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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Building a National Movement with Mainlines Leading the Way? Part 2

This is the second of a two part post on building a national movement around immigration reform with mainline denominations leading the way. The first part, which you can read here, recalled the vital role mainline denominations played in the Civil Rights Movement. 

But one thing kept bugging me as I read Findlay's book many years ago. I honestly could not even realize what it was until these last few years. Throughout Findlay's book, Findlay showed how the mobilization of mainline church people happened almost without exception by an organization formed outside the actual denominations. Findlay showed the power at that time of the National Council of Churches and particularly of the newly created Commission on Religion and Race, which facilitated much of the partnering work between civil rights organizations and mainline denominations on the ground, while the NCC directed much of the faith direct advocacy in Washington DC.

The creation of outside organizations to focus on organizing faith communities for struggles for social justice - whether that centered on immigrants' rights, farmworkers, anti-nuclear and anti-war peacemaking efforts, or globalization - has become somewhat of a modus operandi in mobilizing mainline denominations. While denominations have been engaged in educational efforts, or passing resolutions, or making statements to show their dedication to the work of justice, the actual work of organizing - building movements among people in ways that are significant and politically impactful and have a direct impact on real improvements in people's lives from a national scale have largely been accomplished by outside organizations. 

Why is that? Why aren't denominations on the front lines of building grassroots movements in the struggle for justice on a national scale?

I honestly do not know all of the answers. I can only speculate. Perhaps denominational leaders, whose members are both fully engaged in the struggles for justice and fully engaged in maintaining the status quo, have been absent in building national movements because they fear angering a good portion of their base. Perhaps denominations have been absent in building national grassroots movements because they value abstract educational efforts and institutional actions like passing resolutions and making statements more than the far more difficult relationship-building work involved in movements. Perhaps denominations have been absent from building national grassroots movements because when institutions are dying the inclination among denominational leaders is institutional maintenance and turf protection rather than missional engagement and incarnational relationships among people directly impacted by broken systems.

I doubt one or perhaps even all of these reasons fully explain why, but for whatever reason, mainline denominations have depended on outside groups to create national movements for justice. Until now.

Over the past four years United Methodists have engaged in close to 900 public witness events in support of just and humane immigration reform. This has been done without the help of any extra-denominational organizations. Notably, the organizing focus has taken place largely outside the basic structures of the institutional church as well. In fact, the primary structure recently created: Rapid Response Teams, which are started by unpaid volunteers in their conferences dedicated to mobilizing their conference to defend and support the rights of immigrants. The established church structures have at times followed the lead of the momentum of the grassroots mobilization efforts begun by the Rapid Response Teams, but these established structures have not created the momentum themselves. That is done by these teams, largely made up by people who are immigrants or who have close relationships with immigrant communities. 

These incarnational relationships are the very heart of the work of organizing for the Rapid Response Teams. United Methodists in local churches have focused on creating spaces for incarnational relationships between church folks and those directly impacted by the broken immigration system and from that advocacy naturally emanates.

Therefore, all of the advocacy and political engagement is innately missional in nature. United Methodists are not politically engaged in such large numbers or with such tremendous results because we have gone after United Methodists with similar political leanings. Instead, the numbers and results flow from biblically-based, missionally-charged, passion-filled incarnational relationships between a predominantly Anglo denomination and immigrant communities. And as far as I can tell from conversations I have had and from the books I have read, this kind of movement-building has never happened this way before from within the denomination. But it is definitely happening now.

One thing that has been truly fascinating to watch is the little that established structural assets have provided in this work. Mandated positions and structurally-ordained committees have provided limited help in building the movement among United Methodists unless they were peopled by those individuals with passion and who valued and practiced incarnational relationships among immigrant communities.

There is certainly a role for established structures in building movements for justice, but the belief that institutional structures automatically mean that effective advocacy and justice-oriented ministries incarnationally connected among groups directly impacted by broken systems are happening is an idea whose time probably never came. Mandated positions and structurally-ordained committees probably make us feel better, but they rarely build national movements for justice. I am not ready to openly advocate for their entire removal, but I strongly believe that they should focus their work on identifying teams of individuals incarnated among people directly impacted by broken systems and take whatever resources they have at their disposal and use it to support those efforts to mobilize and build movements.

While the media focus and funding money have largely been spent focusing on efforts to recruit high level religious conservatives (otherwise known as grasstops), a slow but steady undercurrent has been happening that has gone for too long unrecognized. A fledgling but increasingly growing movement among United Methodists and other mainlines dedicated to developing incarnational relationships among immigrant communities has been making an impact no matter how little attention and resources have been shared.

The obituaries for mainline denominations have long been written. And they actually may be correct - mainline denominations may be slowly dying and the direction might be irreversible. But they ain't dead yet and while they still have life they have much they can and frankly, must give towards building movements for justice. The work of United Methodists over the past several years prove that mainlines do not need to wait for someone or some group outside the denomination to come and use them redemptively. We have all we need right now and we must not wait any longer. The only question in front of us is if we dare to think creatively, love sacrificially, relate incarnationally, and advocate passionately, then we have all we need right now. So, lets build us a movement why don't we? 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Building a National Movement with Mainlines Leading the Way? Part 1

This is the first of a two part posting. The second part will be posted later this week. 

As we gear up for another run at achieving just and humane immigration reform in 2013 there is much that is different for this year and this attempt than in past years. What jumps out of course is the growing Hispanic/Latino/Latina population in the United States and their impact in the 2012 election. That more than anything has caused Republicans (well, most Republicans) to put away much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric and begin serious discussions for reform. Rather than talk about if there should be an attempt to reform the irreparably broken immigration system, there is widespread acceptance on both sides of the aisle that something must be done. Yes, things have changed since 2007. That seems obvious.

But there is something else rarely, if ever, talked about that I see every day and that I believe will have an impact this year. The difference that i am talking about is the role of mainline denominations, particularly my own denomination, the United Methodist Church. Now, much - perhaps too much - is made about the recent engagement of religious conservatives. I, for one, am glad to see religious conservatives finally speaking out in favor of reform, even though their proposals fall short of the reform we really need. I have written elsewhere about the failure of religious conservatives to offer a genuinely faithful voice on this issue so I will not spend more time on that here. But, I do believe that what has been happening in recent years within the United Methodist Church has been incredibly innovative.

The United Methodist Church, like most mainline denominations, has a long and historic engagement in issues of social justice. Mainline denominations have been leaders in the faith community in the civil rights, women's rights, farmworker rights, gay rights and now the immigrants' rights movements. There is indeed much to be proud of if you are a member of a mainline denomination. Church People in the Struggle by James F. Findlay Jr. is a wonderful resource if you want to read the story of predominantly Anglo denominations engaged in the Civil Rights Movement.

The vital role mainline denominations played in the Civil Rights Movement  is seen in other history books as well, though not as pronounced as in Findlay's book. Deep within the stories of books like Taylor Branch's incredible trilogy of the life of Martin Luther King, especially Parting the Waters, Jack Mendelsohn's The Martyrs, and Charles Payne's incredible I've Got the Light of Freedom, among many others, show the vitality of the church's role in framing struggles for basic human rights within faith messages and the unshakable demand among people of faith that those rights be shared by all.

In one of my favorite books, Judgment Days by Nick Kotz, Kotz describes how, during the push for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, support from mainline denominations was imperative. Rallies, non-stop prayer vigils at the Lincoln Memorial, meetings between President Johnson and religious leaders where he asked them to function as "the prophets of our time" (p. 144) all contributed mightily to the ultimate passage of the landmark legislation.

My favorite stories weren't of rallies or prophetic sermons though. I loved reading individual stories of the creative ways advocacy was done towards members of Congress. I loved reading how the Methodist pastor of an influential banker in Omaha, NE asked that banker to speak to conservative Senator Curtis from Nebraska and encouraged his support for the bill. (p. 144) Or, how Republican Senator Miller from Iowa, because of the influence of church groups in his state, became one of the first Republicans to come out in favor of the civil rights legislation. (p. 150)

When it comes down to crunch time, rallies do not weigh as heavy as personal relationships and in this case, mainline churches  and their leaders used those relationships creatively and redemptively.

But one thing kept bugging me as I read Findlay's book many years ago. I honestly could not even realize what it was until these last few years....

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Rediscovering Voices of Our Past: A Critique of The Right Church

I think we all have friends, even close friends that we know to avoid certain topics when we talk. I have some friends who I have to avoid deeply theological discussions with simply because there are such sharp disagreements, while there are other friends with whom I dare not bring up politics.

Rare are the friends who we can go to with any topic for conversation. Those trusted few are the people we can unburden ourselves because we know we are loved and accepted no matter what we say. But even more than just unburdening ourselves, we look forward to hearing their thoughts, their wisdom. We trust what they say not because they agree with us or us with them, but because these are the people who can speak into our lives because we know and trust where they have come from as well as where they are going and that is where, at least in part, we want to go too.

But I also notice all too often that the voices I listen too are voices that look like and sound like me. They too often are voices that reflect my social, economic, cultural, and political framework - box is another word for this - and so, by listening to voices who are largely located in the same boxes as I am, I become trapped in that box, inadvertently closing myself off to other voices, newer voices that could create illumination, providing the wisdom that comes from a diversity of perspectives.

I was reminded this as I read The Right Church by Charles Gutenson. In his excellent book, Gutenson reminds the Church of a wellspring of voices that we all too often ignore, or sadly, did not even know existed. These are the voices of our parents in the faith. In today's church, where newer is always better and church leaders seem obsessed on the never-ending and never-fulfilling pursuit of cultural relevance, the voices of our Church parents sound quaint and nice, but hardly necessary. But Gutenson reminds us that they in fact are still vital.

My cynicism with the focus of churches always being on copying the latest worship style or church structure, or the hottest form of discipling to come out of the most recent church to attain the holy grail of mega-churchdom made reading The Right Church quite refreshing. I am afraid i am just as guilty as the next Christian of so narrowing my list of influences that are far too often as culturally trapped as I am so that our Church parents never get a hearing. I do not pay attention to them because I assume that today's world is too complex, our problems too beyond what they faced. Gutenson rightly calls this "chronological snobbery" (p. xiv). Their voices, if not drowned out entirely by the latest Matt Redmond chorus sung 27 times over at the highest decibel level, are but faint whispers in our cavernous buildings built out of our own vanity.

Gutenson refreshingly brings these voices alive and smartly engages them in the significant discussions of today. Hearing from the voices of the past, frankly, is little more than a empty undertaking if they are not allowed to speak to us from the context in which they lived. This can be difficult to do. You actually have to know the contexts from which the voices of our Church parents speak - and Gutenson does. People like Origen, Luther, Clement, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, and good old Augustine are people who could speak clearly to us today if we would but listen.

Now, I must say I am not always crazy to hear what they have to say and I found myself disagreeing with some of what they had written, which is amply supplied throughout the book. But, I reminded myself, isn't that just the point? I can disagree, but even when I disagree with much of what they say or how they lived, there are almost always kernels of truth and potential moments of transformation that can have a deep and lasting impact on how I view the world, and even more, how I missionally engage the world. In a church ripe with division and absolutist worldviews driven far too often by our secularly-based worldviews, perhaps engaging our Church parents can revive the lost art of nuance and a keener appreciation of distinction.

The world needs us to engage with a wide array of voices, challenging our social, economic, cultural, and political strongholds, shaping and molding us to reflect the fullness of the Kingdom of God since in far too many of our communities of faith we remain segregated and isolated from social, economic, cultural, and political diversity. We treat diversity in all its forms as a luxury, a hobby, and pursue with reckless abandon people and their resources so that we can maintain our institutions and bureaucracy, forfeiting our leadership, our calling, as the greatest and most vital force for change in the world today, and that change must include transcultural interactions. Books like this one, provide the bridge for a few of these interactions to take place. The truth is, the voices Gutenson helps bring to life have experienced much of what we are facing presently. These voices give us insight into:
  • how to face divisions in the church for "nothing is strong than the Church" says John Chrysostom. (p. 35)
  • the significance of discipleship so that "the Church might be replenished" reminds Gregory of Nyssa. (p. 47)
  • the importance of free will so that, as Augustine himself knew, once we are set free from sin, "we are made the servants of love." (p. 74)
  • the sin of maintaining wealth in the midst of poverty as Ambrose says, "you are not making the gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to [them] what is [theirs]." (p. 93)
  • our command to care for God's creation for Clement of Alexandria reminds us that, "God not only cares for the universe, God cares for all of its parts." (p. 107)
  • questions of war, one of which is asked by Tertullian, "shall it be lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword?" (p. 142)

 Yes, some of our Church parents can be like the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving, asking questions that make us squirm. But maybe the Church needs to squirm a little bit. Regardless, Gutenson reminds us that the voices of our Church parents can still speak to us in relevant and significant ways. My main critique of The Right Church is its length. It could have been longer, speaking to many more pertinent issues. Lord knows, they have much to say and we need to hear more voices outside our own.