Last week we reported that Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., former senior minister of Riverside Church, has embarked on his next chapter as the Harry Emerson Fosdick Distinguished Professor of Union Theological Seminary (UTS) and is launching a national ministry of preaching and spiritual renewal.
Our Time Press spoke with Dr. Forbes about his new mission.
OTP: I see you’ve followed Reverend Fosdick’s dictum of not retiring from something but retiring to something.
FORBES: Sir, I think the people fooled me a bit. They put me on a hydraulic lift, took off the old threadbare tires, put on new tires, let me down and said, “Roll on because you’ve been ‘re-tired’.” So I guess that’s the new meaning of retirement, put on new tires and roll on a little bit longer.
OTP: And now your new ministry is to counteract the increasing divisiveness, intolerance and incivility. What do you see as the root of that and how do you plan to get at them?
FORBES: My thinking is that in times of transition, especially if there are traumatic changes. It leaves people with a sense of disquietude and insecurity. And they seek, usually when it’s really perilous for them to find out who is responsible for making me so uncomfortable, changing things around or making me feel insecure, and they usually will reach out for some kind of scapegoat. And I think given the changes that have occurred as a result of globalization, economic decline, increasing exposure to other cultures, with media granting to us the trouble from around the world and showing to us that they are all connected. What happens in Europe affects what happens in our country. So many variables that are not nailed down, tacked down, so people find themselves drifting. That means it’s easier to shift into negative thinking and accusations of others.
I guess what I would like to do to bring a message that history is such that transitions have not always been times of diminished mental destruction. Often, some of the better things happen as a result of transition. And therefore to urge people to face the continuing changes of our time with an eye toward the possibilities in it.
Of course, biblical people always said, “All things work together for good”. I have a different angle on it. “God doesn’t will everything, but God wills something out of everything.” And everybody has the choice to make. Even to sit and suck air through their teeth, or lament what’s wrong, or to keep their eyes open to discover what positives can be extracted from the rubble of the present disaster or present trauma they are in.
So I want to promote hope, I want to urge people to believe that in a sense we are all connected and therefore it’s very poor strategy to kill off people. It’s better to strengthen each other as we face common challenges. And to dare to believe that the spirit is always helpful, even in tough times, to discover where the grace is, in the midst of the disgrace. Things like that I hope will make a contribution.
OTP: If folks would be looking to enact change, are you calling people to act on their beliefs and ideas?
FORBES: I would say when people have reached a kind of spirit of despair, action is one of the therapeutic measures they could take. For example, we are discussing today, everywhere, Occupy Wall Street. The truth is you can’t have 99% of the country experiencing that they have in some way been disenfranchised, dismissed and disproportionately robbed of the subsistent necessities, without saying there is a need for fair tax policies, there is a need for more equitable distribution of resources, there is a need for the respect for all of us, whether or not we are a part of the 1% or not. My sense is, we can sit around and talk about it. That’s not such a bad thing if it gives us insight. But sooner or later, if you want the change to be positive, we all have to join the ‘do something’ club. We will not always do the same thing, but clearly, taking action keeps us from being stuck in a spirit of negativity. So yes. We’re going to pray, we’re going to think, and we’re going to get up off our knees and we’re going to find ways in which we can make a difference. It may be that we’re going to vote more consistently. It may mean that we’re going to join the political process and hold our leaders to account for the well-being of all of us. It may mean that we will try to make very clear our displeasure at the disproportionate resources in the hands of a few to the neglect of the others. Yes, action is one of the ways we heal ourselves in the season of societal malaise.
OTP: You mentioned Occupy Wall Street and the Internet. It seems the Internet is enabling connections between people around the world, and is doing two things at once. On the one hand is the connection of people giving them the ability to be aware of information simultaneously and causing almost a new world organism.
On the other hand it is causing an atomization of society in that like interests can find each other and perhaps edit out other ideas. How do you use the Internet’s ability to do those two things in your ministry?
FORBES: My thinking is that the Internet provides an opportunity for us to invite people into our community. Though we begin with our primary groups, it gives us the capacity to be in touch. If we use the Internet in such a way that it results in isolation, the spirit of individualism, the spirit of “My crowd, my way or the highway,” then we will have taken a wonderful blessing and turned it into a detrimental aspect of the modern society. Obviously, the people who connected with each other in Egypt when they were trying to get their movement going, it was not enough to just talk on the cell phone or e-mail or get onto somebody’s Facebook. They finally had to come out and make contact with each other to make their voices heard. My feeling is it’s wonderful to make contact, the question is what do you do with the contact. Does the contact lead to a reduced sense of community? Does it lead to a reduction of flesh and blood connections? My hope is that with the new social media mechanisms, it will make possible actions that will be promoting the common good rather than my little bailiwick.
OTP: Speaking of bailiwicks, is this going to be a teaching position at the seminary? Will you be growing seeds to go out with the message?
FORBES: Yes, my coming back to the seminary, I was a teacher there from ’76-’89, I have come back to the seminary because I am very much aware that we’ve lost a spirit in the culture and we need to cultivate leaders who understand the relationship between spirituality and socially transforming movements. I think, for example, when we get together Wednesday night we will have representatives from Alban Theological Seminary, New York Theological Seminary, and Union Seminary. They will all be there and I’m actully hoping that through the young leaders preparing for congregational leadership as well as academic careers, perhaps we will get some fresh insight that could lead to another spiritual awakening.
People do not always remember that in the great awakenings in the history of our nation, many of them started at places like Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Oberlin. I’m up there on the hill, Columbia University on one side, Barnard Teachers College, Jewish Theological Seminary, International House, Riverside Church. Perhaps the spiritual revitalization that leads us to more justice in our nation, maybe it might be sparked at the seminary. If not in the immediate, then perhaps the persons who are trained in theological education who will become pastors and leaders in the community, maybe that’s where the spark will take place.
I have gone back to the seminary, my primary work will not be in the quadrangle of the seminary, I will teach preaching and I will teach some other courses, my primary work will be to go forth into the nation with a preaching, teaching and convening responsibility so that we are able to project a spirit of justice in contrast to the bigotry and incivility that seems to be growing in all quarters.
OTP: A lot of this is politically and financially pushed and motivated. How do you deal with those interests that are consciously trying to cause divisiveness.
FORBES: The Bible in Isaiah says “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which satisfies not.” This suggests that the Lord would like for all God’s children to have satisfaction and abundance in life. However, sometimes a person who hoards resources discovers that will not bring the satisfaction that he or she is looking for. So I will want to address both the 99% and the 1%. I would want to address Republicans and Democrats, and ask the question : “Do you think the values you spout about in political campaigns, that those values, if acted upon, will really bring you to satisfaction? What if we destroyed government, would that make you happy? Supposed you hoarded all of the resources and there was practically nothing left for anybody else, would that make you happy? My task will be to urge people to give deeper consideration to what do we really long for. And are our political perspectives or even our religious practices yielding the quality of life that makes it worth the struggle that is always present in life. So economics, as well as political issues and societal issues, all of these things, when you boil it down, have a fundamental moral and spiritual base. My feeling is that people who balance their material concerns with deep spirituality are likely first of all to be more satisfied with their own lives and are really able to make a contribution for the common good. I hope I can make that case. And if I do that, then maybe the America that comes in the next decade or so will be brighter than the one we seem to have gotten stuck into during this present time.
OTP: Thank you for your time, but before you go, I’d like to ask you about a project of yours, the African Burial Ground. Where is that now?
FORBES: As you know, Howard Dodson worked with us in putting together the Burial ground event. And we are continuing to work with the government services, Parks Division to make that African Burial Ground a place that invites tourists from all around the world to inspire them to understand that as we honor our ancestors, then the prospect for our future is brightened. From the African proverb that says “I am because we are,” suggests that one generation cannot thumb its nose at the former generations, but that our well-being comes as we keep faith with the legacy of those that have gone before. So we will continue to lift this up educationally to have our students go and look at that very beautiful memorial, to get some sense of the sacredness of our ancestors. And to promote that not just for Black kids but for all people to say as one man said to me down south, “Jim, no man ever amounts to much until he learns to bless his own origins.” That’s true for Black folks, it’s true for white folks, for Latinos, for Asians, for Jews, for Christians, for Muslims. All of us will do better when we keep faith with those on whose shoulders we stand.