When a church worships political ideology instead of God.
“The tendency to equate our political with our Christian
convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.”
— Reinhold Niebuhr
Christianity and Crisis
July 21, 1952
Reverend Guess. If I may.
Doubtless the articles in this space have given you some heartburn over the last couple of weeks. For you and Leigh Hunt Greenhaw, the chair of the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communications, I don’t doubt that you both have experienced many different thoughts and emotions as what you undoubtedly felt to be a good-faith interfaith project, So We Might See, was reported on in a far different light than you could have imagined.
The repercussions have been, you are surely thinking, not happy ones.
But is that really so? Is it perhaps something else instead — a chance to explore? Since other denominations have had members come forward with their thoughts on all of this, I thought perhaps it would be useful to say something to both you, Reverend Ben, and Leigh, in your capacity as the chair of the UCC OC. As always, I speak here for myself, as is the polity of our faith.
Two stories. Two names.
Vernon Johns. Pauline Kael.
Two very different people who, some might think, would never be found occupying the same sentence.
Vernon Johns, though not a household name today, is as I’m sure you both know, considered by many to be the father of the American Civil Rights movement. Once upon a time he was indeed well known. In fact, his sermon entitled Transfigured Moments was so well respected that its inclusion in the 1926 edition of Best Sermons made Reverend Johns the first African-American to have his work included in this annual volume.
Dr. Johns has another, very distinctive role in American religious history, which I’m sure both of you are familiar with as well. He was once the famous pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. And when the unknown young minister who would take his pulpit began his ministry at Dexter, Martin Luther King, Jr. felt compelled to introduce himself to a larger audience as Dr. Johns’ successor.
The story is told that later, much later, in the late summer of 1963 when Dr. King was globally famous as the leader of the American Civil Rights movement, his fame now completely overshadowing Dr. Johns, Dr. King found himself emotionally and spiritually exhausted. 1963 had been a difficult year, filled with triumph and tragedy. King had led the protests in Birmingham, Alabama — and promptly been imprisoned. Yet while in jail he famously wrote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. There were other marches, other calls on his eloquence. There were protests in Maryland, Mississippi, and North Carolina. Medgar Evers was assassinated. The legendary Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten and jailed. And perhaps most symbolically of the attacks on freedom that year, four little girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Baptist Church.
Dr. King, as difficult as it might seem to believe today, was having an increasingly difficult time finding the words he felt he needed to keep going, to keep inspiring. So he sent his lawyer to go find old Dr. Johns. Why? Martin Luther King felt he needed his predecessor’s old sermon notes. He felt that they and perhaps only they could inspire him to keep on keeping on in the job of inspiring change, to continue giving voice to the job of finally enshrining freedom for all Americans. The lawyer, Chauncey Eskridge, managed to locate Dr. Johns in Petersburg, Virginia. Now an old man, he was not doing well financially and Eskridge initially thought him a local wino. It turned out that Johns was not, or so it appeared, much of a sermon note kind of minister. But he had what the lawyer called “clouds in his head” that could materialize on short order as set pieces of inspiring message.
Let’s leave Dr. Johns for the moment and move on to Pauline Kael.
The late Ms. Kael was, over three decades, the acerbic film critic of the New Yorker magazine, no doubt terrorizing a good many movie directors with her tart-tongued assessment of their work. A graduate of the University of California at Berkley, she had chosen writing over a career in the law. Described by the New York Times at her death as possessing “an intellectualism that reflected her background as a student of philosophy,” Ms. Kael divided her time between a lovely home in Massachusetts and a hotel in Manhattan, where she felt compelled to spend several days a week seeing the latest cinematic offerings that she would then dissect with the skill of a surgeon.
Yet there is one quote associated with Ms. Kael that has nothing to do with her career as a film critic.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
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