Well, it’s come to this. It’s the United Church of Christ versus the Nazis. After the events in Charlottesville, I don’t know how else to describe the fight in which we now find ourselves as a denomination.
The current struggle about white supremacy is much larger than just two groups, of course. We have ecumenical and interfaith partners on our side, as well as a host of secular organizations, political leaders, and friends. Likewise, the Nazis have the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists, and (though it pains me to say it) some folks in very high positions of power who are giving them succor. Still, I think the current moment for us in the UCC comes down to fighting National Socialism.
Just look at this past week. We have seen Rev. Traci Blackmon, our Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, speaking on national television while Nazi protesters threatened her. Susan Thistlewaite (President Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary) wrote in the Huffington Post in opposition to white supremacy. Susan Minasian, the new pastor of Sojourners UCC in Charlottesville, led her church through the white nationalist terrorism that descended upon their fair city. And across the nation, we have thousands of church leaders (as seen here) standing up to Nazi evil and sin.
This fight is hardly new. White supremacy, in one form or another, has been around a long time in America and around the world. We stood up to it when we began opposing slavery in the 1600s and when we ordained Lemuel Haynes in the 1700s. We haven’t always lived up to the call to end white supremacy (as Frederick Douglass noted), but we have remained committed to the fight.
While we as a people have been formed in opposition to white supremacy in general, I would argue that the Nazis have had a specific impact on the United Church of Christ and its predecessor bodies. Here are just a couple of examples:
♦ In the 1930s, the rise of National Socialism in Germany cost Paul Tillich his job as a theology professor in Frankfurt. His colleague Reinhold Niebuhr (of the E&R church, a predecessor to the UCC) convinced Tillich to move to the U.S. and join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. As a result of this move, Tillich taught hundreds of clergy who would go on to serve in the United Church of Christ as pastors and teachers. Those pastors would help make the UCC into a denomination where ethnicity was not meant to be “the tie that binds” the church together. Instead, the UCC was formed in 1957 with members who were English-American, German-American, African-American, Hungarian-American, and more.
♦ During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church stood against National Socialism, even as their Christian peers often went along with Hitler’s horrors. Because of this opposition, the Nazis murdered Bonhoeffer. His faithful witness, even in the face of persecution and death, inspired the generation of church leaders in the U.S. who went on to form the UCC and fight for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Bonhoeffer’s example continues to inspire church leaders today.
Compared to Tillich and Bonhoeffer, I have little room to talk about all that I’ve done to oppose the Nazis. Still, I do have some personal experience with this. Back in April, the church I serve (Little River UCC) was attacked in a Nazi-related hate crime. During Holy Week, our volunteers and staff drove to church one morning to see swastikas, the Othala Rune, and hateful language spray-painted all over the campus. It turns out that we weren’t alone; the Jewish Community Center down the street had also been hit. The local police made an arrest a few days later, and the trial is scheduled for November. The accused is innocent until proven guilty, and we as a congregation are trying to figure out how to respond in the event that he is convicted.
I am truly grateful to see how many folks in our congregation and throughout our denomination are standing up and speaking out against Nazi hatred and violence. If history is any indication, though, this fight will not be over any time soon. How will we sustain ourselves amid the fight of our lives, which is the fight for our lives? I believe we will need to do some serious spiritual self-care in order to keep going. German Reformed theologian Philip Schaff (a UCC saint before there even was a UCC) put it this way:
Where ignorance rules an age, where the diligent study of the scriptures is neglected, there at the same time the whole Christian life grows sickly, and one form of error after another creeps into the sanctuary. On the contrary, where genuine piety flourishes, where the whole Church is made to feel the life giving presence of God’s Spirit, there knowledge shows itself clear and fresh to the same extent. – Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism
We need to recommit to faith formation in order to combat spiritual ignorance. We need to study our scriptures in depth, that we might reclaim the name “Christian” from those who misrepresent Christ. Let this be a time of spiritual renewal for the UCC – indeed, for the whole of the Church Universal – in which genuine piety might flourish, in which the whole church feels the life-giving presence of God’s spirit. Let knowledge show itself to be both clear and fresh.
As we do so, let the UCC welcome inner spiritual renewal not in spite of our commitments to social action, but because of them. As Teresa of Avila reminds us:
[B]e occupied in prayer not for the sake of enjoyment but so as to have the strength to serve. Mary and Martha must combine. – Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
We often forget that Mary and Martha – who, in Christian tradition, symbolize the life of prayer and the life of service – were siblings. If the UCC is going to win this latest fight against National Socialism, I believe that we need to embrace both Mary and Martha, both the inner life of faith and the external life of works. In Christianity, prayer and service are not enemies. They are sisters.
As followers of Jesus – who was neither white nor American nor Protestant – let us recommit to both prayer and service, that a deep spiritual renewal might sustain us for the work of justice that we now face.
Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.