Response to Riley Case

Riley Case [Good News Board of Directors, IRD/UMAction Advisory Board] had an article published in The New Zion's Herald [January/February 2002] in which he continues to denigrate United Methodist Bishops and Boards with the repetitive, highly-charged, negative language of "mediating elite."

The March/April issue had a response to Case by William Gould we thought put the contemporary issues in a helpfully larger context.

We hope this pairing of what was a sequential presentation will help clarify the issues at hand between what we see as United Methodists on the religious right who continue the Calvinistic Methodist tradition of Whitfield and progressive United Methodists who follow the Arminian Methodist tradition of Wesley.

These are reprinted with permission of Zion's Herald (magazine no longer published). Its byline was, "Opinion, News & Reflection for 21st Century Christians."

 Accusation
 

Affirmation

Bad politics, bad religion, bad morals
Riley Case

Consider United Methodism's mediating elite. These are the people who spend our money, who tell us what Sunday school literature we can use, what mission agency we can support, and how we should think about public policy. They are board and agency staff, bishops, church press editors, and seminary types.

It was not always so for Methodists and predecessor bodies. Early American Methodists denounced the "aristocratics" and "formalists" and the authority structure of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists, where the Gospel needed to be filtered through the training of educated clergy. Methodists took their understanding of the faith directly from the Holy Spirit. Under that system Methodists grew dramatically, and launched numerous reform movements including a strong anti-war sentiment. Their goal was nothing less than to win the world for Christ.

Then they got respectable, or at least a certain few did. They still wanted to Christianize the world but began to believe it would come by education and not revivalism, by the New Learning and not the old biblicism, by a new social order based on democracy and Western civilization and not the conversion of the world. In the process they traded in their traditional theology, based on Original Sin, conversion of the individual, and miracles, for the theology of modernism based on progress, science and a "kingdom" just around the corner. It was an ideology not friendly to the ways of common, ordinary Methodists, who were seen as people needing to be guided in the ways of enlightenment.

The enlightened ones, the mediating elite, had specific ideas about how the world was to be ordered. They, along with modernists of other mainline denominations, were, for example, unabashedly supportive of World War I. Halford Luccock could write just before World War I, The Christian Crusade for World Democracy, dutifully published by the Methodist Book Concern, with an opening illustration of marching soldiers. Harry Emerson Fosdick would travel abroad in support of the war.

Fundamentalists, on the other hand, while hardly pacifists, believed the war a mistake. William B. Riley argued that if no one man, apart from God, could guide his steps aright, how would democracy save the world when you multiply that one sinful man into thousands and millions. If there was to be an earthly kingdom, God would set it up, not human beings working through war. Shirley Jackson Case accused the fundamentalists of lacking patriotism and undermining the cause of world civilization.

World War I could hardly be labeled a "just war." The kingdom did not come. Indeed, World War I solved nothing (just as the fundamentalists had argued). The modernist mediating elite (who by now dominated the decision-making structures of the church) then did an ideological reverse. They now began to disdain war and passed resolutions urging war be outlawed (if you no longer believe in sin anything is possible). War, they now believed, was linked to captialism and the profit motive. The answer to the profit motive was socialism. Socialism would lead to sharing which would lead to peace. War would not be necessary.

So pacifism and socialism became the new ideology of choice. This was the ideology advanced by Methodists Federated for Social Service (MFSA), an unofficial voluntary group officially designated to be the church's social conscience (since, in the minds of some, the church was not competent to do this on its own). MFSA, in turn, was much intrigued by the Soviet experiment to the extent that, if not officially communist, they were fellow-traveling down the same ideological road.

This new pacifism was hardly the pacifism of the historic peace churches, which sought to model a community of non-resistence based on the teachings of Jesus. Those believers (at least at that time), like the fundamentalists, were skeptical of a world peace based on human wisdom. They recognized an evil in the world linked not only to war but to political systems in general and tended to be apolitical or even anti-political.

Not so the mainline mediating elite, for whom pacifism was to be a matter of public policy based on the idea that people and nations were essentially good and simply needed to be shown a better way. If we were to treat other nations nicely they will be nice to us in return. We all needed to share, and the profit motive was not based on sharing. Not surprisingly, they found a lot more to criticize in American capitalism during the 1930s than they did in Stalin's starving of 25 million peasants (in order to make socialism work), and in Japanese and German expansionism. For its part MFSA was not opposed to a bit of necessary violence here and there on the picket line in support of labor if it promised to produce good end results.

Most of the time, however, the 1930s pacifism expressed itself in resolutions. Youth conferences, women's conferences, General Conferences, and any group influenced by the mediating elite (but almost never local churches) ­ all needed to pass a peace resolution or two when they met on behalf of the kingdom.

If Methodism's mediating elite could not bring itself to recognize evil in the world that would only be restrained by force, others did. Roosevelt and Churchill didn't talk about making the world safe for democracy, or spreading Christian civilization, but they believed without some kind of response by force the world would soon by ruled by tyrants. And they were willing to go to war to stop the tyrants. Theirs was an argument for a just war, the protection of the weak and innocent and the defense of values and freedoms that were a part of what their countries best represented.

It can be argued that 98 percent of all Methodists believed the same. War was ugly, but war was sometimes necessary. There were some things worth defending including the dignity and worth of all individuals.

Meanwhile the mediating elite were still passing resolutions. In 1941 the United Brethren pledged itself "not to endorse, support, or participate in war." In 1942 the General Conference of the Evangelical Church proclaimed that "war and bloodshed are not agreeable to the gospel of Jesus Christ." The majority report to the 1944 Methodist General Conference affirmed the pacifist position even at the height of the war. Only after extensive debate did the conference reverse the majority report and pass by a slight majority (the clergy vote was 170-169) a resolution that recognized in some situations war could be supported.

All of this was happening while Nazis were gassing Jews, when appeasement had not worked, while Methodists on the home front were overwhelmingly lending their sons and daughters to the war effort and buying war bonds and praying for the nation. If the resolutions had any effect on the rank and file in the church pew, it was not apparent.

Evidently no lessons were learned in World War II by the mediating elite. Resolutions continued to be passed against all forms of violence and on behalf of human rights, but they were selective in nature. The Soviet Union continued to get off easy (see Classmate, July, 1947, where Stalin is lifted up as a modern hero); Cuba was mentioned as the country closest to the ideal of justice and equality; liberation movements and figures were generally supported as harbingers of the kingdom of God. Even while decrying violence church groups channeled funds to groups engaged in armed revolution.

So now we have 9/11 and Islamic terrorism. In a spontaneous and somewhat surprising display of patriotism and religious fervor Americans have overwhelmingly supported the nation's response of armed force to deal with an evil which, if left unchecked, would threaten not only the Christian faith that is dear to us but the nation that has become our temporal home.

How shall the church respond? It is obvious that moral and religious issues are at the heart of the matter. The United Methodist Church ­ that is, the vast majority of the people ­ has already responded in support of the president and the congress. No one wants war. No one is excited about war. There are risks involved in war. We cannot guarantee the outcome. But there seems no viable alternative.

But our mediating elite - those who seem to know what is best for all the rest of us ­ marches to a different step. They are stuck in an ideology that, in an earlier time, Reinhold Neibuhr described as "bad politics, bad religion, and bad morals." And so we have another round of resolutions.

For example, the Women's Division of the United Methodist Church condemns all bombing in Afghanistan, and calls for negotiations. It disparages the display of the American flag, and opposes the bipartisan anti-terrorist act. It speaks of American policy as an understandable reason that would lead people to terrorism.

The church's Board of Church and Society pronounces that "war is not an appropriate means of responding to criminal acts against humanity." It believes the United Nations can be involved in multilateral action.

Then we have the bishops. They make the now well-quoted statement that "violence in all of its forms and expressions is contrary to God's purpose for the world," which, if taken literally would mean that we would not even have police forces, let alone armies. They wish to protect those who are innocent and most vulnerable but would have us follow a course in which the innocent and most vulnerable are at the mercy of terrorists who, if they could, would take over the world.

The bishops cannot bring themselves to urge prayer for those who represent us (and many others) in military action. There is no evidence of any support for the present government policy. Neither is there mention of beliefs and values that most of the country (including 98 percent of United Methodists) are willing to defend. The bishops mention "forces of evil" (the only mention of evil or sin) but it appears that "forces of evil" refers to American action as well as terrorist action.

One has the distinct impression that our mediating elite are living in an unreal world. They are still tied to the failed ideologies of the past and offer up to us simplistic solutions to difficult problems. The words they speak are embarrassing in their naiveté.

It is true that few wars, fought for whatever reason, have made the world a better place. It is also true that retaliation and revenge are not worthy motives to justify war. It is true that innocent lives will be lost if bombing and war are pursued. It is true that war presents great risks and we cannot guarantee outcomes. It is true that we are presently needing an intelligent discussion on "just war," and whether it is even possible. A place to begin is with our own Book of Resolutions.

But it is also true that sin and evil are very much with us. The nation has responded to terrorism, and unless there are clear biblical reasons for doing otherwise, it needs our support.

The Rev. Riley Case is a retired member of the North Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. He lives in Kokomo, Indiana. E-mail:rbcase@netusa1.net.

Copyright © 2002
Zion's Herald (Jan/Feb).
Reprinted with permission

 

Setting the Record Straight:
A Reply to Riley Case

William B. Gould

In a recent sermon, William H. Willimon, Dean of the Duke University Chapel, said, "There is not a real world and an unreal world. Rather, we each have different views of reality."

I heard this sermon after I had read Riley Case's article titled, "Bad politics, bad religion, bad morals" in the Jan./Feb. issue of Zion's Herald.

What Dean Willimon said helped me to realize that Case's perception of reality is radically different from the history of Methodism in our country.

Although Case does not identify those whom he calls "Early American Methodists," the characteristic he attributes to them match those of the Colonial Calvinistic Methodist Societies influenced by the charismatic preaching of the British revivalist George Whitefield (1714-1770), who preached on both continents, and who embraced what is known as the Great Awakening, a remarkable revival movement that spread to New England because of the leadership and fiery preaching of the Calvinistic Congregational minister of Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), best known for his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

The five characteristics of the Colonial Calvinistic Methodists ­ which Case proposes as models for present-day Methodism ­ illustrate where Case's theological position begins.

The fundamentalist Calvinistic Methodists biblicism (adherence to the letter of the Bible) differed sharply from John Wesley's emphasis that the Bible should be read seriously, intelligently, and with discernment, but not literally.

The Calvinistic Methodists' theology, based on the doctrine of original sin, is far from Wesley's proclamation of the Good News of the Gospel centered in the life of Jesus as the Christ.

The scorn for church order, a characteristic of the Great Awakening, was rejected by the Methodist Episcopal Church at its founding Christmas Conference in 1784 when it established a church with sound theology and began a definite polity that would be even more established when the church had its first general conference eight years later. The Methodist Episcopal Church adopted 28 of the Articles of Faith of the Anglican Church; patterned its rituals on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and provided a "Discipline" that included orders of deacons and elders for the ordained ministry.

While Francis Asbury (1745-1816) and Thomas Coke (1747-1814) were "set aside," September 1, 1784, by Wesley to be the superintendents of his work in America, at the founding Christmas Conference held a few months later in Baltimore, the two men were ordained superintendents by the American church. At the first General Conference, held the year after Wesley's death in 1791, the title "superintendent" was changed to "bishop".

The Calvinistic Methodists' belief in predestination (that the destiny of every person is predestined by the Divine Rule of God) was vehemently opposed by John Wesley, who, true to his Anglican Arminian heritage, insisted that a Christian who uses free will to love God and neighbor may aspire to perfection.

During 1740-1741, Wesley and Whitefield exchanged heated correspondence on their doctrinal differences over predestination, free will and perfectionism. Although the two men were later reconciled personally, John Wesley made sure that Arminianism and not Calvinism would define the position of the Methodist Church both in England and in the American Colonies.

One of the teachings of the revivalists of the Colonial period was their insistence that their understanding of the faith was equated with the Holy Spirit. In other words, when my understanding of the faith is equated to the Holy Spirit, I can claim that my understanding is complete and faultless because my expression of belief is really the Holy Spirit speaking through me.

Reinhold Niebuhr warns of the religious piety that results from this kind of theology. He writes in Man's Nature and His Communities: "Religious piety is more apt to be found claiming the Divine for an ally of its own partial viewpoints ­ 'It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us' ­ rather than showing a humble awareness of the relative aspect of all historical loyalties"

Instead of equating the understanding of faith with the Holy Spirit, the Methodist Church teaches that Christians should pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help their understanding of the faith and to recognize that while their understanding of the faith may be at times inspired, it is always fallible and incomplete.

By the first quarter of the 20th Century, many considered the Methodist Church the Protestant denomination as most representative of middle-class America. As such, it reflected many of the strengths and weaknesses of the nation at large; and this was especially true when the Methodist church's elected leaders dealt with the issue of pacifism before World War I and World War II.

Case seems to pass over the fact that prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the majority of Americans were isolationists and pacifists. When the United States declared war on the Axis powers in 1941, the Methodist Church could not take any formal action regarding its 1940 pacifistic stand until its next quadrennial General Conference in 1944. It was then that the church officially supported both conscientious objectors and those who were in military service.

When I entered the United States Army Air Corps, as a teen-ager, in February 1943, I was not at all aware of the Methodist Church's pacifistic stance; nor would I have cared if I had known about it. Instead, I remember the prayers, warm greetings and hospitality offered to me by both the pastors and the laity of the Methodist churches wherever I was stationed in the United States.

When I was overseas in North Africa and Italy, I became aware especially of those who left their parishes to serve as military chaplains, with the support of the leadership of the Methodist Church.

For Case, reality seems to be the United States following an isolationist or unilateral course in its "war on terrorism," prepared to do so without any international cooperation, including that of the United Nations. For him, reality is a United Methodist Church where its bishops should see violence in all its forms and expression as part of God's plan instead of opposed to it. For him, a realistic response to the present terrorist crisis is to discuss the "just war" theory whose rationale, for some scholars, is the Crusades of the Middle Ages.

The author's sense of reality takes an unexpected twist when he urges that such discussions should begin with the Methodist Church's Book of Resolutions, despite the fact that he has excoriated the resolutions of the Methodist Church throughout his article.

Although he does not give the context of his quote from Niebuhr, it happens that Case's view of reality fits exactly Niebuhr's epithet "bad politics, bad religion, bad morals." As a student of Niebuhr, I remember in his course on Christian Ethicsm he described morality in terms that he used in his book Faith and History.

They took on special relevance for me when I read Case's polemic against the United Methodist Church. Niebuhr writes that, "The ability to judge friend or foe with some degree of objectivity, is in the ultimate instance a moral and not an intellectual achievement since it requires a mitigation of fears and prejudices, envies and hatreds which represent defects, not of the mind, but of the total personality."

The Rev. Dr. William B. Gould, a retired member of the New England Conference, served pastorates in New York and New England before becoming a professor of philosophy, religion and theology at several universities. Since his retirement in 1992, he has been teaching mature learners at Duke University.

Copyright © 2002 Zion's Herald (Mar/Apr).
Reprinted with permission

   

 

[Additional side-by-side responses are available here.]

Comments welcome