Paradoxology

Praise God from whom all blessings flow…  But who deserves such blessing?  The poor?  Immigrants (especially those illegal ones!)?  The sick (who can’t afford health care)?  Anyone who disagrees with me on any of my core beliefs?  There is a weird paradox at work when it comes to our views on who should be blessed by God.  Those believing blessings are for all get labeled liberal, generally of the bleeding-heart variety.  Those believing that blessings are a reward for right belief in behavior are horrified at the idea that from those who have much, much will be expected.  We have even aligned our political postures and polemics around such differences of opinion.  And should such conversations have financial implications — watch out.  Many who have no problem with bread for the poor are fine as long as it isn’t their bread we’re talking about.  Yet, when we speak in the broadest, most abstract terms, most people wish everyone in the world could know peace, justice, comfort, and security.  Where does it all break down?

I want to posit a simple theory.  I believe the root of all our problems is selfishness, but selfishness is a symptom, not a cause.  The root of selfishness is fear, grounded in a scarcity mentality that says “I am in jeopardy of not having enough.”  This subconscious driver indicates a fundamental lack of trust and is the antithesis of faith.  Hence, our paradoxology — our gratitude for all God provides, our insatiable hunger for more, and our competitive fear of giving what we have to others.  This leads us into a grinding judgmentalism of who is deserving and who is not — a basic “us/them” paradigm that requires we justify ourselves as good and others as inferior.  We’ve done it with rich and poor, male and female, peachy and bronze skin color, educated and uneducated; heck, we’ll do it with anyone who threatens to make us share what we have with them.

The disconnect is simply this: what we say we believe and what we believe are NOT the same thing.  We say we believe that God is love, that God is good, that God will provide, that all we need is faith.  But what we see with our eyes are innocent victims of hate and violence, rampant evil and greed, scarcity, famine, disease, cynicism, selfishness and media pundits untouched by divine retribution.  True tests of faith, one and all.  Why doesn’t God do something?  If God wants everyone blessed, why doesn’t God provide MORE?

This is our grievous misunderstanding.  The process by which God provides is in place.  That process is us.  Our current problems are not those of quantity, but distribution.  We don’t lack resources, we simply lack love, faith, compassion, and trust.  We bow before the god of fear at the expense of trusting the God of love.  It feels safer and more comfortable to take care of ourselves than to perhaps give aid or comfort to someone we don’t know, like, trust, or agree with.

And this is why our church is in the state it is in.  At least for United Methodists, we lost our way when we jumped the mission and social justice ship for the church growth cruiser.  We denied our core identity (read the 100 paragraphs in the 2008 Book of Discipline — YES, including the Social Principles.  Then see if you can hunt up a copy of the 2008 Book of Resolutions.  While not a codifier of individual beliefs, these documents do define what it means to be “United Methodist,” — though, because we stopped teaching these things in our churches, most people don’t know that this is what the UMC is all about…) and drifted off course to look more and more like independent, non-denominational, congregational churches and less and less like a connectional church committed to being Christ for the world.  Oops.

What is interesting to me is that much that is labeled “liberal” today was “moderate” to “conservative” in the first half of the twentieth century.  The bulk of our budgets pre-World War II went to fund missions, our Ladies Aid Societies/Women’s Society for Christian Service/Epworth Leagues, etc. were defined by their mission activities.  We were leaders in temperance, social reform, feeding the hungry, giving comfort and care to the sick, educating the underprivileged, protecting the innocent, and helping dispossessed and displaced persons to find a home in America.  Anyone opposing any of these things would have found it very uncomfortable being Methodist, United Brethren, or a member of the Evangelical Association.  Why are these things topics of such hot debate today?  Refer to paragraph 2 above…  We have lost our vision for transforming culture and world, and instead are shaped by them.  Give praise to God from whom all blessings flow… to us who deserve them.  Amen.

9 replies

  1. I think part of our problem, along with the rest of the mainline denominations, is that we turned the work fo the church over to the government. We “gave unto Ceaser what was God’s” and the politicians and bureaucrats are not likely to give it back. We continue this trend by pushing to get the government to adopt more social programs, feed the hungry, care for the sick, etc.Now, our people feel no need to do such because the government uses out tax money to do it, the politicians take credit for it, and the work of the church has become preservation of the status quo. There are bright spots out there, but the vast majority of the UM churches have turned into Sunday Morning Social Clubs and are dying like flies because they have lost their Wesleyan DNA.

    • I have to agree with Bill. I also agree with Dan that the problem is selfishness. Our mainline denominations are so selfish that they want the government to do their jobs. Let us sit comfortably in our big fancy churches feeling really good if we give 5% of our budget to the poor, the immigrant, the needy. And we loudly demand that the rich pagan, from whom the tax man already takes 10% for the poor and needy, must pay more. ! Of course, it is the rich pagan who is greedy, not us!! Of course it is the rich pagan who does not claim to be a disciple of Christ, who is not doing his share. We justify our demand that the government (i.e., the rich pagan) do more based upon Christ’s well known sermon calling upon the rich Roman empire to care for the Jewish poor, so that his disciples did not need to help the poor and needy. Look at the way those who demanded that others clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visitor the sick and imprisoned so that they could afford to build that new church addition are treated in Matthew 25. May God have mercy on us!

  2. I blogged yesterday about the way that bad Christian theology is contributing to the death of democracy in our country. http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/is-democracy-dying/.

    One form of Christian theology makes Christians very good at building community with others; another form cultivates a vitriolic “us vs. them” attitude in Christians.

    I consider the right account of Christian soteriology to say that the cross of Jesus saves me from that fundamental lack of trust you described and the egocentric defensiveness that Wesley described as “self-justification” in his sermon “Awake Thou that Sleepest.” The purpose of atonement is to make me a merciful person who shares God’s mercy with others. I desire blessings for all because I’ve been liberated from my defensive self-righteousness and parsimonious mistrust of God’s providence. People who are transformed in this way are able to build community with others. This I think is the Wesleyan gospel, which I’ve somewhat tried to encapsulate here: http://wp.me/p1zbcB-4p.

    The bad Christian theology rampant in America says that the cross has nothing to do with transforming how we treat other people because it is concerned with God defending his honor by adequately judging sin. People with this view see humanity as consisting in two categories: the elect and the damned. The damned are not people you’re supposed to try to understand. They’re evil because God made them that way so the only thing you’re supposed to do with them is defeat them.

    Methodists have allowed ourselves to be influenced by the ugly type of Christian theology, when our Wesleyan heritage has never been more needed in American Christianity.

  3. I think Bill hit the nail on the head. We turned our various missions over to the state. This leads to the odd spectacle of Jim Winkler getting arrested in the Capitol over the budget debacle. I would be more impressed if someone got arrested at Conference protesting that we spend too much on ourselves and our institutions and not enough where serious needs exist.
    Knowing that the state will provide food cards, health care and subsidized housing for just about anyone undermines our own motivations to reach out. Now that I think about it maybe that is why growth is so explosive in some of the poorer countries of the world. In those areas the Church is weaving its own safety nets.

  4. Sorry but this is very naive. Are you ready to buy X-ray machines to put in your church basement when you start the free health clinic? What do they cost? $100K? $500K? It sounds right to talk this way and it’s a way to leverage the Wesleyan vision into a libertarian ideology, but it’s a lot easier to spin ideology from our armchairs than to face the practical implications. When our federal government cuts off the poor, why is there going to be any more incentive to reach out to them than there is right now? Unless they come to our gated communities and start breaking our windows, it will be just as easy to ignore them after they get cut off as it was before.

    Our church budgets would have to increase by several thousand percent to take on all the social problems that conservatives flippantly say churches can take care of instead of the government. Are we going to hire two social workers and a nurse practitioner on staff at every church in addition to the clergy? If you’re planning to increase your giving by several thousand percent, then you can keep on talking this way and I’ll take you seriously. Otherwise you’re just saying what sounds good to you and making peace with your lack of compassion.

  5. This is not difficult to understand especially here in the Philippines where government service is very poor and corruption high. Our churches need to get out of the comforts of our buildings to give more time serving the needy.

    Thanks for the reminder, Dan.

  6. It is naive to think that our country can continue to pile up debt without serious long term consequences.

  7. A large roadblock is simply one word….litigation. Churches are afraid of being sued. I have been trying to have on campus counseling by high quality LPC’s for years and have had to give up that cause and partner with firms to counsel somewhere else besides my church property. The reason: the courts and law suits. Now, I have and will partner with counselors but think it is a shame not to be able to offer it on church property.

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