(Here are my remarks to IRD’s board on April 2, 2019 in Washington, DC.)
Last weekend I attended the Missio Alliance annual convo. It’s a network of mostly left-of-center but not necessarily liberal Evangelicals. They are non-Calvinist, egalitarian, mostly nondenominational, youngish, mostly hip and urban, enthusiastic, entrepreneurial and not overtly very political. They met in one of Northern Virginia’s great historic black congregations, whose pastor addressed the convo, and who’s staff and volunteers helped facilitate the convo. The roster of speakers was very ethnically diverse, but the audience was at least 95 percent white. There were many wonderful gospel proclamations and exhortations to faith.
One speaker, known as Bruxy, was a fifty-something year old man in very casual dress with scraggly beard, shoulder length gray hair and wearing a scarf hat over his head while preaching from the pulpit. He was a former Pentecostal turned Anabaptist who leads what’s called The Meeting House in Toronto. Based on my preconceived biases I was prepared to despise him! He started out with the famous saying falsely attributed to St Francis, “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words”. But he admitted the saying was erroneous and also very wrong theologically. The Gospel must be spoken and persons must be evangelized with words. He preached an inspirational evangelistic message. My superficial projections had been unfair. (Although men should not wear hats in church!)
There were other aspects of this Missio Alliance event that were potentially alarming and illustrate wider challenges in USA Christianity including Evangelicalism. Many speakers were preoccupied with “white privilege” and divesting from it. Others focused on rejecting “patriarchy.” Racial prejudice and misogyny of course are sinful yet many of these rote appeals seemed to echo the assumptions of secular identity politics positing that society is inextricably divided between oppressors and oppressed. In this vision there’s no real escape much less redemption, just guilt, constant reparation, conflict, resentment and endless jockeying for power. Over such a cosmos Christ is not truly lord but just one contender among many.
At IRD’s Racial Reconciliation and National Covenant convo at Beeson Divinity School in February we tried to respond to this grace-deprived cosmos with a message of social redemption, recalling MLK, Lincoln and the Puritans, who called the nation to repentance. This example needs much further amplification. But many other creative initiatives and arguments are urgently needed to counter the acidic power of divisive identity politics within USA Christianity, which rely on self-preoccupation and offer no hope.
The Missio Alliance event, amid its many biblical appeals full of hope, often seemed to lack a strong sense of Christian anthropology and ecclesiology. The institutional church was often condemned for its failure to confront social inequities. But the Body of Christ as an ongoing teaching authority was frequently minimized or ignored. Our society’s current battles over sexuality, gender and the human body were also largely ignored, though these threats to human prosperity are arguably equal to if not greater than the latent historical impact of racism and discrimination based on sex.
Of course, sexual and gender identity politics are all the rage in Mainline Protestantism even more than in parts of Evangelicalism. Disgruntled churches and clergy upset over the recent United Methodist General Conference posted newspaper ads nationally pledging solidarity with LGBTQIA+. The plus signals the endlessly growing acronym for so-called sexual minorities. It should offend any Christian or believer in human dignity to definitively define any person based on particular sexual preferences or lack thereof. And yet this dehumanizing lexicon is boastfully pervasive.
The United Methodist General Conference was of course enormously good news overall, provoking widespread shock and horror among all who assumed every mainline denomination must surrender to abstract forces of history. But history is more unpredictable than often supposed because it belongs not to abstract forces but to a dynamic Divine Personality. A delegate clergywoman in St. Louis shared a vision transmitted to her of angels descending on the convention center with an angel protectively guarding each orthodox delegate during the intense political and spiritual warfare. Abstract forces of history cannot explain much less resist such angels.
Renewing United Methodism was at the heart of IRD’s founding so the progress of that project is cherished by us not just as vindication but as instructive to all that such battles are not always lost. The globalization of United Methodism offers the opportunity after a century of folly to reconstruct a positive social witness for America’s third largest religious body that is rooted in the historic church and is instructive for all Christians, not just Methodists, most especially for increasingly rootless ahistorical Evangelicals.
Methodism’s recovery might showcase a recovery of Protestant anthropology and political theology that firmly rejects atomization of humanity into subjective identities constantly at war with each other. What if Methodists with Anglicans and orthodox Presbyterians and Lutherans could model for USA Evangelicals a restored pathway for proclaiming personal and societal redemption? And what if IRD were at center in that wonderful recovery? There’s much work to do and so much to which we can look forward with hope amid God’s endless undeserved blessings.