Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Viviana Pinto: Methodism and Public Theology: A Critical Moment

Today's post is by Rev. Viviana Pinto. Rev. Pinto is a pastor of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina and Director of Training for the Centro Metodista de Estudios Wesleyanos (CMEW). It originally appeared (in Spanish) on the website of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina (IEMA) as part of a series organized by CMEW. It appears here in translation with the author's permission and with the assistance of CMEW.

Speaking loudly and clearly

Methodism, which seeks to incarnate itself in Latin America, is very silent in the face of the brutal advance of neoliberalism, disinformation, and lawfare as strategies for weakening democracies, as has been cited in previous articles.

One can observe an expansion of social inequality, which combines the naturalization of oppressions, the idea of meritocracy, and the illusion of individual opportunities. To this is added the subordination of democracy to the defense of property, which places the market in the center of the scene and hides those who manage it.

At the same time, in this realm of fictions and fallacies, the manipulation and installation of common sense hinder communication in the communities.

Before the pandemic, it was already observable that the majority of believers, without realizing it, lived locked up in their own “echo chambers.” Thus, they also sought to relate in church services and activities primarily with those with similar views. Then, with the isolation and the virtual realm into which the pandemic forced us, this phenomenon increased. Many people chose to stay in the virtual realm, thus magnifying the effect of their echo chambers, distancing themselves from contact with the surrounding world and dialogue with the most contrasting reality.

In these circumstances, it became much more difficult to generate community bonds capable of challenging the logic of common sense and the skills to dialogue with what is different, to “think and let think,” as Wesley put it.

At the same time, disrespectful, fanatical, violent, and disqualifying modes and models were fostered by the media and social networks. They seek to channel discontent through situations that will not be resolved through the discharge of these violent expressions. In social networks, they find a privileged space of impunity. From these spaces, people are motivated to imitate violence, while others end up withdrawing to avoid aggression or confrontation.

The installation of lawfare in many countries of the continent has been a strategy that grew with the use of legal instruments for the persecution of political and social leaders and activists. This has violated the fundamental rights of the people affected and seriously weakened the democratic system, creating conditions for the application of regressive public policies and even promoting coups. These practices have been unfolding on the continent, conditioning electoral processes, the political agenda, and public opinion. Recent examples of this scenario are the assassination attempt that has hit institutional life in Argentina and the serious acts of violence in Chile and Colombia, fostered by this dangerous and anti-democratic breeding ground.

Our silence...

While the continent is going through these attacks, our ecclesial communities are impoverished, exhausted, and with weakened bonds of communion. As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han well defined, each individual lives in situations of self-exploitation, often without deciphering the mechanisms that oppress her/him. S/he has a great fear of what is different, of hurting or being hurt.

In these circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to find spaces for dialogue, to recognize the mechanisms that impoverish and oppress us, and to generate networks that allow us to see beyond what we are shown and understand what is happening on a global level.

Trying to respond with a public word that allows communities to feel represented, or with a word of social, prophetic, and transforming testimony, becomes something perceived as a great risk.

At the same time, in the midst of the phenomenon of lawfare, the churches fear denouncing conditions and arbitrariness that work against democracy. They are afraid of being perceived as biased, of generating adverse reactions or schisms within the churches, of “losing people” or “generating violent reactions on social networks,” which leads to an anti-prophetic silence that is often hidden under the discourse of “we must take care of the Church from within”.

Is it time to retreat, take refuge, and seek a “neutral” position so as not to run risks and not to make waves?

Or will it be as Dante Alighieri says in The Divine Comedy, “The darkest reaches of hell are reserved for those who choose to remain neutral in times of moral crisis”?

The Gospel of Matthew says, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth …”

These words always sound harsh to us, but did Jesus shy away from conflict? Did he seek to get along with the powerful? Sustain the status quo?

So, can we ignore him in the people that suffer? If we keep quiet, the stones will cry out. If we pass by the tables of the money changers in order to avoid conflict, we will become accomplices. It is difficult to talk about this Jesus who did not come to bring peace, but is it possible to have peace with the system that plunders, destroys, and annihilates?

Perhaps, if we prioritize “taking care of the church from within,” remaining “neutral,” in a prophetic paralysis in the midst of such a complex time, should we not accept our complicity? Should we not accept that we do not incarnate the body of Christ for this reality? That we are not recognizing Jesus the friend of the marginalized, Jesus the prophet, Jesus the healer, Jesus the liberator?

While the forces of robbery are unleashed on this continent, devastating life, as we have been saying, reliable voices must intertwine in defense of the dignity and autonomy of the Latin American and Caribbean peoples and of life as a whole. The church knows that raising your voice is a risk, yes, but one that must be taken.

Following Jesus is taking on the conflict as he did, confronting the forces of exclusion and death.

How not to be biased or partisan in the world of disinformation…?!

If we remember Wesley, we can see that, immersed in the reality of his time and afflicted by the poverty and scarcity to which the people were subjected, he thought and spoke about each area of the economic system that generated it.

He faced the conflicts of his time at the risk of his own security and his academic and ecclesiastical position. He remained like a pariah from the church and the official academy. But he was faithful to the gospel. He proposed immersing himself in reality to rediscover the path and the answers found in the image of God in the neighbor who suffers.

For example, for Wesley the fundamental cause of economic problems was the great inequality between rich and poor. With this understanding, he promoted laws and taxes on luxury products. He did not avoid the conflict. Likewise, in his fight against the slave trade, he did not limit himself only to writing condemnatory treaties, but until his last days he worked politically with abolitionist parliamentarians, such as Wilberforce, so that they would not cease their fight against the “execrable villainy.”

Here we have a first clue – the encounter with reality and with the image of God in the other, the analysis of situations and not of reports, but also actions of care and impact for transformation.

Another key for Methodism and its long history of broad ecumenism will be to seek collective and committed responses with those who share territories and those who contribute their perspectives from other places. Seek to broaden one’s view beyond the borders of what we know immediately. In this way, raise one’s voice with a powerful and fruitful prophetic testimony, without fear. Bring good news. Confront, transform, and humanize society in defense of all life.

God allow us, in a crucial time like the present, not to hide behind a cloak of neutrality, but to take on the conflicts that are necessary in following Jesus and reflect his transforming power in this reality.

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