8.17 The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.
8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
– – –
8.20 The various offices in the Church do not establish a dominion of some over the others; on the contrary, they are for the excercise of the ministry entrusted to and enjoined upon the whole congregation.
8.21 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers. – A portion of The Barmen Declaration Of The Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church, 1934
Following up on something I wrote a couple weeks back, it will be important for the United Methodist Church going forward that we make abundantly clear not only why we are moving on past our increasingly meaningless fight over sexuality and gender, but why we do so. I was prompted to begin thinking about this by a friend and UM pastor who wrote, I’m assuming non-rhetorically, wondering if we were approaching what he called “a Bonhoeffer moment”. Since we’re not quite yet to the point where Christians of good conscience should consider joining violent resistance against the state (and let us not forget Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler), I’d say we still have time for that.
We are, however, long past the point where we should be making clear that we United Methodists, with our dedication to personal and social holiness have a duty to the Lord of our Church, Jesus Christ crucified and risen to proclaim the Good News not only to all people, but through all people. Living as we do in a time not just of crisis but of krisis (for you non-theologically educated types, the Greek work krisis refers to a time of decision; as in, life-turning decision, not whether to have corn or beans with dinner), it is important to make clear that we are moving beyond our nonsense precisely because the Lord of the Church is calling us to preach the Good News to a people – the people of the United States – who need to hear the double-edged sword that comes from the mouth of the risen Christ. A word of hope, yes, but also a word of judgment upon those who would substitute another word for the One Word that is the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
For all its flaws, the Barmen Declaration is as good a model for us United Methodists as any right now. We have, for far too long, tolerated a false teaching to claim the word of Gospel. Now, even as our fellow Americans struggle to make sense of our moment between the times, we United Methodists seem far too intent on destroying ourselves that we are heeding the call of the one who has created, is saving, and will perfect us in love. We United Methodists face a choice of becoming so wrapped up in our own squabbles that we forget the ground beneath all of us washes away ever more fast; or we stand up and declare our adherence to and preaching of the only Word of God, Jesus Christ crucified and risen. In that declaration, or perhaps reaffirmation, we would remind those among our numbers who would insist on dragging out even further an argument that should have ended decades ago that we aren’t adherents to whatever whims and prejudices pass for “Christian” in our broken world. We are the baptized people of God, a people called Methodist because we wear the seal of the cross upon our foreheads. We are those among the larger Christian community who are the preachers, the missionaries, the proclaimers of the New Birth. Ours is a message, as my Seminary teacher and mentor the late Dr. James Logan wrote and said again and again, of Grace upon Grace.
As there are among those of us who claim the name “United Methodist” yet who preach that Grace – a grace that is not ours to offer or withhold, but only to declare in our story to the nations – that there are those whose very being precludes their being counted among the saints. As such, we should make clear this false teaching for what it is, those who promulgate it as false teachers, then move on to the far more important matter of preventing catastrophe from overtaking all of us. Should we shirk our duty to stand in the way of the forces of darkness that even now march upon our land, we shall all be held accountable. We must reaffirm our primary allegiance to the Lord of our Church, Jesus Christ, whose living witness through the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, testifies to the Father whose love binds the Three Persons together even as that same love calls all of creation to join in.
This invitation is not limited to time or place, to race or religion, to gender or sexuality. As such, those who would insist there are those who exist outside the bounds of Grace should be called out by name for what they are. Promulgators of a false gospel, teachers of a false doctrine, bearers of false witness against their fellow Christians.
Once we’re clear on this particular division – who is and is not adhering to the Word of God who is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen – then we can move on to offering words of hope and strength to those outside our church walls. We can do so with renewed authority and a sense of peace about our witness. No longer bogged down in our own pointless arguments, we can declare to the world that there is indeed Hope even in the midst of so much that would create despair within us. We are bearers of a particular call, we United Methodists. We are those who spread the Good News – and Good News is always a threat to those who wish to control us. We are those called to go to all the world, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and that claim gives us the authority to call the powers and principalities around us by name.
First, though, we need to get this whole sexuality thing over and done with. Barmen is a good guide how to do it. It’s simple, it’s clear, and it reminds everyone that, in a time of krisis, we all need to choose. So, you know, that knight in the third Indiana Jones movie said it better than I can: Choose wisely.
Most United Methodists, and quite a few non-Methodists, know we’re holding a special session of General Conference in February to consider a plan for bringing sexual and gender minorities more fully into the life and ministry of the Church. It is, as it has been for 46 years now, the flash-point of our internal political struggles.
Personally, I’m all for surrendering to the WCA, telling them they won, and letting them go, albeit not without honoring things like the Trust Clause, say, or making sure current UMC pastors who choose to leave the denomination forfeit their pensions.
They’ve already lost both the internal and cultural debate. They’re influence is outsized due to the peculiarities of our institutional rules. The truth is, those who continue to carry on about gay folk are a shrinking, dying group. Let ’em have their WCA, their sense of pleasure at destroying the community that baptized and nurtured them in their life of faith. Cancel the whole thing, tell ’em to go, wish them well, and move on. With neither physical capital, a large group of clergy willing to forfeit their pensions, nor that many congregations willing to go through the years-long, costly process of formal separation, they will neither prosper nor last very long.
We as a faith community have far larger business to which we should attend. Like the survival of our larger community.
We are fractured at precisely the wrong time for us to be of any help to the larger community. How can we be a faithful guide through our national brokenness if our time and resources and energies are wasted on a decades old, now largely mooted, point of church law? Around all of us, Christian or not, United Methodist or not, forces of lawlessness, barbarism, and violence continue to gain strength and power even as we continue to hold meetings about the deck chair arrangement on our own sectarian Titanic.
There is much we could do to help change our larger social and civic situation. Not least by making it clear that we serve Jesus Christ, crucified and risen; we are a people who live out grace because we have experienced it in our own lives; that grace, however, needs discipline, including the discipline of discernment. As St. Paul wrote, testing the Spirits and the fruit their produce. Speaking clearly that it is precisely because of who we are as the people called Methodist we stand against the paganization of American Christianity, broadly understood. Ours is a word of grace, to be sure, but that must always be followed by a word of judgment and condemnation. There is still time for us United Methodists to work with other faith communities and persons of good will to help right our ship of state. But first, we need to rid ourselves of a played-out argument, and the set-piece Special Session whose outcome has already been made clear.
The survival far more than the United Methodist Church is at stake in the choices we make in our public life. We may not have the luxury of time to wait until our house is finally settled to get around to helping our neighbors.
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.
One of the luxuries I have not being a preacher is I don’t have to come up with new ways of saying the same thing every year on those big Sundays like Christmas and Easter. I’ve talked enough about both over the past eleven years, I feel like offering anyone who still wonders to look back over the years and you should get a sense of what I believe.
Except, of course, Lisa doesn’t have that luxury. Even though she’s not serving a church, she is standing in Sunday and preaching for a gentleman who’s wife’s due date happens to be Easter (how appropriate!). As she struggles – and it is a struggle, especially after nearly 24 years preaching – to offer the good people to whom she will be preaching some new, fresh take on a story they all know, she asked me last night what the resurrection means.
As I haven’t written much of anything in a while, certainly not about religious or theological matters, I thought I’d talk about my answer to that question.
The resurrection means everything.
That’s it. The whole mystery of the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection is given meaning by that moment, that event (as Karl Barth would say), that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. But it does more than just provide the meaning for the entirety of the Christ-event; in being raised from the dead, Jesus took up everything and makes it holy. Every moment from the first nanosecond after the Big Bang right up until not just our Sun but the Universe expands beyond it’s own event horizon and fizzles to nothing.
By holy, I mean just what the Hebrew Scriptures mean – it is ritually clean and righteous before God.
Every moment, big and small, from supernovas that may have wiped out whole civilizations long before our Sun was even born through the emergence of our average solar system and the mystery of life that bloomed and survived upon the third planet, and including every moment of the history of one particular animal on that planet; Jesus takes all of it and makes it holy and fit to be presented before the Father to be declared very good.
We human beings, being terrified of the darkness outside; even more terrified of the darkness within; we have insisted the entire reason for this strange event of a man not only coming back to life – we hear of that often enough – but in such a way that he will never die, this whole thing is about us. Not just “us” but about each one of us, individually, having something called “a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. We have reduced the magnitude of Christ’s triumph over death to a silly contest between Jesus and the Devil. As if any created thing can do anything other than bow before the risen Christ and confess him Lord. We have made this moment of eternal significance for all creation about us, about whether we go to heaven when we die.
As if God actually cares about any of that.
I often say that God loves us, but God doesn’t care all that much about us. Throughout both Testaments, again and again we see the inadequate, the painfully broken, the murderous, the lustful, the angry, the terrified called by God to do things. Whether the protest is a stutter (Moses), youthfulness (Jeremiah, Timothy), anger (Jonah), lust (David), or even the murder of Christians (Saul), God not only doesn’t care about their failings; he doesn’t care about how hard the job is. God tells Moses he’s to lead his people to freedom. When Moses insists on a sign, God says, you’ll know it’s me because you’ve brought the people back to this spot.
Not a lot of help there.
The mystery of salvation is not its personal significance for us. The mystery of salvation is that everything, including all the sadness, beauty, horror, and surprise of human history, is taken up with the risen Christ and made holy. It is given the Divine “Yes”.
None of which is to diminish that moment we each and all realize that the God whose business is this making-holy of that which is most certainly not really does know us, love us, and want us to be in relationship with one another and with God. It is only to say this is the beginning of the story, rather than its end. Being grasped by God, taken up with the risen Christ, we now have business to attend to.
It isn’t saving souls, because there’s no such thing as a soul. Salvation is the work of God through Christ. If you think you’re in the business of saving souls, you’re doing it wrong.
It isn’t about winning the post-existence lottery and winding up someplace beautiful, unlike all those others who don’t believe like you do.
All it’s about, really, is something so simple, we miss it in the wonder and terror that grips us in the face of this mystery: love.
We aren’t called to be good people. We are called to be obedient people. Obedience isn’t about following some eternal moral law. Obedience, as demonstrated by Jesus and offered to us because we are taken up in his resurrection from the dead, is to love. Specifically, we are to love others.
This idea is not original with me. It’s all there in the Bible, you know. Not just one part of the Bible. The whole thing.
It’s a lesson I first learned back in the summer of 1986, at a time I wasn’t even sure I believed in God. I was offered a little book entitled The Way of the Wolf. In what appears to be little more than a short sermon by the book’s author, Martin Bell, we hear the simplest, clearest understanding that the resurrection means everything.
Some human beings are fortunate enough to be able to color eggs on Easter. If you have a pair of hands to hold the eggs, or if you are fortunate enough to be able to see the brilliant colors, then you are twice blessed.
This Easter some of us cannot hold the eggs, others of us cannot see the colors, many of us are unable to move at all – and so it will be necessary to color eggs in our hearts.
This Easter there is hydrocephalic child lying very still in a hospital bed nearby with a head the size of his pillow and vacant, unmoving eyes, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs in his heart, and so God will have to color eggs for him.
And God will color eggs for him. You can bet your life and the life of the created universe on that.
At the cross of Calvary God reconsecrated and sanctified wood and nails and absurdity and helplessness to be continuing vehicles of his love. And then He simple raised Jesus from the dead. And they both went home and colored eggs. (pp. 81-82)
When Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on an open-air meeting among Rep. Gabby Giffords and her constituents (including a federal District Court judge, present as Gifford’s guest), it was chaos. Up until he had to switch clips, when the new clip caught on his pants’ pocket and fell to his ground. A bystander grabbed it. Then several others, including an injured retired Army Colonel, wrestled Loughner to the ground. A man who heard the shots and came running was carrying a concealed firearm. He never drew it, however.
On July 25, 2017, police in Southaven, MS arrived at a trailer to serve an arrest warrant on Samuel Pearman. Sadly, they were at the home of Ismael Lopez. Lopez and his wife heard strange sounds outside his home, armed himself, and opened the door to see who might be trying to break in. His pitbull charged out. The police, facing an attacking dog and an armed man they believed to be the suspect they wanted to arrest opened fire. Lopez was pronounced dead at the scene.
In early autumn, 2016, just outside Nashville, TN, Timothy Batts believes he hears an intruder in his house in the early afternoon. When the intruder grabs him, he shoots once, killing his eleven-year-old daughter who had just arrived home from her first day of school.
During a wellness check on Saturday, March 3, Winnebago County Sheriff Deputies discovered the bodies of a local community college professor and his two sons, aged 14 and 12. Peter Ruckman had murdered his two sons then shot himself.
Any time there’s a discussion concerning guns, gun safety, and and gun control, the terms of the discussion shift on a dime to rather abstract matters of law, to statements about “good people with guns” being a remedy for “bad people with guns”, and a kind of Second Amendment absolutism that is ridiculous on its face. Rather than talk about actual people being shot and killed, how shooters are often taken down by unarmed people or (as more frequently happens) either shoots himself or commits suicide-by-cop, we hear silly slogans like, “No law can stop a bad person from obtaining and using a gun, so why have gun control laws”. This last isn’t so much a serious argument against gun control as it is a ridiculous statement calling for the abandonment of all laws. It also misconstrues how the law works, or why gun control laws actually tend to be pretty effective.
The Second Amendment absolutists are the most odd, at least to me. They insist that any attempt at regulating the sale and ownership of firearms is ipso facto unConstitutional. Except, of course, none of the statements in the Bill of Rights are absolute, nor should they be. Speech, the press, what counts as a religion and religious practice, what counts as legal search and seizure or a fair trial – these are all changing things as different cases come before the courts, trying to define just what the words in the Constitution mean. As for the Second Amendment, even as the Supreme Court has made it clear that federal regulation of firearms may well face pretty strict scrutiny, states are free to regulate gun sales and ownership pretty strictly. To bracket out the Second Amendment as some exception to the general rule that we are always needing to balance our various freedoms against other, equally important social goods and public responsibilities makes no sense at all. The idea that any regulation of a particular style of firearm will lead to the confiscation of all firearms from all people is ridiculous. Societies draw distinctions in law all the time; that’s why there are defined crimes of murder and manslaughter, as well as different degrees of each. To believe that the elimination of the sale of military-style weapons to civilians is the same as the police entering all homes and taking all firearms without due process of law isn’t credible.
The reality of gun ownership in the United States is that having a firearm in the home is far more likely to result in someone else in the home using the gun on themselves or others in the house. Carrying a concealed weapon does not give license to foolishly brandish the weapon in a tense, confusing situation which could lead to police making a mistake and targeting the innocent person. Finally, the idea the somehow public spaces including schools shouldn’t be “Gun Free Zones” because that invites gun violence is an appeal to lawlessness, to the destruction of the social contract by which we give up the need to fend for ourselves for the local, county, state, and federal authorities to guarantee the safety of all public spaces. Of course schools are and should be Gun Free, as should public parks, courthouses, streets, and sidewalks. It is not an individual’s responsibility to protect themselves in any and all situations; that’s why we have police departments.
We need to talk about what’s actually happening with all the firearms in American society, rather than rely on slogans that are meaningless (or sometimes worse). We need to talk about the obvious need to protect the freedom to own weapons for one’s own use, whether that be for recreation or sport hunting, and protect the public from an epidemic of gun violence that threatens people most where they should feel the most safe – in their own homes and public spaces. Sadly, as the above comic strip makes clear, we’ve been unable to do so for well over thirty years. If we’re going to have a public discussion regarding gun control, let’s talk about the current state of firearm ownership in the United States, the statistics regarding the dangers of gun ownership, and recognize the mass death we tolerate as the price for an ever-shrinking percentage of the population to own more and more firearms.
When I read the news that evangelist Billy Graham had passed away this week, it saddened me more than a little. My experience of Graham (seeing one or two of his revivals on television as a child; hearing or reading his words as an adult) were generally positive; helped along knowing Graham had integrated his southern revivals in 1953, the year before Brown v. Board of Education and two years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, events that ushered in the activist phase of the Civil Rights movement. I know that late in life he was very public in his changed perspective regarding the Kingdom of God; that is was something toward which we work here and now, not someplace we go when we die. I thought of the Christian musicians whose careers received a boost by being included on his revivals. Singing/songwriting couple Bill and Gloria Gaither are probably the most famous; a good friend of my mother-in-law’s, Huntley Brown, also toured a time or two with Graham as a pianist. Most of all, I thought of the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people whose lives were changed because they heard the Gospel from Graham.
I also knew other things about Graham. I remember in the 1990’s when Bob Haldeman called him out as an anti-Semite, and he denied it. I remember the Nixon White House tapes made public in the early aughts that demonstrated pretty clearly he harbored deeply abhorrent anti-Semitic beliefs, going so far as to tell Nixon that he, Graham, would never say such things in public, but it was what he believed. I remember the night back in 1991, a couple days before Operation Desert Storm began, participating in a night-march on the White House; Pres. Bush, we were told, was holed up in the private residence meeting with Billy Graham. I even remember the one time, in the 1980’s, he pronounced HIV/AIDS punishment from God upon gay people; that he backtracked, insisting he had no idea where the words came from and that they didn’t reflect his beliefs was belied by the simple fact of the clarity and force of the words coming from him.
Some things I didn’t know, but learned this week, include a belligerent attitude during the Vietnam War years, including promoting war crimes both to LBJ and Nixon. He carefully cultivated his relationships with Presidents. He worked behind the scenes to deny John Kennedy the Democratic nomination for President solely because Kennedy was Catholic. He soured on both the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. when both became more militant in the mid- and late-1960’s. He even left some – perhaps many – like the author of the linked article: unable to deal with the overwhelming fear of hell in the face of human weakness and sin, it damaged their souls and lives in innumerable ways. Graham’s message was one of fear as much if nor more than one of grace.
I have been feeling conflicted about the man, his work, he effect upon society, since I learned of his death. The thing is, it isn’t helping that it seems people can only have a single opinion regarding Graham: either he was a saint blessed by the Spirit to bring good news to the people; or he was a hypocritical bigot whose overall cultural impact on America was destructive.
It occurred to me that both things are the case. It is such when dealing with larger than life public persons such as Graham. Martin Luther understood the deep and abiding love and grace of Jesus Christ even as he advocated violence toward Jews and supported the violent suppression of the Peasants during the Peasants Revolt. John Calvin was a brilliant scholar whose understanding of the grace-endowed community extended to the body politic, seeking a holy commonwealth. He also supported the execution of Servetus for heresy, and left so much confusion regarding his beliefs on double predestination that many find him monstrous. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly for the rights of black people in America; he also had an eye for the ladies, unable to control his desire for women not his wife. He also received his Ph.D. from Boston University under a cloud as it seems his advisor, L. Harold DeWolfe, let him get away with more than a little plagiarism.
People are rarely just this or just that. Emerging from the shadow of the 20th century, where true horrors were visited upon vast swaths of the human race, I think we forget that most people, even most public people, are rarely so clearly moral or immoral. It would be nice if they were, if our world was made up of heroes and villains easily discerned and identified. Most of the time, in big and small ways, all of us are pretty much equal parts saints and sinners, with the capacity both for great good and for monstrous evil. We should never lose sight of the fact that it is always human beings who commit acts of terror. Human beings just like us. The commandant of Auchwitz/Birkenau was a loving husband and doting father who oversaw the systematic slaughter of over 2 million people. There is no answer to the question, “How is this possible?” All we can do is marvel and tremble that it is so.
So I think it’s important to be honest. Billy Graham spread the Gospel of Salvation to millions of people around the world, changing lives, careers, and the path of public religion (especially in the United States) in the process. He also harbored deep loathing of Jews, of sexual minorities, and advocated for the mass killing of North Vietnamese civilians during a war that already saw far too much such death. He could offer hope to the hopeless, yet lie about his own anti-Semitism, not because he was secretly evil, but because he was a human being.
I think it’s fair to judge him harshly, perhaps even hold him in contempt, for much of the evil that followed in his wake. I also think it’s fair to be grateful that such a man as this existed who preached freedom to the captives around the world. There is no single summary for his life, as there is for any others. Billy Graham was, in the end, just a person, full of contradictions and hypocrisies, love and generosity of spirit.
NB: I’ve been dealing with serious anxiety the past few days. Writing is hard, but it’s good therapy for me. With We Hunted The Mammoth seemingly on hiatus, I thought this a good time to promote it while also writing about the strange, ugly phenomenon of online Men’s Rights Advocates. For a glossary of terms, just click here.
We Hunted the Mammoth tracks and mocks the white male rage underlying the rise of Trump and Trumpism. This blog is NOT a safe space; given the subject matter — misogyny and hate — there’s really no way it could be.
For most people, the internet is a place to connect with friends old and new, check out the news, get recipes, seek info on local businesses, and of course peek at naughty pictures. There are some people, however, for whom their online presence is far more than a way of enhancing the comfort and ease of their actual life. For these people, being online is their life. It’s more than just the overweight and unemployed guy hanging in his Mom’s basement; there really are a whole lot of people, men and women, whose online identity is who they are. It’s strange, I know, and I still don’t get it, but it is what it is.
As some might imagine, investing so much of one’s identity into virtual space can lead in some cases to a kind of psychic break; in the anonymity and pseudonymity provided by the Internet, a person really can be just about anyone. Just today, The New York Times reports a story about an online neo-Nazi who uses a pseudonym for his online writing and claims battlefield experience in Iraq to boost his credibility. The problem, of course, is it isn’t true. Called “Stolen Valor”, this is actually quite common. While easily checked, most people don’t and are drawn into the imaginary lives of all sorts of people.
Among the many pockets of what’s being called the “alt-Right” (white nationalism with a hipster title), few encapsulate so much of what is wrong with large pockets of our society as the online Men’s Rights Movement. Bringing together white racism, white entitlement, misogyny, male entitlement, MRA’s (Men’s Rights Advocates) cover a broad swath of fringe territory but are united by their seemingly pathological fear and hatred of women. Combined with odd self-imagery and that sense of entitlement that too many men carry around with them, their online presence is a toxic, dangerous brew that destroys lives and careers, creates online fascist “celebrities” like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich, and further rots not only our public discourse but our whole polity. After all, were we at all healthy, such individuals and groups would not only be dismissed, but ridiculed into disappearance.
In any case, I first heard about all this back in 2014 or 2015, when I first read about Gamergate. A good summary of what Gamergate was is offered up in a New York Magazine article from last July:
The previous December, while living in Boston, [Quinn] went out with Eron Gjoni, a programmer she’d met on [OkCupid, with whom she had a 98 percent match. The first date involved drinks at a dive bar in Cambridge, sneaking into Harvard Stadium, a sleepover. They started a relationship that was intense at first, then off and on as the spring wound down. It was not an unusual course of events for a 20-something romance. But what followed was extraordinary, an act of revenge on an ex that became about much more than the two of them, that rippled across the video-game industry and far beyond. . .
The broad strokes of the episode — Gamergate, as it came to be called — go something like this: In August 2014, Gjoni published an extensive blog post accusing Quinn of various infidelities, including, he said, sleeping with a journalist at the gaming site Kotaku. The post was explosive, particularly on certain internet forums like 4chan, where it was suggested that she’d cheated on Gjoni in order to get a positive review of a game she’d built. In fact, no such review exists, but Quinn was an appealing target: She was already known for her work as a designer whose most famous game seemed built more to provoke an argument than to be enjoyable, and for her outspokenness on gender inequities in the industry.
It’s important to understand something: An episode that exploded online misogyny, advocacy of violence against women, and mainstreamed such odd terms as MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) and SJW (Social Justice Warrior, used as a derogatory epithet) began with a spurned boyfriend attacking his ex with an obvious and easily-falsified lie. What was an ugly instance of online harassment became something far larger, fueled by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men harboring a dangerous amount of rage and fear directed at women.
While reading about Gamergate, I kept hearing about a website called We Hunted The Mammoth. The title was ironic, a jab at the self-image so many MRA’s present online. Little more than a news aggregator about the ugly, vicious side of online misogyny, it is nevertheless a window into some of the ugliest, and occasionally pathetically funny, parts of the internet. It is important to understand the social pathology on display, that the amount of hate, rage, and fear directed at women – some not only “defend” rape (Rape apologists are a thing), but either advocate it or insist “rape” doesn’t actually exist because men are entitled to sex with pretty much any woman they want any time they want – is really quite disgusting. All the same, it leads some of these men into some truly strange ideological contortions.
Before I highlight some of the sillier things MRA’s talk about with all the seriousness of a grad school seminar, it’s important to outline the self-image many of these men carry around. Rooted in really bad anthropological notions of alleged “alpha” versus “beta” males, there are a couple subgroups who, having failed at dating (as if harboring deep loathing of women would make them winners), these men have decided they are the true Alpha Males, those who should rule, those who should have the hottest, most successful, most desired women. The problem, of course, is a conspiracy among feminists to deny these alphas their rightful place. These powerful women are actually castrating bitches who purposely seek out beta males because they are more easily controlled. Having figured out this reality, these men often decide that they’d rather have nothing to do with those they call “western women” (they believe non-western women are still in touch with the only truly womanly virtues of procreation and general service to a man’s any and every desire) and “Go Their Own Way”, either by seeking out non-western women, advocating the superiority of masturbation over sex, or giving up on relationships entirely. Searching We Hunted The Mammoth for “Men Going Their Own Way” or MGTOW brings up pages and pages of articles like the following:
The stunted human beings known as Men Going Their Own Way love to imagine apocalyptic scenarios in which women are forced to beg them for help, offering sexual favors for cans of beans.
Now, with something truly apocalyptic barreling into Florida, they’re … well, doing the exact same thing, with Florida-based MGTOWs boasting of their preparedness and mocking all those allegedly hapless women they think will soon be beating a path to their home fortresses in search of food and shelter.
Despite the anger and misogyny on display in this post, there is something pathetic about it. Except it rouses more laughter than pity, these men believing themselves the true leaders, the real heroes of their stories. Their warped psyches really are something.
As for the whole “Alpha Male” phenomenon, this post sums up the whole belief-system rather succinctly:
In Kotaku in Action, the main Gamergate hangout on Reddit, azriel777 sadly reports that:
The other side of Men Going Their Own Way are the truly bitter men who call themselves “incel”, short for involuntarily celibate (what a shock!). The biggest incel subreddit was banned, deemed a hate group that advocated violence against women. As I suppose should be expected by a group of men who believe the fact they can’t get laid is all someone else’s fault. As one Incel – who wondered if he went on a public hunger-strike, some women might feel sorry for him and come relieve him of his celibacy – wrote on the now-defunct subreddit:
As Futrelle writes further down this same article: “The incel ideology pretty much poisons everything it touches.”
As for the deeply disturbing lack of self-consciousness and quasi-paranoia among “incels” Futrelle highlights a reddit story that sums it all up in a bow made of a combination of sadness and creepiness:
If it weren’t for feminism I wouldn’t have changed seats and she wouldn’t hate me for breaking her heart. She probably would have followed me to my apartment and asked me if she could have sex with me and I wouldn’t be a virgin anymore.
You didn’t break her heart. At best, she barely noticed you; at worst, you creeped her out. That’s it. Everything else is going on in your head, and nowhere else. Women do not follow strange men to their apartments to ask them for sex because they happened to sit next to each other on the bus. This is the sort of fantasy you come up with when you can’t imagine actually interacting with a woman as a real human being.
While the incel subreddit is gone, there are still plenty of places on the Internet and Deep Web for these MRA’s to advocate rape, destroy the reputations of others, and write about their sometimes insane, sometimes awkward fantasies about who they are and what they sincerely believe women think. Because their real lives are probably fairly humdrum, like most people’s, their internet identities become an outlet for them to fantasize about their own importance, becoming something outsized and more than occasionally monstrous. Exposure won’t make these men go away, of course. It was David Futrelle’s exposure to the broader society – online and in the real world – that was the real virtue of his website. Apparently health issues have kept him from blogging regularly, or at all since Christmas Day, but go check out his site to learn more about this strange, sick world you might not have known existed.