Friday, October 10, 2014

Struggle and Triumph of Grace: Jacob Dharmaraj on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed by Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. Dr. Dharmaraj is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Mapping the struggle:
Our world today is relentlessly threatened by ruthless tyranny, soulless greed, exploitative human trafficking, wide economic disparity, and environmental degradation. In the religious front, old models of ecclesial life and traditional forms of spiritual practices have been reduced to and deemed as antiquated and inadequate observances. Systemic barriers relating to race, class, gender, and other discriminations have created impoverished communities worldwide.

By 2050, global population will balloon to 9 billion. In coming decades, mass consumption, economic transition and limited natural resources will intensify competition for basic human necessities such as water, housing and food. It will create tension in multiple levels. It will also defy nature’s sustainability, accelerate global warming, and further endanger the fragile ecosystem.

The United States is rapidly changing. The nation will morph into a majority-minority country in a couple of generations. Our potential church membership base will change. Further, the traditional map of the aged church has become archaic and obsolete; the functional compass of our historic mission is warped and broken. The spiritual navigation system of our congregational gathering and worship has radically been altered. The religious topography has become pluralistic and new-fangled.

Contrary to the conventional notion that modernization and globalization would usher in the decline and demise of religious beliefs and practices, we watch and observe endemic resurgence of radical forms of religions in world affairs.

As a faith community, we have a great stake in preserving God’s creation for future generations, preventing any form of global disaster, and work for shalom.

Grace for grappling with the issues of our times:
We need to move beyond being mere wearers of faith badges. We must be ready to reach beyond denominational boundaries and religious fault-lines to connect with those around us – partners and allies -who are engaged in the transformation of the world. We need to be in “the womb of mutuality and we need to be swimming in the same water as everybody else” engaged in bringing about transformation.

Since the task before us is immense and monumental, our ecclesiology must have room to accommodate “secular prophets” such as environmentalists and human rights organizers who are already active in the kingdom of God.

Therefore, we need to work for the transformation of structures of injustices by critically analyzing social realities through lenses of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, and identifying the interconnected web of oppressive forces, and finally, honoring the agency of the marginalized, and working with the beleaguered in seeking a just solution. This progression involves building alliances and coalitions with secular and other faith-based agencies, collaborating on strategies for transformation, and walking in solidarity with those at the margins.

We also need to remind ourselves that change is inevitable and transformation is a choice. The path to transformation runs straight through action. This is the right time to put our knowledge into practice.  Action is a kind of everyday miracle.  Knowledge certainly helps, but transformation occurs only when we enact our ideas and implement our visions. We must bear in mind, If we want to save the drowners, we need to be swimmers.

Witnessing to Christ in times such as this:
The United Methodist Church has been called to witness to the Gospel and invite persons to experience the fullness of life Jesus Christ offers. As a first order of business, the church’s mission and ministry today is to be relevant and become effective.

I submit the following recommendations for consideration as we strive to be authentic witnesses to the Gospel:

While we, as a denomination, are determined to stay the course, we also need to create a meta-mission-theology which takes the mosaic landscape of changing migration patterns which impacts the global nature of the church, plurality of cultures, and resurgence of world religions into serious consideration. This theology also ought to interact between the global and local, intercultural and transcultural, monolingual and polyphonic, mission and evangelism, proclamation and social justice, and Christianity and other living faiths.

Since the connectivity and engagement of a vast majority of members of the UMC are un-tethered, we are to create a UM Christology that clearly defines and distinguishes our belief in Christ from other competing allegiances. A theology or a set of guidelines that blithely confess “all religions are the same” would undercut the very foundation of the church and the new and abundant life offered in Jesus Christ.

Creating and fostering synchronous collaboration between the diasporic community that is readily available in the pews and pulpits of our denomination and the denomination’s leadership at various levels, and crossing borders to employ these rich but much neglected U.M. diasporic communities would yield positive and lasting results. It would richly enhance our interactions with people of other religious faiths and in witnessing to the neo-immigrants who move into our neighborhoods as well.

Receiving the gifts from the margins of the growing church at the global south helps us, as we strive to “update” and “recalibrate” our missional engagements, I strongly believe that mutuality in mission as a designed mission theology will fill in the gap, serve as a catalyst, and enable us to confront the current storm; for mutuality doesn’t just react to crises, but proactively prevents them.

In the final analysis, we should never hesitate to migrate from the spirit of scarcity to the spirit of abundance, from the spirit of defeat to the spirit of opportunity, from the spirit of abandonment to the spirit of empowerment, and from the spirit of helplessness to the spirit of confidence and come up with contextual theological paradigms for mission today. I am convinced that the iterative theology of mission in the 21st century is the theology of mutuality.

We are not alone in this journey. The God of the Bible is with us. This is not the first time we have gone this way before. Just as T.S.Eliot has said in his poem, The Rock, “And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.” We are reminded to break the shackles of the past and emphasize newness, openness, innovation in order to be transformed and be transforming. God’s abundant grace and assured presence is with us: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65: 17). In times such as this, may we unapologetically “account for the hope that is in us,” the grace we received in Christ (I Peter 3: 15).


  1. The first two paragraphs of this blog are wrong. They create an exceptionally bleak picture of the current condition of humanity and the earth by focusing on a limited slice of reality and ignoring a great deal.

    I always wonder why United Methodists, who believe in Grace Upon Grace so readily fall back on apocalyptic views of the future. Perhaps it is just the old evangelical trope of contrasting human sinfulness and depravity with the grace offered by God through Christ and Christ's Body. But I suspect there is more to it: a failure, even a denial, that as an agent of God's Grace in its practical form the Church in mission has become a relatively marginal institution.

    The reality is that in every measurable respect the world is a better place for all of its inhabitants than it was half a century ago, and certainly more than a century ago. There are fewer wars and they are less deadly. Women are freer and live longer, as do their children. People have more to eat, and it is better distributed. We agonize over refugees and their mistreatment as we should. But a century ago the word for refugees was more often than not "corpses." And no one cared. And almost all of the progress we have made, and it is real and measurable, has come about because of the slow progress of better political governance, increasingly robust and sustainable economies, and vast innovation in technology ranging from agriculture to health care. Not because of increases in religiosity.

    Realistically we, especially United Methodists, should understand and give God praise for our role in this. Christian missions played a seminal role in the development of the international order that for all its flaws has served humanity well compared to what came before. And Christian mission could continue to play a role in the transformation of that order to something more equitable and just. But not if we reflexively dismiss the incredible accomplishments of the past, and those who made them besides ourselves. And not if we continue to paint apocalyptic pictures of the future in order to manipulate sinners into repentance. And not if we continue to falsely characterize ourselves as mere wearers of faith badges when in fact we are deeply engaged at every level and in almost every congregation with people different from ourselves.

    We need to be more humble and more bold. As agents of political, economic, and social change we are minor players at best, and become more marginal daily. One billionaire can outspend the whole of Christianity world-wide on critical aspects of human health and welfare. As can the United Nations. Real economists, diplomats, and business leaders can and do have a real impact on human lives greater than anything we can muster in their realms. We will always be bit players in a drama they write.

    But we can be salt and yeast. We can, in the way we do mission demonstrate before the world possibilities undreamt of by those who have no faith in God. We just need to also acknowledge that flour and sugar necessary to make a loaf of bread, and that isn't us.

    We need to do away with the last psychological remnant of Christendom: the belief that we as Christians can transform the world. With or without an increasing number of disciples. Christ will transform the world, and will choose whatever instruments God pleases. We may be one of them, but I suspect that God does not honor with God's work those who fail to see and give praise for how much God has already done.

  2. Wow, Dr. Hunt; defensive much? Your lengthy comment seems to contradict the whole United Methodist mission statement, "Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

    How would you respond to a fact I picked up today: If a person can muster as little as $3,500 in assets, he or she would immediately become richer than half the world's population. I would submit that poverty on such a scale bears global catastrophic significance. (I decline to use the term "apocalyptic" out of a vain hope that its original Greek meaning of "pulling back the veil" will one day be restored).

    So yes, there have been many, many advances over the past century and let's thank and praise God for them. However, as a woman, I still make only about 75-80 cents for each dollar earned by my male counterparts. As a person over age 60, I still can't get a job because of my age. As a woman living in a highly industrialized country, I live better than 9/10ths of my global neighbors, but I still struggle to get affordable health care that meets my needs as a female. Despite my multiracial background, the fact that I look white gets me benefits of white privilege not enjoyed by my black and Latino/Latina neighbors.

    My point is that I think Dr. Dharmaraj's description of the world's condition may seem "apocalyptic" to us from our First-World perspective, but I strongly suspect it is closer to reality than we realize for most of the rest of the world. I'd like to hear from other folks who've been in ministry beyond the United States about this.