Friday, September 25, 2020

Recommended Viewing: The Theological Roots of Racism and Colonialism

As part of the UMC's Dismantling Racism campaign, the denomination has been sponsoring a series of virtual panel discussions on aspects of race and racism. The most recent panel, on "The Theological Roots of Racism and Colonialism" was held on Sept. 16th.

The panel featured Rev. Dr. Mai-Ahn Le Tran of Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, Rev. Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric of Duke Divinity School, and Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings of Yale Divinity School as panelists.The panel was moderated by Rev. Erin Hawkins, former General Secretary of the UMC's General Commission on Religion and Race.

The panel reflected on the ways in which theology and race intersect in the US context but put this discussion in larger contexts of colonialism and World Christianity. Panelists tied racism within the US to patterns of colonialism overseas and lifted up learning from world Christian perspectives as a means to decenter whiteness in American Christianity. The panel, which lasted about an hour, is well worth watching for these and other insights on the topic.

The panel can be viewed online here. There is also a UMNS story summarizing the townhall.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Christianity Tends Towards Nationalism; Mission Keeps It Honest

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.

I have been reading Robert P. Jones' White Too Long recently. The book is a searing indictment of the role of white American Christianity in creating and upholding white supremacy and should be read widely by white American Christians for the sake of their own souls as well as the sake of racial justice.

Among the book's larger argument, I was struck by a passage on p. 75-76:
"While white Christianity was protecting the interests and consciences of those under its canopy, white Christians were also staunchly defending the purity and innocence of the religion itself. They accomplished this principally by projecting an idealized form of white Christianity as somehow independent of the failings of actual white Christians or institutions. ... The problem with this defensive posture is that it prevents us from seeing areas where the religion may have gone off course; where new bearing are needed."
Although Jones is primarily interested in support for white supremacy as an instance in which American Christianity has gone off course (as it certainly is), I got to thinking, "What, speaking broadly across geography and time, are the sorts of ways in which Christianity tends to go off course

One of the answers I came to is that Christianity tends towards nationalism. By this I mean that there is a repeated tendency for Christian institutions and individuals to portray the nation (both in the sense of ethne and of nation state) in which they are located in a way that identifies the nations with God's will and action in the world; provides moral covering for the actions of those nations, even when those actions are morally unseemly; conflates national and Christian identity; presents national boundaries as God-ordained; and/or identifies service of the nation with service of God.

Certainly, Jones' book can be read as a description of American Christianity as a support of white nationalism. Another of my recent reads, Kristin Kobes du Mez's Jesus and John Wayne speaks persuasively about (primarily white) American evangelicalism as a form of American nationalism. And this trend of religious nationalism in the United States goes all the way back to the notion of America as a "city on a hill" with special religious significance for the world.

But this tendency does not only appear in American Christianity. It pops up repeatedly in Christianity around the world and over the centuries, from Eusebius' support for Constantine to the autocephalous churches of Eastern Orthodoxy to the Peace of Westphalia to the patronado system,to the cozy relationship between Christians and governments in many nations in Africa and Latin America today. Time and again, Christian institutions, theologies, and symbols have proven themselves to be able to be bent in service of the ends of nations, even when those ends or the means used to pursue them go against central teachings of the religion.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with nations--society has to be organized somehow--what is problematic is Christians' willingness to identify the this-world aims of nations, which are often characterized by a quest for power and resources and moral compromises in their pursuit--with the other-worldly truths of a God of love, justice, and righteousness.

Still, it is possible to see this tendency towards nationalism as the negative side of what, in other ways, is a positive feature of Christianity. This is what Andrew Walls has called the "indigenizing principle"--the ability of Christianity to adapt itself to the cultural and national homes into which it moves. It is this indigenizing principle that has allowed Christianity to spread around the world and take root in so many different places and contexts.

Thus, the solution to Christianity's tendency towards nationalism is not to do away with the indigenizing principle. It is instead to ensure that this principle remains balanced with the other important principle Walls identified in Christianity--the pilgrim principle. It is the pilgrim principle that prevents Christians from becoming too comfortable in the world or in a particular national context. The pilgrim principle reminds Christians to engage with the other, to see God in the face of those who are different from them, to make a distinction between their faith and their nation.

The pilgrim principle can be supported in many different ways, but one of the most significant ways in which Christians have emphasized the importance of the pilgrim principle has been through mission. Mission takes Christians beyond their home national and cultural contexts and shows them God at work elsewhere in the world. It teaches them to see their home nations with different and more critical eyes.

Of course, not all missionaries have been proponents of the pilgrim principle. Some have used mission as a venue for promoting their particular form of nationalism, as the history of Western mission over the past several centuries so amply shows.

Still, as the activity of the church that is most connection to internationalism, mission remains a crucial force in maintaining the balance of the church in its relationship with nations--able to work in any nation, but also able to distinguish itself from the moral justifications and claims to ultimate ontological status that almost all nations engage in. In this way, mission is part of what keeps Christianity honest, what keeps Christianity from going off course.

Monday, September 21, 2020

UM & Global Collections on Assets and Finances

The latest pair of UM & Global collections both include compilations of posts written by UM & Global blogmaster David W. Scott about assets, money, finances, and church structure.

The first collection, "A Primer on UMC Assets," includes a series of twelve posts about United Methodist denominational assets, examining what these assets are, what assets are owned by different units of the church, how these assets are impacted by the trust clause, and what might happen to these assets in various scenarios of division of The United Methodist Church.

The second collection, on "Mission, Ministry, and Finances," includes eighteen posts that examine issues related to the financing of church infrastructure, apportionments, financial subsidies of the central conferences by the United States and Europe, episcopal and pastoral salaries in Africa, and internal financial capacities of the central conferences. The posts included in this collection are intended to help readers reflect on how financial arrangements impact the church's missional partnerships and what sorts of ministries the church is and is not able to do.

Both collections include discussion questions for reflection on the included pieces. In both cases, these discussion questions are intended to help students, annual conference leaders, General Conference delegates, local church leaders, and others to think wisely about how our money does and should shape our mission.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Recommended Listening: Without Borders with Collins and Wes

Missionaries Rev. Collins Etchi Ako and Rev. Dr. Wesley Magruder are Global Ministries missionaries. Collins is originally from Cameroon, serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo as administrative and liaison support for the East Congo Episcopal Area. Wes is originally from the United States, serving in South Africa as a lecturer in theology at Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary. The two are friends from Wes's previous time serving as a missionary in Cameroon.

Together, they have launched a new podcast: "Without Borders with Collins and Wes."

The focus of the podcast is "ministry, politics, colonization, and mission hijinks." Episodes come out about once a week, and several episodes have already been posted at the time of this writing, covering issues such as funerals, culture shock, race, and missionary training. This podcast from these two faithful and thoughtful mission practitioners is well worth a listen.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Healthy Aging and Denominational Adjustment

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.

September is Healthy Aging Month. Search for "healthy" aging online, and you will get a number of results on how to maintain health as one ages through efforts such as diet and exercise. These are good practices and certainly to be recommended.

Yet despite the best of efforts, the process of aging usually involves some degree of decline in physical and mental abilities. That is why the World Health Organization defines healthy aging in terms of "functional ability." It states, "Functional ability is made up of the intrinsic capacity of the individual, relevant environmental characteristics and the interaction between them." Thus, healthy aging is not just about an individual's abilities but about how those abilities fit with her or his environment. Difficulty going up steps is much more of a hindrance to one's daily routines if one has a second-story bedroom than if one lives on a single floor

Another aspect of healthy aging is pyschosocial. Aging and the physical and mental changes associated with it can create emotional and mental health challenges as individuals mourn the loss of previous capacities and the loss of friends and family who have died. Healthy aging, thus, involves redefining one's sense of self and purpose, and it involves maintaining and cultivating social connections. Although retirement, for instance, may come with a loss of one's sense of self as worker, it can also open up new opportunities to develop a new sense of sense as a volunteer and community resource. Engagement with the community can also be a way to practice relationship and avoid isolation.

While there is not a complete parallel, I believe thinking about the principles of healthy aging is helpful as The United Methodist Church considers its own diminishing capacities, especially in the United States. The church has experienced diminished US membership for decades, and as recent UMNS reports make clear, it is experiencing significantly reduced financial capacities, impacting the capacity for shared denominational ministries. There are a variety of reasons for these diminished capacities--long-term trends of the aging of US membership, denominational strife, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic among them. It is highly likely that these trends towards diminished capacities, however, will continue for the foreseeable future.

The question for the UMC, then, is how it responds to its diminished capacities, just as the question for individuals experiencing diminished capacities from aging is how they will respond. Yes, in the case of both the denomination and aging individuals, there are practices that can help maintain health, but the long-term situation still presents a need to confront the issue of diminished capacities.

Unhealthy responses by the UMC include continuing to try to live in the same environment it had when its capacities were greater, becoming absorbed in a sense of loss over previous abilities, and becoming isolated by focusing solely internally and withdrawing from other members of the body of Christ.

Healthier responses would include a process of redefining a sense of denominational identity and purpose that befits what the denomination is now (or will be two years from now), not what the denomination was in decades past; adjusting the structures in which the denomination lives (agencies, policies, organizational arrangements, etc.) so that those structures fit and support the abilities of the denomination now; and maintaining relationships with God, with other Christian bodies, and among parts of the UMC.

US culture is fairly youth-obsessed and does not place much value on the process of aging. But that is not true in cultures around the world and throughout time. In many cultures, the elderly are honored and revered as sources of wisdom. The Bible even says, "Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life" (Proverbs 16:31).

In old Methodist biographies, middle age, the prime of people's lives, was regarded as a relatively boring time, often not worth writing about. What was interesting for these early Methodist biographers was one's conversion story and one's death narrative. How did you come to know God, and how did you testify God when facing the ultimate difficulty in this life?

The United Methodist Church is not at death's door, but we do need to be reminded that God is not only with us when we are strong and successful. Moreover, decreased abilities can be an opportunity--an opportunity to find new purpose and meaning, an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of connection, and an opportunity to testify to the faithfulness of God, even amidst difficulties. May we take the opportunities that lie before us as a denomination.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Recommended Reading: Cynthia Astle on Grace Upon Grace

Cynthia B. Astle of United Methodist Insight has written a lovely article entitled "Key Mission Statement Holds Vision for UMC's Future." It is a response to last week's publication on this site of a compilation of all of the UM & Global posts reassessing the denominational theology of mission, Grace Upon Grace. In her piece, Astle reflects on the beauty and ongoing potential of Grace Upon Grace. She writes:

"I believe that the compilation issued by UM & Global will benefit both The United Methodist Church and the hurting world it seeks to serve. These days the UMC needs grace as much (if not more) as the world around it. We need to be reminded of who we are as people wooed to faith by grace, convinced of our need for God by grace, and continuously refined to embody grace so that the world might believe."

UM & Global and I (David Scott) are grateful for this piece by Astle, for her commendation of Grace Upon Grace and our series of comments on it, and for her long-time support of the work of this blog.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Recommended Viewing: Mission Beyond COVID-19 Webinar on Peacemaking

Video of the third episode of Global Ministries' monthly webinar series, "Mission Beyond COVID-19," which examines aspects of mission theology in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is now available online. This webinar occurred last month, with Dr. David W. Scott facilitating a conversation between Rev. Dr. Jin Y. Kim of the World Council of Churches and Bishop Ivan Abrahams of the World Methodist Council on "COVID-19: Hindrance or Help to Peacemaking?" The video is just over a half hour.

The next episode of this series, featuring Dr. David W. Scott facilitating a conversation with Rev. Dr. Grace Pak, Rev. Dr. Eleazar Fernandez, and Rev. Dr. Roger S. Nam, on "Asian Americans, COVID-19, and Race" will happen at 10:00am EDT next Thursday, September 17th. Those interested may register in advance for the webinar. A fuller description is below:

Asian Americans, COVID-19, and Race

The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has been associated with an increase in discrimination against Asian Americans. How is the church responding to this form of racism? How do these anti-racist efforts intersect with the anti-racist efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement? What have been other significant features of the Asian American community’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic? How have these experiences been shaped by differences within the Asian American community, such as ethnic background, language, economics, and immigrant status?

Thursday, September 17, 2020 at 10:00 am EDT

Rev. Dr. Grace Pak, Consultant on Inclusion and Diversity
Rev. Dr. Eleazar Fernandez, Professor of Constructive Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
Rev. Dr. Roger S. Nam, Professor of Hebrew Bible, Candler School of Theology
Dr. David W. Scott, mission theologian, Global Ministries