“Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality” by Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong (II of III)
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.”