easily be overcome by learning the facts. When the ignorance manifests the reality that you have accepted as fact something that cannot be substantiated, the ignorance is far more profound.
John Shelby Spong
The Transition from Tribalism: The Tea Party, States’ Rights, Strict Constructionists and the Reading of the Constitution
Recently, I read Brian Burroughs’ book, The Big Rich, the story of the rise and fall of the major Texas oil fortunes. When I had finished this book, I finally understood the source of the irrational anger expressed toward the Federal Government in today’s political climate; the revival of “States’ Rights;” the meaning of the phrase “Strict Constructionists” as the criteria for Federal judges, and even that strange ritual which accompanied the opening of the House of Representatives under the new Republican majority, namely the public reading of the Constitution of the United States. That is a considerable list of separate topics to bring together under the rubric of a single explanation, but I believe it can be done. At least I shall try.
First, from The Big Rich I came to understand how very deeply Texas oil money has influenced political discourse in the last 50-60 years of American history. The first obvious measure of this influence came when Lyndon Johnson rode into the powerful position of Senate Majority Leader in 1953 just four years into his first term, something unheard of prior to his career. He accomplished this feat primarily because of his ability to place Texas oil money into the coffers of fellow senators running for re-election and every senator knew that Johnson could and would cut off the money from those who did not support him and cooperate with his agenda. He then went on to become the most powerful Senate leader in history.
When Dwight Eisenhower became a candidate for the presidency in 1952, he also was a recipient of the vast resources of Texas oil money. In turn, Eisenhower, when elected, needed majority leader Johnson to shepherd his program through the Senate because about half of the Republican senators were too conservative to support Eisenhower’s moderate and internationalist agenda. Johnson gladly did exactly that, once again increasing his power. When Jack Kennedy was looking for a running mate in 1960, he calculated that only by carrying Texas could he defeat Vice President Nixon and that only Lyndon Johnson could enable him to carry Texas so, despite personal animosity between the two, Johnson became Kennedy’s vice president. It worked. Texas oil money supported the Democratic ticket since they knew they could protect such things as oil depletion allowances with Johnson as part of that administration.
With the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, Lyndon Johnson became the first of three Texas presidents in the last half century, with the other two being George H. W. Bush who, after eight years as vice president, was president for four and George W. Bush was President for eight. Both were in the oil business. Other Texans, like former Texas governor John Connally, the primary lawyer for the Texas oil barons, were during that time on the edges of power. Texas’ oil-based politics had thus been a major factor in our national life for half a century.
Texas oil was discovered in the early 1900s and it grew in volume through the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It produced wealth in amounts that this nation had never seen before, even beyond the fortunes of the Rockefellers, the Mellons and the Morgans. In a way quite distinct from America’s earlier wealth, Texas oil money was in the hands of relatively uneducated and uncultured people. It produced the uniquely Texas culture of bigness and the “ostentatiousness” of wealth for which Texas is still famous– note the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium, for example. Texas relished public displays of wealth and gloated in it. The “wildcatters,” who turned Texas land into the fortunes of the Hunts, the Murchisons, the Cullens and the Richardson’s, were fiercely independent people. Texas had once been a Republic before joining the Union in 1845. The “Texas Character” resented any power that tried to impose authority on that state. Its ruling citizens wanted no central government to tax their wealth, to tell them how much they must pay their employees or to suggest that benefits be provided for laborers, most of whom were black or Hispanic. They even vested the real power in their state in the legislature, making the governor of Texas one of the constitutionally weakest governors in America. They hated unions, income taxes and what they called “giveaway programs.” They regularly churned anti-Federal government rhetoric into the national bloodstream.
Another factor that we must embrace is a recognition of just how deeply southern segregationist politicians through the seniority system controlled the Senate of the United States after the Civil War. The South stayed Democratic, not because of ideological compatibility, but primarily because their senatorial power in the National Democratic Party kept liberal thinking in check. In return the Democratic Party regularly gave the vice presidential spot on the national ticket to a southerner. One thinks of “Cactus Jack” Garner of Texas who was Roosevelt’s vice president for eight years. Harry Truman was a “border state” pick for vice president in Roosevelt’s last run for the White House in 1944. In 1952 Adlai Stevenson chose John Sparkman of Alabama for his first try for the White House and Estes Kefauver of Tennessee in 1956 for his second. John Kennedy then chose Johnson of Texas in 1960. When Lyndon Johnson became himself the presidential candidate in 1964, he did not need to court the South politically, so he chose Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota to be his vice president. When Jimmy Carter from Georgia won the presidential nomination in 1976, he chose Walter Mondale of Minnesota to be his running mate. The pattern has been replicated time after time.
As the post World War II era entered American politics, however, this political marriage of convenience began to erode. The support of labor leaders, as well as black, Hispanic and ethnic voters became increasingly important to Democratic victories finally placing mortal strains on the old coalition. It began in 1948, when, in response to the inclusion of a strong Civil Rights plank in the platform of the Democratic Patty, championed primarily by the ringing oratory of the Mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, Strom Thurmond, then the Democratic governor of South Carolina, led a walkout and launched the Dixiecrat party, which nominated Thurmond as its presidential candidate. Despite this defection Democratic incumbent Harry Truman won that election with little southern support and the traditional coalition between northern liberals and southern conservatives declined precipitously. Through a combination of executive orders such as the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948; the decisions of a liberal Supreme Court, such as Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, and Congressional bills like the Civil Rights acts of 1957 and 1964 and the Voting Rights act of 1965, the Federal government began to exert its authority over the states and in particular over the fiercely-independent states in the deep south like Texas. The South reacted strongly and dramatically. In 1964 Republican nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona ran an overt southern strategy in his quest for the presidency, appealing to the anger of these white southerners. It was not successful. Richard Nixon, however, perfumed that strategy and re-used it to win the White House with southern votes in 1968. Johnson, in the campaign of 1964, was thus the last Democrat to carry the south until southern candidates, Jimmy Carter first and then Bill Clinton, won for the first time since the Civil War, the Democratic top spot and began to cut back into the lost southern voter ranks, especially its newly en-franchised black voters.
By this time high sounding code language had been developed to cover the dark and base racism, which was operating in the body politic. “States’ Rights” really meant “don’t interfere with the way people of color are treated in the South.” “Strict Constructionist Judges” meant “don’t tell us how to run our segregated schools.” “Big Government” became the favorite whipping boy of the new Republican coalition and from Ronald Reagan on resisting federal power was an emotional battle cry of white southern voters. When a decade or so later Republican George W. Bush expanded the national debt through two wars and the passing of an enormous expansion of entitlements by adding prescription drugs to the cost of Medicare, the anger against big government became so intense that it produced a splinter within the Republican ranks that called itself “The Tea Party” and then political rhetoric got hotter and hotter. That is what produced the desire to read the Constitution at the first session of the newly elected and now Republican-controlled Congress. It was a tactic designed to emphasize that a return to “Strict Constructionism” would be the agenda of this Congress. These are the elements that lie behind the non-civil tone of political rhetoric that marks our day.
Will this rhetoric accomplish its purpose and take over the government? Of course not! It has no long-lasting power. Its Waterloo will come with the realization that most of the states are deeply in debt and will need the federal government to rescue them. It also won’t work because Blacks, Hispanics and women all now have the power of the ballot box and the control of the old ruling oligarchy is no longer possible. It won’t work because the world is so much more deeply inter-connected today than it was 100 years ago and threatened white voters who utter these conservative clichés will soon be a minority, if they are not now, even in America. As power shifts, however, anger rises. This nation is in a period of transition through which we must walk. The desires of the few will always collide with the hopes and needs of the majority. It may take as long as a decade to walk through this transition, so we will be required to listen to the rhetoric of the declining majority. They will read the Constitution in public, talk about “States’ Rights,” demand “Strict Constructionist” judges and oppose federal health care initiatives. Time, however, marches on and the Tea Party will finally go the way of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1790 and the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850’s and become a mere footnote to history. The United States will then emerge multi-ethnic, free and strong. I plan to live long enough to see this day arrive.
~John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.
Question & Answer
Roz from Brisbane, Australia, writes:
I have read most of your books and have enjoyed all of them. I was once a fundamentalist Christian and your books have really opened my eyes to many things. I have been giving my husband your books to read but he is still not totally convinced and leans towards Biblical literalism. His problem is that prophecies in the Bible have come true; i.e. the Jews returning to their homeland in 1948 as prophesied in the Bible thousands of years before. He also sees great power in the north forming now and expects Armageddon to happen shortly. What are your thoughts on Bible prophecy especially in regard to the Jews and their homeland?
I think that anyone who uses the Bible to predict the future is totally out of contact with both reality itself, to say nothing of the meaning of the scriptures. These strange interpretations have gone on for centuries. The “Power in the North,” for example, was the way the Babylonians were described by the Jews 2,700 years ago. Predictions of Armageddon have been made from time in memoriam and all of them have been wrong. If we would remove the book of Daniel from the Bible, written as it was, during the reign of terror that the Syrians imposed on the Jews in the second century, BCE; the apocalyptic chapters of Mark (13), Matthew (25) and Luke (21), written in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE, and the book of Revelation, written during the persecution of Christians during the reign of Domitian in the tenth decade of the common era, then all of this nonsense would disappear. It is all nothing less than religious hysteria and that needs to be said loudly and clearly. Your husband is a victim of superstitious ignorance of which there is a great deal in religious circles.
Parenthetically, asking your husband to read books with the purpose of converting him is something less than loving, to say nothing of being almost universally unsuccessful. The kind of religious mentality your husband displays is a response, not to rational study but to the task of seeking security. I suggest you simply love him as he is and allow him to come out of his fears in his own way and in his own time.
John Shelby Spong
Why I Value Valentine’s Day and How I Lost my Hat on Broadway
On February 14, I took my wife to the Valentine concert at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. This concert featured the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the gifted direction of Harvard graduate Alan Gilbert in a presentation of some of the works of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Lehar, Falla, Lara and Leonard Bernstein. On this night the guest artists included the legendary Placido Domingo, Sonya Yoncheva, a rising soprano star from Bulgaria, making her debut with the Philharmonic, and a Spanish dancer named Nuria Pomares. There were several non-musical but memorable events that marked that night and there were two primary insights I gained from the performance itself, both of which caused me to spend much time contemplating what it means to be human.
First, let me comment briefly on the non-musical memorable events. The first thing to occur was that in the row in front of us on the Grand Tier of the balcony there was a man and his wife with two tickets for which there was only one seat. I wondered if we were about to see a repeat in miniature of the Super Bowl fiasco, but no, a workman appeared with a new seat and proceeded to bolt it to the floor and the crisis was averted! Next, the audience was treated to the fulfillment of a seventieth birthday request, made by the guest star himself, namely that he, Placido Domingo, be allowed to conduct the orchestra that evening in its rendition of the Overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II. To watch this renaissance man perform in a display of his multiple talents was an extra pleasure. Third, the debut of Sonya Yoncheva was a triumphant success and the Spanish dance by Nuria Pomares in her red satin dress was performed in such a way as to bring both passion and romance to the audience in the sold out Hall. It was a program deeply appreciated, a reality that was signaled by a number of standing ovations, three curtain calls and an encore that featured each of the three artists, ending with Placido and Sonya in a duet singing a medley of songs from Bernstein’s West Side Story.
The final adventure on this special night occurred as we walked back to our hotel on what was a very windy night in New York City. On that journey my hat was lifted from my head by the wind for an unaccompanied jaunt down Broadway and we had the pleasure of observing taxis, automobiles and even a city fire truck pass over it as it rolled merrily on its way! We were possessed by a sense of helplessness, since we preferred to remain alive rather than attempting a rescue effort by venturing into the rapid flow of Broadway traffic. Finally the wind brought the hat to a resting place about a block away against a barrier separating a pedestrian walk from the street. Then, running like two teenagers along the side of Broadway during a lull in the traffic caused by a red light, my wife Christine and I finally rescued the hat, a good bit worse for wear, and held it, battered and wounded as it was, as we walked along the south side of Central Park until we arrived at our hotel home for the night.
I do not do well with hats. I lost my first hat several years ago while on a river cruise on the Brisbane River in Queensland, Australia, the same river that recently brought a devastating flood to that great city and region. I lost my second hat from a double-decker bus in London while we were showing this city to two of our grandchildren. I lost my third hat on the mountains of the Lake District in England in a rainstorm as Chris and I, along with our daughter, who was at that time a United States Marine, were walking the 192 miles from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. Now another fedora was lost in the heart of Manhattan.
These events made the night of the Valentine concert memorable, but while they added to the excitement of the evening, what transformed that night and made it indelible was that the occasion, the orchestra and the artists together pushed me deeply into two new insights that I would now like to share with my readers.
The first insight was elicited by watching the orchestra itself at work. The New York Philharmonic is made up of about 100 musicians, each of whom is marvelously gifted, perhaps even at the very top of his or her professional career. These are individuals who have taken what was first an inclination that became a talent and honed it with not just hours but with years of disciplined study and practice that enabled them to reach their present levels of competency. The strings, the brass, the drums as well as the specialty instruments, were each performed with consummate skill. The talents and abilities of these individuals were not lost in the whole of the orchestra so much as they were transformed by having the limits of individualism transcended in order to make the orchestral performance we heard possible. As I watched this miracle of gifted individuals creating something that none of them could have achieved alone, I saw in a new way a parable of humanity itself with its often unadmitted or even acknowledged radical interdependence. I recalled St. Paul’s words as he talked about the church as a sign of a new humanity under the symbol of “the body of Christ.” The foot cannot say to the arm, Paul wrote, “I have no need of you.” Neither can the eye say to the ear, nor can the presentable parts of our bodies say to the less presentable parts, “I have no need of you.” Oneness is born in our integration into the whole of life, which requires that all of our constituent parts work together in harmony, for only thus can any of us become all that we are meant to be. No matter how gifted or talented a single individual might be no individual can finally be human alone. No single violin can make an orchestra.
I watch this nation struggle politically today between what is thought to be individual good on one side and corporate well-being on the other. The tension present in American politics at this moment is not between Democrats and Republicans so much as it is between those who see the well-being of the individual as primary and those who see the well-being of the whole society as primary. Finding the proper balance between the two competing “goods” is the key to effective government. Both of our political parties have their “wings” that the other regards as extreme. The Republicans have their “libertarian-Tea Party” types on the right, who appear to resent any attempt by the government to give dignity and well-being to its weakest citizens; while the Democrats have their extremists on the left, who seem to believe that the government should do everything for all of its citizens. The former, if left unchecked, would result in a fascist government based on the principle that might makes right, that every person, no matter how poorly equipped, must make it on his or her own with no help from anyone. Echoes of privilege are in this approach that border on master race theories. The latter, if left unchecked, would result in a kind of sick dependency where both initiative and individuality would be badly compromised. The genius observed in a great orchestra like the New York Philharmonic resides in the fact that we can see in it another view of both our humanity and our politics.
The individual artist who combines talent with years of practice is rewarded when that artist blends his or her gifts with those of others to make a great orchestra possible. One musician alone could never create the grandeur of sound that the great composers of the ages both envisioned and even heard in their mind’s ear as they created their masterworks. A great orchestra comes into being when individual gifts are brought together to do things that no individual can do alone and in the process a new understanding of humanity is experienced. The violin will not say to the clarinet, we have no need of you. The drum will not say to the trombone we have no need of you. A nation must be built on the individual gifts of its people, but these gifts must ultimately be used for the well-being of the whole. Maybe the only way to achieve that goal is through the tension of politics, but the secret of political success is never to allow either the “libertarian-Tea Part types” or the “Government-can-do-it-all types” to win a complete victory. An orchestra presents us with a vision of what the combination of individual gifts invested in the life of the whole people might be.
The second insight I gained from this Valentine night at the Avery Fisher Hall is that love is still the power that drives us human beings to couple and that this thing called love remains a mighty force in human development. A Valentine’s Day concert is a lover’s delight. This New York symphony hall was filled with couples of all ages, sizes, shapes and ethnicities. Many were holding hands or walking arm in arm. Earlier on that special day Valentines had been exchanged between lovers, spouses and partners; the flower industry, located primarily in South America, had been invigorated, and the candy makers had shown a bump in profits. Even the restaurant into which my wife and I along with many other diners crowded prior to the concert offered a “dessert special” of heart-shaped vanilla and chocolate mousses. The basic family unit in our society is assaulted today by divorce and domestic violence, by infidelity and selfishness, but it is still holding.
The gay and lesbian community expresses its yearning to possess the values inherent in this basic unit of society by demanding that they too be included in the institution of marriage. In a good marriage individual partners can grow into being more loving, more deeply and fully human and more capable of living for others than in any other relationship I know. A Valentine’s Day concert gives us as a society the ability to display that love, to relish it, to rejoice in it, to hold it in honor. For those of us who have come to value our partners more than we value ourselves, it is a doorway into abundant life, into transcending our limits, into the deepest dimensions of what it means to be human and I would argue it is also the doorway into what the words “eternal life” actually mean.
~John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.
Question & Answer
Robert D. Rose, from Springfield, Oregon, writes:
I am retired, 79 years old, and am an active member of my local United Methodist Church in Springfield, Oregon. I regret that I could not attend your seminars held in Eugene, Oregon, because I have read most of your books and thoroughly enjoy hearing your lectures.
Recently I read the book, Godly Play, by Jerome W. Berryman. He has an interesting approach to Christian Education for children, but what struck me was his discussion about the basic questions of existence. Those questions each person must face alone. He lists these four: death, the threat of freedom, unavoidable aloneness and the need for meaning. I think I can make a case for Christianity providing answers to these questions, but I would like to learn about your answers (although I realize that full answers would take a book to cover the topic fully).
Thank you for your letter. I am impressed with Godly Play and when I was still an active bishop, I watched it being used very effectively in a number of churches.
All religions address the basic anxieties of life particularly mortality, purpose and meaning. There is great unanimity among all human religious traditions in the human questions they each seek to address. The differences among these great world religions are in how these questions are answered. All human answers come out of our acculturation and they reflect the wide varieties of human cultural experience. I could not in the space of a response to a letter do justice to how I as a Christian, or Christianity itself, might respond, but those are the themes that permeate my books. In my most recent publication, Eternal Life: A New Vision, I seek to take on most of these issues directly.
John Shelby Spong
Should this Column Deal with Political Issues?
24 February 2011
I value the letters I receive from my readers. They often offer me new perspectives, bringing to my attention new facts that contribute significantly to my understanding or challenge my conclusions. Frequently these letters express appreciation for insights that I have been able to give them. The most appreciative letters come from two major sources: first, from those who are struggling to build or to rebuild their religious frame of reference in the light of knowledge available to those of us living in the 21st century, and, second, from those who share in my attempts to apply insights gained from my faith commitment to the social, political and economic realities of our day. Indeed, the columns that elicit the most positive feedback are those that some would call “political.” The recent column on the role of Texas oil money in American politics, for example, received record positive mail; as did my column more than a year ago entitled “My Manifesto” on my stated refusal to debate any longer the issue of homosexuality. Since I, along with the vast majority of the medical and scientific community, no longer believe that there is any rational basis on which to discriminate against homosexual people, I do not want to dignify continuing ignorance with a willingness to debate what is no longer debatable. I do not debate whether the earth is flat or whether slavery is moral either.
Despite these realities, I still get letters from readers complaining about the “political” columns. One reader seems to write every time a column comes out on a theme that is not specifically religious. I have ignored those letters for almost a year but they keep coming from the same source and so I have decided to respond to this limited but consistent criticism.
This person professes to be thrilled with my columns and books on religion. Indeed, he tells me that he delights in sending many of these columns to friends to share with them this new religious point of view. He seems, however, to resent any column with which he disagrees. His comments run the gamut of the things I have absorbed all of my professional life from one-dimensional conservatives. He argues that he does not subscribe to my column to get “political analysis,” of which, he claims, he can get all he wants from newspapers, radio and television. I find that a fascinating idea! I would argue that none of these media outlets offers a view of political events from the unique perspective of faith. Nor are any of them expressions of “objective” political reporting as he seems to think. An editorial in the New York Times and another in the Houston Chronicle, for example, will reveal radically different political perspectives. Listening to televised commentaries on the proposed budget of the Obama administration from conservative commentators on Fox News and from liberal commentators on MSNBC will do the same. These spokespersons on both sides of these issues are all legitimate participants in the American debate, some may be more informed than others, but each sees reality through the lens of his or her own priorities and prejudices. I make no claim to do otherwise. My perspective is that I am a Christian, who believes I must examine political and economic decisions in the light of those values. The basis upon which I make political and economic judgments is that I believe every person, rich and poor, Anglo-Saxon and African, Hispanic and Asian, male and female, gay and straight must to be treated with the dignity of being a child of God. They should not, therefore, have their sense of infinite worth compromised by the insensitive decisions of elected officials, whose primary goal is to be reelected. I accept as the purpose of Jesus and thus of his disciples, a category in which I include myself, that the Christ task is to enhance human life. The Fourth Gospel quotes Jesus as saying that his purpose is to bring abundant life to all. I do not see how one can bring abundant life or enhance present life if racism, masquerading as “States’ Rights,” is allowed to linger; if economic decisions are made to balance the nation’s budget on the backs of the poor, while just having passed an extension of tax cuts for the very wealthy top one percent of America’s earners. I do not believe that life can be enhanced if this nation allows the gap between the rich and the poor to continue to expand. I do not believe that life is enhanced if wars are entered into on the basis of deliberately falsified statements about weapons of mass destruction and in which thousands of America’s young people are killed. I do not believe that, in the interest of enhancing the wealth of the oil industry, our sons and daughters lives ought to be put at risk. I do not see how the lives of gay and lesbian people can be enhanced by allowing uninformed and homophobic people to place their prejudices into the law or state constitutions. Yet all of these things have occurred in the recent life of our nation by decisions made in the political arena. I have no intention of abdicating my responsibility both as a commentator and a citizen to speak in and to that arena. To stay outside the debate is to do little more than to create a vacuum that will be filled by the Sarah Palins, the Glen Becks and the Sean Hannitys of the world. I require no one to agree with me. My opinions are certainly not infallible. My thinking has changed dramatically over the years and I hope will continue to do so as “new occasions teach new duties and time makes ancient good uncouth,” to quote the poet James Russell Lowell.
The second implication in these letters is that because my professional field is religion, I have no right or competence to speak to political issues. Jimmy Carter’s field of expertise was engineering and peanut farming. He offered his unique life’s experience to lead first the State of Georgia and later the United States. George W. Bush had done some oil drilling and headed a baseball team. Did those backgrounds render them incapable of speaking or acting on political issues? The majority of American people did not think so. Both American and world politics have actually been life studies of mine. At the drop of a hat I can discuss the major political issues with which every president of the United States has had to deal, including the little known ones like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Rutherford B. Hayes. I have had very close members of my family deeply involved in politics. One of them, my first cousin, William B. Spong, Jr., defeated the Byrd machine in Virginia in 1966 to wrest the United States Senate seat from A. Willis Robertson, the ultra-conservative father of TV evangelist Pat Robertson. He lost that seat in 1972 running as an incumbent Democrat on a national ticket headed by George McGovern. I study every presidential election to determine what it says about where our nation is at that moment in its history. I have attended, as a political reporter, the nominating conventions of both of our major political parties. I have been interviewed on national television a number of times and have debated Pat Buchanan on Crossfire and William F. Buckley on Firing Line. I am a lot of things, but a political novice is not one of them!
I am also amused when receiving these letters that anyone thinks they have a right to determine the content of this weekly column. It would not occur to me to tell Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Madow what their subject matter should be. Sometimes the letters I receive are little more than hostile and rude rants. I received one recently that read. “Put it all the way to Hell, Sir! I am interested in your spiritual take, not in your stance on political matters. I may have to unsubscribe unless you get back to spirituality and back off from political B.S. Does your new content have anything to do with your new “carrier/sponsor?” To this reader I am eager to say first, that the content of this column has been consistent for all of its life. The column’s title, begun nine years ago, is “Bishop Spong on the News and the Christian Faith.” No publisher has ever asked or tried to edit my content. Second, spirituality however you define it, is not divorced from life. Third, I am amazed that a reader feels that, since he or she might not agree with a particular column, he or she has a right to attack me personally or to attempt to coerce me into abiding by his or her wishes by threatening to “unsubscribe” to this column. Readers are, of course, free to disagree with anything I write or to unsubscribe at any time. They are not free, however, to dictate to me what the content of my column should be.
The idea that religion is a separate activity from politics always feels strange to me, coming as it does normally from a right-wing mentality. If anyone wonders why this seems so strange, all that person has to do is to examine the content of Christianity. It is a radical movement! In Christ, says St. Paul, all tribal identities fade away. One can hardly be an uncritical super-patriot and be a Christian. Christianity calls us to love our enemies. That makes support for wars of aggression difficult. Christianity calls us to deal with the poor in a sensitive manner even if it raises our taxes. A member of Congress who opposes the current version of health care bill, which covers forty million previously uninsured Americans, has an obligation to offer a bill spelling out an alternative way to cover these uninsured. Otherwise, honesty demands that there be a public admission that he or she does not really care about the issue of forty million people without health care because they cannot see beyond their own needs. I mean by this to suggest that I believe political tactics can always be debated, but I do not see how Christians can fail to agree on the goal of universal health care coverage for all our citizens. Politics is the arena in which public issues are decided. I intend therefore to be a participant in the political arena because “faith without works is dead” to quote the New Testament book of James.
I treasure the privilege I have to be in dialogue with my readers. I will explore the Christian faith in depth each week and I will speak to public issues from that perspective wherever those issues arise. The growing number of subscribers indicates to me that they are happy to be in this dialogue.
~John Shelby Spong
Question & Answer
I am interested in hearing your reflections on the proposed Anglican Communion covenant. I have read it through once and have not totally digested its meanings. My overall view is that it seems like a lot of rules to keep unruly Anglicans/Christians/ Episcopalians in line. The simple covenant would seem to be yours: Live life fully, love wastefully and be all that you can be. Help me here. I look forward to hearing your comments.
I think you hit it on the head. I see the proposed Anglican Covenant as little more than a document designed to assure conformity to yesterday’s understanding of reality. I have great affection for my Anglican heritage, but the Anglican Communion is about as relevant to the world today as the British Empire! In fact, the Anglican Communion is the last vestige of that empire. It is a way that the English pretend, at least ecclesiastically, that they still control the world.
The genius of the Anglican Communion to me is that it has no authoritative Pope and no literal Bible. That means we move like an amoeba shooting out a pseudopod here and then there. The result of that is that the Anglican Communion does not now and never has moved in lockstep. I value that! Any instrument that would try to move us in a different, more institutionally organized direction will, in my opinion, destroy the effectiveness of our witness. I wonder why churches cannot admit that the truth of God is not anyone’s or any institution’s possession. They all pretend in some way that they are the “one, true church.” Anglicanism challenges this idolatry by daring to walk through history as a loosely organized collection of national churches each trying to be faithful to God in its own context and in its own time. I wonder why that is not seen as a virtue.
The agenda for the Covenant comes primarily from the more homophobic elements of our church in the third world and their somewhat archaic allies in the evangelical wings of the Anglican Church in the developed world. The “Covenant” represents the pitiable attempt on the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury to find a place amid the conflicts of our day, where he can stand with integrity without having to put himself on the line against the bible quoting homophobia of those who think that unity can ever trump truth. These right wing religious zealots are on the wrong side of history and in the attempt to impose a “Covenant” on the Anglican Communion are trying to build a religious Maginot Line to hold back the future. I think it will fail but, if it by some chance succeeds, I think the Anglican Communion will die.
Thank you for your letter.
John Shelby Spong