Public Theologian


Reflections over the Long Haul

Robert McAfee Brown

Westminster John Knox Press, $24.95, 305 pp.
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Robert McAfee Brown may not be a familiar name to younger readers of Commonweal, but there are many reasons to place him on a list of contemporary Christian heroes. He was a teacher and a scholar, a theologian, a musician, and an activist for justice, and this memoir gives convincing evidence that he was an equally committed husband, father, and grandfather.

He died in 2001, this book not quite finished, but friends and family have filled in the few blanks with taste and passion. The brief foreword by the late William Sloane Coffin emphasizes that Bob-readers will find it difficult to think of him in formal terms-“recognized that being a Christian was not so much an achieved position as a desired one.” The prologue by Bob’s wife, Sydney Thomson Brown, emphasizes that “he wanted the earth to be fair and good for all” and addresses him as “my love, my compañero, my friend.” Gripping and sometimes humorous stories illuminate the various stages of Bob’s life, for which his Presbyterian pastor-father had well prepared him.

Bob first came to my attention in the early 1960s when he was teaching at Union Theological Seminary, and writing for Christianity and Crisis, a now-defunct Protestant biweekly founded by Reinhold Niebuhr that shared many of the preoccupations of Commonweal. He was publishing books like An American Dialogue (a groundbreaking ecumenical exchange with Gustave Weigel, SJ), The Spirit of Protestantism (modeled after Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism), and The Bible Speaks to You. Brown grew up as ignorant of Catholicism as most Catholics were of Protestants at that time, but while teaching at Macalester College (prior to his years at Union) he became good friends with then-Congressman Eugene McCarthy and distinguished liturgist Fr. Godrey Diekmann. After learning a lot from both men, he continued his Catholic education as a Protestant observer at Vatican II. With Gregory Baum, he wrote frequently from Rome for Commonweal during the council. Later, he witnessed social ferment in Latin America, which led to his Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide.

Bob decided early in his career that he didn’t want to be an academic theologian, but wanted to teach and write for laypeople, placing his learning in the service of good prose that would appeal to nonscholars. This best explains why he left a tenured post at Union (at the time probably the leading theological school in the country) to teach religion at Stanford for many years, and later at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

He became widely known outside the academy primarily for his social activism, beginning with the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, which challenged legalized segregated facilities in the South, and brought him his first arrest. He gained even wider publicity with protest activities against the U.S. war in Vietnam. His commitment is impressive since he began as a pacifist, and had to wrestle with his conscience for a long time before enlisting as a Navy chaplain in World War II. Reflections over the Long Haul also recounts his travels to Uppsala, Bangalore, and Nairobi for the World Council of Churches, and visits to Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Philippines to meet liberation theologians.

Concern for justice led to at least four more arrests, but this memoir sheds more light on the man than on the activist. His wife, children, and even grandchildren occasionally provide brief notes to end a chapter, fill out a story, or give details of Bob’s last days when he could no longer hold a pen. From them we learn that Bob was not just a hero to admire but a man who was all of a piece. His long courtship of Sydney (who kept the family going whenever he was protesting) led seamlessly to the practical tasks of working on a summer home for the family in Heath, Massachusetts, where he was always willing to read to his children or grandchildren, or build them a baseball backstop of chicken wire.

Reflections over the Long Haul will not settle theological arguments. It is a book about Christian commitment to justice that also includes Bob’s son Peter’s talk on “Fifty Reasons My Parents Have Stayed Happily Married for Fifty Years,” and also reminders that Bob, who wrote the “St. Hereticus” columns for Christianity and Crisis, had a rich sense of humor. Sydney speaks too rarely in her own voice, but is present throughout. Readers will put down this book knowing they have met a mensch, and regret that they never wangled an invitation to Heath for a few days in the summer.

Published in the 2006-05-19 issue: 
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Joseph Cunneen was founder and longtime editor of the ecumenical quarterly Cross Currents.

Also by this author
The Films of Robert Bresson

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