Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Let’s start with a moment of truth: I signed the Manhattan Declaration.  Cheers from one side and gasps and boos from the other.  That doesn’t mean that it was worded as I would have.  Neither does it mean that I agree with every proposition in the statement.  How could I?  A statement written by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Fundamentalists Baptists and people from various other denominations and theological traditions is bound to either go for the lowest common denominator or say things that people might agree upon but would word differently if speaking within their own tradition.  So as I go through this I will say what I agree with and what I disagree with.

I was going to skip the preamble and go straight to the section on revelation and reason but the preamble talks about some of Christianities best moments.  Here is what it says:
Christians are heirs of a 2,000year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.
While fully acknowledging the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages, we claim the heritage of those Christians who defended innocent life by rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps in Roman cities and publicly denouncing the Empire’s sanctioning of infanticide. We remember with reverence those believers who sacrificed their lives by remaining in Roman cities to tend the sick and dying during the plagues, and who died bravely in the coliseums rather than deny their Lord.
After the barbarian tribes overran Europe, Christian monasteries preserved not only the Bible but also the literature and art of Western culture. It was Christians who combated the evil of slavery: Papal edicts in the 16th and 17th centuries decried the practice of slavery and first excommunicated anyone involved in the slave trade; Evangelical Christians in England, led by John Wesley and William Wilberforce, put an end to the slave trade in that country. Christians under Wilberforce’s leadership also formed hundreds of societies for helping the poor, the imprisoned, and child laborers chained to machines.
In Europe, Christians challenged the divine claims of kings and successfully fought to establish the rule of law and balance of governmental powers, which made modern democracy possible.
And in America, Christian women stood at the vanguard of the suffrage movement. The great civil rights crusades of the 1950s and 60s were led by Christians claiming the Scriptures and asserting the glory of the image of God in every human being regardless of race, religion, age or class.
This same devotion to human dignity has led Christians in the last decade to work to end the dehumanizing scourge of human trafficking and sexual slavery, bring compassionate care to AIDS sufferers in Africa, and assist in a myriad of other human rights causes – from providing clean water in developing nations to providing homes for tens of thousands of children orphaned by war, disease and gender discrimination.
Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good. In being true to its own calling, the call to discipleship, the church through service to others can make a profound contribution to the public good.
Good words, right?  And Christians did all of those things down through the ages.  St. Francis not only washed the sores of lepers he also kissed their wounds.  Monks fought against Conquistadors and insisted that Native Americans were humans.  There were movements in every Christian revival and awakening down throughout history to make life better, not only for those who had experienced revival but also for those around them.  The abolition movement grew, in part, out of the 2nd Great Awakening in America.  Martin Luther King Jr. preached the Word of God in the face of evil.  Christians have fought against the modern slave trade.  Christians have sought to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and set the prisoner free.  Christians started schools to teach and hospitals to heal.  Of course others were involved in those good acts too.  Christians can’t take all the credit.
The Manhattan Declaration starts out with Christianity’s finer days.  It skips the dark underside. 
Some have criticized the Declaration saying that some of those who have signed it would have (and maybe did) stand with the segregationists in the 50s and 60s.  I haven’t seen any criticism of the failure of more conservative Christians to care for those with AIDS until they had been hit upside the head a bunch of times by those pointing out that Jesus loves everyone but it is true.  Conservative Christians, some at least, called AIDS God’s retribution on gays.  Then, way too late, they discovered that AIDS in Africa is mostly a heterosexual disease (oops) and got on board. 
So let’s all admit it.  The Declaration was written by sinners.  Hypocrites too.  For going on 25 years now I’ve called the Church Hypocrites Anonymous.  One of the relaxing things about going to worship, if you really believe the Gospel, is that you know everyone should accept you because they are all sinners too.  All are equal in the Church. 
Unfortunately Church members often don’t act that way.  People who called themselves Evangelicals were scandalized when Billy Graham integrated his crusades in the 1950’s.  Other so-called Christians stood at the doors of their churches and refused to let African Americans in to worship in the 1960’s.  To the shame of denominations of most stripes Sunday morning at 11 is still the most segregated hour of the week.  Curiously the Pentecostals overcame this in the early 20th Century.  They didn’t care what color you were.  They just wanted to be sure you spoke in tongues.
And going back to those monks and the dark underside of Christianity, the people the monks fought against called themselves Christians too.  But they were in the Americas to find gold and make money.  Slaves produced more money than free workers.  It was simple economics. 
Through most of the Church’s history (during Christendom) you took your life in your hands if you failed to toe the party line.  There were crusades in the Middle East, yes.  But there was also a crusade in southern France against the Albigensians.  Translating the Bible was, for a while, a capital offense.  So was being Catholic in England for a long time.  And in America.  Being a Puritan in England in the early 17th century could get your ears clipped or your tongue pierced (not a fashion statement) with a stick particularly when you dared to criticize the established church.  And if you were Jewish Holy Week was the worst time of the year because the Christians took note of the “fact” that week that Jews were Christ killers and went off and killed some Jews.  An interesting way to remember the death and resurrection of a Jew named Jesus, wasn’t it?
So let’s all take a look at that list.  We weren’t there for most of it.  We might not risk going to the trash heap at night to rescue a baby or go to the Coliseum for refusing to deny Jesus.  Kissing the sores of lepers would probably gross most of us out.  Caring for those who have AIDS is a long, terrible task.  And fighting slavery seems to be an ongoing problem that may never go away.
I hope I would have the guts to do at least some of the things on that list.
But Christians we need to remember the good times and give glory to God.  We also need to remember the bad times and learn from them.  The second paragraph of the Declaration starts with these words: “While fully acknowledging the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages.”  I think “imperfections and shortcomings” are too mild.  I would prefer sin and evil. 
Anyone who writes a theological and/or ethical statement must always recognize their own sin.  And I would feel comforted if this Declaration also included some form of these words from the Barmen Declaration:
Try the spirits whether they are of God! Prove also the words of the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church to see whether they agree with Holy Scripture and with the Confessions of the Fathers.  If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking our stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God, in order that God’s people be of one mind upon earth and that we in faith experience what he himself has said: “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” Therefore, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”


Alan said...,0,1407498.story

In addition to the multitude of other reasons not to sign this that everyone has already discussed, the LA Times had yet another good critique of the hysterical lies told in the Declaration.

Sad that today some Christians feel that signing a declaration somehow means more than the simple act of declaring that Jesus is Lord and the simple act of following Him.

But then, neither of those actions are good for ginning up the troops and getting the money flowing. Anyone who doesn't see this as the patently cynical marketing ploy that it is should please contact me about a bridge I'm trying to sell.

Pastor Bob said...

Yeah I know. I'm part of a group that is trying to get pastors, rabbis, churches, presbyteries, etc. to sign a document asking that the PA state legislature pass a law that says a person can only buy one handgun a month. Here in PA you can buy as many handguns a month as you want which means that what is called a "straw buyer" can go into a gun store and buy guns on behalf of a criminal. Since there is no limit on the number of handguns one can buy the straw buyer gains some cash and the criminals get some guns.

Second law just as important: that if you lose your gun you have to report it. This way if a gun is used in a crime and the straw buyer hasn't reported that s/he has lost the gun s/he can get in trouble.

There are a bunch of mayors around the state and city and county governments that have signed and said they want the state to pass it. The state assembly and senate are carefully ignoring everyone.

It turns out that cities, towns and counties can't pass gun laws for themselves. Only the state government can do it. And they are listening to the NRA not the citizens and the local governments.

I called my assemblyman and talked with his legislative aide. He gave me the NRA line. I asked why anyone needs to by more than one handgun a month. He said that sometimes collectors want to buy a matched pair. I said, OK, two guns a month then. And he wasn't buying it. I pointed out that gun violence at this end of the county (1 mile from here) is going up. He didn't want to talk about it.

So evidently signing petitions and statements and even calling legislators doesn't do much good.

Sigh. Maybe I should find some criminals who will pay me to buy guns!

Alan said...

I would agree that signing petitions doesn't do much. Calling legislators can occasionally get results. Giving money to their election campaigns can often get results.

So why bother signing something that is so useless?

The hysterical paranoia in the declaration that the whole country is just waiting to pounce on evangelicals is clearly a lie that anyone can see simply by looking at our current public discourse. (Every law that means to treat LGBT people equally has to have an exemption for religious bigots, for example.)

Regardless of how bizarre the social agenda (ie. War on Christmas?!) both the government and business know that they have to kowtow to the far right fringe, and they do so most of the time.

In other words, it's mostly a bunch of old straight white guys crying because .... because what? They already run the world, what more do they want? Oh right, they want everyone else to sit down, shut up, and let them run the world.

I just don't get the point. (Not to mention the theology which, if a liberal group were to write this, evangelicals would have kittens over. Actually, even if an evangelical were to write it, evangelicals would have kittens over (or start the threats of physical violence like Carmen "The Millstone" Fowler.)

Alan said...

BTW, I have yet to see an explanation why this declaration (which regardless of the disingenuous rationalizations is essentially a political document, not a theological one) was made now, during a Democratic administration rather than 2 years ago during a Republican one.

If the people who signed this thought this was a Christian document instead of an Republican document, they've been snowed.

Pastor Bob said...

As to your last response:

Of course it is a political document. It deals with political issues. As for why now it is meant to speak to the current debate over healthcare and abortion and to actions taken and being taken by state and local governments. Catholic agencies in MA closed down their adoption work rather than be forced to help gay and lesbian couples adopt. Currently in DC there is legislation before the city council that would remove funding from church programs that feed the poor if those programs do not provide the same benefits to gay and lesbian couples as they do to straight couples.

At least that's how I read it.

And before you ask I plan to respond to each section of the document. When I have the time. It is Advent after all.

Alan said...

"And before you ask I plan to respond to each section of the document. When I have the time. "

BTW, I wasn't going to ask. I can read RNC talking points just fine over at their website.

Aric Clark said...


Alan is his usual abrupt self in his comments here, but he does bring up a point about the behavior of many of the signers. I made a similar point here. Do you really want to be associated with these people? Do they represent Christianity to you?

Certainly not to me they don't.

Pastor Bob said...


I'll get around to that when I get to that section of the document.