Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Unitarian Universalist Theological Sustenance

Der barmherzige Samariter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1901
It's been referred to as 'praying with our feet' or more directly as 'protest is our prayer.' In Unitarian Universalism the work for a just world has long taken a primary role in who we are and what we do. Perhaps too much so.

"Nevertheless, amidst the diversity of the theologies represented in our congregations, justice work has been a proxy for what we believe in some congregations, while in other congregations, engagement with the intellect, debate, and social ties have been the substitute. Our justice work without theological resources and spiritual practices leads us down the path of burn out. Many of us have come to this faith seeking an alternative faith home and drawn by its actions in the world. yet we don't often work to heal from our religious past. Those most harmed by the divisive and stressful times we live in are in need of faith tenets that can hold us fast in confusing times and help us make ethical and values-based choices about how to engage." — Widening The Circle of Concern: Report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change, p. 10

Towards the end of my time as an evangelical I was a member of a fairly large multi-racial congregation that was very active in social outreach. We helped with cleanup after Hurricane Sandy, helped to support a homeless encampment, and the like. It wasn't really social justice work, but to our credit we were trying to look out for the material welfare of our human family. In one sermon that sticks out in my memory, our minister reminded us that without renewing our connection with the spiritual resources of our faith, we would burn out in the important work we were doing. He was right, and in a way that applies to social justice work as well.

Whenever I go to Pride in NYC, a march for immigrant justice, a climate rally, or a Black Lives Matters protest, I always see Unitarian Universalists there. We're recognizable either by the chalice on our hats or shirts, or by our yellow t-shirts which proclaim that we 'Side With Love.' This is good and right, and it's a vitally important thing to be present for such events, as well as work for just legislation, network to help refugees and detained immigrants, and so forth. How, though, do we sustain ourselves in the long dark nights when all seems lost? When the needs of the world and the enormity of injustice loom so very large?

You'll hear a lot about social justice in most Unitarian Universalist congregations. What you won't hear very often is why it matters to us. Sure, we can point to empathy as fundamental to ethics, and we can cite our 7 Principles that remind us of the value of each person, and of our interconnectedness. These, however, are not so often in our conversations or even our sermons.

For a time I some years ago I was with a small, conservative, lay led Christian church. What wore at my soul there was how much time we studied the Bible, and how little we did about it. We were constantly studying and never doing. It was a friendly but insular group, and they seemed more focused on sticking together than on reaching out. 

There are plenty of tiny, cliquish UU congregations. Have no doubt about that. We have more than our share of lecture and debate hall style fellowships that are very cerebral and little interested in practical social justice work. They have something in common with the social justice oriented congregations, though, that they don't share with that small Christian church I described. The latter had a clear, well-defined, and often discussed theology, while the UU congregations with which I am familiar, either through experience or second hand information, have little notion of such.

Unless Unitarian Universalism develops a robust, distinctive theology rooted in our history and prophetic witness, how will we ever build cohesiveness and find a collective direction? Without identifying with our core theology, dynamic as it will surely be, how will we find and offer spiritual resources to nourish us on our journey? We can individually borrow from the religious traditions of the world, but that doesn't scale as well as we might hope 

Our navel-gazing congregations and those that rally for social justice each and every week deserve a compelling theology that pushes them out into the world as needed, and that often calls the back to reflection. 

Monday, August 3, 2020

When Business Experience Meets Ministry Work

My entry into a business career was not planned. I studied ministry, having dreamed since I was 17 of becoming a minister. What really inspired me was a mission internship in Brazil, in 1997. That changed my course from minister to missionary. It didn't work out as I would have liked, either as a missionary or minister, and I had a family to support. Looking back I can only be impressed with how far I got without having ever interned in a company or taken a single course in management or business. Just 10 years ago I wouldn't have understood what someone meant by 'project management,' and now I can imagine being in any other field I've learned so much, and it has made such a difference.

"People spend so much time at work that they get a lot of their beliefs and assumptions about organizations from the workplace." 1

Dan Hotchkiss wrote this as a point of concern for congregational governance. People pick up habits and processes from work that they often try to replicate in business, even when they aren't particularly happy with how things work at the office. We bring valuable experience to board and committee meetings, but we also drag in assumptions that are at odds with those of others around us, and which might we not fit the work of a congregation.
 
"Around the board table of a congregation, you can occasionally spot the flabbergasted face of someone learning for the first time that the lessons of his or her workplace are not universally accepted truths. When that happens, pausing to discuss the different occupational cultures board members bring can be worthwhile." 2

This is all true. There is a need to be open-minded and adaptable when entering a different context. I reported to someone in a prior place of employment who had been there for over 20 years. The bulk of her work experience as an adult derived from that place. She was a terrible manager, in my opinion. She couldn't fathom other ways of doing things, and as far as I could tell was more interested in doing things they way they had always been done than in learning new, potentially better ways. She didn't see value in going to trainings or working on any extra education for herself, because she said it "wouldn't be relevant here." Fortunately, she was "promoted" to another role without any direct reports, and I got a better manager out of the deal.

At the same time, I can say that my experience in office work has contributed greatly to my ability to manage other situations. I graduated from Harding University with a Bachelor of Ministry degree in 1999. In working toward that degree I took courses in counseling, preaching, and Bible. Along the way from high school graduation to college graduation I supply preached for countless churches and preached regularly for two. In all that, so far as I can recall, I never received any training or gained any experience in church administration or governance. And so, both on the mission field and in the United States, understanding the business of doing church work eluded me. 

If I were put into a congregational worship service I knew what to do. I could handle myself. If I were placed into a board or committee meeting, or asked to head up a task force, I was out of my depth. I did my best to leave leading that type of meeting to someone else. In my experience, church meetings were sprawling, disorganized affairs because no one else knew how to conduct a meeting either. In many cases there was some level of adherence to Robert's Rules of Orders, as best people understood them, and yet still the meetings seemed to drag on forever, going off topic regularly.

In New Mexico I had an office at the church, but no office assistant. I was in my mid-twenties and only really used the office to prepare sermons and Bible studies, or else to meet with people seeking pastoral counseling. Someone came in once or twice a week to sort mail, and someone else came over Saturday nights to photocopy the bulletins. I had no concept of organizing an office, reviewing budgets, or thinking strategically. 

I left the full-time ministry in 2005, not long after my father's death. 14 years later I was asked to conduct the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association at the General Assembly in Spokane. This was an event I had attended the year prior, and it had made me uncomfortable with how loosely it was run. As VP of the UUHA, it was my duty in 2019 to step up and guide us through our agenda. We started 5 minutes late, allowing time for stragglers to join us, and I concluded the business of our evening with 5 minutes to spare, allowing time for people to chat before heading off to the next event. We had done completely everything on the agenda. Someone afterwards told me afterward that I had run the meeting with 'ruthless efficiency.' I took that as a compliment, which is good because he meant it as one. This event woke me up to the fact that I had changed.

Now, as I'm taking the initial steps back into ministry, I'm grateful for my time at startups and major corporations. All that office time has taught me more than managing meetings or projects, as important as those are. I've also learned how to use my resources, build teams, and think strategically. Putting my ministry together with my profession, I'm looking towards a future engaging in community development. This was a fundamental dream I had when I was 17, though I didn't know how to articulate it then, and it wasn't made possible until I was brought along through experiences that taught me certain essential skills. So, I believe it's not all bad news when work culture is brought to bear on ministry.

1 Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership Paperback, by Dan Hotchkiss, p.23
2 ibid p.24

Sunday, August 2, 2020

For a Truly Innovative Unitarian Universalism

To respond to our calling faithfully, Unitarian Universalists must be willing to take on enormous risk and set aside our fear of failing.

Religious congregations are by nature conservative organizations. They exist to perpetuate rituals and teachings to a gathered community, and consistency in practice and terminology  are essential to making it meaningful. Even a hint of change seems dramatic to people accustomed to having things a certain way, whether it comes from church staff or the elected board. The resistance to change is compounded in a committee-centered approach to governance, in which various committees have their delegated areas and simply report to the board on their work.
 
"As a result of all this unofficial power brokering, triangulation, and tacit boundary drawing, the committee-centered model creates a powerful bias against change. Skilled leaders can make virtually any structure function flexibly and well, but the committee-cented structure does not make innovation easy. What it does best is what it was designed to do: prepare the congregation and its program for next year, provided that the next year is 1959." — Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, Dan Hotchkiss, p38
 
Safi Bahcall describes in his book on 'loonshots' how companies lose the ability to innovate and 'harden.' One of the key systemic problems comes with middle management. Suppose that an employee comes up with some big, risky, new idea that has the potential for opening a new market or even planting seeds for a major pivot. The person goes into a meeting with directors and managers with all the market analysis, research on the big idea, and other relevant data. She presents it well, fielding questions as she goes along. As she concludes, she opens the floor to feedback. People shift in their chairs. Someone coughs. The finally one of the managers speaks up. He thinks it's an amazing idea, but.... He identifies something he sees as a fault with the concept, which then opens the floodgates, with others piling on. The meeting ends with a decision not to pursue it.

What happened should be obvious. What could be really great for the company would pose a massive risk to anyone from management connected to it if it should fail. Even if the proposal was simply to do preliminary R&D work, resources would be involved. Time, money, and people would be devoted to some degree to try it out, which exposes those who approved or otherwise participated in the event that it goes nowhere. With the safest path being by definition the less risky, the best bet for a manager's career is to put in his 8+ hours per day and not stick his neck out.

While no one's gainful employment is necessarily on the line with congregational committees, I hear at least an echo in their risk-avoidance to what Bahall describes about managers. Committees, like middle managers, have a duty to carry out their duties to preserve and maintain the work of the congregation. While a social justice committee is surely going to keep up with scheduled protests around immigration justice and legislative work to address the climate crisis, they might be less inclined to participate in denominational initiatives to address white supremacy culture within the faith tradition. It's too 'controversial' for many in the congregation, and 'white supremacy' is such a harsh term. 

I don't mean to pick on social justice committees. There are certainly many out there pushing boundaries and driving money-changers out of the temple. I could as easily cite worship committees who resist anything but traditional hymns and choirs, though of course if it's a UU congregation they'll opening the door to folk music a couple of times a year. Never mind what the youth and young adults would like, or what music traditions people of color might want to see integrated. 

Speaking to Unitarian Universalism, which is my faith home, I can say that we believe in being innovative. We refer to having a 'Living Tradition' and even have a requirement in our bylaws to review and possible revise our core principles every certain number of years. At the same time, we are human beings. We've written liturgies incorporating the existing principles, and don't like the thought of setting that aside. We're all for the idea of a Living Tradition, but doing the work to become anti-racist seems to require so much change in our identity and perspectives that it scares some of us. It's understandable that people would feel reticent, and that committees, boards, and staff would rather avoid stirring trouble. 

The thing is...we're heretics. We're the trouble makers. Our Unitarian and Universalist heritages are filled with people and incidents that challenged the status quo. Our inspiration from the Radical Reformation in Europe doesn't encourage safety or going with what's least controversial. Quite the opposite. To rise to the call of this age we're going to have to face what's inside us and among us, recognize the environment we've built for ourselves, and start making dramatic, faithful changes to who we are and how we operate. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Congregations as Civics Instructors?

The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648, by Gerard ter Borch
Can religious congregations teach people how to participate productively in society, practicing empathy and tolerance? The Rev. Dan Hotchkiss seems to think so.

"By governing themselves well, congregations can teach civic skills. Congregations are among the few remaining settings where people of different ages, occupations, and political philosophies have a chance to mix and be in conversation. The religious roof affords just enough in the way of commonality to make serious conversation possible — but only a few congregations take advantage of this opportunity. No wonder that, when congregations can no longer avoid a difficult issue, they so often can respond only by separating the parties. As I write, the the most divisive conflicts in North American churches are about sexuality and worship style. I see plenty of division and debate about these issues but too little dialogue. Congregations in our time have an important opportunity for civic education. By daring to keep a few difficult questions on the table at all times and handling the discussion well, a congregation educates its members in the arts and practices of civic life. Society can only benefit."  Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, p 12

In my life I've gone from Catholic to conservative evangelical to fundamentalist restorationist to progressive evangelical to Unitarian Universalist. I know something about changing my mind, and also about self-selection into religious groups that correspond with my beliefs and sense of ethics. Still, I realize that Dan Hotchkiss is an expert consultant who works with all manner of congregations to improve their governance, and so his thoughts in that realm shouldn't simply be dismissed. I greatly enjoyed the book quoted above, have blogged and will blog more from it, and recommend it to anyone thinking about how congregations operate. At the same time, I have reservations about his take here on the role of churches as civics instructors.

As I've mentioned, self-selection has been key in my religious life. I left Roman Catholicism for reasons of faith, but with the advantage of years of reflection I suspect that if my parish had provided a healthy youth group and a generally more satisfying experience I might not so easily have departed. Then again, I didn't leave to seek out a youth group, but rather a greater sense of meaning for my life. I believed in evangelicalism as a sub-culture that was counter-culture, and which promised fellowship and purpose. The reality was far more complicated. I discovered the differences between mainline Protestants and evangelicals, and then within evangelicalism. As my understandings shifted so did my church alignment.

The seeds of fundamentalist restorationism were planted in Moberly, Missouri through my connection with the Bible college there, and then were fostered into full bloom while I was at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. It turns out that what I thought was 'the way' was a noxious weed that turned toxic on me over time, very nearly ending my Christian faith. In those times I was most in conversation with Church of Christ and independent Christian Church people and churches. 

As my faith recovered I was still tied in the 'real world' to conservative churches because of my marriage, but online and in conferences I attended I interacted with more progressive-minded evangelicals. When I came to the realization that there likely isn't any god like the one depicted in orthodox Christian belief, my faith evaporated for good, and I found myself radically re-aligned with Humanism and then also Unitarian Universalism.

Even if I still held to Nicene Christianity, I wouldn't be with any of the denominations I spent the most time with previously, because they would be inflexible on matters like the inspiration of scripture, social norms, anti-racism, and lgbtq+ inclusion. A lot of those folks, though by no means all, were probably Trump voters in the last presidential election. I would instead probably end up with the United Church of Christ. This is how it works with people in a free society. We either go with the flow of whatever our family and possibly friends do, or we strike out on our own. We either leave organized religion altogether, or we find a group that better aligns with where we are or who we aspire to be.

In such a scenario of self-selection into groups that appeal to us we are separating ourselves from society at large, in a sense. I'm not saying that as a negative at all. In my opinion, an important function of religious congregations in our time is to provide a respite from the culture wars, wherever we find ourselves in them, and situate ourselves among like-minded people. At the same time, this severely reduces the challenges to how we understand the world, and I would like it has to also weaken any effect that congregational life might make on our ability to manage differing views.

Two things to note about this, though.

First, not all churches are made equal. In any Roman Catholic parish there is a mix of 'true blue believers' who adhere to everything that the church officially states (I think this must be a minority) and those who hold to Catholic teaching to varying degrees. Attend a Catholic Mass and look around at the families. You won't see a lot of families these days with 5 children, even though the church teaches against family planning outside of the notoriously risky 'rhythm method.' Those good Catholics are on the pill or using condoms, despite church teaching. In highly liturgical churches the tendency is for what people believe to be considered important but treated in practice as a secondary or tertiary matter. What matters is outward conformity and participation in the rituals. Evangelical churches put a great deal of emphasis on beliefs and the sexual morality that creates purity culture. Mainline Protestants are just happy to have people coming through the doors. In most UU congregations a socially and politically conservative individual would likely feel antsy. 

The point here is that the extent to which people interact in churches, and the degree to which their beliefs and personal practices matter, varies widely. This makes a difference when we're thinking about people learning about good civic practices through their congregations.

Second, there are differences within seemingly homogeneous congregations. Within the UU congregation where I'm a member there are people who differ greatly on anti-racism, capitalism vs socialism (I'm a social market capitalist), the use and place of reason, and more. These differences come up, and we have to hold one another in covenant to keep from breaking apart. It's not a simple matter, and doesn't always go well. Thus there is truth to the idea, as I see it, that we can learn how to 'get along' in healthy congregational life. 

Essentially, I'm saying that the positive impact on civic skills gained from interacting with people in congregational life is softened by the tendency to self-select into like-minded groups. We should not overemphasize the value of church life in this regard.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Former President of ACU on The Baptist Studies Center


It's been a curiosity of mine this summer how Church of Christ people would respond to the news that Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology will be opening a Baptist Studies Center. Given the history of dispute between the two groups, particularly regarding the meaning of baptism, I expected at least a few fireworks. If there's been any of that so far I have missed it, but finally someone with a connection to ACU has spoken on the matter. Royce Money was the president of ACU from 1991 to 2010, and he wrote a piece recently for The Christian Chronicle that, for me, sheds a little light on the topic. The relationship between Hardin-Simmons University, where Logsdon Seminary was located, and ACU over the decades has seemingly been fairly positive, as he tells it. I'll leave that to you to read yourself. the two parts I liked the most follow here.

We started receiving inquiries from Logsdon students about transferring to ACU’s Master of Divinity program, one of six master’s and doctoral degrees we offer. Since we require no specific creedal belief before admission, we told the students they were welcome. We are able to do certain things on the graduate level with mature, independent-thinking students that we would never do with our undergraduates. Theological education on the graduate level relies heavily on that assumption.

Being the closest alternative geographically, ACU GST was a natural first option for Logsdon seminarians looking to finish their degrees. Both ACU GST and Logsdon were ATS accredited, which hopefully makes matters much easier. Instead of simply accomodated the displaced students, the administration of the school has taken the unprecedented step of organizing a two-course program with its own office and professor in order to welcome in new people to study for Baptist ministry. This must have required some policy change, as I assume that ACU only hires members in good standing of Church of Christ congregations (this may not be true of all non-theological courses; I simply don't know). 

Anyone unfamiliar with the Church of Christ would know that this is kind of a big deal. Rather than simply welcoming Baptist students to courses as they are, they are making room for Baptist-specific instruction to take place. Baptist theology, polity, and history will be in the mix, being taught within the walls of a Church of Christ university.

The line I especially liked here was 'we require no specific creedal belief before admission.' True to its heritage in the Stone-Campbell Movement, truer than perhaps most Church of Christ congregations as well, ACU does not require assent to any creed in order to study there. A couple of years ago I was looking for options for Greek and Hebrew courses that I could transfer to another school, and Alliance Theological Seminary came up. There's a 'campus' (leased offices and classroom space) lower Manhattan, and I've been there a couple of times in years past for special events. When I began the application process, though, I discovered that I had to submit a testimony of my conversion to Christianity. As a post-theistic Unitarian Universalist I could go no further. When I received a follow-up email urging me to apply, I responded with this:

The other day someone from ATS called to see if I'd like to pursue my interest in taking some Greek courses at ATS. On further review, I see that only evangelicals appear to be admitted, and I'm a Unitarian Universalist. 

This being the case, it's probably best that I be removed from your list, as I'm not eligible to attend.

That elicited no reply from Alliance, and the matter was closed. It was about two years before it dawned on me to check out Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology, and not only was there no creedal test, the Master of Divinity program was an exact match for what I'd been seeking. I've since been accepted for Spring 2021, and have also learned that students of other denominations study there as well. Aside from Baptists, I've learned there have been students from the Episcopal Church, independent Christian Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and various non-denominational churches, and likely others. In fact, ACU GST recently tweeted a link to a sermon by a graduate who is now a rector at an Episcopal parish. Again, only if you're familiar with the Church of Christ will you understand why this is significant. 

One more part of Royce Money's article that I liked:

The reasoning of ACU’s leaders led them to conclude, “Why would we not seize this opportunity? We should be flattered our Baptist friends in West Texas think highly enough of ACU to give us this opportunity to educate their young ministers.” This in no way signals a drift or departure from ACU’s historic role in higher education among Churches of Christ. On the contrary, if students from other Christian traditions can benefit from our offerings, all the better.

From what I've gathered from people who have attended ACU GST or otherwise are 'in the know,' the program is still very much offered from a Church of Christ perspective. While the professors don't make uniformity of belief or conformity to certain practices, and do encourage students to practice good scholarship, the angle is still that of the Church of Christ. That seems entirely reasonable to me. If I were to go to a Baptist seminary I would expect that religious tradition to be in evidence. Unlike Alliance Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, ACU GST welcomes those who qualify academically and otherwise without respect to creed. 

I am truly looking forward to seeing what it will be like to study through ACU, and hope that the good things I'm hearing all prove to work out in practice. I'm sure there will be bumps along the way, but that would be the case anywhere I might go, including Unitarian Universalist schools of theology. It's good to know at least that I'm welcome. 

See Also: 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A Deep Dive Into Disciples History



All history is biased. Whether the subject is paleolithic Africa, the Ming Dynasty, or the medieval church of Western Europe, even the best scholars will bring their own biases with them in the analysis. With that in mind, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation by D.Duane Cummins gave me exactly what I was looking for when I bought it; namely, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) perspective on Stone-Campbell history. I was ordained a minister by an independent Christian Church, having graduated from a Church of Christ university with a degree in ministry. Those two branches of this tradition has their own perspectives on what their history was an meant, but the Disciples angle was one I had never really examined.

When I moved into a Bible college dorm in August 1994, I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. The plan was that I would take one class at the Bible college per semester to qualify to live in the dorm (paying room and board, of course), while taking a full course load at the local community college. I was a young evangelical full of conviction, and everything seemed like it mattered so much. I was shocked within a week or so of living at the dorm to discover that the denomination that the Bible college identifies with doesn't believe in original sin, and connects salvation to the immersion of adults. Heresy!

With time and a great deal of resistance on my part, I came around to the perspective of these churches. By the way, they do not like being referred to as a denomination. Often they say they are 'undenominational,' meaning that they object to denominations on principle. Their narrow definition of 'denomination' requires a formal hierarchy over the church, while the general definition is what we find in Merriam-Webster: "a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices." The independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ most definitely are a denomination. 

It seems likely that the insistence on not being a denomination comes not just from the roots of the tradition in the religious foment of the 19th century United States, but also and perhaps especially from the split between the Independents and Disciples that took place in the 20th century. Not long after I started college a noted and quite elderly leader of the Independents in Missouri died, and it was big news on campus. I'd never heard of the guy, and quite frankly can't remember his name, but what we heard from professors was that he was one of several who led the charge against the liberal, 'denominationalizing' Disciples. He was an old warhorse who had seen many religious battles in his day, including over ownership of church property and the authority of the Bible. We the students (particularly the men) were called on to step up and try to fill his shoes, being the leaders of the next generation.

That was my introduction to the history of the conflict between the Disciples and Independents throughout the 20th century. I did my research, though all from the perspective of the Independents, learning that the Disciples had embraced liberal theology early on and then moved to consolidate power in a formal super-congregational organization that could then be positioned to merge with mainline Protestant denominations. That wasn't entirely wrong, but it was told from a very biased perspective that shaded it all very negatively. One could almost imagine the evil Disciples leaders of decades past snickering over their evil deeds.

Cummins' portrayal of the Independents in his book was at least as uncomplimentary.

"Alexander Campbell advocated reading the Bible and analyzing it like any other book. But to twentieth-century scholastics the Bible was the product of divine revelation, not subject to this sort of human analysis." p196

The implication here is that Alexander Campbell, a 19th century Lockean who took the Bible almost as a blueprint for Christian civilization (as it was sometimes called in those days) would have endorsed or at least gone along with the higher criticism adopted by many Disciples leaders in the early 20th century. Since Campbell was dead by then, there's no way to be sure how he would have handled it, but it appears a bit presumptuous to claim him for the Disciple's side in this matter. The use of the term 'scholastics' was also troubling to me.

"McGarvey's College of the Bible, by contrast, was a center of pedagogical indoctrination with instruction on an undergraduate and junior college level. Students who studied under McGarvey were required to use his four volumes Class Notes on Sacred History as their textbook. Colby Hall, a former student who became professor and dean of Brite College of the Bible, recalled, 'Never did he suggest we use the college library.'" p 197

Here we're presented with a picture of a domineering leader of the Independents and his shabby education methods. The academic level was low and the right answers were learned by rote. For all I know, that might have been true. The presentation of this information in this manner, however, makes it highly suspect. I've read some of McGarvey's work and am familiar with the theological efforts of Independents of that period, and it wasn't all sub-par given the limited imaginations of religious conservatives. 

"The Christian Standard, now the confirmed voice for the McGarvey methodology, resented the apparent superior learning at Chicago and sensed a threat to the old model of biblical scholasticism. It relentlessly attacked the Campbell Institute and its magazine." p 199 

This is where it gets ridiculous. Again referring to the theology and pedagogy of the Independents as 'scholasticism,' we're to believe that the Independents 'resented the apparently superior learning' that the Disciples had. Now Cummins would have us imagine Independents grumbling among themselves about the high quality academics of their Disciples counterparts. As if the Disciples were right, the Independents knew it, and so the latter attacked the former for it. In reality, based on my experiences as an 'Independent' in times past who was also of that mindset, what the Independents saw was some slick apostates deceiving others by undermining the Bible in preposterous ways. Not that such is what was really happening, but rather that's more like how the Independents would have seen it. The work of the movement was being attacked and destroyed through criticism and unbelief, in their minds. 

As I said at the outset, it's this bias that I was looking for when I acquired this book. Fortunately, the negatives about the Independents aside, I found the reading truly illuminating in terms of understanding why and how the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came into being, and particularly in terms of understanding their ecclesiology. One example of this was how they view what elsewhere would be considered the hierarchy of their denomination.

"Late in the plenary session national, regional, and congregational 'manifestations' were proposed and approved. The word manifestation was used to help the membership avoid thinking in terms of 'levels' of church life, and particularly to relieve congregations from thinking of themselves as the bottom level, subservient to the other two. Rather, everyone was on an equal playing field, one church without top or bottom." p 211

Reading this provided an 'aha!' moment for me. The first of two that I'd encounter in Cummins' book. With their anti-hierarchy heritage, coming from the very founding of the tradition with the Cane Ridge revival and the departure of Thomas and Alexander Campbell from Presbyterianism, it's only natural that the Disciples would want to avoid a 'leveled' understanding of church. Instead, they think of them as 'manifestations' or—as I've read online recently—'expressions' of the church. It's to be considered a flat organization. The other light that was turned on for me with this book was with regard to 'covenant.'

"'Covenant,' Teegarden emphatically and repeatedly proclaimed, 'is the most significant accomplishment of restructure.' For Disciples, the authority of the church is understood through covenant; God initiates the covenant and members affirm this through the preamble to The Design - "We rejoice in the covenant of love which binds us to God and one another." It is a call for trust, compassion, and forgiveness. It was the heart of Restructure, the heart of biblical faith: God and God's people bound together in a solemn promise. It was clearly a biblical concept and therefore not at all unexpected for Disciples to express their restructure in covenantal relationships. One of the important intentions of restructure was to replace 'autonomy' with 'covenant.'" p 220

The commitment to congregational autonomy inherent to the Stone-Campbell tradition that led them to create a church of three 'expressions' was also seen as a hindrance to cooperation. The concept of covenant was brought in to replace it. Previously I've read with some amusement where contemporary Disciples were referring to 'covenant' as a special aspect of their tradition. Unitarian Universalism also has 'covenant' as a core concept, referring back to the Cambridge Platform of the 1600s. I had formed the opinion that 'covenant' was probably a shared concept in ecumenical circles, given that the United Church of Christ also bandies it about with pride. While there could well be contemporary cross-pollination going on, covenant in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is tied into its restructure and The Design. The latter is essentially their foundational document as a denomination, and a living constitution for them as a church body.

Covered in this book is another group with which I have some direct familiarity. Disciple Renewal, known for years now as Disciple Heritage Fellowship, is an evangelical group within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that claims the 'heritage' while importing a contemporary interpretation of evangelicalism that, to me, resembles the Free Will Baptist theology more than the position of previous generations of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

"At the 1985 Assembly in Des Moines a resolution urged acceptance of belief in biblical infallibility. The General Board submitted a substitute resolution affirming the centrality and inspiration of the Bible. Richard Bowman, a pastor of the congregation submitting the original resolution and deeply offended by the substitution, within two years formed a group known as Disciple Renewal. The group submitted a resolution [8728] at the next General Assembly declaring Jesus Christ as the only path to salvation. The Commission on Theology received the resolution by referral, formulated a response, and reported to the 1989 General Assembly 'eligibility for salvation is God's decision and human judgment in the matter is inappropriate to the gospel - human judgment cannon place parameters on the grace of God.' Disciple Renewal people were again indignant. This time the question, referred to Reference and Counsel, was modified to include the words 'no statement of faith speaks for everybody in the church. The report is one resource...for study and response.' When final approval of the report came, Dr. Humbert asked for personal privilege to lead the Assembly in reading the Preamble to The Design. Later in the same Assembly, the Special Rules of Procedure for General Assembly were amended to read 'A Sense-of-the-Assembly resolution is out of order and shall not be considered...when it contains doctrinal statements as a test of fellowship.' By 1990 Disciple Renewal had employed a full-time executive, Kevin D. Ray, and soon was publishing its own journal, Disciple Renewal, with it states purpose of 'changing the theology of our denomination.' It later developed its own pastoral placement process, established its own national and regional assemblies, its own seminary ties, and links to its own missionaries." p 256

In my twenties I saw evangelical renewal movements in mainline Protestant denominations as heroes, valiantly fighting for the faith once delivered. There was some disillusionment along the way, though. In 1999 I was on an email discussion list (ah the days before Facebook and Twitter!) dedicated to DHF, and one evening someone shared about a racist incident in a church. As the story was told, a black family had attended a white church for a few weeks, when one of the leaders came to them and suggested they might be 'more at home' in a black church. I was outraged, and said so. Someone else then commented that it was for the best, since people are better off in churches with others like themselves. He went on to say that we were wrong for criticizing. Someone else, a youth pastor, joined with me in arguing with this bigot, and we were blocked for it. Contacting the administrator, someone with DHS who I knew by name responded, saying that the other guy and I were out of line, and could rejoin if we promised not to engage in debates over racism. I declined, and also requested to be removed from DHF membership roles.

It's only with the era of Trump that I've come to understand that white evangelicalism was racist all along.

In retrospect, I now understand that the dissenters in the Disciples were motivated by a desire to defend and promote a conservative re-interpretation of their faith that excludes people who do not conform to white patriarchal expectations. Sure, there could well be some people of color among them (not that I ever encountered any), but the system is geared to favor white supremacy in that soft way that most evangelicalism practices. I have no reason to believe that they were insincere. I don't know what was in their minds and on their hearts then, and much less now.

The end of this book on Disciple's history is sort of a 'downer.' It's all about the decline of the denomination in membership and revenue. I kept expecting some hope, and got very little as I read the final pages. It is, indeed, an ugly situation. However, it is not entirely hopeless.

It simply isn't true that progressive, inclusive theology kills churches. This is something I commented on late last year regarding the Falls Church Episcopal congregation which lost nearly all of its membership to a split with conservatives.

"Boiling it down, 90% of Falls Church Episcopal’s parish voted in 2006 to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. For several years the majority occupied the historic church building, while the continuing ECUSA parish was in ‘exile’ meeting elsewhere.

'Just 35 people had decided to remain Falls Church Episcopalians when the church split. During the years of the court battle, that number grew to 80, who moved back into the contested building when the ruling came down in their favor.'
 
A tiny group of a mere 35 managed to grow to 80 without their church building and the resources it housed. That’s pretty great. Separately, a minister of the ECUSA parish had this to say later in this timeline:

'What I mean by that is when I started here in 2012, there were about 100 members, almost all of whom attended church almost every Sunday. And almost all of them were actively connected to their church — regularly volunteering in a ministry and/or actively engaged in discipleship/growing in the faith/learning to be an apprentice of Jesus.'
 
Okay, so according to that there were roughly 100 parishioners with Falls Church Episcopal, back with their own building, in 2012. In March 2014 on the website of Episcopal Relief & Development, an astonishing number is mentioned.

'The congregation has seen tremendous growth since moving back into its buildings after a lengthy lawsuit over ownership, from an average Sunday attendance of ninety to now almost two hundred people. While there are many factors that contributed to this growth, one area that has become particularly vibrant is the youth and children’s ministry.If all the foregoing is correct, then the congregation nearly doubled in just two years. I’ve never seen growth like this in any church I’ve been around, and we usually attribute such to conservative evangelical churches, while we expect churches with more liberal theology to wither and die.'

But wait, there’s more, and it’s buried in the article from The Washington Post.

'Today, The Falls Church Episcopal, less than a mile from the new building of its conservative counterpart, has almost 600 members, according to the Rev. John Ohmer, who has been rector since 2012, but recently announced he will leave for another church position.'
 
Holy moly kiddos, this parish went from 35 in 2007 to almost 600 in 2019. In 2012 it had about 100, so it’s gained an average of about 70 new members each year."

If a progressive Episcopal parish can pull off that astonishing feat of growth, I have to think that the Disciples of Christ denomination could have a chance as well. According to some of the reading I've done recently about governance in a congregational setting, this might come down to improved organization.

"Many of the congregations I work with are located on the liberal side of the theological spectrum. They read their scriptures flexibly; claim no corner on salvation; and believe, like the United Church of Christ, that 'God is still speaking.' The trend for such congregations has been poor in recent decades. Nonetheless, I reject the view that 'liberal theology' is the source of liberal congregations' troubles. I think something like the opposite is true: Liberal theology has lost prestige because so many liberal congregations run so poorly. Right-wing churches flourish when they run well, but well-run congregations thrive across the spectrum. Thriving congregations understand that they have something vitally important to share with others. Invigorated by that understanding, they dare to let go of ways of organizing that don't work. Liberal congregations' problem is not liberal theology; it is their doubt that other people need and want a liberal faith. A congregation that lacks confidence in the value of the gift it offers to the world clings to customary ways of doing things and resists the changes that would convey its benefits to a wider public." —Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, Dan Hotchkiss

Sure, I'm comparing congregational growth to that of a denomination, but I think that there are similarities that are worth attention. Also, given the energy that has been spent over the years trying to figure themselves out, I imagine some would groan at my apparent naivety in suggestion better governance. As much as I like their 'manifestations' understanding of the church, based on Cummins' work it seems that might be part of the problem. Congregations don't chip in well for the larger effort, generally, and this leaves the region and national organization in financial straits that require downsizing and canceled projects. Lacking 'pull,' these extra-congregational expressions of the church seem to be largely at the mercy of the congregations. Perhaps this is why the Disciples Mission Fund is now in its second year of promoting a 'DMF Day' to raise funds.

On the anniversary of the Cane Ridge revival, we are celebrating DMF Day – a giving day to support Disciples Mission Fund, which helps fund over 70 ministries of the Christian Church.
 
In the past few months, Disciples Mission Fund has provided:
  • Grants for churches and support for pastors in crisis
  • Resources and support for online worship
  • Help for congregations and regions applying for financial aid assistance
  • Virtual church camp experiences
  • Prophetic statements and action in the racial justice movement
  • Support for our global mission co-workers as they serve around the world
  • Weekly prayer opportunities with our General Minister and President
An odd and, in my opinion, seriously risky approach to church growth is by acquisition. The denomination is actively recruiting existing non-denominational or even affiliated churches into its fold. As I observed earlier this year regarding the Northeast region:

First, from at least the looks of it, these churches are not being integrated into the Disciples tradition. Even UCC/DoC affiliated congregations make an effort to recognize both heritages. It seems very unlikely that these churches are or will be made to feel part of the denominational family. I hope I'm wrong about that, and that they're working some angle to help them feel at home.

Second, the Disciples over the years have worked at becoming lgtbq+ friendly, anti-racist, theologically progressive, and so forth. Their success at that has been spotty, with many Disciples churches just as conservative and traditional as they've ever been. How long will it take for the leaders of these 'new' congregations, predominantly quite conservative theologically, to realize the nature of the denomination? I doubt they'll want to uphold or further Disciples progressivism.

The outcome seems predictable. Some will decide that whatever benefit they're getting from being connected to the DoC isn't worth the association with the political, social, and theological positions of the denomination. Many others, I suspect, will continue on with little or no awareness of the denomination, and remain on the list of member congregations without any real participation in the larger life of the church. The worst thing that could happen for the DoC is for these churches to truly become active, opposing the openness of the denomination. This seems unlikely to me, but it is a risk.

A tempting way out for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) could be merger. I've thought it likely for years, and have been a little surprised it hasn't happened yet. The United Church of Christ is hemorrhaging members, as are the other mainline denominations but perhaps at a faster pace. It has also long been a partner of the Disciples of Christ. 

"In 1961, the UCC General Synod voted to begin union conversations with the Disciples 'at the earliest mutually convenient time.' Official conversations began immediately and continued until 1966, when bilateral discussions were delayed in favor of energetic participation in the Consultation of Church Union that envisioned a wider union based upon an emerging theological consensus. In 1971, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), meeting in Louisville, received a resolution calling for an 'acceleration of conversations with the United Church of Christ, looking toward early union.'" p243

Among the older generation of the Independents I've heard it said that the point of restructure was merger, and since that hasn't happened the denomination has languished. That could well be, given how history has played out. I really don't think the original generation expected there to be a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for too long after their time. Although I think it would be sad for the distinctiveness of the denomination to go away, and I doubt it would do anything to slow the membership loss of the future merged church, I'll be surprised if they haven't come together completely with the United Church of Christ within two decades. 

Although this was more of a layperson's history of Disciples history, I found it very informative and worthwhile. Even the barbs clued me in to the worldview of the writer and his faith tradition. It's good to now be able to see the past of the Stone-Campbell tradition with something of the perspective of its three major branches. 

Monday, July 27, 2020

When Organized Religion Helps


If you listen only to anti-theists, particularly the sycophantic followers of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, you'll be led to believe that the beginning and end of all of humanity's problems is with religion. While this is a simplification of what those 'four horsemen' of the New Atheism promote, it is generally the stance I see taken by self-described anti-theists. While it is very true that 'religion' can be a force for oppression and suffering, as demonstrated multiple times throughout the history of the world, it isn't the entire picture. Organized religion, at its best, can actually wear down bigotry and open hearts.

"When congregations fail to manage 'organized religion' well, they face two special risks. One is the temptation to secure support by pandering to people's fears and prejudices. Finding an enemy to organize against is the easiest and least responsible path of leadership in congregations. The long and bloody history of Christian anti-Semitism; the tragic wars of the Protestant Reformation; and in our own time the deep mutual suspicion among various types of Christians, Jews, and Muslims should alert us that the organizing of a religion is a high-stakes game. Preference for one's own group over others is a natural passion that religious zeal can make worse. A primary duty of  a congregation is to regulate religious bigotry by teaching the whole scope of its tradition — including the parts about caring for strangers and wayfarers — and by insisting on sound norms of ethical behavior for the congregation and its interactions with the world around it."1

Such was the observation made by Dan Hotchkiss in the 2nd edition of his excellent 'Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership' Hotchkiss has consulted for numerous congregations, from Protestants to Unitarian Universalists to Jews to Ethical Culture and beyond. More than 30 denominational groups. He's also a Unitarian Universalist minister himself. He knows what he has seen first-hand and heard second-hand. Good congregations are ones where members and other attendees learn to accept difference among themselves and out in the world. This edition of Hotchkiss' book was published in 2016, and just two years later a formal study bore witness to its truth among, of all places, evangelical Trump voters. 

To begin, here are the key findings from Emily Ekins' report entitled 'Religious Trump Voters:
How Faith Moderates Attitudes about Immigration, Race, and Identity."
  • Donald Trump voters who attend church regularly are more likely than nonreligious Trump voters to have warm feelings toward racial and religious minorities, be more supportive of immigration and trade, and be more concerned about poverty.
  • Statistical tests indicate that Trump voters who attend church regularly are significantly more likely than nonreligious Trump voters to have favorable attitudes toward black people, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Muslims, and immigrants, even while holding other demographic factors, such as education, constant.
  • Statistical tests find no significant difference in effects between Protestant and Catholic church attendance among Trump voters.
  • Religious Trump voters have higher levels of social capital: They are far more likely to volunteer, to be satisfied with their family relationships and neighborhood, and to believe the world is just and that people can be trusted.
  • Since 1992, record numbers of Americans are leaving organized religion with the share of nonreligious people quadrupling among all Americans and tripling among conservatives.
  • These data demonstrate how private institutions in civil society may have a positive impact on social conflict and reduce polarization.
How could it be that Christians, whether Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, or evangelical, who voted for Donald Trump could have any good feelings towards people of color or immigrants? The history of Christianity is replete with egregious violations of human dignity and freedom. Evangelicalism among white people in particular is known to expect conformity from anyone who enters their fold, whether white, black, disabled, from another country, or whatever else the case may be. And that conformity is to a white evangelical standard of conduct and belief in the finest detail. How could these people 'have warm feelings toward racial and religious minorities"?

It's in their religious DNA. 

While we don't have a history written by an outsider to Christianity contemporary with its origins, that doesn't matter for what we're considering here. The narrative that became accepted by the orthodoxy that coalesced over the first few centuries of the Common Era is that which we find in the Book of Acts, in the New Testament. What we read here is how the eventual majority wanted to understand and explain the beginnings of their faith. Interestingly, it opens with a dramatic event that marks the birth of the church, one that is inclusive. 

"When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: 'Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!' Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, 'What does this mean?" — Acts 2:2-12

Often missed by casual readers is the fact that these were all Jewish people from all over the known world, not non-Jewish foreigners. They had gathered for a religious festival, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for it. What this passage is telling us is that Christianity was not just for Palestinian Jews, like Jesus and his apostles, but for Jews living in all nations. It could also be seen as a sign of the return from exile, but that's a topic for a different post. My point here is that by hearing the message of Jesus preached in multiple languages had the effect of affirming faith in him as Israel's messiah to be for all Jews. Not too long after these events, we are presented with another significant moment in the expansion of this new faith.

"When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit." — Acts 8:14-17

As anyone who grew up attending Sunday School in a Christian church or attended Vacation Bible School should know, the Samaritans were hated by the Jews. Or at least, that's the picture that the Gospels paint for us. They were considered half-breeds, a mix of Israelites and others who were brought into the land after many of the Israelites and Judahites were taken into captivity. They had (and still have) their own version of the Torah as well as their own distinct rituals. The Gospel of John famously has Jesus shocking his disciples by speaking with a Samaritan woman (one of seeming ill-repute) and even requesting that she draw water from a well to drink. When the Samaritans began to be baptized and were then received by the apostles into the church, it was a very big deal. It meant that the faith of Jesus could reach not only Jews from every nation, but even the reviled Samaritans (thereby extending the return from exile to them as well). 

So far, so good. Everyone involved up to this point had a connection to the Abrahamic faith, whether Jews, converts to Judaism, or Samaritans. Then something else happened. Gentiles (non-Jewish people) who had not converted to Judaism suddenly heard the good news through divine arrangement, and experienced a sudden religious fervor attributed to the Holy Spirit. The apostle Peter (it had to be him for the story to work, since Paul's involvement would have cast doubt on God's endorsement) was awestruck. 

"Then Peter began to speak: 'I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.'" — Acts 10:34-35

These passages and their lessons are not at the forefront of every Christian's mind when they think about tolerance and inclusion. However, church-going Christians are exposed to these passages naturally and often enough to condition their thinking. Additionally, the imperative to 'make disciples of all nations' leaves them with little room exclude. They certainly do it anyway, as did the 19th century Protestants in the United States who baptized black people but excluded them from leadership in mixed-race congregations. Still, embedded in the tradition since the canon was formed, the stories and lessons remain to remind Christians of who they are supposed to be.

Emily Ekins continues here report with this:

The positive relationship between religious service attendance and tolerance examined in this report is simply a correlation. We don’t know for sure if attending religious services causes people to become more tolerant and accepting of others with different backgrounds. But we can test whether some other demographic variable — like education, income, gender, or age — might be confounding these results. For instance, perhaps more-educated conservatives are more likely to participate in civic institutions (such as churches) and also are more likely to take more moderate positions on some culture war issues. If this were true, we might draw the conclusion that education drives these results more so than religious participation.

To examine this potential, we ran a statistical test (regression analysis) using church attendance as a predictor of attitudes toward racial and religious minorities while also taking into account education, income, race, gender, and age. Even when accounting for these demographic factors, increased church attendance remains a significant predictor of more favorable attitudes toward black people, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, and Muslims (Appendix A). The statistical models predict increasingly favorable attitudes toward these populations as Trump voters attend religious services more often, while holding other demographic factors constant (Figure 21).
It was entirely possible that this was mere correlation with no direct causation. Ms. Ekins did her work though, and helped rule that out. It appears that congregational life can indeed shape a person's way of thinking to be a bit kinder. She cites three reasons, the first of which calls back to what I've said here already.

"First, many religious teachings specifically call for compassion and kindness. Given that 93 percent of religiously observant Trump voters identify as Christian, it is relevant to note Biblical teachings, such as those in John 15:12: 'This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.'"

Another reason has to do with the experience of life in a congregation. People feel less isolated, and more connect with others. They are able to participate in events, services, meetings, study groups, and the like with a sense of belonging. They are seen and heard, unlike many non-church goers. 

"Second, perhaps religious participation instills in churchgoers a sense of personal agency and a belief in a just world. By extension, they may feel less inclined to blame “out-groups” for the challenges they face. Indeed, the survey shows that churchgoers are less likely to believe they live in a dog-eat-dog world and more likely to believe that the system is fair. For instance, the more frequently Trump voters attend church the more likely they are to believe they have a say in politics, to believe the economic system is fair, and to believe that most people try to be helpful rather than look out for themselves or take advantage of others. If churchgoers are less likely to feel as though they are victims, perhaps they are also less likely to blame external sources for the challenges they face in their lives."

Finally, as we have seen with the Book of Acts, there is an expectation that churches will welcome all kinds of people. They don't always, of course, but the example is set in scripture and so churches will often make some effort to oblige, however faltering. In my own experience I've seen people from all-white Christian churches welcome missionaries of color, hosting them in their homes, and listening attentively as they speak to the congregation. While white supremacy culture may remain, white people are exposed to others unlike themselves and can observe that we all share a common humanity. 

Third, religious institutions provide communities that people can belong to that are not based upon their race or nationality. Thus, members do not need to rely on immutable traits such as race, ethnicity, or nation of birth to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Research shows that conservatives place greater emphasis on being loyal to a community than do liberals. And so, feeling disconnected from a meaningful community may lead some conservatives to seek belonging on the basis of their race or the nation. Doing so increases exclusivity and divisiveness, and it exacerbates racial and nativist tensions.

This opening effect of congregational life isn't exclusive to Catholics, Protestants, and evangelicals, by any means. For example, while most Unitarian Universalist congregations don't rely on the Bible as a source text (at least not exclusively), they have a common commitment to understanding, inclusion, and affirmation that is codified in their denominational covenant. Speaking from my own experience, life in UU circles has been invaluable for me in deconstructing from evangelicalism, and in understanding the reality of white supremacy in not only our world, but also and especially within Unitarian Universalism and myself. The lessons I'm learning come not just through reading and sermons, but also through hearing the testimony of people of color who have lived with systemic oppression all their lives, and learning from women their terrible experiences with purity culture. 

Religion can most certainly be organized for harm, weaponized to hate and hurt others. It can also be a vibrant source of life and broadened horizons for members of congregations. The problem, after all, isn't with religion itself. It's with people. 

*All Bible quotations in this post are taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Neo-Pentecostal Power in Brazil

Pastor prays with gang members. Rio de Janeiro (Unattributed)
Neo-Pentecostalism has made strange alliances in Brazil. Here's how I've come to understand the situation as it relates to criminal organizations in some impoverished urban areas there.

In 1997 I attended the National Missionary Convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now known as the International Conference on Missions, this is an annual gathering of ministers, missionaries, church members, and students to explore topics related to global Christian mission work, particularly within the context of independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. While there I met a couple of Brazilian men from a church that was then meeting in Connecticut, and one of them told me a story that provides a window into the topic of today. 

One of these men told me about having attended a rousing Pentecostal church service in the city of São Paulo. So full of the spirit was he and he and one or two other friends that they marched directly from there right into the heart of a notoriously dangerous neighborhood. As he related it, they preached and sang as a crowd gathered, there were manifestations of the spirit (tongues, swooning, etcetera) and numerous 'conversions' as people cried out for salvation. 

It was an exciting story to hear as a young man preparing for mission work, but it's all-to-typical of the long tradition in evangelicalism and Pentecostalism of holding revivals and expecting them to be the solution to all problems. While there are very effective faith-based programs at work in under-resourced neighborhoods and rural areas throughout Brazil, there are also ministries that trade more on excitement and a belief in a quick fix to long-standing societal ills, based on individual religious experiences. The reality is that most such ministries, and even simply the otherwise innocuous local church doing its thing, depend on the permission of so-called drug lords to continue operations. 

During my mission internship in Brazil in 1997 I spent two of the weeks living in an impoverished neighborhood that was under the thumb of one such drug lord. The missionary related how, after he began working in the area, he was summoned to meet this fellow. They talked, and as I recall the missionary prayed with the man. He was then authorized to work so long as he didn't get in the way of operations. In all this, I don't see any wrong done. The missionary evidently offered no assistance in the crimes of the drug gang, and his focus on helping people live new lives, including without addiction, was not considered a direct threat to business. 

That missionary was fairly 'orthodox' at the time in terms of evangelical Christianity, and the church he served was of a more traditional Pentecostal variety. The problem arises when this is not the case, as we find in the increasingly prevalent Neo-Pentecostal movement in Brazil. This movement, which has been at work in Brazil for decades and which gathered steam in the 1990s, has as distinctives a strong emphasis on the prosperity gospel and spiritual warfare.

The prosperity gospel got its start in the United States through the ministries of televangelists like Oral Roberts. The fundamental concept is that God wants people to be healthy and wealthy, and so a 'seed of faith' needs to be planted through financial contributions to the ministry. Donate what you can easily afford, and results with be limited. Make a sacrificial offering, and miraculous things will happen in your life. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the blessing, because the believer is acting in faith.

As for spiritual warfare, this walks hand-in-hand with the prosperity gospel. Throughout the history of Christianity there has been a belief in supernatural powers that are not of God being at work in the world. These have been historically referred to as 'the devil' and 'demons.' This remains the case to some extent in Neo-Pentecostalism, although at times the language is a bit different. In the United States I've known Neo-Pentecostals to refer to 'spirits' that have specialties. There could be a 'spirit of deception,' a 'spirit of adultery,' or even a 'spirit of tobacco.' The possibilities are as endless as the range of trouble people can get themselves into through foolishness. These spirits or demons can not only influence someone, but even possess them. As I related some time back in this blog, a missionary once told me about an exorcism in which the possessed individual was blaspheming in perfect English, but once he was 'liberated' he couldn't speak a word of the language. Bizarre stories like these are commonplace in Neo-Pentecostalism.

These twin doctrines, when brought into an environment of drug violence, create a template for viewing the world that is potentially quite dangerous. They reinforce key aspects of gang culture, and motivate acts of violence against those not in competition for, or acting against, the drug trade.

Unfazed by their own demonic activities, the TCP and Jesus Gang have been carrying out a terrorist campaign against Umbanda and Candomble terreiros in the barrios under their control. In the prisons, where many narcos convert to Neo-Pentecostalism, pastors demonize Afro-Brazilian religions preaching that the Exus (liminal trickster spirits) of Umbanda, for example, are the cause of their suffering. Once out of prison, the new converts join the Jesus Gang and others that raid the terreiros with the goal of chasing them out of the barrios under their control. The Holy War against the priestesses and priests of Umbanda and Candomble isn’t only aimed at extirpating the ‘evil spirits’ from the barrio but also fortifying Pentecostal dominion by imposing their evangelical faith as the hegemonic one in the barrios under their control.1

The belief in prosperity as a blessing in return for acts of faith, along with the concept of spiritual warfare, mobilizes gangs to act aggressively towards members of their own communities, drawing lines where none existed before. This is, at its root, the fruit of monotheism, of which Neo-Pentecostalism is a part.

In ancient times there were believed to be many gods. Even the ancient Hebrews worshipped multiple deities until after the Babylonian captivity. These gods were of the nation, although there was borrowing between them, as among the Canaanites and between Greeks and Romans. Additionally, as territories were conquered by empires, many if not all of the local deities were either incorporated into the national pantheon, or identified with existing imperial deities. Worship was carried out in order to gain the favor of the gods, and sacrifices were commonplace. What people actually believed in detail was scarcely of concern, and narrative mythology was primary, with theology only in a rudimentary form. Then, Christianity came along, building on the Judaism of the Second Temple Period.

With Christianity the concern was centered on right belief. As the faith spread through the empire, multiple writing were produced and countless preachers took up the cause. Their messages often varied radically between them, and so discerning the correct way to believe became paramount. When Marcion published his list of canonical writings the rising consensus view was forced to respond, eventually pulling together the texts we now find in all New Testaments. As the empire Christianized, it became increasingly important to know who was correctly aligned with the state, and this could only be known by whether the the leaders espoused the official orthodoxy. That orthodoxy developed over time, defining in greater detail the nature of God, Jesus, and the path to salvation. The canon and creeds came together in a way that meant that the saints of one generation would have been considered heretics had they lived a generation later. 

The matter settled for the most part after a few hundred years from the time of Jesus, the church and state looked at foreign kingdoms, clans, and tribes with their many gods and spirits as living in darkness, under the power of demonic forces. And so, physical warfare became necessary for spiritual warfare. This continued through the ages, to the Inquisition and Crusades. The Protestants sharpened the focus on right belief, worship, and practice, relying on the printing press to disseminate their views to a wide audience, opposing papal power and lifting up a frequently nationalist fervor against foreign influence. National churches arose, and very often dissenters were persecuted and executed for their 'crimes' of incorrect belief.

In the early United States the established churches, such as they were, did not last long under the pressure of the democratic spirit. People from multiple European nations found their way to the North American continent, and many of them established churches that held to the beliefs of their home nations. Others came as religious refugees, particularly those that migrated to Pennsylvania, where they found the freedom to believe as they wished, alongside others with divergent ideas. The denominations, through traveling preachers, revivals, and publications competed for converts in a marketplace of faith. It was in this environment that, in the 20th century, Neo-Pentecostalism emerged.

Anywhere that one particular monotheistic view becomes dominant, all other viewpoints begin to be suppressed. While the monotheism of Utah Mormonism is debatable (it's really tritheism, but good luck convincing a Mormon of that), it can be seen in Utah and southern Idaho that it's easier to do business and live socially if one is Mormon. However, there hasn't to my knowledge been widespread systematic oppression of people holding other views since the early 20th century. It instead a matter of how well networked you will be living in such areas and thinking differently.

In Brazil, Neo-Pentecostalism is finding its way not only into the favelas, but also into the halls of power. While Roman Catholicism is still the majority religion, evangelicalism (of which Neo-Pentecostalism can be considered a part) has been on the increase for decades. When the powers, both official and de facto, are aligned in a particular monotheistic set of beliefs, everyone who thinks differently is in danger. This is especially true of practitioners of distinctively non-Christian beliefs. 

It seems to me that the progression of thought in societies as they develop is from animism to polytheism, polytheism to strong monotheism, and strong monotheism to weak monotheism, agnosticism, or non-theism. Strong monotheism demands homogeneity of belief, while weak monotheism takes a broader, more ecumenical and interfaith perspective. Within agnosticism, as I use it here, there is both the committed belief that no one can really know, and also the softer view that no one knows for sure but maybe something can be 'true' for individuals. In the United States we are experiencing the struggle between certainty of beliefs, and openness to the experiences of others. As for Brazil, the rising tide seems to be toward stronger monotheistic certainty.

Hopefully it's obvious by this point that it isn't just about what one believes about a god or gods. Instead, it's a matter of a rigid demand for conformity versus a cosmopolitan spirit that makes room for difference. Atheists, when they are anti-theists, can be just as dogmatic, exclusive, and mean-spirited as their strong monotheist counterparts. 

The only solution I see for this situation is evidence-based education and peace-building over the course of generations. There's no easy fix that will solve everything overnight, however much we might like to believe it possible to march into a favela and change hearts through songs and exhortation. It's really never that simple. 

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