THE COOL PREACHERS GO?
The death of the activist
minister, William Sloane Coffin, propels a troubling question
to the front of my mind: where have all the cool preachers gone?
It may seem an odd query
for a Seventh Day Agnostic but I have always tried to separate
cause and character and have enjoyed a happy if inconsistent
relationship with those of the cloth. Besides, we are all members
of what Weber called the pariah intelligentsia, including teachers,
ministers, writers, intellectuals and activists. In other words,
moral outsiders of supposed integrity, passion, and faith providing
guidance to a market, politics, and culture that would often
just as soon do without it.
These days, however, religionists
- as least as they appear in the media - seem dominated by people-slaying
dogmatists, thought-slaying propagandists, morality-slaying hustlers
and hypocrites, not to mention those whose supposed spiritual
concerns are merely tools to strengthen their growing role as
There are Islamic jihadists,
a Judaism indentured to cynical and cruel Israeli governments,
a Pope more concerned with punishing the views of American politicians
than dealing with the personal habits of some of his own priests,
and Christian evangelists delivering to rightwing politicians
an economically endangered flock that has been sold the absurd
apostasy that abortion and gay weddings are more important than
pensions or healthcare.
Although I was raised
in solemn and smug Episcopalism and educated in solemn and stolid
Quakerism, I soon discovered the alternatives. For example, my
father was involved in politics and so I quickly learned the
three major branches of Judaism: your orthodox, reform and liberal
Democratic, of which the latter was apparently far the strongest.
I picked up a book by a preacher named Martin Luther King and
learned that one could be both peaceful and political at the
same time. And, when I went to my friend Larry's house, an occasional
visitor for drinks or dinner would be Father Patrini, hardly
distinguishable, except for collar, from all the garrulous seculars
in the room.
In 1960s Washington, the
preachers were everywhere. We had Father Drinin in Congress,
Father Baroni at HUD, and Father Kemp on the DC school board;
all three were as good company as you could hope to find. Episcopal
Reverend Jesse Anderson helped to kick off the DC statehood movement.
When I covered an anti-poverty meeting, there would often be
the Baptist Rev. Frank Milner, part preacher and part cab driver,
imploring the crowd with a white collar on his shirt and a change
maker on his belt. And there was the Presbyterian, Rev. Tom Torosian,
handcuffed at a protest and giving me a grin as I slipped a twenty
for bail into his coat pocket.
My lawyer is an ex-priest
who keeps telling me to go easier on the Pope. I once got an
unrequested grant from the Lutheran church for my community newspaper.
I even was invited to become Washington correspondent of the
National Catholic Reporter, although that journal - apparently
remembering that it was then the 1990s and not the 1960s - withdrew
the offer without a word of explanation. And when I was a member
of the DC Humanities Council, we happily funded a film on liberation
theology right under William Bennett's nose.
And I hardly thought about
it all; I only enjoyed it. Regardless of one's own beliefs, if
you were active in any cause you expected to find preachers,
priests, and rabbis among your friends and allies. And they were
fun to eat and drink with, in part because they only witnessed
and never proselytized.
Part of it, perhaps, was
the different role of the church in a majority black town. In
our community paper's two and a half square mile circulation
area, for example, we had over 100 churches including the Revolutionary
Church of What's Happening Now. I was reminded of this while
attending a performance of "Where Eagles Fly," a tribute
to Washington's Shaw neighborhood, once host to the nation's
black Broadway, U Street. The performers in the play by Carole
Mumin were better than five years worth of 'American Idol,' but
the other thing that caught me was how long it had been since
I had seen that once bandied word 'ecumenism' being so enthusiastically
practiced. There were, of course, the Baptists, but Abdul Majeed
Muhammad sang a song in praise of Islam, and Catholics, Episcopalians,
and Jews all got their props. A high point was the appearance
of one of the great brass bands of the House of Prayer for All
Here was religion in the
hood rather than on cable TV. It's harder to condemn someone
to everlasting damnation when you see them a couple of times
a week or when your daughters play together.
On the other hand, the
dominant religions we find on cable TV are killing us, making
us nastier, and erecting walls between alternative meanings as
rigid as those real barriers in Gaza.
So where have all the
cool preachers gone?
About a decade ago, Jesuit
Peter Collins described one manifestation:
"IN 1944 the first
worker-priest missions were set up in Paris, and then in Lyons
and Marseille. Sharing the grime and toil of an often oppressed
social class was a frustrating mission, but gradually the barriers
between priests and workers broke down. This sometimes happened
in surprising ways. One priest, sacked in front of the workers,
had a fellow worker come up to him and say: 'You can stay with
me. Now you are one of us'.
"In 1944, Father
Henri Perrin and other volunteers met, and with the support of
Cardinal Suhard of Paris, began working anonymously in factories.
There they emulated their previous life in the wartime camps.
By sharing in the labor and suffering of the workers, they hoped
first to gain interest in the Gospel by lives of credible witness,
and then (and only then) to draw people back to the Church. .
"They began to see
that the absence of the poor from the Church signaled not simply
a gap to be filled by 'bringing them back', but a radical rethinking
of the whole mission of the Church . . . Sharpest of all, they
discovered first-hand the complicity of the Church in injustice.
and factory owners, traditionally reliant on the Church for support,
complained bitterly to the French Bishops, and then to Rome,
accusing the priests of being partisan and divisive, of being
'political' and Marxist because they belonged to the pro-Communist
unions. . .
"By 1953, the position
of the worker-priests had become untenable. In November, the
Papal Nuncio in Paris passed on the Vatican's demand that superiors
of religious orders recall their priest-workers. Despite protests
from some French bishops, the priest-workers were instructed
to leave temporal responsibility to lay people. This meant leaving
the unions and their work."
In 1980 another worker
priest got the axe. Pope John Paul II told all priests to get
out of electoral politics. The most visible example, Rep. &
Rev. Robert Drinin, a progressive congressmember from Massachusetts.
Liberation theology got an equally hostile reaction from the
Clearly, churches of many
stripes have pulled away from the spirit of such things as worker
priests and liberation theology. The preacher has been put back
in the pulpit where it is easier for words to replace witness
and propagation to supplant practice. And the industrialists
who make big contributions like it better that way.
This is not, however,
unique to churches. For example, my own trade, journalism, has
erected huge barriers between itself and its own parishioners
both in who gets selected to write (post-grads being favored)
and what they get to write (filtered through the myth that major
corporations can truly practice objectivity). The worker priests
of journalism have disappeared as well.
Even secular non-profits
have lost street cred as they have become increasingly formal
institutions based on a corporate model rather than activist
associations driven by the energy of those involved. A primary
characteristic of both the religious and secular groups is that
their programs have been increasingly dumped in a red wagon waiting
to be pulled by fundraising. Empathy, moral missions and integrity
all come later.
Oh, I know you're out
there, Reverend Dude. That's not my point. My point is that the
system and its media only cares these days about religionists
who are out to kill, control, or defeat someone. The worker priests,
the cool preachers, the progressive rabbis are still there but
struggling in a wilderness of silence and indifference.
It's not my beat to tell
you how to change this. I've got enough problems of my own to
worry about. But I just wanted to let you know that I miss you