William Stringfellow, who worked as a lawyer in Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s, in his book "My People Is the Enemy," wrote of the church:
"The premise of most urban church work, it seems, is that in order for the Church to minister among the poor, the church has to be rich, that is, to have specially trained personnel, huge funds and many facilities, rummage to distribute, and a whole battery of social services. Just the opposite is the case. The Church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor. The Church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the Gospel, except the power to apprehend and the courage to reveal the Word of God as it is already mediated in the life of the poor. When the Church has the freedom itself to be poor among the poor, it will know how to use what riches it has. When the Church has that freedom, it will be a missionary people again in all the world."
Stringfellow repeatedly warned Christians, as well as Christian institutions, not to allow the fear of death to diminish the power of Christian witness. Faith becomes real on the edge of the abyss. "In the face of death," he wrote, "live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst Babel, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with the truth and potency and efficacy of the Word of God."
During the rise of the American species of corporate fascism -- what Sheldon Wolin called "inverted totalitarianism" -- the liberal church, like the rest of the liberal establishment, looked the other way while the poor and working-men and -women, especially those of color, were ruthlessly disempowered and impoverished. The church and liberals were as silent about the buildup of mass incarceration as they once were about lynching. The mainline church refused to confront and denounce the destructive force of corporate power. It placed its faith in institutions -- such as the Democratic Party -- that had long ceased to function as mechanisms of reform.
The church, mirroring the liberal establishment, busied itself with charity, multiculturalism and gender-identity politics at the expense of justice, especially racial and economic justice. It retreated into a narcissistic "how-is-it-with-me" spirituality. Although the mainline church paid lip service to diversity, it never welcomed significant numbers of people of color or the marginalized into their sanctuaries. The Presbyterian Church, for example, is 92 percent white. It pushed to the margins or sought to discredit liberation theology, which called out the evils of unfettered capitalism, white supremacy and imperialism. The retreat from radicalism -- in essence the abandonment of the vulnerable to the predatory forces of corporate capitalism -- created a spiritual void filled by proto-fascist movements that have usurped Christian symbols and provided a species of faith that is, at its core, a belief in magic. This Christian heresy is currently on public display at Donald Trump and Ted Cruz political rallies.
The last scenes of this decline are being played out at schools such as Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Tillich and Niebuhr taught at Union. America's most important theologian, James Cone -- who opposes the condominium building project on the campus -- teaches there.
The president of the seminary, Serene Jones, says that unless part of the seminary's quadrangle is handed over to the developer, the seminary will not have the funds to survive (although she and her administration have refused to make school finances public). If Jones gets her way, Union will become part of the vast gentrification project being waged against the poor, especially poor people of color, in Morningside Heights and West Harlem.
"With these development rights, we envision the creation of a beautiful, slender building that is visually in keeping with the neighborhood and that is set on the northeast end of the quad," Jones wrote in an open letter to the Union community last December. "We want our newest building to feel like it has always been part of the current campus. We chose this location after thorough analyses showed that this was the best, and only, suitable site."
Union is working with the developer L+M Development Partners on construction plans. The firm has a history of hiring shady subcontractors -- including MC&O Construction (found guilty of stealing $830,000 in 2013 from workers on a project of NYSAFAH contractor Procida Realty & Construction), RNC Industries LLC of Holtsville, N.Y. (repeatedly cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for unsafe working conditions that have led to fatalities), and Ro-Sal Plumbing (which settled, for a class-action complaint filed by workers over unpaid wages).
It is bad enough that Union would collaborate with companies charged with safety violations, workers' compensation fraud and wage theft, but it is also abetting the driving of poor families, many of them of color, from their homes throughout the city. Apartment rents have risen in New York by 75 percent since 2000. The poor are being pushed out of neighborhoods around Union, in some cases into homeless shelters and the streets.
Students, and a few of Union's faculty members, have risen up in opposition. They charge, in the words of first-year student Yazmine Nichols, whom I interviewed by phone, that "there is a lack of honesty and transparency on the part of the administration."
"No one knows," she told me, "how far along the plans are, whether there will be affordable housing units. All these things are question marks.
"It is hard to get the school galvanized around something they [the students and faculty] have no information about," she added. "And this is part of the administration's plan -- divide and conquer by not providing information. People are left guessing and speculating.
"We need to ask ourselves what it means to exist as a theological institution," Nichols continued. "Are we truly existing if we do not hold onto the core values the institution is predicated on? This is a question about what it means to be a seminary geared to social justice. What does it mean when homeless people are sleeping outside seminary dormitories? With growing income inequality and a shrinking middle class, we must begin asking the question, 'Affordable for whom?' What we mean by 'affordability' is that housing ought to be affordable for people of color who fall at or below the NYC poverty line. What does it mean to worship God and theologize in a world where people are suffering? What does it mean for an institution to thrive in the presence of that suffering? What is the purpose of Union's existence? For Union to exist with a luxury condominium is for Union not to exist at all, at least not the Union I applied to. Union may continue to exist physically, but the soul of Union will be gone."
Fear has driven church and seminary leaders into the hands of those the Gospel condemns as exploiters of the poor and the oppressed. They have turned their backs on Christian radicals, who alone can infuse new life into the church. The institutions believe alliances with the powerful and the wealthy will save them. They are wrong. Once they stand for nothing they become nothing.
"There is a mourning among the declining members of mainline Christianity," Rob Stephens, the Union student, said in the interview. "I don't share that. The mainline churches, by which we mean white denominations, are responsible for many of our greatest social ills, including white supremacy and patriarchy. If those parts of mainline Christianity need to die for renewal to take place, we need to learn how to embrace that. There is no resurrection without death."