Running Out of Options

Civil war?  What does this mean?  Is there any foreign war?  Is not every war between men, war between brothers?  –Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862)

Western Christianity is dying.  The United Methodist Church is dying.  We are aging faster than new members are appearing.  Like Baseball, the average attendance of those who attend our “games” is trending upward.  Those who do attend our churches do not want to be involved in religious life longer than one or two hours a week.  Our children, the “so called” future of the church, are either dumped for brainwashing in recycled versions of the Jesus People meetings called “Youth Groups” where guilt induced sessions of preaching and teaching lead them to the Lord or we encourage them to participate in character building activities which have nothing do with the history of western civilization.  Baseball and basketball may build teamwork but they did not help win the Battle of Marathon.  Even running did not help win the battle of Marathon.  Philosophers and religious men of ethics defeated the Persian hordes in battle.  For some reason, we like to pretend otherwise.

The world has turned against us.  And why should they not?  We worship a Savior whose message of love and tolerance is no longer acceptable to a world in perpetual civil war.  We have turned on each other.  Our quaint ways and simple beliefs are too much for a planet awash in anger fueled orgies of consumption and rage.  We can quote John Wesley to each other, launch trendy podcasts to reinforce our strongly held beliefs, and huddle in small groups while war is waged on us.  We can do those same things while we attack our secular neighbors and religious sisters and brothers.  Christians are great at multitasking.

The United Methodist Church is not in the midst of a schism. We are in a civil war.  Schism is the wrong word for our reality.  It’s a polite religious word.  Our war is a civil war, a reflection of the larger conflict in the wider society.  This is not a culture war.  Culture wars are so yesterday.  Cultures do not fight.  People fight.  When people fight, they and their institutions die.  We’re dying, the institutional church, that is.  United Methodism is dying a slow painful death, a thousand shrapnel wounds on the battlefields of delay, pretentious, and we all should have known better.  That’s just us.  The fatalities and casualties run down the line.

I do not believe a dominant political culture has launched a war against those who express a counter-cultural religious identity.  Conventional wisdom holds the media or government (regardless of the ideological persuasion) as the culprits who undermine American’s religious liberties.  This is not so.  The primary attack on religious life in America comes from within.  We are doing this too ourselves.  Many Americans don’t want to be religious any longer.  We say we do but we’re lying.  Church is not important to our lives.  In the future, if we are to want or need a church, it’s not going to be there. Our apathy killed it.

For others, it’s a death wish. In effect, we are suicide bombers, waging war for ideological purity among those we deem heretical and unfaithful.  This menace doesn’t come from beyond us.  It’s not an existential threat. We are killing each other and anyone who gets in our way.  I am speaking metaphorically, of course.  The churches who are choosing to leave the denomination do so because they pretend they have no other options.  Even Ebola sufferers now have vaccine.  Some options exist.

Why do some United Methodists insist on removing and killing themselves (and entire denomination)? Ask ISIS, they will tell you:  death makes a better headline.  I believe they have become gods unto themselves willing to hurt whomever they choose.  As a perverse corruption of David Bowie’s lyric, instead of heroes, they want to be gods and for more than one day.

Am I being too negative?  Yes, you’re damn right I am.  But it’s pretty negative where the rubber meets what’s left of the religious road; even in the heart of the Bible belt.  What we’re doing, talking about doing, and urging people to do isn’t working.  We’re alienating what few people we have left and making it really hard for average people to find value in associating with us as a church.  The people we really need to reach enjoy the role they’re playing in the decline of western civilization.

Here’s one thing I see:  parents, who were raised in the church, now see no moral or ethical value in rearing their children in a religious environment.  (I do not see parents bringing their children back to church once they marry and/or have children.) A parental decision, yes!  But if we’ve lost that link with a generation of young people we were making no more than twenty years ago in rural Southern communities where secularism was never a threat and God was the biggest thing in town; then the church is already dead.  Even death won’t restore these links. When tragedy strikes a community and people are naturally drawn back toward spirituality and the need to ask deeper questions, the church has been left behind for school gyms and roadside memorials.

So, o great seer of trends, what do we do?  We need a new option.  Rod Dreher has called for the Benedict Option. In the model of the founder of the Benedictine Order, we should gather the faithful and seek to renew our communities in the midst of these new dark ages.  Dreher says there may something to reestablishing common practices and common institutions.  As in the title of the Book of Common Prayer, things we hold in common.  No one knows what we hold in common any longer.  I think our common humanity is also something that’s been forgotten.  We’ve forgotten Shylock.  To paraphrase William Shakespeare:

I am a Human Being. Hath
not a Human Being eyes? Hath not a Human Being hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?

Once we claim our common humanity, we may pursue the greatest monastic option of all:  prayer.  We pray like there is no tomorrow.  Monastic prayer is apocalyptic by design.  Some may gather in Benedictine style relationships.  Others will be drawn to the splendid isolation of the Egyptian desert.  I think there are options charted by John of Gaza, Cyril of Scythopolis, Evagrius Ponticus, and even Simeon the Stylite.  Simeon sat upon a platform for 37 years in the Syrian desert near Aleppo.  These men remind us, though we are neighbors and share a religious connection, there is much we hide from each other.  What we hide, separates us from each other and God. Distance, space, and time are irrelevant, writes Evagrius, if our spirits are not kindred or “kind”.  Does it all come back to kindness?