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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.
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Entries in vision (4)

Thursday
Oct112007

God's politics - The silence of the Church's prophetic voice

Why has the South African Church become so silent on matters that blatantly negate and deny the love, mercy, justice, and grace of the Kingdom of God?

As a minister of a denomination that was very prophetic (both in word and deed) during South Africa's apartheid era I have found it alarming to gauge the general lack of prophetic witness in Southern African Methodist Churches at the moment. (For a more detailed, although admittedly somewhat hagiographic, account of some of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa's prophetic stances please read the following paper that I presented at the Oxford Institute).

My friend, Wessel Bentley attempted to have a resolution passed at our recent Methodist Annual Conference that noted concern and alarm about a couple of things:

1. Concerns about the minister of health's (Manto Tshabalala Msimang) general conduct and the questions surrounding her management of public resources.

2. Grave concerns about how the South African health services are dealing with the pandemic of HIV / AIDS - it needs to be remembered that we have the highest HIV infection rate in the world!

Instead, we ended up with a vague, indirect, empty resolution that will not change or impact significantly on health care for people who are dying of a disease that we can stem! Sadly, it was members of our own Church, some who used to be pastors in Churhces, some who were leaders of the apartheid struggle, who now drive Mercedes, BMW's and occupy high positions in the new ANC government, some who win lucrative tenders for Government contracts, who were the main proponents of protecting the government, and seeking to cover over and silence the Church's call for radical action.

I remember some years ago (1992) as a young minister being 'hauled over the coals' by my Bishop at the time, Rev Peter Storey, for participating in a student march against the Apartheid government. The protest action was quite controversial, our in service training convener (Rev Paul Verryn) took us to the march in Potchefstroom on the University campus. Peter was concerned that many of us were being co-opted, uncritically, into movements that did not necessarily have the good of the people at heart. Paul of course was trying to help uncritical young white fundamentalists like me to realise that preaching the Gospel had radical consequences for the way in which society is structured! You cannot preach love, equity, justice and acceptance, without doing something to try and bring it about! However, there were some real issues among the organizers of the protest, and so Bishop Peter admonished us with these words (or something close to them) - "When the struggle is won, and the majority take power, and the injustice continues, then we shall see who the true prophets are - those who fall silent, or are co-opted, will be shown for who they truly are. True prophets will speak, not because of where they are, but because of who God is - a true prophet always speaks, and lives, the truth of God regardless of who is in power".

Let us never forget, this struggle is about someone who is lying in a bed, in a shack, in a rural area of our country, not receiving primary health care because of inadequate high level, and local, management! As the media, leading up to the Conference, reported - the health department has huge unspent budgets for equipment, staff and medicines, yet our clinics and hospitals are empty, our doctors and nurses are fleeing South Africa in search of better pay and better working conditions, and antiretrovirals are not reaching the poorest of the poor! Thankfully, the minister of health can get herself bumped to the top of the donor list, and disregard the fact that he liver damage was caused by Alcohol abuse (or so it is alleged, I cannot be certain).

Wessel, and Comrade Manto Matsepe, also sent a resolution to Conference through DEWCOM noting with concern how many ordained Methodist ministers are now serving in senior positions, and in the official structures, of the ruling party in South Africa... It was toned down... In the past we did not allow Methodist clergy to hold political office, now we "request them to consider their motives for doing so, and consider whether they are compromising the Church's prophetic witness". Again, this is my paraphrasing of the resolution. Of course we need Christians to be active in politics, in fact we need Christians to hold political office, but I am not convinced that we need Christian ministers to do so - who must remain objective, free to speak and challenge, yet also open to affirm and assist. The office of a pastor, the power of the pulpit, and the station of a servant in society, need to remain very carefully located in a 'God space' - political, but not aligned to party politics.

Yet, sadly, the Church is silent. And, let me say, it is not our leaders who are silent, it is the Church! I am amused by how we tend to sit on both sides of the fence when we speak of 'the church'. When it suits us we emphasize the role, importance, and power of the term that Rick Warren and Bill Hybels (Willowcreek) have made so popular - the local Church! Yet, when it comes to actually doing something about it we turn our eyes to the leaders of the Church, expecting them to be the one's who set the pace for mission, witness, and community transformation. I remember doing a SYNOD Bible study a few years back in which I challenged the SYNOD to realize that 'structures' don't do mission! People, filled with the Spirit of God, convicted by the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, living in areas of need and concern do mission!

Something I have had to repent of is my tendency to want to blame others - I find it easy, as many others do, to lament how others don't do the things that I should be doing.

On this blog, more than once, I have made critical comments about the silence of the United Methodist Church about one of its members gross misconduct and un-Christian behavior, George W Bush (yes, he is a Methodist)! However, I need to repent that I have been slow to criticise my own silence of our State President (who has indicated that he is a Christian) when he removes people who ask tough questions, sidesteps issues of national concern (like the accusations of criminal misconduct against the National Police commissioner Mr Selebi).

I am silent. Forgive me Lord! I am sure you are much more vocal, much more prophetic. I am sure that even now you are setting the captives free, healing the sick, proclaiming good news and jubilee for the impoverished, and not allowing injustice to go unnoticed. Give me the courage to be part of your work in the world, your mission, your uncompromising love.

A fantastic new book is out - I have read some reviews, and already ordered my copy. As with all Mclaren's works I am sure that it will ruffle some feathers: Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.

For a little taste of Mclaren's prophetic perspective (a separate commentary from that in the book) you can read the article below from the soujourners website 'God and politics'.

I remember about eight years ago when then presidential candidate George W. Bush repeatedly claimed that he would restore honor to the presidency, soiled as it had been by our previous president's infamous affair. I remember hoping he would succeed. But a new kind of shame has come to the office and to our nation as reports surface about our government's secret authorization of torture. We all share in this shame.

Conservative columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan expresses what many of us feel. He reminds his readers:

... my first response to reports of abuse and torture at Gitmo was to accuse the accusers of exaggeration or deliberate deception ... It struck me as a no-brainer that this stuff was being invented by the far left or was part of al Qaeda propaganda. After all, they train captives to lie about this stuff. Bottom line: I trusted this president in a time of war to obey the rule of law that we were and are defending.

Sadly, he laments, that trust was betrayed:

And then I was forced to confront the evidence. He betrayed all of us. He lied. He authorized torture in secret, and then, when busted after Abu Ghraib, blamed it on low-level grunts. This was not a mistake. It was a betrayal.

The word "betrayal," of course, recalls Moveon.org's Sept. 26 ad. Many considered the pun childish at best, politically unsavvy at least, or worse. There was a rush to condemn anyone who failed to condemn the ad. But Sullivan's use of the word strikes me as anything but childish.

Our nation's reputation, not to mention that of the presidency, has been dishonored by this betrayal of trust. Honorable people - conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat - need to follow Andrew Sullivan's example, coming together to express our grief and outrage about the political hypocrisy and betrayal to which we have been subjected by people we elected.

This is challenging stuff! I am also currently reading the book of my friend Joerg Rieger "Christ and empire". This is a much more scholarly, carefully researched, and hard hitting prophetic theology! Joerg, who is from Southern Methodist University, will be visiting us early next year. He is coming to do some sabbatical work at the University of Kwazulu Natal (that has the exceptional Theology and Development program), and he will take some time to visit John Wesley College whilst here.

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Monday
Oct082007

Visionary Leadership: It's a sad day.... Bishop Tutu banned from speaking at St Thomas University in Minnesota

I have a friend who once commented that if you life the kind of life that Jesus lived, you need to expect the kind of treatment that Jesus got... He has a rather disturbing, but true, catch phrase that says "If you live the truth, you'd better look good on wood, because sooner or later people will want to crucify you".

Well, this is not exactly comparable to the suffering of Christ, but heck, people hate to hear the truth!

Today it was reported that St Thomas University refused to host retired Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu because of comments he made about Israel's treatment of Palestinians!

This report from the Star Tribune explains what transpired:

A plan to invite Desmond Tutu to speak at the University of St. Thomas next year was scuttled by university officials who did not want to offend the Jewish community over the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, university officials confirmed Wednesday.

In addition, Cris Toffolo, an associate professor who supported inviting the South African archbishop and activist was removed as director of the St. Paul university's justice and peace studies program in August.

She remains on the faculty.

Tutu's visit will be shifted to Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, according to a local group that had planned to bring him to St. Thomas.

Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations at St. Thomas, said the Rev. Dennis Dease, St. Thomas' president, made the final decision not to invite Tutu after consulting with his staff.

"He [Tutu] has been critical of Israel and Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians, so we talked with people in the Jewish community and they said they believed it would be hurtful to the Jewish community, because of things he's said," Hennes said.

The truth hurts - but sadly, it also sometimes hurts those who stand for it...

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Friday
Oct052007

It disturbs me... Another instance of visionary leadership

I subscribe to a number of email list groups (google groups and yahoo groups). Perhaps one of the most active groups is that for gay, and gay friendly (affirming), Methodists in Southern Africa. It is an open group, you can read our discussions and posts here.

Since our conference the list has been abuzz with discussion. The one thing we have in common is our passion for the Gospel of Christ, and a desire to see the values of Christ's Gospel fairly, courageously, and lovingly reflected in our Church's ministry. However, along with that common passion comes many different perspectives on how this should take place.

For those who have been following my posts on this discussion (and the comments that others have made in response to those posts) you will know that there has been some concern that we have placed the unity of the Church before our calling to be a prophetic institution of justice and grace. I have prayed, and thought, and journaled, and read, and engaged with these two positions (unity in the Church vs. prophetic and Christ honoring ministry in spite of disagreement). I am struggling to know which way to go...

Today I came across this quote (actually part of a poem) by Martin Niemoller (a German theologian who became one of the founders of the Confessing Church, and was imprisoned between 1937 and 1945 in both the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps)

"First they came for Socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me."
Rev Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984)
Here is the post from my friend Peter Grassow, one of the most prophetic and Christ like ministers I know: (this post is taken from an open forum - you can read the original here)

I belong to a divided church.
And some of you who read this will understand how Sundays sees our nation divide - with black people going to black church services, "coloured" people attending "coloured" services, and some white people going to church (most do not go to church at all).

But this is not the division I think of - I am referring to the division between straight and gay people. The Methodist Church of SA has chosen to maintain a distance from gay people. No - this is not overt: as my Bishop' pastoral letter says : " We must, and I do, care for them pastorally and with sensitivity." But this is exactly the divide: "we care for them".....us and them. "They" are not understood as being "us". In fact, after the humiliating treatment dished up by straight Christians, I am surprised that there are any gay people left in church.

And to add insult to injury, the MCSA has affirmed that we must be "one and undivided". But this is not about being in unity with gay people. No, this is about maintaining our unity with those who are anti-gay. Our desire to remain united with the anti-gay lobby outweighs our desire to be one with the gay members of our church. And so we have compromised truth in the name of unity. And we have not
even questioned the ethical correctness of this unity.

Here is my pain: the statement that "we are one and undivided" was a statement of courage in the face of the 1958 Apartheid Government's desire to divide our church on racial lines. We had moral courage - then. We adopted this statement, in the face of a threat by white members to leave our church. We understood that this was a particular kind of unity. It risked division in the name of a greater unity - a
unity with the truth of the Gospel of Jesus.

We have lost this. I am convinced that the mantra "one and undivided" has become our excuse to do nothing. We are so afraid of losing members that we would rather forfeit Gospel truth.
Once again, I am challenged by visionary leadership... Gospel truth must come before ecclesiological unity. If only I had the courage...

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Monday
Oct012007

Visionary leadership - it takes courage!

This is a picture of me with Dr Ernest Baartman, the visionary leader who founded the Black Methodist Consultation in 1975 (you can read my Oxford paper for more on this).

This was visionary because he had the courage to see what the Church needed (black leaders) in an era when others could not, and would not, see it. He was visionary because even though he knew this would be a dangerous, and threatening, endeavor, he was sustained by what few others, even many of his black colleagues, could not see - the vision of a predominantly black denomination, in a white dominated country, lead by black leaders. This could have cost him his ministry, but because he could see what God wanted he swam against the stream, and did the extraordinary thing that helped to transform our Church for the generations that followed.

It takes great sensitivity to see what others cannot see. It takes courage to make that vision become a reality, even in the face of great adversity and opposition.

I witnessed such leadership briefly at our Conference last week when Dianne Moodie courageously reminded the Conference of the pain and struggle that clergy and laity experience because of the Church's rejection of people - the majority could not feel her pain. I heard it in the voice of Alan Storey as he urged the Church to create a small ray of light in the midsts of darkness, by allowing 1 minister and 1 church in every District to openly minister to gay people with the Church's blessing - the majority could not see the need, I wonder what will happen to all the gay people who are Methodists in our nation? Will they simply give up and leave the Church? I saw it in the bravery of Mbuyiselo Stimela, the only Black minister who has openly supported the cause to make the Church more hospitable and welcoming to gay persons of all races and colours - our colleagues could not see his courage, instead they have threatened and belittled him. I saw this in my friend Barry Marshall who argued with passion that the Church cannot be in 'conversation' over the matter of persons with a same gender orientation while the voices of these people are silenced, rejected, and ignored - the majority did not hear the silence, but at least he spoke. I am seeing vision in the correspondence of my friend Kevin Light who can no longer compromise the community that he serves by ministering 'through pastoral loopholes' - sadly I fear that he may move on from our Church, or be forced out, perhaps he will lead many to follow him. He is right when he says that the only persons who are made vulnerable by 'loophole' ministry, are those being ministered to. Ministers can claim ignorance at transgressing an unspoken law, but once a pastoral act is deemed unlawful, it is those who are ministered to that bear the brunt of such rulings.

I don't know if I have the courage, sensitivity, or insight, to see what others cannot see, and make that vision a reality.

Of course I have read about such vision many, many, times in Scripture, in the slave Moses who leads slaves to a promised land. In a sheep herd, David, who slays a giant, because God says he can. In a teenage virgin who gives birth to a saviour, even when everyone else believes that she is crazy adulteress. In the life of a King who is born in a stable, who does not destroy his enemies but dies for them... Yes, these are all visionary leaders - people who see what God sees, and then find the courage to make God's vision a reality. In fact, one of them is God... Thank goodness God can see what others cannot. If it were not for that admirable quality I would never have found His grace!

We need more people like Dr Baartman, like Dianne, Alan, Mbuyiselo, Barry, and Kevin...

What follows is a reflection of how this principle relates to a particular passage from Scripture... By now you may have given up reading... I won't hold it against you!

Trevor Hudson and Jenny Hillebrand left a comment each, a few posts back, thanking me for my frequent blog posts - a friend of mine calls blogs 'personality spam'! I think he is right, most often my posts are simply a means of processing my feelings, thoughts, fears, desires, and hopes... If any of it is wortwhile to anyone else that's a huge bonus! Thanks for reading.

Today I sat with one of our students, Nkosinathi Nombula, preparing him for his New Testament 2 examination. One of the questions in the exam asks the student give advice to a woman who has read Ephesians 5:21-33. She is being abused by her husband and has come to believe that she must continue to endure the abuse because this section of the Bible says she must submit to him and respect to him. Thankfully the examiner understands that in order to get a more responsible insight into what the Pauline text is saying to its readers one must read it in the context of the issues that the whole of the letter to the Ephesians is addressing, and particularly within the context of Ephesians 5 and 6. If you have the time please read Ephesians 5:21-33 and ask yourself what advice you would give the abused woman. Well, Nombula and I spent some time working through the question and established a few things. First, I reminded him that the letter to the Ephesians must not be directly related to the 'popular' understanding that Paul was a paternalistic chauvinist - not that Paul was liberated in the modern sense. However, it is important not to read the text too simply from within the framework of our contemporary prejudice of Paul's views of women. It is likely that this letter was not written by Paul himself, but by a later, more sophisticated Pauline author or redactor - simply because of the complexity of the grammar, sophistication of the ecclesiology, and because of the similarities in content and structure to the letter to the Colossians, upon which many scholars believe the letter to the Ephesians is styled. Secondly, we were reminded that the central issue in the letter to the Ephesians was that of God's purpose for the Church which can only be achieved by the costly sacrifice that will be necessary in order to be truly united (many scholars agree that the 'hermeneutic keys' (i.e., those keys that unlock the interpretation of the rest of the letter) are Eph 1:10 and Eph 4:13). So, the author crafts his argument about the cost of unity between Jewish and gentile believers in the first few chapters of the book (a mixture of admonition, prayer, and encouragement). Then between Eph 4:1-6:20 the author gives practical suggestions about the cost of this unity. Now, this is where the radical bit comes in! Many have emphasised Eph 5:22 (that wives must submit to their husbands), yet the emphasis of this passage is to be found in the dynamics of the four examples of costly unity that are presented. The dynamic is fundamentally about power and powerlessness! The power of husbands, versus the powerlessness of wives in that era - the emphasis is NOT just upon the wife submitting to her husband, rather here the author takes a bold and radical step of confronting the powerful with the truth that as long as they oppress the powerless, they abuse and harm themselves. This must have taken courage in an age when the authority of men went unquestioned. But of course, the powerless are empowered when the powerful curb their power, so he also has some advice for wives. Next he speaks about the relationships between the authority of parents over their children. Can you imagine how the respectable members of the Ephesian Church would have reacted to being told they must not exasperate their children, as if their children have rights!? He then goes on to further press the point by challenging slave owners to adopt a vulnerable and open relationship with their slaves. That must have taken courage in a time when the authority of slave owners over their slaves went unquestioned. Last he addresses the relationship between 'the spirits' that so often lead us powerfully into darkness and slavery, and the 'the Spirit' that brings us life and freedom. Of course we often teach Ephesians 5 in isolation from the Ephesians 6 (as if the way we treat our wives, husbands, children, and those who work for us has no spiritual impact), conversely we make the mistake of thinking that the armor of spiritual warfare has nothing to do with the words and actions that characterize our unity and love for one another...

You see, visionary, courageous, leaders can see what others cannot. What does God want you to see that others cannot?