I think we need collectively to figure out how to have ongoing conversations with people with whom we disagree. None of us has the whole picture independently, but together we can make up the whole picture. – Cynthia Astle, “Disengaging From The Conversation”, United Methodist Insight, September 18, 2015
There is little doubt the United Methodist Church is in trouble. As has been the case through our national history, we have taken on the poisonous politics of the surrounding society, leading to hostility, anger, and at times a pettiness that should embarrass us all. Like our secular politics, however, there seems to be no solution. Instead, we must traverse this particular valley of the shadow of death with faith that our LORD is with us. What lies on the other side will be something new, and as the Psalm sings, the LORD will prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies – whoever we think they might be.
Two long-time friends of this blog, Cynthia Astle of United Methodist Insight and Joel Watts of Unsettled Christianity have come to a parting of the ways in a very public, shocking (to me at any rate; I’ve dealt with both for years and can’t fathom what’s happened in its specifics) way. A combination of miscommunication resulting in a bit of vitriol leaves me sad and puzzled. Astle has solicited “help” from people on how better to use this medium to continue the necessary on-going conversation among little-heard voices within our denomination. The problem, at least from my perspective, isn’t the medium. It is rather the larger context in which we try to engage others with whom we disagree. The Internet offers great opportunities for people to engage one another in honest, sometimes heated, discussion. That the anonymity and distance of the Internet also provides some people the freedom to say things they would never say in a face-to-face argument has long been a subject of criticism. All the same, that same distance allows a level of honesty and clarity that a face-to-face encounter could never provide. Too concerned over rules of etiquette and propriety, face-to-face encounters might produce discomfort should the argument get as heated as it does online. There are benefits to face-to-face meetings that no less personal encounter can match. Which leaves me, again, thinking it isn’t the medium. Rather, it’s the expectations we bring to Internet discussions and the ease of miscommunication always at play in written as opposed to spoken discourse that create part of our problem.
But only part. Another part of what prevents us from dealing with one another is the decision, as Astle names it, to disengage.
David F. Watson asked that his previous material be removed entirely from our database after we published an article by Geoffrey Kruse-Safford criticizing his work.
This part of Astle’s linked article shocked me. I had not seen Watson’s work in UMI. To learn that I was the reason for his refusal to participate any longer in their forum, however, was more than a little surprising. Academic Dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, I have certainly been critical of things he’s written. I would go further and say that those disagreements have been substantial, presented forcefully. To think that something I wrote made Watson wish no longer to engage, however, is more than a little embarrassing. After some checking, I found the article that might have been the reason Watson discontinued his association with UMI and I have to admit more than a little confusion. Ironically, that article concerned Watson’s scolding some people for how they conduct themselves in online forums; I pointed out to him that, by the standards of the larger Internet, while certainly heated United Methodists have by-and-large conducted our discussions with a great deal of civility and respect.
And now we have yet another voice, citing both “unWesleyan doctrine” – I’m honestly not sure what that means; are all United Methodists supposed to adhere to a narrow Wesleyan theology? – as well as “slanderous personal attacks” – for which I can find no evidence at all; one thing I admire about Cynthia is she does not countenance such things; I’ve been reminded of that several times by her when she read something of mine she took to be an ad hominem attack. It has made me far more conscious of how to present what I write, being clear issues and not personalities are front and center. Joel’s use of the word “threat” is more than a little odd. Cynthia “threatened” nothing; she informed Joel their Twitter discussion would be featured in a longer article explaining why his article had been removed.
Our poisonous politics, sacred and secular, make all of us edgy and ready to strike out when a perceived affront, insult, or just general disagreement arises. Rather than push through the frustration and anger, we all too often resort to ceasing any further dialogue. Breaking communion – in its original meaning – seems preferable to some than staking a claim to one’s position without closing one’s ears to others. Of course, the latter is difficult. The thing is, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. More than anyone’s feelings, or any group’s theological preferences, the stakes in our current illness are high. I have made my positions clear enough; I have also always made clear that neither I nor anyone else has some access to “truth” denied others; further, I know that the United Methodist Church has been and will be far stronger if all our voices – discordant as they may be now – join together. How facile, paltry, and even erroneous would we be if only like-minded persons gathered, heard sermons that made them feel good about themselves, rather than being challenged by the Word? How much less would our mission and ministry be if we only associated with people like us?
There are many steps toward healing that need to be taken. One of those steps is being willing to continue to talk with each other despite our differences. Whatever happens next spring will happen; the larger body of United Methodists, hierarchy, lay, academic, owe it to one another to keep talking. No matter how difficult that might be. We are all in this together. If we don’t remember that and carry on our discussions in the grace we preach and try to practice, then perhaps we need to be gone as a denomination. I would far prefer this not be so. Yet, as I see it, unless we are willing to take that small step, we just aren’t moving forward.