Measures designed to make cries of the Church more audible in the political arena won endorsement last month from the National Council of Churches’ 267-member General Board.
Bishop Reuben H. Mueller, new president of NCC, set the mood when he turned the tables on those who occasionally see the NCC leaning to Communism. Mueller stopped short of branding NCC critics as fellow travelers, but not by much. His verbal assault was aimed at those who say, “Let the Church be the Church and stick to religion. Let it be spiritual.” Mueller’s view’ is that “this is a corollary to Karl Marx’s teaching, that ‘religion is the opiate of the people.’ Either way, the intent is for religion to put the people to sleep so they will docilely submit to those who oppress them.” (See editorial, p. 26.)
The General Board, at a four-day meeting in Baltimore, acted upon Mueller’s admonition to “take our knowledge and our experience into the world for which Christ died.” The board called upon churches to “bring before their members the widest possible discussion of the issues and candidates at all levels of our political system.” The Christian citizen, the board said, “must exert his influence toward seeing that the elections result in the emergence of those leaders whose policies he believes best represent the ideals of the Judeo-Christian faith.”
The board also approved significant measures enabling the NCC’s free-wheeling Commission on Religion and Race to involve itself more deeply in civil rights litigation. One action authorizes the commission to file amicus curiae briefs in civil rights appeals cases, though an amendment enacted on the floor requires that the briefs must first be cleared by the general secretary of the NCC. The other measure authorizes the NCC to “enter into an agreement with any insurance company which agrees to write surety bonds in civil rights cases at the request of the Commission on Religion and Race, such agreement to indemnify the insurance company for any loss up to $150,000 suffered over and above the collateral placed with the company by the National Council of Churches.
Board members were advised, meanwhile, that “the Commission on Religion and Race has decided to sponsor a continuous service of worship in Washington, D. C., beginning the week after Easter, in the event the Civil Rights Bill has not yet been passed by the Senate.”Thus far only one U. S. company has agreed to write such bail bonds—upon the posting of 40 per cent collateral plus premium costs. Framers of the request for authorization tried to console the General Board by pointing out that “the experience of both the Commission and the major civil rights organizations indicates that better than 90 per cent of the defendants arrested in civil rights cases appeared for trial when required.”
“The benediction will not be pronounced,” said Commission Director Robert W. Spike, “until the bill is passed.”
Another commission official said that the “worship service” was “meant to call the attention of the country to any legislative maneuver intended to delay passage of the bill.”
Civil rights figured in still another key item on the board agenda: the representatives of the thirty-one Protestant and Orthodox denominations in the NCC approved a “Mississippi Delta Project” with a preliminary budget of $250,000. The project is aimed at combating proverty and racial tension in fifteen Mississippi Delta counties. It will involve such things as food distribution, establishment of literacy centers, and “development of community leadership.” Significantly, the board is asking the World Council of Churches to provide 40 per cent of the funds, the idea being that “though American Christians have enough material wealth to underwrite the Mississippi ministry, our psychological and spiritual unwillingness to face the full nature of the seriousness of the crisis means we cannot do it alone.”
In his speech, Mueller chided a group of “leading church members” who were witnesses in a Mississippi case described to NCC officials by a U. S. Justice Department staff member. It was, said Mueller, a “sordid story of bestiality and inhumanity that the responsible leaders of a community down there wreaked upon helpless women in jail, whose only offense was that they had pleaded for decent treatment for their fellow men. They had been manhandled and beaten and bruised by other inmates of the jail, men who were made drunken by the jailor and then ordered to do the dirty work. One can hardly believe that civilized man in our so-called Christian society could fall so low. Those women were seeking redress and justice under law. Physicians exhibited photos of their bruises and swollen backs and limbs; the men in jail who had been the dupes who perpetrated the horrors, admitted their part under duress, in the witness stand. In spite of these, leading church members of the community mounted that same witness stand, and, under oath, denied all charges and testified to the good character of those who were responsible for these abuses. The case was in the hands of the jury for but a brief time, and the verdict was ‘not guilty.’ ”
Compromise For Demonstrators
Ten Protestant ministers escaped jail terms in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, this month by appealing their conviction of disorderly conduct in a civil rights demonstration.
The ten had been charged with intent to disturb the peace when they ignored police orders not to march within a barricaded area in front of the Forrest County courthouse. The nine United Presbyterian clergymen in the group originally were given four-month jail terms and $200 fines. The tenth minister, who belongs to the Disciples of Christ, had been involved in an altercation with police and was also charged with assault and resisting arrest. He was sentenced to one month in jail and fined $125.
After day-long talks with appealing defense lawyers, during which the clergymen pleaded “no contest,” a county judge ordered the nine Presbyterians to pay $400 fines. The Disciples clergyman was fined $250 and costs. All jail terms were dropped.
Six of the ministers were from New York State, one from New Jersey, one from Illinois. one from Colorado, and one—the only Negro—from Missouri.
In Charleston, Illinois, meanwhile, the ministers of three Presbyterian churches in Hattiesburg who were invited to address the local presbytery issued strongly worded protests.
They declared that “we find no justification in the Word of God nor in the Presbyterian standards for the invasion of our community by relays of ministers from various parts of the country intent upon participating in daily picket-line marches at the Forrest County Court House.… Such activities by ministers serve to inflame frictions between the races, and to disgust many who have had a genuine concern for improved race relations.”
Pulpit Meditations On ‘Fanny Hill’
The Rev. William Belt Glenesk, a young Presbyterian minister who studied drama at the Actors’ Studio, believes in praising God with the timbrel and dance, and has made the Ichabod Spencer Memorial Church in Brooklyn, New York, a home for the performing arts.
One Sunday morning this month Glenesk arranged a kind of still-life tableau that was as arresting as the cymbals he regularly clashes while the congregation sings the doxology.
Behind the pulpit are inscribed, in letters visible from every pew, John 3:16 and three other verses. These verses formed the backdrop for the display on the pulpit that morning: the Bible and a copy of The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, a suppressed eighteenth-century novel, known to generations of collectors of undercover erotica as Fanny Hill. The book was published in the United States last year and was subsequently banned in New York State, although court appeals have made possible continued sales.
Glenesk’s sermon was a defense of the book, a plea for freedom of speech, and an indictment of censorship. The minister cited John Milton’s classic plea for unlicensed printing, Areopagitica. He also read discreetly selected portions from Fanny Hill (to buttress his position that the book is a “simple disarming story of a young country girl” who at heart wants to love one man), parts of Genesis (“And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed”), and some of the physical descriptions in the Song of Solomon.
“I am not sure that pornography is either pleasant or appealing—until the Pharisees get hold of it and put it behind bars,” Glenesk said.
“If the [sex] act is wrong and dirty, let the censors step into the bedrooms of this country and lay down the law, and let the censors of the church expurgate the Bible.”
The minister, who prayed before the beginning of the sermon, “The words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts may not be acceptable to thy world, but may they be acceptable to thee,” told his parishioners: “I’m not saying you ought to read [Fanny Hill] … but I am not afraid for you to read it.”
Afterward, in an adjoining room, Glenesk appeared on a panel that included Ralph Ginzburg, publisher of Eros magazine, which has been banned as obscene. Ginzburg, who is appealing a five-year prison sentence, was loudly applauded after saying that the Fanny Hill sermon “may go down as one of the significant events of the history of the Church.” Ginzburg implied that historical Protestantism had been “an anti-sexual instrument.” He also described the Bible as “an avowedly erotic work,” and called for “a new church position on sex.”
During the discussion that followed, one member of the audience took issue with the comparing of the Song of Solomon to Fanny Hill, stating that the love poetry in the Song was “in a marriage relationship,” unlike that in the narrative of Fanny Hill.
Glenesk had planned to distribute copies of the book at the service but was told by the District Attorney that he would be breaking the law if he did. The 37-year-old minister announced later that he did “not intend to break the law.”
Glenesk had earlier drawn public attention by collecting a total of over 100 parking tickets. He has paid fines on about half of them and has appealed a fine of $850 that a judge imposed for the others. The minister says that he received the tickets while making pastoral calls or when his car was parked near the church.
Fanny Hill has been defended by some critics, including Louis Untermeyer and Lionel Trilling, and by at least one other minister, the Rev. William S. Van Meter, an official of the Protestant Council of the City of New York, who called it “a serious book with a well-developed plot” during court hearings. Two other clergymen testified that it was “definitely pornographic.”
Education: Soviet Style
Pravda announced this month the details of a broad new program to stamp out religion in the Soviet Union through “education.”
The presupposition for the approach is that atheism is the only scientifically accurate ideology available to mankind.
A multi-faceted attack on religion will center in Soviet universities, where courses in atheism will be taught. An Institute of Scientific Atheism will be established to coordinate research, train atheistic propagandists, maintain contact with foreign atheistic centers, and arrange convocations of propaganda workers.
Indoctrinations will concentrate on party members, trade union officials, youth leaders, and women’s groups.
The new campaign is the result of a decision by the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Pravda said that the war on religion has been lagging and cited “carelessness.”
While atheists mapped their strategy in Moscow, the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches met in Odessa and released a statement voicing Christian confidence that truth will prevail in “any competitive dialogue.” It was the first time the committee had met in the Soviet Union.
Dr. O. Frederick Nolde, director of the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, presented a report which asserted that “freedom of religion or belief applies to all men in society whether atheists or adherents of religion.” The report focused upon recent CCIA objections to “shortcomings” in a proposed U. N. declaration on elimination of religious intolerance.
Nolde recalled that a Russian in the recent U. N. debate had urged that freedom of atheists be protected. Nolde said he agreed but added that the declaration should “insure all men have the right not only to maintain or change their religion or belief but also to maintain it in society.”
“There is consequently need for coexistence of varying religions and beliefs with every opportunity for peaceful competition,” he said. “In order that a confrontation of this can take place, freedom of religious propaganda as well as freedom of anti-religious propaganda must be insured by constitutional law, juridical action, and public practice.”
“Christians are confident that truth will prevail in any competitive dialogue,” he declared.
Earlier, in a statement released by WCC headquarters in Geneva, Nolde had said that the U. N. draft declaration did not measure up to expectations because it did not recognize the inter-relation between religious freedom and other human rights proclaimed in the U. N. Declaration of Human Rights and because, while dealing with the right of worship, teaching, and observance, it completely omits mention of the right of manifestation of religious liberty in practice.
Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, a leading spokesman for the WCC. told an American audience this month that the Church can counteract anti-religious propaganda as long as it remains free to preach the Gospel. Referring to Nolde’s report, he said:
“Americans don’t seem to understand that coupled with this apparently pro-Communist statement is the demand that churches should not only have freedom of worship but freedom of religious propaganda.”
A noted German theologian, Professor Helmut Thielicke, took sharp issue with Nolde. “The Church,” he said, “cannot permit its authority to be defined by people who have no idea of its mission.”
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