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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Methodism Decolonizing

by Fungus Guy, Gore Street graffiti mural, Decolonize, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
You might have heard that the United Methodist Church is preparing to split into two distinct groups. In this struggle I believe I see how efforts at decolonization have played into this process.

Hopes and spirits were high when the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church came together in 1968. Rev. Joseph Evers, who had been a delegate to the Uniting Conference, said in 2018 that “[i]t felt like the restoration of the Methodist movement.1 In the following years that did not prove to be entirely the case. Losing members in the United States from then until now, in a similar fashion as all mainline Protestant churches have, they also gained membership overseas. This was particularly true of growth in African nations.

As a global church, delegates come together from around the world for a periodic General Conference. While the North American church was becoming increasingly progressive, accepting critical scholarship on the Bible, and pushing to welcome and affirm ltbtq+ folx in all aspects of church life, including ordained ministry, the church in the developing world was continuing with a very conservative frame of mind. Meanwhile, conservative evangelicals within the UMC ranks in the United States were pushing for a more traditional set of values and understanding of scripture. Between the US conservatives and the delegates from developing nations, it was assured that no official move in a progressive direction would be made legislatively.

Before I continue, here's how Wikipedia defines and describes colonization:
Colonization (or colonisation) is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components. Colonization refers strictly to migration, for example, to settler colonies in America or Australia, trading posts, and plantations, while colonialism to the existing indigenous peoples of styled "new territories". Colonization was linked to the spread of tens of millions from Western European states all over the world. In many settled colonies, Western European settlers eventually formed a large majority of the population after killing or driving away indigenous peoples. Examples include the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. These colonies were occasionally called 'neo-Europes'. In other places, Western European settlers formed minority groups, which often used more advanced weaponry to dominate the people initially living in their places of settlement.[1] 
When Britain started to settle in Australia, New Zealand and various other smaller islands, they often regarded the landmasses as terra nullius, meaning 'empty land' in Latin.[2] Due to the absence of European farming techniques, the land was deemed unaltered by man and therefore treated as uninhabited, despite the presence of indigenous populations. In the 19th century, laws and ideas such as Mexico's general Colonization Law and the United States' Manifest destiny encouraged further colonization of the Americas, already started in the 15th century.
Missionaries are often viewed as instruments of colonization, whether unwittingly or otherwise. From this perspective, any Methodist missionaries that went to Africa starting churches and hospitals were participating in colonization. The Methodist interpretation of Christian doctrine as well as the influences of Western culture were imposed through persuasion, enticement, and coercion. The Methodist missionary project was fairly successful, resulting in millions of members throughout the African continent. The extension of Western culture through missions is historically characteristic of all such efforts, across denominations and around the world. Colonization is more than the taking of land and imposition of laws and religion.

For an explanation of 'decolonization,' consider this from 'What Decolonization Is, and What It Means to Me,' by Tina Curiel-Allen: 
To talk about decolonization, people need an understanding of what we are decolonizing from. Colonization is when a dominant group or system takes over and exploits and extracts from the land and its native peoples. Colonization has taken place all over the globe, through the stealing of lands; the raping of women; the taking of slaves; the breaking of bodies through fighting, labor, imprisonment, and genocide; the stealing of children; the enforcement of religion; the destruction—or attempts to destroy—spiritual ways of life. All of these things have left a psychological, spiritual, and physical imprint on indigenous peoples, and a governmental ruling system that we did not create, that was not made for us. These are the things we need to heal from, where we need to start reclaiming. This is where organizing and decolonizing comes in.
Later in the same article she adds, '[d]ecolonizing is about reclaiming what was taken and honoring what we still have.'

One of the features of progressive Christianity has been an attempt, albeit far from perfect, to decolonize theology and practice. This is the case throughout the mainline Protestant denominations, with varying degrees of success. It's also a matter of deep concern within Unitarian Universalism, where issues have arisen pointing to a continued culture of white supremacy within the association. In an unfortunate and ironic twist, progressive Christians, including United Methodists, have been guilty of infantilizing their African brethren, suggesting that they hold to traditional values out of ignorance or, worse, as the result of very mission work that brought them into the fold. It's difficult not to interpret the condescension shown by progressives to Africans and others from developing nations regarding the direction of their church and over theological and social issues as anything other than a colonialist mindset.

At the same time, ltbtq+ rights are human rights, and uncritical acceptance of people with homophobic and transphobic views certainly looks like endorsement. I feel confident that if theological issues were the only point of contention, the UMC would not be planning to split up. As it is, as an outside observer I don't see any way the two parties could come together again without either an acceptance of lgtbq+ folx, or a compromise that devalues such people for the sake of outward 'unity.' So, while the progressives have work to do on decolonizing their attitudes towards people of other nations, people of whatever nationality also don't get off the hook either.

There is something else to be considered about decolonization: white conservative evangelicals don't like it. The very concept puts them on the defensive, as though they were guilty of the sins of their ancestors, when in fact this is the water in which we all must swim. Additionally, it exposes the violence and greed of Manifest Destiny and all such similar doctrines, something that white evangelicals can only understand as unpatriotic and even 'anti-American.'This sends them reflexively into a tizzy, blustering that anyone who thinks this way should move to another country. When brought even closer to home, to their religion, they are certain that someone has to leave.

Of course, people in liberal religious traditions are capable of similar responses. In reaction to moves to address white supremacy culture within Unitarian Universalism a cadre of Boomers and some GenXers within the UUA have spoken out about the supposed evils of 'political correctness.' I'm not certain how expecting people to be treated with respect within a voluntary fellowship is asking too much, but here we are. I won't go on about this here, as I've already said my piece in The Igneous Quill Essays.

The reaction of white evangelicals is more telling, however, in that it ends up laced with nationalistic concepts, a sense of cultural superiority, and an expression of desire that their particular beliefs and values be adopted around the world. The traditionalists that divide off into a new group will surely be engaging in recolonizing efforts, as have evangelicals ever since the religious right was born.

Note the way Mark Tooley phrases it in "New Methodism's Inevitable Challenge,"and particularly in the lines I've highlighted:
As Watson rightly warns, we must heed yesterday’s lessons. How was once great Methodism in America brought low by spiritual, cultural and moral compromise? Its century or more of theological retreat must never be forgotten. But the lessons are not all negative. What became United Methodism was in many ways a mighty force for Gospel influence, where genuinely godly leaders often sought to remain faithful to doctrine and to be responsible stewards of American culture, to the extent they were able. Millions were blessed by their exertions, despite their mistakes. 
In the new global Methodism we will need established leaders to exert wider societal and cultural influence in America and other nations. And we will need prophetic voices to challenge their human temptation to prevaricate in pursuit of worldly acclaim. The church cannot be fully itself without both this public witness and simultaneous internal challenge to it.
The close link described here between an idealized America (MAGA, anyone?) and the theology and work of the church is no accident. The two go hand-in-hand in most white conservative evangelical circles, and the possibility that they could be wrong is never entertained among them. Regardless of the size of the departing group, they will most certainly be committed to maintaining and extending the hegemony of conservative Western culture and values. Up to now within the United Methodist Church they've been distracted by internecine conflict. Once gone, they will be able to turn their view outward. Then again, will they? Schismatic groups tend to continue to suffer schisms. If we're lucky, they'll break apart into groups too small to make any real difference.