Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, one of our more perceptive Christian leaders, has warned that Britain is in danger of becoming not just “unchristian” but “anti-Christian”.
In the face of the increasing marginalisation of Christianity the church has gradually accommodated to the standpoint of the world in the hope that the world will like and listen to us. As a result of our continuing tactic of accomodationsim the church is always a few decades behind the moral curve of the world and correspondingly ignored. In much of today’s Britain the church is the middle aged uncle trying to be cool at a teenager’s party.
Einstein supposedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Unfortunately when the church’s Plan A of accomodationsim fails it has immediate recourse to Plan A, more accomodationsim.
Christians live in a rapidly changing society, to be effective we must adopt changing tactics. Infiltration and subversion of the establishment power structures can be effective in the long run. Sometimes in the short run confrontation is forced on us. But this is costly.
In 1978 Douglas Roth and his wife Nadine were called to their first parish, the steel town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. They served there until March 1985 when Douglas became the first minister in the history of the Lutheran Church in America to be defrocked.
During this period Clairton and the surrounding towns had roughly 55% unemployment amongst heads of households. The effects on the people were devastating. Marriages were broken, children suffered without adequate medical care, suicides averaged two a week. The Roths were cut to the heart.
The church had the usual programmes, supplying free food, clothing and sometimes shelter. Douglas and some of his friends decided this wasn’t enough, root causes had to be addressed.
The final straw was when the town went bankrupt. There was no money for any city workers including police and fire fighters. Research indicated the chief cause of the unemployment and the city bankruptcy was massive disinvestment. The chief financial institution of the area was the Mellon Bank.
The bank had foreclosed on one of the oldest companies around whilst at the same time loaning millions to a giant Japanese conglomerate making the same product as the local business.
Firstly Douglas and Nadine took the mild step of distributing leaflets asking people to put their money in a bank which would pledge to keep it in the local area by reinvesting in the district. There was a positive reaction. 6th June 1983 was Clairton’s D Day – Disinvestment Day. There were massive withdrawals from the bank. But no change of policy.
The pressure was increased. About 100 men from the local union went to the bank with $10 each and asked for $10 worth of pennies, taking great care to count all 1000 pennies before rejoining the queue. Next time up they realised it was nickels they wanted. The bank did no meaningful business that day. Police and security guards surrounded the building. Tension built up. Finally a security guard snapped, drew his baton and clubbed one of the penny protestors.
Meetings with the bank executives proved fruitless, they were just obeying orders. Another action was organised, with fish.
One Friday the workers trooped into the bank and each hired a safe deposit box. Into the boxes they placed blocks of frozen fish. Next Monday morning the bank officials realised they had a problem. The boxes had to be drilled out, but they didn’t know which was which. They drilled into one lady’s jewels and into someone else’s heroin.
The bank counter attacked. Practically all the corporate leaders of the area were church members and those with a say in running corporations have a say in running churches. Pressure was brought to bear on Douglas by the bishop. At this point some of the Douglas’s supporters backed off.
The church declared the congregation at Clairton vacant. Mellon’s law firm volunteered their services to the church and had an injunction served on Douglas removing him from church property. He countered that he had to obey God rather than men. Eventually he was arrested for contempt of court, fined $1,200 and given 90 days in jail. In jail he wrote sermons and sent them out. For this the judge added a further 60 days.
The church disciplinary process continued, in jail. Five Lutheran pastors sat as a board and Douglas was brought before them in handcuffs. His lawyer, a Presbyterian, was not allowed to be present on the grounds that he wasn’t a Lutheran.
Meanwhile Nadine Roth and seven others entered the church building on 27th December 1984. On 4th January 1985 forty five fully armed riot police surrounded the building, axed open the back door and arrest the eight.
A week after being released from prison Douglas faced a final disciplinary hearing. He was defrocked. This had never happened before in America in the Lutheran Church.
Barth wrote: ‘Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of the world, and it ought to continue without interruption.’
Love is the power of God working in the lives of ordinary men and women, a power far stronger than the structures of the world. Love is confronting the injustice and wrong abroad in the world and risking all for the sake of Christ and the people for whom He died. Love is action. Love is costly. Love hurts.