“Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality” by Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong (I of III)
Originally posted October 2005
Credits: for Peter McWilliams, author of the fascinating Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country and a victim of the so-called “War Against Drugs,” who first let me know of Spong’s wonderful writing.
Also for Retired Bishop Spong himself, for making me think and have faith. From what I can tell at this distance, both men are admirable individuals of courage and integrity; my heartfelt thanks to you both, for so greatly enriching my life.
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.”