Thursday, October 12, 2023

David W. Scott and Filipe Maia: Methodism and American Empire

The following is a preview excerpt from the Introduction to Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church, edited by David W. Scott and Filipe Maia. The forthcoming book will be published by Abingdon Press in January 2024 and is available for pre-order now:

Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church investigates historical trajectories and theological developments that connect American imperialism in the post-World War II period on the one hand and Methodist and Wesleyan traditions on the other. Methodist and Wesleyan traditions have been shaped by the imperial practices and mindsets of their American members, even when they aspire to be global denominations united by a shared Methodist conviction in connectionalism as an ecclesial principle. 

The United Methodist Church, the largest denomination in the Wesleyan family, was founded in 1968 and strove to uphold the connectional principle in an ecclesial structure that was global in scope. United Methodists are unique in both the fact that they represent a typical example of an originally Unites States-based denomination and that they currently embody the distinct tensions and fractures of a global church. The complex negotiations that take place across different national, cultural, and political contexts have set up the historical backdrop for the imminent schism of The United Methodist Church. They might also be perceived as symptoms of lingering forms of American imperialism that persist in global Methodism.

The guiding question that informs the reflections in this volume is: to what extent is Methodism’s vision of global connection marred by American imperialism? To tackle this question, Methodism and American Empire offers a series of historical and theological analyses that focus on the entanglement of Methodism and empire in the second half of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century. This chronological focus recognizes the significance of the recent wave of globalization in shaping American empire, Empire writ large, and global Methodist denominations such as The United Methodist Church. It also seeks to capture the intersections between global and American tensions in church and society. With this volume, we seek to provide a historical perspective to understand the specific context of The United Methodist Church while also raising ecclesiological questions about the impact of imperialism on how United Methodists have understood the nature and mission of the church over the last century.

From the start of North American colonies of European powers, empire has characterized the American experience. The role of empire in shaping the United States extends far beyond its origins as an imperial hinterland itself or its turn-of-the-twentieth-century heyday of possessing its own colonies. Empire as concentrated, top-down power that seeks to control others for the sake of its own agendas is a constant within U.S. history. The impulses and perspectives of empire have characterized and continue to characterize American politics, economics, culture, and religion in a thorough-going way. Empire is a basic strategy by which those with power in the United States have sought to unite larger groups for the sake of asserting power over others, even as those within these in-groups often act against their own interests by participating in such imperial projects. Thus, empire is a technique of exploitation of those within and beyond the empire, especially those on the margins.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the category of Empire became an important concept in political philosophy with the publication of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire.[1] The book traces changes in the political constitution of sovereignty over the last decades of the twentieth century to suggest that we no longer live in the age of imperialism. In contrast to it, the concept of Empire speaks to a political and social situation that lacks a clear center of power and where national imperialist interests give room to transnational corporations and political alliances. For Hardt and Negri, Empire represents a new dispensation of sovereign power “composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule.”[2] Under the conditions of Empire, sovereign power no longer rests at the seat of the monarch or the head of government; it has been dispersed throughout transnational entities that, though still potentially connected to nation-states, transcend the agency of any one nation. Empire is quite adept in accepting and incorporating regional and cultural differences while proliferating structures of power that remain more homogenous, more widespread, and more global. Empire is more insidious because it is more subtle, more incisive because it does not rely exclusively on imposition, and more ubiquitous because it shapes people’s subjectivities on a deeper level.

The passage from imperialism to Empire is therefore a central aspect of Hardt and Negri’s analysis of power in the latter portion of the twentieth century. Yet if Empire today can operate beyond the central control of a nation-state, it remains true that concentrations of power continue to be clustered around the United States and its wealthy global partners. Whether as symptom of a passage to Empire or as the stubborn nature of sovereign power, the force of the nation-state remains steadfast and has been reclaimed by nationalistic movements as of late.

This book demonstrates that global Methodism is an example of the complex interplay between imperialism and Empire, between a U.S.-centric perspective on globalization and a transnational ecclesial body that lacks an exclusive center of power but that nevertheless finds itself structurally caught up in a typically American mindset. By paying close attention to the impact that the United States had in the shaping of global Methodism, specifically The United Methodist Church, this book will point out that ecclesial developments can be situated in this larger context of Empire. 

That is to say, when Methodists in multiple settings negotiated a common understanding of a “global denomination,” they did so in a “globe” that was being created in the image and likeliness of empire. We will show that these negotiations were always tied to the central role the United States played in global Methodism. At times, it is possible to observe Methodist traditions that have too quickly been subsumed by the logic of Empire. In other instances, we hope to demonstrate, Methodist voices might be perceived as resisting imperial forces and shaping what might be understood as a subversive view of the globe.

This volume provides a critical perspective on the efforts of The United Methodist Church and other Methodist bodies in constructing a global denomination. Through archival research, historical analyses, and theological reflections, this volume chronicles the formation of a global ecclesial ethos amongst United Methodists since the mid-twentieth century. These accounts demonstrate how the denomination has struggled to find a balance between centralized ecclesial authority and local and national autonomy. The authors in this volume suggest that this ecclesial tension ought to be understood in the context of imperialism.

Methodism as a denominational tradition has historically resisted U.S. imperialism even as it has often also succumbed to it. That process of struggle and contestation is on-going, as references to an on-going split in The United Methodist Church indicate. We hope this volume will give encouragement to those engaged in that struggle

This volume contains contributions from the following:

A Foreword from Joerg Rieger

David W. Scott and Filipe Maia: “Introduction: Methodism and the Spirit of Empire”

Joon-Sik Park: “The Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church: A Historical and Missiological Reflection”

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: “The Autonomous Process of Latin American Methodism: A Critical Review”

David W. Scott: “American Power in the Global Church in Ecumenical Methodist Perspective”

Jørgen Thaarup: “The UMC Discipline: A Parallel Power Structure to the American Administration of the Nation”

Darryl W. Stephens: “A Global Ethic for a Divided Church”

Taylor Denyer: “Ecclesiastic Empires: American Conflict and the African UMC”

Lloyd Nyarota: “The Struggle of African Voices in The United Methodist Church”

Cristine Carnate-Atrero and Izzy Alvaran: “The Christmas Covenant: Toward Decolonizing UMC Polity”

Filipe Maia: “Whither Global Methodism?”

[1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[2] Hardt and Negri, xii.

1 comment:

  1. Denominational extension in the name of global connection is a problem when the denomination is shaped and controlled by a particular people. The current debates within the US connection demonstrate the desire of the American UMC to erect a wall around itself so that it won't be influenced and controlled by the global connection even though it continues to use money and power to push its own agenda on the global church. For a point of reference, when the US connection feared that Wesley would recall Asbury, it struck his name from the Minutes and "excommunicated" him. The insular mindset continues to this day. To be global, the UMC must trust its global partners and submit to one another without fear.