By Ellen Johanson
Several hundred clergy and laity gathered on the first full day of Annual Conference to hear the Rev. Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Winkler shared an inspiring message starting with his assertion that our Annual Conference theme of Everybody Fed: Hope for Tomorrow can be viewed as “pie in the sky.”
Winkler shared that in the last four years, the average American family has lost almost 50% of its wealth, while banks have made more than $29 billion in fee income. We face grave social, political, and environmental concerns such as global warming, increased societal violence, human trafficking, racial tension, international turmoil and wars. It is easy to see why many people may agree with New York Times journalist, Felix Salmon, that “Rich people have more power than poor people and they use that power to get what they want–which is normally more wealth and more power. This is now a country run by the rich, for the rich and nothing…gives me reason to believe that there’s any hope of changing that.”
Perhaps Salmon is not familiar with the hopeful work of faithful United Methodists who are transforming the world – or perhaps he is unfamiliar with the words of the Biblical prophets. The condition of our time is really not so different from theirs asserts Winkler. When people neglect the poor and ignore God’s will, God seeks ways and people to turn their hearts around. Being wealthy isn’t the problem but letting wealth or good fortune turn one away from God is; so prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and Amos preached repentance and pointed out the need for God’s people to change, restore shalom and renew their care and compassion for the poor.
Winkler also shared that the role of the ancient prophet “is to speak for God and tell the truth. Prophetic speech, in the words of Obery Hendriks Jr., author of The Politics of Jesus is “characterized by two elements: an overwhelming sense of an encounter with God and a message of moral and political judgment that the prophet feels divinely compelled to proclaim, particularly to those in political authority.”
The goal of this is to bring about social and political change. Dr. Hendricks further says that prophets never uncritically support the status quo. Rather their role is to challenge it. “In our time, when many seem to think that Christianity goes hand in hand with right-wing visions of the world, it is important to remember that there has never been a conservative prophet.” Prophets don’t conserve social orders based on the unjust distribution of power, privilege and wealth; instead they are called to change these systems so that all of God’s children can have access to God’s bounty.
“Faithful followers of Jesus Christ live in love with the world”, says Winkler. They are called to do good works, to obey God’s word and to realize that personal salvation always involves serving others in our world. We love the world because God loves the world. When we are called to be new creations in Christ we need to live in ways that show that to the world.
Winkler’s message was fully appreciated by the members of Annual Conference as shown by the standing ovation he received and the comments of many clergy and laity. Monica Corsaro, pastor of Rainier Beach UMC, said “What an energizing morning to be reminded that the bible calls us to be prophetic and that we don’t have to be poor to advocate for the poor.” Earl Lane, pastor of Lyle and White Salmon UMCs, used the words “wonderful, intellectually intuitive, enlightening and captivating.” What David Reinholz of Battle Ground UMC found most challenging was Winkler’s statement that we are enamored the institution rather than the mission and that too much of what we do is focused on structure rather than reformation.”
“It’s refreshing for someone to speak a truth that isn’t said often enough, so to hear with such precision of the problems going on in the world and that juxtaposition of…hopefulness – I think gave me a sense of purpose that is very refreshing…one of the things that struck me the most, perhaps not the key point, but being someone who just finished seminary and has graduated with student loan debt…his mentioning of…loan debt was “impressive”…and I think it is something the United Methodist Church needs to start taking on because we are a church that is…proud of its education, of its contributions, its creation of universities…and I think that this is something that is stifling the possibilities for our future…. and something that we need to be a lot more vocal about as a church.”
Jim Winkler later spoke at the Laity Session to help remember their roots as the backbone civil and human rights movements.
What did YOU think about Jim Winkler’s teaching sessions at AC?
Retired clergy member
“I thought it was really exciting. I’ve been very concerned about what’s happening in our country in terms of sucking our money upwards in the name of Christianity, sometimes. I’ve been doing some study in my local church about this issue and trying to future out how to prod the national discussions into taking a serious conversation about the 1% and the 99%.”
Clergy, Kalevaria UMC, Tacoma, Washington
“Very informative…it was exciting to hear where the General Board of Church and Society stands. Also “the lost, last and least” was interesting.”
If you would like to respond to this article, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Ellen Johanson serves as the Regional Media Center Manager.