Let’s not lose our path
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s, apartheid in South Africa was a major concern in the hearts and minds of the global church, especially the World Council of Churches. I often preached against apartheid because of its blatant racism and also because of the way the Dutch Reformed Church supported, advocated for, and theologically justified apartheid in South Africa.
During those years, I was the pastor of a racially/ethnically mixed congregation. In addition to the world stage on which apartheid played out, reflecting on apartheid was a good way to talk about race—its history in our own religious tradition and the practical ways in which a diverse group of people live and work together as Christians in a first-ring suburb of Cleveland that worked to maintain diversity in spite of all odds. I talked about it enough that a family member of someone who attended regularly thought I was South African! (I guess that was because it’s not always clear why someone would advocate for justice for someone else.)
This week I’ve been at the Central Committee meeting of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. In this gathering, Christian leaders—laity and clergy from around the world and many Christian traditions—talk about what it means to live out the Christian faith in the midst of each church/country’s context. In the early 1980’s, the WCC was vilified in the US press for its work against apartheid in South Africa. Today the South Africans credit the WCC for being a major supporter against apartheid.
In the work group I was assigned to this week, we had as one of our tasks to receive the application of the Dutch Reformed Church back into the membership of the World Council of Churches. The DRC was one of the founding members of the WCC in 1948 but as a representative of the church who was present said, his church had “lost its path.” As a result, it was no longer a member of the WCC for 30 years.
The church member described the subsequent path that the DRC has made over the last three decades, asking for forgiveness and making acts of repentance, including appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Applying for re-admittance into the WCC was a statement of repentance as well as reconciliation with the world-wide church.
What a powerful moment! After decades the Dutch Reformed Church accepted responsibility, made acts of repentance for how it had “lost its path,” and experienced reconciliation. The journey was long!
Christian history is filled with examples of when the church has “lost its path. The Methodist Episcopal Church lost its path when it refused to allow Richard Allen and others from worshiping freely in the church or when prominent Methodists vilified Native Americans even as they worked for the end of slavery.
These are just a few ways in which we’ve lost our path along the way. When it happens, we see how long and difficult it is to come back together again with repentance and reconciliation. The detours are long and distracting, and they damage the witness of Christ and the church. These detours instead give witness to our own failures to find our path in what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
I continue to pray that we as United Methodists will do all in our power to give witness to the love and power of Christ and the church, even and perhaps most especially, when we disagree with each other.
PS: The Pan-Methodists are watching us closely and praying for us because they they say it’s not just about us as The United Methodist Church in terms of schism. They feel vulnerable to what might happen to them (AME, AMEZ, CME) and we must not give up finding a way forward together in the future as the United Methodist Church. We dare not “lose our path.”