Archives for June 2015

Addressing Racism

The horrors of an event like the shooting in Charleston bring overt racism to the surface in a way that many of us do not experience in our everyday lives. To read what the shooter thought of African-Americans and his proposed “solutions” is chilling and would (hopefully) engender revulsion in any human being, but particularly among Christians.

However, many of us feel powerless to change the reality that a segment of the U.S. population holds to a racist viewpoint that denigrates persons of races different from theirs as not deserving of equal respect and regard. And then there are the covert tendencies toward racism within most people that lie there unawares, until the right circumstances occasion their ugly display in our own thoughts and behavior.

In the midst of our powerlessness, we turn to the all-powerful God and the transforming love of Jesus Christ. Laws to protect the rights of ethnic minorities are essential within a just society. Legislation and affirmative action programs can be helpful in addressing racism, but neither can transform a human heart. Only Jesus Christ can change our hearts and attitudes.

What can the church do to address racism? Some not necessarily comprehensive thoughts:

  • First and foremost, we can introduce people to Jesus Christ and help them to experience the love and forgiveness of God in Christ that sets us free from sin and death. God cannot work in us without our permission, and that permission starts when we surrender ourselves to Jesus’ lordship and acknowledge our complete dependence upon him. Too often, the Church moves straight to social action and advocacy, without tapping into the power of Christ to change lives through a personal encounter with the Savior. Remember what happened to Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus? No amount of reasoning or Bible study or rule-making could have accomplished the transformation he experienced there – from being an enemy of Christ to one of his leading apostles in the space of a few days.
  • The church must engage people in the process of discipleship and sanctification. The goal of the Methodist movement is to foster “scriptural holiness.” It is not enough to have one’s name on a church membership roll or to have had an emotional encounter with Christ, if there is not the follow-up process leading toward personal holiness. John Wesley said, “Preaching like an Apostle without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer (emphasis original).” What we call “social holiness” is primarily an extension of many people’s personal holiness. What led to reform in 18th century England was the personal transformation experienced by thousands of Methodists, which in turn influenced the culture as a whole. We cannot skip personal holiness and discipleship in order to jump straight to the “transformation of the world.”
  • We must root our understanding of racism within a biblical framework. Too often, we attempt to fight racial prejudice by couching our teaching in the language and thought patterns of our culture. Thus, we focus on inclusiveness and tolerance, two worthy values within a pluralistic society. Within the church, however, we can recover deeper and more explicitly biblical values such as holiness, righteousness, love, and grace. Our understanding of the equal dignity and worth of all persons needs to stem from God’s universal love for all whom he has created. Biblical categories have much more power to transform our thinking.
    • “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27)
    • “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)
    • “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11)
    • “Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Capadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:8-12)
    • “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9)
    • “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9)

God’s love touches every human being (“prevenient grace”) and erases human divisions and distinctions, replacing them with the unifying status of being together one family in Christ. Because God loves every person so much that he sent his Son to live and die for us, we are called to love one another, regardless of racial or ethnic differences (see I John 4:19-21). Every person is a candidate for adoption into God’s family, and we are called to find our unity in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. These are the categories that will truly transform Christian thinking and behavior.

  • We used to say that the knowledge of Christ’s saving work on the cross needs to move the 12 inches down from our head to our heart. In other words, salvation is not a matter only of intellectual awareness, but of personal experience. The same is true of the change in our attitudes toward people of different races and ethnicities. Biblical categories cannot remain only intellectual, but must be experienced in our hearts and inform our thinking. By the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, we can “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2). We need to pray for this Holy Spirit-empowered transformation for ourselves and others.
  • We need to rethink our top-down approach to cross-racial and cross-ethnic ministry. Even as we scrupulously attend to ensuring ethnic representation in our leadership and our decision-making bodies, the percentage of non-white United Methodists continues to shrink. According to the latest statistics, we are a 96% white denomination. Having visible ethnic leaders in our church, while laudable, has not translated into a grass-roots increase in non-white members. We need to learn and do what is effective in reaching non-white ethnic groups, strengthen their ministry, and encourage leadership to emerge from the bottom up. Too often, we are just promoting ethnic persons to fill a slot or an (unconscious) quota, rather than first identifying, training, and equipping ethnic persons for leadership and then facilitating their growing involvement “up the ladder.” To have a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic church, we need to facilitate and nurture strong racial and ethnic congregations and ministries that are able to reproduce and reach more and more non-white persons with the transforming love of Jesus Christ and the message of the Gospel. (By saying this, I am not discounting multi-racial or multi-ethnic congregations. These can be very helpful in creating a new reality. However, they are very rare.)

The above suggestions do not rule out other ways of addressing racism in our church and in society, such as advocacy and the ministry of presence. It can be a powerful witness when we stand in solidarity with brothers and sisters of another race or ethnicity. However, treating racism like another “issue” that we need to address and seeking mainly a legislative or judicial solution will never touch the problem of the human heart. In our faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the worldview presented in God’s Word, we have the resources to truly transform ourselves and thereby the world. Let’s not ignore those resources.

Rebuilding Trust

trust-tornThis annual conference season in our church reminds us how important trust is to the healthy functioning of The United Methodist Church. To pick just one example, we trust the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry to examine candidates for ordination and approve those who are gifted and effective in ministry and subscribe to our United Methodist doctrinal and ethical standards. Ninety percent of the clergy and laity of an annual conference have no experience with a candidate and have no way of knowing whether they truly do meet the qualifications for ordained ministry. We trust the Board to have done its job well, and most times rubber stamp the Board’s recommendations.

What happens, however, when trust goes away? In a system that is built on trust, a lack of trust can corrode the functioning of the system. Thus, some congregations are withholding apportionments because they do not trust that their money is being spent in line with their beliefs and values. Some pastor-parish relations committees subject prospective pastors to an intense grilling because they do not trust that the district superintendent has done a good job of matching the candidate to the congregation. The list of examples could go on.

This mistrust between the grass roots of the church and the denominational leadership gives rise to the feeling at local churches that they are not truly part of the annual conference. The annual conference is “them” and “they” are doing things “to us” that we find hurtful. It is worth quoting from the conclusions of the 2010 Apex report for the Call to Action Steering Team:

“General lack of trust within the Church was a pervasive and recurring theme in the majority of interviews. … Trust was cited as one of the most important challenges that the Church faces, it was cited as a force working against a vital connexion and it was cited as a root cause for under-functioning structures and processes of the Church. Sources of distrust ranged from “old wounds” to representative and/or protectionist behaviors and agendas that were not putting the broad interests of the Church first. Lack of accountability was also cited as a root cause of distrust. … Interviewees related that trust and good intent was not presumed in relationships and frequently the opposite was true. … Often mentioned was the observation that leaders themselves frequently do not demonstrate trust behaviors.” (Apex report, pp. 12-13)

This trust deficit leads to the kind of behaviors like withholding of apportionments and questioning the appointment of pastors.

Since these findings in 2010 (based on 65 hours of extensive interviews with church leaders and a random survey of nearly 1,000 church members), almost nothing has been done to rebuild the trust deficit that exists between the grass roots and the leadership of the church. In fact, the leadership has continued to operate in such a way as to exacerbate the trust deficit by failing to hold people accountable for breaking the Discipline and by using a cloak of confidentiality to hide actions (or lack of actions) that undermine trust.

Nowhere is this counter-productive behavior more evident than in the plan proposed by the General Commission on the General Conference to address the controversy over homosexuality at GC 2016. The proposal is to form some 58 small groups among the delegates, who will discuss the issue in those groups. Reports of the discussion are to be compiled and reported by a team of six facilitators. This same team of six will then take the feedback from the small groups and craft or recommend legislation that they believe would reflect a majority opinion of the delegates.

This proposed process is rife with the opportunity for misrepresentation and manipulation. General Conference delegates will apparently have no input as to which legislative proposals are withdrawn from the legislative committees and turned over to this new process. It will be nearly impossible for observers to sit in on all 58 small groups (if that will even be allowed) to ensure that the groups are fairly facilitated and that everyone has the opportunity to fairly express their views. It will be impossible to verify whether each group leader fairly represents the feedback of the small group. It will be impossible to verify whether the team of six fairly compiles and represents the feedback that they receive from all the small group leaders. And it will be impossible to verify whether the team of six adequately captures the majority opinion of the delegates in whatever legislation that they craft or recommend.

From start to finish, this is a closed process. The 58 small group leaders and the team of six facilitators will have unprecedented power to influence the outcomes of the process. They might do so intentionally because they want to advance the agenda that they have for the UM Church. Or they might do so unintentionally because their own perceptions and beliefs will influence how they hear people and how they select the feedback to compile and report.

Because this whole process will operate “in the dark,” the legislative outcome will be suspect in the eyes of whichever group is not in agreement with what is proposed. While some delegates will be predisposed to accept the recommendations of the team of six because it theoretically represents a consensus of the compiled responses, other delegates will be predisposed to reject the recommendations because they do not trust the process.

I believe in the value of the small group discussions around the controversy over homosexuality and marriage. Such an opportunity would enable many to participate in the conversation who could not do so in any other format. However, turning that conversation into legislation is a process that ought to happen in the open, for the entire world to see. The only way to rebuild trust is to have maximum transparency, so that all can see that actions are taken in good faith and reflective of the will of the body. The small group conversations can inform how the individual delegates understand the issues and vote on the proposed legislation. But to take the legislative process out of the legislative committee will only increase the mistrust of delegates and church members alike toward the moral authority of General Conference. We need to either scrap the proposed process altogether or modify it in a way that returns the legislative function to the legislative committee.

It is crucial that we find ways to rebuild trust in the year ahead if we plan to continue operating as one united church.

The Fault in Our Genes

DNA StrandsIt had to happen, sooner or later. We now find out that, according to an article by Richard A. Friedman in the New York Times, the tendency toward infidelity in some men and women is based on a genetic condition. Friedman states, “We have long known that men have a genetic, evolutionary impulse to cheat, because that increases the odds of having more of their offspring in the world. But now there is intriguing new research showing that some women, too, are biologically inclined to wander.”

There are evidently two hormones at play, vasopressin and oxytocin, that have to do with engendering feelings of trust, empathy, and sexual bonding, as well as pleasure. Genetic variations affect the ability of a person’s brain to process or respond to these hormones. The inability (or lessened ability) to respond to the hormones would affect a person’s ability to generate trust, empathy, and bonding with a mate. That could, in turn, lead to a higher rate of unfaithfulness.

Friedman raises two caution flags: “Correlation is not the same as causation; there are undoubtedly many unmeasured factors that contribute to infidelity. And rarely does a simple genetic variant determine behavior. Still, there is good reason to take these findings seriously.” He goes on to recount experiments with both mammals and humans that demonstrate the impact these hormones can have on feelings and behavior.

What does Friedman believe is the impact of these findings on our moral reasoning? “So do we get a moral pass if we happen to carry one of these ‘infidelity’ genes? Hardly. We don’t choose our genes and can’t control them (yet), but we can usually decide what we do with the emotions and impulses they help create. But it is important to acknowledge that we live our lives on a very uneven genetic playing field. … For some, there is little innate temptation to cheat; for others, sexual monogamy is an uphill battle against their own biology.”

I found this intriguing because this precise argument is used to justify changing our church’s teaching about the acceptability of same-sex behavior. If, as many people believe, same-sex attraction is somehow hard-wired into some people’s brains, we must allow that attraction to be expressed and lived out in same-sex romantic relationships, goes the argument. (I would note that genetic determination of same-sex attraction has not been established by any research.)

It would be a mistake, however, as Friedman notes, to base our moral reasoning on even well-established genetic predispositions. Otherwise, we would end up condoning infidelity and alcoholism, two examples of behavior that appears to have proven genetic roots. As our scientific understanding advances, we could find ourselves upending all sorts of Christian ethical teaching on the basis of genetic tendencies that are uncovered.

If genetic predispositions toward unhealthy or sinful behavior are discovered, I would tend to classify them as part of the consequences of the Fall. In the words of our Confession of Faith, “We believe [humanity] is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil” (Article VII). This describes what we call “Original Sin.” Whether the inclination toward evil is due to a spiritual condition or is genetically influenced (or both) in the end doesn’t matter. We all need the grace of Jesus Christ to overcome our tendencies to do all kinds of evil.

Some maintain that the church ought to accept and affirm gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons because “God made me that way.” But I do not believe God made any person to live a life of sin, whether it be same-sex attraction, infidelity, greed, anger, or any other condition. If there are biological or genetic factors involved in any of these conditions, they are due to the corruption of human nature, not the original intention of God.

As Friedman points out, we are not playing on a level genetic playing field. Many people have genetic and environmental advantages and disadvantages, from physical appearance to parental nurturing to the presence of birth defects or handicapping conditions to a tendency toward same-sex attraction or problems with anger. In some area of life, we all are perhaps “fighting an uphill battle” against the inborn or nurtured disadvantages that hinder our Christian faithfulness.

That is why we are so heavily dependent upon “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Without his help, it is impossible for us to realize the full human potential that God created us to have, or to be reconciled to our loving Father in the midst of our own sins and inadequacies.

No matter where the fault lies – in our genes or in our upbringing or in our own rebelliousness – the answer is always the same: God’s grace through Jesus Christ can heal and forgive us, restore and reconcile us to himself, and empower us to live as the fully human person God created us to be. Let’s stop using “genes” as an excuse to keep us from being all that we can be in Christ.