Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Regionalization and Connectionalism: Healthy Regionalism amid Waning Globalization

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the fifth in a five-part series based on a presentation by Dr. Scott to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Having looked at how dynamics related to local relevance and trans-local connection have played out across history, I want to conclude this series of posts by sharing some of what I see going on around the world today in terms of local focus and identity vs. broader connections, both in the secular and religious realms, beginning with the secular context.

Looking at news stories from around the world over the past decade, it appears that we are living in a time of increasing nationalism, authoritarianism, and violence. Appeals to national identity have proliferated, and they are often cast in terms of rather narrowly defined national identity, with boundaries drawn along lines of culture, ethnicity, and religion. In this way, nationalism focuses on local identities and often decries connections to broader groups.

Tapping into and amplifying this trend toward nationalism has been the rise of an increasing number of leaders with authoritarian tendencies, whether that has been in the Philippines, the United States, Italy, Hungary, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, or China.

This increased authoritarianism has also led to increased violence, whether that is in the form of more frequent coups in West Africa, increased religious violence in Nigeria, wars in Ethiopia and Ukraine, or civil unrest in many countries around the world.

Also part of the mix is anti-immigrant agitation, both in the form of anti-immigrant protests, which have spanned from Cape Town to Chemnitz, and questions about the treatment of migrants, which have arisen from Texas to Taiwan.

There is, of course, much we can and should critique in this mix of nationalism, authoritarianism, violence, and anti-immigrant rhetoric. We could raise ethical and moral questions about the oppression of the marginalized, including immigrants, who are targets of authoritarian regimes. We could raise theological protests against the use of violence as a way to assert power or resolve conflict. We could call out the exercise of dominance and control over others in a way that eliminates their voices and their input into society.

We can also point to the inadequacy of this sort of nationalism to adequately address continued and growing global international crises, such as mounting environmental catastrophe; the spread of Ebola, COVID, and other diseases; and even the migration flows that are such a point of ire for these nationalists.

We should and must engage in such critique. But we should also recognize that the rise of this form of destructive nationalism also points to the failures of globalization.

Economic globalization promised that a rising tide would lift all boats, improving the standard of living for everyone. We must acknowledge that was a false promise. Instead, economic globalization served to dramatically increase the wealth of the very rich while neglecting and exploiting others around the globe, leaving them poor or making them poorer. This trend extends from economically neglected areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo to rural areas of developed countries experiencing economic abandonment.

Political globalization promised that more integration would lead to more efficient and effective collective action. That may be true in some ways, but for most people, their experience is one in which they have increasingly little control over the circumstances of their lives, with the really important decisions being made in distant government halls or corporate boardrooms where they have no voice.

Cultural globalization promised a new era of cosmopolitan exchange. But without the proper tools for better understanding culture and creating better intercultural interaction, we have experienced instead a McDonaldization of culture, in which the worst parts of American culture are exported to the rest of the world, and/or a backlash that takes the form of a rejection of global multiculturalism.

In all these ways, the globalization of the previous era has failed. Globalization, instead of creating a world of more justice, peace, prosperity, and equality, has instead proven to merely create new forms and degrees of injustice. The current nationalist trends are a consequence of these policy and moral failures of globalization.

Where, then, does this leave the church? The church, too, is moving away from the global and towards the regional or even national. To some degree, this reflects the larger secular context of receding globalization, and to some degree, this is driven by internal dynamics within The United Methodist Church unleashed by conflicts within the church over sexuality, theology, and US dominance.

Unlike the current secular nationalism, I think there is much to be affirmed in the church’s move towards regionalism. Nevertheless, we must also think carefully about this trend toward regionalism: How do we model a healthy regionalism that is an example to the secular world? How do we engage in regional contexts without being subsumed by regional polarizations? How can we remain the body of Christ that extends beyond all the diversity of nations and languages and influences?

This secular context challenges us: How will we speak authentically to our local contexts that cry out for Christian witness? While trends towards nationalism, authoritarianism, and violence cut across secular contexts, these dynamics play out differently in each context and call out for local witness by churches fully engaged in their contexts.

But how do we each engage in our contexts in a way that does not let go of our international connections and devolve into an unhealthy nationalism, such as is all around us? How do we continue to collaborate across contexts on big issues such as climate change, and how we do continue to affirm the ecumenicity, the intercultural, supra-nationality of the church as the body of Christ, which is not limited to any tribe, ethnic group, race, country, or region?

Ultimately, the question that faces The United Methodist Church is not whether we will have more regionalization or more connectionalism, more autonomy or more worldwide structure. The question is how do we have both regionalization and connectionalism?

Moreover, how do we do so in a way that does not merely hold the two in tension with one another but comes to see the interplay between the two, how our understanding of one deepens our understanding of the other? How can creating more regional autonomy make us more united in our connectionalism? How can a stronger practice of connectionalism lead to greater regional autonomy for the components of that connection?

I want to pause here for a moment of epistemic humility. This framing of the question is one I could not have reached on my own. In my initial reflecting on this question, I was caught up in an American cultural way of thinking which emphasizes dualism and conflict. My tendency was to try to put these two values—regionalism and connectionalism, autonomy and unity—into competition with one another. I needed the writings of Argentinian and Filipino Methodists to help me understand another perspective on the issue, to reframe my thinking away from seeing these two values as either/or and instead see them as both/and.

The new situation in the world and in the church, “the changes taking place in those areas” as the Book of Discipline says, calls for a rethinking of how we deploy our means of connection—itinerants, writing, money, bishops, and councils (or as we Methodists would call it, conferencing)—to ensure continued connection and continued relevance to the “conditions that exist in various areas of the world,” as the Book of Discipline charges.

Part of this necessary re-thinking must involve work on our structures, but we must remember the relational component of this work as well. We must plan for the relationships we want to have with one another, not merely the frameworks that we can all agree to.

There are no easy answers in this process, but there is great excitement in this work as well. This is the work to which God calls us as part of our invitation to join in the mission of God. This is how God calls us to be God’s faithful church at this moment as we seek to be a church that is both relevant to the wide array of local and regional contexts in which we are located and at the same time united together in the shared connectionalism of our Methodist faith. May God’s Spirit be with us as we take up this task.

No comments:

Post a Comment