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)

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Way of the Cross Is All Too Often a Road Less Traveled: Some Thoughts on the Next UMC General Conference

One of H. Richard Niebuhr's more famous quotes is "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." It's not an accident that the title of the book in which that quote was written is The Kingdom of God in America.

We United Methodists are gearing up next year for our own version of reality TV called General Conference, which takes place every four years. Our next premiere is scheduled for May of 2016 in the state of Oregon. The theme for the next GC is "Therefore Go," but I think Niebuhr's quote would be more fitting; for it will be one more example as to how we UMs have functionally abandoned the way of the cross and the example of Jesus for the kind of methods and rule that only the king of an empire could love.

Of course, the big issue, as it has been for years now, will be homosexuality. This is clearly an important issue and cannot be neglected, but there are those of us who think there are weightier matters that also dare not be neglected, but will be because this one issue will be so front and center that it will suck all of the air out of the convention center. And too many persons on both sides of the issue are only interested in the cross as they are able to crucify the other side through legislation. Those of us interested in a third way through this for the sake of the church's unity and mission have been ridiculed, dismissed, and marginalized by both sides. Too often the actions of both sides in getting their way resemble more of a crusade than a cruciform existence. They have taken up the same mantra as former President, George W. Bush leading up to the Iraq War-- "If you are not for us, you are against us." Stanley Hauerwas writes of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He speaks in the present tense because Williams was still the archbishop at the time of writing:
Rowan Williams's hesitancy to impose a unity on the church has frustrated many. For example, in his otherwise quite favorable biography of Rowan Williams, Rowan's Rule, Rupert Shortt criticizes the archbishop for being politically naïve particularly when it comes to the necessary exercise of power. As a result of that naïveté, Shortt suggests, the archbishop is often outmaneuvered by his opponents in the messy world of church politics. Yet such an account of "Rowan's Rule" I think fails to do justice to Rowan Williams's understanding of what it means to receive the gift of the priesthood from Christ.
For the measure of Christ's gift we have been given is the cross. The cross was necessary because God refuses to force or coerce us to love him. The cross is that focal moment in which the divine relinquishes claims against humanity and the human accepts the full consequences of the divine presence in a violent world. That is the truth we must speak to one another in love. That is the defenseless form of authority Rowan Williams has exercised as our archbishop. Rowan Williams loves God and, God help him, he loves the church he leads. Therefore he refuses to force us to "get along." Instead he keeps us focused on the essential acts of the church in the hope that we might be "joined and knit together" so that the world might see what it means for a people to love one another.
The cross of Jesus Christ is not only about what Christ has done for us, but it serves as the way the church is to be in the world and the way Christians are to be with one another. But what happens all too often is that when the cross is in the hands of Christians whose methods are more worldly than heavenly-focused, it becomes a weapon to be used to coerce others to get along on the terms of the winners. And when the cross is employed in our raucous debates, it is only to bemoan what others have done to us without consideration of what we have done to others in our desire to have power to get what we want so that we can force others to get along on our terms.

John Howard Yoder offers his own classic quote in his book, The Politics of Jesus:
But the answer given to the question by the series of visions and their hymns [in the Book of Revelation] is not the standard answer. "The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!" John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God's people is not their effectiveness, but their patience (13:10). The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God's cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.
While Yoder is primarily addressing the issue of the Christian and violence, it seems to me that he is giving to the church a cruciform way, not only to be in the world, but to be with each other in the church. The problem as I see it is that we Christians have been so used to wielding "brute power" seeking our own kingdoms without a cross, we have no idea how to follow Jesus in that cruciform way. So, all we are left with is conferencing that looks less like church and more like congress.

So, delegates will gather in May of next year (most of them well-meaning and well-intentioned, to be sure) and end up resorting to all kinds of slight of hand and other shenanigans in the hope of getting what they want and beating up (e.g. insulting and deriding) the other side... hopefully into submission.

And when it is all over, there will be no resurrection because the cross will have been left behind on Calvary. It is, after all, quite unnecessary when seeking to be like Jesus... at least the Jesus who wears a crown of royal jewels instead of a crown of thorns. Paul writes to the Colossians,
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (3:1-17).
"A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." Will Niebuhr's words be fulfilled at the next General Conference? One could pray not, but I am not optimistic.

The cruciform way is all too often a road less traveled... even for Christians.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

An interesting and insightful post Allan. The topic of the sermon I'm writing for this Sunday is how we run the church like a business, taken from Jn 2:13-22, where Jesus tells the merchants and money changers to stop making His Father's house a place of business.

Allan, I am wondering: Exactly what third way are you referring to, and how would it actually help attain real Christian and not just institutional unity?

Because so far all the "3rd ways" or "middle ways" I've heard sound very much like the ways of the "progressives", whom I prefer to call Bible revisionists.

However I am certainly open to any way to keep us together in Christian unity that remains true to the word of God.