A Call to Faithfulness and Social Engagement

One of the things that attracted me to The United Methodist Church many years ago was that professing faith means more than simply claiming Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It also means embodying my faith every day by making a positive difference in the world.

Did you know that the Methodist Episcopal Church was the first denomination to adopt a social creed in 1908? Different branches of the Methodist movement also produced social creeds in the 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1972, four years after the Methodist Church and the  Evangelical United Brethren Church united, that The United Methodist Church adopted its first Social Principles. These principles have been revised at many subsequent General Conferences, but for the first time, the Social Principles has been completely rewritten. Six writing teams developed the draft, which will be voted upon at the May 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. Click here to read the revised Social Principles.

During my years as a local pastor, each person in our membership classes received a copy of the Social Principles, and we would spend one session discussing how essential it is to live out the faith we claim. I always made it clear that the Social Principles are not binding upon United Methodists. Rather, they provide a springboard for discussing what it means to be a person of faith in today’s world. Our conversations were always stimulating and inspirational.

The Preface to the 2020 proposed Social Principles says, “The Social Principles are not church law. Instead, the Social Principles represent the prayerful and earnest efforts of the General Conference to speak to issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation that is in keeping with the best of our United Methodist traditions.” I’d like to share some highlights of the Social Principles, where each of the four sections focuses on global relevance.

Community of All Creation

Emphasizing that God declares all creation to be good, this section reminds us of our responsibility as stewards to care for the earth. “Global warming and climate change are already creating extreme conditions that threaten the entirety of life on earth.”

The dangers of dependence on fossil fuels is noted as well as environmental exploitation, hazardous environments, industrial pollution, toxic waste dumps, and urban decay, all of which “constitute environmental racism.”

Sustainable policies and practices are urged, such as reducing carbon footprints of individuals and families, recycling, and the right of all people to have “healthy, culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods.”

Serving as I do in a farming state, I was heartened by these statements. “We oppose the patenting of seed varieties and other organisms traditionally used in farming and agriculture. The rapidly expanding practice of patenting seed varieties and charging farmers for their use has reduced access to traditional crops and increased the indebtedness of subsistence and smaller-scale farms.”

A concern is expressed for the humane treatment of all creatures, saying that animals raised for human consumption “should be provided with healthy living conditions and sufficient food and water.” We are also called to protect “endangered and vulnerable species and preserve dwindling habitats.”

In addition, there is a new paragraph called “Protecting Space,” which emphasizes that “God’s creation encompasses not only the earth but the entire cosmos, including space…. We reject the exploitation, commodification and militarization of space…”

The Economic Community

One of the most consistent themes in the Bible is standing in solidarity with the poor.

“As a church, we recognize the importance of creating just, equitable, and sustainable economies that benefit all members of society, especially marginalized and vulnerable peoples.”

A goal of John Wesley was to improve the lives of everyone, especially those afflicted by “poverty, starvation, illiteracy, imprisonment, slavery, addiction, and disease.” This is also reflected in the statement, “We reject religious teachings that view the accumulation of wealth as a sign of God’s favor and poverty as a sign of God’s disfavor.”

Other themes in this section include the tragedy of human trafficking and child labor; socially responsible consumerism; reducing unnecessary waste; promoting just and equitable compensation; advocating for sustainability and corporate responsibility, and; reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

A new paragraph offers support for local and family farms, appreciating their value in feeding the vast majority of the world’s population while deploring the growing monopolization of agricultural production by corporations and larger agribusinesses. 

I especially like the section on Sabbath and renewal time. “We recognize Sabbath as a gift from God for all people, remembering that God rested on the seventh day of Creation. We affirm the importance of taking time away from work to rest and renew the mind, body, and spirit, engage in play and recreation, and serve the needs of our communities.”

The Social Community

“The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness.” (John Wesley, Preface, Hymns and Sacred Poems). This section addresses how we live our faith, including the sacredness of marriage as a lifelong covenant, polygamy, divorce, substance abuse, alcohol, and tobacco. Human sexuality is not included in the proposed 2020 Social Principles because the 2020 General Conference will take that issue up separately.

There is also a section on bullying, which is an increasing problem in our schools. “We decry all forms of bullying, which consists of unwanted and aggressive behaviors toward children, youth and adults, including verbal taunts, physical violence, emotional manipulation and social intimidation.”

I appreciate a new section on Colonialism and Neocolonialism, which says,
“Colonialism refers to the practice of establishing full or partial control of other countries, tribes and peoples through conquest and exploitation. Neocolonialism continues the historic legacy of colonialism by maintaining economic, political and social control of formerly colonized nations and people…We recognize that far from being innocent bystanders, the church has often been deeply involved in colonialism and neocolonialism.”

The section on abortion has been slightly revised to say, “We recognize that…‘tragic conflicts of life with life’ may justify decisions to terminate the life of a fetus. In these limited circumstances, we support the legal option of abortion and insist that such procedures be performed by trained medical providers in clean and safe settings.”

The Political Community

“Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment…Love is the essence, the spirit, the life of all virtue.” (John Wesley, The Circumcision of the Heart)

The last part of the Social Principles revolves around government responsibilities, civil disobedience, restorative justice, the death penalty, criminal justice, and war and military service. Noted is the critical work of the United Nations, the restoration of right relationships, the rejection of the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy, and the importance of peaceful and diplomatic means of resolution.

As United Methodists, we believe that all individuals have basic human rights and freedoms as well as responsibilities. The Social Principles ends with proclaiming the rights of children and young people; elders; women and girls; men and boys; indigenous, Native and Aboriginal communities; migrants, immigrants and refugees; people with different sexual orientations and gender identities, and religious minorities.

I thank God for the way the Social Principles challenge me to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and I look forward to the time when they are discussed at General Conference. I’d love to hear your thoughts about our proposed Social Principles.

The Mending Wall

Last week at our Council of Bishops meeting, our European episcopal leaders led us in a worship service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which was this past Saturday, November 9. How critical it is to remember.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Robert Frost’s famous 1914 poem Mending Wall, is a meditation told through the eyes of a landowner who, every spring, joins his neighbor in repairing/mending the stone wall that divides their properties.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

The Berlin Wall is one of the most famous walls in human history. It is also a Mending Wall. When World War 2 ended in 1945, six million European Jews had been murdered by Nazi Germany, and the country was divided into occupied zones. The eastern part of the country was run by the Soviet Union, and the western part of the country was divided into three territories occupied by France, Britain, and the United States. The city of Berlin, located in Soviet territory in the east, was also divided into four parts for each of the four countries involved.

There were some years of relative calm during the Cold War, yet the East Germans suffered greatly. Their territory had not been rebuilt, and several thousand East Germans successfully fled to West Germany every day, seeking a better life. To stem the tide, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev urged East Germany to close off access between East and West Berlin. It was a hasty attempt to stanch the constant flow of refugees from East to West Germany.

Consequently, on the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers laid more than thirty miles of barbed wire barrier through the very heart of Berlin. Several days later, the barbed wire was replaced by a concrete wall. In the twinkling of an eye, East German families were no longer allowed to travel to the west, and hundreds of families and friends were completely cut off from each other for what would become years.

The apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians that Jews and Gentiles had been divided from one another through circumcision. Jews were to have no contact with Gentiles, who were not circumcised and were considered aliens, outcasts, unsaved. Yet, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all walls to faith have been removed.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:13-14, NRSV) The dividing wall became a mending wall.

For the next 28 years, Germany was a country divided, a literal “Iron Curtain” separating families through a series of check points. To ensure that no one could escape to the west, there were mines and machine gun emplacements, the walls were topped by barbed wire, and electric fences and watchtowers with armed guards and dogs dotted the landscape. When I lived in West Berlin in 1974-75, at the height of the Cold War, the walls circled the city with 75 miles of electrified fences plus 28 miles within the city. Many thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings, several thousand were able to escape, and several hundred were killed.

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

In 1989, a wave of democracy swept through eastern Europe, including East Germany. Citizens became emboldened and demanded change, including the right to leave. Our German bishops told us about Christian Fuhrer, pastor of St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church in Leipzig (East Germany), who provided unique leadership during the resistance to the Communist regime. Atheism was the norm in East Germany at the time, and clergy were often spied on, but many of the churches still stayed open. St. Nikolai and other congregations provided a spiritual space where people were free to express their faith.

Leading up to November 9, 1989, thousands of people joined in vigils and marched in the streets of Leipzig, demanding freedom and the right to leave East Germany. On October 9, the movement would not be denied, as 70,000 people marched together in Leipzig against the Socialist Unity Party (SED), transforming their fear into courage. The police were armed but were not permitted to take action as long as the marchers were peaceful.

The communist regime was overwhelmed by this non-violent democratization movement sweeping across Eastern Europe. It was a kairos moment that no one had ever dared dream about. The East German government no longer controlled its people, for this revolution grew out of the church.

Finally, on November 9, 1989, East Germany announced an easing of travel restrictions to the West. With thousands of East Germans demanding to cross the Berlin Wall into West Berlin, the German guards finally opened the borders. Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, took pieces of it as souvenirs and painted graffiti on it. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. East and West Germany were formally reunited in 1990.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

There is one German nation today because a wall that separated became a mending wall. This is not to say that walls don’t still exist today, however. Just as nationalist and tribal instincts continue to influence Germany, so you and I also struggle to create mending walls rather than separating walls.

The Holocaust has taught us much about creating walls that target those who are seen as “other.” The Nazis, who killed two out of every three Jews living in Europe during World War 2, focused their evil on other groups as well, including homosexuals, gypsies, people with physical and mental disabilities, political dissidents, homeless people, children, and persons of different religions and races other than Aryan.

The Berlin Wall has come to symbolize all of the ways in which we continue to love our walls. There are walls of the like-minded; economic walls that distinguish the haves and the have nots; religious walls that separate Christians, Jews, Muslims, and those who practice other faiths; and ethnic walls that discriminate against other races.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. In the midst of forces that will always seek to build walls in order to separate, however, the mending wall brings people together to create, repair, and unify. For Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, and our call is to ensure that all of the walls in this world become mending walls that bring hope and peace.

As we remember the legacy of the Berlin Wall, I invite you to ask yourself, “Who is my neighbor? Whom am I seeking to wall off from my comfortable existence? What are the forces that threaten to divide The United Methodist Church? And whom do I need to invite to mend the walls together?

Are You a Red Letter Christian?

It was a serendipitous moment. On Saturday, October 26, I had the privilege of offering a greeting to the 167th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa. Whereas United Methodist bishops come and go, Bishop Alan Scarfe was elected as the Episcopal Bishop of Iowa in 2002 and has been a wonderful episcopal leader.

I am deeply grateful for the common historical roots between the Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church. The Methodist movement in America sprang up from the Anglican Church in England in the 1700’s, and our founder, John Wesley, never left the Church of England, even as he gave birth to a new church in America.

Since 2002, The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church have been engaged bilateral dialogue, seeking to discern God’s will regarding how our churches might embody a new kind of public witness to the unity of Christ’s body. Seeking full communion as the goal, the document, A Gift to the World, has been submitted for potential action at the United Methodist General Conference in May of 2020, with the Episcopal Church scheduled to take action on the proposal at its General Convention in 2021.

I arrived early to the Episcopal Convention and was both surprised and delighted to meet Shane Claiborne, who was the primary speaker. Shane and I connected right away because he has United Methodist roots, lives in Philadelphia (my home territory), and is the founder of The Simple Way. The Simple Way is a small organization and intentional living community that supports the building of neighborhoods of positive change and hope in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. Claiborne has now spent 22 years of his life living in community.

Shane is a prolific writer and speaks around the world about simple living, discipleship, community, and social justice. He recalls the time he spent with Mother Teresa in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, one of the poorest cities in the world, and the wisdom she shared.

  • “Let every person I come in contact receive the forgiveness of Jesus.”
  • “Taking a cold shower makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others.”
  • “We are not called to do great things but small things with great love.”

Claiborne told us about the feet of Mother Teresa, how they became deformed because there were just enough donated shoes at the Missionaries of Charity in Kokata for everyone to get a pair…and not many extras. So Mother Teresa went through all the donated shoes and took the worst pair for herself. Over the years, wearing ill-fitting shoes all the time deformed her feet. Then Claiborne said to convention-goers, “Calcuttas are everywhere. God gave you eyes to see your own Calcutta.”

Claiborne is also a disrupter. He is not afraid to confront us with our own prejudices, failings, and reluctance to be “all in” with the teachings of Jesus. These statements of Claiborne were both challenging and convicting.

  • “Our Christianity has become less and less fascinating because of how unchristian, judgmental, and hypocritical much of Christianity seems to feel.”
  • “What do young people think of the church? You will know them by their love. This is what young people are hoping for.”
  • “We are called to be the Good Samaritans, but after pulling so many people out of the ditches, we need to rethink the road to Jericho.”
  • “We are way too adjusted to racism. We are called to resist.”
  • “I met Jesus and he messed me up. It’s time to disrupt with holy agitation in a holy, humble, and non-violent way. (Shane has been arrested 20 times.) We will not tolerate the things that squash any person.”

But there’s another way in which Shane continues to challenge our, at times, lukewarm Christianity. Claiborne and Tony Campolo, both well-known Christian activists and speakers, co-founded Red Letter Christians as a non-denominational movement to “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out his radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Years ago, when I first heard Tony Campolo refer to red letter Christians, I was confused. What was he talking about? Finally, I got it. Many Bibles today quote in red the words of Jesus that are commonly accepted as authentic. These red-letter Bibles were meant to be a handy way of discerning the heart of Jesus’ ministry through his very words. In some Bibles, Old Testament passages that Jesus directly quoted or referred to are also printed in red. Staying true to the foundation of combining Jesus and justice, Red Letter Christians mobilize individuals into a movement of believers who live out Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings.

In his presentation, Claiborne noted how interesting it is that many of us underline passages in the Bible that particularly speak to us. Kind of like printing them in red to get our attention. The problem is our human tendency to latch on to the things Jesus said that we like and ignore the rest. These are usually the words that are the hardest to hear or that mess with the safety of our faith, like the first shall be last; go to the end of the line; sell what you have and give it to the poor; love your enemies; and turn the other cheek.

Claiborne wrote an article in Esquire magazine in 2009 in which he said, “In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay ‘out there’ but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, ‘Nothing good could come.’ It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.”

At the end of his presentation, Claiborne described his calling as a Red Letter Christian, “What would I do differently? I would take more risks. I did not tiptoe through life so I could arrive safely.”

Red Letter Christians. They do not tiptoe through life. Rather, they are committed to loving Jesus and loving justice. They live simply. They live faithfully. They live expectantly. And they are committed to doing what Jesus said, like caring for the immigrant, reaching out to the hopeless, and offering a hot bowl of soup. Are you a red letter Christian?