Pastor Eric Paul writes about the need for corporate Christian practices of discernment as we wade through difficult decisions in turbulent times.

 

Over the New Year’s weekend, Olivet Nazarene University’s Marching band announced their participation in the upcoming Inaugural Parade for President-elect Donald Trump. As one can imagine, the gamut of political perspectives made its way through various social media platforms. Many praised the announcement, noting the prominent publicity the University would receive and the honor it would give to our nation. Dr. Bowling, the President of ONU, elaborates on the apolitical nature of participating in the Inaugural Parade:

"The University does not support any candidate or party - we are not monolithic or of one mind. Such is the nature of a university. We are not making a political statement by participating."

Others viewed participation as an act of endorsement for a candidate that speaks and acts in ways counter to a holiness ethic. A petition for withdrawal from the parade was written by an alumnus of the university and quickly received over 2000 signatures. The petition read in part:

We make this request not out of partisan opposition. Both educational and religious organizations should be capable of holding differing political opinions within the bonds of community. Yet, conservatives and liberals alike acknowledge that President-elect Trump has demeaned and alienated many, with little or no effort made toward reconciliation. For Olivet to embody the faith it proclaims, we have a responsibility to stand with those marginalized by…divisive rhetoric rather than march in celebration of it.

In the past few days, I have heard Nazarenes calling out other Nazarenes in less than loving and grace-filled ways. Calls to “shut up,” pointing out that they hate us, or labels of ******* babies, racists, or uneducated conservatives. It’s becoming more and more clear that we as a people may be more shaped by our ideological positions than by the story of reconciliation found in Jesus Christ.

As a Pastor, I am struck by our inability to enter into a process of discernment of what exactly a holiness social posture in the world looks like — whether joining parades, or other challenges like racism, violence, and immigration. Pastors and theologians, in general, are the ones we trust to help guide these kinds of discernments; and yet, more often than not, we default to normative cultural stories marked by antagonisms (liberals vs. conservatives). When our default posture relies on the stories of the world (like the idea of “the Christian nation” or default to “free market” ideas of good publicity), we forfeit an opportunity to discern how God wants to position the church. As a result, our parishioners are left to reactionary mechanisms that further entrench oneself into ideological categories.

Without learning Christian practices of discernment in community, we will continue to make a mess of our holiness witness.

So what exactly would a formal process of discernment look like for the church? What questions should be asked? What process followed? What resources are available for use? Fortunately, we are Wesleyans and our resources are well known: the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. That is, we rely on Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to faithfully work out the Way of Christ in our particular location. And while the Spirit certainly works in the lives of individuals, discernment always works best in community. The community helps mitigate against ideological blindness.

I would suggest that those invited into a formal discernment process (for instance, about whether or not it’s a good idea to march in an inauguration parade) represent a diversity of thought and experience that properly represents the community. This process keeps several theologically oriented questions in tension: To who are what is attention being directed? What ends are we pursuing; what ends are being perceived? Do our actions and thoughts direct hope toward Christ or some other entity? Where is Christ revealed in our action? Who is being pushed out and marginalized? How does this treat our neighbor and enemy? How do those outside the church view such work? (There are many others, but these are general enough to fit most circumstances).

Proper discernment merges social realities as the context for ecclesial decisions. As such, understanding social, economic, and political implications must be accounted for. Church decisions are never made in a vacuum, but always ramify into relationships, for good or bad. We have to learn to simply ask: “What’s going on here?” This is simply a consequence of being a part of the social body called Church and therefore never “apolitical." So discernment requires a measure of reflection and prayer that accounts for social and political realities as they portend on theological orientations within the framework of Scripture.

A discernment process could look as follows, after the instigating moment is revealed:

Gather -> Reflect -> Pray -> Decision/Act -> Re-Assess (repeat over time)

Some discernments will only take a few hours, others will occur over months with the discernment process happening both remotely and in-person.

Now, let’s apply this to the case study above. There is much we do not know. We do not know the process by which this decision was made. We don’t know who at Olivet, or other Nazarene entities, were a part of the process. But we can still make our way through the assessment. I should add, this represents just a sprinkling of what could be discussed:

Gather: Much of what I want to say has been collated from various social media venues, acting as a type of online gathering in conversation. Gathering is best in person, but articles, blogs, and emails often act as a discerning in-put over time as well.

Reflect: 

- Theological: The question theology poses is always doxological. That is, Christian theology gives language to and properly orders our worship. When a Christian band marches in a celebration of a nation, who do we worship? Are we sending our praise to God, or are we praising something else? This question can’t be so easily answered without an acknowledgement of other resources, especially without understanding the intended purpose of the parade itself.

- Social/Political: Parades play a social function in the inner-workings of cultural, communal, and political life. Parades draw your attention to something. When the Cubs won the World Series, the parade created space for the celebration of a championship. When Caesar returned victorious in war, a parade celebrated the victory (of which Christians were martyred for non-participation). The something is the intended purpose of the parade. For an inaugural parade in the United States, the something can be interpreted in many ways. For some, it’s a celebration of their respective Candidate’s victory. It becomes a victory parade. For others, it draws our attention to the Office of the President, a reverential understanding of its role in governing (a kind of mythos of its own). For some others, an inauguration parade celebrates a peaceful transition. That is, we are capable as a country to not resort to violence when change comes. This becomes a type of celebration of democracy itself. In all of these instances, it’s important to note that the parade does not point toward Christ or God’s kingdom come. Rather, each one finds their genesis within the stories of American culture.

- Scriptural: It’s difficult to discern the “right” political posture from reading Scripture. The Bible doesn’t endorse any one system; rather, it tells a story of the people God in a multiplicity of circumstances over thousands of years. One could point to 1 Samuel 8, where God tells them that longing for a King “like all the other nations” will actually lead them to their own destruction. Or one could point toward King Josiah, who had favor with God. Many, have chosen to note the clear opposition of Jewish communities against the Roman Empire — the same state the crucified Jesus. What's important with discernment in regards to scripture is understanding the Story God tells through every page of the Bible. We have in our scriptures an incredible story of Reconciliation, of a people meant to find themselves in community with their Creator, who mucked it up, and a God who refuses to keep creation alienated. The story of scripture is one of reconciliation. Does participation in an inaugural parade after a contentious and polarizing election cycle fit the story of reconciliation?

- Tradition: We have two thousand years of Christian tradition. What story do we attend to? Is it Christians refusing to burn incense to Caesar, choosing martyrdom rather than alignment with Empire for fear their witness would be undermined? Or do we choose a more Augustinian approach that acknowledges God’s partial guidance through the earthly City? And what about our Wesleyan heritage? Should not our call to holiness be a perennial factor?

Wesley represents the best of everyday theology. Rather than creating a systematic theology, he engaged in the challenges of his day. For Wesley, holiness could not be detached from solidarity with the poor and marginalized. His views on slavery, mercantilism, distilleries, prisons, and war always kept the view of the poor and the victims of power as central to the gospel. That is, the church’s place in society aligns with those on the margins, rather than at the center of power. Where does our activity as a church place us when marching in the inaugural parade; at the center of power, or in solidarity with its victims?

- Experience: In the wake of the election, many minority communities have experienced a palpable fear. Some Latino/a Nazarenes wonder whether their families will be split apart, or how a repeal of DACA will impact their congregations. Reports in hate crimes and discriminatory actions are already reported. Others experienced a kind of hope — perhaps not in Trump himself, but a hope that perhaps when change occurs it will benefit those who feel overlooked and unheard. True discernment creates space for these stories to be heard.

But our experience is also of an historical nature. The church should not ignore its own communal experience of engagement in civil religion. We need only look at the impetus of the last twenty years of church decline in the United States and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. The Moral Majority of the 80s, which wedded itself to republican conservatism, created a backwash of church exclusion. As such, many of these “nones” now site that the church is ‘too political’ as a reason not to attend. Of course, it isn’t that the church can choose to be political or not; rather, the question is always what sort of politics does the church carry within her wounded and crucified body? Our experience teaches us that such blending of Christianity and nationalism waters down the radical message of Jesus and actually impedes the mission of the church.

Pray: We are taught to always pray for God’s Kingdom come, which also means a prayer for our kingdoms go. Any discernment process should always occur within a posture that hardens the knees. Such a posture recognizes that our actions in this world start in a state of humility, a recognition of our full dependence on God and Jesus as Lord. Humility is the premier virtue of the practice of prayer, because it teaches us that we very well may be wrong.

Decide/Act: In this sense, the decision to march has already been made. It is important to note that often times we get so enraptured of all the reasons we shouldn’t engage, that no social or political engagement ever happens to begin with. The same process outlined here should also take place in conversations with the challenges of mass incarceration, global warming, immigration, racism, refugee resettlement, health care, and war - just to name a few.

Re-Assess: In a way, the Olivet Petition acts as a type of “Re-assessment,” an opportunity to give voice to those who felt impacted yet marginalized by the decision. Reflecting again acknowledges the humility addressed in our “prayers,” while also considering the way that relationships never remain static. Rather, changing circumstances always necessitates further reflection.

Whether or not Olivet intended to make a political statement can’t change its reception as politically interpreted by some. My main concern is not whether the petition “works.” Rather, the petition merely helps us recognize that there may be a place for a more robust discernment process of our unique social witness as Nazarenes. Embracing these practices will help every one of us to reflect on our engagement in the world, with the intent of a clear and consistent witness.

Eric Paul is an ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene, an alumnus of Olivet Nazarene University, and confesses to be politically homeless; as William Cavanaugh reminds us, "A Christian should feel politically homeless in the current context, and should not regard the dreary choice between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, as the sum total of our political witness."