Thursday, February 29, 2024

Jae Hyoung Choi: St. Basil, Charity, and Justice

Today’s post is by Rev. Jae Hyoung Choi. Rev. Choi is Missionary in Residence with the General Board of Global Ministries.

I visited Kenya recently as a member of Global Ministries' core team for Global Mission Fellow (GMF) training. During the program, we had the opportunity to visit Kibera. A Kenyan guide mentioned that Kibera is one of the largest slums in the world, along with Soweto in South Africa, where I had a chance to visit during the 2019 Africa regional missionary gathering.

Observing GMFs engage in programs with children in Kibera brought back memories of Parola, an informal settlement in Manila, Philippines. Parola served as a refuge for those initially arriving in Manila to escape poverty, owing to its proximity to the bustling market called Divisoria. While Parola was smaller than Kibera, the living spaces were considerably narrower. Due to the illicit practice of electricity tapping, known as “jumping,” Parola often experienced fires.

I recalled a grandmother who tragically lost her beloved grandson in one such fire. While she went to the market to buy food, locking the door from outside for the child’s safety, the fire consumed her home. I also knew a woman raising nine children, three of her own and six brought by her husband from other women, who made ends meet by doing laundry in other people’s houses. Despite outward smiles, it seemed they might be silently shedding tears, enduring unspeakable suffering.

I pondered the meaning of missionary work for individuals facing ongoing poverty, injustice, and discrimination. What does it truly mean to “participate in God’s mission” amidst these challenges?

In recent months, I studied Basil, a figure from the fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers. While renowned for his Trinitarian theology, my focus delved into his social teachings and his acts of charity. 

His Christian ownership principles, rooted in natural law and the Scriptures, offer profound insights into contemporary socioeconomic and structural issues. Perhaps his concern for land issues in his homeland, Cappadocia, led him to advocate the Christian ownership principle based on the biblical mandate, “The land belongs to God (Leviticus 25:23),” which underscores a commitment to distributive justice and equitable resource access, promoting communal responsibility.

However, the historical evaluation of Basil’s charitable activities is divided. In 369 AD, a severe famine left many in poverty, some even starving to death. Basil mobilized his assets and connections to aid the poor, establishing the Basiliad, a massive complex dedicated to caring for the poor and sick, which moved Emperor Valens to donate land.

Yet, the church’s charity, including Basil’s, during that time is now facing reassessment in a new light. Historian Peter Brown notes that the eastern church during Basil’s time earned the title “Lovers of the Poor” not only due to its active charity but also because it was an era when the Roman Empire’s unjust economic system mass-produced the poor.

Some wonder whether Basil’s words were prophetic but his deeds were priestly. Why did Basil, who approached the core of social justice through his land ownership teachings, focus only on charity in practice?

Basil’s charitable work was intertwined with his ascetic monasticism, which was based on Hellenistic dualism. At that time, the monastic movement’s ultimate focus was the coming kingdom, emphasizing helping the poor rather than solving poverty itself.

The fundamental reason seems to be his dichotomous worldview dominating his ascetic monastic movement. Ioannes Karayannopoulos comments that Basil’s ultimate orientation was “to the other real life [heaven],” so “Basil does not consider it his duty to try to change [the present system].”

Today, charity remains essential to the church's mission. However, the church must hear that the world is voicing criticisms of its charity. Books like “Toxic Charity,” “When Helping Hurts,” and “When Charity Destroys Dignity” illustrate this phenomenon. Kibera, Soweto, and Parola call for justice beyond charity.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Jefferson Knight: Addressing Human Sexuality in the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline: A Missional Imperative

Today's post is by Jefferson Knight. Knight is Program Director of the United Methodist Human Rights Monitor in Liberia and a delegate of the Liberia Annual Conference to the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Church is currently embroiled in a significant crisis regarding the definition of marriage within its doctrine. The looming conflict arises from the potential attempt by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to change the definition of marriage, a move that could lead to serious repercussions across its global connections.

One of the primary reasons for the potential conflict is the disparity in the legal and cultural context of marriage across different regions, particularly in relation to same-sex marriage. In the United States, same-sex marriage has been legally recognized since the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2015. However, this legal framework is not universally applicable, especially in other parts of the world, such as Africa and certain other regions.

In many African countries, laws criminalize same-sex marriage, reflecting deeply ingrained cultural and religious beliefs. As a result, any attempt by The United Methodist Church to change its definition of marriage to include same-sex unions would clash with the legal and cultural norms prevalent in these regions, potentially causing significant discord within the global church community.

Furthermore, United Methodists in the United States and other Western countries may find themselves in a constant state of conflict with the Book of Discipline of the UMC if they were to adhere to their national laws, which permit same-sex marriage, while other countries, particularly in Africa, maintain laws that explicitly criminalize such unions.

This stark contrast in legal frameworks creates a complex and challenging situation for the church, with divergent interpretations of the Book of Discipline causing tension between different regions and members.

This situation has led to the formation of the Global Methodist Church, a US-based denomination that broke away from The United Methodist Church, and it has also led to the disaffiliation of churches from the UMC, mainly in the United States.

In light of these challenges, it is evident that The United Methodist Church must seek a solution that respects the diverse legal, cultural, theological, biblical, and regional contexts within which it operates. One potential path forward could involve defining marriage within the Book of Discipline based on regional contexts wherever applicable.

By acknowledging the legal and cultural differences across its global connections, The United Methodist Church can strive to define marriage in a manner that respects the varying perspectives and realities of its members. This approach would entail recognizing and respecting the legal frameworks and cultural norms related to marriage in different regions, thereby allowing for a more inclusive and harmonious coexistence within the church.

Moreover, establishing a framework that respects regional variations in the definition of marriage would help mitigate potential conflicts and foster a spirit of unity and understanding within The United Methodist Church. By embracing diversity and adapting its doctrine to reflect the complex realities of its global membership, the church can navigate the current crisis and emerge with a strengthened sense of inclusivity and community.

However, it is essential to recognize that the missional context of the church extends far beyond the confines of any single issue, including human sexuality. The UMC's global reach necessitates an approach that acknowledges and respects the diverse cultural, social, and theological perspectives of its members across different regions. The proposal to regionalize the church as proposed by the Christmas Covenant underscores the recognition of these differences and the need for a more localized understanding of faith and practice.

The idea of regionalization holds significant potential for addressing the complexities surrounding human sexuality within the UMC. Rather than attempting to impose a singular stance on this issue that may be incongruent with the beliefs of certain regions, a regionalized approach allows for the accommodation of diverse perspectives in accordance with the unique cultural and contextual factors at play.

In conclusion, the crisis facing The United Methodist Church in relation to the definition of marriage underscores the need for a thoughtful and inclusive approach that respects the diverse legal, cultural, and regional contexts within the church's global connections. By defining marriage in the Book of Discipline based on regional context wherever applicable, the church can pave the way for a more harmonious and respectful coexistence, ensuring that all members feel valued and heard within the broader church community.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Recommended Reading: Cambodian Theology Students

Cambodia is one of six Mission Initiatives supported by Global Ministries. Mission Initiatives are endeavors to spread Methodism to countries where it did not previously exist. The Cambodia Mission Initiative is a unique undertaking because it is jointly sponsored by Global Ministries, Connexio (the mission agency of Swiss United Methodists), the Korean Methodist Church, the Singaporean Methodist Church, and the World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches. Together, these five agencies have sponsored the growth of the Methodist Church in Cambodia, a soon-to-be-autonomous denomination.

Part of the process of a church growing toward autonomy is developing indigenous leadership, which the Methodist Church in Cambodia has done. Congregations are led by indigenous pastors, and there is a Methodist Bible School for training pastors. As part of their partnership with Cambodia, Connexio has shared a recent interview with two students at the Methodist Bible School (translated into English here). The interview is a good snapshot of what life is like for young adults preparing to enter the ministry in Cambodia. It's worth reading for the sake of learning more about Methodism in Cambodia, Mission Initiatives more broadly, and pastoral ministry in different cultures.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

David W. Scott: Exploring Intercultural Connectionalism

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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. This piece originally appeared as a commentary on the United Methodist News Service site and is republished here with permission.

As 2024 begins, many United Methodists are looking toward the next General Conference, to be held April 23-May 3. This legislative gathering has the potential to make significant changes to The United Methodist Church through regionalization and other proposals.

Whatever happens at this General Conference, it will be historic. For over 240 years, General Conference has always had a majority of U.S. delegates; however, 2024 is very likely to be the last time a regular General Conference will have a majority of delegates from the United States.

The upcoming shift in delegates reflects a shift in membership in The United Methodist Church. Even before the recent wave of local church disaffiliations, membership decline in the United States and membership growth in Africa meant that more United Methodists have been living outside the United States than in it for the past several years. This membership shift coincides with a season in which United Methodists are seeking to reexamine and revitalize relationships with ecumenical partner Methodist churches throughout the world.

These changes present United Methodists and their ecumenical Methodist partners with a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to shift from centuries of U.S.-dominance in the church. The opportunity is to reflect better the multinational, multicultural nature of the church universal. Multiculturalism has been part of the church since its beginning in Acts 2 and will continue to be part of the church in heaven, according to Revelation 7:9-10.

For the church to avail itself of the divine opportunities of being a multinational, multicultural church, it will need to engage in both deconstructive and constructive work.

The deconstructive work involves letting go of the presumption that the church should revolve primarily around Americans and their values, concerns and standards, and dismantling or reconfiguring the structures that solidify that presumption.

This work is underway throughout the church, often carried out under the term “decolonizing church.” One example of such work is the book of essays I have edited with Filipe Maia, “Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church.”

The bishops’ initiative over the past several years to “dismantle racism” is a related endeavor, and many other scholars, agencies and church leaders are involved in such efforts as well.

The constructive work necessary for becoming a truly multinational, multicultural church is for the church to increase its capacity to communicate and work across cultures and contexts. Communicating and collaborating across cultures requires not just intellectual commitment to the importance of being a worldwide church. It requires specific skills in listening, seeking understanding, being flexible and adapting.

Again, this work is being carried out in many spots throughout the denomination. One such effort that I am involved in is a joint theological task force between the United Methodist boards of Global Ministries and Higher Education and Ministry. Joining me in that work are the Rev. Dr. Greg Bergquist, Dr. David Field, the Rev. Dr. Paulo Roberto Garcia, the Rev. Dr. Jean Claude Maleka, Deaconess Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, the Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella, Dr. Amos Nascimento, Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse and Dr. Ulrike Schuler.

This task force was convened to reflect on theological grounds for greater collaboration between the two agencies. One of the major insights from our joint reflection is a concept we are calling “intercultural connectionalism.”

The term “intercultural connectionalism” builds on the Methodist tradition of connectionalism as a central ecclesiological concept. I have written about connectionalism elsewhere, but briefly it refers to the structures, practices, relationships and theology that connect local congregations to one another, in the process creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Adding the term “intercultural” recognizes that the connections that make up The United Methodist Church (and its ecumenical partners) cross lines of culture and other elements of difference. Intercultural connectionalism thus offers a factual description of the current nature of The United Methodist Church. (And much of its history, too, if we have eyes to see it — as in, for instance, this article.) It also offers a normative aspiration — that the church will learn to connect in ways that take cultural differences seriously.

Indeed, to push the claim further, we cannot truly understand the nature of United Methodist connectionalism unless we consider various cultural perspectives on the concept. I have written elsewhere about how the understanding of what a denomination is varies across contexts and how European and Filipino United Methodists have unique perspectives on the nature and meaning of connectionalism.

Thus, intercultural connectionalism involves a different approach to theological reflection in and for the denomination. It requires that United Methodists engage in intercultural dialogue as we seek to understand the nature of our church and how God is calling us to join in God’s mission around the world.

While General Conference does provide a venue to engage in intercultural dialogue, United Methodists should avoid associating intercultural connectionalism only with General Conference. Although it brings together United Methodists from around the world, General Conference, because of its limited time frame and legislative focus, may not always be the best place for United Methodists to engage in deep listening and learning across cultures.

Instead, it is better to think of intercultural connectionalism as a principle that various parts of the denomination can incorporate into their practices. This includes the general agencies, the Council of Bishops, the ecumenical office, the Commission on Faith and Order, scholarly networks and mission partnerships. Whenever United Methodists from varying cultural backgrounds gather, attention should be paid to how those cultural backgrounds inform their understanding of United Methodism and what they can learn from one another.

The Global Ministries/Higher Education theological task force has developed a discussion guide to help United Methodists and their ecumenical Methodist partners engage in conversations related to intercultural connectionalism. The study guide, which is available in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and German, moves from reflections about our Wesleyan origins through our history to our hopes for healing and renewal and the actions inspired by those hopes. The four-session discussion guide can be used in various settings, from the local church to seminaries to connectional bodies.

The guide ends with questions about how we can act as United Methodists. This is significant, because while conversation and conferencing are important realms in which to live out intercultural connectionalism, intercultural connectionalism must also characterize our joint work in the world. United Methodists have always had a strong sense that one’s faith must be lived out. Living out our faith with others from different cultural backgrounds, as together we engage in mission and ministry, presents new opportunities to learn from one another.

In this regard, United Methodists can learn from Interfaith Youth Core and other interfaith organizations which have concluded that generating understanding across differences should involve not just talking about those differences but also joining together in positive work in the world. Such joint work builds understanding and relationships. As I have argued elsewhere, relationships are a vital component of connectionalism, necessary to make organizational connectionalism work.

The Global Ministries/Higher Education task force, and the increased alignment between the two agencies broadly, including sharing a general secretary, represents a further opportunity here. Not only is education an important part of mission around the world, but this interagency collaboration is also a chance to bring scholarly conversation about intercultural connectionalism and the application of intercultural connectionalism in mission practice together.

Alignment between the two agencies creates possibilities for deeper learning about and better practice of intercultural connectionalism.

United Methodists are part of a multicultural church that is tied to partner Methodist churches from yet more cultural backgrounds. This has long been true and will only become truer in the future. For the church to embrace this blessing from God, we must live into the reality and the opportunity of intercultural connectionalism.