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… 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 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..
NB: This talk was delivered on April 6, 2023
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. …