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.
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.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. —
Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.
He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.
He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:
- For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
- For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states:
- For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:
- For imposing taxes on us without our consent:
- For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:
- For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:
- For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule in these colonies:
- For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:
- For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow citizens taken captive on the high seas to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In Jefferson’s draft there is a part on slavery here
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.
We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
The more severe the wrongdoing, the more likely we are to react rather than respond, to act toward wrongdoers the way we feel like acting rather than the way we should act. – Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World, p.8
It was the evening of the first day of the new Administration, January 20, 2017, when newly installed Presidential Press Secretary came to the podium and, rather than welcoming the press to a new Administration, harangued the alleged misconduct of the press by presenting as fact the relative smallness of the inauguration crowd when the Trump Administration insisted it’s crowd was far larger than either of his predecessors. Of course, everyone in the room, presumably including Sean Spicer, knew it was bullshit. The gathering for the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States was comically small, made even more ridiculous by the days-long obsession with denying this very obvious reality.
In the months since, we have come to accept that no words from this Administration or those who have roles of authority within it have any value whatever. Our 45th President has not even a glancing acquaintance with the truth and feels no need to improve his eyesight. We are nation gaslighted on a daily basis by a small group of (mostly) men who believe that reality is so malleable that mere repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them true.
And this is no odd occurrence. It is, rather, the outcome of nearly two decades of FOXNews presenting its alternative reality to a shrinking cohort of Americans who just want to count. Few things are as threatening as the complicated reality within which we live, a reality that less and less abides a single narrative voice speaking from one perspective to offer any authoritative commentary upon it. Building upon the manipulations of one of Richard Nixon’s original rat-fuckers, Roger Ailes, and aided and abetted by the spread of toxic “talk radio” in the voices of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and others, there are millions of Americans whose view of the past two decades is not only radically different than the majority’s; it is a castle floating in the air, supported by the comforting tones of white men repeating a mantra that everything can be good once again, once we silence those other voices that aren’t white, aren’t male, aren’t like us.
That the past is contested space isn’t a new idea. That’s precisely how historians present the ethical dilemma of their work: as best as possible to present the past as it was for those who lived and moved and had their being in the past. Rather than history, however, our reactionary fellow-Americans are far more content with a noxious nostalgia stripped of any humanity or meaning other than to bolster the fading power of a white cultural and political voice. Particularly with the rise of African-American history, feminist historiography, histories that bring to light hidden realities from the past whether that be the treatment of the native nations of North America or how Chinese immigrants living on the west coast were treated as viciously as African-Americans by a nation ungrateful for the labor they provided building our continental railroad system. We don’t like to hear or see things that upset our tranquil view of America as a beneficent provider of freedom and opportunity to the world. Such histories, however, darken the far too clean edges of our official memories.
I was sitting down to read Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory, already disturbed by the subtitle, Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. The idea there is “one right way” to do the necessary individual and social act of remembering is an idea that no longer carries any weight. Individual memories, as psychological studies have shown over and over again, are malleable things, sometimes presenting us with false memories either to console or disturb us. That our collective memory has long been contested space is something historians take for granted. To offer, then, a view of “remembering” as something to do “rightly” seems difficult to sustain. Human communities, including religious communities, are not immune either to the false god of nostalgia or the weakening of hegemonic discourses leaving confusion about what is and is not true and right. We in the churches find ourselves struggling in the midst of rapid social and cultural changes for which the assertion of “should” has no moral or pedagogical weight. There are only communities and the various ways they embody remembrance, including most especially the remembrance of violence, injustice, and persecution, as part of their practice of faith. Whether it’s in the liturgy, the pastoral, the missional, or theological expressions of the faith, we can no longer pretend there is a single answer to the question, “How should we Christians deal with memory in all its variety?”
Even more troubling, however, is Volf’s stated intention to present an ethic of memory that “goes beyond” justice (p.10). It is in remembering that the hunger for justice is kept alive. Memory is the enemy of any official statement, be it sacred or secular. The messy realities of human life, too often denied by our national or church leaders, are the one thing that keeps us from succumbing to the constant barrage of falsehoods either from secular leaders creating a false narrative and reality, or some in the churches who would insist that only doctrinally approved memories are fit grist for our theological mills. In a time when the very act of remembering denies the truthfulness of our public officials; when some would silence the memories of faithful lives lived outside sanctioned lifeways; living in such a moment when the very fabric of reality seems, at times, to be the main battleground, to demand an ethic of “right” remembering, rather than celebrating the varieties of remembering that keep alive identities too long denied and never fully satisfy the hunger for real justice that can only come by a transformation of our institutions. This doesn’t mean the past will somehow cease to be contested space; it will always be such. It is only to assert that remembering is a contested political act and contested act of faith. To declare the contest over by the mere assertion of how we “should” act, including remembering as an active ethical concern of real individuals and communities is a kind of religious imperialism that can only land within the already contested areas where memory and history, where real human lives and communities struggle to assert their full place within our collective consciousness.
I don’t regret not being able to get much beyond p. 12 or 13 of Volf’s work. The entire premise – there is a single ethical stance Christians should take regarding memory – is a house built on sand. That this sand is the all-too-popular idea of a transcendent, peaceful, “liberal” Christian “tolerance” (always a disparaging, derogatory stance) of The Other, even when that Other has done violence to oneself or one’s community, it is easy to watch the beautiful house crumble as the bloody flood of history rises and destroys it. To claim that we as Christians need to move beyond justice rather than always hold it before ourselves as a necessary part of true reconciliation is a blasphemous attempt to silence those whose history is one of official repression, denial, and murder in order to keep our histories and memories clean and male and white.
Now I just need to find something else to read . . .
I remember a time when churches were full on Sunday mornings. I remember when my home church, now dead and gone, had so many in attendance they’d set out extra chairs for people to sit in. The mighty sound of a full and full-throated choir bouncing off the hardwood and stained glass was powerful. People greeting one another after worship in long queues, across generations, smiling and thankful to be together.
I’m not saying I remember some golden age to which I wish to return. I’m just saying I remember a time when faith, a life of faith, the practice of faith still meant something. More than anything, such memories mark me as a bit older than I’d care to admit.
When I started Seminary, it was at the point in our local and national life when the decline of active church membership, and church membership at all, was starting to be noticed. Even as there were whispers and guarded discussions about what was happening, by and large our education was preparing us for a world that was disappearing far more rapidly than we could imagine, let alone wanted to admit to ourselves. There’s a saying that our military is always preparing for the last war. I guess it’s true with training our pastoral leaders: We’re getting them ready with old tools and skills for a world with new challenges, new dangers, and always always always the promise of something new happening.
Like anyone else entering middle age, the world around us is becoming less and less about us. The things we knew when we were younger are as dead as the past from which we dredge up memories of overflowing pews on Sunday mornings and a louder voice in our local and national affairs. Of all the new challenges with which we must deal, perhaps the most perplexing is the reality that for more and more people, the whole church-thing, God-thing, all the trappings of a bygone era are no more relevant than are tail fins on cars or touring with the Grateful Dead. It isn’t so much militant atheism with which the church must contend as it is a growing number of people who just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Meaning? Purpose? These things can be found in all sorts of organizations, life-ways, occupations, without all that weird metaphysical baggage that no longer makes any sense in our post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular age. We in the churches speak of Good News in a world that just no longer thinks it needs it.
A lot of churches, local and denominational, fall back on upholding old truths, drawing far more strict lines about who’s in and who’s out, demanding even greater adherence to doctrinal formulae and theological methods that, for all they once fed the multitudes are no so many empty baskets, ignored by those fed by other means. We now not so much invite as demand people come and see and hear and adhere and submit and their lives will have an overarching meaning, purpose, and telos that extends beyond the fragmented eternal nows that are the hollow substance of post-modern time. There are some, perhaps many, who find comfort and strength within such gated church communities. Upholding the past as true and the present as false offers a rock upon which to stand, someplace solid upon which to build a life of verities in the midst of a world that no longer cares about such things.
For every family that finds refuge within such seemingly solid structures, however, there are five, perhaps ten, that see these attempts at reconstructing a dead age for what it is – not a fortress within which one is safe from the world, but a Potemkin village, empty of anything other than those who admire the beautiful facades without caring how flat and false they are. Seeing this in abundance, all too often they look upon all churches as such false fronts, holding no promise, no message, no possibilities that cannot be found far better elsewhere. What these growing number of people see and hear isn’t so much Good News as it is a bunch of old words and promises for something no longer thought possible – safety and security in the midst of our chaotic world.
Is it necessary, or even possible, to reach such people? How do we in the churches who do not accept the crumbling sand of the same old thing and the incomprehensibility of so much of our talk about ourselves and our God still answer what we feel to be a call to tell the world there really is Good News? How do we live and practice our faith in a time when the very idea of “faith” is something about which fewer people care? These are the realities our churches face, the wall that separates us from those around us: we recognize the irrelevance of emptiness of so much of our talk, our ways of worship, our ways of living yet understand ourselves caught up in something the compels us to declare that God is, God is love, and God’s love extends to all creation.
I know I wasn’t educated or trained for such a world; I think our church leaders, those of my generation, weren’t either. We still read Bonhoeffer and Barth, Tillich and Niebuhr as if they were contemporaries, rather than oracles to a world that, even as we read their words, were receding more and more quickly. We thought Cone and Daly, Reuther and Gutierrez were radical when in fact they were no more than prophets to institutions unsuited to the challenges their messages announced. Ours is a world – truly a world – made up of neighborhoods. Whether we call them countries our states or even our local towns and villages, any global view always ends up zooming in on our increasingly nonhegemonic society, in which white and male faces no longer dominate; where love is greater than we thought, watching as same-sex couples celebrate blessed unions and state-sanctioned marriages; communities where the ravages of centuries of racism, of economic exploitation, of imperialism of all kinds have left indelible scars, requiring more than just good intentions and open minds and open hearts not only to overcome, but to accept the scars as a permanent part of our social, cultural, and political landscape. These and more are the new realities which confront our local churches, demanding an answer to the challenge, “With all this, why should I care about what you have to say and do?”
I’m not sure we yet have the tools to even begin searching for an answer, beyond recognizing the reality of the urgency of the question. I know our current generation of leaders weren’t given the tools with which to work toward anything like an answer. At the same time, I also know this is where we are, this is what our churches face, and if we do not even recognize the irrelevance of our claims to having something called “faith” that is vital to our lives and identities, we may very well wither and die. Falling back on false “timeless truths” is no answer, not really; it’s a reaction born of fear. We need to do and say something new in new ways, trusting that something beyond our own fears is giving us the ability to keep going.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I argued that what we United Methodists need isn’t yet another fruitless debate and discussion of the question of the language regarding “homosexual practice”. Rather, it would be far better were we to have a discussion about the nature of our churches, their mission and ministry. All the same, I’m hardly surprised to find our General Board of Higher Education and Ministry has offered yet another study guide focused on the question of human sexuality. The subtitle, “Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness,” assumes both that there is some vague, as-yet defined “faithful witness” specific to United Methodism that we currently aren’t doing and that our churches don’t know how to include matters of human sexuality in their faithful witness. First of all, to take the two matters in reverse orders, our local churches tend to be wary of delving too much into matters of human sexuality not only because we Americans are embarrassed to talk about sex; they are also, by and large, adults who view matters of human sexuality as highly personal, and not matters about which the church should exercise itself overmuch. As for “faithful witness”, I would argue that our churches by and large are being faithful witnesses to the Gospel by keeping the doors of their churches open to pretty much anyone who walks in. They are being faithful witnesses by their local outreach, whether its local mission projects, Vacation Bible School in the summer, or what have you. Our churches know what they’re about, and to presume they need some kind of guidance from seminary professors on what it means to be a faithful witness both in general and in regards to matters of human sexuality in particular is precisely our problem.
Simply put, I think we’re supersaturated with study guides, books written by successful pastors on everything under the sun, and yet another class meeting some weeknight led by the pastor. Most churches liturgy is overflowing with sermon series’, sometimes based upon Scripture, sometimes on a, yes indeed, study guide. In an effort to coordinate everything from adult Christian education to liturgy to missional focus, ours is a denomination flooded with far too much top-down guidance through select issues.
In the United States, we are a church of thousands of congregations with around 8 million members. Among those members are successful business people, doctors, lawyers, counselors, teachers, non-profit workers and executives, academics, scientists, retired clergy, and based upon our demographics among the best-educated people in America. These are the people who make up our committees, our United Methodist Women groups, our Sunday School teachers, our small group leaders, and our faithful givers, tithers, and members. Rather than tap this ocean of expertise, we turn yet again to the same authors who ask the same questions and offer the same answers time and time again.
How many of our local church members are even aware that General Conference last year was a cock-up of epic proportions? How many know there will be a special called session of General Conference in February, 2019 to address not questions of human sexuality but primarily matters of the larger church’s organization? How many people know there’s an organization of clergy, some in their own conference, who are part of a group actively encouraging schism? How many of our local churches understand now is the time to speak up and act, to demand we focus our attention on our core mission of discipleship formation for the transformation of our world?
Why are we afraid of being open and honest about what’s going to happen over the next 18 months or so? Why are we ignoring the wealth of experience, of understanding, of specialized knowledge, of all the gifts and grace of our local churches, turning yet again to a study guide written by a committee, rather than coming to a consensus among the members of each local church after ad hoc conversations among themselves? Why is faithful witness something that is not assumed? Why? WHY? WHY???
We are facing grace matters yet there is little effort to harness the people called Methodists to shape and inform the discussions. We are looking to our usual ways of working with our usual problems: a study guide, taught in a class, usually by clergy. Not that there’s anything wrong per se with the current study guide; rather, it’s the lack of imagination that seeks to tell our local churches rather than listen to them.
Rather than talk about what others insist we must talk about, wouldn’t it be great for once if we listened to what our local churches had to say on matters of faithfulness, of in what each local church’s witness consists, its mission experience and goals? Wouldn’t it be nice if matters of human sexuality could be set within the context not of a 45 year old undefined formula (“practice of homosexuality”) that is really quite meaningless, considering what we know about human sexuality, and instead talked about the fact that sexuality might well be of little to no concern when it comes to the actual goings-on in our local churches? Wouldn’t it be nice if our delegations to the special General Conference went carrying not just the endorsements of their fellow Annual Conference members, but carrying the messages from our local churches regarding matters of church mission and ministry, the place and role of human sexuality, and what this should mean for our church structure?
In her latest column at Patheos.com, the Rev. Christy Thomas highlights what she sees as one of our major structural weaknesses inhibiting our growth:
[O]ur bureaucratic structure is just about to kill us. We are incapable of making quick decisions. There are times when it appears that every single detail of every single proposal has to be debated by every single delegate at outrageously expensive conferences.
Rather than a weakness, I for one see this as one of our great strengths. While not always perfect, and with some voices silenced either by cacophony or official proclamation, we are a denomination that insists that all voices are of value, all persons should be heard. I cannot imagine a church as large and diverse as ours operating in a way that limited discussions or sought to make quick decisions based upon matters of financial expense. This is who we are, and we should be proud of the occasional near-anarchy of our large meetings. Democracy is the least efficient way to do anything; we should seek faithfulness through consensus over efficiency every time.
By all means, we should be using the above study guide (and all those that are sure to follow). They should never replace the need we have to allow our congregations to speak for themselves, to tell their stories of faithful witness and mission. Let them tell their stories of their sense of place within the larger church. Let them talk about their understanding of the place of human sexuality within the life and mission of the church, an understanding that comes from years of faithful work at the heart of all church work – the local congregation. Not everyone is going to come out in the same place, and that’s OK. At least our church might actually be heard from, rather than told afterward what’s happening.
Since the inauguration, I’ve only written one post. While I haven’t been silent – my whole Twitter account is dedicated to politics – I have tried to make sure I don’t get too caught up in any given event or moment. I’ve really wanted to be able to think about what’s going on in order to make sure that, when the time came to say something, I felt confident what I was writing was as correct as possible. This is not a time for anyone to go off half-cocked. Sad to say, I see just a bit too much of that, especially on Twitter.
I thought I’d point out some things Trump critics do on a fairly regular basis I find either wrong-headed, distasteful, or both. First, I truly dislike armchair psychiatric diagnoses, particularly from people who think reading a paragraph in the DSM-V teaches them all they need to know about this or that mental illness. That’s not how it works. To diagnose someone without professional training, without repeated personal interactions, without any collaboration with like-minded colleagues is both stupid and unprofessional. Alas, way too many people call Trump a “narcissist” or “crazy” or “needing meds” or some such related word or phrase. Besides displaying a great deal of ignorance, this stigmatizes people who have mental illnesses. It tells folks like me that the world is watching and waiting to pass judgment upon us. It’s wrong, it’s hurtful, it’s ignorant, and it achieves nothing at all. Donald Trump may be many things, but pathologically narcissist is just not one of them. To repeat this over and over does no one any good at all and needs to stop.
Second, I really and truly believe people who insist this or that action taken by the White House is a “distraction” from “the real issue”. As if people cannot concentrate on more than one particular matter at a time! It is at least possible there are people who follow current events and politics who can see and understand multiple events and connect them – or not – without a whole lot of trouble. The ability to do so is kind of the mark of intelligent adulthood.
Now, another reason I dislike the whole “distraction” stuff is because it grants to Trump and his senior advisors both intelligence and an ability to plan neither he nor they have evidenced since the summer of 2015 when Trump announced his candidacy. To be blunt, these people just aren’t that smart; or if they are intelligent, they work with certain dysfunctions – obvious alcoholism in Steve Bannon; a desire to be liked that pushes hi to discredit criticism in Trump; these are just a couple – that hobble any advantage their natural intelligence might give them. There is no “larger strategy”, there are no planned distractions from this or that crisis of the moment or the whole Administration. These guys are flying by the seat of their pants, lashing out at critics inside and outside the state bureaucracy more from habit than anything else. If we grant them more intelligence, foresight, ability to think and act strategically than they actually possess, we miss the far more important point that the appearance of ineptitude and chaos may actually be just that and no more: ineptitude and chaos.
I think it’ fair to say that the various elements of the federal bureaucracy cannot function under current conditions for an extended period of time. While senior cabinet positions have been filled for the most part, there exist hundreds of Assistant Secretaries, Under Secretaries, Assistant Under Secretaries who are in need of Senate advising and consenting. Absent the guidance from these political appointees, the various federal agencies and departments simply cannot function. Now, I know there are some who would and do insist these positions are unnecessary: we have cabinet secretaries who develop policies along guidelines set by the President. It seems so easy, right?
Just this week, several junior members of the White House staff were escorted out by Secret Service because they failed their background checks for security clearances. This isn’t a fluke; Trump lost his National Security Advisor because he was compromised by the Russians. Should Trump, his chief of staff, or others continue to select people who cannot pass government clearance, or even display basic competence (Ben Carson at HUD, Betsy DeVos at Education), the whole machine grinds to a halt. We are not just a nation of over 300 million people. We are a continental nation-state, with discontiguous states and territories in need of the smooth functioning and open communication of state and federal bureaucracies. The federal government may or may not be too large – that’s an ideological and political matter that’s certainly debatable – but as of right now, it is what it is and combining the internal chaos at the top and the absence of a mass of critically needed upper and mid-level people to help develop policies, quite literally nothing will get done. Not relief to California; not the coordination necessary for our military to function properly; not agricultural policy to continue as we enter planting season. The whole thing just stops, or at best coasts along without any real understanding whether what they’re doing is in line with current policy parameters.
As for the matter of Russian penetration of the national elections last year, since stories about just that were appearing over the summer and continued with more or less attention paid to them during the Presidential campaign, I think it is more than fair to insist we need a serious, full-on investigation. Our National Security Advisor to the President of the United States was compromised by the Russians. We know Donald Trump has business ties in and with Russia, both private and public. We also know Russian intelligence hacked the databases and internal servers of both major political parties. We know they fed matieral concerning just one of those parties to a third party – Wikileaks – who published it, damaging Trump’ opponent. Hell, we even know Candidate Trump all-but-invited the Russians to conduct espionage on the Democratic Party. Considering recent Russian actions, from buzzing an American destroyer in the Black Sea to parking a military/intelligence ship just outside our territorial waters on the East Coast without a word either from the President or more than general statements from the Secretary of Defense, I think it is more than fair to insist we need to understand the full extent of Russian penetration of our recent elections. If anyone was compromised in one way or another by Russian intelligence or business interests.
These are the more important matters. There are others, such as Trump’s mindless Twitter-usage, including using a “lügenpresse” and an old Soviet epithet “enemy of the people” to describe our major corporate media outlets. This latest crosses a very dangerous line, with the President of the United States not only attempting to further discredit a constitutionally protected part of our civic life, but make of it an opponent to the orderly functioning of government. Yeah, this is bad and lots of folks have made that point so I won’t belabor it that much.
Speaking of dangerous territory, I do have to say that seeing currently serving general officers of the US military publicly comment on the current political climate – chaotic and confusing – is also disquieting. While I appreciate that senior military officials might well just be looking for the public to pressure the White House, particularly the National Security apparatus up to and including the Commander-in-Chief to get their act together, I honestly don’t like it when military officers, particularly generals, go public with stuff like this. I didn’t like it when they did it to George W. Bush. I didn’t like it when they did it to Barack Obama. And I’m not a fan of it now with Donald Trump is President.
I also do not like rumors that either the Intelligence Community or what’s called the Deep State (the domestic and foreign National Security apparatus, from the FBI through the various intelligence agencies, the military) might well be planning on the strategic release of damaging information the end the Trump Presidency. If that’s even in discussion among some folks in the Intelligence Community, they need to stop it. We do not need parts of our national security bureaucracy deciding who is and is not fit either to lead them or to be our President.
Venturing a guess, barring some serious disaster somewhere, either Congress will discover it’s collective spine and act, or pressure from the public will push them to act in their oversight funtions both to investigate and demand accountability from the departments of the executive and the President himself. This will happen sooner rather than later precisely because the status quo is just not tenable. Something will give soon enough. My greatest hope is that when it does, as little damage as possible is done either to our public institutions or the American people.