ReCentering Methodism: Open Letter to the Wesley “Covenant” Association

First — this apology to my non-United Methodist friends and readers.  We United Methodists are amid some “denominational challenges” just now.  I have written this letter as a way to encourage some of our more traditional and conservative leaders to answer five questions about their purposes and basic intentions.  You see, I fear this “new effort” known as the Wesleyan Covenant Association in North America is merely a building of a highway for schism among folks in our denomination divided by our views around homosexuality.  My prayer is that raising these questions may help identify some of the distortions often made by these, my friends, who claim to be more “Biblical, evangelical, and Wesleyan” than others of us.  Forgive this interlude in my blog entries — please check out the recent post on my  embarrassing moments as a pastor.  It is much more fun… and probably more enlightening.
 

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Dear Friends of the Wesley Covenant Association,
As I read the names of the founding sponsors of the Wesley Covenant Association, I know many of you — have known you for years.  You have been colleagues in our work as United Methodists.  You are committed pastors, known theological educators and activist organizers in the Confessing Movement and the Good News Movement in United Methodism.  Now you offer a new organization, a new association.  Hopefully your claim that the Wesley Covenant Association is a re-booting, a move toward re-discovery, a signal of readiness to traverse beyond the tread-worn battles of the past is true. 
I pray  you join me in the realization that the younger, rising generation of United Methodist seems rather disinterested in a rehearsal of the same old arguments, using the same labels and categories.  Our battles still may appear to be unresolved, but there is little doubt they are increasingly insignificant in the lives and faith of our grandchildren.  I would be helped if you could answer five questions.  They are ones asked before, at various times and places.  Not yet having received an answer I repeat them now – this time with a renewed sense of urgency as I fear the WCA may be simply a laying of the predicate for a schism in our denomination.
These questions of you are not rhetorical.  I sincerely would like to hear from you:
  • If “evangelical,” what is the “good news” you share? 
  • If “evangelical,” why so little attention to Christian experience, to personal conversion?  Why so little mention of the transforming love of Jesus Christ for persons and society?
  • If Wesleyan, why the silence about ministry with the poor?
  • If uniquely “Biblical Christian,” what is the basis of scriptural interpretation?  What is the hermeneutic employed?
  • If Wesleyan, what of John Wesley’s concern about schism and his clear guidance to learn from others who differ as expressed in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”?

 

Answers to these questions would help me know if I might be included in the “covenant” you seek to draw.  You see, I fear your appropriation of the word “covenant” is more of a way to exclude and narrow than it is a way to a hope-filled future.  It is a misdirection away from the more profound meaning of covenant that comes from scripture.  The covenant, I believe we share is much broader and more profoundly enduring than that which can be restricted by a few paragraphs in the ever-shifting-language of The United Methodist Book of Discipline.  Using the word “covenant” in this narrow way may be beneficial to an ecclesial political agenda.  It may serve to set folks like me outside of “the elect.”  I reject this use of covenant language in this way.  I will not be thus separated by your linguistic legerdemain.
It was after all, conservative theologian, Richard John Neuhaus, of blessed memory, who taught the essential difference between “contract” and “covenant.”  Our faith covenant binds us together by something deeper and more profound than contractual language can ever contain.
A contract is limited to the temporal, “quid pro quo” reality.  It is an effort to control and claim exclusive authority over things that are passing, temporal.  It seeks to hold us together, by our past rules, limited language and small understandings.  It is a way to count up grievances and deny our commonweal.  It suggests the interpretation of scripture is the exclusive possession of one party and only this view will be acceptable for all United Methodists.  A “contract” seeks to limit vision, thwart new expression, block new insights walling them in to past categories and perspectives.
Covenant is not contract.  Covenant is God’s gift for us ALL — something that draws us into the future, TOGETHER; it is the power of God’s Spirit at work in the world and it is beyond our ability to limit this.  Covenant continually ReCenters us in Christ.  Bonhoeffer wrote clearly of the church being centered in Christ where boundaries drawn by those who seek to limit the expansiveness of God’s activity in the world will not hold. 
Believing we all belong to Christ and this is our true covenant hope, I remain, your brother,
Philip Amerson

Turning Bad News to Good

First, Confess The Sin of Racism

xrayview
Racism in Plain Sight*

It is a clarifying moment… The x-rays are back from this laboratory.  These hypothetical x-rays come from Super Tuesday of the 2016 presidential primaries.  And what can be seen in these images?  There it is — the often hidden, not-so-attractive, practices and support of racism.  Surprisingly this racism comes from those who call themselves Evangelical Christians.  It is painfully clear.  Support for racial bigotry and discrimination is all too apparent in the way they vote and self-identify. 

The voters have spoken: Donald Trump won seven of the twelve primary elections in states.  He claimed the largest percentage of the so-called white Evangelical voters.  Just hours before these elections Trump dodged questions about support he was receiving from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, a well known white supremacist.  In what has become a typical media ploy, after he winked his appreciation for the racist support, Trump then changed his tune, saying that he had always opposed racism and, in typical form, he attacked the media saying that he was again being mistreated.

Can there be any doubt that behind the scenes and often breaking into the open racism has been employed to weaken the presidency of Barack Obama?  Like many things, few people are as articulate in identifying such realities as is poet, novelist, conservationist Wendell Berry.

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Wendell Berry**

Berry writes: “A good many people hoped and even believed that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency signified the end of racism in the United States.  It seems arguable to me that the result has been virtually the opposite:  Obama’s election has brought about a revival of racism.  Like nothing since the Southern Strategy, it has solidified the racist vote as a political quantity recognizable to politicians and apparently large enough in some places to decide an election…

Nobody can doubt that virtually all of the President’s political enemies would vehemently defend themselves against a charge of racism.  Virtually all of them observe the forms and taboos of political correctness.  If any very visible one of their own should insult the President by a recognized racial slur, they would all join in the predictable outrage.  But the paramount fact of this moment in the history of racism is that you don’t have to denominate the President by a recognized racial slur when his very name can be used as a synonym.” (Wendell Berry, Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 2015.  See more at: Berry, Revival of Racism.

I was stuck by a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that provided the recent history of active hate groups in the United States.  During the first eight years of the twenty-first century there were roughly 150 groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, and Neo-Nazi.  Their numbers changed very little in the period between 2000 and 2008.  However, in 2009, following the election of our president, the number of hate groups rose to over 500 — and today there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States!

I am not saying that white Evangelicals are all racists.  Still it is more than a little suspicious that there is not more resistance among these folks to Mr. Trump’s dog whistle to the racist fringe.  I still remember visiting a family farm, shortly after the election of Mr. Obama.  These were good people, church going folks, active in state politics.  I have known them for years.  As we talked my friends began to share email “jokes” about our president.  The language was crude, ugly, bigoted and demeaning projections.  It was raw, blatant racism in the depiction of our president. I was stunned — didn’t join in the laughter and spoke only a halting word of disagreement.  In hindsight, I wish I had said more.  In hindsight, I understand there are such “God fearing” folks and how they could vote for Mr. Trump.

In his insightful study One Nation Under God Kevin Kruse of Princeton University outlines the way the Christianity shifted in the twentieth century to become a public spiritual spectacle, useful to politicians and corporate leaders to pursue their goals of power and wealth.  Kruse cites William Lee Miller of Yale Divinity School who spoke of the American people who followed their president, Eisenhower, and “had become fervent believers in a very vague religion.”  (Kruse, p. 68)  Or, as Robert Bellah put it, “Is this not just another indication that in America, religion is considered a good thing but people care so little about it that it has lost any content whatsoever?” (Kruse, p. 68) This vague religiosity has been filled with many things — and as Evangelicalism has gained ascendancy too much of the “vague” content has been long on self concern and short on self criticism.

The vague content of American Christianity — Evangelicalism in this case, has been filled with patterns of thought and behavior that have almost no connection with the message or life of Jesus the Christ.  In fact, the vague content has been filled with shabby self indulgent understandings that are amazingly at odds with the Sermon on the Mount or the Lord’s Prayer

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What would a beliefs x-ray show about a person’s real commitments?***

I do not seek to salvage this word “Evangelical.”  The damage, the identity theft, has been done.   Such a project belongs to others.  Thankfully, they are already at work and know it will take generations to correct what has gone amiss.  As suggested in an earlier post, these elections provide an x-ray into the flawed theological and faith perspectives of such Evangelicals. Sadly, the x-ray comes back saying the illness is at a critical stage.  This religiosity is shaped more by culture, history and prejudice than it is by the scriptures or sound theology.  Honestly, it is more a folk religion than a coherent faith practice.

What are we to do?  What is the church to do? In his column, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time, ” David Brooks speaks of the rise of authoritarianism (Brooks, Governing Cancer).  Over forty years ago, I served as part of a national research project on the church and racism.  In this work we discovered the connections between authoritarianism, status concern and racism in its various forms.  The question became how should the church, the People of God, respond?

We learned three important things:

  1. The church — especially the leaders in the church — must say NO to racism.  That which is obvious and that which is more subtle.  I wonder what difference it might have made if religious leaders and political leaders had stood up against Mr. Trump’s “birther” comments in 2008, or every year since?  One can’t help but think that the current dilemma of the Republican Party was brought about by their own silence and disrespect all along the way.
  2. Sermons and study groups alone have little effect on changing racist attitudes or behaviors.  (Sorry about this preachers and teachers.)  However, when sermons and education are combined with activities that engage parishoners with persons of a different race, especially activities that seek cooperatively to address racism, real change is possible.  We saw it in Chicago, South Bend, Fresno, Dallas and Los Angeles.
  3. Finally, a denomination’s commitment or congregation’s commitment to battle racism can be measured by the way budgets are made and expended.  In 1974 we found that almost all congregations reported they spent more on toilet paper or light bulbs in a year than they did on efforts to address racism.  Nothing much has changed over these four decades in this regard!

Silence.  Vague content to our faith.  Low commitment to change as evidenced in our practices and budgets.  These things, good reader, may be among the reasons for our current embarrassment.

Phil A

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Attributions:
  1. *Women viewing x-ray. Copyright: http://www.123rf.co/profile_rmarmion’>rmarmion / 123RF Stock Photo</a>.
  2. **Photo of Wendell Berry from newsinfo.iu.edu, (Indiana University media)
  3. ***Simulated x-ray of brain. Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_scottff72′>scottff72 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
     

When Good News Becomes Bad News

The Evangelical Embarrassment

Evangelical

Agata Gladykowska, stock photo

 

The presidential primaries of 2016 are an embarrassment — to our nation, to thoughtful public discourse and, perhaps most tragically, to the witness of people of faith.  This trend has been underway for quite some time.  In an earlier post, I wrote of “Christian identity theft.”

Today is the so-called Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016.  Primary elections are being held in twelve states with hundreds of delegates in play for both political parties.

Over and again it is reported that the Evangelicals are a crucial and determining voting block.  The New York Times this morning says that “Donald Trump’s success with evangelicals is expected to help him dominate” in several of these elections.  REALLY?

The vileness and ugliness of this primary, especially on the Republican side, is so full of meanness and junior high potty mouth jokes as to make mud-wrestling look like a noble enterprise.  But most troubling for me is the use of that word “Evangelical.”

Sadly, this primary has proven to be a DNA test, or an x-ray image, showing the actual make-up and inner organs of many who claim to be Evangelicals.  Really?  Donald Trump represents the best hope for the future among people of faith, the desire to have a God-fearing nation?  Really?  Or, the juvenile, divisive and snarky comments of Mr. Rubio or Mr. Cruz — are these the marks of an “Evangelical?”  Thank God, there are Mr. Kasich and Carson who represent something better; but they seem to have little appeal to those who call themselves “Evangelicals.”

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For Evangelicals the whole of Scriptures was 0nce the guide
Wavebreak Media, stock photo

Evangelical at one time spoke of a person who believed the good news of God’s love for the world, each one and all.  An Evangelical once was a person who sought to follow Christian scripture, especially the major themes.  Today it has been distilled down to a test on two or three current cultural issues, abortion and gay marriage mostly. 

The x-ray machine which is the 2016 Republican Primary, shows that the core of the Biblical story is either ignored or little understood by this group, who claim the name Evangelical. Things like the care of God’s creation, the welcoming of strangers and refugees, sharing with the poor or living a life of service have dropped out of the body.  These organs critical for life have disappeared.  In its place, Mr. Trump and others have substituted fear, racism, xenophobia, distrust and envy.  Good news has become bad news.  This look inside those who call themselves Evangelicals suggests a perhaps incurable soul sickness, a brokenness.  I fear it is a sickness unto death.

Evangelical has been a word of richness and diversity.  Many won’t understand, but Hillary Clinton, as a United Methodist, stands as much (or more) in the classical definition of Evangelicalism as do any of the Republican candidates.  As a United Methodist her heritage links her to the work of John Wesley and Martin Luther.  While both were men of their age — I think it is clear that neither would recognize what has been going on in these primaries as in any way “Evangelical” in its basic theological DNA structure.

John Wesley
John Wesley (1703-1791) Engraved after original artwork by J. Jackson

Having served as president of a school called “Garrett-Evangelical” I have sought to understand this word and place it in its historical and proper theological context.  The categorization that has been done in recent decades has resulted in a division that seems to allow no breadth of understanding.  I consider myself a “progressive-evangelical,” a place to stand that is, I believe, consistent with Luther or Wesley in their day or millions of Christians outside the U.S. today.

It is tragic that the word has been turned inside out, upside down and backwards in contemporary American thought.  Too long the word has been defined by Fox News and talk radio — too long certain preachers have used the word to divide rather than to heal.  Too long, well meaning pastors and bishops have remained quiet, allowed others to commit identity theft.  Too long, well meaning pastors have said, “It is in God’s hands, you don’t have to worry, it will all work out.” Perhaps it is their own fear that prevents them from speaking against the ugliness of this mean-spirited time.  And now, not surprisingly, “we have sown the wind and are reaping a whirlwind.”

Of course, all of this didn’t happen over night.  In his excellent column, The Governing Cancer of Our Time, David Brooks speaks of the distance we have traveled from our political and civic heritage and speaks of our current situation as “anti-politics” (Brooks, Governing Cancer).

In this column, Brooks notes that politics as a constructive art is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise world wide.  What might the church say in such a situation?  Where might Evangelicals seeking to be true to the deeper and richer meaning of the tradition find a constructive voice?  Stay tuned — more to follow.

Phil A