Letter from the Dean

By Gregory E. Sterling

Religion plays a powerful role in human lives. It can divide human beings and hurt them badly in the process. In 2000-2001, I was a visiting professor at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University. I had planned to visit the Dome of the Rock with a friend from Princeton on a particular Saturday. The day before our planned visit, Friday, September 28th, the Second Intifada broke out and changed everything. As an American Christian I was a persona non grata to the belligerents of both sides. The underlying reasons for the tensions have to do with land, political ideologies, ethnic divides, and religion. It was a difficult thing to realize the role that religion played as a divisive force. For the first time in my life, I thought that religion played too large a role in people’s lives.

This year has brought American society to a crisis, a fatiguing crisis fueled by a pandemic, economic fluctuations accompanied by gross income disparities, racial injustices thatalthough long presenthave become vivid and evoked a long overdue cry for justice, as well as a political climate that produced an attack on the US capitalsomething that I thought I would never witness.

One of the factors in this era has been religion’s new prominence as a tool for political agendas. This is not the Christianity of “Blessed are the peacemakers” or “that they may all be one” or “Let us no longer judge one another, but judge rather not to set a impediment or a hindrance before a fellow Christian.” We need to ask whether we can live up to the highest visions of the New Testament and allow faith to be a bridge rather than a barrier.

Religion as force of healing and reform has happened beforeand happened on a large scale. One of the things that many in America have now forgotten or overlook is that Martin Luther King, Jr. was first and foremost a Baptist pastor. Today he is remembered as a civil rights leader or a social activisteven by the current generation of African Americans. Here is what he said about his own self-understanding: “I am many things to many people: civil rights leader, agitator, troublemaker and orator, but in the quiet resources of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher … The church is my life and I have given my life to the church.”[1] He was not alone. The company around King consisted of Christian ministers. John Lewis, according to tradition, started preaching to the chickens on his family farm at age 5this is now the title of a book about the young Lewis[2]and preached his first sermon at the age of 15. He was later ordained as a Baptist minister. It was within the same tradition of King that Lewis began to get into what he called “good trouble”:  he helped to organize the Nashville Student Movement, the Freedom Riders, and suffered brutally at the Edmund Pettus Bridge at Selma. While there were many in churches who opposed equality for all, there were a large number of people who supported it. The core leadership of the civil rights movement was a group of ministers who were supported by Christiansboth black and whiteand Jews.

Again, near the approach of the millennium, churches around the world rallied to Jubilee 2000, a project that called on the wealthiest nations to forgive the debts of the poorest nations. The concept was based on the year of Jubilee set out in Leviticus 25 in which all lands returned to the original owners in the 50th year and all debts were cancelled. The movement did not persuade all, but did lead Britain to cancel substantial debt in financially struggling nations and the US to cancel 100 percent of the debt for qualifying countries and eventually forgave $769 million. Since then the global Jubilee movement has splintered into several national movements, including Jubilee USA Network. While there are complications in all such stories, the point is that churches led a movement that had a significant impact on debt forgiveness. We worked for peace and healing.

We are at a moment when we need to find ways to bring balm to Gilead. This issue of Reflections summons us to the task of reconciliation, of building bridges rather than erecting barriers, of finding answers rather than throwing accusations, of fighting for the common good despite the odds. This will require soul-searching, placing others before ourselves, and always remembering that the person in front of us is the person for whom Christ died.

Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament.

[1] Cited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Black Church: This is our Story, This is our Song (Penguin, 2021), p. 109.

[2] Jabari Asim and illustrations by E.B. Lewis, Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis (Penguin, 2016).