In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth? – John Meunier, “Do We Have More Than ‘My Truth’?”, United Methodist Insight, July 17, 2015
Personally, I agree with Richard Rorty that questions of truth are not so much wrong-headed as uninteresting. Because “reality” is opaque to language – because many of our arguments over the truth-value of science are, in essence, arguments over wor’ds about reality, not reality itself – and because there is no meta-lingusitic judge to which all can appeal for the correctness of one’s view, we end up arguing over definitions. More interesting are the ways we figure out, through language, story, and our readings of various texts, how to live in the world. There is nothing special about “truth”, nothing talismanic, nothing final, nothing ultimate to the view that, if we grasp the truth, we have a hold of something that definitively addresses all sorts of matters. – Me, “On Truth”, March 17, 2007
Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ – John 14:6
I had made a resolution to myself that I wasn’t going to “go after” other writer’s expressed views. My goal was and is to be positive, to present a particular set of options that promote discussion, or at the very least thought. Reading John Meunier’s article at United Methodist Insight, however, seemed to offer me an opportunity to say – what turns out to be again – something that is central to how I live. My eight-year-old post, linked above, says much and it would probably be easiest to copy and paste it here. To be fair to Rev. Meunier, however, I need to deal with the specifics of what he wrote in order to make the points I wish to make. Furthermore, I’m not “going after” John at all. I am, rather, offering a different perspective, one I believe offers something fruitful for the Church in its struggles. And I will apologize here and now because some of what follows will be a bunch of philosophical and theological mumbo-jumbo. I do hope I can present what I want to say clearly and intelligibly. If I don’t, it isn’t because the concepts are difficult; it’s because I’m a lousy writer.
Meunier’s musings on the difference between truth and opinion cover familiar ground: Plato gets a shout-out, of course, as well as the United Methodist Articles of Religion. In the midst of his discussion, however, are assumptions that are both rarely spoken aloud as well as, lets be honest, pretty parochial. We in the West have multiple traditions regarding matters regarding “truth”, and while Plato certainly offered one answer, he was hardly the first and definitely not the last. In the mid-20th century, German philosopher Martin Heidegger taught a course in which he offered the view that, in fact, much of the western tradition of metaphysics is rooted in the distinct opinions of two men who taught centuries before Plato: Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus is remembered among philosophers for his dictum, “No one steps in the same river twice.” The only constants are change, which brings conflict. Nothing is ever settled, even human identity. Parmenides, however, insisted precisely the opposite is the case: all that is exists as a single, dimensionless whole. There is no distinction between things; there is only this singularity, both infinite and infinitesimal. This, for Parmenides, is “truth”. Our human inability either to perceive or understand this is the result of “opinion”. Thus, for Heidegger, was born our western obsession with “truth”.
Much of our tradition, whether we acknowledge it or not, follows Parmenides. The kind of unity of which he spoke was rooted in the assumption that, to all questions there is now and can only ever be a single correct answer. Pushing this assumption to its logical conclusion, then, Parmenides insisted that not just truth but existence itself is undifferentiated, a single Being that is indistinguishable within itself, yet also imperceptible, leading to differences of opinion and the (false) perception of movement and change.
Recently, however, the idea that some “thing” called “truth”, a property that inheres in particular words, sentences, and texts, has not so much been attacked as it has been set aside. This isn’t a matter of “relativism” as it is too often portrayed. Rather, it is a matter of people finding far more interesting questions to ask about how it is we human beings work out living in a world we now understand to be governed by the theories of quantum physics and general relativity as well as the theory of evolution. Philosophy no longer has dominion over questions that science addresses both more clearly and more definitively. That leaves philosophers wondering less about things like being and truth and more about how best to be human and negotiate our differences in ways that are fruitful for all of us.
Richard Rorty, the most prolific and clear proponent of this view, offered the following justification for his life-long philosophical project: In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant asked whether there was really something called “being” that humans could discern and understand. Did “being” add anything to our understanding of really existing things? Rorty asks the same question about “truth”: Does the idea that a sentence is “true” add anything to that sentence that wasn’t there before? Do human beings react differently to sentences that are “true” than to those that are not “true”? Like Kant, Rorty’s “No” didn’t so much end discussion as become fruitful for a completely different set of questions, questions about how human beings structure what Rorty called their webs of belief, adding and subtracting particular words and sentences to their stories over time. For Rorty, this offered fruitful thought and discussion about negotiating differences among stories, understanding different sentences as important to some while meaningless to others. Bridging that gap is the philosopher’s – and the poet’s, and the novelist’s – task.
For Meunier to set to one side centuries of skeptical discussion over the concept of “truth” – really from William Ockham through Hume up to the analytical philosophers and pragmatists – is misleading, to say the least. It is uncomfortable to assent to the idea that a word as important as “truth” should probably be set aside. All the same, particularly at a time in our United Methodist Church’s history when all sides in our conflicts brandish truth about like cudgels and swords, I think it would be far better for all of us if we accepted the emptiness of “truth” as a philosophical category worthy of any attention.
As for the theology of the matter, the famous quote from St. John’s gospel above is the starting point for any Christian attempt to define “Truth”. Truth is not a quality of facts or sentences. It isn’t something that inheres in things or words. It certainly isn’t something we human beings can “have”, or at least some of us can have and others can lack. Truth, for Christians, is the Person of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Truth isn’t a thing. It isn’t something that exists within particular words or phrases. It most definitely is not something we sinful mortals can ever claim to have. On the contrary, truth is a Person, a distinct, specific, individual Person whose ministry, passion, and resurrection are not “truths” to which we assent. Rather this Person in and through these events grasps us in our lives and define us. The Christian churches are not truth-tellers. The Christian churches are those communities who believe themselves in the hold of Truth, a Truth to be shared with the world in word and deed in the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord.
To understand Christian truth in this way offers us a way forward through the morass of arguments and difference our Social Principles call us to recognize without allowing such differences to create barriers to community. To understand Christian truth as Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, is to understand ourselves as sinners even while we declare ourselves redeemed. As such, the Truth bridges the gap within our lives, offering us the opportunity to share the Good News without worrying overmuch about whether or not our words are true.
Theological truth as an inherent quality of the words of our proclamation disappears in a puff of air when we understand our Truth is Jesus Christ who saves us. That is the basis of our Social Principles, as well as the acknowledgement of our many differences. It is the heart of who we are as Church, as the people called Methodist. It is how we will continue to live and move and have our being once our current worries and conflicts have passed.
[I]f you think there has not been a chilling effect on the free speech of Christians in recent years then you are painfully out of touch. Here is an article–complete with external references–giving several examples. (And, as always, when there is a chilling effect on free speech there are many other examples that will never be known due to self-censorship). – Comment On Discussion In FB Group United Methodists For Truth
You are taking the words of a few and using them to misrepresent a much larger whole that does not take stock in those things. By doing this, all that happens is you take those who are more moderate in their approach and push them toward the right. You have not allowed for any opinion that is contrary to yours and because of that force people to choose a “side”. That is going to take the majority of the UMC which is most likely somewhere in the middle of two poles and force them to choose. If history is any indication, that will result in most of those going toward the conservative “side” and harm the idea of full inclusion. – Comment, Closed FB group Progressive Methodists, directed at me.
Of course, there is a plan and conspiracy to take over the Churches for the Leftist agenda. Karen Booth documents that in her excellent work. Bottom line: follow the money.
By accident I once sat in a meeting with a bishop and his joint cabinet when they were coached by Tex sample to be power brokers. He described in detail how to break the evangelical coalition and advance the socialist agenda in the UMC. It’s right out of Alinsky and I’ve watched it play out for 40 years.
It split the Episcopal Church and I hope it will split the UMC, too. The Anglicans are ready to gather up any stray sheep that need a loving, orthodox fold.
John Wesley, BTW, called homosexuality a “vile practice.” – FB comment in closed group United Methodists For Truth
CORRECTION: FOR SOME REASON, IN THE ORIGINAL POST I KILLED OFF TEX SAMPLE, WHO IS QUITE ALIVE AND WELL, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. I REGRET THE ERROR AND HAVE CORRECTED IT.
This is kind of an addendum to yesterday’s post. The conversation I reported carried on well in to yesterday evening, demonstrating that, if nothing else, some folks have nothing better to do than engage in pointless arguments on the internet. Most folks who read news and political stories online see this kind of thing a whole lot: folks on the right are so quick to proclaim themselves the victim; they insist their free speech rights are infringed; they relate anecdotes that they insist prove there is a conspiracy not only to silence conservative (or “traditional”) voices, but perhaps eradicate them.
And I will admit guilt in doing a little bit of “guilt by association” when I linked yesterday’s post on Facebook. By claiming that the voices I quoted yesterday were in fact the constituency both of groups like the IRD and individuals who support our current UMC status quo, I was making a claim that might be construed as slandering those who would try to distance themselves from such comments as those I quoted yesterday. Yet, isn’t it the case that when an individual, or group of individuals, write things that agree with views expressed by particular individuals and groups, some kind of association can be made? Is such “slander” really playing guilt-by-association? Only if the people protesting my doing so do not, in fact, hold the beliefs they have expressly insisted they do hold, or the groups to which they pledge their allegiance do not hold the views they have claimed to hold. I will always insist that if people are insulted when others say things in more coarse and hurtful ways that nevertheless agree with their own views, the problem is not mine for pointing it out. The problem is with them, their views, and how they line up with those of others.
Now, to claims of victimhood. Let’s begin with the claimed denial of First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. The intent of the Amendment is to make it unconstitutional for the states of the federal government to arrest people for saying something. It has absolutely nothing to do (a) with discussions between persons, or interactions between individuals and private organizations; (b) whether or not individuals, groups, or businesses who operate for the public welfare, with the expectation that goods or services are offered to the public without prior restraint (that whole “restraint of trade” thing). In such cases, it is perfectly acceptable for the state, in whatever form, to insist on particular behaviors and actions that persons, acting in their roles not as individuals but as persons engaged in a particular vocation or action for the general public, not to allow their personal predilections or beliefs to create barriers between themselves and the public. When a person owns and operates a business, they do so not as themselves, but under state laws of incorporation, or under laws regulating limited liability partnerships or privately held businesses. As such, they are not Jim or Mary Jane. They are, in fact, So-and-so’s Photography Studio, or The Bakery, or a member of the staff, a doctor or nurse, of The Hospital. There are already protections for particular types of businesses – Kosher and Halal delicatessen’s say, or Roman Catholic Hospitals – that allow them to operate under the religious practices of their particular beliefs. Just because, say, I as a Christian disagree with the religious beliefs of a Mormon – or even a Presbyterian! – does not mean that, were I a butcher or baker or candlestick maker, I could insist that I do not wish to do business with them. I’m not me when I’m practicing my profession. I represent a business operating for the general public, which means I serve the public without prior restraint.
As for the alleged “chilling” of free speech rights, every example cited in the link above comes from FoxNews, World Net Daily which is famous for spreading conspiracy theories and already debunked claims from the far-right, or some other news source of less than sturdy reputation. If people are really “afraid” their speech might get them in trouble with state authorities, the best way to check if that’s true or not is, well, to speak. Indeed, if all these things had happened as claimed, wouldn’t it seem obvious that any report of them would be punished? That the reports would be removed? Perhaps I’m missing something here, but I have yet to see any site, right-wing or left-wing, disappear because of state interference or silencing.
As for conspiracy-mongering – the ultimate in persecution! – let me just note that, in the last quote cited above, I cannot imagine someone just showing up to a UMC cabinet meeting and being allowed to stay if they were not invited. That just doesn’t happen. Furthermore, I cannot imagine Tex Sample saying or doing any of the things alleged about him. That just wasn’t who he was. Which means, of course, the story is made up. Do I know the story is untrue? This is a case of inference. I have not asked the person to offer any proof – what year did this happen? what conference? who was the bishop? – that would satisfy criteria that might verify such a thing. All the same, I would guess if I did the answers I would receive wouldn’t satisfy me. Why? Because the truth or falsity of such claims aren’t nearly as important as the ongoing narrative of the persecution of right-wing, or “traditional”, Christians by the treacherous, false “liberal” church. For some reason, despite holding the reins of power in our denomination for over forty years, the real power-brokers are some weird cabal of secret “leftists” who are organized and powerful and really run things, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary.
And none of this is new, or interesting. These rhetorical strategies and moves are not unique to conservatives in the United Methodist Church. Whether religious or secular, the structure of the arguments and the claims made are all the same. When calling it out, some folks insist that others treat their arguments seriously. Except, of course, it’s all been written before, all been heard before, and I, for one, see no reason to treat them any more seriously than the countless times they’ve been trotted out in other forums, under different names but always the same words, the same strategies, the same rhetorical shifts, accompanied always by claims of victimhood as they insist that not taking them seriously is a violation both of their religious and free speech rights. It’s tiresome. I just kinda wish I could rejoin that group and let them know all this.
Doth not all nature around me praise God? If I were silent, I should be an exception to the Universe. Doth not the thunder praise [God] as it rolls like drums in the march of the God of armies? Doth not the mountains praise [God] when the woods upon their summits wave in adoration? Doth not the lightning write God’s name in letters of fire? And shall I, can I, silent be? – Charles Spurgeon
I sometimes think God looks down upon us, sees our constant bickering, and facepalms. We can become so caught up in arguing for argument’s sake, in being right, in being the top dog, we forget something so basic, so fundamental, it gets missed. Last week, the Commission on General Conference of the United Methodist Church offered for consideration an alternative process for considering legislation regarding sexuality. Along with a different process, the Commission offered a different set of categories, keeping the Church and its mission front and center, through which to consider the legislation. At the link above, you’ll find comments from folks who don’t see the boon being offered. A chance to have fruitful dialogue that sets to one side all the preferred ways one side or another has insisted the matters be discuss actually offers a chance for us all to come to the table with something to offer and, more importantly, receive.
To the categories of mission, identity, and ministry, I would add a particular context. It is this that I think we are missing, this that continues to cause strain, confusion, and distrust rather than offer hope and real freedom: Our context for these discussions (and I believe all matters of controversy within the Church) should be our gathered presence as those who worship our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is worship where we both proclaim and receive our identity. It is through doxology that we come to know who God is, God for us. It is in our voices joined in song that we become one with the great cloud of witnesses who sing before the throne of the Father and the Lamb who was slain. It is at the table where in the mystery of the Eucharist, reenacting the Passion, our lives are sealed by God for the purposes to which we are called. It is when we are blessed to go forth that we receive the promised power of the Spirit to be the Divine Presence in our lives in the world.
Doxology is the center of the Christian life. The old dogmaticians understood this. That’s why their ethical teachings always began with our obligation to worship, and what worship should be. We may well declare our faith in the silence of our hearts, and through our varied experiences of the Spirit of the Risen Christ in each of our lives; it is only in worship, however, where we gather together that this is confirmed, challenged, denied, and an offer for yet another chance is given and – we always pray! – will be received with open hearts.
Isn’t it odd how little this fundamental reality is set to one side? Isn’t it strange that this place, where all the differences we carry with us from our world-weary lives are denied even as our identities as children beloved of God are not only affirmed but reshaped each week through song and word and table, the visible signs of the presence of the invisible Spirit that calls us, blesses us, and sends us forth to be the church in the world? It is only in and through worship and its elements of songs of praise, the reading and preaching of the Word, and the great mystery where simple things become vehicles of Divine Power and acceptance, that we are marked with the cross of the risen Christ. It should be simple enough, then, to understand that it is only in this setting, as the people gathered to worship and praise God and sent forth with the power of the Spirit to be the church in and for the world, that real, fruitful conversation can take place.
Yet, we don’t. We ignore it. It’s all about Rules of order and what Church law allows and doesn’t allow. It’s about, of course, being right, being charge of the conversation, telling others what’s right and what’s wrong. Instead of coming to that one place, the only reality that sets in blood our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ, we demand some arbitrary place from which we can stand above the crowd and lead them to our preferred conclusion. In worship, through our songs of praise, hearing the proclamation of the Word, and around the Lord’s table, we might well have the chance to recall whose we are. In worship, we might have the humility to remember that it is not through any virtue or deed on our part are we together in this assembly. Each of us and all of us are here only through the love and grace of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Thus it seems to me it is only in the context of worship we should even attempt discussions that all hope will bear fruit for us as the Church called United Methodist, our particular part of the Body of Christ. Songs of confession, songs of supplication, and songs of praise for the daily gift of grace that is the only reason we are who and what we are, should accompany our discussions. The Word read and proclaimed should remind us at each moment whose work we are about. At the table, where we are not just called, but offered renewal, strength, freedom, hope, love, and faith, we might yet remember the sister to our right and the brother to our left, regardless of what they may seem for all our worldly differences, is just that: our sister and our brother, worthy of love and therefore respect as we try to move forward with being the Church.
Most of all, I am becoming traumatized by the incessant war of words when I read successive blogs in which the writers tear one another to pieces over something another person has said or done. These are not the reasoned debates of thoughtful disciples earnestly seeking to discern God’s truth; they are attacks intended to tear down a person’s credibility, even to discredit the sacred worth of another human being. Like Diogenes with his lantern seeking one honest man, I look for messages that will traverse the chasms we’ve carved with our chisels of words, and I find them so rarely. – Cynthia Astle, “When Words Fail, United Methodist Insight, March 20, 2015
Sometimes you read something and find yourself surprised to be one of those to whom the writer both is referring and addressing. It’s kind of disconcerting, to be honest. Especially when how one is seen and read is so far either from intention or viewpoint. All the same, I thought of responding, but decided to wait until after some time away offered a chance to cool down a bit. Good thought follows on being able to consider and be considerate, regardless of the look of the end result.
I make no excuses for being willing to take a verbal stance against those in our denomination who continue to promote a sense of crisis, although there isn’t one; who demand adherence to a status quo regarding our policy toward sexual minorities that is not sustainable; who aim to be movers and shakers and power-brokers, rather than conduits of the Gospel; who continue to promote a life- and soul-destroying position that has an actual body count; and who regard “both” “sides” as equally at fault for the acrimony among the more vocal members of our denomination, when the facts speak otherwise. I just don’t feel bad when I make clear how all this is wrong; how all this wounds and even kills people; how it is rooted both in bigotry and a desire for power rather than the self-emptying (which, one would think, includes emptying oneself both of bigotry and a desire for self-promotion) that is to be our life following the Crucified and Risen Lord. I have neither the patience nor the interest in “making nice” with those who will go to any lengths, and demonstrate their willingness so to do at every opportunity, to declare both sexual minorities and their supporters the source of all our alleged troubles, when in fact all trouble lies at the feet of those who continue to make trouble. If that means I call in question an individual’s integrity, then so be it. To me, that is far less horrible than our current state of affairs, in which our denomination continues to deny basic humanity to our brothers and sisters who are other-sexed in some manner, fashion, or form. I am neither a promoter of tolerance nor one who wishes to embrace a goal of false reconciliation prior to any final outcome. Should change come, reconciliation will be necessary; however, we who have been arguing and battling and been publicly vocal for so long should be the ones who set the terms, rather than those who have used every opportunity to vilify both sexual minorities and their supporters; to promote schism and destruction, holding the future of the denomination hostage to their increasingly minority view; who celebrate when clergy have their ministries ended and their reputations ruined when they act and speak out for the full humanity of all.
Is this a reasoned debate? Of course not. It never has been. It is rooted in fear and hatred; it uses the vocabulary of Christian teaching as a weapon to destroy and exclude; it actively silences any voices of dissent; finally, it refuses to recognizes the real human toll our ongoing discrimination creates. Lives broken, faith shattered, depression and suicide: these are the fruits of our status quo and listening to those who promote, defend, and demand it continuation. I have no interest at all in being reasonable with those who are far too casual with facts, with the faith, and with the health and life of others. Nor do I feel I have some kind of duty to be reasoned when others are not. Calling these things what they are is necessary. That those who do so act offended rather than ashamed demonstrates the basic truth of the charges.
The truth is, I for one can only do this because I know my own complicity in the situation. Not in creating a crisis where none existed. No, I am speaking of fear and disgust and even hatred aimed at my brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian, bisexual and trans, queer and those who are other-gendered. I know my own struggles, and speaking against those who refuse to embrace their own brokenness with their fellow Christians is part of my penance, the price I must pay for having, in the past, been one who promoted anti-gay rhetoric due more to my own fear and feelings of discomfort rather than any action on the part of any of the beautiful, loving, kind, angry, faithful people I’ve known.
Finally, I know how powerful words are. If I did not, why would I waste so much time writing? That is why I use words as my tool, perhaps occasionally my weapon, to make clear not so much what it is I would prefer, but rather what I believe to be best for the whole people called Methodist. I’ve encountered the same arguments from the anti-gay crusaders for so long, it has become tiresome, really to read the same thing for the thousandth time and have to respond, yet again, to the same nonsense. Words are powerful, and no one is allowed to have his or her own facts. Pointing out failures of logic, of relevance, and of outright falsifying evident fact all need to be made clear, however. “Both” “sides” are not equally at fault in this regard, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in study after study. So, I don’t feel any responsibility at all to temper either what I say or how I say it. Those who feel wounded, attacked, their integrity impugned might well be quite right in these regards. When this happens, I am not at fault for being the one who has made clear the lack of integrity demonstrated time and again by promoters of (false) crisis and bigotry. That lies solely in the lives of those who do so, in hopes of being seen as a mover, a player in our denominational word games.
If this means that I will no longer appear in The United Methodist Insight, that is a price I am willing to pay for continuing to make clear not my position, but the too often specious arguments, faulty illustrations, and bad theological and Biblical exegesis that is, by and large, the sole province of those promoting schism in the name of hate. Since I see this entire thing as a game, I refuse to play, which angers and frustrates some. I will continue not to play, because this isn’t about me, or the reputations of others, but our Church, our mission and ministry, and the health and lives of all God’s beloved children.
A United Methodist pastor is facing a complaint under church law because he declined to officiate at a same-sex wedding.
A gay couple at Green Street Church, a United Methodist congregation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has filed the formal complaint against their pastor, the Rev. Kelly P. Carpenter.
The couple, Kenneth Barner and Scott Chappell, charge Carpenter under the Book of Discipline with “failure to perform the work of ministry.” Their complaint also accuses Carpenter of “gender discrimination” in not officiating at their ceremony. Gender discrimination is also a chargeable offense under church law.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of church law and teachings, also states that all people are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” It is a chargeable offense under church law for clergy to preside at same-sex unions.
In the complaint, the couple says the denomination’s rules are contradictory. – Heather Hahn, “Gay Couple Files Complaint For Refusal Of Wedding”, United Methodist Insight, Nov. 12, 2014
When I saw this story yesterday, my first thought was, “Here we go.” After a day’s thought, it occurred to me that by highlighting the contradictions our current anti-LGBTQ policy create for real ministry to all persons, we take the argument away from the hurly-burly of the Internet, Charge Conferences, Annual Conferences, and even General Conference, and ask a fundamental question about what ministry means, in church law. While perhaps less welcome than an actual multifaceted discourse among so many in our church, this case brings to the fore the heart of problem: What kind of church are we?
Going forward, I have no idea what the outcome of this case will be. I’m not even sure if the church’s Judicial Council will consider it having merit, precisely because the members are gay. If rejected on these grounds, that at least answers the question about what kind of church we wish to be. On the other hand, if the courts take the case, it will be a matter of weighing ministerial and pastoral priorities under church law. This will require not only a deft legal touch, but also a subtle theological touch as well.
So I say, let’s all follow the bouncing ball as it takes this case wherever it leads. We may all be surprised by the result.
Listening to voices from the church’s past is always a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, we always have so much to learn from the experience of the saints who have traveled the road on which we now make our way, resting from their labors in peace. On the other hand, their times and thus their concerns, their points of view, their assumptions, their languages are not our own. We should always be careful when we venture through time; we can very easily, without knowing we’ve done so, changed the very nature of the past by appropriating for the present something that was not meant for us.
Nevertheless, I had been thinking over the previous few weeks of the sermons and speeches of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Last week, in the midst of helping my wife move her office, I rescued from exile my copy of A Testament To Freedom: The Essential Writings Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Scanning through it, I found parts of a speech given in 1932 at the International Youth Conference of the Universal Christian Council on Life and Work and the World Allicance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches (quite a mouthful). The meeting was held in Gland, Switzerland on August 29, 1932. The speech, entitled “The Church is Dead”, was, as editors Geoffrey Kelly and F. Burton Nelson note, “pessimistic” in its “inspiring examination of the church’s call to help Europe and the world”. Yet, Bonhoeffer continued that “the Christian cannot sink into pessimism or get overly buoyed up in optimism.”
The World Alliance is the community of those who would hearken to the Lord as they cry fearfully to their lord in the world and in the night, an as they mean not to escape from the world, but to hear in it the call of Christ in faith and obedience, and as they know themselves responsible to the world through this call. It is not the organ of church action, grown weary of meditating upon the Word of God, but it is the church which knows of the sinfulness of the world and of Christianity, which expects all good things from God, and which would be obedient to this God in the world.(pp.109-110)
This radical call to be the church in the world, despite the insistence from the world that, as the title of the speech suggest, “the church is dead”, echoes down the years to us, from a time of totalitarianisms, of war still ravaging Europe and the growing threat of war even then casting a shadow across everything. We in our times are no less conscious of the claim that the church is dead. We are no less pessimistic, even within the churches, that the claim may well be right. We look around at shrinking numbers, at decreased giving, at the irrelevance of so much of what we as the people of God do and say, and we despair for the future, even as the threats we face are far less extreme, and the future in many ways far more congenial than when Bonhoeffer gave his speech. Bonhoeffer continues:
Christ must become present to us in preaching and in the sacraments just as in being the crucified one he has made peace with God and with humanity. The crucified Christ is our peace. [Christ] alone exorcises the idols and the demons. The world trembles only before the cross, bot before us.
And now the cross enters this world out of joint. Christ is not far from the world, not in a distant region, of our existence. He went into the lowest depths of our world, his cross is in the midst of the world. And this cross of Christ now calls wrath and judgment over the world of hate and proclaims peace.(p.110)
The call to let Christ be Christ is a call to the Church to place itself not only at the foot of the cross, but behind it, letting it lead us forward as we bring the love and grace of God to this “world out of joint”. This is no simplistic message. Bonhoeffer is far from naive.
But the Church also knows that there is no peace unless righteousness and truth are preserved. A peace which does damage to righteousness and truth is no peace, and the church of Christ must protest against such peace. There can be a peace which is worse than struggle. But it must be a struggle out of love for the other, a struggle of the spirit, and not of the flesh.(emphasis in original, p.111)
In particular, we United Methodists need to remember that our church struggles are just that – struggles of the spirit, struggles for discernment, struggles for truth and justice in a world that is still, and shall remain, out of joint. The enemy is not war, however, or the terrible toll it brings with it, at least not for us United Methodists. The enemy, rather, is a spiritual sickness that has turned us against one another; has turned us deaf to calls for prayer for one another; has pitted us against one another in a race toward self-righteousness, against the struggle that should happen and toward a far worse struggle that can only leave all of us people called Methodist wounded, heart sick, separated by words and wounds that no appeal to unity in Christ might heal. Ours is the worst kind of struggle – one for truth and righteousness within the Body of Christ itself as it ministers to the world out of joint. For that reason alone, we should heed Bonhoeffer’s call to let Christ be Christ, and celebrate that God makes alive what the world calls dead.
Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. – 1 Peter 3:15b-16a
Geoffrey, I don’t know how you misconstrued any of our postings as a refusal or resisting prayer! Nothing could be further from the truth! Churches have been down this road so many times on exclusion of those they feel aren’t fit to be Christian and I, for one, am sick of it. I have a right to feel that way whether you agree with me or not. Here’s what gets me…these Bishops are supposedly our leaders, the ones with the wisdom and have a deep understanding of Jesus Christ. Really?? I don’t think so if they cannot grasp that the Lord said, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul AND Love your neighbor as you love yourself (PERIOD)…there is no “but,” “unless,” “however,” after yourself. And since when do men know better than God? Why are so many reluctant to practice what He asked of us? Why does the UMC insist on hurting people with their “rules” made by man? Say what they will, our wise Bishops and other leaders who think or believe those within the LGBTQ community are somehow not equal or as worthy as the rest of us, but it’s old, tiresome and complete BS. Stop judging, picking and choosing the worthy people and start loving ALL people! What is hard about this??? – Michele Smith Vasquez, from Facebook in response to a discussion after posting this
My preference would be to move on. At the same time, that very first sentence floored me. Was it possible Ms. Vasquez hadn’t read the things I quoted in the linked piece? Did she not read a sampling from the piece I wrote yesterday? Perhaps she should read some of the comments on Cynthia Astle’s commentary at United Methodist Insight. The very idea that I was somehow imagining a dismissal of a call to prayer, when just above Ms. Vasquez’s comment comes the following:
Part of the problem, perhaps, was focusing on one particular thing I wrote – and perhaps not even reading it thoroughly – and not taking in to account a history that goes back decades, literally, speaking out and fighting for justice in the United Methodist Church. As I wrote yesterday, my first public statement against discrimination in ordination came in 1988. I repeated here that I have been an advocate of direct action on the part of the clergy since around 1991 or so, the first time I suggested ending discrimination would entail the simple act of all LGBTQ clergy standing together during an Annual Session, outing themselves, and challenging the Bishop to remove them all at once. When the Schaefer decision came down, I made it clear that, for all intents and purposes, the actions in Eastern Pennsylvania, the decision by the Judicial Council, and earlier Administrative actions in the New York Conference have rendered the language of the Book of Discipline toothless. The precedents are many and varied, and there is no longer any reasonable expectation formal, legal action will be taken against any clergy who defy the ban on officiating at same-sex weddings.
Which says and does nothing about ordination, although far more clergy are living out without any action on the part of Bishops, Boards of Ordained Ministry, or judicial action. As a matter of course, if not law, it seems to me that the matter has, in a sense, been decided. For too many in the denomination, however, this is still controversial. Consider Dr. David Watson of United Theological Seminary, for whom an end to clergy trials is “a non-starter”. The demand from so many commenters for “action” and “leadership” ignores (a) the ways Bishops have all ready, in various way, taken a lead to dampen the fires by refusing to hold trials; and (b) led us forward to a time when, as I say, as a matter of fact if not of Church law, there is no longer any expectation for punishment for violating this particular clause of the BoD. Our Bishop in Northern Illinois has made it clear – No More Trials. In so doing, the ban on officiating at same-sex weddings is toothless. While this may upset Dr. Watson, it is an Episcopal consensus de facto if not de jure.
My biggest pet peeve, perhaps, is one stated above: the demand for “action” on the part of the Council of Bishops, absent any clear consensus, or perhaps even plurality toward any specific action whatsoever. As I asked yesterday, absent such plurality, who is going to lead? To where? Who will follow? What will be the result of such rudderless “leadership” with a following that is no more coherent than a group on social media? In many ways, this demand that someone, or perhaps some portion, of the Council “do something”, without any sense of what that might be, reminds me very much of demands from some people that our conversations on this topic be civil, decorous, and follow some set of rules. I have made my feelings abundantly clear on this matter, calling such concern trolling “tone policing” and noting that, compared to so much discourse on the Internet, our debates and discussions about LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church has been heated but civil, never once approaching the depths that far too many such conversations reach. Most of all, I have supported an intra-church political process that is indeed messy and rancorous, demonstrates to the world our divisions and need for prayerful guidance. I have also made it clear that I believe that politics, rather than a test of faith, is (or at least should be) a practice of faith. There is no way around the stormy seas of church politics on this matter, nor should there be. Looking to the Council of Bishops mistakes authority for power, and ignores the myriad voices on the Internet, voices of those ready to do what it takes to change the language of the BoD.
As for that wording in the BoD, I took some time to look very carefully at it, repeating ad nauseum that it is not only rooted in an antiquated understanding of human sexuality, but is theologically dehumanizing, effectively declaring a portion of the human race outside the bounds of grace, no matter what precisely because of how they were created by God to live out their lives. And speaking of lives, when the video concerning Ben Wood became public, I not only made clear my sadness and anger at the situation; I also made clear that all of us in the United Methodist Church share a measure of culpability in young Ben’s death just by creating space for a “youth leader” who would do something so cruel and hateful. I also made clear my contempt for Bishop J. Michael Lowry for refusing to feel shame for the role the United Methodist Church played in young Ben’s decision to take his own life. To suggest, even obliquely, that others have a greater feeling for the lives at stake in this discussion is not only insulting and ignorant; it demeans the very real struggle some of us have been waging a very long time against the language of the BoD.
Finally, I should note that this is not exactly a new issue, either for us or for me to comment upon. I wrote something about the inability of the United Methodists to argue coherently and constructively in the run-up to the 2008 General Conference. As I keep saying – this is a long slog. “Leadership”, at least as some folks would like to see it enacted (“Just go out there and do something”), will come from us, lifting one another up. Even those with whom we disagree. We can pose as holier than all; we can insist that someone come forward to lead us all to the future light of justice. Or, we can maybe, just maybe, accept this is a long process – one in which I’ve been engaged all my adult life – and rather than whine about a lack of leadership, or dismiss a call to prayer, we gird ourselves for what lies ahead, trusting in the God who calls us a people called Methodist that the end will be God’s end. Not mine. Not Ms. Vasquez’z. Not the Council of Bishops. Not Good News. Because this is all about the Body of Christ known as The United Methodist Church, not me or him or him or her or any other individual or group.