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‘Dear Martin’: Bishop’s letters to MLK trace the highs and lows in race relations


© 2014 Religion News Service

The nation will mark the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday (Jan. 20) with speeches, prayers and volunteer service.

But for decades, retired United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White has marked the holiday in a more personal way: He writes a “birthday letter” to the civil rights leader who was killed in 1968.

“It was a way to get kind of a year’s assessment on what the nation was accomplishing and not accomplishing in the area of race,” said White, a bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology for the last decade.

“I did it because, frankly, I needed to have perspective. I needed to not get discouraged, and I needed it to be affirming of progress in race which had taken place over the course of a year.”

White started the custom in 1976, when he chose to write a letter to King instead of giving a traditional speech to the Human Rights Commission in Howard County, Md. He continued writing on and off while he served as the first head of the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion and Race. Since 1985, he’s written the letters annually, and they’re now published by United Methodist News Service.

White’s letter updates King on the latest strides in race relations while also acknowledging “a hard residue of racism that just won’t seem to die.” He admitted in his most recent letter to being discouraged by mass incarceration and the “lack of outrage” about legislation that has disenfranchised black voters.

“While we are yet flawed by those among us who hold to racial bigotry and intolerance, they no longer define us as a nation or a people!” White wrote in his 2014 edition.

White, 78, and King were not close friends, but they met in the 1960s when White was a Detroit minister and King made annual visits to the city to preach a sermon during Lent.

In 1963, White was among the more than 100,000 who took part in the Detroit “Walk to Freedom” march, where King gave a trial run of his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Two months later, White was in a larger crowd at the March on Washington.

“He began to speak and I said, ‘This sounds familiar,’’’ the bishop recalled. “It was a different context. It was almost like hearing it anew, or for the first time.”

Now, White communicates with King by letter, even though his missives will never be answered.

“The one thing every letter tries to say is that we are light-years ahead in the area of race than we were when Dr. King was alive,” said White. “If he could make an overall assessment, he would not believe how far we’ve come as a nation.”

White’s writing reflects lingering tensions in race relations, rejoicing at the scope of interracial relations and decrying the fatal shooting of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

“We have more and more people of different races relating to each other, working in offices together, neighbors,” White said. “At the same time, we have schools that are more segregated, for instance, than they were in 1954.”

The letters also have personal touches, with references to his friend and civil rights activist Joseph Lowery and the deaths of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. He marveled at the two elections of President Obama, but criticized how the appointments of former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were “not so appropriately recognized.”

Bettie W. Story edited White’s columns when he served as a bishop in Illinois. His “Dear Martin” letters were published in a church newspaper and gained a national audience after she recommended them to The United Methodist Reporter.

Illinois Methodists, both black and white, appreciated the annual dispatches, which encouraged them to pay tribute to King, she said.

“The bishop made it easier for them to do something within their own local churches,” recalled Story, 80. “They would reprint the letter in their church newsletters.”

White speaks from personal experience when he tells King how far race relations have come. As a Detroit pastor, he visited a white Methodist church in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s and was arrested and fined $1,000 for “disturbing divine worship” and $1,000 for trespassing. Decades later, as a bishop, he was invited to speak and join in a potluck luncheon at that same church, which is now one of the most integrated in the city.

White often closes his letter with a variation on the words of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome’’ as a final tribute to King in what has become an annual thank-you note to a man who many never got to thank before his 1968 assassination.

“It’s important for current generations to be aware that we have not overcome racism, we’ve not overcome prejudice,” White said. “It’s like sin: We’re always a sinner no matter how good you think you are, that we’re always striving to be better.”

Excerpts from Bishop White’s “Dear Martin” letters, published by United Methodist News Service:


“Perhaps that is the difficulty of navigating race in America as an identified racial minority — that is, the unpredictability of encountering racism in day-to-day living. One must always be prepared. It can manifest itself in so many different places and in so many different forms. In a classroom or office, at a department store counter, in a committee meeting or in a casual conversation, even at the Table of the Lord. One simply never knows.”


“Because my life has been lived in the world of religion and the church, I know this fundamental shift has taken place in the church as well. No longer do clergy justify racist practice or belief based on religion or theology. No sermons are preached today in their name. For the most part, the position of the church is not couched in racism. That would be considered un-Christian.”


“As we celebrate your birth date in 2007, if I were to be asked if race relations in America are better or still a problem, I would have to respond, ‘Yes!’”


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Is support for Israel waning among evangelicals?


© 2014 Religion News Service

American evangelicals have played a significant role in U.S. support for Israel; by some measures they are even more supportive than American Jews.

But in the spring issue of Middle East Quarterly, David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, wrote a piece titled “The End of Evangelical Support for Israel?” Evangelicals have shifted within the last decade, Brog wrote, and are no longer considered automatic supporters of Israel.

“The days of taking evangelical support for Israel for granted are over,” he wrote, suggesting an urgency for those who take the issue seriously. “They cannot let the evangelical community go the way of the mainstream Protestant leadership.”

Several mainline churches and international church bodies have passed resolutions on divesting money or boycotting products made in Israel because of its occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In October 2010, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted a survey of evangelical leaders attending the global evangelical conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

Overall, 48 percent of the evangelicals said Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy about the Second Coming of Jesus, while 42 percent said it is not.

When asked where their sympathies lie, 34 percent of global evangelicals surveyed sympathized with Israel, compared with 30 percent of American evangelicals.

In addition, new films made by Christians are beginning to question support for Israel. They include ”With God on Our Side” (Rooftop Productions, 2010) and “Little Town of Bethlehem” (EthnoGraphic Media, 2010), funded by Mart Green, the son of Hobby Lobby’s founder, David Green.

Mart Green is the chair of Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. The school’s president, Billy Wilson, spoke at the recent controversial conference titled “Christ at the Checkpoint.”

“Christ at the Checkpoint” began in 2010 as a biennial conference with the idea that Jesus was a Palestinian who could be suffering under Israeli occupation today as he once suffered under Roman occupation.

David Neff, who co-convenes an annual evangelical-Jewish leader dialogue, said his Jewish friends have expressed some nervousness over recent gatherings and activities, including Christ at the Checkpoint, which took place in March.

“I think it’s more anecdotal at this point, but nevertheless, it is reasonable to think that with Christ at the Checkpoint people getting the attention of some,” Neff said, referring to Lynne Hybels, wife of megachurch pastor Bill Hybels, and progressive evangelical leader Tony Campolo. “There’s no question: People who have sympathies for the plight of the Palestinians have more access than they used to.”

In 2012, Lynne Hybels was invited to address “Peacemaking in Israel/Palestine” at Catalyst, one of the largest young evangelical gatherings in the country. She went on a trip to Palestine with Cameron Strang, the editor of Relevant magazine and son of Steve Strang, editor of Charisma magazine, which has been a strong supporter of Israel. Relevant’s March/April cover story, “Is Peace Possible?” by Cameron Strang, is on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

In 2012, popular author and blogger Donald Miller wrote on “The Painful Truth about the Situation in Israel.”

It’s difficult to measure long-term support for Israel among evangelicals. Findings from the Pew Research Center, though, suggest that it has remained relatively stable in the past five years.

When asked “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, who do you sympathize with more?” evangelicals were far more likely to say Israel — 72 percent to 4 percent in 2013, about the same as in 2009 — according to the Pew poll.

“There’s deep attachment to Israel and I don’t see that changing,” said Todd Deatherage, executive director of Telos, a group that seeks a middle way that supports peace. “Anecdotally, it’s not that some Americans and some evangelicals are in any way becoming anti-Israel, but they’re defining their support in terms of conflict resolution.”

For years, the source of that attachment was a specific, literalistic approach to biblical prophecy, called dispensationalism. Dispensationalists believe the Israelites’ return to the Promised Land is a requirement for the Second Coming of Jesus. They therefore rejoiced when Israeli troops captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Arab forces in June 1967 and saw it as a sign that Jesus was coming.

Before he switched his theological views, California-based pastor Kim Riddlebarger sold Bible prophecy books for 25 years. Now Riddlebarger, who co-hosts a popular radio show called the White Horse Inn, believes God has fulfilled his promise to Israel through a covenant with Jesus, so he sees no theological need for a state of Israel.

“Reformed folks tend not to be involved in punditry, date setting, but more the theological discussion on Israel’s role in international politics and human rights,” Riddlebarger said. “You can only hype something so many times before people start to lose interest.”

David Gushee, Christian ethicist at Mercer University, said he sees more tourist trips to the region wanting to include a Palestinian perspective.

“The Palestinian side of the story is coming into view in the way it hasn’t come before,” he said. “As people are organizing their mental worlds theologically, whatever they’re reading, it doesn’t equal unequivocal support for Israel at any given point.”

While support for Israel may look different than it did in previous years, Jews for Jesus director David Brickner said he hasn’t seen a decline in support among the Christians he meets at colleges, churches and seminaries.

“If there’s a concern, it’s a younger generation that seems yet to have made strong conclusions whether or not to support Israel,” he said.

Still, he said, some Christians are grappling with how to handle Israel’s relationship with Palestinians.

“I long to see the church have a balanced perspective on the Middle East, where you don’t have to throw out the concern for Palestinians to support Israel,” Brickner said. “I really believe there’s a large middle ground, but it’s hard to do when people are in their polar positions.”


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ANALYSIS: Pope Francis fired ‘Bishop Bling.’ Will more follow?


c 2014 Religion News Service

The news that Pope Francis fired — or “accepted the resignation of” — the German churchman known as “Bishop Bling” because of his big-spending ways has touched off speculation among Catholics that other dismissals could be in the offing.

Here’s the answer in four words: Perhaps, but probably not.

Recent history shows why: Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., remains in office 18 months after his conviction – and $1.4 million spent on his defense — for failing to report a priest suspected of abuse. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony enjoys a high-profile retirement in spite of the disapproval of his own successor over Mahony’s abuse record. Similarly, Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, is still living a gilded existence in Rome years after he was plucked from the U.S. amid the clergy abuse scandal.

Not to mention Newark, N.J., Archbishop John Myers, who heads his diocese amid questions about his handling of abuse cases as well as pricey additions to his upscale retirement home.

Financially speaking, “Bishop Bling,” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, was in a league of his own: He spent some $43 million on a luxurious new residence and office complex while cutting staff.

After news of the expenditures broke last September, Tebartz-van Elst was sent to a monastery and Francis sent an emissary to figure out what was happening. On March 26, Francis formally accepted his resignation, which the Vatican said was offered last October.

So is this the start of something new? Don’t hold your breath, for three reasons:

ONE: ‘Bishop Bling’ was a perfect storm

Not only did Tebartz-van Elst spend a ton of money on all the wrong things, but he did so just after the cardinals elected a pope who is making austerity and humility the hallmarks of a bishop in today’s church. Francis wants prelates to “smell like the sheep,” not pricey cologne, and he doesn’t want them to act with the sort of authoritarian and dismissive manner that Tebartz-van Elst displayed.

In fact, as the resignation of Tebartz-van Elst was being announced on Wednesday, Francis was telling thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square that “a bishop who is not in the service of the community does no good.”

In addition, Tebartz-van Elst last November paid a court-ordered fine of nearly $30,000 to avoid a perjury charge over his false claims that he did not fly first class to India on a charity trip. That’s three strikes.

TWO: There is no process for firing a bishop

It seems odd, but the Vatican just can’t depose or defrock a bishop the way it can — and often does — a priest. The Vatican statement on Tebartz-van Elst justified his departure by saying that his situation “impedes a fruitful exercise of his ministry.”

If that sounds vague, that’s because it is. In recent years, different popes have removed or forced the resignation of numerous bishops, for a host of reasons: financial shenanigans, perceived dissent from church teaching or revelations that they fathered a child or two, as happened with Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala in 2012.

But the real reasons behind the dismissals are usually guesswork since the process is secret, even to the men who are getting the pink slip. Often, there is in fact no real process at all — the Vatican would rather just work behind the scenes to pressure a bishop to resign quietly, and then forget about the whole episode.

“Bishops may be successors of the apostles and Vicars of Christ in their own diocese, but they have fewer rights under Canon Law than parish priests,” the editors of The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly, said in a 2013 editorial calling for a transparent and just system for removing bishops.

THREE: Poor management isn’t a firing offense

If it were, you might be hard-pressed to find a bishop in many dioceses. Instead, the church’s code of canon law generally requires that a bishop have done something clearly wrong, such as stealing or committing abuse himself — which can trigger “privation” of his office.

As blogger and canon lawyer Edward Peters has put it, “criminal conduct is not the same thing as ‘mismanagement,’ and it is certainly not the same thing as ‘weak performance.’” Doing a bad job could justify sacking a lower-level official, Peters wrote in connection with the resignation of an African bishop in 2011, but does not constitute grounds for firing a member of the hierarchy.

It’s worth noting that disgraced bishops and cardinals rarely lose their titles or are defrocked. Case in point: Mahony, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who was brought down in a sex scandal just before last year’s conclave. Instead, they are told to stay under the radar or are moved to lower-profile posts.

In fact, Tebartz-van Elst, who was removed despite the support of some powerful allies, remains a bishop, and the Vatican said that “the departing bishop … will be given another job at an opportune time.”


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Pastor Mark Driscoll apologizes for missteps, quits social media


© 2014 Religion News Service

Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll has written a letter to his congregation to explain recent controversies, including the marketing campaign intended to place the book, “Real Marriage,” on The New York Times best-seller list.

Driscoll has been an influential pastor within Reformed evangelical circles for several years, helping to found a church planting network called Acts 29. His own Mars Hill Church attracts some 14,000 people at 15 locations in five states each Sunday.

In recent months, however, reports have emerged that Driscoll plagiarized some of the material in his books. And earlier this month, World magazine reported that Driscoll hired a firm to buy copies of the book he penned with his wife, Grace, so that it would top the best-seller lists.

In a letter posted on Reddit on Saturday (March 15), Driscoll apologized for using the marketing strategy.

“I am sorry that I used this strategy, and will never use it again,” he wrote. “I have also asked my publisher to not use the ‘#1 New York Times bestseller’ status in future publications, and am working to remove this from past publications as well.”

The church’s spokesman, Justin Dean, confirmed that a letter from Driscoll to Mars Hill Church was posted to the church’s internal network as “a private family communication.”

“At this time we have chosen not to publicly release the letter,” Dean said, adding that the pastor was not available for interviews.

Driscoll also apologized to his church in 2007 for lacking humility.

In the new letter, Driscoll said he would quit social media for the rest of 2014 to “reset” his life. ”The distractions it can cause for my family and our church family are not fruitful or helpful at this time,” he said. 

Driscoll also wrote that “my angry-young-prophet days are over.”

“I understand that people who saw or experienced my sin during this season are hurt and in some cases have not yet come to a place of peace or resolution,” he wrote. “I have been burdened by this for the past year and have had private meetings one at a time to learn from, apologize to, and reconcile with people.”

He said that he will not do as many speaking engagements in the future. “I don’t see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor, and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter,” he wrote.

Driscoll also apologized for how recent staff turnover has been handled.

“I am deeply grieved and even depressed by the pain we have caused,” he said. “Many have chosen to air their concerns online, and I apologize for any burden this may have brought on you, and I will do my best to clarify a few things without, I hope, being angry or defensive.”


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From Beacon Hill to ‘Bishop Bling,’ clergy housing faces new scrutiny


© 2014 Religion News Service

Bye-bye, “Bishop Bling.” So long, “Pastor Perks.” The so-called “Francis effect” may be real, at least when it comes to clerical housing, and could be coming to a church near you.

Pope Francis famously eschewed the trappings of the papal office, including deluxe digs in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, and the pressure of his example seems to be making itself felt.

Last week, the pontiff accepted the resignation of the most ostentatious offender, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg in Germany, aka “Bishop Bling” who spent a cool $43 million on a swank new residence and office complex while cutting staff.

Now Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta is the latest to feel the peer pressure. On Monday (March 31), Gregory responded to anger over his decision to move into a new $2.2 million home by repeatedly apologizing in a letter to his flock and saying he would explore the possibility of selling the mansion and moving into simpler quarters.

Here are some of the latest controversies over clerical lifestyles:

“Bishop Bling” was in a class of his own, spending nearly $500,000 on walk-in closets, nearly $300,000 on a fish tank, more than $200,000 on a spiral staircase and $20,000 on a bathtub. Tebartz-van Elst also spent more than $600,000 on artwork — at a time when some dioceses in the U.S. are selling their collections; the seminary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently announced it would auction off several Thomas Eakins works.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory led off his column of apology with this complaint from a parishioner, which sums up the new dynamic: “We are disturbed and disappointed to see our church leaders not setting the example of a simple life as Pope Francis calls for.” Gregory explained the rationale behind his move and the purchase of the new home, using a bequest from the nephew of “Gone with the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell. But he conceded the reasons weren’t nearly sufficient to justify the move to the 6,000-square-foot house in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead neighborhood.

In New Jersey, Newark Archbishop John Myers hasn’t opted for penitence, and instead is defending the expenditure of some $500,000 to add a three-story, 3,000-square-foot addition to his already spacious retirement home. The new wing will include an indoor exercise pool, a hot tub, three fireplaces, a library and an elevator.

“Archbishop Myers obviously is not paying any attention to the pope,” says Charles Zech, who has studied bishops’ spending as faculty director of the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at Villanova University’s business school.

The Diocese of Camden, N.J., includes one of the poorest cities in the country, which is partly why Bishop Dennis Sullivan made headlines in January for spending $500,000 to buy an historic 7,000-square-foot mansion with eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, three fireplaces, a library, a five-car garage and an in-ground pool. The diocese said Sullivan needs the space to entertain dignitaries and donors. Not everyone’s buying that. “This is a joke,” parishioner John Miller told the local paper. “Jesus was born in a stable.”

Catholics aren’t the only ones feeling the heat. Trinity Church in Boston, an Episcopal congregation with a blue-blood heritage and an extensive ministry to the poor, sparked controversy in February for purchasing a $3.6 million Beacon Hill condo for its rector, the Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III. The church says the outlay is a good investment and won’t dent its $30 million endowment, but some in the pews aren’t happy.

Last fall, the 33-year-old pastor of Elevation Church in North Carolina, Steven Furtick, came in for criticism for plans to build a 16,000-square-foot estate with 7.5 bathrooms and an electrified gate. Furtick, a Southern Baptist who heads one of the nation’s fastest-growing congregations, probably didn’t help his cause when he said that the $1.6 million home is “not that great of a house.” But the purchase seems to be moving ahead nonetheless.