I am currently attending my first board meeting with the General Board of Church and Society. Up front, let me say that I think this is one of the most important, most valuable of our general church agencies. I understand that this view is not shared by all. In fact, some vehemently oppose Church and Society, and it ALWAYS surprises me. I have written in the past that I feel United Methodism suffers today by a lack of institutional memory and an abdication of our core identity. If your tradition is the Evangelical Association, the Methodist church, or the United Brethren in Jesus Christ, then you are part of a biblically and theologically grounded tradition that elevated missions, evangelistic witness, and a commitment to social justice — in other words, a church that isn’t all about us, but a church that exists for the purpose of serving in the community and world. You may disagree that these things are important, but you can’t change history — this is who we are based on who we have historically been.
In preparation for my first term on the board, I began receiving letters almost as soon as jurisdictional conference ended — all of them highly critical, negative and derogatory about the work of Church & Society. The comments boil down to three essential ideas:
- Christians should not get involved in politics.
- Social justice is communism/socialism/liberal, and therefore to be avoided by good Christians.
- We should not spend money on sinners; i.e., the poor, immigrants, single mothers, homosexuals, foreigners, scientists, political advocacy (these were just the specific things named in the letters/emails I received).
I disagree with a lot of people about a lot of things — and a lot of people disagree with me, but this is one of those issues that truly stymies me. Hebrew scripture — history, poetry, prophecy — makes it clear that peace, mercy, justice, care of the poor, the marginalized, the stranger, the alien are not options, and that they are required of both individuals as well as communities, tribes, households and nation. These things are even clearer in the gospels, the writings of Paul, James, and other writers of the early church (both in and beyond the accepted canon). This reading doesn’t require much in the way of interpretation — it is clear, concise, constant, and consistent. In our culture and age, Matthew 25 is a complete impossibility apart from political and social engagement. Of all our general boards and agencies, Global Ministries and Church & Society are the two that actually live out our biblical, theological, and denominational mandates. We can ascribe all kinds of negative labels to living the gospel — socialism, communism, etc. — but caring for God’s creation by realizing that we are all one creation, never in ministry “to” or doing ministry “for” but living into the realm and reality of God “with” each other is simply awakening to the will of God. To eliminate the false, destructive, and indefensible dividing walls of hostility of “us” and “them”, is to live with integrity as the body of Christ. It is so amazing to be part of an agency of the bureaucratic institution of “the Church” that actually gets it — that puts faith into action and activates disciples of Jesus Christ to engage in work that God actually uses to transform the world.
United Methodists can be proud of the vision and commitment of the General Board of Church & Society. Not everything C&S does will please everyone, and there will be some things that we choose to politicize and castigate based on personal biases, but in the main, Church and Society is doing excellent work that allows us to fulfill our scriptural mission, honor our theological heritage, and strive toward our denominational values and priorities.