The World is Still our Parish

14568744736_b04b296581_zBefore the Civil War, Underground Railroad leader and Wesleyan preacher Laura Haviland was challenged to state the source of her convictions regarding “equal rights.” She replied, “We find them between the lids of the Bible.” Then she proceeded to narrate the theological underpinnings of human dignity. People are created in the image of God. Though fallen, they are all equally the concern of God who came in Christ. They have, by grace, been given a measure of freedom to receive God’s love and to love others. Haviland’s inquisitor dropped his objections. He may not have been changed in that moment, but he was impressed with her witness.

Two things strike me about this conversation:

First, I am struck by its biblical and theological grounding. Haviland is remembered as a bold advocate for human rights. Today we would call her an “activist.” Yet she did not act without clearly articulated theological understandings. She did not criticize others for being reflective, and she did not issue endless marching orders, policy statements, and condemnations. She thought carefully about God’s redemptive initiative and about God’s creation. Then she acted with unambiguous conviction. Theology matters.

Second, I am struck by the bold “truth claims” Haviland presented. Truth claims are, in this respect, arguments for construing the way things are and the way they ought to be. Laura Haviland was a careful thinker, but this did not mean she celebrated indecision. She was unafraid to reach conclusions that went beyond private sentiment, and Laura Haviland was not a relativist. She did not buy the notion that moral conviction is best compartmentalized or kept out of public discourse. Her thoughtful concern for all demanded a wider application.

It is a cliché, at best, to say that The United Methodist Church faces a time of crisis. A great part of our difficulty revolves around institutional identity and how we should relate to the surrounding culture. Section VI of the Social Principles (The World Community) reminds readers that the life of faith is not all about “us.” The last fifty years have witnessed several models of mainline church engagement with the world. For a while some wanted us to “let the world set the agenda,” even though loving the world and getting jerked around by its pathologies are not the same. Then some wanted us to see ourselves as spiritual outcasts in a hostile world. Other assertions were handed around over the decades. Our present insecurity has us aping corporate culture, athletic terminology, and an almost endless list of passing fads. Whatever happened to the narrative of redemption?

It is easy to invoke Section VI of the Social Principles and reiterate Wesleyan lore about the world being our parish. Some might hear this as a reaffirmation of ill-defined principles and aimless endorsement of the world’s ways. Not so. Loving the world and engaging it on God’s terms is not easy, but it is compelling. Consider Laura Haviland. Her prophetic work for human rights was grounded in the signature Wesleyan conviction that Christ came for all, not only the “elect.” For her, it was unacceptable to write off any member of humanity. At the same time, this comprehensive concern was rooted in theology. She did not advocate lazy compromise with our culture. The world needed and needs us to be who we were meant to be.

A few years ago, one of my students confronted me. She was not particularly “religious,” but she was drawn to the gospel. She told me that she didn’t care if the church was hip or on the “cutting edge” of anything. She didn’t care if we wanted to be like the most popular technology firm in Silicon Valley. She didn’t care if we were winners by the standards of a “winner-take-all” world. She could get that message and its accompanying behavior from the media, her environment, and the assumed values of her culture. She wanted us to be us—people in love with a God she wanted to know, even beyond her almost paralyzing skepticism. She wanted us to be us—people who dare to love all, even when there are no guarantees of outcome or reward, maybe especially when there are no such things.

We need to get over ourselves and consider the wonder of a God who busted down the door of history to save us from ourselves. A lot of other people are counting on us. The world really is our parish, in the best sense of that phrase.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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