Printer Friendly

Lessons on the pastor Roth affair.

Since mid-November, the Rev. Douglas Roth, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Clairton, Pennsylvania, has occupied a cell in the Allegheny County Jail. He is charged with remaining in his church in defiance of a court injunction obtained by his bishop. The events leading to his arrest raise serious questions for the left about forming alliances with today's increasingly politicized churches. Roth had been fighting for unemployed steelworkers, but he drew his inspiration and his tactics from what he and other activist clergymen call the prophetic ministry, which challenges the church hierarchy. Such tactics, critics say, muddy the issues and keep Roth and ministers like him bogged down in the trench warfare of church politics.

The Protestant radicalism that Roth exemplifies grew up in the Monongahela Valley, outside Pittsburgh, in response to corporate destruction of the steel industry and its dependent communities. In the midst of plant shutdowns, large-scale disinvestment and Big Steel's move to diversify into oil, plastics, chemicals and real estate, the region's workers have become industrial castoffs. Walk into the office of United Steel Workers of America Local 1397 in Homestead and you are greeted by a rackful of pamphlets urging workers to seek help for alcoholism, drug abuse, family breakup and depression. The Pittsburgh area's "recovery" unemployment rate of 11.4 percent gives little reason to hope that things will turn around soon in Ronald Reagan's forgotten America. A Mellon Bank economist came closer to the mark when she observed that the children of the unemployed could no longer expect to glide from school into wel-paying jobs in the mills. For the next generation, she predicted, things are "going to be different." The Rev. Jesse Jackson put it more poignantly in a speech outside U.S. Steel's Duquesne works, where the Dorothy Six blast furnace is slated to bemolished. This once-busy region, he lamented, invoking the prophet Ezekiel, has become a "valley of dry bones."

Pittsburgh has not wanted for ideas on how to pull itself out of the slump. Local business leaders promise a hi-tech renaissance; church officials call for more money for social services and job training; progressive affiliated with the Tri-State Conference on Steel, a regional planning body formed by steelworkers and social activists, urge the establishment of a regional authority to take over abandoned steel mills, including the one at Duquesne. But so far, little has been accomplished. The plants continue to close, jobs disappear, family ties weaken and more children go hungry.

Concerned about the failure of both conventional and progressive remedies, a group of young ministers, with the support of church hierarchies from five denominations, began meeting in 1980 to explore more effective strategies for dealing with the problems of their working-class parishioners. They were guided by the tenets of the priestly ministry--the task of bringing peace and comfort to their congregants--and they called themselves the Pittsburgh Area Mission Strategy. They hired community organizer Charles Honeywell, who was influenced by Saul Alinsky, to help them plan ways of brining about social change. Early efforts included food distribution, family counseling and educational programs. The aim was to alleviate the people's suffering and help the jobless act on their own.

Moved by the near-bankruptcy of Clairton in 1982 and the region's growing fiscal and economic crisis, Honeywell and the ministers, including Roth, petitioned Gov. Richard Thornburgh to declare the valley an economic disaster area. Changing their name to the Denominational Ministry Stratey (D.M.S.), they recognized the futility of treating just the symptoms and sought to deal with what the Rev. James Von Dreele calls the long-range issues, disinvestment and unemployment. In D.M.S.'s view, nothing would change for the workers until the responsibility for their suffering was traced back to the decision-makers whose choices had caused the pain.

D.M.S. set out to identify Pittsburgh's power elite and to confront them on the issues. The clergyman approached nearly fifty industrial and financial chieftains, including representatives of U.S. Steel and Mellon Bank, the city's biggest industrial and financial institution, respectively. According to Von Dreele, they received a standard reply: "We're too powerless to do anything." Mellon executives told the clergymen, "We're only lenders, not investors."

D.M.S. soon recognized that the enemy--corporate power--was impervious to the soft-spoken approach of the priestly ministry. As Honeywell put it, scripture teaches that actions to alleviate suffering are not enough. In the presence of evil, the priestly ministry fails. It becomes "like feeding Jews through the fence" of a concentration camp. Moreover, because its passivity strengthens evil, it is immoral. Rather than "adapt to evil," they decided to undertake an activist and critical prophetic ministry which accepts the moral responsibility of "agitating the pharisees" and provoking the institutional evildoers into reactionary responses that would make churchgoers aware of their existence. In Von Dreele's words, "To educate the congregation [we] must use tactics that outrage the culture." And outrage the culture they did.

First, however, they tried conventional measures. To punish Mellon Bank for its disinvestment policies, including foreclosure on the Mesta Machine Company, D.M.S., in alliance with rank-and-file steelworkers, encouraged unemployed workers and local residents to withdraw their savings. Von Dreele estimates that depositors withdrew about $5 million (bank officials claim the total was approximately $100,000). When that strategy failed toaffect bank policy, D.M.S. members turned to harsher tactics.

They attempted to disrupt business at Local Mellon branches by depositing fish in safe-deposit boxes. They barged into church services attended by corporate officials, confronted businessmen at their suburban homes, berated church hierarchs at their altars. They threw containers of skunk oil during a children's Christmas pageant at one of the city's most affluent churches. Meanwhile, the ministers urged their parishioners to lend political and financial support to their prophetic ministry. As the campaign intensified, however, congregational resistance grew, especially among Pastor Roth's flock at Trinity Lutheran Church. Angry parishioners petitioned Bishop Kenneth May to investigate Roth's activities. After the minister refused to tone down his rhetoric, the synod's executive board called for his transfer to anothre parish. Roth declined to step aside. Bishop May regarded his refusal as a direct challenge to his and the synod's authority and ordered Roth to leave the church at once. The minister held his ground and, accompanied by the parish's executive board, locked himself inside the sanctuary. Lawyers for the synod--from the firm Reed, Shaw, Smith and McClay, which was also represented Mellon Bank and U.S. Steel--obtained an injunction and on Mellon Bank and U.S. Steel--obtained an injunction and on November 13, 1984, the county sheriff removed the minister and jailed him. At that juncture the questions of unemployment, "corporate evil" and the prophetic ministry had become inseparable. The Roth case poses some touchy issues for D.M.S. and for the left.

Critics of D.M.S., including Bishop May, the press, business and union leaders and even some people on the left, have chastised the ministers for using tactics that distract from the economic debate by focusing attention on a power struggle in a single church. The clergymen counter that their battle against evil, whatever its source, must begin inside the church, which long has served to sanction local corporate and political power. The Rev. John Gropped, perhaps the most outspoken of the D.M.S. ministers, points to "scribes and pharisees standing with Mellon Bank against Roth so that they can continue their evil." In Groppe's words, "Christ never stood on the side of the powers that be and condoned them, but that's exactly where the national church stands." The ideological front of the church must be ripped away, the D.M.S. rebels, say, to lay bare the core of corporate evil.

The prophetic ministers do not expect immediate or widespread public support. "We're not concerned with a good press," Honeywell explains. "Bad press causes reaction, half against us, half against them." In fact, he says, "You only win with bad press"; it draws public attention and comment. "It's an image war," says Von Dreele. "Corporate Pittsburgh is always worried about its image. That's their vulnerability." And as United Steel Workers Local 1397 President Ron Weisen, a strong D.M.S. supporter, declares, "We have given Pittsburgh a bad image [because] we don't want hi-tech, nonunion, $5-an-hour jobs. We'll continue to chase them out of Pittsburgh."

To the charge that churches and executives' homes are inappropriate settings for political confrontations, Von Dreele replies, "We go at them where they are." When Jesse Jackson and other political leaders hold rallies at the gates of abandoned plants, the crowds are small, Groppe points out, proving that traditional protests have no power to illuminate evil or to arouse the wrath of workers. In a world of telepolitics, evil can be exposed only by outrageous gestures.

Progressives will debate the wisdom of D.M.S.'s strategy, but one fact is undeniable: it has made the church a prime arena for initiating social change. The Roth incident, considered in the context of the Catholic Church's role in Poland's Solidarity movement, the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America, the bishop's draft statement on the economy and Jesse Jackson's Presidential candidacy, undescores the increased prominence of religion as a source of political resistance to economic domination.

Religion's political appeal is worth cultivating by the left. Churches offer ready-made meeting places for communicating with and organizing working-class people. The clergy provides a potentially valuable leadership pool. Religion's moral force adds much-needed credibility and legitimacy to an American labor movement that has too often been identified with greed and corruption. Religion canhelp efface the profane image of unions by joining them in the cause of community betterment. "The most powerful coalition there is," says Weisen, "is the church and the union."

But limitations have to be recognized. The prophetic ministry's unwavering fight against "evil" betrays an ambivalence toward democratic methods. According to Von Dreele, "Democracy is not the issue but rather scripture and theology." Old leftist battles over the role of leadership in mass movements seem to have found echoes in the turmoil at Trinity Lutheran. Even if, as Von Dreele charges, U.S. Steel and Mellon interests used contacts at Trinity Lutheran to foment anxiety and dissent about Roth's ministry, ministers have a democratic obligation to be sensitive to their parishioners' fears.

Moreover, the right also makes claims on scriptural authority. In his book Toward a Theology of the Corporation, Michael Novak writes, "The modern business corporation [is] a much despised incarnation of God's presence in this world." Novak, former Treasury Secretary William Simon and other conservative Catholics recently formed the Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, partly in anticipation of the Catholic bishops' economic statement, which was critical of economic injustice. Theology is a contested terrain; claiming that God is on your side hardly assures an expanding coalition.

The overlooked tragedy of Roth's imprisonment is what it reveals about American society's historic inability to provide means by which communities can control economic change, and the culture's historic inability to place the blame where it belongs--on the economic system. Pittsburgh's problems are caused by the workings of a capitalist political economy, not the evildoings of powerful elites. Malevolence is not required for Pittsburgh and many other cities to suffer the trials of disinvestment. All it takes is a group of steel and bank executives who are doing their jobs. The prophetic ministers fail to see that the profit makers draw their power from the process of profit making. The church's moral indignation needs to locate its targets at deeper levels of social reality.

Traditional leftist approaches, such as the Tri-State Conference on Steel's, offer important clues to how the system should be changed. But Tri-State's program has done little to uplift the spirit of the unemployed. The jobless remain discouraged and cynical about politics and government. Like other leftist organizations around the country, Tri-State has policies and ideas but no aroused constituency to support them.

D.M.S. offers a strategy of cultural outrage but little in the way of a program and not much more in the way of expanding support for the unemployed. Whatever the original intent, the Roth issue has become a question of church authority and order rather than economic justice, and coverage in the local press has compounded the confusion. But D.M.S.'s push for a "bad press" has also contributed. Much heat but little light has been thrown on the political strategies that are necessary to give direction to economic change.

Still, posibilities for potent alliances have emerged. Only a few years ago, the United Steel Workers appeared split beyond repair. The international union's refusal to play an active role in reopening the mills in Youngstown, Ohio, deepened the already serious rift between rank-and-file insurgents and the international hierarchy. But the sheer magnitude of plant closings since then has forcedthe union to play a more active role in resisting corporate flight. At a recent demonstration to save the Dorothy Six blast furnace, U.S.W.A. president Lynn Williams joined Jesse Jackson in backing the Tri-State public authority plan, a remarkable turnaround given the union's strong opposition to public control at Youngstown.

The spirit and commitment of D.M.S. should be brought to such coalitions, but in ways that educate church radicals to the variety of needs and outlooks on the left. A global debate on the ties between secular radicalism and a passionate, religiously inspired commitment to economic morality and justice is under way. In America, with its plethora of denominations and community and regional organizations, such a debate lacks a ready forum. A national conference of leftist organizations, secular and religious, should be convened before the next Presidential campaign to thrash out the issues. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition might provide an appropriate umbrella.

Such a conference does not figure to be a merry gathering. The questions are touchy and difficult ones. Dealing with them will demand heightened levels of sensibility and tolerance on the part of activist clergy and secular progressives. But from such a meeting could come energetic coalitions at the community, regional and national levels. One thing is certain, though: Pastor Roth's treatment at the hands of the Lutheran and Pittsburgh power elites shows that the church's emerging role as an agent of social change presents an ambiguous opportunity for progressives, one which must be watched closely and engaged directly.
COPYRIGHT 1985 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Douglas Roth
Author:Plotkin, Sid; Scheuerman, Bill
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 23, 1985
Words:2409
Previous Article:Field, chair and mountain.
Next Article:Stop blaming the system.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters