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He banished ‘lazy Christianity’


Robert McAfee Brown, pastor, teacher, ecumenist and activist, who responded to God’s call to care for the poor, died Sept. 4, in Massachusetts where he and his wife, Sydney, kept a summer home.

“I shall miss him every day while writing every page,” longtime friend Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, said on hearing of Brown’s death. “I have rarely met a man of such faith, integrity and compassion. As a teacher, he influenced generations. As a friend, he was the best one can dream of. As a Jew, I saw in him the nobility of what Christianity has to offer.”

Tom Ambrogi, interim regional director of the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco, called Brown’s ability to relate theological vision to social activism “what gave many of us the heart and the courage to land on the picket line and to realize how instinctively Christian it was for us to be there.”

Compassion, integrity and humility were words that friends and colleagues repeatedly used last week to describe Brown, who was 81.

Born in Carthage, Ill., in 1920, Brown was a son of a Presbyterian minister and a minister’s daughter. He spent his boyhood in Summit, N.J. As an undergraduate at Amherst College he met Sydney Thomson. The couple was married in 1944 while he was studying for the ministry at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. During World War II he enlisted as a Navy chaplain and was on a naval vessel that visited Nagasaki shortly after the bomb was dropped. After the war he returned to Union Theological Seminary to teach.

“When I think of Bob and Sydney, the first word that comes to mind is integrity,” said Diana Gibson, retired pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, Calif., where Brown preached and served as parish associate. “Bob not only wrote and taught about justice, human dignity and faithfulness, he put his life on the line for these issues.” Gibson along with Pia Moriarty, a former Brown student, had been working with Brown on his memoirs. To be published in the near future by John Knox/Westminster Press, the book is tentatively called Reflections for the Long Haul: A Plea for Companions.

“I think the book became for Bob his plea to us to keep on in the work for justice and liberation,” Gibson said. “He looked around himself and saw that all the evils of the past 50 years still plague us -- racism, poverty, violence, the arms race, a false dichotomy between the spiritual and political, a kind of lazy Christianity -- my words, not his -- which does not take our faith seriously enough. He wanted, passionately, to share what he had learned, but more important, to encourage us to continue on.”

Moriarty said that what comes through an examination of Brown’s life is his fidelity to his students and his “rootedness in his own tradition.” Brown, a Presbyterian, had ties to the Iona Christian community in Scotland, a one-time monastic group founded in the late 1930s.

Most Catholics first encountered Brown when, as a professor in the religion department at Stanford University in 1962, he was invited to be an observer for the Reformed and Presbyterian churches at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Out of that experience, Brown wrote Observer in Rome: A Protestant Report on the Vatican Council, an informative and witty account of the episcopal gatherings.

Brown was a frequent contributor to the National Catholic Reporter from its earliest days. In 1966, in an NCR interview, he spoke about the origins of his ecumenical work. He explained that he first was drawn into ecumenism by accident during a 1952 campaign for the young Minnesota congressman Eugene McCarthy. During the campaign he became acquainted with a group of Catholic laypersons and found, he said, that he had more in common with them than he had ever before realized. After the campaign, he and his wife traveled with the McCarthys to St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.

“It was the associations that grew out of the visit to the Benedictines and getting to know people like the McCarthys that forced me to begin a rather radical revision of the picture that up to that time I had of Roman Catholicism. … And from then on it just snowballed.”

Indeed, one of the characteristics of Brown’s approach to life was his eagerness to stay open to life’s opportunities and challenges. In the early 1960s, Stanford was a breeding ground for social activism. This was in no small measure because of Brown who, as a popular professor, increasingly associated with the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.

He risked his life as a Freedom Rider, became a strong supporter of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers movement and accompanied his students on protest marches. He counseled conscientious objectors and blockaded draft boards. Eventually he and William Sloane Coffin, a noted [United Church of Christ] minister, helped found Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam.

“Bob wrote the position paper,” said Coffin. “It was 38 pages long and it would reach some 50,000 people. A group of us edited it. But I remember his first sentence. We never touched it. That sentence read: ‘There comes a time when silence is betrayal.’ ”

In the mid-1970s he returned briefly to Union Theological Seminary, then moved back to the West Coast to teach at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

He once summed up his own theology in a quotation from Karl Barth: “The church must concentrate first on the lower and lowest levels of human society. The poor, the socially and economically weak and threatened, will always be the object of its primary and particular concern.”

Brown’s compassion connected him to human suffering wherever he encountered it. It drew him into liberation theology. Brown wrote widely on liberation theology, applying it to conditions in the United States. His works included a biography of Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian priest and father of liberation theology.

With Gutierrez he turned to liberation theology, became an activist for Third World justice and was a presence for those endangered in Central America, particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua. He was influenced by many theologies, liberation, black, feminist, contextual and by the peoples for whom those theologies spoke.

Gutierrez last week called Brown’s death a great loss. “The contribution he’s made to ‘consciencize’ the people of North America is beyond measure and will have powerful lasting effects.”

Through his life, Brown took risks on behalf of the powerless. He acted in ways that were unconventional and potentially hurtful to his academic career. He wrote in his yet unpublished memoir: “Courage may be the most important Christian word of our times, even more important than faith or hope or love, since it includes them all.”

Brown’s compassion also drew his interest to the Holocaust. Wiesel became a personal friend while Brown served on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council from 1978 to 1986.

In all, Brown wrote 28 books including The Ecumenical Revolution (1967), Is Faith Obsolete? (1974), Creative Dislocation (1980), Elie Wiesel (1983), Unexpected News (1984) and his only novel, Dark the Night, Wild the Sea (1998).

During his retirement in Palo Alto, he followed his love for music, taking up the cello. His health had deteriorated in the last few years. He suffered a broken hip in a fall a month ago and died at a nursing home in Greenfield, Mass.

Sydney said her husband was most proud that his four children, their spouses and the couple’s six grandchildren are all involved, “each in his or her own way, in a common struggle for God’s children.”

Some months back, Union Theological Seminary announced the Robert McAfee and Sydney Thomson Brown scholarship, to annually support a student selected by the faculty who shows a “commitment to theology as an instrument of liberation.” Last week the seminary faculty and friends gathered to inaugurate the scholarship at virtually the same hour that Brown died.

Remarked David Butler, assistant to the president, “Some things are simply not coincidental.”

Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher and a former student of Brown at Stanford. He can be reached at tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001 [corrected 09/21/2001]