The Words of the Bennett Family
By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them
October 16, 2005
Associate Professor of Ministry
Unification Theological Seminary
"By their fruits you shall know them."
– Matthew 7:15-16
Dr. Clinton Bennett is joining the faculty of the Unification Theological Seminary as Associate Professor of Ministry and Director of Field Education. A Baptist minister, Dr. Bennett was the Executive Secretary for Interfaith Relations of the British Council of Churches and has served as a missionary to Bangladesh. He has taught at Oxford and at Baylor University, with special focus on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations. We at UTS are honored and proud to welcome him to our faculty.
When Dr. Bennett arrived at Barrytown, he inquired about serving in a local Baptist congregation, but was rebuffed when the Baptist official he contacted learned that he was teaching at UTS. This letter is by way of reply.
Jesus said, "beware of false prophets… you recognize them by the fruits they bear… a good tree always yields good fruit."
This passage has been applied by Christians to Muhammad (PBUH), to Joseph Smith (the Mormon prophet) and by some to Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Movement and of the Seminary that employs me. Shortly after starting to work at UTS, I contacted an official of the American Baptist Churches to ask how, as an ordained Baptist, I might contribute to Baptist life in the area. The official wrote back saying that his heart had sank when he realized that I was ‘with the Moonies’, and that he would not help me ‘infiltrate our churches with this cult’. I was hurt by this response. Later, he wrote that he could not understand how, if I was a Christian, I could work for the Moonies, and that he had had bad experiences of Moonies claiming endorsement for their views from well-respected Christians who had merely attended one of their meetings out of curiosity or to find out for themselves what was being said. He could not work for someone who claims to be superior to Jesus, and could not understand how I could if I am a Christian, although he would give me the benefit of the doubt. He would need to learn what is in my heart before he decides.
It seems to me that there are a number of issues here that require addressing, and I make no apology for doing so in defense of my own Christian integrity. First, are the ‘Moonies’ a cult? All sorts of religious groups have been regarded as cults (even we Baptist were called a sect when we began) and quite a few of them are now regarded as respectable, although not necessarily as mainstream. One example is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints, the Mormons, founded by Joseph Smith (1805-1844) who – arguably the Rev. Sun Myung Moon claims something similar – saw himself as having done more than Jesus to keep his Church together, yet there are now almost as many Saints in the world as Jews, including 15 members of the US Congress. And these Saints are renowned for their high moral standards, family values, for community service and for caring for each other. Doesn’t it say somewhere, "they will know we are Christians by our love"? (See John 13:35).
Christians from the start saw Muhammad (PBUH) as a false prophet. They still accuse him of immoral conduct, especially of sexual misconduct but almost one third of humanity reveres Muhammad as the Last Prophet. Yet Jerry Vines could call Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile" at the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2002. Muslims also believe, as does Moon, that Jesus did not complete his mission. Smith and Moon, too, like Muhammad, have been accused of sexual misconduct. Smith himself told his followers that he never claimed to be perfect, but that there was "no error in the revelations which I have taught."
So, are Moonies a cult? If they are, they are an odd cult. I know members who have left, some who have been asked to leave. Usually, although there is no generally accepted definition, a cult is thought to exercise total control over its members, to prevent them from leaving. They are said to have top-down, authoritarian leadership. Incidentally, if the Unificationists have really mastered the technique of brain-washing, they would have every secret service and intelligence agency lining up for the secret of their success, and the Seminary would be able to increase all our salaries! The Moonies I know (and my contact with the movement goes back to 1986) are caring, compassionate, humane, family-centered people who do not drink alcohol, smoke, or advocate free-sex but who believe in the unity of the human race, in an end to war and injustice. That is Rev. Moon’s goal, a unified world of peace, which is the hope of all ages. ‘Cult’ for Christians also implies doctrinal deviancy yet, as I shall argue below, my Baptist principles have no place for any type of theological litmus test.
I was raised believing that the Roman Catholic Church, with its top-down leadership and extra-biblical doctrines, was a cult. I still have a copy of J. Oswald Saunders’ Cults and Isms, in which the Catholic Church is described as a cult alongside the Mormons, Christian Science, the Christadelphians and others but with the privilege of being the first entry in the book!1 I do not agree with every aspect of Roman Catholic doctrine, but I have worked with Catholics throughout my ministry. I do not agree with every aspect of what Rev. Sun Myung Moon believes, nor has anyone ever asked me to. I think it extraordinary that anyone could advocate that an employee has to agree with everything that the founder of his institution believes. I used to work for a metropolitan city council, but I did not believe in all the council’s policies. Were I to work for a Roman Catholic college, I would not be expected to accept all the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.
I am aware that, in the past, out of enthusiasm for their project of bringing about the unity of the church, and beyond that of all humanity, Unificationists did attend other churches with the hope of spreading this message. This was interpreted as devious. I am not persuaded. Were I to attend a church that was hostile or indifferent towards the ecumenical movement (in which I have been employed, and for which I continue to work) I would not stay silent. We are not required to leave our convictions behind us when we walk through the doors of a church. I am convinced that church unity is God’s will, and I would speak in favor of that in any church I attended.
In the end, it is not me but God who will judge whether anyone who claims to have a message from God, Muhammad or Smith or Moon, is a true and faithful servant, or a charlatan. However, through the words of Jesus God has given us some pragmatic advice on how we might proceed – we can judge people by their fruits. Jesus also said, in Luke 6:46, "why do you call me Lord, Lord and not do the things I say." It is not soundness or correctness of doctrine that redeems us. It is not moral conduct that redeems us, neither are any of us perfect. We are all sinners in the process of being redeemed. Paul said that the good he wanted to do he didn’t do but instead he did the wrong he did not want to do (Romans 7:14f). "Sin," said St. Paul, "lodges in me." This is true of all of us, but God is able to work through us despite our failings. Smith himself (accused of writing the Book of Mormon, as Muhammad is of writing the Qur’an) reasoned that the Book of Mormon was of God because "all things which are good cometh of Christ," and the devil "persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him."
The Rev. Sun Myung Moon says that he is the Messiah. This is a matter of deep concern for many Christians. Is this why I should not teach at the State-chartered, Middle States Association accredited Seminary he founded? Were I offered a job at a Muslim college, as a life-long scholar of Islam I would jump at the opportunity yet Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the Cross and rose again to redeem all humanity, or anything that Christians believe about him even though they do call him Messiah. In fact, the majority of New Testament scholars are skeptical whether Jesus actually thought that he was the Messiah, seeing this as an honor and title bestowed on him by the early church. I do not know whether Jesus did or did not see himself as the Messiah but I do know that there was no single job description around at the time for which he or any one else could apply.
The most commonly held view today among Jews is that the Messiah will liberate Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, re-establish the Sanhedrin (Isa. 1:26) and reign over universal peace and justice. This has not yet happened. There is still war in the world, and injustice. Jesus has come but world peace still eludes us. The great Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) thought that the coming of the Messiah would bring justice to the Jews but would not otherwise impact on the order of the world. Things would carry on much as before. Many reform or progressive Jews do not believe in the Messiah as a person but in the Messianic age that is to come, and towards which we are called to work. The reform Rabbis gathering in Ohio in 1937 expressed it like this, "We regard it as our historic task to co-operate with all men in the establishment of the Kingdom of God, of universal brotherhood, justice, truth and peace on earth. This," they said, "is our messianic goal."
When the Rev. Sun Myung Moon speaks of himself as Messiah, as he did in Seoul, on January 27, 2004, it is not as a boast or as a claim for homage but within the context of a huge task that all humanity needs must shoulder. "Your mission and that of heaven," he tells his followers, "is to join hands with us in building a peaceful Kingdom of Heaven on this earth." Rev. Sun Myung Moon teaches, "The will of Heaven resides in human peace grounded in true families, not in the progress of any particular church or religion" but in pure love between all peoples. We should all live for the sake of others, he says. This may be ambitious, but if good people stand by and do nothing, evil will surely triumph (as Edmund Burke put it). Sometimes, thinking big is just what God wants of us. David brought down Goliath. A man in a loin-cloth asked Britain to quit India, and Britain did. In South Africa, a prisoner became a President. Do we or do we not believe that peace will defeat war, good evil, generosity greed, selflessness selfishness?
Did Jesus claim to have completed his work? Yes, in that there is in him all that is needed for salvation, his words on the Cross, "It is finished," signify the completeness of his work (John 19:30). Faith in him is all that is needed (sola fides), and that is God’s free gift. Justification is by faith alone, "And that I may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith" (Phil 3:9). But I also believe that faith without works is dead (James 2:14). As the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, paraphrasing Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) has put it, "Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world," since the kingdom of heaven started with Jesus but it has not yet been consummated or perfected.2
Jesus is not dead but alive and continues to work through his church and through the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit is not confined to the institutional church but has the freedom of the wind to blow where it wills (John 3:8). Jesus did not teach us all that he could when he was alive, rather the Spirit will guide us – in the future – "into all the truth" (John 16: 13). Dr. Williams is restating what St Irenaeus (died end of 2nd/start of 3rd century CE) believed, that Jesus is the one who recapitulates all that God has done on our behalf until the final consummation, which means that in Christ this recapitulation continues in the world. We, the body of Christ, through the Spirit, will turn out to be "the finished" and so continue Christ’s mission. It has been put like this, "it is finished, but it is not over." Thus, we are called to "work out our salvation" (Phil. 2:12). Nor do I believe that God remained silent after Jesus, which is why I am open to the possibility that he also speaks to us through the Qur’an that Muhammad received, and through Mahatma Gandhi, who was not a Christian although he acknowledged the influence of the Sermon on the Mount and had a reverence for Jesus. It was, he said, Christians that put him off Christianity!
Meanwhile, as a Christian committed to trying to do what Jesus did, that is, to continue with his mandate as announced after his baptism, "to proclaim good news to the poor, release for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind" (Luke 4:18f), and as elaborated in Matthew 25, "to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned," I look for friends and allies in the task. I do not agree with everything that a Muslim believes, or with everything that a Roman Catholic believes, or everything that a Moonie believes, but I judge them by the fruits of what they do. If they break down walls that separate person from person merely because of skin color or creed, then they are with me. If they stand up for oppression against the oppressors, they are with me. If they work for that day when swords will be beaten into ploughshares, then they are with me. If they believe in the equality and dignity and rights of all people, regardless of gender or color or race or creed, then they are with me. If they are with me in this struggle to establish kingdom of God values in society and in the world, then they are not against my Lord (Matthew 12: 30).
I first became a friend of the Unification movement during the legal case against them in the United Kingdom in the mid 1980’s when the Attorney General was enquiring whether the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity should retain its charitable status. This enables it to operate, as do most churches and other religious bodies, as a not-for-profit legal entity in the UK. Had it lost its registration, it would have had no corporate legal existence in the UK, making it impossible to hold bank accounts or to function effectively. The investigation began after the Unification Church lost a libel case in 1981 against The Daily Mail, which had accused the Church of splitting up families. The argument was that if the Church splits up families, it cannot be in the public interest. A charity must be for the public good; hence the HSA-UWC could not be charitable.
I and others argued that religion could long be accused of splitting up families, and if this was the only crime of which the HSA-UWC was guilty, no religion should benefit from charity law. If, on the other hand, any type of financial malpractice or indeed crime against people was being alleged, there were plenty of laws on the statute books that could be used to take legal action. A modern comparison would be the many cases of child abuse involving Roman Catholic priests and senior officials covering up for their abuse, yet no one is calling for the stripping of charitable status from the RC Church. I was of the opinion that the anti-cult movement’s vocal criticism of the Unification movement had influenced the Attorney General’s decision to investigate the HSA-UWC. On February 3, 1988 the then Attorney General dropped the case, saying there was insufficient evidence. He had privately been warned that the case was really a heresy case, since many people regarded the teachings of the movement as heresy.
As a Baptist, I am proud of a long history of support for religious liberty, which in my view must be indivisible. It cannot be, religious liberty for me because my doctrines are right but not for him because he is in error. It must be religious liberty for all, as Thomas Helwys (1550-1616), one of the founding fathers of my own then-thought sectarian denomination, the Baptists, put it, "Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure."3 And why should the powers of state keep their hands off of folks’ souls? Helwys was put in prison, and died there for his heretical beliefs. He had written his plea for religious liberty, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, in 1612.
Who, then, is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King? Who will be His helpers?" wrote Frances R. Havergil (1836-1879). In my opinion, it is those who stand for not against the values of the Kingdom of God. I do not know if Rev. Sun Myung Moon is the Messiah or not, but I do know that he is totally committed to world peace. He is totally committed to bringing people together across cultural and racial divides. He is totally committed to reconciling enemies, as Jesus commanded, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." He has nothing but love for those who have imprisoned him. I do not know if he is perfect or sinless, though I know full well that I am not yet. I sincerely believe that I am God’s servant, called and set aside for ministry. I have met some of Rev. Moon’s family, and they are beautiful people. I have personally seen some of the fruit of his labor. I have attended conferences at which some of the most accomplished scholars of religion have gathered to talk about how we can collaborate in dialogue to end injustice and oppression. When no Jew was talking to a World Council of Churches consultation on which I served concerned with Jewish-Christian relations, dozens of senior and distinguished Jewish leaders were talking to organizations founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. As a life-long participant in Christian-Muslim dialogue, it is through his movement that I have met some of the most influential Muslim thinkers in the world. This is because Rev. Sun Myung Moon has been prepared to put his hand into his pocket to fund inter-religious dialogue, when most officially recognized church bodies concerned with inter-religious relations remain strapped for cash. Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King? We shall indeed know them by their fruits.
I apologize, if I must, for teaching at the Unification Theological Seminary and I will defend the orthodoxy of my Christian belief to anyone. Yet I am a Baptist because we do not demand doctrinal conformity or allegiance to a creed, as the Judson Declaration says, "We, therefore, reject all attempts to impose a creed or creed-like structure to be used as a litmus test for orthodoxy."4 Therefore, I will allow no man to condemn me because of what I believe, I will be judged by the Lord in whom I believe. The job at UTS was advertised through the usual channel, the Chronicle of Higher Education. I had been looking for some time to return to full-time college teaching, so I applied for, was interviewed and offered the job, and it was an honor to accept.
1. J. Oswald Sanders, Cults and Isms (Arrowsmith, 1962).
2. The Mystery of Jesus (Penguin, 1995).
3. As cited in Estep, 53.
4. The Coalition for Baptist Principles, October 2004.
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