Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Salvation Army on NPR...some thoughts

I’ve been listening to this little NPR show about The Salvation Army, having picked up on it from a Tweet by my good buddy, J D Blundell.

As a Salvationist I found myself troubled on a few points:

First off – even at this busiest of seasons in The Salvation Army calendar – it’s important that you have a genuinely representative voice speaking on your behalf.

It’s probably safe to assume that author Diane Winston is a friend of The Salvation Army, but I didn’t get the feeling she was an authoritative voice or even fully up to speed on all of the details of some of the situations being discussed.

Secondly, although Winston’s assertion that
“Theology is not big in the Army. I mean, once you get past that they're rock-hard Bible believers, it's what they do that really counts”
is not wholly without foundation, it’s a way too simple assessment of our relationship with theology. More needs to be said by solid representatives who speak from an authentic and global viewpoint. I’m certainly not qualified to do so, but the statement is unsatisfactory, and needs way more unpacking.

My next worry was Winston’s assertion that
“The Army is a fundamentalist Christian group”.
I baulked at this description of the movement.

To me that seems way less than accurate and open to erroneous interpretation. The word “fundamentalist” comes loaded with meaning and puts us in a largely negative place, which seems to be at odds with what we really are at our heart.

Fourth up, there’s the hot potato of The Salvation Army’s various recent “controversies” that have been played out largely on the internet.

We’ve been hit hard – really hard - online, and opinions have become more embedded about who we are and what we believe. Blog posts have fed on blog posts (some are so off the hook, it’s scary), and the viral nature of it has allowed fact & fiction to merge into a fuzzy mess on the web and other media.

In relation to The Salvation Army supposedly being anti-gay, it is a label we’ve been saddled with in the last few years – I think unfairly, but I can see why it’s happened.

It seems in the US we’ve become public enemy #1 for many of our brothers and sisters in the gay community, and for me this is a great source of sadness.

(Check a few more thoughts on the subject here)

As a movement, our stance on the sexuality of members is reasonably small c conservative, pretty much in line with the Anglicans, Methodists etc in the UK, most Protestant denominations in the rest of the world etc. It’s also not exactly one of the big issues which define us, though. There are many many more significant barometers for measuring The Salvation Army’s corporate persona.

I say this, not to defend our position, just to say it’s not unique to The Salvation Army. I think the reason we’ve got the anti-gay label goes back to the fact that we are a Church…but we are also – particularly in the US - that a Social Agency that employs people – all kinds of people.

As a 46 year old man who’s been involved with the SA my whole life, I can barely remember hearing any negative teaching about homosexuality from our platforms and pulpits. (Although I have heard preachers preach about being welcoming to gay men and women, and exhortations for us to be ashamed of ways we may have failed to be inclusive). I have heard plenty of preaches about our responsibility towards the poor and the marginalized though.

In my own experience, I have almost always seen all people treated with kindness, love & grace, although I’m beginning to wonder if The Salvation Army needs to find a gracious, informed, global – rather than exclusively North American – and most of all Christlike response to the kind of hammering we take periodically

As far as I’m concerned we’re called to love God, and love others.

I guess my final point of concern about the broadcast may be the one many fellow Salvationists will struggle with. I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the word “Evangelical”, not because I have issue with being evangelical (with a small “e”) about my faith, but rather that I am becoming nervous of the connotations that come with being labelled “Evangelical” with a large “E”. I don’t want to be burdened by the notion that somehow we as a movement become attached to or aligned with a particular political word view that is too closely associated with one political party, or locks this international movement of which I am part to a North American mind set.

Don’t get me wrong. I am huge fan of the US and its people. I really am, but it’s wrong for people to look at The Salvation Army as a wholly American institution. To do so creates an erroneous impression of how the Army globally & locally thinks, breathes and lives.

It’s wrong too to closely associate our movement with any particular political worldview. Salvationists come from all sides of the tracks politically and within the local context they find themselves in.

Most of all, we need as Salvationist to see ourselves and be seen as people who follow the way of Jesus.

HT to SAYNETWORK for the pic


headphonaught said...


I'm an evangelical follower of Jesus... but then I am an apostolic, prophetic, pastoral teacher too.

I am getting bored with folks need to label others... and I certainly do not subscribe to the Evangelical label either... its way too narrow for who I am.

I would love to say my experience of the Army has been saved to serve... but its more like "saved to serve in the band, songsters and the officers".

Our theology was one of identification with, and service to the poor... but this has been replaced by a pseudo-orthopraxy of service to God through the expression of music & worship.

We need the blood and fire back... imho. One way to do this is to separate the church from the BUSINESS of the Salvation Army. Not the social work per se but all the capitalist enterprise cash cows the Army needs to maintain & preserve - SP&S and charityshops for example. This whole anti-gay tag has come through exclusive recruitment policies and secret deals with the Bush government.

We need to reclaim our Holy Spirit movement from the capitalists... and be known for our LOVE and not our lack of it.


Jonathan Blundell said...

Thanks for expounding on your thoughts. It did come over very strongly to me that the story was relating to the Salvation Army as a primarily American institution.
Funny thing is - I don't know any Salvationists here in the US.
I've met a couple along the way while working at the various newspapers. They're all great people - but all the Salvationists I know of are across the pond.
So I'm grateful to get your perspective on the story!
Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about the tag 'evangelical' recently as well, prompted by having to study the history of evangelicalism in my theology course, and I'm getting more and more excited by it the more I study it! There is such a rich and amazing history to it, and I really dont think it needs to be a limiting thing, it's more a question of how you choose to express your evangelicalism. There is undoubtedly a problem with how people perceive it, linked with the religious right in the states, but that really is a misunderstanding. I would rather try to reclaim evangelicalism as a positive term, than abandon it to history because of confusion over what it actually means and stands for!
This is what I posted on that very subject yesterday! http://grahamintheroom.wordpress.com/2009/12/18/hi-im-graham-and-im-an-evangelical/

Johnny said...

Thanks for the feedback, guys.

T: It's good that you said YOUR own experience was more "saved to serve in the band, songsters and the officers", because it's a reminder to me that even though we are geographically close there are now myriad expressions of Salvationism - even in the UK, so our own individual experiences are similarly varied. In South London, where I am, for example,you have many and varied Church communities which fall under the Salvation Army banner, each with their own focus and emphasis.

Also, I'd need to take some time rolling the notion around my head before I fully jumped in with the idea that creating the separation you described is necessarily the way forward.

On the anti-gay tag and supposed political lobbying; I've just not been close enough to the facts to offer a really informed opinion.

Everything I've read has largely been third hand conjecture played out on the web, so I'd be very nervous about trying to give my own definitive response without getting closer to the source.

J: Thanks as ever for your comments. We're gonna have to hook you up with some American Sallies!

G:Thanks, man. I'll bounce over to your blog to see what you have to say.