A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Can the United Methodist Church Become More Than An Extension of America's Political Parties?

Back in January, Bishop Ken Carter (Florida Annual Conference) preached a sermon entitled, "A Consistent Ethic of Hospitality." Bishop Carter writes,
...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.


Barry Hidey said...

Thank You Allan. I fear you could get it from both sides, but the middle for me is living my life as close to Christ as I can.

Dennis Sanders said...

Great post. The thing is, both sides think THEY are the alternative kingdom. I will say something like this to folks and most of my liberal friends will nod in agreement. I know that they think it's those horrible conservatives who do this and not them. Maybe we need a John the Baptist to tell us all that we are a brood of vipers to shake us out of our self righteousness.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments.

Well, I am giving it to both sides, so if both sides want to give it to me, that is fine.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your thoughts.

It is regrettable that both sides have conflated their nation state politics into the kingdom.

JimB said...

There is a classic story of a young clergy person who is attending his first service at his first church. He listens respectfully to the senior cleric preach. After the service his senior asks him what he thought. He is silent for a moment trying to figure out a way to avoid answering. Then he says, "I think you made some interesting points, but you know, God did not say those things on Sinai."

His pastor looked at him a moment, and replied, "Ah we would have if he had all the facts."

We all, Methodist or in my case not, have to be aware of our tendency to explain things to God.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I like the story, but I am not sure how it relates to this post. Can you please clarify?

Anonymous said...

Allan, I really appreciate your post. It is refreshing to have such theological rigor from the mouth of a bishop. I think there is a growing number of us interested in finding an alternative path. Check out http://viamediamethodists.wordpress.com for more.

Unknown said...

Well, it's easy to try to be in the middle when you're not on the front-end of the oppressive and discriminatory policies codified in the Book of Discipline. It's so easy, to me, middle is lukewarm, it's difficult to see a middle way with so much injustice around (children growing up in oppressive conservative UMC churches told they're evil for having same-sex attraction, nearly complete silence from UMC leadership on the horrific laws in Uganda, and "religious freedom laws" here in the US., etc)
I would also add that the equivalent of the IRD/GoodNews on the opposite end of the spectrum isn't GBCS, which is moderate (and still bound by the homophobia in the BoD), but Love Prevails and Reconciling Ministries, respectively.
Don't make the mistake that assuming people who are pro-LGBTQ ordination and marriage are also pro-choice-- I'm not. Nor that being LGBTQ means having a low Christology--I once heard it said that to take the creeds literally is to be affirming of LGBTQ people and relationships.
I very much like Bishop Carter-- I am encouraged by his work on the role of the bishop in protecting the flock and allowing those with new ideas to flourish and move with the Spirit. But even he must not forget his privilege of being a white, heterosexual, cisgender, male in the South.

Unknown said...

Amen, John Thomas. What is missed in this is any awareness of LGBT Christian spirituality which is profound in its tranformative impact on th lives of people being stigmatized and dehumanized by mostly religious people. Once their stories are told and listened to, it would not be possible to live comfortably in the middle so as to not have to share in the consequences of coming out as an ally in places where the costof doing so is high. The same could be said of coming out in favor of restorative justice for former inmates as well as illegal immigrants. The fact is, Fear reigns on much of the Religious Right. And the people taking the risks to change the the system, while perhaps naive in their theology, show by their works that they seek to be loving human beings to the least of Christ's people. That is the test as I recall, not their theology. You will know them by their fruits. And doing nothing makes one a lukewarm Christian at best.

Allan R. Bevere said...

John and Sarah,

Thanks for your comments.

Your thoughts expressed actually demonstrate my point. I find it interesting that you assume that I am arguing for a middle position, which is quite odd considering I am arguing for a consistent ethics of life and hospitality.

My hunch is that you assume I am arguing for the middle because you are so ingrained in modernist thinking that it is impossible for you to imagine that someone might hold a position that does not fall along the modern left/right continuum. Rather what I am arguing is that the left/right positions are the safe positions because whether you are left or right you can always find a whole host of people to side with you. Because I refuse the left/right continuum because it is more Democrat/Republican than Christian, I find myself in the position of having to respond to both sides.

It is easy to embrace the values of the IRD because all one has to do is parrot the Republican Party. It is easy to be on the GBCS (and they are not moderate) for all one has to do is mimic the talking points of the Democratic Party.

I'll take Jesus, thank you very much.

P.S. I do not assume that all on the left are pro-choice, just like I do not assume that everyone on the right are opposed to gay marriage. I am speaking generally about the trends, and we know they are there. And they are there precisely because the United Methodist Church has become an extension of both political parties.

We need to recover the notion of the church as having its own identity and integrity, not just lapdogs for the state. Until that happens, we will continue to be a lukewarm denomination arguing for lukewarm positions that any old politician can make without the need for Jesus.

Dennis Sanders said...

John and Sarah,

Allan kind of beat me to the punch, but I think you are exhibiting the very thing he talks about. Christians on both sides of the isle have basically adopted the platforms of the two political parties and made them gospel. I don't say this to make fun or anything, but what I see is that it is easy for good Christians to become captive to the political system. It's subtle, we don't see it happening. Of course, we see it happening in the other, but we don't see it in ourselves. We think we are doing God's work. It's those conservatives on the Religious Right that are fearful, not us.

I'm not arguing to give up being a liberal or conservative; we have ideas on how government should be run. But being a Democrat or Republican has to come second to being a Christian. The trick is to keep things in perspective, because it is way too easy to start mixing things together. I think the true test to how we are making our way in this world is when we feel a bit uncomfortable in each party- when we have trouble accepting every jot and tittle of the political party or ideology. When our faith keeps getting in the way, then we are doing fine. When our faith is sympatico with our politics, watch out; we are worshipping Ceasar and not Jesus.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments. You said it more eloquently than I.