Excerpts from Howard Moody's book
A Voice in the Village:
A Journey of a Pastor and a People
ROBERT SPIKE (SENIOR MINISTER, 1949 – 1955)
It is no accident that Spike's first sermon at Judson was entitled "The City of God and the City of Man." But Spike's understanding of the place of theology in the life of the church is nowhere stated more profoundly than in a piece he wrote in praise of a Northern Baptist Convention theological conference held at Green Lake (1954), a meeting which he called "the most important meeting in the life of the denomination since the Grand Rapids Convention” (1948), which saw the defeat of the fundamentalists’ attempts to take over the Convention. In that piece he speaks of a "theological strategy" that combines the historic insights of the Christian heritage with an honest critique of “what we are really like these days”:
We have assumed that the manifesto of the gospel is so painfully obvious and well-known that the main job is to dress up the package in attractive wrappings. This attitude insults the explosive power of the Gospel which is ours to proclaim. Christian Doctrine rightly understood is dynamite, but it is dynamite that our Lord compels us to handle, and to explode in the midst of the seemingly immovable prejudices and alien faiths that every generation erects for itself.
BUD SCOTT (SEMINARY INTERN, THEN ASSOC MINISTER, 1957 – 1960)
With his articulate and quietly eloquent rationale for Judson’s ministry, Scott proved to be a significant and powerful influence on Judson, even with his uneasy and adversarial position regarding the church. In a particularly critical paper questioning some of Judson’s most prized ecclesiological assumptions, he ended with these words:
. . . I cannot end this paper on a note so critical. Judson Church is not a church intent on breeding saints, that is true. Judson’s people never mention the ideals of sanctity, holiness and even the word “love” is used with apologies--all this is true. But something else must be said. Judson has learned the mystery of Christian community. There is a kind of “togetherness,” a “fellowship” which bespeaks a wordless Charity and betrays a secret sanctity. It is a community hard to enter but infinitely harder to leave. I have never found a true Christian community such as I have been privileged to know it here. [“The Role of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village,” 1960]
AL CARMINES (ASSOCIATE MINISTER, 1961 – 1981)
Carmines, “Defense of Nudity in Judson Dance Theater,” 1965:
Those who object to the event of two nude dancers in a church-sponsored dance concert probably fall into two categories--those who object to the use of the nude in any way and those who simply object to it being done in a church. For those who simply object to the use of the nude in that such display occasions sin--primarily of lust--although in the case of some nudes perhaps disgust, I think there is a lack of theological or Biblical support. The nude has been a part of Western art for centuries. One who would become sexually aroused by the sight of Michelangelo’s great figure of God creating the world--or a Grecian maiden by Praxiteles--might have to relinquish the world altogether. What about the seductive legs of a table or piano which our forebears so wisely covered with doilies? Indeed the line between lust in its demeaning of the human person and the natural and healthy sexual reaction to any other human being which is a part of our very essence is dangerous to draw objectively. Is a man to be denied a look at the Sistine Chapel which might be of great inspiration because another finds it unbearably sexual? For those who find the use of the nude in art replica quite acceptable but its use in the natural human body quite objectionable, the case is even stranger. For they are ultimately claiming that the picture of a sunset is more acceptable than a sunset itself. There is no logical or religious reason that a nude in flesh is less aesthetic or pure than a nude in stone.
. . . One of the earliest stories in the Bible deals with the futility of hiding sin with the use of clothes. We are living in an age when men are denied their humanity because of their color, when all of us live under the shadow of sudden extinction, when poverty spreads its cancer over all our country. It is strange indeed when the body fashioned by the love of man and woman and the mystery of God is seen inherently as the utmost harbinger of evil and is to be looked upon with fear, dismay, indignation, and self-righteousness rather than the laughter or sorrow or beauty that it deserves.
Carmines explained the impact of the Dance Theater on our liturgical life:
The Judson Dance Theater gave us an experience where our verbal facility was left bumbling — where our penchant to conceptualize about meanings and philosophies was muted. It was good for us. It opened again for us the springs of revelation muddied by rational, verbal comforts. It took us in many ways beyond our depth, both religiously and aesthetically; but where else should a church be?
The influence on our worship has become increasingly clear. I doubt, for instance, if we would have had the courage to have a period in our service which was simply opened up to the congregation for statements and concerns — had we not first seen the insouciance with which the dancers could allow the unexpected to enter their concerts. The importance of the gesture, the movement, of the congregation and of the liturgists, would have remained lost to us without them. And certainly we would not have instituted the period of silence in our service had we not seen silence made profound and aesthetic in many concerts of dance in the sanctuary. [Dance Scope, Fall-Winter, 1967-68]
The purist view [of the Judson Dance Theater] is probably best expressed by Jill Johnston in a 1968 New York Times article. She refers almost reluctantly to the subversion and revolution that took place in the dance world:
The avant-garde choreographers of the sixties number a mere handful and their audience is nothing next to the droves who turn out for everything conservative; but they and their dedicated followers (many of them artists with similar concerns) tenaciously cling to the principle that revolution is not only inevitable but essential. Actually, their revolution, in its original delirium of a sprawling rebellion, is over. It all happened at Judson Memorial Church from 1962-64. Democratically assembled, the choreographers included painters, sculptors and composers as well as dancers. Within a positive assertion of old creative values was the negative idea of the annihilation of all preconceived notions about dance. In retrospect, it was a beautiful mess. Within that mess certain hard-core positions were taking shape and certain works were undeniably extraordinary.
Every underground movement is a revolt against one authority or another. The dance underground of the sixties is more than this natural child-parent affair. The new choreographers are outrageously invalidating the very nature of authority. The thinking goes beyond democracy into anarchy. No member outstanding. No body necessarily more beautiful than any other body. No movement necessarily more important or more beautiful than any other movement. It is, at last, seeing beyond our subjective tastes and conditioning, always admittedly operative, to a phenomenological understanding of the world. [“Which Way the Avant Garde?” New York Times, August 11, 1968]
HOWARD MOODY (1956 – 1992)
“The Beatitude of the Beat Generation,” February 16, 1958
The beat member of the younger generation doesn’t feel the need to explain his marijuana “tea parties” or kicks in the stolen car or sexual indulgence in his mind these are little things compared to the carefully planned nuclear annihilation and the violence of adults who allowed two hot wars and continue a cold one. As one writer put it, “They see the adult world as senseless, hypocritical, violent and essentially beyond redemption. . . . Parents who have seen that opaque, non-listening look over the faces of their teen-age children are being exposed to the most shared sentiment of the beat generation.”
However, I think we will have to look deeper than nonconformity and rebellion to discover . . . the metaphysical mood of this generation. It is a generation with an almost obsessive craving to believe, and much of its frenetic activity is an over-activated form of search. Philip Lamentia, one of the San Francisco poets and a spokesman for the “hipster” element in the beat generation has a poem in which the last two lines go: “Come Holy Ghost, for we can rise / Out of the jazz.”
Asked in an interview about the relation between jazz and God [one of the poets] said, “Well throughout the ages mankind has been searching for some kind of ecstasy, some marvelous vision of God, you know. That’s why we smoke marijuana, or listen to jazz. It’s just a way to ecstasy.” This is the beatitude of the beat generation....
... In order to be heard by this generation in our cultural setting the Church must be bold, imaginative, unapologetic, free from unimportant convention and cultural encumbrances. The average church sitting squarely and comfortably in the midst of middle class culture does not stand a chance. The church that is not afraid of the radical implications of the faith is not afraid of cultural criticism and innovation and is able to sympathize with the healthy aspects of rebellion evidenced in the “beat” and “shook-up” generation can find a way to speak its Word.
On Being Celebrants of Change...
[Address given at the Portland Biennial of the American Baptist Churches Metropolitan Ministries Team Breakfast on receipt of the Urban Ministry Award, June 1985]...
. . . The church could be a place where the constancy of change is spoken to and where people living in the alternating tides of decay and renewal all about them must be nurtured and prepared for these losses and changes that keep interrupting the stability and familiarity of life as we have known it. It will not be easy for us because the church is associated with metaphors like eternal, unchanging, absolute. But we must help people deal with change and turnover — with the disappearance of physical, moral and spiritual landmarks which identify our place in the world. The church needs to be the celebrant of change, not bemoaning and bewailing its presence in our lives but preparing us to face the future shocks, the great transitions of personal experience and social upheaval; teaching us that we are pilgrims seeking a city whose builder and maker is God and who are destined to die like Moses or Martin Luther King before we see it.
The Right to Sing Rally
Now one last word to my neighbors and friends who believe that the park belongs to our neighborhood and the “outsiders” are not welcome. First, let me remind you that the strongest Biblical injunction concerned the treatment of the stranger, the sojourner, the resident alien in the midst of the people of God. The kindness and love shown them is the measure of our righteousness. And secondly, we are all immigrants that live or work or play in the Village whether we or our father came on a boat from Naples, or a bus out of Birmingham, or a flight from Dublin or an “A” train on the IND. There is an equality that underlies all our differences. Whether you are “in” or “out,” black or white, rich or poor, “square” or “beat,” we are children of God created to live together in the neighborhood of this world. [excerpts from “Folksingers, Factions, and Our Faith,” May 7, 1961]
After the service that morning, most of our small congregation stayed around to join the afternoon protest rally. During the previous week, one of the political advisors to our Committee had discovered that Parks Department ordinances required a permit only for “minstrelsy”--singing with instruments--but not for unaccompanied singing. So we began our rally on Thompson Street and then at an appointed time, with guitars and all other instruments draped in black crepe, some 600 of us marched quietly into the park to the fountain and opened with a capella singing (terribly off-key) of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then, with a plastic flag held aloft, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance to show that this protest was in the great American tradition of political dissent and that we were not a bunch of pinko-radicals and un-American “beatniks” (although there were probably some of each there). After this patriotic gesture, the remaining singing was parodied folk songs written for the occasion: “This park is your park, this park is my park,” etc. We were joined in Washington Square with some 2,000 supporters who sang along.
“Toward a New Definition of Obscenity,” Christianity & Crisis, January 25, 1965
...For Christians the truly obscene ought not to be slick-paper nudity, nor the vulgarities of dirty old or young literati, nor even “weirdo” films showing transvestite orgies or male genitalia. What is obscene is that material, whether sexual or not, that has as its basic motivation and purpose the degradation, debasement and dehumanizing of persons. The dirtiest word in the English language is not “fuck” or “shit” in the mouth of a tragic shaman, but the word “NIGGER” from the sneering lips of a Bull Connor. Obscenity ought to be much closer to the biblical definition of blasphemy against God and man. . . .
I do not conceive that a picture is “dirty” because sex is its dominant theme. (The tragic disservice of slick-paper sex magazines is not that they display nudes in suggestive poses but that they become anti-sexual by pushing sex to the point of satiety, thus making it a deadly bore.) A picture is not dirty that shows a man and woman in one of the 57 recommended positions for intercourse (unaesthetic perhaps, possibly bad taste, but hardly obscene!). The dirty or obscene is the one that shows the police dogs being unleashed on the Negro demonstrators in Birmingham. The “lewdest” pictures of all — more obscene than all the tawdry products of the “smut industry” — are the pictures of Dachau, the ovens, and the grotesque pile of human corpses.
Let us as Christians write a new definition of obscenity based on the dehumanizing aspects of our contemporary culture. Can we not see the hypocrisy of our prudery when we spend time, words and money trying to prevent the magazine Eros from going through the mails and never raise an eyebrow about the tons of material that vilify human beings and consign whole ethnic groups to the lowest kind of animality?
. . . With this new definition of obscenity we will run a risk by allowing our children and ourselves to see “obscene pictures” of the instant destruction of 200,000 persons at Hiroshima with one bomb — the risk that we may come to accept this as a natural and realistic way of solving conflicts between men and nations. This is a real danger, but the alternative is mental slavery, a restricted thought process, a closed society.
“Man’s Vengeance on Woman,” Renewal, February 1967
This leads us to perhaps the most serious moral argument against the present abortion law, namely, that it is a flagrant violation of individual liberty. In the case of the woman, pregnant with child, who desires not to continue her pregnancy, the choice is denied her by law. It does not matter whether the reason for aborting the birth is too large a family, fear of a malformed child, or child out of wedlock. Once again it seems that all rational explanations for this peculiar denial of a woman’s choice to bear a child are impossible--leading one to assert that the only possible reason is a desire to inflict retribution and punishment upon women. Forever the suffering victim of our double standard sexual hypocrisy, the law seems to guarantee that she will not only suffer for her error but will also be denied even the right to correct her mistake.
“Humanizing the Hooker: An Ancient Ministry,” February 19, 1978
. . . Our faith teaches us, and it has the audacity to call it “good news,” that every individual human life is precious in God’s sight--every member of the human family is a child of God endowed with spiritual dignity and human worth regardless of where they are, or what their sex life is like, or how they make a living. Now that’s a very ancient fact of faith, but religious people were never very good at grasping that truth. Jesus had a great deal of trouble in his ministry making his followers and his religious folk understand. They thought only those who prayed a certain way or belonged to temples or who studied the scripture were God’s children. And Jesus kept reminding them that God’s compassion and concern was for people that they never even spoke to. Jesus was always shocking them by telling them that tax-collectors, and prostitutes, and women taken in adultery, and drunkards would go into the kingdom before you who think you know who God loves and has chosen for his examples of goodness in the world. Those who were nothing, the least and despised of the earth, they will be first.
The Church took shape and grew out of the Master’s life and teaching. It was a minority religion, made up of the lower class riff-raff of a captive people in the great Roman empire. It was always from its beginning in the prophetic faith of the Hebrew people a champion of the underdog, spreading its healing balm over the sores of people wounded by their society, censuring the rich and the powerful for the infliction of those wounds on the poor outcast of the nation; calling for a redress of the grievances for those whose cries of hurts reached to the temple of religion and of business.
The Church in history always lost its power to judge and discern when it consorted with the power of the state in society and wanted to keep company with the right people; embraced the cultural norms in flagrant denial of its transcendent values; and sold its spiritual birthright for a mess of societal acceptance. The Church has no reason to expect that it will fare any better than the Master did.
For this church, our work with prostitutes is within a line of ministries that have been carried on for the last thirty years. In the 1950's, the scapegoats of this community and others in the city were people called “juvenile delinquents”--they were blamed for everything wrong that happened. We gave them sanctuary, furnished them with social clubs, defended them when the police harassed and hassled them. They weren’t the children of this congregation; they were tough, sometimes violent, troubled Italian-American teenagers. In the late 50's this church worked with heroin addicts--fought for their humanization, and picketed for hospital beds so they could be treated as patients rather than criminals. In the 60's we befriended and stood with blacks and hippies and people that hated the war. These were not “our people” or neighbors, but we learned from their lives and their struggle. In the late 60's, it was women being criminalized for getting an abortion. We identified with them, supported them and conspired with them to break the law in order that they might exercise the God-given right of freedom of choice. Our work with prostitutes is in line with our historical role as a people. I am glad we’re there, and I am deeply grateful to Arlene and the other women who led us into this prophetic/priestly function of this congregation . . .
“What Will Be the Marks of the Church in the New Reformation?”
Foundation, April-June 1967
It is my conviction that we are at a time in the world when the ulterior motive and hidden agenda of the church’s service will be detected and refused. The world may not be coming of age, but it is wise to the not-so-subtle ways the church has of baiting and cajoling with its service. In the future the service of the church must not only be full and sacrificial (i.e., self-denying), but disinterested. Not only is there no bait or hook on the fishing line of our works and deeds, there is not even a fishing pole.
“Some Parting Words,” April 26, 1992
We can spend our time talking about being in the world and how important it is without ever being out there. I need to tell you that when I was spending time outside “the gate,” they were my richest times in ministry here at Judson, whether it was in jails and hospitals with addicts, or in social protest and community service, or counseling women with unwanted pregnancies, or hanging out with prostitutes on 8th Avenue.
...My final caution I was reminded of by rereading Bob Spike’s farewell sermon when he was leaving Judson. He said to that small congregation which had taken its lumps as it reached out to the community, “It is with some astonishment that I acknowledge this. My deepest prayer is that Judson Church will never play it safe.” When I arrived here, I read those words of Spike, and I kept them before me. In those early days when we had very little money and [the Baptist City Society’s] conservative council controlled our finances and property, when we invited trouble we had to live by faith. We took lots of chances, we involved ourselves in free-wheeling interferences in the community, and we embraced unpopular causes and people. We weren’t always right, and when we were, we tried not to publicize ourselves or use our success for self-promotion. I was scared some of the time, but we muddled through.
A Voice in the Village: A Journey of a Pastor and a People by Howard Moody is available here
Judson Minister Emeritus Reverend Howard R. Moody is ordained in American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ. A co-founder of the Center for Medical Consumers, he also is a member of the Board of Directors of the NYCLU and one of the founders of the reform movement of the Democratic Party in New York City. Moody is the author of The Fourth Man and co-author with the late Arlene Carmen of Abortion Counseling and Social Change and Working Women: The Subterranean World of Street Prostitution.
His articles have appeared in a variety of publications including The Christian Century, Christianity & Crisis, as well as Playboy and The Nation. Moody is now retired and living part-time in Santa Barbara and in New York City, where in his redeployment, he has been the motivating force behind the creation of two organizations: The Coalition for Baptist Principles; and Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy, a national mobilization of clergy for drug law reform.