A Strange But Lasting Marriage

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By Mark Tooley (@markdtooley)

And one should not overlook that it was blessed by Billy Graham.

Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were awkwardly partnered politically across two decades, needing but never fully comfortable with each other. Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage by Jeffrey Frank tells the story captivatingly but mostly ignores their religious dimensions, including evangelist Billy Graham’s role in their final reconciliation.

(For a comprehensive review of the personal and political dimensions of Ike and Dick, see John Coyne’s piece in the March 2013 issue of American Spectator.)

Nixon was only 39 years old when five-star General of the Army Eisenhower, already a global figure for over a decade, and 23 years older, chose him as veep for the 1952 campaign. Ike knew him but not well, listening to counselors like New York Governor and former presidential aspirant Tom Dewey, who, like Nixon, had risen fast as a young man, first running for president himself when only age 38. Like Dewey, Nixon had ambitiously made himself a national figure as an aggressive prosecutor, in Nixon’s case, while in Congress, helping expose the Soviet spy Alger Hiss, a revered diplomat and establishment figure who contrasted with Nixon’s plebeian roots.

Temperamentally intense, Nixon’s years with Eisenhower were plagued by repeated crises, some fueled by Ike’s ambivalence towards his underling. The first crisis was almost immediately in their new partnership, when Ike’s advisors, and probably Ike, wanted to dump Nixon after revelations of secret donors for Nixon’s personal expenses as congressman and senator. Ironically Dewey were deployed to phone Nixon with instructions to parachute. Nixon ignored the counsel and delivered his famously televised “Checkers” speech, which critics mocked as mawkish, but which restored Nixon to political grace. Ike, who previously was not even phoning his running mate, rushed onto a plane to wrap his arm around a relieved Nixon while proclaiming, “You’re my boy!”

In power, Ike appreciated Nixon’s intelligence while not inviting him into his inner circle or, as Nixon painfully noticed, into his private White House quarters or the Gettysburg farmhouse. Once again, Eisenhower tried to ease Nixon off the ticket in 1956, while a shrewd Nixon nervously but successfully outmaneuvered the President politically. In 1960 Ike was slow to endorse Nixon as his successor, seemed constantly to encourage others to run in place or against Nixon, and infamously told a press conference he needed a week before he could answer a question about Nixon’s accomplishments. When Ike was ready to campaign aggressively for Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower implored Nixon to reject the offer out of worries for her husband’s health, which Nixon glumly did, losing narrowly to JFK.

In retirement, Ike seemed to draw closer to Nixon, inviting the Nixons to the Eisenhower Winter home in Palm Springs as well as Gettysburg, accompanied by frequent and almost warm correspondence. Nixon carefully kept Eisenhower informed about Nixon’s political plans, and Ike encouraged Nixon’s disastrous run for the California state house, after which Nixon had seemed finished.

Predictably, even after Nixon’s incredible political restoration in 1968, Ike seemed slow to publicly embrace his candidacy. By this time Ike was permanently hospitalized though mentally alert. Eisenhower finally broadcast from his hospital room an endorsement of Nixon to the Republican Convention. He was not overly happy about his grandson’s engagement to Nixon’s daughter, although Mamie had encouraged the union. After Nixon’s tight victory, he had an emotional visit to Ike’s sick bed, where Ike momentously greeted his once protégé as an equal, now calling him “Mr. President.” Nixon kept Ike carefully informed about the construction of his new administration, even sending new appointees to Ike’s hospital room. Henry Kissinger, who had not met Ike before and had supposed him not particularly bright, found himself surprisingly captivated by the ailing general’s intellect and strong personality, including Ike’s penetrating blue eyes, which many visitors thought grew stronger as Ike’s face and body whitened and shriveled.

Oddly, this book omits a key part of the Eisenhower/Nixon story. In December 1968, Ike summoned Billy Graham to his hospital room, asking him to explain once again the plan of salvation, after which Ike told him he was ready for eternity. He also told Graham that Nixon and he had “some things to get right,” especially as Ike’s grandson was soon marrying Nixon’s daughter. At Ike’s request, Graham saw Nixon that evening and shared Ike’s desire to meet, prompting Nixon to arrange a visit, which facilitated reconciliation. Nixon visited Ike again after his inauguration as Ike was failing. Upon hearing of Ike’s death not long after, Nixon wept in his office in front of staffers and muttered: “He was such a strong man.”

It’s odd this book ignores the Graham visit, which Graham describes in his memoir, and which Ike’s grandson cites in his own recent memoir about his grandfather. The book ignores or minimizes religion, claiming Ike disliked attending church, and regarded his pastor during the presidency, Rev. Edward Elson of the First Presbyterian Church, who had been recommended by Graham, as a “complete phony,” citing Ike’s secretary as source.

If so, it’s strange that Ike attended Elson’s church for eight years, and submitted himself to one-on-one catechesis with Elson so as to become a church member. Eisenhower in retirement became active in the Gettysburg Presbyterian church, even intervening to ensure the young pastor whom he liked would not be relocated, and once even himself preaching a sermon.

Ike and Nixon had a spiritual commonality in having both been reared in pacifist churches. Nixon was raised Quaker, and Ike in the River Brethren, a Mennonite-like sect. Later the Eisenhowers, or at least Ike’s mother, joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are also pacifist. (Ike’s anti-war mother was a little girl in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley amid the Civil War’s devastation.) Although both leaders in war, Nixon and Ike both avidly pursued peace.

Ike’s secretary also recounted that Ike was befuddled by Nixon, his introversion, gloominess, and lack of personal friends, which contrasted with Ike’s gregariousness. They occasionally golfed together, which unnerved Nixon. The younger man, despite his anger and exasperation, deeply admired and craved acceptance by the heroic older man, who was almost certainly a father figure to Nixon as he was to the nation.

Nixon’s and Eisenhower’s uneasy association was difficult for both but shaped the nation and world for a half century and beyond, as some Nixon protégées served prominently in government well into the 21st century. Their partnership may indeed have been “strange,” as the book title suggests, but it was epochal.

This article originally appeared on The American Spectator and was reposted with permission.

Speakers Warn Against “Entrenched” Positions of “Conservative White Men” at Evangelical Conference

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(Dr. Ron Sider, founder and president of ESA retired this year. Photo Credit: Surrender.org.au)

(Dr. Ron Sider, founder and president of ESA retired this year. Photo Credit: Surrender.org.au)

Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)

Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) gathered July 12 – 14 to celebrate the retirement of their founder and president, Dr. Ron Sider, the installation of two new co-presidents, and the organization’s 40 year anniversary at Eastern University near Philadelphia, PA. The conference, called “Follow. Jesus.” drew a few hundred attendees. Through plenary sessions and small group “conversations,” the conference explored Christian participation in social and political activist causes like economic inequality, immigration, climate change, abortion and racial division, among others. The focus of the main sessions was the history of evangelical activism and what the future may hold for American evangelicalism.

Dr. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, reviewed the 40 year history of ESA, pointing to the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern as a turning point for evangelicalism, and remarking the organization made Micah chapter 6 verse 8 “become embraced by a much wider constituency” of evangelicals. The verse, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” is indeed an oft cited one among Christian social activists.

ESA, Lindsay said, became a voice for what evangelicals were for, rather than what they were against after the social upheaval of the 1960s. Although evangelical organizations have long been involved in mercy ministries, justice work “really started 40 years ago. Sure justice has been around for a lot longer than that but … there hasn’t been organizational focus,” he claimed. But, Lindsay continued: “If you really want to make a difference you’ve got to think about institutions because those are the things that last.”

In a panel discussion on the future challenges for evangelicals, Dr. David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University complained “the culture wars will remain with us, but in a sense they should be over.” He observed “40 years of arguing over mainly sex related moral issues in public … continues long past when one might have hoped that those arguments would be so central … and the polarization doesn’t seem to me to be changing.” Gushee predicted “as conservative white men … feel increasingly threatened by pluralistic post-white America, the heels are gonna get dug in and the positions are going to remain entrenched.”

He continued: “America’s religion and politics in the next generation will be defined as a contest between those who fully integrate the emerging racial ethnic and national background diversity of our country and those who seek to resist it.” Gushee asserted “the future of Evangelical Christianity hinges on getting past the ‘White Male Club’ as the people in charge of everything.”

Similarly, Lisa Sharon Harper, Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners said evangelicals have become “divorced from people who are not like ourselves.” She also pointed out a “deep [scriptural] illiteracy in the church,” which renders believers vulnerable to “politicking people … [who] twist the Scripture and make it mean something it doesn’t mean.”

This illiteracy “bears itself out in everything,” most recently the immigration reform debate, Harper said. “If we don’t know the Scripture, then we don’t know that 92 times in the Old Testament the word ger [the Hebrew word for immigrant] is mentioned … We don’t know or understand the fact that Jesus himself was an immigrant,” she lamented. Harper concluded the “lack of Scripture and a lack of compassion, lack of relationship” with those different from ourselves, makes evangelicals “ripe to be used, to be wielded like a sword in the public square in the hands of people who are politicking in the name of evangelicalism.”

In the same panel, Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary pointed out the “multi-cultural, multi-ethnic reality of society and Christianity,” and that “declining American Christianity is not rooted in these minority communities it’s actually rooted in the decline of White Evangelicalism.” With this shift, he warned of “the danger of framing [justice and social action] in an American exceptionalism and triumphalism that doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Yet evangelicals should not abandon that label and claim a new name, because evangelicalism has “a history that needs to be confessed” over things like slavery and racism, and evangelicals should not “[excuse themselves] from that history,” Rah said. Instead, he suggested God may be “calling us to engage in a lament rather than in the triumphalistic, exceptionalistic approach to justice,” instead of the long standing “absence of lament in the liturgical traditions in America.”

In an evening plenary session, Dr. Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality called for a “renewed commitment to gender justice in the Church and around the world.” She described how “ideas have consequences,” and theologies and philosophies that teach the inferiority of women result in tragedies like sex slavery, sex-selective abortion, and other abuses.

Later, explaining his work toward renewal in impoverished Philadelphia neighborhoods, activist Shane Claiborne said “It’s hard to believe you have a beautiful creator if everything you look at is ugly.” Pointing out the bad reputation Christians in America have, he joked “You can believe in the bodily resurrection and still be really mean to people.” Being a Christian is not just about “right believing” but “right living,” Claiborne said.

He continued: “Poverty is every person’s responsibility … things like good health care and good education are not just privileges for the few that can afford it but they should be available to everybody. That’s what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.” He urged attendees to follow the advice Ron Sider had given to him years before during the founding of the Simple Way, and keep Jesus at the center of their justice work.

In a concluding worship service Sunday morning, Dr. Al Tizon and Dr. Paul Alexander were installed as the new co-presidents of ESA.
[Note: A report on Tizon’s and Alexander’s remarks is forthcoming]

Mary Stachowicz: Martyr for the Faith and Hostis Humani Generis

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(Photo Credit: TotallyHistory.com)

By Marjorie Jeffrey (@MarjorieJeffrey)

For the past few weeks, I, a young Catholic, have pondered the question: what does it mean to be hostis humani generis, that is, an enemy of the human race? After all, that is the title which has been bequeathed upon those who oppose gay marriage, according to Justice Antonin Scalia, by none other than the highest court in the land. In his dissent in the DOMA case, he said something which rang both true and terrifying, in the eyes of many American Christians:

“In the majority’s judgment, any resistance to its holding is beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement. To question its high-handed invalidation of a presumptively valid statute is to act (the majority is sure) with the purpose to disparage, injure, degrade, demean, and humiliate our fellow human beings, our fellow citizens, who are homosexual. All that, simply for supporting an Act that did no more than codify an aspect of marriage that had been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence—indeed, had been unquestioned in virtually all societies for virtually all of human history. It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.”

They aren’t just telling us what we cannot do or cannot say. The state has attempted to take away our ability to define who we are, as Christians. Not just our freedom of action, but our very identity is at stake. What is a believer to do, in the face of such a designation?

Mary Stachowicz died ten long years ago, when gay marriage was still something that could be debated between reasonable people. She was a 51-year-old Catholic mother of four children, who worked part time at a funeral home and part time as a secretary at a parish in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois. In her time at the funeral home, she reached out to the 19-year-old janitor, Nicholas Gutierrez, questioning the wisdom of his lifestyle. Gutierrez was a practicing homosexual.

On November 13, 2002, soon after Mary had received Communion at morning Mass, Nicholas Gutierrez beat, stabbed, raped, and strangled her, finally stuffing her body beneath the floorboards of his apartment. In a video-taped statement to police, he said he had done it because she questioned his homosexual activities, asking, “Why do you sleep with boys?”

On May 31st of this year, Bishop Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, gave a talk which included a description of the life and death of Mary Stachowicz, and stated, as he has in the past, that she died a martyr for the faith.

What does Mary Stachowicz have to do with us? Well, everything. I’m not suggesting that there are homosexuals lining up to torture and kill us; the persecution we face will most likely not provide for the obvious heroism inherent in acts of martyrdom. But what is a saint, if not a role model and intercessor? What more powerful witness can we be shown than this?

Some of the most popular saints in Church history arose as powerful examples for Christians who lived in difficult times. Such were the early Christian martyrs, who shed their blood for Christ in the founding years of the Church. Such have been martyrs in various countries, who died so that Christianity might grow to thrive in those regions. Such were Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, who became symbols to the recusant Catholics of England. Such were Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, who died at the hands of the Nazis. Such, I pray, may be Mary Stachowicz.

These martyrs become powerful symbols because they are heroes. And because they are heroes for the faith, they are more than mere symbols. They’re real. We believe that the saints are in heaven, which is why we ask them to pray with us and for us. As Bishop Paprocki has noted of Mary Stachowicz,

“Her death as a martyr for the faith means that a miracle is not necessary for her official beatification or canonization. However, even a martyr of the faith does not enter the church’s official martyrology of saints without the promotion of her cause, and the promotion of her cause requires a group of people who recognize her Christian sanctity and pray not only for the official recognition of her sainthood, but also pray through her intercession for assistance in obtaining divine favors.”

Causes for sainthood are a deeply ingrained part of Catholic life – I’ve known many parishes and dioceses that pray for the cause of their local would-be saints. But Mary Stachowicz shouldn’t just be a local cause. The tenets of the faith that she died to affirm are what unite Christians across America – and, indeed, all over the world. The Catholic Church asks for a minimum of a five-year wait before a formal cause for beatification can be opened, and that time has passed. It’s time for the cause to be opened.

We feel despair in the face of being called enemies of the human race by unordained men in robes. But we must remind ourselves and each other that we are very much not alone. We should advocate for Mary Stachowicz, as she advocates for us.

St. Maria Goretti, pray for us. And pray for us, Mary Stachowicz. Truly, a saint for our time.

O merciful and loving God, you made your servant Mary Stachowicz pure of heart and devoted to chastity; listen, we ask you, to our prayers and, if it is in your divine plan that she be glorified by the church, show us your will, granting us the graces we ask of you, through her intercession, by the merits of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

‘Peace Discernment’ study points toward pacifism

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By Alan Wisdom (@AFHWisdom)

A study process under way in the Presbyterian Church (USA) asks church members to “[s]eek clarity as to God’s call to the church to embrace nonviolence as its fundamental response to the challenges of violence, terror, and war.” The process, initiated by the 2010 PCUSA General Assembly, is expected to yield policy changes proposed by the 2014 assembly and approved by the 2016 assembly. Study materials released so far suggest that the intended result is to move the denomination in the direction of pacifism.

Historically, Presbyterians have not been pacifists. The Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrinal standard until 1967, states that “[i]t is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate,” and in that office “they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions” (6.128).

The Second Helvetic Confession, incorporated into the PCUSA Book of Confessions since 1967,  advises that “if it is necessary to preserve the safety of the people by war, let him [the magistrate] wage war in the name of God; provided he has first sought peace by all means possible, and  cannot save his people in any other way except by war” (5.256). The confession explicitly condemns the pacifist “Anabaptists, who, when they deny that a Christian may hold the office of a magistrate, deny also that a man may be justly put to death by the magistrate, or that the magistrate may wage war” (5.257). Both Westminster and the Second Helvetic base this teaching on Biblical passages such as the Apostle Paul’s affirmation that “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” because it is “the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).

Presbyterians were notable for their willingness to fight in the American Revolution and subsequent U.S. wars. A November 2012 survey conducted by the PCUSA Research Office shows 90 percent of today’s Presbyterians believe war is justified “to protect our country after attack by another country.” Large majorities also support taking up arms to “protect one of our allies,” to “live up to treaties we’ve ratified,” or to “punish known backers of terrorism.” Nevertheless, the denominational structures are now weighing whether to join the Quakers, Mennonites and others who refuse to fight under any circumstances.

Leading questions

The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program has published a “Facilitator’s Guide” for congregations undertaking the new “Peace Discernment Process.” The guide asserts, “[I]f discernment is to be genuine, it cannot have predetermined outcomes; it must be truly open-ended.” Yet that same guide poses leading questions that point study participants toward particular outcomes. For example:

  • “Should the PCUSA continue to rely on the ‘just war’ tradition as its basis for restraining war, or have the conditions of modern warfare and the politics and economics of war rendered our historic stance obsolete? Are there new emphases and different Biblical alternatives to consider?” The implications are: that the main purpose of the just war tradition is to “restrain war” (rather than to seek both peace and justice), that modern conditions have rendered it “obsolete,” and that the Bible puts forward a different approach.
  • “In what ways does the church today practice (or fail to practice) Jesus’ message of nonviolence?” The implication is that Jesus preached a “message of nonviolence.”
  • “How do we respond to the example of Jesus and the nonviolent church of the first three centuries after 17 centuries of trying to restrain violence through just war categories?” The implications are that Jesus and the early Christians were all pacifists, and that acceptance of “just war categories” came only after 300 A.D.
  • “Do you, in your own life, see signs of a ‘military-industrial-congressional’ complex supporting our tendency to use force or threat of force?” The implication is that the United States uses force as a result of pressure from a venal “military-industrial-congressional complex”—not because it faces genuine security threats.
  • “Is the PCUSA now being called to become a ‘peace church,’ not simply opposing particular wars but affirming nonviolence as a basic orientation toward conflict in our daily lives, in our communities, and in our world?” The implication is that the PCUSA is indeed being called to ascend the putatively higher moral ground of pacifism.
  • “How can the PCUSA hasten the day when war and violence are no longer considered acceptable or inevitable means for resolving conflicts?” The implication is that the day to beat all swords into plowshares is fast upon us, and the church has the means to “hasten that day.”

Slanted reflections and prayers

The “Facilitator’s Guide” offers 16 “peace reflections” and nine prayers to direct participants’ thoughts. The authors of these selections — Union Seminary (New York) theologians James Cone and Walter Wink, Yale chaplain and Riverside Church pastor William Sloane Coffin, union leader Cesar Chavez, radical feminist author Mary E. Hunt, “urban monastic” Shane Claiborne — are almost uniformly heroes of the pacifist left. Hunt, for instance, is cited as saying that peace “means thinking the unthinkable, that we might just call a halt, yesterday, to war.”

To balance all the pacifists, there is one “peace reflection” from a presumed supporter of just wars, General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Eisenhower is not quoted explaining why it was necessary to resist Hitler in World War II or Stalin during the Cold War. Instead this is the selection drawn from the supreme allied commander: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” One is left with the (false) impression that the general regretted D-Day.

The guide would have study participants recite a “Litany for Peace” that asks God to deliver them from “national vanity that poses as patriotism,” “trusting in the weapons of war and mistrusting the councils of peace,” and “groundless suspicions and fear that stand in the way of reconciliation.” There are no prayers of thanksgiving or intercession for soldiers, sailors and airmen who risk their lives to defend their country.

The recommended “Resources for Further Study” tilt in the same direction. Several dozen champion nonviolence in theory or practice; only one comes from a scholar (James Turner Johnson of Rutgers University) who forthrightly maintains that today’s America can fight and has fought just wars.

Some recalcitrant Presbyterians might still be tempted to answer “no” to the question about whether the PCUSA is “now being called to become a ‘peace church.’” But they would find little information to undergird their position. The just war passages from the Westminster and Second Helvetic Confessions, for example, are not mentioned anywhere in the study materials.

‘Nonviolence’ as ‘central theme of Jesus’ ministry’

The main resource provided to help study participants answer the questions is a “Peace Discernment Interim Report” received by the 2012 General Assembly. “Matters of social and economic justice hold a central place in the Bible,” the report asserts (p. 19). It portrays the abstract, negative concept of “nonviolence” — a 20th century term that Jesus never used — as “a central theme of Jesus’ public ministry” (19). Jesus lived “a prophetic and nonviolent life that threatened both the Roman and temple authorities,” according to the report (10). Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God with power to forgive sins and grant eternal life go unmentioned.

The “Peace Discernment” report reduces Christ to an exponent of a “third way strategy that—rather than fight evil or flee it—resists evil through nonviolent means, an approach that outflanks and reverses aggression, sometimes by choosing to suffer” (16). It downplays the “violent imagery” in Jesus’ parables and other New Testament passages that show God’s anger and determination to destroy sin. The report excuses Jesus’ attack on the moneychangers in the temple, remarking that “he stopped short of violence against persons” (10). Old Testament instances in which God commanded Israel to wage war are products of a superficial and primitive mentality, it suggests. The report rejects “the myth of redemptive violence” (23). It notably refrains from characterizing Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin.

“The first Christians lived according to a nonviolent code,” the interim report claims. “Indeed, there is no affirmation of killing or war anywhere in the writings of the early church” (11). The document challenges “Christians today who interpret the apostle Paul as giving divine sanction to violence and war” (12) in Romans 13. In the report’s version of history, it was only after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine that “Christians began to take up arms on behalf of the Roman Empire, sometimes with inducements of money, property and power” (12).

This simplistic portrait of early Christians as Gandhian pacifists ignores the work of scholars such as Peter Leithart. In his book Defending Constantine (InterVarsity Press, 2010), Leithart explores the complexity of early Christian attitudes toward war. Long before Constantine, going back to the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10, there were Christians who served in the Roman army and were accepted in the Church. Leithart concludes, “The church was never united in an absolute opposition to Christian participation in war; the opposition that existed was in some measure circumstantial, based on the fact that the Roman army demanded sharing in religious liturgies that Christians refused; and once [after Constantine] military service could be pursued without participating in idolatry, many Christians found military service a legitimate life for a Christian disciple” [emphasis in original].

A key to early Christian attitudes was the distinction between authorized and unauthorized uses of force. Individual Christians were to renounce the right of self-defense, in obedience to Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount. Rulers, by contrast, were ordained by God to wield the sword to protect their subjects. But the PCUSA’s “Peace Discernment” study takes no notice of any such distinctions between individual and ruler, Church and State. It lumps all “violence” together. This conflation of categories becomes evident when the interim report asks rhetorically: “As a church and as a society, should we learn to move from violence to nonviolence, from war-making to peacemaking, from a permanent war economy to a sustainable peace economy, from being citizens of an empire to members of God’s peaceable kingdom?” (23) It does not contemplate the possibility that U.S. Presbyterians might simultaneously be devoted members of God’s kingdom and good citizens of the nation in which God placed them.

America as ‘violent and unjust,’ driven by fear of imagined enemies

The report casts doubt upon whether there might be legitimate reasons for war. It refers to “those we call our enemies” (2) — as if the hostility were merely a figment of our imagination. (When Jesus commanded us to “love your enemies,” by contrast, he was assuming that we would have real enemies who mean us ill — as he had real enemies who plotted his death.) The report puts “war on terror” in quotes (15), as if to question the threat from terrorist movements. It speaks of “the fear that drives our [U.S.] military policy.”

The interim report portrays U.S. defense efforts as a base conspiracy of the “congressional-military-industrial complex” (14) bent on preserving profits and power. America’s wealth comes out of the barrel of a gun, in this dark vision: “We maintain our privileged economic position in the world through U.S. military might, as well as through military aid and weapons sales to governments around the world…. Militarization makes corporate-led globalization possible.” (18) The report describes the U.S. as “a national security state” in “an almost permanent state of war” (15). “Without credible threats to the United States itself,” it asks insinuatingly, “have we come to value military power for its own sake?” (14)

This jaundiced view of U.S. military policy fits into a larger leftist critique of America. The authors of the interim report insist, “We thus believe there is an urgent need today for U.S. Presbyterians to question the extent to which violence and injustice pervade our society and dominate our relations with one another and with other nations” (4). They offer a half-dozen anecdotal bits of evidence to prove that “[v]iolence pervades American culture” (17).

There is also the “structural violence” that includes “the patterns of inequality and exclusion called the ‘isms’ of racism, sexism, classism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism, as well as homophobia” (18). The report complains that a “myopic focus” on individual prejudice “stymies people’s understanding of the more insidious institutional and cultural forms of the isms that crush the human spirit and deny people access to adequate food, water, shelter, education, health care and self-determination” (18). It warns: “We are also doing violence to the earth and its creatures, depleting precious natural resources, and causing a massive extinction of species.” (19)

The report fails to note any evidence to that might contradict its grim image. There is no acknowledgment that U.S. violent crime rates have plummeted over the last 20 years, that race relations and environmental conditions have improved markedly over the past half-century, that the U.S. military is shrinking as a proportion of the federal budget and the nation’s economy, or that women and gays have made tremendous gains.

Military force ‘impotent,’ nonviolence ‘successful’ against worst dictatorships

The “Peace Discernment” report affirms “an increasing sense of the impotence of military might” (3). “At the same time,” it boasts, “there is growing recognition that nonviolent direct action can be a powerful, alternative means of responding to conflict, as it has proven successful in struggles for justice, human rights, and self-determination around the world — even overthrowing some of the most brutal dictatorships the world has seen” (3). The report cites several examples to show that “[n]onviolent  people power movements have shown themselves capable of overthrowing dictators, thwarting coups d’etat, defending against invasions and occupations, challenging unjust systems, promoting human rights, and resisting genocide” (22). In this telling, “nonviolent action” is all upside — it’s “Jesus’ third way” (22), it’s the moral high ground, and it’s supposedly the most successful approach — and there is no downside.

The report pays no attention to counter-examples: that nonviolence was not successful in Tienanmen Square in 1989, that it was not successful in Iran in 2009, that it has not been successful against dictatorships such as the Castros in Cuba and the generals in Burma. It was military force that defeated the Axis powers in World War II, that ended genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans, that toppled tyrants in places like Iraq and Libya. In general, nonviolence does not work against “the most brutal dictatorships the world has seen.” It works better against more moderate regimes that have a conscience that restrains them from shedding too much innocent blood.

The interim report presents the current “peace discernment process” as a follow-up to earlier General Assembly statements on war-peace issues. “Peacemaking: The Believer’s Calling” and other statements from the 1980s were sharply critical of the U.S. stance in the Cold War. Resolutions in the last decade condemned the Iraq war as “unwise, illegal, and immoral” and urged withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Summarizing this record of opposition to almost every U.S. military involvement since Vietnam, the report states, “The current position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), then, tilts strongly toward peace” (9). The new study process appears designed to tilt that position all the way over into pacifism. It remains to be seen whether Presbyterians are willing to take that last step away from the mainstream Christian “just war” tradition that has been their historic heritage.

Originally published at Layman.org.

Peter Storey Preaches on Gay Rights, Trayvon Martin “racism”

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Retired South African Methodist Bishop of Johannesburg and Soweto Peter Storey preached at Foundry United Methodist Church recently as part of the Washington, D.C. congregation’s distinguished speaker series. (Photo credit: hallmarkspiritclips.com)

Retired South African Methodist Bishop of Johannesburg and Soweto Peter Storey preached at Foundry United Methodist Church recently as part of the Washington, D.C. congregation’s distinguished speaker series. (Photo credit: hallmarkspiritclips.com)

By Alexander Griswold (@HashtagGriswold)

As part of its annual Outstanding Preacher series, the prominent Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. invited former Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa Rev. Peter Storey to give a sermon on July 14. Foundry has a history of inviting liberal speakers for the series. Controversial Rev. Al Sharpton had been scheduled to preach this month but evidently cancelled. Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the Bus” preaches on July 21. The church is a “reconciling” congregation that disagrees with United Methodism’s official disapproval of homosexual behavior.

The South African Methodist Church is autonomous and not tied to the United Methodist Church. South African Methodist officials are sometimes more liberal than Methodists elsewhere in Africa.

Before Storey spoke, Foundry’s Senior Pastor, the Rev. Dean Snyder, spoke briefly about the George Zimmerman trial in Florida after a “not guilty” verdict was handed down the previous night.  Snyder led the congregation in a prayer to “end racism… and to create a society that’s safe for all children.”  Snyder gave thanks to the Trayvon Martin Foundation, the NAACP, and the Urban League while also asking God to “help us learn to look beyond our own particular privileges.”

After a “Modified Traditional” version of the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Mother/Father, who art in heaven…”), it was Storey’s time to speak.  Storey is best known for his decades-long fight against the South African government’s racist policy of apartheid.  In recent years he has taught at United Methodism’s Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, often making politically liberal statements.   He has also praised Occupy Wall Street and criticized patriotism towards the United States. But gay rights and tearing down walls of division were the focus of his sermon at Foundry.  Discrimination against gays, the former South African church official claimed, was the “last respectable discrimination” in society.  He mourned that “[a]s the law of this country changes, the Church will be the last oppressor of LGBT people.”

If there was any question about which sort of “oppression” Storey was referring to, he specifically praised the recent pro-gay marriage U.S. Supreme Court rulings. “[T]he gay couples on Capitol Hill…they were enduring victims of a cruel prejudice… All the way to the Supreme Court, they said ‘We will be heard!’”

Storey did of course end up mentioning the Trayvon Martin case. “It’s a troubling thing…” he remarked, “It revealed the addiction to racism that still exists in this country’s bloodstream.” Once again, the notion that racism was the root cause of the tragic incident, a theory neither the prosecution nor federal investigators advanced, went unquestioned.

But George Zimmerman wasn’t the only person to be accused of racism in the sermon, or even the most well-known. That distinction went to the Apostle Peter and, by extension, many others in the early church.  Storey preached that Peter was forced to address his own “racism” after his encounter with the Roman centurion Cornelius.  As the story is recounted in Acts chapter 10, a divine revelation leads Peter to baptize the Roman, after an initial reluctance to baptizing uncircumcised Gentiles.  As more and more Gentiles were baptized, it led to a division in the early Church.  The spreading of Christianity to the Gentiles, Storey noted, was opposed at the Council of Jerusalem by “diehards in the Church” who “continue[d]to fight for exclusion.”

Just like gay marriage. Get it?

Storey’s injection of racism into the story of the early Church’s division over the outreach to Gentiles is a flawed interpretation.  At the Council of Jerusalem, no one claimed that Gentiles should not be allowed to join the Church at all. Instead, one faction of Jewish Christians claimed the “Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15:5).”  Their opposition wasn’t to Gentiles joining the faith, but to Gentiles not being required to follow what had traditionally been God’s law. Their concern wasn’t entirely without merit; while the Council decided not to require Gentiles to be circumcised or to follow most dietary restrictions, Gentiles were ordered to “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. (Acts 15:20)”

Storey’s faulty interpretation of the Council is the perfect parallel for his flawed views on today’s issues. Just as Storey could not read about Peter’s reluctance to baptize an uncircumcised Gentile without inferring bigotry and animus, he cannot confront opponents of gay marriage without projecting intolerance and an “addiction to division.”  In both these cases, doctrinal differences arose because of legitimate differences in opinion about God’s law, but Storey writes off one side of the debate entirely. Likewise, he finds it impossible to examine a contentious criminal case like the Trayvon Martin case without presuming a racial motivation. Ironically, in a sermon dedicated to a spirit of hospitality and inclusion, Storey failed to extend that spirit to his ideological opponents.