A Quill Pen

Here I Stand
My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality

by Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong

1 October 2005 book review
by Collie Collier

Spong's autobiography concerns his life-long quest to live a religious life according to intelligent interpretation of the words of his deity. Since Jesus is frequently quoted as stating a belief in equality, love, fairness, and tolerance, Spong has sought to bring these qualities to his religion, his church, and his metaphorical flock. In effect, Spong has been systematically seeking to eliminate society's construction of the "Other."

Othering is fundamentally a religio-political doctrine willed over an element in society which cannot adequately defend itself, which elides their difference with their weakness. It offers the Western man a supposedly scientific or religious basis for a bigoted, racist, and ethnocentrist viewpoint. His own culture, of course, will be in superior contemplation and study of the Other, or at best engaged in attempting to teach the concepts of morality and correct social behavior to the so-called debased, degenerate Other.

Every society I know of has an Other -- that element of the society viewed with suspicion and fear, due to it not matching (or refusing) to adhere to cultural norms and ideals. The creation of that Other, or "Othering," is by its nature essentialist, projecting all which is wrong or disliked in the culture onto the Other. By so creating such an ideologically defined group, a society thus oppositionally locates and defines itself as dominant and superior.

To defy this powerful societal force is not without its perils, but Spong has courageously done his best to treat all members of the human race as peers before his deity. Initially with black people, and currently with women and homosexual people, he's fought societal and religious apathy, intolerance, and anger to bring them all the benefits and rights due to them as human beings before their deity.

Truth, justice, the American way?

The path which led to this crusading life is detailed with what appears to be both unflagging honesty and compassion. He discusses difficult childhood issues forthrightly -- his alcoholic father as much as his childhood acceptance of societal norms. As he noted himself, "...it just was the way things were. It did not affect me as a male, so it was not a big deal. Just as with cultural racism, I profited from cultural sexism."

Spong's growing awareness of racism and sexism cause him to act according to his conscience. Needless to say, this does not pass without comment -- Spong was at the time ministering in the South while it was still in the painful throes of forced de-segregation. The forces of social conformity and established power naturally do their best to discourage him, through various means, from speaking out. It is suggested he is both damaging his church and endangering his career. Here's his response:

It's funny, but predictions like that [that he is killing his own career] never really come true. When issues are being fought over in a changing world, those who risk rejection by embracing the future and moving beyond the barriers of past prejudices are never finally hurt. Those who cling to the insights of a dying world or a passing prejudice are the ones who will ultimately lose both credibility and integrity.

Well said. Spong is unafraid to calmly identify those who wished to cling to the past. As he notes, "History, however, is a funny thing. An idea whose time has come will not be repressed by dull minds, even those in leadership positions."

Encouragingly, he also takes the time to identify those who inspired and encouraged him to grow in social awareness. You can see the groundwork of his calling embodied in his description of another brave man's beliefs: "He knew that wherever powerlessness existed, exploitation followed. The way to stop exploitation was quite simply to empower people."

In a similarly challenging situation several years later, Spong has people come to his house, purporting to be friends who represent his entire congregation. They suggest strongly that he, as a white man, should vote according to the racist status quo, and inform him his future in the town and as a priest is at stake.

He answers this attempted intimidation calmly, informing them he will stay where his church has placed him and continue his work as religious leader of his congregation. He also reminds them they cannot speak for the entire congregation, since he knows quite well there are many who approve of his crusade against racism and are proud of his religious leadership.

As he notes, the institutional integrity of the church is more important than its institutional success -- quality over quantity, as it were. Furthermore, in the long run there can be no success without integrity. Even if the church is very large, if it deliberately excludes a particular group, how can it lay claim to religious integrity within a religion whose leader states all are welcome before Him? Once again Spong writes eloquently:

A leader does what he or she believes is right, does not compromise, and sees the issue through to the end without waffling. In the long run far less hostility accrues to the leader who does this than to the one who compromises his or her integrity in the search for accommodation, compromise, or popularity. No one will finally respect a frightened, pulse-feeling kind of leadership.

It is reassuring to see Spong is not naïve in his assessment of the costs of leadership and personal integrity, however. He is keenly, perhaps even painfully, aware of how troublesome and threatening such a person will appear to the unsure, the deliberately undecided, and those vehemently against his beliefs. I know from personal experience it is painful to suffer through the vitriolic reactions of insecure people, but even here Spong gently encourages:

John Hines understood that his style of leadership was costly. People had to know who they were and what they believed in order to deal with the power of this leader's convictions, his unwillingness to be political in the sense of seeking compromise, and the strength of his personal integrity.

In effect, Spong reiterates the old saying: 'The only things worth having are those worth working for.' True leadership is hard to find and difficult to keep -- but it's worth the effort. I strongly believe it's far, far better to struggle bravely for one's integrity, than to be mindlessly adrift on the convictions of others.

Personal and scriptural religious gnosis

Spong's increasing awareness of the inequities of life is clear to the reader, as he relates his thoughts and experiences while growing up. Also clear is his growing excitement in engaging his religion in intellectual thought, and sharing that enlightenment and discovery with others. His description of his calling as an adult is inspiring:

My vocation was to call people into being and to free them simultaneously from the clutches of those religious systems, including my own, that create a false security, provide a phony peace, and pretend to solve the profound questions of life with simplistic answers.

How did this happen? At the same time as Spong battles with reactionary social forces, he also struggles with a growing awareness of the emptiness of the then-common fundamentalist religion, and other pressing theological issues. He relates the pain of a grieving young couple regarding the senseless death of their only child. How could that be part of god's plan -- what god could be so heartlessly cruel? As his theology professor notes, "Any God who can be killed ought to be killed."

The inadequacy of institutionalized religious responses to the jarring reality of real life issues is part of Spong's self-questioning. He finds hope as well as pain, however, in his search, expressing the excitement of thoughtful study and discussion with like-minded others in an effort to find a Christianity of integrity, love, and equality. It's clear it takes courage and determination to face the hoary old traditions one's life is built on, and question them thoroughly and openly. As he notes:

If I were honest, I could never again use the pious clichés of my profession as a substitute for hard study and effective scholarship. It was as if I knew that I could not continue to be the kind of priest I had been.

It did not affect my political or sociological convictions, for those still seemed to have enormous integrity, but it did challenge radically my theological convictions, for increasingly I realized they did not have either depth or integrity. I could no longer pretend that the Bible had the answers when its verses were read literally.

The journey of scriptural exploration is well-laid out for the reader to follow as well, should they choose. As Spong notes, the early creeds formed in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries were produced in a process which was "deeply political and highly compromised." His effort to uncover inner Truth from those historic political processes is both painful and inspiring, and offers hope to those who've fallen away from their religion-of-birth in despair of finding a faith which does not insult their intelligence.

I very much enjoyed this book -- it was both gripping and uplifting. In some ways the religious struggles I read about were very familiar to me. Like him, I also must master my inner debates intellectually before I can master them emotionally. I too cannot reconcile a primitive and atavistic culture's religion with the culture I live in today, with anything like rational intellectual inquiry.

More importantly (to me), I also have wondered who we protect when we fear to question -- and also concluded it was only our own insecure selves. I felt a painful pang of wearily amused recognition when I read his statement, "Honesty and integrity were more important to me than either popularity or tranquility."

I confess one of the reasons I felt uplifted by his book was his quietly sure statements regarding the importance of being faithful to your core values. Sometimes one may falter, but remaining true to what you believe is right is and always will be of more worth than simply winning for a moment.

Literary truth

Writing a book review on an autobiography is not easy, I've discovered. I'm already aware of how nebulous memory can be, seeing as it consists of nothing more than chemical changes in the brain. I also know we're all the sum (in a way) of the stories we tell ourselves -- and that few people wish to tell themselves stories where they are not the hero.

On the other hand, I also know you can't just insist on forcing the "truth" of past actions or behaviors on someone, since truth is just as nebulous, in its own way, as memory. Truth is as often defined by memory as the other way around, and as the old saying goes, 'history is written by the winners.' Thus, even if I can out-shout someone else, that doesn't make my story truer than theirs... just louder.

That being said, I try to take stories of the past with a grain of salt. However, I also want to be realistic -- I figure there must be some element of truth in most folks' stories, upon which they built their memories and base their beliefs. After all, I wasn't there. If I don't know someone or their story, how could I know if they're telling the truth or not?

So, with all that up front soul-searching, I find myself somewhat torn regarding Spong's autobiography. It's a fascinating and inspiring book, which I read with great enjoyment. Is everything he wrote absolutely and completely true? I don't know; I hope so. I'd like to think such unflagging courage, kindness, and honor were real, and that people can be inspired by such a story to stand up for those weaker than themselves -- to stand for integrity, love, and equality.

Reader Comments

04.15.04: George's thoughts

(and my replies)

The section on integrity reminded me of J.F.K's book "Profiles in Courage". That book was all about people who acted with integrity, even if history ultimately decided that they were on the wrong side of the specific issue. Thus, while I greatly admire people with integrity, and who are therefore willing to sacrifice for their beliefs, I find that integrity, by itself, is not an indicator of a person with a righteous argument.

Quite true. However, to me it also contains an element of honesty. If you're lying to yourself, for example, can you truly be said to have integrity? The dictionary defines integrity as: "Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code," and I'm not sure how one can consider dishonesty either moral or ethical. Of course, I suppose I could be being unimaginative here? ;)

I'm just saying that there are people who have personal integrity, but I find their arguments unpersuasive. Someone can be completely internal consistent, and display great integrity in their argument and their actions, but still come to conclusions that I disagree with. This often happens when there are competing "rights" involved.

Different people can view the same argument, identify the same rights, and yet balance the competing rights differently and come to different conclusions. Thus, two people who are arguing and acting with integrity can still strongly disagree. Thus integrity by itself is not enough to make an argument convincing.

Ah, I understand. Sorry, I wasn't clear -- I don't consider integrity to be a persuasive part of an argument. I consider it a persuasive argument for a good person, and I don't consider Spong's integrity to be part of why I really appreciate his arguments on religion.

For example, a year or so ago I read a book on integrity by a man who thinks very differently than I. He analyzed integrity's component parts, then gave examples of each. I agreed with all his critical analysis, but his actual examples almost invariably appalled me. However, from his discussions I'd have to say he was probably a man of integrity.

Thus in his discussion I agreed with the analysis, disagreed with the argument supports, and was pretty sure he was himself, er... integritous? ;)