Monday, June 18, 2018

Recommended readings: African UMC peacemaking

Last week, I shared a list of UMNS articles about Africans engaged in charity to other Africans. The articles were intended to show the extent of African resources for service and charity. Yet charity is not the only area in which the African UMC brings significant assets to its mission. Indeed, United Methodist engagement on peace is somewhat of a denominational hallmark across the continent. There have been a dozen UMNS articles about United Methodist efforts for peace in various African countries in just the last 15 months:

Zimbabwe UMC and other churches march for peace

Sierra Leone United Methodist Men preach political unity

UMC, ecumenical partners preach Christian unity to Congolese women

Teaching Muslims and Christians for peace in Cote d'Ivoire

UMC promotes peace and unity in the DRC

Church offers peace training to young people in DRC

United Methodists preach peaceful Sierra Leone elections

UMC churches in Congo pray for peace and condemn attack on protestors

UMC prays for peace in Zimbabwe

Liberian United Methodists asked to pray for peaceful elections

Kenyan UMC promotes peaceful voting

UMC promotes peace between Pygmies and Bantus in DRC

Note that in all these cases, peacemaking means directly addressing pressing political issues, including those related to ethnicity and religion. That doesn't mean that the church necessarily takes sides in political debates. It does, however, mean that the church is not "apolitical" in the sense of avoiding or ignoring politics. Peacemaking involves the church speaking God's word for peace in the midst of political conflicts.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The American Society of Missiology & Mission Friendship

I (David Scott) will be attending the annual meeting of the American Society of Missiology (ASM) starting today. The ASM is the major academic/practical society for those studying mission in North America.

The theme for this year's conference is "Interfaith Friendship as Incarnational Mission Practice." As this theme indicates, friendship is becoming an increasingly important focus for mission research and practice. Mission friendship includes interfaith friendship, as this conference highlights, but also international, intercultural, and interracial friendship. Therefore, I wanted to share a bit about this theme and this conference for those unaware of the conference or unable to attend.

Conference organizers give the following explanation of the importance of friendship as a theme:

"In an article in the IBMR honoring the life work of Jonathan Bonk, Dana Robert began her essay with these words: "Friendship is a foundational practice in Christian mission" (IBMR (October 2015), 180). In this era of rising tribalism, tension and fear toward those who are different, Christians are called to live out the Gospel in the way of Jesus: through loving God and loving neighbor. When vitriolic political rhetoric inflames hostility and distrust, especially toward those of other faith commitments, interfaith friendships become crucial avenues of incarnational mission practice. There are many ways to do this, as even a brief history of mission illustrates. The oft-cited friendship of Frances of Assisi with Sultan Malek al-Kamil of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade is, perhaps, one of the most illustrious (see Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context, 143).

"There are many today who witness to the power of friendship as a bridge to interfaith understanding and cooperation. Muslim founder of Interfaith Youth Corps, Eboo Patel, draws college students together to improve "interfaith literacy" and provide the means to shatter stereotypes and fears of those who "orient around religion differently" through friendship (see Patel, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer). Amazon, while seeking to sell us on Amazon Prime at Christmas, offered a poignant tale of interfaith friendship between a priest and an imam over a cup of tea. Their care for one another prompted them to unwittingly buy each other the gift of knee-pads for enabling greater comfort during prayer (see the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cllWl1u1fj0 and Muslim Saimma Dyer's insightful commentary on the ad at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingtradition/2016/11/interfaith-friendships-not-just-for-christmas/).

"As Christians, friendship within the Godhead - the three-in-One - is both our model and means for offering the hospitality and creating the space where "the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy" (Nouwen, Reaching Out, 51). Making room for the God who, in the outstretched arms of Christ, loves and forgives us, enables us to also love and forgive, welcome and embrace, and befriend those God has already "friended" (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 126). In what he calls a pneumatological theology of hospitality, Amos Yong posits that the power of the Holy Spirit is not only what allows us to love the neighbor, but allows God to love us through the neighbor. Interfaith friendships make possible this mutual transformation crucial to the work of God in the world (Yong, Hospitality and the Other, 158). Friendship with God enables friendship with others.

"Voices from within the ASM, have long offered insight into the power of friendship to open doors to those of other faiths, not only for the sake of world peace, but for the sake of faithful witness to the love of God in Christ. Kosuke Koyama called it "neighborology:" loving and living in solidarity with one's neighbor, exegeting both the Word and the neighbor's culture, and found it became the "best vessel to convey Christ" (Water Buffalo Theology, 67). Steve Bevans and Roger Schroeder called it the dance of "prophetic dialogue:" a style of living in relationship with our neighbors that holds in tension proclamation and dialogue, boldness and humility, and builds empathy and trust through friendship modeled on the image of "entering someone else's garden" (Prophetic Dialogue, 152, 33). Terry Muck and Frances Adeney called it "giftive mission" in which we enter into relationships with those of other religions (or no religion) as bearers and receivers of gifts, observing ways in which God is already at work and the gospel is truly a gift in that context (Christianity Encountering World Religions, 373). All of these, and many others, point to the importance of interfaith friendship, not only to bring peace to our world, but because loving and being loved by neighbors of other faiths, being both guests and hosts, enables us to express and receive God's love (Yong, 153)."

To get a further idea of how this concept of friendship is playing out in the study of mission, check out the listing of session and paper titles on the conference schedule.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What's going on in the Congo?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology 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.

As someone who is dedicated to counteracting stereotypes Americans have about foreign countries, this piece is difficult to write. There are long-standing tropes of news coverage about Africa that portray the continent as just a series of wars, natural disasters, and poverty. It’s not. There are a lot of good things happening on the continent of Africa, including innovation, economic growth, and successful peace and reconciliation processes. Africans are engaging in their own mission and charity endeavors, as Monday's post indicated.

At the same time, there are a number of serious problems facing one African country in particular: the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC or the Congo for short. The DRC also happens to be the country with the second-highest number of United Methodists, behind the United States. If United Methodists from elsewhere are to understand our sisters and brothers in the Congo, then it’s important to move beyond vague and stereotyped notions of “problems in Africa” to a more specific understanding of the challenges the DRC faces and how those challenges impact the church.

This post summarizes several of the largest challenges facing the country, and a subsequent post will examine the perhaps surprising ways these challenges are affecting the UMC.

Kivu conflict
One of the longest running armed conflicts in the Congo has been going on in Kivu, an eastern area bordering Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi with a substantial number of United Methodists. This conflict has its roots in the Rwandan Genocide and was the central theater for the First and Second Congo Wars, major conflicts involving numerous African countries. Conflict has continued since the end of the Second Congo War with a varied, shifting, and complicated set of government, militia, and foreign forces. Current conflict between the government and rebel groups have been deemed a “war” by the country’s defense minister. UN Peacekeepers sent to reduce fighting have themselves been the targets of recent attacks.

Hema-Lendu conflict/Ituri conflict
There is a long-standing ethnic conflict between the herding Hema ethnic group and the farming Lendu ethnic group. Like the Kivu conflict, it was exacerbated by international forces during the Second Congo War, leading to a period of intense fighting known as the Ituri conflict, after the region in northwest Congo in which the Hema and Lendu live (an area with relatively few United Methodists). While that intense conflict abated in 2003, low-level conflict continued, and there has been a recent increase in fighting that has left dozens dead and 100,000 displaced.

Bantu-Pygmy conflict
Conflict between the Pygmies, a minority ethnic group in the Congo, and the Bantus, the dominant overarching ethnic group in the Congo that includes numerous specific ethnicities, has been happening at least since colonial times. A recent flare-up of conflict began in 2014 and led to numerous deaths. This violence happened in the southeastern Katanga region of the Congo, a heavily Methodist area. The two sides signed a peace treaty in 2017, but given the long-standing nature of that conflict, the possibility for further conflict still exists.

Elections
DRC President Joseph Kabila’s term of office ended in 2016, but he has not stepped down and has delayed calling new elections despite international pressure to hold elections. Elections are now scheduled for December 2018. There are signs that Kabila will run again despite being constitutionally barred from a third term. Opposition to Kabila and uncertainty surrounded elections has been a major factor increasing the country’s conflicts, especially the Kasai conflict described below.

Kasai conflict
Opposition to Kabila has led to a new anti-government movement in the Kasai area of central Congo, an area with relatively few United Methodists. Conflict between the anti-government Kamuina Nsapu movement and government forces has left thousands dead and over a million displaced. While this conflict has emerged within the last two years, it is closely tied to the long-term saga of presidential succession in the Congo.

Resource extraction
The fuel driving these political and military crises – presidential misbehavior, armed opposition, incursion by foreign countries – is the Congo’s vast mineral wealth. The Congo has extensive resources of copper, gold, diamonds, rare elements essential for components of modern electronics, and other minerals. Yet these resources have never served to enrich the people of the Congo. Instead, they have been siphoned off, first by European colonial rulers and then by Western multinational corporations and a “kleptocracy” of corrupt Congolese politicians. Control of mining resources continues to be a major motive for and funding source of armed groups in the country today.

Ebola
One of the more recent problems in the Congo is an outbreak of Ebola. There have been several dozen cases including numerous deaths, in the northwest area of the country (an area where there are relatively few United Methodists). Ebola has been discovered in the large city of Bikoro. At this point, this outbreak is nowhere near as severe as the outbreak in West Africa in 2015-16. The Congolese government and international agencies are taking steps to prevent the outbreak from spreading and becoming more severe, including vaccinating health workers.

Natural disasters
The Congo is not unique in having natural disasters. All countries have significant natural disasters, including highly developed countries such as the United States. Among the natural disasters affecting the Congo in the last year are landslides and flooding. If the Congo is unique in its natural disasters, its in having a more limited internal capacity to respond to those natural disasters because of a low level of economic development and a high level of political disfunction.

These challenges combined have made the DRC one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world right now. The German United Methodist disaster relief agency, Diakonie, has called it “the largest humanitarian crisis that the world has not noticed.”

Yet, as this post began by saying, it is oversimplifying and stereotyping to say that all is doom and gloom. Much of the country is peaceful. There are good things happening in the Congo, and UMC is one of them. I’ll explain why and how next week.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Recommended readings: African charity

There is a tendency in the West to see Africa as merely a place of poverty, a place that needs Western donations. This view is stereotypical and harmful for a variety of reasons and does not do justice to the many positive things happening in Africa.

In particular, when Westerners view Africa as a place of need, they can overlook the assets that Africans themselves possess. Moreover, such a view overlooks the differences in distribution of economic assets within African societies.

To get a better sense of the assets that Africans have, how those assets are distributed, and how Africans are using their own assets to help other Africans, read the following UMNS stories about African charity to other Africans. This is not an endorsement of all of the charity models followed. These stories are offered instead as counterexamples to the "Western donor-African recipient" stories that we hear all too often.

Liberia UMC schools help Ebola survivors

Urban Congolese congregation helps rural congregation

Zimbabwe UMW donates to orphanage

Women's entrepreneurship project of East Congo UMC

Liberia UMW give scholarship to rural students

Women's entrepreneurship project of Zimbabwe UMC

Zimbabwe UMC schools give access to computers

Liberia UMW gives out personal transportation devices to disabled persons

Liberia UMC clinic cares for persons with leprosy

Liberia UMC provides medical help for seniors

Zimbabwe UMC helps prisoners learn to grow food

Zimbabwe UMC donates food to prisoners

Nigeria UMC schools conduct adult education program

This list in not comprehensive. Moreover, it doesn't even include the extensive evangelistic, peacemaking, or women's rights work that African United Methodists undertake on their own initiative and with their own assets. Nor does it include any of the work wherein African United Methodists are active, contributing partners with United Methodists from elsewhere in the world.

Clearly, United Methodists everywhere need to take seriously African United Methodists' assets and abilities for impacting their societies.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Meeting our Hindu Neighbor

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I had the privilege of welcoming a Hindu friend and teacher of Hinduism to Global Ministries of the UMC on April 18, 2018 for our Mission Dialogue Forum-the staff educational programme initiated by the Mission Theology Desk of Global Ministries. Mr. Manhar Valand is originally from South Africa, and he refers to his ancestral connections in India. Mr. Valand serves as a teacher at the Chinmaya Niketan Ashram – Atlanta Mission, in Norcross, Georgia. He also serves as a general chaplain to the Hindu community in Atlanta and instructor for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), Emory University. He has been very well connected with the wider interfaith movement in Georgia.

It was absolutely a fresh experience for Global Ministries staff to hear from Mr. Valand and to gain some basic teachings of the Hindu faith and our Hindu neighbors. This visit also enhanced our cross-cultural intelligence as an agency that is located in a predominantly Methodist context.

Who Are Hindus?
During the forum, we discovered that the term 'Hindu' was derived from the river or river complex of northwest India, the Sindhu. Sindhu is a Sanskrit word used by the inhabitants of the region, the Aryans in the second millennium BCE. The 'ism' was added to 'Hindu' only in the 19th century in the context of British colonialism and missionary activity. In some ways, Hinduism is perhaps the oldest living religion in the world, or at least elements within it stretch back many thousands of years. Yet Hinduism resists easy definition partly because of the vast array of practices and beliefs found within it. It is also closely associated conceptually and historically with the other Indian religions Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

Most Hindus revere a body of texts as sacred scripture known as the Vedas. Maybe the most popular Vedic collection globally would be the Bhagavat Gita. Most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. Hindus believe that this supreme spirit is Brahman. Brahman has many forms, pervades the whole universe, and is symbolized by the sacred syllable Om (or Aum). Most Hindus believe that Brahman is present in every person as the eternal spirit or soul, called the atman. Brahman contains everything: creation and destruction, masculine and feminine, good and evil, movement and stillness. Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma.

Understanding the fundamentals
If you ask an average person what he/she knows of Hinduism, he/she would probably say, “Oh, I know about Yoga!” This is a very reductionist understanding of Hindu practices. Their fundamentals are much broader and lager than most think. Mr. Valand, our teacher of the day, synthesized them as follows.

The core concept in Hinduism is Sanatana dharma, and that is the term used to offer the meaning the “eternal teachings” or absolute set of duties or religiously ordained practices incumbent upon all Hindus, regardless of class, caste, or sect. Dharma is the Sanskrit word for teaching, which is much closer to the Christian teaching on the Word of God – Dabar/Logos. This may be one of the reasons many Hindus find a very close mystical affiliation to John’s Gospel. In general, sanatana dharma consists of virtues such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings, purity, goodwill, mercy, patience, forbearance, self-restraint, generosity, service and asceticism.

The most powerful Hindu teachings that have attracted Christians and people of other faiths are searching the divine through Bhakthi – the way of devotion to God/gods/goddesses – and Ahimsa – non-violent tradition and compassionate service to all beings.

Demographics
Religious demographics matters. Christianity in the western world is in a general decline but other faiths are not or at least not at a same scale of Christian decline. Hinduism is the religion of most people in India and Nepal. It also exists among significant populations outside of the Indian sub-continent. According to pew research Worldwide, the number of Hindus is projected to rise by 27%, from 1.1 billion to 1.4 billion.

Regarding the US context, there are estimated 1.2 million Hindus in the United States (http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations). Wherever there are south Asian communities it is very likely that majority of them are Hindus or have some affiliation to any of the Hindu movements. We might encounter them in market places, businesses, work places and during our church-related activities too.

Hinduism in the US context
Hinduism was introduced to America through the nineteenth-century translations of religious texts, most notably the Bhagavad Gita, much admired by the Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1893, the famous World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago, and the charismatic Hindu leader Swami Vivekananda was a leading personality of the World Parliament. Vivekananda would also be the catalyst for the founding of the first Hindu group in America—the Vedanta Societies, which early on developed centers in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Hinduism in the US has gone through various periods of up and downs. As the Hindu population in America has emerged, it has not been evenly distributed across the country. Clusters of Indian-Americans have formed in relative proximity to their entry points, America’s international airports in New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Approximately a third of all Hindus in the United States are found in a mere three states, California, New York and New Jersey.

Mission together
Let me raise three questions for us to grapple with missiologically as Christians and Hindus journey together:
  • Can we develop the mission of ahimsa (non-violence) in the context of the global need for peace, reconciliation and justice? We all know that Gandhi influenced Martin Luther King Jr., in his vision of racial justice and non-violent action. This may be a greater missional point of renewed interest if we see this from the point of view of missional friendships.
  • Given the missional friendships, can we openly engage on the issues of caste and race, engage in soul searching within and share our honest appraisals as friends from Hindu and Christian faiths?
  • Can we share more openly and have mutual exposure and leaning by visiting and partaking in the prayers, mediations and spiritual practices of each other’s faith traditions? Would that generate renewed energy for global peace and global missions?

Om, Shanthi, Shalom!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Institutional rigidity and church denominations

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology 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 previous posts, I have argued both that the choice between being a movement and being an institution is one in which both options have pros and cons and that institutions tend toward standardization, bureaucratization, and rigidity. Why, though, do institutions tend toward rigidity? Does that tendency mean rigidity is an inevitable con of being an institution? And what can the answers to these questions tell us about denominations in modern America?

First, a definition: Institutional rigidity is characterized by a well-elaborated set of formal structures, fairly tight centralized control, a commitment to existing ways of doing things, and a reluctance to change. Institutional rigidity is thus manifested in structure, practice, and attitude.

While those frustrated with rigid institutions often portray that rigidity as the result of uncaring or sinister leaders or a prevailing legalism, the roots of institutional rigidity stem much more from the incentives of institutional success and the values of modernity than they do from the personal failings of leaders (though those can also play a part).

Non-rigid institutions, by contrast, are characterized by a diversity of practices, policies, and attitudes. Decision making is not well-coordinated, and individual actors often have a large degree of leeway to make their own decisions (for good or ill). There are upsides of such a system: It encourages or at least allows for a lot of experimentation. Many of these experiments will fail, but frequent experimentation also ensures that there will be successes as well.

Rigidity originates when organizations try to capitalize on these successes. Generally speaking, once an organization has identified a pathway to success, it has an incentive to try to build on that model. Success attracts followers, funding, and other resources. Success allows an organization to continue and to grow. Therefore, there are natural incentives for organizations to focus on its successes.

Institutions generally try to build on their successes in a few ways: by implementing the model for those successes throughout the organization, by trying to produce those successes in an increasingly efficient manner, and therefore by trying to produce more of that success.

Note that the value of maximizing organizational success, especially through increased efficiency, reflects some of the values of modernity, which is focused on bureaucratic efficiency, and capitalism, which is focused on continual growth. While the attraction of success may be a universal human experience, modern institutions are conditioned by modernity to respond to that universal desire in particular ways.

Broad, efficient, and increasing implementation of a model for success has certain effects on organizations. In order to ensure broad implementation of the model, organizations centralize control and use that centralized control to standardize their policies and procedures. Such centralization and standardization keeps local units from doing their own thing, thus seeking to promote success and avoid failures (of whatever sort) by those local units.

Centralization and formal structures also result from a desire for efficiency. Formalized structures can facilitate communication and decision-making, thus increasing efficiency. Centralization allows for more streamlined decision-making as well.

In this way, standardization and centralization leads to well-evolved formal structures, but they also lead to marginalization of those who are not part of the newly created (or newly emphasized) center. Those who previously had latitude to make their own decisions (for good or ill) now have some of that decision-making power taken away from them.

Generally, this approach to organization does allow an institution significant power to do more of whatever it defines as success. This success allows the organization to thrive. In the process, the organization becomes dependent upon and committed to this particular model of success.

Yet what is successful for one time or in one place is never successful for all times and places. Eventually, the environment of an organization will change and its efficient, extensive focus on a particular pathway to success will no longer produce success in the way it once did.

When this happens, organizations then have a challenge: can they adapt and adopt a different path to success, or will they decline? Often the rigidity that an institution has developed to ensure its success prevents it from changing strategies once its initial strategy no longer leads to success.

An institution that has not committed itself to a single model of success can avoid the problem of fundamental change to its model necessitated by a changing environment, but the great majority of modern institutions are designed to focus on a single model of success.

How does this very abstract discussion of organizational dynamics apply to denominations? Denominations are, among other things, modern organizations. Therefore, most modern denominations have an operative model of success that was designed to produce organizational continuity and growth. Those models have increasingly been refined through a process of centralization, bureaucratization, and increased efficiency. These processes resulted in increased denominational power but also increased rigidity.

The problem most denominations are facing in contemporary America is that the models of success they adopted were developed for life in the first half of the twentieth century and then refined over the course of the second half of the twentieth century.

Yet American society has undergone tremendous change since the middle of the twentieth century in a variety of ways: dominant economic model (agrarian-industrial-postindustrial), a decline in intergenerational interactions, shifts from rural to urban to suburban, changes in cultural values (including those for sex and gender), an increased sense of individualism, the decline of the middle class, political polarization, etc. The list could go on.

These changes have put significant stresses on all institutions and organizations developed for a different world, from AT&T to religious colleges to the Post Office to Kiwanis clubs to the American auto industry.

Some organizations have been able to adapt and shift their core model of success. Some have not and have ceased to exist. The challenge is substantial, though, since it involves a willingness to let go of what has led to organizational health, which can feel like a dangerous proposition, even when there is some recognition that old strategies are no longer working.

In many ways, organized religion has been on the decline since the 1960s because of changes in its environment. Those analyzing such trends frequently point to theological and cultural reasons why. There may be some truth to such answers, but we cannot fully understand this trend unless we recognize the hazards that American Christians accepted when they decided to adopt a denominational approach to being church that was predicated on the assumptions of modern institutions. Denominations gained great power at the time they made the decision to embrace this model of being church, but they also set themselves up for long-term challenges when their models of success no longer fit the world in which they were living.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Recommended Readings: Norwegian and Swiss-French UMC Mission Documents

Most American United Methodists may be familiar with Global Ministries and United Methodist Women as mission agencies of the church. Yet the UMC also has mission agencies in Norway, Germany, and Switzerland-France. While their range may be smaller than Global Ministries, these European agencies work collaboratively with Methodist and non-Methodist partners around the world on evangelism, development, and poverty relief projects.

Due in part to the focused nature of its work and following broader Norwegian conversations about development work, The Norwegian Board of Global Ministry (Metodistkirkens Misjonselskap) in particular has made partnership an important focus of their work.

That focus on partnership is evident in two documents of that Board, both worth reading:

The Board's "Vision, value, and strategy document" (in Norwegian and English). The third page of this document lays out a clear philosophy of partnership.

An example "Reciprocal Friendship Agreement" between Oslo Central UMC and Garjay Memorial UMC in Sonniewen, Liberia (in English). The Reciprocal Friendship Agreement is a great example of the connection between friendship and mission and is also quite clear about the types of mutual exchange necessary to build such a friendship. It may be used as a model for other agreements, including those between American churches and their overseas partners.

Connexio, the "Network for Mission and Service" of the UMC in Switzerland and France has likewise made partnership and relationship a central feature of the mission work that it undertakes or facilitates for others.

That focus on partnership and relationship is evident in Connexio's "Objectives and Tasks" document (in English). The document also highlights awareness of the global connection of the UMC.