Eugene Carson Blake, Where Are You Now?

eugene carson blake arrested 7-4-63 baltimore

This photo depicts one of my favorite moments in Presbyterian history. I’ve shared it before; the events of recent days have made me think about it again.

This is the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk – the top church executive –  of the Presbyterian Church from 1951 until 1966. This is a photo of Blake being arrested while protesting a segregated amusement park in Baltimore in 1963.

During his time as Stated Clerk, Blake was a strong advocate for Christian unity, being a major voice of the ecumenical movement and calling for a merger of ten mainline denominations into one body. His focus on church unity led him to also serve as the President of the National Council of Churches while serving as Stated Clerk, and later, as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

But his focus wasn’t exclusively on Christian unity, and it certainly wasn’t on unity at any cost. Blake was head of the denomination during the civil rights movement, a time of intense division in the church.  He knew all too well the differing, and often heatedly debated, opinions within the denomination’s membership over matters of racial equality and justice. These were explosive issues, and any statements about them coming out of the head office – regardless of content – had the potential for further division, and possibly even denominational schism.

And yet, fully aware of that reality, Blake took a strong, uncompromising stand in favor of social justice. He wrote and spoke powerfully against racial discrimination and segregation, and calling for civil rights and equal justice under the law for all people. He stood up for racial equality and non-discrimination in the church as well, against many who appealed to wrong-headed interpretations of scripture to defend their impassioned arguments supporting the racist status quo.

It’s funny; I remember being a young boy in the 1960s and hearing my own Presbyterian relatives bemoaning the “radicals,” who were probably even closet Communists, who had gotten control of the church and who were turning it away from God and toward the very gates of hell itself. Only years later would I do the math and realize they were actually complaining about Eugene Carson Blake and his unabashedly progressive anti-racist theology.

It was precisely that theology that led him to protest racial discrimination, and yes, to even be arrested for his beliefs. It was that strength of character that led him to help organize, and to participate in, Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. It was that clarity of prophetic witness that caused him to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, just a short while before Dr. King gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. He participated in that march, and gave that speech, all the while worried in the pit of his stomach that his participation would lead to further strife and division in the church – and yet, he was convinced that this was where God had called him, and what God was calling him, and the church, to do. There he stood; he could do no other.

For the most part, Presbyterians today are on the forefront of matters of battling racism and white privilege. In fact, our current Stated Clerk and our two Co-Moderators – the top three officers in the denomination – are all direct beneficiaries of Blake’s forward-thinking and uncompromising stance against discrimination based on race or gender.

However, the denomination still has internal divisions, these days largely over the matter of the place of LGBTQ individuals in the church. I don’t have polling data from Blake’s time regarding civil rights to use as a comparison, but with the church membership currently supporting LGBTQ equality in church and society by an approximate 2 to 1 margin (and trending upward), I suspect the division is significantly less than Blake had to navigate. We have, thanks be to God, amended our constitutional documents to permit the ordination of LGBTQ Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and to permit our ministers to officiate – and be part of – same-sex marriages.

As wonderful as all this is, it’s still only a partial victory. While our constitution allows LGBTQ equality in pulpit and pew, that same constitution permits presbyteries (regions) and congregations to decide for themselves whether to accept it. That means that there are many places within the denomination where LGBTQ people remain unwelcome. This compromise, made in the name of denominational unity, has resulted in a situation within the church where LGBTQ Christians are something akin to the 3/5 of a person that the U.S. Constitution originally considered slaves. Our memberships and ordinations all come with an asterisk – our acceptability for membership or ordination changes not by virtue of our profession of faith, or our preparation and qualifications, but simply by virtue of having crossed a geographical boundary. We are the only group that the denomination allows to be discriminated against by reason of a biological characteristic. To use another historical parallel, we’re living a supposedly separate-but-equal Plessy versus Ferguson existence in a Brown versus Board of Education world. In trying to save the denomination from splitting in two, this compromise has merely established two under one roof.

Would Eugene Carson Blake have supported acceptance of LGTBQ Christians openly participating in the full life and leadership of the church? I’m pretty certain that, in his own historical context, he most assuredly wouldn’t have – in fact, I’d be surprised to learn otherwise. But as firmly as I believe that, I’m just as convinced that if he were alive today, and knew what we now know, that he would be working, and writing, and speaking as courageously for us as he did for others in his own time.

A few days ago, Rev. Dr. Blake’s denomination – my denomination – issued a response to the “Nashville Statement,” the vehemently anti-female and anti-LGBTQ document issued by a number of conservative Evangelical Christian personalities. I’ve addressed the Statement in an earlier post.

Since its release, non-Evangelical Christians, as well as people outside the church, have been issuing an unending flood of denunciations of its backward, hateful content. Really, opposing the content of this theological train wreck is as close to a slam-dunk, no-brainer as things get in the church world – or at least, you would think so. After a couple of days of thoughtful deliberation (we Presbyterians don’t rush into anything), the denomination released a response. Unfortunately, it was an intensely disappointing, dull thud of a response.

There were a number of positive elements in the statement, which can be read here. And it does refer and link to the “Denver Statement,” an excellent and sometimes witty response to the Nashville Statement. But overall, it ended up being just a timid document that shied away from a bold stand for social justice in order to not offend the denomination’s most conservative members, while apparently being less concerned with offending and hurting a large number of others who found themselves once again somewhat under the bus. This was not, you might say, a Eugene Carson Blake moment.

Yes, I hope that someday, we have a courageous, denomination-wide affirmation of LGBTQ people in the full life and leadership of the church in the same manner the we’ve done with women and persons of color. But at very least, the statement could have strongly defended our position that one can be a faithful Christian while holding LGBTQ-affirming views – a position that the Nashville Statement pointedly denies in its Article 10. The Presbyterian response makes ambiguous mention of the Nashville Statement staking out positions “that go beyond anything the PC(USA) has officially taken a stand on.” But this is not one of those things. By our decision to consider both positions equally faithful, we have indeed taken a stand on this particular matter and consider the claim made in Article 10 of the Nashville Statement to be sinful nonsense. The fact that the denomination couldn’t even make a strong denunciation of this point – that it opted for a unity-over-justice position – was hurtful and insulting, and shows that despite the progress we’ve made in the denomination, we’ve still got a long way to go.

I would willingly be arrested defending the civil rights of the current leadership of my church. Given this less than enthusiastic response to the Nashville Statement, I have to wonder if they would they do the same for me.

I have tremendous respect for our denominational leadership. I’m proud of them. I love them. They hold exceedingly difficult jobs, and I’m convinced that they try to do their best to lead wisely, to find the right balance between Christian unity and prophetic witness. And on a personal level, J. Herbert Nelson, our Stated Clerk, rocks an awesome bow tie; not everyone can pull that off. Beyond that, I am genuinely, personally grateful for the strides made in recent years, even if I’d wish for more, which allow me to serve as an out gay ordained minister. But in this case, by way of an overly timid response to this ugly scar on the faith called the Nashville Statement, our denomination has blinked. We’ve missed a major opportunity to do the right thing – to decisively, boldly defend social and ecclesiastical justice for LGBTQ Christians both within the denomination and beyond, against forces within Christianity that would reject and harm us. I grieve over this lost opportunity. Somewhere, I believe Eugene Carson Blake does, too.

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Thoughts for the Day after MLK

Rustin-and-King-Jr

The words were offered from
pulpits and courthouse steps and jail cells
and countless other places,
words of eternal power and simplicity and truth.
If never else through the year
we listen to the words
of this man, this minister, this prophet again
when we celebrate his day,
and ponder his way
of nonviolence and justice.

The words stir me, too,
even though I know they were first meant
to give hope, and courage, and strength
to those with skin darker than mine,
which means nothing, of course,
but at the same time,
somehow, means everything.
The measure of a person, all too often,
even now, continues to be
the melanin content of skin
instead of the content of character.

The prophet’s words stir me to examine my own soul,
and to realize, as he said,
that when one of us suffers, we all do;
that when one of us is denied justice,
we all are;
and it causes me to take a stand
and do whatever I can
to walk your walk with you.

But the words stir me to something else, too,
because I need justice
just as much as you.
It’s a different kind of justice,
but really isn’t;
a difference that,
like our differing complexions,
means nothing,
but apparently still to some, everything.
The paths traveled by those like you
and those like me
have any number of differences,
but even more similarities,
and at many places,
more than is often admitted,
the paths converge into one.

It is true,
I am not you
and you are not me.
We cannot see
through each other’s eyes,
but I promise you
we at least wear the same prescription,
and if we actually did walk a mile in each other’s shoes
you’d see they’re the same size.

So I would do nothing
to take the prophet away from you;
nothing to distract from
your remembering and honoring.
I would do nothing
to minimize your struggle
or to co-opt his legacy
as somehow being only for me.
But I would ask you to see
that his words are at least for me
as well as for you.

I have a dream, too.

Will you walk my walk with me,
as I walk yours with you?

My gut wrenches,
my eyes well up in tears,
for those like you,
and those like me,
when throughout the years,
the beatings and killings continue –
white and brown and black and blue.
My disgust and horror
and anger and grief
are exactly the same
when I see pictures of the hatred
vomited out on both Emmett Till
and Matthew Shepard alike.
The blood that’s shed
is the same color red;
the loved ones’ tears just as salty.
The prayers offered by them both
in their last breaths,
and the ones offered
by those who cherished them
were offered to,
and painfully heard,
by the same God
who created and loves them both.
Both left families behind
with lives just as shattered
as the bottles that have been broken
over the heads
of those both like you and like me.

It’s true,
our paths aren’t totally the same.
You can’t hide your skin color
while so many of us
can, and do, and still have to
hide the rainbow color of our hearts.
But that hiding, that passing
in order to evade the hate
and rejection
and violence
only brings a different form of it.
The hatred and violence imposed by others
is just traded for self-hate and violence.
Like squeezing a balloon in one place,
it’s going to pop out in another.
It’s an enormity
that causes anxiety;
pain in denying one’s self
that brings daily soul-death,
and real death, too –
a physical surrender
to the world’s rejection and hatred
through overdose
and hanging
and shooting
and jumping into traffic
and any number of other
creative methods of self-termination;
added to the efforts of others
all too happy
to hunt us and beat us and burn us for sport,
as they’ve done to you, too,
or to smash our skulls
beyond recognition
while mouths spattered
with our dripping blood
damn us to perdition –
details, page B12,
in the morning edition.

All of those deaths
have been the result of hatred
and rejection
and oppression
every bit as much
as the ones not self-inflicted,
the ones meted out
by other hands
in the middle of the night
to those like you.

The prophet said to replace
the existing “I/It” relationship
with one of “I/Thou,”
and that’s what we need to do now.
I walk thy walk with thee;
will you stand and walk mine with me?

They never forced me
to drink from rusty fountains,
or to enter through back doors,
but I promise you,
we both know the sound and the sting
of slamming doors,
shut sometimes with a smile
and sometimes a curse;
and we both know
that neither is worse
than the other.

It doesn’t matter
whether it’s offered up
as “Leviticus states”
and “The Bible clearly says”;
or as something softer,
more subtle,
more wink/nudge and under the table,
something that will enable
more respectable conversation.
The pain, the anger, the rejection,
the refusal to validate my election
by our common God
to serve and proclaim resurrection;
whether the words used
are more appropriate to country club
or gutter,
however they’re uttered,
their meaning
and the pain
are exactly the same.

“We’ve reviewed your application,”
they say,
“and many others
from across the nation,
and while your gifts for ministry are clear,
they really aren’t near
what we want for our own congregation.
Surely, we don’t really mind,
none of us have a problem with your kind.
We aren’t frightened;
we’re actually enlightened –
why some of our family and friends
are that way, too.
But if we chose you,
some in the pews
would be upset
over the idea of someone, well, you know,
like you.
Plus, many of our oldest, dearest members
who also have the most to give,
won’t approve of the way you live
and will cut us off,
and then where will our church,
our ministry,
our witness to God be?”

Where, indeed.

“Surely you understand,”
they say.
Surely I’ll still shake their hand
and say it’s OK,
it’s just part of God’s mysterious way;
don’t worry, your consciences are clear.

But that’s not at all what I want to say.
I won’t even say
what I really want to say
about their consciences,
and the way they choose to hear,
and not hear,
The Word of the Lord.

Maybe rather than words,
I want to simply hold up a mirror for them,
and fighting the urge to hit them with it,
let them see their hypocrisy for themselves.

What I really want to say,
at its most polite,
is that this is not at all accepting God’s way
but rather, it’s spitting on it.

In the end, of course,
What I really do
is grit my teeth and clench my stomach
and shake their hand
or offer the email equivalent.
Blessings to you,
and grace and peace,
et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum.
Giving in to those negative emotions
is really not what the God that I follow
would want, so I swallow
one more helping
of self-negation
of me, God’s creation;
feeling less human,
less of value on that day
than I’d felt the day before,
which some days isn’t much to begin with.
How many times can I accept
this diminishing of self
this ongoing,
soul-crushing
repudiation of me
before there’s nothing left of “me” at all?

My brothers and sisters,
do you know this psalm of lament?
Does it ring true
to your darker-than-my ears?
Hear its cries
for strength,
for endurance,
for recognition of my human dignity,
created, in all of my being
in the image of our common God,
just like you,
no more, no less,
differing only in who we love,
and the color of our skin,
and frankly, not even always that.
Even with some differences in the melody line,
I’ll bet the tune sounds hauntingly familiar.

We’ve walked many miles together,
those like you and like me.
Many of us were with you,
and many of us were you,
in that long walk from Selma to Montgomery.
Our blood stained the Pettus Bridge for all eternity,
mingled together with yours.
We stood there,
and knelt there,
and prayed there;
there, and in your church pews, too,
because we knew
that your walk was our walk, too.

You know that we were there,
and not just as outsiders,
hangers-on,
wannabes coming in from somewhere else
that we would all ultimately,
comfortably retreat to.
You know the lie of that myth.
You know that before the first bus of supporters,
like me or otherwise,
rolled in from the north,
we were already there.
We sang in your choirs,
played your pianos and organs,
and yes,
you know we preached from your pulpits, too,
and we did it all well,
an anointed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Yes, you know that in your walk,
we weren’t just quiet followers.
You know that Bayard was there
at the very top of the pile,
in the inner circle,
both one of us, and one of you,
planning, leading, organizing;
and you know he wasn’t the only one.

So if not on the actual day
set aside to the Reverend,
the Doctor,
the prophet,
in an attempt to not distort his importance
to your specific walk,
I ask you to at least ponder these words
meant for consideration
on the day, and days, that follow:

Will you see through my glasses,
will you walk in my shoes,
will you join in my walk
as I join in yours?

I have a dream, too.

Will you join with the many,
like brothers Lewis,
and Young,
and Bond,
and Jackson,
and even sister Coretta, the prophet’s own wife,
who knew his mind
better than anyone;
in saying that the prophet’s words
are meant for me, too;
and in proclaiming that equality
and justice really are for all;
as both the promise of this nation
and the assurance of God?

On the day after the prophet’s day,
my question, my request, my plea
to you again, my brothers and sisters
will continue to be:
just as I walk with you,
will you walk with me?