Triumphalism or truth?
How relieved I was to read “What we didn’t hear at the General Assembly” by Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn (Nov/Dec). As a clergy doing ecumenical campus ministry, I have long believed that if there is a message that can witness to the spiritual unity that is God, open up venues for interfaith discussion and relationships in a religiously pluralistic world, and in that process proclaim the gospel of God’s compassionate intervention in our lives, it must be the Disciples. This is because at our very core we know unity of spirit always takes precedence over any particular belief system. Yet, I too felt estrangement at the General Assembly by the use of language and a framework of exclusivity of sacrificial atonement.
In the secular world in which I minister I do not see this dogma transforming deadened lives, mending a divided church, or healing a fragmented world. Yet with deep humility Disciples can willingly embrace all of God’s family as one because of the sheer audacity of the abundant, mind-blowing reality of God’s providential care and abundant grace. It is this that makes us able to take the lead in the movement for wholeness. Let us not forget who we are.
I am most concerned with what Linn and Kinnamon said they did hear — that the messages “served as a de facto call for theological retrenchment.” What I heard was a part of the diversity within the Disciples of Christ, conservative theology being expressed well — a first in my experiences at General Assemblies. This was evidence that indeed all our welcome within our denomination, including those with a more traditional theological understanding.
Other items from their article: 1) The theme of the assembly was “For the healing of the nations,” not “A movement for wholeness in a fragmented world,” which is part of the Disciples new identity statement. … This mistake raises questions for me. How well were they paying attention at the assembly? How accurately have they reported the survey results they cite? 2) The survey interpretation: As a biblically literate layperson, I am inclined to interpret the results as evidence that many Christians do not know what the Bible says, or what tenets their church may have. The nominal Christians of North America are influenced more by cultural expressions of pseudo-Christianity.
Many thanks for the excellent article by Linn and Kinnamon. Their concerns about some of the assembly sermon content that reflected an exclusivist, triumphalist atonement theology is right on. Disciples hopefully have moved beyond that flawed theology. I suspect the usage of “I am the way, the truth, and the life” and with it “no one comes to the father except by him” is sadly a lingering, unreflective hangover from yesteryear, when the Western version of the conversion of the world for Christ was more a singular call to mission.
Such theology calls into question the nature of the call for Christian unity, for wholeness — the oneness of the church, the nature of our growing presence in interfaith relationships and joint mission in community. It also suggests our superiority to local and ecumenical partners.
Our abiding stance before God and missionally with the one human family is one of humility, one of shared learning, one in which our expectation is to hear and experience God’s word in those of different faiths and Christian traditions — knowing that God’s good news is revealed everywhere in God’s creation.
All of those who either cannot or will not accept the written word of God, the Bible, as God-inspired, please raise your right hand. Good. Now please step away from Christianity, for you cannot or will not follow Christ. So please stop calling yourselves Christian, if you do not believe that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Perhaps you could form your own sort of religion, one that will accommodate your humanistic beliefs or that will allow you to deny history and meld with other humanly inspired religious systems. But stop trying to water down Christianity into something it never was and was never meant to be.
I am now 69 years old, and my considerable experience with the living God continues to affirm that he is who he says he is, as is his son, Jesus who is the Christ.
But for those who would accept religious pluralism and deny that Jesus Christ is the one way to the one God, they need to consider this: God’s intended oneness with us, because of our sin, ended in a crucifixion. Yet even in that horrible crucifixion, God is not thwarted. God does not lose. God has the creative ability to weave such tragedy into God’s purposes, remaking our sin into God’s great triumph.
We should note that John Duns Scotus said that, while in the incarnation Jesus died for sinners, God would have become incarnate for us even if we had not sinned, our sin not being the whole point of the incarnation, but rather God’s determination to be with us.
In those wonderful words of 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.” That should raise the hairs on the back of your neck, because behind the remarkable words of the text in Revelation 21:5–7 is the promise that God is going to, at last, at the end, get what God wants.
The only meaningful question then is, will you be there with him?
With all due respect to Linn and Kinnamon, I walked away from the 2009 General Assembly with a renewed sense of hope in our denomination — preciselybecause of the messages I heard and experienced in worship and the primary addresses!
I heard a message of God’s amazing and long-suffering grace, freely offered to all, despite our constant rejection of the Christ — all of which was based solidly on the word of God in the Bible.
What was conspicuously absent from Linn and Kinnamon’s article was any scriptural basis for their rationale. I am forced to conclude then, that the only foundation for their argument is personal opinion. Is this really what we want to establish our faith on?
They write that “we are called to proclaim Jesus as Lord … tempered by a bold humility.” I would challenge any reader of the Book of Acts to imagine Peter and John proclaiming, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. But of course, we could be wrong.”
I was greatly encouraged by what I heard at the 2009 Assembly — a truly humble proclamation of the biblical message. Keep it up!
Health care is complex
Thank you to Verity Jones for her comments on health care (Nov/Dec). Our church’s peace and justice task force sees universal health care as a moral issue. We witnessed a barrage of half-truths and outright lies flooding the airwaves. So we scoured the web for accurate information. We published for our congregation the facts regarding just what was being proposed. And we organized a health care forum with experts from our congregation and community on various areas involved. We allocated one and a half hours on a Saturday morning to learn what we could about health care reform.
What we found was that there are many very complex issues within the debates. There are no easy solutions. There is plenty of room for disagreement on the best way to reform our system. A very limited description of the health care proposal was 20 pages long. That is without any extra commentary. We also found that we spend twice what other developed nations spend on a percentage-of-GDP basis and get, at best, only comparable results.
The health care industry exists to provide health care to the people, not to make investors wealthy. The tail has been wagging the dog for too long. I am not opposed to profits, but the bottom line has to be providing health care to all without bankrupting the country. We will not get a perfect system. We will not get it 100 percent right the first try, but hopefully we will finally get a universal system we can improve on as we go along.
Ms. Jones, you are wrong! Your statement, “Everyone agrees these numbers have to change” (referring to 20 percent uninsured), is wrong!
The decision to buy insurance is a decision about business/family risk taking. A federal mandate for health insurance is far beyond the intent of our founders. Jefferson and others rightly viewed a strong federal government as a dangerous threat to our individual liberty. So Morris, Madison, and Hamilton gave us a Constitution for a limited federal government.
Your idea of the church/community providing support for the poor follows Jesus’ teaching. In addition, there will be less fraud and abuse when administered by local people to local people. I see this in action at the Humble (Texas) Area Assistance Ministries (HAAM). Substituting the federal government for local and church charity is an abrogation of stewardship. You want to shift responsibility because too often our churches have chosen to take on mortgages and overhead to the exclusion of significant monetary help for the poor. One church that has been more successful in this regard is the Mormon Church, which minimizes the need for government assistance for its members.
You ask if I would sacrifice — translation: pay more taxes — for universal health care. I ask how much should I sacrifice for those who, by poor personal choices or lack of discipline, want to change the system? When should I sacrifice for those who opt for expensive implants and transplants? Realistically, supporting HR3200 (America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009) would not be a sacrifice for me — I’m 77. Rather, it would be a sacrifice for the next generation, a sacrifice of their freedom of choice, and add to what is becoming an unsustainable tax burden.
Quoting in part from Jones’ article on health care: “Everyone agrees that we need to reform the entire system. (Well, everyone except those determined to oppose any idea coming from the other side of the political aisle. But let’s not talk about them now; they get enough attention.)”
Jones does not wish to focus attention on anyone who has not sided with the only “correct side” of the aisle she recognizes as being important enough to listen to. Have I misunderstood?
Am I willing to explore ways to cover those who can’t afford it? Yes. But I am not willing to pay a higher level of income to those who have made a choice to spend their money on fancy cell phones, iPods, tongue piercings, and plasma televisions just because they are young and immortal and will take a chance that they will remain in good health.
Do doctors and hospitals have a right to make decisions on how to run their facilities and practices, or should our government dictate to them?
Yes, I can wait longer to access medical services. Who gets to determine which services are non-essential?
Should we be able to have access to prescription drugs sooner and at less cost if we place limits on what trial attorneys reap from a drug company that markets a drug that helps a condition in tens of thousands of patients but causes a serious reaction in one or two?
Can we hold those in government accountable to repeal the laws that have exacerbated the very problems they passed programs to remedy?
More than therapy
Funerals are indeed good for people, as Victor Parachin writes (Nov/Dec), for all of the mostly psychological and emotional reasons he mentions. In this religious journal, I was hoping also for something about the grand drama of Christian life and death all undergirded by a God who never lets us go. I found only one paragraph — and number five in a list of seven! — that even mentioned religious themes, and that was totally directed at the mourner’s grief.
Sure “the service and ritual, properly managed, can deliver great therapeutic benefits to survivors.” But let’s be more than therapists. Let’s proclaim the great and ancient story of the communion of saints into which we Christians have been baptized.
What have we learned?
I read with interest “Disciples and disaster relief” (Sept/Oct). I serve as regional pastor with the Great River Region (in) the Gulf Coast area of Louisiana and Mississippi — the Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike territory.
As regional pastor I ministered to and with churches, pastors, and members affected by these hurricanes. I also dealt with the general units of our church involved in the recovery effort.
From the beginning, the recovery work was a team effort among our staff and congregations. In fact our region had begun a recovery process, set up a church in Covington, La., as a site to host volunteers, and hosted several groups of volunteers before anyone from the general units were on site.
It is important to reflect on what was learned from our recovery efforts. In fact, I suggested a summit be held including general units, regions, some local pastors, and church members to discuss this very issue. I’m sad to say it never happened. So I'd like to share a few things I learned not just from Katrina and Rita but from Gustav and Ike.
1. There is much love and compassion among members of our congregations. I was receiving phone calls a few days after Katrina from people wanting to know how they could help. The outpouring of supplies, volunteers, and prayers was overwhelming. Josh Baird is correct that sometimes an influx of supplies and volunteers creates a “second disaster,” but the response was and continues to be incredible.
2. Prejudice still exists in our denomination, although not the kind we usually talk about. Following Katrina we had volunteer groups come who became upset with us for sending them into “affluent white neighborhoods” to work rather into the Lower Ninth Ward or some “poor black areas.” At that time we could not get into those areas; plus, these “affluent white” areas also were devastated and needed assistance. To me this attitude is not just a prejudice toward “affluent whites” but a putdown to our “poor black” brothers and sisters. We even had groups come with handbooks for their volunteers on how to address racism in this area, since we all know “how people in the South are.”
3. Many of our general units were helpful and responsive to our needs, and we are very grateful. However, I learned that actions of some of our well-intended general units can also cause another kind of “second disaster.” Some general units came with the mindset that “We are the experts, you all are the victims, and we are the ones in charge.” There was no discussion about “critical presence.” No, “What are your needs? How can we work together?” This caused a “disaster” of its own that extended for months and is still a point of pain for many.
4. Recovery relief works best when general units and regions support, encourage, and provide resources for local congregations. Disaster relief is primarily the ministry of the local congregation, supported by regions and general units. Regions and general units exist for the local congregation — that is our primary mission. The local congregation does not exist for us. When we finally learn this, relief work is much more effective.
5. When we are serving God by serving others, all of our differences are overcome. I do not recall anyone asking any volunteer, “Are you a conservative or liberal? Are you a Republican or a Democratic? Are you straight or homosexual?” When we focus on what is essential, service to God by serving others, the things that divide us are overcome.
Our response to Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike has given us a model of how we can transform our denomination and our congregations. When general units and regions see their mission as serving local congregations, when we work with each other and with local churches to empower them, we will all be transformed. As Alan Roxburgh is fond of saying, “The future of God is among the people of God.”
Thank you, Disciples, for your prayers and gifts, for all the volunteers hours, just for being present as we go through recovery along the Gulf Coast.