The outpouring of ecumenism around the death of Pope John Paul II may last for a while; where it will be a month from now is another matter. Despite the comity among religious people that was witnessed this week in Rome, the fissures separating the faithful may be greater than the theological agreements uniting them.
Look back no farther than two weeks ago, when I wrote about the Anglican bishop in the South Rwenzori Diocese of Uganda, the Right Rev. Jackson Nzerebende Tembo. The column reported that Bishop Tembo had suspended all activities between his diocese and the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, including his request for $352,941 to support an HIV-AIDS program, financial assistance for orphans' education and a visit by a U.S. medical team. Tembo based his decision on news that the Central Pennsylvania diocese had supported election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. The column also reported that the Pennsylvania group had collected more than $350,000 to send to Uganda.
This week I received a copy of an April 1 e-mail written by Bishop Tembo that sought to "clear up any misunderstandings and misperceptions" about his actions. He agreed that he had personally requested a multi-year grant of $352,941 from the Central Pennsylvania Diocese "for a comprehensive AIDS ministry [for] everything from prevention and education to support groups to hospice care for the dying and support for family members." He acknowledged withdrawing his request and said he also asked that the U.S. medical team not visit Uganda. He noted, however, that the Central Pennsylvania Diocese had not offered or pledged support and that no money had been received for the project. "We have only withdrawn an unfunded request," he wrote.
Tembo, stressing the South Rwenzori Diocese's commitment to HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment programs, orphans and other worthy endeavors -- as well as his own commitment to care for the most vulnerable, including his family, care of orphans and widows on his "monthly salary of $281" -- declared that "God will honor our commitment to His Word and the historic teaching of the church and will provide more than we could ask or imagine for the people committed to our care."
He said that the Church of Uganda broke communion with the Episcopal Church USA because the U.S. church ignored warnings from the worldwide Anglican Communion and "proceeded with the consecration as bishop of a man living in a same-sex relationship." He charged that the Episcopal Church of the United States had "unilaterally adopted unbiblical practices, [and] in its path it has left a trail of broken relationships and other casualties throughout ECUSA and the world-wide Anglican Communion." The money sought from the Central Pennsylvania Diocese, Tembo observed, " is not the only money in the world."
Thus ecumenism on the Anglican front. Things, however, also aren't so hot here at home when it comes to tolerance and acceptance.
While John Paul was being lauded for healing relations with Jews, a survey released this week by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) showed the enduring strength of intolerance and anti-Semitic beliefs on our own soil.
It is deeply troubling to learn from the ADL poll that nearly 35 million American adults -- roughly 14 percent of the population -- hold "unquestionably anti-Semitic" views. Moreover, those anti-Semitic propensities have gone down only slightly since the last national survey in 2002, when the level was 17 percent. Consider what the survey found: 33 percent of Americans believe Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States; 32 percent believe Jews always like to be at the head of things; and 30 percent believe that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. Perceptions about "Jewish power" also have traction: 19 percent of adult Americans believe that Jews have too much power in the business world. Among Americans holding the most anti-Semitic propensities, the view that Jews have too much power in the United States is up to 70 percent.
The good news is that some of those percentages have declined over time. The bad news? Not among the hard-core anti-Semites, who still number in the millions. And it's hardly reassuring to note that 29 percent of foreign-born Hispanics, among the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, hold strong anti-Semitic beliefs, far above the national average of 14 percent for all Americans. The number among African Americans is even more disheartening: 36 percent fall in the most anti-Semitic category -- four times more than whites, at 9 percent.
How do all these numbers translate, and what do they have to do with the Episcopal Church-Anglican Communion row or how we live our lives?
First of all, laws on the books and strong enforcement tend to discourage the bigoted from putting their thoughts into action, at least in this country. But why the persistence of stereotypes, intolerance and scapegoating that are roiling the churches on the issue of sexuality and that cause anti-Semitic beliefs to resonate with nearly 35 million Americans?
There is no "one size fits all" answer. But in the March 31 message from the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, Bishop Michael W. Creighton, reacting to the letter of dismissal from Bishop Tembo, shared his "Gospel understanding that when people were labeled as 'sinners and wrong doers' Jesus invited himself into relationship not out of relationship." Rejection is not in the cards.
Something is missing in our human interaction. What is it? Compassion? Service? Creighton, it seems to me, was bemoaning the lack of what a Forward Day by Day magazine contributor years ago called "a love that gives without any thought of return, a love that accepts people for who they are and for who they can become, a love that embraces the poor, the outcast, the prisoner, the sick, and the sinful."
The Anglican rejection, the hard-core anti-Semitism and the bias against people not like ourselves are signs of surrender to the worse aspects of human nature. Can the ecumenism on display in Rome trump all that?