This last installment of this series will seem tough to some. But forgiveness is only real when the truth is recognized. The first truth is that the schism is formulated in the language of orthodoxy when it is only a selfish ambition. The second truth is that moral evil looks good to selfish people. The third truth is that the desire is to cause harm. And now there is another truth that we must recognize.
Christ is proclaimed
“Some proclaim Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. These proclaim Christ out of love… others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but with the intention of increasing my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether for false motives or for true; and in this I rejoice. (Philippians 1: 16-18)
I have a silver chalice from a congregation where my great-grandfather was a leader. The chalice is on my shelf. My ancestor is in the grave with all the other church members he once served. They are part of the Triumphant Church which is the only truly perfect church. There has never been a time in the history of the Church when there has not been a struggle among teachers. Most of the disputes were amicable. Others, as Paul describes, were not. We tend to know these moments better than others because of the big consequences.
Consider, for example, the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church over whether the clergy could own slaves in 1844. The controversy was settled by secular power 21 years later. The ME, South Church was devastated along with the rest of the South. Many properties of ME South were forcibly transferred to the name North. The generation that led the southern denomination was the younger clergy at the time of the split. They spent two decades justifying evil. They couldn’t immediately turn around and say they were wrong. Why? Much time was wasted proving to oneself that slavery was divinely sanctioned.
This self-justification persisted until the Methodist denominations were reconciled in 1939 into the Methodist Church. In the meantime, Christ has been proclaimed. Saint Paul took personally the actions of those who preached Christ out of selfish ambition. But he looks away from his own feelings and realizes that Christ has yet been proclaimed.
Progressive Christians see many flaws in the way American evangelicals present the gospel. Our critiques include the focus on individual salvation, collective (often sexual) sins in society, and ignorance of social justice. Conversely, we are criticized for minimizing personal salvation and for having a “liberal agenda”.
Personally, I know that the accusations come from biblical illiteracy. These are essentially talking points of the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD). The name is incorrect. They do not support true religion or democracy. I have attended many proposed resolutions printed in my annual conference from them. The IRD appeals to the fear and the lowest motivations of the people. They claim to reform. The result is destructive. Why offer forgiveness?
Reform or ruin
Paul’s hope is that the proclaimed Christ will allow the truth to prevail eventually. He is aware of the criticisms directed at him. He knows his own experience is limited. His claim to apostolic authority is tenuous. He did not follow Jesus with the Twelve. He admits that Christ is proclaimed without him. Paul is not talking about forgiving those who preach Christ with corrupted motives.
The Southern Methodist Episcopal Church proclaimed Christ while defending the most anti-Christian of practices. We look back today and wonder why they couldn’t see the contradiction. And yet someone is reading this blog wondering about my blind spots. I need grace. Forgiveness is necessary for me even when I don’t realize it. Future generations need to be guided. It will come if Christ is proclaimed.
Motives, like facts, matter. The results, however, matter more. The proclaimed Christ is the basis of our progressive beliefs. Imperfect people proclaim Jesus Christ. Yet the more we study Jesus of the gospels and the letters of Christ from Paul, the more we see judgment in our day. It’s positive for us. My original church was run by racists from the South. A desire to know the Christ of the Scriptures has helped me to deepen my political and social views. My task was to find Christ and to reject the nonsense. Reform thus overcomes ruin.
Pardon The way forward
We don’t find it easy to forgive. Let me make one point. We forgive people. IRD is unforgivable. It is not a person. It is a way of throwing money at people who have little real conscience. People are subjects of forgiveness. The new World Methodist Church will be just as unforgivable as the Southern Methodist Episcopal Church. But the people who made up these institutions are another matter.
People often say that an action is “unforgivable”. Many of these actions are relatively minor in nature. I wonder about the big issues that challenge forgiveness. John Cleese asked if tortured prisoners of war could forgive their torturers? The stories Uninterrupted and The sunflowers ask these questions from the perspective of those who have suffered. Their conclusions differ. Kurt Vonnegut reflected on the problem in his novel Slaughterhouse Five and a visit to Dresden. I can only imagine the difficulty.
The comparison is legitimate. My concerns are relatively minor. The schism will be difficult for congregations and families. We can forgive some of the destroyers quickly. Leaders will take more time. One day the evil of exclusion will side with the evil of slavery. People will ask why. Their most controversial problem will cause them to turn to us. What will they see that we have done? Will our wounds fester? Or will we apply the medicine of forgiveness?