While some dismissed Carder as a “liberal social activist,” intent upon enacting his own political agenda, nothing could have been further from the truth, he says. It was about God, and about God’s Kingdom.
“Opposition to the death penalty and ministry to thepoor are often seen as political agendas, but I never setout with a political agenda,” says Carder.
In his years as a student at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., Carder learned that there isn’t a per-sonal Gospel and a social Gospel. There is just a Gospel, with personal and social dimensions.
Ironically, much of Carder’s theological vision—certainly its clarity—comes from those fundamentalist preachers who so terrified him when he was young. Even in those years, he says, prevenient grace was at work, leaving him with two abiding gifts: a deep respect for the Bible and an appreciation for the power of the atonement.
“If the Bible says it, you better take it seriously,” says Carder. “That doesn’t mean you take it literally, but the Bible is the word of God.”
Secondly, with all their limitations, those preachers from his childhood were convinced that Christ had died for him and all humanity.
“Their theological understanding of the atonement is very different from mine,” says Carder. “But for a youngster who was struggling with feelings of exclusion, inferiority, and powerlessness, to feel in the depths of my being that the God of the Universe would die for me, was enormously powerful.”
For Carder, justice and ministry to the poor are not abstractions. His father, Allen Carder, worked every morning in the fields, then left to work the 4 p.m. to midnight shift in a textile mill. Although his father preached the value of hard work as the key to success, little seemed to improve for the family.
The younger Carder, whose only escape from the world of poverty was in school, developed an inchoate understanding that hard work alone wasn’t always enough, that systemic injustices stunted human lives. Admitted to a special high school established by the fac-ulty at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, he became the first in his family to graduate from high school. He was awarded a scholarship to the university. But all through high school, he never revealed to his classmates where he lived.
It wasn’t until his mid-30s, when he was pastor of Concord UMC, a booming successful suburban church in Knoxville, that Carder made peace with his childhood. He wasn’t even aware of the scars it had inflicted until church leaders asked him why he was so angry, especial-ly when he preached on the dangers of wealth. Through support from friends and his congregation, Carder realized that, as pastor of a large and growing church, he had achieved a certain level of “success,” and was at once enjoying that success and resenting it.
“I came to realize that my experience in poverty and struggles with inferiority were not something to run from, but gifts,” says Carder. “I began to experience the grace that I had been preaching about: that I was a child of God and that my identity had nothing to do with wealth or poverty, and that I didn’t have to do anything to earn that identity other than to accept it.”
He continued to preach about the dangers of wealth and affluence, but his tone changed. “I wouldn’t choose [poverty] for others, but I experienced things for which I am profoundly grateful.”
One of the challenges of the Center for Excellence in Ministry is the culture’s understanding of excellence. A church that defines excellence based on growth and numbers is idolatrous, he says. “Success, upward mobility, wealth and power, are the very things Jesus refused to be part of in his temptation in the wilderness. Excellence in ministry is rooted in God’s excellence, which the world often sees as ‘weakness’ and ‘foolishness.’”
It’s talk like that that prompts the Rev. Peter Storey, who has known Carder since hosting him on a 1995 visit to South Africa, to call him “the most prophetic bishop in the United Methodist Church.”
A bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and prominent critic of apartheid, Storey often played host to American dignitaries studying “the South African problem.” It was a duty he did not always relish, as many of his visitors didn’t “get it.”
Carder, though, was a bishop who “got it.”
“Ken had an authentic sensitivity to the issues we were struggling with,” says Storey. For some pastors, “being prophetic” means sounding off on every issue for the sheer nuisance value.
“But Ken is a prophet in the deepest Biblical sense,” he says. “He has a pastoral love of people and a faithful-ness to Christ and Christ’s teachings that require him to speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.”
Long ago, the red-headed boy found his voice.
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