Dec  2016 20
From Mainline to Minority

The night when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a man who would become a best-selling end-times author stayed up all night expecting Kennedy to be resuscitated as the “beast with a wound in its head” referred to in the book of Revelation.

Today, some Christians see the election of Donald Trump as God’s work, that President Trump will play the role for the Christian Right, and for other kinds of socially conservative Christians, that Cyrus the Persian enacted for the Jews in captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BCE: Liberator.

Such Christians judge their social values, and the values necessary for a true and good society have been under assault by everything they lump together under the umbrella of “liberal” and “Obama.” But they believe President Trump, a “foreigner” in terms of Christian behavior, could nonetheless be God’s instrument for releasing them from their captivity that secular, liberal democracy allied with heretical religion has imposed on them.

Clearly, interpretation matters. No one simply sees or receives reality “as it is.” We interpret. We assign meanings when we answer questions such as what time it is, what is going on, how should we live, to whom do we listen and whom shall we ignore.

As one who was shocked and disheartened by the results of the national election, I have been pondering the results for the last month. Along with the majority of the nation who voted for the other candidate (and not a few who voted for the winner), I’ve been thinking about what a better practice of democracy requires. But, as a Christian for whom the culturally dominant forms of Christianity do not speak, I am paying close attention to what time it is for the kind of Christianity with which I identify.

For I am a Christian who believes the teachings of Jesus are embodied in the dual commands to love God and love neighbor, in the Lord’s Prayer, and in the parables. I believe Jesus’ social teachings could be summed up in the phrase, “God’s family is bigger than you think.”

I believe there is saving power in trusting and submitting to the disciplines and behaviors love requires, and that saving power is evident in loving personal relationships and in just social arrangements. And, life is always messy, we injure each other. We can’t live well—in families or in a society—without practicing penance, offering and receiving forgiveness, and preparing ourselves for the gift of community.

Because of these beliefs, I strive and I work for church and public spaces that lean toward practicing a politics of inclusion and equity, rather than a politics of purity that excludes persons who differ from the dominant groups.

What time is it for the type of Christianity with which I identify?

I find myself returning to an interpretation my doctoral advisor gave to me during an advising session 25 years ago. In speaking of my own denomination, United Methodist, he said: “Here is my take on the Methodists. You used to run the show. You don’t anymore. No one told you.”

There is an “ouch” in that line. There is also clarity.

In the 19th century, Methodism was the numerically dominant Protestant denomination. In the first half of the 20th century, Methodism and several other Protestant groups occupied the space of the cultural mainline.

Today, The United Methodist Church represents about 2.2 percent of the American population. There is nothing mainline about 2.2 percent of a population. Yet, speaking for myself, I still MENTALLY use the term “mainline” as if it means something.

So, I am resolving to scrub my mind and future writing of the concept “mainline.” I have to re-frame and reinterpret reality: I participate in a minority expression of Christianity. The majority of persons in this country (and in the world, really) who call themselves Christian believe and practice differently from me and my minority group.

Okay, what does that mean for how to be a Christian in the U.S. landscape? What time is it?

I never thought we Christians lived in the Promised Land (that language has been misappropriated from another nation and another era).

The image of exile used to appeal to me, and Walter Brueggemann has written persuasively about its use. But in the Bible, exile is a temporary location and the people’s hope was in return to their land. What if there is no return?

Now, I know political cycles come and go, cultural waves rise and fall and different individuals and parties surf in on one wave and don’t know how to catch the one that comes next. Regimes change.

So, I know the political leadership and the party politics of this nation will not always be what they are now (better or worse, who knows?). But what if there is no return from exile, if exile is home (Hebrews 11:13-16). By “no return,” I mean no return to the mainline mindset, no return to the fantasy that progressive Christian values will ever rule the hearts and laws of the land.

If there is no return, then it is time to consider the New Testament context. The entire New Testament was written by and to people exercising a minority religion in the Roman Empire.

We in the U.S. live within an Empire—one in which we can act, more or less, and vote, more or less—but an Empire nonetheless. Living as a minority religion in the Empire is a very different place to be than believing the incoming leadership will end your captivity.

I’ll continue this reflection next time. (This writing is a genuine blog; I am thinking about and through a subject by writing.)

 

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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