Monday, December 6, 2021

Robert Harman: The United Methodist Church and Resisting Political Oppression

Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries. It is a response to David Scott’s recent post, “The United Methodist Church and Declining Democracy.”

David Scott recently wrote a blog post raising the question of how declining democracy and increasing authoritarianism will impact The United Methodist Church. Robert Hunt replied in a comment that, while that is a good question, “an equally good question is whether Methodists make any impact in opposing authoritarian regimes and promoting democracy.”

Dr. Hunt suggested that “most Methodist leaders and their followers are either disengaged from politics or are actually comfortable with authoritarian leaders - so long as they don't directly impact Methodist life.” I am sad to say that I agree with Dr. Hunt's assumption that church leaders today are probably fine with trends toward authoritarian governments as long as they continue to benefit or refrain from much interference with religious practices or services.

There were, however, moments in United Methodist Church history when the opposite was true—when Methodists worked to oppose political domination and on behalf of freedom. The era of decolonization was just such an era.

Liberation movements in the late colonial period were supported and even led by church leaders in their struggle to define and realize self-determining rule as their post-colonial reality. There was not great confidence in democracy as the antidote to colonialism, given the history of collaboration between democracies and colonial authorities. Instead, independence movements looked to indigenous sources for inspired leaders and found some in mission-established churches such as the UMC that had successful educational programs to produce them.

In Mozambique, Methodist-educated Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane became the first black Mozambican of his generation to enroll at the University of Lisbon, where he collaborated with other African students involved in the formation of national liberation movements. He was the founder and first president of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), the political and military movement that was eventually successful in deposing the Portuguese dictator Salazar and establishing the first post-colonial government in Mozambique.

The UMC experienced opportunities for cooperation with the new Mozambican government, benefiting their educational and social outreach programs. The indebtedness to the Methodist Mondlane, who fell to an assassin, has often been recognized on ceremonial occasions when country United Methodist leaders and government officials have shared the same public platforms.

In Angola, Dr. Agoutino Neto, medical doctor, son of a United Methodist pastor, and a former Crusade Scholar like Mondlane, became head of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. He had a profound vision for a self-determining alternative to Portuguese control and worked to implant it village by village, a process in which countless United Methodists gave leadership, sometimes resulting in death and imprisonment. Along with Neto's imprisonment was that of the Reverend Emilio de Carvalho, the first indigenous bishop of the UMC in Angola. MPLA became and remains the ruling party today in spite of protracted civil and insurgent challenges reflecting Cold War political interests in the region.

The governments of neither country today rank high on the scale of democratic influence, though they are trending in that direction with each passing decade. But it is their movement away from the controlling colonial authority through leadership which arose from the ranks of church leaders and members who sacrificed their lives for a new and hopeful futures for their people that is worthy of remembrance as we look at current trends in patterns of governance that may seem discouraging.

Will this history find recurrence in critical contexts where the UMC is engaged? One would hope that the activity within the denomination's base in the United States would provide some signs of awakening to the drift into nationalism. If the charism of a church leader is required, we should be praying for return of the likes of Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam who was a militant against political repression in the Red Scare period of the late 40s and 50s.

But the current trend toward authoritarianism is embraced and successfully led by evangelical groups that harbor no shame in endorsing self-benefitting political strategies rather than advocating for or protecting the goodwill of all the governed. They have yet to be challenged by mainstream churches that bear the Oxnam legacy but choose silence. Will United Methodists remain silent in the face of such a slide towards authoritarianism?

Friday, December 3, 2021

Recommended Reading: Climate Change, Natural Disasters, and the UMC in Zimbabwe

United Methodist News Service published a piece earlier this week entitled, "Storms destroy two church institutions in Zimbabwe." This headline accurately sums up the main event in the story, but it omits what I found most interesting. In commenting on the disaster, UMC Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa remarked, "Within 24 hours, all roofs were blown off from buildings at our two institutions by a heavy, windy storm. Experts are saying that it is because of the change in the climate," adding, "We never used to get cyclones in Zimbabwe."

While it is impossible to ascribe any particular storm solely to the effects of climate change, Nhiwatiwa is right that climate change is driving more extreme and often more harmful weather. This connection prompts a reminder and an open-ended question.

First, the reminder: While climate change is polarized along liberal / conservative lines in the United States, that is not true elsewhere. The politics of climate change look very different outside the United States, so US United Methodists should resist making assumptions about the environmental views of United Methodists outside the United States based on other political or theological positions.

Second, the question: The UMC is well-known for its disaster response work through UMCOR, both within the United States and globally. What happens to that ministry focus in a world changed by climate where there are increasingly more disasters, many more than the UMC and UMCOR could ever respond to?

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The United Methodist Church and Declining Democracy

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.

Last week, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance released their annual report, “The Global State of Democracy Report 2021 - Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era." For those who support democracy, the report was not encouraging. The title of the accompanying press release put it bluntly: "Democracy Faces Perfect Storm as the World Becomes More Authoritarian."

As I read through the report, I was struck not only by how democracy in general is imperiled in 2021, but how much that is true for countries that contain significant numbers of United Methodists. Out of countries that contain at least 100,000 United Methodists, the report called out the United States, the Philippines, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe for recent declines in democracy, though Zambia was also the one bright spot in the report, after the opposition party successfully won elections there this year.

According to the report, the DRC, Burundi, and Zimbabwe are all classified as authoritarian regimes. Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia are all classified as hybrid regimes and not full democracies. The only strongly United Methodist countries where democracy existed and was not in recent decline, according to this report, were Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, all classified as weak democracies.

A number of other countries with historically-related Methodist bodies, including Brazil and India, have also seen notable recent declines in democracy, and several countries in Eastern Europe with small United Methodist populations (Poland, Hungary, Serbia, and Russia) have also seen recent declines in democracy. Russia, home to a small population of United Methodists, was also just declared by the US State Department to be a significant violator of religious freedom.

The challenges to democracy can be bemoaned for political reasons, but these trends also raise a religious question: What is the impact of declining democracy likely to be on Methodism as a religious system and on The United Methodist Church in particular?

The relationships between Methodism and democracy has been historically complicated, and especially early in its history, Methodism tended towards populist authoritarianism, the direction of much of the world today.

John Wesley was a noted royalist and opposed the American revolution, a stance which caused Methodists in the American colonies some considerable difficulties. Nathan Hatch, in The Democratization of American Christianity, identifies Methodism as one of the religious traditions that really embraced a form of populism in keeping with the democratic spirits of the new United States, while at the same time he notes the authoritarian style of Francis Asbury as a leader of the movement.

David Hempton, in Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, notes that Methodism globally was all too happy to ride the coattails of expanding British political empire and American commercial empire, systems which boasted of the benefits of democracy while largely withholding the opportunity to participate in democracy from those in its subjugated territories.

By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the situation had changed. By then, Methodism, especially American Methodism, had emerged as a system of promoting democracy around the world.

In my book Mission as Globalization: Methodists in Southeast Asia at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, I argue that through mission, "Methodist polity spread modern, American ideas about democracy as a means of collective self-determination" (p. 66). At the same time, as Robbie B. H. Goh notes in Sparks of Grace: The Story of Methodism in Asia, "The work of Methodism in Asia was significantly hampered in certain areas by totalitarian politics" (26).

In 1918, the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States published Christian Democracy for America and The Christian Crusade for World Democracy. Commenting on these books in Methodist Evangelism, American Salvation: The Home Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1860-1920, Mark Teasdale writes, "Both sets of authors argued that by the beginning of the twentieth century this Methodist-forged nation [the United States] needed to take leadership in spreading its Christian American civilization to the rest of the world in the form [of] democracy" (227).

In more recent years, it is noteworthy that the early 1990s were both a surge in democracy world-wide and a boom time for The United Methodist Church globally. While I know of no systematic work exploring that connection, in some specific instances, such as the revival of Methodism in Russia and Eastern Europe, the connection is obvious.

The UMC's Social Principles currently state, "While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government as a principle vehicle for the ordering of society," and assert, "The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens," a strong endorsement of democracy without directly using the term.

Much of recent United Methodist attention to democracy, however, has been to questions about our own internal democratic systems, including issues of representation, access, voting credentials, and of course, the uncertainty over when General Conference will next meet.

But if mission history teaches us anything, it is that contexts matter for the success or struggles of religious systems. Internal factors matter, too, but focusing entirely internally misses half the picture.

Therefore, issues surrounding democratic decline or the related issue of religious freedom are issues that should matter to United Methodists. The state of the world and the societies within which the church operates have an impact on the church, and the system of government in those societies is one component of that societal impact.

While I know that declining democracy will likely affect the UMC, at this point, I cannot tell you what that effect will be. That is too far beyond my field of expertise. But if you have a take of 700-1200 words on how declining democracy is likely to impact The United Methodist Church, please share it with me at dscott (at) umcmission dot org, and it may be published here on UM & Global.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Ann Hidalgo: Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana and a New Vision of Mission

Today's post is by Dr. Ann Hidalgo. Dr. Hidalgo is a missionary for Global Ministries and professor of theological sciences at Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana in Costa Rica.

I write to you from San José, Costa Rica, where I teach as a professor of feminist theology at the Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana (UBL). A Methodist institution, the UBL has a long history as one of the foremost ecumenical Protestant centers of theological education in Latin America. In fact, next year, the UBL will begin celebrating its centennial.

From its earliest beginnings in 1922 as the Biblical School for Women and its formal establishment as the Biblical Institute of Costa Rica the following year, the institution has evolved continually to meet the changing needs for theological education in the region. In 1941, it was renamed the Latin American Biblical Seminary to mark the establishment of correspondence courses throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in 1997, it received formal Costa Rican accreditation as the Latin American Biblical University. Today it offers degree programs in theology and biblical studies at the bachelor, licensure, and masters levels, as well as a variety of certificate programs.

I first visited the UBL in 2013 when I was a doctoral student at Claremont School of Theology. At the time, I was preparing for my qualifying exams. In addition to my time spent in the library (marveling over the Spanish-language resources from Latin America that are seldom available in the United States), I sat in on some classes and participated in the weekly chapel services and other events. I was fascinated by the depth and richness of the classroom conversations, teaching, and preaching. In other circumstances, drawing a community together from different countries, denominational backgrounds, and genuinely different life experiences might be a recipe for conflict and discord, but, at the UBL, I experienced warmth, curiosity, generosity, a passion for learning, and a deep desire to develop the skills necessary to be of service in the churches and in society.

Last year, I accepted a position as a missionary with GBGM, and in December, my husband and I moved from the United States to Costa Rica. In January, I began teaching courses in feminist theology at the UBL. While the pandemic sent nearly all of our residential students home and moved all classes online, in this first year, I have taught students in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and Spain. The UBL’s other online events, such as lectures and conferences, have regularly attracted participants from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond.

These experiences might suggest that I would have something to say about the connection between mission and theological education.

I have to confess, however, that I am as unlikely a missionary as you can imagine. Or, at least, that is how it seemed to me.

To start with the obvious, I am not a Methodist. I am a Catholic who typically attends church with my husband, an ordained pastor with the Disciples of Christ. Fortunately for me, that did not prove to be an obstacle for working with GBGM. Next, I am not ordained. While not a requirement for my position, GBGM’s application is full of language asking for call stories and visions of ministry. To me, as an academic, the application felt quite foreign.

But perhaps most significantly, my academic work has focused on the decolonial critique of the Christian churches in Latin America. From this perspective, the work of missionaries—whether in the 16th century or today—is more often seen as the source of problems than of grace. The decolonial perspective has rightly identified instances in which evangelism served as one arm of a larger political and economic project of domination, in which the teaching of religion conveyed a message of cultural inferiority to the recipients, in which the Christian churches failed to protect the most vulnerable, and in which newly established Christian communities were expected to remain subservient and were not encouraged to develop local leadership and authority.

During my application process, I was surprised to learn that GBGM has retained the title missionary, while other denominations have adopted titles like mission coworker to signal an updated vision of ministry. My experience as I filled out my application was one of mixed feelings: I was thrilled about the possibility of returning to the UBL to teach and, at the same time, genuinely uncomfortable with the title of missionary.

I wish I could tell you that this internal argument is a thing of the past. I can, however, share with you two hopeful signs that I have found encouraging.

The first is the GBGM motto for ministry: from everywhere to everywhere. As I participated in the training sessions, I was pleased to see that these were not empty words. The approximately twenty members of my training cohort came from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, significantly reducing my fears that GBGM’s work was yet another act of United States-based cultural imperialism.

The second emerged in a conversation with Dr. Elisabeth Cook, the rector at the UBL. While describing the many relationships that the UBL maintains with churches, denominations, nonprofit organizations, and other funding bodies, Dr. Cook explained that the UBL occasionally has refused funding offers when the donor organization was unwilling to relate as an equal partner. As an institution, the UBL is willing to forego much-needed cash if the other organization intends to impose projects or activities that are incompatible with the UBL mission. Again, I was grateful for this encouraging bit of news that contradicted my (admittedly pessimistic) view about how loudly money talks.

The UBL itself has become for me a symbol of mission. It is committed to reading the signs of the times in order to adapt to better meet the needs for theological education in the region. It acknowledges and celebrates its roots as a mission project and its long history of collaboration with a variety of Christian churches, but it is not willing to compromise its institutional identity in order to balance the books. Likewise, it is dedicated to walking alongside its students throughout their educational journeys and its graduates as they engage in their ministries in Latin America and beyond.

Despite my misgivings, this is a vision of mission I can embrace.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Asset-Based Mission Is a Potluck

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.

In the United States, many people will be gathering with family and friends tomorrow to share food for Thanksgiving. In some of these gatherings, one person or one host family will have done the cooking and will provide that food to others. But in many other gatherings, every participant will bring a dish or two to share with others -- the host cooking the turkey, perhaps, but someone else bringing the cranberry sauce, another person bringing a casserole or vegetable dish, another bringing the pie, and so on.

Of course, for many United Methodists in the United States, this model of shared food is a hallmark of church culture in the form of the potluck. While potlucks are not exclusively a church phenomenon, they are a staple of church dinners throughout much of the country. Their popularity likely comes from their simplicity and equality: Even a potluck in which participants are assigned a genre of dish by last name ("A through H bring a salad; I through R a main course; and S through Z dessert."), they are easy to organize and allow all participants to contribute something according to their gifts.

It is this last feature that makes potlucks a good metaphor for asset-based mission practice. An asset-based approach to mission assumes that all people have assets or gifts that they can contribute to the work of God's mission, and such an approach expects that all people will contribute those gifts. This is analogous to the potluck assumption that everyone can and will bring some sort of food to contribute to the meal.

Asset-based approaches to mission also recognize that everyone's gifts for mission are distinctive. Not everyone is expected to contribute the same thing to the mission project. Each is expected to contribute their best and their unique strengths. A good potluck depends upon everyone (or almost everyone) bringing a different gift. Variety is the strength of potlucks, and if you don't make a very good chili, that is okay. Someone else will make the chili, and you can make whatever it is you are good at.

Asset-based approaches to mission not only assume that everyone has something to give in mission; they assume that everyone can be mutually blessed by mission. Mission is not from one group to another. Mission is the work of God redeeming all. Just as everyone contributes to a potluck, everyone eats at a potluck. A potluck is not a meal that one group feeds another but does not partake in.

Asset-based mission does not try to quantify or compare what each partner is able to bring to the work of mission. Contributions reflect the abilities of the partners; benefits reflect the needs. There is usually not an elaborate cost-benefit calculation to make sure that the two are always equal. People bring as much as they can or want to a potluck and eat as much as they are hungry for. The two do not need to be the same amount.

In this way, asset-based mission is based on a presumption of abundance. There is less worrying about whether there will be enough to engage in God's mission. Instead, there is trust that God will provide what is necessary for God's work. At a good potluck, while individual dishes run out, everyone can eat their fill, and there is almost always more than enough to go around.

I hope those readers in the United States will enjoy their Thanksgiving dinners tomorrow. And I hope, as you are passing and sharing food, that you will spend a moment to think about how God calls us to share with one another in God's mission.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Lynette Moran: A Theology of Mourning and Hope: Part III: Practical Steps for Grieving the Church

Today’s post is by Rev. Lynette Moran. Rev. Moran is an ordained deacon in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. This is the third of a three-part series.

In my two previous posts, I have described the church grief that many of us in The United Methodist Church are experiencing and described the theological message of hope that we have in the midst of all forms of mourning and grief. I would like to close this series with some practical affirmations about the work of moving with and through our grief.

First, we need to name the griefs we are facing. We cannot cope with what we refuse to acknowledge. We are facing the end of the UMC as we know it. We are continuing to face COVID and its line of variants. We are facing climate change and ecological crises. These are disorienting and somber. We cannot cope with what we refuse to acknowledge.

Second, we need to provide people a place to have their grief. Everyone is at a different place. Some people are still at a place where they haven’t bought into the idea of the potential split of the UMC or the full realities of COVID or the reality of climate change. We must meet people where they are. It requires extra effort and creativity to welcome all into the fold. Hospitality, God’s radical love, calls us to do so.

Third, we need to provide opportunity for healing. Rituals, liturgy, music, and pastoral care matter. So do opportunities for storytelling. These opportunities could be in a journal, small group setting, or in general conversation. We must lead reflective conversations that acknowledge loss and change. We should offer opportunities to make meaning. Remember that people will make meaning no matter what—I would rather they do so in the care of the church than alone out in the world. These conversations will happen immediately and for months and years to come.

Fourth, we should resource out. Most of us are not counselors. Clinical complicated grief, prolonged grief, and persistent complex bereavement are serious and beyond most of our abilities to address. Remember to refer to other professionals as needed. Connect with other faith leaders and professionals in your area to see what temporary and permanent resources are available (and also consider how your church can fill any gaps).

Fifth, we should know our communities and adopt our strategies to those contexts. Someone living in a rural community of farmers might have different conversations and different grief to witness than a coastal city that is hit every year by major storms and flooding.

Sixth, we must bear witness to others’ grief. Mourning is a dark place where most people don’t feel comfortable sitting. We like to cheer people up; we like to feel comfortable; we like to fill the silences. But most of us also know that one of the most hopeful and healing things we can ever experience is someone knowing us at our deepest and darkest—and them staying and loving us as we are. Practice witnessing. Help others learn to effectively witness others' grief.

Seventh, we must practice radical hope. Provide images for what healing and the future can look like. Ask effective questions. What can go back to normal? What needs to change? How can we be okay no matter what the future holds? How can we reframe hope when life does not go as we want? How can we live out the kingdom of God now, in this circumstance? How can our congregations know it will be okay no matter what the future holds? Provide images for what healing and the future can look like. Have these conversations—ask these questions—and more.

Moreover, radical hope might involve acting radically, getting involved with social justice movements and advocating for those who are most harmed by the current environment. With COVID, many of us have worked to get the vaccine accessible to all people, not just some. Some of us advocate for clean air and water and other environmental and health needs. Again, this goes from the individual to the larger community. Big businesses that profit from ecological destruction must be confronted. As the church, I think we must take effort to connect how our mass consumption in the US causes harm in the exploitation of workers and natural resources around the world.

Finally, we should tend to our own grief. Our work with the grief of others cannot proceed without work on our grief as well.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Recommended Reading: Kirsteen Kim on Racism Awareness in Mission

While this blog does not frequently recommend academic articles, Kirsteen Kim's recent article "Racism Awareness in Mission: Touchstone or Cultural Blind Spot?" published in the October issue of the International Bulletin of Mission Research, raises some important questions about the field of missiology. Kim begins by reflecting, "The heightened awareness of race, racialization, and racism in 2020 furnishes the context for asking why these issues are not more prominent in mission and missiology." She argues, "I will show that, although on the one hand, sensitivity to culture and context in postwar and postcolonial missiology has encouraged diversity, interculturality, and movements for greater equity, and so mitigated what we now call 'racism,' on the other hand, ... attention to 'culture' and 'context' may also obscure racism in mission and missiology" and therefore "racism awareness should be integral to mission education and that antiracism should characterize mission practice." Given the current cultural landscape of the United States, this article is highly recommended reading for US missionaries and missiologists. For those without access to the written article, much of the same ground is covered in Kim's 2020 Louis J. Luzbetak Lecture at Catholic Theological Union.