Friday, February 29, 2008

Where are the moderates?

You know how people keep wondering where the moderate Muslims are? If Islam is such a religion of peace, the thought goes, then where are the voices of Islam to speak up and censure the crazies who blow up children in marketplaces in the name of their faith? Every once in a while, one does hear some super-brave Muslim speak out to condemn the Muslim fanatics who would kill you for even wondering out loud if Islam is a violent religion.

Okay, along the same vein, where are the moderate liberals, the moderate progressives? Where are the reasonable voices from within the progressive camp to speak out when some of their own become crazies who definitely cross the line and give a bad name to fellow progressives?

Take John Shuck, for example. Shuck pastors First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton, Tennessee, a church he describes as progressive. On his own (with far too much time on his hands), he writes a profane, juvenile blog, appropriately named “Shuck and Jive.” He considers it “part of my outreach and teaching ministry.” Whatever.

On February 20, Shuck’s humor consisted of posting condescending photos of rednecks, with mocking captions about renewal leaders, myself included. What a card that Shuck is! Hoo-eee! Deep teaching in this ministry.

But once one gets into the comment section, Shuck turns from immature and tasteless to just plain mean and profane. Speaking of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, he writes (and please excuse the language):

You right-wing bastards won't even allow a freaking scruple. Now it is war again. I tell you, if there was a proposal now that would remove G-6.0106b and the 1993 AI and allow congregations to leave with the denomination's property free of charge, I would be for it just to get rid of you SOBs. I feel no affection for you and your Taliban theology. You are destroying our denomination. I despise you today.

Later, in a comment to Viola Larson, one of the most decent and gracious persons I have ever met, he wrote: “As for the lovely Viola, no, I don't hate you phony, hypocritical, pious, ignorant bastards. You just tick me off, some days more than others.

Okay, all the thoughtful, caring, sensitive progressives out there who crave dialogue and value diversity, and who are so concerned about alleged angry conservatives, who is going to stand up and say that John Shuck is a disgrace and embarrassment to fellow progressive Christians? Or do you think it is perfectly okay for him to treat church leadership and fellow Christians this way?

And I’m sure Shuck's presbytery has a Committee on Ministry. Is this behavior well within the standards of clergy conduct and demeanor expected by the presbytery of its spiritual leaders? Does anyone care enough about him and about the church to step in and provide some necessary correction? Does the presbytery have any behavior boundaries? Does it have some guts?

I understand that our denomination espouses a big-tent philosophy. But the big tent is not meant to contain a profane circus.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

On Pastoral Sensitivity and Property

Pretend that you are on the presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry, and in examining a candidate for ministry, you ask this candidate a situational question: “You get word that someone has attempted suicide and is now in the hospital. You rush off to visit him. Tell us what you might say and do in that visit?”

“The first thing I’d do is remonstrate with the man freely,” the candidate replies. “Then I’d ask what in the world caused him to do such a sinful thing and I’d rebuke him and tell him to beg God for forgiveness. Then I’d lead him in a prayer of confession and tell him to buck up and show that he had really repented. Finally, I’d leave him to medical care.”

Would such practice commend the candidate for pastoral ministry? Should such a candidate be ordained into ministry in a Reformed church?

Be careful in how you reply, because you could bar John Calvin from the ministry. Such a response was Calvin’s way of dealing with an attempted suicide.

Calvin said it
I am visiting Geneva to attend a meeting of the World Council of Churches Central Committee, and on a free afternoon, I decided to visit the International Museum of the Reformation. There, one of the exhibits provided an English translation of Calvin’s testimony in what must have been the equivalent of a police investigation, or perhaps a coroner’s inquest. Let me reproduce it in full:

I, the undersigned, hereby declare before Lord Pierre d’Orsiere, appointed by the Lieutenant of Geneva, that this is my true statement, made today, January 23rd, 1545. Yesterday between eight and nine, Pierre Vachat came to me in tears and told me of a deplorable event that had occurred at his home, namely, that his brother had asked his maidservant for a knife and plunged it into his stomach. He asked me to go to him. I immediately set off, and on the way met our colleague Monsieur Mattieu de Gestons. When I reached the high chamber where Jean Vachat was lying, I remonstrated with him freely. I then asked him what had driven him to thus wound himself. He told me that he was in great suffering. I showed him in several ways how the Devil had seduced him and led him astray. After rebuking him, I asked him whether he repented for offending God and succumbing to such a temptation. He answered in the affirmative. He repeated this twice. I asked him whether he begged God for forgiveness and whether he had faith, and believed that He would be merciful. He answered in the affirmative. Then we prayed as the situation required, recognizing and confessing the error of his action. I exhorted him again with my words to be patient and seek consolation in the grace of God. Just then, Master Claude, the barber, arrived. I asked Vachat to allow himself to be treated, and thereby show that he repented of his act and entrusted himself to God. By his attitude and words, I saw that he was calm and lucid. When this was done, I left with our brother Monsieur de Genestons. I swear that all this is true. John Calvin
Before Reformed pastors became psychologists and group-hug enablers, we were first concerned about the state of one’s soul. That was certainly clear in Calvin’s practice.

One good deed deserves another
I thought of one other thing while I was in the museum (fascinating, by the way), located where the cathedral cloisters had once stood. It was in those cloisters in 1536 that the Reformation was voted. When that Roman Catholic (the only “denomination” at the time) cathedral’s pastors and congregation voted to became Protestant, they left their previous denomination with property.

That property, a historic cathedral on prime real estate, has been part of this new denomination for nearly 500 years. This afternoon, in an ecumenical service commemorating the 60th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, at least three Roman Catholic bishops (or perhaps they were archbishops or even cardinals) were in attendance in that cathedral to demonstrate their ecumenical support.

Quite noticeably, they were smiling and didn’t ask for the property back. Perhaps they had never heard of the Louisville Papers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Posthaste or Post Hoc?

I find the following time line about yesterday's blog entry interesting:

Friday: Reading about a horrendous instance of a suicide bombing in Baghdad, I wonder if Cliff Kirkpatrick will ever fulfill the responsibility given him by General Assembly "to take every opportunity" to condemn such crimes against humanity. So I write him, somewhat late in my West Coast day, which is quite late in his day.

Saturday: By midday, I have a response back from Kirkpatrick's right-hand man, Vernon Broyles, with a public letter in response, purportedly written by Kirkpatrick--from Kenya, nonetheless! Wow! Instant response! It is the weekend, however, and of course it won't be posted on the PCUSA web site until at least Monday.

Monday: No posting appears. Broyles is out and Kirkpatrick is traveling home, I later find out.

Tuesday: I write Broyles to ask about the letter. Broyles replies quickly, attaching a revised letter, which also included the latest Palestinian suicide bombing in Israel. The problem is, the letter has factual errors and other problems, and I point them out to Broyles. But without change, that single letter gets posted on the web by the end of the day. I write a blog posting that night, saying that the statement misses the point by being addressed to the governments of the victims rather than to parties responsible for the bombings or for stopping them.

Wednesday: My blog is picked up in the morning by Presbyweb, making it most public. Kirkpatrick writes a second letter and posts it in the same posting as the previous letter, giving it a new introduction and predating it with Tuesday's date. This second letter is addressed to the President of the Palestinian National Authority, asking him to do what he can to stop the suicide bombings. It's a great letter, finally doing what ought to have been done all along.

Okay, so what am I to make of this? I request a statement, and it is produced within 24 hours. I argue that the statement/letter ought to have addressed the perpetrators or others responsible. Within hours, such a second letter appears mysteriously on the web, where previously there had been only one letter.

One possibility is that the reason and sensibility of my requests produced results posthaste. Woo-hoo!

But there is another logical possibility: My requests merely preceded the two letters from Kirkpatrick, but did not cause them (the old post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy).

Well anyway, a guy can at least hope that he has helped cause one tiny little outbreak of fairness and good sense for a moment. At the end of the day (literally), Clifton Kirkpatrick had done something good and right--and required by the General Assembly. That's what's best.

Thank you for that second letter, Cliff and Vernon! And may I evermore be presented with opportunities to hand out kudos! I'd like that.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Suicide Bombings: Too Little, Too Lite

On February 5, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick published a “statement of concern about recent suicide bombings.” While it might seem like a decent gesture, the statement unfortunately falls short in any number of ways, such as:

  • Concern: For a “statement of concern,” the statement offers no sympathy. It provides the heat of anger without the warmth of compassion. It describes the various bombings and declares them horrific, egregious, terrible, and unconscionable, but it says not a word of concern for the innocent victims carefully counted but barely considered. No one is consoled—Iraqi, Israeli, Sri Lankan. The statement offers no condolences. The statement reads as strangely cold and perfunctory.
  • Clarity: The statement bends over backwards to leave ambiguous who might actually be doing the bombing. It uses a passive construction: “bombs apparently were attached to two women.” It doesn’t say that “Islamic terrorists attached bombs to two women.” The statement talks about bombings without condemning bombers. In the Israel suicide bombing, Kirkpatrick did finger a Palestinian Fatah faction. But it felt like a way to take the heat off of the Hamas government of Gaza, which also claimed responsibility and celebrated in the streets at the news of the Israeli death and injuries.
  • Target: For whom was the statement written? The introduction on the PCUSA web site says Kirkpatrick “sent the following statement to the United States Secretary of State and the prime ministers of Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Israel.” One would think, then, that with political leaders of many religions as the audience, the statement would be tailored for them. It is not. The language sounds attuned to fellow Christians’ ears, concluding with, “Let us all increase our prayers to God that even in the midst of our brokenness, the Holy Spirit will make a way for peace and security for all of God’s children.” Nice thoughts for Christians, but I wonder what Islamic, Jewish, and Buddhist prime ministers will make of the work of the Holy Spirit? Kirkpatrick spent most of his words describing the bombings that the leaders would have known all too well on their own. Odd, if they were the intended audience. One gets the feeling that Kirkpatrick is really speaking to fellow Christians, who are supposed to overhear this mangled political message.
  • Action: Only in the middle of the second-to-last paragraph does Kirkpatrick finally get down to calling for action. There have been horrific bombings. There are hundreds of innocent victims dead and dying. Suicide bombers have committed crimes against humanity. So who does Kirkpatrick address to take action? Is it Islamic terrorists in Iraq, killing their fellow Muslims? Is it Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka? Is it Palestinian terrorist groups indiscriminately targeting Jews simply because they are Jews? Is it the fanatic Hamas government of Gaza or the terrorist element of Fatah in other Palestinian territories? No. Kirkpatrick directs his remarks to the victims’ governments. He appeals to the government leaders “to quickly find paths to reconciliation.” That’s it. “You’ve been hit by violence,” he seems to be saying. “I’m not going to comfort you. But I will give you some advice: Reconcile right now with those who attacked you!” To the vile perpetrators of random death and mayhem, Kirkpatrick apparently has nothing to say.
  • Honesty: Kirkpatrick’s statement dated February 5 claims he learned of the Baghdad and Sri Lanka bombings “upon returning home.” That is not the case. On Friday, February 1, I e-mailed Kirkpatrick about the Baghdad bombings, in which terrorists used Down syndrome women to bomb civilians in two pet markets. I asked if finally he might condemn the suicide bombings, since General Assembly in 2006 had required him “to take every opportunity” to do so—and he has failed on that score.

    By noon the next day, Saturday, February 2, Vernon Broyles, Kirkpatrick’s Volunteer for Public Witness, had replied that he “was able to get through to [Kirkpatrick] to inform him of the details of terrible killings in Baghdad and Sri Lanka, and he has responded with the attached message.” I was impressed with the speed of Kirkpatrick’s composing a reply while on the road in Kenya in a difficult situation. However, this exchange shows that Kirkpatrick did not learn of the bombings as late as “upon returning home”; he knew about them and even wrote a response while in Kenya, at least according to Broyles’s account to me.

    On Tuesday, February 5, Broyles took the blame for writing the “upon returning home” phrase, when I queried him about its truthfulness. “That is simply my error,” he confessed. The phrase had ended up in the wrong place. At the same time, Broyles revealed that he “helped Cliff in the drafting of the statement” and that it was he who had “worked on a revision, in response to the Israel bombing.”

    So apparently Broyles is producing the statements that Kirkpatrick eventually signs and distributes. This time, Broyles gave Kirkpatrick a statement containing a minor untruth that Kirkpatrick either didn’t see or didn’t correct. The statement subsequently came out uncorrected later on February 5 on the PCUSA web site.

No way to do social witness
This is not how to do social witness right! This is, in truth, embarrassing.

Vernon Broyles is apparently doing some of Kirkpatrick’s writing for him, and Kirkpatrick is either too preoccupied or too unconcerned to properly correct the copy Broyles brings for his signature. In addition, it looks like the narrative in the statement may have been embroidered to fit the rhetoric. Either Kirkpatrick knew of the bombings while in Kenya but allowed Broyles to write that he only learned about them later, or Kirkpatrick didn’t know about the bombings until he returned, and Broyles was feeding me a phony account of Kirkpatrick’s participation in writing the February 2 draft of the statement while in Kenya.

But worse, the statement is an embarrassment to Presbyterians. It evidences no sympathy for the victims. It studiously avoids laying blame on actual terrorist parties by simply denouncing actorless atrocities. And it inexplicably directs the victims’ governments to speedily reconcile with parties unnamed, unaccountable, and violently unwilling. Oh, and U.S. government leaders are counseled “to use all the means at their disposal to support those who are working for peace,” whatever that vague banality is supposed to mean.

What is keeping the Stated Clerk from simply fulfilling his responsibility “to take every opportunity to publicly and officially condemn suicide bombings and terrorism and to help empower victims of such attacks to be able to bring those who plan and inspire suicide bombings to the bar of international justice”? Why not “call for international judicial prosecution of all those aiding and abetting these crimes,” again as General Assembly stipulated? Why doesn’t Kirkpatrick staunchly “affirm the culpability of individuals and groups that assist in carrying out suicide bombings and terrorism” and hold accountable “civil or military authorities who fail to exercise adequate powers of control over perpetrators and fail to take appropriate measures”?

Let me hazard a guess: Taking such clearly mandated steps would necessarily involve holding some Palestinians accountable for their lawless and violent behaviors. It would run counter to the continued vilification of Israel and its existence as the root of all evil in the Middle East. My guess is that Clifton Kirkpatrick (or maybe I should say Vernon Broyles) has no desire to be forced to fulfill a clear mandate by General Assembly to publicly condemn suicide bombings, because the bombings most regularly are done by Islamic terrorists, and whatever they do is to be understood and excused, rather than condemned. Thus, Kirkpatrick’s response to the General Assembly order has been tepid to missing.

It all fits together
This too-little, too-lite statement is but the latest evidence of a fundamental unwillingness to be fair in treating Palestine and Israel evenhandedly. One sees it elsewhere in letters from a mission volunteer at a liberation theology outfit in Jerusalem, the one-sidedness of the Israel-Palestine Mission Network, and a frightfully prejudiced statement from the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus. Presbyterians ought to be appalled at such bias-filled acts continually being pushed forward in their name. This is but the tip of the iceberg of bias, a harsh parochialism supposedly banished by General Assembly resolution in 2006, but allowed instead by denominational leaders to flourish unchecked.

Those who think such bias is unfair can let Clifton Kirkpatrick know their concerns. He can be reached at (Who knows, you may even get a reply from Vernon Broyles!) Letters to Presbyweb ( or The Layman Online ( also garner national attention on the web.

It is high time for the will of General Assembly to override the ideological lock that staff and associated entities have on Presbyterian social witness concerning the Middle East. Presbyterians as a whole are far more fair and level-headed than those who dominate social-witness leadership. It is time to be heard. Perhaps this can be a start.

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