Since my movie-going is, by choice, limited mainly to those times when domestic tranquility makes it the discreet thing to do, mention and evaluation of moving pictures dealing with religious themes on this program are usually, of necessity, brought to you vicariously. It is so in this case of a new picture entitled “A Man Called Peter.” The picture is in color and beautifully done. The actor in the title role is an appealing figure with a delightful Scottish accent not overdone. The female lead is adequate and the supporting cast is convincing.
The theology is the usual loose sentimentalism we have come to associate with American Protestantism. The theory that a deity is looking after one and guiding one works all right until trouble comes. Peter the preacher, in spite of his resounding sermons, when trouble comes has no philosophy with which to meet it. He slumps down on the cellar stairs and laments that he and God are no longer pals. After a thrombosis he says God mended his heart. (He had resorted to a physician in the meantime.) If God mended his heart, it is logical to say also that God sent the thrombosis. The film says plainly that God cured Peter’s wife of tuberculosis. If so, by the same logic, God sent the tuberculosis. If there exists a super-personality deity who inflicts angina pectoris and tuberculosis on human beings then picks out a few whom he miraculously cures, then we are dealing with a God who indulges in vagaries of the most human kind. The logic of this picture is such that a team of horses could be driven through it, but the film is recommended for adults who park their critical faculties with their chewing gum when they attend movies.
An American Presbyterian minister, Dr. Louis Evans, former pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, now Presbyterian minister at large for the U.S.A., made a trip to Scotland this week to address a meeting of several hundred ministers. His message proved something of a startling indictment of attitudes and practices which he sees in the current religious pictures.
He attacked first what he called brilliant preachers talking over the heads of the people. He says: “We are never profound until we are clear. The average university student in America or Scotland has a third grade spiritual education.” Well, that statement is certainly clear. I shall leave it to you whether it is not also profound. “There has never been,” he says, “such a need for clarity. Talk straight,” he admonishes his fellow clergymen.
Another danger which he sees is professionalism. Many preachers, he says, get so wrapped up in their programs they don’t have time to mingle with people – to love them, to help them. What the world needs, he relates, is not more political genius but inner integrity. He goes on to warn also about smugness in church denominations. Many churches, he says, “use different ways to get devils out of a person. Episcopalians chant them out. Baptists drown them out and Presbyterians freeze them out. Just remember this – whenever any church begins to think it is the only church then it has deteriorated to the point where it has ceased to be a church.” Are these just warnings and criticisms? He does not say this applies to all ministers, but doubtless all of you can think of some minister or church where it does apply. It may do us all good now and then to welcome the wish of Burns the poet when he said “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us.”
On a very different subject comes the report of the campus controversy at Columbia University. The students had drafted a petition to reaffirm faith in the Bill of Rights. When this petition was presented to the university president, Dr. Grayson Kirk, he refused to sign it, saying that to do so was an empty and gratuitous act. His comment was that “It should be assumed that any American of intelligence, common sense and devotion to our American way of life believes sincerely in the provisions of the Bill of Rights.” Apparently the president has faith, but he wants no active part in it. Was it not Paul the Apostle who commented that faith without works is dead? It would seem relevant to tie this incident in which Dr. Evan’s comment just reported about religion. Too many people today are going around making fine speeches about democracy, but those same people do darn little to put such speeches into active practice in their work with others. Apparently Dr. Kirk has academic allegiance only to the basic document that has enabled his university to be the truly great institution that it is.
Fortunately, however, his students’ allegiance to it goes deeper. Commenting editorially in the campus newspaper on the president’s explanation, and calling it unconvincing, they point out, and understandably so, that affirmation of the Bill of Rights is no more gratuitous than the university’s celebration last year of its bi-centennial on the theme “Man’s Right to Knowledge and the Free Use Thereof.” Veritably it might be said that “A little child shall lead them.”
Japan’s 1,139 year-old Buddhist, Shingon (meaning “true word”) sect became the first in the country to form a labor union with priests as members. Twelve shaven headed priests last week joined office clerks in Temple of the Paramount Summit Labor Union, and drew up a contract complete with a strike clause. Their main purposes are job security and better working conditions. What’s this world a comin’ to anyway! If Japan had the hysterical jitters as badly as we do here – which fortunately it does not – it may be that Hirohito would be suspecting the subversive infiltration of agents of John L. Lewis or Walter Reuther, or even George Meany.
In the German town of Darmstadt-Eberstadt, with a population of 15,000, Protestant and Catholic church bells rang out this week in new ecumenical harmony. The Catholic bells’ low C, D, F, G, and the evangelical bells’ higher G, B, C, D, formed (more or less) the tune of the Te Deum composed in the 4th century, and one of the most famous hymns in history. Perhaps in another 400 years we may be permitted to see such much-longed-for harmony among some Protestant churches here, not to mention also among Catholics, Jews, and Protestants.
A pioneer undertaking that has deep human and religious significance is going on now in the District of Columbia at the Columbia Heights Boys Club. There is in Washington a network of racially segregated metropolitan police Boys Clubs. The police give only nominal support to these clubs. A board of directors, composed largely of Washington businessmen, actually oversees the clubs. One of the clubs had for more than 15 years met at All Souls Unitarian Church.
Dedicated to an integrated society, the board of the church decided last July it could no longer allow any group to use its facilities on a segregated basis, and so informed the board of the Boys Clubs. After long consideration, the clubs decided in favor of segregation, and finally voted to vacate the church facilities on December 1. By that time it had done so, and William Neal, a graduate student and physical education instructor at George Washington University moved in that afternoon, as program director for the Unitarian Service Committee and to launch a new recreation group for boys.
On opening day, two little Negro boys entered rather tentatively, not sure that the club was really meant for them. Not seeing an adult to question, they started out again. As they reached the door, a white boy of their own age ran after them shouting, “Come on in, it’s okay.” And the new Columbia Heights Boys Club became a reality.
Washington, where segregation is an issue under the very shadow of the Supreme Court’s far-sighted decision, urgently needs a carefully planned experiment to show how integration of a voluntary youth service may be achieved. The Unitarian Service Committee has offered a pilot demonstration of great value. Moreover, and partly as a result of the action by All Souls, two other police Boys Clubs have since been ordered to stop using government-owned facilities on a segregated basis.
Does your city and mine need such a program? Paul said, “God hath made of one blood all nations of men.” Across the front of the Supreme Court Building are these words: “Equal Justice Under Law.” Do we believe that Paul was wrong? Do we mean what we write across our public buildings, or do we, like President Kirk, say we believe but refuse to act? We cannot continue much longer to say one thing and do another about this matter of equal justice. Both our religion and our government demand otherwise.
A prominent U.S. church woman says the American government, churches, and welfare groups should send abroad more persons who represent all races in this country. That is a conclusion of Mrs. James D. Wyker, president of United Church Women. She says sending diplomats and others of varying races would improve understanding of the U.S. She adds also that it would help other nations see that we all have a job to do together to achieve a peaceful world. Mrs. Wyker, who is an ordained Disciples minister in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, says such action would immeasurably strengthen our foreign policy and win more friends for the U.S. Mrs. Wyker’s suggestions are so obvious that it is remarkable that we should have to have them called to our consideration. And certainly no one could rationally dispute the fact that we need all friends we can get in this too unfree world of today.
At the Asia-African Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, a Philippine delegate has noted with gratification that most speakers have addressed their appeals to “almighty God.” Raul Manglapus of the Island Republic has declared himself struck by what he terms the frankly religious tones in the opening speeches of most chief delegates. Mr. Manglapus says the culture of Asia is the cradle of the world’s earliest and greatest civilization, and adds that it is founded on one cardinal principle: the love of God.
Virtually the gamut of the world’s largest religions is run at the Bandung Conference – Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. Even atheists are there. Red China’s Chou En-Lai (joe un-lye’) has so described the Chinese communists. But he has asserted they respect others with religious beliefs and adds the hope that others respect them. Without in any way subscribing to most of the tenets of the Chinese communists, it is only fair to observe that we cannot refuse to respect anyone’s right to be an atheist if he so chooses, but to give such respect does not imply acceptance of non-faith.
A slightly curious attack comes from a top official of the National Association of Evangelicals who has attacked those who wish to break down differences between Protestant faiths. The NAE’s director, the Rev. George Ford told the group’s convention that the evangelical church must act or, in his words, the liberal ecumenical movement will usurp the rights of churches. Ford said the ecumenical movement favors such innovations as, in his words, “downtown worship centers which would not only take the place of regular Protestant churches but would be headquarters for Catholics and Jews as well.” It might do us all good to get together once in awhile, at least.
At the risk of indulging in what you may regard as postmortem, I should like to pass these reflections along to you for whatever they may be worth.
Easter has come and gone. Jesus had risen from the dead before Easter. The centuries have not been able to bury him. Forsaken by his friends, sentenced to die with thieves, and his mangled body sealed in a borrowed tomb, he has risen to command the hearts of millions, and to haunt our hate-filled world with the restlessness of undying hopes. At Easter time we commemorate the miracle of his spiritual resurrection. The years bring him increasingly to life. His public ministry was of only one year, but in that year he gave direction to the centuries. Already he has lived much longer than the disciples believed the world would last, and in far lands they never dreamed existed. The imperial forces that tried to destroy him have long since perished. Those who passed judgment upon him are remembered only because of him, and although military might and political tyranny still stalk across the earth, they too shall perish, while the majesty of the workman-prophet bearing his cross to the hill will remain to rebuke man’s way of violence.
It is easy to by cynical at Easter time when the world turns out in its gay colors but seemingly pays little more than ritualistic attention to the message of Jesus. It is easy to join with those who lend their extravagant lip service to the “Risen Master.” Yet the spirit which he put into the world somehow survives our cheap ceremonies, as it does our foolish ambitions, and reminds us that there is no gain except in moral stature, no conquest except the inner life, and no worship which is not of the heart.