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General Conference resembled sumo wrestling, says writer Jacob Dharmaraj: two big fat guys posturing at each other until one of them gets knocked out of the ring. In reality, the UMC can learn a lot from its Asian American members and others on the margins.
As I reflect on the GC 2012 with a fair amount of distance and time, one image kept coming back. If the GC 2012 were a sport, it would be sumo wrestling. It would be two big fat guys in a ring, with all sorts of posturing and rituals and stomping of feet, but actually very little contact, until the end of the match, when there is a brief moment of shoving, and the loser gets pushed out of the ring. No bloodletting but a lot of ego shattering.
The IOT’s towering recommendations and high aspirations incubated in the crucible of corporate-style containers and commercial archetypes before their currency gained rightful circulation at the legislative sessions of the GC were not only grooved with grief but also welded with throbbing pain and irascible soreness.
The occasional bursts of sane voices from the youth reminded the presenters and delegates not to “hide behind rhetoric” but face the challenges of time. Savvy comments from sage parliamentarians nonetheless successfully convinced the fence-sitters to garner votes and join the throng to sing the chorus that the ecclesial sky is falling and new mission structures must be created.
From an asinine argument about “expensive” printing paper a general agency uses in order to communicate with its constituents to standing in solidarity with the suffering Palestinian Christians, the debates were all veneered with denominational rhetoric “for the transformation of the world.”
Whenever someone echoed that phrase, and reminded the delegates that “the world is watching,” it evoked chuckle among some visitors. Live streaming never reached more than 2000 viewers and the national or global media, except for a scant coverage did not make much of this quadrennial event.
While I reflect on the five days of deliberations and the last-hour bolt from the blue, I was reminded of a scornful comment by Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, a Hindu and former President of India, who said, “Christians are ordinary people but they make extraordinary claims.”
In all honesty, while I refuse to agree with Radhakrishnan’s scathing remark, I secretly admit that it carries a twinge of truth. It is indeed a self-aggrandizing statement to say that we are going to transform the whole world when in reality we do not have a clear plan and passion about how we are going to do it. Was the youth delegate who made the blistering comment in one of the plenary sessions that “we are delusional” far from truth?
The previous century started with a big-bang mission statement: “Evangelize the world in this generation.” Of course, the previous century ended with a whimper not with a bang as far as the church in the global north is concerned.
GC 2012 is another example that proves our denomination’s ministry continues to focus on the dominant, triumphalistic paradigm. Transformation cannot be brought by replacing one structure with another structure. It has to come from grassroots and grass tops. It must be a movement from below, not from above. Movements can only be facilitated not managed. They must be generated but not legislated.
Agonizingly, GC 2012 also inflicted so much pain and ache upon a number of non-majority groups with no regard for human emotions and people’s daily lives. The Conference that blithely talked about diversity failed to demonstrate it. It repeatedly failed to acknowledge that it is not who is included that is important, but who is left out that is more important.
For instance, if only we had had a representative voice from the Palestinian Christian community on the floor or podium, the GC would not have voted the way it did. That goes for the petitions that were submitted by other non-dominant groups as well.
Can one group or individual in actuality understand or share the perceptions, thoughts or feelings of the different other? Can the rich truly understand the poor? The differences in background and perceptions are too deep and profound to be shared. Therefore, our denomination ought to engage in what is referred to as "a suspension of expectations" in which cultural, racial and communal assumptions are suspended, entering into the other’s world-views and values, and momentarily taking them as their own. We as a denomination must perceive, assess, and experience as the other among us do.
The GC’s decision to remove “Ineffective Pastors,” in my opinion, is not the panacea for ecclesial vitality while the church itself is out of step with the times at hand. The hope for the contemporary church as well as the church of the future lies not in the effectiveness of its current leadership but in the preparation, discharge and launching of the emerging generations of leadership to meet the challenges of the post-modern and post-Christian society. This generation is at risk of being less churched than ever before.
Receiving gifts from Christians from the margins include those from
- diasporic communities
- hyphenated identities
- different language groups
- post-Western societies who have not yet lost the mystery of the kingdom of God.
I do believe that the church is in need of change echoing the proven wisdom of leaders: ecclesia semper reformanda. The local church is the hope of the denomination. We must find ways to move from a consumer model of church to one that is essentially missional church.
If the denomination has to become a successful one in a Google-shaped world, it must become a host, not an authority which dispenses settled truths and builds super-structures. Its theology must be fired by accommodation and ecclesiology by pragmatism. “The leaders who influence our faith and action must convene (or moderate or enable) the conversations that change our life—or the activities that transform our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our God.” The era of command-and-control is over. May we go back to the foundational Christian practice of basin-and-towel model of authentic servant-hood and unadulterated mission from the margins?
Jacob Dharmaraj, Ph.D. is Vice President for Advocacy of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.