A Walk with Jeremiah 6.1

Jeremiah 6I’ve not posted for some time.  But, Jeremiah called me back again.  I needed some time for meditation.

Once I start reading Jeremiah again, I was reminded how scripture continually calls us back.  This morning, I needed to connect to human experiences much older than my own.  I’m picking up my walk with Jeremiah with chapter six (6).

Who hasn’t felt madness listening to American politics?  It doesn’t matter which party or ideology you ascribe to.  The partisan nature of our political scene and the circus that money and media have made of public opinion and national feeling can leave anyone with this sense of grief.  Jeremiah apparently felt that way, too.

To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear?  See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen.  The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it.  But, I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary holding it in.  (vs 10-11a)

Most of us hold to our political perspectives with the same fervency Jeremiah did to God’s word and its clarity.  There is a reason why religion and politics equally offend in today’s dominant norms of decency.  Jeremiah’s religious language gives some of us a false sense of difference.  Forget that this is the bible.  Remember that Jesus hadn’t been born yet.  Remember, prophets were mouthpieces for the covenant of God’s people with God.  That is the contract that birthed their nation.  Jeremiah is explicitly talking about his political point of view, which he sees in relief of God’s vision for reality.

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace…[H]ear, o nation, and know O congregation, what will happen…(vs 13-14)

It struck me that the angst and helplessness we feel for the direction and politics of our nation, even communities, is ancient.  It doesn’t matter if you see our foundation as the word of God, the Constitution, universal human rights, or Locke and Rousseau’s social contract.  Who hasn’t grieved over the injustices and corruption they see?  Who hasn’t felt the fear from signs of instability, irrational decisions, and the plight of those powerless to rise up and correct inequities?  I hear this grief from both liberal and conservative.  Each has their definition of injustice.  Each has their definition of rationality.  Each has their definition of inequity.  Each has their scapegoat and theory of inequities.

As a Christian socialist and/or social democrat, I, too, fall on this spectrum.  And, I see the folly of our partisan blame-games.

They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders…(vs 28a)

In response, Jeremiah offers a strangely prophetic counsel:

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it an find rest for your souls.

What are those ancient ways?  What, exactly, is this crossroads?  My soul seems to know without argument or passion.  Perhaps, a still small voice might say it this way:

It’s the humble way.  Neither self-righteous nor divided, the good way is neither silent nor partisan.  It is where justice entwines you and I in a common welfare.  It is where peace is waged for the sake of the most vulnerable, among which are each others’ elderly parents and youngest children.  It is where our trust merges in the form of a covenant, in which our wealth and welfare is not in competition, but where the only win is win-win.

I’m reminded of Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants 163:4a-c:

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.

Let the educational and community development endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life. Prepare new generations of disciples to bring fresh vision to bear on the perplexing problems of poverty, disease, war, and environmental deterioration. Their contributions will be multiplied if their hearts are focused on God’s will for creation.

a moment’s meditation: yearning for more

deep to deepSince finishing my formal studies in 2010, I’ve been on a journey.   First, I moved from Chicago to Graceland University, Lamoni, IA, to be the Director of Religious Life and campus minister in 2011.  I’ve spent the last three years settling into this position: learning Graceland’s current institutional culture, getting to know the students who come to GU, developing the courses I’m teaching, and finding my alchemical vision for Christ’s mission and Community of Christ’s mission on campus.   These responsibilities, and other denominational activities, have thoroughly absorbed the last three years of my life.

Beginning my fourth year, I can’t say “I’ve arrived.” I’m still navigating these areas and learning things.   But, I’ve come to a place where I have my bearings and some sense of direction.  I’ve identified areas that I think need long-term attention and collaboration.  I better know my circle of influence verses my circle of control.  I find meaning in daily life among students and colleagues at Graceland.  I also have more opportunities to be present with Margo and my two daughters at home.  Katy, my oldest, is a teenager this year.  She’ll be a freshmen in high school a year from now.  Kenzlee, my younger daughter, began middle-school this year.  Both are in sports and playing two instruments.  My best friend and wife, Margo, loves her faculty position in the Gleazer School of Education at Graceland, and has been working on an Ed.D. year-round for three years from Drake University.   Currently, she is writing her dissertation.  Journeying to this point has been exhausting, but meaningful.   As I consider the future and try to navigate work and family, I still have a dull nagging feeling within me.  It’s like the murmuring of a still small voice trying to speak, or the distracting feeling of drips of water landing on the back of my neck.

I believe that living a whole spiritual life means responding to the s/Spirit within us that yearns to give birth to something.   I call it “s/Spirit” because this fountain of life-giving and life-bearing energy is God’s Life and Creativity entwined indistinguishably with our own.  It is a summons to live a life of freedom and creativity.  That s/Spirit within us is the creative energy or vision, impulse of inspiration, and quietude of potential that haunts our working mind and resting moments.  Paying attention to that s/Spirit at work within us leads us to what our spirituality is about.

I don’t point to that s/Spirit, however, to be prescriptive.  This isn’t about giving advice.  You and I have heard enough from the spiritual marketplace and its self-help culture.  We know how much it tells us that we need to express ourselves freely.  We must connect with our inner-child, play and live creatively.  We’re too busy, paying attention to the wrong things.  The voices go on:  blah, blah, blah…..

OK. Fine.  Maybe.

But, spirituality is not just another thing to do. <sigh>

When I stop and pay attention to that “dull nagging” desire in me, I don’t miss the obvious.  I don’t miss the fact that my family and daughters are, quite literally, part of this “birthing” in my life.  They are part of my life’s work.  They call forth my disciplined and creative energies.   Miraculously, Katy and Kenzlee are forming into generous, crazy, obstinate, and surprising young persons right before me every day.

I also don’t overlook that my work at Graceland is creative.  It, too, takes creative energies and inspiration.  It, too, gives life.  But, apparently, there is something more or missing.

The dull nagging or spiritual drip that’s thudding on my neck as I hunch over focused on “today’s tasks” keeps coming.  It doesn’t frustrate me or give me angst.  drop-of-waterI think I just need

to try to listen to that small voice, or pay attention to that refreshing drip pooling on me.   The distraction could be life-giving.  To disregard this nagging in the name of busyness, or to appease some insatiable need for productivity, only keeps my life locked in a cycle of deadlines and want for mindless entertainment.   So draining.  Still, “deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls,” Psalm 42: 7 says, “all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”  Maybe that’s what I’m yearning for.

Day 4 – Teaching Peace in the 21st Century: Peace Programs, Promotion, and A CofC Proposal

Today, we began with presentations by Ernesto Verdeja and Susan St. Ville.   Ernesto is the Director of the Undergraduate program in Peace Studies here at the University of Notre Dame.  Susan is Director of the MA in Peace Studies Program.  Both were helpful for navigating curricular questions and educational objectives of Peace Studies programs.

A significant difference between graduate and undergraduate programs in Peace Studies at Kroc is attention to methodology.  Peace Studies is interdisciplinary, which means that methodologies specific to a variety of disciplines – political science, social sciences, history, as well as qualitative and quantitative research methods – inform the discipline and shape the knowledge of peace studies.  In addition to its interdisciplinary nature, peace studies equally values practice.   Peace studies aims at effective practice for peace as well as is informed by practice for its theory.  Reflective practice, informed by pragmatism and developed by Donald Schon, is one important method for peace studies for practitioners at the graduate level.

In the afternoon, I spent time in a session learning more about the Catholic Peacebuilding Network (CPN).  Jerry Powers, Coordinator of CPN, led the session.
CPN is a network of academics and practitioners who seek to enhance the Catholic church’s unique role in peace building in the world.  Leading projects and coordinating conferences, CPN enables a rich network of global academic, financial, and ecclesial resources to address conflict and peacebuilding in troubled parts of the world.  The church’s unique capacity to affect peacebuilding at multiple levels – locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally – makes it an important tool for peacebuilding.  In addition to the practical, CPN also develops the church’s theology and ethics of peace.   I was very interested in a recent publication that Jerry helped edit, Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Practice, which included essays from among the finest Catholic scholars.

Temple (lg)At the end of the day, Priscilla Eppinger presented our (Priscilla’s, Tony Chvala-Smith’s, and myself) work product from the week.   It is a working proposal for a Masters in Community, Justice, and Peace available through the Community of Christ Seminary.   The vision of the program integrates our strengths: a foundation in scripture and theology, study in theory and practice of peace studies, along with content in areas of practical peacebuilding and justice-making in an online format.  While its clear that several factors must come together to make such a degree possible, the aim of our work is response to the call to “equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life.”  (Doctrine & Covenants 163:4c)  This week with the scholars/practitioners at the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at Notre Dame and United States Institute of Peace has been integral for providing the guidance, relationships, and expertise to craft this possibility and see it possible.  We are certainly not alone in this calling and must join those already at work in the field.

Thanks to both Graceland University and Community of Christ for making this week for Priscilla, Tony, and myself possible.

Day 1 – Notre Dame: Teaching Peace in the 21st Century, Summer Institute for Faculty

Today was my first day at the Teaching Peace in the 21st Century, Summer Institute for Faculty hosted at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.  Our host is George A. Lopez, who is Professor of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute and Vice President and Director of the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C.   I’m hear with Community of Christ Seminary faculty, Priscilla Eppinger and Tony Chvala-Smith.

The purpose of our visit is to learn.  President of Community of Christ, Steve Veazey, met George A. Lopez at the US Institute of Peace, who invited us to participate.  The Community of Christ is called to peace.  Its Temple in Independence is dedicated to the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and healing of the spirit.  Our visit is exploratory, to seek opportunities for connections and learn from scholars from others Peace Studies programs, to cultivate ideas and perspective about possible peace studies curriculum for Community of Christ Seminary and Graceland.

Today was orientation and introductions.  George Lopez gave two helpful presentations introduction to Peace Studies as an interdisciplinary and changing field of study, education, and action.   After dinner, we received a presentation on the History and Changing Themes of Peace Studies.  Both presentations offered practical advise and an outline of key components for developing Peace Studies programs, from undergraduate minors to masters level.

My goal is to chronicle key insights from the day.  Below are three things that I think stuck out as both insightful and critical areas for me/us to consider.

1. In developing a Peace Studies program or curriculum, integrate both your institution’s identity and mission.  Be able to express to students, administrators, and faculty what Peace Studies is, what the program’s purpose is, and why it reflects (or is essential) to your institution’s overall mission and educational goals.   Connecting your program to your institution’s mission and community is important.

2. Identify the academic niche your program offers.  Peace Studies is a challenging, interdisciplinary, and changing field of study.  It must include research, educational, and action-oriented components.  What is unique about your programs’ approach, emphases, and/or understanding of peace studies?

3. Take advantage of your faculty’s interests and strengths.   Because peace studies is a large interdisciplinary field, it is often difficult to find a focus.  But, it also means an entire university can be deployed in research, teaching, and developing aspects of peace studies at your college/university.  How do the sciences, economics, literature, and religious studies shape or contribute to peace studies at your institution?  How can your program take advantage of your faculty’s research and teaching interests?

Throughout our exploratory session tonight, I thought consistently about two things.  First was what Community of Christ offers the global and interdisciplinary search for peace?  What does Community of Christ theology, tradition, or perspective offer the global peace movement and our approach to peace?  Second, I thought about Graceland’s values:  learning, wholeness, and community.   To me, these values have always been more than a list.  They share an interrelated perspective on Graceland’s approach to education, formation and service to others.   Learning, wholeness, and community all increase with each other.  The more we learn, the more we integrate with others and become a whole person.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow and more time spent with the Kroc Institute faculty and faculty from other peace programs across the country and world.  We have an international gathering, here.

Coming to Graceland

It’s been several months since my last post.  Margo (my wife) relapsed with TTP May 7th.  We hoped this disease was behind us.  Margo had two hospital stays and daily visits to the cancer center (4-5 hours a piece) in Chicago from May 7 until July 1, when moved from to Lamoni, IA.   Her treatment initially transferred to Des Moines, then to Decatur County where we now live. The transition, itself, holds a wonderful testimony.

Remarkably, Margo found a doctor in southern rural Iowa who has been treating TTP since 1974.  Chance or not, this is some kind of miracle.   Statistically, TTP cases are 3-4 per million people per year.  That means all of Iowa should have only 9-12 cases of TTP annually.   The odds that a doctor with thirty (30) years of experience with this disease would come to Decatur County (pop. 8500), where we live, two days a week is a blessing no one could plan.  Margo feels she is in great care, and we feel as if we are meant to be here.

The transition from Chicago to Graceland University and Campus Ministries has been an adventure.  Many things are as I anticipated.  The campus is incredibly busy.  There are several questions that hang over my new position:  Is Graceland a Christian institution?   What does it meant that it was established as “non-sectarian?”    How does Graceland’s 100+ year relationship with Community of Christ shape the university and my responsibilities?   Would there be a “Graceland experience” without the church’s faith and historical influence?   These are fascinating and important questions that deserve time and good answers.

Graceland is a liberal arts school with freedom of academic inquiry, dedicated faculty, and a palpable sense of community.  The majority of students, over forty percent (40%), identify as Community of Christ at Graceland.  So do many faculty.   However, Graceland also has a significant Catholic student population, as well as other Protestants, non-denominationals, Mormons, Restorationists, and many others who do not identify or prefer not to be identified with a particular faith.   Graceland also has about 12% International students, who identify with other faiths, including Jewish and Muslim.

With Graceland’s unique heritage and diverse environment, what does it mean to do campus ministry here?   Whom do I serve?  What should be my mission and goals?

Popular thinking about identity lays traps to avoid in answering these kind of questions.   America’s politics and religious tribalism could easily run these questions aground.   Starting from a defensive position, some feel that a diverse campus like Graceland’s would put its history with Community of Christ and its identity under threat.   Of course, the opposite is likely more true.

We learn more about our faith, our history, who we are, what we practice and what we confess, by interacting with others different than ourselves.   This is true across ecumenical differences and interfaith groups.   It’s equally true with the diverse perspectives in any church community.   Intentional interaction and a disposition for learning actually strengthens self-hood, faith and conviction.  Moreover, the Community of Christ is a world-wide church with members of diverse cultural backgrounds across many nations.  It is important to think of Graceland as a microcosm of what a global people really experiences, interacting with diverse people everyday.

Alot more can and should be said about these question.  At this point, I only want to name them and touch on how to approach good and faithful answers.   If you want to read more about my view of Graceland’s relationship to the Community of Christ, see my page Graceland and Community of Christ Share a Mission.

Back to campus.  🙂

a powerful positive witness…without exclusions

At what point did sharing a personal testimony get caught up in sticky traps of “who’s right and who’s wrong?” Why can’t I share my search for God or love of church without fear that I sound like some close-minded religious fanatic? When did sharing my discovery of the Gospel become so complicated…complicated by those who would spin my story into some lecture about my religion or my church or my God at the exclusion others? And…what about those who don’t care, who share their faith and testimonies without grace and reinforce religious stereotypes? Today, the atmosphere around sharing a personal testimony or religious conviction has become a barrier for the church, corporately and for individuals. When did talking about faith became such a minefield?

If we look deep into the fabric of our world, we could go back to the Enlightenment for an answer. That was the period centuries ago in which the measure of truth in our Western world became fundamentally different. The Enlightenment was a turning point in the scientific revolution.  It marked a seismic shift in the authority of religious truth. Today’s politics of truth are shaped by this shift, especially the politics between religion and science. The Enlightenment opened the door to the idea that each mind, equipped with the power of observation and reason, could question and apprehend the truth and reality.  Truth, in this way, became distinct from its foundation in the church, revelation, theologians, and traditional authorities. The politics of truth between religion and science shape how religion and religious people are perceived today. It shapes our stereotypes about religious fanatics and their fanaticism. But, this doesn’t provide the whole answer.

The tension we feel about sharing our personal testimonies of God and religious convictions today are also shaped by the culture of the previous generation.   The 21st century is deeply shaped by end of the 20th.  While the Enlightenment raised the ongoing problem of “What is the truth?” and “How do we know it?”    The tension today around sharing our faith with others is less about how we know the truth and more about the question, “Who’s truth?”   It’s a question of religion and individualism. A generation of Babyboomers, born after WWII, struggled against nearly all external forms of authority – the authority of their parents, society, its institutions, even the past.   We live in the wake of that culture struggle. It shapes our world’s strong sense of individualism.  Today, the individual holds sway over all matters of religion, spirituality, morality, and society.  Individualism is a conviction that shapes both the Right and Left politically, our views of government, as well as most popular churches and forms of spirituality.

This is the reach of individualism.  After the Babyboom, personal testimonies, if they are more than personal stories, are subject to politics, i.e. the politics of religion and individual authority.   Individualism assumes religious testimonies and convictions belong to personal experience.  The truth of our faith and testimonies raise the question of “who’s truth?”   The politics of individualism are inherently defensive. Religious passion and conviction elicit this cultural clash between religious authority and personal experience or opinion. To guard ourselves against outside authority – whether other individuals, society, religion, traditions, institutions, or government – individualism tells us that personal experience and perspective shape reality. The politics of individualism puts tension between us and others because others are external authorities.  They are part of the world outside. Such individualism and its defensive politics muck up almost all possibility for any open exchange or trusting environment for people to talk about their life-changing experiences, faith, love of church, even God.   Being positive is good; too much religion is bad.

The problem is that personal testimonies cannot be more than personal under the sway of individualism, no matter how transforming, how convincing, how important, how deeply felt or how certain. If we push our faith or spiritual experiences off on others, it causes problems. If we share a personal testimony about God, church, or the Gospel, and generalize the certainty or power of our experience onto others, we simply do what many people – inside and outside the church – expect.  Religious people tend to be fanatical, self-righteous, and  judgmental.  Religion leads to close-mindedness and unilateral politics and truth-claims.  It’s inherently antagonistic to dialog and mutuality.  There is no room for differences.  Organized religion, especially, lacks integrity and limits individuality.

The challenge, of course, is that sharing our testimony is the heart of evangelism!   On the one hand, many of us who have experienced God, rapturous love, formerly evasive self-acceptance, or saving grace overflow ourselves.  The desire to reach out can bubble up.  On the other hand, we are also called to invite others into life with God’s hope and affection.   But, the difficulties individualism, defensiveness, and our politics of truth live in our skin.   Also, many of these barriers are our own making as Christians. How do we start all over? How do we take our testimonies beyond the church and its internal dialog? How do our message, mission, and identity reach beyond our community of the like-minded? Why has sharing our faith or witness with others become so offensive?

Theologians often intervene here, too.  They reshape the problem of individualism in a different way.  Theologians remind us that the authority of religious tradition, scripture, and church leaders endure.  We are often unaware of their deep roots and history, and are important.   Scripture, tradition, and the church’s collective life put our individual convictions and personal experiences in perspective. Individuals, by themselves, don’t speak for the church or all faith. But, this often ends up being a theologian’s argument. In our everyday world, we are called to share our testimony and invite others to Christ in a culture where the individual reigns and is held in utmost importance.  Even those of us in the church reflect this cultural conviction. Backed in a corner or disagreement, most of us aren’t afraid to assert our own authority. Most of us defend our personal convictions and spiritual experiences as individuals. We react strongly to anyone that seems to limit us – whether it’s church leaders, liberal or conservative Christians, atheists, or anybody else. In this way, even the church is shaped by individualism and its politics. The politics of truth are inside and out.

Individualism keeps us all safe from religion and outside authority by keeping faith personal.   Church leaders, as well as individuals in the pew, aren’t afraid to argue that personal testimonies and convictions don’t escape our experience and opinion. These are the very dynamics that make it difficult to share our personal testimonies, whether in the church or without.  If I share my testimony with too much passion or too much certainty, with too much conviction and push it off on others, it creates problems.   It gets in the way of anyone actually hearing my testimony. Defensiveness against authority colors everything.  Moreover, bold and forceful Christians reinforce the stereotypes. They are ambassadors of the truth – a truth that is self-righteous and exclusive.  Those who don’t want to be this kind of Christian let others define evangelism. We stay in our communities with like-minded people talking about outreach, but struggling to practice what we preach. We share our faith amongst ourselves. What about sharing it with others?

It’s been months since I’ve last posted. Life’s been full of busyness, changes in large and small proportion. But, the challenge to increase my witness has been brewing in me for some time.   It’s occupied my soul and mind as I’ve spent time alone with God, gone to meetings with church leaders, preached at services, and listened to the Spirit stirring beneath the surface. I’m in a period of transition in my life and I feel the challenge to focus my life and respond more fully with a greater sense of witness. There isn’t a better time than Easter morning to share the simple invitation again:

Share a positive witness of God’s boundless Love in Christ.  Share it honestly and vulnerable, in love and without exclusions.  Hazard your testimony.  Venture your witness.  Learn to tell your story in act and word – in public, with a friend, an acquaintance, online, at work, or in a moment when the Spirit leads you. Pray for that moment.

The way we share our testimony says as much as what we say. We can shape a new politics of love in Christianity, one that shatters the culture of individualism and old politics of truth. Let the church let go of forced choices – who’s right and who’s wrong, us versus them, my truth versus yours.  This is not God’s power struggle.   God is a God of new beginnings, spontaneous interactions, uncommon relationships, vulnerable opportunities, and new expressions.   Christ is our example of this vulnerability, risk, love and its mission. Welcome others’ reactions, their objections, different experiences and perspective. If others object or suspect us of forcing ourselves on others or begging a debate, share honestly. Deny the false choice. Our testimony just is, in all its vulnerably.  It bears no burden of proof other than its effect on us, so we don’t need to become defensive. There is nothing to defend.

Resurrection, itself, is a symbol of powerful positive witness…shared honestly and vulnerably in Christ, with love and without exclusions. Individualism and its politics of truth present us with a problem, but a new politics of love in the church doesn’t have to.  It can overcome.

What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?

Update (11/19/10):  I am grateful for a note from a friend who reminded me of the problems of the term “North American.”  North America refers to not only the U.S., but also Canada, Mexico, Central American and the Caribbean.  By using this term in my blog post, I risk a long-standing imperial practice of defining “North America” under largely U.S. history and experience.  I appreciate this sensitivity to language.  Community of Christ/RLDS practice is certainly not innocent of this tendency.  To clarify, when I use the term “North American church” I am inclusively referring to the U.S. and Canada, those areas of the church in which I have my religious experience and heritage.

I’ve given this question attention since as early as I can remember, or at least since I started learning and doing theology.  It seems to me that Community of Christ, when considered from the vantage point of our RLDS memories and experiences, faces decisive identity questions as it moves into the future.  These are inescapable theological problems that are deeply related to our past.

On one hand, identity issues emerge because the Community of Christ has become an international church with a diverse membership across many cultures.  Many North American church members have no direct access to the true diversity of worship practices and beliefs that make up the Community of Christ today.  Instead, we in North America are more deeply rooted in our RLDS upbringing.  This RLDS upbringing shapes our sense of solidarity with one another, holds memories of defending or explaining ourselves to others…but without ever the satisfaction of that deep connection within the church.  This experience structures our deep sense of intimate community.

On the other hand, I also believe the North American church struggles with theological issues and dissension regarding basic issues of Community of Christ identity, message, and beliefs because too few of us truly grasp how the internal logic of RLDS identity has reached its logical limits.  The identity structure that held the RLDS message, identity, and experience together for much of the 20th century came to a kind of impasse.   To blame changes in RLDSism on apostate church leaders or ecumenical conversations that lured the church down the path of destructive liberalism to generic Christianity, as some conservatives and Restorationists believe, is intellectually short-sighted and reactionary.  Scapegoating does not stand up to a more faithful exploration and there are better explanations.

The Community of Christ does not emerge as a global Christian church because church leaders didn’t do enough to protect RLDS dogma and tradition.   In fact, the RLDS dogma and tradition that many cling to today belongs to the early and mid-20th century, while emerging Community of Christ identity flows from deeper currents in our North American Restoration heritage.  The post-RLDS nature or feel of Community of Christ identity comes from the internal structure of RLDS identity, which over the last 100 years has reached interminable and decisive contradictions.  The Community of Christ has responded not by diluting, but prophetically embracing the positive (verses negative) aspects of RLDS identity and heritage.  We still need to hone and clarify these positive aspects of our Restoration heritage today.

Identifying the decisive identity issues in the North American Community of Christ today is, itself, a difficult task.  But, I think its essential if the North American church is going to understand and fully embrace the transformation of the RLDS to global Community of Christ identity.  By limiting the scope of our perspective to a North American perspective, it helps provide some focus on the problems we face finding unity (let alone consensus) around theological and ethical issues that involve basic identity questions.  Some of the identity issues we struggle with emerge directly from within our North American post-RLDS context.

Taking a look at the church’s current identity issues, there are some things that become apparent.  First, the Community of Christ emerges out of its roots in early American Christianity.  Still claiming our Restoration heritage, the Community of Christ has distinct roots in American Christianity.  The same early American mythos and post-Enlightenment ideas that shaped America’s sense of promise, exceptionalism, and manifest destiny also shapes Community of Christ faith and history.  Liberal democratic principles, economic freedom, communitarianism, and our expectation that God’s promises and authority remain in human reach all shape RLDSism and the post-RLDS Community of Christ identity.  These are the legacy of our 19th century Restorationism.   Simply, the American belief in a promised land predestined for liberty and expansion only needs to be radicalized a bit to become the Restoration belief that the restoration of God’s authority, people, and promised is at hand for Christian Americans.  The RLDS focus on a Kingdom-building faith, reshaped today by critical theology and lessons from the past, remains deeply ingrained in this history.  Christ’s Kingdom as the cause of Zion remains a key witness of Community of Christ message and identity.  But, this vision is tempered by the church’s also classically held liberal beliefs: the worth of persons, personal faith formation, and non-credal tradition.  These things come together to create some of the basic challenges and tensions of Community of Christ identity today.

The second thing that becomes apparent is that RLDSism is defined by its inability to transcend its particular position within Mormon history.  I’m convinced that the reason the RLDS church is undergoing its transformation toward a new identity as Community of Christ is because RLDSism’s position between Utah Mormonism, on one hand, and American Protestantism, on the other, has reached its limits.  The liberalism that clearly sets the RLDS church apart from its Mormon cousins pushes RLDSism away from its historical sectarianism.  For the RLDS, this liberalism is expressed and felt in the RLDS emphasis on individual spirituality and internal dissent from spiritual authority, which makes the RLDS more Protestant than Mormon.    This is what has made critical scholarship (theological and historical), theological evolution, critique of authoritarian leadership, and critique of the authority of tradition possible.   Those who who reject this liberalism adhere to RLDSism’s sectarian strands, which continues to unfold in conservative RLDSism.  In the Community of Christ, however, the historical tendency toward sectarian belief and identity (i.e. the righteous remnant) is overcome by the universalizing logic embedded deep within liberal Christianity, as well as in biblical Christianity through Paul.   The theological significance of this inclusive and universal vision for Christ and Christ’s Kingdom has moved late RLDSism, its sense of community, and mission toward a more universal and inclusive center of identity.  Against the negativity of a RLDS sectarian identity structure, the Community of Christ finds its mission, message, and future in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this way, the church is becoming “more Protestant,” but only because the roots of the Restoration movement are in the universalizing vision of biblical theology and American Christianity, which shares in the universal spirit of modern Protestantism.  In this sense, the Community of Christ is not a break with RLDSism, only RLDS sectarianism and its negatively-structured identity.  It is, in fact, historically the fulfillment (cf. D&C 164:9a) of its essentially Christian Restoration vision and heritage in American Christianity.

However, the universalism of the Community of Christ’s essential Christ-centered Restoration identity bumps up against these limits when Community of Christ leaders and members, remembering their RLDS heritage, ask themselves, “What is particular about the Community of Christ?”, or ” What sets the Community of Christ apart from American Protestantism?  What about our distinctives?”  Another way to ask these questions is, “What endures of RLDSism amidst Community of Christ’s relationship to American Protestantism?”   The problem with these questions is they are reminiscent of RLDS identity in its essentially negative structure, which fueled its sectarianism and structured itself negatively between Mormonism and American Protestantism.  So, the question is better stated, “What endures of RLDS tradition, theology, and identity in the Community of Christ?  What endures positively?  In light of our roots in American Restorationism (Mormons, Disciples of Christ, congregationalism, etc.), what remains of our RLDS heritage and testimony in the Community of Christ – if RLDSism is essentially neither wholly Mormon nor Protestant.  This is what is being asked when North American church members ask, “What is distinctive about the Community of Christ?”

Here we reach the current impasse.  The problem with RLDS identity is that it has historically always been negatively defined between Mormonism and American Protestantism.   Furthermore, I believe this negativity – especially for the early and middle 20th century of the RLDS church – has been the most important and influential aspect of RLDS identity.  Identifying our distinctive place is what has kept the church alive in the 20th century as it vied for denominational legitimacy amidst American Christianity.  The negativity of RLDS identity has been reinforced by both Mormon’s and Protestants.  Historically, both have rejected core RLDS positions with regard to fundamental identifiers of Mormonism and American Christianity:  what defines scripture,  what and who defines religious authority, who are God’s elect, and perspectives on salvation and salvation history.  It is our deep emotional attachment to this negative identity and its sectarian-esque feel that leads some to schism and others to question our basic identity.

There were clearly divisive controversies with regard to each of these defining aspects of RLDS theology and identity in the decision to accept women in the priesthood in 1984.   In 1984, the issue of scriptural authority and forms of church  religious authority split the church, which separated along more sectarian and liberal lines.  More conservative RLDSers rejected the leadership of both the 1984 Conference (the church’s liberal-democratic side) and the defining leaders of the church (the church’s theocratic side) in order to preserve the traditional forms of RLDS sectarian authority:  the belief in the one true church, in the sole election of the RLDS church as righteous remnant of God’s Restoration, belief in salvation through the church and an RLDS Zion.   This dissension, tragically, culminated in the divisive question of the church’s ultimate form of spiritual authority, women or men.   More sectarian RLDSers separated from the more liberal RLDS who accepted the change in form of authority, the shifts toward ecumenism in the church, and the move toward a more inclusive sense of religious identity and salvation history.

Here, I think, we see the negative structure of RLDS identity in the relationship between the more conservative, theocratic, and sectarian tendencies of RLDSism (that resembles Mormonism) in contrast with the more liberal, democratic, and ecumenically Protestant tendencies of RLDSism which, against Mormonism, resembles American Christianity.  Against those who would claim otherwise, I’m arguing both are essential aspects of RLDS identity.

After the split of the conservative Restorationists from the more liberal-democratic RLDS, I think the negative identity structure of RLDSism has reached its culmination and its limits.    Positively, instead of refocusing the future of the RLDS church on redefining RLDS identity negatively against the schismatic Restorationists, against the Mormons, and against Protestant Christianity, the emerging post-RLDS church prophetically moves toward a positive identity.  It is symbolized powerful in the name change to Community of Christ.   Emerging out of its essentially negative position against Mormons, congregationalists, and Protestantism, the Community of Christ is now a global church that seeks a positive relationship (not merger) with American Protestantism equipped with a positive identity that is Christ-centered, community focused, and aspiring for peace and justice missionally.  (This is how the powerful counter-narrative of the Temple unfolds against the schismatic tendencies of RLDS sectarianism in light of D&C 156.)

The problem that haunts the Community of Christ internally, however, is the ghost of its negative identity.   Historically, the negative relationship of RLDSism to both Mormonism and American Protestantism is what structured RLDS sectarianism with a cherished sense of community and essentially negative identity.  The Community of Christ’s sense of community cannot be separated from its lived historical experience as a marginalized movement negatively positioned in obscurity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity.  The challenge, therefore, is to shape the negative aspect of this marginalized experience of community in a positive identity position.  I believe, consciously or not, this process has already been taking place in the church for a few decades.   As we face the future, however, I want to suggest a few places where, I hope, the positivity of RLDS identity can emerge with both historical and theological integrity.

1.  Community of Christ proclaims Jesus Christ and community as it is lived, experienced, and understood among those who are marginalized.   Moreover, the agents of Christ’s salvation community are common folk, ordinary sojourners in search of salvation with one another in their walk with Christ. The RLDS church emerged out of the American wilderness among many poor and dispossessed.  Its early communitarian experiments emerged out of concern for the poor.  The spiritual experiences of Joseph Smith, Jr and the early church testify of the Holy Spirit’s activity and testimony of Jesus Christ amidst such communities.  The Community of Christ has its roots among farmers, frontiersmen and women, and immigrants who saw God’s community brought forth by and for common women and men.

2.  Community of Christ is not a church unto itself.  Community of Christ identity does not stand alone, but is always expressed positively in relation to other Christian denominations and movements.  It would be an error for the Community of Christ to revision or reimagine its identity in a sectarian manor, negatively defined and independent of American Protestantism or global Christianity.  In truth, RLDS identity has always been defined in relationship to other Christian denominations and movements, especially when defined negatively.  The RLDS legacy has been its search, from generation to generation, for a positive expression of God’s Christianity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity.  What is emergent and unique in Community of Christ identity today is that this identity is now positively positioned in relation to other forms of Christianity.  Identity in Christ is understood in a Pauline way, in relationship to Christ’s body as it is understood internationally and denominationally, to break down barriers of the flesh that separate God’s people into righteous and unrighteous, saint and sinner, oppressor and oppressed.  In this way, Community of Christ seeks to understand itself globally as both a Christ-centered people amidst other Christians, but also unique in its history and testimony of community.

3.  Community of Christ understands salvation in light of God’s Restoration.  The cause of Zion – temporally and spiritually – is the call to discipleship in light of God’s Kingdom among us, both heavenly and earthly. RLDSism’s emphasis on the cause of Zion and its experience of community shapes both its understanding of scripture and salvation history.   Scripture is more than revelation.  It is community forming.  The millennialism and Christian primitivism that shapes Community of Christ heritage among America’s early 19th century great awakening focuses Community of Christ understanding of church and faith on living the reign of God.  This reign is wherever Christian discipleship and faith in the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is made real in the relationships of sacred community.  In this sense, the Community of Christ shares a realized eschatology, which is the experience of Zion that is available to human experience when faith and mission in both church and world.  The mission of the church to proclaim Jesus Christ and establish the cause of Zion flow from this understanding of Gospel-Acts.  That is the active presence of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Christ’s church, its sacraments, and priesthood.

There is certainly much more that should be addressed, here.  There are many questions about RLDS particularity (or distinctives) that could and should be explored.  What is important, however, is to first sketch out what  are the foremost aspects of emerging Community of Christ identity as they emerge out of North American RLDSism.  It is my contention that it is not only possible, but its necessary for RLDSism to be fulfilled in order to realize the coming of the Community of Christ.  The Temple, I believe, marks that transformation.  RLDSism is attempting to move beyond its 175 year legacy of negative identity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity to a positive identity among the world’s 2000 year old Christianities.  In this global community, the Community of Christ reflects a unique and prophetic sense of American Christianity.   In terms of Community of Christ identity, theology, and mission, I believe what I have identified here flows from the Spirit and prophetic message of our most recent sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, 161-164.  Certainly, by the grace of God, each generation is “poised to fulfill God’s ultimate vision for the church.”  (D&C Section 164:9a)  This sense of expectation and spiritual anticipation, matched with uncommon devotion, is the character of Restoration Christianity today.