'I Am a Mystic'
'I never doubt,' says Bishop Spong. 'It's not that I'm getting older and cramming for finals. It's that God becomes more real.'John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, N.J., for 20 years before his retirement in 2000. Widely admired (and often scorned), Spong is a leader of the worldwide liberal Christianity movement. He has taught at Harvard, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and has lectured in North America, Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific. He is the author of 15 books, including his latest, The Sins of Scripture.
Beliefnet senior editor Deborah Caldwell interviewed him at his New Jersey home, which features a wooden troll-like bishop, hand-carved in Africa, serving as a comic sentry by the front door. International art hung all over the sunny house, artifacts of Spong's travels abroad. He's still as opinionated as ever--but he seems mellower and downright happier. After all, he points out, he's hitting the stride of an older, wiser man. The conversation follows.
What is the worst verse in the Bible?
The one that has hurt the most people is a verse in Matthew when the Jewish crowd is made to say, "His blood be upon us and upon our children." Because that echoed and got quoted over and over and over through the centuries and justified anti-Semitism.
The background is important: the Jewish world had gotten more and more radical under the occupation of the Romans. And those that accommodated themselves throughout the occupation were looked at as traitors; those who fought the occupation were considered terrorists to the Romans, but freedom fighters to the Jews. By 66 C.E. this movement broke out into a full-scale war, the Galilean war. The Galilean guerillas fought well as long as they were in the hills of Galilee because they could do hit-and-run stuff. The Romans finally decided that they couldn't tolerate that so they matched their forces against Jerusalem and destroyed it in 70 C.E. What happened then was that you had incredible anti-Semitic feelings among the Romans. It would be like American feeling toward Osama bin Laden and the terrorists...in that they suffered at their hands. The Christians tried to separate themselves from the Jewish crowd so they wouldn't be the recipients of the persecution of the Romans. And the way they did it was to say, the Jews killed our hero too. And so Christians began to define themselves over against the orthodox party of the Jews as a way of surviving against the Roman onslaught.