Tag Archive | United Methodist Insight

A Certain Sacrifice

Simple Definition of sacrifice

  • : the act of giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone

  • : an act of killing a person or animal in a religious ceremony as an offering to please a god

  •  a person or animal that is killed in a sacrifice

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Methodist seminaries train their pastors in critical methodologies for studying the Scripture. Those methodologies teach that the Bible’s inspiration is not undermined by acknowledging the biblical authors’ historical context, the ways in which the biblical text developed, and the process of its canonization. But it does teach us that the Bible is far more complex than the common dictum, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” allows. – Adam Hamilton, “The Bible, Homosexuality, and the UMC – Part One”, Ministry Matters, April 27, 2016


Adam Hamilton has once more entered into the fray of making pronouncements about what the Bible does and does not advocate when it comes to same sex sexual activity and same sex marriage . . . .

My concern is with the misinterpretation of the Bible in this post as well as the misrepresentation of Methodist cultural trends at various points – Ben Witherington III, “A Response to Adam Hamilton’s Recent Post on the Bible and Homosexuality”, Patheos, April 28, 2016


[T]he most we can say about Jesus’ position on queer identity is that we simply do not know. To say otherwise is exegetical malpractice, which results in bad ethics by promoting discrimination that isn’t explicitly sanctioned by Jesus. – Morgan Guyton, “Making Jesus Answer Questions He Wasn’t Asked”, United Methodist Insight, May 2, 2016

The Angel intervenes just as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac.

The Angel intervenes just as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac.

I’ve said it often the past few years: We have rehashed and rehearsed the same arguments concerning same-gender love so much seeing them, yet again, isn’t so much insightful as it is tiresome. The latest iteration of these arguments began between Rev. Adam Hamilton and Dr. Ben Witherington, with Rev. Morgan Guyton taking Witherington to task for yet another of the same argument. It makes me want to clap may hands over my ears and shout, “Enough!”

Ours is a faith that has at its heart sacrifice. The LORD called Abraham to sacrifice his only legitimate son and heir – the heir, also, of the promise the LORD made to Abraham to make of his children a great nation. The Law of Moses has sacrifice-as-reconciliation at the heart of its priestly code. When challenging the priests of Baal, Elijah specifically used a sacrificial ritual to discredit both Baal and his priests. When challenging politically and morally corrupt governance in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the prophets would often declare the sacrifices – the heart of the national cultic practice for repentance, ritual cleanliness and reconciliation – were meaningless because of the lack of justice and pervasiveness of oppression in the nation.

Part of the way we understand Jesus death on the cross is as sacrificial death – what’s often called subsitutionary atonement. While we may have forsaken animal sacrifice, we Christians still call for “sacrifice” for the good of the ministry of the whole Church. Single people are called to a life of chastity (not celibacy; celibacy means they won’t ever get married, thus unmarried people are celibate by definition). We are called to sacrifice a tenth of our earnings to the Church’s work in the world. We are called to sacrifice the good opinion of our peers and the powers that be in order to stand firm in the faith. We are called to sacrifice our preferences and surrender to the Will of God, an odd situation for St. Paul to call “freedom”.

We are to be willing to sacrifice our lives for our friends, if called upon to do so.

As General Conference approaches – yes, this is yet another General Conference post – perhaps we should remember this call to sacrifice. We should be willing to give up the urge, yet again, to say the same things to one another. These ways of dialogue and argument have achieved nothing. I don’t think, really, they’re at fault for the poisoned atmosphere between and among some over the matter of sexuality and sexual difference, precisely because they’ve become meaningless. Like reciting anything by rote, whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer of the Pledge of Allegiance, the meaning slips away when we mouth words without thinking they might actually be the most important words we may ever say.

When we gather as a denomination in Portland this coming week, perhaps we should give up the urge to start yelling at one another about Biblical interpretation, tossing verses at one another, saying that “liberal” Protestants are “the only ones” who seem to be OK with gay marriage and ordaining sexual minorities (part of Ben Witherington’s argument in the linked piece above; as if, somehow, that means anything at all, that different people in different places and living out different histories would understand the Bible differently). Perhaps, just perhaps, we should sacrifice our own desire to be right, to have not only the best argument but the best way of arguing, to show the gathered delegates just how smart and educated we are. Maybe it might be a good idea to start talking to one another in different ways, better ways, meaningful ways. Ways that build up the Body of Christ instead of seeking to silence, intimidate, and (best of all) defeat those with whom we disagree.

I know I’m quite tired of listening to people who say one way or another of reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible to one’s life is either the best way, or perhaps the only way. To be honest, as soon as someone starts down this road, I’m quite convinced they don’t know what they’re talking about. There are as many varieties of Biblical interpretation, as many lenses of Biblical hermeneutics, as there are denominations, individuals, and congregations. Looking back over the complicated and varied history of the Church, it would be absurd to insist that the Church, at any historical moment, had a predominant hermeneutic. It might certainly at this or that time have offered an official statement regarding Biblical interpretation; in practice – and it is always in practice that these words have any meaning – the Church has always been “the churches” when it came to figuring out how to make those words in the text mean anything for our lives here and now.

So for the love of God please stop arguing about what the Bible says or doesn’t say, what Jesus did or didn’t say, about anything. My New Testament professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Sharon Ringe, said that starting down this road will always land you in trouble because, maybe just maybe, that’s the wrong question to ask. It might be a good idea to give up our desire to be correct, to be right, to defeat and embrace our ability to be wrong, to be unsure, and to accept difference as just that rather than some ultimate divide that shall always separate “us” and “them”.

Have You No Shame, At Long Last?

The gospel of modern white evangelicalism does not rest on the authority of Jesus’ cross, but on the threat of eternal violence. Instead of submitting ourselves to the slain lamb of God, white evangelicals enthusiastically line ourselves up behind our hero bad-ass God-cop whose most defining characteristic is his love of violent punishment. Instead of being convicted through the authority of Jesus’ blood of all the ways that we continue to crucify him through our injustice, we crucify others with authority as deputies of our bad-ass God-cop.

It is our theology that makes violent authority figures like Darren Wilson, Brian Encinia, and Ben Fields feel completely justified in their savage behavior. Jesus’ cross cannot save us if it is only the receptacle of the violence of a bad-ass God-cop we’ve invented to justify ourselves. Jesus’ cross only saves us to the degree that we recognize it as the place where we have violated God. The blood of Abel continues to cry out from the ground in the blood of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others. But if there are any true Christians in this land, then there’s power in that blood and the authority of the cross will ultimately triumph over the authority of the badge.

If there’s a hero in the story from Columbia, SC, it would have to be Niya Kenny, the classmate of the assaulted girl who got arrested for speaking out in protest of what happened. If you want to talk about obedience, Niya is the one who saw Jesus crucified and was obedient to the authority of his cross. Let us take up our crosses like Niya and do likewise. – Rev. Morgan Guyton, “The Authority Of The Badge Vs. The Authority Of The Cross”, United Methodist Insight, October 29, 2015

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Homicide rates in 2010 among non-Hispanic, African-American males 10-24 years of age (51.5 per 100,000) exceeded those of Hispanic males (13.5 per 100,000) and non-Hispanic, White males in the same age group (2.9 per 100,000). – Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, Youth Violence Facts At A Glance 2012

From the CDC, a look at the rise and fall of juvenile arrest rates over the past few decades. Please note rates are at their lowest in decades.

From the CDC, a look at the rise and fall of juvenile arrest rates over the past few decades. Please note rates are at their lowest in decades.

This is addressed to you if you have spent even a moment thinking that former Randall County Sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields was somehow justified in attacking a 16 year old girl. This is addressed to you if you have said or written that kids these days are some unique threat requiring violence to suppress their tendency toward criminality. This is for you if you wrote, “If this were my kid . . .” because – can we be honest here? – if this had been your kid, you’re the parent who’d be on the phone so fast it would hurt the company to connect your call; you’d have lawyers and calling press conferences and suing as many people as you could name. This is addressed to you if you said or wrote, “Well, maybe she didn’t deserve that but . . .” because that “but” shouldn’t be there. This post is addressed to you if you believe in “buts”.

Here are some facts. If you look at that chart – it comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in co-operation with the Department of Education and Department of Justice – youth crime is kinda sorta way down. In fact, it’s kinda sorta so far down that we should be wondering what the hell was wrong with us, those kids back then in the 1980’s and 1990’s when the rates were so high. Kids these days . . . we should be applauding them. Instead, if I’ve read one person write about how “kids these days” are somehow worse, more disrespectful, some spoiled and entitled, I’ve read a hundred. Kids these days are the teachers – they’re teaching us how to live in a society that open and diverse, doing so with far less violence and far more acceptance of difference than has been true in the past. Kids these days are far better than we were. Perhaps we should be grateful for that, rather than pretend kids these days are somehow worse than we were.

Here are some facts. A 16-year-old-girl had just recently lost her only parent. Hurting in ways most of us cannot imagine, her cell phone was her lifeline to her legal guardian, perhaps the only adult to whom she could cling for comfort. When her teacher told – not asked but told – her to relinquish her phone, she apologized and put the phone in her backpack. The teacher insisted she turn it over. She demurred, for obvious reasons. She was then ordered to the principal’s office. She refused to go, which makes sense. The reality is she had done nothing wrong. When the principal arrived, he, too ordered her to the principal’s office. Now, I’m hazarding a guess the principal knew her personal situation; perhaps he could have shown her some understanding and compassion? Instead, he called the school “resource officer”, a cop known around the school as “Officer Slam”. In his infinite wisdom, he slammed her to the floor while still in her seat, tossed her across the floor, then handcuffed her. He then arrested another student who protested his actions and the girl’s treatment.

I’m wondering who was really disruptive?

If you believe schools are violent places where our precious children are in immediate threats to their life, that’s true only if you’re African-American. There’s an epidemic of violent death among our youth: It’s the second leading cause of death overall for people aged 10-24. For African-Americans in that same age-cohort, it’s the leading cause of death. Compared even to Hispanics, African-American youth are being murdered far more frequently. Rather than view African-American youth as some mass threat to our social peace, perhaps we should view them as uniquely victimized, in need of all sorts of assistance and support both public and private to prevent the ongoing slaughter of their children.

Finally, if you call yourself a Christian and you’re still defending Ben Fields’s actions, you should feel shame. Real shame, as in “Wow I really messed up, didn’t I. I feel horrible.” I’m guessing, however, that shame just isn’t part of your make-up. Which is really too bad.

PS: “It’s just my opinion” means you’re willing to ignore any and all facts that get in the way of your pat answer and judgement.

 

We Do Theology All The Time

Too many people think this is what "theology" is: Big old books that are unreadable.

Too many people think this is what “theology” is: Big old books that are unreadable.

Laments about the status of theology in the Church are as old as the Church. Remember in St. Peter’s Epistle, that reminder to be ready to give a defense of the faith? What else is that but a plea for people to get straight how they talk about what they believe. We in the United Methodist Church, unclear on the distinction between “theology” and “doctrine” carry on as if the words are interchangeable. Then of course there are people like this guy who warn of Zombie Theologians,  as if ignorant lay people are going to eat our brains if we don’t teach them theology! Aside from the lousy and misused metaphor, all this Sturm und Drang and clothes-rending is ridiculous. Our churches do theology all the time. Sometimes they do it quite well; sometimes they do it poorly. That is to be expected. Even the best theologians of whom we know got all sorts of stuff wrong. Rather than bewail our communal failures teaching “the Christian faith” and “theology” – not at all the same thing; I would have thought a Seminary professor would know the very big difference – perhaps we should celebrate all the ways our clergy, lay people, church staffs, congregations, and hierarchy are out there doing theology all the time.

First of all, theology is not just a specialized academic discipline, producing books and articles read by fewer and fewer people, couched in a specialized vocabulary that even the initiated struggle with. Theology is also what people do when teaching children the Bible. It’s what Disciple Bible Study is all about. Church committees, right up to those most important ones like Finance, Trustees, and Administrative Council are theological to the core. If a church or Conference or even General Church budget isn’t a theological document, what else could it be?

We too often confuse “using a specialized academic vocabulary” with doing theology. That vocabulary is important. Its precision is necessary for reasons of clarity of expression and exposition. That is not what makes a particular discourse “theological”. The faithfulness of those engaged in such discourse; the way faith in Christ is the center around which such discourse takes place; the refusal to allow pat answers or shiny objects distract from the necessity of being faithful; these are some of the marks of theological discourse. If the folks so engaged aren’t using a particular specialized vocabulary, yet are arriving at the same place by a different route, what is the problem?

Now, if the issue isn’t a matter of the vocabulary and discourse, but rather expressed ignorance about basics of the faith,  then I think all of us share equal blame for that. Clergy and laity all need to work together to ensure people are engaged in our faith seeking understanding. It is not enough to declare oneself a Christian, to point to a moment or series of moments that one’s life shifted because of an experience of God. If there is a basic inability to articulate the content of one’s faith – to say more than “It is this God in whom I believe” – that is a failure all of us share. We don’t need to be busy teaching people to read St. Thomas or Peter Abelard or Calvin or Langdon Gilkey, although if you want to more power to you. At the very least, however, we do need to engage people in thinking about and being willing to answer the question, “Who is this God in whom you believe?” That is the beginning and end of theology, right there.

The standard question in Seminaries when courses in Systematics roll around is, “What does this have to do with being a pastor?” Interesting question. Since being a pastor is more than marrying and burying; since it’s more than administration and paper-pushing; since it’s more than devising a worship outline and a sermon each week; it would seem that anyone charged with serving a congregation would at least be curious about what it’s all about. Of course like so much else in education from elementary school through post-doctoral work, how we go about getting people to understand why acquiring even the rudiments of a theological vocabulary are important run up against the simple fact that our schools are not designed to educate people, i.e., to teach them to think for themselves. Our whole education system is designed to turn out workers, to separate those who succeed in our service-based economy such as bankers,  attorneys, financial traders,  and doctors from those who will not succeed. Theological education, at least at its formal level, is no more immune from these socio-economic pressures than it is from other social and cultural ailments. All the efforts at reforming theological education that don’t admit this is the reality within which it operates will always fail.

If people aren’t hearing real theology being done in our churches, perhaps we’re listening for the wrong thing. If people aren’t recognizing the faithful wrestling in which our congregations engage, perhaps the matter isn’t a lack of theological understanding on the part of lay people (and why for God’s sake is it always the lay people?). Perhaps the people so desperate for “real” theology in our churches are really talking about something else, and using the long-running assumption of congregational theological ignorance as a way of talking about something else.

It’s too easy and convenient . . . oh, hell, it’s just downright lazy to carry on about theological ignorance. If you think the problem is so bad and pervasive, devise a curriculum to address it! Oh, wait . . . that’s all ready been done. If the matter is so pervasive because you believe there are clergy who claim they are too busy to teach the faith, perhaps you should offer an example or two. Teaching the faith, after all, is about more than leading a class. It would seem that would include sermons with no theology in them. It would mean weddings and funerals without the Good News being declared. It would mean meetings that don’t begin with an prayer for God’s presence. It would mean Bible Studies that somehow evade the meaning of the texts being considered. I’m sure such things happen. I just have not seen, in almost fifty years in the United Methodist Church, any evidence our congregations are not theological. They are, often deeply so. There isn’t an understanding of the technicalities of academic theological discourse; there often is ignorance of particular doctrines – again, not the same thing as not knowing or being able to articulate theology – but that is easily remedied. I just don’t see any evidence either of theological ignorance or an unwillingness to engage in doing theology in our churches.

Our churches do theology. Our people are able to articulate that in which they believe. More importantly as congregations, they live out their theology in so many ways that touch both their local communities and the whole world.

Theology? We’re soaking in it.

Scattered For God’s Sake

All that scattering is for the sake of the Mission of God, a mission that has nothing to do with uniformity, but rather asks for unity among those who would undertake it. It may not be comfortable or neat or easy, but as the church it is our mission. – Andy Bryan, “Unity and The Sin Of Babel”, United Methodist Insight, October 2, 2015

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Some people are so scared of people who choose to look different they demand these different folk change their appearance

Some people are so scared of people who choose to look different they demand these different folk change their appearance

I’m going to share a story out of school as it were. Lisa and I are in the midst of a disagreement centering on my appearance. I have to admit part of it is rooted in what is probably a mid-life crisis of one kind or another. At the same time, it has to do with expressing who I am. For several years I’ve worn my hair very closely cropped – almost a buzz cut. I’ve been letting my hair grow out for several months and it’s past that awkward stage and beginning to wave and curl. I haven’t decided for sure if I’m going to just allow it to continue growing or get dreadlocks. It has to be a minimum of three inches long for that. I’m also growing out my goatee while keeping the rest of my beard short so that, when it gets long enough, that can be braided.

Why the big change? To express who I am. I’ve never fit in to any particular group. When I was in Seminary, one of the faculty I respected a great deal, Mark Burrows, said to me, “One of the things I really admire about you is you get along with everyone.” Now, I honestly don’t know if that’s true. I think I tried to get along with everyone; more to the point, however, my effort to get along with different types of people comes from the fact that I just don’t fit in with any single group. Furthermore, I’ve never tried to fit in to one group. Where’s the fun in that? I’ve always figured it’s better to have all sorts of different kinds of people in one’s life. How else do you learn and grow? How else do you share all sorts of experiences with others if the folks you call acquaintances and friends are all like you? That’s boring.

One of the most important theological lessons I learned in Seminary was that God wants us to be us. We were each of us created to be who and as we are. Our life, all the things that go to make up who we are, they are our most precious possessions. God uses that uniqueness in specific ways to achieve the ultimate divine end – the Kingdom in which the New Creation exists to give our God the glory. The salvation offered in the crucified and risen Jesus comes to each of us as we are, calling us to be who we were created to be for the glory of God. The freedom we enjoy is the freedom to surrender care for ourselves to serve others. It is also the freedom to do so with the unique gifts only each of us has. For me, part of the uniqueness is appearing as one who does not fit in anywhere because this world, in the end, is not my home.

Ours is a world with so many enforced conformities. Labels get attached so easily, and short-hand summaries of others are far too easy to come by. It is part of that sin of Babel Andy Bryan points out: The urge toward uniformity less God scatter us. Uniformity and conformity flow from an unfaithful fear of God’s wrath. As the early chapters of Genesis make clear, ours are lives spent going out in to the world; in the Great Commission makes clear, this “going forth” is part of our identity as Christians. It is that to which calls us. Going out to the world, being scattered for the sake of the Kingdom should offer us the kind of freedom to show the world, “This is who I am as one beloved child of God!”

When I was in Seminary, I attended Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church because it was just across the street from American University. The pastor at the time, Rev. William Holmes, sent us forth with the best benediction ever: “Now go! And be the scattered Body of Christ at work in the world!” Part of being that “scattered body”, of not becoming ensnared in the Babel trap, of following the command to spread across the Earth, to preach the Good News from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth, is allowing ourselves to be the person God created us to be. Be willing to express that so the person God created can be a sign of what is possible through God’s saving and perfecting grace.

I still haven’t decided on the whole dreadlocks thing. On the other hand I do know that being part of the scattered Body of Christ means that I’m just one small yet unique part of a massive whole aiming toward bringing about the Kingdom of Peace for the Glory of God. How I look isn’t important at all compared to getting out there and being and doing the call I hear each day in new ways.

Unhealthy Discourse

I think we need collectively to figure out how to have ongoing conversations with people with whom we disagree. None of us has the whole picture independently, but together we can make up the whole picture. – Cynthia Astle, “Disengaging From The Conversation”, United Methodist Insight, September 18, 2015

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UM Insight Screencap

UM Insight Screencap

UM Insight Screencap

UM Insight Screencap

There is little doubt the United Methodist Church is in trouble. As has been the case through our national history, we have taken on the poisonous politics of the surrounding society, leading to hostility, anger, and at times a pettiness that should embarrass us all. Like our secular politics, however, there seems to be no solution. Instead, we must traverse this particular valley of the shadow of death with faith that our LORD is with us. What lies on the other side will be something new, and as the Psalm sings, the LORD will prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies – whoever we think they might be.

Two long-time friends of this blog, Cynthia Astle of United Methodist Insight and Joel Watts of Unsettled Christianity have come to a parting of the ways in a very public, shocking (to me at any rate; I’ve dealt with both for years and can’t fathom what’s happened in its specifics) way. A combination of miscommunication resulting in a bit of vitriol leaves me sad and puzzled. Astle has solicited “help” from people on how better to use this medium to continue the necessary on-going conversation among little-heard voices within our denomination. The problem, at least from my perspective, isn’t the medium. It is rather the larger context in which we try to engage others with whom we disagree. The Internet offers great opportunities for people to engage one another in honest, sometimes heated, discussion. That the anonymity and distance of the Internet also provides some people the freedom to say things they would never say in a face-to-face argument has long been a subject of criticism. All the same, that same distance allows a level of honesty and clarity that a face-to-face encounter could never provide. Too concerned over rules of etiquette and propriety, face-to-face encounters might produce discomfort should the argument get as heated as it does online. There are benefits to face-to-face meetings that no less personal encounter can match. Which leaves me, again, thinking it isn’t the medium. Rather, it’s the expectations we bring to Internet discussions and the ease of miscommunication always at play in written as opposed to spoken discourse that create part of our problem.

But only part. Another part of what prevents us from dealing with one another is the decision, as Astle names it, to disengage.

David F. Watson asked that his previous material be removed entirely from our database after we published an article by Geoffrey Kruse-Safford criticizing his work.

This part of Astle’s linked article shocked me. I had not seen Watson’s work in UMI. To learn that I was the reason for his refusal to participate any longer in their forum, however, was more than a little surprising. Academic Dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, I have certainly been critical of things he’s written. I would go further and say that those disagreements have been substantial, presented forcefully. To think that something I wrote made Watson wish no longer to engage, however, is more than a little embarrassing. After some checking, I found the article that might have been the reason Watson discontinued his association with UMI and I have to admit more than a little confusion. Ironically, that article concerned Watson’s scolding some people for how they conduct themselves in online forums; I pointed out to him that, by the standards of the larger Internet, while certainly heated United Methodists have by-and-large conducted our discussions with a great deal of civility and respect.

And now we have yet another voice, citing both “unWesleyan doctrine” – I’m honestly not sure what that means; are all United Methodists supposed to adhere to a narrow Wesleyan theology? – as well as “slanderous personal attacks” – for which I can find no evidence at all; one thing I admire about Cynthia is she does not countenance such things; I’ve been reminded of that several times by her when she read something of mine she took to be an ad hominem attack. It has made me far more conscious of how to present what I write, being clear issues and not personalities are front and center. Joel’s use of the word “threat” is more than a little odd. Cynthia “threatened” nothing; she informed Joel their Twitter discussion would be featured in a longer article explaining why his article had been removed.

Our poisonous politics, sacred and secular, make all of us edgy and ready to strike out when a perceived affront, insult, or just general disagreement arises. Rather than push through the frustration and anger, we all too often resort to ceasing any further dialogue. Breaking communion – in its original meaning – seems preferable to some than staking a claim to one’s position without closing one’s ears to others. Of course, the latter is difficult. The thing is, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. More than anyone’s feelings, or any group’s theological preferences, the stakes in our current illness are high. I have made my positions clear enough; I have also always made clear that neither I nor anyone else has some access to “truth” denied others; further, I know that the United Methodist Church has been and will be far stronger if all our voices – discordant as they may be now – join together. How facile, paltry, and even erroneous would we be if only like-minded persons gathered, heard sermons that made them feel good about themselves, rather than being challenged by the Word? How much less would our mission and ministry be if we only associated with people like us?

There are many steps toward healing that need to be taken. One of those steps is being willing to continue to talk with each other despite our differences. Whatever happens next spring will happen; the larger body of United Methodists, hierarchy, lay, academic, owe it to one another to keep talking. No matter how difficult that might be. We are all in this together. If we don’t remember that and carry on our discussions in the grace we preach and try to practice, then perhaps we need to be gone as a denomination. I would far prefer this not be so. Yet, as I see it, unless we are willing to take that small step, we just aren’t moving forward.

The Semantics Of Justice

According to The Book of Discipline , the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves, neither bishops or district superintendents have the authority to excommunicate lay persons from the church, nor to remove individuals from candidacy for ministry.

In choosing to become ordained in The Universal Life Church (ULC), Ms. Mikita elected to change denominations. This action automatically withdrew her membership in The United Methodist Church and as a certified candidate for ministry. –  Statement from Michigan Area Press Office, United Methodist Insight, September 10, 2015

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[T]he fact is, she withdrew herself from the denomination. The response from RMN may be rhetorically effective, especially to like-minded readers, but it is inaccurate. The spirit of the RMN response was picked up by blogger Jeremy Smith, who has developed a network of conspiracy theories regarding the attempted expulsion of progressives from the UMC. Apparently, the pastors who wrote the letter to the West Michigan Conference officials were attempting to expel one more progressive. The funny thing is, they didn’t have to. She expelled herself.

Misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, the idolatry of “winning,” the subordination of truth to ideology, the politics of shame… These kinds of tactics ultimately serve no one. And yes, I know that this is not simply a progressive tactic. I have seen evangelical, conservative, and self-described centrists do this, too. I lament what our discourse has become. I don’t know what the future of our church is, but I pray that whatever it is, we can find better ways of talking to one another. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “More Thoughts On Christian Public Discourse”, Musings and Whatnot, September 5, 2015

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Drew McIntyre was one of the three signatories who instigated action against Ginny Mikita.

Drew McIntyre was one of the three signatories who instigated action against Ginny Mikita.

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I took a few classes on law as an undergraduate. While not at all making me knowledgeable about the law, it offered a window in to the practice of law. Law is a profession concerned with the meaning of words. Do the words of a particular statute apply to a particular set of facts? How do they apply? It isn’t an accident that a lot of law schools recommend the study of English as a prerequisite to law school, along with a course or two in logic. It all boils down to how we use words, and whether or not a particular set of described facts is a subset of a particular set of described prohibited acts. Like that song from My Fair Lady, “Words, words, words . . .!”

Defenders of the expulsion of Ginny Mikita from membership in the United Methodist Church, including the Press Office of the Michigan Area Episcopal Office, insist the word “excommunication” is hyperbole, used erroneously, and does not at all describe what actually happened in this case. Others, including me, insist the word properly describes the actions taken to punish Ms. Mikita. So the question is simple: Who’s right?

Let’s consider the word itself. “Excommunication” literally means “no longer in communion”. The practice of excommunication was used to expel persons from the central means of grace, the Eucharistic table at Mass. As a social practice, it also meant those still in communion could have no private or public intercourse with such persons. Rooted in the ancient doctrine of extra ecclesia nunc salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation”, excommuncation not only left individuals social pariahs. Unless such persons renounced the specific heresy or practice for which they were originally were tossed out of the Church, sought absolution and acted upon whatever penance was meted out, excommunication meant damnation. One’s soul was forfeit along with one’s social position.

In the modern and contemporary age, the practice has largely been dispensed with. Protestants of most stripes no longer practice it, save for the Amish and their practice of shunning. There is no formal process for the practice set out in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. There is, however, a description of formal action to be taken in the case of an individual who is a member of the UMC and also a member of another denomination. The statement from the Michigan Area Press Office quotes it:

If a pastor is informed that a member has without notice united with a church of another denomination, the pastor shall make diligent inquiry and, if the report is confirmed, shall enter “Withdrawn” after her person’s name on the membership roll and shall report the same to the next charge conference.

Now, the pastor of the church where Ms. Mikita is a member left a comment in which he stated that he has not, in fact, entered “Withdrawn” by her name on the membership rolls. For official bodies of the Michigan Area to inform Ms. Mikita that she was no longer a member of her local UMC is factually inaccurate. Their insistence, however – echoed by David Watson of United Theological Seminary – that she is indeed no longer a member by dint of her own actions ignores the statement of the BoD regarding the process to be undertaken in such an instance. Disregarding proper procedure, summarily declaring Ms. Mikita’s membership forfeit without having done due diligence in regards to the clear process outlined in the Discipline is best described as “arbitrary and capricious”. It also amounts, for all intents and purposes, to excommunication. That the Conference outlines steps she can take to return to membership as well as become a candidate for the ordained diaconate is neither here nor there; the Church has always offered steps to return to full communication to those cast out.

Is it hyperbole or factually inaccurate to describe as excommunication the actions taken against Ms. Mikita? While I believe this is a matter best left to Church lawyers, in my opinion it is not. Others might well disagree, and as I say the final arbiter should be our Judicial Council. All the same, it’s important to be clear that the choice of this word is not arbitrary, nor is it a rhetorical tactic used to shame anyone. It is also quite relevant that one of the persons who instigated action against Ms. Mikita has publicly endorsed the practice of excommunication. It may not be definitive, but it does show that using the word is hardly something taken from nowhere.

This is an ongoing matter. For the sake of clarity it is important to be definitive about how we describe the events in question. Are emotions involved? Of course, but also irrelevant. That this was an instance of excommunication is clear from the facts of the matter. The choice of whether or not to use the word is not a rhetorical decision to shame supporters of Ms. Mikita’s expulsion. It is only used to call an action by its name. If they feel shame, that isn’t anyone’s fault but their own.

The “T” Word: A Response To John Meunier

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

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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

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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

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In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

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.