by Robert McAfee Brown. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. $24.95. Hb. 305 pp. ISBN: 0664224040
Bob Brown didn’t yield the floor until the Grim Reaper nudged him out. Son Peter: “When he quite literally was on his deathbed, a week before he drifted off, and still somewhat rational, I asked him how he was doing. … I thought he would say something to the effect that all was well, that he was unafraid, that life had been good, that he was ready to move to meet God, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson and all the others. Instead, he looked at me with great determination and said, ‘Publish that book.’ “
I once asked Bob whether he had in mind to write his memoir. He replied that if he did, it would be to say something about the great social movements of the past 60 years in which he had a part. True to his word, that is the heart of this extraordinary account of one man’s struggle to make sense of those tumultuous times.
A pacifist at the beginning of WWII, he decided he could not let others risk their lives to secure his safety and enlisted in the Navy as a Chaplain. That experience awakened him to the chasm that separated the races in the 40s, leading later to freedom rides and imprisonment during the civil rights movement. There followed the anti-war movement, the free speech movement, farm workers struggle, the sanctuary movement — all occasions for protest, frequent arrests, and always comment in one publication or another. He was a trustworthy interpreter of what was going on for those who shared his passion for justice.
Despite his nearly 30 books, piles of articles and stacks of lecture notes, Bob regarded writing as an avocation. The remarkable thing about this man, who loomed so large in the academic world, teaching at Union Seminary in New York, Stanford University and the Pacific School of Religion, is neither he nor his academic colleagues thought of him as a scholar. I recall talking with one of his colleagues at Stanford who told me off-handedly, “I love Bob Brown but he is not a scholar.” I was stunned. How could that be?
Early in his career he was invited to write a book for the Presbyterian High School Curriculum entitled, The Bible Speaks to You. It was a huge success. What amazed Bob was its popularity among adults and pastors. He made an earth-shaking discovery — “If you write with teenagers in mind, some of the adults will understand.” Bob refused to write for the academy. He wanted to be understood by people in the pews.
His reputation as a radical social activist spilled over into a complementary role as a prickly ecumenist. Based securely in his own liberal Palo Alto Presbyterian congregation for nearly 40 years, he was a major interpreter of the Second Vatican Council as an official observer. He spoke and wrote widely to both Catholic and Protestant audiences. At Bob and Sydney’s 50th wedding celebration, a Catholic priest opined that Bob Brown had done more for the Catholic Church than the Pope. Discounting that remark as hyperbole, it reflects the remarkable esteem in which Bob is held within liberal Catholic circles.
Less well known are the contributions he made to the work of the World Council of Churches. He was always alert to the Council’s neglect of Christian communities outside the Eurocentric orbit, making a gallant effort, for instance, to deliver his keynote address to the WCC assembly in Nairobi in 1975 in Spanish, arousing the heated consternation of the Council’s leadership but the undying gratitude of the Spanish-speaking delegates.
Looming large in Bob’s life was his fellowship with Jewish leaders and his use of Jewish literature in his courses, especially the writings of Elie Wiesel, a dear personal friend. He was honored by President Jimmy Carter to join a commission headed by Wiesel of mostly Jews to create a memorial to Holocaust victims, and recalled the profound impact that a pilgrimage to the sites of Holocaust destruction had on him as preparation for the Commission’s work.
Bob’s family and his teaching sustained him in these “higher” callings. He loved the classroom and claimed to learn as much from his students as ever they learned from him. His beloved Sydney and their four children Alison, Peter, Tom and Mark punctuate this memoir with expressions of love and fond memories of their famous husband and father.
BOB MCKENZIE is parish associate at First Church, Oakland, Calif.