First let me make something perfectly clear — I love my denomination.
The United Methodist Church‘s theology is historically grounded in a movement attentive to the holistic character of human existence. Emphasis on social justice is not separate from personal piety, nor corporate worship from individual devotion, justification by faith is not separate from the process of sanctification, nor personal faith from manifestations of and participation in God’s Kingdom in this world. And yet…
You get this sign posted last week on a freeway somewhere between North Carolina and Virginia that says:
IF YOU CAN READ THIS
THANK A TEACHER
IF YOU CAN READ IN ENGLISH
THANK A SOLDIER
This sign was on the grounds of a United Methodist Church… Closer to the road than the sign announcing worship… AND across the street from una tienda Latina (a Latino/Hispanic convenience store).
Honestly, I am not even sure what this sign means: “If you can read in English thank a soldier”?
At the moment the United Methodist Church, once a vibrant movement that swept across this country, is in decline. The changing demographics of the United States has not affected the make-up of this majority-white denomination, and the church as a whole does not raise a voice against xenophobic and racist language and laws used against immigrants and people of color in this country. I am interested in the discourses and disciplines that fund this reality. What readings of Christian scripture and theology allow for many Methodists to be comfortable (or at least comfortable enough not to fight them) with current laws that make it criminal to give water to “illegal aliens” dying in the desert or give them rides to the hospital?
Since when is it ok for Methodists to assign dignity and worth based on what language someone speaks? Since when is it ok for Methodists to praise military forces for making sure things stay the way they are?
Something is broken in my denomination, when this sign is allowed to stand uncontested. But just because it is broken, I do not plan to walk away. Instead, although ashamed, I remain a member of this broken manifestation of Christ’s body in the world. For as Martin Luther King Jr. said in his sermon “A Knock at Midnight” the church, no matter how sick and twisted, contains bread of life. For example, it is possible that just this morning, said church with the sign (along with thousands of churches across the country) read these words from Isaiah 65 (one of the first text selections for today’s Revised Common Lectionary weekly readings):
(21) They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. (22) They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (23) They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. (24) Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
So while this church with its sign proudly upholds the status quo as praiseworthy, perhaps the pastor preached about God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth… perhaps someone thought about those to whom this passage might be addressed to in our day and age… the people who labor to provide many of us shelter and food, whose labor often is in vain and whose families fear the calamity of deportation and separation.
Most did not think twice about the text.
But… there is always a chance, and that potential is a hope for this denomination. Thus, my interest is in studying current multicultural ministries in the United Methodist Church here in the United States. Although few in number, they offer a counter to current Methodist culture, and a sign that transformation is possible. I hope through ethnography and pragmatics to tease out relationships between scripture, theology and lived practice. I want to study this phenomenon thoroughly — its potential solutions for our brokenness as well as whatever problematic tendencies come to light…
I am happy to report that the picture you see here was taken by a United Methodist pastor. A letter to the pastor of the congregation with the sign should be on its way now. If I get my hands on it, I will share with you… Also I must admit after all my noble and commitment-ty-type language that, although I have not walked away from my denomination, right now I am worshiping in an Episcopal church – more on that later.