What should churches be doing in the face of what’s going on in our country right now?
I think the bright flames of Christianity are now down to smoldering embers, if not ashes, of feeling comfortable. The church is pretty much down to therapy and management. There’s really little prophetic fire. The Roman Catholic Church is so caught up in all the sexual problems of abuse, they’ve lost a lot of their moral authority. And the poor rabbis have a problem being critical of Israel because the congregations don’t want to hear it so much. The only people who could save the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are American Jews. If they said to Bush, "We have to change," that would be it. But they’re not saying it audibly, and not in concert, that’s for sure.

The churches are a reflection of the truth of Plato’s statement, "What’s honored in the country will be cultivated there." When we got started as a country, we had no more than 3 million people--less than Los Angeles County today. Yet we turned out Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton--you can name a list as long as your arm. How many people on the public stage can you name today who are of the caliber of those first men? And why aren’t there more? Because what’s honored in the country will be cultivated there.

Or how come those itty, bitty Italian city-states turned out one fantastic painter and sculptor after another? Because every kid couldn’t wait to get his mitt on a paint brush. What’s honored in the country will be cultivated there. We have fantastic athletes. I watched the Spurs and Lakers yesterday. Those guys play basketball like nobody’s business. Yet we have mediocre politicians, and the clergy is pretty mediocre also. But what’s honored in a country will be cultivated there. The greatest recession in this country is not economic; it’s spiritual. And so the great biblical mandates of pursuing justice and seeking peace are shortchanged.

Too many ministers, also, are dependent on the love of their congregation. A real friend is one who risks her friendship for the sake of her friend, rather than using the friend for the sake of her friendship. The clergy don’t speak out because they don’t want to risk the love of their congregation. It’s pathetic! If [a parishioner] says, "If you say anything like that again, you’ll never see me in this church again," you should say to him, "You know, I must have said something very important. It certainly got you all riled up." But most ministers would take the hand in both hands, "Oh, come on Joe. There must be some misunderstanding. I’ll call you. We’ll have a date over a cup of coffee."

If you’re shepherd of the flock, you’re supposed to keep the wolves out so more sheep can come in. And the hills are full of browsing sheep, wondering whether there’s room in the fold for them. But they look in and say, "There’s no Good Shepherd there, lots of wolves. I’ll stay browsing outside."

Do you ever struggle with despair?
If Jesus never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair, who the hell am I to give into despair? Despair is not an option. The worse a situation gets, the more pessimistic you become, because reality reflects pessimism. That is the moment for hope as opposed to optimism. I love what Vaclav Havel said, "Hope is not tied to the successful outcome of an issue, but to the fact that the issue makes good sense." That’s wonderful. In other words, keep the faith, despite the evidence. Only by doing has the evidence any chance of changing.

'We have to recover the Bible, but we also have to recover from it.'

What is the religious challenge at our universities?
The loss of wonder is really critical as technology evolves more and more. I feel so strongly about wonder because, finally, it’s an ethical consideration. Only reverence can restrain violence, whether it’s against nature or against one another. And loss of reverence, loss of wonder, is a terrible, sad loss.

So what is the role of the university chaplain?
Obviously ethics are crucial. They don’t exhaust the gospel, but they’re not ancillary to the gospel. So a focus should be the ethical considerations of our personal life and, particularly these days, of our national life. Justice and peace are pretty primary in our public life, or they ought to be. How is it, [Duke divinity professor and Nelson Mandela’s prison chaplain] Peter Storey once asked, that good people allow their institutions to do their sinning for them? These are concerns that I think the chaplain should always be raising. It’s very important to ask the right questions.

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