Monday, July 22, 2013

A "Cold War" in the Church?

At a recent conference I attended, an insightful Canadian colleague remarked to me that the U.S. is in a “cold civil war.” I’d never thought about it that way before, but it’s a frightening idea, and there may be some truth to it. In my lifetime, the left and the right have never been so distant from one another. Politics and politicians have never been so polarizing. This goes for the politics of the Church as well as of the nation.

Consider, for example, our current national political climate. To self-identify as a Republican is to embrace a cluster of positions: small government, lower taxes, fiscal conservatism, a pro-life perspective, and generally traditional views on marriage. To self-identify as a Democrat, on the other hand, tends to mean that one supports more direct government intervention for public welfare, greater taxation on the wealthiest members of society, a pro-choice perspective, and an acceptance of gay marriage. Yet there’s no real internal coherence to these party platforms. Some issues, such as fiscal conservatism and small government, naturally go together. But how is it that fiscal conservatism has become tied to traditional views of marriage? How is it that broad support for government-sponsored social services has become entwined with a pro-choice agenda? One would have to do a considerable amount of historical work to discern the processes by which each of these issues became tied up with the others. At the very least, however, we can say that the right people allied with one another for mutual political gain, and thereby determined the agendas for a large section of the population. As it becomes more and more commonplace to see particular issues linked together in a platform, it becomes easier to see these issues as a “package deal.” We have to take sides because a more selective agenda has no political leverage. Ideological entrenchment is the inevitable outcome.

Rather than modeling intellectual virtue and the fruits of the Spirit in this divisive time, the Church seems to have modeled its political life on that of the secular world. At least, this is the case in many Protestant groups in the U.S. The most visible current controversies, of course, revolve around issues of sexuality. Within the UMC, clergy—even bishops—are pledging civil disobedience in defiance of the General Conference and the Discipline, despite the fact that the UMC is not a civil state, but a largely self-governing voluntary organization. The ability and willingness to have real and meaningful conversation with one another is all but lost. To regain this ability will take serious self-examination, critical thinking, intellectual virtue, and of course the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; Gal 5:22-23).

Perhaps the best articulation of this kind of critical perspective I’ve come across is Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy. We need to reclaim a hermeneutics of generosity. This would mean a willingness to give other people a fair hearing, to learn from them, to try to get inside their perspective and see its merits. The Church should model this approach in the face of a culture that is ever more sharply polarized. Yes, we must remain passionately committed to our beliefs, passionate about the Gospel, but passionate does not mean unreasonable, brittle, or entrenched. If we continue to mimic, however unconsciously, the cultural of secular politics that has led us to this point of cold civil war, the outcome will be a cold ecclesial war. We will compromise our unity in Christ and our witness to the world, all in the name of being right.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Why do people matter?

For the last three days I’ve been at the Summer Institute for Theology and Disability in Toronto. The dialogue has been rich, provocative, and deeply edifying. If you have any interest in the intersection of theology and disability, I strongly encourage you to attend this event next year (time and place TBA).

Part of the dialogue here has been with Roman Catholic and Byzantine Rite Catholic Christians, some of whom have been involved in the L’Arch community. Their contributions to this dialogue have been absolutely indispensable, in part because their tradition has done so much thinking about the idea of theological anthropology—a concept of the human being rooted in the Christian understanding of God and God’s relationship to creation. 

Many Protestant groups are sadly lacking in sophisticated and rigorous engagement with the notion of theological anthropology. This is certainly the case in the United Methodist tradition. We are perfectly happy to make very bold claims about issues such as abortion, end-of-life care, people with disabilities, human sexuality, and other issues, without really having a clear idea of what a human being actually is. This is not to say that UM theologians and ethicists have not ventured into this territory, but their insights have yet to make a notable imprint on the discussions within the structures of the church.

One aspect of this issue on which we have to be absolutely clear is this: human beings are not to be valued because of what they do, but because of what they are. A pithy way of putting this is to say we are human beings, not human doings. From a Christian perspective, a human being has value because he or she is God’s human creation, regardless of what he or she may be able to “contribute” by worldly standards. (In fact, many monumental doings of human beings can hardly be considered contributions.) The life of a person with severe intellectual disabilities, then, is every bit as valuable as the life of any other person, no matter how “accomplished” that person may be.

Once we have established this claim, we can move one step further: the inherent value of a person is located in his or her created-ness as a person, and humanity reaches its full potential in loving relationship with others. The Church, therefore, should be intentional about welcoming people of all abilities into its community. Our relationships are not to be predicated upon how much a person can give, how well he or she can teach Sunday school or lead a meeting, or his or her volunteer service within the community. Rather, our relationships are predicated on ontology—the basic understanding of what a human being is in relation to God, and our realization that humanity reaches its fullest potential in loving relationships based upon the communion of Persons in the Holy Trinity.

Secularization is dangerous. Regardless of whatever harm people may do in the name of God, Christianity bears within it the potential to redeem our understanding of human beings. First, however, we must engage the relevant issues with fervent prayer and intellectual virtue. We have to get clear about what human beings are and why we have inherent value, or the way ahead will be treacherous indeed.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Trinity and community

I recently heard a meditation on Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, called The Hospitality of Abraham. The icon, based on the story of Genesis 18:1-15, depicts Abraham’s three visitors, who within the icon represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is therefore cast within the theme of hospitality. This is not simply Abraham’s hospitality, either. Notice that there is an open space at the table. The Holy Trinity is hospitable toward us. We are invited into relationship with the Trinity.

Our relationship with the Trinity, moreover, should inform our relationships with other people. As we are invited into relationship with the Trinity, we should invite others into this relationship through our own actions and attitudes of hospitality. In other words, the Trinitarian faith is inseparable from hospitality—God’s hospitality toward us, and our hospitality toward others. The Trinitarian faith is not just a form of metaphysical speculation. It is a claim that God puts on our lives and an ethical responsibility based upon God’s reception of us into the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Conversations with ministers with disabilities: some learnings for BOOMS, DCOMs, DS's, and bishops

I recently spent three days with the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities and the United Methodist Committee on Disability Ministries. It was an enriching experience, to say the least. While I was the one speaking and facilitating discussion, I’m sure I learned at least as much as anyone else. The participants spoke meaningfully and passionately about their experiences as ministers with disabilities, and about the struggles they experienced not only within congregations but in dialogue with boards of ordained ministry, district superintendents, and bishops. As a member of the Miami Valley District Committee on Ordained Ministry and the West Ohio Board of Ordained Ministry, I was listening carefully. Here are some of the insights I gleaned:

  1. It is undeniable that God calls people with disabilities into ordained ministry. They are not called in spite of their disability. They are called, like all of us who are called, simply to come as they are, seeking the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Ministers with disabilities are often underestimated.
  3. If a minister has a disability, it does not mean that he or she is only called to minister with people with a similar disability. For example, a deaf minister may not be called specifically into deaf ministry. Rather, he or she may be called to parish life in a local congregation.
  4. Ministers with disabilities shouldn't be defined by their disability. They should not be seen first and foremost as  disabled ministers, but simply as ministers, congregational leaders called by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to lead people into life-giving relationship with Christ.
  5. The Church must model proper attitudes toward people with disabilities. Unfortunately, especially since the passage of the ADA, the secular culture has gotten out in front of us on this. The main concern some churches have with regard to the ADA is the extent to which they are exempt from it. If we are to be the Body of Christ, however, we should be the ones showing the world what justice looks like, and not the other way around.

There’s much more to be shared on this, but I would invite you to engage in such conversations on your own. I’m not a spokesperson for ministers with disabilities. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of what I learned from conversations I have had. If the Church is to make progress in this area, there need to be many more such conversations.