Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

What is Methodism? Four (4) Interpretations

I’m not a Methodist. I WAS raised Methodist and most of my family of origin are still Methodist, but I have been an Anabaptist-type Baptist for longer than I was Methodist. So, I present this as an “interested outsider,” rather than an insider. I offer these interpretations especially to Methodist friends and colleagues inviting feedback–agreement, disagreement, modification. alternative proposals, etc. The discussion should prove interesting.

1) Methodism as Modified Episcopalianism. In this perspective, Methodism is a variation on Anglo-Catholic Christianity. Neither John nor Charles Wesley left the Church of England. British Methodists have entered into a covenant with the Church of England. Methodism is an evangelical/pietist renewal (or internal critique) of Anglicanism. In the United Methodist Church, the bishops are the institutional home of this perspective–whether or not they think reunion with the Anglican Communion desirable. (This may also be true for the African Methodist Episcopal, AME Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal denominations, but I have never met a bishop in any of the forms of African Methodism, so I couldn’t say.) Had the Anglican hierarchy welcomed (not resisted) the Wesley’s Evangelical Renewal movement, it would have remained in the Church of England.

2) Santification as Key: Methodism as Holiness Movement. This view doesn’t see the 19th C. Holiness Movement, with dozens of new denominations spinning off from Methodism, as a new development, but as the original heart of Methodism itself. Had Methodism remained true to its Holiness heart, this view goes, there would never have arisen Free Methodists, Nazarenes, the Wesleyan Church, the Church of God (Anderson, IN-non-Pentecostal), etc. Wesley was influenced by Moravians, who were radical Pietists, and also by the “salvation as deification” theme of Eastern Orthodoxy. The essence of Methodism, in this view, is a Pietist-Holiness emphasis that includes both individual and social sanctification.

3) “Heart Religion”: Methodism as Doctrinal Pluralism. This is the theme of liberal Methodism. John Wesley had said that he didn’t want Methodists to be known “for their particular opinions.” Wesley’s conversion at Aldersgate was not an intellectual change of mind, but finding his heart “strangely warmed.” This interpretation allows for a wide diversity of doctrinal conviction, united by an inner salvation experience. Examples would include the Boston Personalists (e.g., A. C. Knudson, Bordon Parker Bowne, Georgia Harkness, & L. Harold DeWolf), the many Methodist Process Theologians (John B. Cobb, Marjorie Schuchocki, Randy L. Maddox, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Schubert M. Ogdon), some feminist and liberation theologians.

4)Methodism as Part of the Free Church/Believers’ Church Tradition. In this view, Methodism’s soteriology and ecclesiology places it among the Believers’ Church traditions that include the Hussites, Waldensians, Anabaptists, Friends/Quakers, Baptists, the Stone-Campbell movement, Pentecostals. The major difference is that Methodists retain infant baptism since Wesley hadn’t attempted to formulate an entire “systematic” theology and accepted the structures of the Church of England. (Anabaptists–and Nazarenes–would say that Methodists are confused about baptism. Infant baptism doesn’t fit their soteriology or ecclesiology.) The social sanctification, the many Methodist struggles for justice and numerous Methodist pacifists are all explained by this perspective say its proponents. Some in this perspective include the late Franklin H. Littel, Justo Gonzalez, James Lawson, James Farmer, Elsa Tamez, Theodore W. Jennings, Donald W. Dayton.

Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive categories. They are different ways to “slice” the same phenomenon. Do my Methodist friends find this helpful? I await your comments and dialogue with much anticipation.

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June 29, 2013 Posted by | Christian Denominations, Church, ecclesiology, history of theology, Methodists, theology, tradition | 1 Comment

A Prayer for Pentecost

This prayer can also be sung as a hymn.  It works well with the tune of “The Servant Song” composed by Richard Gilliard copyright 1977 Maranatha Music.

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Holy Spirit, come with power, breathe into our aching night.

We expect you this glad hour, waiting for Your strength and light.

We are fearful, we are ailing, we are weak and selfish too.

Break upon Your congregation, give us vigor, life anew.

Holy Spirit, come with fire, burn us with Your presence new.

Let us as one mighty choir sing our hymn of praise to You.

Burn away our wasted sadness and enflame us with Your love.

Burst upon Your congregation, give us gladness from above.

Holy Spirit, bring your message, burn and breathe each Word anew

deep into our tired living ’till we strive Your work to do.

Teach us love and trusting kindness, lend our hands to those who hurt.

Breathe upon Your congregation, and inspire us with Your Word.

May 27, 2012 Posted by | ecclesiology, Holy Spirit, liturgy, Pentecost, prayers, theology, worship | Leave a comment

Independence Day Meditation: Can a Christian Be a Patriot?

Can a Christian be a patriot? I suppose that depends on the definitions of “Christian” and “patriot.”  If “Christian” refers to Constantinian Christians, that is, those who, since the Emperor Constantine conquered the Roman Empire “in the sign of the cross,” have assumed that there can be Christian rulers, then there appears to be no problem. Constantinian Christians show their patriotism by supporting the Christian emperor or king or queen or the “Christian nation” with the elected “Christian leaders” of the “correct” political party that God has chosen.  But this perspective took the way of Jesus Christ, a way of nonviolence, economic sharing, mutual servanthood and equality, and love of enemies which spread by evangelism and martyrdom and turned it into a religion of domination, economic competition, hoarding, hatred and killing of the enemies of the state–which spreads by military conquest and coerced conversions.  After the break-up of Medieval “Christendom” into modern nation states, Constantinian Christians were often drafted into wars with other “Christian nations.” Thus, they showed their patriotism by placing loyalty to the state above loyalty to Christ or to the Body of Christ and killed fellow believers in the name of God.

I am not a Constantinian Christian. I consider Constantine’s distortion to be a heresy that has haunted Christianity for over 16 centuries, now. I belong to that strand of nonviolent Christianity that was there from the beginnings of the Jesus movement and dominated for the first 3 & 1/2 centuries of church history, was recovered by some monastic movements (e.g., the Franciscans) and some Medieval sects (e.g., the Unitas Fratrum) and the Anabaptists, Quakers, Dunkers/Brethren, some Baptists, many early Pentecostals.  For this kind of Christian, the question of “patriotism” is far more problematic.

For the nonviolent Christian, one’s primary loyalty is to God in Christ; one’s “national loyalty” is to the Kingdom or Rule of God.  One sees God’s redeeming work in history as primarily working through the Church, scattered among ALL nations.  There are NO “Christian nations,” although there may be nations with large numbers of Christians whose history and culture has been influenced by Christian values.

Having “pledged allegiance” to the Kingdom/Rule of God in baptism, the non-Constantinian Christian cannot give ultimate loyalty to any earthly flag, republic, or government.  But is the Christian forbidden to have any feelings of affection for her homeland? I don’t think this necessarily follows.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem for killing the prophets and not knowing the “things which make for peace.” Matt. 23:36-38; Luke 13:33-35.  Although well aware of Rome’s injustices (crucifying Christ and eventually executing many of the apostles), the Apostle Paul seemed proud of his Roman citizenship and did not hesitate to make use of it in getting a hearing for the gospel.

I sincerely doubt that Christians are forbidden from cheering on their national teams in the Olympic games or from being proud of the best of their nation’s history and accomplishments.  I love the U.S.A. and cherish my citizenship and the best of our history, legal system, struggles for justice, our accomplishments in many areas. But no Christian (that is, no non-Constantinian Christian) can have an uncritical love of country or any form of national chauvenism, much less any jingoistic nationalism.  One has to acknowledge that every nation (most definitely including the U.S.A.) also has its national sins and many shortcomings.  The U.S., for instance, began as a contradiction in terms–a group of English colonies protesting unjust treatment by the mother country while simultaneously practicing far worse injustices against the indigenous peoples (so-called “Indians”) and slaves brought over from Africa.  Our beloved Constitution which set us up as a democratic republic, simultaneously engraved race-based slavery into the heart of the nation’s laws–and it took a terrible civil war and occupation of the rebellious Southern states before the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution could dissolve our slaveocracy and rebuild the republic on a more moral basis.  Even then, women were denied the right to vote until 1920 and, to this day, there is no guarantee of equal rights for women.  We all-but-exterminated the Native Americans in expanding the nation Westward and most of what we call the Southwest was land stolen from Mexico in an illegal war never approved by Congress.  It wasn’t until the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that the legal basis for segregation (approved by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896) was overturned and it took the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the victories resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the U.S. version of legal apartheid was dissolved.

The U.S. has also committed crimes against other nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia–often backing tyrannies and dictatorships instead of democratic movements because of a narrowly perceived national interest. The U.S. lags behind many nations in legal protections for the accused, in abolishing the death penalty, in prison reform, in universal healthcare, in education of all citizens, and many other areas. We have much to learn from the mistakes and the successes of others.

If one’s definition of patriotism includes this kind of critical love which hopes for the best for one’s nation and wants to see it repent and do better, then, in this limited sense, I think even a non-Constantinian Christian may be a patriot.  But if by patriotism one means that one must always think one’s nation is “number one,” and “exceptional,” and that international law is only for other nations, or that one’s nation is justified in hurting other nations–either economically or militarily, then no non-Constantinian Christian may be a that kind of “patriot.” Nor may a Christian believe that “our freedoms” are given to us by military might–because freedom in the gospel has a different meaning than the individualistic egoism of our national self-centeredness and because as Christians we reject the way of the sword for the way of suffering love. Military service to a nation state is forbidden for those who part of the “army that sheds no blood” as the Church Father Clement of Alexandria described the universal Church.  We lay down arms and take up our crosses and follow Jesus.  As Lee Camp suggests in Mere Discipleship, Christian disciples do not make for “good Americans” (or good Britishers, good Germans, good Brazilians, good Zimbabweans, good New Zealanders, good Japanese, etc.).  Doubtless the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans would call this perspective treason. So be it.

Christians need a cosmopolitan viewpoint and need to be in solidarity with the oppressed all over the world.  If the gospel is true, then those of us united in Christ have more in common with fellow Christians in nations designated as “enemy” by our respective governments than we do with the non-Christian fellow citizens of our nation.  That’s not to mean that we should see those non-Christians as enemies, either. They, too, are created in God’s image and Christ died for them, too. All people are either fellow disciples or potential fellow disciples–so we may neither hate nor kill anyone.

I’ll cheer on the U.S. in the Olympic games. I’ll celebrate what is good in our nation’s history and laws–and that we gave the world baseball, of course. But if “patriotism” means celebrating war or defying international law or putting down other peoples so as to feel good about ourselves–or if “patriotism” means putting loyalty to one’s nation above loyalty to God’s in-breaking Rule (with its VERY different value system), then count me out. My religion forbids it.

July 4, 2011 Posted by | Church, ecclesiology, nationalism, pacifism, politics, theology | Leave a comment

The Community of Christ–Sign of Hope for the Church?

I have sometimes been driven close to despair over the state of the Church Universal–and especially over the U.S. churches.  Last year, a Pew study showed that those who attended church in the U.S. twice or more per week were more than twice as likely to approve of the torture of suspected terrorists than the population as a whole! Instead of Christians leading the nation to opposIt’e the immorality of torture, too many were cheerleading for torture!  In contradiction to the clear commands and practices in both Testaments to show hospitality and equal treatment to strangers and resident aliens, far too many U.S. Christians have joined (or even led) the wave of anti-immigrant hatred sweeping the nation.  A church in Florida wants to have a “Let’s Burn a Qu’ran Day.”  Church groups are opposing the building of mosques throughout the nation (especially in Manhattan anywhere near “Ground Zero”) and claiming that religious liberty applies only to Christians, not Muslims!  When I try to share the gospel with college students, the biggest obstacle is their perception that Christians are hatemongers–hating gays and lesbians, hating Muslims, hating feminists, etc., etc.

It’s easy to get discouraged and I often do.  But sometimes there are reasons to hope.  One phenomenon that has renewed my hope for the U.S. churches has been the changes that have happened in the denomination currently known as The Community of Christ.  Never heard of them?  Until about two decades ago, they were known as The Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints. Yes, they are related to the Mormons.  Now, like most mainstream Christians, I consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to be a cult, a heretical movement, rather than a true branch of Christianity.  Dialogue with mainstream Mormons is like interfaith dialogue (e. g., Christian-Muslim dialogue ) rather than ecumenical Christian conversation.  But the Community of Christ branch of the Latter-Day Saints’ movement has been moving steadily in a more orthodox Christian direction–and becoming a self-declared peace church at the same time!

Some historical background:  As you may know the Latter-Day Saints/Mormons began in 19th C. America when a farmboy named Joseph Smith claimed that an angel gave him a book of golden plates and a special pair of glasses to translate those plates. (The translation is known today as The Book of Mormon.) The book claims to be the record of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel being led by God to build a ship and travel to the continent we know as North America where they set up a kingdom similar to Israel-Judah.  The claim is made that after Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension, he descended from the clouds on this continent and preached the Good News to the people of God here before ascending again to heaven.  (This is VERY quick exposition and I am bypassing the huge number of problems with all these claims.)

 The group that gathered around Smith (who was called a prophet) became the Mormons and, facing persecution, they trekked to the sparsely settled Southwest, especially in what is today Salt Lake City, Utah.  Less well known is that the group split as Smith died. (He was assassinated.)  The majority followed Brigham Young as the new prophet to Utah, but a largish group, including many of Smith’s relatives, refused to acknowledge Young’s leadership or follow after him.  They set-up headquarters in Independence, MO as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and have always claimed to be the true followers of Smith–and from the beginning they rejected the polygamy promoted by Brigham Young (until outlawed by the U. S. government)–even claiming (somewhat dubiously) that Smith himself never promoted polygamy.

Well, both the majority Mormons based in Utah and the Reorganized ones based in Missouri had a number of other beliefs that most Christians would consider heretical:  A bizarre view of the Trinity in which both Father and Son have bodies, belief that Christ dwells on another planet, a docetic view of the Incarnation and other heresies.  But, little noticed by most mainstream Christians, the Missouri-based (Reorganized) Latter-Day Saints have slowly-but-surely, been moving in a more orthodox Christian direction–as most evidenced in their official confession of faith.  (The continued use of The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants  as recognized Scriptures alongside the Holy Bible remains troubling, even though the Bible is given priority.  One could argue, however, that this is not much different from the arguments over the canon between Catholics and Protestants.)  The name change reflects a desire to identify more closely with mainstream Christianity and to stop having their identity focused on fights with the Utah-based Mormons.  The decision to allow all historical records to be examined by all, including historians without membership in the Community of Christ is another such move.

About two (2) decades ago, the Community of Christ highlighted peacemaking and nonviolence as central to the practices of their movement.  They have created an international peacemaking award–awarded to anyone, member or no, that is an alternative to the politically-motivated Nobel Peace Prize.  They promote daily prayers for peace and annual peace colloquies.  They work on teaching conflict resolution in their churches.  They have reached out to Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers to learn more about historic Christian pacifism and, although they still allow members to join the military, work now to discourage military service (especially combatant military service) and to encourage careers which promote peace and justice–quite the reversal from most of their history.

The Community of Christ came out against the death penalty beginning in 1995 and with a stronger statement in 2000.  The Community of Christ allows, but discourages, members from owning firearms.  It has taken a strong stand for compassionate and just immigration reform.  It opposes torture and promotes the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  It has begun to work on prison ministries that promote restorative justice instead of either retribution or leniency.

The Community of Christ is a small body (approx. 250,000 members globally), but very diverse and found in over 50 nations.

I have no desire to join the Community of Christ, and have enough reservations about their orthodoxy that I would not sponsor them as members of the National or World Councils of Churches–yet.  But I find this massive reform and renewal heartening. It is both doctrinal and ethical reform and renewal–and too many more orthodox bodies have had either one or the other, rather than both.  There is something hopeful about seeing a group (sect?) that surely began as a cult make peace and justice more central to their spirituality and discipleship as they become more Christocentric, more classically Trinitarian, and more orthodox in proclaiming the Good News of salvation by grace.

Can “mainstream” and “evangelical” churches learn from this witness?  May it be so.

August 19, 2010 Posted by | Christology, church history, cults, ecclesiology, ethics, interfaith dialogue, peace, reform, salvation, theology, Trinity | 7 Comments

Reclaiming Prison Literature for the Life of the Church

Prison literature–literature composed by people in prison–tends to be some of the most powerful writing in all literature.  The authors have sometimes been actual criminals whose experiences behind bars changed them (e.g. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice) in different ways.  At other times, the authors have been imprisoned for their political views (or actions of civil disobedience and political resistance) or religious views (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison; Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience; Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham City Jail; Philip Berrigan, Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary; Daniel Berrigan, They Call Us Dead Men.)  Often whether a writer is a criminal or a political prisoner is a matter of great dispute within a society (e.g., Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance; Mumia Abu-Jamal, Death Blossoms: Reflections of a Prisoner of Conscience; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead; Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks).  The perspectives vary widely, as do the genres.  But almost always the literature is powerful and moving–even if the reader continues to disagree with the writer.

I haven’t seen any scientific survey, but my experience is that U.S. Christians are less exposed to prison writings than almost anyone else.  Many have probably read John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), but they are unlikely to realize that Bunyan wrote this while in prison for “unlicensed preaching,” which was smuggled out by his wife.  But they probably haven’t read much literature written from prison.

This is unfortunate since Christians seem to have invented prison literature with the Apostle Paul’s prison epistles (Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, & Ephesians) and with the Book of Revelation written by a Christian named John imprisoned on the isle of Patmos (who may or may not have been John the Apostle).  We still read these biblical books, but I suspect that our interpretation is hindered because we no longer have a “feel” for prison literature.

I suspect our alienation is also due to the fact that few in today’s U. S. churches know anyone in prison.  Jesus commanded his followers to visit those in prison (and expected Christians to frequently be imprisoned for our witness), but this is usually neglected or relegated to specialized ministries, today.  And we expect to be on the side of the Powers who enforce “law and order” while the New Testament expects us to be a challenge to the lawmakers, to be subversive of the “order” of imperial forces.  Reclaiming prison visitation as a normative Christian practice and reclaiming the reading of prison literature (and not just of Christians).

July 27, 2010 Posted by | ecclesiology, hermeneutics, literature, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Can a Christian be Patriotic (and Still be a Faithful Disciple)? (Update)

 Sunday is Independence Day, celebrating that day in 1776 when the British colonists of 13 colonies in North America declared themselves to be an independent nation known as the United States of America. People will barbecue and wave flags and there will be parades that celebrate the greatness of the country.  Love of one’s country is fairly natural, but at times in our history, much of the U.S. has felt the need to show that love by putting down other nations–by not only singing our nation’s praises, but refusing to learn from other countries or ever admit to any of our faults.  Disturbingly, many U.S. Christians embrace a “civil religion” which identifies the U.S. as a “Christian nation,” (there is no such thing–just nations that have  Christian majorities and/or in which Christianity has been influential).  When (in my pre-pacifist days) I was in the U.S. army, guns, rifles, and other munitions were strictly forbidden in base chapels, but I have been horrified to see civilian churches (and not just fundamentalist ones) celebrate the Sunday closest to some patriotic holiday with ARMED COLOR GUARDS from local military or national guard units!  Christian faith and the commitment to the global, ecumenical, church as the New/Renewed People of God scattered among the nations are confused with patriotic love for the homeland.

But can a Christian be a patriot while being a faithful disciple of Jesus?  An honest study of the New Testament would incline one to the answer “no.”  I think one can give a qualified–and very cautious–“yes,” but I want us to hear the “NO” pretty strongly first.  Against perspectives like Jerry Falwell’s Listen America, or Peter Marshall’s 3 volume re-write of U.S. history (The Light and the Glory, 1492-1793; From Sea to Shining Sea, 1787-1837; Sounding Forth the Trumpet, 1838-1860;–all with the same subtitle of “God’s Plan for America”), the Bible never describes any nation other than ancient Israel (later Israel and Judah) as an elect nation. In the New Testament, it is the Church as the new people of God which inherits the promises of Israel–and not any earthly nation.  In the Great Commission (Matt. 28-1920), the Risen Christ sends his disciples forth to make disciples from all the nations.  In both 1 Peter and Revelation, the Church is seen to be the people of God called from every tribe and tongue and nation.  A Christian in the U.S. should have more in common than a Christian in Iraq (there were over a million Christians in Iraq before the war and occupation displaced most of them) or North Korea or Venezuela than with the non-Christians who share the same homeland.  As the great Christian philosopher of the Enlightenment era, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) put it “Patriotism may be a good thing, but why should love stop at the border?”  Or, again from Pascal, “Can anything be stupider than that a man has a right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

One of the reasons the early church was pacifist and one reason I became a pacifist was the realization that Christianity is a global faith and that our ultimate loyalty is to God in Christ (not any earthly government) and that our loyalty to the global church should override national loyalties. If a Christian from one nation is in the military and asked by the government to kill members of a different military, how does the Christian know that s/he is not aiming at fellow Christians?  And if the person whom s/he kills for his or her government is not a Christian, then is s/he prepared to cut off that person’s chance to repent and convert?

Nation-states are part of what the apostle Paul refers to as “Principalities and Powers” or “Powers and Authorities,” i.e., earthly, created forces (depicted in mythical terms) with their own spiritualities which are fallen and rebellious toward God and which seek to enslave humans–but which God nevertheless uses for good purposes and which can be (possibly) redeemed.  Paul spends much time warning about the dangers of these Powers, including “thrones and dominions,” (i.e., nations and governments), not singing their praises.  The Kingdom of God is the revolutionary new order inaugurated by the work of Jesus Christ–and never to be identified with any earthly government or ideology or political party or causes. 

The early church knew this well–and so did their pagan neighbors.  In The Letter to Diognetus (c. 195 C.E.), an anonymous Christian writes to a pagan interested in the faith and says:

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs.  They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric form of life. . . . They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything [i.e., in all responsibilities] as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.  Every foreign land is their fatherland and, yet, for them, every fatherland is a foreign land.  . . . They obey the established laws, but in their own lives go far beyond what the laws require.  They love all and by all are persecuted.  . . . They are poor, yet make many rich. . . .

This is a perspective that was largely lost after Constantine when, under the influence of Eusebius, Christians began to endorse the empire in order to get special privileges.  It is one we do well to recover today. 

Yet, must one hate or be indifferent to one’s own country?  If one cheers for one’s homeland during the Olympics or World Cup, should one feel guilty? I don’t think so.  Patriotism has often degenerated into jingoistic, militaristic, nationalism, but it need not be so.  Though he reached out to Roman soldiers (in peacemaking initiatives), Jesus identified with his fellow Palestinian Jews and the zealot (terrorist) option of using guerilla violence to repel the occupiers from the Holy Land was one he understood–and evidently encountered as a real temptation. Among his followers were patriotic rebels and/or sympathizers and Rome crucified Jesus as a would be revolutionary (not understanding the nonviolent nature of his Kingdom, but correctly identifying his movement as a threat even if for the wrong reasons).  The Apostle Paul, though later counting it all “dung,” identified strongly as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and evidently also prized his Roman citizenship.

I think Archbishop Desmond Tutu was and is a better South African patriot than were those who championed apartheid. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though forced by circumstances to pray for the defeat of his own country during World War II, was a better German patriot than were the “German Christians,” who tried to combine Hitlerism and Christianity.  I think Martin Luther King, Jr., even when condemning the U. S. as “the largest purveyor of violence in the world,” in 1967, was a better American patriot than either the defenders of segregation or the unthinking supporters of the Vietnam War. 

We Christians can love our countries and be loyal to them–but we can never be uncritically loyal. We cannot confuse our countries with the Rule of God. We can never say, “for God and country,” because we remember that God is a jealous God and will not be reduced to a tribal deity, nor tolerate any idolotrous rivals.  We should not have national flags in our churches (and there is no such thing as a Christian flag–flags are for armies; Christians have a cross–which we bear and follow unarmed), nor pledge allegiance to any nation state (since, in baptism, our allegiance is already pledged elsewhere and since we are forbidden in the Sermon on the Mount from taking oaths).  We would not want visiting Christians from other nations to come into our sanctuaries and see a flag of our nation and wonder if they belong!  We can never say, “my country, right or wrong.”  And we must not allow love for our homeland to become contempt or hatred (or even a feeling of superiority) to others’ homelands.

I plan on grilling out this 4th of July.  I will celebrate the good things of my country–and call that patriotism.  But I will not pretend that my country has never had sins and faults. I will criticize its shortcomings today and seek to learn from other nations.  We Christians can be qualified, critical patriots–but never nationalists and never militarists.  Remembering the difference is crucial around national holidays.

UPDATE: As I mention in comments to my friend Daniel (Haitian Ministries), it is probably harder for Christians to be patriotic WITHOUT falling into jingoistic nationalism here in the U.S. than in other countries.  After WWII, Christians in Germany and Italy and Japan had periods of profound soul-searching concerning the way they supported the war–their tendency to be captured by nationalist ideology.  Both the churches and the wider national cultures underwent periods of repentance for past sins.  Nothing comparable has ever happened in the U.S.

The Civil War ended slavery, but there was no repentance.  In the South there arose the “Religion of the Lost Cause” which glorified the Confederacy and turned slavery into a footnote. In the North, the Civil War became seen as a righteous crusade with no mention of the utter failure of the Northern political culture to have found a way to abolish slavery without war, no mention of the continued racism (even of many white abolitionists!), nor of the war-profiteering of the Yankees.  The U.S. has become the nation that never sees a reason to repent and certainly not to apologize.  When Pres. Jimmy Carter renegotiated the Panama Canal Treaty in a more just fashion (Teddy Roosevelt had simply used the U.S. military to back a revolution in northern Colombia, creating Panama in exchange for the right to build the canal!), the rightwing hue and cry went up that “Jimmy Carter is giving away our canal!” Many were even outraged that Carter spoke Spanish when in Latin America rather than forcing everyone else to speak English!  Americans never apologized for the genocide of Native Americans, or for the Japanese internment camps or for turning away boatloads of Jews trying to escape the Holocaust.  And this heretical view that our nation never does evil pervades the churches, too.

So patriotism is more dangerous, harder to tame, in the U.S. than elsewhere.  Our churches often fail to portray a view of the Church that is global and fail to foster greater loyalty to the global Church than to any earthly nationality.  Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the failure to distinguish the nation from the Kingdom of God greater than in the majority of U.S. churches.  Given that reality, the skepticism that Paul F. and Daniel have toward the possibility of a humble (truly Christian) form of patriotism is well-founded. Maybe most U.S. churches should commemorate 04 July 1776 by holding days of repentance and confession of our national sins?

July 2, 2010 Posted by | ecclesiology, ecumenism, ethics, moral discernment, nationalism, peace, theology | 10 Comments

Convictions and Moral Discernment 3

We began this series here discussing critical variables in moral discernment, using an interpretive model with 4 dimensions that I learned from Glen Stassen.  Beginning with the lower right box, the dimension on basic convictions, we have discussed the critical variables here and here. In so doing, we have discussed how differing views of God (or whether God exists) and how God acts in the world are paired with differing views of human nature in shaping our basic moral outlook.  We also discussed two other pairs of critical variables, differences over justification and sanctification (or forgiveness and discipleship) and their relationship, and differences over the nature of Christian love and its relation to justice (variously defined) lead to major differences in ethics.

The final critical variable which Stassen identifies in this dimension of moral discernment is the mission of the church in the world.  That is, if we think the Church’s primary mission is to save souls (one by one) from a world going to hell, then we will pay less attention to movements for social change–and we will see the church primarily as a preaching station.  (The revivalist D.L. Moody gave this as precisely his reason for ignoring most of the major social issues of his day and Billy Graham gave similar answers when asked why he said little about segregation and other evils throughout most of his ministry.) If we have more of a social gospel view, then we expect the church to get actively involved.

There is a rather long range of options in this matter.  One of the pioneers of sociology of religion, E. Troeltsch, in his classic, The Moral Teachings of the Christian Churches, divided the major church/world options into “church,” “sect,” and “mysticism” types.  H. Richard Niebuhr refined this in one of the most influential small theology books of the 20th C., Christ and Culture–dividing  the choices into those who see the church as part of the larger culture (Christ of Culture–primary example in his day was Protestant liberalism); those who see a radical opposition between the church and the world (Christ Against Culture–HRN placed Tertullian, Tolstoy, and most Anabaptist groups here–but few Anabaptists have thought HRN was depicting their stance accurately); those who see the church and the world in a great synthesis (Christ Above Culture–e.g., Medieval Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy during the era of the Czars); those who who have a dualist or Two Kingdoms view (Christ and Culture in Paradox–e.g., Luther;  HRN’s brother, Reinhold); and those who see the church as a pioneer that transforms the surrounding culture (Christ Transforming Culture–e.g., Calvin,;F.D. Maurice; HRN’s own view).

HRN’s classic has been highly criticized, especially by those whom  he labelled as “against culture.” I would say that all Christians participate in their  wider cultures selectively.  For example, even in societies in which prostitution is legal, no one expects there to be Christian brothel owners.  Those Christians who object to all use of alcohol may or may not want alcohol consumption to be illegal, but they certainly would find the idea of Christian  bartenders to be absurd.  Likewise, those of us who are Christian pacifists, object to Christians joining the military and some of us obect to Christians in police forces.  But this does not mean we “withdraw from” the culture or don’t wish to transform it or are blanketly “against culture.” 

In the wake of HR Niebuhr, several books have taken up the question anew.  I recommend especially the following:

Authentic Transformation:  A New Vision of Christ and Culture by Glen H. Stassen, Diane M. Yeager and John Howard Yoder.

Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective by Craig A. Carter.

The Transformation of Culture:  Christian Social Ethics After H. Richard Niebuhr  by Charles A. Scriven.

Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers:  Seeking the Peace of the City–An Anabaptist Theology of Culture by Duane K. Friesen.  This gem needs to be more widely discovered. In fact, I find this to be one of the most overlooked and neglected Christian theologies of culture around. I beg you, read Friesen closely.

I’d also like to recommend the following books on the church as very helpful  on this issue:

Avery Dulles, Models of the Church.

Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament.

Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.

Frederick Herzog, Justice Church

Letty Russell, Church in the Round.

Juergen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit.

Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis:  The Base Communities Re-invent the Church.

Darryl Trimiew, Voices of the Silenced:  The Responsible Self in Marginalized Communities.

Others could be added.

Now, just as with the other critical variables, The mission of the church in the world is a basic conviction of Christians.  But there is usually an analogue in other religions or non-religious moral systems which plays a similar role in moral discernment.  Think: what institution does this moral or religious system see as the primary locus redemptive activity in the world.  For Judaism, this role is not played by the synagogue, but by the people Israel (not the modern nation-state of Israel) scattered among the nations, fulfilling the role of the remnant called to seek Tikkun Olam “to heal the earth.”  Similarly, Islam is not mosque-centered in the same way that Christianity is church-centered, but they would have similar debates as to the role of Islamic leaders vs. laity, of the role of an Islamic state (and whether such is possible or desirable) of Islamic courts (whether or not these have legal standing), etc.

An orthodox Marxist would see the revolutionary vanguard as playing this key salvific role.  A fascist would see the state as salvific and so, in lesser form, do all nationalists.  Anarchists and radical  forms of personalism see individual moral action alone as valuable.  Maybe some moral  systems would see the locus of redemptive activity in the Labor movement or (vice versa) in private enterprise.

So, whatever institution is seen as the main human agent of redemptive activity in the world is the analogue for this critical variable concerning the mission of the church in the world.  And differences over what kind of actions said institution should take, what kind are or are not legitimate, etc. correspond to the kinds of arguments we see Christians have concerning the relationship of the church and the world.

P.S.  With this we are done with the dimension of Basic convictions or Ground of Meaning Beliefs in Stassen’s model of understanding the  complexities of moral discernment. (We will see that this model helps us see why people who seem equally logical can come to very different moral conclusions on a number of issues. ) If I, the lowly student, were to modify this model any, I would add the role of eschatology or how one sees the future or the END–either personal end (my life, afterlife, etc.) or the end of ALL.  Glen Stassen believes this is contained in his question about difference in how God works in the world.  But I have come to see that different outlooks on eschatology lead to such radically different outlooks on personal and moral ethics, that I would add this as a separate critical variable. (I’ll have to do an eschatology and ethics series here one day.)  Again, there are non-Christian parallels.  Orthodox Marxism has an eschatology: the fervently held belief in the eventual collapse of capitalism, triumph of communism, and withering away of the state.   Further examples could be multiplied.

When this series continues, we turn from the dimension on basic convictions to that of “loyalties and interests” (and passions, affections, virtues).

March 15, 2010 Posted by | blog series, ecclesiology, ethics, moral discernment | 1 Comment