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.

“What Concern Is That to You and to Me?”

(Sermon 1/17/16)

wedding at cana icon

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. – John 2:1-11

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The party had been going on for some time, apparently. The best man had offered up his awkward toast, the couple had had their ceremonial first dance and smashed cake in each other’s faces a couple of hours earlier, and the celebration was still going strong, when the unthinkable happened – they ran out of wine. Maybe the couple didn’t have much money, or they’d limited the amount of alcohol to keep some of their rowdier friends in line, or maybe everyone was just thirstier and happier than anyone had anticipated, but for whatever reason, the party had suddenly gone dry, and it was a problem.

And when it did, Mary went to Jesus about it. Who knows what she thought he’d do about it. Maybe some of the non-scriptural stories of Jesus’ childhood were true; maybe Mary had seen Jesus performing miracles before, as he was growing up. Maybe she knew that he’d be able to conjure up a good Merlot without breaking a sweat. Or maybe she was just voicing her concern, what a pity, what a shame, recognizing the social fallout this major faux pas would have on the couple and their families. However she said it, maybe Jesus was just about to give the punchline of a joke he was telling to some friends, or maybe he was just about to have another bite of chicken parmigiana, and without hardly thinking about what he was saying, he blurted out his answer to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?”

In my own mind, I can picture it happening that way. And I can also picture Jesus recognizing almost before the words had left his lips that it probably wasn’t the best thing to say. Seeing some hurt and I’ll bet even some anger in Mary’s eyes. And in that moment, I can picture him asking himself, wait a minute – is it my concern? I mean, granted, this certainly wasn’t any life and death situation, but still, these people were in a bind. And I can imagine the gears turning in his head, asking himself who, exactly, has God sent him to proclaim good news to, and what that was really supposed to look like. Who was he supposed to speak with, to work with, to minister to? Who had he been sent to help? A bunch of bloated, pompous, overpaid religious leaders wearing silly robes and ridiculous-looking hats? Or people like the ones he was sitting with in that moment? People who were struggling to just get by in life, people who needed some kind of good news for a change, people who needed to catch a break in any number of ways. I don’t imagine it took Jesus long at all to see that these people’s problems – and not just the big, cosmic, theological issues of their lives, but also how they lived and got along in life, right then and there, was indeed his concern after all. And so, maybe feeling a little embarrassed for his first response, and maybe feeling a little ornery as he thought about how to make amends for it, with a smile and a wink he told them, fill the water jars; then call for the wine steward.

Almost two thousand years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was thrown in jail for organizing non-violent protests against racism, segregation, and discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama. While he sat in jail, eight local clergymen wrote a letter to the local newspaper denouncing the civil rights workers’ efforts and denouncing Dr. King for, among other things, being an “outsider” who had come to Birmingham and only stirred up trouble, making things worse than they already were. In short, in this criticism of Dr. King, they were asking, “What concern is the situation in Birmingham to you?”

Dr. King replied to their criticisms by way of his now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one of the most powerful writings to ever come out of the American church, and America in general, for that matter. In the letter, Dr. King reminded these clergymen that when one person suffers, we all suffer; when one person isn’t free, no one is free. He reminded them that beyond secular law, that the same point that we see in Jesus’ actions at the wedding in Cana is an essential tenet of their shared faith- that God has made a place at the table for all of us; that God cares not only about big, eternal matters, but also our immediate, day-to-day needs and struggles; our need for justice and peace and equality; and because God cares about these things, we need to care about them, too. Dr. King reminded them that in God’s eyes, there is no longer any such thing as “outsiders.”

Of course, this is the weekend that we recognize the life and work of Dr. King, and I hope you’ll try to be part of the special worship service this afternoon, and the celebration at the Auburn Public Theater on Monday. Whether you attend those events or not, I think the most important thing we can do to remember Dr. King’s legacy, and what it means to all of us who profess the same faith in Christ along with him, is to think and pay about how we can faithfully make other people’s concerns and struggles our own concern. Jesus didn’t have to be part of the wedding party in order to make their problem his problem. And we don’t have to be black, or female, or gay, or an illegal immigrant, or a victim of human trafficking, or a Syrian refugee, or a homeless person, in order to make their problems ours.

But how can we walk with them in their struggles? What can we do, how can we help them in the best way we can – in the way God calls us to? And just as importantly, once we know what we should do, are we ready to do that if it means it will come with consequences? For example, could we stand together with, say, the local African-American community to oppose some racist government official, if that same person happened to be a neighbor of ours, or if our kids were friends with their kids, maybe on the same sports team, and we saw each other socially all the time? Or could we, as a congregation, take a public and vocal stand for some social justice position – whatever the actual example might be, you can fill in the blank any number of ways – that was unpopular in the community; something that would result in people turning against our church? I mean, we’re no different than anyone else; we like to be liked and held in high esteem; we like some organization or another recognizing us with plaques and proclamations and so on; that’s perfectly normal and natural. Could we take a stand about something we know is right in the eyes of God if we realized it would create friction between us and the influential people in town? Would we be willing to take a stand about something that could end up resulting in having a brick thrown through our front door? We need to always remember that these are the kinds of things that happened to people and congregations who stood with Dr. King back then. We have to ask ourselves these questions, friends, because the people and situations that God has called us to stand up for, and to take on as our concern, are almost always those people and situations that are, almost by definition, going to be unpopular, and sometimes even risky to ourselves.

When considering this story about Jesus at the wedding in Cana, someone once said that it was important to notice that when Mary told Jesus that the wine had run out, he didn’t just write a check and send someone to the liquor store. He actually took matters into his own hands; he put down his fork and rolled up his sleeves, and did something about it himself. His point for the church is clear enough, that while giving money to various causes is good as far as it goes, it isn’t all that Christ calls us to. God has called us to ante up not just our money, but our actual efforts, our elbow grease, and to do so not just as individuals, but together, identifiably, as the church. Because if all we do is go out and volunteer our time with various causes as individuals, then what does anyone need the church for? How do people outside our church family get to know anything about what we, the church, stands for, what the church is all about? Taking these kinds of stands, taking on these tasks, these missions, and taking them on specifically as an intentional group of the people of God – that’s how we avoid becoming seen as a meaningless institution in people’s daily lives. And that’s how we avoid falling into the trap of asking that question, “What concern is that to you or to me?”

So think about that question – how can we continue Dr. King’s legacy, how can we live out Christ’s commission to us, working together to help those in the world who need us to stand up for them in ways large and small? If you think about that question, and come up with an answer, then maybe the next time you’re at a wedding reception, making small talk at the table about some situation in the news, and someone next to you says “Oh, what concern is that of yours?” you’ll be able to say “Well, let me tell you – but better yet, let me show you.”

Thanks be to God.