Monday, December 6, 2021

Robert Harman: The United Methodist Church and Resisting Political Oppression

Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries. It is a response to David Scott’s recent post, “The United Methodist Church and Declining Democracy.”

David Scott recently wrote a blog post raising the question of how declining democracy and increasing authoritarianism will impact The United Methodist Church. Robert Hunt replied in a comment that, while that is a good question, “an equally good question is whether Methodists make any impact in opposing authoritarian regimes and promoting democracy.”

Dr. Hunt suggested that “most Methodist leaders and their followers are either disengaged from politics or are actually comfortable with authoritarian leaders - so long as they don't directly impact Methodist life.” I am sad to say that I agree with Dr. Hunt's assumption that church leaders today are probably fine with trends toward authoritarian governments as long as they continue to benefit or refrain from much interference with religious practices or services.

There were, however, moments in United Methodist Church history when the opposite was true—when Methodists worked to oppose political domination and on behalf of freedom. The era of decolonization was just such an era.

Liberation movements in the late colonial period were supported and even led by church leaders in their struggle to define and realize self-determining rule as their post-colonial reality. There was not great confidence in democracy as the antidote to colonialism, given the history of collaboration between democracies and colonial authorities. Instead, independence movements looked to indigenous sources for inspired leaders and found some in mission-established churches such as the UMC that had successful educational programs to produce them.

In Mozambique, Methodist-educated Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane became the first black Mozambican of his generation to enroll at the University of Lisbon, where he collaborated with other African students involved in the formation of national liberation movements. He was the founder and first president of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), the political and military movement that was eventually successful in deposing the Portuguese dictator Salazar and establishing the first post-colonial government in Mozambique.

The UMC experienced opportunities for cooperation with the new Mozambican government, benefiting their educational and social outreach programs. The indebtedness to the Methodist Mondlane, who fell to an assassin, has often been recognized on ceremonial occasions when country United Methodist leaders and government officials have shared the same public platforms.

In Angola, Dr. Agoutino Neto, medical doctor, son of a United Methodist pastor, and a former Crusade Scholar like Mondlane, became head of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. He had a profound vision for a self-determining alternative to Portuguese control and worked to implant it village by village, a process in which countless United Methodists gave leadership, sometimes resulting in death and imprisonment. Along with Neto's imprisonment was that of the Reverend Emilio de Carvalho, the first indigenous bishop of the UMC in Angola. MPLA became and remains the ruling party today in spite of protracted civil and insurgent challenges reflecting Cold War political interests in the region.

The governments of neither country today rank high on the scale of democratic influence, though they are trending in that direction with each passing decade. But it is their movement away from the controlling colonial authority through leadership which arose from the ranks of church leaders and members who sacrificed their lives for a new and hopeful futures for their people that is worthy of remembrance as we look at current trends in patterns of governance that may seem discouraging.

Will this history find recurrence in critical contexts where the UMC is engaged? One would hope that the activity within the denomination's base in the United States would provide some signs of awakening to the drift into nationalism. If the charism of a church leader is required, we should be praying for return of the likes of Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam who was a militant against political repression in the Red Scare period of the late 40s and 50s.

But the current trend toward authoritarianism is embraced and successfully led by evangelical groups that harbor no shame in endorsing self-benefitting political strategies rather than advocating for or protecting the goodwill of all the governed. They have yet to be challenged by mainstream churches that bear the Oxnam legacy but choose silence. Will United Methodists remain silent in the face of such a slide towards authoritarianism?

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