Word from Winkler — Urging the church forward

Editor's note: The following column is drawn from Jim Winkler’s address to the new Board of Directors of the General Board of Church & Society at their organizational meeting last week at the Lake Junaluska (N.C.) Conference & Retreat Center. Forty-six of the 63 board members are new.

Having so many new board members is the norm each time around. It creates a challenge to you to become aware of the ministry of this agency as it has been carried out in the past and an opportunity to chart a new course over the next four years.

The General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) is instructed by scripture and the United Methodist Books of Discipline and Resolutions. Between General Conferences, our denomination’s highest policy-setting body that meets every four years, we are to “provide forthright witness and action on issues of human well-being, justice, peace and the integrity of creation that call Christians to respond as forgiven people for whom Christ died.” That covers a lot of ground!

The earth is in the grip of three intertwining, interlocking demonic systems of vast power and scope.

I pledge to you directors that we, your staff, stand ready as disciples of Christ to move alongside you in the coming years as we seek the implementation of the Social Principles and other statements on Christian social concerns adopted by the United Methodist General Conference, which met this spring in Tampa, Fla.

Our challenges are many. I will never forget the 1992 episcopal address to the General Conference delivered by Bishop Dale White in which he noted the earth is in the grip of three intertwining, interlocking demonic systems of vast power and scope. He named them as hunger-making, war-making, and desert-making systems.

Our task

It is our task to confront and unmask and unmake those systems that wreak havoc and misery upon the planet.

We follow the Prince of Peace.

We do so because we follow the Prince of Peace whose family had to flee just after his birth when agents of the tyrant Herod set out to kill him.

We do so because Jesus was willing to heal the sick and nurture the afflicted even when it violated custom and those famous words “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

We do so because Jesus, who lived his entire life under Roman military occupation, was unjustly put to death by the world’s superpower.

Unpopular stands

On Sept. 11, I entered the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill at nearly the same time I did 11 years ago. I commented to colleagues that it was an almost duplicate morning: beautiful, clear and sunny.

The terrible events of 9/11 unleashed war and suffering that continue to this day. We urged that those who perpetrated the crimes of mass murder back then be brought to justice. We also warned of the unanticipated, tragic consequences of war.

Later, we made every effort to stop an invasion of Iraq. This board stood firm in the face of an angry nation bent on revenge.

Many years earlier, this agency took unpopular stands for civil rights in the midst of a segregated church and against the Vietnam War. We do not seek opportunities to be controversial, but I can guarantee you that during your time as directors of this agency you will need to discern just where God’s people need to be on the issues of the day.

Recently, Dr. David Hollinger, president of the Organization of American Historians, talked about the impact our church and other major Protestant churches have had over the past century: "The ecumenical leaders achieved much more than they and their successors give them credit for. They led millions of American Protestants in directions demanded by the changing circumstances of the times and by their own theological tradition. These ecumenical leaders took a series of risks, asking their constituency to follow them in antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist and multicultural directions that were understandably resisted by large segments of the white public."

Something true to say

The United Methodist Book of Discipline charges this board with the responsibility to “analyze long-range social trends and their underlying ethical values. It shall explore systemic strategies for social change and alternative futures. It shall speak its convictions, interpretations, and concerns to the Church and the world.”

Dr. James Howell, a GBCS board member, recently wrote a book entitled, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge & Wonder of Preaching. He writes, “Do not write one more word of one more sermon until you have found something big and true to say.”

Well, this is not a sermon, but what is big and true to say is that when GBCS and its predecessor agencies have challenged the church it has done so out of our faith and our duty.

The great movements for social change in my lifetime have been: civil rights, women’s rights, environmental justice, the movements to end apartheid, the Vietnam War, colonialism, the nuclear arms race, the movement for the rights and dignity of all people. These movements are moral and spiritual.

The church has been dragged kicking and screaming to the table of all of these movements, but we are at that table and we are pillars.

Professor Hollinger described us as achieving a cultural victory but added: "The victors are slow to claim victory because they too often assume that numbers of church members are what counts most. If they had a more capacious understanding of the ways in which religion can function in a society, they might be able to feel more pride in what happened. The great Anglican archbishop William Temple used to say that any church aware of its deepest mission would be willing to cease to exist if it advanced its ultimate goals."

There exists a rearguard action that would drag us back to darker days. This agency exists, in part, to urge the church forward.

Letter to the Editor