Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written widely on religious issues, mostly from the perspective of a seeker without claim to having discovered ultimate truth. He was a lifelong Presbyterian in what is now the PCUSA and joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, where his challenging questions were welcomed and where he was personally loved and supported.
Unfortunately, Jensen's writings became the focus of a conservative Presbyterian attempt to have him forced out of the Church. This despite the fact that Jensen is not a pastor, professor, or Presbyterian official. Moreover, the Presbytery (regional assembly, composed equally of clergy and lay members which fulfils the function of a bishop in Presbyterian governance) refused to allow Jensen to speak in his own defense.
You can read about this disturbing turn of events in "The Inquisition," an excerpt from Jensen's book, "All My Bones Shake." The excerpt has been posted on the blog Killing the Buddha.
"As I sat with a dozen St. Andrew’s members and listened, it became increasingly clear the whole charade had nothing to do with me. It was an assertion of dominance by those who wanted—or needed—clear answers to inherently perplexing questions about the meaning of the label “Christian.” I assume the reason I was not allowed to speak was that those in charge of policing the boundaries of acceptable answers to those questions did not want delegates to see me as real person; better to keep me out of sight so that I could remain an abstraction in people’s minds. "
It brought to my mind memories of the power grab the leadership of Grace Chapel Presbyterian Church used to move their congregation -- and the valuable property purchased, to a significant degree, with money from PCUSA members -- to the more "conservative" Evangelical Presbyterian Church. While claiming the title of "oppressed dissidents," these leaders had manipulated the open-hearted leaders of the Presbytery of Mississippi into signing legal papers granting the local congregation control over their property, and then filed a lawsuit for the right to use that control to take the property out of the denomination altogether. I attended Presbytery meetings in which Grace Chapel supporters asked why the Presbytery had sued Grace Chapel. They were amazed to learn that it was the other way around.
I had to wonder, during that process, how people can use religious language to supply their all-too-human need for labels, in- and out-groups, professional recognition and power, and, in the case I was involved with, valuable real estate. Reinhold Niebuhr suggested that the Biblical definition of basic sin is pride -- the replacement of a real, imperfectly knowable divine Person with a Caricature (or if you prefer the old term, an Idol) that can be molded to justify our own values and goals.
Jensen's experience, while not unexpected in some denominations, is a looming trend in the Presbyterian Church. Those of us who, with John Calvin and Karl Barth, equate "religion" with idolatry, need to stand up and make our voices heard.
Fortunately, that happened in Jensen's case. Although the Presbytery voted to require St. Andrew's to purge Jensen from the rolls, an appeal to the Synod led to a negotiated resolution that restored his membership.
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