Beware the Narrative of Suspicion (and Division)
It is, I believe, day five of the Government Shutdown. Many Americans have been sent home from work and important services are either limited or unavailable. Why? Well, in large part it is due to a culture that has been created in Washington, but contributed to by the country as a whole. Don't think you're implicated -- well how we vote and to whom we listen reinforces behavior in government. I'm hoping for a quick ending to the current crisis, but there is a crisis that runs deeper, and it's necessarily a new phenomenon. There is a narrative of suspicion that runs deep in our society, which is abetted by a sense that we (whatever our ideology) are on the right path. Even if you don't believe in divine providence, you may think that your position is not only the right one, but the one to which history has been pointing.
Well, I want to leave the political scene for the rest of the post and turn to a particular segment of the Christian community, the one I call home. The movement/tradition to which I belong has from the beginning made unity among Christians a hallmark -- a historic plea. Barton Stone, for instance, famously declared that "unity is our polar star." We value unity, but unfortunately we have experienced and continue to experience division within our midst.
Yesterday I had the privilege and pleasure of participating in a conversation that Central Woodward Christian Church, (the congregation I serve as pastor) facilitated. On day one, which I attended as participant though I'm on sabbatical, we engaged with Dr. Scott Seay, Associate Professor of the History of Global Christianity, who spoke to us about "Healing the Rifts: Intra-Movement Cooperation in the Stone-Campbell Movement." In his morning lecture Scott laid out a narrative of our movement, about how this of movement of unity began to fragment and divide from about the third generation in the 1880s, and then developed a historical defense for this division. That is, each of the branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement wrote its history in such a way to justify its position and marginalize the other. The message that each sent to the other as they parted ways was basically "good riddance." By separating from each other, partisans could pursue a purer vision.
Let me give you one example, from the Disciples perspective (the most liberal branch of the movement). W.E. Garrison was a leading historian and thought leader among Disciples during the first half of the 20th century. He was a professor at the University of Chicago and an editor at the Christian Century. Writing in 1931, in his book Religion Follows the Frontier, Garrison took up the "frontier thesis" of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Garrison described the genius of the Disciples was its ability to adapt to the frontier. As Scott put it, for Garrison "if the Movement is to remain relevant in the future, he claimed, it must continue to adjust to the new frontiers of the American context, especially the nation's growing cities." Does this sound familiar? For Garrison the liberal branch of the movement was best equipped to do this. Indeed, if it wasn't for liberal Disciples, then the movement would have collapsed during the late 19th century into " a fissiaprous sect of jangling legalists." And who were these jangling legalists? For Garrison it was that branch of the movement that had emerged as the Churches of Christ. The withdrawal of that branch allowed Disciples to pursue its calling, to embrace its evolutionary development. Now, those who formed the Churches of Christ could look at the separation as an opportunity to free itself from the impurities of liberal heterodox beliefs and practices. And so off we went, through a century of further division and justification of that division through a narrative of suspicion and division.
I would have to say that for may of my more Disciple friends, engaging in a meaningful way representatives from the other two major branches of the movement might seem unproductive and even risky. It might require compromise. It might require looking to the other for gifts and graces that might enhance our own faith tradition. But, if we are to be a movement of wholeness in a broken world, shouldn't we pursue healing of the rift within our family?
As part of yesterday's event we had a panel representing each of the three branches. We had Disciple (Brenda Etheridge), Church of Christ (Keith Huey), and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (John Nugent). We didn't have a large gathering -- no where near what I had hoped -- but something important occurred. We shared our common longing to find reconciliation. We looked for ways of healing the rift by worshiping and fellowshiping together. We're not expecting to achieve structural realignment, but we can learn from each other. We can see in each other the signs of God's reign.
One of the outcomes of this event was a conversation that I had with John and Keith about holding a conference to discuss an issue of importance -- such as the nature of salvation -- using as a focus the thought of John Howard Yoder. We discovered during the panel that both John and Keith have been influenced by Yoder. By turning to someone from outside the movement we can then turn back to issues of importance and use that person's thought as a lens. All we need to now is find a Disciple who is a Yoderite!
So here's the key -- it would seem to me, and I know that Scott, John, Keith, and Brenda would agree, it's time to exchange our narrative of suspicion for a narrative of charity. May the healing begin! Why? Because I think we need each other more than we realize!