I’ll never forget seeing former Boston Bishop Thomas Shaw in his flowing clerical robes join protesters at the Israeli Embassy calling for an end to oppression of Palestinians. Excitement swept through the crowd, and the Bishop’s presence lent credibility to the gathering that could not be ignored. Bishop Shaw had been to the Holy Land and seen the situation there. He refused to be silent.
Rev. Bruce Shipman, former priest-in-charge at Yale Episcopal Church, has also been to the Holy Land and witnessed the demolished homes, segregated roads and uprooted orchards. He met with Jews who are working to end the occupation, and with Christians who have called on churches to oppose the injustice. Recently, he penned a three-sentence letter to the New York Times suggesting that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians may be one cause of rising anti-Semitism, which we all condemn. Days later, he resigned his position at Yale.
There is a long tradition of social activism by clergy in the Episcopal Church. Rev. Paulli Murray, the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, was also the first woman to receive her J.D.S. degree from Yale. She was a lifelong activist for gender and racial equality.
In 1989, following elections that disenfranchised the majority of South Africans, the church’s Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning delivered a strongly worded protest to the South African Consulate in New York.
After consoling parents of children killed at Sandy Hook School, Rev. Kathleen Adams-Shepherd of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, Mass., became a vocal advocate for gun control, lobbying in her state’s capital and Washington, D.C.
This year, two Episcopal bishops, Rev. Dean Wolfe and Rev. Michael Milliken, spoke out against a Kansas bill proposing to legalize LGBT discrimination.
Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark was outspoken during his career on issues like ordaining gay clergy and blessing same-sex marriages. His work for women’s equality in the priesthood led ultimately to election of a female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion. Since her election, Bishop Schori has urged fellow Episcopalians to “advocate for government policies that serve justice, peace and the dignity of all.”
Mary Getz, an Episcopal communications officer, notes that the church’s Baptismal Covenant commits Episcopalians to “strive for justice and peace.” She says, “The Bible calls us to ‘speak up for those who cannot’ and to ‘defend the rights of the poor and needy,’ (Proverbs 31: 8-9). As seekers of justice, we answer this call through public policy advocacy. It takes us beyond the traditional avenues of Christian charity to the work of justice — changing the systems that necessitate charity.”
The late Father Robert Castle challenged these systems while a priest in Harlem. According to the New York Times, “He marched in Mississippi with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King … He picketed banks and restaurants for failing to hire minorities … He marched against the Vietnam War, preached against the death penalty and fought gentrification of the urban neighborhoods he served. In Jersey City, lobbying for cleaner, safer streets, he once dumped vanloads of garbage outside City Hall. In Harlem, to call attention to an unfilled pothole or a much-needed traffic light, he sometimes preached in the middle of the street.”
Episcopal News Service recently carried an article about Rev. Jack Stanton, a veteran of civil rights and Vietnam War demonstrations who volunteered to be arrested during a protest on behalf of casino workers fired for union organizing. The title: “Clerics sometimes break the law in the pursuit of justice.”
Rev. Shipman has broken no law except the unwritten law that forbids questioning Israel. There is a big difference between criticizing a country’s policies and maligning its people. Denying this stifles debate.
This courageous priest has upheld Episcopal tradition in standing for the oppressed. His suggestion was simply that we take a close look at ourselves, the “patrons of Israel,” in evaluating the causes of violence and anti-Semitism. We can only hope the Episcopal Church at Yale will take a close look at itself and restore Rev. Shipman to his post.
Susanne Hoder is founder of the Interfaith Peace Initiative in Providence, RI.