If I could make one minor change to the UM system, it would be that the quadrennial meeting of General Conference not coincide with that other quadrennial event, the US presidential election. The rancorous political climate of an election year with its polarizing rhetoric that divides the country into red states and blue states contaminates the atmosphere of General Conference and across the Church.
This past month – the weekend after the election – some 5,000 UM youth (my daughter included) and adults gathered for Pilgrimage 2016, the North Carolina Annual Conference youth event. On Friday evening, one youth group, which included a large number of Latino youth, encountered another group, some of whose members were wearing red caps with the slogan, “Make American Great Again.” The Latino youth felt greeted by hostile stares.
The next day the youth were invited to write messages on clothes pins and stick the pins to other kids’ nametag lanyards. They were intended to be signs of encouragement and love. Instead, some of the Latino youth discovered that someone had attached clothespins that read “I love Trump” and “Build a wall.”
That night the youth group leader, a Latina divinity student on her field placement, addressed the issue to all the youth. She spoke about her own experience as a young girl immigrating with her parents to North Carolina from Mexico. She recounted how in games of dodgeball the other children would say, “Get the Mexican. Get her out and send her back to where she belongs.” It was only when a small UM church in Winston Salem opened its doors to the Latino community that she “experienced love and compassion for the first time” and “felt welcomed.” She went on to talk about how excluded her youth felt when they found the clothes pins on their tags. Then, directly addressing the kids with the red caps, she said, “If you want to welcome the Holy Spirit … take off your red hats and instead wear the message of the gospel.” Although, by my daughter’s reckoning, there were only about ten youth wearing the red caps, a number of other youth groups walked out in reaction to her political challenge. There were diverse cries of indignation. Some demanded that youth events should be safe places for minorities, especially in the wake of the election. Others wanted Pilgrimage to be a place safe for youth to express their political views free from public censure. The one thing on which all could agree was that Pilgrimage 2016 mirrored the painful fissures within the nation as a whole and within the body of Christ.
Nothing under the sun is new. The animus of ecclesial division is certainly not a novelty in the church. I was reminded of this point recently reading Adam Ployd’s monograph, Augustine, the Trinity, and the Church (Oxford University Press, 2015), which analyzes how Augustine’s Nicene Christology informs his doctrine of the church in his anti-Donatist writings. Between December 406 and July 407, Augustine penned 41 sermons on the Psalms of Ascent (Pss 119-33), the Gospel of John, and 1 John. The doctrine of the church that emerges reflects his belief in the unity of Christ. The incarnate Christ, the Word united to a human body and soul, is one persona or prosopon. He is one man, unus homo. Yet the many who through baptism are united to his body have become incorporated into this one man. The unity of Christ to his mystical body, the church, Augustine calls the totus Christus, or “whole Christ.” What, therefore, is said of Christ, is said, not only of the Word or of the man Jesus. It is said of the said of totus Christus, of Christ and his church. Where Christ is, there is his body. Because Christ has ascended to the Father (John 3:13), we have ascended to the Father. To be united to Christ, is to be united to his body.
The error of the Donatists was that they refused to be united to the body of Christ because they believed the unholiness of Catholic priests precluded their conferring the grace of the Holy Spirit. Because Donatists desired a holy community of saints, they broke from Christ’s body. In breaking away from Christ’s unholy body, they broke away from the totus Christus. Our only hope of ascending to the Father is as a member of totus Christus. “For if you love the head you also love the members; yet if your do not love the members, neither do you love the head” (Homilies on 1 John 10.3; Ployd, 96). It is the love of God, the gift of the Spirit in baptism, that unites us to Christ and his body. To break from the body of Christ because it is deficient in holiness is to break the bonds of charity that unite up to Christ. We cannot be part of Christ unus homo without being part of totus Christus, warts and all. We walk away from our brother or sister at our own peril.
Augustine’s ecclesiology complicates our view of the church by revealing the unsafe nature of being in church. As the body of Christ, we reach out to people from all demographic groups, that through us they may experience the embracing love of God. At the same time, however, such an inclusive gospel welcomes people of all degrees of spiritual maturity and holiness: the skeptics and the devout, the more virtuous and the less virtuous. This is the paradox of the inclusive gospel: as Christ ate with tax collectors and sinners, Samaritans and Pharisees, we his body welcome all including those whose unholy prejudices predispose them to be unwelcoming and uncharitable to others. We seek the liberation of the oppressed (e.g., Lazarus) and the reclamation of the oppressor (e.g., Zacchaeus). We want to give the oppressed and the marginalized the assurance that the church is a place where they are safe and will not be ostracized or maligned. Yet the truth is that we invite them into a community that includes some of the very people who have ostracized and maligned them. Because we invite them into community of people like themselves, sinners who are more or less repentant and more or less loving of their neighbor, we are in fact not inviting them into a place that is safe. If there is one Christ in whose body all members are one, if we are the totus Christus, then all are called to a life of vulnerability – the vulnerability of confronting and confessing one’s own sin, the vulnerability of forgiving those who have hurt us, the vulnerability of sitting side by side with those who do not like us because of who we are or what we believe or how we live. The alternative to such vulnerability is to walk away and create a safe homogenous group.
Walking away for the sake of holy homogeneity was the error of the Donatists. The challenge for the leaders of the church is how, on the one hand, to exercise ecclesial discipline that confronts whatever is unholy and uncharitable within the body and protects those who are most vulnerable and, on the other hand, to embody a patient inclusiveness that welcomes, challenges, and supports fellow sinners as they grow in the grace that leads to holiness. Then and only then can we be the totus Christus living together in the bonds of charity.