Why The Church Charges Against Jeff Sessions Are A Bad Idea
I know I’ve written before about the so-called Memphis Declaration. It was a document, written by Maxie Dunnam – pastor of a large United Methodist Church and author of numerous well-done Bible Studies (he was kind of the Adam Hamilton of the previous generation) – it was intended to be a statement against changing the United Methodist Discipline to be inclusive of sexual minorities. When I first heard about it, a professor of mine told me he’d been sent a copy and asked to sign it*. He refused, and I had the audacity to ask why. He told me it had numerous classically heretical positions offered as doctrinal statements for continued support for our ongoing exclusion of LGBTQ folks.
I mention this only because it’s important to keep in mind when considering what’s happening right now. Around six hundred people have signed on to petitions charging United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, perhaps the most prominent lay member of the United Methodist Church, with promulgating false doctrine, among other things. “Liberals” and radicals are patting one another on their collective backs for their audacity, applauding their collective righteousness at calling out so prominent an individual within the Church for daring to use Scripture to defend morally indefensible acts.
Whatever else may be going on here, including both the justice of their claim and the probably “rightness” of the proposed action, it is one of the more stupid things going on in a denomination awash in enough dumb to drown an elephant. A few people see it; alas, those voices, including mine, tend to be overwhelmed by the cheers from the public, sacred and secular. So I’m repeating myself in order that no one misunderstands me: Bringing heresy charges against Jeff Sessions, at this particular point in our denomination’s history, is perhaps the stupidest thing we could waste our time, resources, and emotional energies upon. We are months away from what may be a schismatic Special Session of General Conference; even before the Commission on The Way Forward issues its final report, it has either been denounced or welcomed with equal vigor, depending upon which side one takes; we aren’t at all addressing matters of real importance for United Methodists, including changing demographics and generational changes that challenge our growth through this century; we have no idea how the secular and non-UMC sacred worlds will take our church’s Sturm-und-Drang over matters of human sexuality and gender. The last thing we need is to become embroiled in a situation that drags in our current dysfunctional secular political and social realities.
As I told someone yesterday on Facebook, Sessions is, all in all, low-hanging fruit. His statements regarding the relationship between Romans 13 and the Church’s relationship with our worldly rulers are, of course, nonsense. Finding him guilty of promulgating false doctrine should be an open-and-shut case. What we achieve by doing so, however, I’m not quite sure. After all, much the same could have been done to Senator, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In voting for the 2003 AUMF in Iraq; later pushing Pres. Obama to military action in the Libyan Civil War after the murder of Moammar Qadafi; these actions are also contrary to specific church teachings. She very easily could have had charges brought against her. Prosecution, again, would have been easy enough. Again, I have to ask: What would we as a church have accomplished has we taken such action?
Now let’s go back to 1992. Maxie Dunnam’s statement was, as my professor said, filled with classical heresies presented as doctrinal statements. Much the same could have been said over the years about the people writing for Good News magazine as well as the leadership of the Wesley Covenant Association and those who’ve signed its various declarations and statements. Way back when, the thought occurred to me that, along with direct action by clergy during sessions of Annual Conference, prosecuting a few of these people who shouted “doctrinal purity” while being unable to recognize how far outside our Doctrinal Statements and Articles Of Religion might go a long way to shutting them down. Of course, no one ever did such a thing. Not because doing so would have been “wrong”. Rather, the idea of what are, for all intents and purposes heresy trials in the late-20th and early 21st centuries are ridiculous on their faces.
Furthermore, such action would be little more than trying an end run around the realities of church politics and the messiness of coalition building. While it certainly would be a moment of Schadenfreude to make clear just how heretical our defenders of doctrine really are (honest to God, even the Seminary professors among them can’t theologize their way out of a paper bag; it’s actually embarrassing), nothing of substance would have been achieved. The last time a big time heresy charge was brought against a prominent Methodist, in the first decade of the 20th century against Boston University philosophy professor Borden Parker Bowne, it not only failed; it brought an end to the whole idea that political differences could be dealt with by declaring someone outside the bounds of church doctrine (in Bowne’s case, his creation and promulgation of Personalism as a religious philosophy was hardly heretical; it was just new at a time when lots of people thought new things in the church were bad; like most bad theologians, they forgot that God said, “Behold, I do a new thing.”).
I should also add that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of United Methodist Clergy over the past two generations have violated doctrine around issues regarding racial justice and gender equality. We have so much work to do atoning for our sins supporting Jim Crow, the division of the Church into white and black Churches with the creation of the Central Conference after the 1930’s union between the northern and southern ME Churches. While we have ordained women for over 50 years, there are those who not only oppose it; they demand we end it.
Any time anyone advocates a position in direct contradiction of one of our Articles of Religion or Doctrinal Statements, charges can be brought. I daresay prominent lay United Methodists over the years have done as bad if not worse than Attorney General Sessions. Yet not even one person thought it a good idea to bring up Maxie Dunnam on charges. Or the leadership of Good News. Or The Wesley Covenant Association. These last not only include prominent clergy rather than lay people. They involve clergy repeating statements over years and decades that violate our Articles of Religion and Doctrinal Statements. These statements concern real constituencies within the denomination, constituencies with long-unaddressed grievances awaiting recompense and atonement.
This is not to say what Jeff Sessions said was, “OK”. Obviously it was both morally vile and theologically repugnant. It is just to say that a church trial against a lay person for actions taken in the course of discharging his secular rather than sacred duties is a horrible precedent. At a time when “liberals” within the Church feel set upon all sides by forces of division and rancor, trying to alleviate that by a Pyrrhic victory over Sessions is only going to backfire.
After all, sexual and gender minorities, blacks and Latinos, and women within the church can rightfully ask, “Hey! What about when these people used gobbledygook to defend their hatred for us?” And it would be quite correct. We shouldn’t be using church law as therapy. The last thing we should be telling the world is that, hey, at least in this one instance, we actually care about false doctrine, while all these other things . . . well, you know, we were kind of busy doing other stuff to worry about them.
Jeff Sessions is a morally repugnant human being. I would far prefer not to have to deal in any way with a person such as he. Booting him out of the church over questions of heretical statements, however, is kind of 16th century, if you ask me. At a time when we should all be working on healing the divisions, we ignore them to make ourselves feel better about playing “Gotcha” against one man, whose actions had nothing to do with the Church per se. We have far more important things to do with our limited and declining emotional, financial, and political resources.
End this now.
*This gentleman, well known and regarded in the United Methodist Church, was someone socially conservative forces within the denomination long believed was one of their own. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine why. Then it occurred to me they weren’t too bright, and that solved a lot of problems. Also, when I mused aloud as to Dunnam’s motives, this gentleman replied, “Maxie wants to be the Czar of the United Methodist Church”. Bad doctrine is very often the cover for even worse political action, at least within a sectarian setting.