Jesus is not a thought; he is praxis-an action. If one reads the blogs, propaganda and plans coming forth in anticipation of the General Conference I do not see an active Jesus. The most common thoughts I encounter are the self-absorbed fantasies of a denominational zealots trying to save something that may not need to be saved. Peddling ideas, charts, and acronyms; they have solutions for every problem. These are the numerous “plans” to save our denomination. Within each of these plans, Jesus seems to be an abstract notion, a back burner issue. Rather than a front burner reality, calling into question the dehumanizing structures of power and oppression and urging United Methodists to serve the least and the lost, we have reduced Jesus to an inside baseball, doctrinal discourse on what serves our needs, our wishes, and financial realities best. The marginalized must wait until we figure out who we are and the self-righteous can return us to an 18th century Wesleyan idyll.
Are we “the United Methodist Church branch of Jesus movement”? Bishop Michael Curry introduced his tenure as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church by making a similar statement, “We are the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement”. When it comes to contemporary United Methodism, in the run up to our General Conference, I’m not sure we could honestly make such a sweeping statement. We look more like the doctrinally fixated Methodist branch of some other doctrinally obsessed Methodist movement. There’s very little in any of these plans identifying Methodism with the defining element of the Jesus movement; serving the least and the lost, the marginalized in our society.
I prefer not to believe in the proposals I’ve seen. In fact, I reject everything. I’d like to believe we’re better than the solutions, compromises, and ideas floating through the electronic ether. In one sense, I’d like to see what magic God will work in spite of the best and brightest of the United Methodist Church. On another level, this is because I’m an anarchist. The first great Christian anarchist, Saint Paul, said there is no authority except God. What would the future look like if we got out of the way and allowed God to work? Perhaps it’s my Quaker ancestors or the basic anarchical desire to find order out of chaos.
It’s difficult to appreciate the total anarchy Paul brought to the traditional understanding of religious law when he introduced Christianity into Gentile communities. As the French philosopher Alain Baidou notes in his seminal work, “Saint Paul and Universalism”, it’s not that Paul opposes Jewish law he simply says its tenants no longer apply. The Christ-event changed the rules of application, universally speaking, for all of humanity. There weren’t plans of compromise, cohesion, or unity. It was a total religious revolution. He created anarchy in one community to find order in another.
Paul made agape love, openness, and unconditional socio-economic acceptance universal values within the early church by acting to undermine the tenets of established doctrine. Paul writes with the confidence of a revolutionary when he tells the Galatians, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female.” Paul told his churches: the Christian communities and the societies you inhabit will come to be dominated by a universal sense of anarchic equality unheard of by the dominant power structures which rule our world. Sadly, the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline looks more like the power structures of the world than the universal sense of anarchic equality Paul proclaimed.
When we look beyond ourselves and our plans, to the radical other (living in our midst), people whose very presence calls our own self-aggrandizing definitions of agape into question, we will begin to see the distinctions between Jesus as thought and Jesus as action. We can also continue to talk to ourselves, convince each other that what we’re doing is more important than the hungry people dying on our doorsteps, or ignore the unloved people on our empty pews who could care less about the debates we’re so excited to have. We can do those things. Or we could do something different.