Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Recommended Reading: Soundings Towards an Intercultural Identity for The United Methodist Church

The journal Methodist Review recently published another article that may be of interest to UM & Global's readers. It draws on history and theology to comment on the intercultural nature of The United Methodist Church. Hendrik R. Pieterse and David W. Scott wrote "Soundings Towards an Intercultural Identity for The United Methodist Church: Some Historical and Theological Resources." The piece can be found for free, with registration, on Methodist Review's website. A full abstract for the piece is below.

 

Hendrik R. Pieterse and David W. Scott, "Soundings Towards an Intercultural Identity for The United Methodist Church: Some Historical and Theological Resources"

The United Methodist Church today is in an identity crisis rooted in the role of culture, power, and agency in the negotiation of denominational identity. To confront these challenges, the UMC must recognize the extent to which white American understandings of Methodism have functioned as normative in debates over Methodist identity. To illustrate the intercultural dynamics at stake, we analyze the history of Italian and Japanese immigrants’ struggle to find a place within American Methodism in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These case studies show that Methodism flourished when there was room for intercultural conversation about its nature. Thus, United Methodists need an alternative understanding of our collective identity that evolves out of intercultural conversations that remain alert to the role of culture, power, and agency in identity formation. We suggest that one promising resource in this task is the Methodist practice of conferencing or dialogue.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Daniel Bruno: The Challenges for Methodism in Latin America in Times of Neoliberalism

Today's post is by Rev. Lic. Daniel A. Bruno. Rev. Bruno is a pastor of the Argentina Methodist Church and Professor of Church History. It originally appeared (in Spanish) on the website of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina (IEMA) and appears here in translation with the author's permission.

The context
About fifty years ago, it was decided by the centers of world economic power that Latin America should not continue down the path of economic growth and development, of expanding the middle class and industrialization. It was necessary to implement a plan to redirect the wealth. Instead of benefiting the majority and achieving equitable development, the "think tanks" of the new economic model called neoliberalism began to outline plans so that this wealth would drain away and accumulate in a few hands. The first tests of this plan were through the coups d'état that added up in Latin America starting in 1971.

All these violent democratic interruptions had a single purpose: to implement economic models that would allow a redirection of resources and money from the majority to the Latin American elites and their international partners and to repress popular resistance. That model of coups d'état exhausted itself in the mid-1980s. They generated a lot of resistance and, in the long run, were rejected by the population.

The plan was adjusted and now the model is much more subtle.

Economic power acquired the principal mass media of the continent; great economic emporiums now model the subjectivity of the population; and in this way, coups d'état are no longer necessary to discipline the population by force of arms. Media manipulation of subjectivities achieves this effect without generating resistance.

In this way today, in all the countries of the continent, the real power, which goes beyond the shifting governments, is mechanized through three specialized spheres: the economic-financial power, the concentrated mass media, and the judicial powers. This three-pronged pincer is the one that for approximately twenty years has been executing synchronously on the continent a model of exclusion, poverty, deindustrialization, and accumulation of wealth in a few hands that increasingly deteriorates the quality of life of the population. Judicial powers, meanwhile, imprison opponents, and population is deceived by the media, generating false disputes and dividing the peoples to achieve their objectives.

This situation is increasingly cruel, neoliberalism or neocolonialism, is destroying the expectations of life, of the future, and of the development of millions of Latin Americans. And the possibilities of resistance are becoming ever more difficult to implement and more stigmatized by the media.

This oppression and manipulation of subjectivities operates on consciences, managing to dilute the capacity of resistance of the masses. This is one of the most dangerous facets of neoliberalism since it affects the self-awareness of human beings, deceives about their options, and permeates deeper into false beliefs, preventing the possibility of visualizing the real causes that cause their postponement.

A recurring phrase of the Argentine economist Bernardo Kliksberg helps us to understand the consequences of this model. He says: "Latin America is not the poorest continent, but it is the most inequitable." A continent rich in natural resources, it has almost forty percent of its population below the poverty line. How is it possible? This is the result of a model of accumulation for the elites and the active contributing role of the hegemonic media and the judiciary that favor this situation. Now, to this phrase by Kliksberg, we can add… but Latin America is the most Christian continent. How can we understand this?

And the church?
At this point we must recognize that religion has also been co-opted to join this model of new post-modern oppression. Certain evangelical groups have been the most receptive and functional. Due to Latin America’s Christian layers, neoliberalism needed Christian language and symbology to penetrate the population. Indeed, this neocolonial siren song has formatted the theological profile of various evangelical expressions. How? Perhaps one of the best-known examples is that of the prosperity gospel, a theological version of neoliberal capitalism, where the one who “invests” more with money, receives more blessings from “God.”

However, this theological neoliberal culture has managed to impact not only these extravagant phenomena, but also historical Protestant expressions with a wide presence of testimony on the continent.

Anti-ecumenism, for example, has penetrated Protestant traditions that until quite recently had a fruitful dialogue with other traditions. This attitude of reactionary withdrawal is explained by the penetration of conservative fundamentalist currents that have been eroding the more liberal and progressive positions of the historical churches. Already in 1973, the well-known Rockefeller report advised and suggested to the government of Richard Nixon that, in order to curb the most protesting and progressive expressions of the Latin American churches, both Catholic and Protestant, money and programs should be invested to foment the penetration of individualistic theologies, of personal salvation, with contempt for the historical-social views and that fed conservative positions. Undoubtedly, these programs have been successful and the result is in sight.

Today, the vast majority of the Protestant camp has been transformed into a conservative force both theologically and politically, offering its votes to right-wing parties and coalitions in exchange for perks and favors, also acting as a shock force against any attempt at progressive change in Latin American societies.

Methodism in Latin America is not exempt from these temptations
Methodism, as part of the Protestant field in Latin America, has been and is seduced by this model. There are currently many attempts by conservative sectors of North American Methodism to finance projects of this type. A great temptation for churches with meager budgets such as the Latin American Methodists! The imminent breakup of the United Methodist Church in the United States frees some economically powerful groups that seek to finance and co-opt Latin American Methodist churches, in order to turn them into conservative forces in their countries.

This would be a sad end to a Methodism that was at the forefront of the struggle for secular laws and individual liberties at the end of the 19th century; a pioneer in the ecumenical movement in the mid-20th century; creators, along with other denominations, of movements such as FALJE (Federación Argentina de Ligas Juveniles Evangélicas – Argentine Federation of Evangelical Youth), and its later version of ULAJE (Unión Latinoamericana de Juventudes Ecuménicas – Latin American Union of Ecumenical Youth), mobilizing Protestant youth to a deep commitment to unite the good news of the gospel with the historical demands of the Latin American peoples; participation in ISAL (Iglesia y Sociedad en América Latina – Church and Society in Latin America); the fight against dictatorships and the defense of human rights in the 70s, 80s; etc.

We trust that this will not be the case and that Methodism in Latin America will know how to preserve these values. We trust that we are not going to sell our birthright, that is, our fidelity to the gospel embodied in the history of our peoples, for a plate of lentils poisoned with coins from Caesar. For this, it is essential to revisit the origins of our movement with Latin American eyes. To look critically at the cultural clothing with which that tradition came to us in the 19th century, after passing through the religious-cultural atmosphere present in the United States.

We appreciate those missions that made our presence here possible, but today more than ever, it is necessary that the autonomies declared in the 1930s and 60s finish taking root to free the evangelical power of a movement that changed a nation and now, in our context, must change ours.

During August, the Evangelical Methodist Church Argentina through its Methodist Center of Wesleyan Studies is going deeper into these issues through a series of posts. For my part, I will point out briefly in a next post some aspects that deserve to be debated to glimpse a new horizon and a possible future for our Methodist churches.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Recommended Reading: Ulrike Schuler Farewell Lecture on Connectionalism

Dr. Ulrike Schuler retired as Professor of Church History, Methodism and Ecumenical Studies at Reutlingen School of Theology at the end of July. Reutlingen is the seminary for German (and sometimes other European) United Methodists. As is the tradition in German academia, Schuler concluded her service with a farewell lecture. The title of her address was, in English, "Staying connected: a Methodist model of life and church." The lecture touched on several themes of interest to this blog: connectionalism, mission, the nature of Methodism, and current reform efforts in The United Methodist Church. The EmK website published a summary of Schuler's address (here in the original German and here in a Google translation into English), and video of the lecture (in German) is available as well.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Recommended Readings: On Evangelism as the Heart of Mission

The journal Methodist Review recently published an article and a response that may be of interest to UM & Global's readers. Both concern the relationship between evangelism and mission. Mark Teasdale wrote "Extending the Metaphor: Evangelism as the Heart of Mission Twenty-Five Years Later," in which he commented on Dana L. Robert's 1997 essay, "Evangelism as the Heart of Mission." Dana Robert then wrote a response to Teasdale's essay. Both pieces can be found for free, with registration, on Methodist Review's website. Full abstracts for both pieces are below.


Mark Teasdale, "Extending the Metaphor: Evangelism as the Heart of Mission Twenty-Five Years Later"

In 1997, Dana Robert published “Evangelism as the Heart of Mission” to provide a conceptual framework to resolve the theological debate within The United Methodist Church about the relationship of evangelism to mission. She did this by using a heart-and-body metaphor that demonstrated that each was distinct from yet interdependent with the other, appealing to the example of John Wesley’s holistic ministry. Drawing on developments in the field of evangelism and in scholarship related to Wesley’s understanding of inspiration that have taken place in the twenty-five years since Robert’s work was published, her metaphor can be clarified and extended in ways that will allow it to remain a helpful missiological framework for Methodists to think about both their evangelistic outreach and their life together as a community of believers in Jesus Christ.

 

Dana L. Robert, Response to Mark Teasdale

In a recent issue of Methodist Review, Mark Teasdale revisited Dana L. Robert’s image of “evangelism as the heart of mission.” In this response, Robert reflects on the historical setting in which she proposed the idea, focusing on events within The United Methodist Church and academic associations of professors of evangelism and mission. She then interacts appreciatively with aspects of Teasdale’s reframing, specifically his rejection of narrowing evangelism to a practice of the church, and his call to focus more strongly on the Holy Spirit. She concludes by exploring Methodist D. T. Niles’s reflections on the Spirit in mission.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Bishops Etchegoyen and Nacpil on Autonomy and Connectionalism

Given current separations from the denomination and questions about the future for those who stay, The United Methodist Church is in a time of reconsidering what it means to be connected as a church. Therefore, past reflections by two former Methodist Bishops - Aldo Etchegoyen of the Evangelical Methodist Church Argentina and Emerito Nacpil of the UMC in the Philippines - on the relationship between connectionalism and autonomy struck me (David) as once again relevant, especially for the question of how remaining United Methodists should relate across national and continental boundaries.

Bishop Etchegoyen, writing in 1997 in "Connectionality and Autonomy" in The Ecumenical Implications of the Discussions of "The Global Nature of The United Methodist Church" rooted the concept of connectionalism not in Methodist history but in theological principles: "We believe in a connectional God who has moved outside himself to create all things. God's creation is a connectional phenomenon in which earth, sun and water serve the plants, the flowers and the fruits, as also the animals and humanity." "The opposite of connectionalism," he continued, "is separation." (p. 163)

Therefore, Etchegoyen wrote, "We cannot speak of connectionality and autonomy in the same breath. Each of these terms excludes the other. I believe this contradiction has done us much harm." (p. 164)

In contrast, he proposed, "I am defending a connectionality with responsibility in which each church may take account of its own identity, may be able to perform its own government but at the same time may show clearly its historical, theological and ecclesial unity, which we already have. On the opposite side of this conception is the dangerous possibility of falling into an irresponsible autonomy of which we have several examples. ...

"We must come to a moment when we will not be autonomous churches seeking to express our connectionality, but connectional churches on an equal footing. This, by no means signifies a leap backward into the past, but rather a leap forward in search of a new situation in which we can truly express our genuine connectionality in service of life, in maturity and in coherence with the Gospel. A connectionality that surges up from our national roots and is enriched by the diversity of world Methodism in the setting of the great ecumenical family." (p. 165)

Bishop Nacpil, in a 1994 Episcopal Address entitled "Developing a Truly Global Church," contained in The Secularity of the Word, Vol. III of A Spirituality that Secularizes, took up similar themes:

"The vision of a global church relates or links autonomy and connectionality organically and essentially. In a global church one cannot have the one without the other. They mutually entail each other in a global vision." (p. 440)

Speaking in the context of Filipino debates over voting to become autonomous, he continued:

"Connectionalism connects the local and the global. Connectionalism does not stop connecting one local church with another church within a nation which is what a purely autonomous structure will do! It goes on connecting with all the local churches of the one global United Methodist Church which is what globalization seeks to do. Moreover, it does not only connect one local church to another local church, but the local to the global and the global to the local. That is to say: between parts and whole and between the whole and its parts! Connectionalism entails globalization. And there cannot be globalization without some form of connectionalism which is expressed locally with autonomy. But autonomy alone restricted by national boundary cannot and can never be global and connectional!" (p. 450)

After commenting on a then-current plan for restructuring the UMC along lines similar to those proposed in the present-day Christmas Covenant, he concludes, "One can see that connectionality starts from the charge conference and moves vertically and horizontally through annual, regional, and general conference levels. Autonomy also is exercised from the local, annual, regional, and general levels within the framework of global connectionality."

While the two use the term autonomy differently, what both bishops argue for is an understanding of Methodism that entails local and national decision-making alongside international connection. One is making that argument from within the UMC and one from outside its formal structures, but both believe such a balance of local freedom and international connection is essential to Methodism.

Such a vision is relevant both as The United Methodist Church considers how to structure itself going forward and as it considers how to relate to historically-connected churches, such as those Methodist churches in Latin America and parts of Asia.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Recommended Reading: Methodist Church of Brazil discusses relations with UMC

There was a debate at the recently-held General Conference of the Methodist Church in Brazil about whether to continue the church's long-standing relationship with the UMC, amid concerns about differing theologies of sexuality. UMNews has published a story about the Brazilian General Conference in Portuguese, with a Google translation available here.

The Methodist Church in Brazil has its roots in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, one of the forerunners of The United Methodist Church. Currently, the UMC invites non-voting delegates from the Methodist Church in Brazil to attend General Conference in recognition of the historic and fraternal ties between the two churches. The two denominations also collaboration on mission and other projects and are both members of the World Methodist Council.

The debate in the Methodist Church in Brazil's General Conference reflects that denomination's conservative stance on sexuality. As the UMNews article makes clear, the Brazilian General Conference also discussed pro-environmental and anti-racism measures, so the Brazilian church does not easily equate to any one theological or political position held in the United States.

Nevertheless, this debate is an indicator of the sort of ecumenical tensions that the UMC/GMC split is causing within world Methodism but beyond the UMC. Such debates, which also arose at the recent Methodist Church of Mexico General Conference, are presenting themselves because of strong GMC outreach beyond the UMC, outreach that often carries an anti-UMC message.

Bishop Jaoa Carlos Lopes and Prof. Paulo Roberto Garcia persuaded the Brazilian General Conference not to take any action regarding its relationship with the UMC until after the next UMC General Conference in 2024, arguing that the UMC has not changed its teachings on sexuality.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

MLK vs. the Prophets, or, a Word on Hope in History

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

There is a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that is much beloved by US American progressives: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As employed by American progressives, this quote implies two elements of belief:

First, that the world as a whole system (and the United States as the part of the world with which the speakers are usually most familiar) is on a trend towards greater equality among and prosperity for all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other salient element of identity. This is the “bends towards justice” part of the quote.

Second, that this trend occurs inevitably. It may work through human organizing and efforts, but it is not dependent on human actions. Instead, it results from an intrinsic divine or social or natural law. This is the “arc of the moral universe” part of the quote.

From MLK’s vantage point when making this remark in the mid-20th century, or from the vantage point of his quoters at the end of the 20th century, looking back over the past couple hundred years of human history, there was good evidence for the two beliefs implied by this quote and its use.

Over that time span, there had been amazing and significant steps towards this understanding of justice, especially in the Western world: chattel slavery was abolished; modern medicine substantially reduced suffering and disease and extended lifespans; child labor was abolished in the West and working conditions were substantially improved for adults; women gained the right to vote, various other rights, and access to increased choices in life; the Civil Rights movement (including MLK) gained various rights for African Americans; Majority World countries became independent of Western colonialism; and queer folks gained increased recognition and rights in society.

Moreover, all these steps towards greater justice came about not as the result of one centralized movement but rather a plethora of movements that sprang up, as if from some central animating spirit that was beyond the individuals involved.

Yet as obvious as such a belief in inevitable human progress was in the mid- to late 20th century, there are abundant reasons to question such a belief by this point in the 21st century. Indeed, we might conclude that this belief in inevitable human progress reflects a particularly modern outlook on the world – modern both in its setting, its belief in progress, and its projection of an evolutionary grand narrative onto human history.

Postmodernism has, of course, raised questions about all such metanarratives, but one need not buy fully into postmodernism to question the narrative of inevitable progress towards greater justice as understood by modern Americans. The rise of autocracy and decline of democracy around the world, the revival of racism and anti-Semitism and rollback of women’s rights in the United States, and the existential threat to all human flourishing represented by climate collapse should raise serious questions about any overly sunny accountings of certain human progress.

At very least, the past couple decades should show us the significance of effective, strategic, and long-term organizing and movement building in influencing the direction of history. While liberal forces had that momentum at their back from the 1930s through the 1970s, it is conservative forces that have most recently been reaping the fruits of such organizing. Whatever direction history takes, it is unlikely to get there outside of well-organized and coordinated effort on the part of very dedicated people willing to be patient and make sacrifices.

Climate change further shows us that the past two hundred years may not be the ramp up to a premillennial paradise of justice and equality but rather a very particular historical moment that is not sustainable as it has played out thus far and therefore may well not last.

A longer historical frame suggests additional possibilities: If we look at the first ten thousand years of human history, leading up to the modern era, we see less of a pattern towards justice, or at least we see a very long incubation period before that pattern towards justice sets in. Instead, we might see waves of progress and regression set against a backdrop of (slowly) increasing societal complexity.

Fortunately, belief in the arc of the moral universe is not the only way to hold out hope for the future. I’d like to suggest another: that of the biblical prophets.

MLK was influenced by and drew upon the biblical prophets, as his rhetoric frequently showed. King and the prophets shared a deep concern for justice.

Where MLK (or at least his oft-repeated quote) and the prophets disagreed is on their understanding of history. While King’s quote suggests a generally upward trajectory to history, the prophets were often quite blunt about their conviction that history was headed in a downward direction.

When Amos declared that “the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste and [God] will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” or Hosea proclaimed that “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,” they were announcing anything but sunny optimism about the direction of the future.

The biblical prophets took seriously the possibility that the future would be worse, not just for the enemies of their people, but for their people themselves. Sometimes, like Jeremiah, they even lived through the fulfillment of their prophecies of destruction.

Yet even amid their clear-eyed facing of the possibility and even inevitability of disaster for their communities, the prophets maintained hope. This hope was built not on the assumption that things would keep getting better, but on the belief that they would not always get worse. It was a hope built on trust that God’s mercy would have the last word beyond whatever disaster was impending. “[God] will restore of the fortunes of [God’s] people Israel,” wrote Amos, “and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them.”

For me, in this historical moment, this understanding of hope in history feels more true than the hope implied by the use of the MLK quote. Our cities (or our churches, our institutions, our rights, our ways of life) may indeed become heaps of ruins, either because we tear them down as we tear each other apart or because climate disasters will make them so. But that will not be the end. God’s mercy will still prevail, and we will eventually “rebuild the ruined cities.” That is a bleaker expectation for the future, but more honest and more accurate in my eyes. And, if the prophets are our guides, it is just as faithful.