SET APART: The Violence of Holiness

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Standing outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, one can be excused for feeling apprehension. After all, the museum represents over 40 years of systemic racial oppression, the effects of which still swirl around South African life.

But the discontent arises from something more immediate and visceral. Across the street from the museum, in a supremely terrible example of bad taste, sits Gold Reef City, a combination casino-theme park. You can’t really see it as much as you can hear it.

As you prepare to enter the monument to a people’s suffering, you can hear the low rumbling of the Anaconda and the screams of schoolchildren. Yes, screaming kids.

There’s no screaming inside the museum, of course, but there is a constant assault on the senses, a low-grade roar of moral depravity, a high-pitched scream that can’t be heard which says, “This is not past history.”

The word “apartheid” is an Afrikaans word meaning “apartness,” literally “apart-hood.” It came to be the name of a particular political ideology which strictly enforced segregation among the races in South Africa, with whites firmly in charge of the whole. A stroll through the museum unfolds the ramifications of such a policy — minority rule, pass laws, enforced population removals, police brutality, education disparities, and so on. The museum celebrates the long fight to overcome apartheid, including the many freedom fighters, students, and artists who played a role in the struggle.

Like any such monument to a national tragedy, whether the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, these museums are meant to bring the past to present awareness, but not just for the sake of remembering the victims or celebrating the heroes. 

The real point of these places is to make you see the present in light of the past, to make sense of what is going on here and now. In other words, one should be able to hear the screams of today’s victims as well as yesterday’s.

HOLINESS AS RELIGIOUS APARTHEID

The very word “apartheid” has entered the contemporary lexicon as a historically-located word connoting a great social evil, alongside “Holocaust” and “Balkanization.” When it does not refer to the actual national policy of South Africa from 1948 to 1991, it is a slur, an accusation of immoral social divide. For a current event, witness the debate over whether Israel practices “apartheid” against Palestinians.

But the idea of “apartness” or “being set apart” is ancient. In fact, it’s a primitive religious concept, even for Christians. Theologically speaking, the word translated holy in the Hebrew Scriptures, qadash, refers to something which is set apart from other things by virtue of its usefulness to, or nearness to, God. The items in the Jewish tabernacle, for instance, were taken out of ordinary, everyday usage in order to be used purely for rites that demanded cleanliness and purity. They were set apart for a divine purpose.

The New Testament word for holiness, hagios, has the same core meaning. And it is this word that has led to a large vocabulary of words related to set apart-ness, including “saints,” “sanctification,” and “sanctifying.” They all are apartheid words!

The Wesleyan Methodist in me squirmed when I realized this. After all, as I have repeatedly told my Methodist history students, one of the signal theological contributions made by John Wesley was the development of the doctrine of sanctification. Wesley repeatedly claimed that his goal, and the goal of the Methodist movement, was “to spread scriptural holiness across the land.”

To be fair, Wesley did not define holiness as set apart-ness; he describes it as the love of God and neighbor. That was his essential understanding of holiness. But the very way the word has come down to us through Western civilization carries an implicit separateness — one who is holy is absolutely different from those who are not holy. The breakaway preachers and laypeople of the 19th-century Holiness movement understood this clearly; to be holy meant being different from. That’s why they came to despise the Methodist churches they worshipped in. They thought the Methodists had lost their distinctiveness from the rest of the culture; they acted just like everyone else! They were no longer set apart.

The Afrikaaners who instituted apartheid in southern Africa also had this religious conception of separateness; they believed they were set apart for great things by God. They believed that they were chosen by God to rule southern Africa, because they carried the torch of Christianity and civilization. They were white, after all, and this alone was proof of their holiness.

That seems laughable in hindsight; how does the color of one’s skin prove one’s superiority? It’s an accident of birth, a tiny difference in the genetic code. 

Yet humans seem to crave differentiation. It’s a built-in defense mechanism for those with low self-esteem. We will pick up on the slightest difference with another person in order to make ourselves feel better about who we are. 

But this brings me back around to my own Methodist roots. Is there a deep-rooted sense of self-loathing at the core of our doctrine of sanctification? Is it possible that an emphasis on “perfection” (the word most commonly associated with Wesley’s theology) masks a sense of uncertainty that one is capable of being a good person? 


THE DANGER OF APARTHEID IN A GLOBAL WORLD

These days, I’m wondering if any sense of apartness is appropriate, for anyone, anywhere. When people talk about globalization, they are often talking about economic matters, but the truth is that because of the ease of transportation and communication, people around the globe are finally realizing that we all really are interconnected. If we learned in the 1970s that “all politics is local,” we are learning now that “all politics is global.” A protest in Hong Kong ends up shaking world markets; a schoolgirl from Sweden stops going to school on Fridays and finds herself in front of the United Nations General Assembly; a tweet from a celebrity leads news broadcasts. 

The obvious example of this is the accelerating climate crisis; the burning of fossil fuels in the industrial world is causing the destruction of environments and communities in the undeveloped world. This means that my decision to drive to work in my combustible engine makes things worse for a family in the Bahamas, and the only thing that keeps me from considering the consequences of what I am doing is our apartness. I don’t know a single family that lives in the Bahamas. I won’t likely get a picture of them on the evening news or even on my news feed. I am oblivious to my complicity because we are apart.

It is this apartness, this contemporary apartheid, that ensures my negligence and fuels my sin. 

The rise of populist nationalism is a kind of apartheid, too. “America First” is just another way of proclaiming faith in segregation; “you keep to your kind and we’ll keep to ours." This kind of nationalism is uninterested in others; it’s a lazy apartheid and hides behind the well-worn concept of borders.

However, since the creation of the United Nations, there has been a growing realization that nations need each other, that an ethos of cooperation and collaboration is better than what we had before. The UN is hardly perfect, but it represents an ideal that everyone can agree on — we are better together.

What I’m saying is that the sense of apartness is always ultimately a destructive thing. It may start off as an effective protective mechanism; people may rally around the difference that has marked them as victims and proceed to win some victories. They may discover, or recover, a sense of human dignity in the process, but if they cling to their sense of apartness for very long, they will inevitably succumb to the same disease as the Afrikaaner Nationalist Party in South Africa in 1948.

The longer one believes that he or she is different from them, and must maintain a separateness from them so that they don’t become like them, the more likely it is that he or she will resort to violence to enforce the apartness. And the category of those who are them is likely to grow larger and larger over time.

That goes for religious folks, too. In fact, religious apartheid may be the worst kind. It’s simply not possible anymore to believe that God desires separation — between people, between God and people, between any part of God’s creation. A true understanding of the gospel reveals that, in fact, the whole point of Jesus Christ was the reconciliation of all things in creation to God! If Jesus means anything at all, he means to bring together and bridge the ghastly gaps in human existence. Jesus is the one who reconciles all people to God, and to each other. We are to avoid any form of separation, especially that which is done in the name of God.

PETTY PERSONAL APARTHEIDS

Though there has been a slowly dawning realization across the earth that we are all one race in a glorious diversity of colors, languages, and cultures, we are also living in a period of time in which enforced separation is still considered a social good by some people, maybe even most. Separation between nations, races, cultures, and religions is considered wise, necessary, even natural; the creeping togetherness of the world’s economics and politics has generated an enormous amount of fear. Politicians have seized upon this feeling and used it to their benefit. Brexit is Exhibit A of the fear of the breakdown of our small personal apartheids. 

But that’s all these are — they are small personal systems of apart-ness, futile gestures of esteem-building. They don’t work because they are not part of the natural order of things; diversity is good and necessary. They aren’t wise because they deprive one of the gifts of others. They will always lead to self-destructive violence.

Violence is inevitable because it is the only way to enforce what is unnatural; no matter how hard you try to separate yourself from the one whom you fear or hate, you will find yourself  inextricably caught up in their situation and will have to resort to violence to maintain the separation.

Dismantling apartheid in South Africa in the late 20th century was a struggle, a long process of convincing the ruling party that the oppressed would no longer be complicit in the policy of set apart-ness. 

Dismantling apartheid in one’s heart is much, much tougher, for it means letting go of the lies and delusions you have told yourself about yourself. It requires a strong sense of identity, a confidence that you are accepted as you are, that God — if you believe in God — loves you and affirms your being. It means, then, a healthy sense of self, and the courage that comes from this conviction.

I Love the Bible, But Sometimes It's Wrong

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I recognize that the time for determining whether homosexuality is “incompatible” or “compatible” with Christian teaching has mostly passed by for United Methodists. What remains in February 2019 is an accounting of where people already are, and an adjustment (or not) of church law concerning such matters.

But I believe that there is still value in defending the progressive position from a theological perspective. I fear that progressive Methodists have largely conducted the conversation in terms of inclusion/exclusion, which largely misses the point when speaking with traditionalists. The UM Right doesn’t view this conflict as a matter of hospitality or in-or-out patterns; rather, they believe that affirming homosexuality is an affront to scriptural authority, and a blow against “traditional, orthodox Christianity.” 

When progressives engage in debate which overlooks this crucial fact, we tend to lose ground in the very place where we need to hold tight. 

Let’s be very honest here. Despite the laudable efforts of folks like Matthew Vines (author of “God and the Gay Christian”), who attempt to mitigate and re-interpret the so-called gay “clobber passages,” the Bible is clear about homosexuality — it’s against it! Both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament contain texts which simply and forcefully condemn homosexual practice. Jesus doesn’t say anything about it, but that’s really beside the point to a traditionalist Christian, because all of Scripture is believed to be the inspired Word of God! If Paul’s letters are inspired revelation, then it stands with equal authority alongside the words of Jesus.

The mouthpiece of the UM RIght, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, released this statement on the Bible, which can be found on their website:

Statement on Biblical Authority

Given the current challenges directed to the unique place of the Bible in the church, we affirm that the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture as “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3; NRSV). We look to the Bible therefore as our authority and trustworthy guide, which “is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; NRSV). Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.


On a cursory first reading, there is nothing in this statement that is particularly troublesome. I have no great problem with anything said here, though I think it’s ironic that II Timothy 3:16 is quoted as being about itself (it’s not; it’s speaking about the Hebrew Scriptures, not its own canonical status which came several hundred years after it was written). 

Progressive Christians would agree that “the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture.” We agree that the Bible is “our authority and trustworthy guide.” It’s the last line of the statement which contains the seed of the conflict between traditionalists and progressives: “Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.”

Progressives maintain there is a difference between the primary revelation of Scripture and everything contained in Scripture itself. The revelation of Scripture is that God was in Christ Jesus, reconciling the world; Jesus is the Word of God. Scripture, then, is a medium, a means of expression to communicate this life-changing good news to us. 

To the extent that Scripture speaks of the God who was in Christ Jesus, then it is revelation. But when it doesn’t, and let’s be honest, it doesn’t always, then it can and should be laid aside.  We should reject the stories of horror and terror which permeate the book of Judges and Ezra; we should turn away from Paul’s admonition that “women should be silent in our churches”; and we should jettison the idea that homosexuality is sinful and abhorrent.

Yes, I recognize that this kind of talk sounds dangerous and heretical, but it’s not. Progressives need to stand up and talk like this in public. We need to boldly proclaim that the Bible is not inerrant or infallible, specifically to reject and resist those who have turned Scripture into a rigid, authoritarian set of laws.

When Scripture is “illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience,” then we recognize that the Bible itself is the written record of thousand of years of experience. People who struggled to be faithful to the God they had come to know, struggled to write down their understanding of faith and practice. They came to their own conclusions, forged out of the anvil of historical process, but guided by the Spirit of God.

We now know so much more about the experience of LGBTQ persons that we can no longer cling to the limited understandings of first-century folks for insight into the wonder of the human body. This is not to claim that we are somehow morally superior than our ancestors, nor that we know more about God. But we do know more about the world, which can only be expected with the passage of time.

I don’t know why this is so threatening to traditionalist Christians. I don’t understand why the Bible has to be absolutely correct, without error, and completely authoritative. And I don’t know why this stance is deemed dangerous or heretical.

Scripture reveals something profound about God, about myself, about this creation. This revelation is the figure of Jesus Christ. I believe in this Jesus Christ, and I have committed myself to following him. What I believe about the Bible is, frankly, irrelevant.

Progressives need to speak out loudly on behalf of a Christianity that is not constrained by the cultural biases of the Bible’s authors. We must be honest about those places where Paul got it wrong; we have to acknowledge the Bible’s contradictions, its excesses, its blind spots. We cannot be afraid of “undermining” Scripture’s authority, because it’s not Scripture that is authoritative; only the God revealed in Jesus is authoritative.

And that God is remarkably full of grace.

A New Society of Methodists?

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Two years ago, after returning home from the General Conference in Portland, I sat down and typed out a hastily-conceived plan of action for progressive United Methodist clergy and churches. 

I shared it with only one person, got no response, and then left it in a folder on my laptop.

I opened the file again yesterday, and re-read it. I will share part of it here, because I think it’s still a possible course of action for those of us who will be forced out of the post-February 2019 United Methodist Church. 

This plan makes one major assumption — that progressive churches will be granted a gracious and lenient exit. I mean that they must be able to leave the denomination with their property and assets intact with, at most, only a minimal financial penalty. If that happens, then my plan still could work.

I called my document, “A New Society of Methodists: A Covenant for the Future.” I’d like to argue that the Wesleyan Covenant Association stole my use of the word “covenant,” so that I could potentially sue them, but that would be dishonest! I have always liked the word “covenant,” because it’s Biblical and it implies a mutual commitment to a shared ideal.

In the introduction of my document, I wrote the following: “Since a church split seems inevitable, it would be foolish to delay thinking about the outcomes. It behooves like-minded progressive clergy and faith communities to begin to self-identify and organize for a fruitful and faithful future now, rather than wait any longer for the “powers-that-be” to make those decisions for us.”

Well, I delayed thinking about outcomes for two years. I’m one of those people who allowed the can to be kicked down the road and figured that I would deal with it later. 

Guess what? Later is now!

Here was my proposal:

Those clergy and communities who consider themselves Wesleyan and are also open to progressive understandings of Scripture and theology are invited to align themselves with each other by means of signing a covenant and becoming part of a New Society of Methodists (NSM). This covenant may or may not be used as a foundational document for a future church. 

This covenant would:

  • be a brief and concise document in which a free association of faith communities and clergy would agree to be in a networked relationship with each other;

  • be written by a small representative body of interested parties;

  • place authority in local faith communities rather than a hierarchical and bureaucratic structure;

  • be sufficiently broad as to allow great diversity in theology and practice, yet sufficiently specific to mark signatories as Wesleyan;

  • be re-confirmed on a yearly basis at a covenant service in which signatories gather for a short “Annual Conference”;

  • and allow each covenanted clergy person and community the freedom to cooperate and participate freely with other church bodies.

This covenant would not be a legally binding document, but instead a spiritual and theological manifesto of mutually dependent relationship and a common vision of a way forward. It would say nothing about property rights, building ownership, pensions, or salaries. Instead, the covenant would identify those communities and clergy who would be willing to work together in the event that the UMC ceased to exist as presently constituted.

I included a first draft of a possible Covenant to be used by the New Society of Methodists:


THE NEW SOCIETY OF METHODISTS

PREAMBLE

We, the undersigned, are the heirs of John Wesley’s powerful contribution to Christian discipleship. We are convinced that God is not finished with the Methodist stream of Christian faithfulness, yet also are persuaded that the current expressions of structured Methodism have reached the end of their usefulness.

In advance of future structures and organization, we affirm our commitment to one another as Wesley’s heirs in both content and form. As to content, Wesley preached a practical divinity, which can be described as a journey of faith, or “way of salvation,” beginning in prevenient grace, coming to new birth in justifying grace, and continuing on as the pursuit of holiness in sanctifying grace. As to form, Wesley created multiple levels of discipling bodies, including societies, classes, and bands, in which all people were invited to continue their walk of discipleship.


TENETS

  1. We affirm John Wesley’s understanding of grace and commit to teaching and practicing the implications of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace, as well as the means of grace.

  2. We affirm that we live in pursuit of Christian perfection, with “faith working in love,” which means that we teach and practice acts of piety, mercy, and justice.

  3. We affirm the practicality of Wesley’s discipleship model, which includes societies, classes, and bands, as fundamental to growth in grace.

  4. We affirm that our Communion Table will be open, not restricted to anyone for any reason.

  5. We affirm that all people may participate in all aspects of community life and ministry, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, mental or physical ability, national origin, culture, tradition, sexual orientation or gender identity.

  6. We believe that the local faith community is the base unit of organization, in which should reside authority to decide how the community should organize itself and plan for local ministry.

  7. We believe that the Scriptures are an open, living document in which God speaks to us. Scripture is not inerrant, and cannot and should not be read literally and woodenly, as if it had only one correct meaning, but instead should be opened with care, studied with as many tools as can be used, and read not in isolation, but in community.


COVENANT:

  1. We will pray for the members of this covenant by name on a regular basis.

  2. Where practical and possible, we will provide material and spiritual support for each other’s ministries and needs.

  3. We will attempt to match covenant clergy with covenant communities for ministry employment.

  4. We commit to participating in an Annual Conference of covenanting New Methodist clergy and communities, for the purpose of renewing our covenant together.

  5. As individuals, we commit to participating in a weekly discipleship meeting, in which our goal is to grow in grace.


Of course, there are lots of things that this plan fails to address. In essence, what it proposes is a free association of progressive Wesleyan churches without an episcopacy or itinerancy. The connectional ideal is maintained by the covenant.

And yes, this explicitly takes the form of a congregational polity. But what else can there be in a post-February 2019 world? Does anyone really want to spend time re-creating the administrative structure of 20th-century United Methodism?

Now is the very time when we should be imagining and creating a better future. Perhaps a free association of churches can be more flexible and adaptable to the mission field, not to mention less financially restrained. Maybe we don’t need bishops and district superintendents in the next iteration of Methodism. 

What do you think? Is there anything here that is usable post-February 2019?