A church that exists among the comfortable cannot be prophetic. We must put Jesus first.
by Rev. Dr. Bishop Peter Storey
Abridged; originally preached at FL Annual Conference MFSA gathering 2013; full text here
Social action and Methodism are inseparable. You can’t talk about being a Methodist without being engaged in social action. Wesleyan evangelism is an evangelism of the whole Gospel for the whole world.
I first came to the United States in 1966 and visited for many years on business related to the anti-apartheid struggle. I’ve lived here for nine years and teach at one of your great seminaries. When I first came to the United States I was inspired by The United Methodist Church that I met. It was a church alive to the issues of the day. It was on the cutting edge of reaching the unreached. It was passionate about touching the lives of people with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and it was equally passionate about justice concerns. In the 1960s and 1970s when the challenge to respond to an oppressive totalitarian regime in my own country, South Africa, was upon us, I took heart from the example and the leadership of Christian leaders in this country.
That was then—I’m not so sure today. The horrendous atrocity of 9/11 did something to the nerve of the church in this country. After the tragedy I waited in vain for the church to offer theological insights into the event and its import and significance for the future of this nation. Instead, what seemed to happen was that the church did its pastoral duty and held the nation’s hand. But the politicians made up the nation’s mind. From the pulpit of the national cathedral (a place where presidents should listen, not preach), the then president of the United States got to frame the theological narrative: They are evil, and we are good. And it became unpatriotic to question this simple narrative. The church was virtually silent as the nation marched off to yet another war.
I have a little sailboat, and I can tell you from a very unhappy experience that having one foot in the boat and one on the jetty, no matter how flexible you are, is not a good idea. I look at the church I love and see one that for too long has been trying to straddle a widening political gulf, one foot on both sides, a position that’s becoming extremely uncomfortable to hold. We are going to end up in the water.
Every summer I bring invite some divinity school students to spend 10 weeks in South Africa. They must send me a reflection every fourth night of their stay. One of the questions I invite them to consider is: “What has been my most striking impression of the church here?” One of my political education students responded: “My initial striking impression has been that the preachers of this church are more prophetic and bolder than the preachers back home. It’s like the pastors back home are afraid of stepping on congregation members’ toes, but here the Gospel has to be in your face if it’s to make any difference at all. … I wish the United Methodist [pastors] in the United States would stop being so scared of their dying numbers and start being as bold as the people I see here. Not bold for the sake of being bold but for the sake of the Kingdom.”
I wouldn’t write this student off. I really wouldn’t. I’ve heard from too many pastors, “Well, you know, we’ve got so many percent Republican and so many percent Democrats here, and it’s very delicate.” Congregants should be addressed as baptized Christians, not as Democrats or Republicans.
One Sunday school class I attended was a very live class with many intellectual members. Yet halfway through a discussion I felt the need to say, “I think I should leave, because what I’m hearing I can hear on CNBC or MSNBC or Forbes. I haven’t heard you mention Jesus once, but I’ve heard you mention the president, the speaker of the house, the Tea Party. Nobody’s asking where Jesus would place himself in this discussion. This class seems to be importing opinions and attitudes from the world instead of using this class as a place to grow so that you can export theological insights.”
The public square no longer hears the voice of The United Methodist Church. It hears the voices of those who have hijacked the square to present their face of God. They offer unbridled capitalism with no limitations, a philosophy of serial war and ecological contempt. They have cut out any reference to good news for the poor and release for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, of the letting broken victims go free. Why is theirs the only voice heard?
Our evangelical heritage
It was evangelicals who reformed the prisons, freed the slaves, ended child labor, offered the first free medical care—what some call “socialism” and others call being human. Evangelicals founded the first trade unions. Most of those evangelicals were Methodists or Quakers. You belong to that heritage; that’s your ancestry! Don’t disown it. Don’t tiptoe delicately around it for fear of upsetting somebody.
We need to re-evangelize Methodism to its prophetic witness. The church needs to be re-evangelized. John Wesley’s was a prophetic evangelism. How it is that this High-Church conservative became a social prophet without losing any of his evangelical zeal?
I think it’s because he read the Bible honestly, and because of location, location, location. John Wesley’s passion for the Gospel and his obedience to scripture drove him out of middle-class comfort to the poor. In sharing their humble homes and meager crust, in discovering their heavy burdens and terrible degradations, he found, accidently, the home address of Jesus, and he became convinced that being with the poor was a means of grace without which he could not be a faithful Christian. The longer he experienced that means of grace of being with the poor, the more clear it became to him how deeply systemic were the chains binding the poor.
So John Wesley went on a journey of three steps. He moved from piety, that inner peace with God so necessary for us to be human, to charity. Charity is simple obedience to the scriptures in that we care for people who are worse off than we are—but you cannot spend time with charity without discovering that you must be committed to justice. So the journey is from piety through charity to justice, which is the story of John Wesley and his definition of holiness.
These days we talk about evangelical ministry, pastoral ministry and prophetic ministry. Why have we separated these out? We have done so, I believe, because our ministries are located in the wrong place.
I came across an interesting insight about the worship of Baal in the Old Testament. We’ve been taught that Baal was another god, but the suggestion made by this particular scholar is that Baal was not about worshiping a god other than Yahweh but about the children of Israel who had now settled in the Promised Land and became comfortable and prosperous no longer wanting a God of the poor and the oppressed. They wanted to give Yahweh a makeover so that Yahweh would become a God of the comfortable and the privileged. That is why Elijah and Elisha, when up against the prophets of Baal, located themselves deliberately with the poorest of the poor and the widows, the starving. They made their point very clearly.
Yahweh is not going to change just because you got comfortable. Yahweh remains the God of justice of the poor and the oppressed. If our church insists on locating primarily with the comfortable and the middle class, we cannot be surprised if we cease to have a prophetic voice.
The influence of togetherness
The church in South Africa is often held up as an example of a church that stood for justice. We mustn’t take too much credit for that. The Methodist Church of Southern Africa, which I serve, is 80 percent black. The more affluent and comfortable of the South African Methodists, who happen to be white, found it rather difficult during apartheid to ignore the 80 percent of our members who kept on reminding us what life was really like. Desmond Tutu used to say, “The one person who is very hard to wake up is the person who is pretending to be asleep.” Our church forced the togetherness upon us.
Every Saturday morning as a bishop I would drive to a rural town where most church folks were pretty right-wing and tell them that from now on black and white were going to worship together. It wasn’t popular, but it produced amazing transformations in places where people who had lived a life insulated from the realities of injustice and oppression now had to engage with their fellow Christians who were suffering enormously. The pain of our togetherness transformed us. It wasn’t comfortable.
In my own congregation we worked hard to integrate. It cost us 200 white members and counting, though a cheap price to pay for a small cameo of God’s future for South Africa. But the process was very painful. We were at war. I had mothers sitting in the same pew whose sons pointed guns at each other from opposing sides of the struggle.
Only whites could vote in South Africa at the time, and I remember saying to my congregation on the eve of the election, “Look around. Meet the eyes of somebody who is a different color than you. If you have a vote, look into the eyes of a person who has no vote, and I dare you to go into the voting booth on Wednesday and vote for apartheid.”
God so loved the world
During Christian testimonies we often hear, “I asked Jesus to come into my heart.” I want to warn you that when you ask Jesus to come into your heart he replies, “Can I bring my friends?” Jesus friends may not be the sort of people you mix with every day. Jesus says, “Love me, love my friends.” It’s actually non-negotiable.
Separating social action from evangelism and from our commitment to the Gospel as followers of John Wesley is a very false dichotomy. The church is only the church when it’s engaging the world. All the rest is preparation.
So much of what we think is church is actually a lunch hour, the time that we are preparing to engage the world that God loved so much, the world for which God gave God’s only son. It’s not the church that God so loved—it is the world.
Are there points of engagement to which God is inviting the church at this moment? For a moment imagine that every church stops most of its normal activities to instead think, study the Bible, pray, listen faithfully, reflect theologically, struggle with one another over four issues: wealth and poverty and good news to the poor, war and peace, flag and altar, inclusion and exclusion.
Wealth, poverty and good news to the poor
What would happen if every congregation gathered and wrestled and debated and prayed and listened and read the Scriptures around the issue of wealth and poverty and good news to the poor? What if we let the Gospel form us into people whom Martin Luther King Jr. called “creatively maladjusted” to the excuses of wealth and poverty? What would happen if we focused on ending the massive inequities that divide the world into the haves and the have-nots and asked Jesus where the beginning of change might lie? A church with a new commitment to relocate with the poor and oppressed of the world would earn the right to be heard in a new way.
War and peace
The second great issue is that of violence and nonviolence, war and peace. The world longs to be liberated, reclaimed, rescued from what Walter Wink calls the myth of redemptive violence. You cannot help people by bombing them. You cannot save people by killing them. Martin Luther King Jr. saw no legitimacy in violence, and Americans laud him year after year. There’s even a public holiday in his honor, but we resolutely refuse to take seriously the absolute heart of his message. What would happen if the church finally confessed that its longest standing disobedience to Jesus is its flirtation with war?
Flag and altar
The third question we need to struggle with is the issue of flag and alter. I am very uncomfortable standing so close the national flag here. Caesar’s banner doesn’t belong in God’s house. It has its legitimate place, but here is not part of that place. The church I belong to in South Africa bans the national flag from being displayed in our churches. We had a very stained flag, full of dirty marks from the horrors perpetrated during apartheid. It is easy to see why we didn’t want that flag in our church. Then we got a new flag, a beautiful flag, a bright new banner when South Africa became free. Could we bring this flag into our church? We still answered no. Flags of nations do not stay clean for long.
We need to work out our relationship with Caesar, and I don’t care whether Caesar is a Democrat or a Republican. Some Caesars are more likeable than others, but their DNA is not very different, because they’re Caesars—Caesars will always push the boundaries of power.
Stop wrapping the church in red, white and blue. Worry not that the word “God” might be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance but whether the Pledge of Allegiance has removed God from your heart. The very things that people are scared to say now, because they will be called “unpatriotic,” in 15 years we’ll all be saying. We’ll look back and be wise, but right now we’re silent.
Inclusion and exclusion
The fourth topic we should wrestle with is who’s in and who’s out, inclusion and exclusion. The most exciting and frightening word in the Wesleyan vocabulary is the word “all.” I love that word, and it frightens me, because all means all. It doesn’t mean some, or if you approve, or if you look like me or you love like me—it means all. It’s time we worked out together what that word “all” implies for us as a church in every aspect of human life. We have to decide, as Methodists, we are truly going to truly live out what this word all means.
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Peter Storey is W. Ruth and A. Morris Williams Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He is a South African Methodist minister and former president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and of the South African Council of Churches. This study is adapted from his speech to the Florida Conference Methodist Federation for Social Action in June 2013.