...what would it mean for a consistent ethic of life to shape a consistent ethic of hospitality? In the past year I have reflected in public settings on a missional hospitality with gay and lesbian Christians in a sermon at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, on our call to be hospitable to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are immigrants among us at Asbury Theological Seminary, and now on what a consistent ethic of hospitality might mean if it were to include the unborn.I am thankful that the United Methodist Church has elected such a theologically adept bishop to lead us and offer wisdom to the general church. And the reason I am thankful is that so much of our so-called theological reflection in the UMC lacks rigor and has been grossly compromised by modern Western individualism, a consumer mentality, the uncritical acceptance of rights language as our primary foundation for moral reflection, and our adherence to the polarities of current American political realities. And these are precisely the reasons we United Methodists lack a consistent ethic of life and hospitality. Bishop Carter notes that it has not always been this way:
United Methodists are blessed with a rich and deep theological tradition. We believe that every person is created in the image of God. We acknowledge that human sin disfigures this divine image. The result is alienation, confusion and estrangement. We confess our need to repent, to turn toward God. In the language of the parable, to repent is to come home to the father's house (Luke 15). That turning, an act of faith and itself one dimension of the work of God’s grace, is met with an unconditional love, the saving (justifying) grace of God. We are saved by grace and not by our works, lest any of us should boast (Ephesians 2). We respond to this gift of saving grace by continuing on the journey toward becoming more like Christ. In this process the image of God is restored. God is love, and we respond by loving God and loving our neighbor. Our response, again empowered by the grace of God, is sanctification. This is the call to holiness, which is both personal and social in its expression.
This rich and deep theological tradition is profoundly biblical and finds expression for us in the writings of John and Charles Wesley and their ancestors. In the truest and highest sense it could be described, to borrow a phrase of the Yale theologian Hans Frei, as a "Generous Orthodoxy."But alas, we have fallen far from what was.
Our present ecclesial crisis is rooted in the reality that our theology (what we teach, what we preach, what we believe) is often neither generous nor orthodox. Our current incoherent social teaching is the result of the present theological chaos. We are polarized, and here we mirror the culture, as Methodists so often do, and the result is a division into two theological camps.
These theological camps align comfortably (and conveniently) with two dominant political movements, which find institutional expression in the political parties of the United States. But neither captures the fullness of our rich and robust theological tradition as Wesleyans, which includes a grace that is more pervasive than we can imagine, in space and time, and a holiness that is more comprehensive than we are inclined to grasp.And just what are these two camps? Bishop Carter summarizes them succinctly. The first group are the liberals among us:
One camp has a theology of prevenient grace and social holiness. Everyone has dignity, although here there are unconscious limitations, which we will explore later, and we are called to change the world. In its extreme form this can be an ideology totally void of boundaries, and it leads to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace," and what H. Richard Niebuhr defined as "Christ without a cross." In its practical expression the outcome is a kind of works-righteousness. This works-righteousness is a difficult path, because the world resists all of our efforts to bring about change, and a malaise or depression ensues. This depression, in the words of a wise church consultant, is killing the mainline church in the United States.The conservatives make up the second group.
Another camp has a theology of repentance, justifying grace and personal holiness. If every person simply said and meant the words of the sinner's prayer, all would we well with our souls. This orientation takes one aspect of the evangelical movement and separates it from the necessary social and contextual realities that shape us and call for our engagement, a calling that runs like a thread from the eighth century prophets to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount to the letter of James to the journals of John Wesley.And while Bishop Carter has not said this, and might take issue with my interpretation, I immediately think of the General Board of Church and Society that belongs to the first group, while United Methodist Action (affiliated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy) is an expression of the second group. The former group sounds less Christian and more like the Democratic Party, while the latter group sounds less Christian and more like the Republican Party. Indeed, when I read the anything from either group, I often struggle to see the decisively Christian theological presence in their arguments.
The problem is that both groups that Bishop Carter identifies suffer from their own version of civil religion. James Hunter defines civil religion as "a diffuse amalgamation of religious values that is synthesized with the civic creeds of the nation; in which the life and mission of the church is conflated with the life and mission of the country. American values are, in substance, biblical prophetic values; American identity is, thus, vaguely Christian identity" (Hunter, To Change the World, p. 145). As Hunter rightly notes, the religious right wants to keep America Christian (as they understand it) and the religious left wants to make America Christian (as they understand it). And since both sides are more decisively Democratic or Republican than decisively Christian, the former is unable to apply their concerns for life and hospitality to the unborn, while the latter cannot apply them to immigrants and gays and lesbians. But a consistent ethic of life and hospitality "represents a continuum from conception to death, from the individual to the creation, from interventions in and support of the lives of unborn children and their pregnant mothers, trafficked and enslaved young people, endangered coal miners, incarcerated young men on death row, tortured prisoners of war, the dignity of the aged, and the fragile ecosystems upon which we all depend" (Carter).
As long our UM boards and agencies and organizations (official and otherwise) and we individual United Methodists are nothing more than extensions of the Democratic and Republican Parties, we will not only continue to be selective as to who receives the hospitality of Christ through us, we will also fail to be the alternative to the world that the church is designed to be. One can't be an alternative when one simply parrots the prevailing political polarities. Until we embrace a consistent ethic of life, our ethic of hospitality will be inconsistent. We will continue to be inconsistent as long as we sound more like the politicians in Washington D.C. than the carpenter from Nazareth.
Bishop Carter wonders "if Methodism could abandon its present partisan political captivity."
One can only hope.