Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. Michael Nausner, Professor of Theology, Prorektor, and Dean of International Affairs at the Reutlingen School of Theology.
As my colleagues David N. Field and Hendrik R. Pieterse have reminded us in previous blogs: To be sensitive to our context is not a tedious additional task of Christian faith and theology, but it is the flip side of the same coin. Our task is not only to do theology contextually, but – as H. Pieterse highlighted – to read context theologically. Yes, it is necessary if we want to be true to the old Methodist emphasis on prevenient grace. It belongs to our Methodist DNA to read our context theologically. Grace is for all and active ahead of us wherever we go. One of the most poignant formulations of an original contextual theology in the Wesleyan spirit can be found in John Wesley’s own musings on the presence of God in the world. He was convinced that for those “pure in heart” God is discernable in all that God has created and made. They see God “filling all in all”. (cf. Sermon 23,6) From the perspective of a Wesleyan theology of grace there can be no doubt: context can and needs to teach us theology.
My suggestion here is to reconsider the context of global migration as a theological chance par excellence to get focussed on our calling as United Methodists. We do not have to travel to realize that our everyday context is a global one, or rather a glocal one, meaning that global conditions permeate our various local contexts. In Europe in general and in Germany in particular, migration is one of the main examples of our glocal co-existence. The discourses about migration, however, most often depict it as a threat from the outside: The others come to take our privileges, rights, and resources away…
It is meaningful therefore to remember the Biblical and historical roots of our own migratory DNA as Methodists and as Christians in general, because such memory can become an effective remedy against the poison of a polarizing view that pitches insiders against outsiders, citizens against aliens, one ethnicity against the other. Too often in public discourse and in the media we hear a polarizing discourse. The church and the Methodist connexion as a worldwide network need to actively resist such categorizing and stereotyping forces in public discourse. Seyla Benhabib reminds us: There is a deep and troubling human rights issue emerging in the midst of our so called civilized and enlightened world, because continuously universal human rights are getting into conflict with citizens’ rights. (cf. Benhabib, The Rights of Others) The gap between the rights of those who are supposed to be protected by Fortress Europe and those who are perceived as a threat to Europe remains a troubling one. The thousands who die in the Mediterranean symbolize in a deeply tragic way our unwillingness to be part of a truly global world community. They are a sign, as Pope Francis has put it so poignantly, of a globalization of indifference.
The church, born in diversity (cf. Acts 2), has an important prophetic role to play in a Europe that very late and rather unwillingly acknowledged the values of diversity. Liberal nation states from the beginning granted democratic and citizens’ rights to those belonging to the nation, and only to them. The liberalism of the 19th century was not based on a principal recognition of diversity, but rather depended on the development of national unity and ethnic homogenization. Such reluctance to embrace diversity is a historic burden Europe still has to grapple with. It also explains why the rapidly increasing number of people of multiple belonging is seen as such a problem. In Europe still the billiard-ball-model of cultures seems to be embraced by the majority of people, as if cultures were best described with the metaphor of a container that needs to be protected. People with both-and-identities get into trouble in a world of such imaginations. Sadly oftentimes only the economic arguments have political force: Europe needs a steady non-European influx of workers and professionals to keep the economy growing. Many businesses take this seriously, but the criminalization of immigration and the rising surplus of businesses dealing with manual production go hand in hand. The concrete consequence is that migrants simultaneously are stripped of basic human rights and used to fuel the hunger of an exclusively surplus oriented globalized economy.
These troubling insights from our migratory context should remind Methodists of their own heritage. Methodism as a global movement is unthinkable without the continuous renewing effects of migration. Historically, ecclesiologically, and theologically Methodism is characterized by a certain basic mobility. Ever since John Wesley geographical mobility has been an emblem of the Methodist movement. Itinerant preachers became a visible sign for one of the earliest designs of the Methodist movement: to spread scriptural holiness across the land and eventually across the globe. But even here the context is important: the Methodist awakening was taking place amidst an emerging imperial order, and its spread was facilitated by the many migrating movements that are part and parcel of any colonizing empire.
David Hempton points out that the founding conference of 1784 did not send out missionaries “to export Methodism but to service and expand an existing constituency of migrants.” (D. Hempton, Empire of the Spirit, 151) Serving migrants, thus, was the raison d’etre of Methodism from the beginning. This remained true throughout the 19th century. But it was not only spiritual power that fueled the growth of Methodism. Among the contributing factors to its growth was the rise of domestic and international markets as well as the spread of the British Empire. Methodism was symbiotic with these factors. There is undoubtedly something ambiguous in Methodism’s mobility, something that is still seen in the setup of the global UMC today. Methodism was and is on the one hand instrumental in building egalitarian communities, but on the other hand it allowed itself to become a handmaid of the expansion of Western civilization. The Methodist global connection needs to be wary of any attempts to spread sedentary Western style Christianity lest it buys into the polarization of sedentary church communities that need to “take care” of migrating people. Instead it needs to recover key notions of its ecclesial identity, which is an identity that is migratory all the way down, both historically and theologically. A critical look back is needed, but also a continuous sensitivity for remaining colonial patterns and patterns of cultural dominance. After all the history of the Methodist movement as a migrating community and in service for migrating communities is an ambiguous one, and the way in which “the world is our parish” needs to be continuously re-evaluated.