Ancient animosity with religious roots flared anew this month in the brutal assassination of one of America’s most admired citizens, Robert F. Kennedy. Aside from the sheer horror of the deed, there was particular significance in the identity of the assailant, the motive, and the timing.
It happened in the city named for the angels, and it vividly recalled the eleventh-century secret order of Muslims known as the Assassins (from hashishin, a taker of hashish). The Assassins terrorized eleventh-century Christian Crusaders and other enemies while under the influence of hashish, a narcotic derived from hemp.
The history is relevant because a suspect in Kennedy’s killing was identified as a pro-Communist Arab, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, born in Jerusalem and apparently bent on revenge for the war in which his native Holy City passed from Jordanian to Jewish hands. The assassination occurred on the first anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Notes said to be Sirhan’s reportedly spoke of the “necessity” of slaying Kennedy by June 5, 1968. Kennedy, the junior U. S. Senator from New York, where most American Jews live, had expressed support of Israel, most recently in a nationally-televised debate with Senator Eugene J. McCarthy three days before the shooting.
Sirhan was brought up in a Greek Orthodox family and attended a Lutheran grade school in Jerusalem. He was brought to the United States shortly after the Suez crisis of 1956.
Kennedy died in a Los Angeles hospital named for the Good Samaritan, the rescuer described by Christ who took pity upon a victim of thieves on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Kennedy had aspired to be an American president—the second Roman Catholic to hold that office and at 42 the nation’s youngest chief executive. Instead, he suffered with his late brother, the first Roman Catholic president, the fate of an assassin’s bullet.
Like the accused assassin of President Kennedy, Sirhan, now 24, comes from a broken home. He lived in Pasadena with his mother, Mrs. Mary Sirhan, who has been employed as housekeeper in a nursery of Westminster Presbyterian Church. Mrs. Sirhan also attended the church a few times and lately had also visited a Seventh-day Adventist church. The Rev. Warren C. McClain of Westminster described her as “a deeply religious woman,” quiet and unobtrusive. He knew she and the family had been devotees of the Greek Orthodox faith when they lived in Jordan.
The First Baptist Church of Pasadena sponsored two of the Sirhan boys’ immigration to the United States. They joined the church and for a time attended with their mother and sister. During that time, the Rev. Charles R. Bell, Jr., was “closely identified” with the family, counseling them and helping one of the boys find a job. Bell was not well acquainted with Sirhan and knew of no religious affiliation for him.
Arab-Israeli tensions stem from the time of Abraham, whom both nationalities claim as a patriarch. Mohammed taught that Ishmael, the child born to Abraham and Hagar, was heir to God’s promise to make of Abraham “a great nation” (Gen. 12:2) with descendants “as the stars of heaven and the sand which is on the seashore” (Gen. 22:7), The Israelites, Mohammed claimed, had stolen the promise for their ancestor Isaac. The Koran records the Old Testament story of Isaac’s mother, Sarah, sending Hagar and her child into a desert. But it does not add that God had specifically promised the blessing to the son of Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:15, 16). Israel has been claiming the heritage as Jews move into Palestine, but in the process millions of Arabs have been left homeless.
News of the Kennedy shooting broke in on a number of important religious meetings. In Houston, 14,000 messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention stood in prayer for the stricken Senator. While he was still alive they sent a telegram to Mrs. Kennedy, expressing sympathy and hope for recovery.
In New York, a meeting of the National Council of Churches General Board opened on the morning Kennedy died. Baptist executive Edwin H. Tuller read from Exodus 20; Matthew 5, and Psalm 103, then prayed, “We lift unto thee the family of this man who has been a leader among us and has devoted himself to what he has felt best for our country.”
Churchmen from all over the world issued statements of compassion for the bereaved family and expression of concern for law and order. Evangelist Billy Graham said he learned of the tragedy when a friend called him at four in the morning. Graham said he then spent several hours in meditation and prayer.
“I don’t weep often,” the evangelist declared, “but today in this beautiful sunshine I wept … for the country that has declined so much in its morality and spirituality.” Graham said the Kennedy shooting “is symbolic of what is happening throughout the country and much of the world.” He voiced reluctance toward gun-control laws, however, despite many threats he has faced to his own life.
General Secretary Eugene Carson Blake of the World Council of Churches said the recurring assassinations demand “a new beginning of and a new commitment to civil justice and civil order.”
In Washington, President Johnson set aside Sunday, June 9, as a special day of prayer and national mourning. In Los Angeles, police who at first said the shooting appeared to be the work of a single individual subsequently announced they were looking for a possible woman accomplice.
CLEAVAGES IN A.B.C.
Race, the hydra-headed dominant theme of church agendas this year, unexpectedly posed a major crisis for the racially liberal American Baptist Convention at its annual meeting in Boston.
The “Black American Baptist Churchmen,” a newly formed group led by Seattle pastor Samuel McKinney and sparked by Virgil Woods, a radical firebrand from Boston, delivered a list of twelve “demands” to a preconvention session of the policy-pacing ABC General Council. Demands included: BABC clearance of ABC appointments and staff hiring; more scholarships for black students; 10 per cent of ABC investments for underwriting black business development; “complete overhaul” of the ABC monthly newspaper Crusader (editor Paul Allen was denounced for alleged anti-black “antagonism”); and a black ABC president. The BABC threatened to disrupt the convention by unleashing Boston militants “on standby alert” if the council did not “immediately affirm” the demands.
The council was granted twenty-four hours to hammer out a “response” of accessions, compromises, and referrals, which were termed “satisfactory” next day by the BABC. Major agreements: BABC “observer consultants” will assist nominating committees; a new post of associate general secretary will be created and will be filled by a black; ABC communications media will be reviewed “with a view to eradicating any lingering vestiges of racism in any of its forms”; ABC boards and agencies will be “urged” to hire blacks and to provide more funds for black self-help use. In addition, Mrs. A. A. Banks, Detroit teacher-author and ABC first vice-president, a Negro, will be in line for the presidency of the 1.5-million-member denomination next year.
Some delegates, uninformed except by newspaper accounts, charged the council with a “sell-out to power-bloc scare tactics.” The Rev. John Paul Pro, speaking for the ad hoc “American Baptists Concerned for Democratic Processes,” rebuked the council’s bypass of delegate approval. But ABC General Secretary Edwin H. Tuller insisted the council “had a right to do what it did; there were risks in acting but greater risks in not acting.”
(Tuller told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that most of the council’s moves were previously “in the works” and that the BABC pressure only helped speed their implementation, a promptness that saved the ABC from “serious disturbances.”
Southern Christian Leadership Conference chief Ralph D. Abernathy flew in from Resurrection City in Washington to address delegates and lend support to the BABC. Their cause was also backed by some two hundred dissident students led by Andover Newton seminarian Terry Smith, who complained that youth were excluded from participation in ABC decision-making. He asked that the ABC “reorder its priorities along the issues of war, race, and poverty.” Woods and Smith attempted unsuccessfully to have ABC presidential nominee Culbert G. Rutenber, Andover Newton Theological School professor, decline the nomination in favor of Dr. Thomas Kilgore of Los Angeles, who later also refused to participate in the Woods-Smith plan to create a black-versus-white floor confrontation.
Philadelphia Negro pastor and civil-rights leader Leon Sullivan urged creation of a million-dollar ABC “crisis fund” for blacks, a call later put forth in an amendment but voted down—along with proposed ABC endorsement of the Poor People’s Campaign—by maverick-minded delegates.
The race issue overshadowed other significant action. Continuing controversy over ABC evangelism tendencies flared into the open during council sessions. A long-awaited report of the “Special Study Committee on Evangelism” recommended that “constituents recognize our American Baptist pluralism of theology and methodology” and that the American Baptist Home Mission Societies “consider making structural changes which will demonstrate American Baptist concern for enlisting and conserving the individual person in a redemptive relationship with Jesus Christ and for building up the local church.” Former ABC President Carl Tiller said he “deplored” the ABHMS evangelism staff’s “seeming inability to recognize our pluralism,” and he censured the unliberal attitude at this point of ABC evangelism head Jitsuo Morikawa. Outgoing ABC president L. Doward McBain, a Phoenix pastor, reported that “the rank and file are further to the right than most of our leaders” and that “the evangelism problem demonstrates a sharp cleavage between the majority of the people and the emphasis of our national program.” ABHMS executive William H. Rhoades replied that committee findings were in accordance with ABHMS trends, that no ABHMS action was ever contrary to ABC policy, and that a gap between leadership and constituency was essential. The council asked the recently organized American Baptist Evangelism Team to report on future evangelism matters.
At Tuller’s recommendation, the council again turned down an invitation to join the Consultation on Church Union.
In other action, the ABC:
• Adopted a stand that abortion should be permitted upon “request” prior to the thirteenth week of pregnancy (a statement described by one of its supporters as “the most progressive” of any denomination);
• Urged churches to establish draft counsel centers, but referred a controversial eight-page resolution on Viet Nam to next year’s convention;
• Initiated merger talks with the Progressive National Baptist Convention;
• Acknowledged continued talks with the Church of the Brethren;
• Reported topping its $20 million world-mission campaign capital-funds goal by more than $2.2 million;
• Adopted a $13.3 million operating budget for 1969;
• Committed itself to implementation of the Kerner Report and to study of proposals for a guaranteed annual income.
EDWARD E. PLOWMAN
Dr. W. A. Criswell, pastor of the 12,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The 58-year-old Criswell was chosen even while Robert F. Kennedy lay dying. “It broke my heart,” Criswell said. “This is a sad day.”
Criswell voiced support of a progressive statement on race relations and the urban crisis adopted by the convention’s 14,000 messengers. The statement was approved by secret ballot “by a clear majority.” The actual tally was not immediately announced. The statement had been drawn up by seventy top executives, editors, and board heads in the convention.
Dr. Culbert G. Rutenber, elected to a one-year term as president of the American Baptist Convention, is professor of philosophy and social ethics at Andover Newton Theological School. He previously taught at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
MORE THAN A NOSTALGIC STROLL
The decision to permit women to enter the ministry; support for the rising tide of Scottish nationalism; the resolve to invite a Roman Catholic to next year’s assembly; a changed attitude toward homosexuality and the law; and a strongly worded protest to the government over the supply of arms for use against the Biafrans—these were among the topics that provoked the liveliest debates when the Church of Scotland General Assembly met last month in Edinburgh. For nine days at assembly time the Scottish flag flies over the ancient Palace of Holyroodhouse, the regalia is brought out, and Auld Scotia’s former glories are recalled.
This year, however, it involved more than a nostalgic stroll down memory lane, for after sweeping victories in local elections the nationalist party is for the first time a force in the land. A visitor to the assembly was British Premier Harold Wilson, who was welcomed and invited to speak, not as party politician but as leader of the government. Mr. Wilson made no bones about his rejection of the Scottish Nationalist Party (which three days earlier had won yet another significant seat in Edinburgh itself), warning against those who “preach a future based not even on the present divisions of nationalism but on still narrower, still more inward-looking, Nationalist concepts.”
Three days later, the assembly took up consideration of what Mr. Wilson had condemned. The premier can take no comfort from the outcome. Point after telling point came in a statesmanlike speech by the Rev. E. G. Balls, convener of the Church and Nation Committee: parliament at Westminster too cluttered with business to give adequate attention to Scottish affairs; the fallacy that what suits England suits her nothern neighbor, so that legislation is passed (Mr. Balls gave some examples) that for Scotland is “ill considered and inappropriate.” It was not simply a matter of economics. “The political center of power in London,” continued the convener, “inevitably attracts to itself other centers of power, industrial, financial, scientific and social, to the swelling of the tide of emigration from Scotland … and the mood is mounting that the time has come to call a halt.…”
His committee advocated, not complete separation from England—“in a shrinking, competitive and dangerous world our interests are and will remain too closely woven together; nor … would the people of Scotland wish for an independence that would weaken or impair in any way the role of Britain in the world”—but the setting up of a royal commission that would, within the framework of the United Kingdom, consider the degree and direction that a measure of self-government should take.
This substantially was what the assembly accepted, despite a flurry of counter motions and addenda.
The debate was responsible and cool-headed—a notable triumph of grace on the part of 1,340 commissioners crammed into an absurdly small space that knew nothing of air conditioning to discuss something on which Scots feel keenly. Many of them, moreover, had stayed the pace the previous evening when the assembly did not adjourn until 11:13.
On the first day, there had been the customary pomp and ceremony attendant on the entry and presence of the Lord High Commissioner (this year again Lord Reith represented the Queen). The stately procession heralding his appearance caught the Archbishop of Canterbury unawares, and the most prominent nonconformist visitor present was halted in mid-step before he had gained his seat in the throne gallery. In bringing a message from the Queen, Lord Reith assured the assembly of Her Majesty’s resolution “to maintain Presbyterian church government in Scotland.” Quite properly, Dr. Ramsey displayed solemn interest in this pronouncement.
When the question of women in the ministry came up, it was reported that forty-two presbyteries approved their admission, seventeen disapproved, two were equally divided, and two expressed no opinion. The Rev. A. M. Giles of Broughty Ferry was not satisfied, and pointed out that the figures on how individual presbytery members had voted would show that 1,817 had approved, 1,030 had disapproved. He asked that the matter be referred to Kirk sessions and congregations. In the ensuing debate, it was pointed out that no congregation would be compelled to call a woman as its minister.
If Mr. Giles was for delay, the Rev. Eric Alexander of Newmilns, a prominent Keswick speaker, was not: he asked the assembly to reject the scheme. This was not a matter of sentiment or expedience, he urged, but an issue of doctrine. While the Bible upheld an equality between men and women, it was an equality of status, not of function. Not the changing patterns of the times but the eternal authority of the Word of God must determine their view of the ministry. The assembly evidently had no yen for theological debate; both these speakers were clearly defeated on the vote, and the eligibility of women for ordination became a standing law of the Kirk.
Another thorny problem reappeared in discussion of the report of the Moral Welfare Committee when the convener touched on homosexuality. He said that many ministers, doctors, and others had told his committee that they were “profoundly distressed, even ashamed” at the Kirk’s attitude as the only major British church that disagreed with the Wolfenden Report on the subject (that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private ought not to be penalized by law). An elderly minister, supported by an elderly layman and abetted by some unguarded remarks from the flogging’s-too-good-for-them school, did less than justice to their own case, and the General Assembly, “whilst not condoning or approving homosexual acts,” urged more sympathetic understanding, regretted the comparative lack of psychiatric and medical treatment, commended homosexuals to ministers for “special pastoral concern … that they may know that the Gospel of Redemption through Jesus Christ is for all,” and asked the government to consider whether such acts by adults in private “should continue to be an offence under the Law of Scotland” (the English have already removed it from the statute book).
The government then came in for a clobbering over the supply of arms to Nigeria. In an astonishing display of unity on such a controversial theme, exmoderators and committee conveners joined with the Kirk’s missionaries present from Biafra in condemning the British decision to continue to permit the export of unknown quantities of arms to one side in the struggle.
The most effective speech came from Dr. R. R. Burnett, a medical missionary who had treated hundreds of wounded people in Biafra during a civil war in which arms were being used by the Nigerians not for defense “but for senseless butcher.”
The assembly also:
asked the Panel on Doctrine to consider the place of the Westminster Confession as the Kirk’s principal subordinate standard;
approved in principle an alteration in the law that, with certain safeguards, “would allow designated hospital authorities to remove vital organs from a dead body for therapeutic purposes” and instructed its committee to watch future developments, “particularly where these might affect human personality”;
approved the appointment for four years of Professor John McIntyre as principal of New College, Edinburgh.
In his closing address, the new moderator, Dr. J. B. Longmuir, said he had returned “a little depressed” from the World Council of Churches’ New Delhi meeting in 1961. “It seemed to be accepted as axiomatic by so many people,” he stated, “that all religions were valid, that each contained sufficient of the truth.…”
Dr. Longmuir made it very clear he did not believe this but rather agreed with Dr. James Denney’s words to his students: “Gentlemen, we must realize that any man who does not know God in Jesus Christ is in a very definite sense lost.” The moderator reminded the fathers and brethren of what was probably the 289th General Assembly since 1563 that “our commission is from God and it is to preach Christ, Christ crucified and Christ risen—when we do this we lose our fear, men listen, for this is what they have been waiting to hear, and the Church becomes militant again.”
J. D. DOUGLAS
A former Harlem gang leader last month told 1,200 Conservative Baptists that “the most unreached community on the North American continent” is the Negro community. “An overwhelming number of black people,” the Rev. Tom Skinner said, consider Christianity “a white man’s religion.” He exhorted the Baptist leaders to “go back to your own communities and churches and fight racism.”
Delegates to the twenty-fifth annual meeting of the Conservative Baptist Association of America responded with resolutions “to seek to eliminate sinful prejudice and racial exclusiveness” and “to encourage our churches to include in their memberships believers from every racial, cultural, and economic group.”
The CBA and its allied home-and foreign-mission groups have no governing authority over participating churches. But many of the “messengers” from 1,400 congregations were pleased with the expression of a new attitude toward Negroes.
The Chicago meeting also celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the association’s Foreign Mission Society. National leaders from Ivory Coast, Brazil, and India addressed the group, and thirty-seven new missionaries were commissioned.
In other actions the Baptists:
• Urged prayer for “an early cessation of hostilities” in Viet Nam and “complete military support of our armed forces as long as they are engaged in this struggle.”
• Deplored the increase of crime and violence and called for “such legislation as will strengthen the hands of those who are charged with maintaining law and order, while protecting the rights of all persons.”
• Installed Dr. Russell A. Shive of Portland, Oregon, as general director and re-elected Dr. Lester Thompson of Prescott, Arizona, as president.
Merger, marriage, and mission confronted the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, at its meeting last month in Wilmington, Delaware. The denomination, formed when the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church merged in 1965, is continuing union talks with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. During the thirties, both churches left what is now the United Presbyterian Church because of theological liberalism in that denomination.
What has divided the RPCES and the OPC is a difference of attitude toward the Christian life. Traditionally, RP’s have maintained certain taboos while OP’s have allowed greater individual freedom. In committee meetings prior to the synod, both churches gave a little and called for “temperate and proper enjoyment of the things of this life.” The synod readily adopted the document, which also declared the division of the churches regrettable and unfortunate.
“We dare not oppose the unity of Christ’s true church,” said Dr. Edmund T. Clowney, an OP minister. “Our dissent from what we judge to be a false ecumenism demands a proportionate zeal for a true ecumenicity.” Clowney, who is president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, asked why the denominations should remain separate since they both preach the same inspired Bible and endorse the same confession.
The union of races in marriage also concerned the 200 churchmen. In 1966, the RPCES had adopted a general statement on racial questions but had asked for further clarification on inter-racial marriage. The revision—accepted after long discussion—declared that Scripture admonishes believers only to marry believers and does not prohibit marriage across racial lines. But because of social difficulties, the statement warned, interracial marriage “should be approached with caution.”
The Church’s mission was the subject of Dr. Arthur F. Glasser’s evening address. “In our day,” said Glasser, director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, “the Church is abdicating its responsibility toward the nations.” He challenged his denomination to work for greater relevance and better methods of evangelism.
Laymen were elected to the denomination’s top posts. Retired Dupont executive Dr. Wesley G. Vannoy was elected moderator, and Dr. Marion D. Barnes, president of the denomination’s Covenant College in Tennessee, was elected vice-moderator.
BLACK LOBBY WINS
A three-week-old Black and White Action group advocating integrated action on urban problems cried “betrayal” after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s seventh annual General Assembly voted 836 to 327 to recognize a Black Affairs Council.
BAC, made up of six Negroes and three whites, grew out of a black Unitarian Universalist caucus held last winter, according to Religious News Service. The caucus was called by Hayward Henry, Jr., 25, a doctoral student in biochemistry now on leave from Boston University.
The association’s board of trustees endorsed BAC as the urban-affairs agency in the printed agenda that assembly delegates received before coming to the meeting in Cleveland.
Under pressure from those who felt that the 180,000-member denomination’s traditional principle of brotherhood and its racially integrated program were threatened, the trustees issued a new recommendation just before a vote on BAC recognition. The new effort was to have ghetto programs placed in the hands not only of BAC but also of BAWA, a group inspired by members of the integrated Community Church in New York City. The vote on BAC thwarted action on the alternative.
BAWA members met after the vote and elected officers. Later, they called a press conference to charge that “an injustice and a tragedy” had been committed by the delegates.
“We were outmaneuvered by a juggernaut of power committed to racially exclusive action,” said co-chairman Glover Barnes, a Negro professor at the University of Buffalo Medical School.
Henry did not indicate specific efforts that BAC would launch, but he noted interest in a “black lobby in Washington” that might use one-tenth of the association’s $2,500,000 annual budget.
Delegates turned down a trustee recommendation to close one of two theological schools, Meadville in Chicago or Starr King in Berkeley, California. They also urged Tufts University to continue its Crane Divinity School, at least for students in Christian education. Tufts has said it is closing the school.
The Engineers Of Merger
A Southern Presbyterian pastor heads the fourteen-member commission assigned the task of drafting a plan of union for nine denominations. He is the Rev. William A. Benfield, Jr., minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Charleston, West Virginia.
The plan of union is to be presented to the Consulation on Church Union by 1970, or perhaps earlier.
Named to the commission along with Benfield were the following:
African Methodist Episcopal—Bishop G. Wayman Blakeley, Philadelphia.
African Methodist Episcopal Zion—Professor John H. Satterwhite, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington.
Christian Methodist Episcopal—Bishop E. T. Murchison, Birmingham, Alabama; and W. A. Soloman, Columbia, South Carolina.
Disciples of Christ—The Rev. George G. Beazley, Jr., Indianapolis; and Oliver Schroeder, Jr., Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Episcopal—The Rev. Stephen F. Bayne, New York.
United Church of Christ—The Rev. James O. Gilliam, Mercer Island, Washington; and Mrs. Vernon W. Newbold, Denver.
United Presbyterian—Stated Clerk William P. Thompson, Philadelphia: and Mrs. Ralph Stair, Waukesha, Wisconsin.
United Methodist—Professor John Deschner, Perkins Theological School, Dallas; Bishop Paul Washburn, Dayton. Ohio; and Professor Paul Hardin, President, Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina.
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