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 noted a couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of being recognized by Boston University School of Theology as a Distinguished Alumni in the Emerging Leader category. Along with that recognition, I participated in a panel discussion on "The Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us in the Next Decade." The following is a formal version of my remarks for that panel. The full panel can be viewed here.
As a good academic, I am trained to question the question, so I would like to begin by questioning and clarifying who the "us" is in the "Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us." I will take the us to refer to American Christians. While I recognize that not everyone listening will be both American and Christian, I presume the majority will be one or the other. It's also a group to which I feel I can speak, since I myself am an American Christian.
I recognize that I am more specifically an educated, straight, white, male, Protestant (and United Methodist) American Christian, and that other American Christians who differ in some or all of these additional characteristics will have their own perspectives on the topic. Therefore, I offer here only my own perspective on what these three challenges are, which I will frame as questions.
First, can American Christians love each other and other Americans, especially in a deeply divided country?
The United States is indeed a deeply divided country at the moment, along the lines of race, gender, immigrant status, rural/urban, and a host of other factors. All of these divisions correlate with our deep political divisions.
Indeed, political scientists and others have begun to speak of political identity as a primary form of identity, one which determines other forms of identity, including religion. Thus, at least a sizable number of Americans do not form their political opinions based on their religious convictions but rather choose their religious convictions to fit with their sense of political identity.
What then can the church do or say in this divided country, where religion is frequently determined by politics? Is Christianity doomed to become merely a secondary phenomenon, or is there power yet in the gospel message of the One who preached love for and by the Samaritan - the religious, political, and ethnic Other?
Note that in suggesting that American Christians need to love each other and other Americans, I am not suggesting a "Can't we all just get along?" approach. There are important issues of justice in the divisions within American society, and those should not be ignored.
Yet the thought of BU alumnus and prophet of justice Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., should push us to think about the goal of our work toward justice. King saw the end of his work as reconciliation within the national community, not just defeat of his enemies. Not everyone who worked with him agreed on this point, and I realize that this is easy for me to say as a person of privilege. Yet whatever our views and identity, we will continue to live in a country with those different from us. If we seek merely to defeat and not to reconcile (with justice), we only set ourselves up for ongoing conflict.
Second, can American Christians love Christians from other countries, even in a deeply unequal world?
The world is deeply unequal. It is unequal in terms of power and money, both among individuals and among countries. But those inequalities of power and money result in further inequalities of attention and understanding. We pay no attention to and do not understand those without power and money. Without attention or understanding, it becomes too easy to ignore, co-opt, dismiss, and/or demean those on the margins.
This is a general problem of the world, but it is also a problem for Christianity in particular, which is a global religion and proclaims a global fellowship of believers. It is furthermore a special problem for denominations like The United Methodist Church that are international denominations. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, and the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the poorest, yet these are the two countries with the greatest numbers of United Methodists.
How then can we love our fellow Christians across inequalities? And in order to do so, how can we understand them better? Certainly the answers must include listening, learning other languages and cultures, seeking to inform ourselves, and trying to avoid stereotyping and oversimplifying others. Yet these are more easily said than done.
Moreover, we must be clear that our goal as American Christians in loving Christians from other countries must not be just so that we can better "help" them, but so that we can learn with and from them about the gospel we share.
Third and finally, what will American Christians do in a world of climate change?
Note that this is not a question of whether or how we can avoid climate change. Climate change is now. Record temperatures and record storms show that climate change is already affecting us. The joke in my hometown of Decorah, Iowa, is that five hundred year floods now happen every 10 years.
In this world of climate change, American Christians must ask ourselves how we can work with others to limit future change. Although American Christians have an important role to play, this issue is much larger than we can tackle on our own, so our work must be in partnership with others.
Among those partners should be Christians from other countries. It is interesting to note that climate change is not controversial for Christians from other countries. A Christian from Zimbabwe or the Philippines, no matter how theologically conservative, will not question whether climate change is happening or whether humans play a role in it. This is one of the ways in which American Christians can learn from our sisters and brothers elsewhere.
In addition to mitigating further change, we must ask ourselves how we can respond with compassion and justice to those affected by changing climates now. That may be those suffering from storms, flooding, droughts, or other effects. Often, these people are among the poorest. Ashley Anderson, a student of mine at BUSTH, taught me of the plight of small island nations in the Pacific who will become uninhabitable because of rising waters. How do treat with justice and compassion those whose ways of life become impossible because of climate change?
Another thought from Martin Luther King has been on my mind as I have reflected on all three of these challenges. It comes from his fourth and final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The world these days, at least to me, often feels chaotic. But in that book, King affirmed that in the midst of struggle, even when chaos seems to surround us, we must have hope. Hope is central Christian virtue.
The challenges facing American Christians in the next decade are significant. Yet we should face them with hope and with faith in Jesus Christ, who entered into the challenges of the world for our sake. He will be with us as we seek to walk the path before us as his disciples.