Future of Mainline Protestantism
Embracing Conflict Faithfully
We are wrestling with the precarious balance between working for unity in our congregations and denominations on the one hand, and challenging inequity and oppression on the other. If a church or church governing body does take a position on a contentious issue, there will be people who are deeply troubled by it. There may even be those who no longer feel comfortable being a part of a particular church, or any church, and those losses should not be taken lightly.
But what is the alternative? Is it possible to be faithful and yet never engage controversial issues? It seems to me that to answer that question in the affirmative requires a fairly shallow understanding of what Jesus meant when he exhorted us to love our neighbors. I am convinced that "love," as Jesus used the word, is not an emotion -- not a more extreme version of "like." Rather, it has to do with holding others' value up as equivalent to our own, as children of God. To do that in any meaningful way, we must work for justice, and that will sometimes be both controversial and costly.
How can peace and justice both be our goals, though? What do we do when bringing up a charged issue seems to make everyone upset? What do we do if standing for justice seems to fracture the fragile peace in our churches? To wrestle with those questions, we have to remember not to confuse peace with placidity. It is not the lack of conflict. Rather, peacemaking is the art of addressing conflict in ways that are constructive rather than destructive. Conflict, though often uncomfortable, is not always a bad thing.
This was brought home to me last year when I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in conversation with Rep. John Lewis, who gave his blood as well as his time and energy as a major figure in the U.S. civil rights movement. With all of the authority that having one's skull fractured in a civil rights march in Selma affords, he explained that conflict is sometimes necessary on the way to justice. "Dr. King used to tell me," he said, "that sometimes you have to turn the world upside down in order to set it right."
In Matthew 25, Jesus divides those who are welcomed from those who are cast away based on how they have treated each other. It seems clear that caring for each other materially as well as spiritually is part of the foundation of faithfulness. "Faith without works," we are told in the book of James, "is dead." Social action is not the whole of lived faith, but it is an important ingredient. It is not enough for us to admire the mountain, read books about hiking, and recite the hikers' creed -- we have to start climbing. It is not enough to sing songs about love, we have to be prayerfully bold and active in our loving.
Mainline churches have been steadily losing members for several decades now, and some have attributed the loss to churches' involvement in social justice work. Last year, membership in the Presbyterian Church (USA), for instance, fell to half of its size at its high point in 1965. That is certainly sad for those who love that church. I question the assertion that involvement in social justice has been a primary reason for that diminution. Even if it is, though, that is not necessarily a reason to change course. The church is not fundamentally a business. Unlike a bank, the basic question that church leaders have to ask themselves is not "how do we grow the organization?" Rather, it is "what is faithful?"
The church is also not monolithic. It will respond not in one way, but in many ways, and some of those will last while others fade. We will struggle, we will wrestle with our angels, we will hurt, and in the end, God's vision for humanity will come to pass. I don't claim to have the whole picture of what that will look like, but I am convinced that it includes changes to systems that marginalize people. My hope and prayer is that mainline churches will be active in making those changes. When I think and pray about that, I am reminded of another thing that Dr. King said: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
David LaMotte is the Associate for Peace at the North Carolina Council of Churches. He has performed 2000 concerts worldwide as a singer/songwriter, and is also a speaker, workshop leader, children's book author, and founder of PEG Partners, a non-profit that funds building and educational projects at schools and libraries in Guatemala. He holds a master's degree in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Resolution from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, where he studied as a Rotary World Peace Fellow, and a B.A. in Psychology from James Madison University, which named him a ‘Madison World Changer.'
David blogs at World Changing 101.