Why liberal Protestantism has imploded.
Already excited about Cornel West’s joining her faculty, New York’s Union Seminary president Serene Jones enthusiastically announced that her campus will continue to cheerlead for the Wall Street Occupiers after their abrupt ouster from Zuccotti Park.
“At Union Theological Seminary, we stand in full solidarity with the protestors,” announced Serene Jones in her Huffington Post column. “Questioning the status quo, as well as defying entrenched authority, is one of The Bible's most powerful themes, especially as it is revealed through the example of Jesus Christ.”
Union was once one of America’s most prestigious Mainline Protestant seminaries. Early in the 20th century, if not before, it bracingly sided with liberalism against traditional theology. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., himself a devout liberal Baptist enthusiast for the Social Gospel, lavished patronage on Union. Its faculty once hosted nationally renowned thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr. But already in the 1930’s a visiting German student, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, found Union’s watered down, social justice Protestantism to be languid. The future anti-Hitler conspirator looked to Harlem’s black churches for more vibrant faith.
In recent years, as liberal Protestantism has imploded, Union has lost its prestige and struggled with finances. Capturing religious leftist Cornel West from Princeton University certainly is a coup. And touting Wall Street occupiers maybe will revivify Union, which like other leftist institutions, has yearned for an energizing cause ever since the Vietnam War.
Union’s president explained in HuffPo that “flying banners is fine” but not sufficient in these dire times. So Union trained 45 students to act as round the clock "protest chaplains” for Wall Street Occupiers, “be they anarchist, capitalist, or no "ist" at all.” Student activists were put through an “activist drill” that included a “seminar on non-violent resistance, a course on the legal rights of occupiers, and training on how to be pastoral presence in the midst of chaos."
Jones noted that “so far” no Union students have been arrested or suffered physical harm. She wondered if this will change after the November 17 ouster of the Occupation from the Zuccotti Park. “I'm fearful the protests may turn ugly,” she confessed. “But my heart also leaps as I envision every student at Union Theological Seminary as a budding Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who will have the fearless spiritual discipline of staying present.”
This reference to the anti-Hitler plotter is odd, given his own ambivalence about Union, and his decidedly non-pacifist choice to help kill the Fuehrer. But likely it was just too irresistible for Union’s president to liken the Wall Street Occupiers to the anti-Nazi resistance. After all, don’t both movements represent the struggle against absolute evil, whether Hitler 70 years ago, or the Wall Street of today? Jones cited the Occupation’s crusade for “jobs, healthcare, lower student loans, increased infrastructure investment, [and] immediate changes in NYPD's stop and frisk practices.” So no doubt Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his exertions, would see the Occupation[s similarity to his own selfless resistance to Nazism’s 13 years of conquests and genocides that consumed tens of millions.
Cornel West, rather than Bonhoeffer, is a more suitable symbol for Union Seminary. In a sort of homecoming, since he taught at Union in the 70’s and 80’s, he will become Union’s Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practices. “Union is a place where Cornel West’s view of the world is in our life blood,” gushed Union’s president, who cited her school’s “inspired strong public voices” on “war, poverty, racism, sexism, or other societal scourges.” Noting that some supposedly compare West to Reinhold Niebuhr, Jones accurately insisted that West is in fact “in a class by himself.” Indeed, she asserted, West is the “leading public theologian of our age.”
Perhaps from the rarified vantage point of New York’s upper West Side, West qualifies as America’s “leading public theologian.” Outside of Manhattan, West’s colleague at Princeton, Robert George, fearless defender of marriage and all vulnerable human life, would likelier qualify. While unsurprisingly en route to Occupy Wall Street protests in Seattle, West himself told The New York Times, that Union was “the institutional expression of my core identity as a prophetic Christian.” Such “prophetic” Christians typically ignore their faith’s emphasis on salvation and personal holiness in favor of sweeping political demands of the left, emphasizing coercive state power. In a 1991 book, West declined to identify himself as Marxist but hailed Marxism as "an indispensable tradition for freedom fighters who focus on the fundamental issues of jobs, food, shelter, literacy, health, and childcare for all."
Identifying Christianity with endless class struggle premised on entitlement and resentment and is an old and comfortable theme for Union Seminary and for much of the archaic Religious Left. These themes bear little resemble to the teachings of Christianity’s Founder, who stressed self-sacrifice rather than entitlement. Neither would He recognize the Religious Left’s prioritization, often in His name, of political power over holiness. But no doubt Cornel West, Occupy Wall Street chaplains, and the rest of Union will enjoy singing their old class warfare hymns to their own self-chosen choir.
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