Please Note: This post is a response from Community of Christ Apostle, Andrew Bolton, to two blog postings by his son, Matthew Bolton: “The Community of Christ is Not a Peace Church” and “Managed Decline or Rejuvenation?” Matthew Bolton’s articles critiqued the church’s implementation of its peace mission. —Ed.
I want to respond to Matthew’s article.
Perhaps we should own up to being father and son straightaway. In recent years our relationship has become more like equal friends and that has been a real joy for me. I even look up to him — he is 6ft 5in and I am only 6ft 2 1/2 in. He writes better than I do and intellectually he is ahead of me. I like to think though that the thousands of conversations we have had over the years have helped shape not only his intellectual skills of analysis but his interest and deep convictions about peace and justice… and his outspokenness. Emily, his beloved wife, is also having a good influence on him. We both look up to her (5ft 5in) and she may, in her Mennonite convictions and personal courage, be even more committed to peace than either of us.
Matthew was a double major at Graceland, his mother’s alma mater, and has completed his MSc in Development Studies and his PhD in Government at the London School of Economics, part of the University of London — my alma mater. He is not just a thorough researcher but a courageous one. He has researched his PhD case studies on the ground in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Sudan and has worked in Iraq and in several countries in Africa and Central America and the Philippines. So we should welcome his voice along with other young adults in the church who are also on similar committed and courageous journeys.
I really like Matthew’s passion, commitment and clarity. When I finished reading what he had written I was moved and felt connected again with my passion, at my best, to make the world a better place.
However, I am what Matthew would consider to be currently “one of the top leaders” of the church as a member of the Council of Twelve Apostles. Furthermore as coordinator for peace and justice ministries for 9 years from 1998 to 2007 at the international headquarters of the church, in ‘sleepy mid-western town of Independence’, I am co-responsible with others for where we now are as a church. I am thus one of those Matthew is being critical about. I want to thus give my perspective too.
So to Matthew’s article.
1. This is where I agree with Matthew:
a) I really like the suggestions in the section headed: “What Would We See If the Community of Christ Was Serious about Peace?” We should aim to do these kinds of things.
b) I agree that we should choose “The alternative … [option], to take a leap of faith and truly commit to following the call the ‘share Christ’s peace’, engaging in efforts to bring about non-violent resolutions to the world’s conflicts.”
c) I agree that we should follow the radical Jesus. In Matthew’s words: “One cannot have it both ways — a serious commitment to peace comes with great risk. Jesus did not consult risk assessment specialists or his synagogue’s balance sheet before riding into Jerusalem, driving out the money-changers and facing the cross. The church must risk the possibility of ‘losing its life’ — both figuratively, institutionally and literally — if it wants to claim it can save the world.”
d) Agreed. It is difficult to become a peace church. We are frail humans, sinful, and hesitant to apply all of Jesus to all of our lives. We still are involved in empire, especially in the USA and other affluent nations, that crucifies the poor and the non-white.
2. This is where we differ at this point:
a) Matthew asserts that Community of Christ is not a peace church. I want to say that Community of Christ is on a very difficult journey to become a peace church. Commitment to the cause of Zion has been from the beginning of our movement but the pursuit of peace has only been embraced seriously and intentionally in the last 10-25 years. The turning point was the commitment in 1984 to the ordination of women and to build the Temple dedicated to the pursuit of peace, reconciliation and healing of the spirit. To say at this point that we do not measure up to the Quakers and Mennonites, who began 357 and 484 years ago respectively, is like saying a young seedling apple tree does not measure up against the mature fruit tree. Give the delicate plant of peace mission time to grow! This will take at least one generation. Whether we make the transition to an authentic peace church will depend on Matthew’s generation. My generation, born after World War II and shaped by Vietnam and the Cold War, will get through much of the wilderness but we are unlikely to see the promised land. Matthew’s generation can do it.
b) I disagree with the thesis that Community of Christ leaders can only manage the inevitable decline of the church. He compares the plight of church leaders to like that of British leaders who can only manage but not reverse the nation’s inevitable decline since World War II from superpower to an ordinary middle power European nation. The church is not like a nation. The church at its best is proclaiming and living the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. The church, frail, sinful, is nevertheless an instrument in the hands of God to do good in the world because God so loves the world. The Holy Spirit will always inspire all those who hear the call of Jesus to love their neighbour and their enemy and who proclaim in word and deed good news to the poor. The disciples failed utterly at the crucifixion of Jesus but found grace, new conviction and new power on the mornings of Easter and Pentecost. We are no different than the first disciples in our weakness. It is Jesus who makes the difference now and then.
The new emphasis by church leaders on discipleship, spirituality, and identity as followers of Jesus, is a road that will bring renewal and a resurgence of hope and new purpose. D&C 163 is the most significant and radical call to change the world since the call to embrace the cause of Zion at beginning of our movement. The “We share …” document, on the church web page is very helpful to read as another part of clarifying our identity, mission and message.
The church is not managing decline, it is managing a difficult transformation and renewal, that is part of laying the solid foundations for being an authentic peace church. We go through all this change in faith. The church is the bride of Christ. Jesus loves her and will yet see her flourish for the redemptive purposes of God. In the last 10 years 11,000 people have been baptized in Haiti and Africa. The centre of gravity of our movement, like Christianity as a whole, is moving from the minority world of Europe and the USA, Canada and Australia to the majority world of Africa, Latin America and Asia. The church may be struggling in some parts of the world but it is flourishing in other parts.
c) Matthew asserts that most Community of Christ members don’t want to be a peace church. It is true, some don’t want to go on this journey, just as some grumbled all the way through the wilderness from Egypt and died before they got to the Promised land. However, I meet lots of people, young and old, both in rich and poor countries, who are enthusiastic about this journey to become a peace church. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, calls us on this journey. We have agency to choose the path we take.
However, if we really do become a peace church then what a witness that will be given our violent history, our struggles and lack of faith and conviction. If we can take this journey of repentance, individually and as a people with the help of God’s grace, then other faiths with violent histories will be able to see new options too.
d) Matthew is impatient with the very tentative, hesitant steps that he sees the church taking to tackle the immense issues of our time: AIDS, new wars, massive poverty, terrorism etc. Sometimes I am frustrated also. He cannot see any employees in the thick of courageous and skilled peace making. I would rather say that the work that is going on is largely hidden. We are a lay movement working at the grassroots. We are often ministers in our work more than we are in the congregation. What we do is mostly hidden from people, even in the same congregation, as church members seek faithfully to do good in the businesses they run and in the professions and jobs they do. We work at the grass roots as volunteers, as leaven, yeast, salt — hidden but catalyzing change. Most peace work is not spectacular but the honest commitment of years of faithful service.
Also we are usually not privileged to see what church employees are doing in very difficult circumstances in Africa, Latin America and in Asia. These are not easy places to work. Then there is the work of Outreach International and World Accord. Outreach’s PHDP methodology is about changing villages and neighborhoods through community organizing to change nonviolently the culture of silence and the systems that keep the poor trapped in unjust systems. Consider also all the church members who have received the Community of Christ Human Rights Award from Ed Guy to Rupa Kumar and John Menzies. It is an inspiring list and all have been volunteers or in other occupations. We have heroes.
To bring people right up-to-date. In September 21-22, 2009 a peace summit is being held at the Temple complex. President Veazey is inviting significant peacemakers in our movement, together with church leaders and those who lead Outreach, World Accord, Graceland University, the Seminary, etc. The agenda is how we can improve our working together to engage more seriously in the call of Jesus to pursue peace and justice making. We will have consultants from both the Quaker and Mennonite traditions to help us.
There is hope in the resurrected Christ. As Martin Luther King said, the universe bends towards justice. God’s grace is sufficient for us to take the difficult road to pursue peace. It is a journey God calls each of us to with great passion and urgency. The church’s best days are not in the past but still to come.
I am grateful for the journey you have chosen and committed yourself to, Matthew. We are on the same journey and much is expected of both of us.
—Andrew Bolton, Council of Twelve, Asia Field