A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Clark Williamson, a good friend and former member of a church René and I served in Indianapolis passed away. Both René and I had him for classes at Christian Theological Seminary in our respective M.Div. and D.Min. programs. René also worked as his teaching assistant her last two years in seminary.
Clark’s credentials were impressive. He received his Ph.D. in theology at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. There he served as teaching assistant to Paul Tillich, regarded as one of the top five theologians in the world in the 20th century.
In the classroom Clark was an intimidating figure. He was like the formidable Harvard Law Professor Kingsfield in the movie “Paper Chase.” Yet despite Dr. Williamson’s tough demeanor, he was a dedicated Christian and church member in the congregation we served.
It didn’t take long for me to realize in my first class that Clark was brilliant and off-putting in his demeanor. While I aced all his classes, I only realized many years later that if he bled red on all your papers, he did so out of respect for your work, even publishing one of my papers in CTS’s journal. I learned this straight from the horse’s mouth. He was one of those demanding teachers we all come to admire after we survived their class.
Yet, it wasn’t just the material he taught that inspired me. One day he opened his personal life to us by telling our class how he and his wife lost their 10-year-old son to cancer. He said, “You know, we never get over the death of a loved one, but we do get through it.” He added, quoting philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “Nothing beautiful is lost to God.”
I would draw on these pearls of wisdom a few years later when René’s sister and nieces were killed in an accident caused by a drunk driver and for all the years since when pastoring to families going through grief. It was after our family’s tragedy and Clark’s wisdom that I realized the great difference our theology makes. Whether we know it or not, we all have a theology and enjoy or suffer the consequences if we have a good theology or a bad theology. A good theology meets the criteria of being logical, consistent, coherent, and true to life. A bad theology fails to meet these criteria.
Clark also became renowned for his expertise in Jewish-Christian relations. He served on the founding Board of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., before it was even built. He also often underscored the importance of the rabbinic (teaching) role of ministry. He faulted seminaries, clergy, families, and congregations for failing in the educational ministry of the church and often groaned at the biblical illiteracy of so many active Christians.
But his fight against anti-Judaism in the church was particularly poignant. He wrote a book titled “Has God Rejected His People?”, assuring his readers that in fact, God has not. His argument against anti-Judaism remains timely with the rapid rise of anti-Jewish violence in America today. In the book Dr. Williamson shows that much of the anti-Judaism evidenced in the New Testament reflected an intra-family argument between Jews and Christians and not an attempt to reject Jewish religion altogether. Jesus, after all, was a Jew, and often quoted the Hebrew scriptures (the OT), to communicate clearly to his heavily Jewish audience.
Yet, the violence Christians have done in Christ’s name against Jews is reprehensible: from calling them “Chris Killers,” to the pogroms of the self-righteous Christian Medieval Crusades to Hitler’s use of bad Christian theology in formulating the Final Solution and the Holocaust, to the demonstrations at Charlottesville with white supremacists wearing t-shirts with the Nazi phrases “blood and soil,” and “durm and strang” (storm and stress) emblazoned on them. These were not and are not “fine people” as Americans were led to believe.
What Dr. Williamson understood and would have us understand is that all faiths, Jewish, Christian, Moslem, et.al., can be radicalized with bad theology to whitewash evil in the form of unconscionable actions. Jesus was most thoroughly Jewish, but he pulled no punches in critiquing piety that appears to be righteous but is in fact complicit with evil. The gospel writers understood this and reported this in colluding with the Romans in Jesus’ death.
BUT even the Jewish leaders could not exert the death penalty. Caesar and his henchmen, like Pilate (who really was a bad person, despite John’s Gospel’s portrayal of him as a victim of circumstances), were jealous of their power. Crucifixion was a Roman death penalty Jewish leaders could not exercise.
John’s and the other gospel writers, demonstrating the High Priest Caiaphas’s and the Sanhedrin’s complicity with the Roman authorities, were practically shouting to their faithful readers, BEWARE whom you buddy up to. There will always be politicians who exploit their office by leading you to compromise your faith & co-opt your religion to do their bidding!
Over the past few years René and I had the opportunity to break bread with Clark several times. Dr. Williamson was deeply distressed at the complicity he found from so many churches & Christians in supporting values & policies that aren’t just unamerican but unchristian. He was scandalized by the upsurge in violent anti-Judaism across our country, along with racism, sexism and other anti-social attitudes and behaviors.
Our task as Christians is to name evil when we see it. NOT do Namecalling, as politicians running for office often do. That’s a whole different matter, but to name evil and injustice wherever they exist.
This can be tricky. Naming evil can appear to make us look like trying to make ourselves the hero. It’s like the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt said of her father. “He wanted to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.”
Trouble erupts when people try to speak ex cathedra, as if from the throne of God or assume our will must be God’s will! Humility and modesty are always in order. But we all know how intolerable people who never admit being wrong can be. Yes, sometimes I’m one of them.
On the other hand, it does little good to so censor ourselves when we know “There is a time to speak” as there is a time to be silent. Silence is often unintended complicity with outcomes we abhor. We not only need to throw bouquets wherever good occurs but also name evil when it occurs. We may be entering a time in America when we all will have to choose to speak up against injustice or remain silent and unintentionally contribute to evil.
This is one reason I respected Dr. Williamson. It wasn’t just his brilliance in teaching church history & theology. It was because I always knew where he stood. Yes, he could call a spade a shovel. But he was a man of Christian integrity, who didn’t need to be liked and wwho never compromised his faith in order to win an audience.
He knew, as we must, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23). Clark knew, that even if we aren’t formally trained theologians, we all have theologies, beliefs that make a difference in the way we act and think about our world and our lives.
The questions then become: Do we know God? Do we know what we believe and why we believe as we do? And do we know how our beliefs affect other people, our church, our nation, and our world? Because as Clark liked to say, “Beliefs have consequences.” He was right. They do! They always have! And they always will!
Thank you, Clark!