Institute on Religion and Democracy
April 27, 1999
At its Spring1999 directors meeting, The General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) discussed the impact of a featured speaker at its Fall 1998 meeting who explicitly rejected evangelism as a legitimate missions purpose.
The remarks of Wesley Ariarajah, a professor at United Methodist Drew School of Theology in New Jersey, had been reported by UMAction Briefing, which was sent to 100,000 United Methodist households. Last Fall, Ariarajah had told GBGM that Christians should not endeavor to convert persons to Christianity but instead should promote "healing" and social justice.
At the recent meeting, Bishop Dan Solomon of Louisiana, who is GBGMs president, distributed an April 13, 1999 letter from Ariarajah, in which he responded to UMActions report. In that letter, Ariarajah did not dispute UMActions account of his speech but affirmed his right to express his opinions openly. He professed that his remarks had not been received uncritically by GBGM, saying some "personal responses" from directors had expressed disagreement. (UMAction reported there was no openly expressed criticism but that several directors were privately troubled by his remarks.)
The Rev. Robin Mitchell, a director from Hackensack, New Jersey, asked his fellow directors to approve a resolution affirming Ariarajahs "thought-provoking" presentation in response to UMActions "unfair and hostile characterizations."
But Joe Whittemore, a director from Hartwell, Georgia, responded that he did not "share the enthusiasm for Dr. Wesley Ariarajahs comments." He said that he had been troubled by the speech and thought GBGM should not be seen as endorsing Ariarajahs approach to missions. Whittemore noted that GBGM has not featured speakers who offered "the other side" in favor of evangelism and the Great Commission.
Bishop Solomon then summarized GBGMs statement as one of appreciation for the "spirit" of Ariarajahs "gracious" April 13th letter. But the statement, as Solomon described it, fell short of actually affirming Ariarajahs controversial speech itself.
Although not as explicit as Ariarajah in rejecting the Great Commissions mandate to make disciples of Christ, the Bible study leader for GBGMs Spring meeting did hint in that direction. The Rev. Dora Arce Valentin is a Cuban Presbyterian minister who directs the Womens Department of the Christian Peace Conference in Cuba. She spoke of missions as a "dialogue" and a "dialectic" process rather than a conversion effort.
"I would be contradicting myself if I [as a missionary] said I was bring the truth," said Valentin of her approach to missions. Missionaries should instead speak of the "journey together" between themselves and the missioned. "Both have something to receive."
Valentin lamented that missionaries have "treated people as if they have not much brains," and treated the Word of God as if it were a "vaccination." She said, "It is [in] the other where we find Jesus."
"It doesnt matter how you worship God but how you live your worship," Valentin said. She affirmed the churchs purpose is to proclaim Jesus Christ and to evangelize. But she was not specific as to whether evangelisms focus was the winning of individuals to personal faith in Jesus Christ, or whether it is the transformation of societies towards a particular brand of social justice. She warned against the "great transnationals of the global economy" that have expelled minorities to the periphery. And she recommended an interpretation of Scripture that employs geography as a code to illustrate Jesus rejection of the "centers of power." (An example: Jerusalem was a center of power, but Samaria was a land of the dispossessed.)
Other speakers addressed some of GBGMs political themes. Suzanne Paul, a former GBGM staffer who now leads the New York-based Global Action on Aging, attacked efforts to "privatize" Social Security. She claimed that concerns about Social Securitys solvency were actually fabricated by Wall Street financiers who want pension funds channeled into private investments.
"Governments are losing the capacity to tax," she warned. "The private sector has waged a propaganda war on taxes." Since the Social Security fund is now running an annual surplus, Paul said talk about its supposed "verge on collapse" was actually a "remarkable deception." She alleged that any privatization of Social Security would benefit only a few wealthy persons.
As evidence for her claim she cited decreased longevity in former Soviet republics, where the guaranteed income and social services of the old communist government have collapsed.
She said there was no shortage of resources in the United States, where human ingenuity was daily adding to the nations unprecedented prosperity. But she warned that American wealth would have to be better distributed, as some Americans clearly have "far too much."
"We have to build international solidarity," Paul urged, as a she suggested a new system of global Social Security supported by international taxes. "Borders have been cast aside," she explained, as she recommended global taxes on currency exchanges, carbon emissions and wasteful energy usage. Paul warned the church to look beyond "misplaced nationalism" and the market place. "People are organizing all over the world," she concluded, and the church should lead that process.
Randy Nugent, GBGMs general secretary, told the directors that GBGM must be bolder in working for the "elimination of poverty, war and racism around the world." He specifically castigated the Clinton Administration for failing to endorse an international treaty that would ban land mines. But he, along with Paul Dirdak of UMCOR, also proposed constructive ways that GBGM can support land mine removal, possibly through the purchase of mine-removal heavy equipment.
GBGMs Womens Division voted a special grant of $100,000 to support the renovation of the United Methodist Building in Washington, DC, from which the Womens Division and the Board of Church and Society lobby for public policy causes. The Womens Division also approved a $11,000 grant to the "Free School Clubs" movement in Salt Lake City, which will help groups like the East High Gay/Straight Alliance campaign for access to public school space. The Salt Lake City school board has banned all non-academic, extra-curricular school groups from school buildings to avoid having to accommodate the Gay/Straight Alliance.
GBGMs directors discussed increased humanitarian relief in response to the refugee crisis in the Balkans and also approved a resolution calling upon NATO immediately to halt its bombing of Yugoslavia. GBGM instead urged mediation through the United Nations.
In 1998, it was reported, GBGM collected $192,989,212 in revenue, and spent $167,201,518, of which $13,139,903 was spent directly on missionaries. Advance Special projects and Relief Agency projects accounted for $30,041,575 and 23,988,716 respectively. Assets, primarily stock investments, as of the end of 1998 stood at $410,759,020.