religion from the least to the greatest

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John Wesley had some pretty radical stuff to say. Joerg Rieger recently highlighted a specific example of this while in class at SMU. Wesley once wrote in his journal on May 21, 1764 that “religion must not go ‘from the greatest to the least,’ or the power ‘would appear to be of men.'” Wesley had this brief thought in response to visiting a “very elegant congregation.”

Such religion of those “on top” is fishy, for lack of a better word. It seems to be created by humans seeking to exercise their own power and protect institutional interests. Instead, religion from the bottom-up is from God. The incarnation of Jesus is evidence of this: God, the creator of the entire universe, is born as a little, helpless baby. He matures and intentionally dwells with people who are disadvantaged.

In many ways Anabaptist theology also rests on this concept as well. Anabaptist Christology and ecclesiology note the profound impact that the life of Jesus has on us as Christians. Jesus used non-coercive power and embraced non-violence. We are to do the same in order to live faithfully as disciples of Christ. Additionally, theology looks quite a bit different through this lens. Instead of wielding destructive lightning bolts against a rebellious, fallen people, Christ embodied grace to the least of these. The Son of God, though capable of all the power in the world, chose to serve others, even when it led to his crucifixion.

What does your theology look like? How do you see God?

Does God live in a church building? Does God “happen” on Sunday morning for an hour? Is God only active during a successful building campaign?

Does God only “show up” during economic prosperity? Does following Jesus necessarily lead to financial gain? Does it always cause upward social mobility?

Is God automatically on our side? Does God ordain us to use violence and coercion against those we hate? (I’m reminded of Anne Lamott’s well-known quote that “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”)

Does God only care about you when you “have it all together?” Is Christian community reserved for only those who have conquered certain sins?

Is your theology rooted in the greatest-to-the-least mindset? Is God primarily for those on the top end of the economic, social, and religious hierarchy? (As someone pursuing ordination in the UMC, this question really challenges me–especially the “religious” part…)

If your answer is “yes” to any of the above questions, then I would say that your religion “would appear to be of men,” to use Wesley’s words.

 

Elusive Millennials

The American church has a love/hate relationship with people in the 18-35 year old age range. On one hand, effective outreach to this demographic is a marker of success. Having a thriving college or young adult ministry means that the Christian tradition will (hopefully) continue and be passed on to future generations. I think this is especially true of so many denominations across the country. To put it bluntly, church doors usually close because members eventually die off without adapting to meet the needs of the community.

On the other hand, however, folks often bemoan the supposed moral wasteland of emerging adult culture. People in this age range deal will all sorts of vices: casual, non-committal sex, recreational drug/alcohol use, and pop culture (or, more simply, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll”).

This got me wondering, what are the differences between emerging adults and mainstream American Christianity? Do we have godless heathens on one side and righteous institutions on the other?

Sociologist Tim Clydesdale has some interesting thoughts in his book The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School.

The dark cloud is this: most American teens do not question whether popular American moral culture provides a sufficient basis upon which to construct individual biographies or sustain shared lives. Can the private pursuit of happiness through personal intimacy and individual consumption, with a dash of patriotism and a sprinkling of theism, sustain these young Americans should daily life be significantly interrupted or permanently altered? I am dubious.

In many ways I feel like the issues surrounding ministry to millennials are sensationalized. Blog posts about “Why Young People Don’t Like Church” may go viral (and are certainly important to discuss), but I certainly don’t think the only problem facing the church is an attendance-related one. Millennials (like me) certainly cling to the values of personal intimacy, individual consumption, and bits of patriotism and theism. But historically speaking, these values have also been central to American faith in general–both for being a model citizen and somewhat-faithful churchgoer. In other words, the supposed “millennial problem” points to something greater, namely that American Christianity can even affirm these westernized values. Maybe the young adult demographic is simply a highly-visible and targetable portion of the population that exemplifies private pursuit of happiness.

Can anyone be truly sustained by these four ingredients? On a surface-level, maybe. But the task of the church is to dive deeper into the Kingdom of God. I think this could be accomplished through promoting a different set of values: relational intimacy, collective giving, properly-located patriotism, and intentional theism.

Ministry to the emerging adult demographic (and everyone else for that matter) would look quite a bit different along these lines.

Divided by Faith (and Race…)

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I really do think that every American Christian ought to read Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. This book has been one of the most powerful ones I’ve read so far in seminary. The two authors approach race relations in America through a robust sociological survey. They particularly relate this to how evangelical Christians understand race and form political beliefs.

It is imperative for Christians to look into what people like Emerson and Smith have to say because race problems continue in America, despite abolition, the Civil Rights movement, and other political developments. I think this is pretty obvious considering what has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri with Mike Brown’s death. A colleague of mine recently found out that each year, more African American males will obtain a GED in prison than graduate from college degree. People accuse others of inciting “race wars” and may claim that discrimination is just a thing of the past. Whether we like it or not, race (though socially constructed) continues to play a major role in our society.

Through their actual survey Emerson and Smith find unique answers among white evangelicals. Because of an overwhelming emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, they find that evangelicals are even more so individualistic than the average American. This leads many evangelicals to assume that racism is solely an internal problem rooted in individual human sin. Instead of addressing systematic oppression created by laws and institutions, evangelicals largely see racism as tied to slurs, off-color jokes, and bigotry (to which blacks are equally if not more prone to than whites). The researchers argue that while evaluating individual behavior is an important part of the picture, this group rarely recognizes institutionalized bias. Several survey respondents even articulated feelings of resentment towards certain aspects of black culture and cited a supposed lack of motivation to do anything about their current situation (dubbed the lazy-butt account–i.e. “We have problems because Blacks are just lazy”). Individuality in evangelicalism largely affirms the optimistic, privatized, and libertarian ethos so prevalent in American culture. A transformation of public attitude about the causes and mechanisms of racial bias is necessary in order to fully address this multifaceted issue. Ultimately, the authors argue that generally speaking, the evangelical population fuels the continual racialization of America. Faith actually leads to more and more division.

In Houston, I can only think of a couple of truly multicultural United Methodist churches. This limited number is tragic because of the diversity found in virtually every part of the city. Likewise, Divided by Faith offers us an important analysis of our situation. While Paul’s radical message of equality in Galatians 3:28 tears down constructed boundaries and unites us all as brothers and sisters, the racial social construct is deeply ingrained in us and how we view other human beings, even without us realizing it.

Even more troubling, in my opinion, is the reality that racism is not limited to ethical action. Denying racist presuppositions usually entails claiming that one has not cast verbal or social judgment upon someone of another race (like using the n-word or telling “racist” jokes). Racism is then supposedly avoided through promoting politically correct discourse. If we were to recognize that racism is largely a systematic problem (that does have indeed personal/ethical effects), then we must address the unpleasant reality that one may affirm oppression without even realizing it.

It is important for the church to recognize that we live in a racialized country. I think that one of the most keen observations on this has been the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign on social media. We continually fall short in sharing God’s love to all peoples. Being transformed about race would not only convict us about the places where we are inadequate, but would likewise allow Christ to renew us and to tear down this cycle of violence.

One does not need to abandon “evangelicalism” altogether. When considering how white evangelical Christians view race, I would say a big dose of humility is in order. Many times we are blind to the sinful structures at place in our world. We are all sinful, wounding and hurting others around us. Such propositions are completely in line with evangelical religion. Perhaps we’ve allowed our individualism to blind us to the oppression faced by black brothers and sisters in Christ.

Martin Luther King Jr. once called Sunday morning 11:00am “the most segregated hour in Christian America.” Are King’s words still true today? In many ways, I would say yes. What can we as a church do to fix this?

I know what you don’t believe about the #Bible…. What DO you believe?

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Billy McMahon:

Some great thoughts about how we approach the bible. It is incredibly easy to live out a reactionary sort of faith where you define yourself against something or someone. I think Watson offers a solid Methodist perspective on biblical affirmations.

Originally posted on David F. Watson:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with mainline Protestants over the years, it’s that we’re really good at identifying what we don’t believe about scripture. Basically, the claim I have heard over and over again is that we don’t read it the way “fundamentalists” read it. Okay…. Fair enough. That, however, is a very uninteresting statement. It’s much rarer, and more difficult, to describe positively and specifically how we think scripture functions.

To be fair, some people have tried to do this. N. T. Wright, Marcus Borg, and Adam Hamilton, for example, haveall offered positive proposals about the inspiration and authority of scripture. There is an excellent book by Christopher Bryan on the subject called, And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today. (Please note: by referring to “positive proposals,” I’m not saying that I necessarily think they are right, but that such proposals involve affirmations, rather…

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Humility Before God’s Throne

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David Sipress – The New Yorker

I had this thought the other night. It actually kept me up for a couple of hours thinking about it.

Imagine you are standing before God in heaven’s throne room. Maybe you’ve died. Or maybe this is just a funky near-death experience that you could make millions off of by writing a book after you wake up.

You and God do an inventory of your life. One by one, God looks at your beliefs and actions. God takes note of what you “got right” and where you might have been misguided. Some things seem trivial–maybe we humans got quantum physics all wrong. But other things might be more serious. Some places you were just flat-out wrong about some extremely important ethical or theological issues.

How would you react to this sort of divine learning experience? Would you be quick to abandon all of the wrongs? Or would it be a bit more difficult?

We’re all confident about a lot of things. We often worship the idol of certainty. I cling to a lot of things, too. To speak for myself:

  • I’m confident that God has called me to work in outreach and to incorporate that into whatever ministry I have in the future.
  • I’m confident in my Arminian theology. I’m entirely sold on it. God, acting in sovereignty and grace, grants us free will to chose.
  • I’m confident in my egalitarianism regarding gender roles. From seeing female clergy as a necessity to being comfortable with my wife potentially being the breadwinner, I believe that we are all called and gifted by God, regardless of gender.
  • I’m confident that Scripture beckons us to be near to those who are oppressed and suffering. I resonate with liberation theology.
  • I’m confident in my views on pacifism. I believe that the most faithful expression of a life with Jesus involves non-violence.
  • I’m confident that the Wesleyan tradition can revive Christianity in our modern world. Same with Anabaptism, too.

This is not to say that everything we might chose to believe is utterly lost. For instance, I believe my confidence in God’s calling is obviously rooted in divine revelation and experience–a sort of direct message from God. On the other hand, however, being confident that this or that political party is what Jesus would have wanted is a bit of a stretch.

We read that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble in several places throughout our bible. This doesn’t simply mean abstaining from a boastful attitude. I believe it also related to how we chose to belief things and how we interact with other people who may disagree. Epistemic humility is something that we all could work on.

William Friend McMahon is my fifth great grandfather, living from 1776 to 1862. Here is an interesting passage about his conversion from the autobiography of William Stevenson, one of the pioneers of Methodism in Arkansas and Texas.

At length we arrived in the settlement where my brother lived, but did not reach his home before night, but stayed at the house of Mr. [Friend] McMahon, who had once been a member of the Baptist Church in Kentucky. He had greatly backslidden. At the moment, I was introduced to him by my brother, he looked wild and somewhat surprised, and said within himself, Is it possible that God has sent a preacher among us? This I learned of him afterwards. He was kind, fed us and our horses, and his wife also received us cheerfully. All soon became acquainted, conversation free and social; but turning on the subject of religion, he appeared not rightly to understand the gift that had come upon all men unto justification of life. After hearing the word of God read on those points, I saw joy spring up in his eyes; for he had been for several years nearly in despair, and truly it is good news to hear that Christ died for all. Night came on, we proposed to have prayer; all was right and when we knelt to pray, I felt like God was near, for Mr. McMahon cried aloud for mercy; his wife wept, and some of his children, the oldest in particular. Here the work began in this family; they were evidently the first fruits of my labors in that part called the state of Arkansas.

Reforming a Nation

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John Wesley’s political views are documented among pamphlets, sermons, and the works of biographers, but they are not necessarily as well-known as other aspects of his life. Perhaps the most concise summary of early Methodism was to reform the nation, the church, and to spread scriptural holiness. This mission, I believe, is deeply political.

So, what is the best way to reform a nation?

In some general comments on Wesley’s ethics, John Lunn notes that:

In most cases, Wesley appealed to people, either individually or as members of groups, to act out of love for God and for neighbor. He did not urge structural changes in either society or government, and usually did not urge passage of specific legislation… Wesley believed government authority was derived from God rather than from the people, so he supported the constitutional monarchy of Eighteenth Century England. While he was a strong advocate for the poor, he refused to align himself with many of the political reformers of the day. An important exception to this emphasized [in the book John Wesley's Social Ethics]  involves the issue of slavery. Wesley supported the efforts of Wilberforce and other anti-slavery leaders. In general, though, Wesley relied on the efforts of individuals as organized in societies and on the art of persuasion and exhortation to effect change.

I’ve heard it argued that Wesley did not view the government as the keeper of morality, which is something that would be hard to grasp for any contemporary mainstream political party. Even though he personally supported the English monarchy, this was not his central focus for ethics. Instead, the church must act as a holy witness to the world. This is obviously where Anabaptists find great resonance with the Wesleyan tradition. Ecclesiology, or how we formulate the politic of the church, is absolutely crucial for how we Christians live and act in the world. Reforming the nation comes through the work of Christians with strangely warmed hearts, doing odd things like visiting the imprisoned, protesting industrialism, and caring for widows.

A classic question of political theory is how to explain societal ailments. More often than not, this question is answered with an either/or framework: either individuals are at fault, or broken social systems cause the problems. Generally speaking, ideological conservatives will focus on the individual while ideological liberals will focus on the system. Arguments such as welfare just gives a free handout to lazy people and the like fit into these very neat propositions. Laws, reforms, and/or structures are central, depending on where you stand.

I would say that most American Christians hold a trickle-down approach to social ethics that is intertwined with democracy. From the top of our government comes order and good. Either craft an indestructible system or elect highly moral individuals and you will have your problems fixed. Either give tax incentives for this or vote for laws that prohibit that, and true progress will supposedly come.

But Wesleyan theology has long been recognized as a theology for the common, plain person. It was (and hopefully continues to be) a grassroots effort rooted in the conversion experience and witness of laity. Because of his focus on personal and communal acts as a means to transform society, I see Wesley as advocating for a ground-up approach to social ethics. In empowering others to act in neighbor-love, God’s Spirit changes the world around us. The answer comes not from creating righteous individuals or agencies through human-made efforts. Peace and reconciliation spring forth from the ground of the body of Christ.

What does all of this mean given what has been going on this week?

Protests continue to happen across the country over unaccompanied minors at our nation’s borders. Palestinian and Israeli blood continues to flow in an ever-mounting conflict fueled by billions of dollars of firepower and complex social, religious, and historical dynamics. Our world is a mess.

The message we send as a church regarding these conflicts matters. Our witness could lead to the reformation of our world. Will that message be that of the sword? Or will it be of compassion?