Institute on Religion and Democracy
April, 5, 2000
Over 1,100 staffers with official church publications, most of them from mainline Protestant denominations, gathered in Chicago earlier this month for a once-a-decade gathering. The theme this year was "Faith Stories in a Changing World." Although a smorgasborg of faith stories was offered, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was barely mentioned. Instead, Native American, Baha'i, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and New Age stories took the fore.
Religious Communication Congress (RCC) 2000 promised a "broad spectrum" of faith traditions and theological perspectives. Sponsors included church agencies from virtually every mainline Protestant denomination. From United Methodism, there were United Methodist Communications, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, and The United Methodist Reporter. United Methodist Communications helped to provide funding for RCC 2000.
There were also the National and World Councils of Churches, Church Women United, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the General Council of the Assemblies of God, the National Religious Broadcasters Association, Maryknoll World Productions, and the Catholic Press Association of the U.S. and Canada.
And there were sponsors from outside Christianity or Christian orthodoxy, including the Baha'i International Community, the Islamic Society of North America, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Soka Gakkai International (Buddhist), the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Church of Christ, Scientist, the Association of Unity Churches (New Age), the United Religions Initiative, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon).
But the overwhelming number of sponsors were in fact Christian church groups, which made the almost complete absence of the Christian Gospel rather bizarre. Indeed, almost all of the organizations that provided funding for RCC were orthodox Christian groups. Christians, when they did speak to the RCC audience, did not talk about their Risen Savior. Instead they discussed political issues, or focused merely on communications techniques.
The most prominent among the speakers was Jesse Jackson. After Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and Christian prayers were offered (the Christian prayers addressed God as both "Mother" and "Father"), Jackson told the RCC crowd that "people of faith must be activists, not mere observers." As an example, he told of his campaign to reinstate to school several Decatur, Illinois, students who were suspended for brawling.
"I'm disturbed by a new wave of religious and political conservatism," Jackson said. He accused religious conservatives of using "religion as anesthesia" to pacify the downtrodden and avoid dealing with systemic injustice. "Don't be afraid of the [Rush] Limbaughs of our time!" He accused the "right-wing" of distorting politics by exploiting race and opposing affirmative action. And he criticized Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush for his hands-off attitude toward the Confederate flag dispute in South Carolina.
"The Confederate flag is about sedition and treason," Jackson declared. "[General Robert E.] Lee betrayed America and shot Americans for the principle of fascism." He further criticized conservatives for touting tax cuts, charter schools and student vouchers. And he asked the audience not to forget any "lost sheep," be they "gay or straight, black or white, male or female." Jackson promised "brownie points in heaven" to those who pursue social justice. "Our word must become flesh and dwell among people," he said. "We must be transforming agents."
Jackson was introduced by former National Council of Churches general secretary Joan Brown Campbell, who was effusive in her praise. "Jesse is not motivated by public prominence," she insisted. "He is a serious, devoted servant of the Lord." Campbell also called Jackson a "complex and beautiful child of God," and a "prophet and faithful husband," who "goes where even the brave dare not go."
Campbell discussed her ongoing effort to return little Elian Gonzalez to Cuba. "No Cuban can leave that country, not by their government's decision, but by ours," she strangely claimed. She was apparently unaware that dictator Fidel Castor does not allow his people to leave their own country freely. Campbell insisted the Elian case is not a "complicated problem," and that he would have been quickly returned if he were from any country but Cuba.
"Where are the family values people?" she asked, referring to conservatives who question whether Elian should be dispatched back to communist Cuba. She lamented that her efforts to return Elian were "interpreted as support for communism or atheism," when in fact it was only "support for a little boy."
Campbell and Jackson were the major Christian speakers at RCC, but their presentation of the faith seemed to be limited to advocacy of liberal political themes. Traditional, orthodox Christianity seemed to have no representatives on the formal program. Each day's program was begun with a sacred "story of faith." The first was from Jewish rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, who presented a feminist version of the Genesis creation story.
Amid song and dance, Gottleib told of Adam creating "God in his own image." In Gottlieb's extra-biblical legend, someone named "Lileth" preceded Eve as the first woman. But Lileth refused to submit to Adam sexually. So she left the Garden of Eden and became the first divorced woman. God went on vacation, but sent His angels to retrieve a recalcitrant Lileth, who was told "her name would be mud" if she did not return. Thereafter Lileth became known as a "bitch and witch," becoming a prototype of feminism.
The second day's story teller was a Hindu from West Virginia named Any Fraenkel. "I worship Govinda," he began, as he shared Hindu scriptures about various deities, including Krishna, Brahma, Indra, Ram, Vayu, Agni, and Saraswvati.
Every universe expanded from the being of Vishnu, according to Fraenkel. And the oceans came from Vishnu's perspiration. The lotus blossomed from Vishnu's navel. Brahma, with his four heads, sat down upon this Lotus and created the various gods of this earth, plus the heavenly regions. Indra was designated the King of Heaven. Vayu was the god of wind and air. His son was Hamman, the monkey prince. Agni was the god of fire, and Saraswvati was the goddess of learning.
Hamman was infused with many gifts by the gods but became naughty, and his elders were compelled to cast spells upon him, Fraenkel said. "We're just like little Hamman," he said. "We've forgotten the wonderful gifts we received at birth. Remember the wonderful power we have and the wonderful father we have."
"There are many names for God," Fraenkel said, recalling that there are over 1,000 names for deities in India. He led the audience in chanting to the god Govinda: "Govindam Adi Purusham, Tamaham Bhajam Mi," meaning "I worship the primeval Lord Govinda, source of all." He also led the crowd in chanting to the god Ram: "Sri Ram Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram," meaning "Victory to the all glorious one, Ram, who is the Supreme Enjoyer." Fraenkel concluded by asking listeners to fill out prayer cards and to take them to the "meditation room."
On the third day, the morning's sacred story was to have been told by Kevin Locke, a Baha'i and Lakota Indian who was going to share an Indian hoop dance as a "metaphor for the process of rebirth and renewal into a new spring tide for humanity." But Locke had to cancel because of a relative's death. He was replaced by Dayton Edmonds, a Native American of the Caddo nation and a retired missionary with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
Edmonds told a lengthy Native American story about the "earth mother" and various talking animals and birds. In a fashion more post-modernist than traditional American Indian, he later explained in a workshop that story-telling is a "weaving of truths and non-truths." It is up to the listener to flesh out the story, and the story changes with each telling. "Never moralize stories.What is truth for one is not necessarily truth for another," Edmonds stressed. "All stories are true and some of them even happened!"
Besides the main plenary sessions, dozens of workshops were offered. There was a tour offered of the evangelical Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and another opportunity to visit Big Ideas Productions, which produces the evangelical "Veggie Tales" video tapes for children. But otherwise the sessions and workshops were largely devoid of any exposition of the Christian faith. The focus was instead on political themes, media technology, or "story-telling" as folklore.
Hundreds of communicators with Christian church media might have been expected to share an interest in communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a troubled world. Or they could at least have acknowledged that some Christians do aspire to promote the Gospel. But instead, RCC 2000 expressed interest in nearly every conceivable faith story but the story of Jesus Christ.
It was intended to be inclusive, but RCC 2000 turned out to be a rather hollow event. On the first evening, prior to Jesse Jackson's speech, the Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Christian prayers were intoned, followed by a chorus of "Thank you!" But to whom, or Whom, were these thanks addressed? Govinda, Allah, and Yahweh? Or were they intended instead for the RCC 2000 Planning Committee and its team of story-tellers? Nobody seemed to know.