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Friday, April 7, 2006

UCC takes 'pugnacious stance' toward Christian right.

The New York Times reports today on the United Church of Christ's increasingly direct challenge to antiliberal movements within mainline Protestantism. Reporter Neela Banerjee puts a biblical spin on her lede: "After years of turning the other cheek, the United Church of Christ, among the most liberal of the mainline Protestant denominations, has recently staked out a more pugnacious stance toward the Christian right." This is perhaps accurate, but it's fascinating to see how the Institute on Religion and Democracy — which has targeted the UCC and other denominations' "liberalism" for many years — plays the innocent in the story.

Banerjee adopts a frame for the story — who follows Jesus' counsel to "turn the other cheek"? — that makes the UCC look like the Sunday school kid who has neglected the Beatitudes when the IRD has, in fact, been wearing sheep's clothing for decades.

The Times reviews recent highlights: UCC general minister John Thomas's Gettysburg College speech about the IRD's campaign to divide the mainline denominations; the church's pointed TV marketing campaign (but fails to note that the "ejector" ad has now been rejected by Viacom and NBC Universal–owned cable networks); and the General Synod's decision to support same-sex marriage last summer.

The most intriguing statement in the story is from the IRD: "In Thomas's case, I'm seeing an advancing case of paranoia," said Steve Rempe, the content editor for the institute's Web site. "He sees this vast conspiracy centered around conservative political motivations and doesn't seem to see the possibility that these people might have a legitimate pastoral concern for their churches."

But it's not either-or: There are people with legitimate "pastoral concerns" for the theological and political trends in the mainline churches; that's clearly true. It is also true, however, that the funding sources and ideological designs of many of the champions of these disaffected Protestants are closely tied to conservative political movements. The deceptiveness of Rempe's statement is that it dismisses any complaint about political motivations by hiding under the cloak of piety. IRD has successfully figured out how to play "wise as serpents and gentle as doves."

Because Banerjee's story is about two national organizations — the denominational leadership of a famously congregational and non-hierarchical family of churches and a well-funded but small advocacy organization in Virginia — it doesn't touch at all on how either effort is playing out in local churches themselves. Mainline Protestants have not been quick to change, their population is shrinking, and the UCC's aggressive outreach campaign — which involves helping local congregations unlearn old habits and think again about outreach and evangelism and hospitality to strangers just as much as it involves edgy TV ads and cool marketing materials — has been controversial at every level from the beginning. It's expensive. It's challenging. It may fail.

But the conflict between these high-visibility, high-stakes contenders can divert attention from the real story: how local congregations — which have long taken modernism and liberal theology for granted, which have for many decades tried to practice a social gospel, and which have failed to grow in a changing culture — are facing complex, change-or-die choices. The choice isn't about joining the religious right or joining the religious left; it's not about picking "orthodoxy" or "liberalism"; it's not about conflict or quietude. It's about learning to recognize the demands of the gospel in this particular time and place.

("Liberal denomnination fires salvos at right," Neela Banerjee, New York Times 4.7.06, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 7 April 2006 at 8:26 AM

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Steve Caldwell:

April 7, 2006 11:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

I wonder if Yale's Rev. Sharen was quoted out of context in the article with his "turn the other cheek" comments.

Marcus Borg and others have written about how the Jesus sayings were not advocating passive non-resistance to injustice but rather were a "third alternative" to the two choices of passive acceptance of injustice and violent rejection of injustice.

There's an excellent article about this on In this article, Borg describes how "turning the other cheek" is actually very subversive as one can see from the quote below:

What Would Jesus Think of King's Protests?

Did the Sermon on the Mount really promote ''turning the other cheek?''
by Marcus Borg

. . .

In his books "Engaging the Powers" and "The Powers That Be," Wink argues that Jesus rejected two common ways of responding to injustice: violent resistance and passive acceptance. Instead, Jesus advocated a "third way," an assertive but non-violent form of protest.

The key to understanding Wink's argument is rigorous attention to the social customs of the Jewish homeland in the first century and what these sayings would have meant in that context.

To illustrate with the saying about turning the other cheek: it specifies that the person has been struck on the right cheek. How can you be struck on the right cheek? As Wink emphasizes, you have to act this out in order to get the point: you can be struck on the right cheek only by an overhand blow with the left hand, or with a backhand blow from the right hand. (Try it).

But in that world, people did not use the left hand to strike people. It was reserved for "unseemly" uses. Thus, being struck on the right cheek meant that one had been backhanded with the right hand. Given the social customs of the day, a backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior, whereas one fought social equals with fists.

This means the saying presupposes a setting in which a superior is beating a peasant. What should the peasant do? "Turn the other cheek." What would be the effect? The only way the superior could continue the beating would be with an overhand blow with the fist--which would have meant treating the peasant as an equal.

Perhaps the beating would not have been stopped by this. But for the superior, it would at the very least have been disconcerting: he could continue the beating only by treating the peasant as a social peer. As Wink puts it, the peasant was in effect saying, "I am your equal. I refuse to be humiliated anymore."

This sort of Biblical scholarship undercuts the idea that one should be passive and not stand up to injustice.

The UCC is standing up to injustice through non-violent means (very pointed TV ads). If the IRD and other conservatives are viewing these ads as attacks, perhaps it's just because they're recognizing that the TV ads are talking about them and how they think church should be.


April 7, 2006 02:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

There's another discussion of this going on at Street Prophets:

I imagine Rev. Sharen probably meant "turning the other cheek" in the conventionally understood sense, not Borg's subversive sense.

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