Exile and the Prophetic: The 15 most wanted (Church leader) list

This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Yesterday I wrote about an October 5th letter sent from American Church leaders to Congress. The letter was interfaith ecumenical dynamite. Yet I didn’t mention the leaders’ names or the denominations they represent.

Today, I’m calling them out individually for a variety of reasons. First, their letter is historic – I don’t want their names lost to history. It represents the end of the interfaith ecumenical deal and a sea change in how the Holocaust and Israel can and can’t be used politically in the United States. Second, I don’t want them to be hidden in a pack of names or even the nomenclature ‘Church leaders.’ It’s important that they stand up for what they’ve signed. They need to hold themselves accountable. We need to and hold them accountable. Finally, since their letter is controversial and more is to come from the Jewish establishment on their participation, supporters should take a lead on framing the Most Wanted (Church Leader) list which is sure to appear.

‘Most Wanted’ lists are traditionally a negative ‘criminal’ list. But what if the Most Wanted is ‘seekers of justice’? Those who are vilified by one establishment can be uplifted by those of conscience on the other side. As we shall see, most Church leaders are reluctant to stick their neck out for anything of substance. When they do, we have to celebrate their courage and hold them to it, lest their better Church leader instincts reappear under pressure.

Below, I list their names. (I wonder, too, if I should also include their pictures. You can’t have a 15 Most Wanted list without pictures, can you? It’s important for identification purposes. The Jewish establishment tip line needs them. The Post Office won’t accept the listing without pictures.) I’m also calling out the organizations they represent. They shouldn’t escape notice either. You can see they and their organizations are bigwigs. This notorious group isn’t marginal:

  1. Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA)
  2. Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  3. Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, President, Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church
  4. Peg Birk, Transitional General Secretary, National Council of Churches USA
  5. Shan Cretin, General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee
  6. J Ron Byler, Executive Director, Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
  7. Alexander Patico, North American Secretary Orthodox Peace Fellowship
  8. Diane Randall, Executive Secretary, Friends Committee on National Legislation
  9. Dr. A. Roy Medley, General Secretary, American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.
  10. Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ
  11. Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  12. Rev. Julia Brown Karimu, President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),, Division of Overseas Ministries, Co-Executive, Global Ministries (UCC and Disciples)
  13. Rev. Dr. James A. Moos, Executive Minister, United Church of Christ, Wider, Church Ministries, Co-Executive, Global Ministries (UCC and Disciples)
  14. Kathy McKneely, Acting Director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
  15. Eli S. McCarthy, PhD, Justice and Peace Director, Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM)

Dealing with the Churches over the years, believe me it isn’t easy to get the top echelon to sign themselves to letters that have any content at all. In general, Church leaders are promoted through the ranks precisely because they don’t have much on their minds – at least that they let others discern.

As in politics in general, it’s often the lowest common denominator that rises to the top. This doesn’t mean Church leaders – or politicians – aren’t intelligent. Usually they are. If they stand for anything particular, potential Church leaders keep it to themselves. What those in Church leadership represent are trends within their denominations. They are elevated or not depending on how the Church winds are blowing.

To achieve their promotions, Church leaders typically have their finger up, checking how the Church winds are blowing. This doesn’t stop if and when they are elevated. Sometimes it increases. Typically Church leaders use their time at the top to encourage the trends they represent while mouthing banalities that their congregants can accept as normal. As in the broader spectrum of the political world, most Church change occurs around the edges.

The way Christianity is interpreted – and behaves – now doesn’t help Church leaders develop true leadership skills. Though the evangelical side of the Christian spectrum still has some fire and brimstone content – though inside the evangelical movement leadership operates more like mainstream Church leaders than either side would like to admit – the mainstream likes to think of itself as open and accepting. In many areas of Church life it is.

Openness is one thing but when you can’t take a stand out of fear of self, that’s another. Many Church leaders have a fear of their own tradition as well they might. They are only too aware of what a mobilized – and militarized – Christianity looks like. When you couple that with Jews, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Israel, you have every conceivable self-critical Christian alarm ready to sound.

So, no matter how well meaning, Church efforts can begin to feel rather like milk toast tastes and feels – bland and soggy. Even with justice proclamations, details are usually omitted or fuzzy and deliberately so. This is part fear, part self-protection. Churches are reticent to take political stands that have consequences for its own financial, political and cultural standing in the community.

Again, with regard to Jews, milk toast isn’t the word. Around Jews, these bold proclaimers of faith walk on eggshells. They don’t want to go near the Jewish minefield.

I can’t blame them for using their Church leadership skills to avoid the Jewish minefield. I’ve labored in that minefield for many years so I understand completely. The Jewish minefield – it’s what the Jewish establishment wants the Church leaders and me – and all Jews and Christians of Conscience – to remember.

As with any minefield warning signs are posted. No doubt you’ve noticed a ‘Dare Not Trespass Against the Jewish Establishment’ Most Wanted list hanging in every corner of the American landscape.

But then trespassers keep popping up.

Think of the Church leaders as trespassers in the fields mined by the Jewish establishment. The fact that they’re dealing with the real behavior of Jews, not the mythic apparitions of Christians with Jews on their brain, doesn’t get them a free pass.

Sorry to inform you my dear Church leaders, dealing with the real behavior of Jews gets you into hotter water than the mythic anti-Semites of today. No doubt you already know this by now.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of Future of the Prophetic: Israel's Ancient Wisdom Re-Presented.
Posted in Activism, Israel/Palestine, Occupation, US Politics

{ 7 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. pabelmont says:

    Yes, it is indeed remarkable — as you have laid out the usual behavior of church leaders — that the 15 acted at all. Perhaps it was personal bravery and personal duty (as Christians see Christian duty) and perhaps it represents the rank and file. Either way it may serve as a teaching and organizing event. Hope so. Be interesting to see if any Congresspeople respond favorably — in another kind of personal bravery and duty.

  2. piotr says:

    One of the best columns of Marc Ellis. One thing is that the letter is explosive if noticed or acknowledged, so after the initial harrumphs, I suspect that the true Plan A is to mark it for oblivion.

  3. “A society is in serious trouble when its political pariahs have at the heart of their demands a call for a return to the rule of law.” — Chris Hedges
    (Quoted from memory, probably not quite accurately but the substance is correct.
    And these church leaders aren’t political pariahs! they are about as mainstream as you can get.)

    • Betsy says:

      @Elizabeth Block — great quote! Chris Hedges is exactly right…and his life exemplifies something about the painful moral struggles within Reformed Protestantism over the past decades — his moral vision seems very shaped by his rage at how his father (a Presbyterian minister) was treated by conservatives in the church link to pbs.org — leading to a fascinating ambivalence within him — I relish his critique of the mainline churches even as my own experience is that the church provides me the very wellspring, sustenance & vision I need for social justice work.

      Here’s another powerful Hedges quote:

      These religious institutions are in irreversible decline. They are ruled by moral and intellectual trolls. They have become arrogant and self-absorbed. Their sins are many. They protected criminals. They pandered to the lowest common denominator and illusions of personal fulfillment and surrendered their moral authority. They did not fight the corporate tyrants who have impoverished us. They refused to denounce a caste of Christian heretics embodied by the Christian right and have, for their cowardice, been usurped by bizarre proto-fascists clutching the Christian cross. They have nothing left to say. And their aging congregants, who are fleeing the church in droves, know it. But don’t think the world will be a better place for their demise.

      link to truthdig.com

  4. MRW says:

    It’s milquetoast, from “the name of Caspar Milquetoast, a diffident character in H. T. Webster’s comic strip The Timid Soul. The comic strip first ran in 1924 in the New York World; it was later published in the Herald Tribune.” Although milk toast was probably the inspiration.

    Their names are etched in history. They are in the Congressional Record. The fact that they wrote it and the fact that they did not consult their ecumenical colleagues shows one thing: they’re pissed. As Betsy wrote here some time ago, when they get to this stage:

    It takes us a long time to reach the point where we have to speak up. But, once we reach that point, we are in that “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God” kind of place — I do hope that the actual faith communities (not these trumped up, inside-the-beltway, political insider groups) understand how serious this is.

  5. Who would be the Jewish counterparts- the modern day prophets, like Amos or Natha? For us Christians who are the people to watch like Jeff Halper, Miko Peled, or maybe our dear Uri Avnery? Alexsi

    • Betsy says:

      @ Alvin Alexsi Currier — here are some great prophetic interfaith conversations & voices…
      from link to theipmn.org

      The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has announced the winners of the 2012 Hosanna Preaching Prize. This year’s prizes are awarded to Rabbi Alissa Wise, co-founder of the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voices for Peace and to Dr. Mark Braverman, director of Kairos USA.

      Rabbi Wise’s sermon, entitled “God is in This Place” was delivered at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Centering her thoughts around Jacob’s awakening at Bethel recounted in Genesis 28:16, Rabbi Wise explores her own spiritual awakening to justice issues. This awakening leads her to affirm the centrality of tochecha, the sacred duty of rebuke found in the Holiness Code (Lev 19:17), which so animates the prophetic tradition.

      Dr. Braverman’s sermon, entitled “Can These Bones Live?” was delivered at Iona Abbey in Scotland. Working with both the New Testament account of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21) and the account of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37: 1-14), Dr. Braverman reflects on the importance of kairos moments, those episodes in history where “God offers a new set of possibilities [that] we have to accept or decline.” The full texts of both of these sermons can be found at http://www.theIPMN.org.

      These awards represent the inauguration of the Hosanna Preaching Prize, an annual prize intended to foster the exploration of and reflection upon Biblical texts that support justice and reconciliation in Palestine and Israel. Recognizing that Biblical texts have too often been used to foster and support injustice, The Hosanna Preaching Prize lifts up those preachers who understand and demand that the Bible must never be used to justify oppression. Two awards will be given each year, one focusing on a text from Hebrew Scriptures and one focusing on a text from the New Testament.

      The Hosanna Preaching Prize is established by Noushin Framke, a Presbyterian Elder from New York City, in honor of her grandmother Osanna Panian, who as a ten year old in 1915, walked over the mountains from Armenia into Iran, escaping the Armenian Genocide. She lived her life as a refugee, always hoping and expecting to return to her homeland. Because she was born on Palm Sunday, she was named Osanna, (Hosanna) which means, “We beseech you, save us!” The Hosanna Preaching Prize is awarded by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network in the hope that all refugees might find their way home.

      by Robert Trawick

      Robert Trawick is a Presbyterian elder living in New City, NY. He is an associate professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, NY.