Not a Christian Refugee

Nadia Bolz Weber“I come from a conservative/fundamentalist/strict Christian background,” was the common refrain at the Wild Goose Festival again this year.  Though, this year when I heard it, I was struck with the question of why I was at the Wild Goose since I don’t feel like I am a Christian refugee.

I come from neither a fundamentalist nor conservative background. Growing up in California and being United Methodist since I was 12, the God and religion I was introduced to was a caring, all encompassing, socially engaged faith. Despite what some of our more conservative United Methodist members would try to tell us, I grew up being told that that God would not exclude anyone based on race, sexuality, economics, or immigration status.

If I am already from a progressive movement, what draws me and what does this new progressive movement hold for my spiritual development. If, as religious historian Phyllis Tickle says the entirety of American Christianity is in a state of flux, what is pushing mainlines to rethink church? Is it just the push of evangelicals entering into “our” social justice space? Or is it something more? The cynic would say its the decline in numbers and loss of money that is primarily pushing at least the United Methodist national headquarters to “rethink” church. Perhaps it’s just a flashy media campaign to join the evangelical dissidents or to act as a refuge for those refugees from the more conservative movement and churches.

Numerous stories and publications from conservative refugees would have us believe that it is only the fundamentalist & evangelical movement, that is rethinking church.  I was able to engage in a good conversation with a conservative blogger who was there to critique the “progressive hot bed,” that is the Wild Goose Festival. He said that the progressives at the Wild Goose Festival were primarily, “reactionary to their conservative tradition,” like rebellious teenagers.  When I asked him why mainline churches, who may not have that history, are part of the new progressive movement? He said that their participation was more evolutionary, was “the next step.”

I’m not sure if I buy that, but it does have me question if, as I do believe Christianity is shifting, what is pushing people like me and my participation in these movements? And also what still rubs me wrong about the movement?  These are questions I want to explore in more depth, and therefore will take more than one post.  So for this time let’s focus on just one thought.

One of the things that I love about the Wild Goose is being able to hear and talk about the emerging theological conversations happening. While my historically progressive movement focused on academic arguments, we rarely engaged in debates with each other. As Brian McLaren said in one of his closing comments, in cross denominational conversations mainlines are unable to talk about difference.  He explained that within the mainline tradition people are so concerned with being rude, or isolating the “other” that rarely do people state what they actually believe.  Whereas, McLaren has had the experience of being welcomed as the evangelical into these communities. He noticed that it allows conversation to occur around theological differences, because you can come right out and say we don’t agree on ‘x’ but what do we agree on.

I would add that the difference’s between evangelical’s and mainline traditions are more broadly known. Whereas the differences within the mainline traditions is much more elusive, especially to non clergy, therefore making honest debate, much harder. We don’t even know our differences.

The Methodist church is engaged in a debate within itself about the future of the church and specifically our stance on LGBT issues.  I think that most of the debate is centered on the same arguments, and are therefore not making much movement, only continuing the polarization of our community. It reminds me of an app that came out a few years ago, that would allow the user to input the fundamentalist argument for homosexuality in the church. The app would then tell you what the counterpoint is to their comment, which would make for a funny, yet, uninteresting and unproductive debate.

The Wild Goose Festival as an expression of the broader cultural conversations happening within Christianity, represents a confluence of voices which are trying to engage these arguments in new ways, that truly bring reconciliation. They are joining the American conversations that are tired of the “us versus them” mentality.   The conversations that create the Purple state movement.  The movement that wishes to see the debate between Red and Blue states/people encompass more than the mere automatic exchange of party lines.

Denying our theological differences within our own mainline traditions, has denied us the ability to progress.  We have been caught in the us vs. them culture.  The Wild Goose invites me to speak with people, whom I would normally define as the “other” in theological debates.  We simply become a brother or sister trying to understand our deeper calling in this world of how to create and be the loving community of Christ.

A New Mission Theology

Buhoma Church

I was recently sent a link to this NY Times Op-Ed Documentary, called the Gospel of Intolerance.

It outlines the link between American Evangelicals and the anti-Gay movement in Uganda. This is a link that I, as a United Methodist, saw play out at the world gathering of United Methodist Leaders in Tampa last year.  The African contingent was taking direct guidance from the American conservative elements of the church, to create a voting bloc too large to counter. Thus, when the vote for clergy and marriage equality came up for vote, it was struck down.  Though, it wasn’t until a great lecture at Foundry UMC, in Washington, D.C.  that I understood the link between Evangelicals and mission theology in Africa.

The lecture outlined the theology of missionaries that has almost always been more conservative and frequently paternalistic.  (See the great book by Barbara Kingsolver, “The Poisonwood Bible.” though the character Rev. Nathan was also delusional)  Furthermore, with the continued influx of missionaries the theology has not changed much from the early days.   The missionaries I overheard in Kampala were working to put orphans through school and provide adequate healthcare. They were doing good work, giving people opportunities that perhaps they wouldn’t have without the legions of Americans giving money.  What I struggled with was how some spoke to the Ugandan’s as if the American’s were wiser, more developed persons bringing them material and spiritual salvation.  I understand that they did come to help, but the tone and the language they used was telling.  These same missionaries exploit the image of the poor African child to garner further support.  While there has been push back against this stereotype by both Africans and aid groups, the unfortunate thing is that this stereotype does bring more money.

As the African minister asks in the video, how can we reconcile the fact that these Evangelicals are bringing money, and aid to the people, with the abuse of power that further colonizes African thought and theology.  Given that new groups are making inroads in Africa to try and reverse this Gospel of Intolerance, I would caution against further dictating what is “right” theology.  African theologians are thinking about this, as they too struggle against the intolerance that is plaguing their own nations, which some see as first imported from the whites.  (See De-Colonization extended to African Theology by Richard Shadreck Maposa.) The power we westeners have simply because we have more money than our African brothers and sisters is inadvertently used to subjugate true partnerships.  The concern is that if we (Ugandan’s) don’t agree with our donors, will they stop bringing us money and opportunity. The power we have, because of the perceived and actual access we have to opportunity, is being used to create an imbalanced relationship.

There is a great quote from Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she was debating the mission of African Command (AfriComm) of the US Military in Africa. The mission broadly states, “African solutions for African problems.” Secretary Clinton’s addition was, “African solutions for global problems.” Partnering with African theologians and activists to struggle against the theology of paternalism and of intolerance is an experience that will have global consequences. Reconciling the conservative theology of some aid groups and the good work they do, will also need to be further addressed. We saw what the theology of abstinence until marriage did to the global AIDS fight. It is important for us to keep a check on how our theology plays out when visiting and partnering with our brothers and sisters abroad.

In my next few posts I will focus on other complications of aid, development, corruption, and ethics and how we can reconcile the seeming inconsistencies.