Washington DC — (Scheerpost) — We are not here to debate the moral squalor that defines the life of the hedge fund billionaire and chair of the seminary’s trustee board, Michael Fisch. We are not here to denounce him for the personal fortune, reportedly worth at least $10 billion, a fortune he built preying on the poorest among us, those families that went into debt to pay his prison telecommunications company’s exorbitant fees which charge up to $15 for 15-minute calls, fees that see families across the U.S. pay $1.4 billion each year to speak to incarcerated loved ones. We are not here to decry the pain he and his corporation ViaPath, formerly Global Tel Link, caused to hundreds of thousands of children, desperate to speak to an incarcerated mother or father, to tell them about school, or that they miss them, that they need to hear their voice to know everything will be okay, that they are loved. We are not here to contrast the lives of these children, bewildered at the cruelty of this world, living in dilapidated apartments in inner city projects, with the feudal opulence of Michael Fisch’s life, his three mansions worth $100 million lined up on the same ritzy street in East Hampton, his art collection worth over $500 million, his Fifth Avenue apartment worth $21 million and his four-story Upper East Side townhouse. So many luxury dwellings that sit empty much of the time, no doubt, while over half a million Americans are homeless. Greed is not rational. It devours because it can. It knows only one word — more.
No, we are here today to call out the Pharisees that run this seminary, the ones who speak about loving the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, in the abstract, but who really love the rich, including the rich who make their fortunes by exploiting the families of the students I teach in the Rutgers college degree program in New Jersey prisons, students, many of whom should have never been imprisoned, who are victims of our system of neo-slavery. We are here today to call out the liberal church, so quick to wrap itself in the cloak of virtue and so quick to sell virtue out when it conflicts with monetary interests and requires self-sacrifice.
Is it any mystery that the liberal church is dying? Is it any mystery that its seminaries and divinity schools are contracting and closing? The church bleeds itself to death sustaining moribund institutions and paying the salaries of church bureaucrats and seminary presidents who speak in the empty and vague gibberish that Lee Walton, the President of Princeton Theological Seminary, uttered when presented with the fact that Michael Fisch, and all he stands for, is antithetical to the Christian gospel. This false piety, and the smug arrogance that comes with it, is killing the church, turning it into a museum piece.
Is Black Lives Matter a commodity, a piece of branding, or does it mean we will stand with those Black and Brown and Asian and white bodies in our prison gulags and internal colonies? This seminary may have removed the name of Samuel Miller, a slaveholder who used the gospel to perpetrate and defend a crime of Nazi-like proportions, from the seminary chapel, albeit only when students protested, but it embraces a billionaire who makes his fortune fleecing incarcerated men and women who work 40 hour weeks in prison and are paid, when they are paid, little more than a dollar a day. Prisons are modern day plantations, and not surprisingly, a multi-billion dollar a year business for oligarchs such as Michael Fisch.
The wealthy industrialists in the 1930s and 1940s poured money and resources into the church, including seminaries such as Princeton Theological, to crush the Social Gospel, led by Christian radicals and socialists. They funded a brand of Christianity — which today is dominant — that conflates faith with free enterprise and American exceptionalism. The church has gone down the rabbit hole of a narcissistic how-is-it-with-me form of spirituality. The rich are rich, this creed goes, not because they are greedy or privileged, not because they use their power to exploit others, but because they are brilliant and gifted leaders, worthy of being lionized, like Bill Gates or Jamie Dimon, as oracles. This belief is not only delusional, but Christian heresy. The word heresy comes from the Greek verb hireo, which means to grasp or to seize – to seize for yourself at someone else’s expense. You don’t need to spend three years at Harvard Divinity School as I did, to figure out Jesus did not come to make us rich.
The liberal church committed suicide when it severed itself from this radicalism. Radical Christians led the abolitionist movement, were active in the Anti-Imperialist League, defended workers during bloody labor wars, fought for women’s suffrage, formulated the Social Gospel — which included campaigns for prison reform and educational programs for the incarcerated — and were engines in the civil rights and anti-war movements. The socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs spent far more time quoting the Bible than Karl Marx. His successor, Norman Thomas, was a Presbyterian minister.
These radicals were not embraced by the institutional church, which served as a bulwark of the establishment, but they kept the church vital and prophetic. They made it relevant. Radicals were and are its hope.
James Baldwin, who grew up in the church and was briefly a preacher, said he abandoned the pulpit to preach the Gospel. The Gospel, he knew, was not heard most Sundays in Christian houses of worship. And today with ministers wary of offending their aging and dwindling flocks — who are counted on to pay the clergy salary and bills — this is even truer than when Baldwin was alive.
This is not to say that the church does not exist. This is not to say that I reject the church. On the contrary. The church today is not located inside the stone buildings that surround us or the cavernous, and largely empty houses of worship, but here, with you. It is located with those who work in prisons, schools and shelters, those who organize fast food workers, who serve the undocumented, who form night basketball leagues in poor communities, as my divinity school classmate Michael Granzen did in Elizabeth, and who are arrested at anti-fracking and anti-war protests.
Billionaires like Michael Fisch will never fund this church, the real church. But we do not need his money. To truly stand with the oppressed is to accept being treated like the oppressed. It is to understand that the fight for justice demands confrontation. We do not always find happiness, but we discover in this resistance a strange kind of joy and fulfillment, a life of meaning and worth, one that mocks the tawdry opulence and spiritual void of billionaires like Michael Fisch, those who spend their lives building pathetic little monuments to themselves. We must remain rooted in this radicalism, this commitment to the crucified of the earth. We must always demand, even at the cost of our own comfort and safety, justice. We may not always triumph over evil, but our faith means evil will never triumph over us.
Feature photo | Illustration by Mr. Fish
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.