Thursday, August 27, 2015

A global church, jurisdictions, and racial skeletons in our closet

Several different plans, proposals, and processes are wending their way through the UMC aimed at making denominational structures more equitable in how power is distributed between the United States and other countries with a UMC presence. One significant question facing all of these possibilities is what to do with the Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States. Should they be merged into one US Central Conference? Should they become Central Conferences themselves? Should they just be abolished?

These questions become particularly vexing because the current jurisdictional structure easily becomes a proxy for liberal and conservative theological views within the American wing of the denomination. The Western Jurisdiction often represents theological liberals, wherever they are located, while the Southeast Jurisdiction stands in for theological conservatives. Decades of ecclesiastical separation, secular regional cultural differences, and the Big Sort going on in American society have produced jurisdictions who too often see each other as enemies instead of fellow Christians.

Add to this theological separation differences in numbers (the Western Jurisdiction is the smallest; the Southeast is the largest), and you have the makings of some significant fights over money, resources, representation, power, and belonging in the church. These fights are significant enough that they could potentially derail efforts to move to a more internationally-equitable arrangement.

It is important to remember, therefore, that the jurisdictions were not originally crafted for theological segregation but for racial segregation. Jurisdictions entered American Methodism in the 1939 merger between the MEC, MECS, and MPC as a way to create a separate structure into which put African-American churches and church leaders. That segregated jurisdiction was removed in the 1968 merger with the EUB, but that doesn't efface the racist roots of the system.

Why are those racist roots important now? (White, American) United Methodists need to be honest and repentant about the ways in which racism has structured our common life in the past. If we are, then we will be less likely to let racism by the predominantly white American UMC against the predominantly non-white non-American UMC continue to perpetuate systematic inequalities between the US and the rest of the connection.

If American United Methodists can confront the racist roots of the jurisdictions, then perhaps we will not elevate our largely US-centric worries about the future of the jurisdictions over the need to fairly share power with our sisters and brothers in Christ from other countries.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Recommended readings on young adults in the UMC

Below are three different perspectives on ways in which youth and young adults are involved in the mission of the UMC. Each story is well worth reading as a sign of how God's spirit is moving among a new generation.

Rev. Michael Ratliff, associate general secretary, Young People's Ministries, Discipleship Ministries, wrote this summary/liturgy about young United Methodists' experiences of church across the connection, especially in the United States.

Five GBGM-sponsored international Global Mission Fellows (Brad Kenn, Danny Kalangwa, Hye-In Lee, Nazar Yatsyshyn, and Paola Ferro) contributed short reflections on their mission work in such diverse locations as Brazil, the US, the Philippines, Tanzania, Japan, Korea, Ukraine, and Argentina.

Balkan United Methodist youth and young adults participated in a retreat that brought together young adults across sometimes divisive national boundaries to discuss shared experiences and a shared mission as United Methodists to love God and the world around them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

David N. Field: Encountering the Migratory God

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. David N. Field.  Dr. Field is the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.

In what experts are now claiming is the largest movement of people since World War 2 over 188 000 refugees have arrived in Europe so far this year. The influx of migrants has placed a significant challenge on the resources of countries through which they are passing as well as their destination countries. At an event discussing migration at the UMC’s Switzerland, France and North Africa Annual Conference, Ivan Abrahams, the General Secretary of the World Methodist Council, argued that mass migration is a Kairos for Churches in the Twenty First Century – a moment of challenge and opportunity to discover again what it means to be the people of God. This is particularly acute for European churches.

Abrahams challenged Methodist churches to become “churches of the stranger”. This has begun to happen in many Methodist Churches across Europe. The Italian Methodist Church supports refugees as part of Italian Federation of Protestant Churches’ project Mediterranean Hope. The conference of the British Methodist Church passed a motion calling on churches to offer sanctuary to refugees and calling on the British government to continue providing financial assistance for refugees, to adopt a more generous and compassionate approach to them, and to accept an increased number of refugees. The arrival of migrants in Germany is inspiring a new sense of mission and social engagement in many Methodist congregations. The small Methodist Churches in Serbia and Macedonia are providing for the needs of migrants passing through their countries.

This engagement with migrants is particularly significant when seen in the perspective of John Wesley’s understanding of “entertaining strangers” as a “work of mercy”. Works of mercy were for Wesley a means of grace – a means through which we grow in the transforming knowledge of God. Hence this Kairos offers the opportunity to discover again what it means to be the people of God as we come to know God in a new way.

Migration is a significant component of the great revelatory narratives of the Bible. God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland and migrate across the Near East and later appears to them as a nomadic stranger to reaffirm the promise of a son. After dining with Abraham and Sarah the divine company then leaves to go to Sodom where it is threatened with gang rape. Later God hears the cries of an oppressed and exploited migrant community in Egypt and accompanies them on their journey to a new land. During their wanderings the Israelites construct the archetypal sanctuary – a tent that can be packed up and moved when God movers on. The era of David and Solomon was associated with the building of a fixed sanctuary and the identification of God with one place – Jerusalem. Yet David is portrayed as the decedent of the Moabite migrant Ruth and he becomes a refugee amongst the Philistines. The forced migration of the Exile shattered the identification of God with Israel’s national interest and gave rise to new understandings of God. Ezekiel dramatically portrays its significance in his vision of God enthroned on surreal chariot who later leaves the temple to going into exile with the people. Much of the Old Testament reached its final shape or was written in the shadow of the Exile.

In the New Testament Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus mentions four women, two Canaanites, one Moabite and one who was the wife of a Hittite. Matthew describes Jesus as recapitulating Israel’s experience of being migrants in Egypt. Jesus grows up to become a wondering homeless preacher whose life culminates in his being rejected by the religio-political leadership, handed over to the foreign rulers, and crucified outside the city, thus symbolically excluded from his people. For the Romans, crucifixion was the ultimate act of rejection and degradation, and for the Jews, it was a sign of God’s rejection. The resurrection is the declaration that this excluded and degraded one is the ultimate revelation of God in history. In the language of John’s gospel the life of Jesus is the journey of the Son/Word of God from the presence of the Father into the distant country where he sets up his tent amongst us. The incarnation is thus the redemptive migration of God into the world.

The biblical portraits of the migratory God are not to be interpreted in an exclusivist or totalizing manner restricting God’s migration to past narratives and confining God within traditional interpretations of these narratives. Israel’s experience as migrants became the motivation for laws providing for the wellbeing of migrants. Deuteronomy 10:18 (CEB) declared that the Lord “loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.” Amos declared that the Exodus was not a unique event for God had been present in the migrations of the Philistines and the Arameans. In the parable of the sheep and the goats the nations’ rejection of strangers is a rejection of the divine judge. Hence the biblical narratives are paradigms through which we can interpret where God is present and what God is doing in our contemporary contexts. God is still on the move in the midst of suffering migrants, accompanying them on their journey, entering into their suffering, rejection and exclusion, identifying Godself with them. To be the people of the migratory God is to accompany God into the midst of migrating people to allow our ideas of God and God’s purposes to be challenged, deepened and enriched through the encounter with these suffering, rejected and excluded “strangers”.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Benjamin L. Hartley: Mass Incarceration and the UMC

This post is written by Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley, Associate Professor of Christian Mission and Director of United Methodist Studies at Palmer Theological Seminary. You can read more of his writings at his personal blog, "Mission and Methodism."

Twenty years ago I was in a Michigan prison. By the grace of God, I was working in that prison as a substance abuse counselor rather than as an incarcerated person. My work in Michigan followed on the heels of living and working on the west side of Chicago. There too I saw the impact of a rapidly escalating prison population on neighborhoods and families which were losing their fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters.

That was the mid-1990s which was close to the end of a devastating period – beginning around 1980 – of the sharpest increase in incarceration rates in state prisons across the United States. (The incarceration rate still increased after 2000 but not quite as dramatically.) In 1970 there were 200,000 incarcerated persons in the U.S. Now there are over 2 million. At the one year anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown the racist nature of the U.S. criminal justice system is especially sobering. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

The prison population forecaster, a creative, interactive graphic published this week (August 11, 2015) by the Urban Institute, shows what policy changes could make criminal justice more just. Dozens of other statistics could be shared here to tell a similar story of lives devastated by a criminal justice system focused on retributive justice instead of restorative justice – about which the UM Social Principles speak eloquently.

Why do I raise this issue in the UM & Global blog? I have two reasons. First, it is important to acknowledge that the United Methodist Church is far from silent in the face of mass incarceration. I think we UMC folk frequently berate ourselves for not doing enough, and in so many ways that is true. But it is also important to express gratitude to God and to one another for the good work we are already doing.

The United Methodist Church is engaged in ministry with incarcerated persons in a wide panoply of ways. Individuals and congregations befriend prisoners, lead services of worship in prisons, and help “returned citizens” after they are released. The UMC’s General Board of Church and Society has a National Coordinator for Criminal Justice Reform named Douglas Walker who organizes UM congregations to become part of an ecumenical network of congregations who strive to be Healing Communities for families and communities affected by mass incarceration. The General Board of Church and Society is also engaged in advocacy to reform the criminal justice “system.” The term “system” is difficult here. It gives an impression of coherence and integrity that is sorely lacking in the way we treat persons who have committed crimes.

I also wanted to write about this for UM & Global because I serve as one of the representatives of the United Methodist Church in the National Council of Churches of Christ which has chosen the theme of mass incarceration as its priority for the next several years. The National Council of Churches of Christ has been the most important ecumenical body in the United States since its founding in 1950, and the United Methodist Church has played an integral role in that organization – and its predecessor – from the beginning. As one of the few (only?) professors of mission at our NCCC gatherings, I see part of my role there as reminding us all of how the missionary movement gave birth to the modern ecumenical movement. To address the injustice of mass incarceration will require ecumenical effort and a revitalized missionary imagination in our churches.

Hebrews 13:3 calls us to “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them;” John Wesley noted in his commentary on this passage, “Seeing ye are members one of another.” Wesley spent a lot of time with prisoners throughout his life. I have been wondering of late how his conversations with prisoners– especially early in his ministry – influenced his own deep appreciation of God’s grace and the centrality of Christian fellowship for our growth in holiness. I don’t think these conversations were merely incidental.

As followers of Jesus we must be vigilant to never scapegoat the prisoners and “returned citizens” who are or will be our neighbors. We do this in all sorts of subtle ways through, for example, dehumanizing terms like “sexual predator.” No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace and redemption.

It is worth meditating on Holy Scripture’s and Wesley’s admonition to remember that we “are members one of another.” With this Wesleyan advice in mind, let’s begin by praying for those who are imprisoned but who are nonetheless integral to the body of Christ. It has been twenty years since I worked with prisoners on a daily basis. I pray they are all doing better today, and I pray that the Spirit would lead us all to be more faithful in remembering them. We are members one of another.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Recommended reading: The church as public health network

Last Friday, UMNS reporter Vicki Brown wrote this piece entitled "Church best way to reach rural Africa." She begins the piece by noting, "The church often has a bigger presence in rural Africa than the government." The UMC is obviously doing good work by promoting the health of pregnant women and others in rural areas, as described in the article. Yet it is worth reflecting on what it means for the UMC to fill voids that might be occupied by the government elsewhere. How does that shape the UMC's sense of mission in Africa? How does that lead to different conceptions of the relationship among church, government, and social services in Africa compared to other areas of UMC presence? Please share your thoughts on these or related questions below.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Daniel Shin: Evangelism after Charleston

Today's post is written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.

The recent tragic massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, in which Dylann Roof brutally gunned down nine innocent African-Americans attending a prayer meeting and the subsequent controversies surrounding the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina state house grounds painfully remind us of the racial fault lines that still divide our nation. These incidents arrive on the heels of heartrending deaths of unarmed blacks, such as Trayvon Martin (FL), Eric Garner (NY), Michael Brown (MO), Ezell Ford (CA), Tamir Rice (OH), and Freddie Gray (MD). The geographical locations of these incidents and their frequency suggest that these tremors are not isolated, episodic occurrences, but indicate forces that run deep and wide, like the movement of tectonic plates colliding against one another and shaking the foundations violently. Indeed, although what happened in Charleston and the deaths of unarmed blacks are two separate issues that should not be collapsed, our responses to them may reveal our fundamental values about race, which is the issue at hand.

It is in this racially supercharged context of public life in the U.S. and other global locales where the intersections of race, religion, culture, class, and gender are ripe with tension and potentially violent clashes, that we pause to think about the very nature of Christianity and more specifically the meaning of evangelism. What does Christianity have to do with Charleston?  What is the witness of Christian faith in experiences of void and abyss that refuse any easy, readymade defenses of theodicy? How do we move forward with the dangerous memories of the past and yet with hopeful imaginations about the future of common flourishing? 

Notwithstanding the enormously difficult, if not impossible, questions about race relations, we cannot remain silent but must speak lest we be liable to the charge of appalling silence which Martin Luther King, Jr. issued against moderate Christians. However, having to speak so that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the appalling silence of the good people entails coming to terms with the fact that there is no panacea that will remedy the human condition in an instant. Only God’s grace can move us toward healing through the long and rigorous therapy of transvaluation of values that are inveterate but not incorrigible.

H. Richard Niebuhr did not remain silent but spoke with eloquence and insight about revelation in terms of transvaluation of values in The Meaning of Revelation. He bemoaned the fact that the gospel ideals of Christ, i.e., unity, brotherhood/sisterhood, and the reign of God, have not been realized as the American society capitulated to national, ethnic, and class divisions in his own lifetime. Noticing widening disparity between gospel and culture, Niebuhr attributed its cause to people centering their lives on misplaced objects of devotion, such as power, self-fulfillment, family, race, or nation, rather than God. He also pointed out that when this happens, all too often, one’s faith, church, and religion become captive to such centers of value and pressed into service of anthropocentric piety in which God becomes an instrumental means to distorted, or even demonic, ends.

Niebuhr clearly saw the grave danger of accommodation and sought to disentangle the church from unholy cultural alliances through devotion to God who has revealed Godself to us. God’s revelation is not about impersonal facts or creeds, such as inerrancy or the virgin birth, but has to do with personal knowledge of God and ourselves in an I-and-Thou relation. This relation involves reciprocal valuation in which God values us and we value God in return. More specifically, to know God means to be known of God through seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of God as created, finite, and sinful but also loved, judged, and redeemed as God’s children with infinite worth. We encounter a God who radically reorients our subjectivity and enables us to reflexively value God in the deepest sense possible and regard ourselves appropriately. In short, revelation has to do with transvaluation of values that turns us from anthropocentric piety to theocentric piety, to borrow the words of James Gustafson.

The personal nature of revelation is not without a rational dimension as it is central to it. Transvaluation of values radically alters our previous conceptions about the past, present, and future of our personal lives and the history of the world, allowing us to discern order, unity, and meaning in a single cosmic epic of creation, redemption and consummation. There is no part of our history that is destroyed, forgotten, or blinded by the light of divine revelation but brought into a sharp and clear focus. This means we have to face all of the resurrected buried past, even the crimes, absurdities, and denials of humanity, such as slavery, and see them in light of God’s judgment and redemption. Clearly, transvaluation is no easy undertaking but requires conversion of memory and hope that leads to the common good of all.  

If revelation is about transvaluation of values, then evangelism understood as Christian witness to God’s self-revelation is by definition implicated in a profoundly meaningful and hopeful endeavor of reconstituting individual selves and communities in theocentric piety. On a realistic note, evangelism is a highly costly undertaking that demands a revolutionary transformation of our habits, dispositions, affections, and worldviews, ushering us into a strange world in which God’s power is manifest in self-emptying sacrifice and existence for the other.  Highlighting such upheavals of thought and life, Niebuhr said, “the self we loved is not the self God loves, the neighbors we did not prize are his treasures, the truth we ignored is the truth he maintains, the justice which we sought because it was our own is not the justice that his love desires.”  Seeing ourselves, neighbors, truth, and justice as reflected in God’s gaze is without question a daunting task, but certainly worth the risk because black lives matter and all are invited to the beloved community.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Recommended Reading: Laudato si

If you haven't heard by now, Pope Francis released an encyclical about care for the environment which touches on, among other things, climate change. Did you know, though, that you can find the full text of the encyclical online from the Vatican?  It's available here and well worth a read.

Once you've read that, if you'd like a United Methodist perspective on the pope's encyclical, Thomas Kemper, head of GBGM, has written one that's available here.