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Martin Marty speaks in Spokane on global-local ties

While valuing face-to-face contact, theologian-author-columnist Martin Marty recognized that today’s technology affords new kinds of immediate local to global relationships. 

Martin Marty
Martin Marty speaking at Whitworth University while in Spokane for the Eastern Washington Idaho Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Synod.

His travels have made possible face-to-face global encounters, lectures and visits to former students. He considers students his legacy, because they teach more students.

To talk about Christianity globally and locally, Martin, speaking recently at Whitworth University on “A Global Local Faith, A Local Global Faith: Christian Possibilities Today,” called for viewing the topic from several perspectives, as is done in watching hurricanes. He was in Spokane as keynote speaker for the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The first perspective is the satellite view miles above the earth, seeing the whole global church.

The second is the academic perspective of sociologists of religion, like those flying in the eye of a hurricane, perhaps the safest place.

The third is the perspective of  bridge tenders—pastors, teachers, deacons, parish nurses and lay people—people on the ground who cannot leave when a hurricane hits.

The fourth
is the perspective of people in the path of the hurricane, in the huts or mansions where all the forces of the hurricane come together.

Martin told of an experience teaching six weeks in a township in South Africa.  Offered cookies and tea by young men who had not eaten for two days, Martin asked:  “What can we do for you?” The men said: “Do what you do every week:  Pray for us,” Martin said, speaking of the power of intercession and the awareness that the church “unsleeping” never rests.  As the globe turns, Christians are waking up somewhere and praying.

He said another way Christians pray is by their caring, helping in local places—in the huts and mansions where they think globally and act locally.

“The concept of global is different in today’s world,” he said.

Martin reminded Christians to do, as theologian Karl Barth suggests, “everything with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”

“As we think globally and locally in an era of globalization, there is palpable interest to see Christian implications from our local scene,” he said, noting that he regularly reads The Economist magazine and discovers how Christians are involved.

A recent issue included such faith concerns as Buddhist monks in Tibet, Myanmar and the Olympic torch; Catholic voters in Pennsylvania; Sunnis and Shias in Iraq; the polygamist Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints in Texas; Buddhist monks and Muslim women in China; bombing a mosque in Nepal; Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and elections; “Israel for Jews” in Jerusalem and the Jewish lobby in America; Saxony-Anhalt as the “cradle of the Reformation”; German soldiers and the Hindu Kush; the Islamic past of Delhi and Nairobi;  Middle Eastern Muslim women in finance; Babylonian art; Rome and Luther; a book on Allah and America; Charlton Heston and biblical epics in America.

“Whether we receive news from the internet, TV, radio or a newspaper, we are aware that religion is bonded to the news,” he said.  “Of six billion people in the world, 2.2 billion—one-in-three—are Christian, and one-in-five, Muslim.”

While Enlightenment scholars thought religion would wane as people studied science, Martin said religion still flourishes.

“Western Europe is the only place religion is declining.  In the United States, 40 percent of Catholics attend church, in contrast to 9 percent in Italy and 6 percent in Spain.  Of Anglicans in Great Britain, 4 percent attend.  Minus 2 percent of Lutherans in Sweden attend,” he quipped.

While religion grows in the South—Southern Hemisphere—Martin described the area west of Poland across Europe, Canada, the northern United States to Japan—seas of political and military power—as the “spiritual ice belt.”

In the spiritual ice belt, he said, there are 3,000 fewer Christians each day, however, despite war, famine and plagues in Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 18,000 more Christians each day.

Martin quoted from a 14-page section in The Economist on what technological nomadism through mobile telecom devices can mean for boundaries and possibilities in the church and world.

“People do not live anywhere but live everywhere,” he said.

He cited statistics on the technology age gap with 85 percent of those under 29 text messaging on their mobile phones, but only 11 percent of people over 65 doing it.  The contrast is 82 to 22 percent on taking photos, 47 to 6 percent on playing games, 38 to 2 percent on playing music, and 28 to 6 percent on emailing on cell phones.

“Older people have much catching up to do in how they interact globally and locally in cyberspace,” he said.  “Techno Bedouins do not move tents.  They just need connectivity.”

He challenges people to figure out what it means when the global and local are fused and people can reach anyone in the world.

People say goodbye with tears at the airport and, as they walk on the plane, are still talking with the person they just left, Martin said, noting that about 80 percent of those using mobile phones call only four to five people—co-workers and family. 

With coffee shops wi-fi connected to the world, he is concerned that “face-to-face” is being lost.

“Christ calls us to face-to-face relationships,” he said, while appreciating that he can be in instant contact with family members in Colombia, India, Australia, Yemen and Spain.  “We are in touch.  We do not miss anything but face-to-face connection.

“Like all breakthroughs, there are downsides, but now Americans can see the rest of the world and realize what it is like to live somewhere else,” Martin said.

He sees more potential to learn what is happening through reports of visiting mission partners and youth going on mission trips.

It has not occurred to many in churches, media and politics that the Christian church is a body of people in many diverse countries, speaking many languages and living in many settings—more than any other organization, he said.

“Think what we can do if we realize the church can be eyes to the world.  From the satellite view, we see the whole body of Christ is already participating in the new connectivity,” he said.

Martin challenged people to consider several questions and issues:

1) As Christianity moves South, what does it mean for the “depleted North” as the “spiritual ice belt?

2) While it’s easy to romanticize the growth and wonder why it’s not happening in the North, he suggests de-romanticizing the growth, seeing its achievement and limits.  Is it building “on borrowed time” with a gospel promising health and wealth to believers, which is not durable in hard times?

3) What should trickle up from the poor, southern, eastern world?  He said most mainline hymnbooks have songs with beats and harmonies from the South.  Similarly, Christianity adopted has much from northern culture, including ideas contrary to Scriptures such as Plato’s idea that God is unchangeable.  How can God create without changing? 

4) How do Christians relate across philosophical boundaries, dealing with cultural absorption or syncretism?  He said that Christians continually pick up beautiful things from their environment and incorporate them into faith celebrations, such as Christmas trees and Easter eggs.

5) What are Christian understandings of and roles related to war and conflict?  What is the role of volunteer organizations in America in bringing peace?

6) What are the assets and liabilities of tying Christianity to market assumptions?  He noted that the good news when the Berlin Wall fell was that religion was still there after a 72-year attempt to eradicate it.

7) With the Christian awakening on environmental issues, and the church being in so many nations, will the church be part of the problem or part of the solution?

8) What is the Christian role on global health issues?  He said churches are usually the local bases for aid distribution by secular agencies and billionaires’ foundations.

9) What is the relationship of Christians to each other and to other religions—especially with immigrants who have settled in America?

10) How does the church deal with international issues such as immigration, relief and ethics? 

“These global issues are local,” said Martin, challenging the notion that spirituality is better than religion.  “Spirituality is about individuals, not doing hospital calls or relief.  The church binds people together and builds them up.”

He also calls for wider notions of ministry that include drilling wells. 

“Christians are behind many secular groups, like the Red Cross, and are the people involved in many secular organizations digging wells and setting bones,” he said.

Christians, he reminded, come in many varieties, including high- and low-church worship, plus many polities, theologies and viewpoints.